The Islamic State: a Post-Mortem

It’s déjà vu all over again. Wanted terrorist not seen in public for years killed in bold raid by US Special Forces, DNA match performed in record time, mutilated body (or body parts) spirited away and, in deference to an Islamic practice no Muslim has ever heard of, buried at sea (without any photos; another Islamic practice?). I didn’t buy it back in 2011 and I don’t buy it now. (For my exposition on the Osama Bin Laden mise-en-scène, click here.)

Let me clarify. I do believe the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead and I do believe there was some sort of raid on a compound near the Syrian village of Bashira. Beyond that, I’m very openminded, and–as in the case of Bin Laden–the more bizarre and contradictory the “facts” that come out in the aftermath, the more openminded I become.

For instance, according to the Kurds, the sample of Baghdadi’s DNA used in the matching process was secured by the theft of the caliph’s underpants (Larry David of Seinfeld fame could not have come up with a more farcical scenario!); but, according to the Pentagon, the DNA sample was obtained while Mr. Baghdadi was in our custody at Abu Ghraib in 2004 (how prescient!). The DNA match was completed in 15 minutes according to President Trump; but even with the newfangled gadgetry the troops are said to have brought with them, the process could not have been completed in less than 90 minutes, according to those more knowledgeable about such things (and more disciplined in the use of the English language).

As with Bin Laden—never seen in public after he reportedly had been driven out of Afghanistan, only on videotape—Baghdadi has been even more of a phantom. His first public appearance was in 2014 when he ascended the minbar (pulpit) of a mosque in Mosul to announce the resurrection of the Islamic Caliphate. That appearance was also his last! The only evidence we have that he continued to breathe was easily doctored audiotapes, speeches he supposedly authored delivered by his spokesman, and a video of him chatting with some followers in somebody’s living room, his AK-47 by his side (a virtual remake of the scene in which Bin Laden claimed responsibility for 9/11). What charisma that such an apparition could command the loyalty of so many!

Then there’s the location of the ISIS leader’s purported hideout (cum minimum security): deep in the heart of territory swarming with militant groups hostile to ISIS and controlled by Turkish forces. If the whole thing was a charade, this unlikely location was probably chosen because it was secure, which implies Turkish collaboration in the plot as they have the armed presence to ensure no clueless interlopers interfered with the “shoot” (in both the Hollywood and military sense of the word). If a more likely locale were chosen–say, the deserts of eastern Syria—one of the many armed groups in that area (possibly even the Kurds!) might have given our troops an all too real firefight by mistake. (Note that the raid in Bashira lasted two hours, plenty of time to attract a hostile crowd of armed men.)

Mimicking the Bin Laden script, Baghdadi’s body–or whatever parts remained–was buried at sea. But the Pentagon was careful this time not to name the naval vessel involved, singed by the incredulous yarn they were forced to spin in the Bin Laden case: that the unceremonious dumping of his body was witnessed only by a handful of the top officers and none of the 6000 crewmen aboard the USS Carl Vinson.

If you are thinking the new leaders of ISIS would have exposed our heroic melodrama as a poorly made B movie by admitting Baghdadi had died years ago—say, in a bombing, consider this. If his death would be as devastating to the morale of the jihadists as we now claim it is, they would not readily admit he had been killed at the time of his demise and couldn’t admit it now after they’d heralded his ethereal leadership through surrogate-delivered speeches and posthumous audiotapes. “Oh! What a tangled web we weave…”.

Tales like that of Bin Laden and Baghdadi are what Pepe Ascobar of Asia Times calls “the gift that keeps on giving, the never-ending Global War on Terror”. What’s next to scare the bejeezus out of us and justify endless wars in faraway places with strange-sounding names? An alien invasion?


One unresolved bequest of Baghdadi is the tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and their families currently held in prison camps in northeastern Syria. Many of the countries of which they are citizens (most notably, Russia) refuse to take them back. So, what to do with them?

I’ve got an idea! While ISIS directed its anger at the Assad regime, we had no complaint with them. In fact, we apparently acquiesced in our proxy, Qatar, financing them. It was only when ISIS made a grab to take over Iraq that we saw them as a problem. (N.B. Qatar is NOT a real country with its own foreign policy. With only 300,000 citizens and a huge American military base right down the street from the palace, the emir would not dare do anything to incur our wrath, like finance our number one enemy. In fact, he is quite willing to accept our suggestions as to how he should spend his fabulous wealth. Please forgive me for sounding like a broken record on this point, but I seem to be a vox clamantis in deserto on something I consider obvious.)

Given this history, maybe we could find a use for all those bloodthirsty fanatics idling away in Syria by finding a new front on which they could be useful to us, demonstrating their devotion to Islam by killing their fellow Muslims. Afghanistan comes to mind. If we could turn them against the Taliban, they could be on our side, so to speak, once again. This transmigration may already be taking place as the Islamic State is making a showing in Afghanistan these days with their name-brand, atrocious behavior. Some Afghans believe we are responsible for introducing this plague of beheaders into their country.

Global Peakedness

Another hurricane, another chance to wail about “extreme weather”. As Hurricane Dorian scurried along our Atlantic shore I was bemused to hear one commentator complain that so little news coverage of the hurricane linked it to climate change. As the hurricane Dorian tied as the second strongest Atlantic hurricane ever (in terms of windspeed) occurred almost a century ago (1935) and the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever almost half a century ago (1980), I wondered if she thought climate change should be mentioned in order to discredit the notion of global warming-induced extreme weather (not her point).

I’m baffled why Climate Change attracts such widespread, clamorous attention while a threat I believe to be more quantifiable, more immediate, and in the long-run even more catastrophic barely elicits a whimper. That threat is the end to the age of cheap energy, a game-changer whose impact is being felt in the here-and-now and which, without some wonder of technology, will become ever more devastating with time. The magic elixir which has made possible the modern age, liquid fossil fuel, is becoming scarcer and harder to exploit (N.B. But not running out; half the stuff that was out there is still in the ground).

When oil production by conventional means peaked in 2005, total global production stood at 80 million barrels per day (mbd). The smugness of the Peak Oil theorists, who had been predicting the peak for over a decade, was tempered in subsequent years when total production continued to climb, now standing at 100 mbd. But that increase in production has come at a cost: more expensive extraction processes (e.g., hydraulic fracturing), more complex refining techniques (e.g., switch from light to heavy oil), and more expensive transportation methods (e.g., tankers instead of pipelines). The energy complexion of mankind is turning from a satiny, black sheen to a sickly, gray pallor. We look peaked.

To relate our peakedness to the threat you are more familiar with, think of the ever-dwindling supply of liquid fossil fuels as analogous to the ever-increasing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere (both resulting from human activity). The equivalent of the greenhouse effect—the theory that increased CO2 leads to more warming—would be the belief that, as oil and gas becomes scarcer, it becomes more costly to exploit. The “mean cost of energy” is equivalent to the “mean global temperature”. Finally, the consequence of the cost of energy rising: a decline in global living standards threatening civilization itself, equates to the consequences foreseen from global warming: extremer weather, a rising sea level, species extinction (in extremis, our own).

If my prophecy of doom is as valid as that of the global warming alarmists, why are those who assure us petroleum resources are bountiful—almost infinite—not being vilified as “deniers”. Why are there not calculations of “energy sensitivity” (i.e., the relationship between an increase in the cost of energy and expanding impoverishment) analogous to the warmists’ calculations of “climate sensitivity” (the relationship between increased CO2 in the atmosphere and rising temperatures). Why are Big Oil and the oil producing countries not being sued for keeping their data on production and reserves–vital info for measuring peakedness–secret? Where is the cute teenager to make us oldsters feel guilty about the dire future we are foisting on the young through our inaction?

But am I right in my concern? The answer to that question lies in whether the cost of energy is in fact rising. It’s tempting to take the price of a barrel of oil as our measure, but that is not sound as price is a fickle thing subject to distortion from political and economic factors, as well as market manipulation (cf. the failure of the price of oil to skyrocket with the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities). What is needed is a calculation of the social cost of a barrel of oil; namely, how many man-days of labor equivalent (mdle) are needed to produce a barrel of oil (adding in the stored labor represented by capital). Necessarily, the cost of energy must be a construct, built from interpreted bits of data, just as the mean global temperature is constructed from incomplete satellite or weather station data. As with models forecasting future global warming, models forecasting the future cost of energy can be expected to vary widely, but, again as with global warming, the differing predictions do not negate concern over an overall ominous trend.

Another approach to determining whether the cost of energy is rising would be to calculate a global living standard and, if it is declining, blame it on increasing energy costs. Data on such basic indicators of human wellbeing as access to electricity, miles driven, calories consumed, etc., could be collected and used to calculate a “mean global living standard” in the same way a “mean global temperature” is arrived at. Or an anecdotal approach could be taken, attributing every political upheaval, famine, gas shortage, etc. to the peaking of petroleum-derived energy, just as every flood, drought, heat wave, blizzard, or unusually heavy dew is declared “extreme” and attributed to global warming.

Or we could just sit back and count on man’s genius to come up with a miracle, such as finding an economically viable way to harness the energy inherent in hydrogen (similar to the global warming complacents’ faith in fossil fuels being replaced by renewable energy). But crossing our fingers is not a plan. Responding with complacency is as much an insult to man’s genius as expecting a technology-based salvation is a compliment. Sadly, as the history of mankind attested, complacency is our most likely response to the dangers facing us. Sorry, Greta.

Hong Kong Gets the Gong

I was baffled when the authorities in Hong Kong seemed to take a hands-off approach initially to the protests in their city, allowing the legislature to be trashed and the airport occupied, but now I think I know the explanation. I suspect the Chinese government would like to see Shenzhen, their booming city of 12 million just a stone’s throw from Hong Kong, replace Hong Kong as the area’s commercial and financial hub. Because of the protests, foreign firms based in Hong Kong may decide the political climate there is too unstable for them to conduct their business. Businessmen, being more concerned about making money than defending democracy, are likely to move elsewhere, one of those elsewheres being Shenzhen.

Already the four-month-old commotion is taking its toll: traffic at Hong Kong’s airport is down over 12%; events—from the Hong Kong Open tennis tournament to an appearance by the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah—are being cancelled; retailers have suffered a 50% drop in sales; emigration from Hong Kong (which has been going on for some time) has risen dramatically. Comparing the impact of this year’s political turmoil to that caused by the Umbrella Revolution of five years ago, some predict the consequences of this year’s troubles are likely to be much more long-term.

Why, you might ask, would the Chinese government want to dim one of its shining stars, one of the world’s major players in international finance. While Hong Kong does play an important role in facilitating foreign investment in China, the flow of capital is not all one way. Billions of dollars are transferred out of China and into the coffers of Hong Kong’s banks every year. Much of this outflow represents capital flight illegal under China’s laws. China would like to retrieve that capital, as well as those who ran off with the loot and found sanctuary in Hong Kong. Hence the now defunct extradition law.

Combined with Hong Kong’s role as a safe haven for officials caught up in China’s ongoing anticorruption campaign and, yes, for the occasional political dissident (though it should be noted that the proposed extradition law specifically excluded those guilty of political crimes from being subject to extradition), the Chinese authorities may have concluded Hong Kong is more of a liability than an asset. Along with the realization that a sizeable percentage of the Hong Kong population is never going to accept sharing the same civil and economic status with the 1.5 billion other citizens of China, the Chinese government may be taking advantage of the protest over the extradition law to effect a much longer-term strategy (hitting the gong on their equivocal performance, metaphorically speaking).

In speaking of the meteoric growth of Shenzhen, commentators like to mention that 20 years ago Shenzhen was a quiet fishing village; 20 years from now, when Hong Kong has reverted to being a quiet fishing village, will they note what a bustling metropolis it once was? I don’t believe the Chinese government plans to turn Hong Kong into a fishing village. I suspect they do envision the population of the city being halved through the emigration of the malcontents to greener (literally, with regard to the currency) pastures; but I think they would like Hong Kong to remain a hub for legitimate financial transactions, a cultural and entertainment mecca, and a gateway to China for tourists.

The delicious irony of all this is that, if my analysis is correct, all those China-bashers who fantasize about Hong Kong-style protests spreading like wildfire across China and even of Hong Kong being “liberated” from Chinese control, are, in egging on the protestors, aiding and abetting the Chinese government in their stratagem to cut Hong Kong down to size. (You don’t have to be a particularly patriotic Chinese to be outraged at the sight of protestors waving American flags and calling for foreign intervention. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chinese government provided the flags.) Maybe those gleefully cheering on the mayhem should ask for whom the gong sounds; like the ringing of John Donne’s bell, they may find it sounds for them.

Did the Holocaust Really Happen…

Once again I have been the victim of censorship. I lead hikes for the Northern Virginia Hiking Club (NVHC), which posts its upcoming events on a site it maintains on a platform called Last week one of my hike announcements disappeared from the site. I suspect someone who knows of my reputation as a Holocaust denier reported me to Meetup. This is not my first encounter with Meetup’s guardians of “community standards”. Two years ago they closed down a book club I started dedicated to studying the Holocaust (You can guess from what angle). They not only removed the offending club but also two other groups I lead which had nothing to do with the taboo subject (one, a hiking group; the other, a badminton club) and banned me entirely from their platform (I now get in by using a different email address).

When queried by the NVHC’s Director of Hikes about the missing announcement, Meetup blamed it on a technical glitch, but I’m suspicious (alright, paranoid). It is often the case when such acts of censorship take place the offending party receives no explanation and isn’t even informed the action has been taken. For instance, I received no word when YouTube deleted an episode of my TV show, “Civil Discord”, on the Holocaust. The YouTube incident demonstrates how counterproductive censorship can be. When I try to enlist guests for my show, I encourage them to check out past episodes of the show on YouTube. Many potential guests are turned off when they discover the Holocaust episode and consequently decline to participate. As this episode is no longer out there, they have to dig a little deeper to find out I’m someone they want to have nothing to do with.

Even those nearest and dearest to me react that way. Our daughter, who gives thanks she didn’t keep her maiden name upon marriage, has unfriended her mother and me from her Facebook page, so we have to learn of her goings-on from family and friends. My sister talked me into publishing my memoir of the Vietnam War years, Draft-Dodging Odyssey, under a penname (“Ken Kiask”) to protect my bigtime lawyer brothers from guilt by association. Such is the life of a Holocaust denier!

Last winter, a good friend and noted critic of US foreign policy, William Blum, died. He had named me one of his Health Care Agents shortly before his death. The other Health Care Agent and I organized a memorial for Bill, my main contribution being a video comprised of clips of Bill speaking on various occasions. A couple of years earlier Bill had promoted a pamphlet I had written, “DID THE HOLOCAUST REALLY HAPPEN The Way We’ve Been Told” (now you know what’s omitted from the title of this posting), in his widely distributed newsletter, The Anti-Empire Report. I thought it was one of the most courageous things Bill had ever done, knowing how vociferous the reaction to any critique of the conventional Holocaust story can be, and so felt the act merited being included in the tribute.

In his post-memorial write-up of the event, my fellow organizer expressed his appreciation for everyone involved in it down to the cleaning ladies but made no mention of me or my video (which, in all modesty, I consider to have been the highlight of the memorial). He feels I blindsided him by not forewarning him that I would mention the pamphlet episode. I had considered doing so but feared he would try to censor it, which could get ugly. His vehemently accusatory reaction convinces me I was right not to warn him. I couldn’t risk missing the chance to promote discussion of the Holocaust by demonstrating how open-minded Bill—despite his Orthodox Jewish upbringing—was on the subject. We deniers get few chances to express ourselves in public.

I hardly ever get the chance to broach the subject even in private. I can count on one hand—and still have fingers left—the number of times someone aware of my heretical view has asked me to explain myself. Here we have one of the most significant events of World War II (at least in the eyes of Holocaust cultists), an event which still resonates almost 80 years later, and not even family or friends are interested in finding out why I argue what happened was very different from what the whole world believes. Amazing! I would like to think those who know me well respect my intelligence, knowledge, and integrity enough to at least inquire, especially as they probably have a visceral contempt for those of my ilk. Apparently, I flatter myself. Or give too much credit to my fellow man.

So, for those of you still reading, let me take this opportunity to explain myself. First, a confession of faith: I believe that during the Second World War millions of Jews were uprooted from their homes and placed in camps where they died in droves (a statement all the “deniers” I know of would agree with). If you think that absolves me from being charged with the sin of Holocaust denial, you’d be wrong. I also subscribe to the three tenets of Holocaust skepticism:
(1) Fewer than six million died (the least controversial tenet, as even believers come up with varying counts);
(2) “The Final Solution” (about which the Nazis spoke openly) was a deportation, not extermination, plan;
(3) And—here’s the clinker—there were no gas chambers!
Believing such can land you in prison in Europe and get you labelled a Holocaust denier everywhere.

If the skeptics’ view ever became predominant, there would be hell to pay, especially if it prevailed in a time of growing antisemitism arising from other causes. “The Jews” would be accused of having perpetrated a humongous fraud to forward their own interests. Certainly, some Jews (and their many Gentile accomplices) have acted disreputably, perhaps criminally. They should be exposed and punished. But it would be unfair to hold all Jews responsible. I consider most Jews (up to the high ninetieth percentile) not to be complicit. They simply believe what they are told, just like the rest of us.

On the other hand, I am troubled by how few Jews have challenged the orthodox Holocaust narrative. I can count on one hand (again, and have fingers left) the number of Jews who have openly questioned the mythical aspects of the Holocaust story. There’s the chess grandmaster, Bobby Fisher, who claimed “There is not a shred of truth to this Holocaust”; there’s David Cole, who, after visiting Auschwitz, made a video tearing to shreds the contention of Holocaust officialdom that an air raid shelter there was in reality a gas chamber; and there’s… someone else whose name I can’t remember. That’s a pretty slim showing for a people as smart, bookish, and outspoken as the Jews. It reflects a worrisome tribal loyalty (Whether the cliquishness is a reaction to persecution or the other way around is debatable and worthy of debate). I encourage you Jews out there—and the rest of you, too—to educate yourselves on the so-called “deniers” argument, lest history repeat itself. You can start by logging on to the website of the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH), who speak voluminously (literally) on the subject.
P.S. If you can’t find this posting—and maybe even my blog—a few days hence, you’ll know WordPress has succumbed to the censorship mania sweeping through (and sweeping out) social media.

Hypocrisy 101

A few recent examples proving foreign affairs is not a suitable field of endeavor for those troubled with a conscience:

Freedom of Navigation: When American naval vessels intrude on territory claimed by the Chinese in the South China Sea, we always say we do so to protect freedom of navigation for ships of all nations. Yet when Great Britain seized the Iranian tanker Grace 1 (now renamed the Adrian Darya 1) in the Strait of Gibraltar a month ago, we didn’t send a naval task force to sail by the Pillars of Hercules to make clear we wouldn’t stand for this breach of international law. Quite the contrary; we raised no objection at all. Some even believe the Brits committed the crime at our urging.

I say “crime” because, if there is such a thing as international law, there must be some acts which are criminal under it. If a grouping of countries, let’s call it the European Union, decides it doesn’t like the government of some country and so bans trade with that country, is it entitled to impose its sanction on a country not a member of their group? If that’s international law, what’s international lawlessness? There exists a body which can impose sanctions which apply to all; it’s called the United Nations. What the Brits did can only be considered banditry, or to use the appropriate nautical term piracy, under the aegis of a cabal it, ironically, is about to cease to be a member.

When the authorities in Gibraltar opted to allow the Adrian Darya 1 to sail on a few day ago, we made an unsuccessful attempt to stop it through legal channels. Now the ship is underway, ostensibly headed for Greece. Might we yet make an extralegal attempt to stop it? I suspect if the ship does make it to Greece, it will pick up some additional passengers sporting the attire of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards or an entourage of freedom of navigation-loving naval vessels, most probably Russian, and defiantly continue on its way to its original destination, Syria. If it does, as an unconflicted defender of freedom of the seas, I’ll wish it, “Bon Voyage”.

Freedom of Travel: Israel has been widely criticized for not allowing Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar to enter the country, but we deny entry to people on political grounds all the time. A famous case came in the days after 9/11 when the popular British singer, Yusuf Islam (formerly known as Cat Stevens), was denied entry to this country. Last April I, attended an event at NYU’s Washington office at which a leader of the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement targeting Israel, Omar Barghouti, was scheduled to speak. But Mr. Barghouti was barred entry to this country, so he could only join us by teleconference (and missed his daughter’s wedding in Texas). That Tlaib and Omar are members of Congress makes their case exceptional, but still the similarity between our and Israel’s policy of excluding personas non gratas should be recognized by those sanctimoniously criticizing Israel’s action.

Freedom of the Press: You don’t have to be a member of the diplomatic corps to be ethically challenged; being a member of the media will do. While the corporate and statist (BBC) media have been fixated on the antigovernment protests in Venezuela and Hong Kong, similar demonstrations taking place around the world in countries whose governments we approve of have been glossed over or ignored entirely.

– In Honduras, thousands have been taking to the streets for months, with businesses and even the US Embassy being set ablaze and the police using tear gas and water cannons on the protestors. What started as a protest against privatization of the health and education sectors has turned into a demand that the president step down.

– In Brazil, hundreds of thousands in 211 cities took to the streets on August 13th to protest austerity cuts and privatization plans for the university system. The demonstrations were a follow up to the even larger “Education Tsunami” marches which took place in May. The man who has incited the protests, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro (elected just last year), has been hailed self-admiringly by President Trump as the “Trump of the tropics”.

– In Colombia (significantly, the neighbor of much maligned Venezuela), tens of thousands rallied across the country in July to protest the killing of 496 leftist activists and 171 former guerrillas of the now peaceable Fuerzas Armadas de Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and their family members. Colombian president Ivan Duque, a vocal critic of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, was jeered by the crowd when he tried to speak at one of the rallies.

If your reading habits do not extend beyond the pages of The Washington Post and the like, this is all probably news to you.

A wit once observed, “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” He, Sir Henry Wotton, should know. He was Britain’s ambassador to Venice in the early 17th century. Times have not changed.

You’re a Racist!—No, You’re the Racist!

A while back, when billionaire Robert F. Smith pledged to pay off the student loans of the entire graduating class at Morehouse College, my brother asked me “Where do you think Mr. Smith went to college?” I ventured “Morehouse”, which prompted the response, “That’s racist of you not to think he might have gone to Harvard”. I found that a little harsh, considering my guess was premised simply on the fact Smith was speaking at the Morehouse commencement and had made his generous offer to the students of that school. It was only after it was too late to use that I thought of the perfect rejoinder: “No, you’re the racist for believing Harvard, a predominantly white school, attracts a better class of students than Morehouse, an almost exclusively black one”.

That my brother, normally not one to put others down and someone who should know I’m, as the President would say, the least racist person in the world, would level such a charge shows just how sensitive anything to do with color has become these days. Will a preference for white (angel food) cake over chocolate (devil’s food) cake soon be labelled racist?***

My wife, too, reflected the national obsession over color, when she of the lovely olive skin recently declared herself to be “white”. It’s not that she had ever thought of herself as being anything else; just that she’d never given it much thought before. It runs in the family, as my daughter once won a contest at Berkeley for an essay in which she noted that the first time she ever thought about her own racial/ethnic identity was when she came to the question “To which racial/ethnic group do you belong?” in filling out her college application and realized the box which applied to her was “Other”.

Miss None-of-the-above, who majored in anthropology, tells me the word “race” has been removed from the lexicon of those engaged in the study of man. There’s some sense in this, in that racial classification in non-academic circles is most often based on that most genetically insignificant, literally superficial, characteristic: pigmentation. But the term still serves a useful purpose, as attested to by the ubiquitous use made of it in common parlance.

What is a “race” exactly, and, more to the point, what is the meaning of that equally poorly defined, discussion-squelching pejorative “racist”? How confused the popular understanding of race is was demonstrated in an episode of the TV show Modern Family in which Sophia Vergara, the Colombian Barbie Doll, expressed her fear she was becoming a white person. If Ms. Vergara is not white, then neither am I, despite my Welsh/German ancestry (are the Celts a race?).

The show’s writers’ confusion over race is particularly instructive as it relates to another often misused identifier: “Hispanic”. Sophia Vergara is clearly Hispanic (by language and culture), but she’s also definitely white; just as a Mexican descended from Europeans is white, while a Mexican of Mesoamerican Indian descent is not. Where, in Mexico’s largely mestizo population, the line between white and Indian is drawn is not so clear as it was in our own antebellum South, where one who had just one black great-grandparent (an “octoroon”) was legally considered black.

So, let’s try to define “race” and especially “racism” a little more precisely. We’ll start with the dictionary:

Race – “A group of people identified as distinct from other groups because of                       supposed physical or genetic traits shared by the group”

Racism – “The belief that race is an inherent and determining factor in a                                    person’s or a people’s character and capabilities, rendering some                              inferior and others superior” (An alternate definition of racism                                —”prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a                                  person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular                            racial or ethnic group”—would make those who bemoan “White                                Privilege” racists!)

I have a problem with the dictionary definition of racism as I believe it conflates two distinctly separable ideas. Most of us believe there are distinguishing traits—physical (white men can’t jump), genetic (susceptibility to sickle cell anemia), and cultural (love of, and ability at, singing and dancing)—common to subgroups within the human family. To that extent, we are all racists. But we don’t necessarily categorize races in order of their superiority or inferiority. Not conflating the two is important in the heated debate over “White Nationalism” and “White Supremacy” as the two terms are most often used interchangeably. (A recent example being a front-page article in The Washington Post in which the writer consistently and conscientiously referred to the people she was reporting on as “White Nationalists”, while the editor who came up with the headline spoke of “White Supremacists”.)

While I’m hardly conversant with the literature (partly because we are not allowed to hear from the alabaster proud), I assume White Nationalism entails believing there is such a thing as a white race and being proud of one’s heritage as a member of that race. While I think such beliefs are on shaky grounds, I don’t find them, in and of themselves, offensive or threatening. We encourage blacks, Hispanics, Indians, et al. to be proud of their heritage; why shouldn’t white folks feel the same way?

Is the White Nationalists’ desire to maintain the whiteness of this country more condemnatory than the post-WW I redrawing of Europe’s borders to make countries more ethnically homogenous or the contemporaneous introduction of ethnically-based immigration quotas in this country? Should we hold in contempt the Japanese for their restrictive immigration policies in an attempt to keep their islands lily-yellow? Or fundamentalists in Israel who demand that only those with a Jewish grandmother be granted citizenship in the Jewish state?

White Nationalist sentiment should be allowed in the public fora, e.g., social media, like any contrary view. We should contest the ideology in civil discourse, not treat the ideologues as hopeless reprobates. For instance, we could point out that racial purity is non-existent in a biological sense, or cultural for that matter; that this country has not been purely white since the first Africans arrived in 1619, non-whites—both African and Native—constituting a significant segment of the population even before the country was founded; that the national shade was further darkened with the annexation of what is now the American Southwest; that for nearly a quarter of the country’s history—since the reform of our quota system in 1965—there’s been a major influx of the dark-skinned; and so on.

(I had occasion to test my own civility recently in conversation with a Jew when, because of his bafflement over the chant “Jews, you will not replace us” heard at that tragic event in Charlottesville two years ago, I cited the fact that at one time the heads of our three major television networks and all eight major Hollywood studios were Jews and that today the presidents of six of the eight Ivy League schools are Jews and one other is married to a Jew. His explanation for the disproportionate Jewish representation at the top of some of our most important institutions was “We’re smarter” (a view held by more Jews than would be willing to admit it, I suspect). Is that not a supremacist idea? Yet we went on to debate civilly whether his explanation was the correct one (I doubt if I won the debate, but neither did he).

The problem with White Nationalist ideology is that it can serve as a cloak for White Supremacist views, just as legitimate criticism of Israel as a state can really be motivated by antisemitism. To be proud of your race is one thing; to believe your race superior, something else entirely. But, as with White Nationalism, such gradation of mankind should be countered by debate, not censorship, banishment, and prosecution. For instance, we could remind supremacists how recent in human history has been the time when white people could be considered superior without provoking laughter (n.b., there was a university in sub-Saharan Timbuktu at a time when northern Europeans were still running around in animal skins).

Calls to violence are something to be concerned about, but they emanate from many corners of our political ring, not just that of the Great White Hopers (We have a president, don’t forget, who talks of obliterating whole nations). We already have laws to deal with incitement to violence. Expanding them will not necessarily suppress the incitement, just drive it underground, making it harder to counter. Moreover, let’s remember that Lincoln himself sanctioned violence when he proclaimed “Any people… have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government….” Governments seldom go peaceably.

I take umbrage at the notion of American Exceptionalism and consider it a dangerous, supremacist-type belief which underlies much of the violence we inflict upon the world (with racial overtones for those who care to see it that way). Should we ban the expression of American Exceptionalism from Facebook and sick the FBI on those espouse it? I don’t think so. I’m content to counter American Exceptionalists in the public forum, not considering them to be irredeemable, hate-filled supremacists, just mistaken. I place my faith in countering White “Exceptionalists” in the same manner.
*** Personally, I don’t believe President Trump to be a racist in the tradition associated with either Southern crackers or mid-20th century eugenicists. I find the evidence of Trump’s racism often cited—his support of the birther movement—unconvincing. Unless we knew how Trump would have acted had the issue involved a white president, we cannot know whether his position was motivated by racism or constitutionalism. Similarly, without knowing how Trump would have handled the flood of poor, illiterate, white immigrants (Italians, Greek, Poles, etc.) into this country at the end of the 19th century, we can’t know whether his antagonistic stand on current immigrants is based on racism or nativism.

I think Trump, because of the rarified atmosphere in which he grew up and spent his business career, looks down on the desperately poor and unschooled, and in this day and age the refuse of teeming shores pushing on the Golden Door happens to consist predominantly of the darker hues of the human palette. Trump is an ignorant, haughty, loudmouthed boor, whose hurtful, rabid tweets are ill-considered, counterproductive, and divisive, but not necessarily a racist.

Was 19th Century Capitalism Worse Than Slavery?

In 1974, midst the riotous contention over civil rights, two historians published a book entitled Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. Taking an econometric approach to the subject of slavery, Eric Fogel and Stanley Engerman attempted to measure conditions under slavery in concrete terms—the number of calories in the slaves’ diet, space per person in their sleeping quarters, their average life expectancy, etc.—and compare them to the conditions under which free labor lived. They concluded, “The material (not psychological) conditions of the lives of slaves compared favorably with those of free industrial workers.”

The book caused a ruckus—at least in academic circles—which makes the current debate over immigration sound downright civil. Miraculously, Fogel and Engerman survived the outrage of the guardians of political correctness, Fogel going on to receive a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1993 for his pioneering work in what he called “cliometrics” and Engerman serving a term as president of the Economic History Association. A popular t-shirt of the time lent backhanded support to Fogel and Engerman’s contention with its still poignant message: ”I was freed a 100 years ago and haven’t had a job since”; as did the comment on slavery—capitalist-style—emblazoned on another t-shirt: “You can’t fire me. A slave has to be sold!”.

I’m in no position to argue Fogel and Engerman’s case or dispute it from a scholarly perspective*, but I do find their argument plausible on a theoretical basis. If you own someone, you are very much concerned for his welfare: food, clothing, shelter, etc. A capitalist on the other hand—at least the mid-19th century kind—had no reason to be particularly concerned about his workers’ welfare. With advances in public health leading to a population explosion, the Enclosure Movement (turning land held in common into private property) creating a whole class of destitute, landless peasants, and the shift to mass production requiring only unskilled labor, the owners of the sweatshops which lined the millstreams of the North need not shed a tear when a worker died in an industrial accident, became sick from unhealthy working conditions, or committed suicide out of poverty-induced depression. There were always plenty more to take his/her place.

That the plight of free labor under 19th century capitalism was almost as deplorable as that of their enslaved contemporaries is manifest in the impetus which drove immigration to this country back then. How bad must it have been in Europe as the Industrial Revolution picked up speed to cause the “wretched refuse” of its teeming shore to say a final goodbye to family and friends, indenture themselves for years under terms bordering on slavery, and risk a perilous journey across a tempest-tossed sea in a leaky, overcrowded ship, all to dwell in a sod house while cultivating an inhospitable, barren prairie, surrounded by hostile natives embittered by the usurpation of their land? Had the history of Africa been more similar to that of Europe, might Africans not have joined the trek to the New World voluntarily, motivated by the same hope for a better life as the pioneers, a hope realized by the descendants of both voluntary migrants and those whose migration to this continent was not voluntary (compare the living standard of African-Americans with African-Africans today).

Currently there is an emotion-laden debate going on about making amends for our “peculiar institution” (as Lincoln called it), the adverse consequences of which linger on to this day, but trying to right historic wrongs can lead to the same slippery slope down which those who would put restrictions on free speech slide. Where does it end? Consider the best-known case of reparations being paid for a tragedy which befell a luckless people. In the years immediately following the world war in which these victims died, the very people held to be the victimizers, the Germans, suffered a comparable fate—being uprooted from their homes and placed in camps where the dire conditions resulted in them dying in droves. Do the Germans deserve reparations as much as paying them? How about the Crimean Tatars, expulsed from their ancestral homeland and dispersed to the other end of the continent? What about the other 50 to 60 million people who died In the Second World War? Shall we attempt to parse out victim and victimizer in every tragic case?

Why stop at just the last global conflagration? What about the Boers whose mass incarceration by British imperialists gave us the term “concentration camp”? Or massacred Turkish Armenians, slaughtered Filipino nationalists, decimated American Indians, dissenting French Huguenots, heretical Albigensians, Baal-worshipping Canaanites? The list is endless and shows every sign of being added to in the future. (On a personal note, my great-great-grandfather was killed by Comanches? Should my family demand compensation from the killers’ descendants? We don’t, as our zeal to see justice done is tempered by the realization great-great-granddaddy probably killed his share of Comanches!)

Lest I be seen as treating a very serious matter in a jocular fashion, let me make myself clear. I’m in favor of the much-needed redistribution of wealth in this country and globally, whatever the rationale or the mechanism. But I favor addressing current injustices more than historic ones. Let’s compensate the poor amongst us who suffer humiliation, deprivation, and despair on a daily basis, even if the perfidious responsible for their suffering is not easily determined. Ameliorating the plight of today’s poor would be much more likely to lead to a better world than to continue paying reparations to one of the world’s richest class of people for a near century old sin or to compensate the still scarred descendants of slaves for a century and a half old one.


* If I’ve piqued your interest in Time on The Cross sufficiently for you to read the controversial study, be sure and check out the companion piece, Slavery and the Numbers Game: A Critique of Time on the Cross, by Herbert G. Gutman.