Mailbag No. 4
You Ask, I Answer
This is the fourth mail bag post, which I will do every month or so. If you’re a paid subscriber, just respond to this email or leave a comment on a post and I’ll try my best to answer your questions. If I don’t answer, it doesn’t mean I thought your question was bad, just that I didn’t feel I had a thoughtful response.
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Matthew C. Klein writes:
What do you make of The Man in the High Castle, either the book or the TV adaptation? Is it a reasonable depiction of what fascist victory in the U.S. (and globally) might have looked like? Thank you!
Thank you, Matt. First of all, readers should know that Matt writes an excellent newsletter about macroeconomics and the financial markets called The Overshoot.
Okay, so, The Man in the High Castle—I have to confess I don’t really like it all that much. I read a bunch of Philip K. Dick in High School, because I loved the Blade Runner movie. But, of course, the inspired atmosphere and art direction of the film is totally absent from the novel. In fact, I think I was even actually assigned Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep for a philosophy class so we would think about what it means to be a human being or whatever. Frankly, not much of his writing has stuck with me much into adulthood. I have not read The Man in the High Castle, but I did watch some of the series, which somewhat surprisingly did not hold my attention considering it’s about the Nazis.
To answer your question about reasonable depiction of a fascist victory in the U.S., I would say no, it doesn’t seem realistic to me. And I think the unlikeliness of its vision is part of it what bothers me. When you are very into a topic, you inevitably start to become a little bit pedantic and cranky about it and demand that artistic depictions of it contain convincing details. This is not necessarily the fault of Dick’s novel or the show, but maybe the case of ruining oneself with a lot dry books on politics and history.
What would a fascist victory in World War II have looked like? Well, first of all, I think it was basically impossible once the Soviet Union entered the war and totally impossible once the United States joined. The combined industrial might of these vast powers, along with their huge populations, made victory over Germany and Japan a matter of time. Obviously, wars are highly contingent, so that’s not 100 percent certain, just more like 90. Even in the case of a Nazi victory in Europe, the distance and the size of the United States makes invasion and occupation just about impossible. But I could see the United States, in the absence of Roosevelt, becoming a secondary, supplicant power to Germany and Japan with a kind of semi-fascist reactionary government: Vichy America, if you will. Apartheid South Africa is another instructive possibility. Jim Crow would remain in place for a lot longer. At the strong but quiet urging of the Axis diplomatic corps, anti-fascist dissidents would be suppressed through a kind of McCarthyism. Some would even be extradited back. Survivors of Nazi horrors in Europe would be advised to keep their mouths shut if they wanted to remain safely in the U.S. The Holocaust would be only whispered about. Books and articles might even be written about it and activists might commit themselves to “raising awareness”, but they would be either ignored or made to look like fringe radical nuts and it would not be acknowledged publicly. Again, this would largely be because of the diplomatic and trade issues it such an admission would involve, but also because the ruling class genuinely has come to view Nazi Germany with admiration and sympathy as its savior from the Soviet Union. There would probably not be an official government policy of antisemitism, but social discrimination would be commonplace and Jews would not fully integrate into American life like they did after the war either. The U.S. would never totally recover from the Depression or become one of the paramount powers in the world.
I think what bugs me about depictions of Axis victory like Man in the High Castle is that they seem to actually replicate themes of fascist propaganda by showing totalitarian regimes being nigh-invincible and omnipotent, as though anything was possible through the application of terror and propaganda. They don’t show enough complexity and contingency in the world. It makes me think of George Orwell’s critique of James Burnham’s political vision—although Orwell is arguably guilty of doing the same things in 1984:
Power worship blurs political judgement because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible. If the Japanese have conquered south Asia, then they will keep south Asia for ever, if the Germans have captured Tobruk, they will infallibly capture Cairo; if the Russians are in Berlin, it will not be long before they are in London: and so on. This habit of mind leads also to the belief that things will happen more quickly, completely, and catastrophically than they ever do in practice. The rise and fall of empires, the disappearance of cultures and religions, are expected to happen with earthquake suddenness, and processes which have barely started are talked about as though they were already at an end. Burnham’s writings are full of apocalyptic visions. Nations, governments, classes and social systems are constantly described as expanding, contracting, decaying, dissolving, toppling, crashing, crumbling, crystallizing, and, in general, behaving in an unstable and melodramatic way. The slowness of historical change, the fact that any epoch always contains a great deal of the last epoch, is never sufficiently allowed for. Such a manner of thinking is bound to lead to mistaken prophecies, because, even when it gauges the direction of events rightly, it will miscalculate their tempo. Within the space of five years Burnham foretold the domination of Russia by Germany and of Germany by Russia. In each case he was obeying the same instinct: the instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible.
Another passage, from Hannah Arendt, also comes to mind:
Just as in our personal lives our worst fears and best hopes will never adequately prepare us for what actually happens-because the moment even a foreseen event takes place, everything changes, and we can never be prepared for the inexhaustible literalness of this "everything"-so each event in human history reveals an unexpected landscape of human deeds, sufferings, and new possibilities which together transcend the sum total of all willed intentions and the significance of all origins. It is the task of the historian to detect this unexpected new with all its implications in any given period and to bring out the full power of its significance. He must know that, though his story has a beginning and an end, it occurs within a larger frame, history itself. And history is a story which has many beginnings but no end. The end in any strict and final sense of the word could only be the disappearance of man from the earth. For whatever the historian calls an end, the end of a period or a tradition or a whole civilization, is a new beginning for those who are alive. The fallacy of all prophecies of doom lies in the disregard of this simple but fundamental fact.
Anyway, I know some of you are probably huge Philip K. Dick fans and will tell me how I’m all wrong and I’ve missed the point, etc. etc.. but I gotta tell you now: please save it — It’s fine if you like it, but I am not all that interested.
I have a question for the mailbag.
Succinctly, what is the role of the academy in today's American politics, specifically of tenured faculty? Obviously these are highly prestigious positions that theoretically offer a lot of influence, but it seems to me that as a whole the professor class is very passive politically. There's obviously been a big attack on funding for the humanities, but even in the sciences it seems like professors are happy to bury their heads in the sand and focus on their research while rising costs of living etc corrode the viability of the university. Should we even care about universities anymore, or just write them off as a class signifier like country club membership? I'm finishing a PhD in the hard sciences and I've become quite disillusioned with the workings of academia, but I'm interested in your thoughts as someone who is doing a type of academic writing outside of the academy.
Thanks for considering my somewhat long-winded question, I'm enjoying the newsletter quite a lot.
Thank you Joe! I’m not really sure what academics’ role should be in politics. It may be that it is different in the hard sciences, but I think conservatives would disagree with your assessment that the professor class is politically passive. To them, academia is deeply involved in the political project they hate: they think professors are turning kids into woke cultural Marxist Social Justice warriors or whatever. While I broadly agree with Gramsci that education and intellectuals are intrinsically political and always involved in either the reproduction or the subversion of a given order, I am honestly a little old fashioned when it comes to education. I don’t think professors should just be hectoring young people on what to think. I think they should teach how to think, how to write, and how to argue, how to be an engaged and interested citizen. For the most part, that was my experience with the wonderful teachers I encountered.
At the risk of offending and alienating a great proportion of my readers, as an independent writer whose interests intersect with academic areas of study, I find a lot of academics to be totally insufferable. I’m inclined to agree with Kierkegaard’s cutting remarks on “assistant professors.” Some of the most acrimonious disputes I’ve had are with academics. Part of this is just because we write and have opinions about the same stuff, but part of it is because they often have a very guild-conscious tendency to believe that only they are the true keepers of knowledge. Like merchants in some medieval Italian city-state, they are defensive of their little oligopoly. As a result, they can be extremely supercilious and condescending when actually sometimes knowing less. They have a kind of groupthink that they are not aware of: “Of course, we know,” is the attitude. Look for instance at this fight I got into a while ago about Marx and science. I said that there was a strong scientistic and deterministic element of Marx’s writing. All these academics rolled their eyes and said basically, “Of course, we all know it’s more complicated than that and that’s not what Marx meant by science, anyway.” Most of them learned this kinda bullshit pose and just repeated it. In his writing Marx clearly just flat out says, “I’m doing a science.” It’s not even remotely controversial: The deterministic interpretation of Marx was once the dominant one. Were all the theorists of the Second International just dopes? Even Gramsci wrote that “Marx was contaminated by positivistic and naturalistic incrustations.” I was told first that it wasn’t there, and then when I pointed out it in very much was, they just were like, well, that’s trivial. In guild fashion, they even sent an emissary, a very smart academic who I happen to like and respect very much, to try to get me to calm down and stop dunking on people. He privately agreed that nothing I said had really been wrong, but still felt solidarity with his colleagues.
Since we’re just airing my grievances now, another fight involved an extremely arrogant academic referring to my writing as “undergraduate,” while he didn’t even have a basic grasp of the texts he was citing! As you can probably tell, this makes me a little angry and resentful, and I do kind of enjoy hitting back against these fucks sometimes. I never thought of myself as much of a populist, but apparently I am! This is all doubly frustrating, because I’m probably in the 0.01 percent of the non-academic population of the entire world that actually reads academic books and wants to bring them to a wider audience. They should be happy I’m writing about their stupid fucking shit in the first place—no one else even fucking cares!
In terms of the humanities, I don’t think a PhD gives you any special insight or abilities. You may have more a lot more time to read texts, you may have been trained to interpret them carefully or in interesting ways, but ultimately you are not like a black belt in reading books. A lot of people can and do read. Anybody who applies themselves can accomplish the same degree of erudition as the average academic in the humanities. Does that mean I am a proponent of only being an autodidact? No, I think the classroom dynamic is very important. I think being aware of the contours of a tradition and its debates is very important. I even believe in the authority of great scholars. But what I can’t stand is all the posing and preening, all the airs and assumptions, the pomposity and insolence of office. A lot of them want to take the most radical possible stance on everything while actually having fairly cushy jobs and doing not much of anything in real life. Sometimes the entire thing is just a status game to me and they feel their little degrees entitle to them to special deference. Well, not as far as I’m concerned!
Beyond my own personal issues, I do think there’s a bigger problem in the broader intellectual culture here. Writing about ideas tends to be either an extremely dry academic work or some kind of dumbed-down, public friendly, jovial podcast host version. There needs to be more writing for adults who don’t need to be spoon fed like little babies, but also want the writer to take some care that the topic is presented in a lively and entertaining manner. Far from being mere decoration, style has a very pragmatic, even technical role: it makes the subject readable and memorable, it makes it actually easier for the reader to absorb the contents. Bad or difficult writing fails on the level of basic communication.
Anyway, I’m sorry this turned into a bit of a rant, but, short answer: academia, important for our society, essential even, but like every other human institution I guess, chock full of assholes. We also need a vibrant intellectual world that goes far beyond academia.
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