Mosley Reconsidered

November 16, 1896 — December 3, 1980

November 16th is the 121st birthday of Sir Oswald (“Tom”) Mosley, English MP, baronet, political innovator, fascist and nationalist.

We’re at a strange new moment in history now, when figures such as Mosley can be honestly appraised without our falling into cant or parroting someone else’s hobby-horses. One indicator of this is the tsunami of books related to fascism and far-right nationalism. Some of these are concerned with present-day “alt-right” matters (George Hawley’s Making Sense of the Alt-Right; Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies.)

blackshirt-dorrilOthers are stuffy, scholarly, overpriced tomes, such as those in Routledge’s vast and pretentious current list on Studies in Fascism and the Far Right. (Check out these Routledge ones if you haven’t yet; their titles are hilarious. Tomorrow Belongs to Us—The British Far Right since 1967; Marketing the Third Reich; Understanding Racist Activism: Theory, Methods, and Research. And of course Fascist in the Family, a touching but screwy biography of leading Blackshirt and sometime Labour MP John Beckett, which I reviewed here back in May.)

And finally and oddly, we have books that just happened to have been written and published without any reference to current-day political movements. Books such as The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, by Jessica Thompson, or Searching for Lord Haw-Haw by Colin Holmes, both of which came out in 2016 but were years in the making.

And then, finally, there’s Stephen Dorril’s Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism, another 2016 issue, by the boutique publisher Thistle Publishing..

Strictly speaking,.the Dorril book on Mosley is a reissue, having been originally published in England by Penguin in 2006, at which time it garnered a lot of ink in the review columns. Dorril had accessed freshly released MI5 files, showing that Mosley’s organization had received about £50,000 from NS Germany in the late 1930s. (Supposedly the modern equivalent of £2 million. See Daily Telegraph story here.)

But that £50k is a paltry sum compared with the £235k (£8 million today, supposedly) that the British Union of Fascists got from the Italians during 1933-1937.

And therein hangs a murky tale.

Mussolini’s people cut off their subsidy to the BUF in 1937 because of the ineptitude or corruption they perceived in their British colleagues. For years, the Italians generously subsidized the Mosleyites, but the British Fascists failed to elect a single Member of Parliament. Which is odd on the face of it, given that both Sir Oswald and his first wife had been high-profile MPs during the 1920s. But by 1937, Mosley and his followers could not even make a decent showing in London council elections.

The Italians suspected their money was being squandered—or embezzled. And misappropriation within the BUF seems likely. (“MI5 files released last week at the National Archives in Kew . . . show that Mosley’s trusted lieutenants embezzled at least £100,000 at today’s values,” wrote the Telegraph in 2006.)

Sir Oswald himself seems to have been blameless. When the Italians cut him off in 1937, and the Germans hadn’t yet come through, Mosley mortgaged his family estate to meet payroll obligations.

The real takeaway in the Dorril book is its explanation of why Mosley’s top speechmakers and propagandists, William Joyce and John Beckett, left the BUF in 1937 to found their own minuscule National Socialist League. For many decades, going back to Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason (1946), the standard story was that Joyce left Mosley in a personal snit or temper tantrum.  But according to Dorril’s Blackshirt, finances were the key. When Mussolini stopped subsidizing the BUF in 1937, Sir Oswald axed most of the BUF’s 143 salaried employees, and that included senior officers Joyce and Beckett. By the time German funds came in to fill the gap

Biography by Chartered Accountant

Blackshirt is very good at following the money through BUF ledgers. Often it reads like a political biography as written by a chartered accountant:

The Charing Cross Westminster bank account was closed in May 1937. The total Italian subsidy, which includes money not banked in the Charing Cross account, was £234,730, worth around £8 million in today’s money. A.B. Findlay handled the final cash subsidy for 1937 of £7,630, not greatly different from the previous year for the same period. BU expenditure for the year dropped to about half the usual amount. Special Branch reported that Mosley was shocked by Mussolini’s decision, which plunged the movement into a series of internal crises from which it never recovered. [1][1. Stephen Dorril, Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism. Thistle Publishing (new edition), 2015.]

What comes through loud and clear is that the Blackshirts were tracked and infiltrated from beginning to end. This was done so thoroughly that Mosley often appears to be little more than a decoy-duck, luring energetic nationalists into an organization that might have had nice uniforms and pretty rallies, but was utterly ineffectual.

This is not to say that Sir Oswald was consciously participating in the scam. But he was a vulnerable personality: vain and naïve, blind to danger, cocksure that he could outwit everyone. Similar to George Lincoln Rockwell, he honestly believed that policemen and government investigators were his natural allies, and that the people at large would always have his back. Like many an egotistical politician, Mosley was easily manipulated, all too ready to believe that he was using the people who were using him.

Principle was not his long suit. He did not scruple to modify his speeches and political platform, for the right price. The classic example here is the BUF’s treatment of Jewish Question. Initially the Blackshirts (following the Fascisti in Italy) took no stand on the JQ and in fact had prominent Jewish supporters. But then it looked as though fat subsidies might be coming in from National Socialist Germany, so Mosley adopted an anti-Jewish line.

Disappointingly, the publishers who reissued Blackshirt didn’t think to proofread the earlier version for errors that the original publisher, Penguin, let slip by. Nowadays authors are expected to do their own copyediting and fact-checking, even with major trade publishers, which means they can show their ignorance or libel dead people with abandon.

And some of Dorril’s misstatements are extraordinary. At one point he describes Churchill in early 1940 as “First Sea Lord,” which Dorril apparently imagined was a kind of nickname for First Lord of the Admiralty. Then there’s a scene with John F. Kennedy meeting Unity Mitford in Munich in early 1939. He writes his Ambassador father in London that Unity has “a certain fine Aryan look.”

I wondered why I’d never read this astounding encomium before, but after some digging around discovered it was really JFK’s brother Joe, Jr. who had tea with Unity. And what Joe wrote wasn’t nearly as nice: “She is not at all pretty, with very bad teeth, and terribly fat, however with a certain fine Aryan look.”[2]

Notes

1. Stephen Dorril, Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism. Thistle Publishing (new edition), 2015.

2. Sunday Express, 8 Dec 2007.

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Mosley Reconsidered

Special Pleading for Fascist Daddy

Fascist in the Family: The Tragedy of John Beckett MP
By Francis Beckett
London and New York: Routledge. 2017.
(Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right)

Here is a book of deep political scholarship and heartbreaking family history. It misses being great because the author lost the plot during the many years he worked on it, and he wound up hanging his father’s story on a lurid promotional “hook,” which I’ll get into below. I assume this sensationalism was to make the biography of his beloved father more agreeable to the editorial direction of the Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right, an ongoing series which is anything but pro-fascist.

The author’s initial plan was to write the tale of how his father John Beckett (1894-1964)—onetime Labour MP (he managed Clement Attlee’s first election) and sometime Mosleyite—was harassed till his death by government officials and the security men of MI5.

Some of this persecution may have been just petty revenge by old political rivals. Herbert Morrison carried a particularly massive grudge against John Beckett, for reasons going back to 1919, and too minuscule to relate. When Morrison got to be Home Secretary during the War, and John Beckett was interned under Regulation 18B, Morrison saw to it that Beckett stayed behind bars long after Mosley and other top Blackshirts were released. Morrison repeatedly denied Beckett parole, even refusing to give him medical leave for a long-standing heart ailment.

When Beckett was released toward War’s end, his restrictions were not over. For years he could not enter London, nor travel more than ten miles from home. As an ex-fascist, ex-jailbird, he was virtually unemployable. Anticipating internet activists of today, Beckett supported himself and family mainly through subscriptions to investment and political newsletters that he wrote himself. Fortunately he had a wealthy patron in the eccentric, nationalist Duke of Bedford, who lent the Beckett family a mansion to live in—at least for a few years, till after the Duke died. For a while there, John Beckett owned a boat and drove a Rolls, neither of which he really understood, being neither nautically nor mechanically inclined, his son tells us.

For the most part, though, his finances were unsteady. At one point, Beckett found himself obscure, respectable employment as a hospital administrator. But then Mr. Graham Mitchell of the Security Services, later MI5’s Deputy Director-General, put in a word or two. That scotched the hospital job. Mitchell also saw to it that all of Beckett’s mail was opened and read, even Christmas cards. He had the Beckett telephones tapped, and all conversations transcribed, including the ones where John was telling his wife he’d be late for dinner.

Why this seemingly pointless, gratuitous monitoring by MI5? Here and there, Francis Beckett tries to puzzle it out, and comes up with at least two possible answers. One is weak and weaselly: the author supposes that Graham Mitchell and his sort had got into the habit of prying into people’s business back during the War, and it was just too much fun to give up. The other answer, which the author keeps circling back to, is much more cogent and appealing. And that is this: Graham Mitchell, along with certain other brass in MI5 and MI6, was a Communist. He was the principal author of the evasive, dishonest 1955 White Paper (or “Whitewash paper” as it was called) on the Burgess-Maclean affair, in which the two British “missing diplomats” turned out to be Red spies, and slipped out of England in 1951 through either the negligence or the connivance of MI5. To put it another way, while Mitchell & company were busy preventing John Beckett from traveling ten miles from home, and were reading his mail and tapping his phone conversations, they allowed Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess to drive to Southampton and catch a midnight boat to France.[1] 

The notion that Mitchell and his boss Sir Roger Hollis were Soviet moles is an old theory, going back at least to Peter Wright’s 1989 Spycatcher, and still argued persuasively by such writers as Chapman Pincher and Nigel West.[2] Francis Beckett does not pursue or fully endorse this theory, but his investigation of his father’s treatment by Graham Mitchell and MI5 certainly points to a peculiar agenda on the part of these security men. Ex-fascists from the 1930s were to be hounded mercilessly, and their communications examined meticulously, in hopes of discovering links to right-wing networks; but when it came to Red spies and Soviet assets, MI5 tended to look the other way.

Beckett’s Lasting Legacy

As for Beckett’s actual career among the Blackshirts, it didn’t go on for long, but he was a major player while it lasted. After joining Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in 1934, Beckett quickly rose to become a prominent speaker and the BUF Director of Publications (he edited both Action and The Blackshirt). He devised the BUF’s popular posters and slogans of the mid-30s, e.g., “Mind Britain’s Business” and “Stand with the King” (that is, Edward VIII).

His greatest legacy is probably his redesign for the BUF’s corporate identity, which had initially been a Mussolini-style fasces symbol, but which Beckett replaced with the lightning-bolt device that British Union organizations continued to use for decades. (It has more recently been reincarnated in America in the logo for the inter-city coach service Bolt Bus.) When BUF money ran low and tempers flared in early 1937, Beckett and his friend William Joyce bade farewell to Mosley and founded the short-lived National Socialist League. A couple of years after that, of course, Joyce fled to Germany, where he made clever broadcasts for the Nazis and gained the English nickname Lord Haw-Haw.

By then Beckett was devoting his efforts to pacifist organizations and to his own new British Peoples Party (a quasi-mainstream, nationalist, anti-war movement). For months after the start of war in 1939 he engaged in efforts with Lord Halifax, Max Beaverbrook, and several Labour MPs to advance peace negotiations. This last initiative is somewhat startling to read about, if only because the peace efforts that continued in the first year of the War are so seldom written about. Far more than having ever worn a black shirt, Beckett’s attempt to shut down a needless war may well have been his real “crime,” the reason he was imprisoned in 1940 and then monitored by MI5 till the end of his days.  

Persecution by security services has long been a major concern of Beckett’s son and biographer. Francis Beckett was once Labour Party press officer, and has a keen eye for the ways that ruthless, vengeful politicians can punish their enemies. This was a theme of his three books about the Tony Blair administration (most recent: last year’s Blair Inc.: The Man Behind the Mask, by Francis Beckett, David Hencke, and Nick Kochan). On several occasions in the mid-2000s, he used the subject of the Blair government’s new Terrorism Acts to warn about the abuses of unrestrained security apparatus.

In 2005, for example, he wrote an essay in the Guardian about his father’s friendship with William Joyce (the MI5 files had only recently been opened), but his real subject is the security state:

Should we care about the secret power of the security services, when the victims were men like Beckett, Joyce and [A.K.] Chesterton, with their unpleasant political views, their racism, and their postwar belief that the Holocaust was a myth, probably invented by Jews? Yes: we cannot demand civil liberties only for people with views we consider acceptable. It’s a point worth remembering today, as the government plans the greatest clampdown since MI5 stopped transcribing my father’s telephone calls.’

Guardian, 10 Feb. 2005 [3] 

That Odious Sales-Hook

And now we come to that odious “hook” I mentioned, with which the book has been promoted in blurbs and early reviews. Namely, that John Beckett—1920s MP, 1930s fascist, 1940s internee, nationalist, and a political writer with a decided point-of-view on the Jewish Question—was himself part Jewish. The story goes that John Beckett’s mother, one Eva Dorothy Salmon at the time of her marriage, was actually born Solomon. The author and publisher present us with this revelation (or rumor) as news, a long-hidden family secret that Now At Last Can Be Told. But true or not, the rumor is neither particularly scandalous nor even news. Francis Beckett divulged it in a History Today article way back in 1994. Stephen Dorril repeated it as fact in his error-ridden 2005 biography of Mosley.[4] Colin Holmes’s 2016 biography of William Joyce[5] neatly skipped around it, no doubt because his publisher, Routledge was about to follow it up with the Beckett book, and didn’t want to spoil the promotional buzz.

Francis Beckett seems to have first heard the Jewish bit decades ago as a family rumor. Now he recycles it yet again, in a sort of special pleading for his fascist father. Alas and alack, after all these years he has nothing really factual to add. He shows us an extensive family tree on the Beckett side—Yeomen of Cheshire, John called his father’s people—but nothing for the “Solomons” prior to Eva’s parents. The mysterious lady herself doesn’t even get a photo in the book’s family gallery. And talk about old news: this allegation about John Beckett’s uncertain origin was already current during his Blackshirt years. Sir Oswald must have heard it, and likewise with Beckett’s good friend William Joyce. As recounted in Fascist in the Family, when he was interned during the War, a gang of East End Mosleyites came up to Beckett and taunted him about it.

Is it true? We’d have to see the evidence. What we do know is that such rumors will inevitably spread in certain circles, out of pure spite or misunderstanding. They even were circulated about Mosley and his first wife, Lady Cynthia.[6] In the end you have to wonder if the Beckett story is all fig-leaf and fluff, with scarcely more substance than the old saw about Hitler’s Jewish grandfather.

It must be admitted that the secret-Jew motif makes for good sales copy. So Francis Beckett and Routledge have framed their story with it, in a vulgar, ham-handed manner. The first chapter actually begins with a reference to Shylock and his runaway daughter, while the last chapter is called “Legacy of a Jewish Anti-Semite.” No surprise that reviewers latched onto this frothy sales-pitch and described the book accordingly. “Intimate View of Mosley’s Jew,” ran the kicker in the Jewish Chronicle

The good news is that this crass signaling does not disfigure most of the narrative. The second half is particularly touching and tragic, drawing heavily upon the author’s memories from the 1950s. As noted, for some years post-war John Beckett maintained his family in a state of precarious affluence, thanks to his ducal friend. After the Duke of Bedford died in 1952, and Beckett fortunes slid in straight-line depreciation. John Beckett’s political and stock-tip newsletters never brought in enough, so after selling off his boat and the Rolls and moving the family to a succession of every-more-poky houses and flats, the former MP wound up working as a uniformed security guard at a bank. This was much to the embarrassment of adolescent son Francis, by then a student at Beaumont College, a prestigious-but-failing Catholic public school whose fees the Becketts could not really afford.(William F. Buckley Jr. briefly attended this “Catholic Eton” in the late 1930s. It eventually closed and the grounds are now a conference center.) 

And it wasn’t until much later, long after John Beckett’s death of stomach cancer in 1964, that Francis came to understand the really dark secrets of his father’s career: internment, the Mosley years, the National Socialist League, the British People’s Party, the reason his father was unable to obtain regular employment.The real scandal to the story, as Francis found out years ago, is the unremitting, undeserved punishment meted out to his father and family by the secret, unnamed watchers of the security state. That was Francis Beckett’s initial theme, and he should have stuck by it.

Notes

1. As recounted in many books on the Philby-Burgess-Maclean matters (e.g., Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends, 2014), in May 1951 Maclean had recently been identified as the Soviet mole “Homer,” and was about to be interrogated by MI5. Although he had been under constant surveillance, the MI5 men trailing him about were ordered off duty for the weekend, giving giving him and Burgess opportunity to slip away.

2. See Pincher Chapman, Their Trade Is Treachery, 2014; Peter Wright, Spycatcher, 1989; Nigel West and Oleg Tsarev (eds.), Triplex: Secrets from the Cambridge Spies, 2009.

3. Francis Beckett in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/feb/10/secondworldwar.world

4. Stephen Dorril, Blackshirt. 2005. Reissued 2015.

5. Colin Holmes, Searching for Lord Haw-Haw. 2016

6. It was often alleged in the London press that Lady Cynthia “Cimmie” Mosey, Lord Curzon’s daughter, had a Jewish grandfather who’d been a department-store tycoon in Chicago. Time magazine even repeated this as fact in its 1931 cover story on the Mosleys. Chicago department-store tycoon, yes; Jewish, no. Levi Ziegler Leiter, co-founder of Marshall Field & co., was from a Lutheran family of Swiss-German and Dutch extraction.

Special Pleading for Fascist Daddy

World’s Worst Reviewer

As everyone knows, I’m a big Kim Philby fan, and have read just about everything written on him, several times over. That Ben Macintyre book that came out a couple of years ago (A Spy Among Friends), about Philby and old buddy Nicholas Elliott, the MI6 officer whom he betrayed and then got mousetrapped by, is one of the most listened-to books I have on Audible. My husband and I have gone through it a dozen times.

So it was with something of a shock that I came across this—ugh, really terrible—review from the Toronto Star at the time of the book’s publication. This “Jennifer Quinn, Staff Reporter” writes in the journalistic equivalent of the chirrupy voice that many young females began to affect in the 1980s…you know the one I mean? The one affectedly nasal and high-pitched? And ending every phrase? With a question?

I mean, it’s really really awful, written like a pitch to 12-year-olds. You can read the whole damn thing here, but this opening snippet should be enough…

Being a spy might seem like a glamorous career, but the process of becoming one sounds truly tedious: To join MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service, one must endure online applications, assessments for “geo-political” awareness, drug tests, and security checks. Lots of security checks.

But in the late 1930s, when Kim Philby decided he would like to become one of The Friends — the nudge-nudge wink-wink name those in the spy game bestow on each other — all it took was a chance meeting on a train, tea at a rather grand London hotel (which, by the way, is now part of the Marriott group) and a phone call from a muckety-muck in the secret service who knew his “people.” And he was in.

It now seems absurd that it was so easy for the man who would become the second-most famous double agent in history (Mata Hari being the first) to simply waltz into MI6 headquarters and steal secrets for his Soviet masters for decades. But that is pretty much what happened, and it is entertainingly and painstakingly chronicled in “A Spy Among Friends,” by Ben Macintyre.

World’s Worst Reviewer

Alexander Chancellor and the Alt Right

This caught my eye in a recent issue of The New Statesman, which I was reading while killing time in the Seattle Public Library:

How Alexander Chancellor’s magazine became the home of the British alt-right

 

Bizarrely, Harry Eyres blames the late Alexander Chancellor for tolerating the seeds of the Alt Right during his time as Spectator editor in the 1960s. The chief sin seems to be bringing Taki aboard and then permitting him to turn his “High Life” column, initially a frothy account of jet-setter doings, into a vector of venom and bigotry. But Chancellor was long gone by the time Taki’s column started getting really interesting and opinionated, c. 1980.

And while it is true that the column eventually spun off the online magazine takimag.com, it is pleading to the ignorant to state that Taki’s Magazine can be considered the second biggest mouthpiece of the Alt Right. Unsurprisingly, Eyres believes Breitbart News is mouthpiece number one.

I briefly met Alex Chancellor in August 1996. We were in the office of Peter McKay, editor of Punch. The new Punch; the old one had gone out of business a few years before. Now Mohammed al-Fayed, Egyptian tycoon and owner of Harrod’s across the way, was funding a relaunch. When Punch died in the early 90s, al-Fayed bought the remaining assets: its archive and its name. Richard Ingrams meanwhile acquired the mailing list, which consisted mainly of old people, which supposedly is why Punch died. Ingrams’s idea was to create a humor magazine for old folks. This became The Oldie, which Ingrams edited for many years till finally Alex Chancellor took the reins.

When buying the Punch name, Mohammed al-Fayed may not have planned to do anything with it at the time. I gather he bought it the way he bought Harrod’s. It was a big name, and it stood for England. But now here we were in Liberty House, eagerly proposing outré and iconoclastic articles to editor McKay, sometime Daily Mail writer and, according to Private Eye, the World’s Worst Columnist. Thanks to the al-Fayed largesse, the new Punch was to be a glossy weekly, and would pay you £600 per printed page. Just to put things in perspective, Spectator paid contributors about £100. No surprise that Speccie writers were all flocking to McKay’s office.

Alexander Chancellor, as I didn’t know him

Chancellor didn’t look anything like the picture here, which is him in 1964. Twenty-eight years later he was grey, bespectacled, somewhat convex in front. It was summer but he was wearing a light grey pullover. I remember making small talk about how the NBC anchorman John Chancellor always pronounced his name Chancel-LOR. Alex said yes, he was aware of that. He’d met John Chancellor once. They were supposed to be distant cousins.

When he became editor of The Oldie I dropped him a note by e-mail, noting the existence of a new wine-appreciation website called “Punch.” I got a response in acknowledgement, but I don’t think he remembered me at all. He was fast fading, I suppose.

Alexander Chancellor and the Alt Right

The Weaponized Nonsense of George Lakoff

lakoff-berkeley-drybrush
George Lakoff

Sometimes you read a newspaper column that starts off so pointless and insipid you can’t tell whether it’s supposed to be a parody of bad writing, or the writer just wants to introduce a humorous idea but can’t find the right hook to hang it on. This happened a few days ago (April 10) in the Washington Post, with a column by one Steven Petrow.

Petrow, who appears to specialize in matters of “gay etiquette,” spent half his column rattling on about how people are hurling new insults at him these days, and they’re words he doesn’t even know. New words like . . . “libtard” . . . and . . .”SJW.”

…SJW? I had no clue. In a personal ad it might mean “straight Jewish woman,” but two of those don’t apply to me. So what was this snarky new gem of an insult?

Petrow probably intended to write to cute little glossary of Alt Right terms, then found out that idea has been done to death. So he went in another direction entirely and told us these “new terms” are actually a Nazi-like “coded language” that the Alt Right came up with to “control discourse.” At least, according to an authority at UC Berkeley by the name of George Lakoff. 

You may never have thought of “SJW” or “libtard” as specifically Alt Right, but you’ve probably heard of George Lakoff. This emeritus professor of linguistics was one of those oddball pundits who went against conventional wisdom and predicted Donald Trump’s victory last year. Lakoff supposedly based his prediction on close analysis of Trump’s speeches and tweets, which he says were carefully crafted to tug at the authoritarian heartstrings of American voters.

And according to Lakoff, Alt Right terminology is designed along similar principles:

These new words are intrinsic to the alt-right’s rise, according to Lakoff… He connects this to the Nazis and the coded language (prime example: “the master race”) that eventually allowed them to topple governmental institutions. “The strategy is to control discourse,” Lakoff points out. “One way you do that is preemptive name calling . . . based on a moral hierarchy.”

All this scary talk of Nazis and Herrenvolk gives the game away, of course. Lakoff is less interested here in linguistic analysis than he is in painting the Alt Right as dank and sinister. When he explains what he means by “moral hierarchy,” it’s equally unhinged, as though he’s trying to troll poor Petrow with ineffable nonsense:

“God above man, man above nature, men above women. The strong above the weak. Christians above gays,” he said . . . Lakoff emphasized that [Alt Right name-calling] is different from the Democrats’ labeling some conservatives racist, sexist or homophobic — which they do — if only because that usage is not as “canny” or strategic.

Is Lakoff just kidding around here? No, he’s perfectly serious. He really, truly is maintaining that leftists don’t strategically weaponize language when they bully and name-call with such cant words as “racist” and “homophobic.” And while this argument is preposterous, Lakoff is one the biggest, bullying offenders of all. The whole thrust of his esoteric, impenetrable theories of political language is that traditional “right-wing” values ought to be regarded as pathological. In this respect he’s a throwback to leftist and Jewish community-relations propagandists of the 1950s and 60s, always detecting “neuroses” or a “paranoid style” among Joe McCarthy fans, Birchers, segregationists, Barry Goldwater, and even National Review-style conservatives. 

Last year’s Presidential campaign gave Lakoff renewed prominence, with a golden opportunity to apply his cockeyed theories to the public character of Donald Trump. He revisited this subject again recently, on the Marketplace program on public radio. (Link here; Lakoff begins about 18 minutes in.) In this radio talk, Lakoff describes Donald Trump as a master salesman who deliberately chooses words and catch-phrases to win over voters who have a certain type of personality aberration. This aberration leads Trump voters to prefer authoritarian personalities, particularly candidates who have what Lakoff calls a “strict-father morality” way of speaking. He estimates this segment of the electorate at about 35%, and notes that it’s close to the percentage who like President Trump in approval-rating polls.

For Lakoff, that strict-father morality theory is his Grand Unifying Principle of political behavior. It sounds interesting, but alas, whenever he tries to illustrate what he means by it, it comes out like psychobabble from a street-corner prophet. From the radio interview:

If you look at history, you see that strict fathers win… So you see religion won out, you have God above man, and we have conquered nature, we have man above nature, we can take anything we want for our use. Uh, you have the strong above the weak, you know, we need a strong army and so on. And that hierarchy follows from one idea, it’s not a bunch of different ideas, it’s strict-father morality as applied to all aspects of life.

The main thing is if that is your world view and that’s your morality, that defines who you are a person, it’s self-definition. And people don’t vote against their self-definition. Not only that, but it doesn’t matter if Trump lies to them, and they know he’s lying, because there’s a Higher Truth, which is strict-father morality itself… That’s why there are “Alternative Facts”!

On his website and blog, Lakoff’s thoughts are just as indecipherable. It’s like stepping into a bottomless pit of quicksand, leftist murk and clichés closing in about you from all sides, unbroken by any ray of reason or good sense. Last July he wrote a long essay called “Understanding Trump,” and it is little more than collocation of all the anti-Trump, anti-nationalist stock phrases we heard over and over. Trump is a bully, says Lakoff; and he appeals to people because he attacks Political Correctness and promotes easy answers to problems. If there are 11 million illegal aliens, Trump says they should be deported, and Lakoff is aghast at such simplicity; though he fails to propose alternative solutions to this, or any other issue.

Lakoff simply dismisses all pro-nationalist ideas, à l’outrance, on the grounds that they are popular, common-sensical, and appeal to traditional values. Again and again he locates the blame in his mystical bugaboos of “moral hierarchy” and “strict-father morality”:

There are at least tens of millions of conservatives in America who share strict-father morality and its moral hierarchy. . .  For many years, such bigotry has not been publicly acceptable, especially as more immigrants have arrived, as the country has become less white, as more women have become educated and moved into the workplace, and as gays have become more visible and gay marriage acceptable. As liberal anti-bigotry organizations have loudly pointed out and made a public issue of the unAmerican nature of such bigotry, those conservatives have felt more and more oppressed by what they call “political correctness”. . .

Donald Trump expresses out loud everything they feel — with force, aggression, anger, and no shame. All they have to do is support and vote for Trump and they don’t even have to express their ‘politically incorrect’ views, since he does it for them and his victories make those views respectable. He is their champion. He gives them a sense of self-respect, authority, and the possibility of power.

Does anyone take George Lakoff seriously? On the Left, his reputation has ranged from guru to wacko. In the early 2000’s he was a popular speaker at Democrat candidate conclaves, brimming with theories and linguistic magic tricks that would help them start winning again. Howard Dean pronounced Lakoff “one of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement” in a 2004 book-blurb endorsement. But then the Dean campaign tanked, the John Kerry play-it-safe candidacy got Swift-boated, and Lakoff was out of favor.

Recounting the ups and downs of Lakoff’s fortunes, Andrew Ferguson wrote in 2006 that Lakoff was now a “stock figure of fun” in the pages of the American Prospect, while The New Republic had just “trashed” Lakoff’s latest book. Ferguson recalled that Lakoff had first reached a widespread audience in September 2001, with his bizarre essay (“Metaphors of Terror“) about the sexual symbolism of on the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon:

“Towers are symbols of phallic power,” Mr. Lakoff explained, “and their collapse reinforces the idea of loss of power.”

And if you think the Twin Towers were symbolically profound, wait till you get a load of the Pentagon: “Another kind of phallic imagery was more central here,” Mr. Lakoff wrote. “The Pentagon, a vaginal image from the air, was penetrated by the plane as missile.”

Ferguson noted tartly that a man who could write such things “may be suited to many tasks, but counselor to a major political party . . . is not one of them.”

The Weaponized Nonsense of George Lakoff

Robert Brasillach and «Notre avant-guerre»

Brasillach
Robert Brasillach at his trial.

Today is the birthday of Robert Brasillach (March 31, 1909 – February 6, 1945), French journalist, novelist and film historian (Histoire du cinema, co-written with Maurice Bardéche).

It is Brasillach’s fate mainly to be remembered for being the only collaborateur sentenced to death (by firing squad) for “intellectual crimes.” The execution is doubly memorable because it was protested by a wide variety of French literary figures, including Albert Camus, Paul Claudel, Jean Cocteau, and Colette, who petitioned Charles De Gaulle for clemency.

De Gaulle refused the request. At that point he was head of a Provisional Government that delicately balanced a coalition of communists, socialists, and Free French, and could not afford to spare the life of young writer mainly known for editing a pro-fascist newspaper, Je Suis Partout. Besides which, De Gaulle would soon be commuting the death sentence of his onetime mentor, 89-year-old Marshall Philippe Pétain.

Robert Brasillach’s Notre avant-guerre is basically a long and digressive essay, combining both a sentimental autobiography of his youth, c. 1925-1933, and a kind of journalistic aide-mémoire about political figures and crises of the latter 1930s. The French political upheavals in the Popular Front era (1936) loom large, as do the related events of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

Brasillach apparently completed his initial version around the start of the Second World War, dating his foreword 13 September 1939. However, the book did not come out until 1941, by which point the political landscape had changed a bit. His dream of a resurgent French nationalism no longer seemed quite apropos or relevant. So he inserted a number of emendations to bring the book up-to-date, and perhaps make it seem less foolishly optimistic.

The excerpts translated here deal mainly with the 1936-38 period, and include some conversations (and automobile ride) with Leon Degrelle, the young head of the Belgian Rexist party and fresh new face of the European right. Later on, Brasillach goes off on a two-week automobile excursion to the Spanish Civil War, with Pierre Cousteau and his own brother-in-law and friend Maurice Bardèche.

From Notre avant-guerre:

By the mid-1930s we’d come a long way from those muddled promises made in Geneva around 1925 [1], where they were building castles in the air. Granted, we young French weren’t entirely free of illusions ten years later. But our dreams had another coloration, subtly different, and this is difficult thing to understand, as I describe the intellectual adventure of the pre-war period. It was a time when everyone was turning to foreign countries, seeking (and often rejecting) their warnings and instructions. It was a time when French nationalism came to a new consciousness of itself, but also a time when we listened more closely than usual to what was going on around our borders. It was a time when a national spirit formed, as though in preparation for a French «fascisme». Such was the final formative experience for many young people on the eve of war, and yet it’s a story that seldom gets told.

  *   *  *

It was during a journey to Belgium in 1936 that I met for the first time some people possessed of this new spirit. Meanwhile the communist revolution was going on in Paris [June 1936], though I didn’t yet know about it yet.[2] A guided tour for journalists and travel-agency directors had been organized by Belgian tourism. I don’t know why, but I had been asked to be part of it. I have never done any other group trip: this one instance was both boring and highly amusing. Mainly I remember the comical aspect of the caravan, the oddball characters. I found some new companions and showed them the streets of Bruges, the quays of Ghent, once we got away from our chaperoned groups: Roger d’Almeras, Jean Barreyre.[3] We passed through the villages of the Ardennes, as enchanting still as in Shakespeare, where in twilight a banal castle of false Louis XIII style became a magical and green place I will never forget. And I took the opportunity to go and see somebody of whom there had a lot of talk in France for a few weeks, the leader of a new Belgian party, Leon Degrelle.

My fellow Frenchmen on the Belgium trip probably did not notice the slogans along our route—drawn in white on the pavements, black on the houses—saying “Vote Rex.” Or: “Rex will conquer.” Along the endless lengths of Flanders roads, and in the beautiful forests of the Ardennes, shone out these fateful words. You could see ingenious posters in bright colors, or immense photographs of a vigorous young man. Such were the last stages of this rough and surprising election campaign, which was to bring to the 200-member Belgian Chamber of Deputies twenty-one members of a new party that was unknown a year earlier: the famous Rexist party.

Young Degrelle, c. 1928.

I remember seeing Leon Degrelle for the first time, the very day of his thirtieth birthday. He was a lad with a full and smiling face, who didn’t even look his age. I watched him walk to his table after everyone else, I heard the sound of his voice more than his words. If it is true that a certain physical radiance, a certain animality, is necessary to a leader of men, it is certain that Leon Degrelle possessed this radiance and this animality. I had not heard him speak in public yet, but I was sure he must make a remarkable speaker.

You have to bear in mind that in 1936, a portion of Belgium (and also a little of the foreign opinion) was quite definitely enthralled with the head of Rex. People wanted to know about the movement’s ideas, they boosted him in major French newspapers. Men would say with a little irony: “Women love Leon Degrelle a lot. They find him so beautiful!” The Rexists actually joked about it all, with a frightful play on words. “This is what we call Rex-Appeal!”

   *  *  *

I saw Leon Degrelle a few times in those years, in Paris or in Brussels. Pierre Daye [4] arranged our first meeting. The contrast was striking between Daye, thoughtful, smiling, curious about everything, and this young man Degrelle, impetuous and ever-ebullient. He was touching when he spoke of his little daughter Chantal, who’d been gravely ill for some years, and for whom the party was making pilgrimages; and he himself would sometimes on a snowy night run over to Notre-Soul de Ham, because she was in danger. He seemed to me symbolic of our time, richly alive and picturesque. He took on new challenges with joy, tempted by life, its pleasures and promises, never worrying too much about life’s temptations or making a wrong move.

I will remember for a long time, I suppose, that night in a car, on the road from Namur to Brussels, in the soggy woods, where Leon Degrelle, on his return from a meeting, told me, in no particular order, stories about his country childhood—birdwatching and stealing applies, this little boy in sabots. I remember his voice, a little hoarse from his speechmaking—a voice I listened to without seeing his face, in spite of all the brisk wind and the swerving of the car, and the noise of the rain against the windows. He talked to me about his family:

“All my father’s family is French, native of Soire-le-Château, near Maubeuge. At the little cemetery all mine are buried. We were an extremely large family. All this is inscribed on our livre de raison [family register], which I still possess. They mark the birth, the reason why the children were given such names, and how the old ones died. I had an ancestor who was killed at Austerlitz, on the very day a daughter was born, and she was called Souffrance. Another daughter, born at the time of Napoleon’s wars—she too—and was called Victoire. For four hundred years, farmers called Degrelle have cultivated the same field. In the livre de raison, there are also the love letters of the fiancé to fiancée. Along with their love, they give current news, the harvest. They say: the wheat, or the rye, will be good this year. I think, you see, that in France in the time of kings there were millions of families that were like mine; and that’s why France is a great country.”

Following the anti-religious laws [presumably about 1905] his father, a convinced Catholic, had come to Bouillon as a brewer. I visualized, while he was talking to me, that little town of three thousand inhabitants, so near the frontier of France, and which many years ago was part of the same country as our Sedan. It is one of the jewels of the Ardennes, with its brown and curved bridge on the Semois, its deep river, its castle commanding the town, and especially its nearby woods, and the wonderful softness of its hills, its light.

“Put me twenty kilometers from Bouillon, out in the woods,” said Leon Degrelle. “I’ll find my way with my eyes closed. As children, we could see the trains come down from the woods over the Semois. The wonderful thing there, that’s the winter. It brought us tree trunks, pines, covered with ice, and sometimes an enormous boar, all swollen and tangled with grass, which got caught against the piers of the bridge.

“Then came spring. Boys running on the slopes, searching for the eggs to find. We’d study the young pines. In the old pine trees, the birds won’t nest. For hours you had to wait to see the mother approach the young tree. Alors, we climbed, and found the nest. We ate the hot eggs. Or we would go to steal apples. My father had apples too—but stolen apples have such better taste!”

And Leon Degrelle added:

“You see, I shall never forget those moments. Nobody can have fun the way we had fun, me and my brothers or sisters. Think of what a fair was for us. We would wait for the cars of the fairgrounds at the top of the hill, four, five kilometers away. On the first day of the fête, one would give us a franc, the second day ten sous, the third, five sous. I’ve never been so rich, I’ve never been happier.”

It is there that the little boy learned a lot of things, and that he was formed.

“I was playing with the other children in the village. We were all the same. You know that in Wallonia, the adjective is often put before the noun, in the old fashion: it is called hard life, white bread, black coffee. With us there was mostly black bread, and not always coffee. But everyone loved each other. My father was a bourgeois, and the notary, or the doctor, were bourgeois. But they saluted the blacksmith and the tanner, as the blacksmith and the tanner, as they earned their living, and had many children, were honest and hard-working. Besides, everybody had a lot of children: at home we were eight, and eleven in my father’s family, and ten in my mother’s, and twelve in the notary’s office, and seven in the doctor’s. You know, we’re never rich when we have so many children to raise, and that’s what’s good. Then the worker thinks that his boss fulfills his duty. So we respect it. And a bereavement is a bereavement for all. Look at the big cities. When someone dies, his neighbors don’t even know it. At Bouillon, the whole village was in mourning when someone was dying. It was at home that I learned the social community, the community of a people.”

I did not want to interrupt this boy so sensitive to all that surrounds supports him, when he evoked the familiar demons of his childhood.

“And imagine the war, above all. Imagine how much this communion of a whole village grew up by war, by privations, by the pain of the invasion. We fell back on ourselves. Now you have to remind yourself that before the war, many inhabitants of Bouillon had never left their town, or the valley of the Semois. You’d have to be mon grand-pere the doctor, mon pere the brewer, going to visit sick people, or to deliver beer. Some went on foot to Namur, Liege, a ham hanging on each shoulder, to sell it at the market. I saw this. They’d go a hundred and fifty kilometers or more, in three days, without a carriage, without a horse, like pilgrims. But others did not leave their house at all. At the bottom of the hillside there is a place called Point du Jour, because it is there that the sun rises. And the top of the hill bears a magnificent name: it is the Terme. Meaning, there’s nothing more beyond. I remember when I was very young we organized a bicycle race in Bouillon. I had never seen such a thing. I followed the racers, and I went to the Terme. I discovered, with an immense surprise, that the road continued, that the world continued, that it didn’t end at Bouillon! I’d never been so stunned. Eh bien! It is this hilltop, this Terme we kept watch on for four years, waiting for the French soldiers. And one fine day we saw Americans arrive. We immediately took them through another road. We did not understand why we did this: maybe we were afraid we’d see them come to a bad end. But you understand, that’s what this hill meant to us. “

   *   *   *

Eventually Rex lost its power of seduction, along with Degrelle’s attraction to the crowds. The success of Rexism is explained by the atmosphere of 1936, by the Popular Front, by the communist menace. Thousands of brave people, who certainly had no dictatorial ideal, believed in Rex against Moscow. Outside Belgium, their effort was regarded with immense sympathy. Degrelle’s youth and dynamism formed a charming legend. There was agreement among classes and across the various factions of the country: the Rexist program was attractive, and it was right. The proof is that all parties and the government have more or less resumed it.

There were mistakes in maneuvers, and imprudent actions, maybe serious, I don’t know. Rex was carried [in 1936] by the anti-parliamentary wave, independently of Degrelle’s oratorical talent, by the deep needs of young people who thought they’d found in the movement the answer to their deepest aspirations.

When the war of 1939 broke out, Leon Degrelle vigorously supported the policy of neutrality. Belgium, however, was to enter the war on May 10, 1940. The chief of Rex was arrested in order to prevent disorder. For months the party had been disintegrating, and several very serious accusations had been made against the young leader. [Degrelle had reportedly accepted funds from Hitler and Mussolini.] But let us not forget that in 1936, in any case, there were on the Rexist platforms the wounded veterans of the old war, wearing the French Croix de Guerre: patriotic fighters, and authentically francophiles. In 1936 there was no need for a Frenchman to regard the Rexists as enemies of his country, let alone Germans. Likewise with their leader—son of a Frenchman, married to a Frenchwoman. However you judge his later actions [After a period of imprisonment by the French, Degrelle returned to Belgium and openly collaborated with the Germans.] we did see the curious birth of a movement, and the arrival of an astounding figure. And we can recognize that the success of nationalism in these years came from its power to stir up a crowd with visions, and (be it good or bad) poetry.

*  *  *

…[T]he country to which all our eyes were directed in those years was, first of all, Spain.

The Spanish war lasted from July 18th, 1936, to April 1st, 1939. The Spanish generals, soon to be commanded by Franco, had suddenly risen against the Popular Front government. To the Marxists, it was all about the “rebels” against the “Republicans.” To others it was Nationalists versus Reds. Up until the alert of September 1938 [when leftist International Brigades were banned from combat zones, per order of the tottering Republican government] the Spanish war never ceased a single day to excite French opinion. First of all, we had to defend ourselves at every moment against the Marxists who were pushing for us to intervene alongside the Spanish Reds: petitions, demonstrations, newspapers, parliamentarians—there was simply no let-up. Georges Bernanos [5] and Jacques Maritain, those confused Catholics, took the side of those who dug up Carmelite graves and laid the bodies on church steps; who killed sixteen thousand priests and ten bishops.

 *  *  *

One day [in 1939] I met Georges Bernanos, now booted out of Majorca, where he’d pitched his vagabond’s tent. This corpulent mop-top laid out his grievances to me for an hour, repeating the same fuliginous phrases, shaking that crazy old lion’s head and banging on about his old hobbyhorses. First he was going to publish a book against Spain; then—and this is in 1939, right on the eve of the war—he was going to do a book denouncing the younger generation in France. Two utterly hopeless ventures. The Bernanos meeting jolted me, and I persuaded myself I’d just seen a madman.

Ce Soir, a Communist journal that dared not announce itself as that, was specially founded to support the cause of the “republicans” of Spain, because Vendredi [a Popular Front weekly, 1935-39] was only a weekly newspaper, and too intellectual to be successful. But as for us, we followed with wonder the beautiful events of the war. The whole world was passionately following the siege of Alcazar in Toledo [siege of Nationalist rebels in Andalusia, July-September 1936]. The resistance of Oviedo [siege of Nationalists in northwest Spain, August-October 1936],  of the sanctuary of La Cabeza [siege of nationalists at a religious shrine in August 1936, broken by Republican forces May 1937], we learned about later. They spoke of the administrative skill of General Franco, of the human reforms, of the Auxilio Social [Social Aid, a pro-Franco humanitarian relief organization]. One would dream of the figure of the young founder of the Falange, Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera [6]. The left-wing press portrayed General Queipo de Llano [7] as a ridiculous figure—he who took Seville alone, and who is a picturesque and beguiling man. Italy and Germany sent volunteers on the side of Franco, while meantime France and Belgium took the side of their opponents. These daily incidents and the never-ending danger in Spain were with us every moment. We would learn the songs of the Falange and the Requetés [Carlist militia], the salute of ¡Arriba España! [“Cara al Sol”: Falangist anthem]:

The flags will return victorious,
At the happy step of peace . . .

In October 1936 I’d written a little book with Henri Massis about the Alcázar, based on an idea he had. Charles Maurras had gone to Spain and been received by General Franco as though he were a head of state. In April 1938 Pierre Gaxote and Pierre Daye, accompanied by M. de Lequerica, made a triumphant journey to Seville.

Spain was on my mind and I felt like seeing her again. Pierre Cousteau [8] had once lived in Burgos for a few months. We decided on a short tour of about fifteen days in early July 1938. There would be me, Maurice Bardeche, and Cousteau himself, riding in the dashing beige car that Pierre had driven all over Europe. During the trip we would be sending in news reports for a special issue of Je suis partout on the war, to appear on the second anniversary of the National Revolution [July 18, 1938]. We also thought of collecting interviews for writing a History of the Spanish War.

At that time, crossing the frontier was arduous. It was first necessary to sign papers in Paris releasing the French State from all responsibility, and to swear that nothing would be done contrary to non-intervention, nothing which might have led one to think that one was inclined to a one political faction rather than to another. Happy joke! At the International Bridge of Irun, you were fingerprinted and photographed, but otherwise treated with good grace. When we had gone through, we saw that an anonymous man had written on our safe-conduct pass: “Viva Je Suis Partout!” [9]

Notes

1. Brasillach refers to the post-WWI Geneva protocols regarding disarmament; probably thinking also of the Locarno Treaties the same year, guaranteeing the borders of France, Germany and Belgium.

2. The Front Populaire government under Leon Blum, beginning in June 1936, was a coalition of the Communist Party and various other leftist parties in the Assembly.

3. Roger d’Almeras and Jean Barreyre were journalists and film critics, like Brasillach.

4. Pierre Daye, 1892-1960, was a Belgian journalist, Rexist party supporter, and correspondent for Brasillach’s Je Suis Partout.

5. George Bernanos, 1888-1948, French novelist and pro-monarchist polemicist. Briefly supportive of the Spanish rebels, then an anti-Francoite.

6. José Antonio Primo de Rivera was a Spanish nobleman and founder of Falangism, executed by the Republicans in December 1936.

7. Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, 1875-1951, Spanish general, hero of Seville, accused in Republican legend as responsible for mass executions after the battle.

8. Pierre-Antoine Costeau, 1906-1958, French right-wing journalist and brother of deep-sea explorer Jacques Costeau.

9. The excerpts were translated for this article from the Livre de Poche edition of Notre avant-guerre: Mémoires. Paris, ©1992, Maurice Bardèche. Pages 301-320.

Robert Brasillach and «Notre avant-guerre»