“The ideal Gawker item,” Nick Denton, the owner of Gawker Media, wrote in an instant message, “is something triggered by a quote at a party, or an incident, or a story somewhere else and serves to expose hypocrisy, or turn conventional wisdom on its head.
“And it’s 100 words long.
“Any good idea can be expressed at that length.”
According to The New York Times, Denton was, when he wrote that, one of the most influential figures in online journalism. It was January 13, 2008.
In a press release, Simon and Schuster announced the publication of Human Smoke, a work of “non-fiction” by the novelist Nicholson Baker: It was March 11, 2008. A couple of weeks later, The New York Times would explain that the book was not a “straightforward narrative as a historian or a polemicist might do,” but rather a series of vignettes–mostly 100 words long, 200 max. The Times’s reviewer, the writer Colm Toibin, described the work as “a serious and conscientious contribution to the debate about pacifism.”
Lauren Wolfe, 25, the president of College Democrats of America, was speaking to The New York Times, explaining how she came to understand the events in the world around her–not from conventional narratives but from clips, news items, and vignettes sent to her by others. “I’d rather read an e-mail from a friend with an attached story,” she said, “than search through a newspaper to find the story.” It was March 27, 2008.
On April 1, 2008–April Fool’s Day, as luck would have it–the writer Anne Applebaum was flipping through an old copy of The New York Review of Books. There she discovered an article by one Nicholson Baker–the same novelist who had just published Human Smoke–describing the phenomenon of Wikipedia.
It’s “just an incredible thing,” Baker wrote. “In a few seconds you can look up, for instance, ‘Diogenes of Sinope,’ or ‘turnip,’ or ‘Crazy Eddie,’ or ‘Bagoas,’ or ‘quadratic formula,’ or ‘Bristol Beaufighter,’ or ‘squeegee,’ or ‘Sanford B. Dole,’ and you’ll have knowledge you didn’t have before.”
Applebaum closed the magazine. Suddenly she understood how Baker had come to write such a profoundly bad book about World War II.
And that, of course, is not really what happened. Every single fact in the four paragraphs above is correct–correct, at least, in that those are real quotations from real newspapers, and correct in that I really did read about Wikipedia in The New York Review of Books on April Fool’s Day. Still, the process by which I came to understand how Baker came to write Human Smoke was a bit more complicated. Usually, things are a bit more complicated.
Certainly there was no precise moment of revelation. On the contrary, it took me a long time to understand Human Smoke in any sense at all. For Baker’s book really is a series of pretentious, Gawker-like vignettes, composed in the style of the pastiche I have written above. Each has a source, carefully listed in the back of the book. Most feature a person, often famous, always carefully identified (“Hermann Goering, the second in command in the Nazi party”). Most include, portentously, a date (“It was January 7, 1939”), which at times gives the book the feel of a space-shuttle countdown.
But while the book has a chronological order, it has nothing resembling a narrative. Many of the items concern aspects of history that are well known, and have indeed been catalogued and described many times. The fact that Churchill drank a great deal features prominently, as does the fact that many American politicians, Roosevelt included, did not want the German Jews to emigrate to the United States in large numbers in the 1930s. There are a number of anecdotes that feature what we now call the military-industrial complex. There are also several about Mahatma Gandhi, a famous pacifist, and Jeannette Rankin, a less-famous pacifist. Several concern Goering, and others Hitler. Some are actual pieces of Nazi propaganda, though Baker doesn’t say so. Many are familiar, others are merely boring.
Presumably, these items were selected because Baker finds them important, or perhaps because, like a Gawker post, they are meant to “turn conventional wisdom on its head.” But ripped from their respective contexts, each item has the same weight as the next. There is no hierarchy, no sense that one enigmatic anecdote might be more important than the next equally enigmatic anecdote, or that one source might be more reliable than the next.
Thus on one page, we have a quote from the young Eleanor Roosevelt, complaining about a party she has to go to with her husband (“Franklin D., the assistant secretary of the navy”), a party she’d “rather be hung than seen at,” she writes to her mother-in-law: “Mostly Jews.” Then, a few scant pages later, Baker supplies us with another anecdote, this one from a Berlin movie theater. The film is All Quiet on the Western Front, and Joseph Goebbels, (“Reichstag member and party leader of Berlin”) is watching it from the balcony. As the film is running, Nazi Brownshirts–brought to the theater under Goebbels’s direction–jump up and begin shouting “Jews out! Jews out!” at the audience. Confusion ensues, and the film is stopped. They then repeat the action the next day, and the next. The film is canceled.
What is the implication of these two anecdotes, placed in the same sequence? That the shallow upper-class anti-Semitism–or, more correctly, class prejudice- -of the young Eleanor Roosevelt was the moral equivalent of the fanatical anti- Jewish violence of Goebbels? That the woman who drafted the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (not that this is mentioned) inhabited the same moral universe as the man whose thugs shut down movie theaters, and eventually a lot more? Reading this book, I had a sickening suspicion that yes, this was precisely Baker’s point.
But of course this was only a suspicion, since Baker never tells us what his point is, unless you count the explanation provided in the book’s afterword. This consists of six spare paragraphs, as brief and enigmatic as the other vignettes in the volume. Baker states, not without pomposity, that “This book ends on December 31, 1941. Most of the people who died in the Second World War were at that moment still alive. Was it a ‘good war’? Did waging it help anyone who needed help? Those were the basic questions that I hoped to answer when I began writing.”
As it happens, these basic questions are not difficult to answer. Was it a “good war”? Well, “good” is an imprecise word–all wars are horrible for the soldiers who fight them and the civilians who die in them–but certainly it was, as Adam Kirsch pointed out in The New York Sun, an “absolutely necessary” war, and in this sense it was without question “good.” Certainly it prevented a “bad” outcome: a world dominated by Nazi Germany–a world in which the Jews of Europe would have been completely liquidated, in which the peoples of Eastern Europe would have become Nazi slaves, in which racist totalitarianism would have been the political norm in Europe instead of liberal democracy, in which art and literature would have been put to the service of the Nazi regime. As for the second question–“did waging it help anyone who needed help?” the answer is, quite obviously, yes.
But Baker never answers the questions that he asks. That is, he has not undertaken the historian’s task of hearing multiple arguments, listening to myriad explanations, looking at a wide range of evidence and then marshaling the evidence in order to draw a conclusion. He has not even carefully examined, as other historians have done, the various arguments about the aerial bombardment of civilians–the military tactic that appears to bother him most–to make a judicious argument against its use. Instead, he has used his license as a “novelist” to excuse himself from all of the tedious work of genuine knowledge. By way of research, he has read back issues of The New York Times and The New York Herald Tribune, along with a notably limited group of other historical sources, all long familiar. From them, he has plucked bits of information, shards of the historical record that he finds compelling, or perhaps contrary to what he imagines to be the conventional wisdom–and left his readers to draw their own conclusions.
Here is where I should note, and gladly, that there are many legitimate ways to write history, even many avant-garde, non-linear, novelistic ways to write history, as the historiography of World War II itself well illustrates. There are, after all, political histories of that war, diplomatic histories, social histories, military histories, and intellectual histories, as well as histories written from American, British, Polish, Russian, German, Jewish, Japanese, Slovak, Estonian, Bulgarian, Chinese, and Italian points of view, among dozens of others. Besides all that, there are shelves of memoirs of victims and the children of victims, and perpetrators and the children of perpetrators. There are more purely literary accounts, such as W.G. Sebald’s semi-autobiographical novels, which mix fact and fiction but are nonetheless deeply committed to understanding precisely what happened and why.
I should also note that there are many accounts of World War II that challenge the simplistic notion–held by nobody I know–that there is such a thing as a purely “good” war, as opposed to an “absolutely necessary” war. At the moment, there are probably several dozen accounts of the firebombing of German cities and the unnecessary murder of German civilians in print, in multiple countries. The fundamental unfairness of the war’s conclusion–just as the Nazi camps were liberated in 1945, the Gulag expanded–has been the focus of much East European scholarship for many years. In recent years learned books have focused on the Allies’ failure to bomb Auschwitz, the reluctance of Americans and West Europeans to accept Jewish refugees, the Vatican’s passivity, the deportation of the Germans from Central Europe at the end of the war, the relationships between American and Nazi businessmen. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been amply described, in many languages. So have Churchill’s drinking habits.
There is even, in British historiography, a minor but respectable tradition that questions whether World War II was really worth fighting. In the 1990s, John Charmley, a historian at the University of East Anglia, published a pair of books about Churchill, arguing that the war was wrong because it finished off England as a great power. Had the policy of appeasement been maintained, Charmley argued, Hitler might have made a separate peace with Britain. By rejecting appeasement Churchill failed his country because he destroyed the British empire. Charmley’s argument was in many ways unattractive, but it was a serious argument carefully made, based on an interpretation of source material. You could disagree with him, you could challenge his scholarship, you could argue about whether he was right about Hitler’s aims or Churchill’s intentions.
But what Baker has produced is nothing like this, nothing like history. You cannot fault his scholarship, because aside from the process of accumulating a set of anecdotes, no scholarship has been conducted. Though the book purports to pronounce upon the international situation, all of Baker’s sources are in English. Almost all of the stories take place in America, Britain or Germany, as if the war was not really happening in Eastern Europe or Russia, let alone Indonesia and Singapore. He has not worked with many primary sources, other than a few memoirs, and he has not discovered any new material. He leaves out enormous chunks of the story. His description of the invasion of Poland in September, 1939, is limited to two sentences–Goering “ordered a thousand planes into Poland. There were dive-bombers over Danzig”–and he does not mention the Soviet invasion of Poland seventeen days later at all.
You cannot disagree with Baker’s argument, because no argument has been made. Baker does not build a case, he insinuates something, leaving the reader to guess what. My best paraphrase of his view goes like this: Churchill was a bully and a drunk. The Roosevelts were snobs and anti-Semites. Therefore they were not good people. Therefore their so-called “good” war must have been hypocritical. Therefore they could only have been fighting because they were in hock to the military industrial complex and they had a bloodthirsty fondness for bombing raids. Moreover, the Holocaust was in part a German response to British aggression, and the Japanese invasion of China was a response to Chinese aggression, and Britain’s very participation in the war was the result of Churchill’s aggression, especially his stubborn refusal to respond to Hitler’s “peace offensive.” Therefore the pacifists were right.
Obviously some other readers, and maybe even Baker, might paraphrase his arguments in a slightly different and less provocative way. But since we do not know how he would formulate them, and since we cannot gauge the true intent of his arguments, we cannot respond to them at all. When Baker presents us with a piece of Nazi propaganda–that the Jews were deported “to the East” (code for extermination) because the British bombing campaigns which he appears to oppose had created a housing shortage in Hanover–we do not know what this means. Can he be serious? When, later, he quotes Goebbels as a trustworthy source on Churchill’s character (“This man walks over dead bodies to satisfy his blind and presumptuous personal ambition,” says the man who burned books on Hitler’s behalf), or when he quotes a Japanese parliamentarian arguing for peace (“There are no problems between the United States and Japan that cannot be settled by peaceful diplomacy”), no explanation or amplification is appended. Does Baker really take Nazi and Imperial Japanese statements at face value? Or is this some sort of irony?
And the same can be said of the pacifists he quotes liberally, and, one must assume, approvingly: Human Smoke, he writes in his afterword, is dedicated to the pacifists who “have never really gotten their due.” And yet intentionally or not, he makes these people appear deeply foolish, even idiotic. At one point Baker quotes Oswald Garrison Villard, a man who declared that Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms “cannot sustain the shock of our entering and pursuing this war.” But we did enter and pursue the war, and nevertheless Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms–most notably freedom of speech and religion–thrived in the post-war world, at least by comparison to the 1930s. In the same vignette, Baker also quotes with apparent approval the pacifist Jeannette Rankin, who declared that “you cannot have war and democracy.” But we did have war, and we did have democracy, so what can Baker mean by this? Is this a veiled statement about Iraq? Or something less serious?
Perhaps, I wondered at one point, the whole book is a gigantic practical joke, a stunt intended to provoke scholars, anger Jews, infuriate Poles, and thereby create massive publicity for Nicholson Baker. And so my initial reaction to Human Smoke was to throw it across the room. Subsequently, I discovered that this reaction was very common, especially among practicing historians.
Unlike Nicholson Baker or the editors of Gawker, I cannot really supply an anecdote that will explain, in a hundred words or less, why I decided to pick up the book again and write this review. But a few days after finishing Human Smoke as well as Baker’s treatise on Wikipedia, I happened to be sitting with a group of writers, historians, and critics, all fellows at the American Academy in Berlin, talking about it. As fate would have it–Baker loves portentous and possibly significant coincidences, and who doesn’t?–we were sitting in a villa overlooking the Wannsee. Just across the lake, we could see the Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz, the place where, in 1942, the Nazis decided to exterminate the Jews of Europe.
Had the drunken Churchill and the anti-Semite Roosevelt not decided to fight World War II, none of us would have been there. There would have been no American Academy in Berlin, of course, with its prominently hung portrait of the villa’s original Jewish owners, now the Academy’s patrons; indeed, there would have been no Jews in Berlin, no Americans in Berlin, and no critics and writers in Berlin, save those approved by the Third Reich. Instead, a happy Nazi family would have been looking out over the lake, enjoying the same view.
Yet the dull truth is that we arrived at the topic of Nicholson Baker not because we were talking about the war, but because we were talking about the contemporary cult of the non-expert, or rather the anti-expert: the bloggers who assume that the “mainstream media” is always wrong, the Wikipedia readers who think that a compilation of random anecdotes is always preferable to a learned study, and of course the college students who nowadays prefer to get their news in emails from friends because it is too bothersome to read a newspaper. And the even duller truth is that Human Smoke belongs to this cult, and not to the more exotic outer reaches of the historiography of World War II. One cannot properly understand Baker’s book by comparing it to, say, Martin Gilbert’s Auschwitz and the Allies or to the latest work on the fire-bombing of Dresden. To understand Human Smoke properly, one needs to read Gawker, Wikipedia, and above all The Da Vinci Code. The latter comparison might sound odd, but the resemblance is actually quite striking. Like Baker, the author of The Da Vinci Code is not a historian. And also like Baker, Dan Brown is a man apparently obsessed by his belief in the existence of a widespread historical conspiracy. (For those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with it, Brown’s theory goes like this: the church hierarchy, along with the world’s religious historians, art historians, and church historians, have been hiding the fact of Jesus’s wedding to Mary Magdalene, as well as his subsequent children, from the public for centuries, using a massive cover-up perpetuated by Opus Dei, and so on, and on, and on.)
Although Brown writes works of fiction, he has made a career out of hinting that all his writing, based on some kind of “research,” somehow reflects deeper truths. Sometimes he is up front about this, casting aspersions on the very notion of “history” itself, apparently assuming that no one has ever done so before. “Many historians,” he solemnly and nonsensically told an interviewer, “now believe … that in gauging the historical accuracy of a given concept, we should first ask ourselves a far deeper question: How historically accurate is history itself?”
Sometimes Baker is a bit cagier. The Da Vinci Code includes, as a kind of appendix, a page titled “FACT.” Asked about this, Brown replied: “If you read the ‘FACT’ page, you will see it clearly states that the documents, rituals, organization, artwork, and architecture in the novel all exist. The ‘FACT’ page makes no statement whatsoever about any of the ancient theories discussed by fictional characters. Interpreting those ideas is left to the reader.” Baker could have appended precisely the same statement to Human Smoke.
Like Brown, and like half the blogosphere, Baker starts with the assumption of a conspiracy. For many decades, the historians of World War II have been hiding important pieces of information from the public. It is therefore up to the amateurs–the novelists, the outsiders–to recover these essential pieces of information, to go back and read The New York Times themselves, and to reconstruct the historical narrative from scratch. The only difference is that instead of treating those “forgotten” facts novelistically, which is in a way more honest, Baker has chosen to present them as a collection of carefully dated and footnoted anecdotes, which gives them a greater aura of truth. And just like Brown, Baker then leaves interpretation “up to the reader.”
And the reader, both of The Da Vinci Code and Human Smoke, is duly flattered. Read Brown’s book and you, all by yourself, can decide whether Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene! Read Baker’s book and you, all by yourself, can decide whether World War II was worth fighting! You too can get the facts and make up your mind! And never mind that the facts have been chosen selectively, even randomly, by writers who do not understand the context in which they originally appeared, and indeed have deliberately tried not to understand it. Brown and Baker are not “experts,” after all. They are, to put it politely, artistes.
This same way of thinking is presumably what turned Baker into an ardent fan of Wikipedia, another product of the cult of the anti-expert. Though it has its uses–I don’t know anyone who doesn’t check it with frequency–the fact remains that Wikipedia is often wrong, or skewed, or biased in odd ways, and has to be used with great caution. That is because its contributors include, alongside the experts, a substantial number of cranks and pranksters. And that is precisely what Baker likes about it. In his recent New York Review of Books article, Baker described how delighted he was, when Wikipedia began, by the “flattering name” given to Wikipedia contributors:
They weren’t called “Wikipedia’s little helpers,” they were called “editors. ” It was like a giant community leaf-raking project in which everyone was called a groundskeeper. Some brought very fancy professional metal rakes, or even back-mounted leaf-blowing systems, and some were just kids thrashing away with the sides of their feet or stuffing handfuls in the pockets of their sweatshirts, but all the leaves they brought to the pile were appreciated.
Yes, Wikipedia is democratic; and yes, it treats all authors as equally worthy; and yes, it lets the self-tutored compete with the academics–and yes, it is deeply and profoundly anti-intellectual, as well as often wrong. Who needs a Ph.D., or even a college course? What is the use of studying for years in boring old libraries? So what if you have accumulated, through hard work, some real expertise? Who cares if you know a few languages? On Wikipedia it doesn’t matter, since, as Baker explains approvingly, “everyone’s identity was hidden behind a jokey username” in any case.
Baker did not adopt these views in a vacuum. Anyone who has ever spent any time surfing the blogosphere will recognize his perspective immediately. It is true that there are many excellent, well-educated bloggers, whose contributions to public debates are invaluable, and who have served to prod the establishment institutions of many professions to try harder. At the same time, there are also many bloggers who, without any knowledge or expertise whatsoever, believe their opinions must by definition surpass those found in the “mainstream media, ” or the “conventional histories,” simply because they are self-appointed “critics,” whether right-wing, left-wing, or off the charts. The result of their efforts is that quality–accuracy, truthfulness, learnedness–is disappearing beneath the sheer quantity of random, wrong, and irrelevant information.
Until now, I had assumed, like everyone else, that the main victim of this new vogue for arrogant ignorance would ultimately be the “mainstream media” itself. Who needs The New York Times or The Washington Post if you can get your news from Google and your opinions from the latest, hottest, angriest blog? But Human Smoke might be a harbinger of what is to come in other spheres: Baker, after all, is the historians’ equivalent of the smug bloggers who think that because the mainstream media is sometimes wrong, they are always right–and that if they can find a link to a “fact,” that proves it is “true.” If Baker can find a compelling anecdote, from Mein Kampf or The New York Times, that’s good enough to make it a part of the historical record. Thus will “conventional” history eventually vanish.
Human Smoke, in other words, is not a conscientious pacifist tract. It is not a clever contribution to today’s debate on warfare, and it does not add anything to what we know about World War II. It is a cheerful contribution to the movement against scholarship–a movement which has advanced so far, in fact, that I fully expect these observations, too, to be condemned as “elitism.” As one who does contribute (it’s pathetic, I know) to the mainstream media on a regular basis, I know that any author who expresses a sliver of doubt about the wisdom of amateurs risks bringing down a torrent of recrimination and insult upon his head. But if we have arrived at the point where a solemn and excited individual can cobble together anecdotes from old newspapers and Nazi diaries, and write them up in the completely contextless manner of blog posts, and suggest that he has composed a serious critique of America’s decision to enter World War II, and then receive praise from respected reviewers in distinguished publications, then maybe it is time to say: Stop.