Mussolini and the Meaning of Fascism 

Nicholas Farrell, Mussolini: A New Life (London: Phoenix, 2003) 

Nicholas Farrell, author of ‘Mussolini: A New Life’, his controversial revisionist biography of Il Duce, is a journalist, born in England but now resident in Italy. 

Indeed, at the time he wrote this biography, he was living in Predappio, Mussolini’s birthplace and a mecca for neo-fascists, which, though long a communist stronghold, had, at that time (the authorities have since clamped down), a booming cottage industry selling what can only be described as ‘Mussolini Memorabilia’ to visiting tourists, fascist pilgrims and the merely curious. 

Mussolini: A New Life’ is not the definitive Mussolini biography. Indeed, it does not purport to be. Instead, in Farrell’s own view, this honour goes to Italian historian Renzo De Felice’s four-volume magnus opus.

Unfortunately, however, De Felice’s biography stretches to around 6,000 pages, spread over four volumes and published as eight separate books, has never been translated into English, and remained unfinished at the time of the author’s death in 1996. This makes it a heavy read even for someone fluent in Italian, a daunting work to translate, and one likely to be read in full only by professional historians. 

Farrell seems to view his own biography as primarily an abridgement, translation and popularization of De Felice’s work, written in order to bring De Felice’s new revelations, and new perspective, to a wider English-speaking audience. 

In contrast to De Felice’s work, Farrell’s biography is highly readable, and indeed written in a strangely colloquial, conversational style. 

Revisionist 

Yet, be forewarned, Farrell’s biography of Mussolini is not only highly readable, it is also highly revisionist, and attracted no little controversy and criticism when first published in 2003, being variously dismissed as everything from fascist apologetics and whitewash to a hagiographic paean to Il Duce. 

Why then the controversy? How then was Farrell’s work revisionist and why did it attract so much controversy? 

There seem to be two main elements where Farrell departs from the mainstream historical narrative regarding fascism in Italy. 

First, Farrell argues that Mussolini was not so bad, and even was a relatively successful Italian ruler compared to those who came both before and after him, his posthumous reputation being damaged primarily by his association with Hitler and National Socialism.

Second, Farrell claims that Mussolini, far from being ‘right-wing’, remained, until his dying day, very much a socialist

Given that Farrell himself is himself far from socialist, these claims come close to being contradictory. After all, if Mussolini was a leftist, then what is a conservative like Farrell doing defending him? If he was a socialist than surely he was indeed bad, at least from the perspective of a conservative like Farrell. 

Of course, it is possible for conservatives to admire some leftists. (An old aphorism, often attributed to Leo Rosten, has it that conservatives only admire radicals some several centuries after the latter are dead). 

However, Farrell perhaps lays himself open to the charge of wanting to both have his cake and eat it too. 

A cynic might interpret his thesis thus: Mussolini was not so bad, and, even if he was, he was a socialist anyway so he’s not our problem. 

Rehabilitation 

Is Farrell, then, successful in rehabilitating Il Duce? 

Well, yes, up to a point – the point in question being the latter’s disastrous decision to ally with Germany during World War Two. 

Up until that point, Mussolini had been, at least by twentieth century Italian standards, a relatively successful ruler and, by contemporary international standards, a not especially repressive one. 

Of course, he had, with the aid of his infamous Blackshirt militia, more or less bullied his way into power. Indeed, contrary to popular perception, his rise to power had actually been rather more violent than that of Hitler in Germany, albeit with violence on all sides not just on the part of the Fascists. 

Yet, after he had come to power, Mussolini was not especially repressive or draconian. There were no Gulags or concentration camps in Italy (at least prior to WWII), nor any Night of the Long Knifes or Stalinist purges

Of course, Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia was indeed brutal. Here, indeed, concentration camps were employed, among other brutal and draconian measures. 

However, Italian rule in Ethiopia was surely no worse than what preceded it, namely the rule of Haile_Selassie, under whom slavery was still both lawful and widely practiced, despite repeated promises by successive Ethiopian rulers to prohibit and eradicate the practice.[1]

Moreover, Mussolini had a point when he charged Britain and France with hypocrisy for opposing Italian expansion in Africa despite their own vastly greater African colonial possessions, acquired only a few years earlier, sometimes with comparable brutality. 

For example, during the Boer War of 1899 to 1902, which was fought by the British for transparently self-interested economic reasons, namely to gain control over the Boer Republics’ lucrative and newly-discovered gold and diamond reserves, was similarly brutal in nature. Here, the British themselves employed concentration camps, and indeed are even sometimes credited with having invented the concept. 

Suppressing the Mafia

Today, there is a tendency to deny that the fascist regime had any positive impact on Italy, an implausible conclusion given both the popularity and endurance of the regime in Italy. 

Take, for example, Mussolini’s suppression of the Mafia in Sicily, an achievement to which Farrell himself devotes only a few paragraphs (p182-3). 

In most recent histories of the Sicilian Mafia, Mussolini and his regime are denied any credit whatever for this achievement. 

For example, historian John Dickie, in his books Blood Brotherhoods and Cosa Nostra, takes great pains to emphasize that, under Mussolini, the Mafia was not, in fact, finally defeated, but merely went underground and became inactive. Moreover, he insists, most of those mafiosi who were arrested and imprisoned or sent into internal exile during Cesare Mori’s clampdown on the Mafia were not Mafia bosses, but rather, at best, low-level soldiers and underlings. 

It is, of course, true that, under Mussolini, the Mafia was not finally defeated. Indeed, this was amply proven by the resurgence of the Mafia during the post-War period under the Allied occupation. 

Yet this view neglects to credit that merely forcing the Mafia to go underground and become inactive was an achievement in and of itself, and seemingly resulted in a massive decrease in serious violent crime, including homicide, in the Mafia’s traditional heartland of Palermo. 

For example, another historian of the Sicilian Mafia reports that, in the traditional Mafia stronghold of Palmermo:

Between 1924 and 1928 murders… dropped from 278 per year to 25, which, by any standard of crime prevention is impressive” (Mafia: Inside the Dark Heart: p92). 

Moreover, while leaving (some of) the mafia bosses untouched and focusing law enforcement attention on low-level soldiers may seem both unfair and inefficient, arresting and taking out of circulation a sufficiently large number of low-level soldiers is likely a highly effective method of suppressing a group such as the Mafia, since it is low-level soldiers who, on order from above, are responsible for most of the day-to-day operation, crimes and violence of the group.[2]

Indeed, if the Mafia had indeed been made inactive in this way on a long-term, indefinite basis, then ultimately it would surely have died away and ceased to exist as a criminal network. 

Thus, it was only the overthrow of the Fascist regime and Allied occupation that permitted the resurgence of the Mafia in the post-War period, not least because imprisoned and exiled Mafiosi were, on their return to Sicily, able to use the fact of their imprisonment or exile under the fascist regime as proof of their supposed anti-fascist credentials, in order to pose as anti-fascists and hence secure appointment to high office under the Allied occupation.[3]

One may, then, question the methods employed by Mori and the Fascists in their repression of the Mafia, which essentially involved employing Mafia-style intimidation and force against the Mafia itself. One may also debate whether the ends justified the means. 

However, the achievement of the regime in suppressing the Mafia surely cannot itself be denied. 

A Benevolent Dictator? 

Mussolini is famously credited with making the trains run on time. Certainly, the period of his rule up until the beginning of World War II constituted the most stable period of governance in Italy’s turbulent 20th century history, arguably right up to the present day. 

Moreover, in agreeing the Papal Accords and thereby resolving Roman Question which had dogged the Italian state from its birth, Mussolini produced a legacy that outlived both Mussolini and Fascism itself, since this agreement continues to govern the relationship between Church and State in Italy to this day. 

Thus, Farrell grandiloquently but not wholly unjustifiably claims: 

Garibaldi had begun the process of the creation of Italy. Mussolini would complete it” (p199). 

Mussolini and Hitler: A Match Made in Hell?

Mussolini’s undoing ultimately came with the rise of the Nazism in Germany, the coming of the Second World War and Mussolini’s disastrous decision to ally his regime with that of Hitler in Germany and hence tie its own fate, and that of Mussolini himself, with that of Hitler and Germany. 

While today we might think of Hiter and Mussolini as natural allies, the alliance between Germany and Italy was actually far from a foregone conclusion. 

Indeed, to his credit, Mussolini was initially wary of German National Socialism and indeed of Hitler himself, despite the latter’s professed admiration for, and ardent courtship of, the Italian dictator upon whom he had (partly) modelled himself. 

Fascism,” he famously declared, “is not for export” (p240). 

I should be pleased, I suppose, that Hitler has carried out a revolution on our lines. But they are Germans. So they will end by ruining our idea.” 

This notion, namely that Germans, by virtue of being German, would inevitably ruin the idea of fascism, even if it ultimately proved prophetic, is obviously crudely jingoistic. Yet such jingoism was entirely consistent with fascist ideology. 

After all, fascism was a nationalist ideology, and nationalist ideologies are intrinsically jingoistic.

Nationalist movements are also, by their very nature, necessarily limited in their appeal to members of a single nation or ethnicity. Indeed, the whole notion of exporting nationalism to foreigners is arguably a contradiction in terms.

A nationalist of one nation is no necessarily a natural ally for the nationalist of another, especially if the nations in question share a border. On the contrary, nationalists of neighbouring nations are natural enemies.[4]

Moreover, the fact Italy was the chief ally and protector of the Federal State of Austria, whose annexation was a major priority of Hitler’s foreign policy, and had herself annexed German-speaking South Tyrol at the end of World War I, certainly did not help matters.[5]

Hitler, however, was to prove an ardent suitor. 

Mussolini would have preferred, Farrell reports, an understanding with the British. (So incidentally would Hitler himself.)

Moreover, initially the British political establishment was surprisingly favourably disposed.

Indeed, Mussolini even counted among his most ardent British admirers one Winston Churchill, who, though then out of office, had in 1933 extolled fascism as a bulwark against Bolshevism and Il Duce himself as “the Roman genius” and “greatest law-giver among living men” (p225). 

Indeed, Farrell reveals that, given his staunch anti-communist credentials, oratorical ability and personal charisma, Churchill was was even touted by some contemporaries as a potential fascist dictator in his own right, journalist Clare Sheridan writing that he was “talked of as the likely leader of a fascisti party in England” (quoted: p130). 

Yet three factors, Farrell reports, ultimately led to Mussolini’s estrangement from Britain. These were: 

  1. The Spanish civil war
  1. The British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden
  1. Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia

Each of these factors strained Mussolini’s relationship with Britain, and precluded any possibility of an alliance, or even an understanding, between the two powers. Ultimately, this led Mussolini, reluctantly at first, into the German Führer’s fatal embrace. 

Anti-Semitism 

Hitler is also likely to blame for Italy’s anti-Semitic laws, introduced in 1938. 

True, Hitler, it seems, exerted no direct pressure on Mussolini with regard to this issue. However, given that Mussolini had been in power a decade and a half without enacting such laws, and changed his mind only after allying with Hitler, it seems likely that this was the decisive factor. 

However, Farrell claims that the rapprochement with Germany was “not the reason”, only “the catalyst” for this decision (p304). 

The real reason, he claims, was that: 

Jews had come to epitomise Mussolini’s three enemies: Communism, the bourgeoisie and anti-fascism [since] Jews were prominent in all three” (p304). 

This may be true. However, Jews, it should also be noted, were also prominent among Fascists themselves. Indeed, Farrell himself reports: 

More than 10,000 Jews, about one-third of adult Italian Jews, were members of the PNF in 1938” (p303).

Thus, relative to overall population size, Jews were in fact overrepresented among members of the PNF by a factor of three (Italy’s Jews: From Emancipation to Fascism: p44).[6]

Perhaps most prominent and influential among Jewish Italian fascists was Mussolini’s long-term mistress, Margherita Sarfatti, a leading Italian intellectual in her own right, who had followed, or perhaps even led, Mussolini from socialism to fascism, and who plays a prominent role in the first half of Farrell’s biography.

In addition to being Mussolini’s mistress (or rather one of his many mistresses) and a confidante of Il Duce for almost thirty years, she is thought to have been a key and influential figure in the Fascist regime, helping shape policy and decision-making from behind the scenes. 

She was also, Farrell surmises, the only of Mussolini’s many mistresses whom his semi-literate peasant wife (who was also, Farrell reveals, possibly his illegitimate half-sister: p40) truly “hated” and regarded as a serious threat to her marriage (p73-4). 

However, as Sarfatti aged, Mussolini’s ardour seemingly faded in parallel to her looks, suggesting that her hold over him had always been primarily sexual rather than intellectual. The breakdown of this relationship was likely a key factor in paving the way for both the Pact of Steel and Italy’s race laws. 

Mussolini also, Farrell reports, saw the Jews as harbouring “secret loyalties that conflicted with Fascism”, much like the Freemasons, themselves less fashionable victims of persecution under both Nazism and Italian Fascism (p304). 

Farrell attempts to play down the extent of persecution to which Jews were subject in Fascist Italy and absolve Mussolini of any culpability in the holocaust. 

Thus, he insists, Italy’s anti-Semitic laws “did not involve violence at all” (p310), and he concludes: 

Although not anti-Semitic, Mussolini became increasingly anti-Jewish” (p304). 

However, Farrell never really explains what exactly is the difference between these two surely synonymous terms.

Farrell also emphasizes that Mussolini’s racism was not biological but “spiritual” in nature (p305). In other words, it was not Hitlerian, but rather Spenglerian and Evolian.[7]

If this is intended as a defence of Mussolini, it rings decidedly hollow.

That the Italian dictator’s dislike of them reflected not biological but purely cultural factors was presumably scant consolation those Jews expelled from their jobs on account of their Jewishness, even if the criteria for qualifying as a Jew was less inclusive, and more open to exemptions and corrupt interpretation, than in Germany. 

Farrell quotes historian De Felice, himself, incidentally, of Jewish ancestry, as observing: 

Mussolini’s campaign against the Jews ‘was more against the Italians than against the Jews’” (p304). 

This may be true. However, I doubt either Farrell or De Felice could ever deny that it was surely the latter who ended up paying the greater price.  

The Holocaust 

On the other hand, Farrell does a good job of absolving Italians as a whole from any culpability in the holocaust. 

Italian government officials, ordered to round up Jews for deportation, often refused to comply and were deliberately obstructive. Many Italians, including the Vatican, hid and protected Jews. 

Mussolini himself, however, emerges rather less unscathed. 

Thus, reading between the lines, Mussolini seems to have been largely indifferent to the fate of the Jews

On the one hand, he ordered the rounding up and deportation of Jews in accord with Nazi orders. However, he also overlooked the refusal of many officials to comply with these orders. 

Certainly, even on the evidence presented by Farrell himself, his claim that “Mussolini did much to save Jews from Hitler” seems unwarranted (p363). 

The most Farrell manages to prove is that Mussolini was far less anti-Semitic than Hitler – faint praise indeed. 

World War II 

It is perhaps from WWII that the popular image of Mussolini as an inept and buffoonish figure emerged. Partly, this reflected allied propaganda. However, despite Farrell’s attempted rehabilitation of Il Duce, Mussolini’s conduct of the war does indeed seem inept from the start. 

Thus, before the War began, Mussolini made, arguably, his first mistake, agreeing the Pact of Steel with Germany, which obliged him to come to Germany’s aid even in the event of an aggressive war initiated by Germany herself (p317). 

Then, after the War had indeed begun in just this way, Mussolini conspicuously failed to come to Germany’s aid, in direct contravention of her newly acquired treaty obligations. 

Mussolini justified this decision on the grounds that Italy was not yet ready for war. In this assessment, he was right, as was proven tragically true when Italy did enter the war, with disastrous consequences, both for Mussolini’s own Fascist regime, and, arguably, for National Socialist Germany as well. 

To his credit, then, Mussolini had not, it seems, made the classic error of ‘falling for his own publicity’. He knew that his own militaristic braggadocio and podium strutting were mere empty bluff, and that war with Britain and France was the last thing that the Italian armed forces, or the Italian state, needed at this time.[8]

However, on witnessing Germany’s dramatic defeat of France, Mussolini suddenly decided he wanted to get in on the action, and rather in on the spoils.

Greedily and rather transparently anticipating a share of the territory of the conquered French, he suddenly and belatedly signed up for the war, albeit right about the same time that Hitler had already (seemingly) won it and hence had no further need of him. 

As a result, he got none of the territorial gains he so eagerly anticipated, the relevant parts of French territory having already been promised to the new French Vichy regime as part of the German-French peace accord of 1940 which brought an end to the fighting. 

Now, however, for better or worse, Mussolini had thrown in his lot with Hitler. Italy was now in for the long-haul and Mussolini’s own fate directly tied to that of the German war machine. Henceforth, Mussolini’s Italy would find itself relegated to the role of junior partner to the German behemoth, increasingly surrendering any capacity for independent decision-making. 

Mussolini did, however, make one last attempt to assert independence from the Nazi war machine. Chagrined that Hitler kept invading foreign powers without consulting his ostensible ally, Mussolini decided to do the same for himself, aspiring to emulate his ally by invading Greece, and thereby shift the focus of the war towards the Mediterranean, where his own territorial ambitions were naturally, and quite sensibly, focused. 

The attempt to assert independence backfired disastously. His invasion easily rebuffed, Mussolini was forced to call in for help from the very Germans from whom he had sought to establish independence and whose military successes he had so envied and sought to emulate. 

Moreover, the delay to the proposed invasion of the USSR that Germany’s intervention on Italy’s behalf in Greece necessitated, has been implicated as a key factor that ultimately doomed Operation Barbarossa, and hence led, ultimately, to the fall of both Hitler and Mussolini. 

Farrell does convincingly establish that, in his disagreements with Hitler regarding the conduct, strategy and overall direction of the war, Mussolini was, perhaps surprisingly, often more strategically astute than the Führer, who, despite his remarkable early military successes (or indeed because of them), had become increasingly detached from reality and inflexible in his strategic thinking. 

Thus, most military historians would agree that shifting the focus of the war effort towards the Mediterranean, as Mussolini advocated, was a sound strategic policy, not only in Italy’s own strategic interests, but also that of Germany and the Axis as a whole. 

But, alas, it was to no avail. Hitler was no more willing to listen to the wise counsel of his Italian counterpart than he was to listen to that of his own senior generals and commanders. Instead, Hitler had his sights firmly fixed on the Soviet Union, and would brook no delay or postponement, let alone cancelation, of these plans in order to secure his southern flank (which Churchill was later to identify as Europe’s ‘soft underbelly’) and establish complete control of the Mediterranean. 

Ultimately, Farrell is successful in explaining why Mussolini did what he did in World War Two given the limited information available to him at the time and the difficult predicament in which he increasingly found himself. 

However, he fails to revise the established view that these decisions were, in the long-term, ultimately anything other than disastrous miscalculations. 

Ciano – Diarist and Dilettante

Not only was Mussolini more often more strategically astute than the Führer, he was also, Farrell shows, far more strategically adept than his foreign minister and son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano.

The latter plays a prominent role in the second half of Farrell’s biography, probably on the value of his famous diaries as an historical source regarding Mussolini’s thinking, and that of his inner-circle, during this crucial time period.

From initially hero-worshiping his famous father-in-law, Ciano gradually became a firm critic of Mussolini, criticising the latter’s decision-making repeatedly in his diaries and ultimately betraying him.

Yet, in Farrell’s account, Ciano emerges as a political dilitante, a playboy, and a hypocrite – “the spoilt child of the regime” – who was always unpopular with the public (p322).

Thus, while he later, in his diaries, criticized Mussolini for his decision to ally with Germany, and, in the post-War period, according to Farrell, “a whole industry sprouted up on the basis of his famous diaries which would have us believe… that Ciano tried to srop the Pact of Steel”, the truth was that Ciano was no more than “the Duce’s yes man, however much whinging he did in private” (p316-7).

Moreover, though he was indeed often critical of the alliance with Germany, his views changed by the day. Thus, Farrell reports, despite his earlier criticisms, “as soon as Germany started winning easily in the west in the spring of 1940 he was all in favour of Germany again” (p322). He was also a noted champion of Italy’s disastrous invasion of Greece (p340).

Indeed, Farrell does a far better job of showing that Ciano was even more incompetent, and inconsistent, in his strategic pronouncements than was Mussolini, than he does showing that Mussoini himself was in any way competent. 

History is written, it seems, not so much by the victors, or, at any rate, not only by the victors, as by those with sufficient time on their hands, and sufficient inclination, to put across their own side of things in diaries or other writings that outlive them. As Churchill was to put it:

History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”.

Was Mussolini a Socialist? 

What then of Farrell’s second claim: Did Mussolini really always remain a man of the Left until his dying day?

Certainly, both Fascism and Mussolini seem to have begun on the Left

Mussolini’s own journey from the Left began when he advocated Italian involvement in the First World War, contrary to the doctrine of the Second International. 

Yet, in this, Mussolini was merely following in the path trodden by socialists across Europe, who, caught up in the prevailing mood of nationalism and war-fever, abandoned the internationalism and pan-proletarian solidarity of the Second International en masse, to come out in support of, and march to their deaths in the service of, their respective nation’s war-efforts.[9]

Thus, as had occurred so often before, and would occur so many more times in the future, idealism and internationalism came crashing down in the face of nationalism, ethnocentrism and war fever. 

Mussolini himself thus came to believe in the power of nationalism to move men’s souls in a way that appeals to mere economic class interests never could. Thus, he came to believe that:

Nation had a stronger grip on men than class” (p61). 

As sociologist-turned-sociobiologist Pierre van den Berghe was later to put it in his excellent The Ethnic Phenomenon (which i have reviewed here): 

Blood runs thicker than money” (The Ethnic Phenomenon: p243)

Thus, Mussolini and the early fascists, like the pre-Hitler German Workers’ Party in Germany, sought to combine socialism with nationalism

Mussolini also came to believe that, just as the Bolshevik revolution in Russia would never have been brought about without Lenin, so socialist revolution in Italy would require an elite revolutionary vanguard.

This was contrary to Marxist doctrine, and indeed ironically Leninist doctrine too, whereby the coming revolution was seen as both historically inevitable and envisaged as being brought about by the proletariat as a whole. 

In this assessment, Mussolini was surely right. The Bolshevik revolution would never have occurred without Lenin as the driving force.

When, in 1917, Lenin arrived by train in Petrograd, courtesy of the German government, even the vast majority of fellow Bolsheviks were resigned to a policy of support for the newly-established provisional government. Lenin was, at first, almost alone in advocating armed revolution, yet this policy was ultimately to prove a success. 

Ironically, then, the much-maligned Great Man Theory of History’, as espoused by Thomas Carlyle, became perennially unfashionable at almost precisely the moment that, in the persons of first Lenin and later Hitler, it was proven so tragically true.[10]

However, recognizing the need for an elite revolutionary vanguard also led Mussolini to question another key tenet of Leftism, namely belief in the equality of man

In other words, if an elite revolutionary vanguard was indeed necessary to bring about socialism, then this suggested that this elite vanguard represented a superior caste of men. This, ironically, undermined the entire basis for socialism, which presupposed human equality.

This led Mussolini to Nietzsche and ultimately to Fascism, Mussolini himself being quoted by Farrell as explaining to a visiting American journalist during the 1920s that: 

Nietzsche had ‘cured me of my socialism’” (p30). 

Yet Farrell insists that Mussolini nevertheless remained, in some sense, even thereafter, and indeed throughout his political life. Thus, he writes:

Mussolini was never a democrat. But much of him was and remained a Socialist” (p39).

However, in making this claim, Farrell is not entirely consistent. Thus, explaining the adoption of the black Arditi flag by the fascist faithful, he explains:

Red was the colour of the enemy – Socialism” (p80).

However, on the very next page he claims:

Fascism was anything but a right-wing movement. The first Fascist programme… reflected the preponderance of the futurists was very left-wing” (p81). 

These different claims, only a page apart, are difficult to reconcile with one another.

Perhaps, in referring to socialism as “the enemy”, Farrell has in mind ‘Socialism’ with a capital ‘S’ – i.e. the programme of the Italian Socialist party. On this view, the Socialists might be the enemy of Fascism precisely because both movements were left-wing and hence competed in the same political space for the same constituency of support.[11]

However, Farrell does not employ capitalization in any such consistent manner and also capitalizes ‘socialism’ when referring to Mussolini’s own beliefs (e.g. p39).

Mussolini’s eventual return to his leftist roots, Farrell reports, comes only much later, after his overthrow and dramatic rescue by the Germans, with the establishment of the short-lived Italian Social Republic in Northern Italy under Nazi patronage.

By then, however, Mussolini was a Nazi puppet, and any socialist pretentions, or indeed pretentions to any sort of action independent of, let alone in defiance to, his Nazi patrons, were wholly ineffectual.

Defining Fascism

To decide whether Fascism was a left-wing movement, we must first define we mean by ‘fascism’. Unfortunately, however, the meaning of the word ‘fascism’ changed a great deal over time.

The word ‘fascism’ derives from the Italian word ‘fascio’, meaning ‘a bundle of sticks’, in particular the fasces, a symbol of power and authority in ancient Rome.

Amusingly, it seems to be cognate with the word faggot, now chiefly employed as a pejorative Americanism for a homosexual male, but which also originally meant a bundle of sticks

The political usage seems to derive from the notion that several sticks bound together are stronger than one stick alone, hence emphasizing the importance of collectivism and group solidarity. 

With regard to situating fascism on the left-right political spectrum, it is certainly the case that, like Mussolini himself, Fascism began on the left

Thus, among the first political groups to style themselves ‘fascist’ was the peasant Fasci Siciliani, who unsuccessfully fought for peasant land rights in Sicily in the late-nineteenth century.

Indeed, even the first incarnation of Mussolini’s own brand of fascism, namely the Fasces of Revolutionary Action, founded by Mussolini in 1914, was very much left-wing and revolutionary in orientation, being composed, in large part, of syndicalists and other disgruntled leftists estranged from the mainstream Italian left (i.e. the Italian Socialist Party).

Most left-wing parties are less radical in power than they promise to be while still in opposition. However, Mussolini’s (and Fascism’s) own move from the left began long before they ever even came within distant sight of power.

Thus, even as early as 1920, after humiliation at the polls during national elections the previous year, Farrell himself acknowledges:

Most of the Fascists of the first hour – especially those of left-wing origin – had gone… [and] fascism… moved right” (p95).

Thus, while fascism was initially anti-clericalist and associated with revolutionary Syndicalism and the Futurist movement, it ultimately came to be associated with Catholicism and traditionalism. 

Thus, the meaning of the word ‘fascism’ evolved and changed with the regime itself. 

Fascism’ ultimately came to mean whatever the regime stood for at any particular point in time, something that both changed over time and never represented a coherent ideology as much as it did pragmatic realpolitik.

Defining the Left

To determine if fascism was truly leftist, we must also define, not only what ‘fascism’ means, but also what we mean by leftist. This is only marginally less problematic than defining ‘fascism’.

Hayek, in his celebrated The Road to Serfdom, equates the Left with big government and a planned economy. On this basis, he therefore classes both German National Socialism and Italian Fascism as leftist.

However, leftism is usually associated, not only with big government and a planned economy, but also with redistribution and egalitarianism. In this sense, fascism was not especially leftist.

On the other hand, anti-Semitism has always seemed to me fundamentally leftist.

Thus, Marxists believe that society is controlled by wealthy capitalists who control the mass media and oppress and exploit everyone else. Anti-Semites, on the other hand, believe society is controlled by wealthy Jewish capitalists who control the mass media and oppress and exploit everyone else.

The distinction between Marxism and anti-Semitism is therefore racial and largely tangential. Anti-Semites insist that our capitalist oppressors are largely or wholly Jewish in ethnicity. Orthodox Marxists, on the other hand, take no stance on this matter either way.

Hence the famous aphorism that states:

Antisemitism is the socialism of fools.[12]

Defining the Right

If fascism cannot then unproblematically be described as a phenomenon of the left, can we then instead characterize it as a phenomenon of the right?

This, of course, requires a definition of ‘the right’. Unfortunately, however, defining the right is even more difficult than defining the Left. 

For example, Christian fundamentalist who wants to ban pornography and abortion has little in common with, on the one hand, a libertarian who wants to decriminalise prostitution and child pornography, nor, on the other, with a eugenicist who wants to make abortion, for certain classes of person, compulsory. Yet all three are classified as together as ‘right-wing’, even though they have no more in common with one another than any does with a raving, unreconstructed Marxist

The Right, then, is defined as, in effect, anything that is not the Left.

As Steven Pinker puts it, the Left is like the South Pole. Just as, at the South Pole, all directions lead north, so, at the Left Pole, all directions lead right.

Therefore, right-wing is itself a left-wing term – because it defines all political positions by reference to the extent to which they diverge from a perceived leftist ideal.

Therefore, debating whether fascism was really an ideology of left or right simply exposes the inadequacy of this one-dimensional conception of the political spectrum, whereby all political positions are situated on a single left-right axis.

A Third Way?

Rather than self-identifying as of ‘the Right’, Fascists themselves often affect to reject any simplistic situation of their views as either being of the left or the right. Instead, they insist that they have moved beyond left and right, transcended the left-right political divide, and represent instead a Third Position or Third Way.

This leads Farrell to propose an even more provocative analogy in his Preface, where he writes:

Whereas communist ideas appear terminally ill, the Fascist idea of the Third Way lives on and is championed by the standard bearers of the modern Left such as New Labour in Britain” (pxviii).

Unfortunately, however, Farrell never really gets around to expanding on this single throwaway sentence in his Preface.

On its face, it at first appears to rest on little more than a curious convergence of slogans – namely, both Fascism and New Labour claimed to represent a Third Way.

However, each meant something quite different by this term.

Thus, for Mussolini the Third Way (or ‘terza via’), namely fascism itself, entailed nationalism, abrogation of individual rights to the needs of the nation, and totalitarian dictatorship.

In contrast, much though the notion of totalitarian dictatorship might have appealed to Tony Blair, the objectives ofNew Labour were altogether more modest in scale.

Indeed, the two regimes differed not only in what their respective ‘Third Ways’ were to involve, but also in their conception of the ‘First’ and ‘Second Ways’ to which they represented themselves as an alternative.

Thus, for Mussolini, the ‘Third Way’ represented an alternative to, on the one hand, Soviet-style communism, and, on the other, western liberal democracy.

For Blair, on the other hand, it was an alternative to, on the one hand, Thatcherite neo-liberalism and, on the other, the sort of unreconstructed socialism that the Blairites dismissed as Old Labour.

Defining that Blairism or New Labour itself actually entailed is, however, much more difficult, and even more difficult, perhaps, than defining ‘fascism’.

This, then, perhaps points to a deeper affinity between the two movements. Both were not so much coherent ideologies as glorified marketing campaigns – triumphs of spin over substance.

Defining what either actually stood for, as opposed to merely against, is almost impossible.

Fascism’ and New Labour represented, then, little more than catchy political slogans that tapped into the zeitgeister of the respective ages, new words for not especially new ideas.

Indeed, Mussolini, himself a former journalist (and a very successful one at that), can perhaps lay claim to being the first politician to successfully manipulate modern media to manage his own public image – the first truly modern politician.

As for Farrell’s comparison between Fascism and New Labour, this, one suspects, reflected little more than a marketing campaign of Farrell’s own.

Farrell, also a journalist, was using a provocative quote to attract media attention, publicity and hence, so he hoped, sales for his new book in Blair-era Britain.

Today, less than twenty years later, it already seems strangely anachronistic, as New Labour has itself gone the way of fascism, into the dustbin of history (at least for now), to be replaced, in the Labour Party at least, with a return to unreconstructed ‘Old Labour’ socialism, albeit now buttressed with a new, even more moronic, cultural Marxist ‘wokeism’ and deranged feminism.

Indeed, on the evidence of some recent Labour Party leaders, even “communist ideals” may no longer be as “terminally ill” as Farrell once so confidently predicted.

This, however, merely reinforces my suspicion that any attempt to draw analogies between fascism and contemporary political movements or regimes is ultimately unhelpful and reflects little more than a version of guilt by association or what Leo Strauss aptly termed the reductio ad Hitlerum.

Fascism certainly has little in common with the contemporary Left, despite the efforts of some conservatives to prove the contrary. However, as a nationalist and fundamentally anti-individualist ideology, it arguably has even less in common with the individualist and globalist ethos of contemporary neoliberalism and neoconservatism, let alone libertarianism.

As George Orwell wrote only a year or so after the defeat of both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy:

The word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’.”

So let’s stop using the word ‘fascist’ as a slur against our political opponents and restrict its use to an historical context.[13]

___________________

Endnotes

[1] The continued practice of slavery in Ethiopia was indeed among the justifications employed by the Italians to justify their invasion and conquest. Moreover, the Italians did indeed pass the first laws formally abolishing the practice of slavery in Ethiopia, though the extent to which these laws were enforced, or represented a mere propaganda exercise, seems to be in some dispute.

[2] Imprisoning or exiling large numbers of low-level mafia soldiers and associates will not only have taken those individuals themselves out of operation but also likely have deterred others from taking their places.

[3] Other, more genuine, Italian anti-fascists, who had indeed fought against the fascist regime, tended to be communists, who the American (and British) occupying forces were hence loathe to promote to high office. In addition, whereas the stronghold of the Mafia has always been Sicily, and other powerful Italian criminal syndicates (e.g. the ’Ndrangheta and Cammora) are likewise each based in regions of the Southern Italian Mezzogiorno, the Italian communists were always strongest in heavily industrialized Northern Italy. This ‘unholy alliance’ between the Americans, the Mafia, and, later, the Catholic Church and conservative Christian Democratic Party soon came to be almost institutionalized in post-war Italian politics, as during the Cold War, the American government, together with Italian conservatives opted to ally with the Mafia as the ‘lesser of two evils’ against Italy’s powerful Communist Party.

[4] Thus, for example, Irish nationalists and British nationalists are natural enemies, as are Pakistani and Indian nationalists, and Turkish and Greek nationalists. Indeed, as far back as the third century BCE, Arthashastra, the ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, observed that next-door neighbours, by virtue of sharing a border, are natural enemies, whereas a state’s next-door neighbours but one, by virtue of sharing a border with one’s immediate neighbours, and hence one’s enemies, but not with oneself, are natural allies. Thus, France and Scotland combined against their common neighbour England in the Auld Alliance which lasted two and a half centuries, while in the First World War Russia and France allied against their common neighbour Germany. Arthashastra’s observation is sometimes cited as the origin of the famous aphorism, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

[5] It is interesting to note that, even when Mussolini did belatedly embrace the idea of a ‘fascist international’, he initially excluded National Socialist Germany from this alliance. Thus, at the 1934 Montreux Fascist International Congress, representatives of the German National Socialist government were conspicuous by their absence. Yet, in contrast, representatives of Hitler’s enemy, the Federal State of Austria, then governed by the ‘AustrofascistFatherland Front, were in attendance.

[6] This statistic is perhaps misleading and probably reflects the higher levels of political engagement of Jews as compared to non-Jewish Italians, rather than any especial affinity towards Fascism. Jews were thus likely overrepresented among almost all political movements (other than those which are overtly anti-Semitic, of course), and may indeed have been overrepresented among communists and other opponents of the Fascist regime to an even greater degree than they were overrepresented among Fascists themselves.

[7] Personally, as long-term readers of this blog, or my amazon and goodreads book reviews (assuming any such people exist) may be aware, I am actually not unsympathetic to biological theories of race and of race differences. Of course, Nazi racial theories were indeed largely nonsense. However, in purporting to be biological, and hence scientific (even if this claim was disingenuous), they at least had one benefit over so-called ‘spiritual’ theories of race, namely the benefit of being testable and hence falsifiable. Indeed, Nazi claims regarding the inferiority of the Jews are not only in principle falsifiable, but have indeed been falsified, at least with respect to intelligence differences. In contrast, the so-called ‘spiritual racism’ of Spengler, Evola and perhaps Mussoini, which admits exceptions whereby an ethnic Jew can be ‘spiritually’ Aryan and vice versa, seems to me to be wholly unfalsifiable mysticism.

[8] Although remembered as a disciple of his compatriot Niccolò Machiavelli, Mussolini, with his militaristic braggadocio and strutting, had perhaps here imbued, or, more likely, independently hit upon, the teaching of that other great guru of military strategy and statecraft, Sun Tzu, who famously advised military leaders:

The most powerful tool of a leader is deception. Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.

Thus, just as a powerful commander should fake weakness in order to lull his enemies into a false sense of security before attacking them, or even thereby provoking them to attack first, so a militarily weak power like Italy is advised to feign military strength and power in order to deter potential enemies from attacking.
However, it is likely that Mussolini’s own militaristic braggadocio and strutting was intended at least as much for internal consumption within Italy as on the international stage. Certainly, few foreign leaders seem to have been taken in.

[9] In this respect, Italy was, Mussolini and the fascists excepted, something of an outlier and exception, since, here, the leading socialist party, Partito Socialista Italiano, did indeed stand true to the ideals of the Second International by opposing Italy’s entry into the War. Unfortunately, however, there was no Second International left to which to remain true.

[10] To be clear, I do not here endorce the strong version of great man theory, whereby the impact of so-called ‘great men’ is viewed as, if not the sole, then at least the most important factor in determining the fate of peoples, nations and civilizations. On the contrary, the impact of ‘great men’ is, I believe, much less important than that of social, economic, ecological, environmental and biological factors. The overemphasis on the impact of ‘great men’ in some popular histories has, I suspect, more to do with literary conventions, which require narratives to focus on the adventures and trevails of heroes and villians and other human interest factors, in order to attract an audience, than with an objective appraisal of history. Such a focus is indeed, in my view, unscientific. However, as the undoubted impact of such figures as Lenin and Hitler, and many others, on history amply demonstrates, ‘great men’ do indeed, at least sometimes, have a major effect on human history, and such factors cannot be entirely ignored or ruled out by the serious historian. Of course, in referring to both Lenin and Hitler as I am not ‘great men’ I am not using the word ‘great’ in a moral, acclamatory or approving sense, but rather in the older meaning of the word, referring to the ‘great’ (i.e. massive) impact that each had upon history.

[11] Inevitably, it is parties of similar ideological persuasion who are most in competition with one another for support, since both will be attempting to attract the same core constituency of supporter. Relatedly, I am here reminded of a quotation attributed (possibly apocryphally) to Winston Churchill, who, when a newly elected MP, surveying for the first time the benches opposite, remarked ‘So, that’s the enemy’, was said to have replied, ‘No, that’s the oppostion. The enemy sits behind you’.

[12] Actually, as an avowed opponent of socialism and Marxism, I would think it would be more accurate to state:

Socialism is the socialism of fools. Anti-Semitism the socialism of other fools.

[13] I am here advocating that the word ‘fascism’ be confined in usage to the early- to mid-twentieth Italian political movement and ruling regime, and perhaps a few contemporaneous copycat movements that explicitly described themselves as ‘fascist’ (e.g. the BUF in the UK). Even describing the National Socialist movement and regime of Germany in the mid-twentieth century as ‘fascist’ seems to me unhelpful and potentially misleading, since, despite some commonalities, German National Socialism was, in many respects, a quite different and distinctively German phenomenon, and German National Socialist leaders such as Hitler, much as he may have admired and modelled himself on Mussolini, did not, to my knowledge, ever self-identify as ‘fascist’.

Meyer and the Myth of the American Mafia – Cutting Lansky Down to Size 

Robert Lacey, Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life (Boston: Little Brown & Co, 1991).

Robert Lacey’s biography of the infamous Jewish-American organized crime figure, Meyer Lansky, was originally published in 1992 with the title Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life, only to be reissued in 2016 with a new title, Meyer Lansky: The Thinking Man’s Gangster

This latter subtitle, ‘The Thinking Man’s Gangster’, perhaps accords more with the popular image of Lansky as a kind of nefarious criminal mastermind, and may therefore have helped boost the book’s sales. However, given that Lacey’s biography is actually concerned, to a large extent, with debunking that very image of Lansky, and indeed much of the popular mythology surrounding him, it is the earlier title, ‘Little Man’, that better reflects the book’s actual content.  

It is true that Lansky, despite his diminutive stature, was never, to my knowledge, known by the sobriquet, ‘Little Man’.[1]

However, in a metaphoric sense, Robert Lacey’s biography is indeed very much concerned with ‘cutting Lansky down to size’. 

Debunking Sensationalist Claims 

The history of organized crime in America is a subject that has rarely attracted the attention of serious historians or first-rate researchers. What literature does exist on the subject is largely to be found, not in the ‘history’ section, but rather in the much-maligned, and often justly maligned, true crime section of the library or bookshop, and is typically sensationalist in tone and often historically inaccurate. 

Indeed, Lacey coins a new and apt term for this literary subgenre – “Pulp Nonfiction” (p314).[2]

Thus, inevitably, much of Lacey’s text is concerned with debunking the many myths perpetuated in earlier Mafia histories.

One famous example is the so-called ‘Night of the Sicilian Vespers’, when, according to mafia folklaw, and countless previously published mafia histories, a whole succession of Mafia bosses across America were assassinated in a single night in the aftermath of the assassination of Salvatore Maranzano.  

Actually, however, despite being repeated as lore in countless mafia histories, the nationally-synchronized bloodbath never actually seemed to have occurred.  Thus, aside from the killing of Marazano himself, Lacey reports: 

systematic study of newspapers in eight major cities in the two weeks before and the two weeks following September 10, 1913, the date of Maranzo’s killing… [revealed] only three reports of similar gang- or racketeer-linked killings – two in Newark and one in Pittsburgh” (p65). 

Lucky Luciano and World War II

Another source of much “legend and exaggeration”, Lacey reports, has been the supposed role of then-imprisoned crime boss Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano in the Allied invasion of Sicily. Thus, Lansky reports how, in some of the more outlandish accounts: 

Lucky Luciano has been pictured hitting the beaches in person, waving triumphantly from atop a tank, and there have been dark tales of planes dropping flags and handkerchiefs bearing the letter L behind enemy lines – signals supposedly from Luciano to local Mafia chiefdoms” (p125).[3]

These claims are obvious make-believe. However, the real story of the cooperation between organized crime and the American government to forestall infiltration and sabotage on the New York docks, which cooperation likely gave rise to the more sensationalist rumours referred to above, is arguably almost as remarkable in its own right. 

The impetus was a fire onboard the SS Normandie, a French liner that had been commandeered for military use, and was being converted into a troop ship in a New York harbour. 

With the benefit of hindsight, it is today all but certain that the fire was simply an accident. However, authorities at the time, wary of the threat of infiltration, suspected enemy sabotage, and hence moves were made to establish contact with the underworld figures who were known to control the New York docks in order to forestall any possible recurrence.[4]

This search for underworld contacts on the docks led the authorities ultimately to Luciano, then serving a sentence for prostitution offences in a New York prison. Lansky’s own role in this process was to act as an intermediary, having been recommended for this role by Luciano’s Jewish lawyer Moses Polakoff. 

The result was a remarkable meeting between Luciano, Lansky and representatives of the US Navy in an interrogation room in Great Meadow Correctional Facility, at which Luciano somewhat reluctantly agreed to cooperate. 

Perhaps surprisingly, genuine patriotism seems to have been at least part of the reason both Luciano and Lansky agreed to help out.

Lansky, being Jewish, was obviously no friend to the Nazis; Luciano, meanwhile, may have been unsympathetic to Mussolini’s Fascist regime in his Native Italy due to its crackdown on the Sicilian Mafia under Cesare Mori – both, however, also claimed to see themselves as patriotic Americans (though Luciano was soon to be deported).

Whether there was also some implicit quid pro quo agreement whereby Luciano would receive early release after the war in return for his cooperation is not clear. However, Luciano did attach at least one condition to his cooperation – namely, that it remain strictly a secret, lest he be subject to retribution after his envisaged deportation back to Sicily after the War (p119). 

Unfortunately for Luciano, however, after the war he was to discover that he was not the only one who wanted his secret agreement with US naval intelligence to remain very much a secret. On the contrary, with Mussolini’s regime now in tatters and the War very much won, it was now naval intelligence themselves who had every incentive to keep their disreputable secret dealings with organized crime elements very much out of newspaper headlines and the public domain, ultimately to the chagrin of Luciano himself. 

Thus, when Luciano’s attorney, the same Moses Polakoff who had played such an instrumental role in arranging the meeting, applied for a grant of clemency and commutation of sentence as recompense for Luciano’s wartime cooperation with the authorities, Naval Intelligence, contacted by the parole board for corroboration of Polakoff’s claims but loathe to admit their dealings with such a notorious figure, denied ever having been in contact with Luciano (p125-6). 

Polakoff did ultimately obtain evidence of his client’s wartime cooperation with the authorities, and, as a result, Luciano was indeed ultimately granted parole, albeit on condition that he not contest his immediate deportation to Italy, from where he was subsequently alleged to have orchestrated the international trade in heroin. 

However, the wartime cooperation between government and organized remained a tightly-guarded secret and it was probably this secrecy, combined with the inevitably leaking of “hints and half revelations” regarding what had occurred, that gave rise to some of the more outlandish claims of Mafia involvement in the invasion of Sicily (p119). 

History vs. True Crime 

Yet, if most true crime authors are indeed rightly to be criticized for the quality of their research, then the fault does not lie entirely with them. It also lies, according to Lacey, with the serious historians and researchers who have neglected this area of American history as somehow beneath them. 

Yet the history of organized crime is by no means a matter of peripheral importance in the history of twentieth century America. On the contrary, organized crime in America has had a substantial impact on America’s social, economic, legal, cultural and even its political history, and to some extent continues to do so to this day.  

Thus, Lacey rebukes his fellow-historians, declaring: 

There is a dire need for objectively analysed data on organized crime, an area which academics have too readily surrendered to the custody of popular entertainment” (p445). 

Gangster or Businessman? 

Unfortunately, however, in exhorting serious historians to research the history of organized crime in America, Lacey could almost be accused of failing to take his own advice, since the subject of his own biography, Meyer Lansky, was, at least in Lacey’s own telling, only really on the fringes of organized crime for most of his adult life.[5]

Indeed, perhaps the most remarkable revelation of Lacey’s biography of the most notorious Jewish gangster of the twentieth century, or perhaps of all-time, is that, for most of his adult life, Lansky apparently genuinely regarded himself as no such thing.

Rather, after youthful dalliances as, first, a shtark or “strong-arm man” and perhaps as a pimp, and then in his early adulthood as a prohibition-era bootlegger, Lansky thenceforth cultivated a respectable, or at least semi-respectable, image.  

In his own self-image, Lansky saw himself, not as a gangster, but rather as a businessman – albeit a businessman whose chosen line of business, namely casino gambling, happened to be unlawful. 

This makes large sections of Lacey’s biography rather less exciting in content than one might expect for a book ostensibly in the sensationalist ‘true crime’ genre of literature. Certainly, any reader who goes in expecting dramatic accounts of gunfights, gang wars and the like is liable to be disappointed.

Gang wars and assassinations occur only in the background, and Lacey discounts any notion that Lansky had any role in ordering such assassinations as those on Albert Anastasia or Bugsy Siegel with which he has sometimes been linked. 

Yet, unlike so many other prohibition-era bootleggers who took advantage of the repeal of prohibition to move into the lawful production and distribution of alcoholic beverages or other lawful business ventures, some of whom would ultimately establish themselves as respectable, and sometimes highly successful businessmen, Lansky never did quite ‘go straight’ (p80). 

Neither did he grasp the other main opportunity to ‘go legit’ that presented itself to him over the course of his career, namely in Las Vegas, Nevada, where casino gambling had been legalized in 1931 (p152). 

Instead, as an organizer of gambling activities, Lansky operated in an illegal and illicit industry. As such he could not turn to the police for protection, and had instead to rely on the muscle provided by organized crime. 

However, Lansky appears to have sought to distance himself from this side of the business, which he contracted out, mostly to Italians, and kept at arm’s length. Nevertheless, in Lacey’s eyes, Lansky ultimately remained ultimately a gangster: 

Ethically and practically, the perceived threat of muscle is the same as muscle itself, and all Meyer’s businesses rested ultimately on that threat” (p170). 

Gambling and Other Victimless Crimes 

In keeping with his (semi-)respectable self-image, Lansky’s casinos were very much respectable institutions – or at least as close to respectable as casinos could be in a jurisdiction where casino gambling was illegal. 

One lesson he had learned in to the crap games of the Lower East Side was that the principal ingredient for long-term gaming success is not flashiness but probity. It is easy to fix a roulette wheel or to rig a game of craps… But such tricks can only yield temporary dividends. The moment that serious players sniff the slightest suspicion that the games are rigged against them, they will go elsewhere, and word spreads very quickly. A crap game or casino can be dead in a matter of hours, and once dead, it stays dead. So, as with his bootlegging, Meyer Lansky found himself in an illegal enterprise where enduring success depended on being honest” (p186). 

In short, in Lansky’s casinos, just like in the crooked ones, the high rollers would ultimately lose their money. But, unlike in the crooked casinos, they would be fleeced fair and square – and hence keep coming back for more. 

Lansky took pride in running a clean operation. For all their illegality, and the sinfulness of gambling, his carpet joints were essentially bourgeois establishments” (p143). 

Indeed, it was Lansky’s reputation for probity that led General Bastista, the then-dictator of pre-revolutionary Cuba, to invite Lansky to take control of the Cuba’s lucrative casino gambling operations so as to ensure that the games were fair and hence counter negative publicity in America that had resulted from the fleecing of American tourists. 

In accordance with his carefully-cultivated semi-respectable image, Lansky naturally sought to distance himself from other, less reputable, criminal activities besides his chosen vocation of gambling. 

Interestingly, this included not only victimful and violent crimes such as robbery and murder, but also other so-called victimless crimes besides gambling itself, such as prostitution and narcotics. Thus, Lacey reports: 

Throughout his adult career, Meyer Lansky was careful to distance himself from the ‘dirty’ crimes⁠—drugs, prostitution” (p159) 

I haven’t ever dealt in narcotics,” Lacey quotes Lansky as telling a journalist “with a mixture of pride and distaste” (p90).

 As for prostitution, not only did Lansky himself not profit from or involve himself in the trade, but he also strictly forbade prostitutes from frequenting and soliciting within his respectable ‘carpet joint’ casinos.[6]

Yet, ironically, Lansky adduces evidence to suggest that Lansky may have begun his criminal career as a pimp.

The evidence is tentative but tantalizing – each of Lansky’s first appearances before the courts related to violent assaults on women, who themselves, Lacey infers from their addresses, likely worked as prostitutes (p42-3). 

In other words, it appears that Lansky’s pimp hand was strong. 

Frank Costello and ‘Street Activities’ 

However, Lacey’s claim that Lansky was not involved in in any other illegal activities besides casino gambling is perhaps brought into doubt by the fact that Lacey also makes a similar claim regarding Lansky’s friend and sometime business partner Frank Costello, claiming that, at least by the 1950s: 

There is no evidence that Frank Costello was involved in street activities like loan-sharking, drug-dealing, or pimping” (p189). 

This, however, in my view, puts the whole matter in some doubt, since, while this claim may indeed be true of Lansky, it cannot be true of Costello, since the latter was, at least according to the orthodox mafia chronology, at this time the ‘boss’ (or, in some versions, merely ‘acting boss’, accounts vary) of what is today known as the Genovese crime family

As boss, Costello probably had no need to directly participate in such activities, and almost certainly didn’t, having no wish to ‘dirty his hands’ or risk implicating himself in such a way. 

However, as boss of an American Mafia family, Costello would automatically be entitled to a cut of profits earned by members or associates of his crime family who did engage in such activities. 

Given that many Genovese family members no doubt did engage is such “street activities” as loan-sharking, and very possibly prostitution and drug-dealing as well, this would mean that Costello did indeed profit from, and hence involve himself, albeit indirectly and at arm’s length, in these activities. 

Lacey’s claim that Costello was wholly uninvolved in such activities is therefore doubtful. 

The Myth of the American Mafia? 

This leads to another topic on which Lacey has an interesting take – namely, the existence and nature of what we today habitually refer to as ‘the American Mafia’. 

A recurrent theme of recent histories of the Mafia, in both its Sicilian incarnation and its American offshoot, is that the Mafia was indeed a real criminal organization, and that those who denied the existence of the Mafia were, at best, naïve and misinformed, but, at worst, corrupt collaborators with, lackeys of and apologists for the Mafia itself. 

This, for example, is a recurrent theme in John Dickie’s history of the Sicilian mafia, Cosa Nostra, as well as its sequels, Blood Brotherhoods and Mafia Republic, where those who claimed that Mafia was not a criminal organization, but rather, in some versions, a mere ‘state of mind’, or ‘attitude of exaggerated individualism and defiance of authority’, come in for repeated condemnation as disingenuous mafia apologists. 

Similarly, in recent histories of the American Mafia, FBI boss J Edgar Hoover invariably comes in for criticism for having long denied the existence of the Mafia during the first half of the twentieth century, before being belatedly forced to change his tune after the much-publicized police raid on the Apalachin meeting of mafia bosses in 1957.[7]

For example, in Selwyn Raab’s long and tedious history of the New York Mafia, Five FamiliesHarry Anslinger, the then-head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who is today mostly remembered for his hysterically exaggerated claims regarding the malign effects of cannabis, emerges as an unlikely hero, for recognizing the reality of the American Mafia while Hoover himself was still in denial, and not just about his sexuality

Lacey’s position regarding the existence, or non-existence, of the American Mafia is, however, more nuanced than that of most other mafia historians.

Certainly, Lacey does not deny the existence of the American Mafia. On the contrary, he readily acknowledges:

In the course of the last forty years countless law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, have shown that America is riddled with local associations of Italian malefactors. Mafia is as good a name for them as any” (p203). 

However, Lacey does question what exactly we mean by the term Mafia.  

Thus, he argues that, contrary to popular perception, the American Mafia is not a nationally-organized criminal conspiracy, or, as it was popularly termed, a ‘national syndicate’, but rather a combination of many different local criminal conspiracies and syndicates.  

These disparate local criminal structures and networks may share a common culture, a common vocabulary and even a similar structure. For example, they may use similar terms to refer to one another (‘made guy’, ‘associate’, ‘boss’) and have similar or identical initiation rituals to induct new members.[8]

However, the American mafia is not and never was a single organization with a single nationwide hierarchal structure, as it was sometimes imagined as being. 

Thus, Lacy concludes: 

Hoover’s personal position, that the Mafia did not exist, has proved as erroneous as the Kefauver Committee’s belief in a national conspiracy” (p203). 

Defining ‘The Mafia’ 

Ultimately, then, whether the Mafia exists depends on what we mean by the term ‘the Mafia’. 

Indeed, FBI supremo J Edgar Hoover, long infamous for denying the existence of the American Mafia, took advantage of this semantic pedantry to assert that he had been right all along – ‘the Mafia’ did not exist but La Cosa Nostra very much did and indeed suddenly represented a serious nationwide threat (p293). 

This might sound like mere semantics, but it actually had an element of truth. Thus, as early Mafia turncoat Joseph Valachi explained to a disbelieving Senate subcommittee: 

No one who was involved in what outsiders called the Mafia ever actually used the word” (p292).  

Instead, Mafia insiders in America referred, not to the Mafia, but to Cosa Nostra’which has been variously translated into English as either ‘Our thing’ or ‘This Thing of Ours’. 

However, to compound confusion, the FBI then decided to invent a new term of its own coinage – namely, not ‘Cosa Nostra’, but La Cosa Nostra, henceforth abbreviated to LCN in FBI documents (p293). 

Unfortunately, however, this was not only a term never actually used by mafia insiders (nor indeed, as far as I am aware, by anyone else prior to its adoption, or perhaps invention, by the FBI), but also made no grammatical sense whatsoever in the original Italian, translating to roughly ‘The Our Thing’ (Five Families: p136). 

The ironic result, Lacey observes, is that: 

After all the arguments, the FBI dedicated itself to the pursuit of an entity which literally did not exist” (p293). 

The Kefauver Committee and the Myth of the American Mafia 

Why then, in Lacey’s view, have American perceptions of Italian-American organized crime been so skewed and mistaken? 

Lacey places the ultimate blame primarily with the Kefauver committee, a Senate Committee set up to investigate organized crime in America in the 1950s, which, he argues, was responsible for several “fundamental and enduring misconceptions” about American organized crime, in particular the notion that American organized crime was a nationally organized criminal conspiracy (p203).  

Why then did the Kefauver Committee come to reach this strange conclusion, so contrary, at least in Lacey’s telling, to the evidence presented at its own hearings? 

Lacey proposes that the committee was itself institutionally predisposed to such a conclusion: 

As a national, federally constituted body… the committee was predisposed to a singular nationwide explanation” (p203). 

Indeed, not only was the Committee institutionally predisposed to just such a conclusion, it also, Lacey suggests, had a vested interest in depicting American organized crime in this manner. 

The Kefauver committee had no choice but to reach such a conclusion, for if organized crime was not fundamentally a matter of interstate commerce, then what business did an arm of the Senate have lavishing so much time and attention on the subject?” (p203). 

Thus, the Committee’s full title was The United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, and, if interstate commerce were not involved, then organized crime would properly be the province, not of the Senate and Federal government, but rather of individual state governments and legislatures. 

In other words, if the committee had not decided as it did, it would have undermined the very constitutionality of its own remit.

The Commission: Intergovernmental or Federal

Yet, as we have seen, even Hoover was belatedly changed to change his tune with regard to the existence of the Mafia (or, at least, of ‘La Cosa Nostra’) after the Appalachin meeting of gang bosses from across America of 1957. Did not this meeting, and other similar nationwide meetings between organized crime bosses from different parts of the country, prove that the Mafia did indeed exist as a nationwide criminal organization? 

Lacey thinks not. He acknowledges the abundant evidence that, at meetings such as that at Appalachin

Gang leaders [from different parts of the country] might meet from time to time for sit-downs at which they would sort out disputes over territory and common threats” (p66). 

However, Lacey is adamant in maintaining: 

While local groupings of mafiosi can generate quite active links between each other, they do not constitute, and have never constituted, a centrally, almost corporately structured organization such as the one the Kefauver Committee led America to believe existed” (p204). 

Thus, to draw an analogy with international relations, the Mafia’s so-called National Commission, though it certainly existed, seems to been more intergovernmental than federal, let alone unitary or centralized, in its powers, in its powers and structure.[9]

In other words, it is more analogous to the United Nations or League of Nations than to, say, US federal government or even the European Union

Certainly, it had prestige and, in a world of illegitimate activities, even, within criminal circles, a certain perverse perceived ‘legitimacy’.[10]

However, as Stalin is said to have contemptuously remarked of the Pope, it commanded no divisions (nor any ‘crews’, capos or soldiers) of its own.[11]

Boss of Bosses’? 

What then of claims made that a single figure is boss of bosses throughout America? 

Various figures, at various times throughout the twentieth century are said to have attained this position, including, in chronological order Giuseppe MorelloJoe MasseriaSalvatore Maranzano and Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano. Yet, if there was no nationwide organization, then how could there ever be a single nationwide boss of bosses

Thus, some mafia authors have claimed that the very term capo di tutti i capi is a media invention, that has never actually been used by mafiosi themselves, let alone actually existed as a position in America or Sicily. 

Actually, however, the title capo di tutti i capi does not appear to have been entirely a myth. It does indeed appear to have been used by mafia insiders of certain influential figures during the history of twentieth century organized crime in America. 

For example, in his remarkable study of the early history of Italian-American organized crime in America, The First Family, historian Mike Dash reports that the title predates both Masseria and Maranzano and was first bestowed upon Giuseppe Morello at the dawn of the twentieth century. 

However, the meaning accorded by this title may have been rather different than that presumed by many popular historians and true crime writers. 

Thus, while the title capo di tutti i capi may indeed have been periodically claimed by, or bestowed upon, certain especially powerful and influential bosses, such a figure was, a best, first among equals vis a vis the bosses of other families.  

In this light, Lacey describes the differing approaches of, on the one hand, Salvatore Maranzano, and, on the other, Charles Lucky Luciano, when each was said, successively, to have assumed this position.  

Maranzano, Lacey reports, seems to have wanted to “extend his authority beyond the confines of New York City” and become, if not the nationwide head of the America Mafia, then at least “some sort of northeastern ‘boss of bosses’” (p66). 

Thus, like his rival, Joe ‘The Boss’ Masseria before him, Maranzano stood accused of attempting to demand a cut from the profits made by other bosses and crime families operating within New York City in return for his protection

However, Luciano’s intentions were, it seems, more modest. Thus, Lacey quotes Bonanno family boss Joe Bonanno as observing in his self-serving autobiography:  

Luciano… mainly wanted to be left alone to run his enterprises… He was not trying to impose himself on us as had Masseria. Lucky demanded nothing from us” (p66). 

Thus, Lacey concludes: 

The fundamental rule was live and let live – laissez-faire, the unstructured free market principle upon which the country’s legitimate business had long been founded” (p66). 

Luciano was, then, a true American laissez-faire capitalist. 

Mafia Ranks and Hierarchy?

Indeed, according to Lacey, ‘boss of bosses’ is not the only mafia title that has been misinterpreted by authors, senate committees and law enforcement. On the contrary, Lacey argues that the entire hierarchal structure of Cosa Nostra is in fact something of a myth. 

Thus, Lacey argues, just as the Kefauver committee, as a national legislative body, was predisposed to see a nationwide criminal conspiracy, so law enforcement were predisposed to seeing a hierarchical, bureaucratic and semi-military structure analogous to their own.

Thus, Lacey suggests that the hierarchal charts that famously adorn law enforcement walls in movies, television and real-life, and which attribute to Mafiosi such supposed Mafia ranks as ‘soldier’, capoconsigliere and underboss, reflected less real mafia ranks and relationships than they did: 

The bureaucratic and semimilitary cast of thought prevailing in the average police office. Everybody had a rank, and they did little justice to the confused, fluid, and essentially entrepreneurial character of most criminal activity” (p293). 

Thus, describing the criminal organization of Lansky’s ostensible model, and, according to Lacey, “the archetype of what would become known in America as organized crime” (p48), namely Arnold Rothstein, the man who is famed for supposedly fixing the 1919 World Series (even though, according to Lacey, he was not directly involved: p48; p460 n14), Lacey writes: 

The essence of organized crime as perfected by Arnold Rothstein was not structural organization as the conventional world knew it. It was, rather, the absence of structure… This was not the integrated empire of a czar or a JP Morgan. Such comparisons fail to grasp the secrecy and nimbleness necessary to success in in organized crime… Each of Rothstein’s deals was separate, flexible, detached. His protegés and partners might operate individually or together. It was a question of what worked” (p50). 

In short, Lacey concludes: 

The secret of his organization was the lack of it” (p50). 

Like his early mentor, Lansky was to operate the same way: 

True to the example of his Arnold Rothstein, [Lansky’s] organization lay in the absence of structure… He kept the paperwork in his own head” (p54-5). 

What the authorities invariably failed to grasp about the nature of organized crime relationships was that they were based ultimately, not in hierarchy, but in partnership.[12]

Thus, Lacey notes the difficulty that early Mafia turncoat Joe Valachi had in explaining to senators that ‘soldiers’ received no salary from their boss or family, but rather, on the contrary, were expected to pay their boss a cut of what they themselves made (p293).
 
Lacey also notes the difficulty of fitting the non-Italian Lansky into this hierarchical scheme (p292). 

Ostensibly, Lansky, as a non-Italian and hence ineligible for membership, was a mere ‘associate’. However, even Lacey, who argues that Lansky’s power and importance in the American Mafia has been much exaggerated, admits that to describe Lansky as a mere ‘associate’ is not to do him justice.[13]

The Kosher Nostra?

Another mafia myth Lacey purports to debunk is the notion: 

The early thirties saw America’s gangsters became overwhelmingly Italian” (p65). 

In response, Lacey points out: 

This makes no allowance for the flourishing in New York City, throughout this period and beyond, of Dutch Schultz, Lepke Buchalter, Jake ‘Gurrah’ Shapiro, and Benny Seigel… who were responsible for more deaths between them than Lucky Luciano and all the Padrones in the Castellammarese Wars” (p65). 

Actually, however, I suspect this view – namely that “the early thirties saw America’s gangsters became overwhelmingly Italian” – is not so much false, as about five or ten years premature. 

Thus, of the examples of Jewish criminals cited by Lacey in this passage, Schultz was assassinated in 1935, apparently on the orders of Italian organized crime figures who increasingly viewed him as a liability, and Murder Inc, the predominantly Jewish hitmen supposedly responsible for his assassination (and many others), not only took their orders from the Italian Albert Anastasia and the rest of the five families, but were, at any rate, themselves broken up by law enforcement in the early 1940s. 

Siegel, meanwhile, was assassinated in 1947, and, unlike the Italian-American mafia families that survived and flourished over several generations of leadership changes over the course of the twentieth century, the criminal organizations of Schultz and Siegel did not outlive their leaders.[14]

Meanwhile, looking outside of New York, the predominantly Jewish Purple Gang in Detroit imploded through internal warfare in the 1930s. 

Thenceforth, Jews like Lansky operated largely as adjuncts to Italian-American crime syndicates, not independent powers in and of themselves as Schultz and Rothstein had been.  

Only in Las Angeles, with a relatively small Italian-American population, and where the much-maligned Mickey Mouse Mafia was long perceived as weak, were Jewish racketeers like, first, Bugsy Seigel, and, later, Mickey Cohen, able to give the Italians a run for their money into the mid-twentieth century. 

This is a process known to sociologists and criminologists as ethnic succession theory, whereby, over the course of the twentieth century, successive waves of new immigrants replaced previous waves, not only in the urban ghettos where they resided, but also in the organized crime rackets that they successively inherited and came to control.  

Thus, in New York, organized crime was first dominated by the Irish in the nineteenth century, then, around the turn of the century, Jews started to attain dominance. Jews were then displaced by the Italians, who are now themselves now largely giving way to blacks and Latinos

This chronology, of course, represents a gross over-simplification.  

For one thing, the most recent incumbents in this chain of inheritance, namely American blacks, been resident in America rather longer than many of the Anglos, let alone most of the Italians, Irish Catholics and Jews. At most, they were internal migrants, having arrived in norther cities by fleeing the Jim Crow South in a series of so-called Great Migrations over the course of the twentieth century. 

Yet, even when Francis Ianni published Black Mafia: Ethnic Succession in Organized Crime in 1974, he was widely ridiculed for his claim that blacks, together with Latinos, were the rising force in organized crime in America. 

In short, African-American dominance in organized crime has been long in gestation.[15]

For another thing, there have been people of many other ethnicities, besides Irish, Jews, Italians, blacks and Latinos, who have also been involved in organized crime over the course of the twentieth century.[16]

Finally, there has been considerable overlap in the periods of dominance of the different groups, and, of course, substantial geographic variation too, depending on the ethnic groups present in large numbers in any given area.

For example, in New York, the Irish-American Westies remained the dominant organized crime in the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood until at least the 1980s, and, in other parts of America (e.g. Boston), Irish-American dominance may have lasted even longer.

As for Jews such as Lansky, their own period of dominance seems to have been especially short-lived if only on account of their exceptional levels of upward social mobility.

Thus, by the mid-twentieth century, Jews were already, one suspects, as likely to be lawyers, doctors and legitimate businessmen as organized crime figures. 

By the late-twentieth century, meanwhile, Jewish organized crime was all but extinct, only to belatedly re-emerge in the 1900s with a new wave of Russian Jewish immigrants to the Brighton Beach area

Las Vegas: A Gambling Oasis in the Desert 

Another Mafia myth debunked by Lacey is the notion that has Bugsy Siegel as the lone visionary single-handedly responsible for constructing the modern Las Vegas amid the Nevada desert. Actually, according to Lacey, Siegel was almost a latecomer:

In reality, Bugsy followed a trail pioneered by quite a few others. When he arrived in Las Vegas in 1941, there was already one luxurious hotel-casino in the desert… and in December 1942 [it] was joined by an even larger and more luxurious development” (p150). 

Indeed, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported as early as 1946: 

“‘I’m going to build a hotel’ was the stock comment of wealthy visitors to Las Vegas in the early months of peace” (p151). 

Instead, Seigel’s role was altogether more modest: 

Seigel did not invent the luxury resort hotel casino. He did not found the Las Vegas Strip. He did not [even] buy the land or first conceive the project that became the Flamingo. But by his death he made them all famous” (158). 

The conclusion is clear. Although Mafia figures certainly later bought, maneuvered and muscled their way in, the Las Vegas we know today, whether we love or hate it, would have come into being even without the involvement of the American Mafia, though its history may have been less colourful and bloody in the process. 

As for Lansky, Siegel’s friend and sometime partner, his own involvement in Las Vegas was, according to Lacey, even more modest. Thus, after the end of prohibition: 

Las Vegas offered the second great chance in [Lansky’s] life to go legit, but he made no special effort to take it” (p152). 

Thus, the extent of Lansky’s own investment in Vegas casinos was modest, and he remained largely a silent partner, with a minimal investment, allowing Siegel and others to take the leading role. 

Cuban Casinos and the Coming of Castro and the Communists 

Instead of investing heavily in Vegas hotel-casinos, Lansky chose to back a different horse – Cuba, constructing the massive, luxurious Havana Riviera hotel-casino in Havana, apparently in imitation of similar resorts in Vegas. 

At the time, and without the benefit of hindsight, Lansky’s investment actually made a great deal of sense. 

The then President-turned-military-dictator of Cuba, Fulgencio Bastista was indeed a visionary leader, being among the earliest Third World leaders to recognise the wealth and inward investment that a growing international tourist industry could bring to a country like Cuba, known for the beauty of its beaches, its women and its climate. 

Unfortunately, however, Cuba’s visionary leader was overthrown by puritanical communists opposed to gambling, as well as to prostitution, sex tourism and other such fun and healthy recreational activities.

Castro and communist Cuba were, of course, to become long-running headaches for the American government. Yet what is often forgotten is that the Cuban revolution was initially favourably received among most American.

Thus, on a visit to America soon after coming to power: 

In New York… Fidel Castro arrived in April 1959 to a hero’s welcome… The young guerrilla leader, charismatic in his beard and fatigues, was hailed as a liberator in the finest Latin American tradition – another Bolívar” (p253) 

The one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. American liberals are no exception.

Thus, just as a previous generation of American journalists such as John Reed and Walter Duranty had hailed the Bolshevik revolution, so later generations to hail Mugabe and the so-called Arab Spring as ‘progressive’ liberators. 

In respect of Cuba, among the first to see the writing on the wall was Lansky himself, perhaps because, unlike most Americans, he was present on the ground in Cuba attempting in vain to protect his investment and business interests. He could hardly afford to be as naïve and deluded as his fellow countrymen regarding the true nature of the new regime. 

Thus, it was that Lansky reluctantly took it upon himself to explain the truth about the new Cuban regime to the US government. The representatives of the US government to whom Lansky delivered his carefully prepared presentation were two FBI agents whom his lawyer had arranged for him to meet in the latter’s office. 

The agents were impressed with Lansky’s presentation. However, predictably, the government took no notice. Although the copious notes made by the FBI agents present were added to Lansky’s FBI file, there is, Lacey reports, no evidence they were ever passed to the State Department or indeed anyone involved in formulating US foreign policy. 

Lansky nefarious reputation simply overshadowed the substantive content of his presentation “such that anyone who accepted what he said at face value risked being labelled tainted or naive” (p256) – and it was one thing to be naïve about Castro and the Cuban communists, quite another to be naïve regarding infamous Jewish-American crime figure Meyer Lansky. 

Lansky was, however, ultimately proven right: 

Subsequent events in Cuba suggested that the FBI might have paid more attention to what Meyer Lansky said… The records of the FBI’s meeting… show with rare clarity, that Meyer Lansky predicted almost exactly what was going to happen in Cuba the best part of a Year before it did” (p256). 

 
Of course, the main victims of the Castro and Cuban communism were the Cubans themselves, condemned to a half-century or more of poverty by the misguided socialism of the ruling regime. Another lesser victim was, however, Lansky himself. 

Thus, Lansky, the consummate gambler, had, in the greatest investment of his life, backed a losing horse. 

Meyer Lansky had staked his personal bankroll solidly on the success of the Riviera – to the exclusion of almost everything else. His spectacular casino-hotel was to be the culmination – and ultimate vindication – of his career… Meyer Lansky had invested much more than his money in the Havana Riviera. He invested himself. He gambled everything – and, as he later put it, ‘I crapped out’” (p257-8). 

Financial Genius? 

Lansky has sometimes been described as the accountant for the Mob’. In reality, ‘The Mob’, as a whole, not being a single homogenous entity, had no single accountant, and, if it did, they would probably have picked someone who was, well… an accountant. 

Thus, Lacey observes: 

The fantasies that depicted Meyer Lansky as the ‘Accountant of the Mob’ misrepresented organized crime as a corporate entity, and they also failed to take note of how much money the accountant in any deal tends to finish up with in real life… The owner of chief executive of a corporation may become a millionaire. The chief financial officer remains on a salary” (p405). 

Another familiar claim is that Lansky was the financial genius behind the Mafia

However, while it is sometimes claimed that Lansky himself was responsible for inventing the process that became known as money laundering, Lacey shows that there is not support for this claim (p304-5).

On the contrary, in laundering his own money, Lansky had his own financial “guru” who advised him on financial affairs and how to invest, namely one Paul Pullman (p306).

The latter, Lacey reports, then fatefully introduced Lansky to his boss, Tibor Rosenbaum – who, investing in a property development in Italy, but bribing the wrong set of corrupt politicians who promptly lost office, managed to lose the entirety of Lansky’s investment. Lacey concludes: 

This episode scarcely suggested that Meyer Lansky could be considered an infallible guide when it came to the dangers and complexities of international high finance” (p309). 

Making money in illegitimate ventures is always easier than making money legitimately, if only because the risk of arrest deters much of the competition, and the threat of violence deters most of the remainder. 

Lansky is therefore skeptical of the oft-repeated claim that, in the words of an unnamed FBI agent quoted in Lansky’s New York Times obituary: 

He [Lansky] would have been chairman of the board of General Motors if he’d gone into legitimate business” (p423). 

Indeed, according to Lacey, Lansky himself “ruefully remarked… more than once” that he had an “unerring ability… to lose money whenever he went legit” (p296). 

In his better moments Meyer managed to laugh at his atrocious sense of timing as a businessman… the millions lost in Cuba, his inability to take legal advantage of Las Vegas, the Bahamas, Atlantic City, or anywhere else that his own game of casino gambling became legal in his later years” (p430). 

Therefore, reviewing the failure of Lansky and his partners’ attempt to make money from a legitimate TV rental business, Lacey concludes: 

The television adventures of Meyer Lansky and his fellow czars of the underworld showed what sort of businessmen they were when the playing field is level” (p172).

This is perhaps unfair. It is a feature even of the careers of many successful entrepreneurs that their careers involve as many failures as successes, especially when they stray outside their main area of business. Successful entrepreneurs tend to be risk-takers, and risks, by their very nature, only sometimes pay off. Their success often seems as much a consequence of perseverance in the face of failure (and of luck) as of pure business acumen. 

Thus, Lansky does seem to have been successful in Cuba, and, to a lesser extent, in Vegas, where casino gambling had been legalized.

However, in Vegas, Meyer had Mafia might behind him, and, in Cuba, Batista’s regime may have provided the muscle necessary to secure Lansky’s monopoly even more effectively than did the Mafia. 

Family 

Some reviewers of Lacey’s book on amazon and goodreads have accused Lacey of producing a whitewash, a biography absolving Lansky of almost all the nefarious, criminal activities of which he has been accused and altogether too favourable to its subject. 

In fact, however, this is only half the story. Although Lacey does indeed suggest that Lansky was not nearly as dangerous, powerful and malign as he has been made out to be in other popular accounts, he also reduces Lansky to a rather marginal, insignificant figure in the history of American organized crime. 

If, in Lacey’s account, Lansky loses much of his power, glamour and mystique, he acquires in its place perhaps a certain sympathy. 

If Lansky’s business and criminal career seem to have been hardly the unmitigated success story made out by the popular press and true crime authors, his family life, in comparison, seems to have been virtually an unmitigated disaster. 

There was, Lacey reports, no grand romantic affairs. Any extra-marital affairs were conducted by Lansky with the same secrecy and discretion as that with which he couched his business affairs (p129). 

Lansky’s first wife succumbed to mental illness. Lacey, perhaps unfairly, blames this on Lansky himself, arguing that it was Lansky’s obsessive secrecy regarding his business affairs (necessitated, no doubt, by their criminal nature) that led to his wife’s breakdown. 

Lansky’s first son, Buddy, who seems to have been a primary source for Lacey’s biography, was born with a crippling physical disability and, as a result, never managed to live independently, being supported by his father throughout the latter’s life, and later by charity and the state, before dying in poverty. 

Given his disability, Buddy’s inability to live an independent life was perhaps excusable.  However, no such excuse was available to Lansky’s daughter who, after a short, unsuccessful marriage to a closeted homosexual, and an illegitimate child of unknown paternity who was so handicapped he ultimately had to be institutionalized, became something of a socialite, again on her father’s dime (p268). 

However, showing little gratitude to the father who funded her extravagant lifestyle, she also became an FBI informant against him, albeit providing little of real evidential value if only because of the secrecy with which Lansky hid his business affairs from his family (p269).[17]

Her ultimate betrayal, however, came only after her father’s death when, after her father’s underworld associates had got together to provide her and her disabled brother with a lump sum of $300,000 as a legacy to help them get by, she promptly embezzled the share of her by now severely debilitated disabled brother. 

Only Lansky’s second son, Paul, was something of a success and source of pride to his father, graduating from West Point and having a successful career in the military and then in civilian life. 

He disdained the lifestyle of both his father and his brother, being law-abiding, proudly independent and refusing any gifts from his father, but defiantly insisting on naming his own son Meyer Lansky II. 

He seems, therefore, to have inherited something of his father’s obsessive scrupulousness. 

Unfortunately, this personality trait may also have been implicated in his marital breakdown when it was discovered that, at the same time the FBI spying on and recording the phone calls of Lansky and possibly Paul himself, Paul himself was surreptitiously using expensive surveillance equipment to spy on and record his own family (p353-4). 

When the Honeymoon Was Over 

Lansky’s second marriage seems to have been more successful. However, his children from his first marriage naturally resented their father’s new wife, regarding her as “crude… loud and flashy”, but also stingy and cheap – in short, though Lacey never actually says this, stereotypically Jewish (p277). 

Her adult son, now Lansky’s stepson, caused both parents no little headache. Now relishing and trading on his new status as the ‘son’ of Meyer Lansky, he was ultimately murdered in apparent retaliation for himself killing the (actual biological) son of local Miami underworld figure in a barroom brawl (p394-5). 

Meyer’s second marriage also led to what was, at least in Lacey’s telling, perhaps the greatest mistake of Lansky’s long criminal career. This was his decision to take his new bride on an ostentatious new honeymoon, which was reported on by a reported from the New York Sun

As with the fictionalized Frank Lucas in the movie, American Gangster, who, at least in the film version, attracted law enforcement attention by attending a Muhammed Ali fight dressed in an expensive fur coat and occupying front-row seats, Lansky had made the fatal mistake of engaging in conspicuous consumption to impress his new wife. 

For whatever reason… Meyer had broken the cardinal rule that he had laid down to Vinnie Mercurio: ‘You must not advertise your wealth’” (p176). 

Previously, Lansky had had little problem complying with this advice. After all, Lacey reports: 

Meyer had genuintly sober tastes… [and] indulged none of the extravagance which characterized many… ‘hoodlums’” (p285-7). 

Unfortunately, however, this one extravagance was the beginning of the end for Lansky’s anonymity. Until that honeymoon, Lacey reports: 

Lansky’s name had only been mentioned, almost in passing, in occasional articles lists New York racketeers and gangsters… usually as an associate, and, by implication, something of a sidekick to underworld stars like Luciano and Bugsy Siegel. But with his appearance on the front page of the New York Sun and his first ever newspaper photograph, Lansky was starting on the path to becoming an underworld star in his own right” (p176). 

The price of fame, however, was a heavy burden to pay. While Lacey also suggests that Lansky sometimes rather relished his media infamy and reputation as a major mafia mogul, the negative consequences of his reputation surely, in the long-term, far outweighed any superficial boost to his ego. 

The result was endless years of law enforcement harassment and failed prosecutions, even as Lansky entered his dotage, finally culminating when even the Israeli government, despite its infamously broad, and overtly racially discriminatory, law of return, rejected his application for citizenship. 

Mafia Millions? 

Hank Messick, who launched a literary career out of mythologizing Lansky, described the diminutive Lansky as: 

Boss of the Eastern Syndicate and probably the biggest man in organized crime today” (quoted: p311).

In the course of the same article, he claimed: 

Lansky’s wealth is reliably estimated at $300 million” (quoted: p311). 
 

However, after the millions lost in Cuba, Lacey himself estimates Lansky’s wealth rather more modestly: 

Meyer would have had a hard job listing realizable assets and cash resources that stretched as far as $3 million” (p312). 

Indeed, even Messick himself later backed away from the figure he had earlier cited, insisting, in an interview conducted with Lacey: 

It was not my figure. It came from an expert who was supposed to know what he was talking about” (p311).[18]

For his part, Lansky himself affected to envy Messick the money the later made out of writing about him, on the one occasion they actually met remarking, “You ought to pay me half the money that you’ve made writing about me” (p315).

As for the claim, “We’re bigger than US Steel” – a quotation so famous it got into the script for The Godfather II – Lacey traces the origin of this quote to an FBI bug.

Lansky was, it seems, watching “a documentary… on organized crime, followed by a discussion among a studio panel of experts” (284). 

Meyer sat in silence… until one of the panellists ‘referred to organized crime as only being second in size only to the government itself’. Lansky remarked to his wife that organized crime was bigger than US Steel” (p284). 

The transcript was all that remained, the tapes having been recorded over and this transcript “shows that the agent chose to paraphrase” (p284).

Yet the context of the remark seems to suggest it was made sarcastically and in disbelief, and certainly concerned organized crime as a whole rather than Lansky’s, or even the Mafia’s, own operations alone. However, Lacey reports: 

By the time that Lansky’s comment was made public five years later… it had also been subtly altered: ‘We’re bigger than US Steel’” (p294). 

Antisemitism? 

For his part, Lansky himself tended to blame the law enforcement harassment and media attention that he received on antisemitism. 

Indeed, anti-Semitism seems to have been something to which Lansky was hypersensitive, perhaps even paranoid, having something of a persecution complex.[19]

Indeed, Lacey even interprets Lansky as blaming the Israeli Supreme Court’s refusal to allow his appeal against the decision not to grant him amnesty as evidence of antisemitism, Lansky being quoted in a newspaper in Israel as lamenting ruefully after his courtroom defeat “a Jew has a slim chance in the world” (p351). 

In this court case, even Lansky’s relative lack of serious criminal convictions was perversely turned against him, being cited as evidence of his power and hence untouchability, the state attorney arguing that: 

The slight and comparatively trivial nature of Meyer Lansky’s criminal record… was no indication of his innocent, argued the state attorney. On the contrary, it confirmed his guilt, since it was in the nature of US organized crime that those who were masterminds of criminal activity should insulate themselves from its practical execution. This meant that they were seldom caught, and, when brought to justice, tended to escape conviction. It followed, therefore, that those who were the most culpable usually had the fewest convictions – so the very lack of solid evidence against Meyer Lansky must, in fact, be considered the strongest possible evidence against him” (p343-4).[20]

Certainly, the popular image of Lansky, as a shadowy and sinister criminal mastermind, dominating organized crime from behind the scenes, is indeed disturbingly redolent of familiar antisemitic canards: 

Often hinted at, if seldom explicitly stated, Meyer Lansky’s Jewishness was an important part of his mystique” (p313). 

Interestingly, Lacey even posits Lansky as the ultimate prototype for the archetypical Bond villain

Unprepossessing little men, for the most part, they terrorized with the power of their minds… and to judge from their names, could never be mistaken for WASPsBlofeld, Stromberg, Dr Julius, Drax” (p313).[21]

Criminal Mastermind? 

If he was not then as rich and powerful as the popular imagination suggested, was Lansky indeed then the evil genius and criminal mastermind that he was so often credited as being? 

Certainly, Lansky seems to have been good with figures. His cellmate during his only substantial spell of incarceration recalls how, presumably to relieve the boredom of incarceration, Lansky would demonstrate his remarkable speed and accuracy at arithmetic (p209). 

Lansky also, Lacey reports, had a remarkable memory, which facilitated the expedient of not having to write anything down where it could be used as evidence against him. 

In a world without filing cabinets, Meyer Lansky’s genius [was] the ability to act as a human cash register and ledger book in the succession of shifting partnerships and deals” (p53). 

However, having a good head for figures and a good memory is hardly evidence of genius. Many people employed as bookmakers, for example, develop quick computation skills, and likewise rote-memory is not an especially g-loaded cognitive ability. 

Certainly, his criminal associates tended to be overawed by Lansky’s alleged intellect. 

However, someone else who got to known Lansky well, concluded that, though “reasonably sharp and quick-witted” (p327), Lansky “was not intelligent” (p339).

This was the opinion, perhaps tellingly, not of a criminal, but of a lawyer.

Perhaps then Lansky was regarded as an intellectual heavyweight only by dint of comparison with the company he kept. 

Thus, Lacey, a Cambridge-educated historian, notes with subtle but unmistakable intellectual snobbery the amazement of Lansky’s fellow criminals, Bugsy Seigel and Joe Adonis: 

Can you believe it? He’s even a member of the Book-of-the-Month Club” (p4). 

Daniel Seligman in his popular science book, A Question of Intelligence, notes that John Gotti, later to become a particularly infamous boss of the powerful New York-based Gambino crime family, when given an IQ test while still at school, had “tested at 110”. 

Since IQs are normed by reference to an average score of 100, with a standard deviation of about 15 points, a score of 110 is above average, but well within the normal range. Therefore, Seligman concludes: 

“[Since] criminals tend to have IQs clustered around 90, in a sense, then, you can think of Gotti’s rise to mob stardom as basically concordant with the general rule that smart people get to the top” ( A Question of Intelligence: p35).[22]

In general, criminals tend to have low IQs because ultimately crime, even serious organized crime, is not an especially smart career choice in the long-term, especially for someone with sufficient smarts to be successful in an alternative career where s/he does not run the risk of imprisonment.[23]

Thus, ultimately, Lansky’s refusal to ‘go straight’ either at the end of prohibition or in Vegas with its legalized gambling turned out to be his greatest mistake – since it was, ironically, those organized crime figures who didgo legit’ who ultimately amassed the sort of wealth and power which Lansky himself possessed only in the imaginings of those ‘pulp nonfiction’ writers whom Lacey so disparages. Thus, Lacey reports the irony whereby:

In reality, Dutch Schultz, Benny Siegel, Joe Adonis, Frank Costello, and Lucky Luciano all died without much money to their names. The millionaires of their generation were Moe Dalitz, Morris Klienman, and the other moguls of Las Vegas – the truly clever ones who went straight” (p405).  

Endnotes

[1] Carlos Marcello, the boss of the New Orleans crime family, most famous for his supposed role in the assassination of John F Kennedy, was the only major American organized crime figure, to my knowledge, widely known by the sobriquet ‘The Little Man’.

[2] Indeed, such is the quality and accuracy of some research and writing in this genre that, as with the word ‘true’ in the genre ‘true crime’, one might argue that the phrase ‘pulp nonfiction’ is inaccurate in so far as it implies that the content of such work is indeed anything other than fictional. Books outside the ‘true crime’ genre that might also qualify as ‘pulp nonfiction’ include conspiracy theory books and many celebrity biographies.

[3] While the role of Luciano and the American Mafia in the invasion of Sicily may be a myth, it does seem to be true that many figures associated with the Sicilian Mafia did take advantage of the American invasion by offering themselves up as translators and aides to the American invaders. Also, some Sicilian Mafiosi, imprisoned by the authorities during the fascist regime’s campaign to crush the Mafia for their Mafia associations and activities, seemingly succeeded in passing themselves off as anti-fascists, imprisoned instead for anti-fascist activities. In so doing, they managed to secure influential appointments as mayors in some Sicilian towns and villages. This alliance between Mafia and America was later institutionalized when the Southern Italian mafias found themselves elevated in American eyes to the lesser of two evils in an unholy alliance against the perceived communist threat in Italy during the Cold War. Here, again, however, exaggerated conspiracy theories abound, especially regarding Operation Gladio and the supposed culpability of the CIA for terrorist attacks during Italy’s Years of Lead

[4] Some true crime writers have even proposed that the Mafia themselves deliberately set the vessel afire in order to force the authorities to approach the imprisoned Luciano and hence enable to him offer his assistance in return for early release. However, the idea that Mafia figures would have anticipated that a fire onboard the vessel would somehow lead to the government making contact and conducting negotiations with the organized crime figures who controlled the docks, something that would have appeared beforehand to be an obviously improbable scenario (even if something similar did indeed ultimately come to pass), is obviously preposterous.

[5] In Lacey’s defence, it seems that he only became aware of just how marginal Lansky was to organized crime in America for most of the twentieth century as he researched his biography. Before undertaking his research, he had apparently believed the hype.

[6] The term ‘carpet joint’, refers to a relatively upmarket casino, though without glamour of later Vegas casinos, and is used to distinguished such an establishment from a less pretentious ‘sawdust joint’.

[7] Various conspiracy theories have been formulated to explain Hoover’s refusal in investigate the Mafia, usually involving either gambling debts owed to Mafia bookies or the Mafia supposedly having dirt regarding Hoover’s alleged homosexuality (see Potter 2006 Queer Hoover: Sex, Lies, and Political History Journal of the History of Sexuality 15(3): 355-381). Indeed, some versions even have Lansky himself possessing incriminating photographs of Lansky engaged in homosexual activities, Lansky being quoted as bragging, I fixed that sonofabitch.
More prosaically, and perhaps more realistically, it is suggested that Hoover simply did not want his FBI agents to become corrupted by mafia bribes, as he rightly feared would result from their investigating non-political profit-oriented organized crime. Thus, Selwyn Raab writes: 

Hoover’s reluctance to seriously challenge the Mafia stemmed from three main factors, according to former FBI agents and criminal-justice researchers. First was his distaste for long, frustrating investigations that more often than not would end with limited success. Second was his concern that mobsters had the money to corrupt agents and undermine the bureau’s impeccable reputation. And third, Hoover was aware that the Mob’s growing financial and political strength could buy off susceptible congressmen and senators who might trim his budget” (Five Families: p89).  

At any rate, since, at least according to Lacey, the American Mafia, far from being a nationwide conspiracy, is predominantly organized at the local level, one might question whether organized crime is indeed within the remit of a federal law enforcement authority, though no doubt some Mafia crimes did indeed cross state boundaries. 

[8] However, even these similarities may be exaggerated. For example, bemoaning law enforcement’s overreliance on (and overgeneralization from) what they were told by a few relatively low-level informants like Joe Valachi, who knew little, at first hand, about crime elsewhere, Lacey observes observes that:

Valachi was only a comparatively minor figure in one subgroup of New York Italian criminals. The strength of his testimony was that he had had firsthand experience of life in this group. His weakness was that he knew little, at first hand, about crime elsewhere – in Chicago, for example, Capone’s successors talked neither of ‘Cosa Nostra’ or ‘Mafia’, but of ‘The Outfit” (p292). 

Indeed, the Chicago Outfit, founded by predominantly non-Sicilian Italian-Americans like Big Jim Colosimo, Johnny Torrio and Capone, was initially a very different beast to the five families of the New York Metropolitan area. Initially, at least, it was said to have lacked the initiation rituals of the New York families altogether.

[9] Indeed, the so-called National Commission, not only existed, but may have been rather older than it is usually credited as having been. Its origins are usually traced, in most Mafia histories, to the end of the Castellammarese War in 1931, under either Maranzano or Luciano, though the idea for a National Commission is sometimes attributed to Johnny Torrio or sometimes even Lansky himself. However, in his remarkable book The First Family: Terror, Extortion, Revenge, Murder, and the Birth of the American Mafia, historian Mike Dash adduces evidence that the commission, under the name ‘the Council’ actually existed almost twenty years earlier, being established, he concludes “some time before 1909”.

[10] The use of the term ‘legitimacy’ may seem exaggerated, but this is exactly how mafiosi saw it. Thus, in FBI agent Joe Pistone’s account of his work as an undercover agent posing as an associate in the Bonnano crime family, Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, when fellow undercover agent Edgar Robb (alias Tony Rossi) enquires as to what is precisely the advantage of being ‘straightened out’ to become a ‘made guy’ or ‘wiseguy’ (i.e. a member of the mafia), their sponsor Benjamin ‘Lefty’ Ruggiero explodes:

Donnie, don’t you tell this guy nothing? Tony, as a wiseguy, you can lie, you can cheat, you can steal, you can kill people—legitimately. You can do any goddamn thing you want and nobody can say anything about it. Who wouldn’t want to be a wiseguy?” (Donnie Brasco: p360)

[11] Thus, whatever its pretensions and theoretical powers, the National Commission, rather like the United Nations or earlier League of Nations, possesses no monopoly on the use of force, quite the contrary, and is therefore obliged to rely for enforcement of its edicts on the cooperation of its constituent members (i.e. individual crime families).
Another way of putting this is to say that crime families, like nation states, exist, vis a vis one another in a Hobbesian ‘state of nature, without a central authority, sovereign or ‘leviathan’ exercising a monopoly on the use of force.
Of course, in respect of crime families, this analysis is complicated by the fact that, of course, the American government does exist and, at least in theory, does claim a monopoly on the use of force. However, it is, of course, the fact that this ostensible monopoly on the use of force is, in practice, far from absolute, that allows organized crime syndicates and other violent criminal enterprises to survive and flourish.

[12] Indeed, even protection rackets offer a form of partnership, the extortioner offering protection, not just from himself but also from other extortionists, in exchange for a fee or cut of the profits. However, perhaps the better analogy here would be with the concept of tribute and fealty which governed the relationships between different ranks of rulers under feudalism. On this view, the so-called mafia operates as a sort of shadow government, which provides services, especially the maintenance of order, in return for taxes (or protection money). 

[13] Of course, there is today ample evidence, in the form of both turncoat testimony and wiretap recordings, of mafiosi themselves using such terms as ‘soldier’, ‘capo’, ‘consigliere’ and ‘underboss’ to refer to one another. Perhaps, however, this was a later development, or even a case of life imitating art, as mafiosi, themselves often avid viewers of mafia films, themselves adopted the terminology used first by the police and then later in movies. At any rate, it is clear that terms such as soldier and boss had very different meanings for mafiosi than for senators.

[14] Interestingly, even before his assassination, Schultz had taken the step of converting to Catholicism, something interpreted by many biographers and mafia historians as an attempt to ingratiate himself with Italian-American mafiosi, especially Luciano, who were already coming to dominate organized crime in the city. This decision may then have reflected a recognition on Schultz’s part of the changing demographics and ethnic power balance in New York organized crime. 

[15] Others have argued that African-American organized crime has existed since the early-twentieth century, but, for whatever reason, has attracted less attention and publicity (e.g. Lombardo 2002 The Black Mafia: African-American organized crime in Chicago 1890–1960 Crime, Law and Social Change 38: 33–65 ). This seems to be true. However, until the last few decades of the twentieth century, African-American organized crime groups and figures seem to have been, in general, relatively less powerful, wealthy and politically-connected than equivalents of other ethnicities. 

[16] For example, the so-called Dixie Mafia in the South were composed of white Southerners. Meanwhile, even in, for example, Chicago, where ethnic succession theory seems to be broadly applicable, Murray Humphries of the Chicago outfit was of Welsh descent, and George ’Bugs’ Moran of the rival North-Side Gang was apparently of French-Canadian ancestry.
It might be noted here that surnames are not an accurate indicator of the ethnicity of American crime figures, many organized crime figures not so much ‘anglicizing’ their names as, if you like, Irish-izing them. Thus, just as George ’Bugs’ Moran had been born Adelard Leo Cunin, but adopted the Irish-sounding surname Moran, so Paul Kelly, leader of the infamous early-twentieth century Five Points Gang, though possessing the quintessentially Irish surname of Kelly, was actually born, Paolo Antonio Vaccarelli; while, Jack McGurn, the ostensible choreographer of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, had been born Vincenzo Antonio Gibaldi – both Kelly and Mcgurn supposedly first adopting Irish names to further their boxing careers. Frank Costello, born Francesco Castiglia, confused this pattern somewhat by choosing an Irish surname that nevertheless actually sounds more Italian than Irish

[17] According to her FBI handlers, she blamed her father for having her mother committed in order to marry his second wife, something that was untrue, but which, Lacey suggests, given her age at the time, she might have been forgiven for believing (p269-70).

[18] Lacey responds rather incredulously, “It is difficult to imagine who this expert could have been” (p311), and concludes “It is impossible to square the figure with anything that is known or can reasonably be imagined about the finances of Meyer Lansky” (p312). 

[19] For example, in a private conversation with the eponymous Estes Kefauver (of Kefauver Committee fame) where he challenged Kefauver as to why he and his committee were so concerned about the victimless crime of gambling, even though Kefauver himself was known to gamble, and Kefauver responded that he had no problem with gambling as such, but only with “you people” controlling it, Lansky chose to interpret that phrase “you people” as a racial remark, and retorted “I will not allow you to persecute me because I am a Jew” – even though, at least according to Lacey, by “you people” Kefauver almost certainly meant, not Jews (nor Italians), but rather criminals. Of course, the reason criminals control so much of the gambling in the USA is precisely because so many forms of gambling are illegal in puritanical America.

[20] One Israeli law student, who became a friend and champion of Lansky, one Yuram Sheftel (who seems to be the same Yuram Sheftel who later represented the convicted murderer of an Israeli Prime Minister and a Ukrainian-American falsely accused of being a succession of different Nazi war criminals) had advocated a different, more innovative, legal argument on Lansky’s behalf. Sheftel, who organized a petition on Lansky’s behalf, readily conceded that Lansky might have been a powerful American gangster, but maintained: 

Jewish gangsters like Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Waxey Gordon, Doc Stacher – even Lepke Buchalter, a convicted murderer – might have broken the law. But that law, in Sheftel’s eyes, was the law of ‘white Christian countries… based on Christianity, which is the most anti-Semitic phenomenon in history’. ‘I don’t see anything wrong,’ says Sheftel, ‘with a Jewish person breaking the law of countries which were persecuting, murdering, torturing, and discriminating against Jews for the past two thousand years” (p335). 

This argument is odd given both that Jews have thrived and prospered in the USA and other Christian countries and that America has given more aid to Israel than any other country in the world.

[21] Indeed, in the hands of professional anti-Semite David Duke, this unspoken anti-Semitic subtext becomes explicit, Duke claiming in his book My Awakening that, although Italian-American gangsters took most of the heat, it was Jews who were really to blame for the American Mafia, and Lansky himself who who was the worst of the bunch: 

The top law enforcement sources and investigative reporters agreed that Lansky was the master gangster in America. He had been the most powerful person in the American crime syndicates for four decades, yet most Americans – who certainly know the names Al Capone and John Dillinger – have never heard of Meyer Lansky. The most notorious gangster was not Italian; he was in fact Jewish and an ardent supporter of Zionism” (Duke, My Awakening). 

Actually, however, far from Jewish gangsters being the real powers behind the scenes, with Italian criminals merely representing the window dressing, the truth seems to have been, for a long time, almost the exact opposite of this. Thus, in the mid-twentieth century, at the Central Intelligence Bureau, Selwyn Raab reports: 

The consensus among the department’s brass was that Jewish bookmakers were raking in the big bucks as organized crime’s most productive money makers. [NYPD detective Remo] Franceschini got nowhere trying to convince officials that major bookies were not independent and could only operate with the acquiescence of one of the five families” (Five Families: 158). 

On the other hand, Hollywood does indeed seem to have largely ignored the phenomenon of Jewish-American organized crime in the movies. This probably reflects the fact that many Hollywood producers and executives were themselves Jewish and had no wish to feed into familiar antisemitic stereotypes of Jews as dishonest or criminal.
Thus, Italian-American organized crime has featured particularly prominently in Hollywood movies, especially from the middle of the twentieth century onwards. Black crime and Irish American organized crime have also hardly been neglected. However, there are few movies focussing specifically on Jewish-American organized crime, Sergio Leone’s masterful Once Upon a Time in America being a notable exception.
This trend began at the same time the genre itself began in the 1930s with the Warner Brothers gangster cycle. Here, Edward G Robinson made a career for himself playing Italian gangsters, while James Cagney’s characters, although their ethnicity was less explicit, are usually interpreted as being Irish-American. Neither were exactly what they pretended to be. Although Cagney was indeed of predominantly Irish ancestry, he was no archetypal tough guy, but rather a dancer and former female impersonator, and also spoke fluent Yiddish. Robinson, on the other hand, was actually of Jewish ancestry, the ‘G’ initial in his name supposedly standing for his original surname of ‘Goldenberg’. Robinson therefore disguised his Jewish origins by adopting an ‘Anglo’ surname, ironically so as to pursue a career mostly portraying Italians. 

[22] In fact, however, John Gotti, despite his notoriety (or indeed because of it), was a rather inept and unsuccessful crime boss. After all, genuinely smart criminals rarely court publicity as did the infamous ‘Dapper Don’. This only invites law enforcement attention, as John Gotti, like Capone before him, was subsequently to discover. Instead, smart criminals try to keep as low a profile as possible.
An interesting counterpoint to Gotti is his contemporary Vincent ‘The Chin’ Gigante, who reigned as boss of the Genovese family around the same time as Gotti was boss of the Gambinos. Yet, while Gotti invited media attention, Gigante shunned the spotlight, faking mental illness so successfully that he was, at first, genuinely believed by most law enforcement to be largely retired and inactive rather than boss of the most powerful crime family in America.
Interestingly, however, Gigante himself was intellectual heavyweight. According to his biographer, Larry McShane, Gigante had a “recorded IQ just north of 100  a slightly above average score” (Chin: The Life and Crimes of Mafia Boss Vincent Gigante: p6).
Here, it is worth noting that offenders, upon conviction and admission to prison, if not before then so as to present a psychological report in court before sentencing or even before trial, are often given a battery of psychological tests, including of cognitive ability. IQs for convicted criminals are therefore often rather more credible than those cited in respect of celebrities or other public figures.
However, criminals may sometimes deliberately get questions wrong on an IQ test in order to qualify for mitigation of sentence, especially in order to evade the death penalty. Assuming Gigante’s IQ was tested in these circumstances, it is possible he may have faked a low IQ score in order to lend credence to his courtroom defence, whereby his lawyers insisted that he was suffering from dementia. However, if he did, he obviously did not fake dementia very well, given that his score was, according to McShane, slightly above average.

[23] The claim that criminals tend to have low levels of intelligence, as claimed by Seligman, is based largely on the testing of convicted offenders in prisons. An obvious rejoinder is that it is disproportionately the dumber criminals who are successfully convicted. In contrast, one might argue, the smart criminals tend to avoid being successfully prosecuted and thus are less likely to ever see the inside of a prison cell in the first place. However, it is generally agreed that there is nevertheless some correlation between criminal behaviours and IQs in the low normal range.

‘Chosen People’?: A Memetic Theory of Judaism

Kevin MacDonald, A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy, With Diaspora Peoples. Writers Club Press 2002.

Every people claims to be unique and in some sense, of course, the claim is true. But some people are more unique than others.” 

Pierre van den Berghe, The Ethnic Phenomenon (reviewed here).

Ethnocentrism is an innate and pan-human facet of human nature. Every ethnic group therefore regards itself as special and unique (see The Ethnic Phenomenon: which I have reviewed herehere and here).  

Viewed in this light, the Jewish claim to be special and unique (i.e. to be God’s chosen people) is, of itself, not so special and unique. 

However, of all the ethnic groups in the world that claim to be special, Jews perhaps have the best claim to actually being justified in their self-assessment. 

The impact of the Jewish people on world history is vastly disproportionate to their numbers. The two largest world religions, Christianity and Islam, both derive ultimately, in large part, from Judaism, and Jews are vastly overrepresented public intellectuals, Nobel Prize winning scientists, celebrities, millionaire media moguls and multibillionaires

Yet, the most remarkable achievement of Jews is arguably their very survival as a people, despite conquestbanishment, persecution, successive pogroms, the holocaust and almost two thousand years of diaspora, not to mention to the recent trend towards secularization.[1] 

Thus, Kevin Macdonald, in his book ‘A People That Shall Dwell Alone’ (henceforth, ‘PTSDA’), argues: 

From an evolutionary perspective, the uniqueness of… Jews lies in their being the only people to successfully remain intact and resist normal assimilative processes after living for very long periods as a minority in other societies” (p86). 

He therefore concludes: 

They [Jews] are the only group that has successfully maintained genetic and cultural segregation while living in the midst of other peoples over an extremely long period of time… ‘the most tenacious people in history’” (p76). 

Off the top of my head, I can think of only two other groups who might plausibly assert a competing claim to this mantle: 

  1. Upper-caste Hindus, whose ancestors supposedly subjugated India several millennia ago, but who supposedly created the caste system precisely so as to preserve their racial and ethnic integrity; and 
  2. The Romani people (aka Gypsies or Roma), who have lived in Europe for at least several hundred years but have maintained their separate identity and way of life, resisting assimilation into the mainstream. 

Indeed, regarding the former, one might even argue that this complete genetic and cultural segregation applies, not only to upper-caste Hindus, but to all Indian castes, since each is, at least in theory, expected to marry endogamously

Moreover, this applies, not just to the four hierarchically-organized varna, plus the untouchable dalits, but also, again at least in theory, to each of the literally thousands of separate Jāti within each varna scattered across the subcontinent.

As a consequence, castes remain genetically distinguishable even today, with upper-caste Indians having greater genetic affinities with European populations, presumably a reflection of the Iranian, Indo-European origins of the Aryan invaders who settled and subdued the subcontinent, and are thought to have established the caste system (Bamshad et al 2001).

Indeed, to some extent, different castes are even distinguishable phenotypically, with upper-caste Indians having relatively lighter complexions (Jazwal 1979; Mishra 2017). Thus, Varna, the Hindi word for caste, originally derives from the Sanskrit word for ‘colour, possibly being a reference to the lighter complexions of the Aryan invaders.[2]

In this light, it is perhaps no surprise that the second group listed above, namely the Romani (or ‘Gypsies’), themselves also trace their ancestry ultimately to the Indian subcontinent. Therefore, the Romani insistence on maintaining remaining strict separation from the disdained ‘Gadjo’ outgroup, an aspect of their concern for ritual purity and cleanliness, is itself likely an inheritance from the Indian caste system

However, curiously, Macdonald characterizes “the caste system of India” as:

An example of a fairly open group evolutionary strategy… In India wealthy powerful males were able to mate with many lower-status concubines” (p31).[3]

In contrast, Macdonald claims, for Jews, all sexual contact with Gentiles was proscribed (p54-62). 

However, other biblical passages seemingly envisage the forced concubinage of foreign women (e.g. Deuteronomy 20:14Numbers 31:18). 

Macdonald acknowledges this, but argues that “although captured women can become wives, they have fewer rights than other wives”, citing the ease with which the divorce of foreign women captured as spoil is permitted under Deuteronomy 21:14 (p57). 

Similarly, with regard to the admonition in Numbers 31:18 “keep alive for yourselves” Midianite virgins, Macdonald concludes, given the prohibition on actually marrying Midianites which is contained in the very same biblical Book (Numbers 25:6), that the offspring of such sexual unions would be illegitimate: 

The captured women will be slaves and/or concubines for the Israelite males [and] their children would presumably have lower status than the offspring of regular marriages” (p57-8).[4]

However, much the same was true of lower-caste women used as concubines by upper-caste men under the Indian caste system

Thus, in India, the offspring of lower-caste concubines inherit the caste status of their mothers, irrespective of their paternal lineage. Therefore, at least in theory, the practice of concubinage would have no impact on the genetic composition, and ‘racial purity’, of the highest caste-group, namely the Brahmins. 

In short, the concubinage envisaged in the Bible seems directly analogous to that practiced by upper-caste Indians under the caste system

Cultural Group Selection 

In ‘A People That Shall Dwell Alone’ (PTSDA), Kevin Macdonald explains Jewish survival and success through a theory of cultural group selection, whereby he conceptualizes Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy that functions to promote the survival and prospering of Jews throughout the diaspora. 

Macdonald is not here referring to group selection in the strict biological sense. Instead, Macdonald seems to have in mind, not biological, but cultural evolution.  

Thus, although he never uses the term, perhaps on account of an animosity towards Richard Dawkins, the originator of the term, whom he credits with indoctrinating evolutionists against the view that groups have any important role to play in evolution (pviii), we might characterise his theory of Judaism as a memetic theory, in accordance with Richard Dawkins’ concept of memes as units of cultural evolution (see The Selfish Gene: which I have reviewed here). 

PTSDA is, then, a work, not of evolutionary psychology, but of memetics

Dawkins famously described religions as Viruses of the Mind that travel between and infect human hosts just like biological viruses (Dawkins 1993). 

On this view, the success of a religion in surviving and spreading depends partly on its ‘infectiousness’. This, in turn, depends on the behaviours (or ‘symptoms’) that the infection produces in those whom it afflicts. 

Thus, proponents of Darwinian medicine contend that pathogens (e.g. viruses) produce symptoms like coughing, sneezing and diarrhoea precisely because such symptoms enable the pathogen to infect new hosts via contact with the bodily fluids expelled, as part of the pathogen’s own evolutionary strategy to reproduce and spread. 

Indeed, some pathogens even affect the brains and behaviours of their host, in such a way as to facilitate their own spread at the expense of that of their hosts. For example, rabies causes dogs and other animals to become aggressive and bite, which, of course, helps the virus spread to a new host, namely the individual who has been bitten.[5]

Similarly, successful religions also promote behaviours that facilitate their spread. 

Thus, Christians are admonished by scripture to save souls and preach the gospel among heathens; while Muslims are, in addition to this, admonished to wage holy war against infidels.[6]

These behaviours promote the spread of Christianity and Islam just as surely as coughing, sneezing and diarrhoea facilitate the spread of flu or the common cold. 

In short, a religion that commands its adherents to be fruitful and multiply, indoctrinate infants in the faith from earliest infancy, persecute apostates and actively convert nonbelievers will likely enjoy greater longevity than would a religion that commanded its adherents to be celibate hermits and taught that proselytism and having children are both mortal sins.[7]

Christianity and Islam are examples of the former type of religion and, no doubt partly for this reason, have spread around the world from inauspicious beginnings to become the two largest world religions. 

In contrast, religions which forbid proselytism and reproduction are few and far between, probably precisely because, even when they are founded, they do not survive long, let alone spread far beyond their originators. 

Macdonald quotes biologist Richard Alexander as citing the Shakers, an eighteenth-century Christian sect practising strict celibacy, as an example of this latter type of religion – i.e. a religion which, because of its tenets, in particular strict celibacy, has today largely died out (p8). 

In fact, however, a small rump group of Shakers, the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, does survive in North America to this day, perhaps because, although celibate, they did apparently proselytize.[8]

In contrast, any religion which renounced both reproduction and proselytism would surely never have spread beyond its original founder or founders and hence never even come to the attention of historians, or theorists of religion like Alexender and Macdonald, in the first place. 

Judaism: A ‘Closed Strategy’ 

Judaism has also survived – indeed rather longer than has either Christianity or Islam. However, its numbers have not grown to the same degree. 

This is perhaps because, unlike Christianity and Islam, it adopted what Macdonald calls a ‘closed strategy’. 

In other words, whereas the Shakers renounced reproduction but practised proselytism, Jews did the exact opposite. 

Thus, the Israelites are repeatedly admonished by scripture to be fruitful and multiply (p51-4), marry within the faith (p54-62) and indoctrinate their offspring as believers from earliest infancy (p326-335). 

However, Jews do not actively seek converts. Likewise, they were forbidden to intermarry with Gentiles (e.g. Deuteronomy 7:3;), and punished for so doing (e.g. 1 Kings 11:1-13). 

It is sometimes claimed that Judaism was once a proselyting religion. However, Macdonald dismisses this as “apologetics”, designed to deflect the charge that, in contrast to the universalism of Hellenism (and later of Christianity), Judaism was a parochial, particularist or even a racist religion (p92). 

Indeed, Macdonald even hints that the decision to admit converts at all reflected a desire to forestall and counter precisely this charge. 

Macdonald therefore characterizes the Jewish strategy as: 

Allow converts and intermarriage at a formal theoretical level, but minimise them in practice” (p97). 

Thus, Rabbinic attitudes towards proselytes fluctuated, at least in Macdonald’s telling, from ambivalent to overtly hostile. Prospective converts to Judaism are traditionally turned away by a rabbi three times before being accepted, required to devote considerable effort to religious study, and, if male, undergo the brutal and barbaric practice of circumcision

However, Jews were not, even in Macdonald’s telling, entirely averse to conversion. On the contrary, according to Macdonald, the Israelites did forcibly convert conquered groups, notably the Galileans and Nethinim, the latter, Macdonald argues, representing the descendants of non-Israelite conquered peoples who were forcibly converted to Judaism. 

However, both these groups were, Macdonald claims, relegated to low status within the Jewish community, and subject to discrimination (p11). 

Indeed, this was, according to Macdonald, true of converts in general, who, even when they were admitted, faced systematic discrimination (p91-113). 

In particular, they were genetically quarantined from the core Jewish population, through restrictive marriage prohibitions, designed to maintain the “racial purity” of the core Jewish population, especially the priestly ‘kohanim’ line descended from Aaron

These restrictions remained in force for many generations, until all evidence of their alien origins had disappeared – an especially long time given the Jewish practice of maintaining genealogies (p119-127). 

Racial Purity” 

Macdonald repeatedly refers to Judaism as designed to conserve the “racial purity” of the group, this very phrase, or variants on it, being used by Macdonald on over twenty different pages.[9]

Thus, for example, it was, Macdonald claims, perceived racial impurity, rather than theological differences, that explained the rift with the Samaritans (p59).[10]

Racial Purity” is, of course, a phrase today more often associated with Nazis than with Jews. However, this apparently paradoxical link between the Jews and their chief persecutors during the twentieth century is, according to Macdonald, no accident. 

Thus, a major theme of Macdonald’s follow-up book, Separation and Its Discontents, is that: 

Powerful group strategies tend to beget opposing group strategies that in many ways provide a mirror image of the group which they combat” (Separation and Its Discontents: pxxxvii). 

Thus, Macdonald claims: 

There is an eerie sense in which National Socialist ideology was a mirror-image of traditional Jewish ideology. As in the case of Judaism, there is a strong emphasis on racial purity and on the primacy of group ethnic interests rather than individual interests. Like the Jews, the National Socialists were greatly concerned with eugenics” (Separation and Its Discontents: p194). 

On other words, Macdonald seems to arguing that Judaism provided, if not the conscious model for Nazism, then at least its ultimate catalyst. Nazism was, on this view, ultimately a defensive, or at least reactive, strategy. 

Jewish Genetics 

So, if the Jewish group evolutionary strategy is indeed focussed on maintaining the ethnic integrity and “racial purity” of the Jewish people, how successful has it been in achieving this end? 

Recent population genetic studies provide a new way to answer this very question. 

As a diaspora community with ostensible origins in the Middle East, but having lived for many generations alongside host populations with whom they were, at least in theory, forbidden to intermarry, save under certain strict conditions, the study of the population genetics of the Jews is of obvious interest to both geneticists and historians, not to mention many laypeople, Jewish and gentile alike.  

Add to this the fact that many leading geneticists are themselves of Jewish ancestry, and it is hardly a surprise that the study of the genetics of contemporary Jewish populations has become something of a cottage industry within population genetics in recent years.[11]

Unfortunately, however, Kevin Macdonald’s ‘A People That Shall Dwell Alone’ was first published in 1994, some years before any of this recent research had been published.[12]

Therefore, in attempting to assess the success of the Jewish population in reproductively isolating themselves from the host populations amongside whom they have lived, Macdonald is forced to rely on studies measuring, not genes themselves, but rather of their indirect phenotypic expression, for example studies of blood-group distributions and fingerprint patterns (p34-40). 

Nevertheless, recent genetic studies broadly corroborate Macdonald’s conclusions, regarding: 

  1. The genetic distinctness of Jews; 
  2. Their Middle Eastern origins; and 
  3. The genetic affinities among widely dispersed Jewish populations – including the Ashkenazi JewsSephardi Jews, Mizrahi Jews, and perhaps even possibly the Lemba of Southern Africa (but not the Beta Israel of Ethiopia).[13]

However, this is true only with one major proviso – namely, the Ashkenazim, who today constitute the vast majority of world Jewry, trace a substantial part of their ancestry to Southern Europe (Atzmon et al 2010).[14]

Interestingly, comparison of the mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome ancestry of Ashkenazim, passed down the male and female lines respectively, suggests that most of this ancestry ultimately derives from Jewish men marrying (or at least mating with) with Gentile women, and their offspring being incorporated into the Jewish population (Costa et al 2013). 

This is perhaps ironic given that, according to traditional rabbinic law, Jewish identity is, at least in theory, traced down the female line

Economic Success 

Macdonald identifies various elements of the Jewish group evolutionary strategy that have enabled Jews to repeatedly economically outcompete gentile host populations. These include: 

  1. High levels of collectivism and ethnocentrism
  2. Emphasis on education and high-investment parenting (e.g. the stereotypical Jewish mother); 
  3. High levels of Intelligence

Collectivism

Macdonald characterizes Judaism as “hyper-collectivist”, in accordance with the distinction between collectivist and individualist cultures formulated by Harry Triandis in Individualism and Collectivism (p353). 

Collectivist refers to a tendency for a person to regard their group membership, and ethnic identity, as an important part of their identity and to elevate the interests of the group above those of the individual, sometimes to the level of willing self-sacrifice. 

Macdonald regards this tendency towards collectivism and indeed to ethnocentrism as at least partly genetic in origin, although accentuated by rearing practices in which Jews are encouraged to identify with the in-group (p54-62). 

Partly, he claims, this genetic predisposition to collectivism is an inheritance from the Middle East, the region from which Jews trace (some of) their ancestry. In the Middle East, Macdonald claims, all groups are relatively collectivist and ethnocentric, at least compared to Europeans. 

This seems plausible given the tribal structure, and endemic tribal and ethnic conflict throughout much of the Middle East. 

Actually, it would be more accurate to say, not that Middle Eastern populations are especially collectivist or ethnocentric, but rather that Europeans are unusually individualist, since, viewed in global perspective, it is clearly the Europeans who are the WEIRD’ ones.[15]

One might imagine that, at least for the Ashkenazim (and perhaps Sephardi Jews too), both living among Europeans and to some extent acculturating to their norms, not to mention, as we have seen, incorporating a significant proportion of their genes from interbreeding with Europeans, might have accentuated, moderated or diluted these ethnocentric and collectivist impulses, at least as compared to those Middle Eastern populations who remained resident in the Middle East. 

However, Macdonald makes no such concession. On the contrary, he argues that, far from Jews being less collectivist and ethnocentric than other Middle Eastern populations, that Jews actually remain especially collectivist, even as when compared to other Middle Eastern groups. Moreover, he claims that this tendency long predates, though has not been noticeably moderated since, the Exile.[16]

Thus, even in ancient times, Macdonald observes:

Jews alone of all the subject peoples in the Roman Empire engaged in prolonged, even suicidal wars against the government in order to attain national sovereignty… [and] only… Jews, of all subject peoples were exempt from having to sacrifice to the Empire’s Gods, and… were… allowed its own courts and… ex officio government” (p356-8).[17]

This tendency towards ethnocentrism was augmented through strict prescriptive endogamy (i.e. marrying within the group), which increases the level of relatedness between group members, and hence facilitates cooperation and trust (p54-62).

In addition to endogamy, a further factor is a preference for consanguineous marriage (i.e. incestuous marriage), which again increases relatedness within the group, and hence further facilitates cooperation and trust. 

This is, again, like endogamy, a common feature of marriage throughout the Middle East. However, whereas Muslims, Arabs and other Middle Eastern groups typically favour cross-cousin marriage, the Jews, Macdonald reports, extolled, in particular, uncle-niece marriage, a practice probably even more distasteful to contemporary western sensibilities given the likely age-disparity. They were therefore, he reports, sometimes exempted from Christian laws prohibiting such unions (p118-9).[18]

As evidence of Jewish clannishness, Macdonald cites what he calls the ‘double-standards’ that are imposed by Judaic law. 

The most famous example relates to usury. Whereas Christians were forbidden outright to lend money at interest, Jews interpreted the same biblical passages as forbidding only the lending of money at interest to other Jews.[19]

Yet, ironically, this double-standard actually benefited its ostensible victims, since it gave Jews an incentive to lend money to Gentiles in the first place, and the resulting availability of capital for investment was probably a major factor in the economic growth of the West and its rise to world dominance.[20]

Other prohibitions, however, evinced greater economic understanding. Thus, Macdonald reports, Jews were not permitted to encroach upon the monopolies of other Jews, or undercut Jews, but only if the customers were Gentile – if the customer-base was Jewish, then competition was to be free so as to drive down prices and thereby benefit consumers (p227-230). 

Macdonald acknowledges that the more egregious examples of this ‘dual morality’ (e.g. “while the rape of an engaged Israelite virgin was punishable by death, there was no punishment at all for the rape of a non-Jewish woman”: p228) were tempered from the medieval period onward. 

However, this was done, he insists, only “to prevent ‘hillul hashem’ (disgracing the Jewish religion)” (p229). 

In other words, he seems to be saying, even the abolition of such practices was done in the interests of Jews themselves, in order to forestall, or avoid inciting, anti-Semitism, should such laws became widely known among gentile audiences. 

This, though, means that his theory comes close to being unfalsifiable

Thus, if an aspect of Judaism involves favouring Jews at the expense of non-Jews, then this, of course, supports Macdonald’s contention that Judaism is a group evolutionary strategy centred on maximizing the success and prospering of Jews and of Judaism. 

But if, on the other hand, an aspect of Jewish teaching actually involves tolerance for or even altruism towards Gentiles, then this also, according to Macdonald, supports his theory, because it is, in his view, a mere public relations exercise aimed at deceiving gentile audiences into viewing Jews and Judaism in a benign, non-threatening light.  

On this interpretation, it is difficult to see just what kind of evidence would falsify or be incompatible with Macdonald’s theory.[21]

Thus, Macdonald’s theory comes close to being a conspiracy theory. 

Indeed, if one were to go through the whole of Macdonald’s so-called ‘Culture of Critique trilogy’ replacing the words “Jewish group evolutionary strategy” with the words “Jewish conspiracy”, it would read much like traditional anti-Semitic literature. 

Collectivism and Capitalism 

Ironically, the Jewish tendency towards collectivism gave them a particular economic advantage in quintessentially individualist Western capitalist economies. 

Thus, in terms of game theory, a society otherwise composed entirely of atomized individualists, with no strong preference for one trading partner over another, is obviously vulnerable to invasion by a collectivist group with strong in-group bias, who, through preferentially favouring one another, would, all else being equal, outcompete the individualists and gradually come to dominate the economy. 

Thus, Macdonald writes: 

Jewish economic activity has historically been characterized by high levels of within-group economic cooperation and patronage. Jewish elites overwhelmingly tended to employ other Jews in their enterprises” (p220). 

Indeed, even in pre-capitalist times, Macdonald notes: 

The importance of highly placed courtiers in the general fortunes of the entire Jewish community” (p220). 

Moreover, both kinship ties which crossed international boundaries, and a common language (Yiddish), meant that Jews had business links and lines of credit that crossed international boundaries, giving Jews an advantage in an already increasingly globalized economy. 

Middlemen Minorities? 

One concept central to understanding the economic, social and political position of Jews in host societies is that of the middleman minority group

Yet Jews are by no means the only ethnic group to have occupied this social and economic niche.  

Indeed, although Jews are often regarded as the quintessential exemplar of a middleman minority, this is arguably a western-centric perspective. Other ethnicities occupying an analogous economic niche in their host societies include the Lebanese in West AfricaSouth Asians in East Africa, and the overseas Chinese in much of Southeast Asia

As economist Thomas Sowell, an economist and long-term student of ethnic relations in cross-cultural perspective, observes in his essay Are Jews Generic?’

Although the overseas Chinese have long been known as ‘the Jews of Southeast Asia’, perhaps Jews might be more aptly called the overseas Chinese of Europe” (Black Rednecks and White Liberals: p129) 

Thus, the overseas Chinese dominate the economies of South-East Asia to a far greater extent than the Jews have ever dominated the economy of any western economy save in the imaginings of the most paranoid of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, and also, again like Jews in Europe, have been the subject of ongoing resentment combined with periodic persecution (see Amy Chua’s World on Fire).[22]

Yet Jews acted, not only as economic middlemen (e.g. bankers, moneylender, peddlers, wholesalers), but also as, if you like, ‘political middlemen’ – i.e. intermediaries between rulers and their subjects. 

Thus, for Macdonald, the quintessential Jewish role in host cultures was one that combined both these roles, namely as tax farmers

The prototypical Jewish role as an instrument of governmental oppression has been that of the tax farmer” (p175). 

Tax-farmers were private agents responsible for collecting taxes on behalf of a ruler, who, in return for this service, received a cut of the monies received as payment and recompense. He therefore had a direct incentive to extract the maximum taxes possible so as to maximise his own profits. 

According to Macdonald, Jews’ status as strictly endogamous aliens perfectly preadapted them for this role: 

Precisely because their interests, as a genetically segregated group, were maximally divergent from those of the exploited population… [they would have] no family or kinship ties (and thus no loyalty) to the people who were being ruled” (p172). 

They could therefore be entrusted to extract maximum revenue with all necessary ruthlessness. 

He even discovers a biblical precursor to this role, namely Joseph from the Book of Genesis, claiming: 

The archetype of the well placed courtier who helps other Jews, while oppressing the local population, is Joseph in the biblical account of the sojourn in Egypt” (p175).  

Thus, in the famous bible story, Joseph, by building up stockpiles of grain and selling it back to the Egyptians during famine, ultimately reduced the latter to servitude (p175; Genesis 47:13-21).[23]

Thus, while the masses usually resented Jews, ruling elites often acted as patrons and protectors. 

However, protection could only go so far, and Jews also served another vital function for elites, namely to act as a convenient scapegoat in times of revolt and rebellion. 

Thus, Pierre van den Berghe observes, since middleman minorities groups “deal more directly and frequently with the masses than the upper class” and are ethnically alien, they, not the ruling-elite itself, “become primary targets of hostility by the native masses… and are blamed for the system of domination they did nothing to create” (The Ethnic Phenomenon: reviewed here: p145). 

Thus, Macdonald quotes Hubert Blalock in Toward a New Theory of Minority group Relations as observing: 

The price the [middleman] minority pays for protection in times of minimal stress is to be placed on the front lines of battle in any showdown between the elite and the peasant groups” (quoted: p173).

Jews’ IQs?

Another factor contributing to Jewish economic success is their high intelligence.  

I have discussed the topic of Jewish intelligence in a previous post

The subject of Jewish IQs, unlike other postulated race differences in intelligence, recently became a semi-respectable, if politically incorrect, topic of polite, and not so polite, conversation, with the publication of a paper, championed by Steven Pinker, proposing that Ashkenazi Jews in particular have evolved high intelligence, and that this intelligence is mediated in part through the same genetic mutations that result in higher rates of certain genetic diseases among Ashkenazim, such as Tay Sachs, through a form of heterozygote advantage (Cochran et al 2005). 

Interestingly, Macdonald has a claim to having anticipated Cochran et al’s theory in PTSDA, where he writes: 

Eldridge (1970; see also Eldridge & Koerber 1977) suggests that a gene causing primary torsion dystonia, which occurs at high levels among Ashkenazi Jews, may have a heterozygote advantage because of beneficial effects on intelligence. Further supporting the importance of selective processes, eight of the 11 genetic diseases found predominantly among Ashkenazi Jews involve the central nervous system, and three are closely related in their biochemical effects (see Goodman 1979, 463) (p36).[24]

Despite his reputation as an anti-Semite, Macdonald’s estimate for the average IQ of Ashkenazi Jews is actually even higher than that of Cochran et al and indeed most other researchers on the topic.[25]

Thus, he estimates the average Ashkenazi IQ at a whole standard deviation above the white gentile mean – i.e. 15 IQ points, or the roughly same as the difference between white and black Americans in the United States

However, despite the famous g factor (i.e. the correlation between scores for all different types of intelligence – verbal, spatial, mathematical etc.), Macdonald reports a massive difference in the verbal and performance IQs of Jews, with Ashkenazi jews scoring only about the same as the white European average for spatio-visual ability, but almost two standard deviations higher in verbal intelligence (p290).[26]

This, then, may explain the relative paucity of famous Jewish engineers or even architects as compared to Jewish overrepresentation in other spheres of achievment. It might also explain why, as MacDonald puts it:

This, together with the fact that Jewish entrepreneurs and financiers sometimes lent their financial and business skills to promote, market and profit from the innovations of Gentile engineers, lent superficial credence to the anti-Semitic charge that “Jews were not innovators, but only appropriated the innovations of others” (p291).[27]

Eugenics? 

If a component of the Jewish group evolutionary strategy, and Jewish economic success, is their high level of intelligence, how exactly did they obtain and maintain this high level of intelligence? Macdonald attributes the higher average IQ of Jews primarily to what he terms “eugenics” (p275-88). 

As evidence he cites various Rabbinic quotations regarding the desirability of marrying the daughter of a scholar, or marrying one’s daughter to a scholar, some of which seem to recognize, sometimes implicitly, sometimes almost explicitly, the heritability of intellectual ability (e.g. p275; p278; p281). 

This accords with what Steven Pinker rather disparagingly terms the Jewish ‘folk theory’ of Jewish intellectual ability, namely:

The weirdest example of sexual selection in the living world: that for generations in the shtetl, the brightest yeshiva boy was betrothed to the daughter of the richest man, thereby favoring the genes, if such genes there are, for Talmudic pilpul” (Pinker 2006).

In addition, Macdonald also observes that wealthy Jews generally had more surviving offspring than poor Jews and infers that this would produce an increase in intelligence levels, because wealth is correlated with intelligence. 

However, this pattern surely existed among all ethnic groups prior to the demographic transition and development of effective contraception and the welfare state, which disrupted the usual association between wealth and fertility. 

Thus, even in the absence of polygyny, the rich had higher numbers of surviving offspring, if only because only they could afford to feed and care for so many offspring. 

However, among Jews, wealth may have been especially correlated with intelligence, because most were concentrated in occupations requiring greater intellectual ability (e.g. moneylending rather than farm labouring).[28]

Poor Jews, meanwhile, were often the victims of substantial discrimination, sometimes including restrictions on their ability to marry, which, he infers, may have motivated the latter to abandon Judaism. Thus, their genes were lost from the Jewish gene pool. 

However, he provides no hard data showing that it was indeed relatively less well-off Jews who did indeed abandon Judaism in greater numbers. 

Moreover, in an earlier chapter on the alleged ‘clannishness’ of Jews, he discusses Jewish charity directed towards less well-off Jews, which may have represented an incentive for poor Jews to remain within the fold (p234-241). 

More plausible is Macdonald’s claim that Jews low in the personality trait known to psychometricians as conscientiousness may have been more prone to defect from the fold, because they lacked the self-discipline to comply with the incredible ritual demands that Judaism imposes on its adherents (p312-9). 

Religious Scholarship 

Whereas Jewish religious scholars were apparently much favoured as husbands, celibacy was imposed on many Christian religious scholars. As Francis Galton first surmised, this may have had a dysgenic effect on intelligence among Christians. 

Of course, today, religious scholarship is not regarded as an especially intellectually demanding field, nor arguably even an academically respectable one. Indeed, Richard Dawkins is even said to have disparaged theology as “not a real subject at all”. 

Moreover, there is a well-established inverse correlation between religiosity and IQ (Zuckerman et al 2013). 

My own view is that theology is indeed a real subject, just a rather silly and unimportant one rather like, as Dawkins has put it elsewhere, the hypothetically postulated field of ‘fairyology’ (i.e. the serious academic study of the nature of fairies). 

However, just because a subject-matter is silly and unimportant does not necessarily mean that it is intellectually undemanding. These are two different matters. 

Moreover, in the past, theology may have been the only form of scholarship it was safe for intellectually-minded Jews, Christians or even closet atheists to undertake. 

After all, anyone taking it upon himself to investigate more substantial matters, such as whether the Earth orbited the Sun or vice versa, was in danger of being burnt at the stake if he reached the wrong conclusion – i.e. the right conclusion.[29]

Untestable Panglossianism? 

Macdonald tends to view every aspect of Judaism as perfectly designed to ensure the survival and prospering of the Jewish people. Often, however, this is questionable. 

For example, Macdonald describes the special status accorded the Tribe of Levi, and the priestly Aaronite (Kohanim) line, as “from an evolutionary perspective… a masterstroke because it resulted in the creation of hereditary groups whose interests were bound up with the fate of the entire group” (p385).  

Thus, he contends: 

The presence of the priesthood among the Babylonian exiles and its absence among the Syrian exiles [i.e. the fabled lost tribes] from the Northern Kingdom may explain why the latter eventually… assimilated and the former did not” (p394).

However, one could just as plausibly argue that this arrangement, especially the hereditary right of the Levite priestly caste to payment from the other tribes, would produce resentment in other tribes and hence division. 

Again, this suggests that MacDonald’s theory is unfalsifiable.

Conscious Design or Random Mutation? 

In biological evolution, adaptions emerge without conscious design, through random mutation and selection.  

A similar process of selection may have occurred among rival religions: Some, like the Shakers, die out; others, like Christianity, Judaism and Islam, survive and spread. 

However, religions are also consciously created by their founders – i.e. by figures such as Muhammad, Joseph Smith, Zoroaster, Ron Hubbard, Jesus and Saul of Tarsus. 

Thus, although Macdonald is an atheist and evolutionist, with respect to Judaism he seems to be something of a creationist. 

Thus, he writes that, although Moses, like Lycurgus of Sparta, may have been mythical, the systems developed in their respective names “have all the appearance of being human contrivances” (p395). 

Thus, Macdonald seems also to envisage that the teachings of Judaism were indeed consciously designed with the survival and prospering of the Jews in mind. 

Indeed, there were likely, he suggests, multiple authors. Thus, Macdonald argues that: 

The Israelite system has been so successful in its persistence precisely because crucial aspects of the strategy were continually changed… to meet current contingencies” (p396).[30]

Thus, Jewish writings authored in Exile (e.g the Talmud) extol very different traits than the martial values celebrated in the Books of Deuteronomy and Joshua, authored when the Jews were, if not independent, at least still resident in Palestine; while the twentieth-century establishment of the state of Israel presaged, once again, Macdonald reports, “a return to military values” (p318). 

Yet, in proposing that the Jewish evolutionary strategy was consciously designed by its formulators, Macdonald credits the authors of the Biblical texts with remarkable judgement and foresight. 

It also casts them in the role of a sort of metaphoric premodern Elders of Zion

This suggests, once again, that Macdonald’s thesis comes close to a conspiracy theory. 

Indeed, as I have already noted, if one were to go through Macdonald’s work replacing the words “Jewish group evolutionary strategy” with the words “Jewish conspiracy” then it would read much like traditional anti-Semitic conspiracy literature.[31]

Cultural or Biological Evolution? 

Since Judaism represents what Macdonald terms a ‘closed’ group strategy, it has as its effect, not only of ensuring the survival of Judaism as a religion, but also the survival of the Jewish people and their genes. 

Sometimes, this makes Macdonald’s theory read more like a theory of biological evolution than of cultural evolution or memetics. For example, he repeatedly talks of the Jewish group strategy as being designed to conserve “Jewish genes” and, as we have seen, preserve the racial purity of the group. 

This could cause confusion. Indeed, I suspect Macdonald has even managed to confuse himself. 

Thus, in his opening chapter, Macdonald emphasizes that: 

Strategizing groups can range from complete genetic segregation from the surrounding population to complete panmixia (random mating). Strategizing groups maintain a group identity separate from the population as a whole but there is no theoretical necessity that the group be genetically segregated form the rest of the population” (p15). 

Thus, Macdonald insists: 

At a theoretical level… a group strategy does not require a genetic barrier between the strategizing group and the rest of the population. Group evolutionary strategies may be viewed as ranging from completely genetically closed… to genetically open” (p15; see also p27). 

However, in a later chapter, Macdonald seems to contradict himself, writing: 

In order to qualify as an evolutionary strategy, genetic segregation must be actively maintained by the strategizing group” (p85). 

This suggests that ‘open strategies’ like ChristianityIslam, and Shakerism cannot qualify as ‘group evolutionary strategies’ and hence reduces the applicability, and hence, in my view, the usefulness, of the concept. 

Towards a ‘Culture of Critique’? 

Most problematically, this confusion carries over into The Culture of Critique (reviewed here), Macdonald’s more (in)famous sequel to the present work, where Macdonald envisages even secular intellectuals of Jewish ethnicity, including Marxists, Freudian psychoanalysts and Boasian cultural anthropologists, as somehow continuing to pursue a Jewish group evolutionary strategy even though they have long previously abandoned the religion in whose teachings this group evolutionary strategy is ostensibly contained. 

Yet, if the Jewish group evolutionary strategy is encoded, not in Jewish genes, but rather in the teachings of Judaism, how then can secular Jews, some of whom have abandoned the religion of their forebears, and others, raised in secular households, never been exposed to it in the first place, somehow continue to pursue this group evolutionary strategy. 

The Culture of Critique, then, seems to be fundamentally theoretically flawed from the onset (see my reviewhere). 

In contrast, ‘A People That Shall Dwell Alone’ represents a tenable and, in some respects, persuasive theory in explaining the survival and success of the Jewish people over the centuries, and it is regrettable that its reputation has been tarnished and overshadowed somewhat by Macdonald’s more recent writings, reputation and political activism. 

Antisemitic? 

A final issue must also be addressed – namely, is Macdonald’s ‘A People that Shall Dwell Alone’ an anti-Semitic work? Certainly, in the light of Macdonald’s subsequent writing on the Jews, and political activism, it has been retrospectively characterized as such. 

Indeed, even at the time he authored the book, Macdonald was sensitive to the charge, insisting on the opening page of his Preface that, in his opinion: 

I believe that there is no sense in which this book may be considered anti-Semitic” (xcvii). 

In contrast, in the sequel, Separation and Its Discontents, Macdonald does not deny the charge of anti-Semitism, but rather predicts that this charge will indeed be levelled at his work, and indeed concludes that it is entirely compatible with his theory of Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy that it would be .

The charge that this is an anti-Semitic book is… expectable and completely in keeping with the thesis of this essay” (Separation and Its Discontents: pxxxvi). 

Most recently, in the Preface to the First Paperback Edition of the The Culture of Critique (reviewed here), the last work in Macdonald’s trilogy, the most (in)famous and, in my view, also the least persuasive, Macdonald comes very close to admitting the charge of anti-Semitism, writing: 

Whatever my motivations and biases, I would like to suppose that my work on Judaism at least meets the criteria of good social science, even if I have come to the point of seeing my subjects in a less than flattering light” (Culture of Critique: plxxix). 

Yet, here, Macdonald is surely right. 

The key question is not whether Macdonald himself is anti-Semitic, nor even whether his books are themselves anti-Semitic (whatever that means), or are liable to provoke antisemitism in others. Rather, it is whether his theory is true – or, rather, provides a useful and productive model of the real world. 

Moreover, it bears emphasizing that any evolutionary theory is necessarily cynical. 

All organisms evolve to promote their own survival, often if not always at the expense of competitors. Likewise, superorganisms, including ‘cultural group strategies’, also evolve to promote their own survival, often at the expense of other groups and other individuals. 

Indeed, as Macdonald shows in Separation and Its Discontents, this is no less true of anti-Semitic movements, such as medieval Christianity or National Socialism, than it is of Judaism itself (p1-2). 

Interestingly, in an even more recent speech/essay, Macdonald returns again to denying the charge of antisemitism, instead professing: 

I greatly admire Jews as a group that has pursued its interests over thousands of years, while retaining its ethnic coherence and intensity of group commitment (Macdonald 2004).[32] 

Moreover, as suggested by the title of this speech (Can the Jewish Model help the West Survive?), he even suggests that Judaism, as a successful ‘closed’ group strategy, might even provide a useful model for the contemporary West. 

In other words, for the West, and white westerners in particular, to survive amidst globalization, mass immigration, declining birth-rates, below replacement-level fertility and gradual demographic displacement even in our own indigenous homelands, perhaps white Americans, and white Europeans, must, in imitation of Judaism, develop a new, and rather less ‘open’, group evolutionary strategy of our own. 

Endnotes

[1] Indeed, ironically, even the very first definite textual and archaeological reference to the Jews is a reference to their ostensible destruction, namely the Merneptah Stele, dated to the Second Millennium BCE, which reads, in part, Israel is laid waste and his seed is no more. Yet some four thousand years later, the Jewish people survive and thrive, still practising a continuation of the same religion, while Egypt itself has long been relegated to a global backwater. As Twain is apocryphally quoted as observing in response to his own obituary, reports of Israel’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

[2] In fact, although the word varna is undoubtedly cognate with the Sanskrit word for ‘colour, recent attempts have been made to deny a connection with skin colour. Thus, the latest version of the Encyclopædia Britannica entry for ‘varna’ argues that the idea that:

Class distinctions were originally based on differences in degree of skin pigmentation between an alleged group of lighter-skinned invaders called ‘Aryans’ and the darker indigenous people of ancient India… has been discredited since the mid-20th century.”  

Instead, the authors of this entry argue: 

The notion of “colour” was most likely a device of classification.” 

In support of this interpretation, it is notable that, in discussing Georges Dumézil’s Trifunctional hypothesis with respect to the original proto-Indo-Europeans, from which the four varna system of India likely developed, David W Anthony writes: 

The most famous definition of the basic divisions within Indo-European society was the tripartite scheme of Georges Dumézil, who suggested there was a fundamental three-part division between the ritual specialist or priest, the warrior and the ordinary herder/cultivator. Colors may have been associated with these three roles: white for the priest, red for the warrrior and black or blue for the herder/cultivator” (The Horse, the Wheel and Language: p92). 

Similarly, leading Indo-Europeanist JP Mallory observes:

Indo-Iranian, Hittite, Celtic and Latin ritual all assign white to priests and red to the warrior. The third function would appear to have been marked by a darker colour such as black or blue” (In Search of the Indo-Europeans: p133).

Likewise, Mallory also observes that “both ancient India and Iran expressed the concept of caste with the word for colour” (In Search of the Indo-Europeans: p133). These commonalities suggest that the association of caste with colour predated the conquest of the Indian subcontinent by Indo-Europeans and therefore cannot have been a reference to the lighter complexion of the Indo-European conquerors as compared to the subjugated indigenous Dravidian peoples.
On the other hand, however, given the increasing genetic support for Aryan invasion theory in the populating of the subcontinent, and continued caste differences in complexion and skin colour, the idea that the term ‘varna’ was at least in part a reference to differences in skin colour cannot be ruled out.
Part of the reason for the persistent denial of an association with skin colour seems to be political correctness, since the idea of an Aryan conquest, and an association with lighter complexion, is associated both with notions of racial supremacy and also with caste snobbery. In fact, however, it was presumably the earlier indigenous pre-Aryan Dravidian populations who were responsible for founding one of the world’s earliest civilizations, so there is no reason to think of the Aryan invaders as in any way racially superior. On the contrary, like later waves of nomadic horse warriors who originated in the Euasian Steppe but, with their mastery of the horse, subjugated more advanced civilizations (e.g. the Mongols and Huns), the proto-Indo-Europeans may have been militarily formidable but otherwise culturally-backward barbarians.

[3] This claim, namely that the Indian caste system represents a “fairly open” group evolutionary strategy, seems to me to be contrary to all the historical, and the genetic, evidence. For example, even Gregory Clark’s recent The Son Also Rises, which uses surname analysis to determine rates of social mobility, finds that, until very recently, India had exceptionally, indeed uniquely, low rates of social mobility as compared to anywhere else in the world.

[4] Since Jewish identity is traditionally passed down the female line, the offspring of non-Jewish concubines and Jewish males would not qualify as Jewish, unless either the mother, or the offspring him or herself, had formally converted. 

[5] There are more dramatic examples of behavioural manipulation of hosts by pathogens. For example, one parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, when it infects a mouse, reduces the mouse’s aversion to cat urine, which is theorized to increase the risk of its being eaten by a cat, hence facilitating the reproductive life-cycle of the pathogen at the expense of that of its host. Similarly, the fungus, ophiocordyceps unilateralis turns ants into so-called ‘zombie ants’, who willingly leave the safety of their nests, and climb and lock themselves onto a leaf, in order to facilitate the life cycle of their parasite at the expense of their own. Similarly, dicrocoelium dendriticum (aka the lancet liver fluke) causes the ants whom it infects to climb to the tip of a blade of grass during daylight hours, increasing the chance they will be eaten by cattle or other grazing animals, again facilitating the next stage of the parasite’s life-history.

[6] For example, the Islamic promise that martyrs will receive 72 virgins in paradise seems perfectly designed to encourage young, unmarried males, excluded from reproduction in the polygynous mating milieu of Islam, where there are inevitably not enough fertile females to go around, to risk their lives or even commit suicide attacks in the name of holy war. Such an afterlife is vastly more appealing to young males than the Christian conception of heaven, or even the ancient Norse conception of Valhalla

[7] For example, the requirement of the Catholic Church, since relaxed, whereby, for a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic to be permitted, the parties had to agree to raise any offspring as Catholic, and also that the Catholic partner continue to attempt to convert the non-Catholic, obviously had high memetic fitness and likely contributed to the changing demographic fortunes of Catholics and Protestants in Ireland

[8] A celibate group which replenishes its numbers through accepting newcomers is therefore capable of surviving. Perhaps the various (ostensibly) celibate holy orders of the Christian Church, and other religions, can be conceptualized in a similar way, though they, of course, exist only as part of, and with the support of, the wider Christian religious community as a whole. 

[9] E.g. p50; p55; p60; p78; p82; p98; p107; p117; 118, p119; p120; p122; p127; p158; p163; p120; p121; 122; p227; p360; p362; p363; p366; p403; p404. This is easily discoverable by using the ‘search inside’ feature on either amazon or google books. 

[10] On this view, the Samaritans supposedly represented the remnants of the Northern Kingdom who, being of lower social status, had not been exiled by the Assyrians, but rather remained in Samaria, but had supposedly intermarried with non-Jews. In addition to any concern for racial purity, there seem seems also to have been an element of class snobbery involved in the split, since those remnants of the Northern Kingdom who were not expelled were mostly of a lower social class.

[11] For example, several books aimed at a popular readership have been published on the topic, including Jon Entine’s Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People (2008), David Goldstein’s Jacob’s Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History (2008) and Harry’s Ostrer’s Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People (2012).

[12] Admittedly, in the ‘Diaspora Peoples: Preface to the Paperback Edition’, included in more recent editions of PTSDA, Macdonald does discuss a few of the early genetic studies (pxiv-iv). Unfortunately, however, these all seem to involve Y chromosome ancestry (i.e. male-line ancestry). Subsequent studies which also sample mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down the female line, have shown that most European input into the Ashkenazi gene-pool has come from Jewish men mating with Gentile women (Costa et al 2013). Therefore, Macdonald’s review of studies of Y chromosome ancestry in this preface causes him to overestimate the segregation of the Jewish gene-pool in diaspora. There have also now been studies of Jewish autosomal DNA (i.e. neither Y chromosome nor mitochondrial DNA, but rather genes from the remainder of the genome besides the sex chromosomes), which reflects both male- and female-line ancestry.

[13] In A Troublesome Inheritance, science journalist Nicholas Wade reports:

As to European Jews, or Ashkenazim, genetics show that there has been a 5% to 8% admixture with Europeans since the founding of the Ashkenazi population in about 900 AD, which is equivalent to 0.05% per generation” (A Troublesome Inheritance: p200). 

As evidence for this claim, Wade cites a study entitled ‘A genome-wide genetic signature of Jewish ancestry perfectly separates individuals with and without full Jewish ancestry in a large random sample of European Americans’ (Need et al 2009). Wade also estimates:

The rate of admixture with host populations has probably been similar among the other two main Jewish populations” (A Troublesome Inheritance: p200). 

[14] Population genetics studies also suggest that Sephardi Jews (i.e. those who inhabited the Iberian Peninsula prior to their expulsion in the late fifteenth century) also have substantial European admixture. Only the Mizrahi Jews, who remained in the Middle East and with whom Sephardi are sometimes conflated, may perhaps be of wholly Middle Eastern ancestry, since they lived among, and hence intermarried, only with other Middle Eastern populations. 

[15] Thus, for example, East Asian populations also seem to be highly collectivist in orientation. For example, a famous Japanese saying has it that ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’ and it seems difficult to imagine Europeans volunteering, or even agreeing, to become kamikaze pilots. The issue of European individualism, which Macdonald traces much further back in human history than would most historians, is a principal theme of Macdonald’s most recent book Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition.

[16] Interestingly, in the Preface to the Paperback Edition of The Culture of Critique (reviewed here), a sequel to the work currently under review, Macdonald cites evidence of a difference in stranger anxiety as between infants from North Germany and those from Israel, including both Kibbutz-raised and city-dwelling infants (The Culture of Critique (paperback): pxxxii). This finding is consistent with a greater level of group-mindedness and ethnocentrism. The source cited by Macdonald for this claim in the associated endnote is the edited book, Growing Points of Attachment Theory and Research (pp233–275).

[17] However, interestingly, the suicidal wars against their Roman overlords were pursued most tenaciously by the Galileans. Yet the Galileans were, at least according to Macdonald, themselves only recent converts to Judaism, and still of lower status than other Jews. This is, of course, contrary to Macdonald’s theory that Jews are especially ethnocentric and collectivist. It also suggests that suicidal wars against the Romans were a manifestation of the phenomena sometimes referred to as the zeal of the convert.

[18] Macdonald reports that Jews also practised polygyny, both in Biblical times (p53-54; e.g. Exodus 21:10), and indeed into relatively modern times, the practice remaining common especially among Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews (p373). Polygyny is, of course, another marriage pattern less frequent in the West than the Middle East, and which is today frowned upon, and unlawful, in all western cultures.

[19] Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19-20. The Jewish interpretation actually seems more reasonable given the wording of the passages. Indeed, according to anaesthesiologist-anthropologist John Hartung, many Old Testament Biblical injunctions that are today interpreted as universalist both by Christians and by many Jews, such as to love one’s neighbour and thou shalt not kill, and indeed many of the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament as well, are properly to be interpreted, in their proper historical context, as applying only to fellow Jews (Hartung 1995).

[20] Macdonald, in contrast, sees Jewish usury, at least in ancient times, as exploitative. Thus, he observes:

“[F]ew individuals could expect to profit by taking a loan at the interest rates common in the medieval period. Interest rates in northern France were 65 percent and compounded until 1206, when the rate was fixed at 43 percent and compounding was made illegal… [But] both compounding and rates higher than the legal limit continued after attempts to abolish these practices. The great majority of loans were not for investment in businesses, but for living expences in a society that hovered near the subsistence level” (p406-7).

Although he acknowledges that moneylending, in making capital available for investment, is now an essential economic service, he emphasizes the exorbitant interest rates charged by Jewish moneylenders in the medieval period (in Separation and its Discontents: p46-7).
However, Jewish moneylenders were only able to charge such exorbitant rates because of a lack of competition (i.e. because Christians were forbidden to lend money at interest). The ultimate fault therefore lies with the prohibition on Christians charging interest on loans, not the Jewish moneylenders who took advantage of this exclusive market niche. Perhaps high interest rates were partly a product of price-fixing by Jewish monopolist cartels. However, if so, this was only because Christians were not permitted to compete with Jews as moneylenders, thereby undercutting them and hence driving down interest rates through increased competition.
Moreover, the high interest rates Jewish moneylenders charged probably also reflected the fact that the authorities had a habit of periodically declaring all debts void and expelling Jews from their territory without reimbursing them. The high interest rates charged therefore at least partly reflected the level of risk.
At any rate, even lending money at these seemingly exorbitant rates provided a service to the public. If it did not, then no one would ever have chosen to borrow money even on these terms. After all, if this was the only way in which monies were available to borrow, then it was better than nothing, if an urgent demand for capital demanded it.

[21] Interestingly, in its unfalsifiability, Macdonald’s theory mirrors Marxist sociology. Thus, for Marxist sociologists, if, for example, the law seemingly favours the capitalist class at the expense of workers, then this, of course, only confirms the Marxist in his belief that the capitalist legal system is biased in favour of the former. But if, on the other hand, laws are passed that, say, protect workers’ rights at the expense of their employers, then this is interpreted by the Marxist as a ‘sop to the workers’ – a forlorn effort on the part of the bourgeois capitalist government to appease the proletariat and thereby forestall, or at least postpone, the inevitable overthrow of capitalism – and hence proof of the inevitable coming of communism. Thus, Marxist social theory is as unfalsifiable as Marxist historicism.
In this light, the title of John Derbyshire’s piece on Macdonald in The American Conservative – namely The Marx of the Anti-Semities – is, I feel, rather insightful (thought Derbyshire himself, it must be noted, disclaimed this title, saying it had been forced on him by an editor).

[22] Macdonald argues that Jews differ from other middleman minorities, which usually attempt to maintain a low-profile, by their aggressiveness. Thus, Macdonald refers to the aggressiveness of the Jews, compared to the relative political passivity of the Overseas Chinese (Macdonald 2005).
For example, Amy Chua begins her book World on Fire by discussing the murder of her aunt, who was part of the Philippines’ wealthy Chinese business community, and the indifference of the police, and even of her own family, regarding the murder. Thus, she writes:

Hundreds of Chinese in the Philippines are kidnapped every year, almost invariably by ethnic Filipinos. Many victims, often children, are brutally murdered, even after ransom is paid. Other Chinese, like my aunt, are killed without a kidnapping, usually in connection with a robbery… The policemen in the Philippines, all poor ethnic Filipinos themselves, are notoriously unmotivated in these cases” (World on Fire: p2-3).

Even her own family, Chua reports, had a “matter of fact, almost indifferent attitude”, she reports, passively accepting that the murderer, though known, was unlikely ever to be apprehended (p2). 
It is impossible to imagine Jews in the West today reacting similarly. On the contrary, Jewish groups would surely be outraged and publicly protesting if Jews were being disproportionately targeted in racially motivated killings. Thus, for example, the powerful American Anti-Defamation League was formed in an attempt to protect wealthy Jewish convicted rapist and child murderer Leo Frank
On the other hand, however, I suspect, in previous centuries, attitudes among Jews in the West may have been similar to those in the Philippines. Perhaps the turning point for western Jewry in this respect was the Dreyfuss affair.
In stark contrast to Jews in the west, Macdonald reports:

The overseas Chinese in Indonesia have a reputation of being relatively uninterested in politics despite the fact that political have often had major effects on their business” (pliv).

Thus, the overseas Chinese strategy to avoid incurring enmity of the part of the host society among whom they live seems to involve maintaining a low-profile, keeping their heads down and concentrating on making money rather than making waves. Thus, Macdonald explains: 

Unlike the Jews, overseas Chinese have adopted a low profile political posture and have generally stayed out of local politics. Whereas Jews in the United States and elsewhere tend to have economic, political and cultural influence far out of proportion to their numbers, the Chinese are similar only in their economic influence.” (plxxxix). 

This is what sociologist-turned-sociobiologist Pierre van den Berghe, in his book The Ethnic Phenomenon (reviewed here and here) calls “weak money syndrome” (The Ethnic Phenomenon: p153). Thus, van den Berghe observes:

“[Middleman minorities] basically survive by keeping a low profile, by remaining as inconspicuous as possible, by being unostentatious about wealth, by staying out of politics (at least overtly) and by adopting a conciliatory, nonaggressive strange” (The Ethnic Phenomenon: p144).

The ironic result is that  “the more economically secure a [Middleman Minority group] becomes, the more precarious its position grows”, since their economic wealth produces an increase both their visibility and the resentment towards them that this provokes (The Ethnic Phenomenon: p144).
But Jews are seemingly almost as overrepresented among politicians and leading political activists as they are among businesspeople, though, as a rule, they tend to play down, sometimes even hide, their ethnicity.
Also, unlike Jews, Macdonald reports, the overseas Chinese “have not been concentrated in media ownership or in the construction of culture” (Macdonald 2005: 67). Neither, he reports, do we hear of: 

Chinese cultural movements, disseminated in the major universities and media outlets that subject the traditional culture of Southeast Asians and anti-Chinese sentiment to radical critique” (pxc)

However, to be fair, we don’t hear much about Jewish cultural movements that subject traditional western culture to radical critique either – unless of course, we happen to be readers of Macdonald’s own writings, especially The Culture of Critique (which I have reviewed here).
Macdonald himself attributes these differences partly to the fact that “The [overseas] Chinese [in Southeast Asia] are a very recent group evolutionary strategy” and partly also to the fact that, although both groups have high IQs, East Asians have a very different, almost opposite intelligence profile to Ashkenazi Jews (pxc).
Thus, whereas Jews, as discussed above and in a previous post, score very high in verbal ability, but not especially highly spatio-visual ability, East Asians score higher in spatio-visual and mathematical ability than in verbal ability.

[23] Though the Biblical passage in question actually describes this course of events as benefitting all concerned, including the subjects who were reduced to bondage, Macdonald regards this interpretation as disingenuous (p175). This is not unreasonable. It is rarely if ever to anyone’s advantage to be reduced to bondage and slavery. 

[24] Macdonald also notes in an accompanying endnote:

Motulsky (1977a) suggests that the higher incidence of myopia in Ashkenazi Jewish populations could be the result of selection for higher verbal intelligence. Myopia and intelligence have been linked in other populations, and Jews tend to have higher intelligence and higher rates of myopia

However, the celebrated (and ethnically-Jewish) geographer, anthropologist, physiologist, ornithologist and all-round polymath (and anti-racist) Jared Diamond has an even earlier claim to anticipating Cochran et al’s theory in a paper published in the jounral Nature in 1994 (see Sailer 1999). 

[25] E.g. Richard Lynn’s The Chosen People: A Study of Jewish Intelligence and Achievement.

[26] Interestingly, despite the g factor, Macdonald suggests that, if overall IQ (or g), is controlled for, then there is actually an inverse correlation between, on the one hand, verbal, and, on the other hand, spatio-visual, intelligence, suggesting that there is a degree of trade-off between the two, perhaps whereby the more brain tissue is devoted to one form of ability, the less remains to be devoted to the other. Thus, Macdonald writes:

Visuo-spatial abilities and verbal abilities are actually negatively correlated in populations that are homogeneous for Spearman’s g, and… there are neurological trade-offs such that the more the cortex is devoted to one set of abilities, the less it can be devoted to the other” (p292; see Lynn 1987).

[27] Interestingly, and no doubt controversially, in an associated endnote, Macdonald credits Nazi-era German geneticist and eugenicist Fritz Lenz, in his account of Nordic and Jewish abilities, as tentatively recognizing this difference in verbal versus spatio-visual ability. According to Macdonald, Lenz explains this difference in terms of what contemporary racial theorists would call cold winters theory. Thus, Macdonald writes: 

Lenz gives major weight to the selective pressures of the Ice Age on northern peoples. The intellectual abilities of these peoples are proposed to be due to a great need to master the natural environment, resulting in selection for traits related to mechanical ability, structural design, and inventiveness. Lens’s description of Jewish intellectual abilities conforms essentially to what is termed here verbal intelligence, and he notes that such abilities are important for social influence and would be expected in a people who evolved in large groups” (p341-2).

[28] Interestingly, contrary to popular opinion, Jews did not work as moneylenders primarily because they were forbidden from owning land and hence working as farmers. It is true that they were sometimes forbidden from owning land. However, in other times and places, they were not, and were actually encouraged by the gentile authorities to own land and take up farming to encourage their assimilation. However, Jews generally resisted such entreaties. This was because the financial rewards offered by moneylending was actually greater than that available in other careers. However, non-Jews did not typically work as moneylenders, because to do so required literacy, and the vast majority of non-Jews were not literate, and the exorbitant costs of education actually more than offset the financial benefit associated with careers such as moneylending that required literacy. However, since Jews were required by religious law to be literate anyway, they naturally took advantage of this ability to earn more money in careers such as moneylending (Landsburg 2003). 

[29] The Jews were no more tolerant than the Christian Church in this respect, as the excommunication of Spinoza demonstrates. Neither were protestants more tolerant than Catholics. Indeed, at least according to Bertrand Russell, both Luther and Calvin actually condemned Copernicus before the Catholic Church, and may have thereby indirectly provoked the Catholic Church into persecuting Galileo, since the latter were in danger of being seen as ‘soft on Heliocentrism’ as compared to their protestant rivals. As Bertrand Russell observed in his History of Western Philosophy:

Protestant clergy were at least as bigoted as Catholic ecclesiastics. Nevertheless there soon came to be much more liberty of speculation in Protestant than in Catholic countries, because in Protestant countries the clergy had less power… for schism led to national Churches, and national Churches were not strong enough to control the lay government” (History of Western Philosophy).

Thus, if the Church of England did not persecute Darwin as the Roman Church did Galileo, it was, Russell argues, only because they lacked the power to do so.

[30] Indeed, in practice, all successful religions have multiple designers, as they gradually evolve and change over time. Thus, Christianity, as we know it today, was probably at least as much the creation of Saul of Tarsus as it was of Jesus, while later figures such as Aquinas, Luther and Calvin also played key roles in shaping contemporary Christian beliefs and dogmas. Obviously, Christianity also draws on pre-Christian writings and religious ideas, most obviously those in the Old Testament.

[31] As Jeffrey C. Blutinger observes in a recent article on Macdonald’s work, A New Protocols: Kevin MacDonald’s Reconceptualization of Antisemitic Conspiracy Theory, Macdonald’s concept of Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy enables him to resurrect all the essential elements of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory with actually positing any actual conspiracy or conspiring.

[32] As I have mentioned in a previous post, anti-Semitism has a curious tendency to slide over into its ostensible opposite namely philo-Semitism. Both anti-Semites and philo-Semites tend to view Jews as uniquely separate from, and different to, all other peoples, and both also tend to notice the hughly disproportionate overrepresentation of Jews among different groups – philo-Semites, for example, pointing to the overrepresentation of Jews among Nobel prize winning scientists; anti-Semites more often pointing to their overrepresentation in media ownership and among leftists.
As Robert, a character from Michel Houellebecq’s novel Platform observes:

“All anti-Semites agree that the Jews have a certain superiority. If you read anti-Semitic literature, you’re struck by the fact that the Jew is considered to be more intelligent, more cunning, that he is credited with having singular financial talents – and, moreover, greater communal solidarity. Result: six million dead” (Platform: p113) 

Indeed, even Hiter occassionally seemed to cross the line into philo-Semiticism, the latter writing in Mein Kampf

“The mightiest counterpart to the Aryan is represented by the Jew. In hardly any people in the world is the instinct of self- preservation developed more strongly than in the so-called ‘chosen’. Of this, the mere fact of the survival of this race may be considered the best proof” (Mein Kampf, Manheim translation).

However, the precise connotations of this passage may depend on the translation. Thus, other translators translate the passage that Manheim translates as The mightiest counterpart to the Aryan is represented by the Jew instead as The Jew offers the most striking contrast to the Aryan”, which alternative translation has rather different, and less flattering, connotations, given that Hitler famously extols ‘the Aryan’ as the master race.
Nevertheless, if Hitler was loathe to openly admit Jewish intellectual superioriry, Nazi propaganda and ideology certainly came to close to inadvertantly implying Jewish superiority.
Thus, for example, Weimar-era Nazi propaganda often dwelt on, and indeed exaggerated, the extent of Jewish overrepresentation in big business and the professions, arguing that Jews had come to dominate Weimar-era Germany.
Yet if Jews, only ever a tiny proportion of the population of Weimar-era Germany, had indeed come to dominate the far greater number of ethnic Germans in whose midst they lived, then this not only seemed to indicate that the Jews were anything but inferior to those Germans, but also that the Germans were hardly the master race of Hitler’s own imagining. Nazi propaganda, then, came close to self-contradiction.

References 

Atzmon, Gil et al (2010) Abraham’s Children in the Genome Era: Major Jewish Diaspora Populations Comprise Distinct Genetic Clusters with Shared Middle Eastern AncestryAmerican Journal of Human Genetics 86(6): 850 – 859.
Bamshad et al 2001 Genetic Evidence on the Origins of Indian Caste PopulationsGenome Research 11(6): 994–1004.
Cochran, Hardy and Harpending (2006) Natural History Of Ashkenazi IntelligenceJournal of Biosocial Science 38(5):659-93.
Costa et al (2013). A substantial prehistoric European ancestry amongst Ashkenazi maternal lineages. Nature Communications. 4: 2543.
Dawkins (1993) “Viruses of the Mind,” in Bo Dalhbom, ed., Dennett and His Critics: Demystifying Mind (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993).
Hartung (1995) Love Thy Neighbor: The Evolution of In-Group MoralitySkeptic 3(4):86–98, 1995.
Jazwal (1979) Skin colour in north Indian populationsJournal of Human Evolution 8(3): 361-366.
Lansburg (2003) Why Jews Don’t FarmSlate June 13.
Lynn (1987) The intelligence of the Mongoloids: A psychometric, evolutionary and neurological theoryPersonality and Individual Differences 8(6): 813-844.
Macdonald (2004) Can the Jewish Model Help the West Survive? Acceptance speech, First Jack London Literary Prize (October 31, 2004).
Macdonald (2005) Stalin’s Willing Executioners: Jews as a Hostile Elite in the USSROccidental Quarterly 5(3): 65-100.
Mishra (2017) Genotype-Phenotype Study of the Middle Gangetic Plain in India Shows Association of rs2470102 with Skin Pigmentation. Journal of Investigative Dermatology 137(3):670-677.
Need et al (2009) ‘A genome-wide genetic signature of Jewish ancestry perfectly separates individuals with and without full Jewish ancestry in a large random sample of European Americans’ Genome Biology 10: R7.
Pinker (2006) Groups and Genes, New Republic, June 26.
Sailer (2019) Jared Diamond of ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ Respectability Anticipated Some of Henry Harpending’s ‘Ashkenazi Intelligence’ Theory in 1994 in ‘Nature’Unz Review, December 30.
Zuckerman et al (2013) The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity, Personality and Social Psychology Review. 17: 325–354. 

Islam is intolerant – but so is the Old Testament

Robert Spencer, The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion. Regnery Publishing, 2007.   

But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee” (Deuteronomy 20: 16-17). 

The passage quoted above represents a more overt call for genocide than anything in contained within the pages of Mein Kampf. Yet it comes, neither from Mein Kampf, nor, for that matter, from the Quran or Islamic aḥādīth. Rather, it is a direct quotation from the Christian (and the Hebrew) Bible (Deuteronomy 20: 16-17). 

The next book of that same Bible, that of Joshua, describes the titular character fulfilling this very command: 

He left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded” (Joshua 10:40). 

Meanwhile, another biblical passage from another book of the Old Testament or Torah extends these sentiments to yet another ethnic group, strangely omitted from the previous passage: 

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (Samuel 1 15:3). 

In ‘The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion’, Robert Spencer argues that the teachings of the Quranaḥādīth and Islamic law are barbaric, illiberal and intolerant – in short, wholly incompatible with contemporary Western values. 

In this enterprise, he is entirely successful and, I believe, wholly correct. 

Indeed, it is hardly surprising that the Quran and aḥādīth are wholly incompatible with contemporary western values, since these works were authored, not in the contemporary West, but rather in the Middle East some thousand years ago. 

However, where I part from Spencer is in his implicit assumption that the Christian Bible is somehow any better. 

On the contrary, as I see it, the Old Testament of the Bible is, if anything, even less compatible with contemporary western values than is the Quran and aḥādīth – again, unsurprisingly since it was written, again in the Middle East, long even before the Quran. 

True, the New Testament of the Christian Bible is rather more pacifist in tone. So perhaps Christianity may have a claim for qualifying as a ‘religion of peace’ – at least if you regard parts of the Old Testament as somehow overruled or repealed by the New Testament or New Covenant.[1]

However, the same is surely not true of Judaism

Indeed, the Old Testament always strikes me as something akin to a racially-supremacist tract. The Jews, it repeatedly tells us, are God’s ‘Chosen People and everyone else is, at best, a second-class species of human, at worst, as seen in the passages quoted above, fit objects of genocide.[2]

Yet these verses have not prevented Jews and Christians, many of them devoutly religious, some even self-described Biblical literalists, from living together peaceably in western polities without significant numbers among them feeling the need to regularly suicide-bomb one another or fly planes into buildings, or, for that matter, massacre Hittites, Canaanites and Jebusites

However, there is clearly a difficulty in integrating Muslims into Western society, as various terrorist atrocities committed by citizens of the Muslim faith born and raised within the borders of western liberal democracies amply yet horribly demonstrate. 

The problem is not simply that Muslims have, in general, not fully reconciled themselves with such ostensibly ‘progressive’ notions as feminism and transsexual bathroom rights. After all, the same is true of many ChristiansJews and heathen secularists like myself.[3]

Rather the problem is that significant minorities of Muslims within the West (but certainly not of the West) engage in terrorism against the West. 

True, terrorists represent only a small minority of the Muslim population. However, they are not so small a minority as not to be able to wreak considerable havoc, causing much injury, loss of life and economic cost. 

Of course, historically, Christians and Jews have had their own share of ‘holy wars’ and religious bigotry, both against themselves, one another and outsiders. 

There were the Crusades, the burning of heretics, blasphemers and witches, countless wars justified in the name of God, plus the persecution of Protestants by Catholics, of Catholics by Protestants, of Jews by both Catholics and Protestants and, today, of Palestinians (themselves the probable descendants of the biblical Canaanites) by Jews, not to mention that whole nasty business with the holocaust. 

In short, liberal democracy and religious toleration came only relatively recently even to the West. 

Moreover, it is surely no coincidence that increasingly liberal and tolerant attitudes and laws have arisen hand-in-hand with the process of secularization

In short, liberal democracy and Western civilization have come about despite Christianity rather than because of it. 

Yet, nowadays, Catholics, Protestants and Jews resident in most of the West, together with various assorted secular heathens and infidels like myself, all live together in relative toleration. 

This holds out the prospect that, in the long-term, Muslims might learn to do likewise. 

However, it is unlikely to be a rapid transition, and nor is it necessarily an inevitable one. Therefore, we have every reason to be cautious about admitting more Muslims into our countries as migrants or asylum seekers. 

However, given that the holy books of both Christianity and Judaism contain passages that rival anything in the Quran or aḥādīth when it comes to draconian bellicosity, I contend that the reason for the current unassimilability of Muslim minorities in the West must be sought at least partly in factors external to the content of the Islamic scripture itself. 

One factor is perhaps that Muslims have come rather late, if at all, to Western modernity. 

Thus, whereas the ancestors of contemporary Ashkenazim and Sephardim settled in Europe centuries ago, and have therefore, like Christians themselves, been an integral (and, indeed, a disproportionately influential, and disproportionately secular and liberal) part of the secular, liberal West for at least as long as the West has had any claim to being secular and liberal, the presence of Muslim immigrants in Western polities is, to my knowledge, largely a recent phenomenon. 

Women as ‘Booty’ 

Spencer condemns “the treatment of women as war prizes, with no consideration of their will” as “from a twenty-first-century perspective… one of the most problematic aspects of Muhammad’s status as ‘an excellent model of conduct’” (p133-4). 

He likewise condemns the Quran for allowing Muslims to “have sex with slave girls (‘captives that your right hands possess’)” (p173). 

There are three problems with this argument.

First, the practice is by no means restricted to Islam. Indeed, as Spencer himself acknowledges: 

This phenomenon has manifested itself to varying degrees in all cultures and societies” (p134).[4]

Indeed, many evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists would contend that the capture of fertile females for breeding purposes is the ultimate purpose of warfare and reason why warfare evolved in the first place. 

However, Spencer nevertheless maintains that: 

In the Islamic world [this practice] is particularly hard to eradicate because of the prophetic sanction it has received” (p134). 

However, to my recollection, Spencer conveniently neglects to cite two other aḥādīth with a quite contrary message, namely Sahîh al-Bukhârî: 3015 and Sahîh Muslim: 1744

Yet, despite his apparent background in Christian theology, Spencer seems blissfully unaware that the Christian/Hebrew Bible also sanctions the exact same practices. Indeed, the Christian/Hebrew Bible gives even more explicit sanction to the taking of women as booty during war than does Islamic scripture.  

Thus, whereas Islamic teaching only gives implied “prophetic sanction” to forced concubinage by describing the Prophet himself as participating in such practices, the Christian/Hebrew Bible not only sanctions such behaviour, but explicitly commands it. 

Take, for example, the following passage, taken again from the Old Testament: 

When the LORD thy God hath delivered [a city that has refused to surrender peacefully] into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee” (Deuteronomy 20: 13-14). 

This phraseology, taken from the King James Version, seems to be an only mildly euphemistic incitement to mass rape. Here, “the women and the little ones” along with “cattle” are explicitly equated with “the spoils”, and the Israelites are commanded to “take unto thyself; and… eat the spoil of thine enemies”. 

Some prudish Christian apologists might affect to be blissfully unaware of what this passage alludes to, but I suspect all but the most naïve and innocent (or perhaps simply uneducated) among them would be being disingenuous. 

Or take this verse: 

Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man” (Numbers 31: 17-18). 

Again, one does not have to be a cynic with a ‘dirty mind’ to guess for what purpose one is being commanded to “save for yourself” all these young virginal maidens, and I doubt it is purely because one wants help with the housework. 

After all, if it were for any purposes other than the obvious sexual ones, then why are only girls being taken as captives while the men and boys are being killed?[5]

Who Gets Killed? 

But let us look a little further at these decidedly ‘gendered’ Biblical commandments. 

If female infidels are commanded to be taken as booty and possibly used as concubines or sexual slaves, then male infidels defeated in war were typically killed outright. 

Therefore, far from evidencing the oppression of women under Islam as contended by Spencer, the practice of taking captured women as spoils is actually a prime example of female privilege

Indeed, this represents a classic case of what Adam Jones aptly terms Gendercide.[6]

Why, then, are we not talking about how both Christianity and Islam (and Judaism) discriminate against men

Thus, just as the biblical passages quoted above (Deuteronomy 20: 13-14Numbers 31: 17-18) order massacres of all adult males, but the sparing of women and girls, so Islamic scripture is similarly ambivalent regarding the treatment of enemy females. 

Spencer mentions an Islamic ḥādīth that seemingly excuses the killing of females, at least in some circumstances: 

The Prophet passed by me at a place called Al-Abwa’ or Waddan, and was asked whether it was permissible to attack A/- Mushrikun [unbelieving] warriors at night with the probability of exposing their women and children to danger. The Prophet replied, ‘They (i.e. women and children) are from them (i.e. Al-Mushrikun)” (quoted at: p97; Sahih al-Bukhârî: 3012). 

Here, the killing of females is specifically forbidden by Mohammed. The prophet is described in these aḥādīth as finding the dead body of a woman after a battle and reproving those responsible. 

In short, Islamic law seems rather contradictory on the question of whether women can ever be killed in war. 

However, perhaps the different passages can be reconciled if female casualties are to be regarded as, to use two anachronistic contemporary terms, not legitimate targets’, but nevertheless excusable incidental collateral damage

Again, this is reminiscent of the Old Testament, which contains similarly contradictory prescriptions regarding female captives. 

Thus, in the passage which I quoted at the beginning of this review, deliberate massacres of entire cities, women and children included, is explicitly commanded (Deuteronomy 20:16-17). 

However, elsewhere, for example in the passages quoted in the last section of this post (Deuteronomy 20: 13-14Numbers 31: 17-18), whereas Israelites are order to kill all adult males, they are advised to spare (or rather instead merely rape and enslave) certain classes of female captive. 

Actually, however, Deuteronomy is not inconsistent; it is simply racist – in addition to being sexist. 

In short, all non-Hebrews must be conquered, and all (non-surrendering) males of enemy groups must also be massacred. However, only among particularly objectionable racial and ethnic groups (“these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance”: Deuteronomy 20:16-17) must the women and children also be massacred. 

In contrast, Mohammad’s justification for the killing of women and children (“they are of them”) actually seems eminently practical, especially in the context of modern warfare where, with the use of relatively indiscriminate weapons like missiles and bombs, let alone weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear weapons, civilian casualties are almost unavoidable. 

Yet, while nuclear escalation may be avoidable, to forsake the use of weapons like missiles and bombs altogether would be suicidal in any conflict with any enemy not willing to similarly handicap themselves. 

Moreover, feminists in particular ought presumably to welcome those Islamic aḥādīth (and biblical passages) which advocate the killing of women alongside their menfolk, since this is surely the logical conclusion (or perhaps the reductio ad absurdum) of what feminists have for so long so noisily and incessantly demanded – namely, the equal treatment of men and women alike. 

Who Fights? 

There is moreover another related form of sex discrimination implicit in so much Islamic teaching – namely, it is only males who are expected to sacrifice their lives in jihad or holy war

Spencer himself reports that, before a planned raid on Tabuk, a follower came to Mohammed asking to be excused. In response, “Muhammad granted him permission, but then received a revelation from Allah, counting people who made such requests among the Hypocrites” (p154: Qur’an 9:489). 

Spencer reports: 

Allah even rebuked his prophet for excusing Muslims from the Tabuk expedition (Qur’an 9:43). He told Muhammad that true Muslims did not hesitate to wage jihad, even to the point of risking their property and their very lives. The ones who refused to do this weren’t believers (Qur’an 9:4445)” (p157). 

However, it goes without saying that these injunctions applied only to men. 

I am reminded of the build-up to the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, when the British and American media sought to justify the invasion by telling us incessantly how terribly ‘oppressed’ women supposedly were in Afghanistan, because, apparently, they were forced to wear burqas and cover their faces. 

Meanwhile, however, all able-bodied men in Afghanistan were being forcibly drafted into the Taliban armed forces, including the elderly, some dragged from cars or their homes, and every household expected to provide at least one male to sacrifice in the coming war (Harding 2001). 

Yet, strangely, no one in the western media ever said anything about men being oppressed in Afghanistan. 

Likewise, one heard little about the almost endemic and institutionalized sexual abuse and sexual enslavement of young boys in Afghanistan, known as bacha bāzī or dancing boys

Instead, it was women, forced to wear burkas, who were the only ones deemed to have been ‘oppressed’ – though I suspect it is precisely the enforced veiling, seclusion and other protections accorded women in Islamic societies, together with the effect of a polygynous mating milieu in denying reproductive opportunities for low-status males, that leads so many Afghan men to turn instead to young boys (bacha bereesh, literally ‘boys without beards’) as an alternative sexual outlet. 

Indeed, far from opposing the practice, US troops serving in Afghanistan were specifically ordered not to interfere with the systematic sexual abuse of boys, on the grounds that “it is a part of their culture” (Goldstein 2015).[7] 

Yet the wearing of burkas is also a part of Afghan culture – and indeed of Islamic culture in general. It is moreover surely a less objectionable part of that culture than the systematic and widespread sexual abuse of young boys

Indeed, just how trivial and comparatively trivial and unobjectionable is the requirement to cover one’s face has been revealed to most of Britain, America and the west during the recent corvid hysteria, when we were all legally obliged to wear face masks when in public places.

Many people, myself included, thought that this requirement unnecessary and an overreaction. Nevertheless, it was, at most, a minor inconvenience and hardly a major violation of human rights and civil liberties. Those who protested the masking laws as a horrendous and tyrannical infringement of basic civil liberties were rightly ridiculed for their overreaction. 

At any rate, even in Afghanistan, the requirement that women wear burkas to cover their faces when in public was paralleled by an analogous admonition that men also cover their faces, whether in public or not, by not shaving and instead growing a beard

Yet both forms of sex discrimination are wholly trivial when compared to both the obligation to sacrifice oneself in war, and the sexual enslavement of boys

In short, the idea that the right to wear high heels, short skirts, lipstick and sexually provocative clothing is a fundamental human right says more about the self-absorbed, overprivileged lifestyles of western women, feminists very much included, than is does about real oppression, which remains, in both Islam and the West, a largely male preserve

Inheritance and ‘Mahr’ 

So are women oppressed under Islam as Spencer contends? 

It is true that, under Islamic law, women are seen as possessions of their husbands, and commanded to be subservient and defer to them.

But, in return, men were expected to provide for their wives with food, clothing and housing. This is not a mere implicit assumption, but a specific religious obligation imposed on Muslim, known as nafaqah. There is no equivalent obligation imposed on wives. 

Thus, Spencer rebukes the Quran for insisting that a son’s inheritance be twice that accorded one’s daughter (p273). 

However, he neglects to mention two parallel forms of discrimination against males which also represent obvious rationales for the greater inheritance for males – namely the obligation that boys, if they wish to marry at all, must:

  1. Provide food, clothing and housing for his wife, and perhaps her retinue of servants as well (nafaqah); and
  2. Pay the Islamic bride price (mahr). 

The latter is, mahr, is not a mere nominal formality. On the contrary, it is often extortionate and, unlike other forms of bride-price in other cultures, is payable directly to the bride herself, not to her family. Men in Iran are often imprisoned for failing to pay this sum on demand (see Mehraspand 2014). 

Clearly it makes more sense to leave more money to your son than your daughter when your son is commanded by scripture to pay a bride-price should he wish to marry (mahr), and is then expected to provide for his wife during marriage (nafaqah), whereas your daughter is likely to receive such a payment on marriage and thereafter be supported, protected and provided for by her husband. 

This, then, is rather analogous to the familiar complaint that, in Islamic societies such as Afghanistan, girls are not permitted to go to school. But this merely reflects the fact that women are not expected to earn a living in a traditional Islamic society, but rather expect to be supported and provided for by their husbands (nafaqah), and hence have no need of education or vocational training. 

Far from evidencing the oppression of women, it is therefore an indirect reflection of female privilege.  

Proving Rape 

Indeed, even the infamous supposed requirement for four male witnesses in order to convict a man of rape is revealed as a myth. 

Actually, this applies to other sexual offences, such as adultery – but not to rape. 

Indeed, Spencer’s own account reveals that the requirement of four witnesses was actually introduced by Mohammed to protect women in general, and his own wife in particular, from allegations of adultery (p66-7; Quran 24:11-13). 

Moreover, this requirement of four male witnesses also made adultery a dangerous crime to accuse a woman of – since any man who made such an allegation without the requisite four male witnesses was himself punished by eighty lashes. 

In contrast, women could evade punishment for adultery by claiming to have been raped, positively incentivizing false allegations

Indeed, given that sexual relations usually occur in private, and adulterous sexual relations in some secrecy, the requirement of four male witnesses actually made allegations of adultery almost impossible to prove in practice, unless a devout Muslim wife were foolish enough to shoot a porno or attend an orgy. 

Who Then is Oppressed? 

Are women oppressed in Muslim societies? Despite what I have written, the answer remains very much a ‘yes’ – albeit with one important caveat, namely that men are oppressed in Muslim societies as well. 

Islam is oppressive of all humans, male and female alike. 

Indeed, oppression is virtually the defining principle of Islam, the very word ‘Islam famously translating as ‘submission’, which is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The action of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person”. 

Again, however, much the same is true of Christianity and Judaism. In both religions, adherents are expected to worship, obey, prostrate themselves in the presence of and sing songs in praise of, and sometimes even offer sacrifices to, or sacrifice themselves for, an allegedly almighty God

This is, of course, directly analogous to how a subject under totalitarianism or despotism is expected to bow down before, obey and pay homage to an absolutist monarch or dictator. 

Heil Hitler and ‘Praise be the Lord God’ are, as I have written before, essentially analogous forms of salutation. 

So all Judeo-Christian religions are oppressive. However, when men and boys are expressly singled out for massacre in holy scripture, while women and girls are spared, and when men are expected to fight and die in holy wars, if not martyr themselves with suicide bombs, for the glory of Allah, while women happily sit at home, perhaps wearing a burka, then there is no doubt whatsoever which sex is getting the better deal.

Endnotes

[1] Interestingly, various different heretical Christian sects, including the Marcions, Gnostics and Cathars, have converged in rejecting the authority of the Old Testament altogether and regarded the God of the Old Testament as a malevolent deity, different and lesser than that featured in the New Testament. This view would seemingly reconcile the very different tone of the two collections of texts. However, it is a view held by few Christians today, and obviously introduces no few additional theological problems of its own.

[2] It ought to be noted that many modern religious Jews, and Jewish ‘apologists (in the religious sense), insist that the notion of the Jews as God’s Chosen People does not entail any connotations to racial supremacy, but rather actually involved the imposition of greater responsibilities and obligations on Jews, hence the familiar notion of the Jews as a light unto the nations. Judaism certainly does purport to impose greater obligations and responsibilities on Jews, and many contemporary religious Jews may indeed interpret the concept of ‘chosenness’ in this way. However, reading parts of both the Old Testament and the Talmud, it is clear that there was also an element of supremacism in the notion of being ‘chosen’. Indeed, even today, many Haredi Jews are quite overt in their Jewish supremacism (see for examples Israel Shahak’s co-authored Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel).

[3] Indeed, when confronted with such absurdities as feminism, critical race theory and transexual activism, one is well able to understand the hostility of many Muslims to contemporary western culture, and perhaps even capable of envisaging Islamic fundamentalism as a preferable alternative. Thus, today, the ostensibly secular pseudo-religious faith of political correctness arguably demands of its adherents beliefs quite as preposterous those those of any religious fundamentalist. 
However, it must be noted that Islamic fundamentalism is not necessarily incompatible with such preposterous ‘progressive’ notions as the right of transexuals to be considered as the being of the opposite ‘gender’ to their biological sex. On the contrary, in Iran, while homosexuals are famously persecuted, transexualism is strangely tolerated, even perversely promoted. Indeed, it is even claimed that gay males are forced to undergo surgery in order to escape persecution as homosexuals. This may be why Iran is, somewhat surprisingly, said to have the second highest rate of sex change operations relative to population size behind only Thailand.

[4] This pattern is cross-culturally recurrent. Thus, Jared Diamond writes:

The wars of the Greeks and Trojans, of Rome and Carthage, and of the Assyrians and Babylonians and Persians proceeded to a common end: the slaughter of the defeated irrespective of sex, or else the killing of the men and enslavement of the women” (The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee: p265).

For example, Thucydides in the Melian Dialogue reports that, on conquering Melos, the Athenians put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves. Similarly, in his recent comparative biography of Alexander the Great and his father, Philip II of Macedon, author Ian Worthington reports that on capturing the Greek city of Sestus:

“[His troops] killed all of its male citizens and sold all of its women and children as slaves – one of the more gruesome punishments that civilians suffered in warfare” (By the Spear: p57). 

[5] If, for example, the captives were to be enslaved and used for non-sexual purposes, then presumably it would be the male captives who were of greater value to the conquerors, since men, being generally bigger and stronger than women, are superior at most forms of manual labour. During the period of the transatlantic slave trade, for example, male slaves were preferred and commanded a higher price, whereas, in the Islamic worldfemale slaves tended be preferred and to command a higher price because of the greater acceptance of concubinage in the Islamic world as compared to puritanical America. Thus, although the Old Testament of the Bible certainly approves the sexual exploitation of female slaves, puritanical eighteenth and nineteenth century North American culture certainly did not. Nevertheless, it certainly occurred, as is apparent from the genetic composition of contemporary African-Americans. Indeed, according to Pierre van den Berghe in The Ethnic Phenomenon: which I have reviewed here): 

Concubinage with slaves was somewhat more clandestine and hypocritical in the English and Dutch colonies than in the Spanish, Portuguese and French colonies where it was brazen, but there is no evidence that the actual incidence of interbreeding was any higher in the Catholic countries” (The Ethnic Phenomenon: p132). 

Van den Berghe does not directly compare the prevalence of “concubinage with slaves” in the Muslim world with that in Christian colonies, either Catholic and Latin or puritanical North America.

[6] Edward O Wilson instead terms this recurrent pattern of conquerors massacring conquered males while mating with conquered females ‘genosorption’. The phenomenon is so widespread that it is even apparent in the DNA of contemporary populations. Thus, geneticist James Watson reports that, whereas 94% of the Y-chromosomes of contemporary Colombians are European, mitochondrial DNA shows a “range of Amerindian MtDNA types”. Thus, he concludes:

The virtual absence of Amerindian Y chromosome types, reveals the tragic story of colonial genocide: indigenous men were eliminated while local women were sexually ‘assimilated’ by the conquistadors” (DNA: The Secret of Life: p257).

[7] In fact, rather to their credit, the Taliban had sought to eliminate the practice of bacha bāzī, seeing it as contrary to the tenets of Islam. Therefore, in seeking to overthrow the Taliban regime, and ordering their troops not to interfere with such practices, the US seem to have been promoting the practice, which was indeed said to have reemerged during the American occupation (Abdul-Ahad 2009).

References 

Abdul-Ahad (2009) The dancing boys of Afghanistan, Guardian 12 September
Goldstein (2015) U.S. Soldiers Told to Ignore Sexual Abuse of Boys by Afghan Allies, New York Times, September 20. 
Harding L (2001) Taliban forcing thousands into armyGuardian, 4 October.
Mehraspand A (2014) Indentured servitude for men in Iran: The myth of patriarchal oppressive divorce, A Voice for Men August 13.

John Dickson’s ‘Jesus: A Short Life’: Christian Apologetics Masquerading as History

John Dickson, Jesus: A Short Life (Oxford: Lion Books, 2012).

The edition of John Dickson’s book, ‘Jesus: A Short Life’, that I read, published in 2012 was subtitled ‘Jesus: A Short Life – The Historical Evidence’. However, I notice that the first edition of this book, published a few years earlier in 2008, seemed to omit part of the subtitle referring to “The Historical Evidence”.

This is actually quite fitting, because, despite this added subtitle, Dickson himself omits to include much historical evidence supporting the biographical details he presents in the book.

Instead, Dickson relies heavily on what is referred to as the ‘appeal to authority or ‘argumentum ab auctoritate’ fallacy – albeit with a touch of the argumentum ad Populum’ fallacy thrown in too for good measure.

Thus, he repeatedly insists that ‘all serious scholars agree’ on a certain aspect of Jesus’s biography, with the clear implication that that this is reason enough for non-expert readers like myself to agree as well.

Unfortunately, he only very rarely actually takes the time to explain why all serious scholars supposedly agree on this aspect of Jesus’s life or present the actual evidence that has led the experts to agree.

Instead, he seems to imply that the reader should simply defer to expert opinion rather than taking the time to actually look at the evidence for themselves and make their own judgement.
 
For example, he observes that the claim that Jesus was publicly baptised by John the Baptist is “doubted by no one doing historical Jesus research” (p49).

However, he neglects to explain in the main body of his text why no serious scholar doubts this, or why the evidence is so compelling.

Only in an accompanying endnote does he bother to explain that the main reason all experts agree is that this episode supposedly satisfies what New Testament scholars refer to as the criterion of embarrassment.

In other words, because it seems to cast Jesus in a role subordinate to that of John, the opposite of the impression the biblical authors presumably intended to convey, it is hardly the sort of thing the gospel writers are likely to have invented (p137-8).

Incidentally, I am not entirely sure whether the so-called criterion of embarrassment is unambiguously satisfied with respect to the claim that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. After all, Jesus is portrayed as humble throughout the gospels and often adopts a subordinate role – for example, when he is described as washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:1–17).

Indeed, given that Jesus’s philosophy represents what Nietzsche called a slave morality, whereby what would usually be seen as a source of shame and embarrassment is instead elevated into a positive virtue, the entire concept of the criterion of embarrassment seems to of dubious value, at least with respect to questions regarding the historical Jesus.

Thus, Jesus’s entire life, from his obscure origin in Nazareth, through his baptism by John, to the ultimate failure of his ministry and his ignominious death at the hands of the Romans, would seem to be an embarrassment from start to finish, at least for a figure who claimed to be a saviour and ‘Messiah, who would free the Jews from subjugation at the hands of their Roman overlords and usher in a new Kingdom of Heaven. Yet, for Christians, all of this, far from being embarrassing, is reinterpreted as perverse proof of Jesus’s divinity and omnipotence.

In short, at least as applied to historical Jesus research, the so-called criterion of embarrassment seems to represent something of an embarrassment in and of itself.

Elsewhere, in rebutting the assertion of Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion that “it is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all”, Dickson again resorts to a combination of the argumentum ab auctorita and argumentum ad Populum fallacies, insisting “no one who is actually doing history thinks so” (p21).

Actually, although it remains very much a minority, maverick position, some researchers, who certainly regard themselves as “doing history”, have indeed championed the so-called mythicist’ thesis that Jesus never existed, including, for example, Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty and Robert Price.

Perhaps Dickson regards these authors’ work as so worthless that they cannot be said to be truly “doing history” at all. If so, however, then this is an obvious, indeed almost a textbook, example of the no true Scotsman’ fallacy.

Thus, Dickson asserts:

Not only is Jesus’ non-existence never discussed in academic literature… but most experts agree that there are… ‘no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus’ life’” (p10-11).

The actual evidence he cites, however, seems rather less than compelling.

Aside from the gospels themselves one of the few other sources he cites is contemporary letter written by one Mara bar Serapion referring to the Jews killing their “wise king”.

Dickson claims:

There is a consensus among scholars that Mara bar Serapion‘s ‘wise king’ was none other than Jesus. It simply strains belief to imagine that there could have been two figures in first century Palestine fitting the description of Jew, law-giver, king and martyr by his own people” (p19).

Perhaps so – but unfortunately Jesus himself doesn’t fit the bill all that well either.

After all, Jesus may indeed have been ‘wise’. This, at least, is debatable.[1]

However, he certainly does not appear to have been a king’, at least in the ordinary, familiar sense of the word.

Neither does he appear to have been killed by the Jews, as claimed of the figure described in Mara bar Serapion’s letter, but rather by the Romans. Crucifixion was, after all, a Roman, not a Jewish, method of execution.

Moreover, Dickson himself admits “Jesus of Nazareth was not the most revered religious figure of the period”, even in Palestine (p109). Might not these other religious gurus fit the bill better?

Moreover, although Dickson asserts “it simply strains belief to imagine that there could have been two figures in first century Palestine fitting the description”, actually there appears to be nothing in Mara bar Serapion’s letter that actually says anything about this “wise king” necessarily having resided “in first century Palestine”. This seems to have been entirely an invention of Dickson’s own.

What then of Jewish religious leaders, or better still actual “kings” (in the familiar sense of this word) from other periods?

Or perhaps Mara bar Serapion was just mixed up and confusing the Jews with some other people.

Who Mara bar Serapion was referring to seems to be, at best, a mystery. Certainly, his letter hardly represents the definitive proof of Jesus’s historicity.[2]

Should we Trust the Experts’?

The ‘argumentum ab auctoritate’, or appeal to authority, is perhaps a method of argumentation that naturally appeals to devout Christians. After all, they usually appeal to the ostensible authority, not of ‘experts’ and ‘reputable scholars’, but rather to that of God himself, or of ‘holy scripture’ or ‘the Word of God’).

Of course, appealing to the unanimous opinion of scholars in a given field is sometimes legitimate. If, for example, we do not have the time or the inclination to research the topic for ourselves, it is prudent to defer to majority opinion among qualified experts.

However, in a book subtitled “The Historical Evidence”, one is surely entitled to demand rather more.

Moreover, the field of study in which the experts are ostensibly deemed to be expert must itself be a reputable field of study in the first place.

Thus, if all ‘reputable homeopaths’ or all ‘reputable astrologers’ agree on a particular aspect of homeopathic or astrological theory, I am entitled to disagree simply because the entire fields of homeopathy and astrology are pseudo-scientific and therefore there is simply no such thing as a ‘reputable homeopath’ or ‘reputable astrologer’ in the first place and all are no more than charlatans or professional damned fools.

Similarly, I submit, although the case is nowhere near as clear cut as with astrology or homeopathy, that there is reason not to trust the so-called ‘experts’ in the case of historical Jesus research.

This is because those who have chosen to devote their lives to the study of the life of Jesus have typically done so because they are themselves devout and committed Christians.

Given, then, that their whole philosophy of life is predicated on the existence of a figure of Jesus resembling the one described in the gospels, it is perhaps hardly surprising that they tend to conclude that the story in the gospels is more or less accurate.

Admittedly, unlike homeopaths and astrologers, many of these researchers have important-sounding professorships at apparently reputable, sometimes even prestigious, universities.

However, this is largely an anachronistic remnant of origins of the European university system in Medieval Chrisendom, when religious scholarship was a key function, perhaps the key function, of the university system.[3]

However, this should not fool us into mistaking them for serious, secular historians.[4]

Thus, most researchers investigating the historical Jesus, at least in universities, seem to come from backgrounds, not in history, but rather in theology, seminaries and Bible studies.

Few, then, seem to have spent any time researching other areas of history, and they are therefore presumably unfamiliar with the standards of proof demanded by mainstream historians researching other periods of history or other historical questions.

Thus, the tools used by researchers into the historical Jesus to judge the veracity of gospel claims (e.g. the criterion of embarrassment, the criterion of multiple/independent attestation) do not seem to be widely used in other areas of history when assessing the trustworthiness of sources – or, at any rate, the same terms are not used.

One finds these terms only, so far as I am aware, in the index on books on dealing with historical Jesus studies – not in general books on methods of historical research, nor in works of history dealing with other times and places and other historical questions.

Certainly, analogous principles are employed, but the standards of proof seem, in my opinion, to be rather higher.[5]

I would have preferred it if Dickson had announced at the onset that he was a Christian, in the same way that politicians and lawmakers are expected to ‘declare an interest’ in a matter before they venture an opinion during a debate, let alone cast a vote regarding a decision.[6]

However, although there is no such explicit declaration in the opening paragraphs, Dickson is, to his credit, open about his own religious belief. Nevertheless, he insists that he approaches the facts of Jesus’s life as an historian not as a Christian.

Thus, Dickson insists:

The presupposition that the Bible is God’s word and therefore entirely trustworthy is perfectly arguable at the philosophical level” (p13).

To play Dickson at his own game of appealing to expert opinion in lieu of formulating an actual substantive argument, I am not sure how many contemporary philosophers would agree this statement. Certainly not Daniel Dennett for one.

Nevertheless, Dickson insists in the same paragraph:

I intend to approach the New Testament as an entirely human document” (p13).

However, we surely have reason to doubt whether a devout Christian, whose beliefs are surely at the very core of their philosophy of life, can ever perform the sort of ‘mental gymnastics’ necessary to approach a topic such as the life of Jesus with the necessary disinterest, scholarly detachment and objectivity required of a serious historian.

The Gospels as an Historical Source

At the heart of Dickson’s account of the life of Jesus is his contention that the gospels themselves are legitimate historical sources in their own right.

Thus, they are, he argues, more trustworthy than the apocrypha, because the latter are less contemporaneous and they generally date from a later period (p25). This is, indeed, according to Dickson, the main reason why the latter were rejected as non-canonical in the first place.

On researching the issue, I discovered that it does indeed seem to be generally true that the canonical gospels date back to an earlier time-frame than do the New Testament apocrypha. It is indeed perhaps the one useful thing I learnt from reading Dickson’s book – since it is indeed true that many skeptics and atheist authors do indeed seem to imply that the choice of which books to be included in the New Testament Canon was either entirely arbitrary or else reflective of the theological or political agendas of the later Christian leaders responsible for the decision.

True, Dickson acknowledges, the gospel writers were Christians, and sought to convince readers of the divinity of Jesus – but all ancient sources, he observes, have some sort of agenda, and there is therefore, he argues, no reason to give any less credence to Christian sources than to any others.

This is only partly true.

Dickson is right in so far as he asserts that most, if not all, sources, ancient or indeed modern, have some sort of bias. Thus, we should not regard any source as completely infallible, in the same way that Christians have traditionally regarded the Bible as the infallible ‘Word of God’.

But, if no source is completely trustworthy, this does not mean that all sources are equally trustworthy.

On the contrary, some sources are much more accurate and reliable than others, some of which are completely worthless as history.

The Christian gospels, with their plainly ahistorical content and frankly preposterous elements (e.g. miracles, the resurrection), are clearly unreliable.

Are there no other contemporary sources on the life of Jesus besides the Christians gospels to provide balance? What about anti-Christian writings by adherents of other faiths?

Moreover, call me naïve, but from a book subtitled “the Historical Evidence”, I expected something more than another repetition of the gospel stories so many of us were so cruelly subjected to in Sunday School from earliest infancy – albeit this time supplemented with occasional references to Josephus and, of course, ‘the unanimous opinion of all reputable scholars’.

Dickson therefore concludes:

History… demonstrates that the story at the heart of the Gospels is neither a myth nor fraud, but a broadly credible account of a short first century life” (p129).

However, the primary (indeed virtually the only) source he has used to construct this so-called ‘history’ is the gospels themselves. No other sources (e.g. Josephus) provide any details whatever beyond the faintest of outlines.

To establish that “the story at the heart of the gospels” is “a broadly credible account” surely requires an independent source external to the gospels themselves against which to judge their veracity.

To claim that we can be certain of the gospels’ historical veracity because they are consistent with all the contemporary historical sources available simply won’t do when the only contemporary historical sources available are the gospels themselves.

This is simply to state the self-evident tautological truism that the gospels are consistent with themselves.

Jesus’s Birthplace

Actually, however, the gospels are not entirely consistent with themselves – or at least not with one another.

Take, for example, the matter of Jesus’s birthplace.

Against the arguments of skeptics such as Richard Dawkins, Dickson argues in favour of Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus, in accordance with Christian tradition.

Dismissing the claim that the Gospels of Luke and Matthew only relocated the nativity to Bethlehem so as to accord with Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5:2), Dickson demands petulantly:

What is the evidence that Matthew and Luke put him there out of some necessity to make him look messianic? None. The argument dissolves” (p37).

Instead, Dickson argues:

Just as important as the fact that Bethlehem is not mentioned in Mark or John is the fact that it is mentioned in Luke and Matthew. Surely the silence of two of the gospels cannot be louder than the affirmation of the other two” (p37).

Yet Dickson does not mention that the two gospels manage to relocate Jesus to Bethlehem by entirely different and mutually incompatible means. Thus, Matthew has the family based in Bethlehem then only fleeing to escape the wrath of Herod; whereas Luke has them only visiting Bethlehem in order to register for a census.

Nor does he mention that both stories are historically doubtful.

Whereas there is simply no evidence for the so-called Massacre of the Innocents outside of the Gospel of Matthew itself, the story in Luke is positively contradicted by the historical record.

Thus, the first census did not occur until AD 6 after the death of King Herod. Yet, just a couple of pages earlier Dickson himself has concluded:

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born while Herod the Great, the Rome appointed king over Palestine, was still alive… This leads to the broad consensus among scholars that Jesus was born around 5 BC” (p35).

At any rate, a census, even if it occurred, would apply only to Roman citizens, not Jews in Galilee, then a client state not under direct Roman rule. Moreover, even Roman citizens were not required to return to the hometowns of their remote ancestors merely for the purpose of a census – an obviously preposterous proposition given the expense and difficulty of long-distance travel during this time-period and the huge disruption and chaos such a requirement would impose (see The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible: p27-32).

Finally, given that Dickson acknowledges that Jesus was born into obscurity and attained what little prominence he did achieve within his own lifetime only as an adult, anything about his birth is likely to be legendary and made-up long after the fact. At the time of birth, on the other hand, hardly anyone was likely paying much attention.

Dickson is therefore right to conclude “one cannot prove that Jesus was born in Bethlehem”. However, given the incentive to make Jesus’s birth accord with Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5:2), the apparent embarrassment associated with his originating in Nazareth (John 1:46) and the contradictions and ahistorical elements in the accounts given of how ‘Jesus of Galilee’ (also known as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’) could ever have ended up being born in Bethlehemseventy or eighty miles from Galilee and Nazareth – the weight of evidence is surely strongly against the notion.

Supernatural Events, Miracles and the Resurrection

Yet perhaps the strongest evidence against the notion that the Gospels can ever be considered reliable historical sources is the fact that they contain many supernatural elements (e.g. miracles).

However, Dickson, being a Christian, obviously does not see this as a problem. Instead, he maintains:

The best sources and methods employed by the leading scholars in the field produce the unexpected – and, for some, embarrassing – conclusion that the paradoxa erga [i.e. miracles] are, as Professor James Dunn admits ‘one of the most widely attested and firmly established of the historical facts with which we have to deal’” (p77).

In this passage, Dickson admits that this conclusion is “for some, embarrassing” (p77). However, he does not mention to whom it is supposedly embarrassing.

Yet it ought to be embarrassing, not, as implied by Dickson, to skeptics, rationalists and atheists, but rather to biblical scholars themselves – since, if indeed “the best sources and methods employed by the leading scholars in the field” suggest that events such as the feeding of the 5,000’, the turning of water into wine and Jesus healing lepers by touching them are “firmly established… historical facts”, then this seems to suggest that there is something fundamentally wrong with the “sources and methods employed by leading scholars” in the field to such an extent that the entire field is called into disrepute.

Of course, the reliable historical attestation of Jesus performing miracles could be interpreted differently. It might suggest simply that Jesus perhaps performed conjuring tricks, involving psychological suggestion and other chicanery of the sort employed by contemporary faith healers and similar charlatans, which, together with the well-documented placebo effect, together explain the similarly “widely attested and firmly established” eye-witness testimony regarding the ostensible miracles of these modern-day charlatans and con artists.

Similarly, resorting again to the argumentum ab auctoritate, Dickson lists various scholars who have investigated the historicity of the resurrection, claiming “All of these scholars agree that there is an irreducible core to the resurrection story that cannot be explained away as pious legend and wholesale deceit” (p110) – because “from the very beginning, numbers of men and women claimed to have seen Jesus alive after death” and that this is “a fact of history” (p111-2).

Of course, large numbers of men and women also claim to have been abducted by aliens. However, most of us do not regard this as evidence for the occurrence of alien abductions so much as it is evidence for the unreliability of eyewitness testimony and either the deceit or delusion of those making the claims.

Conclusions

I have complained that I would have preferred it had author John Dickson admitted at the beginning of his book, or, better yet, on the back cover, that he is a devout Christian and hence far from impartial with regard to the matter of the life of Jesus, just as politicians are expected to ‘declare an interest’ in a matter before casting their ballots or participating in a Parliamentary debate.

Here is my own belated disclaimer: I am an atheist.

However, I make this belated disclaimer, not so much to ‘declare an interest’ as it is to declare a lack of interest, or rather a disinterest.

I am obviously interested in the subject of the historical Jesus – otherwise I would not have taken the time to read Dickson’s book, let alone to write this review.

However, unlike Christian readers or researchers, I have no vested interest one way or another regarding the biography of Jesus. It does not challenge my fundamental beliefs whether Jesus existed, didn’t exist, lived a life roughly similar to that described in the gospels or a life very different.

Certainly, if evidence of the occurrence of miracles were discovered, this would challenge my beliefs, since it would suggest that the laws of physics as they are currently understood are somehow mistaken, incomplete or capable of temporary suspension on demand.

However, given that it is inconceivable that miracles supposedly performed some two millennia ago could ever be conclusively proven to have occurred some two thousand years after they are alleged to have happened, this is not really a problem.

Apart from this, I am in principle entirely open to the possibility that – miracles aside – the rest of the gospels is largely accurate as a description of Jesus’s life. However, on reading Dickson’s account of the “historical evidence”, it just seems to me that the evidence isn’t really there.

Certainly it is possible that (excepting miracles, virgin births, resurrections and other such patent nonsense) Jesus’s life did indeed take roughly the same path as that described in the gospels.

Moreover, since the canonical gospels, though obviously unreliable, do indeed seem to be the earliest surviving detailed accounts that we have of the life of Jesus, I am even prepared to tentatively concede that we must provisionally accept this as the most likely scenario.

However, it also seems quite possible that the course of Jesus’s life was very different and that the gospel stories themselves are largely mythical and invented after the fact.

It certainly seems probable that there existed a religious leader called Jesus who lived and was crucified by the Romans at around the time and place he is alleged to have lived and died and who provided a basis, howsoever minimal, for the stories and myths that subsequently came to be told about him.

However, I suspect that, given his relative obscurity in his own lifetime, it is doubtful much can ever be known about him today some two millennia later.

Moreover, even the most extreme form of the so-called mythicist’ thesis, namely that the gospel stories are entirely mythical and no person called Jesus upon whom the stories were based ever existed in the real world, hardly seems to be the sort of preposterous crank theory, roughly on a par with holocaust denial, as it is portrayed as being by Dickson and other Christian apologists.[7]

It just seems to me that there is so little reliable contemporary historical evidence regarding the life of Jesus that even extreme positions remain tenable – or at least cannot be definitively disproven. This is why attempted reconstructions of the historical Jesus are so notoriously divergent.

Indeed, there seems to be a fundamental contradiction in Dickson’s thesis.

On the one hand, he contends, surely rightly, that Jesus was, during his own lifetime, only, as Dickson himself puts it, quoting the title of another book about the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew, who achieved prominence and historical importance only after his death.

However, at the same time, Dickson contends that there is abundant reliable evidence regarding the life of this marginal Jew. Yet, if the Jew in question was so marginal, one would hardly expect to find abundant documentary evidence regarding his life.

In short, perhaps the reason so few serious secular scholars and historians have studied the life of Jesus and the field remains the preserve of ‘true believers’ like Dickson is precisely because there is so little to study in the first place.[8]

Only those with an a priori emotional commitment to belief in Jesus as ‘messiah’ (or sometimes an a priori commitment to disbelief in this same concept), precisely those whose emotional commitment renders them unfit to undertake a disinterested and objective investigation, take it upon themselves to embark on the project in the first place.

Endnotes

[1] Actually, at least in so far as the accounts of his teachings as reported in the gospels are accurate, Jesus’s teachings do not appear to have been at all ‘wise’ in my opinion. On the contrary, they appear quite foolish. Thus, advising people to turn the other cheek when they are victims of assault (Matthew 5 39-42; Luke 6: 27-31), and to give up their worldly possessions (Mark 10:21; Luke 14:33) seems, to me, not ‘wise’ counsel, but rather very foolish advice. Corroboration for this interpretation is found in Jesus’s ultimate fate: If he had indeed been ‘wise’ perhaps he would not have ended up nailed to a tree.

[2] Another supposed early textual reference to Jesus sometimes cited by New Testament scholars, but curiously omitted by Dickson, seems similarly spurious. This is the reference by the Roman historian Suetonius in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars to disturbances during the reign of Claudius supposedly conducted at the instigation of Chrestus. After all, quite apart from the fact that ‘Chrestos’ was in fact a common name at the time, at least among Pagans, if not among Jews, the word is also the same, or very similar, to the Greek word, Khristós (Χριστός), which is itself the translation of the Hebrew word Messiah. Given that it was widely anticipated among the Jews that a ‘Messiah’ would appear among them, overthrow Roman rule and restore independence in Judea, and Jesus was only one of many claimants to this mantle, this reference to a ‘Chrestus’ or ‘Chresto’ could easily have referred to one of these other candidates for this title.

[3] The fact that the western university system traces its origins to medieval Christendom, when Christian dogma was almost unopposed, results in the paradoxical irony that, whereas many new universities often no longer even bother with courses in theology and Bible studies, the older, and hence generally more prestigious, universities often maintain a large number of professorships in these fields, and have long-established, entrenched and well-endowed Schools of Divinity.

[4] The idea that simply because someone has an impressive-sounding professorship at a prestigious university this must mean they are authoritative is, of course, another version of the argumentum ab auctoritate, or appeal to authority, that features so heavily in Dickson’s book, and the criticism of which is a major theme of this review. In fact, however, today as in the medieval age, there are many tenured and well-credentialled professors at ostensibly prestigious universities who are little more than ‘professional damned fools’. In a former age they were mostly theologians; today, meanwhile, they are mostly professors of women’s studies, gender studies, cultural studies, black studies, and other aspects of what has been aptly termed the grievance studies’ industry. These fields, indeed, arguably represent the modern ‘cultural Marxist’ equivalent of what theology represented in the medieval age, and are today even more entrenched in academia.

[5] Of course, this may depend on the area of history in question. Obviously, sources are more abundant for certain historical periods than for others. Thus, as a crude generalization, ancient history tends to be more speculative than modern history.

[6] Had Dickson began with a declaration to this effect, then, I must confess, I would probably never have bothered to read his book in the first place. This might perhaps be dismissed as a prejudice on my part. However, as explained above, I simply do not believe that a devout Christian can ever be capable of investigating the historical Jesus with the necessary scholarly detachment, disinterest and objectivity required for such an endeavour.

[7] Indeed, it is bizarre to read Christian apologists like Dickson pouring scorn on mythicism as a kind of crankish, kookish conspiracy theory or form of pseudo-scholarship, while at the same time insisting that miracles are among “the most widely attested and firmly established of the historical facts” about Jesus (p77), and that there is an irreducible [historical] core to the resurrection story that cannot be explained away as pious legend and wholesale deceit” (p110). Is Dickson really trying to have us believe that the idea that Jesus never existed is more preposterous than the idea that he cured lepers by touching them and later rose from the dead?
I am reminded of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s 2006 Easter Sermon, where he dismissed The Da Vinci Code book and film, then just released, as a preposterous conspiracy theory (as indeed it was), contrasting it with what he had the audacity to call the prosaic reality – the latter presumably a reference to the gospel accounts with all their virgin birth, resurrection and miracle stories. The phrases pot calling the kettle black and people in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones very much spring to mind in both these cases.

[8] These ‘true believers’ include, it must be acknowledged, not only Christians like Dickson, but also many virulently anti-Christian cranks and conspiracy theorists, who often seemingly have almost as strong an a priori commitment to their own pet theories (e.g. mythicism) as the Christians do to the veracity of the gospel stories.

The Decline of the Klan and of White (and Protestant) Identity in America

Wyn Craig Wade, The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987

Given the infamy of the organization, it is surprising that there are so few books that cover the entire history of the Ku Klux Klan in America. 

Most seem to deal only with only one period (usually, but not always, either the Reconstructionera Klan or the Second Klan that reached its apotheosis during the twenties), one locality or indeed only a single time and place

On reflection, however, this is not really surprising. 

For, though we habitually refer to the Ku Klux Klan, or the Klan (emphasis on ‘the’), as if it were a single organization that has been in continuous existence since its first formation in the Reconstruction-era, there have in fact been many different groups calling themselves ‘the Ku Klux Klan’, or some slight variant upon this name (e.g. ‘Knights of the Ku Klux Klan’, ‘United Klans of America’), that have emerged and disappeared over the century and a half since the name was first coined in the aftermath of the American Civil War.

Most of these groups had small memberships, recruited and were active in only a single locality and soon disappeared altogether. Yet even those incarnations of the Klan name that had at least some claim to a national, or at least a pan-Southern, membership invariably lacked effective centralized control over local klaverns.

Thus, Wade observes: 

After the Klan had spread outwards from Tennessee, there wasn’t the slightest chance of central control over it – a problem that would characterize the Klan throughout its long career” (p58). 

It is perhaps for this reason that most historians authoring books about the Klan have focussed on Klan activity in only a single time-frame or geographic locality.

Indeed, it is notable, besides Wynn Wade’s ‘The Fiery Cross’, the only other work of which I am aware that even purports to cover the entirety of the Klan’s history (apart from the recently published White Robes and Burning Crosses, which I have not yet read) is David Chambers’ Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan

Yet even this latter work (‘Hooded Americanism’), though it purports in its blurb to be “The only work that treats Ku Kluxism for the entire period of it’s [sic] existence”, actually devotes only a single, short, cursory chapter to the Reconstruction-era Klan, when the group was first founded, arguably at its strongest, and certainly at its most violent.

Moreover, ‘Hooded Americanism’ is composed of separate chapters recounting the history of the Klan in different states in each time period, such that the book lacks an overall narrative structure and is difficult to read. 

In contrast, for those with an interest in the topic, Wade’s ‘The Fiery Cross’ is both readable and informative, and somehow manages to weave the story of the various Klan groups in different parts of the country into a single overall narrative. 

A College Fraternity Turned Terrorist? 

If, today, the stereotypical Klansman is an illiterate redneck, it might come as some surprise that the group’s name actually bears an impressively classical etymology. It derives from the ancient Greek kuklos, meaning ‘circle’. To this was added ‘Klan’, both for alliterative purposes, and in reference to the ostensible Scottish ancestry of the group’s founders.[1]

This classical etymology reflected the social standing and educational background of its founders, who, far from being illiterate rednecks, were, Wade reports, “well educated for their day” (p32). 

Thus, he reports, of the six founder members, two would go on to become lawyers, another would become editor of a local newspaper, and yet another a state legislator (p32). 

Neither, seemingly, was the group formed with any terroristic, or even any discernible political, aspirations in mind. Instead, one of these six founder members, the, in retrospect, perhaps ironicallynamed James Crow, claimed their intention was initially: 

Purely social and for our amusement” (p34). 

Since, as a good white Southerner and Confederate veteran, Crow likely approved the politics with which the Klan later became associated, he had no obvious incentive to downplay a political motive. Certainly, Wade takes him at his word. 

Thus, if the various Klan titles – Grand GoblinImperial Wizard etc. – sound more like what one might expect in, say, a college fraternity than a serious political or terrorist group, then this perhaps reflects the fact that the organization was indeed conceived with just such adolescent tomfoolery in mind. 

Indeed, although it is not mentioned by Wade, it has even been suggested that a then-defunct nineteenth-century fraternity, Kuklos Adelphon, may even have provided a partial model for the group. Thus, Wade writes: 

It has been said that, if Pulaski had had an Elks Club, the Klan would never have been born” (p33). 

White Sheets and Black Victims 

However, from early on, the group’s practical jokes increasingly focussed on the newly-emancipated, and already much resented, black population of Giles County

Yet, even here, intentions were initially jocular, if mean-spirited. Thus, the white sheets famously worn by Klansmen were, Wade informs us, originally conceived in imitation of ghosts, the wearers ostensibly posing as: 

The ghosts of the Confederate dead, who had risen from their graves to wreak vengeance on [the blacks]” (p35). 

This accorded with the then prevalent stereotype of black people as being highly superstitious. 

However, it is likely that few black victims were taken in. Instead, the very real fear that the Klan came to inspire in its predominantly black victims reflected instead the also very real acts of terror and cruelty with which the group became increasingly associated. 

The sheets also functioned, of course, as a crude disguise.  

However, it was only when the Klan name was revived in the early twentieth century, and through the imagination of its reviver, William Joseph Simmons, that this crude disguise was transformed into a mysterious ceremonial regalia, the sale of which was jealously guarded, and an important source of revenue for the Klan leadership. 

Indeed, in the Reconstruction-era Klan, the sheets, though a crude disguise, would not even qualify as a uniform, as there was no standardization whatsoever. Instead:  

Sheets, pillowcases, handkerchiefs, blankets, sacks… paper masks, blackened faces, and undershirts and drawers were all employed” (p60).  

Thus, Wade reports the irony whereby one: 

Black female victim of the Klan was able to recognise one of her assailants because he wore a dress she herself had sewed for his wife” (p60). 

Chivalry – or Reproductive Competition? 

Representing perhaps the original white knights, Klansmen claimed to be acting in order to protect the ostensible virtue and honour of white women. 

However, at least in Wade’s telling, the rapes of white women by black males, upon which white Southern propaganda so pruriently dwelt (as prominently featured, for example, in the movie, Birth of a Nation, and the book upon which the movie was based, The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan) were actually very rare. 

Indeed, he even quotes a former Confederate General, and alleged Klansman, seemingly admitting as much when, on being asked whether such assaults were common, he acknowledged: 

Oh no sir, but one case of rape by a negro upon a white woman was enough to alarm the whole people of the state” (p20). 

Certainly, the Emmett Till case demonstrates that even quite innocuous acts could indeed invite grossly disproportionate responses in the Southern culture of honour, at least where the perceived malfeasors were black. Thus, Wade claims: 

“Sometimes a black smile or the tipping of a hat were sufficient grounds for prosecution for rape. As one southern judge put it, ‘I see a chicken cock drop his wings and take after a hen; my experience and observation assure me that his purpose is sexual intercourse, no other evidence is needed’” (p20). 

Likewise, such infamous cases as the Scottsboro boys and Groveland four illustrate that false allegations were not unknown in the American South. Indeed, false rape allegations remain common to this day

However, I remain skeptical of Wade’s claim that black-on-white rape were quite as rare as he makes out. 

After all, American blacks have had high rates of violent crime ever since records began, and, as contemporary racists are fond of pointing out, today, black-on-white rape is actually quite common, at least as compared to other victim-offender dyads. 

Thus, in Paved with Good Intentions: The Failure of Race Relations in Contemporary America, published in 1992, Jared Taylor reports: 

In a 1974 study in Denver, 40 percent of all rapes were of whites by blacks, and not one case of white-on-black-rape was found. In general, through the 1970s, black-on-white rape was at last ten times more common than white-on-black rape… In 1988 there were 9,406 cases of black-on-white rape and fewer than ten cases of white-on-black rape. Another researcher concludes that in 1989, blacks were three or four times more likely to commit rape than whites and that black men raped white women thirty times as often as white men raped black women” (Paved with Good Intentions: p93) 

Indeed, the authors of one recent textbook on criminology even claim that: 

Some researchers have suggested, because of the frequency with which African Americans select white victims (about 55 percent of the time), it [rape] could be considered an interracial crime” (Criminology: A Global Perspective: p544).[2] 

At any rate, Southern chivalry was rather selectively accorded, and certainly did not extend to black women. 

Indeed, Wade claims that Klansmen themselves, employing a blatant double-standard and rank hypocrisy, actually themselves regularly raped black women during their raids: 

The desire for group intercourse was sometimes sufficient reason for a den to go out on a raid…. Sometimes during a political raid, Klansmen would rape the female members of the household as a matter of course” (p76). 

As someone versed in sociobiological theory who has studied evolutionary psychology, I tempted to see these double-standards in sociobiological terms as a form of reproductive competition, designed to maximize the reproductive success of the white males involved, and indeed of the white race in general.

Thus, for white men, it was open season on black women, but white women were strictly off-limits to black men: 

In Southern white culture, the female was placed on a pedestal where she was inaccessible to blacks and a guarantee of purity of the white race. The black race, however, was completely vulnerable to miscegenation. White men soon learned that women placed on a pedestal acted like statues in bed, and they came to prefer the female slave whom they found open and uninhibited… The more white males turned to female slaves, the more they exalted their own women, who increasingly became a mere ornament and symbol of the Southern way of life” (p20). 

Klan Success? 

The Klan came to stand for the reestablishment of white supremacy and the denial of voting rights to blacks. 

In the short-term, at least, these aims were to be achieved, with the establishment of segregation and effective disenfranchisement of blacks throughout much of the South. Wade, however, denies the Klan any part in this victory: 

The Ku-Klux Klan… didn’t weaken Radical Reconstruction nearly as much as they nurtured it. So long as an organized secret conspiracy swore oaths and used cloak and dagger methods in the South, Congress was willing to legislate against it… Not until the Klan was beaten and the former confederacy turned to more open methods of preserving the Southern way of life did Reconstruction and its Northern support decline” (p109-110). 

Thus, it was, Wade reports, not the Klan, but rather other groups, today largely forgotten, such as Louisiana’s White League and South Carolina’s Red Shirts, that were responsible for successfully scaring blacks away from the polls and ensuring the return of white supremacy in the South. Moreover, he reports that they were only able to do so only because the federal laws enacted to tackle the Klan had ceased to be enforced precisely because the Klan itself had ceased to represent a serious threat. 

On this telling, then, the First Klan was, politically, a failure. In this respect, it was to set the model for later Klans, which would fight a losing rearguard action against Catholic immigration and the civil rights movement. 

Resurrection 

If the First Klan was a failure, why then was it remembered, celebrated and ultimately revived, while other groups, such as the White LeagueRed Shirts and Knights of the White Camelia, which employed similar terrorist tactics in pursuit of the same political objectives, are today largely forgotten? 

Wade does not address this, but one suspects the outlandishness of the group’s name and ceremonial titles contributed, as did the fact that the Klan seems to have been the only such group active throughout the entirety of the former Confederacy

The reborn Klan, founded in the early twentieth century, was the brainchild of William Joseph Simmons, a self-styled professional ‘fraternalist’, alumni of countless other fraternal organizations, Methodist preacher, strict prohibitionist and rumoured alcoholic. 

It is him to whom credit must go for inventing most of the ritualism (aka ‘Klancraft’) and terminology (including the very word ‘Klancraft’) that came to be associated with the Klan in the twentieth century. 

Birth of a Nation’ and the Rebirth of the Klan 

Two further factors contributed to the growth and success of the reborn Klan. First, was the spectacularly successful 1915 release of the movie, The Birth of a Nation

Both deplored for its message yet also grudgingly admired for its technical and artistic achievement, this film occupies a curious place in film history, roughly comparable to Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. (Sergei Eisenstein’s Communist and Stalinist propaganda films curiously, but predictably, receive a free pass.) 

In this movie, pioneering filmmaker DW Griffith is credited with largely inventing much of the grammar of modern moviemaking. If, today, it seems distinctly unimpressive, if not borderline unwatchable, this is, not only because of the obvious technological limitations of the time period, but also precisely because it invented many of the moviemaking methods that cinema-goers, and television viewers, have long previously learnt to take for granted (e.g. cross-cutting). 

Yet, if its technical and artistic innovations have won the grudging respect of film historians, its message is, of course, wholly anathema to modern western sensibilities. 

Thus, portraying the antebellum American South with the same pair of rose-tinted spectacles as those donned by the author of Gone with the Wind, ‘Birth of a Nation’ went even further, portraying blacks during the Reconstruction period as rampant rapists salivating after the flesh of white women, and Klansmen as heroic white knights who saved white womanhood, and indeed the South itself, from the ravages of both reconstruction and of Southern blacks. 

Yet, though it achieved unprecedented box-office success, even being credited as the first modern blockbuster, the movie was controversial even for its time. 

It even became the first movie to be screened in the White House, when, as a favour to Thomas Dixon, the author of the novel upon which the movie was based, the film received an advance, pre-release screening for the benefit of the then-President, Woodrow Wilson, a college acquaintance of Dixon – though what the President thought of it is a matter of dispute.[3]

Indeed, such was the controversy that the movie was to provoke that the nascent NAACP, itself formed only a few years earlier, even launched a campaign to have the film banned outright (p127-8). 

This, of course, puts the lie to the notion that the political left was, until recent times, wholly in favour of freedom of speech and artistic expression

Actually, even then, the Left’s commitment to freedom of expression was, it seems, highly selective, just as it is today. Thus, it was one thing to defend the rights of raving communists, quite another to apply the same principle to racists. 

The Murders of Mary Phagan and Leo Frank

Another factor in the successful resurrection of the Klan were two murders that galvanized popular opinion in the South, and indeed the nation. 

First was the rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old factory girl in Atlanta, Georgia. Second was the lynching of Leo Frank, her boss and ostensible murderer, who was convicted of her murder and sentenced to death, only to have this sentence commuted to life-imprisonment, only to be lynched by outraged locals. 

His lynching was carried out by a group styling themselves ‘The Knights of Mary Phagan’, many of whom would go on to become founder members of the newly reformed Klan. 

It was actually this group, not the Klan itself, which would establish a famous Klan ritual, namely the ascent of Stone Mountain to burn a cross, a ritual Simmons would repeat to inaugurate his nascent Klan a few months later.[4]

Yet, in the history of alleged miscarriages of justice in the American South, the lynching of Leo Frank stands very much apart. 

For one thing, most victims of such alleged miscarriages of justice were, of course, black. Yet Leo Frank was a white man. 

Moreover, most of his apologists insist that the real perpetrator was, in fact, a black man. They are therefore in the unusual position of claiming racism caused white Southerners to falsely convict a white man when they should have pinned the blame on a black instead.

It is true, of course, that Frank was also Jewish. However, there was little history of anti-Semitism in the South. Indeed, I suspect there was more prejudice against him as a wealthy Northerner who had come south for business purposes, and hence as, in Southern eyes, a ‘Yankee carpetbagger’.

Moreover, although his lynching was certainly unjustified, and his conviction possibly unsafe, it is still not altogether clear that Frank was indeed innocent of the murder of which he stood accused.[5]

Wade himself admits that there was some doubt as to his innocence at the time. However, he refers to a deathbed statement by an elderly witness some seventy years later in 1982 as finally proving his innocence: 

Not until 1982 would Frank’s complete innocence come to light as a result of a witness’s deathbed statement” (p143). 

However, a claim made, not in court under oath, but rather to the press for a headline (albeit also in a signed affidavit under oath), by an elderly, dying man, regarding things he had supposedly witnessed some seventy years earlier when he was himself little more than a child, is obviously open to question.

At any rate, it is interesting to note that Frank’s lynching played an important role, not only in the founding of the Second Klan, but also in the genesis of another political pressure group whose influence on American social, cultural and political life has far outstripped that of the Klan and which, unlike the Second Klan, survives to this day – namely the Anti-Defamation League of of B’nai B’rith or ADL

The parallels abound. Just as the Second Klan was a fraternal organization for white protestants, so B’nai B’rith, the organization which birthed the ADL, was a fraternal order for Jews, and Frank himself, surely not uncoincidentally, was president of the Atlanta chapter of the group. 

The organizational efforts of B’nai B’rith to protect Frank, a local chapter president, from punishment can therefore be viewed as analogous to the way in which the Klan itself sought to protect its own members from successful prosecution through its own corrupt links in law enforcement and government and on juries. 

Moreover, just as the Klan was formed to defend and promote the interests of white Christian protestants, so the ADL was formed to protect the interests of Jews.

However, the ADL was to prove far more successful in this endeavour than the Klan had ever been, and, unlike the Second Klan, very much survives, and prospers, to this day.[6]

Klan Enemies 

Jews were not, however, the primary objects of Klan enmity during the twenties – and neither, perhaps surprisingly, were blacks. 

This was, after all, the period that later historians have termed ‘the nadir of American race relations’, when, throughout the South, blacks were largely disenfranchised, and segregation firmly entrenched. 

Yet, from a white racialist perspective, the era is misnamed.[7] Far from a nadir, for white racialists the period represented something like a utopia, lost Eden or Golden Age.[8] 

White supremacy was firmly entrenched and not, it seemed, under any serious threat. The so-called civil rights movement had barely begun.

Of course, then as now, race riots did periodically puncture the apparent peace – at Wilmington in 1898Springfield in 1908Tulsa in 1912Rosewood in 1923, and throughout much of America in 1919

However, unlike contemporary American race riots, these typically took the form of whites attacking blacks rather than vice versa, and, even when the latter did occur, white solidarity was such that the whites invariably gave at least as good as they got.[9]

Thus, in early-twentieth century America, unlike during Reconstruction, there was no need for a Klan to suppress ‘uppity’ blacks. On the contrary, blacks were already adequately suppressed.  

Thus, if the Second Klan was to have an enemy worthy of its enmity, and a cause sufficient to justify its resurrection, and, more important, sufficient to persuade prospective inductees to hand over their membership dues, it would have to look elsewhere. 

To some extent the enemy selected varied on a regional basis, depending on the local concerns of the population. The Klan thus sought, like Hitler’s later NSDAP, to be ‘all things to all men’, and, for some time before it hit upon a winning strategy, the Klan flitted from one issue to another, never really finding its feet. 

However, to the extent the Second Klan, at the national level, was organized in opposition to a single threat or adversary, it was to be found neither in Jews nor blacks, but rather in Catholics. 

Anti-Catholicism 

To modern readers, the anti-Catholicism of the Second Klan seems bizarre. Modern Americans may be racist and homophobic in ever decreasing numbers, but they at least understand racism and homophobia. However, anti-Catholicism of this type, especially in so relatively recent a time period, seems wholly incomprehensible.

Indeed, the anti-Catholicism of the Second Klan is now something of an embarrassment even to otherwise unreconstructed racists and indeed to contemporary Klansmen, and is something they very much disavow and try to play down. 

Thus, anti-Catholicism, at least of this kind, is now wholly obsolete in America, and indeed throughout the English-speaking world outside of Northern Ireland – and perhaps Ibrox Football stadium for ninety minutes on alternate Saturdays for the duration of the Scottish football season. 

It seems something more suited to cruel and barbaric times, such as England in the seventeenth century, or Northern Ireland in the 1970s… or, indeed, Northern Ireland today. But in twentieth century America? Surely not. 

How then can we make sense of this phenomenon? 

Partly, the Klan’s anti-Catholicism reflected the greater religiosity of the age. In particular, the rise of the Second Klan was, at least in Wade’s telling, intimately linked with the rise of Christian fundamentalism in opposition to reforming practices (the so-called Social Gospel) in the early twentieth century.

Indeed, under its first Imperial Wizard, William Joseph Simmons, a Methodist preacher, the new Klan was initially more of a religious organization than it was a political one, and Simmons himself was later to lament the Klan’s move into politics under his successor.[10]

There was, however, also a nativist dimension to the Klan’s rabid anti-Catholicism, since, although Catholics had been present among the first settlers of North America and numbered even among the founding fathers, Catholicism was still associated with recent immigrants to the USA, especially Italians, Irish and Poles, who had yet to fully assimilate into the American mainstream. 

Catholics were also seen as inherently disloyal, as the nature of their religious affiliation (supposedly) meant that they owed ultimate loyalty, not to America, but rather to the Pope in Rome.  

This idea seems to have been a cultural inheritance from the British Isles.[11] In England, Catholics had long been viewed as inherently disloyal, and as desirous to overthrow the monarchy and restore Britain to Catholicism, as, in an earlier age, many had indeed sought to do

This view is, of course, directly analogous to the claim of many contemporary Islamophobes and counter-Jihadists today that the ultimate consequence of Muslim immigration into Europe will be the imposition of Shariah law across Europe.

However, even in the twenties, during the Second Klan’s brief apotheosis, their anti-Catholicism already seemed, in Wade’s words, “strangely anachronistic”, to the point of being “almost astounding” (p179).

Thus, as anti-Catholicism waned as a serious organizing force in American social and political (or even religious) life, it soon became clear that the Klan had nailed their colours to a sinking ship. Thus, as anti-Catholic sentiments declined among the American population at large, so the Klan attempted to distance itself from its earlier anti-Catholicism.[12]

First, anti-Catholicism was simply deemphasized by the Klan in favour of new enemies like communism, trade unionism and the burgeoning civil rights movement. 

Eventually, in the Sixties, the United Klans of America, the then dominant Klan faction in America, announced, during “an all-out crusade for new members”, that: 

Catholics were now welcome to join the Klan – the Communist conspiracy more than made up for the Klan’s former anti-Catholic fears of Americans loyal to a foreign power” (p328). 

Today, meanwhile, the Second Klan’s anti-Catholicism is seen as an embarrassment even by otherwise unreconstructed racists and Klansmen. 

The decline of anti-Catholicism provides, then, an optimistic case-study of the remarkable speed with which (some) prejudices can be overcome.[13]

It also points to an ironic side-effect of the gradual move towards greater tolerance and inclusivity in American society – namely, even groups ostensibly opposed to this process have nevertheless been affected by it. 

In short, even the Klan has become more tolerant and inclusive

Losing Land and Territory

For many nationalists, racial and ethnic conflict is ultimately a matter of competition for territory and land.

It is therefore of interest that the decline of the Klan, and of white protestant identity in the USA, was itself presaged and foreshadowed by two land sales, one in the early-twenties, when Klan membership was at a peak, and a second just over a decade later, when the decline was already well underway.

First, in the early-twenties, the Klan’s boldly envisaged Klan University had gone bankrupt. The land was sold and a synagogue was constructed on the site. 

Then, under financial pressure in the 1930s as the Depression set in, the Klan was even forced to sell even its main headquarters in Atlanta. 

If selling a Klan university only to see a synagogue constructed on the same site was an embarrassment, then the eventual purchaser of the Klan headquarters was to be an even greater Klan enemy – the Catholic Church. 

Thus, the erstwhile site of the Klan’s grandly-titled Imperial Palace became a Catholic cathedral

Perhaps surprisingly, and presumably in an effort at rapprochement and reconciliation, the new cathedral’s hierarchy reached out to the Klan by inviting the then-Grand Wizard, Hiram Evans, who had outmanoeuvred Simmons for control of the then-lucrative cash-cow during the Klan’s twenties heyday, to the new Cathedral’s inaugural service. 

Perhaps even more surprisingly, Evans actually accepted the invitation. Afterwards, even more surprisingly still, he was quoted as observing: 

It was the most ornate ceremony and one of most beautiful services I ever saw” (p265). 

More beautiful even than a cross-burning!

Evans was forced to resign immediately afterwards. However, in deemphasizing anti-Catholicism, he correctly gaged the public mood and the Klan was later, if belatedly, to follow his lead. 

The Turn to Terror 

The Klan is seemingly preadapted to terror. However benign the intentions of its successive founders, each Klan descended into violence. 

If the First Klan was formed, as a sort of college fraternity, the Second Klan seems to have been conceived primarily as a money-making venture, and hence, in principle, no more inherently violent than the Freemasons or the Elks

Yet the turn to terror was perhaps, in retrospect, inevitable. After all, this new Klan had been modelled on what had been, or at least become, a terrorist group (namely, the First Klan), employed masks, and, from the lynching of Leo Frank, had associated itself with vigilantism from the very onset. 

Interestingly, although precise data is not readily available, one gets the distinct impression that, during this era of Klan activity, most of the victims of its violence were, not blacks nor even Catholics, but rather the very white protestant Christians whom the Klan ostensibly existed to protect, or, more specifically, those among this community who had somehow offended against the values of the community, or simply offended Klansmen themselves. 

Of course, lynchings of blacks continued, at least in the South. But these were rarely conducted under the auspices of the Klan, since these were a longstanding tradition that long predated the Klan’s re-emergence, and the perpetrators of such acts rarely felt the need to wear masks to conceal their identities, let alone don the elaborate apparel, and pay the requisite membership dues, of the upstart Klan.[14]

But Klan violence per se did not always deter new members. On the contrary, some seem to have been attracted by it. Thus, Klan recruiters (‘Kleagles’) at first maintained that newspaper exposés amounted to free publicity and only helped them in their recruitment drive. 

Instead, Wade claims, more than violence, it was the perceived hypocrisy of Klan leaders which ultimately led to the group’s demise (p254).  

Thus, it purported to champion prohibition, temperance and Christian values, but had been founded by Simmons, a rumoured alcoholic, while its (hugely successful) marketing and recruitment campaign was headed by Edward Young Clarke and Mary Elizabeth Tyler of the Southern Publicity Association, who were openly engaged in an extra-marital affair with one another. 

However, the most damaging scandal to hit the Klan, which, as we have seen, purported to champion Prohibition and the protection of the sanctity of white womanhood, combined both violence, drunkenness and hypocrisy, and occurred when DC ‘Steve’ Stephenson, a hugely successful Indianna Grand Dragon, was convicted of the rape, kidnap and murder of Madge Oberholtzer, herself a white protestant woman, during a drunken binge. 

In fact, by the time of the assault, Stephenson had already split from the national Klan to form his own rival, exclusively Northern, Klan group. However, his former prominence in the organization meant that, though they might disclaim him, the Klan could never wholly disassociate themselves from him.  

It seems to have been this scandal more than any other which finally discredited the Klan in the minds of most Americans. Thus, Wade concludes: 

The Klan in the twenties began and ended with the death of an innocent young girl. The Mary Phagan-Leo Frank case had been the spark that ignited the Klan. And the Oberholtzer-Stephenson case had put out the fire” (p247). 

Decline 

Thenceforth, the Klan’s decline was as rapid and remarkable as its rise. Thus, Wade reports: 

In 1924 the Ku Klux Klan had boasted more than four million members. By 1930, that number had withered to about forty-five thousand… No other American movement has ever risen so high and fallen so low in such a short period” (p253). 

Indeed, in Wade’s telling, even its famous 1925 march on Washington “proved to be its most spectacular last gasp”, attracting, Wade reports, “only half of the sixty thousand expected” (p249) 

The National gathering of thirty thousand was less than what [DC Stephenson] could have mustered in Indiana alone during the Klan’s heyday” (p250). 

Not only did numbers decline, so did the membership profile. 

Thus, initially, the new group had attracted members from across the socioeconomic spectrum of white protestant America, or at least among all those who could afford the membership dues. Indeed, analyses of surviving membership rolls suggest that the Klan in this era was, at first, a predominantly middle-class group representing what was then the heart of Middle America

However, probably as a consequence of the revelations of violence, the respectable classes increasingly deserted the group.

Klan defections began with the prominent, the educated and the well-to-do, and proceeded down through the middle-class” (p252). 

Thus, the stereotype of the archetypal Klansman as an uneducated, semi-literate, tattooed, beer-swilling redneck gradually took hold. 

Indeed, from 1926 or so, the Klan even sought to reclaim this image as a positive attribute, portraying themselves as, in their own words, “a movement of plain people” (p252). 

But this marketing strategy, in Wade’s telling, badly backfired, since even less well-off, but ever aspirant, Americans hardly wanted to associate themselves with a group that admitted to being uneducated hicks (Ibid.). 

As well as the membership narrowing in its socioeconomic profile, Klan membership also retreated geographically. 

Thus, in its brief heyday, the Second Klan, unlike its Reconstruction-era predecessor, had had a truly national membership. 

Indeed, the state with the largest membership was said to be Indiana, where DC ‘Steve’ Stephenson, in the few years before his dramatic downfall, was said to have built up a one-man political machine that briefly came to dominate politics in the Hoosier State. 

However, in the aftermath of the fall of Stephenson and his Indiana Klan, the Klan was to haemorrhage members in not just Indiana, but throughout the North. The result was that: 

By 1930, the Klan’s little strength was concentrated in the South. Over the next half-century the Klan would gradually lose its Northern members, regressing more and more closely towards its Reconstruction ancestor until, by the 1960s, it would stand as a near-perfect replica” (p252) 

Thenceforth, the Klan was to remain, once again, a largely Southern phenomenon, with what little numerical strength it retained overwhelmingly concentrated in the states of the former Confederacy. 

Death and Taxes – The Only Certainties in Life 

The Second Klan was finally destroyed, however, not by declining membership, violent atrocities, bad publicity and inept brand-management, nor even by government prosecution, though all these factors did indeed play a part.  

Rather, the final nail in the Klan’s coffin was dealt by the taxman. 

In 1944, the Inland Revenue demanded restitution in respect of unpaid taxes due on the profits earnt from subscription dues during the Klan’s brief but lucrative 1920s membership boom (p275). 

The Klan, which had been haemorrhaging members even before the 1930s Depression, and, unlike the economy as a whole, had yet to recover, was already in a dire financial situation. Therefore, it could never hope to pay the monies demanded by the government, and instead was forced to declare bankruptcy (p275). 

Thenceforth, the Klan was no more. 

Ultimately, then, the government destroyed the Klan the same way had did Al Capone – failure to pay their taxes! 

The Klan and the Nazis – A Match Made in Hell? 

In between recounting the Klan’s decline, Wade also discusses its supposed courtship of, or by, the pro-Nazi German-American Bund

Actually, however, a careful reading of Wade’s account suggests that he exaggerates the extent of any such association. 

Thus, it is notable, if bizarre, that, in Wade’s own telling, the Bund’s leader, German-born Fritz Julius Kuhn, in seeking the “merging of the Bund with some native American organization who would shield it from charges of being a ‘foreign’ agency”, had first set his sights on that most native of “native American organizations” – namely, Native Americans (p269-70). 

When this quixotic venture inevitably ended in failure, if only due to “profound indifference on the Indians’ part”, only then did the rebuffed Kuhn turn his spurned attentions to the Klan (p270). 

Yet the Klan seemed to have been almost as resistant to Kuhn’s advances as the Native Americans had been. Thus, Wade quotes Kuhn as admitting, somewhat ambiguously:

The Southern Klans did not want to be known in it… So the negotiations were between representatives of the Klans in New Jersey and Michigan, but it was understood that the Southerners were in” (p270). 

Yet, by this time, in Wade’s own telling, the Klan was extremely weak in Northern states such as New Jersey and Michigan, and what little numerical strength it retained was concentrated in the Southern states of the former Confederacy. 

This suggests that it was only the already marginalized northern Klan groups who, bereft of other support, were willing to entertain the notion of an alliance with Bund. 

If the Southern Klan leadership was indeed aware of, and implicitly approved, the link, it was nevertheless clear that they wanted to keep any such association indirect and at an arm’s length, hence maintaining plausible deniability

This is perhaps the only way we can make sense of Kuhn’s acknowledgement, on the one hand, that “the Southern Klans did not want to be known in it”, while, on the other, that “it was understood that the Southerners were in” (p270). 

Thus, when negative publicity resulted from the joint Klan-Bund rally in New Jersey, the national (i.e. Southern) Klan leadership was quick to distance itself from and disavow any notion of an alliance, promptly relieving the New Jersey Grand Dragon of his office.

On reflection, however, this is little surprise.

For one thing, German-Americans, especially those who willing to flagrantly flaunt their ‘dual loyalty’ by joining a group like the German-American Bund, were themselves exactly the type of hyphenated-Americans that the 100% Americans of the Klan professed to despise.

Indeed, though they may have been white and (mostly) protestant, German-Americans own integration into the American mainstream was, especially after the anti-German sentiment aroused during the First World War, still very much incomplete. 

Today, of course, we might think of Nazis and the Klan as natural allies, both being, after all, that most reviled species of humanity – namely, white racists.

However, besides racialism, the Klan and the Nazis actually had surprisingly little in common. 

After all, the Klan was a Protestant fundamentalist group opposed to Darwinism and the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools.

Hitler, in contrast, was an ardent social Darwinist, who was reported by his confidents as harbouring a profound antipathy to the Christian faith, albeit one he kept out of his public pronouncements for reasons of political expediency, and some of whose followers even championed a return to Germanic paganism.[15]

Indeed, even their shared racialism was directed primarily towards different targets.

In Germany, blacks, though indeed persecuted by the Nazis, were few in number, and hence not a major target of Nazi propaganda, animosity or persecution – and nor were Catholics among the groups targeted for persecution by the Nazis, Hitler himself having been raised as a Catholic in his native Austria.[16]

Yet, if Catholics were not among the groups targeted for persecution by the Nazis, members of secret societies like the Klan very much were. 

Thus, among the less politically-fashionable targets for persecution by the Nazis were both the Freemasons and indeed the closest thing Germany had to a Ku Klux Klan. 

Thus, in 1923 a Klan-like group, “the German Order of the Fiery Cross”, had been founded in Germany in imitation of the Klan, by an expatriate German on his return to the Fatherland from America (p266). 

Yet, ironically, it was Hitler himself who ultimately banned and suppressed this German Klan imitator (p267). 

The Third Klan/s 

The so-called Third Klan was really not one Klan, but many different Klans, each not only independent of one another, but also often in fierce competition with one another for members and influence. 

They filled the vacuum left by the defunct Second Klan and competed to match its size, power and influence – though none were ever to succeed. 

From this point, it is no longer really proper to talk about the Klan, since there was not one Klan but rather many separate Klans, with little if any institutional connections with one another. 

Moreover, the different Klan groups varied more than ever in their ethos and activity. Thus, Wade reports: 

Some Klans were quietly ineffective, some were violent and some were borderline psychotic” (p302) 

With no one group maintaining a registered trademark over the Klan ‘brand’, inevitably the atrocities committed by one group ended up discrediting even other groups with no connection to them. The Klan ‘brand’ was irretrievably damaged, even among those who might otherwise be attracted to its ideology and ethos.[17] 

Indeed, the plethora of different groups was such that even Klansmen themselves were confused, one Dragon complaining: 

The old countersigns and passwords won’t work because all Klansmen are strangers to each other” (p302). 

Increasingly, opposition to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, rather than to Catholicism, now seems to have become the Klan’s chief preoccupation and the primary basis upon which Klaverns, and Kleagles, sought to attract recruits. 

However, respectable opposition to desegregation throughout the South was largely monopolized by the Citizens’ Councils.

Indeed, in Wade’s telling, “preventing a build-up of the Ku Klux Klan” was, quite as much as opposing desegregation, one of the principal objectives for which the Citizens Councils had been formed, since “violence was bad for business, and most of the council leaders were businessmen” (p299). 

If this is true, then perhaps the Citizens Councils were more successful in achieving their objectives than they are usually credited as having been. Segregation, of course, was gone and did not come back – but, then again, neither did the Klan. 

Yet, in practice, Wade reports, the main impact of the Citizens Councils on the Klan was: 

Not so much eliminating the Klan as leaving it with nothing but nothing but the violence prone dregs of Southern white society” (p302). 

Thus, the Klan’s image, and the characteristic socioeconomic status of its membership profile, declined still further. 

The electoral campaigns of the notorious segregationist and governor of Alabama George Wallace also had a similar effect. Thus, Wade reports: 

Wallace’s campaigns… swallowed a lot of disaffected Klansmen. In fact, Wallace’s campaigns offered them the first really viable alternative to the Klan” (p364). 

Political Cameos and Reinventions 

Here in Wade’s narrative, the myriad of disparate Klan groups inevitably fade into the background, playing a largely reactive, and often violent but nevertheless largely ineffective, and often outright counterproductive, role in opposing desegregation. 

Instead, the starring role is taken, in Wade’s own words, by: 

Two men who were masters of the electronic media: an inspired black minister, Martin Luther King, and a pragmatic white politician, JFK, who would work in an uneasy but highly productive tandem” (p310). 

Actually, in my view, it would be more accurate to say that the starring role was taken by two figures who are today vastly overrated on account of their respective early deaths by assassination, and consequent elevation to martyr status. 

In fact, however, while Wade’s portrait of King is predictably hagiographic, that of Kennedy is actually refreshingly revisionist. 

Far from the liberal martyr of contemporary left-liberal imagining, Kennedy was, in Wade’s telling, only a “pragmatic white politician”, and moreover only a rather late convert to the African-American civil rights movement

Indeed, before he first took office, Wade reports, Kennedy had actually endorsed the the Dunning School of historiography regarding the Reconstruction-era, was critical of Eisenhower having sent the National guard into Arkansas to enforce desegregation, and only reluctantly, when his hand was forced, himself sent the National Guard into Alabama (p317-22). 

Meanwhile, another political figure making a significant cameo appearance in Wade’s narrative, ostensibly on the opposite side of the debate over desegregation, is the notorious segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace

Yet Wade’s take on Wallace is, in many respects, as revisionist as his take on Kennedy. Thus, far from a raving racist and staunch segregationist, Wade argues: 

In retrospect… no one used and manipulated the Klansmen more than Wallace. He gave them very few rewards for their efforts on his behalf: often his approval was enough. And in spite of his fiery cant and cries of ‘Never!’ that so thrilled Klansmen, Wallace was a former judge who well understood the law – especially how far he could bend it” (p322). 

Thus, Wade reports, while it is well-known that Wallace famously blocked the entrance to the University of Alabama preventing black students from entering, what is less well-known is that: 

When the marshals asked for the black students to be admitted in the afternoon, Wallace quietly stepped aside. Instead of being recognized, at best, as a practical politician or, at worst, a pompous coward, Wallace was instead hailed by Klansmen as a dauntless hero” (p322). 

Thus, if Kennedy was, in Wade’s telling, “a pragmatic white politician”, then Wallace emerges as an outright political chameleon and shameless opportunist. 

As further evidence for this interpretation, what Wade does not get around to mentioning is that, in his first run for the governorship of Alabama in 1958, Wallace had actually spoken against the Klan and been backed by the NAACP, only after his defeat vowing, as he was eloquently quoted as observing, ‘never to be outniggered again’ again, and hence reinventing himself as an (ostensible) arch-segregationist. 

Neither does Wade mention that, in his last run for governor in 1982, reinventing himself once again as a born-again Christian, Wallace actually managed to win over 90% of the black vote

Yet even Wallace’s capacity for political reinvention is outdone by that of one of his supporters and speech-writers, former Klan leader Asa ‘Ace’ Carter, a man so notorious for his racism that even the Wallace denied employing him, but who was supposedly responsible for penning the words to Wallace’s infamous segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech

Expelled from a Citizens’ Council for extremism, Carter had then founded and briefly reigned as tin pot führer of one of the most violent Klan outfits – “the Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy, which resembled a cell of Nazi storm troopers” (p303). 

This group was responsible for one of the worst Klan atrocities of the period, namely the literal castration of a black man, whom they: 

Castrated… with razor blades; and then tortured… with by pouring kerosene and turpentine over his wounds” (p303). 

This gruesome act was, according to a Klan informant, performed for no better reason than as a “test of one of the members’ mettle before being elected ‘captain of the lair” (p303). 

The group was also, it seems, too violent even for its own good. Thus, it subsequently broke up when, in a dispute over financing and the misappropriation of funds, Carter was to shoot two fellow members, yet, for whatever reason, never stood trial (Ibid.). 

Yet what Wade does not get around to mentioning is Asa ‘Ace’ Carter was also, like Wallace, to later successfully reinvent himself, and achieve fame once again, this time as Forrest Carter, an ostensibly half-Native American author who penned such hugely successful novels as The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales (subsequently made into the successful motion picture, The Outlaw Josey Wales, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood) and The Education of Little Tree, an ostensible autobiography of a growing up on an Indian reservation, and a book so sickeningly sentimental that it was even recommended and championed by none other than Oprah Winfrey! 

The David Duke Show” 

By the 1970s, open support for white supremacy and segregation was in decline, even among white Southerners. This, together with Klansmen’s involvement in such atrocities such as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, might have made it seem that the Klan brand was irretrievably damaged and in terminal decline, never again to play a prominent role in American social or political life again. 

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, the Klan brand did manage one last hurrah in the 1970s, this time through the singular talents of one David Duke

Duke was to turn the Klan’s infamy to his own advantage. Thus, his schtick was to use the provocative imagery of the Klan (white sheets, burning crosses) to attract media attention, but then, having attracted that attention, to come across as much more eloquent, reasonable, intelligent and clean-cut than anyone ever expected a Klansman to be – which, in truth, isn’t difficult. 

The result was a media circus that one disgruntled Klansmen aptly dismissed as “The David Duke Show” (p373). 

It was the same trick that George Lincoln Rockwell had used a generation before, though, whereas Rockwell used Nazi imagery (e.g. swastikas, Nazi salutes) to attract media attention, Duke instead used the imagery of the Klan (e.g. white sheets, burning crosses).

If Duke was a successor to Rockwell, then Duke’s own contemporary equivalent, fulfilling a similar niche for the contemporary American media as the handsome, eloquent, go-to face of white nationalism, is surely Richard Spencer. Indeed, if rumours are to be believed, Spencer even has a similar penchant to Duke for seducing the wives and girlfriends of his colleagues and supporters.. 

Such behaviour, along with his lack of organizational ability, were among the reasons that Duke alienated much of his erstwhile support, haemorrhaging members almost as fast as he attracted them. 

Many such defectors would go on to form rival groups, including Tom Metzger, a TV repairman, who split from Duke to form a more openly militant group calling itself White Aryan Resistance (known by the memorable backronym ‘WAR’), and who achieved some degree of media infamy by starring in multiple television documentaries and talk-shows, before being bankrupted by a legal verdict in which he was held liable for involvement in a murder in which he seems to have had literally no involvement.

However, for Wade, the most important defector was, not Metzger, but rather Bill Wilkinson, perhaps because, unlike Metzger, who, on splitting from Duke, abandoned the Klan name, Wilkinson was to set up a rival Klan group, successfully poaching members from Duke. 

However, lacking Duke’s eloquence and good-looks, Wilkinson had instead to devise to another strategy in order to attract media attention and members. The strategy he hit upon was that of “taking a public stance of unbridled violence” (p375). 

This, together with the fact the fact that he was nevertheless able to evade prosecution, led to the allegation that he was a state agent and his Klan an FBI-sponsored honey trap, an allegation only reinforced by the recent revelation that he is now a multimillionaire in the multiracial utopia of Belize

Besides openly advocating violence, Wilkinson also hit upon another means of attracting members. Thus, Wade reports, he “perfected a technique that other Klan leaders belittled as ‘ambulance chasing’” (p384): 

Wilkinson… traversed the nation seeking racial ‘hot spots’… where he can come into a community, collect a large amount of initiation fees, sell a few robes, sell some guns… collect his money and be on his way to another ‘hot spot’” (p384). 

This is, of course, ironically, the exact same tactic employed by contemporary black race-baiters like Al Sharpton and the Black Lives Matter movement

Owing partly to the violent activities of rival Klan groups from whom he could never hope to wholly disassociate himself, Duke himself eventually came to see the Klan baggage as a liability. 

One by one, he jettisoned these elements, styling himself National Director rather than Imperial Wizard, wearing a suit rather than a white sheet and eventually giving up even the Klan name itself. Finally, in what was widely perceived as an act of betrayal, Duke was recorded offering to sell his membership rolls to Wilkinson, his erstwhile rival and enemy (p389-90). 

In place of the Klan, Duke sought to set up what he hoped would be a more mainstream and respectable group, namely the National Assocation for the Advancement of White People or NAAWP, one of the many short-lived organizations to adopt this rather unimaginative name.[18]

Yet on abandoning the provocative Klan imagery that had first brought him to the attention of the media, Duke suddenly found media attention much harder to come by. Wade concludes:

Duke had little chance at making a go of any Klan-like organization without the sheets and ‘illuminated crosses’. Without the mumbo-jumbo the lure of the Klan was considerably limited. Five years later the National Association for the Advancement of White People hadn’t got off the ground” (p390). 

Duke was eventually to re-achieve some degree of notoriety as a perennial candidate for elective office, initially with some success, even briefly holding a seat in the Louisiana state legislature and winning a majority of the white vote in his 1991 run for Governorship of Louisiana.

However, despite abandoning the Klan, Duke was never to escape its shadow. Thus, even forty years after abandoning the Klan name, Duke was to still find his name forever prefixed with the title former Klansman or former Grand Wizard David Duke, an image he was never able to jettison. 

Today, still railing against “the Jews” to anyone still bothering to listen, his former good looks having long previously faded, Duke cuts a rather lonely figure, marginal even among the already marginal alt-right, and in his most recent electoral campaign, an unsuccessful run for a Senate seat, he managed to pick up only a miserly three percent of the vote, a far cry from his heyday. 

Un-American Americanism 

Where once Klansmen could unironically claim to stand for 100% Americanism, now, were not the very word ‘un-American‘ so tainted by McCarthyism as to sound almost un-American in itself, the Klan could almost be described as a quintessentially un-American organization. 

Indeed, interestingly, Wade reports that there was pressure on the House Un-American Activities Committee to investigate the Klan from even before the committee was first formed. Thus, Wade laments: 

The creation of the Dies Committee had been urged and supported by liberals and Nazi haters who wanted it used as a congressional forum against fascism. But in the hands of chairman Martin Dies of Texas, an arch-segregationist and his reactionary colleagues… the committee instead had become an anachronistic pack of witch hunters who harassed labor leaders… and discovered ‘communists’ in every imaginable shape and place” (p272).

Thus, Wade’s chief objection to the House Un-American Activities Committee seems to be, not that they became witch hunters, but that they chose to hunt, to his mind, the wrong coven of witches. Instead of going after the commies, they should have targeted the racists instead.

Yet what Wade does not mention is that perhaps the most prominent of the “liberals and nazi haters” who advocated for the formation of the HUAC in order persecute fascists and Klansmen, and who, as the joint-chairman of the ‘Special Committee on Un-American Activities’, the precursor to the HUAC, from 1934 to 1937, did indeed use the Committee to target fascists, albeit mostly imaginary ones, was congressman Samuel Dickstein, who was himself a paid Soviet agent, hence proving that McCarthyist concerns regarding communist infiltration and subversion at the highest level of American public life were no delusion.

Ultimately, however, Wade was to have his wish. Thus, the Klan did indeed fall victim to the same illiberal and sometimes illegal FBI cointelpro programme of harassment as more fashionable victims on the left, such as Martin Luther King, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Panther Party (p361-3).

Indeed, according to Wade, it was actually the Klan who were the first victims of this campaign of FBI harassment, with more fashionable victims of the left being targeted only later. Thus, Wade writes:

After developing Cointelpro for the Klan, the FBI also used it against the Black Panthers, civil rights leaders, and antiwar demonstrators” (p363).[19]

Licence to Kill?

The Klan formerly enjoyed a reputation something like that of the the Mafia, namely as a violent dangerous group whom a person crossed at their peril, since, again like the Mafia, they had a proven track record of committing violent acts and getting away with it, largely through their corrupt links with local law enforcement in the South, and the unwillingness of all-white Southern juries to hand down convictions.[20]

Today, however, this reputation is long lost.

Indeed, if today a suspect in a racist murder were outed as a Klansman, this would likely unfairly prejudice a jury of any ethnic composition, anywhere in the country, against him, arguably to the point of denying him any chance of a fair trial. 

Thus, when aging Klansmen, such as Edgar Ray KillenThomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherrywere belatedly put on trial and convicted in the 2000s for killings committed in the early 1960s, some forty years previously, I rather suspect that they received no fairer a trial then than they did, or would have had, when put on trial before all-white juries in the 1960s American South. The only difference was that now the prejudice was against them rather than in their favour. 

Thus, today, we have gone full circle. Quite when the turning point was reached is a matter of conjecture.

Arguably, the last incident of Klansmen unfairly getting away with murder was the so-called Greensboro massacre in 1979, when Klansmen and other white nationalist activists shot up an anti-Klan rally organized by radical left Maoist labour agitators in North Carolina. 

Here, however, if the all-white jury was indeed prejudiced against the victims of this attack, it was not because they were blacks (all but one of the five people killed were actually white), but rather that they were ‘reds’ (i.e. communists).[21]

Today, then, the problem is not with all-white juries in the South refusing to convict Klansmen, but rather with majority-black juries in urban areas across America refusing to convict black defendants, especially on police evidence, no matter how strong the case against them, for example in the OJ case (see also Paved with Good Intentions: p43-4; p71-3). 

Klans Today 

Wade’s ‘The Fiery Cross’ was first published in 1987. It is therefore not, strictly speaking, a history of the Klan for the entirety of its existence right up to the present day, since Klan groups have continued to exist since this date, and indeed continue to exist in modern America even today. 

However, Wade’s book nevertheless seems complete, because such groups have long previously ceased to have any real significance in American political, social and cultural life save as a media bogeyman and folk devils

In its brief 1920s heyday, the Second Klan could claim to play a key role in politics, even at the national level. 

Wade even claims, dubiously as it happens, that Warren G Harding was inducted into the organization in a special and secret White House ceremony while in office as President (p165).

Certainly, they helped defeat the candidacy of Al Smith, on account of his Catholicism, in 1924 and again in 1928 (p197-99). 

Some half-century later, during the 1980 presidential election campaign, the Klan again made a brief cameo, when each candidate sought to associate the Klan with their opponent, and thereby discredit him. Thus, Reagan was accused of insensitivity for praising “states’ rights, to which Reagan retorted by accusing his opponent, inaccurately as it happens, of opening his campaign in the city that “gave birth to and is the parent body of the Ku Klux Klan”. 

This led Grand Dragon Bill Wilkinson to declare triumphantly: 

We’re not an issue in this Presidential race because we’re insignificant” (p388). 

Yet what Wilkinson failed to grasp, or at least refused to publicly admit, was that the Klan’s role was now wholly negative. Neither candidate actually had any actual Klan links; each sought to link the Klan only with their opponent.

Whereas in the 1920s, candidates for elective office had actively and openly courted Klan votes, by the time of the 1980 Presidential election to have done so would have been electoral suicide. 

The Klan’s role, then, was as bogeymen and folk devils – roughly analogous to that played by Willie Horton in the 1988 presidential campaign; the role NAMBLA plays in the debate over gay rights; or, indeed, the role communists played during the First and Second Red Scares.[22]

Indeed, although in modern America lynching has fallen into disfavour, one suspects that, if it were ever to re-emerge as a popular American pastime and application of participatory democracy to the judicial process, then, among the first contemporary folk devils to be hoisted from a tree, alongside paedophiles and other classes of sex offender, would surely be Klansmen and other unreconstructed white racists. 

Likewise, today, if a group of Klansmen attempt to march in any major city in America then a police presence is required, not to protect innocent blacks, Jews and Catholics from rampaging Klansmen, but rather to protect the Klansmen themselves from angry assailants of all ethnicities, but mostly white. 

Indeed, the latter, styling themselves Antifa (an abbreviation of anti-fascist), despite their positively fascist opposition to freedom of speech, expression and assembly, have even taken, like Klansmen of old, to wearing masks to disguise their identities

Perhaps anti-masking laws, first enacted to defeat the First Klan, and later resurrected to tackle later Klan revivals, must be revived once again, but this time employed, without prejudice, against the contemporary terror, and totalitarianism, of the militant left. 

Endnotes

[1] The only trace of possible illiteracy in the name is found in the misspelling of ‘clan’ as ‘klan’, presumably, again, for alliterative purposes, or perhaps reflecting a legitimate spelling in the nineteenth century when the group was founded.

[2] The popular alt-right meme that there are literally no white-on-black rapes is indeed untrue, and reflects the misreading of a table in a government report that actually involved only a small sample. In fact, the government does not currently release data on the prevalence of interracial rape. However, there is no doubt that black-on-white rape is much more common than white-on-black rape. Similarly, in the US prison system, where male-male rape is endemic, such assaults disproportionately involve non-white assaults on white inmates, as discussed by a Human Rights Watch report.

[3] The then-president Woodrow Wilson (who, in addition to being a politican, was also a noted historian of the reconstruction period, of Southern background, and sympathies, whose five-volume book, A History of the American People, on the reconstruction period is actually quoted in several of the movie’s title cards) was later quoted as describing the movie, in some accounts the first moving picture that he had ever seen, as: 

History [writ] with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true” (p126). 

However, during the controversy following the film’s release, Wilson himself later issued a denial that he had ever uttered any such words, insisting that he had only agreed to the viewing as a “courtesy extended to an old acquaintance” and that:

The President was entirely unaware of the character of the play before it was presented and has at no time expressed his approbation of it” (p137).

This claim is, however, doubtful given the notoriety of the novel and play upon which the film had been based, and of its author, Thomas Dixon.

[4] Like so many other aspects of what is today considered Klan ritual, there is no evidence that cross-burning, or cross-lighting as devout Christian Klansmen prefer to call it, was ever practised by the original Reconstruction-era Klan. However, unlike other aspects of Klan ritualism, it had been invented, not by Simmons, but by novelist Thomas Dixson (by way of Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake), in imitation of an ostensible Scottish tradition, for his book, The Clansman: A Historical romance of the Ku Klux Klan, upon which novel the movie Birth of a Nation was based. The new Klan was eventually granted an easement in perpetuity over Stone Mountain, allowing it to repeat this ritual.

[5] A conviction may be regarded as unsafe, and even as a wrongful conviction, even if we still believe the defendant might be guilty of the crime with which s/he is charged. After all, the burden is on the prosecution to prove that the defendant is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. If there remains reasonable doubt, then the defendant should not have been convicted. Steve Oney, who researched the case intensively for his book, And the Dead Shall Rise, concedes that “the case [against Frank] is not as feeble as most people say it is”, but nevertheless concludes that Frank was probably innocent, “but there is enough doubt to leave the door ajar” (Berger, Leo Frank Case Stirs Debate 100 Years After Jewish Lynch Victim’s Conviction, Forward, August 30, 2013).

[6] The ADL ’s role in Wade’s narrative does not end here, since the ADL would later play a key role in fighting later incarnations of the Klan.

[7] Indeed, even from a modern racial egalitarian perspective, the era is arguably misnamed. After all, from a racial egalitarian perspective, the plantation era, when slavery was still practised, was surely worse, as surely was the period of bloody conflict between Native Americans and European colonists.

[8] Even among open racists, support for slavery is rare. Therefore, few American racists openly pine for a return to the plantation era. Segregation is, then, then next best thing, short of the actual expulsion of blacks back to Africa. Thus, it is common to hear white American racialists hold up early twentieth century America as lost Eden. For example, many blame the supposed decline of the US public education system on desegregation.

[9] It is thus a myth that oppressed peoples invariably revolt against their oppressors. In reality, truly oppressed peoples, like blacks in the South in this period, tend to maintain a low profile precisely so as to avoid incurring the animosity of their oppressors. It is only when they sense weakness in their oppressors, or ostensible oppressors, that insurrections tend to occur. This then explains the paradox that black militancy in America seems to be inversely proportional to the actual extent of black oppression. Thus, the preeminent black leader in America at the height of the Jim Crow era was Booker T Washington, by modern standards a conservative, if not an outright Uncle Tom. Yet, today, when blacks are the beneficiaries, not the victims of discrimination, in the form of what is euphemistically called affirmative action, and it is whites who are ‘walking on eggshells’ and in fear of losing their jobs if they say something offensive to certain protected groups, American blacks are seemingly more militant and belligerent than ever, as the recent BLM riots have shown only too well. 

[10] This disavowal may have been disingenuous and reflected the fact that, by this time, Simmons had lost control of the then-lucrative cash-cow.

[11] Thus, in Ireland, the Protestant minority opposed Home Rule’ for Ireland (a form of devolution, or self-government, that fell short of full independence) on the grounds that it would supposedly amount, in effect, to Rome Rule, due to the Catholic majority in Ireland.

[12] Interestingly, unlike the Klan, another initially anti-Catholic fraternal order, Junior Order of United American Mechanics, successfully jettisoned both its earlier anti-Catholicism, and a similar association with violence, to reinvent itself as a respectable, non-sectarian beneficent group. However, the Klan was ultimately unable to achieve the same feat. 

[13] Of course, other forms of intergroup prejudice have been altogether more intransigent and long-lasting. Indeed, even anti-Catholicism itself had a long history. Pierre van den Berghe, in his excellent The Ethnic Phenomenon (which I have reviewed here and here), argues that assimilation is possible on in specific circumstances, namely when the groups to be assimilated are: 

Similar in physical appearance and culture to the group to which it assimilates, small in proportion to the total population, of low status and territorially dispersed” (The Ethnic Phenomenon: p219). 

Thus, those hoping other forms of intergroup prejudice (e.g. anti-black sentiment in the USA, or indeed the continuing animosity between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland) can be similarly overcome in such a short period of time in coming years are well-advised not to hold their breaths.

[14] In the many often graphic images of lynchings of black victims accessible via the internet, I have yet to find one in which the lynch-mobs are dressed in the ceremonial regalia of the Klan. On the contrary, far from wearing masks, the perpetrators often proudly face the camera, evidently feeling no fear of retribution or legal repercussions for their vigilantism.

[15] The question of the religious beliefs, if any, of Hitler is one of some controversy. Certainly, many leading  figures in the National Socialist regime, including Martin Bormann and Alfred Rosenberg, were hostile to Christianity. Likewise, Hitler is reported as making anti-Christian statements in private, in both Hitler’s Table Talk, and by such confidents as Speer in his memoirs. Hitler talked of postponing his Kirchenkampf, or settling of accounts with the churches, until after the War, not wishing to fight enemies on multiple fronts.

[16] To clarify, it has been claimed that the Catholic Church faced persecution in National Socialist Germany. However, this persecution did not extend to individual Catholics, save those, including some priests, who opposed the regime and its policies, in which case the persecution reflected their political activism rather than their religion as such. Although Hitler was indeed hostile to Christianity, Catholicism very much included, Nazi conflict with the Church seems to have reflected primarily the fact that the Nazis, as a totalitarian regime, sought to control all aspects of society and culture in Germany, including those over which the Church had formerly claimed hegemony (e.g. education).

[17] In a later era, this was among the reasons given by David Duke in his autobiography for his abandonment of the Klan brand, since his own largely non-violent Klan faction was, he complained, invariably confused with, and tarred with the same brush as, other violent Klan factions through guilt by association

[18] Duke later had a better idea for a name for his organization – namely, the National Organization For European American Rights, which he intended to be known by the memorable acronym, NO-FEAR. Unfortunately for him, however, the clothing company who had already registered this name as a trademark thought better of it and forced him to change the group’s name to the rather less memorable European-American Unity and Rights Organization (or EURO).

[19] Certainly, the Klan was henceforth a major target of the FBI. Indeed, the FBI were even accused, in a sting operation apparently funded by the ADL, of provoking one Klan bombing in which a woman, Kathy Ainsworth, herself one of the bombers and an active, militant Klanswoman, was killed (p363). The FBI was also implicated in another Klan killing, namely that of civil rights campaigner Viola Liuzzo, since an FBI agent was present with the killers in the car from which the fatal shots were fired (p347-54). Indeed, Wade reports that “about 6 percent of all Klansmen in the late 1960s worked for the FBI” (p362).

[20] Thus, former Klan leader David Duke, in his autobiographical My Awakening, reports that, when he and other arrestees were outed as Klansmen in a Louisiana prison, the black prisoners, far attacking them, were initially cowed by the revelation: 

At first, it seemed my media reputation intimidated them. The Klan had a reputation, although undeserved, like that of the mafia. Some of the Black inmates obviously thought that if they did anything to harm me, a “Godfather” type of character, they might soon end up with their feet in cement at the bottom of the Mississippi.

[21] All but one of those killed, Wade reports, were leaders of the Maoist group responsible for the anti-Klan rally (p381). Wade uses this to show that the violence was premeditated, having been carefully planned and coordinated by the Klansmen and neo-Nazis. However, the fact that they were leading figures in this Maoist group would also likely mean that they were hardly innocent victims, at least in the eyes of conservative white jurors in North Carolina. In fact, the victims were indeed highly unsympathetic, not merely on account of their politics, but also on account of the fact that they had seemingly deliberately provoked the Klan attack, openly challenging the Klan to attend their provocatively titled ‘Death to the Klan’ rally (p379), and, though ultimately heavily outgunned, they themselves seem to have first initiated the violence by attacking the cars carrying Klansmen with placards (p381).

[22] This was the same role that the Klan was to play once again during the recent Trump presidential campaigns, as journalists trawled the South in search of grizzled, self-appointed Grand Dragons willing, presumably in return for a few drinks, to offer their unsolicited endorsement of the Trump candidature and thereby, in the journalists’ own minds, and that of some of their readers, discredit him through guilt-by-association.