31 May 2008

Applebaum Sour on Baker and Blogs

In a review entitled The Blog of War, Anne Applebaum first parodies then purees Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (via A&L Daily).
Baker never answers the questions that he asks. That is, he has not undertaken the historian's task of hearing multiple arguments, listening to myriad explanations, looking at a wide range of evidence and then marshaling the evidence in order to draw a conclusion. He has not even carefully examined, as other historians have done, the various arguments about the aerial bombardment of civilians--the military tactic that appears to bother him most--to make a judicious argument against its use. Instead, he has used his license as a "novelist" to excuse himself from all of the tedious work of genuine knowledge. By way of research, he has read back issues of The New York Times and The New York Herald Tribune, along with a notably limited group of other historical sources, all long familiar. From them, he has plucked bits of information, shards of the historical record that he finds compelling, or perhaps contrary to what he imagines to be the conventional wisdom--and left his readers to draw their own conclusions.

Here is where I should note, and gladly, that there are many legitimate ways to write history, even many avant-garde, non-linear, novelistic ways to write history, as the historiography of World War II itself well illustrates. There are, after all, political histories of that war, diplomatic histories, social histories, military histories, and intellectual histories, as well as histories written from American, British, Polish, Russian, German, Jewish, Japanese, Slovak, Estonian, Bulgarian, Chinese, and Italian points of view, among dozens of others. Besides all that, there are shelves of memoirs of victims and the children of victims, and perpetrators and the children of perpetrators. There are more purely literary accounts, such as W.G. Sebald's semi-autobiographical novels, which mix fact and fiction but are nonetheless deeply committed to understanding precisely what happened and why....

But what Baker has produced is nothing like this, nothing like history. You cannot fault his scholarship, because aside from the process of accumulating a set of anecdotes, no scholarship has been conducted. Though the book purports to pronounce upon the international situation, all of Baker's sources are in English. Almost all of the stories take place in America, Britain or Germany, as if the war was not really happening in Eastern Europe or Russia, let alone Indonesia and Singapore. He has not worked with many primary sources, other than a few memoirs, and he has not discovered any new material. He leaves out enormous chunks of the story. His description of the invasion of Poland in September, 1939, is limited to two sentences--Goering "ordered a thousand planes into Poland. There were dive-bombers over Danzig"--and he does not mention the Soviet invasion of Poland seventeen days later at all.

You cannot disagree with Baker's argument, because no argument has been made. Baker does not build a case, he insinuates something, leaving the reader to guess what. My best paraphrase of his view goes like this: Churchill was a bully and a drunk. The Roosevelts were snobs and anti-Semites. Therefore they were not good people. Therefore their so-called "good" war must have been hypocritical. Therefore they could only have been fighting because they were in hock to the military industrial complex and they had a bloodthirsty fondness for bombing raids. Moreover, the Holocaust was in part a German response to British aggression, and the Japanese invasion of China was a response to Chinese aggression, and Britain's very participation in the war was the result of Churchill's aggression, especially his stubborn refusal to respond to Hitler's "peace offensive." Therefore the pacifists were right....

Perhaps, I wondered at one point, the whole book is a gigantic practical joke, a stunt intended to provoke scholars, anger Jews, infuriate Poles, and thereby create massive publicity for Nicholson Baker. And so my initial reaction to Human Smoke was to throw it across the room. Subsequently, I discovered that this reaction was very common, especially among practicing historians.
But then she segues into a sour diatribe on blogs and Wikipedia.
Unlike Nicholson Baker or the editors of Gawker, I cannot really supply an anecdote that will explain, in a hundred words or less, why I decided to pick up the book again and write this review. But a few days after finishing Human Smoke as well as Baker's treatise on Wikipedia, I happened to be sitting with a group of writers, historians, and critics, all fellows at the American Academy in Berlin, talking about it. As fate would have it--Baker loves portentous and possibly significant coincidences, and who doesn't?--we were sitting in a villa overlooking the Wannsee. Just across the lake, we could see the Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz, the place where, in 1942, the Nazis decided to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

Had the drunken Churchill and the anti-Semite Roosevelt not decided to fight World War II, none of us would have been there. There would have been no American Academy in Berlin, of course, with its prominently hung portrait of the villa's original Jewish owners, now the Academy's patrons; indeed, there would have been no Jews in Berlin, no Americans in Berlin, and no critics and writers in Berlin, save those approved by the Third Reich. Instead, a happy Nazi family would have been looking out over the lake, enjoying the same view.

Yet the dull truth is that we arrived at the topic of Nicholson Baker not because we were talking about the war, but because we were talking about the contemporary cult of the non-expert, or rather the anti-expert: the bloggers who assume that the "mainstream media" is always wrong, the Wikipedia readers who think that a compilation of random anecdotes is always preferable to a learned study, and of course the college students who nowadays prefer to get their news in emails from friends because it is too bothersome to read a newspaper. And the even duller truth is that Human Smoke belongs to this cult, and not to the more exotic outer reaches of the historiography of World War II.
Now, I have great respect for Applebaum's knowledge of history and her writing of it. In fact, I think I have blogged more excerpts from her fascinating and well-done Gulag: A History than from any other book I've read. Nor do I have any sympathy for Baker, nor any desire to inhale the smoke he's blowing in the book under review. I'm also getting more sour on the blogosphere these days, as it becomes less and less distinguishable from 24-hour journalism's endless gotcha coverage and partisan shouting matches. And I'm also pretty routinely dismayed by the sloppy amateurishness of much of the stuff I find in Wikipedia (to which I'm contributing more and more these days, but only on subjects I know well).

But, geez, Anne, give us a break. Baker's book was published by Simon and Schuster, not Gawker Media. Book publishers supposedly employ rigorous editors that blog media so often lack. Your review appeared in The New Republic, a magazine whose writers include fabulists and whose fact-checkers have repeatedly fallen down on the job. Most major media outlets have suffered similar embarrassments in recent years. Do you seriously believe that the reliability and expertise of the world's legions of newspaper reporters are any more impressive than those of Wikipedia's legions of contributors? News reports may claim to be the first draft of history, but they are usually the umpteenth draft of tired conventional wisdom. Finally, did the writing of purblind, partisan, and provincial-minded history only begin with blogging? Surely the writing of such history began with the advent of writing, the beginning of history.

3 comments:

Aidan Kehoe said...

Also relevant, but in a slightly different field, is this, from Ben Goldacre on mainstream media credulity in medicine in particular.

Martin Wisse said...

Is Applebaum really saying that the Second World War was fought to rescue the Jews there?

Because if she does, she has no right to criticise anybody else for shoddy historical research.

Joel said...

Martin,

I think it's pretty obvious she was saying there would be far fewer Jews to rescue, especially in the heart of Germany, if the U.S. hadn't entered the European theater of the war.