Some listening, reading, and viewing pleasures
Frank Meyer and Cold War Racism
I’ve frequently enthused about Know Your Enemy, a podcast where Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell dissect the history and politics of the American right. The latest episode, on National Review editor Frank Meyer (1909-1972) is, as the kids say nowadays, an absolute banger. Meyer was the central figure in creating the fusionist synthesis of traditionalism and libertarianism that was the conservative movement’s dominant ideological position until recently.
Meyer is an intriguing figure in many ways, a long-time communist agitator who became a mainstay of the American right, a secular Jew who converted on his death bed to Catholicism, an hardened ideologue who had a gift for befriending people of all stripes and who edited a top-notch book review section notable for its eclecticism (under Meyer’s watch National Review published such stellar writers as Joan Didion, Arlene Croce, Guy Davenport, Hugh Kenner, Theodore Sturgeon, and Garry Wills).
I did want to to augment the podcast on one point. They point to evidence that Meyer became “increasingly racist” in later life. In doing so, they point to his affinities with Nathaniel Weyl (1910-2005), who they describe as a liberal who became an enthusiast for race science. But this elides the fact that Weyl, although he started as a liberal (his father was New Republic edited Walter Weyl), had a significant communist phase, which included doing some spying and brushing against no less a secret agent than Whittaker Chambers (who like Meyer and Weyl would write for National Review).
What I’d argue is the ideological trajectory of Meyer and Weyl was not a coincidence. There was a significant former-communist-to-racist pipeline. One sees it also in other National Review writers like James Burnham and Willmoore Kendall (Burnham had been a Trostskyist, Kendall a Trotskyist fellow traveller). All moved from some variety of Leninism to support for race science (Kendall energetically praised a Weyl book arguing “the Negro” suffers from a blighted “biological inheritance.”) Chambers was the great exception to this rule, staying clear of racism both when he was on the left and the right.
To speculate: in the early 20th century, communists movements of various sorts (including Trotskyist) were at the forefront of anti-racist activism (as were socialists and anarchists). One of the strongest weapons in the Soviet Union’s propaganda arsenal was pointing out American racism. Former communists who turned to the right were thus in a position to be very aware of and sensitive to anti-racist activism.
For a crucial number of these ex-communists, this meant that when they turned to the right, they not only rejected anti-racism but hugged racism tightly. This also explains why National Review conservatives tended to see the fight against Civil Rights as aligned with the fight to preserve colonialism and apartheid in Africa. (Frank Meyer’s National Review books section paid a lot of attention to Africa).
One can draw a contrast between these right-wing thinkers with liberals and moderates like Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, who responded to left agitation in a very different way. Cold War liberals and moderates, aware that American racism hurt the country’s international reputation in its competition with the Soviet Union, became more receptive to Civil Rights. This was partially for opportunistic or cynical reasons (they knew that the United States was hampered in its own international propaganda unless they could respond to Soviet accusations). The Cold War polarized opinion on Civil Rights and anti-racism in both directions: tugging liberals and centrists to the left and radicalizing the right towards more overt racism.
There was a Cold War path to racism, which Meyer followed.
South Africa’s Literary Renaissance
The death of Apartheid era South African president F.W. de Klerk came hard on the heal of Damon Galgut winning the Booker Prize for his latest novel The Promise. If de Klerk embodied South Africa’s thankfully fading past, Galgut is representative a cohort of younger writers, all of whom really came of age after Apartheid ended, who are doing terrific work grappling with their country’s past. I very much admire Galgut’s earlier novel, Arctic Summer (2014) and look forward to reading his new book.
Two other South African writers I’ve enjoyed recently are Mark Gevisser and Jacob Dlamini. Gevisser’s Lost and Found in Johannesburg is a gripping memoir about the mental map white South Africans have of their nation, what they know and don’t know about the country, the history and geography they willfully avoid understanding.
Dlamini is a historian who writes like a novelist. His recent book Askari, is about black South Africans who collaborated with the Apartheid regime. It’s an intense and nuanced presentation of a morally complex phenomenon. Like Gevisser and Galgut, Dlamini is a prober of the unmastered past, the difficult issues that many want to forget but which need to be confronted for the health of the nation.
Columbo from Russia to Japan
Readers of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment will remember Porfiry Petrovich, a disheveled, muttering, seemingly-scattered-brained detective whose seedy persona hides a shrewd mind that in fact was gathering clues the whole time. Petrovich was one of the inspirations for the 1970s TV show Columbo (created in 1968), a modern shamus, memorably played by Peter Falk, with the same M.O.
I was delighted to delighted to discover recently that Columbo was so popular in Japan that it inspired a local knock-off. I’d very much encourage a viewing of this video, which shows how sturdy the archetype Dostoevsky created can be. It’s a character that has circled the globe, taking many forms yet somehow retaining his core identity.
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