Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

December 29, 2007

Prediction: The Most Controversial New Book of 2008 Will Be…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 6:33 am

…Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. It’s still in galleys, won’t be out (from Simon & Schuster) til March, so I will forgo comment until later, but I must say, it’s not just because of the customary restraints publishers ask. It’s because I’m still not sure what to make of it. I need more time. But one thing I know is that it will shake up a lot of received notions and cause a truly important controversy.

I’m huge admirer of Baker’s previous work, both fiction and non fiction, but this book is such a departure and such a provocation. I spent night after night riveted by its nearly 500 pages; it’s a testament to the power of an outsider to a field to cause us to re-think conventional assumptions. I can’t wait for the reaction to it.

And (forgive what might seem like a bait and switch here) allow me to mention another controversial book, another book by a relative outsider to the academic establishment, which will be out in paperback (from Random House) on January 8. It’s called The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups and was written by yours truly. Did I mention that Cynthia Ozick called it “Electrifying. A spectacular book”? ( I guess I did if you look to the left). Or that John Simon’s review declared that “Everyone seriously interested in Shakespeare must read it and that anyone even mildly interested should“. And that Walter Kirn in the New York Times Book Review praised it as “A romantic detective story”? Or that NPR’s Maureen Corrigan called it “Dizzying, idiosyncratic, entertaining and illuminating” while naming it one of the “best non- fiction books” of 2006?

If I didn’t, please remind me to.


December 28, 2007

The Most Clear-headed Discussion of the Issues Raised by the Will Smith Hitler Quote…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 5:36 am

…can be found in this Huffington Post entry by Gabriel Rotello. I say this, I admit, with some gratitude, since he summarizes with gratifying accuracy some distinctions I made in Explaining Hitler (see left column), saving me the trouble of summarizing them myself. I just want to take them one step further.

The flap over Smith’s remark that Hitler didn’t wake up and think “today I’m going to commit evil acts” illustrates the difficulty and complexity of defining the phenomenon of conscious evil.

My eyes were opened to the continued currency of this centuries old controversy over the nature of evil one gloomy afternoon in the library of London’s Oxford-Cambridge Club when I was interviewing H.R. Trevor-Roper, the brilliant historian and author of the highly influential Last Days of Hitler.

I’d asked Trevor-Roper the deceptively simple question I’d been asking a wide range of historians, philosophers, and theologians for my book: Did Hitler commit his crimes knowing that he was doing wrong.

Without hesitation Trevor-Roper shot back: “Absolutely not. Hitler was convinced of his own rectitude.” In other words Hitler thought he was doing the world a service, doing good, by ridding it a people he sincerely regarded as a plague, the Jews, however murderously misguided this position was. Which was exactly the view of Hitler Will Smith took, once his quotation had been freed from the original reporter’s distortion.

But it is not the only position. The very next day I traveled to Oxford to interview Alan Bullock, whose Hitler: A Study of Tyranny had made him one of the premier post-War biographers of Hitler. And one who, initially at least, took a position diametrically opposite from Trevor-Roper’s argument that Hitler was a “true believer” in his anti-semitism. In Bullock’s book Hitler is portrayed as a knowing, cynical con man, a mountebank, an actor, who didn’t even believe in his own anti-semitism, but merely espoused it, unleashed it, opportunistically, in order to advance his own rise to power.

What surprised me though, in my interview with Bullock at Oxford was the unreported, and complex change in his previous position. He’d come to a third way of looking at Hitler’s evil he told me (nobody disputed that Hitler’s acts were evil, it was the nature of the intentionality behind them that was at issue. Socrates, for instance, argued in The Protagoras as I put it in my book “that people do wrong only if they have a defect that prevents them from knowing right, or are deluded into mistakenly thinking they are doing right when actually doing wrong”–essentially the Trevor-Roper view).

In his study at Oxford, Bullock told me he had now incorporated an element of Trevor-Roper’s position into a new synthesis of his and his rival’s positions. He now believed that Hitler had started out as a cynic, an actor, but had become “the actor who believes in, become possessed by, his own act.” In other words his success in deluding people into buying into the sincerity of his hatred had succeeded in deluding himself.

A fascinating synthesis that was not merely interesting as academic speculation, but in fact, Bullock told me, had important historical consequences, helped explain why Hitler lost the war.

Once he became convinced of his truth of the divinely inspired self-image he had propagated (after his initial victories), Bullock said, Hitler made disastrous wartime errors because he lost the shrewdness of a cynic. He came to believe his own words about his divinely inspired infallibility and thus, for instance, refused to allow his generals to make tactical retreats on the Eastern front, most saliently at Stalingrad. Instead, convinced he could never be defeated and thus need not retreat an inch, consigned his armies–and himself–to fatal acts of self-destruction that cost him the war when the outcome was hanging in the balance.

it still does not answer definitively Socrates’ question–nor the one raised by Will Smith about the nature and possibility of conscious evil. Some moral philosophers make a distinction and call those who commit evil knowingly “wicked” and use phrases like “malignant wickedness” and yet are hard-pressed to find examples of such except in literature (Shakespeare’s Iago and Richard III, for instance). Nor does this discussion in any way support Smith’s subsequent remark that Hitler could have been “reprogrammed” to a state of benevolence or harmlessness.

But it does suggest that evil is a wickedly slippery term to use and should be handled with appropriate care. Just like that tiger in the San Francisco zoo.

December 25, 2007

My Christmas Gift to You

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 11:01 am

Here’s a YouTube version of what is now my second favorite Christmas song. Second to Darlene Love’s “Christmas”–see post below. Thanks to the commenters who brought it to my attention. It’s so beautiful and so sad and so shamelessly human and transcendent. It’s the Pogue’s“Fairy Tale of New York”.

Hat tip: Scott Miller at the Dylan site “Expecting Rain”

December 21, 2007

I Too "Marched" With Mitt Romney's Father and Martin Luther King

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 8:39 am

I’ll never forget the day. As a young civil rights supporter I was dying to join some of my friends and go down to DC for the March on Washington. But my parents forbid me! They told me I was too young! We had a big fight over it. It is one of the great regrets of my life that I wasn’t there for the “i Have a Dream” speech.

But now I realize I was there! Well in the same “figurative” way Mitt said his father George Romney was. I wonder if Mitt saw me there too. I think I remember seeing him (figuratively).

Well I don’t want to be too harsh on Mitt. it’s great that he speaks up for the civil rights movement, one of the great achievements of the oft unfairly smeared Sixties. Along with the women’s and gay rights movements which both had their origins (somewhat later) in the Sixties. (I haven’t yet heard Mitt say he was there at the Miss America Pageant protest or the Stonewall riot but I bet he was there too, don’t you think?)

And it’s great he wept when his church got the revelation from God that it didn’t have to be racist any more only 15 years after Mitt “saw” his father “march” with Dr. King.

But I have to say these Republican candidates are acting like they’re in a disingenuousness derby! First Huckabee denying the “floating cross” was an intentional effect (see post below), now Mitt affirming something he made up out of thin air and trying to backfill by telling us he was only speaking “figuratively’. Sure, he could say “I saw my father support civil rights” (though where’s the evidence and why doesn’t it include a denunciation of his church’s racist doctrine when it might have mattered?). But to say you saw your father “march”…That ain’t figurative. That’s prevarication followed by disingenuous rationalization. I think it’s enough of a lie to end his campaign if there were any standards in the GOP primary race.

Who does he think he’s fooling? Pretty soon he’s going to be telling us he landed on the moon with Neil Armstrong. At this point it’d be just “one small step” for Mitt.

December 19, 2007

Huckabee: Suddenly Disingenuous

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 8:54 am

I have no objection to Mike Huckabee’s Christmas wishes tv ad. I agree with him that the Constitution protects the free expression of religious sentiments. It also protects those who don’t want to vote for those who make a fetish of them.

But the controversy is not about Christmas wishes. The controversy is about the “floating cross” as it’s become known: The lighting effect which turns the edges of a bookcase behind the candidate’s head into what looks like a, well, floating cross.

No, what bothers me is that Huckabee does a Huck Finn here: pretending there was no intentionality behind the lighting effect and ridiculing those who have called attention to it by accusing them of “paul is dead” Beatles nut paranoia. Come on Huck! Why not cop to the fact that you were quite well aware of the lighting effect–maybe not when it was being filmed but certainly after you watched it. It’s impossible not to notice it. You don’t need to make any apology for the apprearance of the symbol of your faith in an ad. It doesn’t necessarily imply that you’re appropriating the symbol of your faith to bestow a blessing on your political ambitions (though some might think so).

Don’t be coy. All you had to say was that there’s nothing wrong with including a cross in a Christmas wishes ad. But by disingenuously denying what’s there in plain sight you sound ashamed of your religon’s symbol, or guilty about your use of it. Own it, dude, or people who may not agree with your convictions but admired your honesty about them will lose the respect they once might have had for you.

December 18, 2007

The Art World Cowers Again

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 5:00 pm

It’s rather remarkable that the mainstream media in the U.S. has not covered the firestorm consuming the Netherlands over a Hague museum’s removal of an incendiary picture from an exhibition because of fears of retribution by Islamic radicals.

Check out this piece by Abigail Esmanfrom artnet magazine brought to my attention by artnet contributor Charlie Finch who is also a frequent and thought-provoking commenter here. According to Esman’s account, all hell has broken loose in the nation that saw the murder by a radical Islamist of a supposedly blasphemous film maker, Theo van Gogh, and death threats to his collaborator Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I’m not defending the artwork itself. (As a non-visual person, I frankly am completely baffled by how to assign value to contemporary art). But even if it was deliberately provocative, it’s an image not a murder. Hollywood has still not roused itself to mourn or protest the murder of a fellow film maker. I wonder if the American art world will protest this censorship. And, again, where is the media? Are they going to wait for another murder?

Apparently the artist, an Iranian born woman, Sooreh Hera, was at least in part motivated to combine images of Islamic icons and homosexuality by the murderous hatred of homosexuals in Iran. She cited a December 5 hanging (judicial murder) of a gay Iranian as more than enough justification for her act of free expression. Needless to say death threats have followed, the museum has tried to cover up its cowardly decision, fooling no one.

On the other hand maybe it’s unfair to the work of art to consider it only in the light of sacrilege and blasphemy. Look at the image yourself; the work could be interpreted as an image of love. Just as “Piss Christ” could be defended as an act of reverence (God is immanent in all things on earth). But one thing I know is that an art world that considers itself so brave for standing up for “Piss Christ” and elephant dung when cries of sacrilege go up, has shown itself adept in fleeing in fear from anything that might offend the “Religion of Peace”.

December 16, 2007

Most Hateful TV Ad of the Month

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 1:14 pm

Have you seen this repellant spot? The one for a Ford SUV where a hateful kid (who reminds you of one of the Hitler Youth who rats on his parents in WWII movies) tells his all-too-folksy father to leave him off a few blocks from the movie theater, because “people in that neighborhood all drive hybrids”. Don’t you already just loathe all the “people in that neighborhood”, their snooty hypocrisy and their viciously snotty kids (you just know that “in that neighborhood” they all live in nouveau Al Gore sized McMansions that belch carbon dioxide like a coal plant along with their oh-so-fashionable hybrids.)

Then the all-too-indulgent father tells the Hitler youth “this is a hybrid”. Whoa, surprise, surprise! And yet the ignorant HY won’t let up: “You mean a hybrid hybrid?”. Which gives the father a chance to say, in his fakey smug, aw-shucksy voice, “I don’t know what a hybrid hybrid is,” but yes.

I’d really like to know the name of the idiot ad agency that made this spot for the corresponding idiots at the Ford company. Aren’t they, in effect saying that anyone who buys any of their other (non-hybrid) cars is a shame to their children, to themselves, and to the world? No wonder American car companies are going down the toilet. They deserve to with such morons running them.

Don’t they realize that despite this ad’s ostensible environmental concern it serves to paint environmentally concerned consumers as cruel-to-children snots? Who’d want to drive that “hybrid hybrid” knowing that people might suspect they were stupid and pathetic enough to be motivated by this execrable ad?

December 14, 2007

Three Goddesses: Can You Choose?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 4:58 pm

Rosanne Cash, Rickie Lee Jones, or Joni Mitchell? You might want to take a look at my current Slate column on The Best Joni Mitchell Song Ever and see if you agree. You’ll notice I make sure to point out I also revere Rickie Lee Jones and Rosanne Cash, singer-songwriter goddesses.

Frankly I go back and forth among the three. I once wrote a tongue in cheek (sort of) “marriage proposal” to Rosanne Cash in a column about her work. I can listen to Rickie Lee’s brilliant “Rodeo Girls” and “Beat Angels” and “Stewart’s Coat” (the latter two from Traffic From Paradise)for days on end.

Remember the mythical story of the “Judgment of Paris” where he had to choose between three goddesses and selected the goddess of love, who then awarded him the love of Helen of Troy which of course resulted in the world wrecking slaughter of the Trojan war. You have to be careful in making these choices.

Anyone want to help? I’d be interested to see if others share this dilemma. Which singers? Which songs? Just asking.

December 13, 2007

Can a Jew Love a Christmas Song?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 1:41 pm

I have to admit (unsurprisingly), as an unbeliever, most of them leave me cold as Frosty the Snowman (yuck!), although I certainly see how the spiritual ones appeal to sincere believers.

But I love Darlene Love’s “Christmas”! Of course it was a Phil Spector production, an emblematic product of what I once called his “Wailing Wall of Sound”, so it’s kind of a Jewish Christmas song. But, if you put it that way, so is “White Christmas” which I can’t bear.

And I love Darlene Love! I could listen to that song all year. It’s pure unadulterated joy. Maybe while Phil’s out on bail awaiting his new trial, he can work up another one for her.

p.s. Okay I thought of another one I like: the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick”. Not the same level of greatness, but weirdly appealing. Any other Jews out there want to share their guilty Christmas song pleasure?

December 11, 2007

Errol Morris Creates a New Literary Form

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 5:44 am

I must admit I felt at least three types of envy about my friend Errol Morris’s December 10 blog post in the New York Times on line.

1)It is perhaps the single most purely pleasurable blog-type post I’ve read in a long time.

2) I think he’s created an entirely new, post-post-modern literary form: the discursive essay in the form of replies to comments on a blog post, which itself was a commentary on two photographs. So it’s commentary on commentary on his original commentary. (And I guess you could say this is a commentary on a commentary on a commentary on a commentary.)

3) Now the rest of the world gets to share what I selfishly regarded as one of my greatest intellectual pleasures: my often hour-long phone conversations with Errol (and occasional get-togethers with him and his whip-smart wife Julie) in which I got to listen to Errol’s mind wander over an astonishing variety of speculations on arcane, but–as he made your realize–urgent foundational questions on the nature of reality. the mystery of of consciousness and the question of truth. (Before he became a filmaker–you know him from The Thin Blue Line, <Fog of War, among many others (don’t miss his first, Gates of Heaven–he was a graduate student of philosophy at Berkeley and a private investigator as well).

I’ve always loved the literature of commentary. It’s no surprise my favorite modern novel is Nabokov’s Pale Fire a novel in footnotes. And that one of my favorite books of all time is Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy a Late Renaissance commentary on all previous commentaries on virtually all possible subjects (melancholy being an excuse to record and send up all manner of the conflicting wisdom of the past). Another favorite along those lines: Sir Thomas Browne’s seventeenth century Urne Buriall Don’t miss it!.

You may have read or read about Errol’s epic multi part analysis of two Crimean War photographs of cannonballs on or beside a road and which came first, which was “authentic” (whatever that means) and which was “posed”. And what either solution meant.

When he invited readers to suggest their own solution to the question he got an unprecedented outpouring of thoughtful replies and in his December 10 blog post he goes to great length to begin to reply to some of the most salient, challenging and/or provactive.

I must admit the thing I liked most about the first two essays on the cannonball photos themselves was it’s digressions from the focus on the subject, the chance it gave for Errol to share his immense number of preoccupations with the resonant curiosities of literature and philosophy and history. (The other thing I liked most was the opening paragraph of his first essay in which he quotes me. (saying nothing profound, just something like “You’re telling me you went all the way to the Crimea because of a couple of old photographs.”) That two-part post (and all his previous essays in his series including one on the perplex of the Abu Ghraib “Hanged Man”) are all rich with resonant digressions.

But the December 10 post is all\ digression (just about) and it’s great! It gave me the kind of pleasure I get from reading Pale Fire and Burton and Browne.

Don’t miss the excursus on the use of albatross eggs to provide the albumen for photo emulsions in early film developing. Or the meditation on Descartes Medidtations .Or the succinct and devastating deconstruction of deconstructionists’ dim witted view of truth (just because we can’t necessarily know it they rashly conclude it doesn’t exist). This leads to his critique of the correlative misreading of the film Rashomon and his desire, expressed in a footnote for a Rashomon about Rashomon. (Errol’s a post-post modernist).

But I won’t spoil the fun. It’s great reading and unique thinking. Go to and enjoy it all.

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