New Review of L.A. Rollins’ “The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays”

Be sure to check out Martin Gunnels' thoughtful review of The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays in the second issue of Richard Widmann's excellent online journal, Inconvenient History (which also has a companion blog). As expected from the source, the review is heavily focused on Rollins' maximally skeptical essays concerning Holocaust revisionism, but Gunnel also provides a fair summary of the titular monograph.

An excerpt:

First published in 1983, The Myth of Natural Rights succeeded
in confusing terribly its libertarian audience.  As the original
publisher’s introduction says, “Rollins soundly reduces hallowed
libertarian axioms to phlogistons.”  According to Rollins,
the “natural right” to liberty so fondly referenced in libertarian
thought is an illusory sham.  At its core, his argument is
an attack on the convenient semantic elasticity of “natural.” 
Like Roland Barthes, Rollins reminds us that what is momentarily
considered “natural” is simply a product of cultural mythologization—or,
as Rollins puts it, “Natural laws and natural rights are inventions
intended to advance the interests of the inventors.”  In other
words, culture tends to dictate what is “natural,” and culture,
of course, is subject to the whims of opinion, fad, and fancy. 
For Scots, it’s “natural” to cut out a sheep’s heart, boil it inside
its own innards, and then serve it up with whiskey.  For libertarians,
it’s “natural” for men to be endowed with certain rights. 

As much as it tickles me to see Rollins compared to Roland Barthes, I feel obligated to point out that the first quoted line is from the introduction to the new Nine-Banded Books edition, rather than the "original publisher's" intro as stated. Beyond this nit, I think Gunnel's summary of The Myth's central argument is exceptionally fair.

The rest of the review centers around Gunnel's reasonable attempt to delineate the connection between Rollins' radically skeptical account of libertarian deontology and his pox-on-both-houses critique of received Holocaust history and Holocaust revisionism. Rollins' writings on this uniquely controversial subject have been severely mischaracterized by other reviewers, so it's refreshing to find at least one guy who gets it right. Though it was never all that complicated; Rollins' epistemological stance is built on a wholesale rejection of any whiff of the sacred. The Holocaust minefield merely provides a secular template against which to test the premise. He "goes there" because he can.

I particularly like the bit where Gunnel amplifies Rollins' takedown of a ubiquitous tautology:

Like things that profess to be “natural,” the Holocaust wraps
itself in an indignant unquestionability..  This is what makes
it so interesting to Rollins.  He writes that “American academics
have reacted to Holocaust revisionism with the same degree of open-mindedness
as was displayed by the astronomers who refused to look through
Galileo’s telescope but nevertheless ‘knew’ that he could not possibly
have discovered any new heavenly bodies with it.”  Theirs is
a tyrannical rationality, because they refuse to accept any conclusions
other than those they concoct themselves.  If a researcher’s
findings fall outside their paradigm, they can simply write him
off as a lunatic or a criminal or whatever.  Because, as Rollins
points out, the premise that “all reputable historians accept the
six million figure smacks of a tautology.  If [a professional
Holocauster] defines ‘reputable historians’ to mean ‘historians
who have accepted the six million figure,’ then what he says is,
by definition, true, but also trivial because there is no reason
why anyone else should accept such an obviously loaded definition.”

This is a pretty insightful remark, and it’s worth parsing out:
if no reputable historian can make an unorthodox claim about the
Holocaust and keep his reputation intact, the assertion that “no
reputable historian rejects the Holocaust” is worthless.  Of
course, professional historians debate just about everything: they
debate the Russian Revolution, the American Civil War, the Norman
Conquest, and so on; yet, at the end of the day, these debating
professors are allowed to keep their differing opinions and
their
badges of reputability.  But the moment a historian ends up
on the wrong side of the Holocaust, he finds his reputation tossed
in the grinder.  No matter how highly regarded he was before
that moment, he is permanently banished from the club of reputability. 
Then, like magic, the Holocausters are right again: “All reputable
historians accept the six million figure.”  That their little
club isn’t shrinking says less about the strength of revisionist
arguments than it does about the courage of “reputable” historians.

Rollins' harshly skeptical — if dated — indictment of a number of revisionist works is left to stand without much in the way of counter-revision, though Gunnel points to a glaringly conspicuous omission that I also noted while editing the book.

Not one for dogma of any sort, Rollins addresses the need to
“revise” Holocaust revisionism, calling himself “a skeptic regarding
both the Holocaust and Holocaust revisionism.”  As we might
expect, he finds tons of egregious faults in James J. Martin’s revisionist
appeal to libertarians, “On the Latest Crisis Provoked by Libertarians,”
published in New Libertarian.  Then, after flashing his revisionist
credentials (Rollins published two articles in the Journal of Historical
Review
in the early eighties) he declares that Holocaust revisionists
in general, and the IHR in particular, have been “spreading falsehood.” 
Rollins finds this a little ironic, charging that revisionists should
be “setting the story straight,” not simply setting up another crooked
tale.

Limb by limb, Rollins proceeds to hack apart respected works
of nascent Holocaust revisionism: Udo Walendy’s The Methods of Re-Education,
Austin J. App’s Debunking the Genocide Myth, the works of Paul Rassinier,
Richard Harwood’s Did Six Million Really Die?, and selections from
the Journal of Historical Review.  Misquotes, mistaken identities,
outright fabrications—these texts are alleged to be full with them. 
And, as subsequent analysis has borne out, Rollins was mostly right. 
Yet one wonders why, in this 1983 piece, Rollins does not attempt
to revise Butz’s The Hoax of the Twentieth Century.  By this
time, Rollins had obviously learned which school kids could be easily
kicked around.  

Rollins' failure to criticize Butz's notorious text is indeed telling. However, I don't think the omission suggests pusillanimity on Rollins' part (as Gunnel gently implies) so much as it reflects the fact that Butz, no matter how loudly he is ridiculed  from a safe distance (usually on credentialist grounds), is, in practice, a careful scholar. I've recently spent a good deal of time reading The Hoax of the Twentieth Century alongside the final chapters in Raul Hilberg's seminal study, The Destruction of the European Jews (which Butz cites and criticizes copiously), and I have yet to locate a single instance of misattribution or misrepresentation, the usual hallmarks of shoddy scholarship. Like any decades-old work of history, Hoax surely contains flaws (as Butz concedes), and I would certainly criticize his work on interpretive and theoretical grounds. But his dissident thesis strikes me as having been constructed and sourced in good faith. The oft-encountered claim that Butz is a meretricious pseudoscholar appears to be sustained only by tautological appeal to the consensus that he challenges, Q.E.D. Had Rollins found solid grounds to criticize Butz, I have no doubt he wouldn't pull a punch.

My only minor disappointment with Gunnel's review is that he neglects to mention Rollins' satirical writings — most notably the updated abridgment of Lucifer's Lexicon — which comprise a good fifth of the "Other Essays" in the Nine-Banded collection.  Rollins' underground stature as a dogmacidal gadfly is favored with due appreciation, but it's the Bierceian wit that folks remember. This is the guy, after all, who defined "the libertarian movement" as a "herd of individualists stampeding toward freedom."

Memento mori.   

8 thoughts on “New Review of L.A. Rollins’ “The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays”

  1. Thanks, Rob. I’ve been following this, too. I have my own take on Snyder’s twist (which isn’t really new), but I’d be interested in yours, if you find time.

  2. I’m simply awed by the scale in human lives of the Nazi ambition he proposes:
    “The Hunger Plan [which would have starved 30 million people in Belarus, northern Russia, and Soviet cities] was only a prelude to Generalplan Ost, the colonization plan for the western Soviet Union, which foresaw the elimination of some 50 million people.”
    By the way, in case you haven’t seen it, Elem Klimov’s searing, hallucinatory, and eerily lyrical COME AND SEE (1985) is, by my reckoning, the non plus ultra of cinematic depictions of Nazis. In film terms, “Apocalyse Now” seems by comparison like an effete and woozy fairy tale.

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