Shaking the Spear with Samuel Crowell

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It's been half a decade since Nine-Banded Books published Samuel Crowell's The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes and Other Writings on the Holocaust, Revisionism, and Historical Understanding. I remember mailing copies to a number of highly credentialed historians and scholars, thinking it might stir up some interesting discussion. Turns out I was naive. Save for a couple of disarmingly kind notes from professors who asked that I not disclose their identities (fair enough), I heard nothing back from the Registry of Important People. That's the way it goes with these things, I now understand. It's like pissing in a lake. Censorship has become quaint in a culture overseen by nabobs who know well how to tend the line that others toe. At the same time, I'm quite sure that Sherlock has been read (there are hundreds of copies are in circulation and the PDF has been downloaded over a thousand times), and there are yet occasions when, apophenia be damned, I suspect the book has made this or that ripple, always just below the current. You're free to show me to the door, but I still have the key. This is a long game, freethinkers. Books matter.

The man who writes as "Samuel Crowell" is an unassuming intellectual peripatetic (or "loose cannon," as he prefers) who thinks and writes carefully about questions that provoke epistemic discomfiture and jarring insight. I am very pleased to announce that he is back on the scene with another big Nine-Banded Book on another divisive (if far less forbidding) subject. Yes,William Fortyhands: Disintegration and Reinvention of the Shakespeare Canon is — ostensibly — another book about the so-called "authorship controversy," but trust me when I tell you the lure flows deeper. As with Sherlock, I am convinced there is nothing like it in the relevant literature. I'm also resigned that it will be formally ignored, even as I set about the vainly hopeful task of mailing copies to a different coterie of highly credentialed historians and scholars. It's still a lot of fun, watching for those faint ripples. And for half the price of a bottle of Laphroaig, you're welcome to join me.

Anyway. What follows a new interview with my friend Samuel Crowell. I think it'll give you an idea of what's knocking around in Fortyhands, and why the book might keep you're attention even if you haven't thought about Shakespeare since high school. With no clean transition coming to mind, let me also take a moment to acknowledge the other folks helped to make the book happen. My absurdly talented pal Kevin I. Slaughter designed the cover, which features a wicked-clever illustration by the brilliant and hilarious cartoonist Josh Latta. Editorial assistance (or just plain proofreading) was provided by 9BB veterans Ann Sterzinger and James Nulick, as well as by the soon-to-be 9BB writer Anita Dalton. Thanks, everyone! I just want to smoke crack with my friends!

Read on, fuckers. You might learn something.                 


THE HOOVER HOG: This year marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death and I don’t think there’s any question that he remains the single best-known figure in the history of English literature. Middle school kids who will never learn another name from the Elizabethan era are sure to read Shakespeare (or at least the CliffsNotes) as a matter of course. Common expressions and narrative tropes trace to Shakespeare, and his name and visage have passed down to us as a kind of shorthand for high culture. As someone who expresses informed skepticism about Shakespeare’s authorial stature, what do you make of this singular, towering legacy? What does “Shakespeare” mean?

SAMUEL CROWELL: What “Shakespeare” essentially has come to represent is the greatest writer of all time in the English language, if not the greatest writer of all time in any language. This is a formulation made by Thomas Carlyle in the early 19th century but it is frequently repeated to this day. Why was Shakespeare selected for this honor? Probably because the First Folio, that is, the first printed edition of the plays, is a very large and impressive body of work, indeed one of the largest in the English language until the great novelists of the 19th century.

When we look at the history of Shakespeare studies, it’s difficult to avoid the “authorship controversy” — but it’s also hard to avoid the fact that many of the most outspoken Shakespeare skeptics have been “eccentric” characters, if not outright crackpots. Beyond this, I think it’s fair to say that the reigning academic consensus discourages doubt about Shakespeare’s primary authorship of the plays and poems attributed to him. Given this backdrop — a dubious intellectual heritage and a guarded consensus — how did you come to question what expert authorities insist to be true, or at least mostly true? Are you sure you’re not a crackpot?

Well, I happened upon the controversy in the mid-60s simply by coming across a copy of Donnelly’s Great Cryptogram that I bought for a quarter while I was on my way home from school. I must admit I didn’t really understand what the controversy was about, at first. I found some of his analysis valid, and other parts quite bizarre. But I did feel that he was on to something. Then a few years later I wrote a long paper on the subject for class, and my teacher hated it and loved it: hated it because I was questioning the Immortal Bard but loved it because I was making some arguments that were challenging for her to refute.

One of the reasons I stressed my long acquaintance with the subject is that most people who write on the authorship controversy begin by describing their “Road to Damascus” moment — the moment when they realized that there were questions about the authorship of Shakespeare. Even James Shapiro, who is generally (but not entirely) a defender of the “sole author” school, did not realize there was a controversy until rather far into his career as a Shakespearean. But I never had that moment, and I’ve just considered the authorship controversy valid for as long as I can remember.

Another reason I stressed my long familiarity with the controversy is because I have rung all the changes of possible authorship, because, if you read this literature you will find one argument or candidate convincing, and then you will begin to see that your first flush of enthusiasm was illusory, and so forth. And, incidentally, I am not proposing to end the discussion; I am only trying to propose my general solution and to draw attention to someone other than Shakespeare, Bacon, and Oxford.

Still another reason I stressed the time element is because whenever I returned to this subject I found myself bouncing back and forth, and in saying that I want to stress that I haven’t studied this subject continuously.  Rather, I would read a book, and then read a few more, then set it aside for five or ten years, then pick it up again, for a month or two, then put it back on the shelf, and so on. Meanwhile I was picking up books at yard sales, flea markets, used books stores, etc. because I knew some day I would return to all of it in detail. Yet each time I returned to the question I found my perspectives had changed, partly because of the accumulation of knowledge I had made, both in this field, and other fields, and partly because of my own life experiences. That is why it seemed natural to develop the concept of hermeneutics, but in particular, Dilthey’s idea of Erlebnis or “lived experience.”

So how do I know whether I am a crackpot or not?  Well, I don’t. I can say that when I decided to study this problem seriously I assumed I would simply review the arguments for individual candidates and make some judgments. I did not expect to come to more or less the same answer I came to almost 50 years ago. That surprised me a little.

I think I have tried to be fair with the evidence, not putting too much weight on one thing, nor putting too much weight on something clearly spurious (e.g., there is no record of Shakespeare’s education so he was illiterate). That and the fact that I have been thinking about this for a long time, the fact that the alternative “bad” quartos are a real challenge for explanation, and finally the fact that neutral students have uncovered many cases of plagiarism, paraphrase, and false attribution with regard to Shakespeare, inclines me to think that I am not a crackpot, but in fact, on the right track.

In William Fortyhands, you note that most “anti-Stratfordian” theories rest on the promotion of a single alternative candidate. There have been many such contenders, some of the most popular being Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.  I think one of the most interesting elements of your own work is that you reject this “unitarian” approach. Without going too far afield, can you explain why you think “Shakespeare was X” is a bad start? And if it is the wrong way to approach the authorship question, why do you think it is so common?

Well, the notion of sole authorship was advertised in the First Folio, and hence anyone looking for a satisfying global explanation will aim for an explanation of sole authorship by someone else other than Shakespeare. On the other hand, the attributions of almost every single individual play of the 36 in the First Folio have been questioned, or assigned to someone else, by serious authors who have not questioned Shakespeare’s “main authorship” (whatever that is supposed to mean), and such attribution issues have been argued for over 300 years. Today, there are many more scholars who are busy parceling out Shakespeare to other authors, including Thomas Middleton, and there are still others who are now assigning other plays, and parts of other plays, to Shakespeare, where such attributions had never been made before.

I think people prefer a single author explanation because they want to believe that such a person as a Shakespeare existed; again, a total genius who embraced the entire human condition, who could write voluminously on any subject in many different styles, and who was the greatest writer in history, etc. I think in general people are pleased to have such a totem, even though, in the late 20th century, it seems clear that the adulation accorded Shakespeare is somewhat on the wane, as we may note by the relative silence on the 400th anniversary of his death this past April.

The best way to approach the problem, I believe, is to read the plays and poems, and then to start reading his contemporaries and to find out as much as you can about them. Reading or watching or listening to all of Shakespeare, maybe even more than once, will eventually make you aware of the differences in style, verse, and characterization that tend to put any sole authorship attribution into question. Reading his contemporaries, on the other hand, is a great way to learn about their styles, their work in the theater, and their plausible influence on this or that “Shakespeare” play.  Reading about the period also makes clear that collaboration on plays was a common method of writing plays in those days.

“Influence” and “collaboration” are gentle words. To play on a contemporary analogy that some will find inappropriate, we might imagine sketch comics or sitcom writers or Vince Gilligan’s story editors tossing off ideas and appropriating cultural themes in currency — probably on a storyboard. The lion’s share of credit goes to the head writer — or director — but the creative process is more complex. Is it something like this that you imagine having taken place among playwrights four centuries ago? If so, doesn't this pose a severe problem for the notion that Shakespeare commanded a distinctive voice? Is it possible that scholars have been embarrassingly wrong to suppose that Shakespeare sounds like Shakespeare?

To take the second part of your question first, there is no shortage of experts who insist that everything in the First Folio “sounds like Shakespeare” and no one else.  But others, notably J. M. Robertson and Frederick Fleay, have taken another tack, insisting that here Shakespeare sounds like Chapman, or Marlowe, or Peele, or Lodge, and so on and so on. The response to that kind of argument, advanced by the likes of E. K. Chambers, is that Shakespeare, when he was “experimenting” could sound like Chapman or Marlowe or Peele or Lodge, but he was still Shakespeare. The upshot to this kind of argument is that it cannot be proved either way, however much someone might like to. I recall when reading Robertson’s analysis of Henry V he went into a lot of detail not only suggesting which passages were by Marlowe, etc. but which passages have been overlain on top of Marlowe by other writers. It is an extremely boring form of analysis, and since it proves nothing, it has a problem justifying itself.

As to the first part of the question, how was any given play composed, that’s also a hard question. For example, we already know that there was collaboration on a number of non-Shakespeare plays, but it is hard to determine who wrote what; as Samuel Schoenbaum was fond of saying, we know that William Faulkner collaborated on the screenplay for the epic Land of the Pharaohs (this is the film where Jack Hawkins wrestles a bull bare-chested, where the priests mumble because they’ve all had their tongues cut out, and where Joan Collins in buried alive in the pyramid’s tomb), but it would be very difficult to determine Faulkner’s contributions.

I can think of a few ways that plays could have been written. In the first place, someone would write a play, missing some parts, and then others would come in and fill in the gaps with some dialog and long speeches: this appears to be the case with Sir Thomas More. On the other hand, we can have someone preparing an outline, or treatment, and then different scenes or acts would be written by the various contributors: this method is suggested by an existing outline as well as by the pattern of Henslowe’s disbursements. Finally, we could imagine someone writing the skeleton of a play and then a partner coming in and overloading it with heavy speeches: this appears to have been the case with Hamlet, especially when you consider the quarto versions.

When dealing with the quarto versions, and in particular the “bad” quartos, it appears to me that someone — perhaps Shakespeare — took someone else’s play and and cut out the extravagant parts, simplified the action, and filled the gaps with quotes from still other plays. If that is the relationship between the “bad” quartos and the Folio versions, then we have to decide whether Shakespeare wrote the Folio version first, and then the abridgment, or whether he took a play put together by others and then cut it down.

Yet another aspect concerns revision. Many insist, for example, that Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus, with no other hands involved. But we also know that someone was paid for additions before it was published, but what are the additions? The same argument is made for Spanish Tragedy, because we have documentation that Ben Jonson was hired to make additions. But today, there are people who are arguing, in spite of the documentation, that Shakespeare made those additions.

Storyboards would not be necessary, because in a play that would fall under blocking and it would be the director’s job (here, Shakespeare) to determine that and all the rest of the production elements. I know this is a frustrating explanation. But I don’t think a more complete one is possible.

What is the relevance of “nescience” to the study of Shakespearean authorship? Are there other scholarly domains where this concept is invoked?

“Nescience” was a word that Edmund K. Chambers used to describe the fact that there are a lot of things we don’t know about Shakespeare and about his writing career. As Mark Twain pointed out, all of the actual facts we have about Shakespeare’s life could be listed on a single page, and not one of those single facts directly pertains to the writing of the plays. (There is a separate category of evidence that supports Shakespeare writing the plays, namely, title page attributions, but this is actually not a totally secure category of evidence, as I discuss in the book.)

Because we don’t know that much about Shakespeare there is an irresistible tendency to make up facts about him, usually by working backwards from the plays. So, for example, we know Samuel Daniel wrote a long history, in verse, about the War of the Roses. And we can see connections between that and Richard II.  So people argue that Daniel and Shakespeare were friends, and so forth.

Shakespeare defenders often make the argument that we don’t know very much about Shakespeare’s contemporaries. That is also true. But part of the problem is that the literary works of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, in verse, prose, or drama, is almost completely ignored by those who write about Shakespeare. As I remarked in one of the footnotes, new editions of Shakespeare are always being published. But most of his peers haven’t been published in any kind of comparable edition since the 1880s, and even then only in private editions of, say, 250 copies. That is preposterous, and only goes to show the extent to which Shakespeare’s “genius” has been allowed to completely blot out the memory of his peers.

As to other fields, there is a tremendous amount of “nescience” in most of the humanities and social sciences; this is because, particularly in something like history, the record is nowhere near as continuous as we would like to think. The offspring of nescience is constant change, as each generation is bound to fill the gaps in the record in its own way, and that’s part of the reason interpretations change over time.

I think this problem of historical understanding is neatly captured in your notion of “Milkmaid & Bucket” reasoning, which you use to describe the gap-filling process that seems to come up when we are faced with discontinuity or uncertainty.

The idea of “Milkmaid and Bucket” goes back to the old fable, and I used it to describe a certain kind of reasoning because, first, I noted that tales from the Indian folktale collection, the Panchatantra, were popping up in some of my sources, as well as in Elizabethan literature, and that is where this particular story originated. Second, I noted that a lot of Oxfordians, and even Shakespeareans, were using the same kind of reasoning in their attributions. I only listed a couple of examples, but I could have listed several more. Usually the reasoning goes in the form of, If A is X, and B is Y, and C is Z, then ABC = XYZ. It’s a very slim conditional kind of reasoning and usually has no corroboration; I noted that Harold Love described something similar as a “chain of reasoning” and I noted that Dennis McCarthy’s argument for Sir Thomas North hinged on North’s translation of an Italian translation of the Panchatantra so at that point I decided to emphasize the concept.

Can you talk a bit about Shakespeare’s Will? The document is strange in a number of ways, but the absence of any literary bequest seems especially difficult to reconcile with our notion of Shakespeare’s literary talent and erudition. How do conventional Shakespeare scholars make sense of this?

Shakespeare’s Will is the source of three of the six signatures we have for Shakespeare, and this is its main importance. It also indicates, by way of an interlinear bequest, that the William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon is the same as the Shakespeare involved with the London stage.

At the same time, the Will  has an unbelievably formal and even pompous tone, not the sort of thing you would associate with someone of Shakespeare’s reputation, which makes it somewhat mystifying, and not particularly satisfying to Shakespeareans. The Will also makes no mention of any books or literary remains, which is a much more serious and counter-intuitive matter.

Those who question Shakespeare’s authorship usually point to the uninspired text, the lack of any reference to books or papers, and the crudity of the signatures as proof against Shakespeare. Shakespeareans on the other hand usually explain the Will away by insisting that the absence of evidence for books and papers is not evidence for the absence of books or papers (although no one has ever found them). So in effect Shakespeareans insist that Shakespeare’s library is somewhere out in orbit with Russell’s Teapot.

Once again, Shakespeareans will say that many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries left behind no remains.  Actually, as Diana Price has shown, many of them did. And while most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries died poor and intestate — including, apparently, the Earl of Oxford — many of them left remains in the form of literary works that were completed by others or published posthumously, as well as other items, including various letters to others (which in turn would be among the remains of the person they wrote to, not among their own papers). But again in Shakespeare’s case, who died well off and with a Will, there is nothing, not even a note that he wrote to someone else.

You’ve already mentioned the First Folio, which figures prominently throughout your book. What is the significance of this text to the authorship controversy?

Normally (with a couple of exceptions) we attribute 36 plays to Shakespeare because that is the number of plays in the first collection of his writings, published seven years after his death, in 1623. It is universally called the First Folio, as opposed to the longer formal title. Of those 36 plays, 18 had existed in different versions, but 18 had never been published before, and that’s a crucial issue for attribution, because without the assignment to Shakespeare in the Folio, we would have little or no evidence to link these plays to Shakespeare. So that’s the fundamental attribution issue with the First Folio: Are these attributions, in whole, or part, truly valid?

The casual reader of Shakespeare probably takes it for granted that everyone, except for the “Shakespeare deniers.” believes that Shakespeare wrote all of the contents of the Folio, because that is what is implied by the introductory matter in the front of the book. Such readers would be surprised to find that Shakespeareans have been disputing several of these attributions for hundreds of years.

As for the 18 plays that were not published previously, the evidence that links the plays to Shakespeare — outside of the Folio’s title page — depends on evidence of play performance by Shakespeare’s acting company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later known as The King’s Men.) However, that evidence, where it exists, isn’t actually very strong, because we know that Shakespeare also put on plays that no one attributes to him, including Dekker’s Satiro-mastix and Jonson’s Every Man His Own Humour.

If authorial attribution isn’t clear-cut with reference to the First Folio, things seem gnarlier when our attention is turned to the so-called “bad quartos” and the problem of title page attribution. There’s really a lot of noise in the background, yes?

Just as half of the plays in the First Folio can be questioned because they were never published anywhere else, the other 18 can also be questioned because there are twins or doubles to many of these plays.

For example, there are different versions of Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3, different versions of Henry V, different versions of Romeo & Juliet, different versions of King Lear, and no less than four different versions of Hamlet. So automatically we have questions of who wrote all of these different versions, in what order, and why. In general, I don’t believe that Shakespeare would be rewriting his own plays, but many people do.  Others think that the quarto versions represent plays that were remembered by auditors or actors, or re-written for touring purposes. However, in the past 20 years or so such explanations seem to have lost their attraction, so we are back to where we began: Did Shakespeare write different versions of his plays, and if he did not, who wrote the other versions? And does this not point to collaboration in stage writing, something which we know from other sources to have been the case in the Elizabethan age?

There are other issues as well. Some of the quarto plays do not list Shakespeare as author, some do, and then don’t, others are described as “expanded” or “augmented” from the “original,” which naturally raises the question of whose original?  Moreover, of the 18 plays that only appear in the First Folio, there are also several twins, that is, plays that are similar to the known Shakespeare play, but not attributed to anyone — for example, The Taming of A Shrew versus The Taming of The Shrew, or King John versus the Troublesome Raigne of King John.

Finally, there are plays that appear in the historical record but do not fit the Shakespearean timeline: thus we have a Hamlet that comes before Hamlet, a Tempest that comes before The Tempest, and a Troilus and Cressida that comes before Troilus and Cressida.

All in all the issue of secure attribution seems impossible to reconcile with sole authorship, either by Shakespeare or anyone else.

One of the unexpected pleasures of William Fortyhands — and I hope this will be true even for readers who disagree with your interpretation  – comes through your illuminating use of contemporary references, novel analogies, and philosophical heuristics. We’ve already discussed the “Milkmaid/Bucket” sequence, but this is probably the only Shakespeare book that considers its subject through the lens of, among other things, Philip K. Dick novels and Beat literature. Was this approach by design, or is it something that came about more organically?

In the course of thinking about this for a long time, I would encounter various things that I thought would help elucidate the concepts involved, since I know from experience that we can understand an abstraction better if we put some clothes on it and put it into the physical world. Hence, things like Milkmaid & Bucket reasoning or Vedic Expansions or Beethoven’s Staircase were natural ways of physicalizing the concepts involved. Philip K Dick came up because I liked his concept of “Black Iron Prison”; I suppose I could have used Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles” instead, but I thought Dick’s invention was more apt. I should also add the notion of a kind of false reality that is all encompassing is very common from Plato to our own day, and in particular in literary, critical, historical, and philosophical schools post-Marx. But I avoided more abstruse statements of the matter.

There’s another reason I used Dick’s concept, and that had to do with John Aubrey, who I chose to use as a frame to physicalize the concepts of hermeneutics and phenomenology that I would develop later. Remember that part of what was on my mind was that I had been following this debate for many years, and my thinking would change over the passage of time. I couldn’t very well recreate that in a book, but what I could do was try to approximate it by a kind of symphonic treatment in which I would return, and return again, to certain people, issues, and so on.  In this sense Dick tied in very well with Aubrey so I used his concept in the book.

Other analogies had to do with things that were unsatisfactory to me in the original treatments; the description of the “University Wits” in most literature was, in my opinion, a complete misrepresentation of what these people were actually like, so I redefined them as beatniks to get a better flavor of their alienation and chaotic lifestyle. Having created the Beats, I then created “Generation J” to emphasize the difference between that first generation of playwrights and those that followed: I think there are distinct differences not only in terms of how they handle verse but also how they handle dramatic situations, humor, and above all, in their treatment of women. I did not explore all of these to the depth that I would have liked.

Some of the other concepts, e.g., Context of Discovery, Context of Justification, had been on my mind for decades and seeing some authors use this kind of reasoning in a reductive sense, and being aware that the so-called CDJ distinction was crucial for the notion of a paradigm shift, I included those also. However, I should say that I limited the concepts I could have used, or dressed, or told amusing stories about. For example, I chose to approach the issue of the “death of the author” via New Criticism and later hermeneutics, but I could have just as easily approached it through late phenomenology or Foucault, but I am by nature a common sense empiricist and try to avoid jargon as much as possible. There is only so much one can say about subjects and objects, although there are many many ways to get there.

I think there’s also a subtle cleverness in the way the book is structured, with important historical characters and events sort of popping up at the margins and then coming into clearer focus as the study gathers momentum. I’m not sure that’s the right way to put it, but the approach makes for a very engaging presentation. Was this approach part of your own literary strategy?

Yes, the presentation was deliberately plotted for a number of reasons. I knew I was going to introduce a lot of characters, so I used any opportunity to foreshadow an appearance. Certain leading themes — especially concerning Homer or the Bible — presented themselves naturally, as did various folkloristic tropes. The timeline facilitated bringing Aubrey and Marlowe back again and again. I also quote extensively from the literature, and that literature often makes obscure references to other things: I wanted to try to drop those “other things” into the narrative earlier. This is part of what I meant by a “symphonic” treatment, but I also hoped to recapture something of the turning and returning of my own long familiarity with the topic.

While William Fortyhands will be approached mainly as a study of the authorship controversy, it’s also a book that seeks to rescue the Elizabethan literary milieu from historical obscurity. What would you like for readers to understand about Shakespeare’s largely forgotten contemporaries?

As noted above, most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries have been completely forgotten; they may be mentioned by name here and there but they are simply identified as “minor contemporaries of Shakespeare” or worse, as “hacks.”  But when you hunt down these other authors, you find not only that there were many whose prose and poetry was very similar to Shakespeare but you also find that virtually all of them were involved in writing plays for the theater, on an ad hoc, piece-work, paid-as-you-deliver basis — yet their contributions are largely unknown, since collaboration and anonymity were both common. Not only that — there is also extensive evidence that Shakespeare’s contemporaries were closely involved with the theaters and theater companies of the time, including Shakespeare’s own. It doesn’t require a lot of imagination to see their contributions in the Shakespeare plays, and, indeed many scholars have seen such contributions by these contemporaries in the plays since the 1680s.

These were highly educated, talented writers, and people like Robert Greene, Samuel Daniel, Thomas Nashe, Michael Drayton, Thomas Dekker, George Chapman, and Thomas Lodge — just to mention a few — deserve more attention than they have received in the past century. The only exception is Christopher Marlowe, but he too tends to get swamped in the either/or arguments of Shakespeareans and Oxfordians.

One of the things I would like to accomplish with this book is to move the argument away from “who wrote the plays?” to a question of “how were the plays written?” and I am convinced that that is better accomplished by aligning the writings of some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries with the body of Shakespeare. And then, instead of creating friendships and relationships for which we have no evidence, simply to stress the links between those other writers and the given Shakespeare plays. We might have to abandon a Shakespeare pageant or two, but we would be able to better situate Shakespeare among his peers, to understand the ideas and writing styles current at the time, and finally to read some excellent neglected literature.

I should add that late in my research I found that Stanley Wells had written a book that addressed Shakespeare’s contemporaries in some respects (Shakespeare & Co.), but Wells is an orthodox Shakespearean so I found his treatment a little disappointing.

Perhaps the most common objection to Shakespeare skepticism is that it is rooted in elitist or “classist” assumptions. This usually comes up over the promotion of “noble” alternative candidates, which is understandable, but I think it’s also carried along by a kind of Horatio Alger mythology — because we are drawn to the portrait of a humble, autodidactic Shakespeare, a self-made genius of meager beginnings. To observe that he was an unremarkable student, or possibly even illiterate, strikes many people as not merely wrong, but deeply offensive. What do you make of this?

I don’t think the tendency for people to insist on noble authorship is rooted in classist or elitist assumptions, because when you go back to the earliest advocates of alternative candidates there doesn’t seem to be any aristocratic, classist, or elitist agenda. I think the fundamental assumption is that all of the plays were written by one person. If you add to that the ostentatious learning in some of the plays, along with the presumption of anonymity, one then has a profile of someone who had enormous leisure to both learn and write, but who, at the same time, wanted to remain anonymous. Phrased that way, a nobleman or noblewoman who did not want to be outed as a writer seems a natural intuition.

That idea gains support when you find that there is evidence that there was speculation about hidden noble contributions to literature at the time. The notion existed, probably because Elizabethan England was something of a surveillance state, and that helps foster paranoia. But the existence of the notion doesn’t mean it had strong roots in reality.

I think the main reasons why people propose noble alternatives to Shakespeare is based on a number of false assumptions. First, that plays were written singly, whereas the only evidence we have suggests that collaboration was the norm, at least until Ben Jonson’s folio. Second, that only nobles were educated, whereas, in fact, there were many highly educated people around, even people of common background, such as Marlowe, and the England of that time did make allowance for bright youngsters from poor backgrounds (which naturally raises the question as to why Shakespeare never received such an opportunity). Third and finally, the idea that if the plays were written by someone else, that person would have needed to remain anonymous, otherwise why hire Shakespeare as a front? And so again we are led to the conclusion that the only reason why someone would want to remain anonymous was because of their noble rank.

The reaction to all of this is to dismiss those engaged in the authorship controversy as being “elitist” or “classist,” even though there is a sizable literature arguing that Christopher Marlowe, the son of a shoemaker, wrote the plays. The Marlowe candidacy makes some sense because we know that Marlowe was very bright, had a subsidized education, and spent seven years at Cambridge, while Shakespeare had no higher education and was married with three children by the time he was 21. However, high profile candidates like Bacon and Oxford were noble, and that serves as the lead to calling doubters “snobs,” even though the vast majority of authors on the subject have been Americans, who simply do not have the elitist and class issues that are common in Great Britain.

Those that argue that a poor glover’s son could have written all of the plays are arguing from a laudatory egalitarian and democratic perspective, but I don’t think they even believe what they are saying, if they actually think that poverty and a lack of education are not severe impediments to success, let alone literary success. It seems particularly strange that any academic would want to argue that a university education is superfluous.

I would be remiss not to mention your more notorious acquaintance with dissident history, by which I refer to your previous writings on Holocaust revisionism (See: The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes). You and I both know that this will be seized upon by some critics to advance the notion that Shakespeare skepticism is just another brand of “denial” that can be dismissed and ridiculed without further inquiry. But as you discuss in Fortyhands, that idea is already a part of the authorship controversy. So let’s talk about it. What is the connective tissue, if any, between between Sherlock and Fortyhands? And what do you make of the contemporary intellectual habit of shaming unorthodox thinkers as “deniers”?

Well, “Denial” nowadays is largely an argument that someone isn’t accepting a particular judgment either out of bad faith or mental incompetence. Right away, then, “denial” involves a species of intolerance, in the sense that it does not allow one to question someone else’s firmly held belief. Actually Mark Twain recognized this over a century ago, when he wrote his own book on the authorship controversy, except that he phrased it in terms of “irreverence”: If we are bound to respect everyone’s sacred beliefs, then pretty soon we will have to solemnly respect, and refuse to question, everyone’s beliefs, and thus we will have not only the death of our personal freedom to say what we like, but the death of irreverence itself. It seems to me that this idea resonates with the way stand-up comedians describe performing on college campuses today.

The linking of “Holocaust Denial” with “Shakespeare Denial” has become fashionable in the past 20 years or so. Denial has also been extended to many other realms, including stem cell research, vaccines, autism, evolution, climate change (aka anthropogenic global warming), and many other things, so it has emerged as the go-to epithet for shutting down, or derogating, an opponent. It should be said that “denial” or “refusal to accept” a certain judgment is often due to a conflict with other beliefs (e.g., religion and evolution), or a contrary belief that is untrue (e.g., vaccines and autism), or it may stem from other reasons. And I think it would be wrong if we were to suggest that all public policy issues should defer to “reason,” when sometimes people clearly prefer tradition: the American English measuring system and the illogical nature of English spelling being two obvious examples. The remedy, in any case, is to respect your opponent. Try to reason with them in terms of what they accept, and see if you can progress. Nothing is achieved by name calling.

In my case, I have always thought that there was something to the authorship controversy, and I was happy to let it lie in suspense. On the other hand, when I discovered that there were questions about some aspects of the Holocaust I was quite surprised, but it wasn’t my field so I just assumed someone else would handle it. Later, when I found out that “questioning the reality of the Holocaust” (whatever that is supposed to mean) was going to be made a crime in Great Britain I decided to try to defend what I felt were the underlying historical issues involved and that resulted in The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes. I suppose the upshot of that book is not that the “Holocaust did not happen” but rather that some of the revisionist arguments had merit and shouldn’t be criminalized.

In the process of studying that issue, however, I found myself confronting a number of widespread beliefs that, under close analysis, did not have the evidentiary basis I thought they had. So I had to try to explain to myself how that was possible. My overall conclusion is that there are a number of popular beliefs that are not in fact very solidly grounded and that questioning those beliefs shouldn’t be declared off limits. Furthermore, the question of how these beliefs grow and hold sway, to say nothing of how they are overturned (many examples in the history of science), is very hard to explain.

As a result of this I have found myself more and more interested in issues of “how we know something is true” (epistemology). I had been reading on this general problem since my teens, but perhaps paradoxically, as a result of my study I have found myself more and more sympathetic toward those who hold alternative beliefs. This resonates with the authorship controversy because there is also a weak evidentiary base for some strongly held beliefs about Shakespeare — this is the “nescience” referred to earlier — and as a result there are a wide variety of alternative explanations. Many of these alternative explanations, even if wrong, can be very illuminating in other ways.

My writings about the Holocaust concerned a vast human tragedy and I wrote under the threat of direct and consequential censorship. But the authorship controversy is nothing like that; it’s just a literary and historical argument, and therefore I was able to be a bit more relaxed in my handling of the subject. Following up on the various philosophical, literary, and epistemological issues is also an ongoing process of discovery, and self discovery. If I conclude by summarizing a number of psychological and rational traps that people fall into when attempting to explain the inexplicable, I do not mean to exclude myself.

If our epistemic premises are subject to change and historical evidence is bound by discontinuity and uncertainty, it seems fair to ask what sort of evidence would convince you that you are, in some general sense, wrong in your interpretation of the Shakespeare authorship problem? You don’t seem to be anchored by an idée fixe (perhaps the opposite), but it’s a question I like to ask myself whenever I feel may have cornered something true.

Well, rightness and wrongness, in any form of study, is a matter of degree. The growth of knowledge and our more comprehensive understanding of things is not actually brought about by “smoking guns” or documentary “gaffes.”

The basic form of historical evidence is documentary evidence, followed by forensic and archaeological evidence. Nowadays, with scientific analysis, you could add chemical and biological (genetic) evidence. However, for determining the authorship of the Shakespeare plays, only documentary evidence will do, and the only real documents we have about playwriting in the Elizabethan era — Philip Henslowe’s Diary, and the manuscript for Sir Thomas More — both point to collaboration for plays, rather than individual authorship.

One theme that has habitually popped up in this field is that, if we could only find the manuscripts in the hand of a favored candidate that would solve the problem forever. Or, if we could find a book or books inscribed with Shakespeare’s name. Or, if we could find an authentic piece of paper with some writing by Shakespeare. As a result, those kinds of things have been discussed, and proposed, rather frequently. However, none of those things would solve the problem of the quartos, or the chronology, or the plays that are referred to before they were supposedly written, or the notion that several of the plays were written in the 1580s, before Shakespeare became active.

I think I have settled on an explanation that gives Shakespeare due credit, but which, at the same time, allows ample room to acknowledge the handiwork of his many gifted peers. That thesis is capacious enough that it is hard to refute in general, it really is a matter of how much of Shakespeare’s grandeur one is willing to trade off to put the spotlight on his contemporaries. As to “finally” determining who wrote this or that, I doubt that will ever be settled; it’s a little late in the day to find a Henslowe’s Diary for Shakespeare’s company, or a full manuscript of a Shakespeare play in an identifiable hand.  And that’s fine: the authorship controversy is really about widening the contexts to make it possible to understand the plays, and how they were written, and that attempt will likely never come to an end.

I think “due credit” will strike some readers as disingenuous. For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that your general interpretation is vindicated and the Shakespeare canon can no longer be traced to this singular fountainhead, to the genius of William Shakespeare himself. What then becomes of Shakespeare’s legacy? How are we to regard him as a human and historical figure?

My basic interpretation is not all that far removed from traditional scholarship. For example, while the ordinary layperson may regard it as axiomatic that “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare,” the point of view is actually rather naive. For example, any serious student is aware that the plays are largely derived from other works, either literary or historical. On top of that, students who study the literature are also aware that the plays have numerous instances of paraphrase, copying, and plagiarizing from other works. Moreover, there is a growing school that argues, as was argued a hundred years ago, that significant parts, or even almost entire plays, in the canon were written by others. So my argument, that Shakespeare’s indebtedness to other authors, or the intervention of other authors in Shakespeare’s plays, is very extensive, is actually a rather modest step forward in terms of the arguments that are once again finding currency.

The difference in my approach is that while I see the First Folio as something of a compilation, I don’t think there was some kind of super-intelligence that put it together, and this is the main point that distinguishes my interpretation from those of other “groupists.”

I don’t think anything will affect the First Folio if it comes to be regarded as more a compilation than the sole product of one gigantic mind. There might be some diminution of Shakespeare’s status as the “greatest writer of all time,” but there should be, anyway, since there were a number of playwrights whose dramatic work was as good as almost any in the First Folio — for example Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, or Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday.

Nor do I think Shakespeare’s posthumous career will suffer much, because there is no question that he was a very successful man of the theater, and very instrumental in the development of the dramatic arts not only in England, but by extension, the rest of the world. To say that he might not have written the words — or, at any rate, not all the words — does not dispute that he took the scripts and created the productions which were so popular in his time. This might be an overly sanguine forecast, but I seriously don’t think that Shakespeare’s accomplishments should be undermined because of the ethos of anonymous collaboration common in his time.

The same could be said for most of the alternative candidates. Marlowe needs no pardon. Neither does Lord Bacon. Indeed I have to question how anyone could claim Shakespeare even approaches Bacon’s intellect. The other noble candidates, including the Earl of Oxford, should be credited, where sufficient evidence exists, for their contributions to the English Renaissance. In the case of Oxford, I believe his contributions were probably very extensive, even if they did not involve a lot of writing.

I think I would be satisfied if the reader of my book came to the conclusion that the authorship controversy is a legitimate aspect of Shakespeare criticism, that addressing the controversy requires something more than a unitarian quick fix (“it wasn’t Shakespeare, it was X!”), that collaboration and anonymity were normal for the time, and that Shakespeare was surrounded a number of highly talented and gifted writers, who also made numerous contributions to drama, and whose known works should receive a revival of interest.

In closing, I want to bank off of your motivating question: “how we know something is true?” It’s a toughy, isn’t it? I frankly suspect that most people, most of the time, don’t have the predilection to wade far beyond the first page of Google results. Yet there really are so many enduring problems and mysteries — in science, in history, in literature, and in countless other domains. And inquiring minds must choose where to cast a line. What’s next for Samuel Crowell?

Well, one of these days I am going to have to go back and look at the issues in philosophy and literature that I originally meant to focus on, that involves a number of German and Russian authors and philosophers over the past two centuries. I would also like to someday have something to say about Hungarian literature, since I have spent a fair amount of time on it.

However, my next project concerns an exploration of what I might call the “process monism” of Heraclitus and Lao Tse.  I want to situate it in the 1970s, because a lot of what has been felicitously described by Sarah Perry as “insight porn” was published in that decade and the books I mean to discuss all rely heavily on very particular readings of Heraclitus or Lao Tse. But I am going to take my time on that project.

In the meantime, I think I will also touch on some other literature pertaining to psychology, epistemology, and some minor historical issues that pop up in my readings. But I don’t want to go into too much detail right now.

With regards to “truth”: There is a scientific method for determining “truth” and it is based on replication. However, that method is useless for the human sciences. I should say upfront therefore that I don’t believe that unquestionable truth is really possible, and I don’t mean to come off as a nihilist in saying so. One can reach a fairly decent approximation of what must be the truth, but to argue for absolute finality in truth-seeking is, if you stop to think about it, not something that anyone really wants — because if that were the case we’d run out of questions to study in short order. What we can do in the meantime is attempt to correct or redirect each other’s arguments, and their underlying assumptions. And that’s the sort of thing I am interested in doing.


Samuel Crowell's William Fortyhands: Disintegration and Reinvention of the Shakespeare Canon may be ordered directly through the following sources:

Nine-Banded Books


Amazon UK

Amazon Canada

Review and examination copies are available. Send serious inquiries to 

To learn more about Samuel Crowell's work, visit his (soon-to-be-updated) website.

Memento mori.

Bradley Smith. Gone, But Not Forgotten.

Bradley Smith is no longer among the living. I wrote a short memorial, which is archived on the dedicated CODOH page here.

A Personal History of Moral Decay will remain available for sale as a physical book, but I am also making the entire book available for free. Click the image below to download your copy of the PDF. It's a very good book.

Moral Decay FrontCover JPEG

Memento mori.

L.A. Rollins, RIP

When the last parcel I sent to Lou was returned, I assumed I had gotten the address wrong. I'm bad about that. So I set the thing aside and made a mental note to check it against the information I had on file, maybe give him a call to see if he'd moved. I let a couple of days pass. Then I looked closely at the "undeliverable" postal stamp, at the box marked "deceased." Fuck.

I considered that it might be an error, but when I contacted one of Lou's few acquaintances the news was confirmed ("I'm afraid rumors of Lou's death have not been exaggerated at all").

Well, fuck. There was unfinished business. There always is. 

Lou Rollins, better known to his small but devoted readership as "L.A. Rollins," was probably the least sentimental person I have ever known. When we were putting together The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays he sent me an obsessively comprehensive list of acknowledgments to close the book, but when he discovered that one of the people on his rollcall had died (I believe it was Samuel Konkin) Lou was emphatic that the name be removed before press. There was no point, he insisted, in thanking the dead.

I'm not that hardcore. Selfishly and pointlessly, I want to acknowledge Lou's time on this whirling rock. I want to thank his ghost for a few precious laughs, and for the shape of thoughts, now mostly forgotten, that he once inspired or ignited.    

Over the past few years, Lou saw to it that the Nine-Banded PO box was perpetually stuffed. Seriously, it was with some now regrettable annoyance that I would unlock the copper-plated box to find another batch of hand-addressed, multi-stamped business envelopes bulging with news clippings as well as Lou's own satirical poetry, occasional essays, and — the burden of it — a seemingly endless supply of new or slightly revised material for a long-planned update of Lucifer's Lexicon. All of it was in longhand, scrawled with nary a spelling error on hastily ripped spiral notebook pages. I have the lot of it compiled in these giant three-ring binders. A teeming, taunting transcription nightmare.

The last piece of such correspondence with a legible postmark was dated April 16, 2015. Lou's body was discovered in his apartment on May 6. Call it from there.

I don't know the cause of death. Last I heard, the coroner was investigating and would share a report with next-of-kin. That's probably done by now. Could have been any number of undiagnosed afflictions. Cancer. Heart failure. Maybe a fatal slip and fall. I don't suspect suicide (or ISIS assassins), not that it matters. Lou was, I think, 66. By all accounts, he was a ruined alcoholic — a devotee of what one of his friends described as "cheapest, most godawful rotgut whisky imaginable." He was a hermit. He didn't tend to his health. People die.

Here is a "Lexicon" entry that he sent a couple of months ago:

Death, n. A life going off, after having gone on.  

L.A. Rollins received his B.A. degree in philosophy from California State College at Los Angeles in 1970, which happens to be the year I was born. Throughout the glorious decade that followed he edited and published a sporadic fringe-libertarian newsletter called Invictus: A Journal of Individualist Thought (Good luck finding a copy). As a freelance writer he contributed to a number of publications, including some respectable magazines like Playboy, Reason, and Grump, as well as some not-so-respectable (but far more fun) marginal outlets like Samuel Konkin's New Libertarian, Bob Banner's Critique, and, ahem, The Journal of Historical Review.

(Regarding that last one… Yes, I understand that Lou's straightforward — and actually highly critical — engagement with Holocaust revisionism proved to be "a bridge too far" for some otherwise amused readers. To me, it just made him more interesting. It's one thing to indulge in cheap talk about slaying sacred cows; it's quite another to wield the bolt-gun. Lou didn't think twice about this shit. And as for the prophet Muhammad, piss be upon him.)       

So, Lou did that stuff. But I think it's a safe bet that L.A. Rollins will be best remembered as the author of two books, both of which were originally published by Loompanics Unlimited (where Lou worked as a copyeditor) in the 1980s.

The first of these, which would probably be better described as a tract or monograph, was The Myth of Natural Rights. Still notorious in certain circles, The Myth was a sharply honed attack on the moral and political concept of "natural law," especially targeting such rebranded iterations of the concept that figured in the writings of libertarian luminaries like Tibor Machan, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard. It's an underground classic.

Rollins' second book, Lucifer's Lexicon, took up the project of the Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary (albeit in a less universal key) to showcase Lou's satirical nous, aphoristic flair, and so much wicked wordplay. It was in Lucifer's Lexicon that Lou memorably defined "Libertarian Movement" as "A herd of individualists stampeding toward liberty." That's the one people seem to remember, but there were other good'ns. Here's a ripened batch, plucked more or less at random from Allah's stinky butthole:   

Americanist, n. One who knows that America is the freest country on earth, but has no idea which is the second freest. One who loves the Liberty Bell, and resembles it as well.

Anti-Semite, n. 1. One who hates Jews. 2. One who is hated by Jews.

Belief, n. A fig leaf used to cover up one’s ignorance.

Cynicism, n. The sin of doubting the sincerity of hypocrites.

Doubt, n. The philosophical device Descartes so cleverly used to prove everything he previously believed.

Egoism, n. The only “ism” for me.

Fountainhead, n. The very best kind of head, the kind that Ayn Rand used to give to Nathaniel Branden.

God-fearing, adj. Afraid of nothing.

Happiness, n. A wild goose (disguised as a bluebird) which everyone has an inalienable right to chase.

Iconoclast, n. An axiom murderer.

Klansperson, n. A racist who is not a sexist.

Libertarian, n. One who believes in liberty, just like a Christian believes in Christ.

Lynching, n. An application of participatory democracy to the judicial process.

Marijuana, n. The hemp plant, whose leaves and flowering tops are exhilarating when smoked or ingested but which can cause a deterioration of mental functioning and a tendency toward paranoia in chronic non-users.

Nihilist, n. One who believes nothing is sacred, and venerates it.

Objectivist, n. A person of unborrowed vision, who never places any consideration above his own perception of reality, who never does violence to his own rational judgment, and who, as a result, agrees completely with Ayn Rand about everything.

Pedophile, n. One who loves children, as so many parents do.

Philosopher, n. One who grasps at the essences of straws. One who loves wisdom, not wisely, but too well.

Quaker, n. One who follows the lunar light into outer darkness.

Religion, n. A cult with clout.

Skeptic, n. One who doubts what he does not want to believe and believes what he does not want to doubt.

Time, n. Our mortal enemy. We’ve got to kill time, before time kills us.

Unanimity, n. Completely concealed disagreement.

Vain, n. A foreign domain in which many a soldier has died.

White Supremacist, n. An inferior white man. 

Xmas, n. A day celebrating the birth of our Savior, Malcolm X

Yahweh, n. Not my way.

And my personal favorite:

Zygote, n. A human being, just like you and me. Hath not a zygote eyes? Hath not a zygote hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? If you prick them, do they not bleed? If you tickle them, do they not laugh? And if you wrong them, shall they not revenge?  

That last one wasn't in the Loompanics edition; it first appeared in The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays — the revised and edited collection of Lou's writing that Nine-Banded Books put out way back in 2008. I'm responsible for that one — for the book, that is. I regret that I didn't do a better job of it. The layout is amateurish, and there are some ugly typos. Too bad Lou won't be around to see the next shiny thing.


Here is the cover of the 2008 9BB edition of The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays. 


Here is the whole damn book.  

Make the most of it.

I'm not sure what else to say. The last time I spoke with Lou was over a year ago. He was going on about Jesse Walker's book The United States of Paranoia. He liked it. He knew the history. He told me, not for the first time, that I should read something by James Branch Cabell. I made a note. He pointed out a couple of typos in Ann Sterzinger's novel NVSQVAM. I made another note. I encouraged him, not for the first time, to get a fucking Internet connection. He said the world had passed him by.

A few days later Lou left me a drunken voicemail in the middle of the night. He was belting out the chorus to "Eddie's Teddy" from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Key of Dr. Scott. Dead on, actually. It made me laugh. I never called him back.  

Lou Rollins was a smart guy. He was a true iconoclast. He was a wit, a jokester, a drunk, a writer, a friend. 

Memento mori. 

It Follows

I'm not going to review or analyze David Roger Mitchell's innovative horror film It Follows. I thought it was very good. You keep thinking about it after the last frame. Even the flaws are interesting.

I do want to remark on the central motif. And to be clear, I'm not referring to the sexual contagion premise, which I take, for the most part, to be an intentionally distracting plot device that's economically drawn from genre vocabulary. No, I'm referring to the horrific motif where one is being stalked by a lumbering unseen malefic identity-shifting human-in-appearance entity. It sounds like something that's "been done" when I describe it that way, but no, it really hasn't. Not like this.

I found this to be authentically creepy specifically because it recalls with laser precision the content of a recurring nightmare that I have had since I was very young. I watch a lot of films (and I've seen tons of horror movies) but I have seldom seen something from my intimate dream life depicted with such weird tonal exactitude (an exception is the "Winky's Diner" sequence in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, which I have elsewhere cited as an unexpected example of palpable Lovecraftian horror).

Being curious about some of the literary and cultural references in the film, I did some Googling and soon came upon an informative article that calls out a quote by David Roger Mitchell from a Newsweek interview. Here's an excerpt from the first article, where the quote is framed:

“The basic idea of being followed by something that is slow but never stops is from a nightmare I had when I was a kid,” writer-director David Robert Mitchell told Newsweek. “I would see someone in the distance, and they would just be walking very slowly towards me, and I would turn to the people around me and point them out, and they wouldn’t know what I was talking about. I immediately knew that this was a monster, something that was going to hurt me. And I would run away from it and wait, and then eventually it would come around the corner. I could always get away from it, but what was horrible about it was that it just never stopped. It was always coming for me.”

So it's not just me then. Seriously, that's my recurring dream in its exact form. It still visits me now and then, and I still sometimes wake in a bolt of ridiculous terror. Is this more common than I imagined?

Like I said, no analysis. I know this one is going to be discussed to death. I'm sure there are haters, and I'm just as sure that favored interpretations are going to get predictably stuck on the wrong stuff. I have my own tunneled notion of what It Follows is "saying," but while others go on about it being a wink-wise genre throwback, I wanted to record my strong impression that the scary core of the film is as thrillingly original as it is eerily familiar. That's all.

Memento mori.

“Unicornville and the Holocaust Deniers” (A Reply by David Cole)

Remember a few weeks ago when I posted a reprint of my review of David Cole's Republican Party Animal — the review that originally ran in Inconvenient History? Remember where, in my introductory remarks, I expressed mild surprise that David had not acknowledged the review? That was rather self-important of me, wasn't it? Yes, it was.

Well, no matter. Not long after the post went up I received a note from David. He explained that he had been set back by personal matters over the past year and that he was only beginning to regain his footing. He offered to submit a response if I wanted to run it. I said sure, that I'd be happy to post such a response. I assured him I would run it in long form, right here on The Hoover Hog where it's all but guaranteed to go unnoticed.

So I received David's submission a few days later. It's a real humdinger. Reading it through, I was reminded that David is a very smart guy, and a pretty damn entertaining writer. I was also reminded that he's the kind of guy for whom open debate is a full-contact sport. That's not how I prefer to play, but I set up the pieces and I won't complain.

As attentive readers would expect, David's rebuttal banks off of the substantive points of criticism that I raised by reference to a small section from Samuel Crowell's The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes and Other Writings on the Holocaust, Revisionism, and Historical Understanding (the Nine-Banded Books edition, which you can download for free HERE). While David has kind words for me, he's pretty rough on my friend Crowell. I suppose that's the way it goes with these things. Sticks and stones. It can only be useful, in any case, to have some criticism of Crowell's work on file since his book has received little attention — critical or otherwise — to date.

Am I going to reply to David? And what about Samuel Crowell? Is the elusive "negationist" (as Robert Robert Jan van Pelt dubbed him) going to fire off his own contrapuntal missive in rejoinder to David's rebuttal of my summary of Crowell's relevant argument in my review of David's book?

Speaking for myself, I think I will have a few things to say at some point. But not now. For one thing, it would be bad form. But I'm also very busy with other stuff, far removed from Holocaust history. I will say that I think David raises some interesting points. I think he is wrong to characterize Crowell as a "denier," but it's also clear that he's casting a wider net so … whatever. I don't think he has stolen the show from those (including me and my pal) who, unicorns notwithstanding, continue to regard that remaining third of the extermination narrative with qualified skepticism.

As for Crowell, I gave him a heads-up. He said he may respond eventually, but he's dealing with personal matters of his own right now. He is also focused, as much as time permits, on finishing his next book, William Fortyhands: Disintegration and Reinvention of the Shakespeare Canon, which Nine-Banded books will proudly publish, hopefully later this year.     

Oh, my. I've gone on far too long, haven't I? Yes, I have. This was supposed to be a one paragraph introduction to the invited remarks of an honored guest. I'm a bad host. I'll shut up.

Here's David:      



Unicornville and the Holocaust Deniers

By David Cole

I was sadly remiss last year in not responding to Chip Smith’s excellent review of my book, which appeared on Inconvenient History. I’ve known Chip (through correspondences) for nearly twenty years, and he put a great deal of work into analyzing my book. What resulted was a very thoughtful, literate, and detailed review. I should have publicly expressed my gratitude, and responded to the section in which he examined my Holocaust conclusions, but the time constraints due to personal matters that plagued the entirety of my 2014 made that a daunting task.

Chip’s a good guy, and I want to express my gratitude for the time he put into writing that review. It was a genuinely good piece of work; I’m grateful.

In his review, Chip recommended that I take a look at a new (as in, added for the Nine-Banded Books edition) section in Samuel Crowell’s The Gas Chambers of Sherlock Holmes:

For what it’s worth, the relevant discussion is framed in the seldom-read fourth part of Crowell’s book, “The Holocaust in Retrospect,” where – I’m trying to save everyone time here – the most succinct statement of an “alternate explanation” (though Crowell would probably call it an “interpretation”) is advanced in the fifth section, “Aktion Reinhardt and the Legacy of Forced Labor,” beginning at page 339. Without wading too deep into the morass, Crowell offers a contextual reading of several key documents to support the revisionist position that “Aktion Reinhardt was about wealth seizure and SS control of Polish Jews, chiefly for labor purposes: It was not about mass murder.”

I devoted thousands of words last year to explaining my position regarding the “Reinhardt” camps. However, Chip is a gentleman, and, out of respect, I took a look at the section he pointed to (the rest of Crowell’s work I read a good long time ago). Please bear in mind that regardless of any criticisms I have of Crowell’s work, I’m glad that someone like Chip is there to publish those kinds of books. The world needs guys (especially publishers) with Chip’s dedication to free speech and open debate.

Having said that…

I can sum up my problem with Crowell’s conclusions in one word: “Brazil.”

Crowell presents section VII of a report that Globocnik prepared for Himmler (dated early January 1944):

VII. The office is considering giving to relocated persons a certificate of what they will have left behind in the way of houses, farms, livestock and belongings of which inventory may be made, without, however, making any commitment for an obligatory compensation thereof. The future will decide whether such compensation must ensue some day in Brazil or in the Far East. It is only necessary to give transferred persons the feeling that there will ensue, later on, an indemnity for possessions left behind.

Crowell’s commentary? “The missing paragraph (section VII) supports the idea that the deportees are still living. On the other hand, since Globocnik’s report also includes some discussion of ethnic German and Polish population movements, one could argue that this paragraph pertains to them. However, the reference to future compensation in places like Brazil and the Far East presupposes emigration, and therefore I am fairly certain that Globocnik had in mind the future claims of plundered Polish Jews.”

Crowell’s “fair certainty” that the reference to Brazil points to Polish Jews instead of ethnic Poles shows why his work is of such limited value. Crowell is not a historian. He’s a “Gas Chamber Guy.” “Gas Chamber Guys” are a unique breed of limited-purpose researchers who know nothing of the WWII era beyond a stretch of rebar and a sampling of mortar.

Gas Chamber Guys had their day. Thanks in no small part to me, we all know about windows and manholes and door locks and nonexistent blue stains. Great. But Gas Chamber Guys are worthless when it comes to examining aspects of the Holocaust in which there is no rebar to examine and no mortar for chemical analysis.

Back in the early ’90s, I was on the road to becoming a Gas Chamber Guy, and I decided against it. And now, like a former street gang member lecturing inner-city kids about the dangers of gang life, I’m here to tell Gas Chamber Guys that they’re on a one-way path to irrelevance. It’s a bad life, man. Leave the rebar and mortar behind and git yo’self an education! Be a real historian. Learn more about the big picture.

Because if Crowell had any knowledge of European history, he’d know that pre-war Poland had a policy of colonization in Brazil that consisted of sending ethnic Poles, primarily farmers, to create Polish “colonies.” It was seen as the only way a nation like Poland could get into the colonial racket (lacking the military might of, say, England). This was not a case of expelling unwanteds (i.e., the Nazis’ Madagascar plan for Jews). Just the opposite. The idea was to send Poland’s best and brightest to stake out land, much of which was purchased by Poland’s Maritime and Colonial League. So successful were these ventures, Brazil’s leaders began putting limits on Polish expansion, because they were perceptive enough to see Poland’s larger scheme.

By 1938, Brazil was tied with the U.S. for having the largest number of Polish immigrant “settlers” outside Europe. To this day, Brazil ranks second to the U.S. with the largest number of people of Polish descent outside Europe.

That Globocnik would mention Brazil in his cynical attempt to give “transferred persons the feeling” that one day, in the future, they’ll receive compensation for things like farms and livestock specifically points to the fact that he was referring to ethnic Polish farmers (who were being pushed out by ethnic Germans). To an ethnic Polish farmer in 1944, invoking Brazil would make sense regarding a future location where he might reclaim the livelihood and property the Nazis took. Crowell gets it completely backwards, because he doesn’t know history. He knows rebar like a sonofabitch. But history? Not so much.

Am I being hard on him? Sure, the same way I was hard on myself back in ’94, when I finally wrangled me a girlfriend who had an all-encompassing love of history, and I found myself sputtering to answer certain questions beyond door locks, windows, and fucking rebar. I stopped doing talk shows and lectures, and started spending a lot more time in archives.

Crowell’s inability to understand the meaning of the Brazil reference aside, there are other equally important things he misses about that Globocnik report.

In the “Brazil” section of the report, Globocnik is not speaking about Jews. Elsewhere in the report, when Globocnik does speak about Jews, he says so. However, in section VII he is referring to “fremdvölkischen,” a neat little term the Nazis used to refer to native people who were now classified as “foreign” in their own lands (an important semantic step ahead of the process of Germanization and colonization).

Even Graf, Mattogno, and Kues admit that the Globocnik report demonstrates the fact that “the resettlement entrusted to Globocnik was not limited to Jews, but comprised Poles and Ukrainians as well” (Sobibor, page 250).

Alright, enough about that. Next point? Crowell interprets the Korherr Report in a way that defies all logic:


The motive for the report: Himmler wished to present a short report to the Führer showing how the Government General of Poland was now free of Jews; that is the clear import from a comparison of the short report and the longer one. In the same manner, the number of Polish Jews remaining, about 300,000, corresponds precisely to the benchmark that Himmler indicated in July 1942 that he wanted to achieve by the end of the year. In other words, there was a powerful incentive for the numbers in this report to be cooked.

In other words, the figures of “evacuees” are high and remaining Jews low because Himmler wanted to “cook the books” to look good to Hitler.

That’s just asinine. The first version of the report, the lengthy, detailed one, was for Himmler’s eyes only. Upon receiving it, he specifically forbade it being distributed further. So, according to Crowell, Himmler told Korherr to phony up a report so that Himmler could read the phony report and then sit on it and show no one. That’s just loony. That’s as bad as the deniers who try to get around fully authenticated and very uncomfortable passages in Goebbels’ diary by claiming that Goebbels was lying to himself in his own diary.

There was an episode of Popeye, back in the Fleischer days, in which he encounters a lookalike. In a quest to see which “Popeye” gets to eat the hamburgers Olive Oyl has prepared, the fake Popeye tricks the real one with confusing wordplay, prompting the real Popeye to exclaim, “Oooh, I fooled me!”

This has now become a standard denier device. Whenever someone in the know like Himmler or Goebbels writes something privately or secretly that goes against denier orthodoxy, the standard response is to exclaim “he fooled himself.” Sad. Stupid.

In fact, Himmler requested the Korherr Report for the exact reason Korherr stated in the letter in which he acknowledged having been instructed to prepare a short condensation of the main report for Hitler. The goal was to report “which Jews are working for the war effort, which are in concentration camps, which are in the Ghetto for the Elderly and which are partners in privileged mixed marriages, so that the remainder are thereby available for immediate evacuation.” (Korherr to Brandt, 4/19/1943)

Clear enough? You want chemtrail skywriting to spell it out for you? The report had a goal. There it is. And, as is painfully obvious from that tell-tale sentence, the “evacuees” were not classified as Jews in camps or Jews working for the war effort or Jews in Theresienstadt or Jews with exemptions. As Korherr states in the long version of his report, they are classified as “departed.” The point of the report was to determine how many Jews not involved in labor and not exempted by age or marital status could be “immediately evacuated.”

Korherr is blunt in the aforementioned Brandt letter that it’s very difficult to get exact figures. If Crowell’s ambitious bit of nonsense about Korherr cooking the books at Himmler’s insistence is true, why show any concern over the difficulty of being exact, if the numbers are just BS anyway?

Common sense 1, Crowell 0.

Crowell’s other attempt to cast doubt on the Korherr Report involves the apparent fact that Franke-Gricksch found more Jews in Lublin than Korherr’s “estimated” figure of 20,000. Crowell needs to learn to read things a bit more carefully. Korherr quite clearly states that regarding his Lublin figures, “Not included are the Jews accommodated in the concentration camps Auschwitz and Lublin within the scope of the evacuation action.”

In other words, the fact that there were more Jews in Lublin than enumerated in the report is quite clearly stated in the report. That Franke-Gricksch found more Jews than Korherr “estimated” only proves the accuracy of the report and the honesty of its author.

By the way, the meaning of “Jews accommodated in the concentration camps Auschwitz and Lublin within the scope of the evacuation action” is an interesting topic for debate. Way more interesting than Crowell’s desperate nonsense about Himmler asking Korherr to cook the books so that Himmler could fool Himmler with cooked figures requested by Himmler for a report that only Himmler would see. I mean, that’s just nutty.

Korherr’s figure of “evacuees,” of “departed” Jews that are not accounted for in ghettoes, camps, work enterprises, or emigration, might be off by tens of thousands. But with a figure of almost 2.5 million human beings, take away even a few hundred thousand and you still have a massive number of people to be accounted for.

And deniers can’t account for them. They have no alternate theory to debate. I have made this point again and again.

So you know what? I’ll just turn Bradley Smith’s own language around on you guys. Bradley’s demand, repeated endlessly over the decades: “Where’s the budget? Where’s the budget for the Holocaust?”

If you think that the “evacuees” were sent someplace to be resettled, to be kept alive, to be fed, clothed, and housed for three years until the end of the war, where’s the budget for that? “Where’s the budget” is no longer lookin’ like a great talking point, is it, Smith? I mean, if you take nearly 2.5 million people on a one-way trip to being killed, the “budget” won’t necessarily have to be so big. I mean, you won’t have to take into account lodging, food, clothes, medical treatment, etc.

But caring for 2.5 million people for three years? Uh, dudes, there’ll have to be a pretty large fucking budget for that. And whereas it’s plausible to say that the mass murders during the Reinhardt period were paid for “off the books” because it was an operation so secret that Goebbels in his own diary stated that it should not be spoken of in detail, if the “evacuees” were treated with kindness and compassion, why hide that budget?

I guess I’m just sayin’, if you expect to see a “budget” for a secret and short-term murder program, why don’t you expect to see a budget for the long-term care and feeding of almost 2.5 million “evacuated” Jews? It’s insane to expect a budget for one and not the other.

So where’s the budget, man? Think of the expenses…food shipped to the “relocation town,” or “resettlement village,” or call it what you will (since it’s fictional anyway, I might as well call it “Unicornville”). Clothes, housing, medical supplies, sanitary facilities, running water, etc. Funny, but there are documents concerning the feeding and medical care of concentration camp inmates, and documents concerning the care and feeding of the Hungarian Jews sent to Auschwitz in ’44. But no documents, not one, concerning almost 2.5 million “evacuees” sent to Unicornville in 1942?

Not one? So the Nazis meticulously kept records of food (literally down to calculating calories, and literally down to Himmler suggesting meals for Hungarian Jewish women) and medical care for the camp inmates, but no documents covering the same concerns for Unicornville and its millions of residents?

Where are records of the shipment of supplies to Unicornville? Where are the records of the deployment of guards? Internal memos and coded transmissions about security concerns or black market trading (which we have for the camps, the General Government ghettoes, and the Ostland ghettoes)?

See, wherever Jews were kept alive, the Nazis kept records. Wherever Jews were kept alive, things like food, medicine, guards, security concerns, and black marketeering concerns were recorded. And no single camp would have had the enormous population of Unicornville.

Yet not a single document for Unicornville exists.

Shit, it seems to me there’s not one bit of evidence that Unicornville ever existed. Whereas, as I’ve painstakingly pointed out before, there’s plenty of evidence from contemporaneous documents that death was the ultimate destination of the majority of Reinhardt “evacuees.”

I am no longer going to debate the existence of Unicornville. It’s not up to me to prove it doesn’t exist; it’s up to the deniers to show evidence that it did. And if your point is, “Dave, don’t be silly. There wasn’t one resettlement reservation, there were probably several of them,” then show me proof of at least one Unicornville.

Just one.

And thus endeth my lecture. So remember, kids, all you young punks who wanna be Gas Chamber Guys because you think it’ll earn you respect, esé, because you think it’s cool, pachuco, it ain’t, man. Cuz I was there, and I’ma tellin’ you, it’s a nowhere road. Stay in school, learn to read, respect your moms and your elders, and don’t try to kidnap Elie Wiesel. Peace out!

*     *     *

David Cole is the author of Republican Party Animal: The "Bad Boy of Holocaust History" Blows the Lid Off Hollywood's Secret Right-Wing Underground. He is also a semi-regular columnist at Taki's Magazine. His archived writings may be perused at his website,


Memento mori.


Memento mori.

Advice for the Living

I remember an old episode of the Dr. Ruth radio show where she read a letter from a man in his 50s who as still a virgin. The guy seemed distressed. He seemed desperate. Or that was the impression I got from her reading of his letter. Dr. Ruth's advice was to be patient, wait for the right woman, be yourself. She assured him that his perfect someone was out there and the magic day would come. It would be special, she said, and worth the wait. Her tone was friendly and encouraging and oozing with professional condescension, like she was consoling a coworker who had been passed over for a promotion. Hang in there. 

No, I thought. Wrong. Very bad advice. Clearly, what this man needed was a whore. "My good man," I would have said, "you missed the gun. Now your virginity has become a guarded habit. Since you haven't made peace with your fate, the only way to break this habit is to pay for sex. If you are religious, know that your god will forgive you. If you fear the law, get your ass to Nevada. If you fear disease, remember there are cures at little cost. If you feel shame, get the fuck over it. Don't jerk off. Watch some porn. Let it build. Then go to the yellow pages and make the appointment. It's like ordering pizza. When she shows up, you can tell her your wife died and that you are lonely. Or you can tell her the truth. It won't matter. You don't want to die without fucking someone, do you?" 

That was at least thirty years ago. I figure the guy's dead by now. I bet he died without ever getting his dick wet. A lot of men do. It's better never to have been, but if you're not so lucky, you should get laid while you're here.

When Dr. Ruth would get calls about anal sex, her advice was always the same. Lots of lube. Go slow. Vagina then butt and never vice versa. Respect your partner. Discuss everything in advance. Condoms. All bad advice.

Memento mori.

My Review of David Cole’s Republican Party Animal

A few months back I wrote a long review of David Cole's book Republican Party Animal for Richard Widmann's revisionist web journal Inconvenient History. While I work on something else, I thought I would post a slightly link-notated version of the review here, prefaced with a few remarks.

At the time, I half-expected that David might respond, but he never did — at least not directly (he has written extensively in defense of his interpretation of the "Reinhardt" camps [Cole's scare quotes, not mine] on his blog, most notably here, here and here), though without addressing the documentary issues that, by reference to Samuel Crowell's work, I raised in my review.

I should emphasize that I don't read anything into Cole's lack of a response. Nor, for the record, do I read much into Cole's subsequent performance pieces where, for one thing, he turns mean on my pal Bradley Smith. I find such animosity, if that's even what it is, to be  petty and unfortunate and frankly difficult to take seriously. I might as well make it clear that I also don't think Michael Shermer — who Cole justifiably criticizes — is a rapist. 

The only civil response to my review came from the brilliantly paranoid conspiracy theorist, Michael Hoffman, whose substantive criticisms I will now acknowledge and briefly address.

Here's what Hoffman wrote:

I managed to find the time to read the well-written and generally fair-minded review of David Cole’s autobiography. I realize you do not publish letters to the editor, but a few corrections are in order.

While it is true that many revisionists do not engage in on site forensic investigation, the pioneer in that field is Ditlieb Felderer, who visited Auschwitz-Birkenau some 27 times in the 1970s, expertly documenting the facility in approximately 30,000 color photographs. The fact that this achievement is unknown or forgotten is troubling (most of Felderer’s priceless collection was, I am told, destroyed in the arson which razed Ernst Zündel’s home in Toronto in 1995. My video of a sideshow presentation Ditlieb gave in Ithaca, NY in the mid 1980s – “Tour of Auschwitz Fakes” – offers several dozen for viewing).

Moreover, it is news to me that Mr Cole inherited ADL double-agent David McCalden’s “files.” If David Cole read “everything,” then, unless the files had been sanitized by a 3rd party before conveying them to Cole, Mr Cole should have come across evidence of McCalden’s double-dealing (for the record, Mr. McCalden was not an Irish nationalist, he was a Scotch-Irish, Ulster “Orangemen,” very much opposed to the IRA and other armed manifestations of Irish nationalism).

Cole demonstrates affection for Ernst Zündel as a likable nincompoop. Such an opinion overlooks or discounts this writer’s book-length account (The Great Holocaust Trial), of the highly organized and brilliantly orchestrated first Zündel trial in Toronto in 1985, where Canada’s national media, with whom I shared the press gallery, were shocked and disoriented by the defense which Ernst, Doug Christie and Robert Faurisson were able to mount; including having, for the first time in recorded history, the testimony of “infallible” Survivors and august “Holocaust” historian Raul Hilberg publicly shredded in a court of law. Mr. Zündel documented his trials via video recordings of news coverage and daily de-briefings by defense attorney Christie in the basement of Zündelhaus. Some of this this can be glimpsed in my film, also titled “The Great Holocaust Trial.”

Ernst’s second trial, the huge transcript of which has been preserved and published by Barbara Kulaszka, documents the breadth and depth of his defense, which left virtually no stone unturned in doing justice to the revisionist cause and the defense of the German people.

Mr. Cole is a revisionist for the Millennial generation. His book will likely serve to reach new people who would otherwise be oblivious to the “other (revisionist”) side” of the chronicle of the Second World War. Nonetheless, I am old-fashioned enough to be distressed by the casual and sloppy manner in which Mr. Cole demeans men like Ernst Zündel and Prof. Faurisson, the latter having been the first revisionist to have been recognized by a head of state for his enormous scholarly achievement and who, even as an octogenarian, continues to inspire the radical avant- grade in France to high profile defiance and satire of the sacred relics that are at the heart of the religion of Holocaustianity.

Mr Cole will be a more effective writer and educator when he learns to moderate his frenzies and refrain from dalliances with the fringes of false witness. A bit more humility might have prevented him from misrepresenting, indeed even smearing, revisionists who have never recanted in the face of beatings, bombings and imprisonments which far surpass anything the Republican Party Animal has endured.

Fair enough, then. I think my take on Cole's semi-important book can stand without much correction, inasmuch as I was making generalizations to convey the author's often colorful and gossipy post-revisionist revisionist perspective. If I were given a do-over, I suppose I would make note of Hoffman's point about Ditlieb Felderer's early work (in my defense, I did note that there were "exceptions" to Cole's distinction as a pioneering field researcher, but the fact that Felderer's stuff was destroyed in an arson attack is important enough to have mentioned, even if the guy seems to have since gone completely fucking batshit insane). 

Hoffman also correctly points out that IHR founder David McCalden was a Scotch-Irish "Orangemen" (rather than an Irish nationalist as Cole writes). So noted. I'm not in a position to evaluate Hoffman's claim that McCadlden was acting as a "double agent" for the ADL. Could be there's something to it, but suspicions of internicine double-dealing among revisioinists don't really interest me. I figure the rabbit hole is deep and gnarly and exhausting enough without introducing further layers of subcultural cloak & dagger intrigue. 

I might also have found space to better emphasize Cole's substantive discussion of the Zündel trials, where he does a pretty good job of making the very points that Hoffman makes in his reply to my review. It's true that Hoffman's book on the subject remains important as a matter of record. But on the same front, I think Cole's book is also important — and more likely to be noticed.

Cole's row with Robert Faurisson is more inside drama that doesn't much interest me. It's tooth-gnashingly personal and traces to specific events and marginally public contretemps, with, I think it's fair to say, ill-will on all sides. I happen to think Faurisson is a prone to rhetorical overreach and that revisionists are poorly advised to place him on a pedestal, but whatever. Again, I was mainly trying to convey Cole's somewhat jaundiced point of view. Faurisson has run the gauntlet over his long and strange career, and his position in the broader scheme of revisionist literature is, for better or worse, assured. 

Concerning Hoffman's final point, I'm certainly not in a position to criticize Cole's decision to "recant." That decision was made decades ago, under credible and genuinely scary pressure. Having never been on the receiving end of a JDL-sanctioned death threat, I'm all about empathy here. I will say that for all his subsequent baiting and bluster, David Cole has remained steadfast in defending and acknowledging the sacrifices of revisionists who have been censored, prosecuted, and persecuted for expressing their historically and politically incorrect views. It's a travesty, not a contest.

Anyway, my original review, with a thin smattering of links added, is posted below.               



Republican Party Animal

 by David Cole, Feral House, Port Townsend, WA, 2014, 319 pp.

Republican Party Animal is a layered chronicle of David Cole’s short but storied public career as a “Jewish Holocaust denier” and of his equally unlikely “second life” as David Stein, when he would come to play an influential role as an event organizer and Op-Ed dynamo among the guarded ranks of Hollywood conservatives before having his heretical past exposed by a vindictive ex-girlfriend. The dual biographical narratives converge in a morally conflicted tale of downfall and personal reinvention, of intersecting identities and of consequences wrought in the whirlwind momentum of a life less ordinary.

Cole’s telling is breezy, surefooted, and entertaining throughout; he gives the impression of a natural raconteur, punctuating his episodic memoir with revealing anecdotes, ironic observations, and self-effacing humor, all while providing the kind of sympathetic yet critical discussion of Holocaust revisionism that, coming from a reputable imprint with wide distribution, is rare if not unprecedented.

“I will most likely come off as an asshole in this book,” Cole announces at the outset. And while I suspect that will indeed be the conclusion of certain readers (including one well known magazine editor who has since threatened legal action), it isn’t mine.

No Country for Jewish Revisionists

Cole’s curious – and curiosity-driven – initiation into the intellectual quick (though never the dominant political culture) of Holocaust revisionism started off, as he tells it, “innocently enough,”  in the late 80s as a capricious detour during his youthful adventures train-hopping political movements for kicks and edification. Being intrigued by IHR co-founder David McCalden’s category-defying ideological profile as “a militant atheist, an Irish nationalist, and a Holocaust revisionist,” Cole wrote to him asking for literature and information. When McCalden instead showed up at Cole’s doorstep in full-on confrontational mode (he thought Cole was “a ‘Jewish infiltrator’ trying to cozy up to him for nefarious purposes”), Cole assured him that he was sincere and there followed an apparent meeting of minds. Following this encounter, Cole read McCalden’s hand-picked literature and found it to be “[i]ncredibly amateur crap.” Yet he was left with questions. “The problem” he discerned, was that “mainstream historians would never address revisionist concerns, and the revisionists, for the most part, were sloppy and (mostly) ideologically motivated.”

Preoccupied, Cole soon went to visit McCalden, only to receive the news that the guy had died of AIDS, leaving behind a massive collection of books and private correspondence that, by default, fell into Cole’s possession. Whatever inchoate doubts or questions Cole had entertained about the standard Holocaust historiography, it seems fair to surmise that his “identity” as a non-dogmatic Holocaust revisionist crystallized in the months-long binge of immersive reading that followed. I imagine it was with some nostalgia that Cole recalls his underground education:

I rented an apartment with two stories so that I could devote one entire floor just to the books. And I read every single one of them, making notes, bookmarking pages, and indulging in what would become, in less than a decade, the lost art of reading hard-copy books without a computer in sight.

By the early to mid-90s, Cole would be riding a wave of public notoriety as an intrepid, Hollywood-bred independent researcher and documentary filmmaker making the rounds on daytime TV talk shows professing informed skepticism about the received history of the Holocaust. In those days, which I remember too well, Cole could be seen alongside IHR spokesman Mark Weber on the Montel Williams Show (where, in an ironic twist recounted in Republican Party Animal, his appearance led to the reunion of two Holocaust survivors – brothers who had lost contact after the war, each assuming the worst about the other’s fate). He appeared with CODOH founder Bradley Smith and Skeptic editor Michael Shermer on a rather tense episode of  Donahue. He even went on the Morton Downey Junior Show, where he suffered the late host’s outrageous nicotine-expectorating spleen with pluck.

The first and most conspicuous thing that distinguished Cole from other Holocaust revisionists (as they were still referred to in those days, when the artifice of civility had yet to give way to the “denier” shibboleth), was, of course, the fact that he was, perhaps more than nominally, Jewish. Cole’s Jewish identity was at once a hook and a problem. On the one hand, his Jew-cred ingratiated him to many revisionists who understandably wanted, for the most part sincerely, to disassociate their work from the thick funk of anti-Semitism that surrounded it. On the other hand, the specter of a “Jewish Holocaust revisionist” rankled the guardians of orthodoxy for whom the public image of a Jewish gas chamber skeptic presented a dangerous rift in a carefully crafted Manichean narrative that had long served to marginalize and stigmatize – and across certain borders, criminalize – critical engagement with what I like to call “the other side of genocide.”

But it wasn’t all talk-show theater. Because the second, and ultimately more important, thing that set Cole apart from other revisionists was his knack for getting his hands dirty. He conducted – and documented – on-site investigations in the “Holiest of Holies” where the worst conveyor-belt atrocities were believed (“by all the best people” as Bradley would have it) to have gone down. Cole's groundbreaking guerilla Auschwitz documentary, David Cole Interviews Dr. Franciszek Piper remains a case in point. Rather than simply lay contextualizing narration over the usual stock footage of marching brownshirts and bulldozed corpses, Cole did what other revisionists, a few notable exceptions notwithstanding, would not – and to be fair, could not – do; he visited ground-zero and critically examined the physical structure of what was then presented to tourists as a homicidal gas chamber in its “original state.” Cole put questions to the museum staff and even scored a groundbreaking interview with then-curator Dr. Franciszek Piper – who, at little prompting, admitted what revisionists alone had long contended – that the “gas chamber” displayed to tourists as the genuine article was in fact a postwar “reconstruction” (though of course, revisionists would more likely call it a “fake”). While other revisionists buried their noses in books (which is, of course, important), Cole took matters into his own hands. He was inquisitive. He was tenacious. He was clever. And just as important, he had the testicular brass – and the “Jew face” – to go where others feared to tread.       

To Phil Donahue, Cole was “the Antichrist” (seriously, Donahue called him that, to his face!). To professional “Skeptic” Michael Shermer, he was a “meta-ideologue,” or what we might now call a high-functioning troll, who reveled in the role of the contrarian, stirring up trouble “for the hell of it.” To revisionist king-of-the-mountain Robert Faurisson, he was a dangerous upstart, a loose cannon who couldn’t be trusted to toe the line.  To Irv Rubin – crucially, the late Irv Rubin – David Cole was something worse.

Cole’s history with the man whom, from the other side of eternity, he describes as the “lovable and murderous head of the Jewish Defense League” began in a violent altercation when Rubin tried to shove Cole down a section of stairs at a 1991 UCLA speaking engagement. It ended, more or less, a few years later when a threat of mortal violence changed the course of Cole’s life. The pivotal turn – or plot point, since we’re in Hollywood – came in late 1997, when, for a variety of reasons, Cole had more or less absconded from his public dalliance with revisionism. That’s when, “[f]or reasons known only to him,” Rubin took to the nascent World Wide Web to place a $25,000 bounty on Cole’s head.

Evoking the lurid prose-style of a forgotten dime-store pulp novel, Rubin’s accompanying screed described Cole as “a low-lying snake that slithers from dark place to dark place, [spreading] his venom to innocent victims.” And when Rubin fulminated that “an evil monster like this does not deserve to live on this earth,” it wasn’t mere bluster; it was an incitement. Rubin had long been suspected of (and has since been implicated in) a number of arson attacks and fire bombings directed against revisionists and revisionist organizations so there was every reason to believe that he – or more likely one of his psychotic JDL lackeys – might rise to the task. Like the leader of some torch-wielding mob in an old horror film, Rubin wanted to kill the monster, not metaphorically, but literally. And he offered cash money to anyone who would do the bloodwork or provide information to make it easier. “This world would be a happier place, indeed,” the avuncular zealot declared, “when all the Jew-baiters and Jew-haters have disappeared, especially the most vicious hater of them all, David Cole.”

But the event proved to be fateful rather than fatal. There’s been a good deal of hazy speculation over just what happened, with some people, myself included, speculating that Cole’s subsequent “recantation” (such a silly word to use in the 21st century) was ghostwritten by Rubin and signed under duress, and with others suspecting that Cole’s public declaration might have been, if not sincere, at least in line with what seemed to be his increasingly ambivalent stance toward revisionism. The truth as revealed in Cole’s book, is shaded grey.

In short, Cole took the threat seriously. He considered going to the police but rejected that option because of the unwanted publicity it would entail. In the end, he opted to simply call up his bête noir and offer up an unequivocal, notarized recantation in exchange for his life. He wrote it himself. It was bullshit, of course, but it also provided a way out. A clean break from the public existence he had entered with perhaps too much reckless disregard for what might follow.

In Republican Party Animal he is clear that “The recantation was Cole’s ‘death.’ ”

I had already left revisionism, so I figured why not “kill” Cole, especially if it saves my actual hide. Once someone like Cole recants, there’s no going back. Your credibility is shot. If you try to recant your recantation, people will always wonder, “was he lying then, or is he lying now?” I agreed to the recantation not just to get the bounty removed, but to burn all Cole bridges. I knew that the revisionists who were already getting pissed at me in 1995 would truly hate me when they read what I gave Rubin. I wanted to “kill” Cole in a way that would make it impossible for me to go back.

But David Cole didn’t die, literally or figuratively. It might be more accurate to say that he receded, only to resurface as the script demanded. It remains an open question whether Cole’s ensuing life adventure resolves in measures of liberation and redemption or in desolation and ruin. Unlike a Hollywood script, life isn’t so tidy.

Toasting Team America

As the curtain closes on the first act, Cole finds himself in a funk, “limping back to square one.” When a fashion-mad actress-girlfriend leaves him spiraling in debt, he spends some time “pining and whining” before eventually moving on to some shady but apparently lucrative Internet business ventures where he cynically leverages his by-then-encyclopedic knowledge of Holocaust history to play “both sides” for what financial gain could be had. Having for practical reasons already adopted his new identity as “David Stein,” he invents other pseudonyms – “one to sell books and videos to Holocaust studies departments around the world, and one to sell books and videos to revisionists.” And the vultures, from both sides, take the bait.

Cole’s account of what might be considered his transitional phase is tinged with moral ambivalence and, ultimately, regret. “The truth is, I can’t defend it,” he writes at one point. “The only thing I can say is that after I was forced out of the field by the death threats of the JDL and the lies of people like Shermer [more on Michael Shermer later – CS], I had to emotionally divorce myself from the subject matter…. unlike my revisionist work, which I’ll still defend, and unlike my conservative work, which I’ll still defend, I can’t defend the period in between.”

Following this episode, Cole soon walks into another bad relationship, adopts yet another name (“David Harvey,” if you’re keeping track), and pulls off another death-faking caper, this time to escape the physically abusive clutches of a woman he now refers to only as “the Beast.” Then he goes off the grid, ensconcing himself in the beach city environs of El Segundo, where he soon becomes restless. Teaming up with a fellow film editor referred to as “Fat Frank,” Cole eventually re-enters his old turf to do some shadow revisionist – or quasi-revisionist – work, shooting a still-unreleased interview with Mel Gibson’s dad (!), making a short documentary about the persecution of Ernst Zündel and Germar Rudolf, and ghostwriting an important free-speech manifesto entitled “Historians Behind Bars.”

In the course of “one thing leads to another,” Cole’s friendship with Fat Frank leads to a friendship with actor Larry Thomas, best known for his role as the “Soup Nazi” on Seinfeld, which leads to a relationship with a blonde vixen, which leads to a bout with erectile dysfunction, which leads, fatefully, to yet another bad bet romance, this time with a “six-foot-tall redhead with an amazingly big smile” named Rosie – the actress-model who would eventually play a key role in blowing David Stein’s cover. If Republican Party Animal were film noir, I guess Rosie would get billing as the femme fatale – except that by most accounts she was bad news from the start. One inescapable conclusion to be gleaned from Republican Party Animal is that David Cole has abominably bad judgment when it comes to the ladies.     

While Cole’s introduction to revisionism is clearly delineated in Republican Party Animal, it is somewhat less clear how he came to identify as a “South Park conservative.” He provides a hint that the Left’s shambolic response to the end of the Cold War in 1989 might have been a germinal factor, but it is almost in passing that he mentions, in a prelude to a discussion of his involvement (working with the legendary Budd Schulberg) in the restoration of Pare Lorentz’s 1946 documentary Nuremberg, that he had “over the years” somehow found time to pen a number of conservative (mostly anti-Islamist) op-eds for the L.A. Times under yet another “revolving series of pseudonyms.”

The lack of a clear-cut conservative origin story is a point of minor frustration for me if only because during my brief correspondence with Cole in the mid-90s, I had come away with the impression that he identified as a liberal. Maybe it was his abortion rights activism, or maybe it was his outspoken atheism (which he now disavows, also without much explanation) that tripped me, but when the stories broke about l’affaire Cole-Stein, my first thought was: David Cole is a Republican? 

No matter, Cole seems sincere. “I don’t mind being defined by what I’m against,” he explains, “And I’m against the left.” More insightfully, he goes on to distinguish ideology from principle:

Principle is not the same as ideology. As an example, Islamism—the set of beliefs adhered to by Muslims who want to impose their worldview on others—is an ideology. But opposition to Islamism isn’t necessarily an ideology. It can be, but not by necessity. One can oppose banning women from voting or driving on principle. You can be right, left, moderate, or totally apolitical, and still, on principle, say “that’s a bad and oppressive idea.” The fact that I dismiss ideology and ideologues doesn’t mean I don’t have principles, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t care passionately about them. And, generally speaking, the right side of the spectrum, more often than not, reflects my principles.

Fair enough, then. Cole is a conservative as a matter of principle, not as a matter of dogma. He’s more P.J. O’Rourke than Russ Kirk. More Hayek than Rand. I get it. I even sort of agree.  

The same hands-on approach that had distinguished Cole’s career as a revisionist researcher would prove instrumental in guiding his meteoric rise in the demimonde of Hollywood conservatives – or “Friends of Abe” as he came to know them.  So successful was he in navigating this semi-secretive social network that after proving his mettle as a party organizer in various settings he would brand his own offshoot organization, the “Republican Party Animals,” hosting liquor-doused GOP fundraisers that were attended by outspoken and semi-closeted rightwing celebrities, pundits, and proles.

Cole took careful notes along the way and while I suppose his insider’s account of so many soirees and mixers will be chum for certain political junkies, I personally would have preferred more in the way of a sketch. As it stands, Cole’s reminiscences about this period of his life seem burdened by a surfeit of anecdote – too much detail at all turns, too much dwelling on interpersonal contretemps. But while I can’t shake the sense that a measure of time and distance would have advised finer editorial discretion, the truth is I have yet to read an autobiography that doesn’t suffer from this tendency. It may be that the occasional pangs of boredom I felt in reading Cole’s play-by-play can be chalked up to selective incuriosity. I felt the same way about Jim Goad’s Shit Magnet, and Goad is one of my favorite writers.

Telling All

The Feral House promotional copy pitches Republican Party Animal as a kind of inside-politics-inside-Hollywood tell-all. And indeed, there’s scuttlebutt on offer if that’s your fix.

On the revisionist side of the aisle, we learn, or we are reminded, that David McCalden – the guy who played a formative role in introducing Cole to revisionist theory – was a sexual as well as intellectual outlaw who gave his wife AIDS (before dying of it himself) back when a viral load meant a one-way ticket to the morgue. We learn – or we are reminded – that Robert Faurisson, was sufficiently pinpricked by Cole’s ungovernable audacity that he huffed and puffed and spread rumors that Cole was a “World Jewish Congress infiltrator.” (Cole’s grave sin, incidentally, was to break with revisionist dogma by broadcasting his opinion that the Natzweiler gas chamber in France, unlike those on display at Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Dachau, etc., was the real deal, albeit a highly eccentric outlier in the scheme of the received mass-gassing narrative.)

Aside from such morsels, however, Cole’s recollections about his exploits among the maligned revisionist milieu are mostly reflective, evenhanded, and often fond. He gives David Irving due credit as a once-formidable narrative historian with a narcissistic penchant for self-sabotage. He expresses warm regard for CODOH-founder Bradley Smith (“we don’t agree on everything, but he’s a lifelong friend”), and his thoughts on certain egregiously persecuted revisionists (or, in some instances, “deniers”; Cole insists upon the distinction) are presented with judicious attention to the underlying free-speech travesty that somehow still eludes many outspoken civil libertarians. Ernst Zündel (whom Cole describes as a “denier,” again if you’re keeping a ledger) is a good example. Cole appraises the repeatedly imprisoned German-Canadian pamphleteer as a harmless crank who “really loves Hitler,” yet he channels Voltaire in voicing unqualified support for a man who has spent a significant part of his adult life behind bars, often in solitary confinement, for what can only be described as thoughtcrime. “I never said anything in support of his views,” Cole writes, “but I supported his right to be free from prosecution for simply writing a book, and I still do. On that subject, I’d stand with him again today.” Cole is equally resolute in his defense of Germar Rudolf (“revisionist”), a German chemist who was extradited from his legal residence in the United States to be locked up for years in a German cell, all for the “crime” of writing about blue stains on old concrete.        

Turning to the celebrities and politicos on the other side of the aisle, Cole’s grievances are moderate and his gossip is less salacious than I would have expected. John Voight comes off as a harmless lush. Gary Sinese is a “mensch” with some unknown skeletons in his closet. D-listers Pat Boone and Victoria Jackson are unsurprisingly depicted as conspiracy-mongering loons. Clint Eastwood is aloof in a good way. Kelsey Grammer is aloof in a creepy way. David Horowitz is described as “a huge dick” who “reacts to a request to shake hands as most men would to a request to grab the penis of a rotting corpse.” There’s a blowjob story featuring Oliver Stone’s batshit crazy son. There’s a funny story about Michael Reagan’s war on gophers. And, yeah, it turns out that Cole’s deadbeat dad was “apparently” the doctor who served Elvis that fatal dose of Demerol. Gotta mention that.

You might think that Cole’s harshest score-settling would come in for Rosie and the Lolita-chasing neocon-cum-Disney-scripting hack with whom she tag-teamed to out David Stein as a Holocaust denier … in which case you would have another think coming. Because the dirtiest dirt in Republican Party Animal is reserved not for the people who exposed Stein as Cole (nor for Irv Rubin, the man who tried to have Cole murdered), but for an accused rapist (as Cole never tires of emphasizing, for reasons more subtle than they first appear) who has for some time served as “the media’s go-to guy for the selective skepticism of hipsters who hang out in coffee shops in Silverlake.”

Let’s warm up with a bit that made me laugh:

After Shermer contacted me, we hung out a few times. The first time I was at his house, he asked me if I’d like any coffee. I drank coffee religiously in those days (my pre-alcohol days), so I said yes. And Shermer proceeded to re-heat a pot of coffee that was stone cold, presumably brewed that morning, hours ago.

“Uh, can you maybe brew up some fresh?”

“No need, it’s just as good reheated.”

Sometimes, it’s the little things that matter as much as the big ones when you’re trying to gauge someone’s intelligence. Here was a supposed “scientist” with no concept of how fresh-brewed coffee gets worse when it gets cold.

Cole goes on to describe Skeptic editor Michael Shermer as “one of the most dishonest human beings I have ever known,” and he has the goods – specifically transcripts of recorded phone conversations – to back up his spleen. It’s little surprise that Shermer unleashed his lawyers in an unsuccessful bid to prevent Cole’s book from being published. What’s more surprising is that the man still enjoys his inflated reputation after being so thoroughly exposed as a mendacious opportunist who repeatedly betrayed and libeled Cole and who has deceitfully misrepresented his – and other revisionists’ – work at every conceivable turn. I won’t go into detail about just what dirt Cole has against “Shermy,” but I will say that his prolonged and hyper-documented animadversion is worth the cover price.  

So there’s juice for those who come a-lookin’. Some of it may be petty, but some of it is well justified and even newsworthy. Still, I would politely insist that the “tell-all” aspect of Republican Party Animal ultimately amounts to a wink-sly bait-and-switch. Cole’s thematic gravamen, tucked between so much confessional digression and tittle-tattle, concerns the burden of conscience and a man’s abiding struggle to maintain a modicum of personal and intellectual integrity while inhabiting two worlds where cynicism and suspicion hold sway.

Cole’s story is thus laced with insight bearing on such threads of connective tissue that, moral equivalence be damned, unite revisionism with movement conservatism. When Cole dwelled in revisionist circles, he inveighed against Faurisson-branded “No holes, No Holocaust” rhetoric and pled for sanity against the seductive force of sundry conspiracy theories. When Cole dwelled in the world of conservative politics, he found himself in the same futile rut, taking pubic issue with Breitbart-branded trench warfare tactics and pleading for sanity against the seductive force of sundry conspiracy theories. “I’d rather gouge out my testicles,” Cole quips, “than accept the accolades of the lunatic fringe.”

Whether you find the tone colorful or off-putting will be a matter of taste, but I think Cole is especially good on this front. One of my longstanding gripes with movement revisionism (I pay less attention to movement conservatism) is that it blends too easily with rank crackpottery. The revisionist affiliation with – and tacit affinity for – various threads of wildly conspiratorial speculation may be understandable when we consider that respected World War II scholars have largely been driven away by very real threats of prosecution and ruinous public censure, but in the atmosphere that prevails under a black cloud of taboo the loudest voices tend to be the looniest. It’s an insidious catch-22 that in turn makes it only too easy for consensus-mongering guys like Michael Shermer to paint the whole project in broad strokes as a manifestation of hate-fueled paranoia. Cole puts the matter more bluntly when he notes that “[c]leaning up flaws in the historical record after a major event like a world war is not the same as claiming that all 27,000 residents of Newtown decided to fake a mass shooting.”

While I may not share Cole’s explicitly “pro-Zionist” views, it is thus without qualification that I endorse his stridently expressed contention that:

The people who think that revising the history of the Holocaust will somehow topple Israel are idiots. Israel’s existence is not based on whether or not there were gas chambers at Auschwitz in 1944. If, tomorrow, Yad Vashem declared that Auschwitz had no killing program, it would not make one damn bit of difference. Israel would be fine, because Israel’s Muslim foes don’t give a good fuck about historical subtleties. No one in the Muslim world is studying forensic reports, thinking “if I can’t find traces of cyanide residue in the Auschwitz kremas, I’ll hate Israel and try to destroy her. But if I can find the traces, by gosh, I’ll love and support her.

We are faced with a subject so clung up with emotive gravity that Cole’s elementary defense of disinterested inquiry is difficult for people to grasp, which is why it bears repeated emphasis. There is nothing inherently hateful or even political about revisionist research. This is fundamentally true regardless of what personal motives impart to individuals who persist in such research, and it is fundamentally true regardless of what political arguments or agendas may latch to such research. While motivated ideologues can be counted on to use revisionist scholarship as a cudgel against their imagined enemies, the underlying investigative project is simply and eternally a thing apart; it is an empirical and interpretive process that, once the fog has lifted, will be judged on its relative merits and deficiencies – the same as with other “problematic” species of skeptical inquiry, such as concerning racial differences or climatology or various aspects of human sexuality. Once this much is understood, it becomes possible to distinguish the substantive core of revisionism from the cranked-up clamor that invariably surrounds it.

Being wise to this difficulty, Cole anchors his own interpersonally fraught micro-history of foibles and resentments to the project of historiography writ large. A memorable passage taps the messy truth:

…in every massive conflict between nations you see the exact same things that occur in conflicts between individuals—the same jockeying and maneuvering, the same collecting and testing of loyalties, the same measuring of risk against gain. The difference is only the scale. I used to make that point when I lectured. Never elevate or excoriate historical figures to the extent that they stop being flesh-and-blood humans. Don’t make Hitler the devil, and don’t make the Founding Fathers gods. They were still human, no matter their impact on history.

Is the task really so difficult? I’m afraid it is. Humanity is long in the weeds, and we are burdened with heavy baggage. For all his sarcasm and ventilation, Cole ends up counseling humility before the big questions. Who will notice?

Gas in the Gaps?

Given his past investment in the subject, it’s a safe bet that many readers will be interested in David Cole’s present take on Holocaust history and revisionism. Although he expresses understandable reluctance about holding court on the subject anew, the truth is that Cole is never more in his element than when he writes about history. He’s attentive to detail and he presents his theses logically in clear language that stands in welcome contrast to the palaver-laden cant of certain professional obscurantists. He would be a good teacher.

Revisionism comes up at tangential and direct turns throughout the biographical narrative – significantly in “The Idiot’s Creed,” which provides a fascinating account of Cole’s “behind the scenes” interactions with a number of prominent public figures during his revisionist days – but Cole’s present views are explicitly teased in an early chapter none-too-subtly entitled “So Just What the Hell Do I Believe, Anyway?” and are more carefully developed in a 24-page appendix that should be of special interest to traditional Holocaust historians and revisionists alike.            

The unavoidable headline is that Cole stands by his early research, rejecting the standard claim that Auschwitz and many other infamous camps served as killing centers equipped with homicidal gas chambers. “Auschwitz was not an extermination camp,” he writes:

Auschwitz and Majdanek in Poland, and Dachau, Mauthausen, and the other camps in Germany and Austria, were not extermination camps. They were bad, bad places. People were killed there. Jews were killed at Majdanek by shooting, and Jews were killed at Auschwitz in 1942, most likely due to decisions made by the commandant in defiance of orders from Berlin.

In the following paragraph, Cole writes:

However, Auschwitz was not the totality of the Holocaust. Not by far. Serious revisionists (David Irving, Mark Weber, and hell, I’ll throw my own name in there) don’t dispute the very provable mass murder of Jews (by shooting) during the months following the invasion of Russia. And at a camp like Treblinka, there is a massively strong circumstantial case to be made that the Jews who were sent there were sent there to be killed. It’s circumstantial because very little remains in the way of documentation, and zero remains in the way of physical evidence. But revisionists have never produced an alternate explanation of the fate met by the Jews sent to camps like Treblinka and Sobibor, with empty trains returning. However, accepting that Treblinka was a murder camp but Auschwitz wasn’t means that the Holocaust was not as large in scale or as long in operation as the official history teaches. So taking Auschwitz out of the category of extermination camps is seen as lessening the horror of what, even shorn of Auschwitz, was still a horrific situation.

While Cole’s summary may come laced with a bit more anti-Nazi editorial invective than is typically found in the currents of dissident Holocaust scholarship, his take on the history of Auschwitz in particular pretty much distills to a grounded recitation of revisionist theory, at least insofar as he rejects the standard claim that the site was renovated to be an ever-efficient killing factory during the latter phase of the war. In his more detailed treatment, where Jean-Claude Pressac’s work figures prominently, he deftly summarizes myriad forensic and chronological problems to advance the openly revisionist conclusion that the most infamous extermination camps were nothing of the kind.

And in case anyone other than Phil Donahue still believes the propaganda about the Dachau “gas chamber,” Cole is at the ready with a sobriety check:

Eventually, by the 1970s, the Dachau museum admitted that the “gas chamber” was never used. The fact that the “phony shower heads” were created by the army prior to the visit of U.S. dignitaries in ’45 is the biggest open secret in the field. The current claim at Dachau is that the room was “decorated” with dummy shower heads, which replaced the real shower heads and thus made them useless, in order to fool the victims, and once they were inside, gas pellets were thrown in from chutes in the side wall. And the half-measure “revision,” that the chamber was “never used,” really needs to be meditated on for a moment to grasp its stupidity. We’re supposed to believe that the Nazis took a working—and very necessary—group shower room at the camp, and replaced the working shower heads with fake ones, because they wanted to fool the victims into thinking they were walking into a shower room, which they would have thought anyway if the original shower heads had simply been left intact, and then the Nazis decided not to ever use the gas chamber, but now the room was unusable as an actual shower because the real shower heads had been replaced by fake ones, fake ones that were supposedly necessary to fool victims into thinking that they were walking into a shower room which is exactly what the victims would have thought they were walking into without the fake shower heads because the room actually was a shower room which could have still been used as one in between gassings if not for the dummy heads that replaced the genuine ones.    

If you want a down-and-dirty distillation of Cole’s current views, the most tightly packed summation is probably provided in the following two paragraphs:

The evidence of the mass murder of Jews was largely buried or erased by the Nazis long before the end of the war. At the war’s end, what was there to show? What was there to display? And something had to be displayed. World War II is a war with an ex post facto reason for being. The war started to keep Poland free and independent. At the end of the war, when Poland was essentially given to the USSR as a slave state (not that there was much the U.S. could have done to stop it from happening), none of the victorious powers wanted folks to start asking, “wait—sixty million people dead, the great cities of Europe burned to the ground, all to keep Poland free, and now we’re giving Poland to Stalin?

So Hitler’s very real brutality against the Jews had to become “the reason we fought.” Except, those brutalities began in earnest two years after the war started. But why quibble? Russia had captured Auschwitz and Majdanek intact (more or less), and the U.S. had captured Dachau totally intact. So, those camps became representations of a horror for which almost no authentic physical evidence remained. At Auschwitz, an air raid shelter was “remodeled” to look like a gas chamber (as the museum’s curator admitted to me in a 1992 interview). At Majdanek, mattress delousing rooms were misrepresented as being gas chambers for humans (as the museum’s director admitted to me in 1994). And at Dachau, the U.S. Army whipped up a phony gas chamber room to give visiting senators and congressmen in 1945 a dramatic image of “why we had to fight.”

Attentive readers will note how Cole, at certain points in the above-cited excerpts, parts company with many revisionists. This is made clearest in the appendix, where, in a nuanced counterpoint to the long-rehearsed revisionist emphasis on lack of a clearly discoverable “master plan” authorizing the wholesale extermination of Europe’s Jewish population, Cole plausibly argues that there were actually a congeries of “plans” floated and hatched at various stages in the wake of the infamous (and still profoundly misunderstood) Wannsee “protocols,” with such plans being molded by shifting goals and expediencies as the Nazis pursued an overarching yet decentralized injunction to resolve the “Jewish question” one way or another with only instrumental regard for the welfare of Jewish people. Sometimes this meant the exploitation of Jewish labor. Sometimes it meant the mass transfer or “evacuation” of populations. And sometimes it meant mass killing, including by gassing.

From this vantage, Cole focuses on the question of intent, discerning clues in the sequence of contemporaneous communications and pronouncements, many culled from Joseph Goebbels’s writings, to support his conjecture that for a time – specifically from “1942 through 1943” – Jews were dispatched to genuine extermination camps, specifically “Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, and Chelmno,” otherwise known as the Aktion Reinhardt system, where they were lined up and shot, or, in classic Holocaust style, queued up and fed to gas chambers (albeit of the truck-rigged must-have-been-carbon-monoxide-not-diesel-exhaust variety, not the pellet-inducted Zyklon B variety) and then burned (in pits, not crematoria).

Anyway, here’s the money shot:

From 1942 through 1943, Polish Jewry was subjected to one of the most brutal campaigns of mass murder in human history. Because of the secrecy surrounding those four extermination camps, and the fact that they were ploughed under and erased from existence in 1943, it’s difficult to be precise about certain details. And we do know that some Jews were sent to those camps as a throughway to other destinations (as recounted multiple times in Gerald Reitlinger’s 1953 masterwork The Final Solution). But, more than enough circumstantial evidence exists to show that for most Jews, the train ride to those camps was one-way, and final.

Not being an historian (and not having the constitutional fortitude for serious historical research), I will leave it to revisionist scholars to engage Cole’s interpretation of the timeline, the documentary mens rea and such other circumstantial evidence that might or might not support the conclusion that the eastern camp system served for a time as a full-on gas-and-burn death factory. I’m confident they’ll have plenty to say, since this whole area seems to have assumed prominence as the focal point of revisionist (and anti-revisionist) critique over the past decade or so, as evidenced by the widely viewed video documentary, One Third of the Holocaust, by the forensic researches of Fritz Berg, and by the voluminous output of guys like Germar Rudolf, Carlo Mottagno, Thomas Kues, Jürgen Graf and others, often in rebuttal to the mud-slinging gang of anti-revisionist gadflies over at the “Holocaust Controversies” site. Cole may not have come looking for an argument, but he’ll have one if he wants it. One can only hope that the debate, if it comes, will proceed with a modicum of civility. Whether Cole’s argument is sincere or tactical (and I’m inclined to believe he is sincere), it should be received as an invitation for revisionists to clarify and supplement their mounting counterargument in a spirit of good faith.

Regardless of how it will be met among active revisionists, I am sure that Cole’s argument will seem positively baffling to the average reader who has been groomed to regard Auschwitz as synecdoche for the canonical Holocaust story. While it may be understood that Cole is correct when he points out that “Auschwitz was not the totality of the Holocaust,” ordinary readers who come to Republican Party Animal with the usual engrained preconceptions will be hard-pressed to digest his “gas in the gaps” counter-narrative. I imagine it will be a bit like being told that yes, there was a Battle of the Alamo, but it actually took place in North Dakota!

No matter where the chips fall, I do think that Cole’s “exterminationist” interpretation of the Aktion Reinhardt system is superficially plausible and therefore useful. Whether it can withstand more intensive scrutiny is a different matter. Being a dilettante at best, I can only say it’s not how I would bet. Presumably for reasons of brevity, Cole neglects to directly address the copious revisionist literature in this area, so when he states that “revisionists have never produced an alternate explanation of the fate met by the Jews sent to camps like Treblinka and Sobibor, with empty trains returning” I am left to wonder whether he has read Samuel Crowell’s carefully documented treatment of the Aktion Reinhardt camps in the Nine-Banded Books edition of The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes. For what it’s worth, the relevant discussion is framed in the seldom-read fourth part of Crowell’s book, “The Holocaust in Retrospect,” where – I’m trying to save everyone time here – the most succinct statement of an “alternate explanation” (though Crowell would probably call it an “interpretation”) is advanced in the fifth section, “Aktion Reinhardt and the Legacy of Forced Labor,” beginning at page 339. Without wading too deep into the morass, Crowell offers a contextual reading of several key documents to support the revisionist position that “Aktion Reinhardt was about wealth seizure and SS control of Polish Jews, chiefly for labor purposes: It was not about mass murder.”

While Crowell’s analysis does not – indeed cannot – exclude the possibility that these sites were at some point devoted to the crudely mechanized destruction of human beings, including by mass gassing, I think he is persuasive in his interpretation of documents that render the scenario less likely than Cole asserts. For example, the authentic Franke-Gricksch inspection report (which wasn’t discovered until 2010 and is not mentioned by Cole) explicitly discusses the eastern program as a plunder operation, makes no reference to gassing, and includes population assessments that are plainly at odds with the numbers in the “final” Korherr report (which, it should be noted, has been disavowed by Korherr himself).

Crowell’s discussion of the top secret 1944 Globocnik report to Himmler along with its addendum also provides clear support for the interpretation that the AR system was primarily devoted to wealth seizure and includes an important note about “relocated persons” being given chits as a kind of bullshit assurance that “future compensation” would be rendered for their assets “some day in Brazil or in the Far East.” If the reference to “relocated persons” meant Jews – and there is a strong contextual reason to assume so, given the geographic presumption in the wording – then this addendum is difficult to reconcile with the notion that Jews were being systematically snuffed upon arrival at the camps.             

While I make no apology for assigning Crowell plenipotentiary status in this arena, I realize it may be considered bad form since I am his publisher. Let this be my disclaimer, then, if such be warranted. I may be biased, but I am convinced that the importance of Crowell’s research has not been fully appreciated, and I think that his concise but granular study of extant documents hovering around the AR camp system are relevant and need to be considered along with the forensic and testimonial issues that revisionists will likely raise in counterpoint to Cole’s argument. In any case, when you grapple with informed disagreement, it is wise to seek out what philosophers of knowledge call “epistemic peers,” if only as a safeguard against the conceit of certitude, and I think the views of Crowell and Cole can be usefully considered as a proximate peerage; they’re intelligent men evaluating the same evidentiary chain, presumably in good faith, yet reaching different conclusions.

I should mention also that it is largely due to Crowell’s better known socio-cultural study of mass gassing claims that I am inclined to view particular gassing claims from a default perspective of skepticism. World War II mass-gassing stories are so bedeviled with conflation, confabulation, and culture-bound confusion – and for delineable reasons – that it is well, in the absence of clear-cut physical evidence, to weigh sociogenic explanations against the kind of literal interpretation that holds sway in the standard historiography.        

Shadows and Mirrors

In forms of storytelling low and high, we have come to recognize a narrative device. By allusion to Dostoyevsky, it may be referred to as the Doppelgänger or the “Double.” It’s also sometimes called the “Shadow,” which I like better. I’m never sure about these things. I don’t know if it’s a modern invention or one of those Jungian archetypes that Joseph Campbell used to go on about. I’m not even sure whether it’s a trope or a motif, or some other lit-crit flavor I never learned. All I know is that it comes up often enough. Think of Humbert Humbert playing his cat-and-mouse game with Clare Quilty in Lolita, or think of the drug-addled narc in Phillip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly – itself a re-imagining of Nabokov’s The Eye – unwittingly stalking himself until the damage is done. Think of Marlow and Kurtz, or think of lycanthropic myths, or, if you’re a simpleton, stop at Jekyll and Hyde or – why not? – The Nutty Professor. Jerry Lewis version, please.

The Shadow may appear as a liberating demon like Tyler Durden in Fight Club, or as a beastly projection like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. But the underlying psychology isn’t so moveable; it always settles around the problem of the divided self, and around such conflict as arises when one mask is dislodged to reveal the secret face that haunts or entices. And, to bastardize Robert Burns, when a Shadow meets a Shadow, there must come a reckoning.     

It’s tempting to read David Cole’s unexpected and possibly important memoir as a kind of real-life Shadow story. The hallmarks are there. It’s about a guy haunted and lured by the former self he had hoped to bury, and the reckoning, obligatorily foreshadowed, comes as it must.

But if that’s the template, we are just as soon confounded by questions. Who is the Shadow? Is the Shadow David Cole, the once and again infamous “Jewish Holocaust denier” who left an indelible mark on one of the most abominated intellectual movements in modern history? Or is the Shadow David Stein, the titular “Republican Party Animal” who penned influential op-eds while organizing mixers for Hollywood’s “right-wing underground”? Is the Shadow flickering in the multiplicity of lesser pseudonyms and guises the author created as a matter of camouflage or whim as he stood in two circles? Or does the Shadow dwell elsewhere, perhaps in the hearts and minds of those who cast aspersions upon the man in subterfuge?

It’s a matter of perspective, I suppose. Or of sympathy. Or maybe it’s just a false start. Cole’s story is, in any case, ultimately not so much about a self divided as it is about the burden of irrevocable choices and what cornered insight may be gained in the wake of so much preposterous tumult, when every cover is blown and there’s nowhere left to hide.

“I don’t want to be here,” Cole emphasizes at the beginning of his story. In the closing chapter, he plays on a recurrent Coen brothers theme to assert that he has “learned nothing.” I believe one of these voices. I am deeply suspicious of the other.


Memento mori.

Lessons from the Ring

It's been a while since I've seen the billboards, but I suppose those "Tough Man" or "Rough and Rowdy" amateur boxing competitions are still being booked at civic arenas across the heartland. I know they once drew big crowds in my neck of the woods.

If you go, try to make it for the early elimination rounds. That's when you'll see the really unevenly matched fights, which are more entertaining. Expect a queue of pasty Scotch-Irish doughboys whirling and throwing blind haymakers at the bell. There's little form to behold. Very few jabs. No one covers or blocks. And the ones who don't walk wide-open into a lucky cold knockout in one of three two-minute rounds are often so winded upon reaching their corners that you find yourself looking at the ringside EMT crew, half expecting they'll be called to intervene on account of a coronary.

Watching these volunteer fighters (many of whom I suspect are also volunteer firefighters — and I grew up around these guys) may leave you with a deeper appreciation of the grace and science of "real" boxing. But if you have good seats and you don't get too drunk, there's a good chance you'll come around to enjoy the action for what it is. Pick a favorite for starts. Maybe a viable underdog. Behind the ludicrous sight of so much inelegant fury and flurry, you may begin to discern the pulse of a deeper romance that belies the gawking nose-bleeding redneck sideshow spectacle as advertised. These are men after all. They work as security guards and pipefitters and box-store warehouse laborers and pizza slingers, or they don't work at all. They drove in from the sticks, and at least they came to fight. Their girlfriends are watching. There'll be winners and losers, even if there's a ringer at the end.

Year after year I half-joked that I should throw my name in the ring. What I lack in reach I figured I made up for in brute strength; figured I could work out a good inside game, that I could train for stamina, plot a defensive first-round strategy to wear my opponent down. Kill the body in the second, look for an opening — a clean uppercut — in the third. More likely I'd've tasted canvas in the first. Fuck it, I was too much of a pussy to even find out.

No matter. What you need to know is only that the fights play in rapid succession, each lasting all of ten minutes, max. Less for the knockouts, of which there will be quite a few. And what you need to understand — not so easy from a soft chair — is that a full-on two-minute round, however clumsily executed, is physically and mentally exhausting for the men in the ring. This element of exhaustion is especially pronounced (it comes as a shock, I think) for the ones who haven't trained for such an event, which is obviously the case where so many "Tough Man" contenders are concerned. Drunken parking lot brawls don't count as training.

So I remember this one I saw in Huntington maybe two decades ago. The first half dozen fights were the usual slopwork. A few knockouts. A few decisions. Plenty of graceless pirouettes and rabbit punches and flailing windmills in between. Ridiculous fun. But then there came a fight — an uneven match, but not especially so — and what happened was that the more out-of-shape guy, when he lumbered back to his corner after the first round, well, he just called it. He motioned to the ref: "I'm out." So the crowd booed and the other guy raised his gloves in default victory.

But that lame play, it changed the temper of the hall. The very next fight was a repeat; another mid-round quit. And there would be others — more towels thrown, in accordance with this newly established ethos — over the course of the event. You sensed the crowd's growing frustration as the bouts played out with more fighters "opting out" after taking their blows. The atmosphere was less charged now that anticlimax was a live option   

This is something I still think about. I've thought about it as an atom of cultural evolution. I thought about it when I read Charles Murray's Coming Apart.  I thought about it when I saw the documentary Oxyana. I've thought about it more or less every time I've reflected on social policies where an "out" is made more attractive, or, insidiously, less damnable. It seems quaint and a mite insincere to mount a half-assedly conservative critique of no-fault divorce, especially when I'm more than convinced that divorce makes many people happier. Yet it's clear enough that a trend was set and a stigma revoked, and it's just as clear to me that the burden — yeah, I think it just might be a burden — has fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of left-side-of-the-bell-curve working class men for whom a such a bedrock institution might have meant something more than a fucking cake party.

In Oxyana, the focus is on the culture of pharmaceutical drug abuse that has spread like kudzu over coal country. The filmmakers, at whatever documentary-coy measured distance, imply that something is to be done, but their framing is such to permit only the conclusion that prescription mills run by venal and unscrupulous absentee doctors are to blame. It seems never to occur to them that the rampant culture of addiction that they depict in wallowing first-person interspliced narratives is more deeply rooted in the now-entrenched disability benefit culture that has entrapped and emasculated this sorrowful landscape since a welfare reform deal was brokered and let to irrevocably alter the choice horizons of people who might have had a better shot at a meaningful existence. Who was the first guy to throw in the towel? I imagine his back was aching and the rent was due. Who was the next guy, the one who was informed by the helpful pug-faced candy-scented female representative that a bipolar diagnosis counted and you just need to fill out a different form? Do you think his girlfriend was standing ringside, cheering him on? Do you hear wedding bells in their future?

I don't blame the first guy who called it from his corner. But for a lucky cut, he was bound to lose anyway. He saw it play out and he decided — rationally — that the pain wasn't worth the pain. He was hurting. You don't know until you've been there. He thought his fucking heart would explode. But I do wonder how he felt on the drive home. Whatever gnashing pangs of regret might have crept to mind, I bet they were salved by the simple knowledge that others followed his lead.

Just fill out this form.

Memento mori.                 




Nothing to be done…

So I haven't written much here over the last year. There was a time when I was very nearly obsessed with the "project" that was and is "The Hoover Hog." I thought it had "groove and meaning," to paraphrase Frankie Valli (or Barry Gibb, if you're a stickler). I imagined it would be a good thing to play fast and loose with fire, and that I was somehow going to cut it just right. Or that was the only-ever-vague aspiration. Being out of step seemed like an outgroup advantage. Being honest seemed like a neat trick. Being more or less alone seemed like a cozy redoubt.

One problem that has been called to my attention is that I'm really not a very good writer. I suppose this wouldn't matter were it not for the fact that I half-secretly want to write well, and frankly (unreasonably) in a state of sustained inspiration — which is what all of the manuals advise against.

One of my greatest pleasures in life is to read at a local bar after work. I make time for this and during such time I can feel my mind alight with pinprick insight. I make connections and jot down precious thoughts on a napkin or a notepad that I will later discard. I return to the book of the moment and I feel myself being transported into a smooth electric hum that gives way to useless idiot excitement when I step out for a smoke. I make plans and resolutions. Nothing ever comes of it. Or nothing much. After six or seven beers, my thoughts begin to cloud. Returning home, the intensity fades. Perhaps I start something that I will soon abandon. Just as likely, I will fume over such ordinary constraints that beset every human path. I've had the same day job for over fifteen years and lately it feels like I'm on borrowed time. I seldom talk with anyone at work. When I do, it's in the stilted manner of professional decorum. Time drags, and I feel — irrationally and egotistically — like a hostage.

I'm still convinced that it is a valuable thing, at least for some of us, to engage "dangerous" ideas. Over the years I like to think I've drawn up — or appropriated — a few useful heuristics that elevate fetish to craft. I am mindful of epistemic limits. I spot hoaxes early. I see religion in the strangest nooks. I attach asterisks to everything, and I vouchsafe my own nagging biases under files labeled "aesthetics" and "sacred residue."  I've also learned to break down stories. The trouble with this is that you may eventually turn your attention to the really big stories, until everything is broken. Sarah Perry, perhaps in oblique revision of Camus, claims that what's then left is "epilogue." I suppose that's the backdrop for everything Beckett ever wrote. And it's the deadpan rejoinder to every hollow pronouncement celebrating the grandeur of a scientific worldview. Yet it's what remains. What we're left with. It won't sustain a civilization, but that's none of my business.

I'm 44 years old. I insist that's too old for new plans. It's not too old, however, for some measure of refinement and resolution. In 2014 I resolved to "go vegan" (fuck you), mostly for the hell of it but also, I admit, because I care very much about animal welfare. I made exceptions for holidays. I was soon surprised at how easy it was, at how I felt the same (I expected to feel a worsening of some specific kind). My suspicion of dietary politics has sharpened as a result. There's so much moral residue in this area, which is very curious. I even have a theory about why. Perhaps I'll share it with you at another time. I'm sure it's wrong. Most theories are.

Anyway, what I've done over the past few years is I have published books. I attach a great deal of (surely illusory) importance to this endeavor, and this I fully suspect this will continue. I think I'm a better editor than I am a writer. I just need to get up earlier. So there's one resolution of a manageable variety: Keep doing that shit. Try to do it well, and in a way that honors the work of those writers who have been so kind and generous to allow me to publish there words and ideas. There's good stuff in the queue. You'll see.

The other thing, fuck it, is to write. In the spirit of experiment, I mean to simply let go of such writerly bugs that have proven uselessly debilitating and just get on with it. I'm going to try to put something up here at least weekly, without overmuch attention to form or structure or even thematic consistency, to give in to a the simple curiosity of seeing where it leads. So this space may become a journal. Expect stories, reflections, false starts, stream-of-conscous drivel, minor confessions, bad writing, worse jokes, typos. The idea that I've been mulling is simply to retoggle the source of so much banked frustration, to see if it can be made, in some inconsequential way, liberating. It's selfish of me, I know.

Wish me luck. Thanks for reading.

Memento mori.

A Personal History of A Personal History of Moral Decay



A little over a decade ago I launched Nine-Banded Books by publishing a slender novella by Bradley R. Smith. It was called The Man Who Saw His Own Liver. I didn't know what I was doing at the time and I still am not sure what I'm doing. I know I priced the book too high and printed too many copies. It never sold well, but that didn't matter to me. All that mattered was that I liked the manuscript and I wanted very much for it to exist so that some few readers might discover it and perhaps treasure it in the way that people sometimes do with books. It's heartening to see that Liver is getting some attention these years later. It really is a good read. It's one of those books that sets a spell.

The backstory I might have mentioned before is that Liver wasn't my first choice. When I initially approached Bradley it was with the idea of publishing a different manuscript — a sprawling and never quite complete collection of autobiographical stories he had assembled over the years called A Personal History of Moral Decay. Bradley's concern was that the manuscript needed work, so we agreed, for the time being, to do Liver instead. It was a good place to start. The right place to start, I suppose.

As the years passed I would occasionally approach Bradley to ask if he wanted to go forward with Moral Decay and he would invariably respond in the same way by saying "it needs work." The last time this happened I was moved to go back and read the thing a bit more carefully with my best editorial instincts. It was true enough that it needed work, but only in the sense that all manuscripts require a bit of gingerly attention and investment. But the words rolled smooth as milk and honey on oats, and the stories had a strange and distinctive thematic resonance that only deepened on repeat.

What happened was, there came a point when I was moved to reflect on what I was reading and what I will say is that I knew it was a great book. Not a good book. A great one. I imagine I'll stand by that statement until I die. A thousand bad reviews couldn't dissuade me of this conviction. A Personal History of Moral Decay is a great book. I consider it a rare privilege to bring it into print.

But back to Bradley, the author. It was with a greater sense of urgency that I approached him this time. I told him we needed to do the book — that it was important to do it now. I meant while he was still alive but I didn't say that. I told him it was good — I don't think I said it was "great" but that is also what I meant — and I tried to explain the reasons why. I dropped names like James Salter and John Cheever and Richard Brautigan and I said that the book was a throwback to what such men once did on instinct, before MFAs and writing workshops and Oprah-branded book clubs and sentence-obsessed literary memoirs and feminist sensibilities descended to have their ruinous way with a world of letters that once teemed with immediacy and life. I said, or I might as well have said, that it was the sort of book that some few readers might discover and perhaps treasure in the way that people still sometimes do with books.

And Bradley, perhaps he sensed the urgency in my words. Because this time he said what the hell. It'll never be perfect. Let's do it, kid.

I love A Personal History of Moral Decay. It's one of my favorite books. You can order a copy through Amazon here or directly through Nine-Banded Books here. The cover design is by Kevin Slaughter and it is based on the old Obelisk editions of Henry Miller for reasons you may come to understand. I hope you'll buy a copy for yourself and I hope you'll buy another one for your dad. Here's a fine write-up from over at Taki's that artfully touches on the unavoidable subject that I am now avoiding for reasons you're wrong to suspect.

Memento mori.