May 29, 2008

John Lukacs: Crank

Like most crotchety, learned old Hungarians I have known, Dr. John Lukacs has many interesting things to say, and an arresting way of saying them. He delivers his opinions, well-formed or not, with all the force of infallible papal bulls. And a certain sort of American is overwhelmed by that Hunnish accent and Pius IX delivery, or by Dr. Lukacs’ puckish smile. They are also charmed by the aura he cultivates of a daring iconoclast, who is willing to say the unsayable. However, on close inspection, quite a number of things Dr. Lukacs has written and said over the decades sound more like either the natterings of a sycophant, or the provocations of a crank.

Lukacs is hardly “fighting the power” when he trashes the anti-Communist movement. Indeed, I can imagine no better way to ensure that his books go right on being published by major houses, and receiving respectful reviews in journals which continue to publish the likes of Tony Hiss, STILL defending his dead, traitor dad. At least Hiss has the excuse of filial piety. As a countryman of Cardinal Mindszenty, as someone who saw the power of moderate nationalisms bring down the Communist empire, Lukacs has none. Indeed, in an era when globalizing institutions wield the power of elites to liquidate historic communities from Flanders to Sicily, in large part by importing alien ideologues of Islam, Lukacs’ frantic warnings against the “menace” of populism and nationalism can be summed up in a single word: Appeasement.

Nor is Lukacs exactly displaying intense moral courage when he polishes the bust of Winston Churchill. To link Pat Buchanan, who cited dozens of major historians but NOT David Irving, with that disgraced Nazi dilettante is itself disgraceful. It’s like suggesting, wryly, without any evidence, that Lukacs must have some past connection with the Arrow Cross… hence his desperate attempt to impersonate a Christian Democrat.

Sometimes Lukacs sounds less like a shady emigre newly arrived from Budapest, sweet-talking the de-Nazification officers in Munich, and more like a callow, if clever, undergraduate. For instance, his oh-so-ingenious insistence that all of Europe now is ruled by “National Socialism,” since its nations are mostly socialist. (That is the extent of his argument for the assertion—however much ink he wastes repeating himself.) Yes, Johnny, we get it. No, we are not convinced. Not even by the accent.

At other times, Lukacs’ assertions are simply bizarre, and impossible to categorize. For instance, the review he wrote, back in the 1980s, of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. In it, he accused Tom Wolfe of brazen anti-Semitism—based simply on the fact that Wolfe’s portrayal of ethnic politics in New York, and his satirical picture of the Hobbsean conflict among my home-town’s immigrant tribes, did not ignore the existence of Jewish people in New York. Wolfe included them, even in his satire. He didn’t single them out—far from it. But they formed part of the mosaic. To Lukacs, Wolfe had a special animus toward Jews, whom he resented for displacing the WASP elite. To my knowledge, Lukacs was the only critic to make this charge against Wolfe, and it didn’t stick. Why weren’t others raising a hue and cry? To this, Lukacs had an answer, in his review, which was this: (and I suggest you read this slowly, in a seated position):  New York…literary critics…were so intimidated…by Tom Wolfe…that they were willing…to give him a pass… on his blatant anti-Semitism.

Yes, Herr Doktor Lukacs. That is how things work in the New York literary world. Liberal Jewish literary critics are terrified of the one moderately conservative middlebrow novelist in their midst, so frightened that they creep around him, unwilling to wield against him such a mild and harmless weapon as a charge of anti-Semitism.

An historian who so misunderstands the workings of a world comparatively close at hand has no business trying to teach us about the past. My congratulations to Richard for punching a hole in this Hindenburg.

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