Gotham Diary:
Cool Jerks
September 2018 (III)

18 and 19 September

Tuesday 18th

Thanks to the republication of Iris Origo’s brief war diaries, I felt compelled to read up, for the first time, on Benito Mussolini, the Fascist forerunner and later junior partner of Adolf Hitler. Mussolini’s dark star has dimmed in recent times, largely, I think, because the Holocaust, the details of which were unknown to all but a few until after the end of the Second World War, is now the first and often the only horror that people associate with Hitler’s régime. Mussolini’s contribution to the Holocaust was half-hearted at most.

Deciding to begin conventionally, with a biography, I chose Jasper Ridley’s, because I’ve read his biography of Elizabeth I twice. Mussolini is a brisk double portrait, Ripley’s thesis being that, for several decades, Mussolini managed to ride two horses at the same time. We are familiar with what he looked like atop one of these horses: the bombastic thug. Since Ridley claims that, as an orator, Mussolini was unusually concise, I expect that the impression of bombasm owes to his ranting in Italian. But we still know him primarily from newsreels and other publicity sources. Atop the other horse, dressed in a morning suit, he was a charming man of the world, by all accounts, albeit one who showed his claws. The biggest surprise — because I’ve never heard this before — is that Mussolini was fluent in German and French, and fully apprised of political events around the world. His former compadre from early socialist days, Angelica Balabanoff, claimed that he lacked courage — not physical courage, but the moral strength to resist the desires of his supporters. Ridley puts it more nicely: Mussolini knew that his people would obey his orders without hesitation — so long as those orders were the ones that his people wanted to hear. He understood that he could never restrain them from beating people up and burning buildings down.

(I’m quite often reminded, reading about Ripley’s Mussolini, of Massimo Ghini’s performance as the Fascist Pooh-Bah of Florence, Leopardi, in Philip Haas’s Up at the Villa — suave but deadly.)

Mussolini was a man of the people, but he was not a peasant. His father was a blacksmith, and an ardent socialist. His mother was a schoolteacher. He may be said to have risen in the world by the most classical of means: as a rhetor, a public speaker. Unlike the Greeks and the Romans, Mussolini could take advantage of a still fairly recent invention, the mass-produced newspaper. But the arc of his transition from socialism to fascism reveals that he was richly endowed with another modern gift: he was an entertainer. What distinguishes the entertainer from others is not the ability to attract attention but the knack for holding onto it. Entertainers are extraordinarily alert to audience feedback, and capable of adjusting their performances minutely. Mussolini carried it one step further. He dumped an audience that he felt was waning, and took up with one that was growing.

Without belaboring the point, Ridley does observe that Italy came out of World War I almost as embittered as Germany. Its only gains from the Peace of Versailles were territories that Austria had been willing to concede if Italy, its sometime ally, would simply stay out of the war. Italy’s designs on Istria, the Dalmatian coast, and the Dodacanese Islands (to name a few) ran squarely counter to the principle of self-determination that so naively governed the Allies’ deliberations. Britain’s secret offer of Jubaland (today’s Kenya), dangled as an inducement for Italy to enter the war on the Allied side, came to nothing.

Worse, returning veterans were mocked by Socialists for having stupidly participated in a pointless war. Socialists ideologically denounced war as a bourgeois gambit, and soldiers were its dupes. Mussolini, a veteran himself, discovered that soldiers preferred to be treated as heroes, whether or not their sacrifices had achieved anything. From this kernel grew an organization that always had the tacit support of the Italian armed and police forces. It was also an anti-democratic one. The Fascist rank and file would much rather act than vote. They reveled in a political climate that glorified the homeland and in a régime that devoted considerable resources to matching the achievements — primarily in technology and sport — of its hitherto more advanced neighbors. Their achievements, however, were largely confined to more brutish demonstrations of male superiority.

Hailing these demonstrations of Italian vigor and virtue, Mussolini ever more stridently denounced the rot of the Western democracies — and the Western democracies merely frowned in response. What they would have done in other circumstances can only be imagined, but in the particular circumstances of the Twenties and Thirties, Western minds were overwhelmed by a dread of Bolshevism. It is hard for us to appreciate this dread now, partly because we conflate Bolshevism with Communism (a mistake that Bolshevists encouraged), partly because the dread was infused with Victorian nightmares rooted in Gothic novels, and partly because the imagined horrors of Bolshevism have been replaced by the actual horrors of the Holocaust. Suffice it to say that Bolshevism was regarded as an unspeakable evil, in comparison with which Mussolini’s Blackshirts were guilty of nothing worse than aggravated roughhousing. At every turn in Mussolini’s career, he was deemed to be not only preferable to but a bulwark against Bolshevists.

As Mussolini moves into the Thirties, the dictator, whose patterns were already established, recedes slightly in the growing chaos of international disaster, and an unexpected narrative thread gathers strength. From the first burgeonings of Mussolini’s political career, Ridley keeps us informed of the opinions of British observers. This might strike some readers as provincial, as if the author were boosting the importance of his own country’s dealings with Mussolini. But to me, the fractured response of Westminster’s shifting personalities to Italy’s activities in Ethiopia and Spain, and then to Mussolini’s somewhat dodgy interactions with Hitler, show as no other study that I’m familiar with the extent to which the minds of the pre-eminent Western democracy simply fell apart in the run-up to 1939. As the Soviet Union developed the conventional features of a modern nation, industrially at least, and as Italy and Germany did the same, sophisticated Britons began to suspect that they were out of their depth when judging such unforeseen novelties. Many of them had strongly believed that their parliamentary democracy would never flourish in “less advanced” polities, but the calamities of the Thirties proved that they had been only half right. They had had no idea of the malignancy of the tyrannies into which misbegotten parliamentary democracy would mutate.

And I suddenly see (although Ridley has not yet made this point) that Churchill’s great strength in all this mess was not so much his bulldog determination to fight on as his ability to know his own mind. He did not flounder. He admired Mussolini for many years, but when he came to share Angelica Balabanoff’s doubts about Mussolini’s courage, he did not fall back in disillusioned bewilderment. He did what he always did: he changed his mind.

But perhaps I anticipate incorrectly. There will be more to read when I’m done with Ridley’s Mussolini. But Ridley has completely refreshed a sad history by inviting us to ask some new questions. What happens when a powerful culture loses its analytical grip? And what happens when political leaders are in fact professional entertainers?


Wednesday 19th

In recent commentaries, Michelle Goldberg and Jia Tolentino have taken the #MeToo issue around a corner where there happens to be a strong ray of sunlight. What bothers them about the (mostly male) offenders is not what they did but that they don’t seem to understand that they did it to another human being. Both have been provoked by the creeping rehabilitation of such figures as Louis CK, John Hockenberry, and Jian Ghomeshi, all of whom appear to argue that they’ve suffered enough already. They’ve suffered! What about their victims? It seems that these gentlemen don’t have anything to say about their victims, except to mumble, “I’m sorry — can I go now?”

I think Ian Buruma has said it for them. I haven’t read his Slate interview with Isaac Chotiner, but Tolentino quotes a bit of it.

Buruma claimed to support the #MeToo movement as a “necessary corrective.” When Chotiner reminded him that Ghomeshi has been accused of numerous acts of sexual assault, “including punching women in the head,” he responded, “The exact nature of his behavior—how much consent was involved—I have no idea, nor is that really my concern.” What Buruma wanted to explore, he said, was the experience of “being at the top of the world, doing more or less what you like, being a jerk in many ways, and then finding your life ruined and being a public villain and pilloried.”

The phrase “finding your life ruined” is remarkably telling.

No, “being a jerk in many ways” is remarkably telling. I’m pretty sure that most men would agree that each of the members of the #MeToo rogues gallery behaved like a jerk. They might differ as to how much worse than being a jerk each individual might be — but all were jerks. Al Franken’s offense was nothing worse than being a wacky jerk, I daresay most men smiled when they saw the image of him mugging with his hands over the sleeping woman’s breasts — no touching! Now, the opposite of being a jerk is being cool, and cool means never getting caught. The safest and smartest way to avoid getting caught is not to act like a jerk (or worse). But let it not be imagined that the cool guys who will probably never face a #MeToo challenge regard women any differently from the jerks. All it comes down to is this: the difference between a cool guy and a jerk is that the jerk’s timing is off. (It is never the right time to hit anyone, not even when asked.)

I think that women who are waiting for men, especially men in middle age, to awaken to the damage that being a jerk might do to a woman are wasting their time. For bad or worse, older men grew up in a vanished world, and the only thing to do is to wait for them to die off. Sorry! The thing to do is everything possible to make sure that they’re not replaced, that boys and young men growing up understanding that women are not toys. For that’s the problem: it’s not that men don’t empathize with women, or understand the pain caused by their unwanted maneuvers, &c &c, but that they believe that women exist for their pleasure — otherwise, why don’t they please go away? Not all men, but enough. This is why women wear burqas: in some cultures, men grow up believing that a man who does not take advantage of an “immodest” woman is not a man at all. To resist a sexual impulse is not to have it in the first place: the urge establishes its bona fides by overpowering the susceptible victim, who is, of course, a real man.

The respect for women that shielded them from the kind of harassment and abuse that seem so common now may have been very effective, but it wasn’t something that we want to revive, if only because it wasn’t genuine respect at all. It was rooted in the belief that women were special, not human in the way that men were human. Consigned to their special, arguably “superior” sphere, women were surrounded by thickets of restrictions and prohibitions that prevented their leading full lives, especially if they were not drawn to the career of marriage and motherhood. The destruction of those barriers is one of the big stories of the Twentieth Century. But the effective if old-fashioned respect that was destroyed along with them has not been replaced.

There will always be a handful of truly dangerous sexual predators, but I think that most of the inappropriateness (and worse) that has been called out in the #MeToo revival tent is rooted in foolishness and showing off, not pathology. Young men with pocket money and free time naturally challenge each other to pursue dubious achievements, but these need not include treating women as playthings. How to instill an effective if not heartfelt respect for all women in adolescent minds is a practical problem that women and men are going to have to hammer out. Meanwhile, I hope that Michelle Goldberg and Jia Tolentino will stop waiting for a new respect to emerge from spontaneously enlightened men.

Bon week-end à tous!