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Ed Driscoll

Michael Lewis, Flush with Success

September 3rd, 2011 - 1:41 am

We normally try to avoid scatological humor here, both writing about it, and trying to avoid movies and other works where, perhaps because political correctness has closed off so many other avenues of humor, it’s clearly the last refuge of a lazy comedy writer. Which brings us, sad to say, to Michael Lewis, the author of Liar’s Poker, The Blind Side, and numerous other books and articles.

In his latest post at PJM, David P. Goldman, aka “Spengler” focuses on Lewis’s newest article, which Goldman’s Weimar-era namesake would (hopefully) have pointed to as yet mile marker on the way to the Decline of the West:

Michael Lewis was the guy who got the coffee for the guy who got the coffee at the old Salomon Brothers in the 1980s, and parlayed his observations of the local fauna into an iconic bestseller, Liar’s Poker. He never had a clue about what was going on at that flawed and fascinating institution, but neither did his readers, and the anecdotes told themselves. Since then he’s haunted the columns of glossy magazines, wandering farther and farther afield. In the September issue of Vanity Fair he wanders off the deep end in a potty-mouthed (literally) examination of the German national character.

Somehow, the alleged German obsession with excrement explains Nazism as well as Germany’s attitude towards its insouciant southern neighbors, in Lewis’ account. It might be the most trivial response to grand historic tragedy ever to pay $2 a word, or perhaps any sum at all.

I doubt Lewis speaks more than a dozen words of German, but he has found an obscure tract by an anthropologist who thinks that the reason Germany got into deep doo-doo is the doo-doo itself:

In Lewis’s article in Vanity Fair (which either drives home the first half of the magazine’s name or makes a mockery of it, depending upon your perspective) titled, “It’s the Economy, Dummkopf!” (ahem — GMTA), he writes:

Dundes caused a bit of a stir, for an anthropologist, by tracking this single low national character trait into the most important moments in German history. The fiercely scatological Martin Luther (“I am like ripe shit, and the world is a gigantic asshole,” Luther once explained) had the idea that launched the Protestant Reformation while sitting on the john. Mozart’s letters revealed a mind, as Dundes put it, whose “indulgence in fecal imagery may be virtually unmatched.” One of Hitler’s favorite words was Scheisskerl (“shithead”): he apparently used it to describe not only other people but himself as well. After the war, Hitler’s doctors told U.S. intelligence officers that their patient had devoted surprising energy to examining his own feces, and there was pretty strong evidence that one of his favorite things to do with women was to have them poop on him. Perhaps Hitler was so persuasive to Germans, Dundes suggested, because he shared their quintessential trait, a public abhorrence of filth that masked a private obsession. “The combination of clean and dirty: clean exterior-dirty interior, or clean form and dirty content—is very much a part of the German national character,” he wrote.

Do you really want to play that game? You can apply virtually the exact same critique to a very different 20th century historical figure, as Richard Grenier noted in Commentary almost 30 years ago, in the midst of the Greatest Movie Review Ever Written:

I cannot honestly say I had any reasonable expectation that the film would show scenes of Gandhi’s pretty teenage girl followers fighting “hysterically” (the word was used) for the honor of sleeping naked with the Mahatma and cuddling the nude septuagenarian in their arms. (Gandhi was “testing” his vow of chastity in order to gain moral strength for his mighty struggle with Jinnah.) When told there was a man named Freud who said that, despite his declared intention, Gandhi might actually be *enjoying* the caresses of the naked girls, Gandhi continued, unperturbed. Nor, frankly, did I expect to see Gandhi giving daily enemas to all the young girls in his ashrams (his daily greeting was, “Have you had a good bowel movement this morning, sisters?”), nor see the girls giving him *his* daily enema. Although Gandhi seems to have written less about home rule for India than he did about enemas, and excrement, and latrine cleaning (“The bathroom is a temple. It should be so clean and inviting that anyone would enjoy eating there”), I confess such scenes might pose problems for a Western director.

And as Paul Johnson wrote in Modern Times, “In his local language, Gujarati, Gandhi means ‘grocer’, and both he and his mother, from whom he inherited chronic constipation, were obsessed by the bodily functions and the ingress and egress of food…One of his favourite books was Constipation and Our Civilization, which he constantly reread.”

Ron Rosenbaum, the author of 1998′s Explaining Hitler, has written extensively that “the focus on Hitler’s alleged personal peculiarities de-historicizes the causes of the Holocaust.” Back in 2006, he spotted a German film with a similar tack as Lewis’s article above, this time with the focus on another bodily output:

The heart sinks. Seeing this item from Spiegel Online for 11/23/06: Germany’s First Nazi Comedy: Meet Hitler, the Bedwetting, Drug Addict

The preview tells us that in Mein Fuhrer, “German cinema breaks new ground with its first comedy about Hitler. Jewish director Dani Levy is following in the footsteps of Charlie Chaplin maker of The Great Dictator… [the film] is a decidedly unsympathetic portrait of Hitler as a bedwetting drug addict who is making the world suffer for his beatings as a child.”

It’ s hard to know where to begin explicating the idiocies compressed into this single paragraph. First of all that this is somehow a brave breakthrough: “a decidedly unsympathetic portrait of Hitler.” What’s next: a courageous critique of Idi Amin?

As I tried to point out in Explaining Hitler, so called “psycho-historical” theories of Hitler have long been justly discredited, but still attract those who find some kitschy thrill in contemplating the sexual and personal perversities of Nazis.

Psycho-historical theories have been discredited both for lack of credible evidence and for flawed notions of causation. Here, for instance, it sounds like the director has blindly accepted the dubious, contradicted hearsay that Hitler’s father beat him, promoted strenuously without corroboration by psychoanalyst Alice Miller (who, again without corroboration “explains” Hitler’s anti-semitism by claiming Hitler’s father beat him because the father was upset that he, the father, might have “Jewish blood”–a concatenation of unproven, unprovable old wives tales). Even if it were true that Hitler’s father beat him this does not support the notion that therefore Hitler became a mass murderer because he resented Daddy. All too many children are beaten by their fathers, true, but only Hitler became Hitler because his exterminationist impulses had the enthusiastic support of hundreds of thousands of “ordinary” Germans and other Europeans.

Second, the focus on Hitler’s alleged personal peculiarities, de-historicizes the causes of the Holocaust; making it some kind of outgrowth of personal revenge and perversion rather the culmination of centuries of murderous anti-semitic hatred in Europe carried out by hundreds of thousands of non bed-wetting accomplices to Hitler. It de-politicizes the genocidal hatred in an utterly trivializing way. The Holocaust was not the product of one man’s personal peccadilloes, but of a powerful historical, theological and racial ideology that a juvenile comic focus on “bed-wetting” utterly obscures and in effect denies.

That applies equally well to Lewis’ article as well; just substitute orifices. Lewis is often a great writer, but his attempt at humor this time around seems remarkably ill-chosen.

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