Thursday, January 31, 2008

Knave's Gambit

The Totalitarian Stupidity of Bobby Fischer

Recent history may offer no purer example of August Bebel's socialism of fools than Bobby Fischer. Arguably the best chess player ever, Fischer, who was born Jewish in Brooklyn, was an anti-Semite and anti-American whose passion for these hatreds was surpassed only by the straightforwardness with which he frequently expressed them. On September 11th, 2001, with bodies still smoldering in the rubble of the World Trade Center, Fischer called Bombo Radyo, a talk radio station in the Philippines, to say:

I applaud the act... The U.S. and Israel have been slaughtering the Palestinians, just slaughtering them for years. Robbing them and slaughtering them. Nobody gave a shit. Now it's coming back to the U.S. Fuck the U.S. I want to see the U.S. wiped out.

A lot of people saw this as yet more evidence of Fischer's storied lunacy, but most people refused to give him a pass. Perhaps that's because what he said was being echoed in ostensibly respectable quarters. Fischer's shout out to the Palestinians perfectly expressed the kind of "anti-globalization" that, for instance, drove Christopher Hitchens away from The Nation, a rightward trajectory toward basic morality and common sense that many of us followed. Fischer's bluntness and timing may have seemed 'crazy', but his statement is a catechism of a familiar Left-wing politics: the conflation of America and Israel, their demonic evil set in Manichean opposition to a celebrated victim group, and the vulgar calculus that such evil must rationally be answered by mass murder.

Now that Fischer is dead, people are again contemplating how such a brilliant person could have sunk so far. The obits, lamentations and celebrations persist: Fischer was nuts. Some people leave it at that; others try to answer how and why. A common theme is the intensity of Fischer's dedication to chess, and the fathomless complexity of the game, removed him from reality. Steven Zaillian, the screenwriter and director of Searching for Bobby Fischer, writes:

The film Searching for Bobby Fischer, despite its title, wasn't really about him, but rather what he represented to the chess world... and to us: the distance that is sometimes narrow between art and science, success and failure, genius and madness, and the great price one often has to pay for great talent.

There may be some truth to this -- I don't know any chess stars -- but the "narrow [distance] between... genius and madness" is a cliché. Fischer helps us reconceptualize intelligence and insanity in ways that aren't being considered in the public reactions to his death.

We tend to think of intelligence as monolithic -- either you're intelligent, or you're not; and we tend to think of it only in terms of raw, cognitive ability -- the ability, say, to memorize countless chess moves and deploy them in real time under pressure. In turn, we mostly view sanity (as opposed to "mental health") in binary terms -- either you're deranged or aware. Fischer is compelling because he showed so clearly why these conceptions are wrong. His singular persona comprised three unrecognized features: great genius and profound stupidity coexisted in him; his stupidity was emotional rather than cognitive; and the profundity of his emotional retardation lent Fischer a false air of psychosis.

Rene Chun published a definitive Fischer profile in The Atlantic in 2002. It contains clues to understanding the Yin and Yang of his intellect. Fischer wasn't born great; until the age of 13, "he was essentially a hotshot club player—a prodigy, to be sure, but not obviously world-championship material." Then he "made a colossal leap... [becoming] the youngest player ever to win the U.S. Junior Championship." Fischer spent more than a decade in chess monomania, inexorably razing the competition and establishing himself as the top U.S. player.

The other aspects of his life, social and scholastic, withered on the vine. Sensing this, and provoked by his arrogant challenge to their supremacy, his Soviet nemeses began calling him nyekulturni -- Russian for "without culture". Fischer knew he was just that: an urban rube, without any education to speak of. He reacted to this lack of nurture in a way that suggested a deeper problem: an impoverished nature.

The answer, Fischer thought, was to upgrade his wardrobe. So at sixteen, using his chess winnings, he traded in his uniform of sneakers, flannel shirt, and jeans for luxurious bespoke suits. He reveled in his new Beau Brummell image. When he traveled abroad for tournaments, he frequently visited local tailors and had suits cut for his gangly, broad-shouldered physique. He liked to brag that he owned seventeen such suits, which he rotated to ensure even wear. "I hate ready-made suits, button-down collars, and sports shirts," he once said. "I don't want to look like a bum. I get up in the morning, I put on a suit."

This boosted his self-esteem, but Fischer was entering more into a public world of wealth and refinement and he couldn't keep up.

Those close to Fischer knew that when it came to art, politics, or anything else the cosmopolitan set talked about, he was at a total loss. "If you were out to dinner with Bobby in the sixties, he wouldn't be able to follow the conversation," says Don Schultz, a former friend. "He would have his little pocket set out and he'd play chess at the table. He had a one-dimensional outlook on life."

Outside of chess, he had little to draw on. His mother, Regina, was a left-wing activist who was "cuckoo... an intelligent neurotic full of far-fetched ideas." Fischer dropped out of high school, which he was passing only on the indulgence of his teachers, in the middle of his junior year. He didn't maintain friendships or go near girls, adopting instead a "Spartan", 14-hour-a-day training schedule in which he would read chess literature and continually play multiple games against himself.

Fischer's game was top shelf, but his social acumen diminished commensurately. He became increasingly weird in public. The pressure of competitive chess, worsened by analytic tag-teams of unscrupulous Soviet tournament players, drove Fischer into several years of isolation in California. It is here where his brittle emotional intelligence germinated the public face of the later man.

Although he wasn't playing in many tournaments, his work ethic never wavered: he continued studying chess during most of his waking hours. But late at night, Arnold Denker recalls, Fischer began prowling parking lots, slipping white-supremacist pamphlets under windshield wipers. He began studying anti-Semitic classics such as Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He became obsessed with German history and the Third Reich, and collected Nazi memorabilia. It was rumored that he slept with a picture of Adolf Hitler hanging over his bed. Larry Evans says that Fischer's admiration for the Führer had less to do with anti-Semitism than with insatiable ego. "We once went to see a documentary on Hitler," Evans recalls. "When we came out of the theater, Bobby said that he admired Hitler. I asked him why, and he said, 'Because he imposed his will on the world.'" (Fischer has never made an effort to conceal his distaste for Jews. As early as 1962, in the Harper's interview, he expressed his prejudice, mentioning what he perceived to be a growing problem affecting the upper ranks of his profession. "Yeah, there are too many Jews in chess," he said. "They seem to have taken away the class of the game. They don't seem to dress so nicely. That's what I don't like.")

The contours of Fischer's degradation are revealing. He admired Hitler because he saw in him an exhilarating will to power, one that complimented his approach to chess.

He didn't just beat people—he humiliated them. The thing he relished most was watching his opponents squirm. "I like the moment when I break a man's ego," he once said...

Later in life, Fischer became a Hitlerian herald, but he came to the regenerative hatred of the Nazis for simple, personal reasons. Ultimately utopian movements are not about the belief systems they promote. They are first and foremost a means for aggrandizing the demagogues who ride them to power. This in turn is sensed by acolytes like Fischer, who hope to attain a similar apotheosis.

Utopian creeds are also less about what they say and who they hate than the way in which they are constructed. Classically, totalitarian mythology pits a chosen people against cosmic forces of evil that manifest themselves both within the state and without. The way to defeat these forces is through spectacular slaughter, of one's enemies and oneself, the courting of Armageddon. This sort of Manichean passion play fundamentally appeals to the emotionally retarded, the empirically resistant, the lazy seekers of nirvana.

And so often the antagonist is the Jews. Fischer presented much pseudo-intellectual justification for his new weltanschauung -- his pamphlets and his study of Mein Kampf and the Protocols in place of chess journals -- but of course little in the way of intellectual substance. Fischer denigrated Jews for succeeding in chess, and risibly for dressing poorly, a contravention of his own shallow contrivance of sophistication -- the bespoke suits. Emotional stupidity and an impoverishment of character are the greatest opportunities for recruitment available to totalitarians. That Fischer was Jewish himself is a testament to the desperation with which he was a seeker.

But none of this is evidence of insanity. Examining more of Fischer's interview with Bomba Radyo, of which I've made a partial transcript, makes this clear. His effusions represent the fullness of his totalitarian stupidity, but they aren't crazy. They are merely profane echoes of commentators on the far-Left who are often reviled, but never considered insane.

As quoted earlier, Fischer saw 9/11 as revenge on behalf of the Palestinians. Just before expressing that, he had this to say:

You know I heard on the BBC a few months ago a very profound but simple statement. And it really stunned me, I couldn't believe the guy was saying it. You know, talking about some of the crimes of the US, you know of the horrible behavior that the US is committing all over the world, and then the BBC guy just said it, I couldn't believe my ears, he said, "This just shows you that what goes around comes around, even for the United States". That is what has happened tonight. What goes around comes around, even for the United States.

This immediately puts one in mind of another celebration of "anti-imperialist" revenge, Ward Churchill's hideous essay, "Some People Push Back" On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, a few more chickens – along with some half-million dead Iraqi children – came home to roost in a very big way at the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center. Well, actually, a few of them seem to have nestled in at the Pentagon as well.

Churchill's disgusting relish exactly mirrors Fischer's. And the gleeful "fuck the US" bravado?

True enough, [the World Trade Center dead] were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire – the "mighty engine of profit" to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved – and they did so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to "ignorance" – a derivative, after all, of the word "ignore" – counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in – and in many cases excelling at – it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it.

Now Ward Churchill is a lot of things, but no one believes he's psychotic (though you could make a good case he's psychopathic, in the sense of sociopathic). There is no significant difference between Fischer's and Churchill's reactions to the fall of the Twin Towers.

Fischer's comments are also reminiscent of the Nicholas de Genova affair. Just before the Iraq invasion, the historian Eric Foner organized a "teach-in" at Columbia University meant to air and encourage anti-war perspectives. De Genova, an Assistant Professor in Anthropology and Latino Studies, was invited as a last-minute speaker. His performance was mortifying.

A Columbia University professor told an anti-war gathering that he would like to see "a million Mogadishus" -- referring to the 1993 ambush in Somalia that killed 18 American servicemen.

At Wednesday night's "teach-in" on the Columbia campus, Nicholas De Genova also called for the defeat of U.S. forces in Iraq and said, "The only true heroes are those who find ways that help defeat the U.S. military." And he asserted that Americans who call themselves "patriots" are white supremacists.

Indecent, to be sure, but no one questions de Genova's sanity. He still teaches at Columbia.

Fischer moves on to an arresting outburst, in which he calls for a new Jewish genocide.

Bobby: Well, you know what I'm really hoping for, Pablo? You... did you ever see that movie "Seven Days in May"?

Pablo: Yes, yes.

Bobby: Uh, that's a movie about a general who tries to take over the US. You remember that?

P: Yes, I do.


B: I was rooting for the generals, you know. But uh, in the end the President, you know the so-called Democracy won. But I'm hoping for some kind of a Seven Days eh... in May scenario, where the country will be taken over by the military, they'll close down all the synagogues, arrest all the Jews, execute hundreds of thousands of Jewish ringleaders, and uh you know, apologize to the Arabs, kill off all the Jews over there in the bandit state, you know, of Israel.

P: uh yeah, yeah

B: I'm hoping for a totally new world.

I don't wish to accuse the Left of advocating the violent genocide of Jews (the Velvet Genocide of the fantasy of the "secular bi-national state" is another story). Even the far-Left seems to have mostly or totally abandoned this aim since Ulrike Meinhof expired in a German prison. The notion of Jewish "ringleaders" steering America down a demonic path, however, is commonplace among both democratic and revolutionary Leftists. In April 2004, Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters, published an editorial in that magazine outing Jewish neocons and their pernicious influence on American foreign policy.

Deciding exactly who is a neocon is difficult since some neocons reject the term while others embrace it. Some shape policy from within the White House, while others are more peripheral, exacting influence indirectly as journalists, academics and think tank policy wonks. What they all share is the view that the US is a benevolent hyper power that must protect itself by reshaping the rest of the world into its morally superior image. And half of the them are Jewish.

As Fischer says, "Bush... he's told what to say of course by Cheney, and his father and the Jews..." Lasn's editorial was published alongside a roster of neocons with little marks (in place of yellow stars) ticking off the Jews among them. From the realization that Jewish "neocons" are helming the juggernaut of violent imperialism, the logic of purgation necessarily follows.

Later in the interview, Fischer laments that the U.S. response to 9/11 will not be contrite, as it should and must be, but stupidly and reflexively martial. He attributes this in part to the influence of the Jews.

That's the big danger, that the Jews, that this lunatic people, are gonna take us all with them. But I'm hoping, as I say, for a Seven Days in May scenario, where [unintelligible] sane people will take over the US now.

The notion of congenitally crazy Jews leading the rest of us to destruction was echoed by Nobel Literature Prize winner Jose Saramago in 2002. Writing in El Pais, the international Spanish-language paper of record, Saramago sourced Israel's brutal oppression of the Palestinians in Judaism itself.

Intoxicated mentally by the messianic dream of a Greater Israel which will finally achieve the expansionist dreams of the most radical Zionism; contaminated by the monstrous and rooted 'certitude' that in this catastrophic and absurd world there exists a people chosen by God and that, consequently, all the actions of an obsessive, psychological and pathologically exclusivist racism are justified; educated and trained in the idea that any suffering that has been inflicted, or is being inflicted, or will be inflicted on everyone else, especially the Palestinians, will always be inferior to that which they themselves suffered in the Holocaust, the Jews endlessly scratch their own wound to keep it bleeding, to make it incurable, and they show it to the world as if it were a banner. Israel seizes hold of the terrible words of God in Deuteronomy: 'Vengeance is mine, and I will be repaid.' Israel wants all of us to feel guilty, directly or indirectly, for the horrors of the Holocaust; Israel wants us to renounce the most elemental critical judgment and for us to transform ourselves into a docile echo of its will.

Fischer next jumps to a harangue about the Japanese during World War II.

Nobody gave a shit about the Japanese... how many millions, how many hundreds of thousand of people did the United States kill with atom bombs, justifying it with the most ridiculous excuse that it saved a million American soldiers?

The gratuitousness of our destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is an old saw on the Left, originating among Soviet apologists who sought to morally equate America to the USSR (and sometimes even the Nazis). Howard Zinn is a foremost practitioner of this historical legerdemain. For example, in the Bombs of August, he writes:

The bombing of Hiroshima remains sacred to the American Establishment and to a very large part of the population in this country... as I explained why Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unforgivable atrocities, perpetrated on a Japan ready to surrender, the audience was silent.

... to see it as a wanton act of gargantuan cruelty rather than as an unavoidable necessity ("to end the war, to save lives") would be to raise disturbing questions about the essential goodness of the "good war."

Fischer next mentions a modern Hiroshima, which he alleges took place in the former Yugoslavia due to NATO's use of depleted uranium munitions against Milosevic's forces.

B: I mean look what the US did in Yugoslavia recently, in just 1999. Bombed the Kosovo and other parts of Yugoslavia with depleted uranium.

P: Mm-hmm

B: Now to me that is worse than atom bomb. You know why?

P: Why?

B: When you drop an atom bomb... you're dead, your suffering's over, right?

P: That's right.

B: This... this depleted uranium, you'll have a lingering death for the next ten, twenty, thirty, forty years. Or maybe just two or three years, depends on how much of it you get. But you are never gonna be the same, you see? You just have like a low-level sickness and your life is is a misery, you understand?

Far-Left polemicists, such as John Pilger and Robert Fisk, have taken concerns about the use of depleted uranium in munitions manufacture to the level of a blood-libel. They peddle the pseudo-science that depleted uranium has been proven to increase rates of cancer and birth defects, and has done so to vast extent among American servicemen and the victims of American bombing campaigns. Here's Pilger:

The truth is that the US and Britain are engaged in a form of nuclear warfare in the Balkans. In 1996, the United Nations Human Rights Tribunal called depleted uranium a WMD. Like the Agent Orange babies of Vietnam, the deformed and cancer-stricken children of southern Iraq, where depleted uranium was tested by British and American forces during the 1991 Gulf war, bear witness to the true nature of righteous Western crusades. Civilised people should speak out urgently before the latest noble cause claims more expendable victims and beckons a world war.

Next Fischer offers a quick summary of American history.

B: Take, kill. Then you rob -- they... they invaded the country, robbed the land of the American Indians -- killed almost all of them off. Brought over slaves to work the... the uh fields, to build up the country, from Africa, right? Now why didn't the white man come to America like in a civilzed manner, and say, 'We're being persecuted in Europe, we don't have freedom of religion, we'd like to come here, we'd like to assimilate, we'd like to marry your women', and... and... and so on, right?

P: Yeah

B: But errrr, but no, they come, they said we're coming in here to take your land and to kill you off. Right? That's the history of the United States.

P: Mm-hmm

B: A despicable country. You know, even as a boy, you know, I never had the slightest interest in American history. Never!

University of Texas journalism professor and white guilt gadfly Robert Jensen makes a similar interpretation.

How does a country deal with the fact that some of its most revered historical figures had certain moral values and political views virtually identical to Nazis? Here's how "respectable" politicians, pundits, and professors play the game: When invoking a grand and glorious aspect of our past, then history is all-important...

But when one brings into historical discussions any facts and interpretations that contest the celebratory story and make people uncomfortable -- such as the genocide of indigenous people as the foundational act in the creation of the United States -- suddenly the value of history drops precipitously and one is asked, "Why do you insist on dwelling on the past?"

Fischer counseled American contrition in response to 9/11, but instead he expected stupid retribution by the American behemoth.

But uh, well the US will hit back, of course... The US just will not do what they have to do. The US has to say, "We're sorry, our whole foreign policy has been wrong for the last several hundred years. We are going to uh pull back all our troops from all over the world. We're going... No we're going to stop supporting Israel," uh and so on, you see? And they're not going to admit that. No, they're going to say, 'These terrorists, these criminals, this cowardly act will be punished." You know, and I expect soon there's going to be a new President, after the White House is blown up, he'll be in the Colorado Mountains, you know, hundreds of feet underneath the... the Rocky Mounts there, saying, "This dastardly act of blowing up the White House will be punished!" you know, just be constantly talk about punishing these cowardly people until the United States is destroyed. The United States is not going to be reasonable, you know? It's not going to admit that it's the bad guy and it's always been the bad guy. It was the bad guy in World War II, it was the bad guy in World War I, it was the bad guy when it robbed [unintelligible] and invaded the Philippines from from Spain, it was the bad guy when it came eh... eh when... when the white man came and killed the American Indians, when it brought the black people to uh as slaves from Africa, it's always been the bad guy.

This was also foremost in the mind of Noam Chomsky, as well as Robert Fisk, whom Chomsky quoted in an essay written immediately after the attacks:

As to how to react, we have a choice. We can express justified horror; we can seek to understand what may have led to the crimes, which means making an effort to enter the minds of the likely perpetrators. If we choose the latter course, we can do no better, I think, than to listen to the words of Robert Fisk... Describing "The wickedness and awesome cruelty of a crushed and humiliated people," he writes that "this is not the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming days. It is also about American missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana and about a Lebanese militia paid and uniformed by America's Israeli ally hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps." And much more. Again, we have a choice: we may try to understand, or refuse to do so, contributing to the likelihood that much worse lies ahead.

Three of Britain's major Left-wing political cartoonists, Dave Brown, Martin Rowson and Steve Bell, also took up the theme of dumb American vengeance within a week of the attacks (1, 2). Brown did so twice (1, 2), actually. (Unsurprisingly, he later went on to depict Ariel Sharon as a cannibal eating Palestinian babies.)

Fischer's Bomba Radyo interview is remarkable not for its supposed insanity, but rather for the fidelity with which it replays the views of far-Left pundits. Its contemporaneity with several of the examples I cite belies the notion that Fischer was just crazily parroting things he had heard in the past. Trawl through Fischer's other interviews, or his web site, and you'll see him rehearse these themes ceaselessly. Fischer was not mentally disorganized.

He was instead a base and, partly, stupid man. Cognitively, he was a genius. His intellectual deficit was emotional. Fischer was aware of and profoundly insecure about this, and in conjunction he developed what might have been a clinical paranoia. This, and the profundity of his stupidity, helped confuse the issue by giving him a false air of psychosis. Fischer's moonbat salvos about America and the Jews, his embrace of "counterknowledge", his attraction to totalitarian thinking, were a direct result of his emotional retardation. They were not symptoms of lunacy. If they were, a whole dimension of politics would become clinical.

Correction: Bobby Fischer was born in Chicago, and grew up in Brooklyn.

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