[ by Charles Cameron — on writers and analysts, via Dallas, Syria, Wagner, Bayreuth, Hitler and Israel ]
The symmetry is between two men that Graeme Wood has profiled in The Atlantic — Richard Spencer and John Georgelas aka Yahya Abu Hassan, leader of the alt-right and early American proponent of ISIS, respectively:
Both men are the only sons of wealthy north-Dallas physicians. They both bloomed late, intellectually and politically, and overcompensated by immersing themselves in books and ideas with gusto uncommon among their bourgeois demographic. Both admired Ron Paul, and both saw their home country as a broken land — and themselves as its savior.
They are also both young.
You can read about them both in greater detail in Wood’s twin accounts here:
Wood profiles Richard Spencer, His Kampf
Wood profiles John Georgelas, The American Climbing the Ranks of ISIS
When I worked at John L Petersen‘s think tank The Arlington Institute, the boss often used to ask me for a “leading indicator” — and I’d reply that one data point seldom meant anything to me, whereas two in parallel or opposition might indicate a trend. My motto became “two is the first number” — a mantram I’ve repeated here from time to time [1, 2, 3], finding notable backup in Aristotle, Carl Jung, and the Ismaili Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’, as reported in my post It is always good to find oneself in good company.
Graeme Wood must feel some satisfaction in having written profiles of two such opposite yet well-matched men as Georgelas and Spencer — I certainly take delight in the pairing — and the parallelism is truly quite striking. Yet to deduce a trend from the observation that both are “only sons of wealthy north-Dallas physicians” isn’t grounds for alerting the FBI to profile — let alone surveil — all other such only sons.
Sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence.
And yet, and yet.
Graeme Wood is a writer, not an analyst, and while the specifics here — “only son”, “north-Dallas physician” — do not in themselves provide “actionable intelligence” for intel purposes, the two stories as Wood spells them out enrich our analytic understanding of the drivers that may be in play in the recruitment of extremists and terrorists.
I have a small and tattered pamphlet in my desk, 1876 – 1896, Die ersten zwanzig Jahre der Bayreuther Bühnenfestspiele by Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who later married Richard Wagner‘s daughter Eva von Bülow.
Chamberlain’s pamphlet about Wagner’s operas and the theater he built for them in Bayreuth, published there in Bayreuth in 1896, is not his best-known work, however. That would be his two-volume work, Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts, or The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century — published in the same year, 1899, as Freud‘s Die Traumdeutung — which was to provide Nazism with some of its anti-Semitic ideology. Of similar interest, his 1905 Aryan Worldview.
Chamberlain’s letter to Hitler in 1923 has to my ear some resonance with discussions of Donald Trump today:
Now I believe I understand that it is precisely this that characterizes and defines your being: the true awakener is at the same time the bestower of peace.
You are not at all, as you have been described to me, a fanatic. In fact, I would call you the complete opposite of a fanatic. The fanatic inflames the mind, you warm the heart. The fanatic wants to overwhelm people with words, you wish to convince, only to convince them-and that is why you are successful. Indeed, I would also describe you as the opposite of a politician, in the commonly accepted sense of the word, for the essence of all politics is membership of a party, whereas with you all parties disappear, consumed by the heat of your love for the fatherland. It was, I think, the misfortune of our great Bismarck that he became, as fate would have it (by no means through innate predisposition), a little too involved in politics. May you be spared this fate.
I am chasing down byways of history and culture here to be sure — and it is not my intention to make a facile comparison between Trump and Hitler. But Wagner — surely it is interesting to note that not only were Hitler and Chamberlain obsessed with Wagner’s operas, but Graeme Wood’s account of Spencer notes that at one point Richard Spencer worked as “a gofer at the Bavarian State Opera”.
Echo? Parallelism? Kinship?
Wagner is a cultural influence of connsiderable strength — as an Alex Ross article in the New Yorker, The Case for Wagner in Israel, notred in 2012:
In recent decades, musicians have periodically attempted to play Wagner in Israel, setting off impassioned protests; Na’ama Sheffi’s book “The Ring of Myths: The Israelis, Wagner, and the Nazis” gives an account of them. At an Israel Philharmonic concert in 1981, Zubin Mehta, after giving audience members an opportunity to leave the hall, conducted the “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde” as an encore; in response, Ben-Zion Leitner, a Holocaust survivor and a hero of the First Arab-Israeli War, walked in front of the podium, bared his scarred stomach, and shouted, “Play Wagner over my body.” Similarly charged scenes unfolded when Daniel Barenboim led the “Tristan” Prelude in Jerusalem in 2001. This past summer, an effort by the Israel Wagner Society to present a concert at Tel Aviv University created yet another media frenzy; in the end, the university withdrew its permission, and plans to move the event to a Hilton subsequently fell through. The Israeli conductor Asher Fisch, who was to have led the concert, has personal reasons for campaigning against the unwritten ban: his mother, who was forced to leave Vienna in 1939, felt that if her son could conduct Wagner in Israel it would amount to a final victory over Hitler, and he still hopes to realize her dream.
An author’s skilled meanderings in cultural associations may not make for actionable intelligence, but they do provide invaluable context for the overt tides and little known undertows of human history.
Which in turn affect us all, and which we in turn may wish to affect or deflect..