Watching The English By Kate Fox

Here are some highlights:

Any discussion of English conversation, like any English conversation, must begin with The Weather. And in this spirit of observing traditional protocol, I shall, like every other writer on Englishness, quote Dr Johnson’s famous comment that ‘When two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather’, and point out that this observation is as accurate now as it was over two hundred years ago.

English weather-speak is a form of code, evolved to help us overcome our natural reserve and actually talk to each other. Everyone knows, for example, that ‘Nice day, isn’t it?’, ‘Ooh, isn’t it cold?’, ‘Still raining, eh?’ and other variations on the theme are not requests for meteorological data: they are ritual greetings, conversation-starters or default ‘fillers’. In other words, English weather-speak is a form of ‘grooming talk’ – the human equivalent of what is known as ‘social grooming’ among our primate cousins, where they spend hours grooming each other’s fur, even when they are perfectly clean, as a means of social bonding.

Jeremy Paxman cannot understand why a ‘middle-aged blonde’ he encounters outside the Met Office in Bracknell says ‘Ooh, isn’t it cold?’, and he puts this irrational behaviour down to a distinctively English ‘capacity for infinite surprise at the weather’. In fact, ‘Ooh, isn’t it cold?’ – like ‘Nice day, isn’t it?’ and all the others – is English code for ‘I’d like to talk to you – will you talk to me?’, or, if you like, simply another way of saying ‘hello’. The hapless female was just trying to strike up a conversation with Mr Paxman. Not necessarily a long conversation – just a mutual acknowledgement, an exchange of greetings. Under the rules of weather-speak, all he was required to say was ‘Mm, yes, isn’t it?’ or some other equally meaningless ritual response, which is code for ‘Yes, I’ll talk to you/greet you’. By failing to respond at all, Paxman committed a minor breach of etiquette, effectively conveying the rather discourteous message ‘No, I will not exchange greetings with you’. (This was not a serious transgression, however, as the rules of privacy and reserve override those of sociability: talking to strangers is never compulsory.)

Posted in English | Comments Off on Watching The English By Kate Fox

Watching The English By Kate Fox

Here are some highlights:

* ‘How’s the Englishness book going? What chapter are you working on?’
‘The one about sex.’
‘So, that’ll be twenty blank pages, then?’
I’ve lost count of the number of times I heard this response – or others like it, such as: ‘That’ll be a short chapter!’ ‘Oh, that won’t take long, then!’ ‘Oh, that’s easy: “No Sex Please, We’re British!”’ ‘But we don’t have sex, we have hot water bottles!’ ‘Lie back and think of England, you mean?’ ‘Will you explain the mystery of how the English manage to reproduce?’. And these were all from English friends and informants. Foreigners occasionally made similar jokes, but the English almost invariably did so. Clearly, the notion that the English do not have much sex, or have a laughably low sex-drive, is widely accepted as fact – even, indeed especially, among the English themselves.
Or is it? Do we really believe in the popular international stereotype of the passionless, reserved, sexually naïve, amorously challenged English? The bloke who would really rather be watching football, and his wife who would prefer a nice cup of tea? And, moving up the social scale, the awkward, tongue-tied, timid, public schoolboy character, and his equally clueless horsey female counterpart who cannot stop giggling? Is this really how we see ourselves? Is this really how we are?
In purely factual, quantitative terms, our sexless image is inaccurate. The English are human, and sex is naturally as important to us as to any other members of the species. Our sexually incompetent reputation is not borne out by the facts and figures, which suggest that we manage to copulate and reproduce just like the rest of the world. If anything, we start younger: the English have the highest rates of teenage sexual activity in the industrialized world, with 86 per cent of unmarried girls sexually active by the age of nineteen (the US comes a poor second, with 75 per cent). There are also plenty of other nations that are far more prudish and repressive about sex than the English, and where the English are regarded as dangerously permissive. Our censorship laws may be stricter than many other European countries’, and our politicians more likely to be forced to resign over what the French, say, would consider minor sexual peccadilloes, but in most respects, by international standards, we are fairly liberal.
Stereotypes do not come out of thin air, however, and one as widely recognized and acknowledged as the unsexy English must surely have at least some basis in reality. Sex may be a natural, instinctive, universal human activity, which the English must perform like everyone else – but it is also a social activity, involving emotional engagement with other humans, contact, intimacy and so on, which we have already established are not exactly our strong points. Still, our apparent readiness to accept this decidedly unflattering stereotype (we are much more patriotically defensive about our weather than about our sexual prowess) could be seen as somewhat bizarre, and requires explanation.
Looking back at my research notes, I find that I was continually struck by the difficulty of having any sort of sensible conversation about sex with English informants. ‘The English simply cannot talk about sex without making a joke of it,’ I complained in my notebook, ‘usually the same joke: If one more person offers to “help me with my research” for the sex chapter, I’m going to scream.’ The mere mention of the word ‘sex’ seems automatically to trigger a quip or witticism or, among the less articulate, a crude nudge-nudge remark, a bit of Carry-On-style ooh-ing and face-pulling, or at the very least a snigger. This is more than a rule: it is an involuntary, unthinking reflex – a knee-jerk response. Mention sex, and the English humour reflex kicks in. And we all know that self deprecating jokes are the most effective, the most widely appreciated form of humour. The ‘blank pages’ quips about my sex chapter were thus not necessarily a sign that we fully accept the sexually-challenged-English stereotype, but just a typically English reaction to the word ‘sex’.
Why do we find sex so funny? We don’t, not really: it’s just that humour is our standard way of dealing with anything that makes us feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. This is surely one of the Ten Commandments of Englishness: when in doubt, joke. Yes, other nations joke about sex, but none, in my experience or to my knowledge, does so with the same tedious knee-jerk predictability as the English. In other parts of the world, sex may be regarded as a sin, an art form, a healthy leisure activity, a commodity, a political issue and/or a problem requiring years of therapy and umpteen self-help ‘relationship’ books. In England, it is a joke.
If some evolutionary psychologists are to be believed, flirting may even be the foundation of civilization as we know it. They argue that the large human brain – our complex language, superior intelligence, culture, everything that distinguishes us from animals – is the equivalent of the peacock’s tail: a courtship device evolved to attract and retain sexual partners. If this theory – jokingly known as the ‘chat-up theory of evolution’ – is correct, human achievements in everything from art to literature to rocket science may be merely a side-effect of the essential ability to charm.
The idea of NASA, Hamlet and the Mona Lisa as accidental by-products of primeval chat-ups might seem somewhat far-fetched, but it is clear that evolution favours flirts. The most skillful charmers among our distant ancestors were the most likely to attract mates and pass on their charming genes. We are descended from a long line of successful flirts, and the flirting instinct is hard-wired into our brains. Even when modern humans are not engaged in mate-selection, we still flirt – all of us practise two types of flirting, which for shorthand I call ‘flirting with intent’ (flirting designed to lead to mating, and possibly pair-bonding) and ‘recreational flirting’ (flirting for fun, for other social reasons, or perhaps just for practice). Homo sapiens is, by nature, a compulsive flirt.
So, the English are genetically programmed to flirt, just like everyone else, and we probably do about as much of it as everyone else. It’s just that we do not do it with the same degree of skill, ease or assurance. Or rather, about fifty percent of us are noticeably deficient in these qualities. If you look more closely at the stereotype of the sexually challenged English, it is the English male who is most often singled out for criticism and ridicule in this department. A few of the standard jokes and quips allude to the supposed frigidity or ignorance of the English female, but the vast majority are about the alleged impotence, indifference or incompetence of English males. These failings of English men are often assumed to account for any sexual inadequacies or shortcomings among their frustrated womenfolk. In the early eighteenth century, a Swiss commentator described English women as ‘little spoilt by the attentions of men who give but a small part of their time to them. Indeed most men
prefer wine and gaming to women, in this they are more to blame as women are much better than the wine in England’. Many of my own foreign informants made much the same kind of remarks, although they substituted beer for wine, and did not complain about the quality of English beer.
The first two of these charges against English males – impotence and indifference – are unfounded and unfair; they are not based on fact or direct observation, but mainly on an impression created by the third defect of which English men stand accused: incompetence in the art of seduction. ‘Englishmen seem little made for gallantry,’ observed our Swiss critic, ‘they know no mean between complete familiarity and respectful silence.’
The average English male may be highly sexed, but he is not, it must be said, an accomplished flirt. He is not at his best when confronted with what one of my male informants called ‘a female person of the opposite species’. He is usually either reticent, tongue-tied and awkward, or, at worst, boorish, crass and clumsy61. In the belief that it will help him to shed his inhibitions, he tends to consume large quantities of alcohol: this merely results in a shift from awkward, tongue-tied reticence to crass, clumsy boorishness. From the perspective of the unfortunate English female, this is not much of an improvement – unless her own judgement is severely impaired, as it often is, by a similar quantity of alcohol, in which case chat-up lines such as ‘Er, fancy a shag?’ may seem like the height of wit and eloquence. And there, in a nutshell, or rather a bottle, is the answer to the mystery of how the English manage to reproduce. All right, I’m exaggerating – but only a little. The role of alcohol in the passing on of English DNA should not be underestimated.

With very high scores on Sociability and Alcohol, night-clubs should in theory be near the top of my English flirt-zone league table but there is a curious and apparently perverse new unwritten rule among a significant proportion of young English clubbers, whereby dancing – and by extension clubbing in general – is regarded as an asexual activity. Their focus is on group bonding, and the euphoric, almost transcendental experience of becoming one with the music and the crowd (which sounds like a version of what the anthropologist Victor Turner called ‘communitas’ – an intense, intimate, liberating kind of group bonding, experienced only in ‘liminal’ states). They take great exception to any suggestion that they might be there for the vulgar, crass purpose of ‘pulling’. In a national survey, for example, only six per cent of clubbers admitted that ‘meeting prospective sexual partners’ was an important part of these ‘dance events’ for them.

…among young English clubbers, particularly those who regard themselves and their musical tastes as ‘nonmainstream’, there is an unspoken ‘no sex please, we’re too cool’ rule. It is considered deeply ‘uncool’ to go clubbing to meet prospective partners, so clubbers will naturally be reluctant to admit to this motive. If they should happen to end up in bed with someone they met while out clubbing, this is a fortuitous by-product of the evening’s entertainment, not something they set out to achieve. The ‘no sex please’ rule seems to be honoured more in speech than in observance. We pretend not to be too interested in sex, but we still manage accidentally on- purpose to have quite a lot of sex. More of that lovely English hypocrisy. I found that gay clubbers tend to be rather more open and honest than straight clubbers about their interest in sex: although some subscribe to the ‘no sex please, we’re too cool’ rule, the majority candidly admit that flirtation, mate-selection and sex are important elements of clubbing for them.

Both ‘flirting with intent’ and ‘recreational flirting’ are common in most English offices and other workplaces. Surveys have found that up to 40 percent of us now meet our spouses or current sexual partners at the workplace, and some recent research findings show that flirting is good for relieving workplace anxiety and stress: the playful atmosphere created by flirtatious banter helps to reduce friction, and exchanges of compliments boost self-esteem.

We knew that, of course, but it needs saying, as workplace flirting may be under threat from puritanical influences imported from America, where flirting has been officially banned in many offices and other workplaces (an ‘unsustainable’ move on the part of the political-correctness lobby, as attempts to forbid behaviours that are as deeply ingrained in the human psyche as flirting are doomed to failure). At the moment, workplaces are still among the better flirting zones in England. Technically, they only pass two elements of the SAS test, as alcohol is not commonly available in offices or factories, but in practice work colleagues tend to find opportunities to drink together – and workplaces score very highly on the Sociability and Shared-interest factors. Training courses, sales conferences, academic conferences and other such work-related excursions and gatherings were highlighted by my focus-group participants as particularly conducive to flirting, combining all the benefits of common interests and ease of sociable communication with the added lubricant of celebratory drinking.

In the English workplace itself, however, flirting is usually acceptable only in certain areas, with certain people and at specific times or occasions. Each workplace has its own unwritten etiquette governing flirtatious behaviour. In some companies, I found that the coffee machine, photocopier or cafeteria was the unofficial ‘designated flirting zone’. In one it was a balcony mainly used by smokers, who often tend to be more sociable than non-smokers, or at least have a sense of defiant solidarity (one woman told me that she was a non-smoker, but pretended to smoke, because the smokers were ‘more fun to hang out with’).

Almost all educational establishments are hot-beds of flirting. This is mainly because they are full of young single people making their first attempts at mate selection, but they also pass all three elements of the SAS test – schools, colleges and universities score very high on the Sociability and Shared-interest factors, and while alcohol is not usually served in classrooms, students have plenty of opportunities for drinking together.

The Shared-interest factor is particularly important to English adolescents. Adolescents everywhere tend to be self-conscious, but English ones tend to be especially awkward, lacking the social skills necessary to strike up conversations without an obvious point of contact. The shared lifestyle and concerns of students, and the informal atmosphere, make it easier for them to initiate conversation with each other. Simply by being students, prospective partners automatically have a great deal in common, and do not need to struggle to find topics of mutual interest.

I found that the level of flirtatious behaviour among members of amateur English sports teams or hobby-clubs tends to be inversely related to the standards achieved by participants and their enthusiasm for the activity. With some exceptions, one tends to find a lot of flirting among incompetent tennis players, unfit hill-walkers, cack-handed painters and tangle-footed dancers, but somewhat less among more proficient, serious, competitive participants in the same activities. Even the most blatantly incompetent will usually pretend that they are really there for the sport or activity to which the club is ostensibly dedicated. They may even genuinely believe this – the English are masters of self-delusion – but the truth is that their tennis racquets, Ordnance Survey maps and paintbrushes are all primarily props and facilitators of sociability, and often come in very handy as flirting tools.

Even in non-sexual contexts, the English need to pretend that they are gathering for some reason other than just gathering, and the need for another ostensible motive is even greater when something as personal and intimate as mate-seeking is the real purpose of the event. Even when we are on a ‘date’, the English do not like to use this term; English males are particularly squeamish about the idea of ‘dating’ – it makes the whole thing too embarrassingly open and official. And too earnest. We don’t like being forced to take the whole courtship process too seriously: the very word ‘date’ seems to contravene the spirit of English humour rules.

There is also still an element of stigma attached to ‘organized match-making’. Singles’ events and dating agencies are regarded as somehow unnatural, too contrived, too artificial, lacking in the serendipity and spontaneity that ought to characterise romantic encounters. Many people are ashamed to admit to ‘resorting’ to dating agencies or organized singles’ parties: they feel it is undignified, an admission of failure. The truth is, of course, that there is nothing at all unnatural or undignified about organized matchmaking. It is a practice that has been the norm throughout human history, and is still customary in most cultures around the world. But the English obsession with privacy makes us even more reluctant than other modern Western nations to accept the need for such practices.

One of my English informants observed that: ‘You can have a sort of platonic flirting with people who are married or attached. In some situations it is almost expected – almost like you have to flirt to be polite’. This comment refers to an unwritten rule prescribing a special form of ‘safe’, ‘recreational’ flirting that I call ‘courtesy flirting’. This is mainly practised by men, who engage in mild flirtation with women as a form of politeness. (Women do it to some extent as well, but tend to be more cautious, knowing that men are a bit inclined to misread the signals.) Courtesy flirting is common throughout Continental Europe as well as in England, but there are some subtle differences: English men tend more towards playful teasing, Continental Europeans
towards gallant compliments. Both forms can be confusing for Americans, who often mistake courtesy flirting for the real thing.

Even when English males are genuinely interested in a female, they may often be reluctant to convey their interest in any obvious or straightforward fashion. We have already established that the English male is: (a) not an accomplished flirt, tending to be either awkward and tongue-tied or crass and boorish, and (b) somewhat uncomfortable with the whole concept of ‘dating’. Defining an encounter with a female as a ‘date’ is a bit too explicit, too official, too clear-cut and unambiguous – the sort of embarrassing ‘cards on the table’ declaration of intent that the naturally cautious, indirect English male prefers to avoid.
Even when full of Dutch courage, he is unlikely to use the word ‘date’ in his drunken amorous advances, generally opting for ‘shag’ (or some equivalent expression) instead. This may seem strange, as ‘shag’ might be regarded as rather more explicit than ‘date’, but it makes sense in the context of beer-sodden English male logic, where asking a female to have sex with you is somehow less personal, intimate and embarrassing than inviting her out to dinner.

Ideally, the English male would rather not issue any definite invitation at all, sexual or social, preferring to achieve his goal through a series of subtle hints and oblique manoeuvres, often so understated as to be almost undetectable. This ‘uncertainty principle’ has a number of advantages: the English male is not required to exhibit any emotions; he avoids entangling himself too soon in anything that could possibly be described as a ‘relationship’ (a term he detests even more than ‘date’); he does not have to do or say anything ‘soppy’, so he maintains his stiff-upper-lipped masculine dignity; and, above all, by never making any direct, unequivocal request, he avoids the humiliation of a direct, unequivocal rejection.

English females are accustomed to this rather vague, ambivalent form of courtship – although even we sometimes find it hard to read the signals accurately, and may spend inordinate amounts of time discussing the possible ‘meaning’ of some obscure hint or ambiguous gesture with our female friends. The uncertainty principle has its advantages for English females as well: although less emotionally guarded than our menfolk, we are easily embarrassed, and prefer to avoid precipitate declarations of amorous attraction. The uncertainty principle allows us time to gauge the suitability of a prospective mate before expressing any interest in him, and we can ‘reject’ unwanted suitors without having to tell them out loud that we are not interested.

Foreign females, however, tend to be confused or even seriously irritated by the elusive, uncertain nature of English courtship practices. My non-English female friends and informants constantly complain about English men, whose Protean behaviour they attribute to shyness, arrogance or repressed homosexuality, depending on their degree of exasperation. What they fail to understand is that English courtship is essentially an elaborate facesaving game, in which the primary object is not so much to find a sexual partner as to avoid offence and embarrassment.

The offence-avoidance element of this game is yet another example of English ‘negative politeness’ – politeness that addresses other people’s need not to be intruded or imposed upon, as opposed to ‘positive politeness’, which is concerned with their need for inclusion and approval. Many of the seemingly bizarre courtship practices of English males – the cautiousness, reserve and apparent stand-offishness that foreign females complain about – are characteristic features of ‘negative politeness’. The embarrassment-avoidance aspect of our courtship game may seem rather more selfish, but it is also to some extent a matter of courtesy. The uncertainty principle, whereby neither attraction nor rejection is ever made explicit, and advances and retreats are a matter of subtle hints rather than direct invitations and refusals, allows both parties to save face. The courtship game is governed by the fair-play principle just like other sports.

In most other cultures, flirtation and courtship involve exchanges of compliments: among the English, you are more likely to hear exchanges of insults. Well, mock-insults, to be precise. ‘Banter’, we call it, and it is one of our most popular forms of verbal interaction generally (on a par with moaning), as well as our main flirting method.

The key ingredients of flirtatious banter are all very English: humour, particularly irony; wordplay; argument; cynicism; mock-aggression; teasing; indirectness – all our favourite things. And banter specifically excludes all the things we don’t like and that make us uncomfortable: emotion, soppiness, earnestness and clarity. The rules of flirtatious banter allow courting couples to communicate their feelings for each other without ever saying what they really mean, which would be embarrassing. In fact, the banter rules require them to say the opposite of what they mean – something at which the English excel. Here is a verbatim extract from a typical flirtatious encounter, recorded on a bus, between two teenagers. The exchange was conducted in full view and
hearing of a group of their friends.

‘You gotta licence for that shirt? Or are you wearing it for a bet?’
‘Huh! Look who’s talking – I can see your knickers, you slag!’
‘It’s a thong, you nerd – not that you’d know the difference. And that’s the closest you’ll ever get to it.’
‘Who says I’d want to? What makes you think I fancy you? You’re such a slag!’
‘Better than being a sad geek!’
‘Sla – Oh, that’s my stop – you coming out later?’
‘Yeah – come round about eight.’

From the conversation among their friends afterwards, it was clear that this pair had been attracted to each other for some time, had just started ‘sort of going out’ together (in that rather vague, non-dating way the English do these things), and were expected to become ‘an item’ in the near future. Even if I had not heard this subsequent discussion, I would have recognized the exchange of insults as a typical flirtation – perhaps not the wittiest or most articulate flirtatious banter I’ve come across, but a normal, unremarkable, everyday English courtship sequence. I only recorded it in my notebook because I happened to be doing a study on flirting at the time, and was collecting examples of real-life chat-up routines.

I also noted that English teenagers sometimes conduct a special form of ‘group courtship’, in which a small group of males will exchange banter – consisting mainly of sexually charged insults – with a small group of females. This group-courtship banter is most common among working-class youth, particularly in the northern part of the country, where I have even seen male and female groups hurling flirtatious abuse at each other from opposite sides of a street. English teens and twenty-somethings can also be seen indulging in this peculiar form of collective courtship at holiday resorts abroad, where bemused local inhabitants must wonder how such raucous taunting and heckling can possibly be a prelude to love and marriage. (Although I can confirm that it is, I have some sneaking admiration for shrewd local males in Spanish and Greek holiday resorts, who rightly suspect that young English females might be susceptible to more conventionally flattering approaches, and often succeed in poaching them from their loutish English suitors.)

Among older adults, I found that flirtatious banter is less overtly abusive than in these teenage examples, but that the same basic rules of irony, teasing, mock-insults and so on still apply. English females of all ages might very well prefer a more chivalrous, less perversely oblique form of courtship – but the banter rules, like the uncertainty principle, are tuned more to the sensibilities of the emotionally inhibited and socially challenged English male than to those of his somewhat less inhibited and more socially skilled female counterpart. We females are, however, accustomed to complying with these rules, and generally do so unconsciously. We know that arguing is the English male’s primary means of bonding with other males, and that banter is thus a form of intimacy with which he is familiar and comfortable. We know that when a man persistently taunts and teases us,
it usually means he likes us, and that if the sentiment is reciprocated, taunting and teasing back is the best way to express this.

As with the uncertainty principle, foreign females do not have this instinctive, in-built understanding of English male peculiarities, and so tend to be baffled and sometimes offended by the banter rules. I find myself having to explain to them that ‘silly cow’ really can be a term of endearment, and ‘You’re just not my type’, uttered in the right tones and in the context of banter, can be tantamount to a proposal of marriage. I’m not saying that English men never pay straightforward compliments or formally ask women out on dates. They often do both of these things, albeit rather awkwardly, and they even propose marriage; it’s just that if they can possibly find a more circuitous way of achieving the same end, they will.
The English male may not be an accomplished flirt, or adept at the finer points of pair bonding, but when it comes to bonding with other males, he’s in his element. I’m not talking about homosexuality, repressed or otherwise, but about the universal human practice of male bonding, of men forming close friendships and alliances with other men. Every known human society has some form of male-bonding practices, usually including clubs, organisations or institutions (such as the London ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ for which the English are famous), or at least special rituals, from which women are excluded.
It has been said that men’s need for such bonding is as strong as their need for sex with women. In the average Englishman’s case, it may be stronger. There is nothing wrong with the heterosexual English male’s sex drive, but he does seem to show a marked preference for the company of other men. This is not about the alleged closet homosexuality of English males: if anything, gay Englishmen tend to be more at ease in female company, and to enjoy it more. But it must be said that many of the English man’s male-bonding rituals appear to be devoted to proving his masculinity and heterosexuality.
Foremost among these is the ‘girlwatching’ ritual – the English version of that time-honoured and probably universal male pastime of exchanging comments on the physical attributes of passing females. You can – if you are interested in such things – watch variations on this ritual in pretty much any pub, bar, café, night-club or street-corner on the planet. The English variant is, as you might by now expect, conducted in code. Very few of the set phrases used are intelligible without some interpretation. The code is not, however, difficult to decipher, and most of the stock phrases fall into one of two simple categories: approval (that female is attractive) and disapproval (that female is not attractive).
The most quintessentially and convolutedly English of these stock girlwatching remarks is my favourite: ‘Don’t fancy yours much!’ This is a standard comment on any pair of females, one of whom the speaker considers to be less attractive than the other. As well as demonstrating that he can tell the difference (and has a healthy, redblooded interest in attractive females) the speaker is ‘laying claim’ to the more desirable of the pair, by designating the less pretty one as ‘yours’. Although technically reserved for commenting on a pair of women, ‘Don’t fancy yours much!’ is often used to draw a male companion’s attention to the unattractiveness of any passing female, whether or not she is accompanied by a more fanciable alternative. On one occasion, in a pub in Birmingham, I recorded the following exchange:
Male 1, glancing up as a group of 4 women enters the pub: ‘Don’t fancy yours much!’
Male 2, turning to look at the women, then frowning in puzzlement: ‘Er, which?’
Male 1, laughing: ‘Don’t care, mate – take your pick: they’re all yours!’
Male 2 laughs, but somewhat grudgingly, looking a bit put-out, as a point has been scored against him.

Another somewhat cryptic English girlwatching phrase, this time of the ‘approving’ variety, is ‘Not many of those to the pound!’ This comment refers to the size of the observed female’s breasts, implying that they are rather larger than average. The ‘pound’ means a pound in weight, not in sterling – so the phrase literally means that you would not get many of those breasts balanced like fruit on a grocer’s weighing-scale against a pound weight. In fact it is an understatement, as large breasts would probably each weigh more than a pound, but let’s not get too technical. In any case, it is a favourable judgement: large breasts are officially A Good Thing among English males; even those who secretly prefer small ones usually feel obliged to express approval. The ‘Not many of those to the pound!’ comment is often accompanied by a gesture suggesting the weighing of heavy objects in the hands: the hands are held out just in front of the chest – with palms upturned and fingers slightly curled in – then bounced up and down. Here is another overheard exchange, this time from a pub in London. It sounds like a comedy sketch, but I swear it is real:
Male 1, commenting on a very well-endowed nearby female: ‘Cor! Not many of those to the pound, eh?’
Male 2: ‘Sssh! You can’t say that any more, mate. ’Snot allowed any more.’
Male 1: ‘What? Don’t give me that PC feminist crap! I can talk about a girl’s tits if I like!’
Male 2: ‘Nah – it’s not the feminists’ll get you, it’s the Weights and Measures lot. We can’t use pounds any more,
it’s all metric now. You gotta say “kilos”!’

‘I would!’ is a rather more obvious generic expression of approval, the message being that the speaker would be willing to have sex with the observed female. ‘Definitely a ten-pinter!’ is a derogatory remark, meaning that the speaker would have to consume ten pints of beer – that is, be very drunk – even to consider having sexual relations with the female in question. When you overhear a pair or group of English men saying ‘six’, ‘four’, ‘two’, ‘seven’ and so on, while surreptitiously scrutinizing nearby or passing females, they may not be awarding the women ‘marks out of ten’, but referring to the number of pints they would have to drink in order to contemplate having sex with them. The fact that none of the women would be likely to give these self-appointed beauty contest judges a second glance is immaterial. The girlwatching ritual is a display of masculine bravado, performed entirely for the benefit of male companions. By reciting the stock phrases, participants in this ritual affirm their
status as macho, active heterosexuals. By tacit agreement, the assumption that they are in a position to pick and choose among the observed females is never questioned – and conspiring to promote this collective delusion reinforces the social bonds between the girlwatchers.

Posted in English, Sex | Comments Off on Watching The English By Kate Fox

The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett wrote in 2017:

* In the 1920s, Muriel Bristol attended a summer’s afternoon tea party in Cambridge, UK. A number of professors and their spouses were also in attendance. On this particular occasion, the host poured Bristol a cup of tea and poured in the milk thereafter. Bristol protested, explaining that she liked her “milk in first,” as the tea tasted better that way. Despite skeptical resistance from those in attendance, Bristol insisted she could tell the difference. Ronald Alymer Fischer, one of those present, who would later go on to become “Sir Fischer” and the godfather of modern empirical statistics with his famous book The Design of Experiments, had an idea. Surely, if eight cups of tea were poured, four with “milk in first” and the other four with tea in first, and the lady identified them correctly then she would be proven right (her chances of merely guessing by chance would be 1 in 70). Fischer, like everyone else present, believed Bristol would likely fail the test. In other words, they believed Bristol’s belief in her tea acumen was embedded in a false sense of aesthetics and taste rather than reality. As it turns out, Bristol correctly determined the order of tea and milk in each of the eight cups.

Fischer’s experiment, which went on to transform statistics and modern science (it became the foundation for testing the “null hypothesis”), 1 would not have been possible if not for the embedded status and its accompanying aesthetics in how one drinks one’s tea. Milk in first or last has been a sign of status since the Victorian era, as the choice of one or the other implies one’s class position. In fact, the difference boils down to the materials from which one’s dishware is made.

In the Victorian era, materials used to make lesser-quality teacups would often crack if hot tea were poured into them. Pouring milk in first mitigated the chances of cracking one’s cup. However, those with money could afford the fine china that could withstand the heat of tea, thus milk in later was a signal of one’s elevated economic position. 2 Even when the order of milk and tea was primarily a practical matter, it revealed class more than taste. After all, those owning fine china would put the milk in last to demonstrate this luxury. As the butler in the famous British drama of the same time period, Upstairs, Downstairs, remarked, “Those of us downstairs put the milk in first, while those upstairs put the milk in last.”

Even in more contemporary times, when the quality of almost all dishware is strong enough to withstand hot tea, milk in first remained a sign of social class. The twentieth-century English novelist, Nancy Mitford, employed the term “M.I.F.” to describe the lower classes, and the turn of phrase is still used satirically in popular media to describe the working classes or those without refined social skills. Today, the famous English tea purveyor Fortnum & Mason characterizes the choice as a “thorny question,” devoting an entire essay on its website to how to drink tea. How did such a prosaic choice of action, so subtle and ostensibly innocuous, become an amplified sign of class? Throughout time, matters of seeming practicality have evolved into symbols of status. In Victorian England, the displaying of medicines in the parlor was a sign that one could afford to see a doctor and buy medicine. In pre-Revolutionary Paris, the use of candles was rare and expensive, yet even when access to light (and later electricity) became more democratized, the lighting of candles at dinnertime remained a sign of taste and breeding. 3 The same is true for the use of cloth napkins when paper napkins would do (and eliminate the hassle of laundering). Everything we do has social meaning.

* The increase in online shopping has also had a profound impact on consumer access to coveted brands.

* Globalization, mass marketing, mass production, and knockoffs have created a conspicuous consumption profile for many more people. This deluge of material goods would suggest that the barriers to entry into upper-class conspicuous consumption have been all but eradicated. The “stuff” once associated with a wealthy lifestyle— cars, multiple handbags, closets full of clothes— is seemingly accessible to mainstream society. At first blush, conspicuous consumption has been democratized.

* the upper class now maintains its exclusivity by attaining limited edition versions of goods. Whether artisanal cheeses or limited vintages of wine or Ferraris— regardless of the price point— the item in question accrues status by virtue of simply being scarce rather than merely expensive. In Europe, where manufacturers are having trouble selling mass-market $ 15,000 cars, Ferraris, starting at $ 275,000 are going like gangbusters.

* Today abundance of leisure no longer indicates higher status.

* The choices to practice yoga, take kids to hockey rather than soccer, drink almond milk instead of regular milk, and reuse grocery bags every week are all signifiers of position that are not inherently more expensive than their alternatives but thought to be more informed. By turn, these behaviors become markers of status.

* Over the past several decades, there has been an increase in three important macro trends in American spending behavior. First, the rich and upper middle class— that is, those in the top 1% and those in the top 5% and 10% income brackets— spend less as a percentage of their expenditures on conspicuous consumption relative to what the US average spends on the same goods, while the middle class— the 40th– 60th percentiles— spends more. Second, as a share of their expenditures, the middle class is spending more on conspicuous consumption relative to their income while the wealthy (and the very poor) are spending less. Third, conspicuous consumption among the rich has been replaced by “inconspicuous consumption”— spending on nonvisible, highly expensive goods and services that give people more time and, in the long term, shape life chances. These include education, health care, child care, and labor-intensive services like nannies, gardeners, and housekeepers.

* For example, in 1996, we devoted 14.2% of our total expenditures to food; in 2014, our total expenditure in this category was 15%. 5 Alcohol is similarly constant, hovering at just less than 1% of total expenditures, as is tobacco, which remains static (surprisingly so, given the huge anti-smoking campaigns of the past 15– 20 years). We spend the same on personal insurance and pensions (roughly 11% of total expenditures), and housing (slightly more than 30%).

* In a few instances, we spend notably less: apparel (from 4.1% of total expenditures in 1996 to 2.2% in 2014) and transportation (19.7% in 1996 and 16.9% in 2014), both of which reflect globalization’s cheaper cars and cheaper clothes. There are two categories where we spend more: health care (up from 5.1% to 8.1%) and education (up from 1.4% to 2.1%).

* while education expenditures have increased 60% since 1996, the top 1%, 5%, and 10% income fractiles have increased their share of education expenditures by almost 300% during this same time period. Conversely, education expenditure shares have remained almost flat for the other groups, which suggests that top groups drove the uptick in education spending.

* The children who benefit from increased investment in education go on to obtain better jobs, higher incomes, and a better future for their families. Those who can afford it devote more to their pensions and insurance, have a better retirement (and in fact, can retire), better medical care, and better quality of life.

* A notable expenditure item for lower income families is funerals. Since 1996, low-income families consistently rank as the highest spenders on funerals relative to their total expenditures, while the rich spend less than the national average on them for most of the years studied. In 2014, the top 1% spent significantly less on funerals than everyone else even in absolute dollars…

* Paul Johnson remarked that funerals were an important display of status among the working class of Edwardian and Victorian England, while they were shunned by the bourgeois (who would have had myriad alternative outlets to display status). In comparison to the rich, who host and attend museum galas, charity events, and endless dinner parties, the poor are relatively limited in their avenues to engage in conspicuous consumption.

* Controlling for all other factors and just looking at the effect of race, Charles and his colleagues find that blacks and Hispanics spend more of their income on conspicuous consumption than whites within the same income and education groups.

* Our results show that Hispanics are the most likely to spend on conspicuous consumption: 4.4% more than non-Hispanic whites, 15% more than blacks, and almost 20% more than Asians, though next to Asians, Hispanics are the least likely to spend on inconspicuous consumption. Non-Hispanic whites are the biggest spenders on inconspicuous consumption, followed by blacks. Controlling for all other factors, Asians spend the least on both conspicuous and inconspicuous consumption.

* In the beginning, Essie Weingarten just liked nail polish colors. In 1981, Ms. Weingarten packed up her bags and displayed her initial 12 nail polish colors at a trade show in Las Vegas. In her collection she had, as she explained, “a true red, a blue red, a pink red and an orange red,” along with the translucent pink and white tones that made her famous. Essie was the first in the business to push the sheer colors, of which Ballet Slippers has become the iconic shade along with Vanity Fairest (Essie #505), Baby’s Breath (# 5), Sugar Daddy (# 473), and Mademoiselle (# 384). As Essie explained, “I personally loved the look and nobody was doing it.” In 1989, Queen Elizabeth’s hairdresser sent a note to Essie requesting Ballet Slippers, Essie #162. As Essie recalls, “About two years after it came out, I received a letter from the Queen’s hairdresser [with the request] complete with Royal seal. I thought, ‘I’ve arrived.’” In the decades since, Ballet Slippers and its sheer sisters have reigned supreme as the de rigueur nail polish colors for a particular group of women within Beverly Hills, New York’s Upper East Side, and London’s Kensington. Given the cult following by this aesthetically conscious elite group of women, and the Queen of England no less, surely there must be something special about Ballet Slippers— iridescent sparkles, unique mineral composition, or some attribute that would make its cult following so obvious. Yet, once applied, the color hardly screamed “notice me” or “I’ve just had a manicure.” One coat leaves nails a slight blush, two coats creates an opaque white with hints of pink. Rather, this delicate color, almost childlike, merely signals subtly that a woman grooms herself.

* Historically, professional manicures were very much relegated to high society and the affluent. “Getting a manicure before the 1980s was really special,” Essie explained. “Before then, it was an outrage [to spend money on a manicure].” Then things changed. Starting in the 1980s, with the increased availability of low-wage service workers (located disproportionately in major cities), the price of manicures decreased such that average women were able to go to the salon. Now women can pop into a salon and have their nails done for $ 15. Thus, a former habit of high society was easily translated by the masses.

* Thus social class is not produced through consumption (you can’t “buy” your way automatically into the upper class) but rather it is attained through the adoption of values and aesthetics and the ability to decipher symbols and signs beyond materialism.

* The key to most all inconspicuous consumption is that it is nonvisible except to those in the know, and is difficult to emulate without tacit information or a significant amount of money. Inconspicuous consumption is the source of the new class divide.

* Acquiring manners and demonstrating them took time and was often possible only for those who led a life of leisure, exemplifying two important qualities of Veblen’s upper class. Language has also always been a means to show social position— like manners, it takes time to acquire and practice particular word choices and turns of phrase. To quote the late social critic Paul Fussell, “Regardless of the money you’ve inherited … the place you live, the way you look … the time you eat dinner, the stuff you buy from mail-order catalogs … your social class is still most clearly visible when you say things.” 6 Fussell goes on to discuss the “pseudoelegant style” of the middle class: their discomfort in calling a toilet a toilet (rather, it is a restroom/ lavatory/ powder room), a drunk a drunk (he is someone “with alcohol problems”), or to comfortably use swear words or the word “death” (rather, it is “passing away” or “taken to Jesus”). Conversely, they are self-conscious using words that the upper classes use with reckless abandon: “divine,” “outstanding,” “super,” “tedious,” “tiresome.” In their place, the middle class uses those umbrella words of banality: “nice” and “boring.”

* “Culture is a resource used by elites to recognize one another and distribute opportunities on the basis of the display of appropriate attributes.”

* Similarly, saying one went to a “small school in Cambridge” when everyone knows you mean Harvard suggests the downplaying of something that is actually prized and rare, just like the option to have dinner in the dining room or the kitchen. A household’s rule of taking one’s shoes off when entering suggests too much regard and preciousness for the house (nouveau), while the aspirational class wouldn’t dare imply their house was worthy of such care (even if it actually is).

* If one is not brought up within an elite habitus, one remains an outsider. This explains why we see the true upper class of Britain poor as paupers but status rich, and why Tony Soprano, with his big New Jersey suburban house, would never be invited to attend a Met gala or to serve on the board of the New York Public Library.

* Breast-feeding [is] the twenty-first century signifier of what motherhood ought to be… Ask Corky Harvey, the founder of the LA– based breast-feeding and baby boutique The Pump Station. With outposts in Santa Monica, Hollywood, and throughout the city, Harvey’s little boutiques garner an almost cult-like following. Her stores offer everything from high-end newborn onesies to CPR classes to breast-feeding classes and consultations, replete with breast pump rentals and sales (thus the name of the store). A new mom can find anything she needs for her baby. Before the average upper-middle-class Angelino mother gets pregnant, she likely doesn’t know what The Pump Station is; thereafter it almost becomes a rite of passage to attend classes and get one’s Medela breast pump “serviced.” Yet, as Harvey herself explained, “We would never survive in rural Mississippi or NE Pennsylvania,” where the notion of a breastfeeding boutique would be hilariously weird.

* The biggest purchaser of formula in the nation is the US government, which channels much of it through Women Infants and Children (WIC), the federal assistance program for low-income pregnant women and mothers. As Harvey put it, “Why wouldn’t you take it for free if you’re poor? Medicine plays a role [by not advocating heavily enough with mothers]. For instance, in cultures like low income African Americans in Atlanta Georgia nobody breast-feeds and if you do you’re a fool … As my son, who is a physician in Atlanta, explained to me, ‘Mom, it isn’t even discussed here.’” The research suggests that mothers who are eligible for WIC (and use it) are less likely to breast-feed than mothers who are not.

* Another pediatrician, who worked at a community clinic, explained to me that, in the past, in some populations, the women were given a shot of Depo (a birth control medicine) almost immediately after birth.

* Despite the health imperative, breast-feeding at 6 and 12 months remains a rarefied practice. It is mainly prevalent in particular cultural and class groups— women with higher education levels who learn about the benefits of breast-feeding and women of higher income groups who can afford the insurance to deliver in baby-friendly hospitals with round-the-clock nurses and lactation consultants providing breastfeeding classes, expensive and efficient breast pumps, and help throughout the mother’s entire stay.

* To the rest of the world, the battles on the New York Times opinion pages about the moral imperative of breast-feeding may seem like aspirational class navel gazing— it reflects a debate completely detached from most mothers’ lives, and indeed it is. The Mommy Wars— to breastfeed or not, the stay-at-home versus the working mother face-off, C-sections, and home births— are debates for a particularly privileged set of women.

* if one has the time and money to attend cardio barre classes several times a week, it does start to show. As the New York Observer less than delicately put it, women who attend these classes do look physically different from their non– barre workout class attendees. So merely by picking up coffee, stopping at the grocery store, or going out to dinner, those who attend classes at Pop Physique, Physique 57, The Bar Method, or any permutation of cardio barre class, reveal their conspicuous leisure by simply living their lives. And if one is ever concerned that the world is unaware of the hard work of such conspicuous leisure, there is always the “healthy selfie,” which is a photo taken post-workout that can be instantly posted to Facebook or Instagram, or one’s blog.

* Consider the maelstrom of aspirational class parenting: the elite, private preschool. Tuition runs $ 10,000– $ 40,000 a year and wait-lists start before a child is even born. Forty-five-year-old dads race out of work to pick up their kids by 5 pm (only to work into the wee hours after bedtime). Some dads work in the broadly drawn “creative class,” and thus their flexible hours allow them to join their children for lunch. Stay-at-home moms, some with Ivy League graduate degrees, are shopping for organic vegetables and organizing play dates and music lessons while their children are at school.

* Where Starbucks made its fortune in bringing luxury to the masses, Intelligentsia makes its (smaller) fortune proclaiming its rarity.

* People who shop at Whole Foods are not oblivious to its contradictions of capitalism. Affectionately called Whole Paycheck, the grocery store beams purity, goodwill, and a return to nature— but all at a shocking price tag that is unaffordable for most of society. Whole Foods shoppers know that they can get organic tomatoes for half the cost at Trader Joe’s, or even the local chain, but the grocery store creates an entire shopping experience that for many is worth the price. Even people who probably don’t earn the income to afford luxury food (those same unemployed playwrights and artists buying $ 5 cups of coffee) end up in the store’s deli buying sweet summer kale salad for $ 11.99 a pound.

* Farmers’ markets perhaps most closely embody the merging of localism and conspicuous production and successfully exist in the heart of distinctly non-agrarian cities across the United States. Any weekend afternoon in Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, or Notting Hill offers half a dozen such gatherings of farm-fresh produce heralding from pastures and fields located in the city’s hinterlands.

* Indeed, from an economies-of-scale or -scope perspective, the farmers’ market makes no sense— there aren’t significant advantages for the farmer or the consumers, who would otherwise be Whole Foods customers perhaps avoiding long lines and the parking lot. People don’t go to farmers’ markets for deals— most of the fruit and vegetables are the same price as in upscale grocery stores— nor do they go to get diversity of produce.

* The problem is that cheap goods simply can’t be made in America. …consumers are taking notice of globalization’s discontents and slowly pushing back. Globalization may have brought $ 5 t-shirts but increasingly, consumers are willing to pay more to ensure that workers are well cared for.

* Consumption may define the urban experience generally, but Los Angeles and San Francisco, despite both being Californian cities, couldn’t be more different from one another, not just in the idiosyncrasies of their micro-scenes of glamour or grit, but also on a macro level. These cities are of course both great meccas of urbanity and all of its trappings— luxury coffee, great restaurants, museums, and big sports stadiums. But if you confused a San Franciscan with an Angelino, the former would be deeply insulted, priding himself on a bohemian intellectualism that the latter surely lacks. Angelinos find New Yorkers neurotic, New Yorkers find Chicagoans too Midwestern, and so forth. Herein lies a simple but important point about cities and their consumption: As New York is known for finance and fashion, San Francisco for technology, Detroit for automobiles, and Los Angeles for film and video games, the cities’ consumption options are equally important in underpinning their identities.

* Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and San Francisco are home to the biggest fruit and vegetable consumers….Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore rank as the lowest consumers… Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwiches may not be a daily habit but they do reflect a culture that is more meat than kale. Candy, chewing gum, cola, and artificial sweeteners are popular in the Midwest but for the most part are avoided in coastal cities. Northeast cities consistently spend less than the national average by a significant amount. In 2010, for example, New Yorkers spent about half as much as most cities spend on artificial sweeteners and 55% less on candy and chewing gum. Non-metro areas consume a lot of artificial sweeteners, cola, fats, oils, and fresh milk and cream— exactly the items that city dwellers don’t buy. They also buy more frozen and canned vegetables and fruit rather than fresh. These are items that are, across the board, rarely bought in cities.

* urban dwellers have something in common when it comes to nonalcoholic beer, dining out, and drinking wine. They consume none of the country’s nonalcoholic beer (and I mean none of it) and universally spend more money on dining out and drinking wine— social activities that go hand in hand. San Francisco, San Diego, New York, and Boston have been known to spend more than twice as much on wine, in total expenditure, than the national average. And for those cities that are less likely to drink wine— Philadelphia and Detroit— they make up for it in beer and cocktails. Generally, beer is less of an urban drink than wine or cocktails, although Boston and Minneapolis are overachievers in all areas of alcoholic consumption. Only Miami is a teetotaler across the board, spending about 40% less than the rest of the country on alcoholic beverages.

* Housekeeping services are also a remarkably urban phenomenon, with New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco spending almost double the rest of the country (whereas housekeeping supplies is a disproportionately non-metro purchase).

* No one really hosted dinner parties or had people over for coffee. People did everything outside of their home in the cafés and bars located on all corners of the city. Working on my first book, I remember interviewing Ingrid Sichy, editor of Interview magazine at the time, and she said the same thing, unprompted by me— that the city was one’s dining room, living room, and extended home— rather than the apartment, which is just where we went to sleep at night. Sichy, friend of Andy Warhol, glamorous cultural icon on the New York City scene, was, just like the rest of us, merely paying rent to actually live and be entertained in the city at large. Thus it is no surprise at all to see that many urban households seem to have similar priorities. Across all cities, urbanites reveal remarkably less expenditure share than the national average on household textiles, bathroom and bedroom linens, furniture, and silver serving pieces— all the trappings of the tidy, beautifully maintained home.

* Urban folks spend their money on things outside of the material goods of the home. They may outsource labor to make their home lives easier, but they are not spending money on the material aspects of their homes. This decision is in part because they eat and entertain outside the home. It may also be due to the transient nature of many people’s urban experience— people live in cities for some parts of their lives, then they get married, have kids, and move to the suburbs, which is when they start to care about sofas and bathroom towels. Yet, another important aspect of this pattern is that urbanites spend so much time outside of their homes that their materialism is devoted to their own external physical appearance, rather than that of their internal world, thus encapsulating Georg Simmel’s early-twentieth-century observation of eccentric urbanites who use clothing as a quick signal of identity and individuality.

* As ostentatious as they are in some respects, there is a subtlety to many city dwellers’ beauty habits. Makeup rarely looks obvious, manicures are often clear or a pale pink. The exceptions to this trend are Houston and Dallas (and Seattle, of all places), where there is more of an inclination to spend on beauty products, including wigs and hairpieces.

* I was eating in a Mexican restaurant in Pasadena with my friend Eric (an avid Grindr user, if only in the passive, trolling sense). While I was eating tacos, he was doing a Grindr search; it turned out that a potential mate was at a table a mere 10 feet away, as indicated by the location button on his app flashing incessantly. Since the Grindr app has to be open for a location to be traced, this guy also would also had to have his app open and would thus be aware of Eric’s whereabouts, making for a rather awkward situation when neither of them made an effort to speak.

* When people move to cities, they become more eccentric, more visually individualistic, as a way to distinguish themselves from the throngs of others living there. Such individuality and distinction must occur instantaneously as we walk past each other on the street, thus clothing becomes one of the most efficient ways to do so. Much of conspicuous consumption rests on our relationship to our neighbors and peers and thus city life plays a significant role in how we consume. In a 2006 article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Dartmouth professor Erzo Luttmer found that our neighbors’ wealth inversely affected our well-being. In fact, while living next to rich people makes us unhappy, it’s worse to be friends with them. 47 Thus, in New York City, where making $ 500,000 is “middle class,” 48 it’s no surprise that its inhabitants feel the pressure to keep up with their friends who make $ 5 million a year, or to at least appear as though they are on par. In New York City, just like San Francisco, everyone feels poor (even the well-to-do) because the density of the city forces close and frequent contact with others, including those with great wealth. This density puts further pressure on inhabitants to be status-conscious, and reminds them of their social and economic position vis-à-vis everyone else. In general, cities have this effect on us— we are both pressured and rewarded by conspicuous, status-oriented consumption.

* In his book Distinction, the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, wrote about the means by which status was attained across different classes. Bourdieu argued that the working class didn’t simply want what the rich already had, but rather each class’s values reflected their respective social position. In essence, they wanted different things altogether. The working class prized new over vintage or antique, American football rather than tennis, ostentatious weddings rather than small, quiet affairs. 49 To use Max Weber’s term, the rich, middle class, and working class embody and prioritize different “styles of life.” 50 Consumer behavior becomes one of the key elements in demonstrating status, and thus different cities, with their diverse populations in terms of race, income, industry, and educational levels, have dramatically different consumption patterns.

* When there are more people around, there is greater pressure to reveal status and also a greater social bump from conspicuous consumption. Because young people likely have fewer obligations in other areas of their lives and enjoy a highly social lifestyle, the younger the population, the greater the level of conspicuous consumption. Given that they provide more opportunities for their clientele to flaunt their status, greater numbers of drinking establishments and restaurants are also associated with conspicuous consumption.

* When I think about city differences, I am often reminded of a more contemporary, albeit quirky, example— that of the surfer menorah. As its namesake would suggest, this item is a menorah fashioned with a surfboard placed on the stem between the candelabrum’s branches and its foot. New York University sociologist Harvey Molotch wrote in great detail about its popularity on the beaches of Laguna Niguel in Southern California and the impossibility of selling it anywhere else. It is the hybrid culture specific to Southern California that allows such an item to be ironic (even literal for some) rather than offensive. But such an item only exists as a result of the great beaches that enable surfing and the rise of auto design, which brought lots of new acrylics and materials that allowed surfboards to advance along with a liberal Jewish population. Along with surfboards came the “high-jinks” surfer culture that inspired the irreverent art scene of the 1960s which influenced the production of that surfer menorah many decades later. The surfing wouldn’t be possible without the beach and the ocean, but those surfboards were a result of materials spawned from aerospace and cars. So the surfer menorah becomes place-specific due to the confluence of artistic materials, culture, and demographics that are found only in the peculiarities of Southern California.

* By way of anecdote, after moving from New York to California, I found that within five or six years I wore less black, ate more vegetables, learned how to cook quinoa…

* research that suggests that money can buy happiness up to $ 75,000 annual income… those who were wealthier experienced feelings of accomplishment and being in the right place in their life journey. In other words, possessing financial resources is correlated with satisfaction…

Posted in Class | Comments Off on The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class

I Argue With Paul Gottfried

Posted in Adolf Hitler, Anti-Semitism, Germany | Comments Off on I Argue With Paul Gottfried

Hitler and Abductive Logic: The Strategy of a Tyrant By Ben Novak

Here are some excerpts from this 2014 book:

* The question that initiated this study was a simple question that mystified Adolf Hitler’s contemporaries and has subsequently baffled historians and biographers: Why was Hitler successful in his rise to power? Initially, this seems to be a straightforward question, answered by simply describing: (1) who this man was; (2) what he did; and (3) how he did it. However, most biographers and historians have answered only one of these three questions, namely, what he did. As for the other two questions, they have proved unable to arrive at consensus or provide satisfactory answers.

H. R. Trevor-Roper was the first post–World War II historian to recognize the mystery constituted constituted by Hitler’s rise to power and to identify these two unanswered questions as the essential elements of the continuing mystery of Hitler. Trevor-Roper raised these in a lengthy essay published in 1953, entitled “The Mind of Adolf Hitler,”[1] which begins with the stark question: “Who Was Hitler?” He then goes on to castigate his fellow historians for failing to answer that question, as well as for failing to answer the second question constituting the mystery: “How did he do it?” Indeed, Trevor-Roper accused historians of “evading” these questions. It is worth quoting him more fully, for he minces no words:

“Who was Hitler? The history of his political career is abundantly documented and we cannot escape from its terrible effects. And yet, . . . how elusive his character remains! What he did is clear; every detail of his political activity is now—thanks to a seizure of documents unparalleled in history—historically established; his daily life and personal behavior have been examined and exposed. But still, when asked not what he did but how he did it, or rather how he was able to do it, historians evade the question, sliding away behind implausible answers.[2]”

In the intervening half century, despite an overwhelming amount of scholarship devoted to these two questions (Robert G. L. Waite has opined, “It seems likely that more will be written about Adolf Hitler than anyone else in history with the exception of Jesus Christ.”)[3], no advance has been made in answering them or solving the mystery.

Eberhard Jaeckel pronounces the question “How could Hitler have come to power?” to be “the seminal question of the twentieth century.” century.”[4] James M. Rhodes writes that “The rise of the German Workers’ Party (Hitler Movement)” is a phenomenon that has “never been adequately explained.”[5] Biographer Robert Payne candidly admits at the beginning of his biography, The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, that “the rise of Adolf Hitler to supreme power is one of those events in world history which are almost totally inexplicable in any rational terms;”[6] while Joachim Fest, the author of one of the most respected biographies of Hitler,[7] acknowledges thirteen years after publication that “Hitler and National Socialism, despite years of study and reflection about them, have remained more myth than history.”[8] Robert Nelken pithily summarizes the mystery: “Hitler has puzzled generations of investigators.”

The present status of this mystery, especially regarding the two unanswered questions identified by Trevor-Roper, is well reflected in three major works published as the twentieth century was ending. In 1997, John Lukacs published The Hitler of History, a survey of the major historical scholarship and research relating to Hitler. Lukacs was motivated to conduct his study because he felt that the same two questions that Trevor-Roper had identified in 1953 were still unanswered: “There is no disagreement about this among historians,” writes Lukacs, “What they ask from the record—and from themselves—are two questions: How could Hitler have come to such power? And: What kind of a man was he?”[10] In his conclusion, Lukacs reiterates the judgment of Percy Ernst Schramm that “by virtue of his personality, his ideas, and the fact that he misled millions, Hitler poses an historical problem of the first magnitude.”[11] Lukacs himself summarizes the mystery posed by Hitler in almost Biblical terms, capitalizing each word: “And Hitler Was, Is and Remains a Problem.”[12]

The following year a second work appeared demonstrating the continuing mystery of Hitler. In 1998, Ron Rosenbaum, a journalist who sensed a significant story in the failure of historians to solve the mystery of Hitler, published Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origin of His Evil. The story that Rosenbaum reports is the almost-scandal among historians that Hitler remains unexplained. For his book, Rosenbaum interviewed many of the most prominent Hitler scholars, recording his surprise—and their frustration—that the most fundamental historical and moral questions about this man remain unanswered. Rosenbaum identifies these two yet unanswered questions as (1) “The real search for Hitler—the search for who he was,” and (2) “the question of his advent and success.”[13] Rosenbaum then records in eloquent language the layman’s amazement at the failure of historians to find any coherent or consensus answers to these questions:

“Is it conceivable, more than half a century after Hitler’s death, after all that has been written and said, that we are still wandering in this trackless wilderness, this garden of forking paths, with no sight of our quarry? Or, rather, alas, with too many quarries: the search for Hitler has apprehended not one coherent, consensus image of Hitler, but rather many different Hitlers, competing embodiments of competing visions, Hitlers who might not recognize each other well enough to say “Heil!” if they came face to face in Hell.”

* “No comprehensive study of all aspects of Hitler’s language exists.”[36] So far, no rhetorician has conducted a study of Hitler’s rhetoric that would explain his phenomenal political success.[37] If Hitler’s demagogy—his speechmaking, oratory, and rhetoric—were so important in explaining Hitler’s success, why has no one seen fit to study it in order to explain the principles of its effectiveness?

* The most essential conclusions that I have drawn from my review of the literature are as follows: Scholars have already applied every known theory of the social sciences and humanities to explain Hitler, but so far the mystery has not been solved. Almost all previous historical and biographical studies of Hitler have attempted to explain his power in terms of why people responded to him, rather than studying precisely what he did to elicit that response. Other previous studies—biographical and historical—that have applied familiar labels, or employed familiar concepts, have been unsuccessful at explaining his success. The failure to discover a satisfactory explanation for Hitler’s success is an embarrassment to the historical profession and poses a danger in regard to the place of Hitler in myth and legend. Most important of all, there seems to be no doubt that the central issues in Hitler studies, both historical and biographical, arise from the inability of scholars to discover the relationship between what is known about Hitler the man and what is known about Hitler the politician. This suggests that the proper focus of any new study or investigation designed to solve the mystery of Hitler must focus on Hitler himself.

After reviewing the approaches of previous scholars I find that there is one question that has not been investigated by any post–World War II scholar. That question may be set out this way: What personality or character trait: talent, skill or ability (natural or acquired); genius, or method, did Hitler possess, whose identification and explication would meet the following five requirements: distinguish Hitler from other politicians; explain what it was that gave Hitler the advantage over other politicians; explain why Hitler was so often underestimated; explain why he was so much more successful than other men of seemingly seemingly better education, experience, and background, who seemed to possess more talents and abilities, more connections, and more resources; and, finally, would connect Hitler’s youth and young manhood prior to his entry into politics with his life after 1919, when he entered politics. Among all of the scholars and biographers who have studied Hitler’s life and career, I find only one who had specifically asked this last question, and he had done so not only before World War II, but even before Hitler came into power. That scholar was Konrad Heiden, who in the early 1930s asked: “What natural gifts determined Hitler’s fate?”[77] In answer, Heiden argues that the secret to Hitler’s success lay in a peculiar form of logic. “His strength is utterly in his logic,” writes Heiden. This is a surprising and unexpected explanation of Hitler. However, Heiden personally knew and observed Hitler for a longer time and at closer quarters than any other journalist, opponent, or scholar. Strangely, no one has ever before investigated Heiden’s explanation of Hitler’s success. METHOD Frankly, Heiden’s claim that Hitler’s strength was utterly in his logic puzzled me for a long time. How could strength in logic be attributed to Hitler, who is generally described as irrational and emotional in his approach to politics? Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the fact that, on the one hand, all previous theories have failed to explain Hitler, and on the other, that this seems to be the only hypothesis left. In such a situation, the guidance of one skilled in solving mysteries ought to be sought.

* As Friedlander writes, as to Hitler: “Historical inquiry seems to strike at an irreducible anomaly. The emotional hold Hitler and his movement maintained on many Germans . . . defies all customary interpretation and can never be explained coherently within the framework of a historiography in which political, social, or economic explanations predominate. . . . The manifest presence of this unknown determinant has changed nothing about the routine of research. It is true that psychohistorical investigation of Nazism has become a discipline—which seems to answer the objection. But it must be admitted that this approach has proved disappointing because of an excessively schematic application of concepts both too general and too worn out. At best it seems artificial.”

* Thus the essence of abductive logic is to recognize the strangeness in a set of facts, to reason backward to a hypothesis that will remove the strangeness and explain the strange conjunction of facts, so that they appear natural; that is, “explained.”

* Abductive logic, because it occurs at the initial stage of inquiry, is immune from both refutation and normal logical objections… While future testing will theoretically prove or disprove the hypothesis, until that testing has occurred, the hypothesis cannot be refuted by inductive logic. Similarly, deductive logic cannot prove a hypothesis wrong.

* This is a characteristic of abductive logic that proved particularly useful to Hitler. Hitler explained that the successive defeats, humiliations, crises, and traumas that beset the German people were all caused by a Communist-Socialist-Liberal-Pacifist-Jewish conspiracy that aimed to destroy the German nation. Insofar as Hitler’s theory appeared to explain and account for the known facts, it was a logical and valid hypothesis—no matter how improbable or distasteful. This placed Hitler’s critics and opponents in a logically difficult position. In order to refute Hitler’s argument, they had only three logical alternatives: (1) to accept Hitler’s conspiracy and race theory as a valid hypothesis suitable for testing; (2) to present a better explanation; or (3) to put Hitler in power and let him try out his theories in practice. To Hitler’s opponents and critics, the first alternative was completely unacceptable and impractical for two very obvious reasons. First, to acknowledge Hitler’s theories as valid hypotheses would have been to give Hitler’s “nonsense” legitimacy. His opponents would have had to acknowledge the logical possibility that his theories might be true. To have acknowledged Hitler’s theories as valid hypotheses might have been the best thing to do if it had been possible to quickly prove Hitler’s theories false. However, the only means of proving them false would have been to turn them over to historians, geneticists, sociologists, etc., who might have taken decades (beginning in the 1920s) to arrive at a significant enough consensus to prove Hitler wrong. Meanwhile, his opponents would have dignified Hitler’s hypotheses until that consensus evolved. It might further be noted, as a matter of fact, that by the time Hitler emerged as a significant force in German politics, on September 14, 1930, a large proportion of the students and faculty at German universities was National Socialist.[1] Thus, any effort to submit Hitler’s race theory and historical explanations to the scientific examination of university scholars capable of evaluating them would likely have been disastrous, given the confused and politicized state of German universities at the time.

The second alternative to refute an abductive hypothesis is to present a better hypothesis. The major parties and political leaders presented little in the way of an explanation for the successive crises of Germany. They were progressive, practical, and forward-looking in attempting to solve problems, and not often amenable to making historical digressions in order to explain why or how the problems arose. Only the Communists (and to a lesser extent the Socialists) boldly proclaimed that they had a better explanation than the Nazis, i.e., the Marxist interpretation of history.

The third method of refuting Hitler was the method eventually adopted in 1933. That was to put Hitler in power and let him try his theories out in practice.

* Adolf Hitler followed a strategy based upon the logic of abduction, and opponents and critics reacted to that strategy in ways that, though disastrous, followed the logical course Hitler plotted, based upon the characteristics of abductive logic. Thus, Hitler and the Nazis were often accused of being illogical and irrational precisely because their arguments and theories were irrefutable by the normal arguments of inductive and deductive logic. However, this immunity did not arise from irrationality or illogicality. Rather, it arose from the nature of the logic in which Hitler presented his theories. It is one of the characteristics of abductive logic that a well-formed hypothesis is irrefutable by normal methods of logical arguments, unless enough time is available to prove it wrong by scientific testing or scholarship.

* Abduction is not only the first stage of inquiry for the scientist to make discoveries that will benefit mankind, but it is also the stock-in trade of the liar, the cheat, the fraud, and the criminal; for the essence of abduction is the invention of explanations.

* Hitler was able to get away with a lie because no one attacked the form of his logic. This would have required the following logical form: “Yes, it is agreed that there are many events which appear to be inexplicable, and which call out for explanation. But the theory that a Jewish conspiracy is the cause of these effects is not the only possible cause of these effects. Nor is it the best hypothesis to explain those effects. Therefore, we should ignore the explanation of a Jewish conspiracy and calmly investigate what appear to be better explanations to explain these effects.”

* In the previous chapter of Mein Kampf, “The Causes of the Collapse” (chapter 10), Hitler describes every “symptom” of the illnesses that beset German society. It is a catalog of every imaginable indication of the presence of a disease. Chapter 11 provides the theory of how the “infection” is contracted; the course of the “disease”; a description of the “symptoms”; an explanation of why and how the “parasite” causes those specific symptoms; and the stages of the disease. Thus, Hitler presented himself not simply as a layman who could speak the obvious, e.g., “You are sick. You have a certain disease.” Rather, he presented himself as a doctor and medical expert who not only could identify the disease, but also could explain everything about the disease.

* Once a simple diagnosis—e.g., the Jews are to blame for everything—is amplified into a larger theory that links and explains many apparently unrelated symptoms into a single theory, and further explains how other apparently independent symptoms are linked to a single, deeper cause, one has a much stronger logical position.

* [Hitler] opposed intellectualism because it “removes people from the instinct of nature.”[34] The entire difference between the Aryan and the Jew, he argued, was based solely on a difference in their instincts.

* Joachim Fest also saw an opposition between instinct and reason. Fest writes of Hitler: “He grasped what was happening in the world more by instinct than by reason.”[37] But Hitler’s appeal to instinct is not opposed to reason and is entirely proper in one of the three forms of logic.

* Charles Sanders Peirce describes the “abductive faculty” as that faculty “whereby we divine the secrets of nature.”[38] It has also been described both as a “sort of divinatory power,”[39] and as “a means of communication between man and his Creator, a ‘Divine privilege’ which must be cultivated.”[40] In “On the Method of Zadig,” Thomas Henry Huxley calls it a form of “prophecy” and of “divination,” which he likens to the powers of a medium or a clairvoyant.[41] Peirce argues that there “are mysterious agencies in ideas.”[42] Pragmatism, he states, is “nothing else than the logic of abduction.”[43] It is a process whereby one aligns one’s mind with the logic of nature and allows one’s instinct to lead to the correct answer to a problem. One who has such an ability to reach the “divine secrets” and explain them to others is the true thinker who “communes with the Creator.”

* When people go to a medium or clairvoyant, they expect to be told why apparently inexplicable things are happening to them. The medium may tell them of evil forces or spirits. The person who seeks the aid of the medium is grateful to have the strange occurrences in his or her life explained. Science and medicine perform similar functions. The patient suffering from an illness he does not understand goes to a doctor who explains it. In terms of the logic, these two processes are identical. Each imagines or “divines” a cause sufficient to explain the phenomenon.

* Early in his career, Adolf Hitler gave an example of how he imported precisely the same logic into politics. In discussions held with Dietrich Eckart, he was explaining to Eckart how such logic could be brought from science to describe the workings of politics. “We are on the wrong track,” Hitler exclaimed. “Astronomers do things differently. Take, for example, an astronomer who has been observing a cluster of stars for a long time—heaven knows how long he has been looking at them. Suddenly he observes, dammit, that something has gone wrong. Previously they were arranged in a certain way, but now they are arranged differently. Some secret force has been exerted on them. So he makes endless calculations, and determines the exact location of a planet which an eye has never seen, but one fine day people discover that it really exists.”

“Well, what do historians do? They explain the regular movements of society by appealing to the society itself, the behavior of its prominent politicians. It does not occur to them that there may somewhere be a secret force which exerts its influence on everything and directs everything. Well, this force has existed since the beginning of history.”

This is precisely the form of the medium, the clairvoyant, the conspiracy theorist, and the scientific discoverer—it is the divining of active forces that cannot be seen. Its essence is abduction. Hitler’s conclusion was to identify the hidden forces acting in German history: “You know its name—the Jew.”

* He insisted, like Marx, that he had peered into the forces of history and was able to explain them—as well as to explain how these invisible forces were affecting the present. He based his political future on his abductive ability, similar to that of a medium, to predict the future based on his special knowledge of the activities of these unseen forces in history. “I have never told you” he claimed in 1922, “that such and such things may come true, but always that they will come, because they must come and it cannot be otherwise. And what we foresaw has now come to pass.”

* Hitler was always careful to present himself as the seer who divined the causes, or as the scientist who explained them, or as the doctor who diagnosed them.

* The third unique—and perhaps most important—characteristic of abduction is the strange power it has over the minds of ordinary people by which it forces them not only to accept a hypothetical explanation and act upon it, but also to follow through in acting out all the inferences of the hypothesis. Abductive logic has the capacity to impose a “straitjacket of logic with which man can force himself almost as violently as he is forced by some outside power.

* No other form of logic has the power over men’s minds that abductive logic has. This is all the more remarkable because abduction is only the first stage of scientific inquiry, and its goal is only to provide hypotheses for subsequent testing. However, the nature of the human mind—outside the laboratory—has such a need for explanation, and such a need to make the world rational, that improvised hypotheses are readily accepted.

Joseph Cotto writes:

Even astute researchers might be surprised to discover that, while a youngster, Hitler was enamored of Saxony-born novelist Karl May, best remembered for volumes depicting the Old American West. It was from May’s writings, Novak relates, that Hitler originally learned about abductive logic — despite May being a Christian humanitarian who was no enemy of Jews or non-Aryans. The manner through which Hitler transformed a realm of adventurous fantasy into a living nightmare inflicted upon millions and millions consumes the bulk of Novak’s work.

Understanding how a poorly educated, emotionally volatile, and psychologically disturbed nobody from the hinterlands became a global public enemy for the ages is quite an ordeal. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of this is discovering that Hitler, through sheer force of his own will (itself fueled by a desire to overcome too many personal insecurities to mention here), twisted a plot pattern from pedestrian fiction to fashion a methodology for mass murder, astounding theft of property and real estate, as well as intended enforcement of totalitarian governance for over 1000 years.

Novak, in tracing Hitler’s childhood and rise to power as an adult, more than ably disseminates a story of how the lowest depths of humanity were reached. From Hitler — an unremarkable, unsuccessful farm boy gone to the big city — channeling his deep personal rage into political power to the ease with which throngs of voters rallied to his cause to how he attained stomach-wrenching domestic order primed to liquidate not only those within but abroad, nary a stone is left unturned.

Especially astounding is that, for all of the power he attained, Hitler never delivered typical campaign promises, like pragmatic solutions to pressing popular concerns. Instead, he cast such a spell over those around him that Nazi supporters were willing to pay admission so they could be present at their party’s gatherings.

A friend says:

I don’t think Cotto’s description is quite correct. He says, “Abduction is unlike both deduction, which proceeds from a universal rule to a specific case and then to a conclusion, and induction, which moves in the opposite direction. Abduction begins with the odd or inexplicable.” In a deductive inference, the conclusion *logically* follows from the premises, and doesn’t have to go from a “universal rule” to a specific cases. All mathematics is deduction. (a) If Smith has a hat the hat is black, (b) Smith has a hat, (c) Smith has a black hat” is deduction. People use “induction” kind of loosely, but it basically refers to statistical inferences. Statistics is the science of induction. Abduction means inference to the best explanation. All thinking people and animals employ abduction, but scientists supposedly do it on a higher level. The premises that are the basis of an abductive inference don’t have to be “odd or inexplicable”–it’s just normal everyday reasoning.

I think usually people don’t call it abductive *logic*, since it’s not exactly logic. Traditionally the main goal of philosophy of science was to explain how abduction/inference to the best explanation works, but so far it’s been a failure. People have distinguished lots of categories of induction/abduction.

I think the best way to understand scientific theories is as “research programs.” A research program posits a body of core explanatory principles to explain some evidence. All theories face empirical difficulties/counterexamples, so they must be supplemented with auxiliary hypotheses to explain away the counterexamples. Successful research programs produce auxiliary hypotheses that make successful new predictions, whereas unsuccessful programs require more and more rescuing hypotheses to explain counterexamples without making new predictions.

Maybe Hitler was good at coming up with narratives? I think the psychology of how narratives appeal to people should receive a lot more attention. It’s discussed a little in moral psychology, but it’s not a major issue.

Another friend says:

Abductive logic is just “inference to the best explanation” as far as I know. (I think I agree with what your anonymous friend said about this.) I mean, Hitler did use this mode of reasoning but then so does everyone. His anti-semitic “conspiracy theory” may have been largely based on abduction but it’s not clear to me why this would have been especially important in explaining his political successes (and there would seem to be all kinds of more straightforward and plausible explanations).

The claim that abduction is “immune from both refutation and normal logical objections” seems definitely false. In order to refute an argument of this kind you just need to come up with some better or equally good explanation for the fact in question. There might be room for debate about how exactly the quality of competing explanations should be gauged, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have reasonable objections to abductive reasoning. (Some alternative hypothesis might be equally simple and consistent with other known facts, etc.) There could also be “normal logical objections” to such reasoning. For example, it could be that the proposed hypothesis (i.e. the conclusion of the abductive argument) is internally inconsistent.

As for whether it would be considered a kind of logic, the answer is probably “Yes and no”. Because the word “logic” has been given different meanings. It’s not _formal_ logic because it can’t (so far) be reduced to mathematical or machine-checkable axioms and rules. (Formal logic deals with systems of reasoning where it’s possible to prove things given merely the structure or grammar or logical “form” of statements–in other words, regardless of meaning or content, context or psychology, etc.) On the other hand, philosophers often discuss “informal logic” as well. Basically, if “logic” refers to something specific and technical such as mathematical logic or truth-functional logic or modal logic, then abductive reasoning isn’t logic; but if “logic” just refers to all the different forms of reasoning then abductive reasoning is a kind of logic. At least I think this is what would be the mainstream opinion in philosophy.

Here is an entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that might be useful. At least it will have lots of references to academic philosophical discussions of the topic.

From the German Studies Review:

Ben Novak—whose interdisciplinary PhD combines history, philosophy, and political science—wrestles with questions that he believes historians have not successfully answered: who was Hitler and why did he succeed in taking power over others who were better educated, more experienced, and better connected? Whereas numerous biographers of Hitler, the most recent being Ian Kershaw (1998, 2000), see Hitler as an impenetrable mystery, Novak seeks to make sense of him. Following Konrad Heiden (A History of National Socialism, 1971), who called attention to Hitler’s “natural gifts” (61), and the nineteenth-century American logician Charles Samuel [End Page 190] Pierce, Novak argues that the key to Hitler’s success was his mastery of a third form of logic besides deduction and induction known as “abduction” (20–21).

Abduction is unlike both deduction, which proceeds from a universal rule to a specific case and then to a conclusion, and induction, which moves in the opposite direction. Abduction begins with the odd or inexplicable. Proceeding from instinct and imagination, the observer reasons backwards from a puzzling occurrence to create a story out of what appear to be insignificant clues. In Hitler’s hands, abduction led to a simple but comprehensive explanation for seemingly incomprehensible events: the lost war, the punitive peace settlement, hyperinflation, and then the Depression. Only a criminal plot—an international conspiracy of communists, socialists, liberals, pacifists, and especially Jews—could explain the multiple traumas of interwar Germany. As Novak argues, abduction can provide a fruitful way to produce a working hypothesis in circumstances where no universal rules or foundational principles can be assumed. Hitler thus provided a compelling story that other Weimar politicians could not produce. His conspiratorial hypothesis was not open to refutation.

According to the author, abductive logic is as old as the “first caveman” (29), but its emergence in the popular literature of the late nineteenth century, such as Sherlock Holmes detective stories and Karl May’s westerns, was central to Hitler’s maturation. To make his case, Novak himself uses abductive logic to explain Hitler’s transformation from a socially well-adjusted, model student into a loner with little passion for school who angrily rejected his father’s desire that Adolf follow him into the Austro-Hungarian civil service. Rather than reject out of hand Hitler’s own testimony in Mein Kampf, which most historians consider too dubious to be credible, Novak takes it seriously as a point of departure, linking Hitler’s testimony with the other fragmentary evidence. Most scholars recognize that, by the age of eleven, Hitler had become a pathological mystery. Yet Novak argues that this change can be explained. His attraction to Karl May’s hero “Old Shatterhand” (first appearing in Winnetou in 1893), who abductively discovered truths about the world and his own existence, justified his rebelliousness and his growing belief in his own uniqueness. Hitler saw himself as extraordinary, too special to conform to the “department store” (161) world of bourgeois careerism that guided his early youth and his father’s expectations. Hence Hitler decided to become an artist, a profession with the freedom to allow his genius to thrive. After World War I, politics provided a different but equally creative path.

Novak’s contribution lies in his detailing the rationality of Hitler’s thinking. Neither sociopathic, irrational, opportunistic, nor mediumistic, Hitler was eminently logical. In his brief concluding chapter, Novak describes how the Führer seamlessly combined messianism with formidable business skills to assure his and his party’s success. By charging admission to party rallies, Hitler created a self-financing political entity while simultaneously enhancing Nazism’s revivalist novelty. By limiting photographs of himself, Hitler enhanced his personal magnetism and thus enticed even more people [End Page 191] to see him in person. According to Novak, Hitler’s riveting oratory was less significant to the growth of the Nazi Party than the creativity and solidity of his management.

Professor Steven Jefferson writes for Journal of Contemporary European Studies:

According to Ben Novak, three events that ‘set [Adolf Hitler] on the road to becoming Der Fuehrer (sic)’ were his distinct rejection of the idea of ordinary work and an ordinary life [ … ] at the age of eight; [the] formation of a personal identification with an abstract idea of the German people [ … ] at age nine; and [his] discovery of Karl May [ … ] at the age of eleven. (121)

It was during his extended engagement with May’s oeuvre, Novak explains, that Hitler internalised abductive logic, a mode of thought employed by the great detectives of literature and, crucially for Novak’s thesis, by some of May’s fictional protagonists.

Novak’s claim that something in Karl May’s books can explain the Holocaust, is based on a statement made by Hitler’s headmaster, Dr Eduard Huemer, in relation to Hitler’s post-Putsch arrest in 1923. Huemer testified that ‘Hitler seems to have been led astray by the stories of Karl May and tales of Red Indians’ (182). Novak focuses on Huemer’s specific choice of words: ‘led astray’ rather than ‘wasted time reading’. However, to assess the merits of Huemer’s statement, one would need to consider the original German, which Novak fails to provide. Nor does he provide a reference to the German source; a serious omission given the importance of this point to his thesis. Even without the translation, the claims Novak makes for this statement are unsupportable. Not only does Huemer mention ‘stories by Karl May’ but he also refers specifically to ‘and tales of Red Indians’. However, these could have been written by any number of authors, notably James Fenimore Cooper whose novels, Novak assures us, Hitler had also read (184). Huemer states that Hitler was ‘led astray’ both by Karl May stories and by ‘tales of Red Indians’. Yet, Novak asserts that this constitutes supporting evidence for the claim that Hitler was specifically ‘led astray’ by something he discovered in May’s stories. Huemer goes on to state that ‘no doubt an over-indulgence in such reading combined with the time wasted on drifting back and forth from home and school which was some distance apart, was mostly responsible for [Hitler’s] failure’ (182). This statement leaves little doubt that the headmaster attributed Hitler’s lacklustre school performance to his wasting time on reading per se and trekking long distances instead of studying for exams.

Turning to the substance of Novak’s core thesis, his assertion that Hitler was highly influenced by Karl May is unoriginal. In 1940, Klaus Mann attacked May’s oeuvre as the product of ‘a morbid and infantile brain’, which he claimed, without citing sources, had demonstrably influenced Hitler. According to Mann, ‘[a] whole generation in Germany grew brutish and ran wild—partly through
the evil influence of Karl May’ (Mann 1940a). He goes on to make the preposterous and outrageous claim that ‘[t]he Third Reich is Karl May’s ultimate triumph’ (Mann 1940b).

Mann’s claim is preposterous for a number of reasons. First, there is no difference between May’s Westerns and those of non-German authors such as Captain Mayne Reid. Why then did not a whole generation in England or America grow brutish and run wild after reading the very books that may well have inspired May’s own oeuvre? Second, Karl May is one of the most translated authors ever: why then was the supposedly evil potential of his novels only realised in Germany? Third, far from being a cultural chauvinist or warmonger, May was a pacifist who faced down a whole generation of sabre-rattling militarists in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion by publishing and defending such programmatically ideological tracts as Et in terra pax (1901) later republished and expanded as Und Friede auf Erden (1904) (Ku¨rschner 1901; May 1958[1904]; Sudhoff et al. 2001). May’s pacifistic utterances were met with unbridled fury from the public and the Catholic Church. In 1938, by which time May had been dead for 20 years, Hitler’s NSDAP demanded drastic alterations to the text before approving the publication of an updated edition. Karl May, author, rogue, plagiarist and pacifist, may well have caught the young Hitler’s attention as he has fired the imaginations of tens of millions of
youngsters around the world for over 150 years. But to associate him and his oeuvre with this ‘genius’ of death is one of the greatest factual distortions that I have ever encountered.

Novak’s scholarship remains underdeveloped. His ability to unfold a cogent argument based on verifiable evidence and reasonable assumptions is woefully inadequate. His decision to take the perpetrator of the greatest crime in recorded history to task, not for the role he played in the mass murder of Europe’s Jews and the destruction of the European order, but for his boyhood dalliance with the oeuvre of a competent, if at times uninspired, certainly harmless, author, goes beyond bad taste and poor judgement. In summary, this book exemplifies the free-for-all attitude towards Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust that many Anglophone authors, incredibly, seem to feel is appropriate—but which is not!

According to his self-description found at

Ben Novak is a retired attorney, writer and teacher.

He graduated from Penn State in 1965 with a BA in economics. In 1968 he received a J.D. degree from Georgetown University. Later, in 1999, he earned a Ph.D. at Penn State in the interdisciplinary doctoral studies program. His dissertation, entitled Hitler and Abductive Logic: The Strategy of a Tyrant, was published by Lexington Books in 2014.

After serving in the U.S. Army (1968-1970), including a year in Viet Nam, he practiced law in Centre County for more than three decades (1970-2001). From 1984 to 1987 he published the first regular (bi-weekly) column on beer appreciation; his columns were collected and published in 2013 as The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution.

He founded and was the first president of both the Mount Nittany Conservancy, and the Lion Fraternity Alumni Association. He served four three-year terms on Penn State’s Board of Trustees as an Alumni Elected Trustee (1988-2000). In 2001, he retired to live and teach in Slovakia, the land of his ancestors in Europe, for seven years.

He now resides in Ave Maria, Florida, where he thanks God every day for the warm, sunny weather.

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