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  • Review: The Truth about Donald McCormick? November 12, 2015

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    fraud fascism

    Hayek: A Collaborative Biography: Part III Fraud, Fascism, and Free Market Religion (ed) Robert Leeson

    What in God’s name…!?! This is a website which prides itself on investigating the seedy and bizarre in history. So why bother with reviewing volume three in a series of six on Friedrich von Hayek, an Austrian economist who died in 1992 and who had nothing seedy or bizarre about him: though he did, from middle age onwards, carry a razor blade around in case he never needed to kill himself?  Well, put simply this volume is special. It examines the relationship between Hayek and Donald McCormick, a fantasy historian, often the subject of posts on this site, who falsified his way through thousands of pages of British and European history: in fact, Beach is preening himself because a Strange History post appeared in the bibliography, a guarantee of quality? After taking the hatchet to Donald, in chapter after chapter, Fraud, Fascism and Free Market Religion is now set to become the point of reference for anyone who has the task of eliminating Donald McCormick from their preferred area of history. This makes this review a little strange because this reader has come to the book not for the advertised purpose (Hayek and a series of mistakes he may or may not have made in his life): but rather to learn about Donald McCormick and his curious ways. It is a bit like buying Dan Brown not for plot but for toilet paper, or spending a lot of money on a renaissance history book because the mermaids are hot.

    So what do we learn about Donald? Well, the editor Robert Leeson has gathered a series of writers together who had some experience of McCormick or who have at least eye-balled his work in their own disciplines. As the title suggests there are a range of different voices. Two authors who knew McCormick speak about him sympathetically: Ian Sayer (who bought the McCormick archive) and Nigel West, who worked with McCormick for many years. Some voices retain a world-weary and commendable neutrality: e.g. Richard B. Spence whose title is ‘2 + 2 = 5’. Others simply loathe McCormick: this is particularly true of the editor, Robert Leeson. The chapters naturally take on McCormick from different points of view and not all are concerned with him. West talks about the experience of working with McCormick. Robert Leeson provides a biography. Daniel Baldino examines McCormick’s writings on intelligence matters: DM was obsessed with the world of spies. The overall effect is pleasing. We get a  well-rounded view of McCormick and perhaps, understanding him a bit better, we might start to ask what on earth encouraged an intelligent, articulate and, by many accounts, charming individual to act in such a donkeyish fashion. But there are two problems with the book, which must also be noted here: the lack of a clinical examination of McCormick’s work; and the general tone of the volume.

    First, the lack of a clinical examination. There are two points in Fraud, Fascism and Free Market Religion where an author demonstrates that McCormick lied. The first is the crucial episode where McCormick argued that Hayek’s enemy Pigou was a Soviet spy. The second is the chapter by Howard Kimberley looking at one McCormick book, that on Madoc [proto-Columbian Welsh discoverer of America, sic], and showing how McCormick invented or manipulated sources. In both of these cases the reader could close the book and state ‘Donald, you are a liar’ and be confident that he or she would win any libel case brought against them by DM’s heirs. However, much of the rest of Fraud, Fascism and Free Market Religion lacks this clinical approach. For example, there is a chapter where Robert Leeson contrasts professional assessments from historians in reviews with more casual reviews from dilettantes. This is interesting but we don’t actually learn anything about how McCormick works. Of course, Fraud, Fascism and Free Market Religion is not strictly about how McCormick worked: it is about Hayek’s naïve use of McCormick, something rather different. But a couple more chapters of the quality of Kimberley’s on Madoc would have been most welcome.

    The second problem is the general tone of the volume. Hayek is a prophet of the civilized and the uncivilized right. Robert Leeson, the editor is clearly not a fan of the free-market or Hayek’s work generally. This means that Hayek and McCormick (who held similar political views) are beyond the pale for RL before we even get to questions of honesty. For example, Mises (another Austrian economist) was the ‘spiritus rector’ of the FEE ‘literally Führer or ‘ruler’’: the German word was not necessary here! Hayek is accused of defending ‘the ‘civilisation’ of apartheid from the American fashion of ‘human rights’’, a questionable take on Hayek’s advice not to interfere in other countries’ affairs: the real debate should be whether that advice is good or bad, not about whether Hayek supported apartheid. Or take this gem:

    ‘Conservative politicians in particular appeared to lack any concern for the needs and sensitivities of non-English people (as witnessed by Leo Amery’s injunction to Arthur Greenwood to ‘Speak for England’ as World War II was beginning)’ (34).

    In the 1930s and 1940s ‘England’ was often used as an equivalent for Britain, by all sides in a way that would not be permissible today: to blame 1930s Conservatives for this means our editor had run out of snow and is throwing slush balls. The case against McCormick is overwhelming, the case against Hayek is, at the very least, interesting: a sober judicial approach would have brought much better results than this attempt at a Mississippi lynching.

    A lynching? Oh come on! Well consider this extraordinary passage in the chapter giving us McCormick’s biography.

    According to Ripperologist Melvin Harris, ‘Deacon’ McCormick was believed to have murdered his second wife, the 46-year-old Sylvia (32).

    The footnote for this sentence reads:

    He was also rumoured to have a tendency to grab someone by the throat if offended by a remark (telephone conversation with Melvin Harris, 2003). Rumours, of course, are not admissible as evidence.

    This is unpleasant stuff. First, we are told, using legal weasel words, that McCormick ‘was believed’ to be a murderer, and then, by way of a source we are told that it came from Melvin Harris in an (I imagine) unrecorded telephone conversation, a year before Harris’s death in 2004!!! We then have the sanctimonious ‘Rumours, of course, are not admissable as evidence’, though the sentence appears in the book. Readers get a feel for their writers and Beach would put money on Leeson’s honesty, the author here. But (i) you do not push such allegations about the recently dead without some very good proof (this is not a question of legality but of manners); and (ii) ironically, this is exactly the kind of source that McCormick employed for decades (conversations with conveniently dead people)! Again, Harris will have said this, but was it really necessary to put this rumour in with no other evidence, especially as it goes nowhere and as it is not proof of anything.  McCormick, God only knows, deserves a full cavity body search: but he deserves courtesy and due process even while we are snapping on the rubber gloves and calling for the Vaseline.

    For this blogger the most interesting two questions are asked by Kimberley in his essay on Madoc and McCormick (211): why did McCormick lie and how did he get away with it? The first is much more difficult to answer than the second. Did he see it as some sort of amoral Nietzschean act? Was he lording his intelligence over others? Was this even the insecurity of the auto-didact (McCormick interestingly never went to university)? A couple of thoughts. McCormick’s lying was much more dramatic in his book writing, than in his journalism. Also, don’t just discard McCormick’s lying as playful joshing: in accusing individuals of being Soviet spies (even if dead) McCormick was throwing a lot of very slimy mud in a country where there really were reds under the bed. As to how McCormick got away with it that is much easier. The truth is that McCormick had one specialty: spying and intelligence.  That is one sector where secret sources, misinformation etc just go with the territory. he could get away with his tricks there for a lifetime. However, when he wrote on other historical matters McCormick wrote one book and then moved on: one book on Lloyd George, one book on Jack the Ripper, one book on Madoc, one book on modern witchcraft murders… This may or may not have been a deliberate strategy but it worked. Rather than leave his cow pats in one corner of the field, he spread them all around a ten acre farm. Experts in a given area did not read his other books and so tended to be more trusting. If he had written three books on the Ripper he would have quickly been hunted down and eliminated from the relevant historiography.

    There is also the fact that ‘back then’ only well-educated ‘gentlemen’ or their peacock wives wrote books: there was no vanity printing on Kindle. Today we take a book on its merits. We are much more trusting of works from c. 1970. More fool us.

    Anything else on McCormick: drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com