Monday, August 25, 2014

Chapter 15 - "Let The Dead Be Heard": Part 2 - "The Profiteers and How to Fight Them"

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

Alfred and Mira still had hopes of getting to Poland in the fall. He planned to leave in August or September, with Mira to follow soon afterwards. Until then Mira planned to finish up her commissions in Washington and then go to Newport in late June for an exhibit at the Belmont’s home there (where she would stay) and perhaps to get an additional portrait commission or two.(6)  In the meantime, Alfred hoped to make some extra money. 

At the end of April, he took a job at the Hanover Trust Company, a bank in Boston. Through his network, he had made contact with one of the bank’s officers, a Pole, who offered him a bank teller’s salary and a job selling securities to members of Boston’s Polish immigrant community. However, Alfred quickly found Hanover Trust untrustworthy. The certificates he was asked to sell were phony. The bank was not honestly investing the money it received from investors. Probably, interest payments made to early investors were to get paid out of the payments made by other later investors or were not to get paid at all—what would become known as a “Ponzi scheme”. Alfred refused to participate in such shenanigans and quit after only a few weeks. Within a year Hanover Trust actually did get involved with Charles Ponzi, the man for whom the “Ponzi scheme” was named. Ponzi, who first deposited his ill-gotten money at Hanover and then joined its board of directors, eventually went to jail. Hanover Trust closed down after a federal investigation.

Since Mira would be shutting her studio in Washington and going to Newport in about a month, Alfred decided to relocate to New York City. They would be close enough to visit each other on weekends. Probably because of Mira, he was able to stay at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park where he was elected an associate member.(7) Just as he was getting settled, Alfred (an inveterate newspaper reader) saw news of anti-Jewish pogroms, which disturbed him greatly. Such pogroms had been going on in Poland, the Ukraine, and Russia for some time. But something in the May 26th edition of the New York Herald seemed to trigger a response in him. He clipped a pair of pictures from the paper: one photograph of the destitute survivors of a pogrom in Kishinieff and one photo showing bodies of the some of the pogrom’s murdered victims. Above the pictures, the headline read “Jews Robbed, Murdered And Driven From Homes In Polish Pogroms”.(8)
From Korzybski's large file folder of newspaper clippings from this period,
 labeled "Jewish Clips". This particular pogrom
happened in the Ukraine and the headline unjustly labeled it 'Polish'. 

As I will soon show, Alfred at this time maintained antisemitic (anti-Jewish) prejudices. He likely had grown up with such views, endemic among ethnic Poles since the latter half of the 19th Century.(9) (The Poles should not necessarily be picked upon as exceptional in this regard. Antisemitism had become quite prevalent throughout Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere.) But whatever Korzybski’s prejudices as of May 1919, he could not countenance the wholesale murder of Jews. Furthermore, he probably also took offense at the fact that these pogroms in Kishinieff, in the Ukraine, were being blamed on Poles. He sent a telegram to Mira in Washington at the end of the month: “Have solution for pogroms. Telephone White [an American diplomat?] let wire to Smulski [an influential member of the Polish-American community]. Able two hours lecture English with facts, pictures. World wide importance.”(10)

Mira probably contacted White immediately. Alfred received a telegram on May 31: “Appreciate the sincerity of your suggestion but I feel that we are in danger of adding fuel to flames. Will write you in detail. JCW”.(11) On June 1 Mira telegrammed Alfred: “White just made long call bad letters to him he made it so clear to me now not time for your idea he goes New York midnight meet minister from Warsaw going see you stay in tomorrow be sure not to miss him love [—] Monky.”(12) I’ve found no further documention about this meeting. But it seems likely that Korzybski’s knowledge about the persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe, including Poland, would continue to eat into his conscience for some time.

Newly planted in New York City, Korzybski persisted in trying to get articles published. He produced some translations of items from the Polish press and a few articles on Poland and Russia which he offered to a foreign press service. Nothing was accepted. He was out of work now and should he return to Poland, with Mira to follow, their prospects there were not clear. It isn’t hard to conclude he may have been feeling somewhat ‘at loose ends’. By August, Mira had relocated to Newport. Alfred was going up to see her on weekends and was planning to leave for Europe in four to five weeks.(13) At this time, he produced a new article, “The Profiteers and How To Fight Them”,(14) which shows his growing attention to economic issues, his still quite sympathetic view towards socialism, and perhaps some of the economic roots of the antisemitic attitudes he held at this time.

“The Profiteers and How to Fight Them” begins with a few paragraphs in which he rails at “the rulers and war lords of both sides looking for their narrow, selfish aims”. Korzybski claimed, “Legislation in the old way can not help, if legislation is chosen to do the work, then the legislation must be very radical, around the socialistic lines of nationalizing the production of the essentials of life.” But he held out little hope for such legislation to happen since “parliaments of the world…are still under strong influence of the ruling classes, bankers and trusts”. If change is to happen the public must get involved. A people’s cooperative movement must be established. Here he pointed to the example of the Polish cooperative movement which came to prominence after the first Russian Revolution of 1905. It is here where Korzybski’s misevalution of Jews and their influence becomes apparent:
We had in Poland several years ago a tremendously strong Jewish trust which boycotted for several centuries Polish economic life. Every wholesale dealer in the country was a Jew and every Jewish retailer had the goods cheaper and paid by long drafts, the Christian dealers had to pay dearer and cash.  
The situation was hope and helpless. This Jewish Trust was broken by an appeal to the people, who mobilized money and men. Polish wholesale dealers and retailers were established. 
This system took away from the Jews the power of exclusiveness and made them equal and not privileged in comparison to the Polish natives. And the fight was won.  

From Korzybski’s account one would get no sense of the extent of Jewish poverty in every part of partitioned Poland or the significant wealth of some of the members of his own class, the Polish szlachta—and their frequent exploitation of the less privileged. (The excesses of some of the szlachta have been well-documented by Davies and Zamoyski among others.) The Jews of Poland had indeed specialized for centuries as economic “middlemen” (traders, shopkeepers, money-lenders, etc.) in the feudal Polish agricultural economy. (The Polish princes had originally invited them to come to Poland for that very purpose.) But Korzybski’s statement about a “Jewish trust which boycotted Polish economic life” surely seems like the kind of exaggeration criticized by economist Thomas Sowell in his studies of “middleman minorities”.(15)

Middleman minorities have traditionally been misunderstood and persecuted throughout the world. The Jews, as perhaps the archetypal middleman minority, became targets for all those Poles who didn’t understand the legitimate role they played in the economy. As Poland emerged from feudalism, Jewish entrepreneurs had a natural advantage in the developing capitalistic and industrializing economy. Undoubtedly there were Jewish crooks, as there were Polish ones. Korzybski may have met some. But it was too easy in Poland as in other places, for people to see that “Fagin was a Jew” and come to the incorrect conclusion, as Korzybski seems to have done, that “Every Jew was a Fagin.”(16) 

Korzybski analyzed this kind of misevaluation in his later work, but at this stage in his life, he was still not immune to it himself. The Polish cooperative movement’s attempted boycott of Jewish businesses, which Korzybski described above, gained momentum after the 1905 revolution. Not only did it not make the Jews “equal” as he claimed, it marked the blossoming of an extreme and exclusionary version of Polish nationalism which became associated with severe antisemitism.

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
6. Washington Times, May 25, 1919. AKDA 1.76. 

7. National Arts Club membership. AKDA 32.676. 

8. “Jews Robbed, Murdered And Driven From Homes In Polish Pogroms”. New York Herald, May 26, 1919. Korzybski Scrapbook. AKDA 1.73. 

9. Polish intolerance, i.e., antisemitism, in the years leading up to and including World War II, has loomed large in many people’s awareness since that time. To a great extent some confusion has resulted from the Nazi Germans’ choice of Poland as the main killing field for their slaughtering of Jews. Germans, not Poles, initiated the genocide of World War II. Indeed, the German Nazis considered ethnic Poles “subhuman Slavs” and murdered about three million of them as well as three million Polish Jews. Certainly Polish antisemitism did exist. But the fact remains that Jews had lived in Poland for centuries, under conditions of acceptance and autonomy unknown elsewhere on the planet. If the treatment of its Jewish population provides an index of the tolerance of a nation, the Poles throughout much of their history deserved very high marks. During the time of the Crusades, and from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, pograms and persecution against Jews grew throughout the rest of Europe. Meanwhile, the Poles invited Jews to come and stay in peace. “As early as 1264, The Charter of Jewish Liberties [The Act of Kalisz] allowed Jews in Poland to set up a system of self-government with exclusive jurisdiction over religious and cultural issues.” [Pogonowski, p. 14] As a result the Jewish people thrived:
It has been estimated that as many as eight million Jews lived during the first century of the Christian era (Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 13, pp. 866-903). By A.D. 1000, the world’s Jewish population may have dwindled to considerably less than 500,000, or fewer than one for every sixteen living in the first century. The revival of the population to its earlier peak of eight million was achieved by 1880, and occurred almost entirely within the historic lands of Poland. [Pogonwoski, p. 13]  
This revival of the Jewish people in Poland was not an accident, but resulted to a great extent from conditions created by humanistic sources deep within Polish culture. (This discussion about the Jews of Poland and general Polish attitudes towards them has relevance for understanding Korzybski’s evolving attitudes towards his own ‘Polishness’, towards ‘Jewishness’, and the relation of both to his work.) 

10. Telegram - AK to MEK, 5/26/1919. AKDA 34.491. 

11. Telegram to AK, 5/31/1919. AKDA 34.492. 

12. Telegram - MEK to AK, 6/1/1919. AKDA 34.494. 

13. AK to Glenn Plumb, 8/20/1919, AKDA 32.743. 

14. Korzybski, “The Profiteers and How To Fight Them”. AKDA 5.42. 

15. See Sowell 2005. 

16. See Will Eisner’s Fagin the Jew (2003).

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