Forbes: the new purveyor of pulp fiction

According to Forbes there as an evil plot afoot by Nazi, protectionist typesetters in Germany to undermine the ‘intellectual independence’ of America! Yes, Forbes, not or the Southern Baptist Defence League.


I tried to visualise this for a moment. Let’s say there is such a thing as a 14-year old who became a Nazi on the last day of the war and then went into the publishing business, that guy would now be 79 years old. So, I see an image of brown-shirted geriatrics clutching at their walking frames, to which they have tethered flags and banners bearing icons of printing presses and books, converging on some little square in Nuremberg to hear their leader, Adolf Buchbinder, croak a doctrine of spiking texbooks and novels with … ?

I confess I ran out of plausible and implausible plot twists for this script of The Booksellers from Brazil, so we have to turn to the original author of this fantastic conspiracy theory, Forbes’ own former editor, Eamonn Fingleton. He’s a man with such an impeccable résumé as a business author and journalist that he deserves to be considered, even if, on this occasion, I smell some Irish whisky on his breath.

What’s his contention? That ‘you might think that everything about Germany’s Nazi past has long since come out. You would be wrong.’ True. I suppose no one really knows what NSDAP party member 49367 had for breakfast on 24 July 1941. But if we’re talking about the atrocities in the screaming headline of Fingleton’s blog, it appears carelessly ahistorical to suggest that any part of the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany have been any kind of secret since the end of the 1940s. Perhaps what Fingleton is really suggesting is that it’s time to re-heat some of these cold crimes to serve … ?

We’ll get to that, but I’m struck by the reality that resort to accusations of Nazi war crimes today is almost like the anti-Semitism of the the pre-war world: you can make these accusations with impunity, to the detriment of people who cannot possibly defend themselves, but always in anticipation of a willing audience up for a good lynching. All Germans will be guilty forever, just like all Jews are eternally guilty of …

All the same, let’s re-heat these accusations of war crimes. Fingleton is after German publishing houses like Bertelsmann and Holtzbrinck, which he convicts of having used slave labour in Nazi Germany. Let’s call that a no contest. Now what? But that isn’t really Fingleton’s point. What he objects to is the audacity of German publishing houses to have acquired a large chunk of the global English-language publishing business.

So let’s look at the conspiracy theory from that angle. First, it is so unlikely that any German multinational would tolerate any kind of Nazi war criminal on its board or into its senior management ranks that ascribing guilt for atrocities to such people is absurd. All other categories of employees potentially guilty of war crimes are now so old they would have retired decades ago. But even if contemporary Germans did actually allow such a thing, Israel and the rest of the world would be screaming about it day and night until the guilty had been brought to trial – or killed.

That leaves ascribing the guilt to the organisation itself. It is true that in the US a legal doctrine exists which grants to corporations the status of a ‘natural person’, but it is also true that this doctrine is a legal contrivance to facilitate corporate corruption while sparing corporate officers any legal responsibility for the crimes they commit in the name of the organisation.

Moreover, it does not permit the corporation itself to be ‘punished’ by being disbanded or de-registered. Strangely enough, the natural person doctrine would actually clear anyone currently acting on behalf of a German publishing house of any crime committed under the name of the company, but of course that’s irrelevant, because American legal doctrine doesn’t have any standing in Germany (though I suspect some Americans would like it if the right to buy and own governments applied universally).

So, if we dispense with Fingleton’s muddled Nazi conspiracy theory for a moment, what’s left is sour grapes about German corporations pursuing and succeeding with another American doctrine, that of profit-driven globalised capitalism. It could be argued that this doctrine is the vehicle for many atrocities in itself, but it’s hardly a Nazi plot, and Fingleton doesn’t seem to have any objection if it is pursued successfully by American or British corporations.

Not so! Fingleton charges that the only reason those Nazi Germans have succeeded in brutally conquering taking over a good part of the global publishing business is because their own corporations are secured by unprincipled protectionism. His proof? A British partnership with Bertelsmann to publish a German language edition of the Financial Times failed financially in 2012. German guilt for this failure is established by Fingleton with the assertion that ‘it is probably fair to say that few members of the German establishment shed tears’.

Let’s give those damned Nazis Germans some lessons in weeping crocodile tears, I say! Maybe like the ones wept on Wall Street when they bankrupted almost the entire American middle class in 2008, and ever since. Or those shed in the City of London when they ruined middle class Britons in the same year, and frequently since.

Instead of making a clear case for dismantling protection as national policy, though, Fingleton just resumes the argument that mandatory but unspecified guilt for Nazi war crimes should disqualify German companies from operating legally in international business. I wonder whether Fingleton could still see his keyboard through the haze of ethanol fumes by the time he concocted this conclusion, which is actually an argument for protection, albeit to protect America from a non-existent Nazi German plot to use American economic policy to undermine … oh yes, America’s ‘intellectual independence’. An independence no doubt exemplified by Fingleton himself?

So, exactly how is American intellectual independence threatened? Has Bertelsmann launched a secret strategy to take over Hollywood and HBO? Is Holtzbrinck moving to acquire Amazon? Good heavens!

Surely the German typesetting and compositing league isn’t filling our textbooks and novels with their evil publishing propaganda! Why, that’s monstrous. And besides, it would require the Germans to bribe or otherwise control the authors of all those Anglophone books Fingleton is concerned about. Authors who are … American, Australian, British, Canadian, New Zealanders, and all the nationalities of non-Anglophone authors writing in, or translated into, English.

So this is really a global conspiracy, by a Methuselah brigades of Nazi war criminals, to dupe literally billions of people everywhere to … buy books written by authors from all over the world. That strikes me as an evil plot to undermine anti-intellectualism, not its opposite.

Having reached this point in Fingleton’s illogic, I was ready for some whisky myself (though I prefer the American kind of whiskey).

Is it possible that it is Fingleton, and what he represents about the Forbes business model, that is actually the only threat to intellectual anything, and even then only as an insignificant, remote annoyance?

Since the 2000s Forbes has been suffering declining profits, failing to find a buyer at the monstrously overstated value of $400 million, probably because independent valuation found it to be worth less than five per cent of that sum.

Its formula for compiling lists, and promoting idiotic ‘listicles’ was more often talked about than read, and is now neither. So it opened the door to paid advertorials posing as business articles, and even blogs by any comers prepared to share revenue from online advertising their blogs generated. These are accountancy-driven, profit-focused strategies that have nothing at all to do with journalism, ethics, or anything resembling intellectual independence. In that context it is almost gratifying that Forbes‘ readership is in free-fall, indicating a generally more sound state of intellectual independence in the USA than Fingleton would have us believe.

He is no more than a blogger himself these days, and his own website lists his current occupation as writing a book on the decline of the USA. As a former high priest of the 1980s rapine-and-pillage style of capitalism emanating from Wall Street and the City of London, Fingleton has little grounds for now excoriating it when it doesn’t suit his personal xenophobic prejudices, except of course if the aim is self-promotion among fellow xenophobes, or to cry into his bottle about … maybe being refused a sizable advance for his next book by some ingrate German publishing cartel?

I don’t usually read Forbes. It’s just a little too unreliable and down-market, filled with too much demonstrable nonsense for my liking, but I am happy to drop the link here to help fund some more shots of Irish whisky for Fingleton – if his blog income runs to such largesse.

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