Bookshop Memories: The Liberty Lobby

(Another installment of Alan Bisbort’s bookselling memoir.)

Because our bookshop was located within eyeshot of the U.S. Capitol’s snow-white dome, we still retained some guilt by association with the political world. You had to walk to the corner and then look eight blocks west to see the dome, but nonetheless its magical aura enfolded us too. As tempting as it may have been, we could not bury our heads in the sands, burrow deeper inside our antiquarian world and hope to stay in business. This was simply not possible in Washington, D.C., at least not in the middle of the Reagan-Gingrich Revolution.

Though politics and civics were two of the shop’s weaker subject areas, we were occasionally visited by politicos and lobbyists brave or absent-minded enough to venture into the less-traveled (and more feared) zones of the District of Columbia. Often, they were on their lunch breaks and, having wandered a street or two too far, stumbled onto the shop by accident. Most of these visitors had not, previously, known we existed. And few of them ever returned.

Among this group of political animals, one critter stood out. He was a resident expert—perhaps the resident expert—at the Liberty Lobby, a far-right-wing organization about which I knew little beyond what this fellow suggested it must be like.

His name was John Tiffany, and he was, despite the name, neither delicate nor colorful, nor was he in any way illuminating. He always seemed to be wearing the same flannel shirt. He sported a sort of whisk-broom moustache that he must have fancied was manly—an antidote, no doubt, to all the feminists and lesbians who held court hereabouts and made men like John Tiffany nervous. He was one of the few people I had ever seen who employed a pocket protector, inside which were housed the tools of his trade as a writer of political and historical spin. And he was tongue-tied, floor-gazing, completely at a loss in any one-on-one human encounter.

I tolerated Tiffany’s eccentricities because he was a good customer. He came by the shop at least once a week, and he always bought a book or two. We rarely exchanged more than a few words because he seldom looked me, or anyone, in the eyes and seemed uncomfortable holding a simple conversation. Sometimes I got the impression that he bought something, anything—a shopworn paperback for fifty cents—to spare himself the awkwardness of walking empty-handed past the front counter, where I sat like some judge in a Kafka story.

Still, I also found myself wishing we had ten more customers like John Tiffany, those who came by, said nothing and bought books.

Tiffany’s political extremism was unknown to me or perhaps he made an effort to keep it under wraps, because I could discern no thematic pattern to his purchases—mostly American history and science fiction, as I recall.

However, he displayed his true colors on one memorable visit to the shop. This time, he took the unusual step of initiating a conversation. That is, he had a particular subject about which he wanted to inquire. With a nervous smile, he asked if we had any books on slavery in the United States. Because one of the shop’s specialty areas was African-American history—the renowned scholar Henry Louis Gates and the Beat Generation poet Ted Joans had each paid the shop a visit because of this reputation—we did in fact have a sizeable selection of books on that very topic. I led Tiffany back to the African-American section and pointed to the shelves where books on slavery might be found. He thanked me and I returned to my perch at the front counter.

He followed five minutes later, shaking his head.

“You didn’t find anything to interest you?” I queried helpfully.

“No, no…they’re all books about the evils of slavery…and…”

”Yes, that would be true, as slavery was an evil institution.”

“I am more interested in any books that offered an alternative view of slavery.”

“Do such books exist? I’m not certain an author would have enough material to work with to write a full book on slavery’s silver linings,” I said, not trying to be a wiseass, necessarily, but sort of treading conversational waters until I could catch Tiffany’s peculiar drift.

“Oh yes they would….yes they would,” he backpedaled, smiling his nervous smile. His lower jaw emerged as he prepared to orate on a subject about which he clearly fancied himself an expert. At that moment, he resembled a lumberjack bulldog trying to wrap his jaw around a large greasy bone.

“The Negro was protected by the plantation owners,” he began. “And they would have perished had they been left on their own, as inferior beings.”

The “Negro”? I was under the impression this word stopped being used in 1964.

“Yes,” I provoked him. “The Negro got three squares a day and all the buck-dancin’ he could ‘twixt plantin’ and fornicatin’, is that what you’re saying?”

“That’s right, that’s right,” said Tiffany, as if this were a perfectly normal conversation and not one that would have gotten both of us murdered were any black Washingtonian with an attitude and a handgun within earshot.

“Ah, I see, the plantation was sort of like an upscale prison,” I said, rising from my chair like an associate professor of creationism at a Bible college in Kane-Tuck-Eee. “What are all those inmates down at Lorton [the federal prison nearest Washington, D.C.] complainin’ about? They got it easy compared to the rest of us white folks who have to work for a living in this godless, political-correct city where you can’t use words like nigger and coon anymore.”

“No…no, you’re twisting my point…”

“I tell you what, Mr. Tiffany, if we get any books like that in stock, I’ll give you a holler.”

“OK, thanks…”

“Or maybe you should write that book,” I said, affecting what I thought was a facetious tone.

“Maybe I will,” he said, staring at the floor. “But for now I just want to buy this book.”

Tiffany placed on the counter a science fiction paperback whose cover pictured a rocket-ship hurtling toward a green planet in a far distant galaxy. He handed me two 1-dollar bills, and I let him walk without paying the 12 cents sales tax.

Because he was the sort of fellow who did not seem to bear grudges, Tiffany returned frequently after that, to browse and purchase. He seemed to enjoy the fact that I’d offered some resistance to his delusions about slavery, and he was always nothing but congenial, in an oddly formal way, with me.

What the hey, I thought whenever he left the shop, Tiffany is no nuttier than most people who pester me on a daily basis. At least he bought books, which is more than could be said for the rest of them and, outside of that one visit in which he sought the pro-slavery material, he kept his retrograde political views to himself.

I still had no idea what the Liberty Lobby—located on the far fringes of Capitol Hill four blocks from the bookshop—stood for or against, nor did I particularly care. The Reagan-Gingrich Revolution had beaten what few political impulses I possessed out of me. But, if John Tiffany were its typical representative, the lobby must have been a pack of raving loons. Harmless enough, I figured, but real bull-goose loonies, as R.P. McMurphy might have put it.

Only later did I learn that John Tiffany and his kook-kluk-klan were dangerously misguided fools. The head of the Liberty Lobby, Willis A. Carto, was a leading underwriter of Holocaust denial literature. The wealthy Carto indulged his taste for neo-fascist ideas by publishing The Spotlight newspaper and ran Noontide Press, which specialized in Holocaust denial tracts. He built his theories upon the soil that had been turned by isolationist historians like Charles Beard and Harry Elmer Barnes, both of whom vociferously opposed U.S. “intervention” in World War II and then, during the war and after, downplayed the crimes against humanity committed by Hitler and Mussolini, thus setting a precedent for Holocaust denial literature that continues to proliferate today.

It gave me chills in retrospect when I realized Carto must have personally sent Tiffany on these bull-goose-loony quests for books about the good side of slavery or eugenics, and titles by Beard and Barnes. Though Tiffany was largely a self-educated hobbyist at historical revisionism, the Liberty Lobby’s “star” was the aptly-named A.R. Butz, a Northwestern University professor whose 1976 book The Hoax of the Twentieth Century was a key Holocaust denial text. In 1978, Carto founded the Institute of Historical Review (IHR), which claimed to be “devoted to truth and accuracy in history.” The group, however, was fixated on the Holocaust. Many of its sanctioned publications purported that the Holocaust was a “hoax perpetrated on the world by Zionists and other supporters of the State of Israel.”

Gitta Sereny, the historian who cut Albert Speer down to size in her book Albert Speer: His Battle With the Truth, noted that Holocaust deniers are “by no means motivated by an ethical or intellectual preoccupation with the historical truth, but rather by precise political aims for the future.” In short, it mattered little whether Tiffany’s or Carto’s professed “devotion to truth and accuracy in history” attracted a wide audience; the main priority was the present-day anti-Semitic agenda. Such forays into history, then, were, said Sereny, attempts to legitimize their prejudices.

Among the Liberty Lobby titles that have caused a furor in academic, political and clerical circles was Fred Leuchter’s Forensic Examination and Engineering Report on the alleged gassing facilities at Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Majdanek (a.k.a. The Leuchter Report), the widely debunked “scientific” study that many Holocaust deniers cite as “proof” that extermination camps were a myth. The Leuchter Report was basis for Erroll Morris’s 1999 documentary Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. Tiffany and Leuchter even looked a little like each other.

The Liberty Lobby disbanded in 2001.

Lest anyone shed tears for John Tiffany, whose work I had unwittingly assisted, he later landed on his feet as editor of The Barnes Report, another Carto-funded Washington D.C.-based enterprise. This journal served as a forum for such topics as “What If Hitler Had Won World War II,” and featured musing by the “last surviving Waffen SS officer,” and “Adolf Hitler: An Overlooked Candidate for the Nobel Prize,” the thesis of which is, “If anyone deserved the Nobel Peace Prize, it was Adolf Hitler. Hitler did not want war. World War II was forced on Germany.” Tiffany’s journal also sanctioned books like No Beauty in the Beast: Israel Without Her Mascara as well as a number of separate titles devoted to individual Nazi concentration camps (e.g., Treblinka, Majdanek, Belsen, etc.) that “proved” they were not organized to exterminate the Jews but to offer them holidays, with spa-like amenities such as hot showers, good hearty exercise and strict diets, something to that effect.

An Internet search unearthed a piece about John Tiffany by the Anglo-Irish journalist Nick Ryan. I include an excerpt here, because it was nice to learn that my initial impressions of this otherwise seemingly harmless goofball proved correct.

In 2004, Ryan wrote:

I encountered John Tiffany, a long-haired Celtic fanatic in his mid-50s and self-educated historian. He edited the Barnes Review magazine…one of the bibles of the Revisionist movement. For many years it has been controlled behind the scenes by Willis Carto, a notorious figure on the far right and founder of the Liberty Lobby…The Barnes Review not only publishes magazines, it also organizes various conferences and it was at one of these that I met Tiffany. A nervous, mumbling speaker, Tiffany explained: “We’re oriented towards the white race and the Germanic peoples and the Celtic peoples, primarily. We think that every race should have pride in its heritage.” When I met him he was wearing an Irish kilt. He then described how he had got into this field via the anti-tax movement in the US. “I thought income tax was unconstitutional, Marxist and so forth, and for various reasons did not apply to the working American.” Later he added by way of explanation: “I have a compulsion, ah, to correct things that I see wrong in writing. I always have my pencil out when I’m reading anything. I always mark things up.”

Talking with him was a very matter-of-fact, mundane experience. He seemed nothing other than a slightly eccentric scholar. “It’s a fascinating thing history,” he said, as we spoke inside the sweltering Liberty Lobby offices. “You’re always finding out new things. The great thing about history is that it tells you how you got where you are. And also we can learn from the mistakes of the past and try not to repeat them in the future. For example, why did we have World War II when we’d already had World War I? Didn’t we learn our lesson then?” “Hu-huh,” he laughed contemptuously, and rhetorically. “Obviously not.”

I asked him what ‘historical revisionism’ meant. “Well, it sort of goes back to Harry Elmer Barnes, who was our patron saint,” he answered. “He was the founder and our namesake, the inspiration for our magazine. He wrote about the causes of World War I and basically said contrary to the Establishment, it wasn’t all the Germans’ fault. History is being written by the victors, so all we hear about is the evil Germans,” he felt, his voice passionate.

“A large part of our thrust is towards correcting the ‘evil Germans’ image, the ‘German Hun’, where the Establishment not only blames them for World War I but World War II, claiming they wanted to exterminate the Jewish ‘people’ and other various peoples. And this Jewish Holocaust thing, it’s become a cult in this country in particular. We call it sometimes ‘Holocaustiantiy’, a religion of Holocaust. An industry, ‘Shoah business’. But it is a kind of cult, in that it’s become this religious dogma where you can’t really question any aspect of it or else you’re considered a heretic and should be burned at the stake. That’s what we are,” he laughed, “we’re the heretics. We question everything: things that appear to be illogical, untrue or contradictory.”

Echoing what Tiffany told Ryan, one of the books listed on the Web site of the Barnes Review, and which they highly recommend, is March of the Titans: A History of the White Race. The catalog description, no doubt enthusiastically penned by John Tiffany himself, is:

The author, Arthur Kemp, took several decades to compile this massive and copiously illustrated volume on the history of the white race presented from a white man’s perspective. This is an expansive, well-written and beautifully presented volume which would make a meaningful gift for anyone who is tired of seeing the white race ignored, trampled upon, denigrated and defamed.

No, John Tiffany, with your pocket protector and Irish kilt, no black man will ever ignore you. He may, however, trample upon you.

As far as I know, John Tiffany has yet to write that book about the good side of slavery.

4 Responses

  1. I don’t understand the right
    I don’t understand the right wing in the US. Are they descendants of the Puritans? I’m thinking of starting a reseach project into when and where these extreme conservative groups started, and what their motivation is. I suspect it’s racism, but I need to do the research first.

  2. A good read:
    “The great

    A good read:

    “The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy died one hundred years ago on November 20, 1910. Although eulogized by many writers, one of the best tributes to Tolstoy came two years before his death when Leon Trotsky wrote this article on Tolstoy’s eightieth birthday. It was first published in German in Die Neue Zeit on September 18, 1908; then in a Russian translation in Volume 20 of Trotsky’s Works in 1926; and finally in an English translation by John G. Wright in the journal Fourth International in May-June 1951 under the title, “Tolstoy, Poet and Rebel.” Minor revisions have been made to the original English translation. Several of the endnotes have been adapted from the 1926 Russian edition.”

  3. The sheer dumb-assery of
    The sheer dumb-assery of thinking there’s a good side to slavery. ..

    The sad thing is that most Germans, Americans, and Japanese people aren’t evil, but we are like sheep, following governments that veer into evil all too often.

  4. I agree Bill. For some reason
    I agree Bill. For some reason people follow these demogogues like sheep, never questioning the veracity of what they say – just taking it as truth without question. Is it a cultural thing?

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