About seventy pages in I stopped reading the biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Titan by Ron Chernow. The reason is simple: it is unadulteratedly sycophantic and the otherwise shoddy research and analysis.
The precise moment I quit was when Rockefeller proposed. Chernow said, “One imagines the two of them smilingly shyly with relief.”
No, Ron, one doesn’t. Because you’re writing history, not fiction, and there are a lot of explanations why it might have taken Rockefeller so long to propose – ranging from profound social awkwardness to homosexuality, for instance. Maybe the reason why Rocky took SEVEN YEARS to propose is that he. . . wasn’t interested in women. Which, admittedly, might make him smile in relief, but not for the reason you mention, but because his beard agreed to it. And if we’re just imagining things, why not imagine that he was gay? BECAUSE IT ISN’T HISTORY WITHOUT RESEARCH. You don’t just get to “imagine” things!
Of course, this is the same guy who did not discuss the possibility that the reason Rockefeller avoided the Civil War, which started when he was a young man, was cowardice. But, later on, when Rockefeller doesn’t give into a bully, Chernow is quick to attribute Rockefeller with bravery. Like it’s some great feat to tell someone yelling at you in your place of business to fuck off!
He also quotes several times even in the first seventy pages, the “philosopher” Max Weber. Weber’s contributions to philosophy are racist and sexist – and as one of the founders of sociology, his racism and sexism would cast a long, fascist shadow.
In particular, Chernow is obsessed with Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I have no fucking idea why Chernow would quote this book during the early years of Rockefeller’s life, given that it was published in 1905 and not 1955, except that Chernow is a terrible historian. Chernow also gives no indication whatsoever that Weber ever influenced Rockefeller, or even that Rockefeller was aware of the German philosopher.
From the start, Weber’s work was also highly controversial, even in theological circles. Immediate critiques flowed in from Catholic and atheist Germans who were less than impressed by Weber’s “reasoning.” And, of course, there were a lot of German philosophers in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Why not discuss Schopenauer, Hegel, Marx, or Nietzsche? Of all the German philosophers to pull, why Weber?
Because Weber provides an intellectual-sounding rationalization which casts Rockefeller’s greed in a positive light. Rockefeller was successful because of his Baptist theology which created virtue, and (Chernow repeats this) teaches that wealth is gained to be a steward of God’s creation. Bringing up those other Germans would reinforce the possibility that Rockefeller was aware of his greed and how ethically atrocious it was, and how charity is a poor substitute for political action.
Lastly, while Weber is still highly regarded in sociology, his works are intensely racist. The Protestant Work Ethic is an ideal example of this. Weber took the previous century of human existence, and his feelings about it, as “proof” that Protestants work harder than other people, and it is from their hard work that wealth is created. It ignores, of course, the effects of colonialization perpetrated by Protestant nations, including Germany, but especially England. It also ignored poorer Protestant nations, particularly Scandinavian countries, in the 19th century – that wealth was created along the lines of conquest and colonization rather than religious background.
Of course, it also ignores that the origins of capitalism arose not in Britain, but in Renaissance Italy and that for centuries before the Industrial Revolution, it had been Catholic nations that were economical, politically, and culturally dominant. And, of course, it ignores that the reason industrialization happened more in Northern Europe than in Southern Europe were the easily accessed coal in England, Scotland, and Germany, as well as the captured markets created by European colonization.
I could go on in this vein for a while, of course, but suffice it to say that Weber twisted history in racist ways to prove his “point.” And as I have said before, and I’m sure I’ll say again, if you have to go on a campaign of wholesale lying to prove your point, you don’t have one.
In the context of Titan, then, one would ask what any of this has to do with Rockefeller? The answer is simple: nothing, other than a reason for Chernow to get down on his knees and shove his tongue up Rockefeller’s anus. By repeatedly returning to Weber, Chernow can create a facile intellectual argument that Rockefeller wasn’t just a grasping, greedy sonofabitch, but motivated by ethics. Which is why Weber comes up half a dozen times in the first seventy pages – every time Rockefeller does something sketchy, Chernow drags out Weber’s corpse to say we shouldn’t be too hard on the old boy. I found this sycophancy disgusting and intellectually dishonest.
If one looks at Weber’s other religious works, this bias becomes more evident. In his book on Protestants and capitalism, Weber focuses on the 16th century forward. In Weber’s The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism, he primarily looks at ancient Chinese history. Which conveniently ignores having to face the troubling aspects of European colonialism in China, such as the British engaging in a policy of addicting China to opium, which was highly relevant at the time Weber was writing. (The Boxer Rebellion was in 1899, whose origins were the Opium Wars.)
It is highly interesting today, a century later, because no one in their right fucking mind would say that the Chinese suck at capitalism or that they don’t work like rented mules. Weber rationalized the present economic domination by Protestant nations in a simple, ahistorical, and inherently deceptive way. Confucianism and Taoism did not stand in the way of economic development! Most most of human history, China has been a powerhouse of trade, industry, and technological progress, as well as good government. But rather than look at why China, in 1920, was “the weak man of Asia,” after literally thousands of years of cultural, military, and economic dominance of the greater portion of humanity, Weber studied things that happened literally thousands of years ago and drew the Hegelian conclusion that China was “frozen” in development. It is teeth-grindingly racist, and Chernow embraced him to “demonstrate” the benevolence of Rockefeller – which is depraved, and demonstrates how poor Chernow’s research was and that his analysis was worse.
And time and again, Chernow characterizes Rockefeller in a positive light, offering only flattering portrayals. So Rockefeller avoiding the Civil War was not cowardice, even though Chernow stresses that Rockefeller was an abolitionist, but guided by his desire to serve God by making money, so he could be a steward of wealth to help people. Just ask Max Weber.
When Rockefeller went behind his partners’ backs to set up funding and then dissolved the company without consulting them, this is not characterized by Chernow as a slimy, borderline illegal business practice, but a sign of his vision and adamantine will that viewed things on a longer timeline than us ordinary mortals. (This kind of language about Rockefeller’s “vision” being above us normal folks is everywhere in Titan, even though in my previous review I covered how Rockefeller stumbled into the oil business through coincidence, not vision.)
When Rockefeller overexposed himself by buying the business from his partners, it is again described as will and vision – not happenstance. In retrospect, we know that oil becomes the biggest business in the world, but at the time there was no reason to think that. The oil vanished in Western Pennsylvania very quickly, and there had been no other discoveries. But in Chernow’s farcical world, this happenstance is “vision.” If the oil had vanished in Pennsylvania just a year or two sooner than it did, Rockefeller’s financial overexposure when buying out his partner’s refinery would have spelled doom. But there is simply no acknowledgment that Rockefeller got lucky, that Rockefeller had no fact-based reason to overextend himself buying the refinery, or fact-based reason to think that the oil would last.
At any rate, the book is terrible. When Chernow wanted us to imagine what might have happened when Rockefeller proposed, though, it veered from simply bad analysis and writing to outright fiction.
But there’s always another book about a rich asshole being written, and hopefully, my research into the Johnson & Johnson dynasty will go better.