a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

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Book, movie, or other review

Bye bye to all that: Roadrunner, ‘Just Drive,’ and 20th century America

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 31st August 2010

Late last week we ended a wonderful stay in Maine, one where a quiet lake, the company of family, the calls of loons, the cracks of lobster shells, and the splash of kayak paddles were the dominant experiences of lazy days.

We returned, however, by driving straight home — in a minor family legend of a road trip that took sixteen hours to complete. The traffic wasn’t bad, but it took a little longer than anticipated, and it’s just a long, long way.  As time wore on, dusk turned to night, we found ourselves in the seemingly endless urban plain of New Jersey with a blur of highway stops, gas stations, exits, and a slow flux of neighboring cars and trucks to keep us company.  We talked, planned, argued, listened to music, read, drove.  And drove.  And drove.

And while we certainly weren’t on a quiet lake in Maine any more, there was a certain familiar but usually overlooked beauty to this, too: streams of red tail lights ahead, oncoming streams of white headlights, the rush of buildings, bridges, signs and overpasses, a giant civilization all around.

“Just Drive 2: New Mexico – New York,” YouTube video uploaded by ‘heraldstreet’, whose
description is “driving across america in 1995 with a super-8 and the radio. music by
jonathan richman and the modern lovers. pretty well unedited.”

More than 30 years ago, Jonathan Richman captured some of that in the underground rock anthem “Roadrunner” — one of his first recordings.*  While the exact lyrics could vary from performance to performance, the gist was that there is a beauty in the experience of … driving through the suburban sprawl around Boston Richman called home, at high speed and with the radio on:

I’m in love with the modern world
I drive alone when it’s late at night
I wanna hear now, the modern sound
so I won’t feel alone at night
I mean I’m in love with the modern world […]

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How the Lost Cause was won

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 8th May 2010

Race and Reunion, David Blight, 2001
Harvard University Press

With the end of April came also the end, for this year at least, of “Confederate History Month,” unfortunately resuscitated by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell after a long dormancy under the previous two governors.  Amidst an outcry that apparently surprised the Regent University law graduate, McDonnell hastily reworded his proclamation with a grudging nod to the impropriety of slavery and the possible existence of other points of view on the matter of a rebellion leading to the country’s bloodiest war.

One might reasonably ask why there are no  “Union History Month” or “Victory over Treason and Slavery” celebrations — and that, more or less, is what David Blight did in his book “Race and Reunion,” published in 2001.  Covering the period from the Emancipation Proclamation to the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg — and the release of the notorious film “Birth of a Nation” — it’s a fascinating read.  It’s also  — still, going on ten years later — a useful, jolting reminder of just what was lost as remembering the Civil War became more about rehashing every last engagement, and about getting over it, past it, and around it, than about reflecting why it happened — let alone reflecting on the unfinished business of the human and civil rights of black Americans.

Click above to order this
book or others by Blight.

Reconciliation — on southern terms
Blight’s research led him to soldiers’ remembrances in periodicals of the time such as Century and Harper’s; to the annals and publications of the Southern Historical Society and the Confederate Veteran, and to the schedules and membership rolls of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  But he also paid attention to the writings and speeches of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B DuBois, the short stories of Ambrose Bierce, and the novels of the unjustly forgotten Albert Tourgee (“only fools forget the causes of war”) or Nelson De Forest — as well as the celebration of Klan terror by authors like Thomas Dixon, Jr, or the perhaps more insidious romanticization of the antebellum South by authors like Thomas Nelson Page or Joel Chandler Harris (“Uncle Remus”).

The book tells stories you’ve still almost certainly never heard before: the first Memorial  Day (that is, “Decoration” Day) — held by black Charlestonians to honor and restore the graveyard of Union prisoners of war on the site of the city’s “Race Course,” now Hampton Park; the unveiling of Richmond memorials to Robert E. Lee in 1896, and to Stonewall Jackson in 1875; the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895, when Booker T. Washington gave his “Atlanta Compromise” speech — widely acclaimed at the time, but half wishful thinking, half sadly understandable surrender; the fiftieth anniversary of Gettysburg, but with blacks in attendance only as blanket distributors and latrine cleaners.*  The Washington Post — apparently already a runaway gusher of idiotic political commentary —  marked that occasion by noting that slavery and secession were “no longer discussed argumentatively,” but were “disposed of for all time“; moreover, slavery was something for which “no particular part of the people was responsible unless, indeed, the burden of responsibility should be shouldered by the North for its introduction” (emphasis added by Blight.)

What had happened by 1913 was a “Lost Cause” regional movement as potent, committed, and persistent as the abolition movement had been.  What’s more, it arguably had a greater reach (at least within the U.S.), in that ex-Confederates could and did safely peddle their redefinition — for that’s what it was — of the causes and legacy of the Civil War throughout the country, for good money and to plentiful applause.

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“Law and the Long War,” by Benjamin Wittes – a blog discussion

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th September 2009

Click the image to
place an order for
this book with
Powell’s Books.

This post announces an ambitious and possibly quixotic effort — the attempt of a legal layperson like myself to launch and carry on a discussion about Benjamin Wittes’ “Law and the Long War: The Future of Justice in the Age of Terror,” published in 2008.

Luckily, I’ll be joined in this discussion by my friend “The Talking Dog,” whose legal acumen and training — as well as self-deprecating wit and engaging writing — are always in evidence at his blog of the same name.  “TD’s” interviews of lawyers, policy makers, human rights leaders (most recently with NYU’s Karen Greenberg), and even Guantanamo detainees have been genuine journalism, and are among the finest things the American blogosphere has produced.

Our plan is to take the book chapter by chapter, at no precise schedule other than to take the chapters in sequence.  We hope readers will check Wittes’ book out from the library, borrow it from a friend, or buy a copy for themselves, so they can read along with us and join the discussions we hope for.

We’ve tentatively decided to divide the chapters up as follows:

Announcements – here at newsrackblog and the talking dog
Introduction – discussions at both newsrackblog and the talking dog
Chapter 1.  The Law of September 10 – discussion here at newsrackblog
Chapter 2.  The Administration’s Response – discussion at talking dog
Chapter 3.  The Real Guantanamo – discussion at the talking dog
Chapter 4.  The Necessity and Impossibility of Judicial Review – discussion here at newsrackblog
Chapter 5.  The Case for Congress – discussion here at newsrackblog
Chapter 6.  The Twin Problems of Detention and Trial – discussion at the talking dog
Chapter 7.  An Honest Interrogation Law – discussion at the talking dog
Chapter 8.  Surveillance Law for a New Century – discussion here at newsrackblog
Conclusion – discussions both at newsrackblog and the talking dog

To leave some time for readers to join in (and for me, at least, to gather my thoughts), our first posts about Wittes’ introduction will be sometime around the middle of next week.  At this blog, this post will serve as one “home page” for the overall effort, and the outline above will link to each post as it is written.  We’ll also try to provide “prior chapter” and “next chapter” and other useful navigational links within each post, time permitting.


Why is this worth doing?  I’m tempted to simply answer: what could be more important?  Whether it’s always clear or not, our lives and our rights are both at risk.  We have to evaluate those risks, and decide what to do about them.

For my part, though, this is also partly just an attempt to become more “fluent” in the legal underpinnings of the debates about the habeas corpus and other human rights of detainees, the costs and benefits of the expansion of executive powers,  and the conduct of international relations and military force in this so-called “long war” of ours.

There are also more immediate reasons to do so: Wittes and his book have proved quite influential, perhaps especially of late.  On its publication, the book merited extended discussion at numerous legal blogs, and gained respectful and often warm reviews in the popular media and the academic press.

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Love them while you can: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 31st August 2009

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

— from “Gilead,” by Marilynne Robinson

“Gilead” is that all too rare thing — a beautifully written, absorbing work of fiction written in the voice of a genuinely and believably good man.  The narrator is John Ames, a preacher in the town of Gilead, Iowa, in the late 1950s; though nearing seventy, he has married late and has one young child, to whom he dedicates a journal of what he suspects are his final months of life.

As the passage above suggests, Ames’s writings are also more than that: a vessel for reflection on what matters in life.  The “balm of Gilead” is a biblical reference that even I’m aware of, but it isn’t necessary to be immersed in Christian lore per se, or even to be a casual believer, to be moved to reflection and emotion by Robinson’s writing and Ames’s character.

I write “per se” above because this nation’s own particular “Troy Tale”, the Civil War, also looms throughout the memoir, (many of Ames’s recollections revolve around the John Brown-like figure of his grandfather, who fights in Kansas and later loses an eye in the war itself), and I join writers from Noll to Lincoln in locating an American theology derived from that.  The narrator explains and frames his father’s views here:

My father said when he walked into his father’s church after they came back from the army the first thing he saw was a piece of needlework hanging on the wall above the communion table.  It was very beautifully done, flowers and flames surrounding the words “The Lord Our God Is a Purifying Fire.”  I suppose that’s why I always think of my grandfather’s church as the one struck by lightning.  As in fact it was.

My father said it was that banner that had sent him off to sit with the Quakers.  He said the very last word he would have applied to war, once he had had a good look at it, was “purifying,” and the thought that those women could believe the world was in any way purer for the loss of their own sons and husbands was appalling to him.  He stood there looking at it, visibly displeased by it, apparently, because one of the women said to him, “It’s just a bit of Scripture.”

He said, “I beg your pardon, ma’am.  No that is not Scripture.”

“Well,” she said, “then it certainly ought to be.”

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So say we all

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 20th March 2009

Elsewhere, elsewhen, elsehow: succession
after tragedy — one real, one retold.

Sources: public domain, BSG, respectively.

It was no doubt unfair of me, but I never watched the original “Battlestar Galactica” series except by accident — probably mainly because of the low quality special effects, the somehow unforgiveable Lorne Greene, and the assorted blow-dried people around him.

So I’m late to the Battlestar Galactica (“BSG” in fanspeak) party, having just begun watching episodes maybe a year and a half ago or so.  But I’ve made up for that in fascination ever since and can report (somewhat abashedly) that I’m now only one episode off the pace as the season and series finale approaches tonight.  For those who aren’t familiar with the series: if you have a science fiction bone in your body, this series has — at its best — been very, very, very good: better than any of the Treks, Star Wars or “Alien” stories, series, worlds, call them what you will.  And if you don’t or won’t consider science fiction, either (a) so much the worse for you or (b) give it a look someday; it won’t bite, you won’t regret it.

The premise is a kind of starfaring Aeneid: an interplanetary human civilization living elsewhen, elsewhere, and perhaps else-universe is attacked and all but wiped out in a multiplanet, nuclear Pearl Harbor, by robots they once created and called Cylons.  The aging “battlestar” Galactica — a kind of interstellar aircraft carrier with interiors that almost smell like grease, rust, and seared metal — is the only major warship around to escape destruction.  It gathers other surviving spacecraft and all execute the first of many coordinated interstellar, speed of light “jumps” away from danger.

Only several tens of thousands have survived aboard the proverbial “ragtag” civilian fleet of ships.  Laura Roslin, the senior surviving member of the government, is sworn in as president — in a scene designed to evoke LBJ’s swearing in aboard Air Force One forty-five years ago.

But it’s the echoes of loss and rage from a more recent “where were you when” event that gave the series its initial impact.  Makeshift photo memorials of the dead are fashioned on the walls of the battleship; since some Cylons are indistinguishable from humans, everyone is potentially the enemy; since that enemy is “armed with indifference to its own mortality,” * it is feared and hated all the more.  In a “making of” video, Executive Producer David Eick explains:

It was December 2001, and the fall of the towers was still a fresh, bleeding wound in everyone’s gut, and so much of what had happened and what was being discussed and the way the country was shifting was at the very DNA level of the creation of the show.  If it was 1995, and the economy was healthy, and we weren’t really at war with anyone, I think it would have been a very different show.

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Book Review: Among the Dead Cities, A.C. Grayling

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th June 2008

Among the Dead Cities, A.C. GraylingThis is a scrupulous and ultimately devastating indictment of the British RAF bombing campaign in Europe and the USAAF one in Japan during World War II. These so-called “area” or (at least in Grayling’s book) “strategic” bombing campaigns had the purpose of creating maximum deaths among citizens of the enemy nation, and of thereby breaking the will and ability to continue supporting their nation’s war effort.

Grayling contrasts these campaigns with so-called “precision bombing” attacks — however inaccurate such bombing often was in practice. Examples of the latter include the RAF’s dam-buster or Peenemunde rocket production facility attacks, the USAAF’s attacks on Schweinfurt ball bearing plants, or similarly motivated and targeted attacks on oil and gas production facilities such as those at Leuna or Ploesti.

Instead, Grayling focuses especially on “Operation Gomorrah”, the mid-1943 attacks on Hamburg, as a hard case in that the war was not yet won as it arguably was in the more famous cases of Dresden, Hiroshima, or Nagasaki. Grayling finds (and rightly, in my view) that “Gomorrah” served no useful purpose and was immoral, conducted with a view simply to maximum casualties and destruction of civilian infrastructure.* The bombing raid and ones like it may well have qualified as a war crime even by standards prevailing before and after the war (including those employed at the Nuremberg trials).

Grayling conveys some of the horror and terror of that attack — streetcar glass melting, follow-on bomber crews able to feel the heat from the first attacks in their planes, at least 45,000 dead. (While Grayling draws on many sources, including W. G. Sebald’s famous “On the Natural History of Destruction,” one eyewitness account — “Der Untergang”,** by Hans-Erich Nossack — is an understated classic in its own right.) It should be noted that Grayling explicitly judges the Holocaust to be worse, but adds that has no bearing on whether “Gomorrah” and similar raids were crimes.

Not all of Grayling’s arguments are fully convincing, but to his credit he always considers and evaluates counterarguments. In the main example of this, he argues that morale was if anything hardened and war production was unaffected by area bombing. Yet he also notes that the German war economy had plentiful slave labor and had plundered Europe for raw materials, machinery, and production.*** To employ the kind of analogy Grayling frequently does, if the Nazis devised a machine that repaired factories and fed refugees, but was fueled by concentration camp corpses, would this “success” invalidate attacking those factories and cities? I’m unpersuaded in this respect; the case against “area bombing” ultimately isn’t one of efficacy, but of proportion and humanity.

Yet even by the RAF’s lights, Grayling is right to consider the pragmatic military arguments for and against area bombing; a staggering 55,000 RAF bomber crew members lost their lives in the campaign. Grayling disposes effectively of another argument — the diversion of military manpower and materiel (esp. the feared dual antitank/antiaircraft “88s”) to antiaircraft duty within Germany — by pointing out the same diversion would have happened for a “precision” bombing strategy focused on war industries.

As Grayling points out, this debate is far from academic or “merely” historical. US military doctrine still holds that economic (not merely military industrial) targets are fair game in war, and that weakening enemy civilian morale is a valid strategic goal of bombing. Both postulates appear to contravene elements of newer Geneva Conventions to which the US is not a signatory — but to which much the rest of the world is. Attacks on civilian targets, or undiscriminating attacks to which too many civilians will fall victim, may also be among the indictments of some US actions in Iraq, such as in Fallujah or Sadr City (quite aside from the necessity of the Iraq war in the first place). But those will be the topics of a different book.


* Bomb payloads were calibrated to cause firestorms (hurricane-force winds caused by combined fires, incinerating and suffocating whole city neighborhoods) by inclusion of incendiary devices — and by the inclusion of delayed action bombs calculated to injure or kill firefighters. A version of the latter “one-two punch” tactic was also adopted by some terrorist suicide bomber team attacks in Israel and elsewhere.
** The title of Nossack’s book has been translated as “The End” in English editions. Fair enough, but the word is more complex than that; the literal meaning is “under going,” and Nossack uses it the way it is generally used: for the sinking of a great ship.
*** The explanation Grayling seems to prefer for the puzzling increases in German wartime production was that the Nazi command economy may have had a good deal of slack — room for efficiency improvements — before the war.

NOTE: This review was adapted and expanded from a version published to “Visual Bookshelf”/ReadingSocial; however, I may do more with LibraryThing as I figure out ways to integrate that here.
EDIT, 6/18: “(While Grayling draws…” sentence and ref. to 2d footnote added. Thanks, Nell.

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Book tag: Shock Doctrine, Arsenals of Folly

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 5th March 2008

Having answered Jim Henley‘s call, Nell Lancaster has graciously tagged me, Gary Farber, and JanInSanFran with the task of supplying text — to wit, the 6th, 7th, and 8th sentences on page 123 — from the book closest to where each of us is sitting. I hear and obey — and tag eRobin, Avedon Carol, Tom, and Paul in turn.

At the time I read the tag, that book was “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” by Naomi Klein. For the designated sentences, the context is the Ford Foundation’s prior support for the “Chicago Boys” and “Berkeley Mafia” economics teams that helped bring about major impoverishment and repression of the lower and middle classes in Chile and Indonesia:

After the left in [Chile and Indonesia] had been obliterated by regimes that Ford had helped shape, it was none other that Ford that funded a new generation of crusading lawyers dedicated to freeing the hundreds of thousands of political prisoners being held by those same regimes.

Given its own highly compromised history, it is hardly surprising that when Ford dived into human rights, it defined the field as narrowly as possible. The foundation strongly favored groups that framed their work as legalistic struggles for the “rule of law,” “transparency,” and “good governance.”

I once threatened to try to write about this excellent book, but by now I’d need to reread it to do it justice. The book enraged many libertarian writers for its well-documented portrayal of Milton Friedman as the intellectual godfather of Pinochet/Argentine style economic warfare — and hence of the repression that went hand in hand with that warfare. Yet Klein’s critique of the Iraq disaster bonanza ought to have rung a bell with many of those same writers, if they got that far.

I actually finished that book a while ago; in case this is supposed to be about the book I’m reading, that one is “Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race,” by Richard Rhodes. The text is from a 1984 address by Jerome Wiesner, arguing that it would take just 50 nuclear weapons to put American or Russian society “out of business,” and 300 to destroy it.

It would take a bigger bomb for Los Angeles or New York. If you are a weapons expert you know you should “pepper ’em down”; you would get a better effect. In any event, it does not take many.

As Joseph Cirincione points out in his review of the book**, the United States and the Soviet Union had a combined 65,000 warheads at the height of the Cold War — and still have 25,000 today.

I actually happened to talk with Cirincione about the book, and mentioned that one thing I thought about it was “what about us?” — by which I meant the Nuclear Freeze movement that I spent a great deal of time in during the 1980s. Rhodes’s book spends a great deal of time focused on Reagan and Gorbachev — their head-to-head negotiations in Geneva and Reykjavik, even a chapter length bio of the Russian leader. But Rhodes barely acknowledges or discusses the mass movement that opposed a U.S. nuclear weapons buildup, or even the congressional donnybrooks over MX missile deployment that were defining moments of the Reagan years. I suppose that would have complicated the scope of the book, but whether it’s intended or not, the omission seems to signal that we didn’t matter.

If so, I would beg to differ, even if I can’t prove a causal connection between the Freeze and eventual successes like the INF and CFE treaties. There was a time when nearly every Congressman or -woman was deeply aware of nuclear weapons and of their constituents’ beliefs that there were too many of them and we didn’t need any more of them. Like the narrator in “Masters of War,” we spoke out of turn, and we won those victories, too — even if we’re still in the shadow of thousands of remaining nuclear weapons.

* Hers was quite unusual and interesting, you should have a look.
** Along with three others, which are more about Pakistani/A.Q. Khan proliferation.

EDIT, 3/5: Final sentence of Klein discussion split into two sentences, ‘if they got that far’ added to 2d. Also, “impoverishment” and “economic warfare” moved to the first spots in prior sentences, ahead of “repression”; I’d summarize much of Klein’s point as being that the order matters, just as the motive matters in any crime.
EDITS, 3/6: 25,000, not 26,000; the other 1,000 are divided among the other nuclear powers. Also, on re-reviewing the index, I found 3 references to the nuclear freeze movement; the effect in the text is that Rhodes “barely acknowledges” rather than “doesn’t acknowledge” it.

TAG WATCH: Tom has probably nailed down the Most Eclectic Response Award: “La vie du pape Saint Gregoire, ou la legende du bon pecheur.” Paul checks in with a little light bedtime reading: Walter Isaacson’s “Einstein: His Life and Universe.”

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America is waiting for a message of some sort or another

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 1st July 2007

While I’m thinking about what and whether to write, here’s some cool stuff I’ve run across on the Internet and elsewhere lately:

The Civil War in Four Minutes — A video on YouTube showing how the area controlled by the Union and the Confederacy ebbed and flowed during the Civil War. It’s really quite satisfying when Sherman marches to the sea. Yay, Sherman! You go, boy.
UPDATE: Aw shoot, the guy had to pull it. Maybe the Abraham Lincoln Museum will put up a link sometime.

enoweb lyrics : My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. — By “cool stuff,” I mean of course “cool for me,” not necessarily “cool for you.” That said, I’m not alone in thinking this Brian Eno/David Byrne album is simply one of the best ever, period, full stop. The “lyrics” are actually snatches of recorded voices of radio talk show hosts, preachers, politicians, folk singers, and oh, yes, an exorcist.In the spirit of Jose Isaza’s annotations: we recently acquired a car with — gasp — a multi-CD player, with this album now ensconced in the #4 slot. So Maddie’s listened to it now to where she likes it even better than “Remain in Light” (#1) — and was observed declaiming “no will whatsoever… no WILL whatsoever… I mean what you gonna do?” to herself the other day.

Hunting around, I’ve discovered there’s now a “Bush of Ghosts” web site about a re-release of the album, with an essay by David Byrne about the making of the album, and even more intriguingly, a site where you can re-mix tracks from two of the… songs, recordings, whatever, “A Secret Life” and “Help me, somebody”:

In keeping with the spirit of the original album, Brian Eno and David Byrne are offering for download all of the multitracks on two of the songs. Through signing up to the user license, and in line with Creative Commons licenses, you are free to edit, remix, sample and mutilate these tracks however you like. Add them to your own song or create a new one. This is the first time complete and total access to original tracks with remix and sampling possibilities have been officially offfered on line. Visitors are welcome to post their mixes or songs that incorporate these audio files on the site for others to hear and rate.

“Once” — I confess I was reluctant to see this movie, but I found out last night I was wrong. Shot on a shoestring budget in Ireland, it features Glen Hansard (turns out he was also in “The Commitments” a while back) and an equally impressive 19! year old Czech musical prodigy Marketa Irglova. He’s a street performer pining for an old flame, she’s a young mom who wants little more from life than a chance to make music. What’s very cool about this movie is how good and heartfelt and believable the music they make is, and how well it fits the story that goes with it. Justly called a new kind of musical, it’s well worth your time.

Our favorite bookstore, Politics and Prose, just got better: many of the book readings and the subsequent Q&A sessions there can now be viewed online at “”, among them Robert Dallek (“Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power”), Fritz Stern (“Five Germanies I Have Known”), and Christopher Hitchens (“God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”).

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles Mann. The title might as well have added “Everything You Know Is Wrong.” You get a good sense of the book in an Atlantic Monthly article by Mann; I got interested after a glowing description by Teresa Nielsen Hayden (“Making Light”) last year, which you should read both for its own sake and for the comments by her anthropologist, sociologist, ecologist, and etceterologist readers.Mann says two main things in this book. First, there were many more people living in the Americas before Columbus than had been suspected. Second, they had civilizations that were much, much more advanced than had been suspected (by me, at least) — the largest cities on Earth, some of the healthiest people, civil engineering and scientific feats to rival the Old World’s. Check out particularly the stories about Tisquantum (a.k.a. Squanto of Thanksgiving memory), the stuff about khipu, a three (and, including color, four-)dimensional knot-language “like the coding systems used in modern-day computer language,” the story of maize (a prodigious feat of plant breeding), the possible real significance of the huge passenger pigeon flocks of the 1800s, and the bequest of the Haudenosaunee to the ideals America struggles to live up to.The archaeologists, linguists, and anthropologists Mann writes about — and Mann himself — are resurrecting the memory of a huge swath of mankind that was very nearly forgotten or at best given short shrift. This is quite simply the best book I’ve run across in the last couple of years — it’s that interesting, well written, and horizon expanding.

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The Lives of Others

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 26th March 2007

I saw the Oscar-winning German movie “The Lives of Others” yesterday, about the surveillance of a fictitious playwright Georg Dreymann (Sebastian Koch) by East German “Stasi” operative Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe).

The movie — written and directed by relative newcomer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck — succeeds completely in immersing its audience in the fear and omnipresence of the East German surveillance state. The infamous “Stasi” — “Ministerium für Staatssicherheit,” or department of state security — was ruthless, efficient, and perhaps above all else huge, with an estimated 91,000 employees by 1989 — and an additional 100,000 informers on its rolls. Conceiving itself as the “sword and shield” of the state, the Stasi relied on intensive surveillance, lengthy interrogations, secret imprisonments, and that vast network of informants — called “inoffizielle Mitarbeiter” or “IM”: unofficial co-workers — to suppress and deter political opposition.

Von Donnersmarck brings a humanistic sensibility to the story; indeed, he says the germ of the movie is not what those who’ve seen the movie might have expected. Instead, it’s the playwright’s moody, sad performance of a lovely piano piece on hearing of the death of a good friend — with the Stasi agent listening in via bugs and electronic equipment. Turning to his girlfriend, the man asks, Could someone listening to such music — really listening — really be a bad person? That in turn was inspired by a story about Lenin related by Maxim Gorky; Lenin, said Gorky, once confessed that he was no longer willing to listen to Beethoven’s “Appassionata,” or he’d just be telling people loving banalities and stroking their heads, instead of pitilessly striking those heads to complete his revolution. Von Donnersmarck resolved to, in effect, force Lenin — in the form of Stasi agent Wiesler — to really listen to that music.

One might argue that’s nice, but potentially also a weakness of the story. Would a top East German security agent really respond to the pathos of a piano piece quite the way Wiesler does? And so what if just one did?

Yet Von Donnersmarck’s script and Mühe’s acting at least make it plausible — a lonely man, rather idealistic in his own way, gradually realizes he may have less in common with his bosses than with his surveillance targets. And I thought it was interesting to notice that Agent Wiesler — in his capacity as an official of the surveillance state, to be sure — is in fact strangely, breathtakingly free to observe, to draw his own conclusions, and then to act on them as he sees fit. Freedom’s diminishment as a whole is achieved, in part, by giving people like Wiesler greater freedoms and greater powers — powers that are generally abused as intended, but perhaps sometimes, very rarely, used differently as well. Freedom doesn’t vanish completely — it shrinks to the size of a headset.

Ulrich Mühe — an East German actor who was himself surveilled, with his wife among the informants — was interviewed for the German movie web site, and asked how he prepared himself for the movie. His answer: “I remembered.” When asked whether the film succeeded in depicting an authentic picture of life in East Germany, Mühe replied:

In my opinion, absolutely. Althought the story is fictional, the film … was able to evoke the climate of repression very exactly (meaning above all without exaggeration). Dictatorship feels like that.

My point with the news items at the top of this post is not to claim the United States is the same as East Germany, but to suggest that we’re not different enough any more to suit me. (True, we have nowhere near the number of political informers in the US that East Germany could “boast” of, but we make up for that with any number of people who excuse and defend steps towards a surveillance state and away from liberty — unofficial state security co-workers indeed.)

Once the Stasi was up and running, it was too late for East Germans to do more than grouse about it — if they dared even do that. At the risk of sounding like Chicken Little or Cassandra, it’s better to nip “Stasi”s in the bud — restrict surveillance to the minimum necessary, prevent fishing expeditions or political abuse, insist on strict judicial and legislative oversight, resist expansions of state surveillance powers. In other words, we must remind ourselves that it is people, not governments, who are endowed with unalienable rights, and that governments are instituted merely to secure those rights — not to suspend, abrogate, or diminish them.

NOTES: Damian TPoD (“Danger West”) was also impressed with the movie and points to a “Fresh Air” interview with director Von Donnersmarck on NPR; this is where I learned some of the background to the movie and about Mühe. For a couple of other worthwhile reviews of the movie see Roger Ebert and Anthony Lane.
EDIT, 3/26: “official” for “functionary,” fifth paragraph.

UPDATES, 3/27: This post is included in a NYTimes “EmpireZone” blog roundup of blog responses to the Dwyer “City Police Spied Broadly…” article. Unofficial — at least, so I assume — state security co-workers commenting there say it’s not so bad that police spied on demonstrators. (Ahead of a ruling party conference.) Also, in a second post Damian TPoD discusses the post reunification part of the movie — which Von Donnersmarck had to argue to keep.
UPDATE, 5/15: Huh. Kevin Drum can’t figure out why Wiesler might have protected his surveillance targets: “There was simply no serious motivation provided for this transformation. It was almost as if the writer figured he didn’t really need to bother.” I respond in comments.

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Pan’s Labyrinth

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 17th February 2007

It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Mexican writer/director Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” owes at least a nod of recognition to Ambrose Bierce’s classic short story “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” The first moments of the movie make clear that things may not end well for its protagonist Ofelia, a young, dreamy girl played with extraordinary assuredness by twelve year old Spaniard Ivana Baquero.

But Pan’s Labyrinth is different from “Owl Creek Bridge” in just how the world of imagination that Ofelia inhabits coexists with the grim world beyond — in this case, Franco’s Spain not long after the end of the Spanish Civil War. Her fairy tale quest — complete with the archetypal three challenges, a failure, a redemption, and a final triumph — is enthralling in its own right and a wondrous, illuminating counterpoint to the real world she, her mother, and her comrades endure. As a result, Pan’s Labyrinth becomes both a spooky, gorgeous fantasy and a serious meditation on power, evil, and resistance.

[Warning: spoilers follow.]

I had not known that after the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War, some people fought on against Franco, all but forgotten by the rest of the world as it descended into war as well. Centered in the mountains of northern Spain — Galicia, Asturias, the Pyrenees — that resistance was hopeless but valiant and persistent, with fighting lasting beyond the end of World War II, and flaring weakly as late as the 1950s and 1960s. (For its part, Pan’s Labyrinth is set in the summer of 1944 — hiding in a cave, guerrillas read a tattered newspaper account of the Normandy landings.) In his acclaimed history of the Spanish Civil War, “The Battle for Spain,” Antony Beevor writes:

Those who had taken to the hills, ‘los hombres de la sierra’, having escaped from prison or labour battalions, formed small, scattered groups which could not communicate effectively. Yet the first examples of resistance to nationalist conquest had started from the very beginning of the civil war. In Galicia, where so many had escaped the brutal Falangist repression, groups had formed in the hills, especially the Sierra do Eixe. […] Most of those in the south were annihilated in 1937, but in the north the struggle continued until the end of the war and beyond. When the Asturias front had collapsed in 1937, over 2,000 soldiers fled to the mountains and the nationalists needed to deploy fifteen tabors of regulares and eight battalions of infantry for many months hunting them down.*

This is the job — even the calling — of Vidal, the Franquist capitan in the movie. Del Toro is excellent at diagnosing him with a few economical shots (and Sergi Lopez is excellent at portraying him): Vidal impatiently glances at his watch as his new wife and stepdaughter make a late arrival; he vigorously polishes his gleaming boots; he admires himself while shaving with a straightedge razor; he meticulously repairs a shattered watch; he revels in machismo and confrontation, he forces himself to disdain pain or fear.

And he’s a monster. While it’s clear right away he’s not going to be a nice dad, he’s more fully introduced to the audience by brutally killing a peasant and his son in the mistaken belief that they’re partisans. (After he leaves the murder scene, another diagnosis: his lieutenants’ eyes meet, and one lifts an eyebrow and exhales a tiny little “puh” as in, “he’s a psychopath, but what can you do?”)

Here and elsewhere, Del Toro’s connection to the horror and comics genre provide this movie with a distinctive visual style. I lack a vocabulary for it myself, so I’ll call it the “wordless ‘reveal’ panel” I’ve seen in graphic novels like Maus — a symbolic, stylish still life or portrait that’s emblematic of the conflicts in the story: the captain slashing his reflection in a mirror, a guerilla leader appearing from nowhere in the woods after the soldiers give up their pursuit.

Del Toro has certainly created one of the most unsettling nightmare/horror sequences I’ve ever seen. Ofelia is given a piece of magic chalk to draw a door ‘anywhere she likes’; once she goes through the door, she’s warned not to partake of a sumptuous banquet she’ll see, but to simply get a treasure and return. When she opens the door she’s drawn, she finds the banquet all right — with a catatonic, pale ogre seated at the head of the table, its eyes on the table in front of him, paintings all around depicting it slaughtering and devouring babies. It is hideous, pure, blind, grasping evil — and it will not remain sightless or motionless for long.

Given that this scene is interlaced with a second one in which Vidal introduces a stuttering, terrified prisoner to the torture tools he’ll be reduced with — within the same walls that Ofelia has magically tunneled to her own confrontation with evil — one sees the outlines of Del Toro’s views. Power hoards, love spends; power torments, crushes, and discards, while innocence sacrifices; systems demand obedience and get it, for the most part; rare individuals choose freedom and honor, even at the cost of their lives.

And the allegories and fantasies of the story are important in making those points. I watched the movie The Illusionist a few months ago, and although I liked it, I still felt I liked the movie I thought I had early on better than the one I eventually got. Unlike that movie, Pan’s Labyrinth wastes no effort explaining its illusions, much less explaining them away. Rather, its fantastical, fairy tale elements just are; they explain and comment on its real world better than that world can itself.

I wonder if there’s another significance to the muddy, mossy, heathen elements of faun and fairy, Pan and labyrinth. In a story of innocence buying innocent life at the price of its own, set in Spain and told by a Mexican filmmaker, one might have expected mystic, ecstatic Christianity rather than the pagan allusions Del Toro uses. But the Catholic Church was part of the apparatus of oppression in Franco’s Spain — collaborating in censorship, monitoring who did and did not show up for Mass, and unabashedly celebrating Franco’s victory despite the many Spaniards who did not. Beevor writes:

On 31 March [1939] Franco’s armies reached their ultimate objectives. ‘Lifting our hearts to God,’ ran Pope Pius XII’s message of congratulation to Franco, ‘we give sincere thanks with your Excellency for the victory of Catholic Spain.’*

As the movie portrays, economically as ever, the Catholic Church sat at the well-laden dinner table with the Franquist captain, murmuring that one ration card per family ought to be enough. I found another item in Beevor’s book that seems germane to Del Toro’s movie. One Major Antonio Vallejo Nagera, a professor of psychiatry, concluded that

…the only way to prevent the racial dissolution of Spanishness was the removal of children from suspect parents to be schooled in nationalist values. In 1943 there were 12,043 children taken from their mothers and handed over to the Falangist Auxilio Social, to orphanages and to religious organizations. Some of these children were passed on for adoption to selected families, a pattern followed thirty years later in Argentina under the military dictatorship there.*

As viewers will see, at least this one despicable, miserable bit of history is turned on its head in Del Toro’s movie.

At the end of Pan’s Labyrinth, a fairy tale narrator speaks of humans leaving “small traces of our time on earth — visible only to those who know where to look.” Del Toro, in remembering the valor of those who resisted Franco’s regime, has shown moviegoers where to look. For that alone, he deserves thanks. To do it so beautifully and so imaginatively, he and his collaborators deserve admiration and applause.

* ‘Los hombres de la sierra’ — Chapter 37, “The Unfinished War,” p. 421. Pope Pius message — Chapter 34, “The Collapse of the Republic,” p. 397. Children taken — Chapter 35, “The New Spain and the Franquist Gulag,” p. 407. All page numbers from the paperback edition of “The Battle for Spain,” Antony Beevor, 1982, 2006.

UPDATE, 2/20: Other reviews: Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post writes, “See it, and celebrate that rare occasion when a director has the audacity to commit cinema,” and Jim Emerson at calls the movie “one of the cinema’s great fantasies.”

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