Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Blind Willie McTell

Composed by Bob Dylan in 1983, I first heard Blind Willie McTell last year via the version recorded by The Band in 1993 with Levon Helm and Rick Danko on vocals.  It became an immediate favorite but it was only recently I listened to the various versions by Dylan, some of which I prefer to The Band's.  The melody is good, though you've heard it before (no surprise, when it comes to Dylan; for instance, take a listen to St James Infirmary - I don't think it's a coincidence that Dylan references the St James Hotel in the lyric) but the lyrics are among Dylan's finest, and it was recorded back in the days when he still had a singing voice.  Recorded in 1983 as part of the sessions for the Infidels album, it was cut at the last minute and not released until 1991 as part of the The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3.

Infidels was co-produced by Dylan and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits.  The beautiful, haunting, and spare version released as part of the Bootleg Series is not available on YouTube so you'll have to find it on iTunes, Pandora, or Spotify.  However, there are several other versions worth listening to.  My favorite is another take from the same recording session featuring former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor on slide guitar.

This is a live version from a 2000 concert.  Dylan began performing the song in concert only after hearing the version recorded by The Band.

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, "This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem"

I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, I heard the hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars about the barren trees
Were his only audience

Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of the slavery ships

I can hear them tribes a-moaning
I can hear the undertaker's bell
Yeah, nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

There's a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He's dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand

There's a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know one thing, no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, God is in heaven
And we all want what's his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I'm gazing out the window
Of that old St James Hotel
And I know no one can one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell McTell recording in an Atlanta hotel room, 1940)

Blind Willie McTell was born William Samuel McTier in 1898 or 1901 at Thomson, Georgia.  As a youngster he was part of the Great Migration of African-Americans to the north, growing up in Detroit.  Along the way he learned to play the blues on a 12-string guitar, and from 1927 until the late 1930s made several recordings with his distinctive tenor voice.  Like many of the bluesmen of the era, he had trouble finding a market for his music, as well as having his own personal troubles, and by the 1950s was reduced to playing for spare change on Atlanta street corners.  He died in 1959.

His best known song today is Statesboro Blues which was for decades a staple of Allman Brothers shows.  A sampling of other McTell songs follows:

Southern Can Is Mine
You Was Born To Die
Lord, Send Me An Angel
Travelin' Blues 

McTell recorded under many different names including Blind Sammie and Georgia Sam.   Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited (1965) contains the line "Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose", a reference to McTell.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Cavalcade Of Time

I came across this remarkable collection of interviews done in 1929 with Americans born between the years of 1826 (yes, you are reading that correctly) and 1859.  Take a look.


1:15 - Two Confederate Civil War veterans from Missouri.  One describes enlisting, and then fighting the "Dutchmen" (a reference to the heavily pro-Union German  population in the state) in a battle in which "no prisoners were taken on either side".  He then fought under General Price at the battle of Wilson's Creek in August 1861, and states that he witnessed the death of Union General Nathaniel Lyon, whom he calls "the bravest man I ever saw".

3:30 - Lydia Stewart on her 100th birthday, happily announcing that "the first 100 years is the hardest, but that I am here is some consolation."

6:25 - An interview with 103-year old Galusha Marion Cole.  When asked about his politics he responds, "Republican now", but then explains he voted Whig before that.  The last time Whigs fielded candidates was in 1854.

8:30 - 94 year-old Rebecca Latimer, a self described "North Georgia cracker", on her front porch.  She relates an "indistinct recollection" of witnessing the Indian removal of 1837.  A little further research reveals Ms Latimer had quite a biography.  She was the first woman to serve as a U.S. Senator, having been appointed on a brief interim basis by Georgia's governor in 1922.  Latimer was married to William Felton, a Methodist minister, a three term Congressman, and three term state legislator.  She polished his speeches, served as campaign manager, and wrote hundreds of newspaper articles supporting him.  After his death she had her own political career, advocating for the state university, vocational education for poor white girls, and becoming the South's leading proponent of women's suffrage.  Latimer was also a fervent supporter of Jim Crow laws and lynching.  She died in 1930.

12:30 - 70 year old John M Reilly, on his last day of work as an engineer on the New Haven Railroad.

Monday, February 26, 2018

A Second Dred Scott Case?

Jonathan and Juliet Lemon (misspelled as Lemmon in the litigation described in this post) arrived in Manhattan on November 5, 1852, disembarking from the steamer they had taken from Norfolk, Virginia.  The Lemons, who lived at the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley, were in the process of emigrating to Texas where they planned to start a new life.  Booking passage to New Orleans on the steamer Memphis, scheduled to leave the next day, the Lemons stayed at a boarding house that night.  The Lemons did not embark the following morning, instead being plunged into a legal process that would continue almost up to the outbreak of the Civil War more than eight years in the future, and be covered by newspapers nationwide.
(Juliet Lemon in later life; all illustrations from common-place)

The Supreme Court's 1857 decision in the Dred Scott case was one of the events contributing to the outbreak of the Civil War four years later.  Widely considered the worst decision in the history of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Taney's concluded*:
(1) Negroes were not citizens of the United States and therefore unable to bring suit in a federal court [this applied to all Negroes slave or free]
(2) The Missouri Compromise provisions regarding slavery were unconstitutional since Congress had no power to forbid slavery in the territories.
Justice Taney believed his decision would, once and for all, resolve the issue of slavery.  Instead, it further inflamed the already volatile debate.  For many northerners, not just abolitionists, it mean the triumph of the slave oligarchy by making slavery, not freedom, national, and raising the possibility that further court rulings could extend to interfering with the laws of those states which had abolished slavery.  The ruling also had an immediate practical impact - throughout President Buchanan's administration the U.S. State Department refused to issue passports to native born free blacks on the grounds they were not American citizens, a ruling reversed by Abraham Lincoln in his first weeks in office.  For more on the convoluted history of the case read Dred Scott's Trial.

The case (styled as Lemmon v NY) created a vehicle by which the abolitionist's worst nightmare, and the slave states fondest dream, might happen.

In New York, Jonathan and Juliet were accompanied by their seven children along with eight enslaved people.  The slaves were Emeline, a young woman with a two year old daughter and two teenage brothers, and Nancy, Emeline's niece, her five year old twin boys and a three year old daughter.

Fifteen years earlier, Juliet Lemon's father, William "Billy" Douglas died, leaving two farms and thirty slaves.  He also left behind thirteen children by three white women, none of whom he married.  Juliet, married to Adam Stewart at the time, ended up with two of the slaves, Emeline (then 7) and Nancy (5).  Soon thereafter, Adam Stewart died, and in 1840 Juliet married Jonathan Lemon.  For unknown reasons, Jonathan became dissatisfied with life in the valley and decided to relocate the family to Texas twelve years later.  Selling his properties to Juliet's brother in law, the Lemons made the 17 day trek to Richmond and then on to Norfolk where they took ship to New York.
(Jonathan Lemon)

Their landing and passage through the streets of New York was observed by Louis Napoleon, a free black and Vice-President of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.  Probably alerted by crews on docking ships, Napoleon and other society members kept a lookout for imported slaves.

On November 6, Napoleon filed for a writ of habeas corpus with NY Superior Court Judge Elijah Paine Jr.  The filing claimed the blacks accompanying the Lemons were free but that the Lemons were slave traders planning to take the blacks to Texas where they would be sold.  Paine, a distinguished jurist whose father had served as a federal district court judge for 41 years, issued the writ, and the bewildered Lemons found themselves in a legal proceeding.

A hearing was held on November 9 in which the Lemons were represented by pro-slavery local lawyers and the slaves by Erastus Culver of Brooklyn (later appointed Minister to Venezuela by President Lincoln), and John Jay, grandson of the former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

Paine issued his written ruling on November 13.  While the Lemons had testified they had no intention of bringing their slaves to New York City, and were merely in transmit, Paine freed Emeline, Nancy and the six younger children.

The Judge reviewed the relevant statutory history.  In 1788 New York prohibited the sale, and  exportation for sale, of slaves and established procedures masters who voluntarily decided to free their slaves.  Eleven years later the state provided for eventual freedom for all children of slaves born after July 4, 1799.  Most important, in 1817, as part of the final abolition of slavery, the state legislature banned the import of slaves into the state, providing six exceptions, one of which allowed slaveowners in transit to be in the state for up to nine months with their slaves, an exception repealed by law in 1841.

Since New York law clearly placed the Lemon's in violation of the statute, Price had to determine whether there was some superseding reason under the provisions of the U.S. Constitution not to enforce its provisions.  He rejected the Lemon's arguments under the Commerce Clause and other sections, by asserting natural law principles.  Natural law doctrine was essential to abolitionist legal theory regarding slavery though it is in disrepute with modern legal scholars, for whom natural law theory undermines the power and authority of the state.

Paine cited the then well-known 1772 English case of Somerset v Stewart, in which Chief Justice Mansfield ruled that under natural law, all men are free, and it is only if there is specific State action to maintain slavery that it can exist.  In abolitionist theory, this meant that in the United States freedom was national, while slavery was local.  Increasingly, Southern slaveowners argued precisely the opposite.

But Price expanded on natural law theory (citations omitted below):
            "But in truth, the discovery that by nature all men are free, belongs neither to England nor France, but is as old as ancient Rome; and the law of Rome repeatedly asserts, that all men by nature are free, and that slavery can subsist only by the laws of the State.
            The writers on the law of nations uniformly maintain the same principle, viz.: that by the law of nature all men are free; and that where slavery is not established and upheld by the law of the State, there can be no slaves.
            The same writers also hold that by the law of nature one race of men is no more subject to be reduced to slavery than other races.
            When we are considering a master and slave in a free State, where slavery is not upheld by law, we must take into view all these principles of the law of nature, and see how they are respectively to be dealt with according to that law; for it will be remembered, that the master can now claim nothing except by virtue of the law of nature. He claims under that law a right to pass through the country. That is awarded to him. But he claims in addition to take his slave with him. But upon what ground? That the slave is his property. By the same law, however, under which he himself claims, that cannot be; for the law of nature says that there can be no property in a slave."
The decision caused immediate outrage across the south.  In their next annual messages the governors of both Virginia and Georgia denounced the court's actions, and the Virginia General Assembly provided appropriations to appeal the decision.

By that time, the Lemons were no longer directly involved.  Judge Paine and other took up a subscription to reimbursement them for the loss of the value of their slaves.  The $5000 raised were provided to the Lemons, who returned to Virginia, in return for their posting a bond under which they agreed that if they prevailed in the appeal, they would formally free their slaves.  This may have been a maneuver by the anti-slavery groups to moot the case before a court could hear the appeal, a strategy that failed.
(Publication of all opinions and proceedings by Horace Greeley, 1860)

In order to protect Emeline, Nancy, and their families arrangements were made to move them to Hartford, CT where they were looked after by local black families.  However, in order to ensure their safety no matter what the courts ultimately decided, they were then moved to Buxton, Ontario in Canada, beyond the reach of American law.

The New York Supreme Court (which is only an intermediate court despite its august name) did not hear the appeal until the fall of 1857.  Two important events occurred in that period which heightened the fervor over slavery.  The first was the 1854 passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which obliterated the Missouri Compromise and gave authority to the doctrine of popular sovereignty under which territories could decide whether to allow slavery.  The result was several years of bloodshed, turmoil, and agitation in Kansas which colored national politics.  The second was the Supreme Court's decision on March 6, 1857 in Dred Scott.

The 1857 appeal was argued for the state by William Evarts, who later became Attorney General under President Johnson, Secretary of State under President Hayes, and Senator.  Opposing him was the pro-Southern, pro-slavery Charles O'Conor.  After the Civil War O'Conor would represent Jefferson Davis when he was imprisoned for two years as the federal government pondered whether to charge him with treason.  Davis was released when it was decided not to bring him to trial.  In December 1857, the Supreme Court upheld Judge Paine's ruling.
US_Slave_Free_1789-1861(From Josh Blackman's blog)

Virginia took an appeal to the highest court in New York, the Court of Appeals.  It was widely anticipated that if that court upheld the lower court rulings, the next step would be an appeal by Virginia to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Court heard argument in January 1860 with the same attorneys for both parties, although the state had a new young lawyer added to its team; Future president Chester A Arthur.  Another important event had occurred in the interim; John Brown's December 1859 raid on the Federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, VA intended to spark a slave uprising in the south, an event that played into the white south's deepest fears.

The Appeals Court issued its ruling (20 NY 562) on April 16, 1860, affirming the lower courts by a vote of 5-3.  The majority opinion by Justice Denio closely followed that of Judge Paine and made no reference to the Dred Scott decision.  The lead minority opinion by Justice Clerke directly cited Dred Scott for the proposition that slaves were property.  If slaves are only property than the analysis is rather simple and, as Clerke maintains, the New York statute is unconstitutional and void.  The difficulty, of course, is that slaves were both property and persons, which led to continuing conflict in the pre-Civil War political and legal systems.

Unexpectedly, Virginia did not appeal the New York decision to the U.S. Supreme Court for reasons that still remain unclear.  What we know is that the decision was made by Virginia's new governor, John Letcher, who took office on January 1, 1860.  Letcher's predecessors had aggressively pursued the appeals but Letcher seems more ambivalent.  In the 1840s Letcher had proposed gradual emancipation of slaves and, although he repudiated this position in the 1850s, he was a Douglas Democrat and Unionist during the 1860 elections.  He may have decided not to appeal because a decision either way would have created difficulties for Stephen Douglas' candidacy, and a decision overturning the New York court would have generated a firestorm making compromise on slavery impossible.

Nonetheless, the case remained a sore point for Southern slave owners and was specifically listed as a grievance in South Carolina's Declaration of Secession in December 1860.

After returning to Virginia, the Lemons acquired five more slaves whom they lost during the Civil War.  Jonathan died in 1890, Juliet in 1909.  I have not found information on the later life or descendants of Emmeline and Nancy.

Louis Napoleon lived until 1881.  It is estimated that he may have helped up to 3,000 people escape bondage.

* Although the Court found 7-2 against Scott, there was no single opinion concurred in by a majority of justices.  As a result legal scholars still argue over the legal effect of Taney's opinion which was concurred in by only two other justices.


Sunday, February 25, 2018

Jude's Darkest Hour

Friday, February 23, 2018

Fever X 2

Just about everyone knows Peggy Lee's Fever, a smash hit from 1958, a song that has endured in American culture.  Her sultry voice, smart lyrics, and spare arrangement (courtesy of Ms Lee herself) make it instantly recognizable.  What is less well known is that Fever was originally a #1 R&B hit that sounded quite different.
Image result for peggy lee(Peggy Lee, 1940s)

Fever was composed in early 1956 by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell.  While Cooley had limited success with other tunes, Otis Blackwell is one of the great figures in early R&B songwriting, writing hits for Jerry Lee Lewis ("Great Balls of Fire") and Elvis Presley ("Return to Sender", "Don't Be Cruel", "All Shook Up").
Black and white promo photo of Otis Blackwell(Otis Blackwell)

The story is that a reluctant Little Willie John had to be persuaded to record the song on March 1, 1956.  William Edward "Little Willie" John was born in Arkansas in 1937 and raised in Detroit.  Signed to King Records in 1955, Little Willie (he was very short), had a string of fourteen Billboard Hot 100 records over the next several years, including several million sellers, including Fever.  Little Willie's version rose to #1 on the R&B charts, to be followed two years later by Peggy Lee's take on the song.
File:Little Willie John.jpg(Little Willie)

Unfortunately, Little Willie was also a violent guy with an alcohol problem.  Dropped by his label in 1963, John was convicted of manslaughter shortly thereafter and died in Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla in 1968.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

"Here, perhaps, I ought to stop."

On September 19, 1796 the American Daily Advertiser published a letter from President George Washington, whose birthday we should be celebrating today.  Widely reprinted across the nation, the letter became known as Washington's Farewell Address.  In it, the President announced his intent not to run for a third term, and makes a few brief reflections on his presidency.  He then declares:
Here, perhaps, I ought to stop. But a solicitude for your welfare, which cannot end but with my life, and the apprehension of danger, natural to that solicitude, urge me, on an occasion like the present, to offer to your solemn contemplation, and to recommend to your frequent review, some sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all-important to the permanency of your felicity as a people. These will be offered to you with the more freedom, as you can only see in them the disinterested warnings of a parting friend, who can possibly have no personal motive to bias his counsel.

A few pertinent excerpts follow:
Towards the preservation of your government, and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite, not only that you steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts.

One method of assault may be to effect, in the forms of the Constitution , alterations which will impair the energy of the system, and thus to undermine what cannot be directly overthrown. In all the changes to which you may be invited, remember that time and habit are at least as necessary to fix the true character of governments as of other human institutions; that experience is the surest standard by which to test the real tendency of the existing constitution of a country; that facility in changes, upon the credit of mere hypothesis and opinion, exposes to perpetual change, from the endless variety of hypothesis and opinion; and remember, especially, that for the efficient management of your common interests, in a country so extensive as ours, a government of as much vigor as is consistent with the perfect security of liberty is indispensable.

Liberty itself will find in such a government, with powers properly distributed and adjusted, its surest guardian. It is, indeed, little else than a name, where the government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction, to confine each member of the society within the limits prescribed by the laws, and to maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyment of the rights of person and property.

It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism.

A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositaries, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them.

If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield.

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.

The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?

And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Relying on its kindness in this as in other things, and actuated by that fervent love towards it, which is so natural to a man who views in it the native soil of himself and his progenitors for several generations, I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize, without alloy, the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.

Geo. Washington

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Monte Testaccio

(Monte Testaccio, from amusing planet website)

The hill stands 115 feet high, covering an area of over five acres on the outskirts of Rome.  Known as Monte Testaccio it received a brief mention in a prior THC post (see Belisarius Enters Rome).  It is not a natural hill.  Rather, it is a planned landfill, active for at least the second and third centuries AD, consisting of remnants of an estimated 53 million amphorae, primarily 18 gallon containers formerly containing olive oil imported from Baetica (southern Spain), Africa (Tunisia), and Libya.  The amphorae could not be reused because residue of the oil permeated the containers making them sticky and smelly.

The scale of imports, through the imperial ports at Ostia, near where the Tiber River enters the Tyrrhenian Sea, was required to meet the ravenous needs of the one million inhabitants of the Imperial capital. Olive oil was so important a staple that the Empire established an official olive oil reserve near the banks of the Tiber and very close to Monte Testaccio.

The landfill was engineered, with fragments of the broken jars carefully place, as you will see in the pictures below.  Some fragments are inscribed with the name of the importers, as well as with the names of the inspectors who weighed them.

The area was abandoned during the late Empire and remained deserted as the city of Rome shrank over the centuries.  As late as the 19th century it was a pastoral area used for recreation.

(City and walls of Rome from Monte Testaccio, JMW Turner; early 19th century)
Rome From Monte Testaccio - J.M.W. Turner
The pyramid in the wall, known as the Pyramid of Cestius was built by a prominent Roman, Gaius Cestius around 15 BC.  It is possible Cestius may have been a member of the Roman expedition to Nubia, south of Egypt on the Nile, in 23BC, and inspired by the sharp pointed Nubian pyramids.  At the time the tomb was built it was outside the old 4th century BC walls of Rome.  When Aurelian ordered the construction of a new wall in the 272AD, the pyramid was incorporated into it as a defensive bastion.

Inside the hill:

Engineered walls:

Broken pieces of amphorae:

Flavio al Velavvodetto Restaurant at the base of the hill
Amphorae in Monte Testaccio from Flavio al Velavevodetto restaurant

Monday, February 19, 2018

Makin' Whoopee

The great, great Ray Charles having some fun in concert; Paris in the early 1960s.  Slinky piano, slinky voice.
Now, I don't make much money
Only five thousand per
And some judge who thinks he's funny
Tells me I got to pay six to her

I say, "now judge, suppose I fail?"
The judge says, "Ray, son, go right into jail"
You better keep her
I think it's cheaper
Than makin' whoopee

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Normalizing Mass Murder And Repression

With the election of Donald Trump, cries abounded on the Left that society and media needed to avoid "normalizing" the new President.  In this context "normalizing" does not mean agreeing with Trump, but rather accepting that he can, and should, be evaluated for both the good and bad things he does with some degree of objectivity.

But while progressives decried any reasoned discussion of Trump as normalization, one of the left's leading organs, The New York Times (though even the Times is, based on comments on its articles, apparently not always as crazy left as its readership demands), devoted all of 2017 to normalizing communism, one of the ideologies that along with Nazism, and fascism, made much of the 20th century a charnel house

Last year, the Times ran a 40-part series called "Red Century: Exploring the history and legacy of Communism, 100 years after the Russian Revolution".  The series included, as you would expect for a normalization project, a great deal of civilized discussion about the pros and cons of the communist experiment.

But it was also carefully curated so it found little or no space in its forty episodes to discuss communism in Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, or the recent experiment in Venezuela.  It was also remarkably unreflective about what went wrong with little discussion of dissidents, including leading critics of the communist system such as Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia.  Most surprisingly there was no assessment of the monumental impact of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's revelations on the tottering edifice of Soviet Communism. And there was a complete absence of the big picture questions - how does human nature fit into the idea of the Soviet New Man?  Is it possible to prevent any communist society from descending into the darkness that each Red regime has done so far?

What the articles in the series did unintentionally highlight was the ability of idealists, or ideologues if you prefer (ideologues being idealists you disagree with), to walk optimistically into the future with their heads held high as they search the skies for their new world, which enables them to avoid seeing the sea of blood they wade through.

Let's look at some examples from start to finish, with some THC comments added:

What's Left of Communism by David Priestland (February 24), an Oxford historian and man of the Left, in which he espouses communism with a smiley face, without ever reflecting on its feasibility.  Here are some snippets:
"So did I witness Communism’s last hurrah that day in Moscow, or is a Communism remodeled for the 21st century struggling to be born?"

"But the flaws of laissez-faire soon came to Communism’s rescue. The Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed made socialist ideas of equality and state planning a compelling alternative to the invisible hand of the market. Communist militancy also emerged as one of the few political forces prepared to resist the threat of fascism." [THC here: Priestland ignores that in the end game of the Weimar Republic, Stalin ordered the German Communist Party to focus on destruction of the centrist parties and not attack the Nazis.  And, of course, we have the communist parties of Western Europe and the U.S. happily supporting Stalin and Hitler from 1939 to 1941.]

"A new left might then succeed in uniting the losers, both white-collar and blue-collar, in the new economic order. Already, we’re seeing demands for a more redistributive state. Ideas like the universal basic income, which the Netherlands and Finland are experimenting with, are close in spirit to Marx’s vision of Communism’s ability to supply the wants of all — “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” [THC: And how exactly is that to occur without the use of government force]

"There will be no return to the Communism of five-year plans and gulags." [THC: Glad he feels so confident about that.]

"Lenin no longer lives, the old Communism may be dead, but the sense of injustice that animated them is very much alive."
 This piece was quickly supplemented with a very amusing correction by the Times:
Correction: February 24, 2017

A picture supplied by Getty Images was initially posted with this essay. Editors later learned that the photograph, of Lenin giving a speech, had been manipulated by the Soviet authorities to erase several figures near Lenin, notably Leon Trotsky. The picture has been replaced because such unacknowledged alterations violate Times standards.
On March 13, we had Angels and Demons in the Cold War and Today, by Stephen Boykewich, described as a consultant to social justice organizations.  His piece isn't even about the communist revolution or communism, it's merely an anti-American screed blaming the United States for everything that's gone wrong with the Soviet Union and Russia.

Only a week later we have Francis Beckett, yet another British Leftist, trotting out the old theme of "Lenin was on the right track, it was that nasty guy Stalin who made it all go wrong"; a theme buried by Solzhenitsyn and the revelations of the Soviet archives after the Evil Empire's fall.  Some sample excerpts:
After the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, the Soviet state became a beacon of hope for the left, and Moscow a place for pilgrimage. It was four decades before the magic faded, and the world is still waiting for something to replace it. [THC: the kind of people who are still waiting for something to replace it are precisely the people you do not want anywhere near the levers of power.]

To be sure, Communist parties around the world kept the allegiance of many hard-liners and still recruited some young idealists, but 1956 was a turning point, and the Soviet Union as an idea was irretrievably tainted. Thereafter, Communists were as likely to define themselves as against Moscow as for it. [THC: Yes, they would always turn to the next group of Communist heroes who would finally get it right - we had Mao (40-50 million dead), then Ho Chi Minh killing anyone who opposed him; next was Cambodia Year Zero (20% of the population dead) and Fidel (arbitrary executions, imprisonment of homosexuals, destruction of one of Latin America's best economies).]
On April 3 it was the turn of Tariq Ali, of the New Left Review, and fanboy of Hugo Chavez, on What Was Lenin Thinking?, furthering Beckett's theme of the prior week regarding the brilliance of Lenin and the sadness that under Stalin things went awry.
While its final details were obviously not advertised beforehand, the takeover was swift and involved minimal violence. [THC: Ali is actually describing a coup against the real revolutionary government, consisting of social democrats!  There is also no mention in his paean to the great man, that a month later he ordered the forcible dissolution of the only legislative assembly ever elected by the Russian people.]

That all changed with the ensuing civil war, in which the nascent Soviet state’s enemies were backed by the czar’s former Western allies. Amid the resulting chaos and millions of casualties, the Bolsheviks finally prevailed — but at a terrible political and moral cost, including the virtual extinction of the working class that had originally made the revolution. [THC: Tariq Ali is not stupid.  Here he is deliberately misleading readers not familiar with history by blaming what happened next on Lenin's enemies.  Anyone who has read Lenin's own bloodthirsty words and directives, which do not distinguish between innocent and guilty, and were designed to instill terror, knows better.]

Nor should we forget that a few decades later, it was the Red Army — originally forged in the civil war by Trotsky, Mikhail Tukhachevsky and Mikhail Frunze (the former two killed later by Stalin) — that broke the military might of the Third Reich in the epic battles of Kursk and Stalingrad. [THC: No mention of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939.  I guess it must have slipped the author's mind.]"
April 29 brought us a pathetic piece by Vivian Gornick, When Communism Inspired Americans.  The author was raised in an American communist family and was twenty years old when Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin occurred, revealing their beliefs were based on a lie.  Sadly, she is still trying to give meaning to that lie so many years later, to salvage something from the deluded beliefs of her parents and herself.  In reality, her family were members of an organization under the direction of a foreign power dedicated to the destruction of American democracy.  A sampling of her continuing delusions:
“America was fortunate to have had the Communists here. They, more than most, prodded the country into becoming the democracy it always said it was.”

"The effective life of the Communist Party in the United States was approximately 40 years in length. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were Communists at one time or another during those 40 years. Many of these people endured social isolation, financial and professional ruin, and even imprisonment. They were two generations of Americans whose lives were formed by political history as were no other American lives save those of the original Revolutionists. History is in them — and they are in history."
Sarah Jaffe of The Nation informed us of The Unexpected Afterlife of American Communism (June 6), in which it turns out commies were just true American reformers, albeit many a little more intense (and under the direction of a hostile foreign power).
In short, American Communism was a movement that grew out of what the historian Robin D. G. Kelley, the author of “Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression,” calls “the most despised and dispossessed elements of American society.” It was the black workers drawn to the party, Professor Kelley argues, who shaped its political choices as much as the varying dictates that came from the Communist International, Moscow’s directorate for foreign parties. [THC: Conveniently ignored is that in the 1920s and 1930s the Socialist Party under Norman Thomas was fiercely anti-communist because of its authoritarian and totalitarian beliefs.]
And we have an unexpected bonus from Ms Jaffe.  Turns out intersectionality, the latest poison introduced into our society, a poison designed to turn Americans against one another, actually originated with communists!
These arguments were championed by organizers like Claudia Jones, a black leader within the Communist Party U.S.A. and a journalist for its newspaper, The Daily Worker. According to Charlene Carruthers, the national director of Black Youth Project 100, Ms. Jones expounded the idea now known as intersectionality decades before that term became so ubiquitous that Hillary Clinton used it in a tweet on the campaign trail. For Ms. Jones, understanding the lives of black women and the economic and social position they occupied would create a better understanding of the system of capitalism as a whole. It followed, Ms. Carruthers explains, that black women’s work was central in the struggle to replace the system.
What American Communists, at their best, pioneered was to show how effectively grass-roots movements can challenge the racism, state violence and economic exploitation that people face in their daily lives, and connect those fights to a broader vision of a just world. [THC: One is sometimes left just speechless.]
On August 7, Fred Strebeigh may have written the most preposterous entry in a series already chock full of ridiculous attempts to normalize the abnormal.  It's titled Lenin's Eco-Warriors about how, under Lenin, a "longtime enthusiast for hiking and camping", the Soviet Union became a global pioneer in conservation!  For anyone familiar with the wreckage of the Soviet Union's natural environment and the incredible levels of pollution caused by its insane push for centrally planned industralization at the expense of every other consideration in society this article is an insult.

Strebeigh's article is also a prime example of normalization that in other circumstances would never see the light of day in the Times.  The Nazi Party in Germany enacted the most far reaching environmental and worker safety laws of the day, yet I don't think the Times would be comfortable promoting that as part of a "balanced" assessment of the legacy of the Third Reich.

Wait a minute!  I may have been wrong about the Strebeigh piece being the most preposterous.  On August 12, the Times published Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism by Kristen Ghodsee.  It's a cheery, upbeat piece of fluff.  Turns out the sex was great, as long as you otherwise kept your mouth shut, and did what you were told.  Enjoy!
Some might remember that Eastern bloc women enjoyed many rights and privileges unknown in liberal democracies at the time, including major state investments in their education and training, their full incorporation into the labor force, generous maternity leave allowances and guaranteed free child care. But there’s one advantage that has received little attention: Women under Communism enjoyed more sexual pleasure.

Agnieszka Koscianska, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Warsaw, told me that pre-1989 Polish sexologists “didn’t limit sex to bodily experiences and stressed the importance of social and cultural contexts for sexual pleasure.” It was state socialism’s answer to work-life balance: “Even the best stimulation, they argued, will not help to achieve pleasure if a woman is stressed or overworked, worried about her future and financial stability.”
Enough of this silly stuff!  On August 28, Odd Arne Westad, who despite his weird name is a professor at Harvard's John F Kennedy School of Government, so we know he must be incredibly brilliant, tells the sad story of The Cold War and America's Delusion of Victory.  Turns out the Cold War was a regrettable event that happened despite "people of good will on both sides".  It takes a sophisticated Harvard professor to equate freedom with slavery but Odd is up to it.

The next month we learned from Helen Gao about How Did Women Fare in China's Communist Revolution?  Turns out they did pretty well, if they lived.

On October 2, the astoundingly shallow Times reporter Alessandra Stanley wrote about The Communist Party's Party People, which starts off "There was no better time or place to be a Communist than in San Francisco in the spring of 1945" [THC: I believe the same holds true today regarding San Francisco].

A week later we heard from another leftist Brit professor, John Sidel, on What Killed The Promise of Muslim Communism?, in which he remembers that "For a brief moment after the Bolshevik uprisings of 1917, it looked like revolution might be waged across vast swaths of the world under the joint banner of Communism and Islam", [he thinks this is a good thing!] and laments:
One effect of the failure of revolutionary forces to mobilize under the joint banner of Communism and Islam was to deeply divide Muslims, weakening their capacity first to fight colonialism during the first half of 20th century and then to resist the rise of authoritarianism across the Muslim world. [THC: Wait, you're saying communism is not authoritarian?]
Later the same month we had yet another lament from another professor; this one an American from Hamilton College, When New York City was the Capital of American Communism by Maurice Isserman.  The good professor regrets that:
With the onset of the Cold War, and of a second Red Scare more pervasive and longer-lasting than the original, Communists found themselves persecuted and isolated. [THC: I wonder why secret members of a party who accepted direction from a totalitarian foreign power devoted to the destruction of American democracy would find themselves persecuted and isolated?]
On a serious note, the Isserman piece is part of a larger, and largely successful effort to rewrite the history of American communism.  As with many of the pieces in the Times series it cast American communists as idealists who were just ahead of their time.  A couple of years ago I watched a panel discussion on C-Span.  The panelists were authors and researchers who, in recent decades, have done remarkable research exposing the depth of Soviet espionage in the United States and the complicity of American communists in the spying, as well as the evidence of direct Soviet control of the American Communist Party (the most prominent of the researchers being Harvey Klehr, whose work I recommend).  They had their own lament.  According to the panelists there is no new research work in academia looking further into this aspect of American communism even though the speakers said there is still much unreviewed documentation out there.  Instead, grad students are discouraged from pursuing such research and the academic journals devoted to this subject focus on articles stressing the reformist nature of American communism and the undeserved repression party members experienced.

The series came to a close on November 6 with Simon Sebag Montefiore's essay, What If The Russian Revolution Had Never Happened?  Thankfully, Montefiore is no apologist for communism (his book Stalin: The Court Of The Red Tsar is a masterpiece).  He writes to remind us of the reality:
The Russian Revolution mobilized a popular passion across the world based on Marxism-Leninism, fueled by messianic zeal. It was, perhaps, after the three Abrahamic religions, the greatest millenarian rapture of human history.

That virtuous idealism justified any monstrosity. The Bolsheviks admired the cleansing purges of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror: “A revolution without firing squads is meaningless,” Lenin said. The Bolsheviks created the first professional revolutionaries, the first total police state, the first modern mass-mobilization on behalf of class war against counterrevolution. Bolshevism was a mind-set, an idiosyncratic culture with an intolerant paranoid wordview obsessed with abstruse Marxist ideology. Their zeal justified the mass killings of all enemies, real and potential, not just by Lenin or Stalin but also Mao, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia. It also gave birth to slave labor camps, economic catastrophe and untold psychological damage. (These events are now so long ago that the horrors have been blurred and history forgotten; a glamorous glow of power and idealism lingers to intoxicate young voters disenchanted with the bland dithering of liberal capitalism.)
Of course, Montefiore cannot resist taking a swipe at Donald Trump:
But Lenin’s tactics, too, are resurgent. He was a sophisticated genius of merciless zero-sum gain, expressed by his phrase "Kto kovo?"  — literally, “Who, whom?” asking the question who controls whom and, more important, who kills whom. President Trump is some ways the personification of a new Bolshevism of the right where the ends justify the means and acceptable tactics include lies and smears, and the exploitation of what Lenin called useful idiots. 
One wonders if he was contractually obligated by the Times to insert the reference to Trump. However gross Donald Trump may be, the attempted comparison is so absurd it diminishes the power of Montefiore's article.  It is also another example showing why decent liberals are proving so ineffective in taking on the growing authoritarian trend on the Left.  They seem to be unable to take the threat seriously, finding it easier to take potshots at the Right for which they will be applauded by their constituency.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

What Was Putin Up To In 2016?

My speculation is that he had a win-win strategy. Unless his folks were a lot better than most US pundits, I don’t think he was anticipating or planning for a Trump victory. Instead, his goal was to weaken the US as an adversary and whomever won I believe Putin thought he would come out stronger.

[Note 1: I am not judging whether the strategy was effective in influencing the election outcome.  I will note that the indictment asserts that, at its peak, the Russians spent $1.25 million in September 2016.  Hillary Clinton spent $1.4 billion, while Trump spent $900 million.]

[Note 2: There are many oddities in the Mueller investigation as well as in the specific charges made in the indictment that have been missed in much of the press.  Just one for now - Mueller will never have to prove his allegations because none of the defendants are in the U.S.!  More on the indictment later.]

The Win-Win In 2016
To start with, the Internet Research Agency, based in St Petersburg, which gets top billing in the Mueller indictment, has been a known entity to the US government for several years, which was aware of its ongoing attempts to sow confusion and conflict in America. In fact, the IRA was the subject of a very long article in the New York Times Magazine on June 2, 2015 which recounts its activities and the arguments within the Obama administration on how to respond. One possible reason for the President’s reluctance to respond more forcibly is not raised in the article, but has been speculated on elsewhere: his belief that he needed Russian cooperation on closing the deal with Iran and, secondarily, on Syria, and was thus reluctant to alienate Putin.

In any event, it is only against this overall strategy of weakening America, and the belief that Hillary would win, that Putin’s approach to 2016 can be understood. It was never specifically about Trump or Clinton and, as the Mueller indictment clearly lays out, it would not end no matter who was elected.

So from Putin’s perspective how did things look at the beginning of the primary campaign?
To my recollection, all of the leading Republican contenders, with the exception of Trump, were quite hostile to Putin. So the references in the Mueller indictment to Russian propaganda being directed to denigrate Cruz and Rubio makes sense. Further, with the exception of Trump, they were all more hostile to Russia than Hillary, the likely Democratic nominee.

While Hillary had been played by Putin for a dupe in her Russian “reset” policy, since his controversial reelection she had been much more rhetorically hostile to Putin’s regime than Obama or anyone else in his administration. And certainly, whatever Hillary’s views on Russia, Bernie Sanders was going to be more friendly and accommodating, so supporting Bernie and denigrating Hillary, as Mueller alleges happened during the primary, makes sense.

How did things look to Putin during the general election campaign?
Hillary must have appeared to be the certain winner to Putin, as she did to most everyone else. I think that while Putin was willing to expend some of his ammo on her during the campaign, he didn’t want to expend it all because it would be needed after her expected election. And, during the course of the campaign, she fell into another trap he laid for her.

For instance, it is reasonable to assume that Putin knows a lot more about the tens of millions of dollars funneled into the Clinton Foundation from Russia and the former Soviet Republics than is currently publicly known. Holding that over President Clinton’s head could be very effective.

It is also reasonable to assume the Putin has all of Hillary’s emails, including the deleted ones, which he could deploy on his own timing. And I’ve always assumed Hillary knows it. How convenient.

Finally, he would be able to show that the Clinton campaign had colluded, through its cut-outs, directly with the Kremlin, in assembling the Steele dossier, a fact that would prove embarrassing to a Clinton administration if and when Putin chose to release the details. And why, if Putin was really confident Trump could win, would he authorize the release of such information to Clinton? It was not for the purpose of beating Trump; it was to give him future leverage over Clinton.

As to Trump, while Putin assumed he would not win, he wouldn’t be upset if that happened. Trump was the most Russia friendly of the Republican candidates. He was extremely unschooled in international politics and very susceptible to flattery. Putin played him well, flattering him and getting flattering comments in return (Trump was even willing to demean America in the course of doing so). In his campaign were people sympathetic (Manafort) or at least not hostile (Page, Papadopolous) to Russia. And, just as with Hillary, Putin had run his own entrapment, the Trump Tower meeting with Fredo Trump Jr and Jared Kushner (at least Clinton had the sense to use cut-outs – Perkins Coie, Fusion GPS, Steele). Fredo and Jared weren’t “unwitting“, they were “witless“.

The Mueller indictment also confirms it didn’t really matter to Putin who won because it asserts that after the election Russian efforts were devoted to instigating more pro and anti-Trump rallies and continuing to stir up the American populace on divisive issues.  Facebook has also noted that the majority of Russian sponsored postings it has identified occurred after the election.

UPDATE: After writing this I just read Andrew McCarthy in NRO who puts it very well, as usual:
In reality, what happened here could not be more patent: The Kremlin hoped to sow discord in our society and thus paralyze our government’s capacity to pursue American interests. The Russian strategy was to stir up the resentments of sizable losing factions. It is not that Putin wanted Trump to win; it is that Putin figured Trump was going to lose. That is why the Kremlin tried to galvanize Trump supporters against Clinton, just as it tried to galvanize Sanders supporters against Clinton, and Trump supporters against Cruz and Rubio, during the primaries. It is why the Russians suddenly choreographed anti-Trump rallies after Trump won. The palpable goal was to promote dysfunction: Cripple a likely President Clinton before she could even get started, wound President Trump from the get-go when he unexpectedly won, and otherwise set American against American whenever possible.
Mission accomplished thanks to the Democrats and Robert Mueller, with an able assist from the bumblings of Donald Trump and his campaign.

Background: From the 1940s to 2016
Much of the media acts shocked, as if this has never happened before. A reminder:

The January 2017 intelligence assessment from the CIA/FBI/NSA (about which I wrote a year ago) asserts that Russia, and the Soviet Union before, have had a long history of trying to influence US elections, though the effort in 2016 was quite significant. The assessment does not reference any specific examples (with the exception of the first below) but we know of many (both for elections and major policy issues), including:

The January 2017 assessment references two other recent Kremlin efforts, (1) support of the anti-fracking movement in the US, and (2) support for Occupy Wall Street (support shared with Obama, Pelosi, and David Duke).

In 2012 we had Russian influence “hidden in plain sight“. The Kremlin openly supported Obama (in fact, though little noted, they did the same in 2008 because they hated McCain). Obama in turn attacked and mocked Romney for being too hard on the Russians, and was caught on open mic assuring Medvedev that he’d have more flexibility after the election. It would be fascinating to know if the intelligence community has any information regarding covert support from Moscow during that campaign.

The hysterical anti-cruise missile movement in the US and Europe in the early 1980s was also supported covertly by the Soviets, along with propaganda regarding Reagan’s supposed warmonger tendencies, manipulation that received wide acceptance in the West. It would also be interesting to know what the Soviets did in connection with the 1984 presidential campaign.

The idea that the assassination of President Kennedy was due to a right-wing conspiracy originated with the KGB in 1964, the first article proposing it was from a secretly communist funded publication in Italy; an article soon picked up by conspiracy theorists in the US who ran with it. The result contributed to widespread conspiracy mania, particularly in the late 60s through mid-70s, but which has had a long life. Instead of believing that a communist who fervently supported Fidel Castro and who had just a few months earlier tried to assassinate a right-wing figure (Edwin Walker), then went on to kill an anti-communist president who himself was trying to kill Castro, most Americans to this day still believe there was a conspiracy in which the right wing killed JFK. It’s become part of popular culture, beloved of those obsessed with conspiracies as with Oliver Stone’s JFK, the Bruce Willis wisecrack in Armageddon, and Donald Trump speculating that Ted Cruz’s dad, an anti-Castro Cuban, was involved in the murder.

The unilateral nuclear disarmament movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s in both Britain and America was directed by communist front groups under Moscow’s direction.

The Progressive Party presidential campaign of Henry Wallace in 1948 which was essentially run by the Communist Party and which, early in the campaign, was seen as having a serious chance to undermine President Truman’s reelection. Several years later Wallace admitted he’d been duped by advisers he didn’t know were commies. In addition, during the 1930s and 40s it was common practice for the Communist Party to run front groups not openly identified as communist in order to attract people who would unwittingly support the party line. As we know now, the American Communist Party was financially supported and ideologically directed by Moscow.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Fiery Valentine's Night

Ever wondered how a sphere consisting of 42,000 matches would burn?  Here's your answer.  Wallace MK, who lives in upstate New York, spent nights and weekends for ten months building this.  Then he set it afire.  And I watched the video.  If you are curious about the details on how he built the thing read this at Bored Panda.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Deconstructing Kid Charlemagne

Musician Rick Beato has maded a fascinating series called What Makes This Song Great? in which he breaks down the instrumentation and vocals on several popular hits.  Below he discusses Steely Dan's Kid Charlemagne, their mid-70s rumination on the fate of a drug dealer who time has passed by.  He spends nearly eight minutes on Larry Carlton's two classic guitar solos (which THC rated as his #2 Dan guitar solo favorite).  You'll also hear about the sound layers, vocals and, at the end, a comparison of a drum machine sound used by Bruno Mars in one of his recent hits with the groove laid down by drummer Bernard Purdie on the Dan tune.

Here are links to two other enlightening Beato breakdowns.  The first is Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic by The Police in which we learn about Lydian bass lines and the second Jeremy by Pearl Jam.  With Jeremy he takes us through the dense layering that leads to the cacophony of sound (it even turns out there is a cello on the recording!) and the unusual pattern of Eddie Vedder's melody.

The one aspect Beato ignores that goes into creating a great song are the lyrics which contribute to making the saga of Kid Charlemagne work and are absolutely essential to the success of Jeremy, in which the distraught, disturbed words (I don't think there is another song with lyrics similar to "gnashed his teeth/and bit the recess lady's breast") are matched by the thunderous, and occasionally dissonant, music.

Monday, February 12, 2018

On The Birthday Of The Great Emancipator

How I wish the birthdays of our two greatest presidents were still national holidays.

On the 109th anniversary of his birth this link takes you to fourteen THC posts on our 16th President.

Heavy Falcon Landing

Whoa!  The two boosters from the Spacex Falcon Heavy land in Florida.  I guess you need two boosters if you're going to launch a Tesla into space.  [Correction: Actually three boosters per the comment by The Scotsman.}

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Lady Bird

We've grown reluctant in recent years to see highly touted films set in contemporary times because many of them are filled with snark, simplistic themes, predictable plot twists, and cartoon characters.   Lady Bird is not one of those movies, treating its characters, their lives, and their beliefs with respect, and keeping us interested throughout with what will happen to 17 year old Christine, who has renamed herself Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan, who's as wonderful in this as she was in Brooklyn) and her mother (Laurie Metcalf).   The movie garnered well deserved nominations for Best Picture, best actress (Ronan), and best supporting actress (Metcalf).

The interplay between mother and daughter is so well done; complex, funny, heartbreaking, and changing throughout except for their underlying love of each other, though that love is something they have trouble expressing at times.  This felt like real people interacting rather than characters created so the director and write can make a point.

It's a serious film but one with some laugh out loud moments at unexpected times.

Lady Bird is the first directing and screenwriting effort by Greta Gerwig, the star of innumerable indie films in recent years that haven't interested me in the least.  It's a very impressive debut.

Here's one example of her fine writing.  The setup is that Lady Bird is attending a Catholic girls school in Sacramento, a city that she says she is desperate to leave.  She played a nasty prank on headmistress Sister Sarah Joan and is surprised when the Sister tells her she found the prank funny.  They continue on:

Sister Sarah Joan: I read your college essay.  You clearly love Sacramento.

Lady Bird: I do?

Joan: Well, you write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.

Lady Bird: I was just describing it.

Joan: It comes across as love.

Lady Bird: Sure, I guess I pay attention.
Joan: Don't you think maybe they are the same thing?  Love and attention?

Friday, February 9, 2018

Rock Kidney Song

"When someone starts talking in the middle of a song you know it's serious."

From 30 Rock featuring Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, Mary J Blige, Norah Jones, Adam Levine, Moby, Michael McDonald, Wyclef Jean, Robert Randolph, Cindy Lauper, and the Beastie Boys.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Bearss And Stripes Forever

Ed Bearss, of whom we've written about before, is a National Treasure.  Retired Chief Historian of the National Park Service and now its Historian Emeritus, at 94 Ed remains astoundingly active, on the road two hundred days a year giving lectures and leading battlefield tours here and in Europe.  Ed is a leading figure in much of the battlefield preservation and conservation that has occurred in the United States since the 1950s and was a featured commentator on the renowned PBS Civil War series of Ken Burns.

(Ed Bearss wearing shirt with logo, "I don't need an internet search engine. I know Ed Bearss".  Photo taken by THC at City Point, near Petersburg, VA 2015)

My first encounter with him was on a hot, humid July day in 2012 at Antietam where he marched us around The Cornfield, site of fierce back and forth combat on September 17, 1862, for three hours, barking at us to stay hydrated, though I noticed he never drank anything.  Three years later at The Crater outside Petersburg, Ed admonished us for our failure to keep up with him, warning "all stragglers will be shot!".  His distinctive declamatory speaking style led one writer in the Washington Post to liken listening to Ed to what it must have been like to hear a Homeric bard.

Because of my association with the Scottsdale Civil War Roundtable, last month I had the privilege of spending a day with Ed, a day I will always remember.  Ed appears at the Roundtable each year in January and each time he stays in town the next day and we plan an excursion for him.  Even in his 90s, Ed remains curious and wants to see and learn about new things so as you can imagine the challenge gets bigger every year to find something he has not yet visited.

This year one of our Board members suggested we consider the Museum of the Horse Soldier in Tucson.  The museum, which is only five years old, is devoted to the history of the men, horses, and equipment of the U.S. Cavalry.  One of our Board members put me in touch with John Langellier, a Western historian living in Tucson involved in the creation of the museum.  John, in turn, put me in touch with Rae Whitley, the young (at least by my standards!) museum director.  Rae was thrilled to hear that Ed Bearss was coming to visit and told us he'd be happy to give him a guided tour.

The four hours I spent with Ed driving back and forth to Tucson is something I will never forget.  We talked the entire time, with Ed doing most of it (no surprise to anyone who knows him!).  I asked  about the National Park Service, his career, working with LBJ down at his ranch, his war service, as well as his lengthy hospitalization and recovery from his war wounds.  I wish I had recorded it!
IMG_0870.jpg(Ed was the recipient of the 2017 Founder's Literature Award by the Pritzker Military Museum & Library)

Regarding his war service, Ed told me of growing up on a ranch in eastern Montana, not far from the Little Bighorn battlefield, during the Depression.  Ed enlisted in the Marines in April 1942 at the age of 18, inspired by the example of a distant cousin, Hiram Bears, a Marine who received the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Filipino Insurrection and the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during the First World War.  After attending bootcamp in San Diego, Ed was shipped to the Pacific as part of the 1st Marine Division.  He saw his first action on Guadalcanal in November 1942, and subsequently also saw action on the Russell Islands.

His third island engagement was on New Britain.  On January 2, 1944 at Suicide Creek on Cape Gloucester on New Britain he was wounded five times by Japanese machine gun fire.  He was hit in the left heel, buttocks, right shoulder (which remains weak to this day), and twice in the left arm, with one bullet severing nerves to his hand, leaving it permanently useless, and a second shattering two inches of bone above his left elbow.  He was transported in open boat to Buna, on the north coast of New Guinea, which he told me was a very painful journey, and then airlifted to Port Moresby on the southern coast. 

It was the upper arm wound that was most serious causing doctors to evaluate whether to amputate.  They ultimately decided to try a bone graft, taking two inches of bone from his left shin (and leaving him with a limp), and grafting it into his left arm.  After the operation he was placed on intravenous penicillin for a month.  Recovery was slow, with surgeons going in every six weeks to clean out the grafted area, and he was not discharged until March 1946, twenty six months after his wounding.  Ed told me he'd never had any problems with the wound (though his left arm is disabled) until 2017, more than seventy years later, when a small piece of bone that had been left in scar tissue caused a serious infection.

While we were going back and forth to Tucson, Ed asked about my background and had many questions about Arizona and Phoenix.  It also turns out we are both baseball fans and, when younger, we both rooted for the Giants though today I'm a Red Sox guy and Ed follows the Washington Nationals.  I was astonished to find out that somehow a 9-year old boy living on a Montana ranch was in Chicago's Comiskey Park on July 6, 1933 to see Babe Ruth hit a home run in the first major league All-Star game.  And I learned that Ed ended up in Chicago because his grandmother, who had attended the 1893 Columbian Exposition in the Windy City, had saved up the money to attend the World's Fair which opened there on May 27, 1933.  His grandmother died that spring, but her savings allowed his family to attend the fair that summer, something they could not have afforded on their own.

He also told me his favorite president was Harry Truman, in part because he considered him the last president to lead a "normal" life before, during, and after he was in the White House.  He also spoke highly of Manual Lujan, Secretary of the Interior under George HW Bush.  Responding to my question about the current state of the park service, Ed didn't answer directly but mentioned that someone had scheduled a meeting for him with the current Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.  It was clear to me that Ed was, and remains, a savvy operator on dealing with politicians.

 (Ed Bearss & Ray Whitley)

The museum and tour were outstanding.  Along with Rae Whitley, we were joined by John Langellier  The museum is small and packed with exhibits.  I highly recommend it and you should have Rae or one of his docents give a guided tour.
(THC, Ed Bearss, Rae Whitley)

But more important than what I think is the opinion of Ed Bearss and he thought it superb, telling Rae it was one of the biggest surprises he'd had in a while - a museum he had not heard about with such wonderful and interesting material.  After putting Rae through his paces with lots of questions, he praised the museum director for the depth of his knowledge on cavalry history.  While the collection is smaller than those at U.S. military museums, Ed thought it was better curated and organized.

It was fun listening to Ed and Rae talk about McClellan saddles and the army's use of mules.  Did you know that a mule transported by the army from the U.S. to China during WW2 ended up being captured from Chinese Communist troops by American soldiers in Korea in 1951?  My favorite moment was when Rae asked Ed for background the display of the guidon of Battery D, First New York Artillery stationed in the Wheatfield on the second day of Gettysburg under the command of Captain George B Winslow, which led to a fascinating discussion between the two.  Although the Confederates overran the battery, the guidon was saved by a Union soldier from Massachusetts who took it home where it was kept in his family for almost 150 years before being sold.  There are stains on the guidon which recent testing confirmed are of human and equine blood.

(Ed & Rae discuss the guidon and action in the Wheatfield on July 2, 1863)

Looking forward to hosting Ed next year . . .

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Will HBO Get Fahrenheit 451 Right?

. . . or will it miss the mark like Michael Bay when he made Pearl Harbor?

The cable channel has completed a remake of Ray Bradbury's classic 1951 novel to be broadcast later this year. The film's director, Ramin Bahrani, was recently interviewed:

I think it’s pretty obvious, right?” Bahrani said when asked why Bradbury’s dystopian story is especially relevant in Trump’s America. The director, co-writer and executive producer of HBO’s adaptation of the novel spoke to reporter at the network’s panel during the Television Critics Association winter tour.

We started working on this a year before the election,” Bahrani said. 
Politically things are going in a very strange direction in terms of what is real and what is not real,” he continued. “I think we’ve been going in that direction for a long time, it’s just now kind of being revealed to us more clearly. So I think from a high level, that’s a problem.”
But Bahrani wasn’t ready to lay all the blame on the current president, adding that we as a culture have become beholden to technology and having information at our fingertips.

I don’t want to focus so much on [Trump] because I don’t want to excuse the 30, 40 years prior to that. He’s just an exaggeration of it now,” Bahrani said.
The film stars Michael B Jordan who was outstanding in Creed, and Michael Shannon who shared his charming thoughts on Trump voters after the election:
"No offense to the seniors out there. My mom’s a senior citizen. But if you’re voting for Trump, it’s time for the urn."

When the interviewer confessed their parents had voted for Trump; Shannon swiftly responded, "F*ck ’em. You’re an orphan now. Don’t go home. Don’t go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Don’t talk to them at all. Silence speaks volumes."
Message: Don't burn books, burn people.

Given HBO's leftward drift over the past decade concern is warranted.  The cable giant's documentaries lean left, as do its "based on fact" series and it is the home of Bill Maher and VICE News (VICE is Vox for hipsters who don't like to read). Most recently, HBO announced Pod Save America, a series to debut in advance of the 2018 mid-term elections and hosted by Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor, President Obama's team of young and shallow speechwriters.  You may remember them laughing it up with Charlie Rose over their authorship of the immortal Obama promise/lie, "you can keep your plan if you like it".

In Fahrenheit 451, censorship doesn't start with the government; it starts with every minority taking out of books those pages that offend them and it is only at this point that the government moves in.  

Think about where censorship is coming from in today's America.  It is in the shutting down of opposition viewpoints on progressive college campuses; it is in groups "screening" works for major publishers to prevent viewpoints they oppose from seeing the light of day.  It is in calls for the removal of older books, movies and works of art that offend someone today.  Dystopian seems to be the preferred term by the left to describe "Trump's America" but if one looks at what is actually going on in society you would quickly realize that it is a projection by the left of its own vision of how America should be and who should be allowed to voice opinions.  For a summary of where we are today read Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine on We All Live On Campus Now.

Bradbury, who died in 2012, saw the problem in its early stages.  By the late 1970s his own work was subjected to editing in order to sooth the sensibilities of various offended groups, prompting his coda to the 1979 edition of Fahrenheit 451: 
About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles.
But, she added, wouldn’t it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women’s characters and roles?
A few years before that I got a certain amount of mail concerning the same Martian book complaining that the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms and why didn’t I “do them over”?
Along about then came a note from a Southern white suggesting that I was prejudiced in favor of the blacks and the entire story should be dropped.
Two weeks ago my mountain of mail delivered forth a pipsqueak mouse of a letter from a well-known publishing house that wanted to reprint my story “The Fog Horn” in a high school reader.
In my story, I had described a lighthouse as hav­ing, late at night, an illumination coming from it that was a “God-Light.” Looking up at it from the view-point of any sea-creature one would have felt that one was in “the Presence.”
The editors had deleted “God-Light” and “in the Presence.”
Some five years back, the editors of yet another anthology for school readers put together a volume with some 400 (count ‘em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant and Bierce into one book?
Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy. Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquito—out! Every simile that would have made a sub-moron’s mouth twitch—gone! Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer—lost!
Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepenciled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like—in the finale—Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been ra­zored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant’s attention—shot dead.
Do you begin to get the damned and incredible picture?
How did I react to all of the above?
By “firing” the whole lot.
By sending rejection slips to each and every one. By ticketing the assembly of idiots to the far reaches of hell.
The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people run­ning about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/ Republican, Mattachine/ Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.
Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by minori­ties, each ripping a page or a paragraph from this book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the libraries closed forever.
“Shut the door, they’re coming through the win­dow, shut the window, they’re coming through the door,” are the words to an old song. They fit my life-style with newly arriving butcher/censors every month. Only six weeks ago, I discovered that, over the years, some cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel. Students, reading the novel which, after all, deals with censorship and book-burning in the fu­ture, wrote to tell me of this exquisite irony. Judy-Lynn Del Rey, one of the new Ballantine editors, is having the entire book reset and republished this summer with all the damns and hells back in place.
A final test for old Job II here: I sent a play, Leviathan 99, off to a university theater a month ago. My play is based on the “Moby Dick” mythology, dedi­cated to Melville, and concerns a rocket crew and a blind space captain who venture forth to encounter a Great White Comet and destroy the destroyer. My drama premieres as an opera in Paris this autumn.
But, for now, the university wrote back that they hardly dared do my play—it had no women in it! And the ERA ladies on campus would descend with ball-bats if the drama department even tried!
Grinding my bicuspids into powder, I suggested that would mean, from now on, no more productions of Boys in the Band (no women), or The Women (no men). Or, counting heads, male and female, a good lot of Shakespeare that would never be seen again, especially if you count lines and find that all the good stuff went to the males!
I wrote back maybe they should do my play one week, and The Women the next. They probably thought I was joking, and I’m not sure that I wasn’t.
For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangu­tan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conversation­ist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics. The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule. If Mor­mons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent type-writers. If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture. If the Chicano intel­lectuals wish to re-cut my “Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” so it shapes “Zoot,” may the belt unravel and the pants fall.
For, let’s face it, digression is the soul of wit. Take philosophic asides away from Dante, Milton or Hamlet’s father’s ghost and what stays is dry bones. Laur­ence Sterne said it once: Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine, the life, the soul of reading! Take them out and one cold eternal winter would reign in every page. Restore them to the writer—he steps forth like a bridegroom, bids them all-hail, brings in variety and forbids the appetite to fail.
In sum, do not insult me with the beheadings, finger-choppings or the lung-defiations you plan for my works. I need my head to shake or nod, my hand to wave or make into a fist, my lungs to shout or whis­per with. I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book.
All you umpires, back to the bleachers. Referees, hit the showers. It’s my game. I pitch, I hit, I catch. I run the bases. At sunset I’ve won or lost. At sunrise, I’m out again, giving it the old try.
And no one can help me. Not even you.