Monday, 11 November 2019

The Challenge of Racism in America

“We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.”
— Barack Obama speaking in Selma on March 7 2015 at the fifth anniversary of the famous march


"I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with their pain."
— James Baldwin

“We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity.”

W.E.B. Du Bois
— Thomas Miller, South Carolina Congressman, 1895



“If  there was one thing that  South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro  government."

—W.E.B. Du Bois

“Yet, the harsh fact is that in many places in this country, men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes. Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right.”

— Lyndon Johnson,Voting Rights Act Address, 1965

Sunday, 10 November 2019

The Dream of Political Racial and Economic Equality in South Africa

"There's no such thing here (in South Africa). The facts may be correct but the truth they embody is always a lie to someone else. Every inch of our soil is contested, every word in our histories." 
– Rian Malan, The Lion Sleeps Tonight 2012

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
– Nelson Mandela




Truth and Reconciliation Commission
“Having looked the beast in the eye having asked and received forgiveness, let us shut the door on the past and not forget it but to allow it not to imprison us.”
– Archbishop Tutu

Monday, 4 November 2019

Colson Whitehead: The Shredder of Illusions

Colson Whitehead photographed by Chris Close


Most of us do not harbour a benign view of slavery, namely the belief that the owners of slaves were reluctant masters who generally cared for the well being of their human property. There are, however egregious exceptions. In 2016 a curious children's book appeared, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, that portrayed happy slave children baking a cake for the first President, a whitewash of slavery that produced a swift and sharp backlash prompting the publisher to withdraw the book. More disturbing is that Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate for Alabama in the 2018 election and subsequently lost in one of the America's reddest states, publicly stated that America was great when slavery prevailed because black families were kept together, a grotesque misrepresentation of the historical reality when families were frequently and viciously torn apart.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

The Challenge to Maintain one's Humanity during and after the Vietnam War


“The Vietnam War was a tragedy, immeasurable and irredeemable. But meaning can be found in the individual stories of those who lived through it, stories of courage and comradeship and perseverance, of understanding and forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation.”
 Peter Coyote, the narrator in The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick  

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
“In terms of content, The Vietnam War, written by the historian Geoffrey C. Ward and narrated by Peter Coyote, is rich, revelatory, and scrupulously evenhanded. It succeeds in large part by not being reductive or succinct—by being, in fact, rather overstuffed, a lot to take in…. By dint of its thoroughness, its fairness, and its pedigree, The Vietnam War is as good an occasion as we’ve ever had for a levelheaded national conversation about America’s most divisive foreign war. It deserves to be, and likely will be, the rare kind of television that becomes an event.”
— David Kamp, “Why The Vietnam War Is Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Most Ambitious Project Yet” Vanity Fair September, 2017.

  
John Musgrave
"There is a family of these witnesses; we never hear the voice of an interviewer. One of the most beguiling is John Musgrave, a Marine so badly wounded in Vietnam that several doctors rated him ‘expected’. He became a drop-out and an alcoholic, a would-be suicide and a protester who is still battling the melodrama of the war and the effects of his wounds. He is now a poet and a spokesman for veterans. We feel his romantic recklessness, as he tries to reconcile what happened to him with what he wished had happened. Another witness, Tim O’Brien (author of Going after Cacciato and The Things They Carried), has been a success in life, but is so anguished still that he has difficulty looking at the camera. Musgrave, on the other hand, stares into the lens as if it were his mirror. He deserves a novel or a movie, and because so many of the witnesses are just as conflicted as he is The Vietnam War acquires the density of a sprawling work of fiction....

This is the point: The Vietnam War isn’t just about the war but the consequences it had for Americans. There is a great deal from the home front here, and while the jukebox of great rock and roll on the soundtrack makes the ordeal seem exciting sometimes, it leaves little doubt that the cultural revolutions of the 1960s – Merrill McPeak’s ‘rivulets’ – were a liberation for a minority and one that left a schism in America still emphatically evident in the 2016 election."
 David Thomson, "Merely an Empire," London Review of Books, September 21, 2017 

Another insightful review can be found in The New York Review of Books  

Perhaps the best drama on Vietnam and the incident that it is based upon that is referenced in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War is the 1989 film, Casualties of War.

"Casualties of War is a film based, we are told, on an actual event. A five-man patrol of American soldiers in Vietnam kidnapped a young woman from her village, forced her to march with them, and then raped her and killed her. One of the five refused to participate in the rape and murder, and it was his testimony that eventually brought the others to a military court martial and prison sentences. The movie is not so much about the event as about the atmosphere leading up to it - the dehumanizing reality of combat, the way it justifies brute force and penalizes those who would try to live by a higher standard....
More than most films, it depends on the strength of its performances for its effect - and especially on Penn's performance. If he is not able to convince us of his power, his rage and his contempt for the life of the girl, the movie would not work. He does, in a performance of overwhelming, brutal power. Fox, as his target, plays a character most of us could probably identify with, the person to whom rape or murder is unthinkable, but who has never had to test his values in the crucible of violence. The movie's message, I think, is that in combat human values are lost and animal instincts are reinforced. We knew that already. But the movie makes it inescapable, especially when we reflect that the story is true, and the victim was real."
— Roger Ebert, August 10, 1989 


This memorial is now thought to be the most successful and beloved public work of our time. It is so simple, so elegant, that it makes its statement without even trying. The long arms of marble enclose us. We see the names of the dead. We are left with our thoughts.
The most arresting scenes in the documentary Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision are about the miracle that this memorial was even erected at all—about its opponents, who would have replaced it with something ordinary and mundane.
Today, when the memorial is universally beloved, such men as Pat Buchanan and Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) are not quick to remind you that they fought against it, in ways that do not reflect well on their judgment or taste.... Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, written and directed by Freida Lee Mock, tells the story of how Lin designed the memorial, and how it came to be built. It follows her over the next 14 years, as she matures from an insecure student to a confident professional, and designs other public works, including the Civil Rights Monument in Montgomery, Ala. " 
—Selections from a review by Roger Ebert



"Kathleen Belew’s gripping study of white power, Bring the War Home, as written before the city of Charlottesville became a hashtag, and is largely concerned with activities from the 1970s and ’80s. But it is. Her activists — for indeed, these were activists building a grass-roots movement — consolidated power in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. It is that starting point that hints at the book’s explosive thesis: that the white power movement that reached a culmination with the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing emerged as a radical reaction to the war.
Sit with that for a moment, because it is a breathtaking argument, one
 that treats foreign policy as the impetus for a movement that most people view through the lens of domestic racism. But Belew, an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago, perceives something more in the white power movement than metastasized racism. She sees the malignant consequence of the war, which, she argues, “comes home in ways bloody and unexpected.”
— From a review by Nicole Hemmer

"Too many people still think of these attacks as single events, rather than interconnected actions carried out by domestic terrorists. We spend too much ink dividing them into anti-immigrant, racist, anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic attacks. True, they are these things. But they are also connected with one another through a broader white power ideology.
Likewise, too many people think that such shootings are the goal of fringe activism. They aren’t. They are planned to incite a much larger slaughter by 'awakening' other people to join the movement.
The El Paso manifesto, if it is verified, ties the attacker into the mainstream of the white power movement, which came together after the Vietnam War and united Klan, neo-Nazi, skinhead and other activists."

Kathleen Belew, “The Right Way to Understand White Nationalist Terrorism," The New York Times August 4, 2019. 

















Tuesday, 22 October 2019

An Appreciation of Philip Kerr's final novel Metropolis

"Metropolis" by Otto Dix
When the Scottish-born author, Philip Kerr, died of cancer last year at the age of 62, he left behind the manuscript of Metropolis which turned out to be the 14th novel in the Bernie Gunther series. Although he wrote several standalone novels and a children's fantasy series, he will probably best be remembered for the hard-boiled, iconoclastic Berlin detective turned private investigator.

Philip Kerr
The Weimar Republic, specifically 1928 Berlin, is the locale of Metropolis. The novel is a prequel to the series that began thirty years ago with the publication of March Violets set in 1936 Nazi Germany at the time of the Olympics. Interestingly, that time-span roughly matches the aging of the novels' cynical protagonist since Kerr's penultimate novel, Greeks Bearing Gifts takes place in 1957. 
  
Metropolis has all the earmarks of  the Bernie Gunther novels: thorough historical research that illuminates rather than overwhelms the plot and characters, a sharp eye for detail, razor-sharp dialogue that will remind readers of Raymond Chandler's, Philip Marlowe, and interior acerbic monologue that is often at odds with his reassuring words that are largely driven by self-interest, at times sheer survival.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

The Seduction and Horror of War


President Woodrow Wilson
Siegfried Sassoon













“You will see the effect upon  people. They will acclaim it with enthusiasm; everybody is already looking forward to the first onslaught—so dull have their lives become.
—Herman Hesse, Damian

"One of the most troubling reasons men love war is the love of destruction, the thrill of killing...all you do is move the finger so imperceptibly, just a wish flashing across your mind like a shadow, not even a full brain synapse, and poof, in a blast of sound and energy and light a truck or a house or even people disappear, everything flying and settling back into dust."
William Broyles, "Why Men Love War," Esquire, November 1984, veteran of the Vietnam War

"Oh! What a Lovely War does recreate this time, in a bitter mixture of history, satire, detail, panorama and music.
Especially music. There is something paradoxical in the thought of singing about a war, and yet cheap popular songs often capture the spirit of a time better than any collection of speeches and histories. Miss (Joan) Littlewood (in the 1963 stage production), and (Richard) Attenborough after her, present the war as a British music hall review; there's a lot of smiling up front, but backstage you can see the greasepaint and smell the sweat, and the smiles become desperate, and there begins to be blood.

This sense is captured most tellingly in Maggie Smith's scene. She plays a robust, patriotic broad who lures the young men from the audience to the stage with promises of love and implications of heroic death. But death is reserved for the young, not for the old, and John Mills (as Sir Douglas Haig) stays far behind the lines, studying the front from an observation tower. Meanwhile, politicians, kings and rulers play stupid games of diplomacy and etiquette, and 'acceptable losses' are counted in the hundreds of thousands. But always everyone whistles a happy tune...."
— Roger Ebert, October 30, 1969

Monday, 16 September 2019

Redeeming the Past in Alexi Zentner's Copperhead and Eli Saslow's Rising Out of Hatred

Author Alexi Zenter. (Photo: Laurie Willick, Viking)Add caption
Alexi Zentner's, Copperhead, spins several threads that eventually knit together. Although the President's name is  mentioned only twice, in reference to the Woman's March that occurred shortly after his inauguration, the novel is firmly ensconced in the Trump era where racial and class tensions have been exacerbated. The novel's incendiary language exploits these divisions mirroring the raw rhetoric the President deploys in his rallies and almost daily tweets. There is an incisive exploration of toxic race relations and the stigma associated with being labeled as so-called "white trash." It is also an investigation about the relationship between the alt-right and the religious right in America. Throughout, a teenager navigates through these treacherous landmines, makes a serious mistake and as an adult attempts to address it.

In a gripping third-person narrative relayed in bite-size chapters that
unfolds over a few days, Zentner introduces us to Jessup, a high-school senior living in a small community in upstate New York "where history is everything." Despite being raised by a single mom on a limited income and living in a trailer-park home, Jessup maintains good grades and works at the local movie theatre when he is not hunting to supply food for his family. Perhaps most importantly, he excels at athletics. Even though some of his classmates dismiss him as "born into the wrong family," even a Nazi, he is a standout football player and has the possibility of acquiring an Ivy League football scholarship.