Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Long Shadow: Carol Anderson’s White Rage (Part One)

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large and I am reproducing it on this site because of my interest how ideology in this case, white supremacy,  is used to justify crossing a line to diminish or destroy another people's humanity. What makes this book so remarkable is how the author demonstrates how much of that process was done under the cover of the law.

“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, 7th 2015 at the fifth anniversary of the famous march 

During the week of the Republican Convention when Donald Trump proclaimed himself as the candidate of law and order, and reading Carol Anderson’s historical catalogue of white resistance to black progress, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (Bloomsbury, 2016), two thoughts came to mind. Rightly denouncing the murder of police officers, he said nothing about the murder of black men by the police, even the murder on November 26, 2014 of twelve-year old Tamir Rice who was killed in Cleveland, the city where the convention was held. No charges were ever laid against the officer. Secondly, I wondered whether Trump was aware that he was retrieving Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy that pandered to racists during the 1968 presidential election. Nixon was another practitioner of dog-whistle politics: a coded message that appears innocuous to the general public, but has an additional interpretation meant to appeal to the target audience, for example, to racists. According to Anderson, one of Nixon’s most trusted aides, H.R. Haldeman, Nixon “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” Another Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, noted after the candidate saw an ad that showed entire cities burning without ever mentioning blacks, Nixon chortled, “It’s about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.” By not acknowledging the African-Americans killed, Trump expressed a similar contempt for African-Americans at the 2016 Republican Convention.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Eleanor Roosevelt through Different Lenses (Part 2): Patricia Bell-Scott’s The Firebrand and the First Lady

Reading The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship, I noted that although it covers much of the same material and sources as Ken Burns' The Roosevelts, Patricia Bell-Scott offers a new angle and brings Eleanor Roosevelt into sharper focus with a fuller, more rounded portrait, rendering her a more complex individual than served up in the documentary television series. She continued to encourage her husband to live up to his promises and professed ideals but what is different about The Firebrand is that she in turn was challenged by Pauli Murray (1910-85), an African-American socialist activist, lawyer, poet and first African-American female Episcopal priest.

The unlikely friendship between ER and Murray began in 1938 when the latter sent an impassioned letter to the President that caught the attention of his wife. Murray had been denied admission to the University of North Carolina because of her race and she was rightfully outraged, considering that FDR had just visited the university and praised it for its social progress. Her plaintive plea: “We cannot endure these conditions. Our whole being cries out against inequality and injustice” prompted the first lady to offer a glimmer of support: “The South is changing, but don’t push too fast. There is a great change in youth, for instance, and this is a hopeful sign,” an exchange that captures the dynamic and tone for much of their correspondence that was to continue for decades until ER’s death in 1962.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Eleanor Roosevelt through Different Lenses (Part 1): Ken Burns' The Roosevelts

Originally appearing in Critics at Large, I am reproducing it here because of interest in personalities that have exhibited courage in the last century.

Eleanor Roosevelt speaking at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. (Photo: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)

Since Ken Burns adapted David McCullough's book, The Great Bridge, about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, to an Academy Award winning Brooklyn Bridge (1981), he has produced and directed numerous masterful feature length documentaries for PBS. His signature trademarks are a combination of still photos, archival film footage, unseen actors reading the words of historical characters, apt American music and an array of historians, journalists and (if possible) surviving contemporaries who offer compelling anecdotes and insights into the era, an issue and the characters. Burns avoids dramatic re-enactments. His oeuvre includes The Statue of Liberty (1985), the iconic The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), The West (1996), Lewis & Clark (1997),Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1999), Jazz (2001),The War (2007), The National Parks (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Dust Bowl (2012), The Central Park Five (2013). Most recently PBS has aired Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies (2015), a six-hour treatment of Indian-American physician Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer prize-winning biography of cancer, the one film Burns did not direct because he was so personally connected to the subject: his mother died of cancer when he was a young boy. In 2016, he returned to directing and producing the thrilling Jackie Robinson that excelled in weaving together sport, politics and race.

It is, however, Burns’ 2014 mammoth seven-part, fourteen-hour The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, on the private and public lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, that is the one I will be discussing today –  focusing mostly on the second generation of Roosevelts. As with many of the films cited above, Burns collaborated with biographer and historian Geoffrey C. Ward, who wrote the elegant and accessible script and is one of the historians – along with Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, Jon Meacham and journalist George Will – who offers trenchant insights. Actor Peter Coyote won an Emmy award for his compelling narration. The stellar cast of actors’ voices include Meryl Streep for Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Giamatti for Teddy Roosevelt, and Edward Herrmann for FDR, an astute choice since he persuasively played the role in the television series Eleanor and Franklin (1976) and Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years (1977).

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Nothing Any Longer is Forbidden: Nazi-Occupied France on Stage, Small Screen, and Page

This essay was originally posted on Critics at Large and is reproduced on this site because of the demonstration of courage in the face of terrible adversity by characters in the drama, television series and novel that I  review.

A scene from Soulpepper's production of Incident at Vichy. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Part of knowing who we are is knowing we are not someone else. And Jew is only that name we give to that stranger, that agency we cannot feel. Each man has his own Jew, it is the other. And the Jews have their own Jews. 
– Leduc, in Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy
In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. 
– Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale
As the lights go down, we hear the ominous sound of a train, chilling because the setting is 1942 in France.Incident at Vichy then opens with a daily occurrence: the systematic rounding up of suspected Jews by the Vichy government as it submitted to German racial laws. On this particular day, a number of men and a teenage boy have been shuttled into a ramshackle detention centre and lined up on a bench, none of them certain why, initially thinking that perhaps the authorities are interested only in checking their papers. But as they get called in one-by-one for questioning (off stage), they begin suspecting more sinister motives – there is talk about trains locked from the outside and rumours about work camps – while at the same time they protect themselves with self-delusions that freedom will come, particularly after the first man called in, the businessman is given a pass to leave. Of course the audience knows precisely the reason: most of them are Jews and the Nazis' purpose is to identify individuals who belong to their designated “inferior races” so that they can be dispatched by train east to Poland. The discrepancy between the audience’s knowledge and the uncertainty of the characters contributes to the tension (for some audience members at the Toronto Soulpepper performance I attended that tension was clearly unbearable expressed through fidgeting, movement as if to leave but decide to stay, almost a mirror of what was happening on stage) that Arthur Miller’s ninety-minute one act 1964 drama is designed to generate.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Night Manager: From Page to Small Screen

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large  and is reproduced on this site because both the novel and the television adaptation prominently feature the element of transgression.

Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, in AMC's adaptation of' John le Carré's The Night Manager.

“[Pure Intelligence] meant turning a blind eye to some of the biggest crooks in the hemisphere for the sake of nebulous advantages elsewhere.”
– John le Carré, The Night Manager 
“Guns go where the power is…Armed power’s what keeps the peace. Unarmed power does not last five minutes. First rule of stability.”
– Richard Roper, in John le Carré's The Night Manager 
Note: This review contains spoilers.

Part of what made John le Carré’s version of the Cold War so fascinating was the way it avoided a Manichean view of the universe. Shading, ambiguity, and doubt were qualities absent in earlier examples of the thriller from Le Queux, Buchan or Fleming but not in a le Carré Cold War novel. Only the most obtuse reader would fail to recognize how alike Smiley and Karla were, secret sharers on either side of the Iron Curtain. Smiley represented the better side – decent, compassionate and endowed with a healthy skepticism – and he believed that Karla’s fanaticism would be his undoing. However, Karla defected for the love of his lost daughter. Smiley regarded himself as an archetypal liberal – reasonable with measured responses – but he could sustain a murderous hatred for someone who betrayed him, an antipathy that could cloud his judgment. This does not mean that Smiley became Karla: the Soviet spymaster ordered the murder of agents while Smiley did not. Smiley believed in the power of Western democracy but feared that if his side succumbed to Karla’s methods, the decencies he professed will become illusions and feared that he could lose his own humanity. While he agonized over these moral conundrums, Smiley and the intelligence services were civil servants who pursued their opposite numbers. Communist agents were often ruthless murderers but, unless they were moles inside British intelligence, Smiley (or le Carré) did not regard them as evil villains. Then the Cold War ended and le Carré became an angry man. 

That anger radiates throughout le Carré’s first post-Cold War novel The Night Manager (1993). It is as if the author is questioning whether the principles that inspired the West to fight the Cold War were nothing but hollow rhetoric. If its purpose was designed to protect freedom and capitalism, how is Richard Roper – a wealthy and powerful illegal arms and drugs smuggler operating out of the Bahamas to peddle weapons to anyone who will provide him with a profit and admirer of the odious Idi Amin – possible? Masquerading as a respectable business magnate, he is frequently described as “the worst man in the world” – and le Carré is not intending any sense of irony – because Roper’s greed and callousness without any redeeming features, render him a villain rarely depicted in the Cold War novels.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Through the Mirror Darkly: The Gothic Dimension of the 2016 Presidential Election (Part II)

The following is Part II of Through the Mirror Darkly: The Gothic Dimension of the 2016 Presidential Election. Part I was published here yesterday. The piece is an edited adaptation of an address I presented at the Mensa Society International Conference in Toronto on June 11.

Louisiana politician Huey Long, during a radio broadcast, January 1930.

The bigoted nativism that Trump stokes is not unique in the American historical experience. In 1780, papist immigrants were targeted allegedly for their fecundity; in 1850, the scapegoat was the Chinese who allegedly could not assimilate; in 1920, Jews were feared because they threatened the economy. The cartoon does not take into account the no-nothing movement that became the American Party in 1854 which called for the end of Catholic immigrants from Germany and Ireland. But these historical episodes were generally relegated to the political fringes and no major Presidential candidate took them seriously as a major plank in their election campaign.

Demagoguery did, however, threaten to become a part of the 1936 presidential election. In an era when the 'radio priest,' Father Charles Coughlin, contended that "someone must be blamed," governor and then senator of Louisiana, Huey Long, did plan to challenge Franklin Roosevelt for the Democratic nominee. FDR did take the threat seriously. The following is an astute comment from Harry Williams, a major Long biographer:
He was intensely interested in himself. He had to dominate every scene he was in and every person around him. He craved attention and would go to any length to get it. He knew that an audacious action, although it was harsh and even barbarous, could shock people into a state where they could be manipulated. 
Sound familiar? The novelist Sinclair Lewis was so alarmed by the possibility of a Long presidency that he was inspired to write the dystopian novel, It Can’t Happen Here about a demagogic senator who becomes President and transforms America into a fascist state. Here is that senator campaigning:
My one ambition is to get all Americans to realize that they are, and must continue to be, the greatest Race on the face of this old Earth, and second, to realize that whatever apparent differences there may be among us, in wealth, knowledge, skill, ancestry or strength–though, of course, all this does not apply to people who are racially different from us–we are all brothers, bound together in the great and wonderful bond of National Unity, for which we should all be very glad. 
Long was assassinated before he had the opportunity to challenge FDR. But the power of Sinclair’s novel has continued to resonate.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Through the Mirror Darkly: The Gothic Dimension of the 2016 Presidential Election (Part I)

The following is an edited version of a presentation I delivered to the Mensa Society International Conference in Toronto on June 11

“The Gothic thrives in a world where those in authority – the supposed exemplars of the good – are under suspicion.” 
– Mark Edmundson, Nightmare on Main Street, 1997.
The Gothic is a “demonic history text … in which its common thread is the singularity and monstrosity of the Other.” 
Louis Gross, Redefining the American Gothic, 1989
If I were to deliver a political overview about the current Presidential election campaign, I would be substituting Hilary Clinton for Barack Obama. Given that I'm more interested here in delving into Gothic undercurrents, I think it is more apt to explore the values that represent vastly divergent visions of America, and they are best personified by the President and the Republican Party’s standard bearer, Donald Trump. Obama embodies a multicultural, inclusive perspective, a worldview that exemplifies the best of twenty-first century America. At the same time, he champions a cornerstone of traditional American culture, that of civic nationalism – a citizenship that depends upon shared values. Donald Trump represents a parochial, more atavistic view of America, a throwback to an earlier era when racist and misogynous beliefs had legitimacy for large numbers of Americans. His incendiary rhetoric also suggests a belief that citizenship should be based on ethnicity or race, an ideology that almost destroyed Europe in the 1940s, was revived during the genocidal Yugoslavian wars of the 1990, and is once again acquiring populist currency in parts of Europe, a form of ethnic nationalism that flouts the rule of law, celebrates the strong man, and fosters a contempt for and persecution of minorities and immigrants by tapping into a seething geyser of xenophobia and Islamophobia.

American Gothic, by Gordon Parks (1942).
My reference point for the Gothic is not the historical painting, Grant Wood’s 1930 American Gothic, the most iconic in America (even for its countless parodies). Gordon Parks' 1942 photograph of the same name is more significant given that an African-American woman with her broom and mop is staring out at us with an out of focus American flag behind her. She is more emblematic of someone in a state of quasi servitude. This photograph also suggests that some Americans harbour a more ambiguous relationship with America because their value as citizens is not as esteemed as others. Over a half a century later, Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize winner for literature, expands upon this idea by exploring how European-American authors have marginalized and ignored African-Americans, or used them as a screen to project Caucasian savagery (even deprived them of their humanity by demonizing them). Although her slim 2008 monograph, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, largely draws upon literary texts from the American canon to develop these ideas, I suggest that her insights can also be applied to the larger culture.