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Published: Sun, 22 Jan 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Sun, 22 Jan 2017 08:53:48 -0500


If These Walls Could Sprechen

Sun, 22 Jan 2017 07:00:00 -0500

The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History, by Thomas Harding, Picador, 464 pages, $28 A few miles west of Berlin, a little house sits on Groß Glienicke lake, a quiet eye in the storm of Europe's worst century ever. Nazi bureaucrats arrived at their Final Solution at nearby Wannsee. The Red Army poured through at the end of World War II. Churchill and Truman drove past on their way to meet Stalin in Potsdam. The Berlin Airlift rattled the cupboards as planes landed at and left Gatow airfield. Secret policemen lurked as the Berlin Wall rose. The house endured the long, twilight struggle of the Cold War, the fall of the Wall, and the reunification of Germany. In 1927, during Germany's sunny Weimar interlude, Dr. Alfred Alexander, head of Berlin's Chamber of Physicians, commissioned a simple wooden cottage as a family retreat. When he tacked a mezuzah by the front door, it was a gesture to a faith worn lightly. Alexander and his family called themselves "three-days-a-year Jews": observant during high holidays, but thoroughly assimilated into Berlin's cosmopolitan upper middle class. The Alexanders delighted in sun-drenched al fresco meals on the terrace. The children swam and rowed in clear, cool waters. Daughter Elsie was particularly fond of the peace and beauty of the lake house; she called it her "soul place." But the rise of the Third Reich brought an end to those reveries. At university, Elsie had to display little yellow stars on her textbooks. Brownshirts demonstrated outside their city home. Whispered warnings circulated. Elsie and her sister pleaded with their father to leave Germany. He told Elsie, "I was a soldier and an officer in the war and I received the Iron Cross. Nothing will happen to me." In the end, the Alexanders left for England, their valuables sewn into their coats, just before escape became impossible. In 2013 one of their descendants travelled to Groß Glienicke to see the place his family had once treasured. British journalist Thomas Harding, Elsie's grandson, found an inauspicious hovel scheduled for demolition. "There was a sadness to the place," he writes, "the melancholy of a building abandoned." He set about discovering the full, poignant history of his grandmother's soul place—the land, the house, and all who called it home. He uncovered remarkable stories, some forgotten to history, others deliberately concealed. And he shared them in his book, The House by the Lake. Soon after the family's escape, the Gestapo seized their home and Alexander's medical practice. As Harding mentions in an endnote, the punctilious police reviewed the doctor's books and proceeded to collect on his accounts receivable. Panicked patients paid up, though some complained they shouldn't have to pay for services from a Jew. The Reich sold the lake house at a deep discount to a cheerful, enterprising conformist named Will Meisel. A music publisher, he spent much of the war in Groß Glienicke, producing musical theater and benefitting from a pragmatic enlistment in the Nazi Party. Flights of hundreds of Allied bombers heralded the coming end of the war. The Red Army swept through Groß Glienicke in the final days. Their victory celebrations came at the expense of a young mother at a neighboring house who, like hundreds of thousands of other German women, survived several rapes by Russian soldiers. The war left no visible scars on Meisel or the house. After a lengthy denazification the producer was cleared to work, but he lost claim to the lake house as the Iron Curtain descended across Europe. One great value of The House by the Lake is its wealth of fresh detail on life along the border of East and West during the long, gray decades of the Cold War. Harding gives overdue attention to a time often fast-forwarded through in our historical memory. The line between East Germany and West Berlin cut through the back yard of the lake house, but the border was porous in the early postwar period. In Groß Glienicke, East and West German media intermingled on the airwaves and in [...]

Don't Like Militarized Police and Mass Incarceration? Blame Progressivism.

Sat, 21 Jan 2017 07:00:00 -0500

Our cities are saturated with militarized law enforcement officers. An extraordinarily high number of American civilians are killed by police each year. The U.S. prison population is the largest in the world. And we are only beginning to understand why. In recent years, scholars such as Naomi Murakawa and Marie Gottschalk and activists in the Black Lives Matter movement have broken from the civil rights generation's obeisance to the Democratic Party, and from the left's reflexive assumption that "law and order" Republicans are exclusively to blame for this situation. Instead, they have persuasively argued that much of today's criminal justice regime originated in policies forged by liberal Democrats in the second half of the 20th century, in particular under the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton. Yet even this new and welcome historical analysis of militarized policing and mass incarceration does not go deep enough. The campaign to criminalize victimless behaviors and then build a carceral system large and efficient enough to contain the criminals it would create began long before the 1960s, with the formation of the political regime we now call liberalism. The intellectuals and policy makers who created the modern wars on drugs and crime were the direct descendants of the original progressives, who emerged at the turn of the 20th century. Those progressives consistently argued that disruptive and marginal populations should be encouraged to assimilate into the formal culture of the country and to adopt the responsibilities of American citizenship, but they also held that individuals who refused to do so should be removed from society. Indeed, it could be said that progressivism was created around those twin projects. Unlike scientific racists, who were the dominant ideologists of race until World War II, progressives generally maintained that there were no innate barriers in any race of people to acquiring the personality of a "good" American. Progressives believed that certain races and nationalities had not attained the level of civilization of white Americans and northern Europeans, but also thought those peoples could and should be raised to that level. That is, most progressives were simultaneously anti-racist and hostile to cultures other than their own. Immigrants who brought alien ways of living, radical political ideas, and criminal behavior into the U.S. were invited into progressives' settlement houses, where they were given free vocational education, subsidized room and board, and instructions on the proper attitudes and behaviors of Americans. Those who demonstrated a willingness to follow the rules of their new society—even those who were originally believed to be of an inferior race, such as Italians, Jews, and Slavs—were deemed worthy of full citizenship. Most progressives believed that the culture of blacks was especially retarded, but they nonetheless funded hundreds of settlement houses for blacks and helped establish the first major civil rights organizations, the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. One mission of those organizations was to eliminate the "pathologies" of native black culture, to "adjust or assimilate" blacks to the dominant culture, and to make them into "orderly citizens." This was a brutal and puritanical assimilationism, but it ran directly counter to the belief of the scientific racists that blacks were biologically incapable of becoming civilized. Nonetheless, progressives acknowledged that some immigrants and blacks and even some native-born whites would choose renegade lives of crime over constrained lives as citizens, and for that eventuality they created the basis of what is now called the carceral state. Beginning in the late 19th century, progressives waged a successful campaign to replace the police forces that primarily served as social-service providers for urban political machines with "modern," "efficient," trained, and professional police, in departments organized like military[...]

The Donald Trump of Texas

Fri, 20 Jan 2017 13:05:00 -0500

There is precedent for this president. There was another man who leapt directly from pop culture into politics, using showmanship and populist rhetoric to draw huge crowds to his rallies while the pundits pooh-poohed his chances of winning. He was a businessman and radio star named Wilbert Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, and he was elected governor of Texas in that state's bizarre election of 1938. I wrote about O'Daniel in a Reason story about a year ago. With Donald Trump now assuming the presidency, it's a good moment to remember a man whose rise looks a lot like Trump's: When it became clear that something big was afoot, [newspaper writers] argued that no one could tell whether the crowds consisted of supporters or just gawkers. Did those mobs actually agree with O'Daniel's vague platform? the pundits asked. Or were they only there to enjoy, in the words of the syndicated columnists Drew Pearson and Robert Allen, "a mellifluous radio voice that women gush over and a hill-billy band that delights both young and old"? When the Star-Telegram finally acknowledged that Pappy was attracting "larger and more enthusiastic crowds than any other candidate," it added that many members of those audiences were nonvoters and wondered whether the movement was a "bubble." ...and whose reign may well turn out to look like Trump's as well: When re-election time rolled around in 1940...he hadn't gotten much done at all other than alienate a great deal of Austin. That and start a newspaper. Declaring that "no recent governor has been so unfairly dealt with as the press has dealt with me," he launched The W. Lee O'Daniel News. There and on his radio show, he blamed his failures on evil outside forces—and not just the big failures. When two musicians quit his band, Pappy informed his listeners that "the gang of professional politicians" had "struck another blow at your governor." The sunny side of Pappy's populism was starting to give way to something darker. There are some notable differences as well, starting with the contrast between O'Daniel's moralistic persona and Trump's hedonism. It's hard to imagine Pappy bragging that he grabbed anyone "by the pussy." (O'Daniel's original band, the Light Crust Doughboys, did record a double-entendre song called "Pussy, Pussy, Pussy." But that was after the group and the governor had parted ways.) Still, the parallels are pretty strong, and I've just scratched the surface of them here. To see more of them, you can read my article. In the meantime, since it's Inauguration Day, here is O'Daniel's radio broadcast from August 3, 1941. The governor had just won a special election to the U.S. Senate, and this show went out the day before he took his oath of office: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> And here, along with a nice collection of photos from O'Daniel's career, is Pappy's band playing his theme song, "Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy": src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> One more tidbit for you, though this one isn't a parallel so much as it's a strange coincidence. When O'Daniel's band recorded "Please Pass the Biscuits," the singer on the record was named Leon Huff. Many years later, another musician named Leon Huff co-wrote a tune called "For the Love of Money"; and many years after that, "For the Love of Money" became the theme song for a show called The Apprentice, hosted by one Donald Trump. (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)[...]

When the British Interfered in American Elections

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 15:10:00 -0500

There is clear-cut evidence that a foreign power has interfered in our country's elections. It spied; it spent; it spread disinformation. It was the United Kingdom, and the campaigns it attempted to influence took place in 1940. This story has been told in such books as Desperate Deception and The Secret History of British Intelligence in the Americas, and now Politico has run an article about it. Hoping for help against the Germans, the British promoted candidates they found congenial to their interests. (They helped push Wendell Willkie for the Republican presidential nomination, for example, so that a pro-British internationalist would sit in the White House even if Franklin Roosevelt lost.) But most of their electoral efforts were aimed less at advancing politicians they liked than at tearing down ones they didn't. This was part of a larger program of espionage and propaganda that lasted well after Election Day. As you've probably guessed, Politico's newspeg is Russia's alleged machinations in last year's presidential election. But the article doesn't say much about what we might learn from the '40s, preferring to tell the tale rather than tease out its lessons. So let's think about what exactly this story suggests, beyond the obvious point that yes, foreign nations have been known to influence our politics. Sometimes a bona-fide historical conspiracy can shed some light on a modern conspiracy theory: 1. The British gave covert assistance to candidates, but they didn't pull the candidates' strings. The takeaway from the Politico story should not be that Willkie or Roosevelt was some sort of British agent. They had their own reasons for wanting to back the U.K. in Europe's conflict, as did many other members of the American establishment. London didn't control them; it recognized them as allies. That point may seem too obvious to bother spelling it out. Yet a great deal of the commentary around Moscow and the election leaps from looking for evidence of interference to assuming that Donald Trump is little more than a stooge—as Hillary Clinton put it, Putin's "puppet." This in turn yields commentary in which the central issue is whether Trump's allies or even critics are doing "what Putin wants," rather than whether there are good reasons for anyone else to want it. Which leads us to observation #2: 2. Whether a policy is a good idea is a separate question from whether a foreign power is pushing it. Needless to say, the fact that Britain worked behind the scenes to pull Washington into World War II does not tell us much about whether entering World War II was a good idea. The same goes for the Russia-friendly policies that Trump might pursue. The possibilities on the table include some notions that I like (such as rethinking NATO) and some that I hate (such as allying with Moscow in Syria). If it turns out that Trump's team had more contacts with the Kremlin than they're letting on, that isn't going to change my positions on those issues; the fundamental arguments are going to be the same. Furthermore, it's not as though there's only one group of plotters at work here. Last year Ukraine tried to help Hillary Clinton. During the run-up to World War II, Germany made its own efforts to influence American public opinion. Sometimes you're going to have foreign conspirators on your side no matter where you come down on an issue. Better to pick your side on the merits. 3. This isn't a "Post-Truth Era." That would require a Truth Era that never existed. I know I keep hammering this point, but a lot of people out there seem to think "fake news" on Facebook is some radical departure from the past. So if nothing else, read Politico's feature for stories like this one: [British Security Coordination (BSC)] created, funded and operated the Non-Partisan Committee to Defeat Hamilton Fish, which among other activities, circulated a pamphlet juxtaposing Fish, Adolf Hitler and Nazis. Another photo appeared to show Fish meeting with Fritz Kuhn, the "Americ[...]

If You Want To Find Freedom in Trump's America, Read This Book! (Reason Podcast)

Wed, 11 Jan 2017 19:50:00 -0500

(image) "You probably have a sense—vague as it may be—that the weirdness of American life, and the intractability of its predicaments, large and small, are intimately, inexorably bound up with the craziness of everyday life. It's entirely possible that the motto on our coinage, IN GOD WE TRUST, still captures the most popular response to that. But, increasingly, a more useful motto for us might be 'DEAL WITH IT.'"

A lot of people are unhappy these days, writes James Poulos in his brilliant new book, The Art of Being Free: How Alexis de Tocqueville Can Save Us from Ourselves. The hardest cases among us are invested deeply in politics, especially partisan politics. You probably know some longtime Hillary Clinton fans or Democrats who are still struggling to get out of bed since November (maybe you're reading this from bed). But hell, even Republican Trump boosters can't go five minutes without complaining how the world is going to hell for this or that reason. Trump's whole appeal was that he was going to sand the rust off America and make it (and us!) great again.

When you throw in folks who are terrified that global warming is about to swamp the Midwest along with good old-fashioned religious end-timers, just about everybody is convinced these are the last days of modern Rome. Against such a background, Poulos' The Art of Being Free isn't just a pleasant diversion from the dog-eat-dog world of 24/7 news and partisan bickering. It's an all-you-can-eat buffet for the mind, groaning with allusions to history, political science, economics, literature, and pop culture: Socrates, Nietzche, Netflix, The Smashing Pumpkins, Seinfeld, Stendahl, and Scooby-Doo all make appearances in this essay about getting beyond superficial politics to the parts of life that really matter. And along the way, he charts a path that just might lead back to politics that will help us all be free to become whomever we think we want to be.

A late-thirtysomething writer for The Week, National Interest, The Daily Beast, and elsewhere, Poulos talks with Nick Gillespie about how Americans have historically tied ourselves in knots because "we love equality, we want unity, we fear uniformity." Using Tocqueville's Democracy in America as his lantern, he wanders far and wide through today's noisy landscape and brilliantly dispels "the sense of haunted despair" that so many of us wear like our favorite hoodie.

Listen now by clicking below. Subscribe to the Reason Podcast at iTunes and never miss an episode (rate and review us while you're there)!

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There Was More Than One Christmas Truce

Wed, 21 Dec 2016 14:15:00 -0500

In the famous Christmas Truce of 1914, memorialized in film and song, informal ceasefires were declared along the Western Front of World War I. British, French, and German soldiers met in No Man's Land, where they traded gifts, sang carols, played soccer, and buried their dead. It is remembered fondly today as a rare moment of humane behavior in one of the worst wars in European history. But maybe it wasn't so rare after all. The Scotsman reports: [H]istorian Thomas Weber, of the University of Aberdeen, has uncovered evidence that festive meetings continued throughout the war, with a significant number in 1916 despite the huge casualties suffered in the Battle of the Somme. Professor Weber has been given access to a large number of family memories of the war that show that, despite officers recording in official documents that no such friendly exchanges took place, the situation on the front lines was very different. Weber wrote about some of these truces in his 2010 book Hitler's First War. In the trenches near Fromelles in 1915, he reports, the authorities actively attempted to prevent a rerun of the previous Christmas by ordering "massive machine-gun fire," among other measures. Nonetheless, small-scale acts of fraternization took place. If they weren't as widespread as in 1914, Weber argues, that wasn't because the men were less willing; it's because the higher-ups were working harder to stop them. They kept trying to stop them as the war dragged on, but sometimes peace broke out anyway. The Scotsman story mentions "a truce between German and Canadian troops at Vimy Ridge in 1916": The official version of events recorded by the Canadian Regiment, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, stated that the Germans tried to interact but that no one responded to it. But the historian found that a letter written by Ronald MacKinnon, the son of a Scot from Levenseat, near Fauldhouse in West Lothian, tells a rather different story...."We had a truce on Xmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars. Xmas was 'tray bon' which means very good." In Hitler's First War, Weber notes that when the Canadian soldiers arrived at Vimy Ridge in October, some Germans had greeted the newcomers by holding up a sign that said "Welcome Canadians." (Another sign said: "Cut out your damned artillery. We, too, were at the Somme.") As December 25 approached, the authorities again tried to prevent a spontaneous holiday peace. Some officers even cancelled their men's Christmas rum ration, fearing that it would only encourage fraternization—but they didn't coordinate this as well as they could have, because some other officers decided to double their men's rum. In any event, "All attempts to prevent a truce had been futile. The men of the Princess Pats embarked on a truce with their German opponents, conversing with the help of a Canadian soldier who spoke German." Bonus reading: I first learned about the 1914 Christmas Truce in Robert Axelrod's The Evolution of Cooperation, which covers it in a great chapter about the many ways "nonaggression between the troops emerged spontaneously in many places along the front." The chapter opens with a wonderfully frustrated quote from a British staff officer visiting the trenches—and not at Christmastime. He was astonished to observe German soldiers walking about within rifle range behind their own line. Our men appeared to take no notice. I privately made up my mind to do away with that sort of thing when we took over; such things should not be allowed. These people evidently did not know there was a war on. Both sides apparently believed in the policy of "live and let live."[...]

Turkey: The Dangers of Historical Analogy

Tue, 20 Dec 2016 13:55:00 -0500

(image) Historical analogies can "give us a false sense of security, even when the antecedents are horrific," Nicole Hemmer writes. That's because they offer "a sense that we know what's coming next and how to respond, that everything is knowable and under control. But the reality is that we have no idea what comes next, and if we act too assuredly, too trapped within the analogy, the odds of miscalculating grow exponentially."

Hemmer is reacting to a wave of comparisons between yesterday's slaying of the Russian ambassador to Turkey and the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. I have to admit I find it kind of refreshing to see foreign-policy pundits reaching for a world-history analogy that involves neither Munich nor Vietnam. But she notes several significant differences between the situations then and now; if you think we're watching a rerun of the prelude to World War I, the article should disabuse you of the notion. Whatever horrors might be on the horizon, they'll find their own way to unfold.

In any case, her broader point isn't about the particulars of 1914. It's about the misuse of historical analogy in general. "History," she argues, "provides lessons for the present, not spoilers for the future."

Bloodthirsty Mickey Mouse Attacks Innocent Children

Fri, 16 Dec 2016 10:15:00 -0500

(image) Mickey Mouse was a bloodthirsty imperialist rat. Or at least that's the impression I get from Toy Box Series, Episode 3: Picture Book 1936, a cartoon that, in Mickey's defense, probably shouldn't be taken as canonical, since it wasn't made by Disney. Instead it was produced by propagandists in Japan.

Let me back up. In 1922, the governments of the United States, Japan, Britain, France, and Italy finished negotiating the Five-Power Treaty, which limited naval construction. It was set to expire at the end of 1936. That is probably why this film—released in 1934—picks 1936 for the year that Mickey, already a symbol of America, launches a military assault. A group of innocent children and animals (including, if my eyes don't deceive me, Felix the Cat) are living an idyllic life before Mickey swoops in on the back of a bat, followed by a fleet of other bats, all of whom, confusingly, have Mickey Mouse heads. Aided by snake and alligator armies, Mickey and the bats attack, and they seem to be winning until some traditional Japanese characters emerge from a storybook to lead the defense.

I don't know enough about Japanese folklore to identify these defenders myself, but Open Culture's Ted Mills says they range "from Momotaro ('Peach Boy') and Kintaro ('Golden Boy') to Issun-boshi ('One Inch Boy') and Benkei, a warrior monk," adding, "The not-so-subtle message: Mickey Mouse may be your hero, America, but our characters are older, more numerous, and way more beloved. Our pop culture is older than yours!" And also apparently better at combat, because they beat the invaders and magically transform Mickey into a decrepit old man:

src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">

And that, children, is how Japan won World War II.

Bonus link #1: I interviewed Mickey Mouse back in 2003. You can tell it was a softball interview because I didn't bring up this shameful episode.

Bonus link #2: I'm told Donald Duck was an imperialist too.

Bonus links #3 and 4: Hey, did you know they've started making genuinely good Mickey Mouse cartoons again? Check out this one and this one.

Bonus link #5: For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.

The PizzaGate Gunman's Paranoid Rescue Fantasy Comes from a Long American Tradition

Fri, 09 Dec 2016 11:25:00 -0500

On December 4, Edgar M. Welch carried a rifle into the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C. Welch had stumbled on the "PizzaGate" conspiracy theory, which claims that the restaurant is part of a sex-trafficking ring tied to Hillary Clinton and her associates; children are supposedly being held prisoner and transported through secret tunnels beneath the business. Welch was armed because he wanted to rescue the kids. He didn't find any prisoners there, but he wound up firing his weapon anyway. No one was injured, fortunately. You've probably heard about that, since it's been all over the news this week. What hasn't been all over the news is the long American tradition that Welch belongs to. This is hardly the first time someone has filled up on fantasies that a conspiracy was holding innocents captive and exploiting them. It isn't the first time a fantasist has set off on a potentially bloody rescue mission either. Take the mob that burned down the Ursuline convent and boarding school in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1834. The resentments toward that institution had very specific local roots, but the rumors that prompted the riot took an oft-told form: Girls were being held prisoner, and they needed to be saved. These stories were spread not just orally but via anonymous placards and handbills—if a pundit from late 2016 were somehow sent back to 1834, he'd probably call them "fake news"—that said things like this: GO AHEAD! To Arms!! To Arms!! Ye brave and free Avenging Sword unshield!! Leave not one stone upon another of that curst Nunnery that prostitutes female virtue and liberty under the garb of holy Religion. When Bonaparte opened the Nunnerys in Europe he found cords of Infant sculls!!!!!! That wasn't the only Catholic institution to be raided by would-be heroes. Throughout the era, paranoid Protestants became convinced that convents contained sex slaves, secret tunnels, and other staples of the modern pizzeria; more than once, they invaded intending to liberate the nuns. Nor was Catholicism the only faith to be afflicted by captivity rumors. A couple decades before the Ursuline Convent riots, for example, a youngster named Ithamar Johnson was "rescued" from a Shaker community in Ohio. He promptly returned the next day, and remained a Shaker until he died in his eighties. Much more recently, the cult scare that took off in the 1970s produced a whole profession of "deprogrammers," some of whom felt the best way to liberate a cultist was to kidnap and torture him until he declared himself cleansed of the religion's worldview. The cult scare helped shape the Satanic panic of the 1980s and '90s, when the notion took hold that a web of devil-worshippers was raping, kidnapping, and even killing children. In this case, it wasn't vigilante deprogrammers who would browbeat an alleged victim into saying what they wanted to hear. It was agents of the state. In the most infamous case, the authorities embraced the idea that the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, was run by a coven of child molesters. Interrogators badgered the preschoolers into confirming their suspicions, and the children's imaginations then produced still more lurid details. Naturally, there were tales of secret tunnels beneath the day care center. You'd think it was a convent or a pizza joint or something. Not every captivity fantasy involved unpopular religions. In the white-slavery panic of the early 20th century, a flood of exposés—there's that "fake news" again—made lurid claims about prostitution, greatly exaggerating both the number of women coerced into the profession and the extent to which the trade was controlled by a centralized conspiracy. (In his 1914 book The Girl Who Disappeared, a former Chicago prosecutor called this sex syndicate a "hidden hand," claiming that "behind our city and state govern[...]

HBO Documentaries Illuminate Castro’s Brutal Cuba

Sat, 03 Dec 2016 15:00:00 -0500

Patria O Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death. HBO. Sunday, December 4, 9:45 a.m. Mariela Castro's March: Cuba's LGBT Revolution. HBO. Tuesday, December 6, 5 p.m. HBO should get a little trophy from the television industry for giving executives something to talk about at holiday parties besides falling ratings and the specific level of Hell that should be reserved for whoever invented this internet thing. Instead, they can ponder over the question: Is HBO's documentary division the most genius outfit in television, or just the luckiest? Months ago, HBO acquired two unheralded documentaries on Cuba, then booked them for the very moment when Fidel Castro would head off to the great workers' collective in the sky. Water-cooler buzz galore, Latin American Policy Wonk Department. And if that department had an Emmy, Patria O Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death would win it right now. First-time director Olatz López Garmendia is better known as a model and a fashion designer, but she must have had a career in operating heavy construction equipment, too, because Patria O Muerte takes a merciless wrecking ball to the Potemkin Village imagery of Cuba promoted by most of the American chattering class. The desolation and despair of Castro's Revolution—its actually existing socialism, as Marxist theoreticians of the 1950s would have called it—has never been on such devastating display for American audiences. Garmendia lived in Cuba as a child, when her Spaniard parents joined the flocks of European Fidel groupies moving to Havana to stand by their man, but she clearly didn't swallow the Kool-Aid; Patria O Muerte is not her first demythology project on Cuba. She also informed the sensibilities of her then-husband, Julian Schnabel, when he was making his epic anti-Castro movie Before Night Falls. (Garmendia worked on the film as music supervisor.) She made Patria O Muerte as something of a samizdat work; the film was shot without Cuban authorization, and she had a devil of a time getting the footage off the island. Without narration and little archival footage, Patria O Muerte makes its points through a series of interviews of ordinary Cubans, filmed in their seedy tenement apartments in Old Havana. The stories they tell, with only occasional exceptions, are not of lurid torture or persecution, but of the quiet desperation of life in a dead-end society weighed down by decay of every type: economic, physical, mental. There's a cadaverous old man named Julio who bluntly declares his life useless and is clearly talking about more than his grubby apartment when he responds to a question: "What am I missing? Everything." Or Valery, a goth transvestite who took to the streets as a jinatera, as the island's part-time hookers are known, after the remittances from a sister in the United States dried up and she found herself without enough money to buy a new toothbrush. That career ended, though, one night after she was lectured by a tourist whose appreciation for cheap commercial sex had not diminished his more-revolutionary-than-thou ardor for the Castro regime. He told her that "Cubans were shameless, that Cubans said they had problems, when there weren't any problems in Cuba." Retorted Valery: "If that's true, then what am I doing here with you for $20?" She left the streets, fearful that she was "about to kill [herself], or kill one of these foreigners." Or Mercedes, a housewife living in a tottering building built in the 1870s in which she must sleep with one eye open to avoid being hit by chunks of falling masonry. Her young son, injured in a balcony collapse, needs surgery, but building repairs make it impossible: "If we buy cement, then we can't buy food or medicine." An aphorism which, oddly, didn't make it into Sicko, Michael Moore's encomium to the Cuban health-care system. Garmendia shot som[...]

Robert Ford Killed Jesse James—Or At Least That's What They Want You to Believe

Fri, 02 Dec 2016 14:30:00 -0500

(image) Ever since word went out that Robert Ford shot Jesse James, there have been legends that the dead man was really someone else and that the outlaw secretly survived. Alan Lomax ran into one of those tales when he toured the South with a tape recorder in 1959. Neal Morris (*), an Arkansas banjo player, told Lomax that the James brothers had often hid out at his grandfather's place ("because nobody expected them down in Arkansas, don't you see") and that grandpa had given him the scoop on the robber's alleged death. Jesse James wasn't even in that part of the country when Bob Ford supposedly shot him, Morris claims; instead, "Quantrill was the man that the Ford boys killed."

Morris presumably means the Confederate guerrilla William Quantrill, who had fought alongside James in the Civil War. Historians say Quantrill died at the end of the war, but there were rumors that he survived his reported demise too. So Morris has managed to combine two secret-history stories into one: Quantrill didn't die in 1865, and then in 1882 he died in Jesse James' place.

Morris wraps up his account by singing the ballad "Jesse James," which presents the more familiar tale of Ford blasting James in the back. "That's the story that's been told, don't you see," he says at the end, "but us people, a lot of these people in the mountains, don't believe it."

I'd call this "fake news," but the whole thing is so wonderfully strange that I'd like to hold out a tiny smidge of hope that against all odds it's true:

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In 1948, an Oklahoma man called J. Frank Dalton claimed that he was really Jesse James and that the fellow killed by Robert Ford had been a Pinkerton named Charles Bigelow. You can read all about that here. The body of the man shot by Robert Ford was exhumed for DNA tests in 1995; you can read about that here. To listen to Woody Guthrie turning that "Jesse James" ballad into a song about Jesus, go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.

(* It's spelled "Neal" on the Association for Cultural Equity's online archive of the Lomax recordings. When Atlantic Records released a selection of those tapes as an anthology called The Sounds of the South, they spelled it "Neil." I have no idea how Mr. Morris himself spelled it, or if he cared.)

When Fidel Castro Went on The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show

Mon, 28 Nov 2016 15:32:00 -0500

Fidel Castro ousted Fulgencio Batista's regime on January 1, 1959. Within a little more than a month, he had promoted his revolution on both The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. That Tonight Show interview—a warm conversation with then-host Jack Paar—doesn't seem to be online, so you'll have to take my word when I tell you just how strange it looks from the vantage point of 2016. But Sullivan's segment has been preserved on YouTube, and it's one hell of a the-past-is-another-country artifact. Sullivan opens by asking Fidel about his religion (Castro replies that he was raised a Catholic) and inquires about what sports the guerrilla leader used to play ("undoubtedly the exercise you did at school prepared you for this role"). Then it's on to exchanges like this one: SULLIVAN: In Latin American countries, over and over again, dictators will come along. They rape the country; they have stolen the money, millions and millions of dollars; tortured and killed people. How do you propose to end that here in Cuba? CASTRO: Very easy: not permitting any dictatorship to come again to rule our country. By the end of the interview, Sullivan has compared Castro to George Washington: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> My point in sharing this isn't to mock Sullivan. (Or Paar, who later joked: "I interviewed Fidel Castro once and he immediately turned anti-American. Of course, it may have been coincidental.") With hindsight, I know that Castro would himself soon be a self-enriching dictator who tortured and killed people. But without hindsight, I probably would have been enthusiastic about the Cuban revolution at that point too. Lots of people were enthusiastic: The rebels had just ousted a thuggish tyrant, and it wasn't yet obvious that they were about to establish a different flavor of tyranny. When you watch that interview, take it as a glimpse at how Castro looked to many Americans right after he came to power. Over the next decade, that support gradually fell away. By the time Castro proclaimed himself a Marxist-Leninist in 1961, he had lost most of his mainstream boosters. The hip lefties stuck with him for a while after that (listen to a young Bob Dylan singing "Who Killed Davey Moore" at Carnegie Hall in 1963, and check out the crowd's vigorous response when he invokes "Cuba's door/where boxing ain't allowed no more"), and much of the New Left spent the '60s imagining Cuba as an alternative to the Soviet model. But a steady drip-drip of ugly developments, especially Castro's endorsement of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, lost him a lot of those New Left fans. By the '70s, overt support for Castro was much less common. It was still around, mind you—in 1975, Francis Ford Coppola wrote but never sent the dictator a letter that began with the words "Dear Fidel, I love you"—but it was considerably more rare than it had been in the '60s, let alone in those first months of 1959. But it never disappeared. As a college student, back around 1989, I befriended the sole active member of Michigan's chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. (I was, for all practical purposes, the sole active member of the student libertarian group, so we had that in common.) He sincerely believed in human rights and civil liberties; so when he gave a presentation on campus about a trip he'd just taken to Cuba, he took care to mention some of the more unsavory facts about the regime—remarking, for example, that it was forcibly confining people with HIV. At that point an old fart by the wall piped up. "They're not imprisoned," he said. "They're quarantined." When I saw the apologetics that greeted Castro's death over the weekend, I thought of that [...]

Thanksgiving Tragedy

Wed, 23 Nov 2016 00:01:00 -0500

Tomorrow, as you celebrate the meal the Pilgrims ate with Indians, pause a moment to thank private property. I know that seems weird, but before that first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims nearly starved to death because they didn't respect private property. When they first arrived in Massachusetts, they acted like Bernie Sanders wants us to act. They farmed "collectively." Pilgrims said, "We'll grow food together and divide the harvest equally." Bad idea. Economists call this the "tragedy of the commons." When everyone works "together," some people don't work very hard. Likewise, when the crops were ready to eat, some grabbed extra food—sometimes picking corn at night, before it was fully ready. Teenagers were especially lazy and likely to steal the commune's crops. Pilgrims almost starved. Governor Bradford wrote in his diary, "So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could... that they might not still thus languish in misery." His answer: He divided the commune into parcels and assigned each Pilgrim his own property, or as Bradford put it, "set corn every man for his own particular. ... Assigned every family a parcel of land." That simple change brought the Pilgrims so much plenty that they could share food with Indians. Bradford wrote that it "made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been." We see this principle at work all around us today. America is prosperous because private property is mostly respected, and people work hard to protect what they own. China rose out of poverty only when the Communist rulers finally allowed people to own property and keep profits from it. But wait, you say, didn't the Native Americans live communally? Isn't that proof that socialism and collective property work? No. It's a myth that the Native Americans had no property rules. They had property—and European settlers should have treated those rules with respect. Native American property rules varied. There wasn't much point trying to establish private property in rocky hinterlands where no one traveled. But, writes Terry Anderson of the Property and Environment Research Center, "Private garden plots were common in the East, as were large community fields with plots assigned to individual families. Harvesting on each plot was done by the owning family, with the bounty stored in the family's own storehouse." Today, however, many American Indians live in poverty. It's not because Native Americans are lazy or irresponsible. When Indians are allowed to own their own land, they prosper. The laws of economics are the same for all people. I asked Manny Jules, chief of the Kamloops Indian Band for 16 years, why so many Indians are poor. "Nobody chooses poverty," he said. "We've been legislated out of the economy by the federal governments, both in the United States and Canada." That sounds odd to people who know how much money governments spend to "care for" Indians. "Well, by taking care of us, that means providing social welfare programs," says Jules. "The only way to break the cycle of poverty (is) real property rights." The U.S. government, after killing thousands of Native Americans and restricting others to reservations, gave tribal governments control over Indians' lives, in collaboration with the government's Bureau of Indian Affairs. Since then, no group in America has been more "helped" and "managed" by the federal government than Indians. Because of that, no group has done worse. Homes on reservations are likely to lack electricity and indoor plumbing. There is serious alcoholism and drug abuse. A staggering number of American Indians are unemployed. Many commit suicide. Jules says not being able to own your own land is part of the problem[...]

'Fake News' Is Easier to Trace and Debunk Than Ever Before

Tue, 22 Nov 2016 14:45:00 -0500

As pundits search for a scapegoat they can blame for Donald Trump's victory, one increasingly popular target is "fake news." Most of the discussion proceeds as though groundless stories transmitted from friend to friend are something invented in the Facebook era. You're lucky if people remember the dubious email forwards of a decade ago, let alone the orally transmitted tales of earlier generations. But when I hear the phrase fake news, I think of the Eleanor Clubs. Don't feel bad if you've never heard of those: It's been seven decades since anyone was abuzz about them, and even then they were as fictional as the pope's endorsement of Donald Trump or that photo of a bare-chested, gay Mike Pence. But in the early 1940s, quite a few people believed in them. They were even investigated by the FBI. The clubs—named for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a vocal supporter of civil rights—were supposedly a subversive network of black servants working to overturn the racial caste system, so that one day whites would work for blacks instead of the other way around. Howard Odum, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, collected versions of this story from across the South (and sometimes from other parts of the country too) in his 1943 book Race and Rumors of Race. The details varied, but the core idea, in the words of one of his informants, was this: "I hear the cooks have organized Eleanor Clubs and their motto is: A white woman in every kitchen by Christmas." Mrs. Roosevelt was supposed to be the clubs' secret chief. Did the Eleanor Club story injure Eleanor's husband at the polls? No: He kept carrying the South, as the Democrat usually did in those days. But then again, no one—as far as I know—tried to weaponize this particular tale against him. Other rumors were deliberately engineered to hurt particular public figures. These were known as whispering campaigns, and they have been deployed in political fights for eons. In 1928, Irving Stone writes in They Also Ran, a host of rumors dogged the Democrats' Catholic nominee, Al Smith: "he was building a tunnel which would connect with the Vatican; the Pope would set up his office in the White House; the Catholics would rule the country, and no one could hold office who was not a Catholic; Protestant children would be forced into Catholic schools; priests would flood the states and be in supreme command; Smith would set himself up at the head of a Catholic party which would supersede the old Democratic party!" (These were transmitted not just orally but through the fake-news organs of the day: "A flood of letters, pamphlets and anonymous newspapers swept across the South, rehashing the worst libels against the Catholic church that had been circulated in the United States during the period of 1840–60. One Democratic chairman of North Carolina reported that the anti-Catholic literature that poured into the state must have cost at least half a million dollars.") Smith didn't just lose the election; he managed to lose several Southern states. Did the rumor-mongering swing many votes? Quite possibly. The point isn't that this is the same as the fakery that flows through Facebook. We live in an entirely different media environment, with possibilities that hardly anyone could imagine in the '20s or '40s. If you told Al Smith that one day there would be Macedonian content farms targeting Trump fans because that's what brings more clicks, he would say, "No offense, my fellow American, but I don't know what the hell that means." 2016 is not 1928, and I'm all for careful efforts to see how this era's rumor transmission belts differ from their many, many precursors. But that requires you to acknowledge that the precursors existed.[...]

Hogwarts in America

Fri, 18 Nov 2016 06:00:00 -0500

On November 18, Harry Potter fans will have their first chance since 2011 to dip back into the the cinematic wizarding world of J.K. Rowling, with the first installment of the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them trilogy. That's a five-year head start for world building and stoking the fires of fan interest. So why does it seem like Rowling is doing a half-baked rush job? We know that the story follows British wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) into the New York City of 1926, where danger and hilarity ensue thanks to the research he's conducting for his book Fantastic Beasts. (This was inspired by the 128-page Hogwarts textbook of the same name published by Rowling in 2001 to raise money for charity.) In the meantime, Rowling has posted two new essays this year to the website Pottermore. "History of Magic in North America" and "Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry" fill in some of the blanks concerning North America's magical development in her world, presumably with the goals of setting the stage for and creating buzz about the forthcoming films. These essays don't do Fantastic Beasts any favors. Rowling now stands accused of "cultural appropriation," the unauthorized borrowing of elements from cultures other than one's own. Headlines such as "What J.K. Rowling's New Story Can Teach Us about Cultural Appropriation: Rowling messed up big time" (The Huffington Post), "J.K. Rowling Is Getting Major Backlash for Her Depiction of Native Americans" (BuzzFeed), and "Four Missed Opportunities and Problems with Pottermore's Ilvermorny" (Entertainment Monthly) suggest that audience disappointment is not limited to a few overzealous nitpickers. Cultural appropriation is an overused and often overinflated notion that has resulted in everything from students being expelled for wearing tiny sombreros at a party to Girls auteur Lena Dunham denouncing college cafeterias for serving inauthentic sushi. Novelist Lionel Shriver, in her pointed critique of the "fad" at the Brisbane Writers Festival in September, argued that "we fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats—including sombreros." But she also notes that the "spirit of good fiction is one of exploration, generosity, curiosity, audacity, and compassion." These virtues are notably lacking in Rowling's recent work. The trouble isn't that Rowling is writing on a subject beyond her own personal experience; it's that she's doing a terrible job of it. The controversy over appropriation is a symptom of a larger problem. Rowling simply doesn't appreciate how much she doesn't know about North America. The woman who created the wizarding world (as opposed to the wizarding nation) appears to believe that, because she knows Great Britain, she also knows the other side of the Atlantic. Her new writings, plagued by what seem to be unexamined colonialist and nationalist assumptions, prove otherwise. Rowling's stumbles are particularly surprising and disappointing given that in her YouTube featurette "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: A New Hero," she proclaims that "people who feel set apart, stigmatized, or othered" are "at the heart of most of what I write." Where the Harry Potter series constantly subverted and reimagined the classic—but politically retrograde—British coming-of-age schooldays novels, Rowling's new works on North America underscore her intellectual and imaginative blind spots, slapping vaguely American Indian window dressing on an otherwise unchanged Hogwarts-style institution, ignoring or running roughshod over both the continent's politically charged and sometimes tragic past and its complex and multi-layered present, and utterly failing North American H[...]