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Published: Mon, 20 Feb 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Mon, 20 Feb 2017 17:28:30 -0500


Great Balls of Fire, Sun Records Puts on a Show

Fri, 17 Feb 2017 15:00:00 -0500

The Good Fight. CBS. Sunday, February 19, 8 p.m. Sun Records. CMT. Thursday, February 23, 10 p.m. "All rock 'n' roll came out of Sun Records!" declares Jerry Lee Lewis in the opening moments of CMT's bopping new miniseries. Like a lot of things in Sun Records, it's not quite true, but you'll be too busy dancing to care. Sun Records rocks! Filling out the early-1950s birth certificate of rock 'n' roll is no easy task. Did the water break in Chicago, where Chuck Berry was underlining his tone poems about the lives of an emerging demographic, the teenagers, with a jangling guitar? Or Philadelphia, where Bill Haley was punching up western swing music with machine-gun saxophone lines? Or West Texas, where Buddy Holly's nerd glasses distracted parents from his ragged cries to their kids to rave on? Memphis, perched just above the Mississippi Delta at a strategic spot where icy bluesmen and hillbilly shouters were bound to collide, has as good a claim as any of them. And Sam Phillips, owner of the corner-store Sun Records, if not the father of rock 'n' roll, was surely its midwife. Phillips in 1951 cut what is perhaps the first rock 'n' roll record, Jackie Brenston's Rocket 88 (though fans of Wynonie Harris' 1949 Good Rockin' Tonight will argue the point unto death and beyond). He discovered and signed Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins, then eventually lost them all because his mom-and-pop business instincts never rose to the epic level of his artistic vision. Three generations past the rise of rock 'n' roll, the thrill of its rise—the most exciting cultural revolution in American history—is in danger of being forgotten in an age of fans who don't know who Paul McCartney or Wings are, much less that he was in a band before that. But Sun Records is more than up to the task of its tale. The 10-episode miniseries starts out in 1951, just as Phillips is turning away from a successful career as a radio-station engineer to concentrate on his bandbox recording studio. Moving away from his bread-and-butter business of taping funerals and weddings, Phillips starts encouraging musical acts he spots in the down-and-dirty clubs along Beale Street, the main artery of Memphis' black nightlife. But his efforts are met with relentless hostility by record distributors, radio stations, parents and even his own wife. "I swear I heard the heavens open up," he exclaims as he plays his newest record for his wife. Sniffs she: "Sounds like the gate to Hell to me." Intercut with Phillips' story in Memphis are scenes of simmering discontent from a restless post-war generation. In rural Arkansas, a teenage Johnny Cash is trying to escape not only the fields where his parents sharecrop, but the dead-end schools where the three R's are reading, writing and the road to Detroit in hopes of a job on an automobile assembly line. In Louisiana, an adolescent Jerry Lee Lewis and his priapic-TV-evangelist-to-be cousin Jimmy Swaggart are sneaking into whorehouses to ogle the girls and, in the process, inadvertently picking up a thing or two about jump-blues piano. Back in a public-housing project, shy high-school kid Elvis Presley's cultural tourism is taking the opposite direction: He's slipping away from sermons at his own church to listen to the gospel singing at a black congregation on the other side of town. And in Nashville, Presley's soon-to-be manager, carny barker Tom Parker, has hustled his way from a gig with nickel-a-peek dancing ducks ("You shoot 'em! You eat 'em! You chase 'em around the yard! You see 'em in the pool! But you ain't never seen 'em dance!") to promoting country crooner Eddy Arnold. The backdrops to the inexorable march of these characters toward a rendezvous with musical destiny are the racially constricted South, still strictly segregated right down to the water-fountain level, and the music industry, locked in its own straitjacket of Perry Como pop, busted-luck hillbilly ballads and monotonous cottonfield blues. Sun Records' nonstop soundtrack makes the point without pedantry; when you hear[...]

The Social Media of 1939

Fri, 17 Feb 2017 12:43:00 -0500

(image) In the first two decades of the 20th century, a new subculture embraced a new technology. Ham radio operators built their own transmitters, traded and modified each other's designs, negotiated complicated covenants that let them share the unregulated ether, and formed groups to enforce the rules. They battled the military (figuratively speaking) for the right to use the airwaves, and they invented broadcasting at a time when virtually everyone assumed that radio would be used only for point-to-point communication. They were often young, often anonymous, and often prone to pranks. They were the social media of a century ago, and you can draw whatever parallels you'd like between their subculture and the subcultures of today.

Before long the government would be regulating the airwaves, broadcasting would be professionalized, and the ham operators would be confined to their own segment of the spectrum, where the rules they followed became more strict. But on that reservation they kept their kind of social media alive. Here is an artifact from that middle period of amateur radio, after the anarchic early era but before it stopped seeming unusual to hear live voices from another side of the world: a 1939 "Pete Smith specialty" called Radio Hams.

Smith, then famous and now forgotten, narrated dozens of short films in the '30s, '40s, and '50s, the bulk of which were comedies. There is some comedy here, but it's mostly serious—we even get a couple of deaths:

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

Yes, it's kind of awkwardly made. (This was a common hazard in the Pete Smith series.) If you'd like to see a more lyrical piece of filmmaking about the Depression-era hams, you'd do better to watch the 1938 picture Love Finds Andy Hardy. Most of the movie is unexceptional, but—to quote my old obit for Mickey Rooney—"about an hour into the picture, there's a quietly engrossing amateur-radio sequence, a wonderful moment that belongs in the syllabus of any class on the prehistory of cyberspace." I unfortunately can't embed that series of scenes, but if you want to watch the whole film you can find it here.

Bonus links: I found that Pete Smith short via this essay at Ken Dowell's blog off the leash. Dowell's post also quotes my book Rebels on the Air, which includes a long discussion of the early days of amateur radio. But the bit he cites is on another subject: unlicensed community radio in northern Canada.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

The Ever-Shifting Politics of the Department of Education

Fri, 10 Feb 2017 12:35:00 -0500

This week Rep. Thomas Massie introduced a bill to abolish the Department of Education. To judge from the number of people in my social-media feeds who think this would be a step into the Stone Age, it isn't widely remembered that the department is fairly young—Jimmy Carter carved it out of the old Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1979—and that the politics surrounding it have rarely fallen into a neat left/right split. That was especially true when the department was being born. The National Education Association supported it, of course—it was basically a gift to the group. But the other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, was opposed—again because it was a gift to the NEA. One of the country's leading civil rights groups, the National Urban League, was in favor. But the Congressional Black Caucus was suspicious, and Rep. Shirley Chisholm became one of the proposal's leading opponents. "It seems to me that many of your professional associations would love to see the creation of this separate Department," she said, "but those groups in this country who do not have the powerful lobby groups, who do not have the financial resources, such as the Indians, the disadvantaged youngsters, the Hispanic youngsters...these are the groups that are apt to get lost in a separate Department of Education, where the focus is going to be brought to bear on the part of very powerful groups in this country." The press wasn't enthusiastic either. The New York Times condemned the proposal in an editorial headlined "Centralizing Education Is No Reform." And when The Washington Post tackled the topic, its editorial began: "Once in a while a bill comes along that is so thoroughly bad that most legislators who support it come to regret their vote." While the liberals went to war with each other, some conservatives decided the new department could be an instrument for advancing their own favorite policies. Republicans started tacking amendments to the bill, covering topics from abortion to busing; one declared that the department would permit school prayer. Many of these were meant more as poison pills than as serious proposals. But even after they were stripped out, some prominent conservatives wound up backing the legislation. Looking back from 2017, the congressional vote is full of surprises: Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott voted to create the department, while Chisholm, John Conyers, and Charles Rangel all voted no. Over the following years, some of the issues that seemed relevant in 1979 dimmed in importance. A lot of liberal opposition to the department, especially in the civil rights community, boiled down to "We know how to lobby for our causes at HEW; disrupting that could put us at a disadvantage." Once they started adjusting to the new order, that wasn't such a concern anymore. Still, as late as 1992, two Democratic presidential candidates—Jerry Brown and Bob Kerrey—called for euthanizing the department. Brown, denouncing it as "a massive bureaucratic waste" that "educates no student," said he'd move some of its functions to other parts of the federal government and devolve the rest to the states. Kerrey wanted to consolidate it and several other seats of the Cabinet into a new Department of Human Resources. Conservatives, meanwhile, fell into a love/hate relationship with Carter's creation. During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan pledged to abolish it. But once the GOP actually controlled the education bureaucracy and found it could be used to push for "national standards" and suchlike, more than a few Republicans made their peace with it. To this day there's a tension between the conservatives who'd kill the department and those who prefer to bend it to their own uses. I've known a few who seem to waver between the two positions, regaining their passion for abolishing it whenever a Democrat is elected and losing interest when he leaves office. Give Massie and his cosponsors credit: They're standing by their position even [...]

The Geopolitics of LSD

Wed, 08 Feb 2017 16:45:00 -0500

(image) I recommend The Verge's interview with Tim Scully, the underground chemist at the center of the new documentary Sunshine Makers. In the 1960s Scully became convinced, in the manner of the time, that LSD could solve the world's problems. And so he teamed up with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love—a motorcycle gang turned drug-dealing psychedelic church—and started working to get acid into as many hands as possible.

So far, that may sound like familiar '60s territory. But then we get to the best part of the Q&A, when Scully starts spouting the hippie-idealist version of hard-nosed geopolitical thinking:

[O]ne of the things we agreed on was that if we just turned on the United States it would be like unilateral disarmament. We really had to make sure that every country in the world got turned on, particularly those behind the Iron Curtain, or else it would be a very bad thing geopolitically. And so we talked to the Brotherhood and they made an effort to spread it around the world. And they did get our LSD into Vietnam and behind the Iron Curtain and all over.

Dear Hollywood: I suddenly have an idea for the best Cold War thriller ever.

Scully, for the record, isn't quite as idealistic as he used to be. "Things happened," he reports, "that made me realize that just scattering more LSD to the four winds was not real likely to save the world."

For a Study in Failed Foreign Policy, Look at the Seven Countries in Trump's Refugee Ban

Mon, 30 Jan 2017 12:47:00 -0500

President Trump's executive order temporarily suspending refugee admissions worldwide and indefinitely suspending refugees from Syria also imposed a temporary ban on any immigrant or nonimmigrant entry from seven "countries of concern," all of which are predominantly Muslim. Combined with a directive to give preference to refugees who are religious minorities, many took to calling the order a Muslim ban. Some news outlets noted the fact that the seven countries primarily affected by the order—Libya, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen—did not have business ties with the Trump Organization, with the New York Daily News calling it conspicuous and pointing out no Americans were killed by nationals of those countries while thousands were killed by nationals of Saudi Arabia, which is not one of the countries of concern but where the Trump Organization does do business. The Daily News said it raised "alarming questions" about how the decision was made. The list, however, is not of Trump's making. The dissonance between the countries of concerns and the countries from where major terrorists and terrorism ideologies originate is embedded in US foreign policy. The list comes from a 2015 immigration law that designated those countries as "countries of concern" which required additional visa scrutiny, and exempted from visa waivers dual nationals from those countries who also held passports from countries the U.S. did not require a visa. Of those seven countries, all but Iran have been the target of some kind of military action in the last twenty years. The Obama administration committed the U.S. military to intervention in Libya's civil war in 2011, helping to depose Col. Moammar Qaddafi and plunging the country into chaos. Today, a number of terrorist groups, including ISIS, operate in Libya when they did not exist in the country before 2011. Between 2011 and 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, the U.S. accepted just seven refugees from Libya. There's no indication that changed in 2016. U.S. troops returned to Libya last year to join the campaign against ISIS. Trump becomes the fifth consecutive U.S. president to preside over military operations in Iraq. While Ronald Reagan helped arm Iraq during its decade-long war with Iran, his successor George H.W. Bush led an international coalition against Iraq after it invaded Kuwait. Bill Clinton spent his administration bombing Iraq on-and-off, as well as maintaining sanctions estimated to have killed more than half a million children by 1995. In 1998, Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which made it official U.S. policy to support regime change in Iraq. After 9/11, George W. Bush set his administration's sights on Iraq, eventually invading the country in 2003 over weapons of mass destruction that were not found. Weak connections to 9/11 promoted in the run up to the war totally fell apart after. In 2008, the Bush administration negotiated a status of forces agreement to end the Iraq war. After trying and failing to renegotiate that agreement, Barack Obama withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011. He took credit for the move during his 2012 re-election campaign, but when ISIS emerged as a major force in Iraq, he backtracked, insisting it was not his decision. Eventually, U.S. troops returned to Iraq under Obama, in a campaign against ISIS that never received specific congressional authorization. They remain there today, although U.S. operations in Iraq will be complicated by a travel ban the Iraqi government imposed on U.S. citizens in retaliation for Trump's order. Both exempt diplomatic and government travel. Trump himself pointed to a 2011 review of refugee admissions from Iraq as precedent for his actions, although the 2011 move did not keep legal permanent residents from entering or leaving the United States. Nevertheless, critics in Congress challenged the Obama administration, expressing concern about leaving Iraqis who collaborated with the[...]

If Trump Is Going To Start Deporting Immigrants Who Broke the Law, Will He Start with Melania?

Wed, 25 Jan 2017 13:10:00 -0500

For me, the single most repellent element of Donald Trump's legislative agenda involves immigration policy. His protectionist trade policy is awful and will beggar us as a nation, but to demonize the "wretched refuse" of the world that comes to America "yearning to be free" goes beyond mere stupidity. Illegals commit fewer crimes than natives and make America greater by paying taxes and by lowering prices and doing jobs Americans won't do. As Ronald Reagan, who legalized millions with the stroke of a pen in the late 1980s, could tell you, their legal status is arbitrary, too. If your only crime is to "break into" America because you want a better life for yourself or your kids, I refuse to call you a criminal. Like a lot of Americans, I'm more likely to call you Grandma or Grandpa. As Shikha Dalmia reports, today Trump will announce plans to start building, rebuilding, and expanding a wall along the United States' southern border. If the past is any indication, it will be massively expensive and totally useless, and not simply because 40 percent or more of illegals come here legally and fewer and fewer migrants in general are coming from down Mexico way. It's because governments don't ultimately control migration flows any more than they control the flow of illegal drugs. Prohibition, whether in liquor, pot, or people can cause a huge amount of damage and bring violence, but it ultimately doesn't work, except for brief periods of time in totalitarian circumstances. FFS, if you can still can get every illegal drug known to man in supermax prisons, how the hell do you think you're going to keep out poor people motivated to leave behind a rotten situation in a third-world country? The short answer is: You can't. Especially with a fence along 2,000 miles of desert. If the American economy is strong, people will come whether they can enter the country legally or not. If the economy is soft, especially when an immigrant's home-country economy is OK, they will stop coming. Which is exactly why Mexicans stopped coming to the United States eight or more years ago. The only proven deterrents to immigrants, legal or illegal, is a shit economy, global depression, or world war. None of those are preferable to having to hit a button indicating what language your prefer at your local ATM. But if President Trump is in fact dead-set on deporting and boxing out ilegal immigrants, he should consider first the case of his third wife, Melania. Back in November, the AP reported that it discovered documents which show she was paid for 10 modeling assignments between Sept. 10 and Oct. 15, during a time when her visa allowed her generally to be in the U.S. and look for work but not perform paid work in the country. The documents examined by the AP indicate that the modeling assignments would have been outside the bounds of her visa. In other words—words that anti-immigrant activists constantly invoke—she broke the law and thus should be bounced from ever being able to become an American (she became a citizen in 2006). What part of illegal doesn't she understand? Questions remain about the conditions under which she received her first green card in 2001, but if she lied at any point during her immigration process, she could theoretically be booted out of the country. I raise this not to paint the former Melania Knaus as some sort of criminal or her husband as a hypocrite but simply to humanize other immigrants. One of the major problems with the reactionary nature of the media today and many Trump opponents is that they are blinded by rage and just want to score cheap points to diminish the billionaire. That type of response gets in the way of serious, substantive policy discussions that are about more than whether the Democrats will pick up a seat in the Senate or be able to humiliate Ben Carson during confirmation hearing. Public policy and politics are ultimately is about flesh-and-blood people and when[...]

Love Canal Down the Memory Hole

Tue, 24 Jan 2017 14:00:00 -0500

Ask any American born before 1960 for an example of corporate greed resulting in environmental disaster and the odds are good that he or she will name Love Canal. Love Canal, for readers who don't know, is a neighborhood in the city of Niagara Falls, N.Y. that was once a chemical waste dump. The dump became a major news story in the late 1970s, including sensational articles in the Niagara Falls Gazette by registered nurse turned reporter Michael Brown, who would later write the book Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals (Pantheon, 1980). The incident led to passage of the so-called Superfund legislation of 1980, which imposed a tax on petroleum and chemical companies to generate revenue for government-directed cleanup of toxic chemical sites. But the real story of Love Canal isn't the "corporate guys: bad; government guys and community activists: good" tale that many people believe. In its February 1981 issue, Reason magazine published an exhaustive, fact-filled, 13,000-word article on Love Canal written by independent investigative reporter Eric Zuesse. The article dramatically recast many of the characters in Brown's reports, including Brown himself. I recently asked Reason's longtime science writer, Ron Bailey, whether further information in subsequent years had led him to doubt any important factual claims in Zuesse's piece, and he replied, "I am not aware that his article has been contradicted or found deficient in any important way." In the years following that article, when I read about Love Canal, I do so with an eye on two topics: (1) Does the work discuss Zuesse's version of the story? (2) Does it challenge his claims? Those questions were on my mind as I read the latest addition to this literature, historian Richard Newman's new book Love Canal: A Toxic History from Colonial Times to the Present. Newman does not mention Zuesse, but he does raise some of the issues that Zuesse did. Disappointingly, he ultimately ignores those issues and adopts much of the story that Brown presented. Before diving into the book, some backstory is needed. In the 1890s, an entrepreneur named William Love proposed to build a canal bypassing Niagara Falls, which would allow shipping between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, better connecting the hydro-powered industrial area to markets. As part of his vision, Love proposed a planned community along the waterway. His project ultimately was dashed by the Panic of 1893 and a congressional prohibition on diverting water from the Niagara River, resulting in the abandoning of the partially dug canal. However, some of the residential development Love envisioned did become reality. Decades later, the unfinished canal, which had become filled with groundwater, became a dumpsite for the city's municipal waste. During World War II, a city–based chemical company, Hooker Electrochemical Company (later Hooker Chemical) received permission to dispose of chemical waste in the canal. Late in the decade, Hooker drained it, lined it with clay, and began depositing drums of chemicals at the site. Dumping continued through the early 1950s, when Hooker capped the site with clay. But the site was soon disturbed. The Niagara Falls City School District decided it wanted the property for a school, threatening to use eminent domain to gain the land. Rather than fight the action, Hooker offered to sell the property to the school board for $1. The school board agreed, even though it was aware of the site's history. In the deed of sale, Hooker included the following closing paragraph: Prior to the delivery of this instrument of conveyance, the grantee herein has been advised by the grantor that the premises above described have been filled, in whole or in part, to the present grade level thereof with waste products resulting from the manufacturing of chemicals by the grantor at its plant in the City of Niagara Falls, New York, and th[...]

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 Wes[...]

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 po[...]

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[...]

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

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

"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)! src="" width="100%" height="450" frameborder="0"> Follow us at Soundcloud. Subscribe to our YouTube channel. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to Reason magazine for just $15 a year![...]

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:

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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.