Published: Thu, 08 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Last Build Date: Thu, 08 Dec 2016 11:35:44 -0500
Sat, 03 Dec 2016 15:00:00 -0500Patria 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 some interviews with dissidents, too, including rogue blogger Yoani Sanchez, whose contribution of an audio tape of her 2010 detention by men without uniforms or credentials is by far the most chilling moment in the film. Unfortunately, her cameras [...]
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:
src="https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/295889135&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="450" frameborder="0">
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.)
Mon, 28 Nov 2016 15:32:00 -0500Fidel 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="https://www.youtube.com/embed/kjpnfDwWd7Y" 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 guy. * * * * * Bonus links: I'd like to report that libertarians saw through the Castro regime quickly, and for the most part they did. But there was an element that enjoyed the romantic vision of an island standing up to the American empire, so [...]
Wed, 23 Nov 2016 00:01:00 -0500Tomorrow, 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. "You can't borrow. You can't get a mortgage. You can't be bonded. There's nothing that you can have that'll allow you to be able to go to the bank on your own without the (government) minister co-signing that loan." Tribal governments function [...]
Tue, 22 Nov 2016 14:45:00 -0500As 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. It also requires you to think about the ways the internet has empowered not just liars but debunkers. Consider this image, highlighted and marked up in one anti-fake-news jeremiad that's been floating around: No, that isn't fake news. It's a t[...]
Fri, 18 Nov 2016 06:00:00 -0500On 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 History 101 in the bargain. In short, it's clear that this time the real-life Hermione Granger didn't do her homework. Indians at Ilvermorny Any fan of the Harry Potter franchise will tell you that the books and films agree: Harry's fellow wizards[...]
Wed, 09 Nov 2016 04:00:00 -0500
(image) An elementary school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has canceled a planned "wax museum" after several third-graders said they were going to dress as Adolf Hitler. According to local media, other "controversial" figures students planned to portray were Donald Trump and Christopher Columbus.
Thu, 03 Nov 2016 12:01:00 -0400When you can't win a fair contest, you have a few choices. You can gracefully accept the loss. You can try to do better the next time. Or you can flip the board over and stomp away. Sen. Ted Cruz and some other Republicans are set on the latter course. Since the February death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the GOP-controlled Senate has refused to vote on the nominee to replace him, Merrick Garland. Republicans argued that because the vacancy occurred in an election year, the seat should not be filled until 2017. "The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Now, however, some Republicans think the American people should take a long walk off a short pier. With a likely Hillary Clinton victory looming, these senators vow to spurn anyone she might choose for the court, as many times as they have to. "If Hillary Clinton becomes president," Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., promised, "I'm going to do everything I can do to make sure that four years from now, we've still got an opening on the Supreme Court." Cruz said, "There is certainly long historical precedent for a Supreme Court with fewer justices." There is also a historical precedent for trying to change the number of justices to achieve outcomes desired by one political party. But it's not what you would call an auspicious one. In 1937, fresh off a landslide re-election, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was unhappy with the court, which had struck down several New Deal initiatives. In his first term, he hadn't been able to appoint a single justice. He saw little chance of getting to put his stamp on it. But Roosevelt was not resigned to letting mere Supreme Court justices impede his ambitions for a more powerful federal government. Because he couldn't get rid of the conservative justices, he came up with another idea: add more seats, which he would gladly fill. He proposed to expand the court by one justice for each sitting justice who was over age 70, to as many as 15 members. As historian David Kennedy notes in Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, Roosevelt insisted the change would equip the court better to deal with an evolving nation, since older justices might "avoid an examination of complicated and changed conditions." True, he acknowledged, the court had been made up of nine justices since 1869, but that was no reason to keep the number there. Earlier, it had been set lower or higher. But Roosevelt's plan was so transparently dishonest and political that it blew up in his face. He not only failed but alienated many voters and gave credence to the Republican claim that he was a dictator in the making. "Roosevelt was proposing to fiddle with one of the most respected and immutable American institutions, one designed by the Founders and enshrined in national mythology as the ballast whose unshifting weight could be counted upon to steady the ship of state," wrote Kennedy. Cruz, Burr and other Senate Republicans ought to heed that infamous episode. There is nothing sacred about the number nine. But changing the size of the court in an attempt to influence how it decides future cases would be a cynical assault on the judiciary and republican government—as it was seen to be in 1937. To say that a duly elected president should be endlessly resisted on Supreme Court nominations is to insult the electorate that chose the president. One tradition that makes our system of government work is that while the Senate advises and consents on judicial nominations, it does not presume to choose nominees. Another is that it does not treat Supreme Court vacancies as opportunities for mischief and manipulation. Intractable obstruction invites Democrats to respond in kind, upending conventions for their short-term advantage. Should they gain control of the Senate, they coul[...]
Fri, 28 Oct 2016 15:00:00 -0400American Experience: The Battle of Chosin. PBS. Tuesday, November 1, 9 p.m. When the Chinese mortar shell exploded, it sent the American soldier hurtling through the air, his body savaged but his mind eerily dreamy as he fell back to earth, cataloging the carnage surrounding him. He took particular note of a severed limb casually askew on the ground. "Some poor guy lost a leg," the soldier thought to himself sadly. When he tried to stand, the dream blinked back to reality: The poor guy without a leg was him. So it goes in The Battle of Chosin, an episode of the PBS documentary series American Experience airing November 1. It's a series of postcards—surreal, grisly, terrifying—from a largely forgotten battle in the mostly unremembered war that the United States fought in Korea from 1950 to 1953. For two weeks beginning in late November 1950, a U.S.-commanded force of nearly 15,000 men, mostly U.S. Marines, fought its way out of an encirclement of 120,000 Chinese troops near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. The combat, at such close quarters that the fighting was often hand-to-hand, took place on steep, craggy mountain terrain ("you had two directions to go in Korea, that was either straight up or straight down, recalls one American soldier) in temperatures that plunged to 50 degrees below zero on some nights. It was a frozen killing field so gruesome that the soldiers interviewed in The Battle of Chosin are often reduced to ghastly free association in their attempts to describe it: "Grotesque. ... Horrible. Nightmare." Producer-director Randall MacLowry and writer Mark Zwonitzer, though both American Experience veterans (together and separately, they've chronicled everything from the creation of Silicon Valley to the campaign to stamp out polio), have little experience in making military documentaries. That doesn't show at all in The Battle of Chosin, which dexterously alternates between broad discussions of strategy and grunt's-eye-view of the fighting on the ground. They've assembled a truly awesome collection of archival footage and still photographs; as grim and exhausting as the battle got, military combat photographers apparently never put down their cameras. Battle opens with a quick, deft summary of the outbreak of the Korean War five months earlier. North Korean troops poured across the border, quickly captured Seoul and within a few weeks were on the verge of driving out U.S. and South Korean forces. But American commander Douglas MacArthur's risky decision to launch an amphibious assault behind the North Korean lines broke the communist offensive, sending them in headlong retreat north with U.S. forces in hot pursuit. As Thanksgiving approached, American troops were nearing the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China, and U.S. forces were so totally in control that American planes were ferrying turkey and dressing rather than bombs and bullets to the front. Though there were some nervous voices in Washington—including that of President Truman himself—expressing worries that China might intervene on behalf of the shattered North Korean army, MacArthur dismissed the Chinese as a "peasant army" that would crumble in the face of American military technology. Even when American troops traded some sporadic shots with infiltrated Chinese soldiers—their distinctive quilted uniforms made them easy to recognize—U.S. commanders were unconcerned. The spearhead of the drive on the Yalu was the 1st U.S. Marine Division, augmented by smaller units of the U.S. and South Korean army, arrayed in a semi-circle around the Chosin Reservoir on the eve of an offensive that their commanders had promised them would end the war by Christmas. Instead, they were awakened the night of Nov. 27 by a series of murderous human-wave attacks by a Chinese force that would number at least 60,000 soldiers[...]
Fri, 14 Oct 2016 10:40:00 -0400It's April 1980. You live in Toronto. You're going to see future Nobel laureate Bob Dylan play a show at Massey Hall. Of course, you don't think of him as future Nobel laureate Bob Dylan. You think of him as a hippie rock star who's just pissed off vast swaths of his fan base by converting to evangelical Christianity. Hopefully you weren't expecting to hear his old hits, because Dylan doesn't sing any of those. Instead he plays a bunch of his new religious songs, and at one point, with the band vamping behind him like he's a preacher and it's Sunday morning, he lets loose a little sermon. "In the Bible," he says, "it tells you specific things, in the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation, which just might apply to these times here." And he talks about Afghanistan and he talks about the Antichrist, and while he's standing there playing the prophet you start to realize that future Nobel laureate Bob Dylan isn't just into Christianity; he's into some freaky endtimes shit. But damn if he doesn't make it compelling, and somehow it all builds to a revved-up performance of "Solid Rock." Check out the whole thing here: src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/TPEv1y_Navk" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> I'm already on record as a fan of Dylan's Christian albums, and I'm not gonna recycle my arguments for them here. I wrote a piece for No Depression back in 2003 that makes my case, and if you're interested you can check that out. I'll just note that I'm not a Christian myself, so I'm not inflating their quality because I agree with them. And much as I love Dylan's best work, I'm definitely not the sort of fan who eats up everything he puts out, so that's not the issue here either. I honestly believe that Slow Train Coming is one of the great American jeremiads and that Saved is 43 minutes of good-and-sometimes-great gospel music. But I do have one little bias that might be magnifying my affection for this stage of Dylan's career. It's the window it opens on that Carter-era apocalyptic mood, when everything from the Afghan war to the Jonestown massacre—yeah, Dylan mentioned Jonestown in that sermon too—felt like a sign that Armageddon was near. Every era of American history has its own set of apocalyptic fears, a particular collection of cataclysms that seemed to loom at that specific moment. Inevitably, someone combines those historically contingent threats with the more long-lived tales Americans tell each other about the endtimes, so that, say, whatever happened that week in the Middle East is imagined as an event foretold in the Bible. Such exercises always look a little ridiculous in retrospect, once the crisis has passed without the world ending. But try to look past the ridiculousness. Try to suspend your disbelief and take them seriously, the way you might when you watch a horror movie. If you can do that, you'll find they're a valuable portal to the past. If you want to understand how the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan felt as it happened, you have to take yourself out of the mindset that sees that incursion as the beginning of a nine-year war that ended nearly three decades ago. You have to imagine how it looked to someone who had no idea how this was going to end, someone who caught a whiff of Armageddon in the air. Someone who might talk about the invasion as though he was just a few years removed from doomsday, not 36 years removed from winning a Nobel Prize. And if he can wrap up that talk with a solid song, all the better. (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For the Orson Welles version of Carter-era apocalypticism, check out the second and third videos here. For the far end of the period's endtimes fears, go here.)[...]
Fri, 07 Oct 2016 08:05:00 -0400One of the weirdest half-hours of nominally normal 1960s television is "Top Secret," a 1963 episode of My Three Sons. This almost invasively wholesome series starred Fred MacMurray as Steve Douglas, an aeronautical engineer raising three boys after his wife's death. In this installment, he has to work at home on a classified project; to keep everything secure, the house is put under surveillance. "We'll handle this job as though the Douglas family was out to blow up New York City," one agent explains to his colleagues. "Every word, every move, every meaningful silence—that's our assignment, from Top Level Pentagon." An apparatus built to combat external and internal threats will be used instead on an ordinary American family, for what we are assured is the common good. For the rest of the episode the government invades everyone's privacy, but the biggest victims appear to be the feds themselves, who are bored to tears by what they find. They file dreary reports on a young boy's movements; they tap the family's phone, yielding nothing but the halting progress of a teenager's love life. At the end, Fred MacMurray's character breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly: You know, this security thing was a little tough on my family for a while, but, well, you can see that it was necessary. Of course, now that the project is completed I can tell you what it was all about. You see, what I was really working on was a type of missile— And then the words TOP SECRET appear over MacMurray's face and his next several sentences are scrambled. The security system that hovered over the Douglases turns out to be in our homes too, intercepting information before it can be heard on our televisions. It is difficult to describe this scene without it sounding deeply creepy, but the show presents it as perfectly benign. There's even a laugh track: src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/shRgT6rieEk" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> In my book The United States of Paranoia, I contrasted that episode with a bicentennial-year edition of another sitcom, Good Times. (The summary above is adapted from my write-up in the book.) By 1976, the country had seen all sorts of official crimes exposed, from Watergate to COINTELPRO. Between that and the larger cultural revolution of the '60s and '70s, audiences were more willing to accept stories about the national security state abusing its power, even in a genre like the situation comedy. So when Good Times did a story about an ordinary American family falling under federal surveillance, it took a rather different approach to the subject. Here the FBI is shown callously disregarding its targets' liberty, privacy, and well-being, with disastrous results. This is how much pop culture can change in 13 years: src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/k9jaMOCYAhY" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Part two of three: src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/69MQD-ic--8" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Part three of three: src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/JKfobEGD9cs" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> As you may have noticed, "The Investigation" ends with John Amos looking directly at the camera, like Fred MacMurray at the end of "Top Secret." This time there's no laugh track. (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)[...]
Sat, 01 Oct 2016 12:00:00 -0400
Spontaneous cooperation, not social chaos, is the norm after a natural or technological disaster. That fact looms large in Jacob Remes' Disaster Citizenship (University of Illinois Press), a book that looks at two devastating events—a 1914 fire in Salem, Massachusetts, and a 1917 shipyard explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia—and shows what happened when that grassroots mutual aid ran headfirst into the Progressive Era's passion for rule by "expert" professionals.
Remes examines everything from ethnic networks to labor politics to the battle for control of government aid. (The people of Salem and Halifax were often happy to take the help, but only on their own terms.) As an undergrad at Yale, Remes took a class from Seeing Like a State author James C. Scott, and a very Scottian theme runs through all of the book's nuances and distinctions: the clash between an "organic, emergent order" and a power structure for whom that order was "inherently illegible and unknowable."
Sun, 25 Sep 2016 06:00:00 -0400The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture, by Pamela Haag, Basic Books, 528 pages, $29.99 Sarah Winchester was the widow of William Winchester, and William's father Oliver was the pater familias of the Winchester gun company. Oliver died in December 1880, and William succumbed to tuberculosis four months later. Two months after that, Sarah's mother died. By mid-1881, Sarah was essentially alone. But she also held 48 percent of the stock for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. And the stock paid dividends, between 21 and 79 percent of profits every year from 1869 to 1914. Upon William's death, his wealthy widow got on a train in New Haven and went west until she couldn't go further. She ended up in San Jose, then a burgeoning town still feeling the aftereffects of the gold rush. She bought some land and began building a house—and kept building, and building, and building. When she died in 1922, the house was still under construction: a confusing, ad hoc, and immense mansion of 160 rooms filled with inscrutable architectural choices. Doors open onto walls; staircases go nowhere; halls wind back and forth; rooms are built within rooms. The whole disorienting, labyrinthine mess is now dubbed the Winchester Mystery House. Why did Sarah build it? Well, there's the legend and there's the truth. Here's the legend: Distraught by the deaths of the people closest to her, Sarah became heavily involved with spiritualism. A medium told her the family was cursed by everyone who had been killed by Winchester guns, and that she should go west to build a house for the spirits. If construction ever stopped, the medium said, Sarah would die as well. The house is built in a convoluted fashion in order to throw off the spirits, who apparently were easily confused by switchback hallways and oddly placed doors. The truth? No one knows. Sarah left no journals, she was obsessively reclusive, and very few records exist. But for Pamela Haag, the legend in some sense is the truth. In The Gunning of America, her contentious and aggravating but still ultimately interesting book, the Yale-educated historian traces the stories of American "gun capitalists," most prominently the Winchester family, and the businesses they built. "We hear a great deal about gun owners, but what do we know about their makers?" she asks. Haag tells Sarah's story because "Oliver Winchester produced the rifles that contributed to many a gun legend; and, through her creation, Sarah became a counter-legend to the gun legends.…Oliver's mad ambition and Sarah's mad conscience belong to the same story and culture." More bluntly, she tells the legend because it fits her narrative. Haag believes that companies like Winchester did not merely manufacture guns but manufactured the demand for them; if this created a crisis of conscience for Sarah, Haag feels, so should it now for the nation. Although Haag often papers over the factual lacunae in Sarah's tale with words like "may have" and "perhaps" and "probably," she doesn't always do so. Readers have to be astute to differentiate between solid facts and Haag's guesswork, as during a bizarre multi-page foray into what Sarah's visit to a Boston medium "may have" looked like. And even when she includes such caveats, she can really lay it on: "Sarah may have heard the cogs of justice click into place. The spirits had exacted retribution against Sarah—and the Winchester name—by taking Will's life, and Annie's, and the lives of all her babies, to atone for those killed by their rifles." She should have added, "or at least that's what some unsubstantiated and biased sources say." Hundreds of passages could have used a similar disclaimer. Haag's book is not an anti-gun diatribe. Bu[...]
Fri, 23 Sep 2016 13:15:00 -0400
(image) Watergate and the other scandals of the '70s sparked a surge in skepticism toward the country's most powerful institutions. Here is an artifact from that era: a 1979 ABC News special called Mission: Mind Control. The hour-long documentary examines the CIA and Army's attempts to master brainwashing and other sorts of behavioral manipulation, included unethical experiments in which unwitting subjects were dosed with psychedelic drugs.
The show occasionally lapses into TV-news goofiness—at one point, as psychedelic imagery flashes on the screen, we're told that what we're watching is "considered by many experts to be the closest illustration of the effects of a hallucinogenic"—but at its core it's a hard-hitting piece of journalism. It was preserved, interestingly, by the National Archives and Records Administration, which did not bother to remove the commercials from the broadcast. So along with a harrowing exposé of official crimes, you get to see Will Rogers Jr. pitching Grape Nuts and a promo for a Geraldo Rivera report on a biker gang (featuring "dope, death, and the Bandidos"). Enjoy:
src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/DMH5WgGFxlc" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">
(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)
Fri, 16 Sep 2016 17:30:00 -0400Marking the occasion of Mexican Independence Day (which is not Cinco de Mayo but is actually celebrated today, September 16), David Frum of The Atlantic has an interesting look at the successes and problems plaguing the Mexican people and their government as the country enters its 207th year as an independent state. Frum has a point to make here—which I'll get to in a moment—but libertarians and anyone who takes an interest in comparative analyses of government will find that the most interesting part of the piece has to do with how Mexico and the United States took divergent courses in the two-ish centuries since their respective tossing-offs of European powers. The Mexican Revolution was nothing like the American one. It failed, at least as a populist movement. The agitators of the revolution—Mexico's equivalent of Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the rest—were captured and executed shortly after the September 16, 1810, uprisings that are celebrated today. Mexico actually achieved its independence from Spain more than a decade later after a long process of colonial reforms were approved by the imperial government in Madrid. Suppose there had never been a Declaration of Independence drafted in the summer of 1776, but that the 13 colonies had gained independence by an act of Parliament sometime in the late 1780s—perhaps our national myth would be built around the armed uprisings in Concord and Lexington and we'd celebrate our Independence Day on each April 19. That's basically what Mexico does. In Mexico, ties with Spain were finally severed because Mexican aristocrats—think the bad guys in any Zorro flick—decided to rebel against the Spanish throne rather than risk losing their high economic and social status as liberalizing reforms spread across the Atlantic from a post-French-Revolution era Europe. A decade after putting down a populist revolution, they became the revolutionaries—not for high-minded ideals like many of the revolutionaries of that era, but rather to preserve their system of cronyism built atop an imperial edifice that subjugated native Mexicans (and many of their fellow settlers too)—and then constructed a founding myth that eulogized the failed 1810 rebellion. As Frum puts it: "Imagine that it had been Benedict Arnold who achieved American independence, pronouncing himself Emperor Benedict I, banning all religions except the Church of England, and concentrating land ownership in the hands of a few grand Tory families." The differences in the two nations' origins are reflected in the last two centuries, during which Mexico has struggled to shake-off the control of crony elites. Frum takes note of how that dynamic has prevented Mexico from taking the same path towards freedom and prosperity followed by the United State and Canada. Even after the last 50 years, when Mexico began to loosen state controls over the economy, it's still burdened by disincentives to competition that benefit a handful of ultra-rich at the expense of the rest of the country. "Overcharges by the country's telecommunications monopoly are estimated to cost 2 percent of Mexico's total economic output. That monopoly earns profits almost double those of its U.S. and Canadian counterparts," Frum writes. "Unsurprisingly, the monopoly's owner, Carlos Slim, ranks among the world's richest men. The Mexican state-dominated energy industry also remains staggeringly inefficient, paralyzed by privileged labor unions and starved of investment by a Mexican government that demanded the energy monopoly Pemex pay its profits into the national treasury, rather than use them to maintain fields and modernize equipment." Those aristocrats who rebelled against[...]