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Archive for March, 2017

The Way It Wasn’t

U.S. Navy sailor Glenn Edward McDuffie kisses a nurse in Times Square in an impromptu moment at the close of World War Two

This is of course the iconic American image of the celebrations that erupted when World War II ended.

This and other celebratory images clutter up my mind when I think of that war as well–soldiers raising the American flag over Iwo Jima, Robert Mitchum in uniform, allied planes flying over France on D-Day, photos of Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill smiling after they’ve divided up the spoils, and so on.

I suppose it’s understandable that an American child might remember the war in this way–as a succession of images celebrating her country’s victory.  I was born in 1943, two years before the war ended in Europe. My father was too old to enlist, although according to family legend, he tried mightily to do so. I had no brothers, and my sisters were teenagers during the war. They later told me engaging stories about rubber shortages, ration cards, and collecting tin cans to donate to the war effort.

So I have been a spectator to World War II, imagining it through movies, photos, and family stories. Until a few weeks ago, that is, when I began to read about Hitler and fascism. I’m not alone in doing this, and the reason why will be evident to anyone who is paying attention to current events.

In the course of my reading I’ve been forced to confront the horror that descended on Europe between 1933 and 1945. Reading Richard Evans’ history of the Third Reich and its well-planned, carefully-administered murder of millions of people, there have been moments when I’ve had to put down the book and go for a walk. At moments like these, one doubts whether one wants any longer to be a member of the human race.

Yesterday afternoon, as if to confirm the horrors I was reading about, I looked at images of the destruction:

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This photo depicts a small town in Germany after the allied invasion. There are thousands of pictures of the war and its aftermath on the net. They show bombed-out cities, bodies piled up along roadsides, ruined gardens, dead farm animals–almost more destruction than can be borne. After seeing these, my attitude toward the iconic photo has changed. I notice that the buildings are intact, and that everyone in the picture is fully dressed and well-fed.

And while I’m thinking about relative privilege, I will confess that I’ve often wondered if the nurse in the photo actually wanted that kiss.

 

 

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Last night I tuned into Bill Maher’s show in order to watch some liberals discuss current events (a rare thing on teevee). The assembled politicians and journalists had fun with the Rethug health care fiasco that came to an ignominious end yesterday morning.

And then Bill invited another guest onto the stage: Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale. Now Prof. Snyder is not just any history prof. He has published a dozen books; he holds an endowed chair; he is a member of the Committee on Conscience at the Holocaust Memorial Museum; and his work has won an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Hannah Ahrendt Prize, and the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding, among others.

In other words, Professor Snyder is an accomplished student of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. He has just published a book entitled On Tyranny, and he tried hard to interest Bill’s guests in what he knows, given his long and serious study of tyranny in action. He  listed the first three of his rules for combating tyranny, to wit:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one-party state.

Professor Snyder sees evidence that the Trump administration is trying to break these rules. Indeed, one could read the slavish devotion of Trump’s voters as a sign that the first rule has already been breached. The professor was in the middle of an interesting discussion with Chris Hayes about the necessity of defending our political institutions when Maher decided to turn the conversation back to fun and games.

I was disappointed. As it happens, I am currently about halfway through one of Professor Snyder’s books: Black Earth: The Holocaust As History And Warning (2015). This is not an easy read but I am sticking with it because Snyder is telling some truths about the Holocaust that we don’t ordinarily hear. For once thing, he has convinced me that Hitler was not only an anti-semite;  rather, he was a thoroughgoing racist who believed that every human on earth was inferior to Germans.

The entire point of Hitler’s ideology (and later his politics) was to enhance and finally achieve the purity of the German “race”; the point of his war was to clear enough land so that Germans could multiply throughout Eastern Europe (and beyond, if they managed that). Hitler despised the Jews because he thought they were people of ideas rather than action, and to his way of thinking it was ideas, such as equality and freedom, that kept the German people from fulfilling their natural task: to spread over the earth, taking it by force, and multiply. This is what the Nazis meant by their slogan”blood and soil.”

More to come.

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Character Study

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John Wayne and Vera Miles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

So there I sat, unable to endure one more second of yet another Republican hack lying into the teevee camera about their health care plan. So I channel-surfed my way over to the classic movie channel, and playing there, like a gift from the Flying Spaghetti Monster herself, was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Goddess what a great movie! This is an adult film, a western for grown-ups. I saw it when it was first released in 1962 and I was a kid in college. I knew even then that I was watching greatness but I couldn’t say exactly why. Now, watching it again, I understand a little more.

When I was preparing to write this post, I read a few reviews  of the film (Roger Ebert’s review has a plot summary and some astute remarks about John Ford’s work as its director at http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-man-who-shot-liberty-valance-1962). Aside from Ebert’s, most reviews I found were full of movie-critic cant, opining either that Liberty Valance represents Ford’s sad farewell to the Old West, or, alternatively, his welcoming of a less violent, more socialized New West. Well, yeah, okay.

For my money the very coolest aspect of the film is the performances that Ford got from his cast. John Wayne is actually good here–he’s not phoning it in as he sometimes did. Ford shows us in shot after shot just how big Wayne was;  he dwarfs Jimmy Stewart, the ostensible hero, and he quite literally spills over every chair he sits in or table he leans on. His goddam hat fills up the kitchen of the restaurant where most of the opening scenes appear. This attention to Wayne’s out-sized person subtly undermines the title of the film when we learn at its end that his character is, indeed, its hero–although nobody knows that.

The critics give most of their attention to Wayne’s and Stewart’s performances, but to do so is to miss some of the best character work I’ve seen in American cinema. There’s a wonderful scene where Liberty Valance and his goons invade the restaurant, generally raising hell and messing with all the straight folks in the place. The camera centers on Lee Marvin (as Valance) so that you don’t realize until they move out of his shadow that his goons are played by (no less than) Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin!

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Martin delivers one of his patented insane-drooling-bad guy performances here, jumping up and down, grinning and giggling while Valance beats the shit out of someone. Van Cleef plays his usual lowering self (this movie was made well before he became an anti-hero); nonetheless he proves to be the most sane member of the gang. That’s because the real menace of this bunch is punched onto the screen by Lee Marvin. (You can get some inkling of his power even from the still photo). As played by Marvin, Liberty Valance has no redeeming features whatever. Even the mention of his name scares the shit out of the townspeople, and when Marvin actually shows up, dirty, disheveled, and brandishing a horsewhip, we see why.

Woody Strode also delivers a memorable performance.  He plays the faithful

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sidekick, of course, but he makes the most of this tired schtick by endowing Pompey, his character, with dignity and strength. Ford sets up a poignant scene in the town schoolroom where Strode, flanked by a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, is asked by Stewart to read the passage from the Declaration of Independence that assures us that all men are created equal. Strode’s delivery of the lines beautifully underscores the irony of his situation as Wayne’s minion, possibly still a slave.

The movie features a few other, smaller, performances that are also worth watching:  Miles as the illiterate, hard-working woman who jilts Wayne’s character for Stewart’s;  Edmund O’Brien as the drunken newspaper owner who delivers speeches worthy of Shakespeare, Andy Devine as the cowardly marshal who is frightened by his own shadow, and Jeanette Nolan as the Swedish owner of the restaurant.

This film felt as fresh to me yesterday as it did when I was eighteen. I wonder if a contemporary director could get so many fine actors to share the screen with one another as Ford did here.

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Spring Has Sprung!

 

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At any rate the globemallow are out. And the fields around my house are glorious with color. The creosote bushes are ubiquitous, literally lining both sides of the roads with yellow blooms.

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And in another sign of good things, this morning I heard a denizen of my little resort town telling another that, quote, “Trump is a fool.” Said denizen went on to complain that Trump has already spent more money traveling that Obama did in an entire year.

I couldn’t hear more because I was trying to walk past the conversation at a normal pace and I had a hugely suspicious smile on my face.

 

 

 

 

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This morning someone on the TV machine said that Trump’s supporters don’t actually care what’s in the proposed health care bill; what they really want is to repeal Obamacare. IOW, Trump’s voters harbor such fierce resentment toward a black president and the people he tried to help that they are prepared to vote against their own best interests. This is why the so-called “Freedom Caucus” in the House of Representatives wants only to repeal the bill and won’t discuss any possible repairs that could be made to it.

I suggest that such sentiments are motivated by an identity politics that polite commentators call “ethnic nationalism.” The Urban Dictionary has a handy definition:  “The belief/pride in an ethnic group, based on cultural and genetic makeup. Ethnic nationalists often strive for autonomy of their specific ethnic group from another ruling nation.”

Now there’s nothing wrong with ethnic pride–I like St. Paddy’s day parades and the dancing and food at Greek festivals as much as the next person. It’s the autonomy stuff that bothers me, especially when that is combined with a notion of superiority. When these elements are present, as they are in the thinking of many Trump voters, I prefer to call ethnic nationalism what it actually is:  white supremacy.

To illustrate:  a couple of days ago Steve King (R-Iowa) suggested that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” The frightening scenario painted by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale flashed through my mind when I heard this, and I suddenly realized that white supremacy explains why conservatives are so against abortion and contraception. Duh–sorry to be so slow in making this connection. Here I thought all along that they were were just protecting male dominance. Nope! They are also afraid that whites will soon be outnumbered by those “others”–you know, the non-white people who are mooching off Obamacare.

So, white women! Quit going to school and working all the time and start fucking! We have to keep up!

Does all of this sound drearily familiar? Well yeah. But it has taken on a newly ominous tone for me because I am reading Richard Evans’ monumental history of the Third Reich. In the first volume, which is about the rise of Nazism, Evans writes: “The fundamental problem for Nazi women . . . lay in the Party’s ineradicable male chauvinism, a conviction that women’s role was not to take part in politics but to stay at home and bear children” (2003, 213). But this stance was not motivated merely by “male chauvinism,” to use Evans’ quaint term. Hitler’s dream of lebensraum (living space) was to repopulate the lands east of Germany (Poland, Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia and even Russia) with “racially pure” folks after the Nazis had exterminated the Jews and other undesirables who lived there. So even the women who were attracted to Nazism were sent home to procreate because of the fear that still haunts insecure white men: they’re out to get us!

Today that same fear motivates white guys who stand on street corners showing off their abs while waving American, Confederate, and Nazi flags, and who cheer murderers like Dylan Roof. More ominously, white supremacy also motivates people to bomb Muslim houses of worship, overturn monuments in Jewish cemeteries, deface African-American churches, and attempt to bar a variety of  “undesirables” from emigrating to America.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Silly Wabbit

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Every morning I feed the birds that have learned to accumulate on my back porch around sunrise. The scrum usually includes hordes of mourning doves, a covey of very fat quail, a few sparrows, and what a biologist I once knew called “small brown birds.”

I began feeding the birds in order to entertain Sassy, but I suspect I have more fun watching the assembled wildlife than she does.

The small rabbit in the photo has lately appeared in the yard about twenty minutes before I put out the birdseed. When I open the back door the birds flee. But not this little gal. In the last couple of weeks, in fact, every morning she has crept up on the porch and sat within three feet of me, looking up as if to say “well, get on with it.”

Let’s hope she is not so blase when the coyotes are about.

 

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An Encounter

 

There I was, quietly eating my lunch while absorbed in a book. Suddenly, an older gentleman sitting in a nearby booth asked me: “Is that the Bible you’re reading?”

I suppressed the laugh that bubbled up in my throat, and replied: “Why no. It’s Joyce Carol Oates’ new novel.” And then some imp of the perverse tempted me to add: “Do you know her work?”

“Never heard of her,” he said.

Because I was miffed at having once again been interrupted by a man while I am trying to read, I thought (briefly) about saying: “Well, it’s about a Christian who murders abortion providers.”

But I forebore.

 

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