Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Capitals Win the Stanley Cup

The Washington Capitals have finally won their first championship, in their forty-third season! It's also the first championship for DC in one of the four major sports since 1992 (although soccer team DC United has won four times in that span). I do most of my sports posting and commenting on fan blogs and social media, and I'm not going to post the 50 plus links I've collected, but I felt obliged to post something here. (The celebration parade was today in DC.)

Sports fandom can be a bit of a silly thing. Most of us inherit our favorite teams from parents or other relatives. Maybe we develop fandom from where we live or once lived. And dedicated fans feel excitement and disappointment, sometimes significant amounts of it, all based on the actions of a person or group of people we can't control. Fans can pour enormous time, energy and money into following sports, which might be better spent elsewhere. It's pretty irrational, really.

But fandom can still be glorious. The main reason we watch sports is because it can be entertaining and thrilling – watching two teams (or people) in opposition, with set rules, but an uncertain outcome, makes for good drama. (Brecht once observed, essentially, that bad theater wasn't as gripping as good sports, and theater should strive to be at least as engaging.) And some athletic feats are just impressive. There's a beauty to a good pass in football, soccer, basketball or hockey. Fandom is often communal – gathering with friends and family, celebrating and commiserating with fellow fans in a bar or in online communities during games. And surely sports are a healthier form of competition or even aggression than, say, war or other actual fighting.

As a lifelong Packers fan, I was thrilled to see the Packers win the Super Bowl in 1997 after a 29-year drought and several years of serious contention. Their underdog run in 2011, winning six games in a row just to make the playoffs and then winning the championship, was also amazing. Likewise, as a lifelong, masochist Cubs fan, seeing the Cubs win the World Series after over 100 years was astounding. Both fandoms have entailed considerable heartache due to playoff losses. (I never fully celebrate a Packers game until it's done, having seen some heroic finishes but also last-second defeats.)

But the Capitals' championship is particularly special because it's their first. And they are – or were – serious contenders for heartbreak kings. The Caps have been really good for a significant amount of time without winning a championship, facing epically bad luck or just not pulling it off. As The Washington Post's Thomas Boswell puts it:

In the past decade, the Caps lead the NHL in regular season points with 1,019, ahead of the Penguins (1,008) and the Chicago Blackhawks (988). Nobody else is close. In those 10 years, the Penguins and Blackhawks have won six Cups — three each. In the NHL’s luck-laced playoffs, no one team, no matter how good, is assured of winning a title in any particular year. But sustained excellence for so long, as Pittsburgh and Chicago illustrate, is usually rewarded.

(The rest of the column, explaining more Capitals mishaps and how this season was different, is well worth the read.)

The Stanley Cup is easily the coolest and most storied trophy in sports (at least in North America), and it's arguably the hardest to win, with luck playing a significant role in addition to the usual skill and grit and all the sports clichés one can summon.

I first started following the Caps in 1998 or 1999, after their first Finals appearance. I didn't follow them at all as a kid; their TV ads in the DC area were cheaply made, the team didn't seem to be that good (I know now they did make some playoff runs), it seemed a bit silly to me that hockey was being played in a fairly Southern city, and I played soccer as a kid. But one day during a brief return stint in DC, I read a piece in The Washington Post about the Capitals making the Finals – and being swept – but how they had exceeded expectations and were actually pretty good now. I thought it'd be interesting to finally check out a game. The next season, I went down to the then-MCI Center and got the cheapest seat possible – a $10 or $12 "Eagle's Nest" seat, which meant the last one or two nosebleed rows at the ends of the arena. In theory, they're the worst seats possible, but you can see the action developing pretty well, especially odd-man rushes. I saw the Capitals play their arch-rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, losing 4-3 in overtime. But the game was exciting and amazing. It had the gorgeous passing and weaving I loved in soccer, but it was accelerated, in a condensed space, and with the potential for sudden reversals when one team pressed and missed and the other team could potentially break out the other way. I was hooked. I dragged some family members to a game, and even though I was moving out of town, I got a partial season subscription that year, picking games when I could be in town and the most interesting matchups otherwise, and gave those game tickets to my father. (He kindly repaid me for those tickets, although I told him he didn't have to.)

Some years I was so busy I couldn't follow the Caps well, or they were so bad I didn't have the heart to check in constantly. But for the past several years, I've followed every single one of the 82 regular-season games, listening to most of them on the radio app on weekdays, possibly catching the end of the games when just getting home, watching recaps, and celebrating and commiserating on fan sites. I've attended a game or two every time I've been back in DC during hockey season, and for a few years have attended the Caps-Kings game here in Los Angeles (which makes me feel slightly bad, because the Kings are my second or third favorite team). The Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy for most points/best record in the regular season the previous two seasons, and have done that three times in the past 10 years. In those seasons especially, it seemed like they would finally break through and win a championship. But they kept on getting bumped out, in the past 10 years by the Flyers, Canadiens, and Lightning once apiece, the Rangers three times, and the Penguins three times. The screwy playoff system of the past few years, which eliminated reseeding after rounds, meant the Caps and Penguins kept meeting in the second round instead of the conference finals, even though they were arguably the best two teams in the Eastern Conference (possibly in the league, but certainly in the top four or so). As a fan, you can tell yourself that, statistically, your team should win eventually (hey, the Cubs finally did it again after more than a century), but life as a Caps fan has meant plenty of thrills during the regular season, and excitement and agony during the playoffs, finishing with crushing disappointment and despair at the injustice of the universe (or as head coach Barry Trotz might put it, "the Hockey Gods").

As a result, in recent years, my Caps devotion has probably been my most intense or at least tumultuous fandom. I do follow every Packers game, and can get engaged enough to live and die with every play, especially come playoff time. But there are only 16 games in a season, plus the playoffs. And the Packers lead the league with 13 championships, and won one in the past 10 years, all of which honestly has taken the sting out of some pretty brutal playoff disappointments, at least for me. It's unrealistic and greedy to expect a championship every year, and healthy fandom necessitates enjoying the ride. Meanwhile, for the Cubs, I periodically check in on the standings, look at the scores, and will put a game on in the background in the rare event it's on, but I don't study in detail every recap of their 162 regular-season games and typically save following closely until the playoffs loom and if the Cubs have a chance. I've been diehard with the Caps, and this Stanley Cup run and win will probably be the zenith of my fan experience with sports, because it's the Caps' very first championship, and for both players and fans, it represents a host of demons slain. (I'm reminded of a good friend who's a lifelong Angels fan and finally got to see them win the World Series in 2002. Likewise, unless I have other rooting interests, I always cheer for the team that hasn't won a championship or has the longest drought.)

Most NHL pundits and fans thought the Caps would compete for a playoff spot, but few thought they would win the division. This Caps team was not as talented or deep as were the teams of the previous two seasons, but somehow, it was the one to win the championship. Why? Lower expectations? More youth and speed? More adversity and working through it? So much was improbable. Defenseman Brooks Orpik scoring a game-winning goal in the Finals after last scoring on February 26th, 2016 (yes, 2016). Jakub Vrana and Andrei Burakovsky both being scratched in games and then each coming back and scoring two goals in later games. Devante Smith-Pelly scoring only seven goals in the regular season and then scoring seven clutch goals in the playoffs, including a game-tying goal in what wound up being the series finale while being tripped and falling down. Beating the Penguins on the road with Backstrom and Wilson out and playing a bunch of rookies. Evgeny Kuznetsov leading all players in the playoffs with 32 points and scoring gorgeous, silky-smooth goals, including winning the series against the arch-rival Penguins in overtime. Goalie Braden Holtby shutting out the excellent Tampa Bay Lightning in two successive elimination games, and in the Finals making a jaw-dropping stop known as The Save. Backstrom being quietly productive as usual. Ovechkin scoring through skill and persistence and being a force of nature. The Caps winning all four series after being behind, and winning all four on the road, and winning all four games when they could eliminate an opponent. Ovechkin winning the Conn Smythe for playoff MVP (both Kuznetsov and Holtby also would have deserved it), and more importantly, winning the Stanley Cup, silencing the largely inane, idiotic criticism he and the Caps have been subjected to for years. This postseason was nerve-wracking and thrilling and magical.

Here's the official NHL recap of Game 5:

The Capitals put together a nice video from their perspective on the game, including "backstage" footage, "We Are the Champions":

Here's the handshake line, one of the great traditions in the sport:

Then there's the presentation of the Stanley Cup. Ovechkin accepts the Conn Smythe, but watch the footage and you can see that this is one he really wants. Just look at Ovechkin's unbridled joy. And the first person who gets the Cup after him, of course, is Nicklas Backstrom:

Video of the team photo, with two late but important additions:

Now that the season's over, it'll be nice to have more time back for other pursuits, and less stress, but I'm glad to have gone through all of it. The St. Louis Blues are probably now the most overdue team for a championship in hockey, but I hope every devoted fan in every sport gets an experience like this.

Monday, May 28, 2018

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Blowing Things Up

Today is Memorial Day, which is meant for remembering those who died in military service. It's also a good day to reflect on war in general.

Back in May 2017, John Quiggin of Crooked Timber made a good observation about Trump bombing Syria and the pundits this impressed. Quiggin:

Blowing things and people up is seen as a demonstration of clarity and resolve, unless someone is doing it to us, in which case it's correctly recognised as cowardly and evil. The most striking recent example (on "our" side) was the instant and near-universal approval of Trump's bombing of an airfield in Syria, which had no effect at all on events there.

Last month, Quiggin wrote a follow-up about "another round of bombing from Trump, and yet more instant applause." These dynamics aren't limited to Trump, of course; they have a long history in the U.S. and other nations.

Some wars may be necessary. Others definitely aren't. In theory, every pundit or government official and most citizens should have heard the saying that "war is hell" and should know the truth behind it, thanks to schooling, listening to veterans, and all the good documentaries, feature films and books on the subject. Anyone who wants a war is an idiot or a scoundrel. Yet even when military action is pretty clearly a bad idea or at least pointless, some people who should know better will still cheer it. They'll hail it as a sign of leadership or being decisive or tough or manly, while virtues like wisdom and careful thought are ignored if not vilified. (And many in this crowd will try to claim patriotism while they do it.) Surely one of the points of Memorial Day is that we shouldn't add to the numbers of the dead unnecessarily. But our national political discourse, on matters of war as with most everything else, is too heavily influenced by idiots and scoundrels.

It makes sense for Memorial Day to be a day of reflection or getting together with friends. But maybe it can also spur some civil engagement later in the year, whether it's working for veterans or food banks or some other worthy cause, such as registering people to vote and getting them to the polls. It's relatively easy to blow something up, and generally both harder and more worthwhile to build and sustain something positive with others.

People talk about Iwo Jima as the most glorious amphibious operation in history. I've had Iwo veterans tell me it was more similar to Peleliu than any other battle they read about. What in the hell was glorious about it?...

My parents taught me the value of history. Both my grandfathers were in the Confederate Army. They didn't talk about the glory of war. They talked about how terrible it was.
– WWII veteran E.B. "Sledgehammer" Sledge (1923–2001)

Monday, April 30, 2018

National Poetry Month 2018: Fire and Ice

April is National Poetry Month. As usual, I'll promote the wonderful Favorite Poem Project. Unfortunately, the associated Summer Poetry Institute for teachers ceased last year, but the site still has resources for teachers or anyone else who wants to host a favorite poem event.

This year, I'm going to feature a short piece, whose dark wit always makes me smile.

Fire and Ice
By Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

A friend of mine in college would sneak trays out of the cafeteria, write short poems on them, and stealthily return the trays to the stack. It was awesome. This is one of the poems she picked.

Feel free to link or post a favorite poem in the comments.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

St. Patrick's Day 2017

I've posted this song before, but it's one of my favorite picks for the day. Here's Dead Can Dance (with Lisa Gerrard singing) performing a striking rendition of the 19th century Irish tune, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley":

My copy of the The Irish Songbook says:

This is an excellent example of many songs that serve both as love lyrics and rebel song. The scene described refers to the 1783 rising. The words are the work of Robert Dwyer Joyce, a professor of English Literature at Catholic University at Dublin. In danger of arrest for rebel activities, Joyce fled to the United States. He later returned to Ireland and died in Dublin in 1883.

Wikipedia gives some more information, including a nice list of the many bands who have recorded the song. (Ken Loach's 2006 film takes the song for its title.)

Feel free to mention or link any favorite Irish songs or poems in the comments. Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Monday, March 05, 2018

2017 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Reviews

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition, delayed this round. It comes in four parts – the other three coming later.)

2017 was a decent year for films, with a solid crop of noteworthy movies. Many of the best were genre pictures, including the usual superhero flicks, but also a science fiction film, a western and a monster movie.

Jimmy Kimmel did a good job overall hosting this year's Oscars. He offered (and delivered) on a jet ski to the winner with the shortest speech. His too-long-and-unnecessary gag last year was a Hollywood tour coming into the theater, and this year it was the Oscar attendees surprising moviegoers across the street. Other than that, though, the ceremony didn't have that much extraneous padding. The themes for this year's show were very consciously about diversity and inclusion, plus several nods to the "Me Too" movement to end sexual harassment. (This also made for awkwardness when Kobe Bryant's film won Best Animated Short, given the rape allegations against him.)

Lupita Nyong'o and Kumail Nanjiani, both immigrants, had some funny banter, then gave a shout-out to the "Dreamers," the children born in the United States to undocumented immigrants. Nyong'o's was a doubly good choice, given her Oscar acceptance speech in 2014, about holding onto dreams, one of the more memorable ones of the past several years.

The set was spectacular – 45 million Swarovski crystals that changed with the lighting – but also a little distracting.

As usual, the Oscars' montage game was strong. The acting categories had great little montages of previous winners, and a longer piece celebrated 90 years of Oscar-nominated films. Native American Wes Studi (who's a Vietnam vet, it turns out) introduced a montage honoring veterans, and even said some words in Cherokee.

Some of the older presenters (Eva Marie Saint and Christopher Walken) were preceded by a clip of their Oscar-winning work, which was both smart for younger viewers and a nice reminder for the older set.

Allison Janney probably had the funniest acceptance speech, thanks to starting, "I did it all myself." She waited for the laughter to die a bit, then gave gracious thanks, including a nice shout-out to Joanne Woodward for encouraging her to continue acting. Other winners flashed some wit as well: Lee Smith, who won the Oscar for editing for Dunkirk, said, "I'm trying to wrap this up; I'm an editor, I should be able to do this."

Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph arguably were the funniest presenters, arriving with the heels in hand because they said their feet hurt, and assuring the audience that the Oscars hadn't become too black, because they had seen plenty of white people backstage.

In a cool gesture, screenwriter and actress Rachel Shenton used American sign language in her acceptance speech for Maisie Sly, the deaf child lead actress of the Best Live Action Short, The Silent Child. The director (and Shenton's fiancé), Chris Overton, mentioned they'd gotten funding on Indiegogo. (It's neat to think that an Oscar short was crowd-sourced.)

The screenplay categories were even stronger than usual this year. I haven't seen Call Me By Your Name yet, but it was lovely to see 88-year-old veteran filmmaker James Ivory become the oldest winner in either of the writing categories. He gave a gracious speech thanking the book's author and his long-time and now deceased filmmaking partners, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and producer Ismail Merchant. I cheered when Jordan Peele won Best Original Screenplay for Get Out, and would have been likewise thrilled if The Big Sick won.

Although a fine actor, Gael Garcia Bernal was unfortunately out of tune when he started to sing eventual Best Original Song winner, "Remember Me," but luckily when the chorus came in, single-named singer Miguel took over lead vocals and rescued the melody. Sufjan Stevens and his band also sounded a bit off on "Mystery of Love," although it's a pretty song. The performance of "Mighty River" by Mary J. Blige (also nominated for acting!) was solid and those for "Stand Up for Something" and "This Is Me" were boisterous.

For the last several years, the Montage of Death has been accompanied by a good chanteuse, and it's worked well. This year, Eddie Vedder delivered a fine performance of the late Tom Petty's "Room at the Top," which made for a nice change of pace.

The most memorable speech of the night was probably from Best Actress winner Frances McDormand. She started with, "I'm hyperventilating. If I fall over, pick me up because I've got some things to say." She proceeded to give a fiery speech, calling on every single woman nominated in every category to stand with her, and then addressed producers and studio execs: "We all have stories to tell and projects we need financed. Invite us to talk, and we'll tell you all about them." She ended by saying, "two words: inclusion rider," which is a contract provision that requiring some degree of diversity in a film's cast and crew.

As far as the awards themselves, I'd have given Best Sound Mixing to Baby Driver over Dunkirk, which deserved its Best Sound Editing win. As much as I love Allison Janney, who was great as usual in I, Tonya, I thought Laurie Metcalf gave a meatier and more varied performance in Lady Bird and should have won Best Supporting Actress. Roger Deakins winning for Best Cinematography after 13 previous nominations for great work was long overdue. I've been a big fan of Sam Rockwell since he showed his versatility in 1999 as both a creepy killer in The Green Mile and a panicked goofball in Galaxy Quest, so I was happy to see him win. Likewise, Gary Oldman has been amazingly malleable in his roles and consistently fantastic, but due to much of his work being in genre flicks instead of "prestige" films, he hasn't always gotten recognition. It was nice to see him win. I think my favorite, though, might be Guillermo del Toro's double wins, because he's an imaginative, intelligent, generous, enthusiastic fanboy of a director, and The Shape of Water deserved all its awards, including Best Picture.

Here's del Toro's acceptance speech for director (video):

I am an immigrant like [fellow Mexican directors] Alfonso [Cuarón] and Alejandro [G. Iñárritu], my compadres. Like Gael [García Bernal], like Salma [Hayek] and like many, many of you.

In the last 25 years I've been living in a country all of our own. Part of it is here, part of it is in Europe, part of it is everywhere. Because I think that the greatest thing our art does and our industry does is to erase the lines in the sand. We should continue doing that when the world tells us to make them deeper.

The place I like to live the most is at Fox Searchlight because in 2014, they came to listen to a mad pitch with some drawings and the story and a maquette. And they believed that a fairy tale about an amphibian god and mute woman done in the style of Douglas Sirk, and a musical and a thriller was a sure bet.

I want to thank the people that have come with me all the way: Kimmy, Robert, Gary, Wayne and George. And my kids. And I wanna say, like Jimmy Cagney said once, 'My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my brothers and sisters thank you. And I thank you very much.'

Here's del Toro's acceptance speech for Best Picture (video):

Growing up in Mexico as a kid, I was a big admirer of foreign films, from films like ET or Willy Wyler or Douglas Sirk or Frank Capra; and a few weeks ago, Steven Spielberg said, “If you find yourself there, if you find yourself in the podium, remember that you are part of a legacy, that you’re part of a world of filmmakers and be proud of it.” I’m very, very proud.

I want to dedicate this to every young filmmaker, the youth that is showing us how things are done, really they are, in every country in the world. I was a kid enamored with movies. Growing up in Mexico, I thought this could never happen. It happened and I want to tell you, everyone that is dreaming of a parable of using genre of fantasy to tell the stories about the things that are real in the world today, you can do it. This is a door. Kick it open and come in. Thank you very much.

That's good stuff.

On the reviews. As usual, I try to avoid spoilers and label them, and also follow the rule: if it appears in the trailer, it's not a spoiler. (Reviews to come.)

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Casual Inhumanity

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a date picked because of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1945. This year, I wanted to look again at the work of Primo Levi and his great Holocaust memoir, If This Is a Man (Se questo è un uomo), typically known in the U.S. as Survival in Auschwitz. (A 2010 post featured Levi's accounts of storytelling, human connection and the dread of an impending "selection" that might lead to execution.)

Chapter 10, "Chemical Examination," ends with what is probably Levi's most famous image, but it's more powerful with greater context. (The book is short and well worth a read.) Some background for those who haven't read it or are unfamiliar with life in the camps/Lagers: Levi, an Italian Jew, was a chemist, and explains that he was lucky (relatively) to be shipped to Auschwitz in 1944 when the Nazis decided to stop killing as many prisoners because they needed them for labor instead. "Kapos" were prisoners charged with overseeing the other prisoners, and were generally convicted criminals rather than political prisoners; they also tended to be cruel. At this point in the book, Levi has explained that the prisoners' work is physically grueling, they're fed far too little and live in horrible conditions. But a new assignment may be possible: certain prisoners will be interviewed to work as chemists' assistants, which could significantly increase their chances of survival. The key figures in this chapter are Primo Levi, Doktor Pannwitz and Alex the Kapo.

Kommando 98, called the Chemical Kommando, should have been a squad of skilled workers.

The day on which its formation was officially announced a meagre group of fifteen Häftlinge [prisoners] gathered in the grey of dawn around the new Kapo in the roll-call square.

This was the first disillusion: he was a ‘green triangle’, a professional delinquent, the Arbeitsdienst [Reich labor service] had not thought it necessary for the Kapo of the Chemical Kommando to be a chemist. It was pointless wasting one’s breath asking him questions; he would not have replied, or else he would have replied with kicks and shouts. On the other hand, his not very robust appearance and his smaller than average stature were reassuring.

He made a short speech in the foul German of the barracks, and the disillusion was confirmed. So these were the chemists: well, he was Alex, and if they thought they were entering paradise, they were mistaken. In the first place, until the day production began, Kommando 98 would be no more than an ordinary transport-Kommando attached to the magnesium chloride warehouse. Secondly, if they imagined, being Intelligenten, intellectuals, that they could make a fool of him, Alex, a Reichsdeutscher, well, Herrgottsacrament, he would show them, he would… (and with his fist clenched and index finger extended he cut across the air with the menacing gesture of the Germans); and finally, they should not imagine that they would fool anyone, if they had applied for the position without any qualifications – an examination, yes gentlemen, in the very near future; a chemistry examination, before the triumvirate of the Polymerization Department: Doktor Hagen, Doktor Probst and Doktor Ingenieur Pannwitz.

And with this, meine Herren, enough time had been lost, Kommandos 96 and 97 had already started, forward march, and to begin with, whosoever failed to walk in line and step would have to deal with him.

He was a Kapo like all the other Kapos.

Alex is established as a bully. Meanwhile, Levi and his fellows are anxious about the coming interview/examination. They're all underfed and not at their best. And what if this exercise is nothing but false hope?

With these empty faces of ours, with these sheared craniums, with these shameful clothes, to take a chemical examination. And obviously it will be in German; and we will have to go in front of some blond Aryan doctor hoping that we do not have to blow our noses, because perhaps he will not know that we do not have handkerchiefs, and it will certainly not be possible to explain it to him. And we will have our old comrade hunger with us, and we will hardly be able to stand still on our feet, and he will certainly smell our odour, to which we are by now accustomed, but which persecuted us during the first days, the odour of turnips and cabbages, raw, cooked and digested.

Exactly so, Clausner [a fellow prisoner] confirms. But have the Germans such great need of chemists? Or is it a new trick, a new machine ‘pour faire chier les Juifs? Are they aware of the grotesque and absurd test asked of us, of us who are no longer alive, of us who have already gone half-crazy in the dreary expectation of nothing?'

The examinations take place over three days. Levi's is delayed, until finally (emphasis mine):

Here is Alex. I am a chemist. What have I to do with this man Alex? He plants his feet in front of me, he roughly adjusts the collar of my jacket, he takes out my beret and slaps it on my head, then he steps backwards, eyes the result with a disgusted air, and turns his back, muttering: ‘Was für ein Muselmann Zugang.’ What a messy recruit! . . .

This time it really is my turn. Alex looks at me blackly on the doorstep; he feels himself in some way responsible for my miserable appearance. He dislikes me because I am Italian, because I am Jewish and because of all of us, I am the one furthest from his sergeants’ mess ideal of virility. By analogy, without understanding anything, and proud of this very ignorance, he shows a profound disbelief in my chances for the examination.

We have entered. There is only Doktor Pannwitz; Alex, beret in hand, speaks to him in an undertone: ‘…an Italian, has been here only three months, already half kaputt… Er sagt er ist Chemiker…” But he, Alex, apparently has his reservations on the subject.

Alex is briefly dismissed and put aside, and I feel like Oedipus in front of the Sphinx. My ideas are clear, and I am aware even at this moment that the position at stake is important; yet I feel a mad desire to disappear, not to take the test.

Pannwitz is tall, thin, blond; he has eyes, hair and nose as all Germans ought to have them, and sits formidably behind a complicated writing-table. I, Hafding 174517, stand in his office, which is a real office, shining, clean and ordered, and I feel that I would leave a dirty stain whatever I touched.

When he finished writing, he raised his eyes and looked at me.

From that day I have thought about Doktor Pannwitz many times and in many ways. I have asked myself how he really functioned as a man; how he filled his time, outside of the Polymerization and the Indo-Germanic conscience; above all when I was once more a free man, I wanted to meet him again, not from a spirit of revenge, but merely from a personal curiosity about the human soul.

Because that look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany.

One felt in that moment, in an immediate manner, what we all thought and said of the Germans. The brain which governed those blue eyes and those manicured hands said: ‘This something in front of me belongs to a species which it is obviously opportune to suppress. In this particular case, one has to first make sure that it does not contain some utilizable element.’ And in my head, like seeds in an empty pumpkin: ‘Blue eyes and fair hair are essentially wicked. No communication possible. I am a specialist in mine chemistry. I am a specialist in organic syntheses. I am a specialist…’

Levi does well; his knowledge and intellect have saved him – for the moment, at least – because a man who does not view him as fully human has judged that he can be useful. And then it is time to return to the barracks (emphasis mine):

Here we are again on the steps. Alex flies down the stairs: he has leather shoes because he is not a Jew, he is as light on his feet as the devils of Malabolge. At the bottom he turns and looks at me sourly as I walk down hesitantly and noisily in my two enormous unpaired wooden shoes, clinging on to the rail like an old man.

It seems to have gone well, but I would be crazy to rely on it. I already know the Lager well enough to realize that one should never anticipate, especially optimistically. What is certain is that I have spent a day without working, so that tonight I will have a little less hunger, and this is a concrete advantage, not to be taken away.

To re-enter Bude, one has to cross a space cluttered up with piles of cross-beams and metal frames. The steel cable of a crane cuts across the road, and Alex catches hold of it to climb over: Donnerwetter, he looks at his hand black with thick grease. In the meanwhile I have joined him. Without hatred and without sneering, Alex wipes his hand on my shoulder, both the palm and the back of the hand, to clean it; he would be amazed, the poor brute Alex, if someone told him that today, on the basis of this action, I judge him and Pannwitz and the innumerable others like him, big and small, in Auschwitz and everywhere.

It's a striking image, all the more so because it's not intentionally, consciously cruel; Levi suffers this indignity because Alex is thoughtless and views Levi as a lesser being, obviously unworthy of basic respect, and thus can be treated like a disposable rag. It's a gesture of casual inhumanity. And Alex, brute though he is, is not that different from the educated Pannwitz and his dehumanizing gaze. (Levi's insights and reflections throughout the book make for memorable reading.)

Few injustices can compete with the Holocaust, but it's always worth remembering that cruelty and dehumanization exist on a spectrum and manifest in different forms, with varying degrees of toxicity. Most fall far short of genocide or even legalized discrimination, but nonetheless should be questioned and challenged.

Sometimes these impulses erupt as angry demonization and obvious bigotry. Other times it's as casual inhumanity. I'm reminded of the false belief that most poor people live in poverty because of a lack of moral character instead of misfortune. There's the self-serving notion that I and others of my chosen political tribe deserve government services but those other people not like us that I don't like are unworthy moochers. We've heard arguments that amount to: feeding children or providing them health care doesn't directly benefit me, so not only should a miniscule amount of my taxes not pay for such programs, but no one should be able to call me selfish or monstrous. And an entire set of beliefs endures holding that, due to race, gender, sexual orientation or ancestry, certain other people are inherently lesser and not worthy of basic respect or even legal rights. A whole range of cruel, punishment-minded or harmfully indifferent mindsets exist. The good news is their corrosive power can be countered with a little reflection and compassion, by fine teaching, human connection and sharing good stories. "Never forget" is a wise adage applying to the past; in the present, maybe that best translates to "never stop listening and learning."

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Jon Swift Roundup 2017

(The Best Posts of the Year, Chosen by the Bloggers Themselves)

(A Jon Swift lolcat for a little fun. After all, Godwin's "law" was never meant to shut down serious discussion.)

Welcome to the 2017 edition! It's been a bizarre year. This tradition was started by the late Jon Swift/Al Weisel, who left behind some excellent satire and would have had a wealth of material this year. He was also a nice guy and a strong supporter of small blogs. As Lance Mannion explains:

Our late and much missed comrade in blogging, journalist and writer Al Weisel, revered and admired across the bandwidth as the "reasonable conservative" blogger Modest Jon Swift, was a champion of the lesser known and little known bloggers working tirelessly in the shadows . . .

One of his projects was a year-end Blogger Round Up. Al/Jon asked bloggers far and wide, famous and in- and not at all, to submit a link to their favorite post of the past twelve months and then he sorted, compiled, blurbed, hyperlinked and posted them on his popular blog. His round-ups presented readers with a huge banquet table of links to work many of has had missed the first time around and brought those bloggers traffic and, more important, new readers they wouldn’t have otherwise enjoyed.

It may not have been the most heroic endeavor, but it was kind and generous and a lot of us owe our continued presence in the blogging biz to Al.

Here's Jon/Al's 2007 and 2008 editions. Meanwhile, here are the revivals from 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

If you're not familiar with Al Weisel's work as Jon Swift, his site features a "best of" list in the left column.

Thanks to all the participants, and apologies to anyone I missed. (As always, my goal is to find the right balance between inclusive and manageable.) You still can join in, by linking your post in the comments. Whether your post appears in the modest list below or not, feel free to tweet your best post with the hatchtag #jonswift2017.

As in Jon/Al's 2008 roundup, submissions are listed roughly in the order they were received. As he wrote in that post:

I'm sure you'll be interested in seeing what your favorite bloggers think were their best posts of the year, but be sure to also visit some blogs you've never read before and leave a nice comment if you like what you see or, if you must, a polite demurral if you do not.

Without further ado:

Empire of the Senseless
"Jammin' "
Zombie rotten mcdonald: "Race relations and music."

Poor Impulse Control
"You Can’t Take the Things"
Tata: "You can have Adorable Little Chicken Happiness, and by you, I mean me."

Ramona's Voices
"Our First Un-American President"
Ramona Grigg: "Wherein America falls for a populist line thrown out by a snarling, ruthless billionaire who scoffs at the title "public servant" and opts instead for "Grand Soviet Poobah and Tweeter Extraordinaire". "

Show Me Progress
"Trump Muslim ban protest at Kansas City International Airport – January 29, 2017"
Michael Bersin: "On the afternoon of January 29, 2017 over a thousand people showed up at Terminal C, the international terminal, at Kansas City International Airport to protest Donald Trump’s Muslim ban."

"And now here it is, your moment of cute"
Brendan Keefe: "A light blogging year for me, but this remains a treasured moment at work."

"Franken, Moore, and doing the right thing"
Infidel753: "Republicans and Democrats have responded in radically different ways to the revolt against sexual harassment. It's a defining moment in US politics, when doing the right thing will also mean political advantage."

The Way of Cats
"Tristan’s favorite music"
Pamela Merritt: "My cat and I program his own Pandora channel. From singing a song with their name it in to playing their favorite genre, music is something cats enjoy."

World O’ Crap
"Don't Come Around Here No More"
Scott Clevenger: "We remember the late Tom Petty. Not for his music — that’s a given — but for his delightfully eccentric performance in Kevin Costner’s 1997 bomb The Postman."

Just an Earth-Bound Misfit, I
"The Crowd Size Kerfuffle"
Comrade Misfit: "An analysis of Trump's lying about the size of the crowd on Inauguration Day. It signaled that Trump would be a no-substance president, concerned only about optics and how things looked on television."

Herlander Walking
"The Bitch of This Place"
Labrys: "How a browbeaten feminist got her bitch groove back and decided 'Fuck ‘em if they are assholes.' "

"I Write Letters"
Melissa McEwan: "In January of this year, a week after Donald Trump's inauguration, I penned a fiery piece in response to people who were demanding Hillary Clinton "do something" to save us. "Hillary Clinton doesn't owe you a goddamned thing," I wrote, with the reminder that campaigning for 18 grueling months was doing something -- the most important thing she ever could have done."

David E's Fablog
" 'Good Thing' Lying"
David Ehrenstein

Mad Kane's Political Madness
"Satirist's Quandary"
Madeleine Begun Kane: "My limerick laments the special challenge of writing political satire in the Age of Trump."

The Rectification of Names
Yastreblyansky: "A little song text I wrote in the spring, as our new president's habits and aspirations were getting clearer. Suitable for Palm Beach campfires or woozy midnights around the piano in the Old Post Office."

The Debate Link
"Today I Got Assaulted"
David Schraub: "I recount my experience being assaulted on the street in Berkeley, California; the comments of the police officer who took my statement (and was eager to share some of his thoughts on current media tropes about law enforcement to a Berkeley graduate student); and how we decide what experiences to code as 'crime'. "

You Might Notice a Trend
"The Only Number That Matters"
Paul Wartenberg: "As long as trump has a devoted fanbase within the Far Right, the rest of the Republican Party will do nothing to stop his disastrous reign. So it's up to us: We are the only number that matters now..."

Bark Bark Woof Woof
"It’s Not Just A Cake"
Mustang Bobby: "takes exception to David Brooks saying that it’s okay to violate a gay couple’s civil rights because 'it’s just a cake.' "

his vorpal sword
"Tiresias Notes, or, My Life as a Woman"
Hart Williams: "The first thing that Theodore Sturgeon ever told me was this: to really understand a character, you need to walk a mile in their moccasins. One Halloween, I decided to go as a woman; what happened next was something I could never have been prepared for, nor anticipated."

Strangely Blogged
"Which Side are You on? (Trump?)"
Vixen Strangely: "If the ten years of my blog didn't make this entirely clear, yes, I'm antifascist."

Heretic No More
"For William Todd"
Kathleen Maher: "I wrote serial fiction online this year but focused more on novels-in-progress. In memory of Jon Swift's generous tradition, I've chosen a memorial to another friend who died too soon."

This Is So Gay
Duncan Mitchel: "A discussion of some of the arguments around circumcision."

[this space intentionally left blank]
"A Year Ago, I Confessed Some of the Worst Things I've Ever Done to Women: Here's What Happened"
Dallas Taylor: "The title pretty well describes the post, I'd say. What happened was that I took a (well-deserved) hit, but now I have more authentic relationships with both the women in my life and myself."

M.A. Peel
"My Editions of the Romantics: That Which Connects"
Ellen O'Neill: "The theme for the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association essay this year—“To Friend”—stirred in me enormous emotions about my own relationship to John Keats, which I realized came through the various editions of his poems I’ve owned through the years. And if you can hum the Christmas Carol, “In the Bleak Winter,” well, I give my heart to you-know-who."

Mock Paper Scissors
"Civil War between White Nationalists and the Rest of Us: A Survivor and Thriver Guide"
Katie Schwartz: "Mock, Paper, Scissors answers readers questions about what to bring to a race war."

Hometown USA
Prudes in Hometown
Kevin Robbins: "Haven't been posting that much at the blog. Mostly just letters that have been submitted to the local paper. They're circulation is higher than my blog and I often focus on local issues or my district rep, hence Hometown. I aim for a Dale Carnegie approach that won't piss of my fellow parishioners."

"In The Beginning..."
driftglass: "With memory of our recent political history being shoveled down the media Memory Hole at breakneck speed, I thought we needed need a fast and dirty account of how things got this way."

The Professional Left Podcast (posted at Blue Gal's blog)
"Ep 410 Not Today Satan (Or Trump)"
Blue Gal: "Friday the 13th doesn’t scare us, and neither does that stupid person who says he's "the president." Trump literally does not know how anything works. Meanwhile, we discuss how to protect ourselves from toxic stress until he is removed from office. More at ProLeftPod.com."

Self-Styled Siren
"Bad-Movie Double Feature"
Farran Nehme delivers a fun review of two movies, both bad, but in different ways.

First Draft
"Glengarry Glen Ross On The Potomac"
Peter Adrastos Athas: "As the Kremlingate scandal worsened there were many comparisons of Team Trump to The Godfather. In this post, I argue that David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross is a more apt comparison."

Tom Sullivan
"It's not how many they are but where they are many"
Tom Sullivan: "If Democrats hope to regain control of Congress and redistricting, they need to compete in 50 states, many red and rural. Ask the South Vietnamese how holding the cities and leaving the countryside to their opponents worked out. (Note: Matt Coffay has since abandoned the race for NC-11.)"

"Vergangenheitsbewältigung in America"
Jon Perr: "It’s been 25 years since the late Molly Ivins joked that Pat Buchanan “sounded better in the original German.” But when it comes to its own troubled past, the United States could badly use an Americanized version of a term Germans use to confront theirs."

The Rude Pundit
"Fuck You, Rural Elitists"
Lee Papa: "I wrote this when the endless stream of Trump voter articles was just getting started, but they were and are awful, condescending, and wrong."

Gaius Publius
"Deficit Talk Is a Trap. Will Democrats Fall Into It?"
Gaius Publius: "What most people get wrong about how money is made, and how that heavily-promoted misinformation benefits the Corporate and the Wealthy."

Kiko's House
"Tribalism Run Amok: Trump Did Not Make America What It Is, America Made Trump"
Shaun D Mullen: "Tribalism is in our DNA, and that makes finding a way out of our national nightmare exceedingly difficult because it would require closing the gap between those tribes, as well as changing or at least diluting the mutations of the political parties."

Lotus: Surviving a Dark Time
"Outrage of the Week: sexism, the cause of sexual harassment and assault"
Larry E: "Neither sexual harassment nor sexual assault are about sex. They are about sexism."

"Ripped From Today’s Headlines."
Roy Edroso: "As the relationship of Trump’s stooges and the Russians became better known, I imagined the circumstances under which Kislyak and Jeff Session might have become acquainted. And come to think of it, Sessions does have a 'tiny face like babushka.' "

“You Use Condo’s Arm For This?”
Peter Barrett: "It’s a takedown of the “Hand Salad” idea I saw in Bon Appétit."

Doctor Cleveland
"Some People Are Not Duelable"
Doctor Cleveland: "Examines the old idea that you couldn't and shouldn't duel someone who was too far below you, first as general life advice, and then as a comment on Trump."

Balloon Juice
Health Insurance (series)
David Anderson's series on the Affordable Care Act and other health insurance issues was the best "post" pick of the Balloon Juice community.

"I'm a Voodoo Child"
Dave Dugan: " 'Blood Sugar Hex Tragic', an intaglio printed comic on handmade paper about musicians in New Orleans."

Lance Mannion
"The warped, frustrated old and young men and women of Bedford Falls"
Lance Mannion: "There's a Pottersville inside every Bedford Falls and it doesn't need a Donald Trump to bring it out, although he's been very good at that."

Bluestem Prairie
"Nitrates: Brown Co turns down MDA well testing aid because somebody might blame farmers"
Sally Jo Sorensen: "In a political climate in which Big Ag defines any attempt to address environmental consequences of agriculture as an attack on farmers, one Minnesota County decided to turn down state money for well testing. Never mind the blue babies."

Vagabond Scholar
"Assessing Hearts and Minds"
Batocchio: "Due to a dearth of posting this year, I'm picking a relevant, slightly older post about evaluating the reasonability of other people in political discussions, especially old acquaintances."

Thanks again, folks. Happy blogging (and everything else) in 2018. (Vive la résistance!)

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Armistice Day 11/11/17

(Click on the comic strip for a larger view.)

In 1959, Pogo creator Walt Kelly wrote:

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.

You said it, brother.

Thanks to all who have served or are serving, on this Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day.

This post is mostly a repeat I run every year, since I find it hard to top Kelly.

My latest post on these themes is "The Battle of the Somme" (and also cites Kelly).

Back in 2009, I wrote a series of six related posts for Armistice Day (and as part of an ongoing series on war). The starred posts are the most important, but the list is:

"Élan in The Guns of August"

"Demonizing of the Enemy"

"The War Poetry of Wilfred Owen"

***"Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels"

"The Little Mother"

***"War and the Denial of Loss"

The most significant other entries in the series are:

"How to Hear a True War Story" (2007)

"Day of Shame" (2008)

"The Poetry of War" (2008)

"Armistice Day 2008" (featuring the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon).

"They Could Not Look Me in the Eye Again" (2011)

"The Dogs of War" (2013)

"The Courage to Make Others Suffer" (2015)

I generally update these posts later with links to appropriate pieces for 11/11 by other folks as I find them. If you've written one, feel free to link it in a comment. Thanks.

The Battle of the Somme

The eleventh of November is primarily known as Veterans Day in the United States, but it's also known as Remembrance Day and Armistice Day. These holidays typically dovetail well, but Armistice Day, commemorating the end of the "Great War," is the part I've been pondering most. Veterans Day honors military veterans, which is only right, but Armistice Day seems to ask us to reflect on war and peace.

Americans tend to remember the Second World War much better that the First, and the Second is far more heavily featured in American feature films, TV shows, books and documentaries. The U.S. entered the First World War fairly late, we weren't directly involved in some of its most horrific events, plus the Second had more moral clarity; we can feel like the good guys. (Stud Terkel's great oral history of that war is called "The Good War" in quotation marks because although many of the interviewees justifiably feel proud of their service, no war is truly "good.") I do wish as a country we considered more aspects of the First World War, including the lessons of the Battle of the Somme, which started a little over one hundred and one years ago. As the BBC explains:

The Battle of the Somme, fought in northern France, was one of the bloodiest of World War One. For five months the British and French armies fought the Germans in a brutal battle of attrition on a 15-mile front. The aims of the battle were to relieve the French Army fighting at Verdun and to weaken the German Army. However, the Allies were unable to break through German lines. In total, there were over one million dead and wounded on all sides.

The battle is much more strongly etched into British memories because its start on July 1st, 1916, entailed the highest single-day death count of British soldiers in history. British decisions were criticized at the time (by Winston Churchill, among others) and are still discussed. The British had initiated a massive military recruitment effort, led by Secretary of State of War Lord Kitchener, but because of British losses, the "Kitchener divisions" were rushed to battle with relatively little training and often short on equipment. For the Battle of the Somme, the British plan was basically for artillery to destroy German barbed wire so that British soldiers could advance from their trenches to take over the German ones. British military historian John Keegan sets the scene in his 1976 book, The Face of Battle:

French small-unit tactics, perfected painfully over two years of warfare, laid emphasis on the advance of small groups by rushes, one meanwhile supporting another by fire – the sort of tactics which were to become commonplace in the Second World War. This sophistication of traditional 'fire and movement' was known to the British but was thought by the staff to be too difficult to be taught to the Kitchener divisions. They may well have been right. But the alternative tactical order they laid down for them was over-simplified: divisions were to attack on front of about a mile, generally with two brigades 'up' and one in reserve. What this meant, in terms of soldiers on the ground, was that two battalions each of a thousand men, forming the leading wave of the brigade, would leave their front trenches, using scaling-ladders to climb the parapet, extend their soldiers in four lines, a company to each, the men two to three yards apart, the lines about fifty to a hundred yards behind each other, and advance to the German wire. This they would expect to find flat, or at least widely gapped, and, passing through, they would then jump down into the German trenches, shoot, bomb or bayonet any who opposed them, and take possession. Later the reserve waves would pass through and advance to capture the German second position by similar methods.

The manoeuvre was to be done slowly and deliberately, for the men were to be laden with about sixty pounds of equipment, their re-supply with food and ammunition during the battle being one of the thing the staff could not guarantee. In the circumstances, it did indeed seem that success would depend upon what the artillery could do for the infantry, both before the advance and once it was under way.
p. 230 (1988 edition)

If there's an image associated with the First World War, it's trench warfare. If there's a specific weapon, it might be mustard gas, but more likely the machine gun, used on a greater scale than ever before. As Keegan explains:

The machine-gun was to be described by Major-General J.F.C. Fuller, one of the great enragés of military theory produced by the war, as 'concentrated essence of infantry,' by which he meant his readers to grasp that its invention put into the hands of one man the fire-power formerly wielded by forty. Given that a good rifleman could fire only fifteen shots a minute, to a machine-gunner's 600, the point is well made. But, as Fuller would have no doubt conceded if taxed, a machine-gun team did not simply represent the equivalent of so many infantrymen compressed into a small compass. Infantrymen, however well-trained and well-armed, however resolute, however ready to kill, remain erratic agents of death. Unless centrally directed, they will choose, perhaps badly, their own targets, will open and cease fire individually, will be put off their aim by the enemy's return of fire, will be distracted by wounding of those near them, will yield to excitement, will fire high, low or wide. It was to overcome influences and tendencies of this sort – as well as to avert the danger of accident in closely packed ranks – that seventeeth- and eighteenth-century armies had put such effort into perfecting volley by square, line and column. . . .

The machine-gunner is best thought of, in short, as a sort of machine-minder, whose principal task was to feed ammunition belt into the breech, something which could be done while the gun was in full operation, top up the fluid in the cooling jacket, and traverse the gun from left to right and back again within the limits set by its firing platform. Traversing was achieved by a technique known, in the British Army, as the 'two inch tap': by constant practice, the machine-gunner learned to hit the side of the breech with the palm of his hand just hard enough to move the muzzle exactly two inches against the resistance of the traversing screw. A succession of 'two-inch taps' first on one side of the breech until the stop was reached, then on the other, would keep in the air a stream of bullets so dense that no one could walk upright across the front of the machine-gunner's position without being hit – given, of course, that the gunner had set his machine to fire low and that the ground as devoid of cover. The appearance of the machine-gun, therefore, had not so much disciplined the act of killing – which was what seventeenth-century drill had done – as mechanized or industrialized it.
pp. 232–234

On the first day of battle, July 1st, 1916, the British artillery started its job, and the British soldiers, many of them relatively untrained, advanced:

Most soldiers were encountering heavy fire within seconds of leaving the trenches. The 10th West Yorks, attacking towards the ruined village of Fricourt in the little valley of the River Ancre, had its two follow-up companies caught in the open by German machine-gunners who emerged from their dug-outs after the leading waves has passed over the top and onward. They were 'practically annihilated and lay shot down in waves'. In the neighbouring 34th Division, the 5th and 16th Royal Scots, two Edinburgh Pals' Battalions contained a high proportion of Mancunians, were caught in flank by machine-gun firing from the ruins of La Boiselle and lost several hundred men in a few minutes, thought the survivors marched on to enter German lines. Their neighbouring battalions, the 10th Lincolns and 11th Suffolks (the Grimsby Chums and the Cambridge Battalion) were caught by the same flanking fire; of those who pressed on to the German trenches, some, to quote the official history 'were burnt to death by flame throwers as [they] reached the [German] parapet'; others were caught again by machine-gun fire as they entered the German position. An artillery officer who walked across later came on 'line after line of dead men lying where they had fallen'. Behind the Edinburghs, the four Tyneside Irish battalions of the 103rd Brigade underwent a bizarre and pointless massacre. The 34th Division's commander had decided to move all twelve of his battalions simultaneously towards the German front, the 101st and 102nd Brigades from the front trench, the 103rd from the support line (called the Tara-Usna Line, in a little re-entrant know to the brigade as the Avoca Valley – all three names allusions to Irish beauty spots celebrated by Yeats and the Irish literary nationalists). This decision gave the last brigade a mile of open ground to cover before it reached its own front line, a safe enough passage if the enemy's machine-guns had been extinguished, otherwise a funeral march. A sergeant of the 3rd Tyneside Irish (26th Northumberland Fusiliers) describes how it was: 'I could see, away to my left and right, long lines of men. Then I heard the "patter, patter" of machine-guns in the distance. By the time I'd gone another ten yards there seemed to be only a few men left around me; by the time I had gone twenty yards, I seemed to be on my own. Then I was hit myself.' Not all went down so soon. A few heroic souls pressed on to the British front line, crossed no-man's-land and entered the German trenches. But the brigade was destroyed; one of its battalions had lost over 600 men killed or wounded, another, 500; the brigadier and two battalions commanders had been hit, a third lay dead. Militarily, the advance had achieved nothing. Most of the bodies lay on the territory British before the battle had begun.
pp. 248–249

As for the overall results:

The first day of the Somme had not been a complete military failure. But it had been a human tragedy. The Germans, with about sixty battalions on the British Somme front, though about forty in the line, say about 35,000 soldiers, had had killed or wounded 6,000. Bad enough; but it was in the enormous disparity between their losses and the British that the weight of the tragedy lies: the German 180th Regiment lost 280 men on 1 July out of about 3,000; attacking it, the British had lost 5,121 out of 12,000. In all the British had lost about 60,000, of whom 21,000 had been killed, most in the first hour of the attack, perhaps the first minutes. 'The trenches,' wrote Robert Kee fifty years later, 'were the concentration camps of the First World War'; and though the analogy is what an academic reviewer would call unhistorical, there is something Treblinka-like about almost all accounts of 1 July, about those long docile lines of young men, shoddily uniformed, heavily burdened, numbered across their necks, plodding forward across a featureless landscape to their own extermination inside the barbed wire. Accounts of the Somme produce in readers and audiences much the same range of emotions as do descriptions of the running of Auschwitz – guilty fascination, incredulity, horror, disgust, pity and anger – and not just from the pacific and tender-hearted; not only from the military historian, on whom, as he recounts the extinction of this brave effort or that, falls an awful lethargy, his typewriter keys tapping leadenly on the paper to drive the lines of print, like the waves of a Kitchener battalion failing to take its objective, more and more slowly towards the foot of the page; but also from professional soldiers. Anger is the response which the story of the Somme most commonly evokes among professionals. Why did the commanders not do something about it? Why did they let the attack go on? Why did they not stop one battalion following in the wake of another to join it in death?
pp. 259–260

It's a striking account of senseless, unnecessary death. (It's stuck with me since I first read it ages ago.) The battle grew to be criticized, but it took a while for the public to get a fuller picture. The newpaper Times of London, published by Lord Northcliffe, consistently painted a rosy view of the British soldier's life. As Paul Fussell recounts in The Great War and Modern Memory:

It is no surprise to find Northcliffe's Times on July 3, 1916, reporting the first day's attack on the Somme with an airy confidence which could not help but deepen the division between those on the spot and those at home, "[Commander] Sir Douglas Haig telephoned last night," says the Times, "that the general situation was favorable," and the account goes on to speak of "effective progress," nay, "substantial progress." It soon ascends to the rhetoric of heroic romance: "There is a fair field and no favor, and [at the Somme] we have elected to fight out our quarrel with the Germans and to give them as much battle as they want." In short, "everything has gone well"; "we got our first thrust well home, and there is every reason to be sanguine as to the result." No wonder communication failed between the troops and those who could credit prose like that as factual testimony.
p. 106 (in the Illustrated Edition)

Fussell presents another familiar story – a government that doesn't want the public to know what happened in a war (and at least one media outlet happy to play along). Some Americans might be reminded of U.S. government efforts to suppress the news about the Vietnam War and Walter Cronkite's 1968 public commentary that the war was a stalemate and the U.S should negotiate an end. But similar dynamics play out with many wars.

It makes perfect sense that the Battle of the Somme remains a more powerful event for the British than for Americans, or even the French or Germans; it's one of many events that shape my personal thoughts on Armistice Day, but that mix will be different for everyone. But if contemplating Armistice Day entails any lessons, for me they're fairly straightforward: some wars may be necessary. Others definitely aren't. The same goes for battles; military history is full of disastrous decisions. If you must go to war, prepare well. Going to war should require a high threshold; it shouldn't be done capriciously. Distrust anyone who wants to go to war. Challenge anyone who tries bully others to go to war and attacks their patriotism or lies or offers frequently shifting rationales. Discuss matters of war and peace honestly and openly as a democracy. Obtain as much accurate information as possible and question suspect accounts (and certainly challenge outright propaganda). Treat veterans well, especially when it comes to physical and mental health. Listen to their stories. Remember that the best way to support current military personnel is to avoid sending them into an unnecessary war or sending them into a pointless battle or poorly preparing them. Challenge anyone who tries to pretend that either skepticism about going to war or questioning a specific war-related decision shows a lack of "support for the troops." Resist authoritarian bullying.

In our current day, it's worth remembering that although some veterans go on to become fine public servants, others become political hacks. Generals may serve as wise counsel for presidents, or may agitate for nuclear war, as Curtis LeMay did to President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As political figures, generals may act as a sobering influences, but they can also be authoritarian bullies who lie and slander for attempted political gain, and misunderstand or disdain democracy. They have a voice, but undue deference to them can be dangerous.

Thanks to all who has served on this Veterans Day. As for Remembrance Day and Armistice Day, in 1959, Pogo creator Walt Kelly wrote:

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Labor Day 2017

Happy Labor Day! It’s too easy to take for granted the important victories of the labor movement in the past, and also to overlook the attacks on workers’ right in the present. Some good pieces for the day:

The Nation, "The Rollback of Pro-Worker Policies Since Trump Took Office Is Staggering":

Last week, as most of us in the United States were riveted by Hurricane Harvey’s descent on Texas, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration removed from its Internet home page a list of workers who died as a result of workplace injuries, burying it deep within the website. At the same time, it changed how the list is compiled; it will now only include instances where the company was cited for safety violations leading to a worker’s death. Details such as the name of the deceased worker are also no longer considered worthy of inclusion. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution worked out that of the at least 32 Georgia workers it determined died as a result of work-related injuries since October 1 of last year, only two even get a mention on the new list.

Then on Tuesday, the day Trump visited hurricane-stricken Texas, the White House announced it had put a stop to a 2016 Obama-administration ruling requiring companies with 100 or more employees to report pay by gender, race, and ethnic background to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Advocates had hoped it would help combat the United States’ stubborn pay gap. But Ivanka Trump, a self-described advocate for women’s rights, was not disappointed. “The proposed policy would not yield the intended results,” she sniffed in a statement accompanying the White House decision. “We look forward to continuing to work with EEOC, OMB, Congress and all relevant stakeholders on robust policies aimed at eliminating the gender wage gap.”

Those “robust policies” won’t include the Obama era Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order. That’s gone too. That 2014 executive order required prospective federal contractors to disclose workplace safety and discrimination violations. It also mandated pay transparency and forbade mandatory workplace arbitration in cases of discrimination and harassment at the covered businesses. Supporters proclaimed it a major advance in civil-rights regulation. Management-side law firms and business interests were less than impressed. Legal powerhouse Littler Mendelson, which says on its website that it’s the largest “global” employment and labor-law practice, claimed it “dramatically increases risks for government contractors.” Well, that wouldn’t do. “The rule simply made it too easy for trial lawyers to go after American companies and American workers who contract with the federal government,” then–Press Secretary Sean Spicer explained when asked. Maybe Ivanka Trump wasn’t available to offer cover that day.

Then there is worker pay. Last year, the Obama administration announced a major revamp of the nation’s overtime rules. Proponents expected the change to boost the pay of 4.2 million workers and ultimately add about $12 billion to American paychecks over the next decade. Opponents—including 21 state governments and the US Chamber of Commerce—took to the courts, and, almost week before it was set to take effect, a Texas judge issued a temporary stay.

The Atlantic covers regressive measures in "How St. Louis Workers Won and Then Lost a Minimum-Wage Hike", Robert Reich provides a useful summary on Facebook:

Republicans and their big business patrons have shafted workers in Missouri just in time for Labor Day. Last week, a new state law went into effect that slashed the minimum wage for workers in St. Louis and Kansas City from $10/hour to $7.70/hour. The measure also prohibits these cities from setting a higher minimum wage in the future.

It all began a few years ago when St. Louis passed an ordinance to gradually boost the city's minimum wage to $11/hour (A living-wage for an adult without children in the area is roughly $10.50). Business groups immediately challenged the increase in the courts. This year the courts sided with the city and wages increased to $10/hour, so businesses turned to their Republican allies in the legislature to pass a statewide cap. Now, more than 30,000 workers could see a pay cut. Business groups are trying to pass similar caps in over 20 states across the country.

This is ridiculous. No one who works full-time should be forced to raise a family in poverty. Adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage of 1968 would be be well over $10/hour today. It's also good for the economy. When workers earn more, they spend more on local businesses, which in turn creates more jobs.

Los Angeles Times, Behind a $13 shirt, a $6-an-hour worker":

The U.S. Department of Labor investigated 77 Los Angeles garment factories from April through July of 2016 and found that workers were paid as little as $4 and an average of $7 an hour for 10-hour days spent sewing clothes for Forever 21, Ross Dress for Less and TJ Maxx. One worker in West Covina made as little as $3.42 per hour during three weeks of sewing TJ Maxx clothing, according to the Department of Labor.

Those sweatshop wages are the hidden cost of the bargains that make stores like Forever 21 impossible to resist for so many Americans.

A knee-length Forever 21 dress made in one of the Los Angeles factories investigated by the government came with a price tag of $24.90. But it would have cost $30.43 to make that dress with workers earning the $7.25 federal minimum wage and even more to pay the $12 Los Angeles minimum, according to previously unpublished investigative results from the Labor Department.

Forever 21 would have had to pay 50% more in order for sewing contractors to pay workers the federal minimum, the investigation found.

The Department of Labor discovered labor violations at 85% of the factories it visited during that four-month period and ordered the suppliers to pay $1.3 million in back wages, lost overtime and damages — but it couldn’t touch the brands.

Via Erik Loomis, who covers labor issues at Lawyers, Guns & Money, comes "How Labor Scholars Missed the Trump Revolt" by Jefferson Cowie at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

The new labor history splintered in dozens of fruitful directions, but the ceaseless decline of working-class power pushed those engaged in the central mission of the field from panic to despair. Labor scholars seemed to fall into an ideological trap: When workers managed to win, it was because of their drive and capacity. When they lost, which was more often the story, it was capital’s dark machinations at fault. Rarely did anyone want to probe the strange and heady brew of anti-statism, anti-elitism, fragile pride, and, often, individualism (a word all but banned from labor history) that are part of class consciousness in America.

Many of the most recent generation of kindred spirits to the new labor history have jumped on the train of studying conservatism. But in American historiography, conservatism still seems to smack of the other and the exotic and the conspiratorial — rather than part and parcel, central to the very DNA of American politics. The residue of our own politics, and the revelation of all of the real radicalism in U.S. history, prevents me and my colleagues from confronting something fearful: what we like to call "backlash" is deeply intertwined with everything, including some of the left-wing movements.

What’s interesting about Trump is that he won, not that his strain of politics is new. It’s always been around. Let’s not go wild trying to figure out what happened: The crazy train of American history happened. The lineage that winds from Andrew Jackson to Tom Watson to Joe McCarthy to George Wallace to Pat Buchanan to Trump is not just "conservative," nor is it just "working class" in any way an intellectually driven conservative or Marxist or liberal would recognize or celebrate. The conservative/liberal divide is a deeply tenuous construct. Looking for a populist savior, however, is bedrock Americana.

Historians need to reconcile their intellectual frameworks with a "real-world" America that is a messy stew of populist, communitarian, reactionary, progressive, racist, patriarchal, and nativist ingredients. Any historical era has its own mix of these elements, which play in different ways. We should embrace Thompson’s admonition to understand class as a continuing, sometimes volatile happening, and not be blinded by our love affair with dissent as a left-wing movement. Trump voters are dissenters, after all.

On a related note, there's the Rolling Stone piece, "Republicans Will Let America Burn While Holding Out for Tax Cuts," by Ed Burmila (of Gin and Tacos):

At the same time, though, Republicans are making it clear that talk is all we are going to get so long as there is any chance of pushing through tax cuts before Trump has a Chernobyl-level meltdown. If the breakdown of the rule of law and the institutions of government troubles them, it doesn't trouble them enough to give up the prospect of getting the wealthiest Americans their 100th tax break of the last four decades. The GOP claims its corporate tax cut from 35 percent to 15 percent will not raise the debt, an assertion that relies upon the repeatedly disproven claim that economic growth will skyrocket after tax cuts. Paul Ryan urges you not to notice that due to extensive loopholes, American corporations currently pay nowhere near the nominal 35 percent rate. Oh, and they're also sitting on $2 trillion in cash, which negates the argument that investment is being held back by the tax rate. . . .

Their priority will not change no matter what Trump does and no matter how many vastly more pressing problems confront the nation. The core principle of the GOP is to make the rich richer, and that is more important to people like Ryan than any of our institutions. As reality dawns on the naively hopeful GOP members who believed they could "manage" Trump, their willingness to keep the nuclear codes in the hands of a giant toddler says a lot about their values.

Unfortunately, conservatism has always had a anti-labor, anti-worker, anti-employee strain, typically favoring management, owners and investors. That strain has completely taken over the Republican Party, which has become almost entirely plutocratic, with the goals of funneling more money and power to the already rich and powerful, slashing the social safety net, and impoverishing and immiserating the middle class and poor.

Finally, at Hullabaloo, Dennis Hartley provides "Lord I am so tired: Top 10 Labor Day films." It's a fine list.

If you have a post celebrating labor or Labor Day, feel free to link it in the comments.