Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Life Is Cheap when Your Great Nation is Buying

These days, Memorial Day is meant to honor those who have performed military service, particularly those who have died doing so, but is also an apt day for remembering the horrors of war and the follies that instigate and perpetuate them. We've looked at the impulse to dehumanize one's perceived enemies in the past, and sadly, the subject always seems relevant.

Jonathan Schwarz wrote a fine, biting piece back in March called "America's 300 Year-Long Lucky Streak Continues"

One of the great things about being American is we're just lucky. Lots of countries have killed millions of people, and it made their families really angry and sad. So the countries sometimes had to feel bad about it. But when WE'VE done it, we've always been lucky enough to do it to people who turned out not to mind being killed. So no harm done.

Most recently, Steve Inskeep of NPR pointed out that Afghans haven't gotten all bent out of shape about a U.S. soldier massacring sixteen of them, because "human life is already cheap" way over there.

That's great journalism. However, it would have been even better if Inskeep had found out whether life is not just cheap in Afghanistan, but also plentiful, like it was in Vietnam:

WILLIAM WESTMORELAND: The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.

And what about Iraqis? Were they whiny bitches when we killed them? No way:
FRED KAGAN, ARCHITECT OF IRAQ "SURGE": If anyone has seen pictures of Ramadi or Fallujah, they looked like Stalingrad. Cities absolutely crushed...

The interesting thing is that when we were fighting those battles and doing that damage, on the whole the Iraqis were not bitching about collateral damage...the Iraqis don’t on the whole say "darn it, you shouldn’t have blown up all of our houses." They sort of accept that.

We know this is correct because Iraqis felt the same way in the twenties when they were being slaughtered by the British:

"The natives of these tribes love fighting for fighting's sake," Chief of Air Staff Hugh Trenchard assured Parliament. "They have no objection to being killed." The military's argument was that, though the often indiscriminate air attacks might perturb some civilized folks back in London, such acts were viewed differently by the Arabs. As one British commander observed, "'[Shiekhs]...do not seem to resent...that women and children are accidentally killed by bombs."

Head over to read the rest. Steve Inskeep is normally a decent journalist, but really dropped the ball here, or is just trapped in a typical cultural attitude (especially endemic to the Beltway). The cognitive dissonance really is remarkable (if perhaps sadly predictable), isn't it? As we've examined before, people doing horrible things tend to come up with all sorts of "interesting" rationalizations for their actions, and the most common route is to dehumanize their victims, decide that they deserved it, or that they don't mind it being done to them. One can argue that this or that military conflict is necessary, but this sort of grotesque hypocrisy and self-deception tends to needlessly start and prolong wars.

Schwarz' post also made me think of a social gathering I attended a few months back. This particular crowd would probably have described itself as left of center, libertarian or independent, but certainly believes itself to be fairly intelligent and well-informed. None were veterans. I won't go into all the details, but someone started opining approvingly about Israel or the U.S. bombing Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. The same person also said things were fine when the Shah was in charge. (I felt compelled to mention the American and British-backed coup of Iran in the 50s, and that Iranians might not see things the same way.) Somebody else approved of the U.S. or other nations assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists. This wasn't really the time or place for a serious debate, and the conversation moved elsewhere, but I found it unsettling. (I try to avoid discussing politics in certain crowds, but if someone brings them up...) It brought home once again that even among college-educated people who may not be news junkies but at least try to follow current events and should know better, saber-rattling can be met uncritically and imperialism is reflexive, acceptable and even lauded.

It wasn't long ago that the Bush administration lied relentlessly and shamelessly to start an unnecessary war in Iraq. Many of the same people are saber-rattling over Iran, even though "American intelligence analysts continue to believe that there is no hard evidence that Iran has decided to build a nuclear bomb." That might change, but some of the war hawks haven never cared about evidence and are obviously arguing in bad faith. Skepticism is clearly warranted. Regardless, there should always be a high threshold for going to war. Meanwhile, if someone wants to advocate assassinating private citizens of another nation, um, okay, that's one opinion, but it's also an imperialistic position. You can't reasonably claim the moral high ground anymore; now it's about might-makes-right. You also can't reasonably be shocked when other countries fear or hate you. It's hardly shocking if Iranians have gotten nervous given how casually American politicos have advocated bombing Iran or killing its citizens as if this was their god-given right. None of this is to deny legitimate discussions of these issues, but nationalistic narcissism tends to crowd out sager talk.

Some of this comes down to vanity and social dynamics. At least in certain circles – parties, Sunday talk shows – people want to appear knowledgeable and smart. Their opinions can far outstrip their knowledge and certainly any sort of wisdom. They borrow opinions from supposed experts, even if those "experts" are fools or charlatans. If those "experts" express opinions fitting the social norms of that circle – even if those opinions are completely unsupported or refuted by the evidence – they are unlikely to be challenged. (I'm not entirely immune to this crap myself, and have kicked myself later when I've found myself parroting the bullshit du jour.) If you're arguing about films, books and pop culture, a silly opinion isn't so bad, although it helps if it's expressed in good cheer and not obnoxiously. When it comes to war, the stakes are higher, even if the speaker doesn't possess any significant power, because citizens can at least vote and speak out.

Unfortunately, blithe imperialism and a belligerent American exceptionalism or triumphalism are widely acceptable or even prized. It has a veneer of tough-minded realism, even if it is really pseudo-tough, posturing machismo. Even the most consistently wrong, unrepentant war hawks seem to be granted far more respectability than any war skeptics, and never lose their cushy jobs. Warmongers never go hungry in the Beltway, and some citizens eagerly ape their opinions. For those of us who should know better, the moral obligation is to resist the temptation to parrot bullshit, and to push back – gently or forcefully, as appropriate – especially against particularly odious and dangerous bullshit. I fear it will be hard to put an end to unnecessary wars as long as blithe imperialism is socially acceptable or even seen as the mark of a Very Serious Person.

Related Pieces (Updated)

Driftglass urges that "We Should Have a Day of National Remembrance" for Max Blumenthal's 2007 interviews of chickenhawks. Agreed.

Emptywheel: bmaz writes thoughtfully "On Chris Hayes & America’s Fallen Heroes."

Digby posts about "Arlington West," in Santa Monica.

David Atkins remembers Pat Tillman.

David Dayen writes about a debate on counter-insurgency at West Point.

To the Point: "Memorial Day in America: Fun or Remembrance?"

The Business: "War Movies: 'The Tillman Story' and 'The Hurt Locker'"

TBogg posts a lovely song for the day.

Wonkette: Intern Riley Waggaman pens "Goodbye Forever! Also: No More War, Please"

No More Mister Nice Blog: "Do We Really Fight More Because We Call the Troops Heroes?"

Balloon Juice: DougJ contributes "Fuck War," although yes, he really needs to listen to Hayes in context.

Balloon Juice: John Cole weighs in later with "About What He Said."

Thers at Whiskey Fire provides "Memorial Day Reminder" (featuring "And the Band Played Waltzing Mathilda") and "Fuck the Troops." While I wouldn't put it that way, Thers' point, like Chris Hayes' point, has been completely misunderstood and misrepresented. I believe some of that misunderstanding is sincere, but it's deadly for all that. These dynamics are key to understanding war and preventing unnecessary tragedies. The bmaz post linked above handles this stuff quite well, but let me also rerun a few passages. From "Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels":

Being "pro-soldier, anti-war" normally means: given a war, the troops should be well equipped, the generals shouldn't be stupid with human lives, and the war should be fought to be won. However, the most obvious way to be "pro-soldier" is not to endanger any troopers unnecessarily. An unnecessary war, a fundamentally flawed mission, an assignment where the danger far outweighs the potential gains – none of these "supports" the troops. Being truly "pro-soldier" necessitates being "anti-war" in this sense. There are also times when it is sheer folly to continue a war. Heroism in war is to be honored, and the camaraderie between troopers in war is greatly prized, but this is because of helping one another through a horrible ordeal. There's nothing "good" about the ordeal itself. Surviving an atrocity does not somehow ennoble the atrocity. War is anything but glorious...

As for continuing an unnecessary war, and doubling down so that those who have died "will not have died in vain," we'll get into that in far more depth in a subsequent post. I've said it before as well, but briefly: regardless of the rightness or mendacity of a given mission, a trooper's service can be honorable or even heroic. But their virtue does not necessarily ennoble the mission itself, nor does any heroism they show transfer to those making the decisions, no matter how many times those bold, intuitively brilliant, God-touched Deciders don a flight suit and show off their genitals. Consider Pat Tillman, killed by "friendly fire" – clearly his service was honorable, but just as clearly, his death was unnecessary. His death was a tragedy, but it becomes a tragedy compounded if more people die by continuing an unnecessary war.

From "War and the Denial of Loss":

Gary Trudeau satirized the "not die in vain" mentality superbly in a 2005 Sunday cartoon, which includes this line from his Bush: "Again, we'll stay the course. We cannot dishonor the upcoming sacrifice of those who have yet to die." (Read the whole thing.) I commented in a 2007 post on it:

The stupidity of leaders or the pointlessness of a mission do not diminish the heroism of the troops themselves. Troops only die in vain if we are too stupid to learn from our mistakes or face our own vanities. Having the courage to admit someone acted heroically, but died unnecessarily, can be essential for preventing more unnecessary deaths. No one should die for pride and image alone, and the pain of facing the harsh truth of a given mistake is as nothing to the pain of actually dying or the pain of mourning a loved one. To pretend otherwise is dreadful, deadly vanity.

Or (to quote an earlier post in this cycle), consider Pat Tillman, killed by "friendly fire." Clearly his service was honorable, but just as clearly, his death was unnecessary. One could say, of so many dead in senseless wars: They were honorable but the mission was flawed. They did not die for nothing. Or one could say: They died for nothing. But they will not have died in vain if you fight to prevent others from dying for nothing. Their deaths were meaningless only if you learn nothing from them, and let this needless, horrible waste continue.

Paul Fussell (1924–2012)

Professor, author and World War II veteran Paul Fussell died last week at the age of 88. I first encountered his scholarly work, and still have his well-regarded book, Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, on my shelves. He may be best known for his ambitious and insightful work of literary criticism, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). He wrote two great war memoirs, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989) and Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic (1996). He also wrote the occasional introduction and article. (I made a point of getting the edition of E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed with Fussell's introduction.) Here are the obituaries from The New York Times, The Washington Post and the AP. Fussell was firmly in that pro-soldier, anti-war tradition, an acerbic, lucid and candid writer. The WaPo piece captures this well:

Mr. Fussell returned from the war with a deep respect for ordinary soldiers but with a lasting contempt for war itself. He was critical of Tom Brokaw, Stephen Ambrose and other writers and filmmakers who, he believed, sentimentalized war without describing the brutality and violence faced by soldiers.

The best way to honor Fussell is to feature his own writing. His 1982 Harper's feature "My War: How I Got Irony in the Infantry" should be read in full, but here are some excerpts:

Over the past few years I find I’ve written a great deal about war, which is odd because I’m supposed to be a professor of English literature. And I find I’ve given the Second World War a uniformly bad press, rejecting all attempts to depict it as a sensible proceeding or to mitigate its cruelty and swinishness. I have rubbed readers’ noses in some very noisome materials—corpses, maddened dogs, deserters and looters, pain, Auschwitz, weeping, scandal, cowardice, mistakes and defeats, sadism, hangings, horrible wounds, fear and panic. Whenever I deliver this unhappy view of the war, especially when I try to pass it through a protective screen of irony, I hear from outraged readers. Speaking of some ironic aesthetic observations I once made on a photograph of a mangled sailor on his ruined gunmount, for example, a woman from Brooklyn found me “callous,” and accused me of an “overwhelming deficiency in human compassion.” Another reader, who I suspect has had as little empirical contact with the actualities of war face to face as the correspondent from Brooklyn, found the same essay “black and monstrous” and concluded that the magazine publishing it (Harper’s, actually) “disgraced itself.”

How did I pick up this dark, ironical, flip view of the war? Why do I enjoy exhibiting it? The answer is that I contracted it in the infantry. Even when I write professionally about Walt Whitman or Samuel Johnson, about the theory of comparative literature or the problems facing the literary biographer, the voice that’s audible is that of the pissed-off infantryman, disguised as a literary and cultural commentator. He is embittered that the Air Corps had beds to sleep in, that Patton’s Third Army got all the credit, that noncombatants of the Medical Administrative and Quartermaster Corps wore the same battle stars as he, that soon after the war the “enemy” he had labored to destroy had been rearmed by his own government and positioned to oppose one of his old allies. “We broke our ass for nothin’,” says Sergeant Croft in The Naked and the Dead. These are this speaker’s residual complaints while he is affecting to be annoyed primarily by someone’s bad writing or slipshod logic or lazy editing or pretentious ideas. As Louis Simpson says, “The war made me a foot-soldier for the rest of my life,” and after any war foot soldiers are touchy.

My war is virtually synonymous with my life. I entered the war when I was nineteen, and I have been in it ever since. Melville’s Ishmael says that a whale ship was his Yale College and his Harvard. An infantry division was mine, the 103rd, whose dispirited personnel wore a colorful green-and-yellow cactus on their left shoulders. These hillbillies and Okies, dropouts and used-car salesmen and petty criminals were my teachers and friends.

This intro immediately makes me like the guy, someone who can and does connect Melville with his time in the infantry, and who still identifies as a skeptical, "pissed-off infantryman, disguised as a literary and cultural commentator."

Later in the piece, he describes his first months of combat, and how they changed him:

We were in “combat.” I find the word embarrassing, carrying as it does false chivalric overtones (as in “single combat”). But synonyms are worse: “fighting” is not accurate, because much of the time you are being shelled, which is not fighting but suffering; “battle” is too high and remote; “in action” is a euphemism suited more to dire telegrams than description. “Combat” will have to do, and my first hours of it I recall daily, even now. They fueled, and they still fuel, my view of things.

Everyone knows that a night relief is among the most difficult of infantry maneuvers. But we didn’t know it, and in our innocence we expected it to go according to plan. We and the company we were replacing were cleverly and severely shelled; it was as if the Germans a few hundred feet away could see us in the dark and through the thick pine growth. When the shelling finally stopped, at about midnight, we realized that although near the place we were supposed to be, until daylight we were hopelessly lost. The order came down to stop where we were, lie down among the trees, and get some sleep. We would finish the relief at first light. Scattered over several hundred yards, the 250 of us in F Company lay down in a darkness so thick we could see nothing at all. Despite the terror of our first shelling (and several people had been hit), we slept as soundly as babes. At dawn I awoke, and what I saw all around were numerous objects I’d miraculously not tripped over in the dark. These objects were dozens of dead German boys in greenish-gray uniforms, killed a day or two before by the company we were relieving. If darkness had hidden them from us, dawn disclosed them with open eyes and greenish-white faces like marble, still clutching their rifles and machine pistols in their seventeen-year-old hands, fixed where they had fallen. (For the first time I understood the German phrase for the war dead: die Gefallenen.) Michelangelo could have made something beautiful out of these forms, in the Dying Gaul tradition, and I was startled to find that at first, in a way I couldn’t understand, they struck me as beautiful. But after a moment, no feeling but shock and horror. My adolescent illusions, largely intact to that moment, fell away all at once, and I suddenly knew I was not and never would be in a world that was reasonable or just. The scene was less apocalyptic than shabbily ironic: it sorted so ill with modern popular assumptions about the idea of progress and attendant improvements in public health, social welfare, and social justice. To transform guiltless boys into cold marble after passing them through unbearable fear and humiliation and pain and contempt seemed to do them an interesting injustice. I decided to ponder these things. In 1917, shocked by the Battle of the Somme and recovering from neurasthenia, Wilfred Owen was reading a life of Tennyson. He wrote his mother: “Tennyson, it seems, was always a great child. So should I have been, but for Baumont Hamel.” So should I have been, but for St. Dié.

After that, one day was much like another: attack at dawn, run and fall and crawl and sweat and worry and shoot and be shot at and cower from mortar shells, always keeping up a jaunty carriage in front of one’s platoon; and at night, “consolidate” the objective, usually another hill, sometimes a small town, and plan the attack for the next morning. Before we knew it we’d lost half the company, and we all realized then that for us there would be no way out until the war ended but sickness, wounds, or oblivion. And the war would end only as we pressed our painful daily advance. Getting it over was our sole motive. Yes, we knew about the Jews. But our skins seemed to us more valuable at the time.

Fussell writes clearly and very candidly. He paints strong images and has a good sense of irony and absurdity, but also brings an honesty about what he saw and felt, including his own fear, leading to striking passages like this:

That month away from the line helped me survive for four weeks more but it broke the rhythm and, never badly scared before, when I returned to the line early in March I found for the first time that I was terrified, unwilling to take the chances that before had seemed rather sporting. My month of safety had renewed my interest in survival, and I was psychologically and morally ill prepared to lead my platoon in the great Seventh Army attack of March 15, 1945. But lead it I did, or rather push it, staying as far in the rear as was barely decent. And before the day was over I had been severely rebuked by a sharp-eyed lieutenant-colonel who threatened court martial if I didn’t pull myself together. Before that day was over I was sprayed with the contents of a soldier’s torso when I was lying behind him and he knelt to fire at a machine gun holding us up: he was struck in the heart, and out of the holes in the back of his field jacket flew little clouds of tissue, blood, and powdered cloth. Near him another man raised himself to fire, but the machine gun caught him in the mouth, and as he fell he looked back at me with surprise, blood and teeth dribbling out onto the leaves. He was one to whom early on I had given the Silver Star for heroism, and he didn’t want to let me down.

Part of the piece involves him as an older man looking back over his letters home and dissecting his own youthful self, especially his own self-delusion. He's harsh and clinical but not unnecessary cruel in these self-judgments. I was particularly struck by this passage, as older, author Fussell speaks of young infantryman Fussell writing to his parents:

He seems unable to perceive what is happening, constantly telling his addressee what will please rather than what he feels. He was never more mistaken than when he assured his parents while recovering from his wounds, “Please try not to worry, as no permanent damage has been done.”

Near the end of the piece, he discusses his entry into academia:

In becoming a college teacher of literature I was aware of lots of company: thousands of veterans swarmed to graduate schools to study literature, persuaded that poetry and prose could save the world, or at least help wash away some of the intellectual shame of the years we’d been through. From this generation came John Berryman and Randall Jarrell and Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow and Louis Simpson and Richard Wilbur and William Meredith and all the others who, afire with the precepts of the New Criticism, embraced literature, and the teaching of it, as quasi-religious obligation.

There's a gentle self-reproach here, and that's completely appropriate. Still, Fussell shouldn't sell himself or his compatriots short, given how many lives they have touched for the better. Fussell is one of a number of fine war writers who have given a much more honest portrait of what war actually entails. War itself is not noble, even if service is, and there's something admirable and necessary in writing about it truthfully. Human folly is pernicious. But good poetry and prose can save the world, or at least give some solace. At the very least, they make the world more worthy of saving.

Biden with Families of the Fallen

This segment is from May 25th. Whatever one thinks of Biden otherwise, he has faced great personal tragedy in his life, and understands something of grief. I particularly like his discussion of people who "meant well" but didn't get it. I wish more Memorial Day and Armistice Day speeches showed similar understanding.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Obama's Horribleness Discovered After 17 Years in Plain Sight

One of the recent conservative fauxrages is over Barack Obama's supposed deception and hypocrisy in his 1995 autobiography, Dreams from My Father. The main complaints come from people who never bothered to read it – and they're determined not to change that now.

Roy Edroso nicely sums up "scandal" #1:

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama came out in 1995 and has sold over a million copies, but to rightbloggers it is a constantly fresh source of discovery.

For years, some of them have insisted that Obama didn't really write it. A few weeks back, they made much of the fact that a passage from it revealed as boy in Indonesia he had eaten dog meat.

Last week somebody noticed that some people in the 17-year-old book were described in the introduction as "composites." Rightbloggers were outraged. Whoever heard of such a thing -- besides, that is, the hundreds of thousands of people who read it?

A little background: The introduction to Dreams contains these lines: "For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I've known, and some events appear out of precise chronology," and "With the exception of my family and a handful of public figures, the names of most characters have been changed for the sake of their privacy."

Writer David Marranis went looking for people who might have been the originals of the people in Obama's book. Marranis got some good access -- to an ex-girlfriend of Obama's, Genevieve Cook, and to Obama himself -- and part of his material appeared last week in Vanity Fair in advance of a new book. (Obama affirmed that the girlfriend in the book was, like others, a composite.)

In the normal world, this all makes sense: An ambitious young politician uses, and wisely admits up front to using, plausibly deniable composite characters so he can evade potentially explosive tell-all interviews with named characters later. A writer looks up possible sources, and gets the author, now President, to comment on them.

In rightblogger world, however, this was a major scandal, despite 17 years of advance notification.

Head over for the accusations that Obama "lied" and that the whole composite thing was news. (Surely you're already reading Roy Edroso's weekly rightblogger roundups, though!)

"Scandal" #2 involves Obama's supposed hypocrisy in dating a white woman. In "Oedipus Schmedipus," TBogg catches Ann Althouse writing, "Imagine being a heterosexual man and feeling that you weren’t supposed to be attracted to a woman who reminds you of your mother." I also found the preceding section of Althouse's post interesting, though:

By the way, in his book "Dreams From My Father," Obama writes of being openly critical of a black man with a white girlfriend:

Tim was not a conscious brother. Tim wore argyle sweaters and pressed jeans and talked like Beaver Cleaver. He planned to major in business. His white girlfriend was probably waiting for him up in his room, listening to country music. He was happy as a clam, and I wanted nothing more than for him to go away. I got up, walked with him down the hall to my room, gave him the assignment he needed. As soon as I got back to Reggie’s room, I somehow felt obliged to explain.

“Tim’s a trip, ain’t he,” I said, shaking my head. “Should change his name from Tim to Tom.”

ADDED: I get the feeling that the hostility expressed toward "Tim" was displaced hostility toward himself. It's very sad if he resisted loving Genevieve because she was white. Don't you think Genevieve resembles Obama's mother, who was white? Imagine being a heterosexual man and feeling that you weren't supposed to be attracted to a woman who reminds you of your mother. There's this alternate never-to-be-written Obama search-for-identity book titled "Dreams From My Mother."

Several Althouse commenters hold up the Tim/Tom bit as proof of Obama's hatred of certain black people, his hatred of white people already being firmly established in their minds. (Other commenters suggest Obama is gay.) Several other conservative blogs linked Althouse's post, used the Tim/Tom passage and accused Obama of being a hypocrite (among other things).

Astute readers might wonder, 'Hmm, what's the context of this passage? What does Obama write next?' As it so happens, it's not hard to read it for yourself:

I thought back to that time when I was still living in the dorms, the three of us in Reggie's room—Reggie, Marcus and myself—the patter of rain against the windowpane. We were drinking a few beers and Marcus was telling me about his run-in with the L.A.P.D. "They had no reason to stop me," he was saying. "No reason 'cept I was walking in a white neighborhood. Made me spread-eagle against the car. One of 'em pulled out his piece. I didn't let 'em scare me, though. That's what gets these storm troopers off, seeing fear in a black man…"

I watched Marcus as he spoke, lean and dark and straight-backed, his long legs braced apart, comfortable in a white T-shirt and blue denim overalls. Marcus was the most conscious of brothers. He could tell you about his grandfather the Garveyite; about his mother in St. Louis who had raised her kids alone while working as a nurse; about his older sister who had been a founding member of the local Panther party; about his friends in the joint. His lineage was pure, his loyalties clear, and for that reason he always made me feel a little off-balance, like a younger brother who, no matter what he does, will always be one step behind. And that's just how I was feeling at that moment, listening to Marcus pronounce on his authentic black experience, when Tim walking into the room.

"Hey, guys," Tim had said, waving cheerfully. He turned to me. "Listen, Barry—do you have that assignment for Econ?"

Tim was not a conscious brother. Tim wore argyle sweaters and pressed jeans and talked like Beaver Cleaver. He planned to major in business. His white girlfriend was probably waiting for him up in his room, listening to country music. He was happy as a clam, and I wanted nothing more than for him to go away. I got up, walked with him down the hall to my room, gave him the assignment he needed. As soon as I got back to Reggie’s room, I somehow felt obliged to explain.

“Tim’s a trip, ain’t he,” I said, shaking my head. “Should change his name from Tim to Tom.”

Reggie laughed, but Marcus didn't. Marcus said, "Why you say that, man?"

The question caught me by surprise. "I don't know. The dude's just goofy, that's all."

Marcus took a sip of his beer and looked me straight in the eye. "Tim seems all right to me," he said. "He's going about his business. Don't bother nobody. Seems to me we should be worrying about whether our own stuff's together instead of passing judgment on how other people are supposed to act."

A year later, and I still burned with the memory, the anger and resentment I'd felt at that moment. Marcus calling me out in front of Reggie like that. But he'd been right to do it, hadn't he? He had caught me in a lie. Two lies, really—the lie I had told about Tim and the lie I was telling about myself. In fact, that whole year seemed like one long lie, me spending all my energy running around in circles, trying to cover my tracks.

Dreams from My Father, Chapter 5, "Origins," pp.101-102.

Boy, that passage sure reads differently in context, doesn't it? As presented by conservative bloggers, it reads as a story of Obama attacking someone for not being "black" enough, with the implication that Obama was proud of this, still thinks this way, and is a hypocrite since he dated a white woman himself. In context, it's a story of Obama being called out for mocking a black classmate to get a laugh and approval from his peers, and the lasting shame he felt for doing so. It's also about older, author Obama looking back on his young self and calling out himself for saying something stupid and his own hypocrisy and self-deception at the time. (All that said, this incident is one moment in a larger rite of passage, hardly some great crime, and completely forgivable.)

As it so happens, I read Dreams from My Father back in 2008, and remembered this passage. However, even if I hadn't remembered this specific incident, I would have remembered the central themes of the book, which include struggling with racial identity. Even if I had never read the book, I would wonder about the context of Althouse's quotation, especially since Obama is a politician and is describing an incident that occurred in the past, when he was a college student (when many young people struggle with their sense of identity). Althouse writes of Obama that "I get the feeling that the hostility expressed toward "Tim" was displaced hostility toward himself," but Obama himself says essentially that on the very same page. Obama's insight into this incident is the main point of the story; Althouse essentially cribs this and denies Obama this level of reflection.

Quoting out of context is one of the oldest tricks around (remember Andrew Breitbart's attacks on Shirley Sherrod?), not that many conservative bloggers bothered to read much, if any, of Obama's book in the first place. Bad faith and hatred of the Kenyan usurper drive most rightblogger commentary on Obama (as is evident here if one cares to follow the links above and read all the posts and comments on this passage). Hey, if it makes Obama look bad and/or fits a rightwing narrative about him, they'll just run with it. But what about Althouse herself? Apparently, she doesn't like to be labeled conservative despite her policy preferences, and claims she voted for Obama in 2008. Was her highly selective quoting deliberately misleading, or ineptitude?

While bad faith is a defining feature of modern conservative politics, let's be more, um, charitable and consider ineptitude for the moment. Perhaps Althouse quoted Obama out of context to try to make him look bad, but is it possible she honestly didn't understand the entire point of Obama telling this story? (These factors are not mutually exclusive.)

It may help to put these "scandals" about Dreams from My Father in a larger context. In terms of wonks, hacks and zealots, unfortunately, very few conservative wonks can be found on the national stage. Conservative wonks and conscientious citizens do exist, of course, but they have been almost entirely purged from the Republican Party. Conservative political figures tend to be hacks, obsessed with power, while conservative bloggers, with lesser power, tend to be zealots. Both types, but particularly the zealots, tend to use a scorecard approach to most issues, especially race. If they ever cared about good policies, they tend to lose sight of that in the burning need to destroy their perceived enemies. They don't care about responsible governance. They don't really care about substance. It's all about power and winning. As we've examined before, conservatives and liberals simply do not speak the same language. Sometimes, conservatives seem genuinely mystified by concepts such as the social contract, rich liberals wanting to pay higher taxes to help their communities, and social justice.

Consider the Trayvon Martin case – it upset many people (non-conservatives, mostly) because Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, was free and not on trial. (Thankfully, he is now awaiting trial.) Why did so many conservatives clamor to defend Zimmerman's pursuit and shooting of an unarmed teenager? Why did so many seek to smear Martin? There's really no rational reason for it. It only makes sense in the context of the rightwing Wurlitzer and a world of scorecard politics, where conservatives believe that liberals and all non-conservatives are insincere and raise racial issues solely for political advantage (in conservative minds, "playing the race card"), not because they mourn the unnecessary death of a young person. It only makes sense from a political movement that insists that racism largely doesn't exist, and that all accusations of racism, no matter how well-founded, must be fought vehemently. Moreover, if you followed the story and the conservative reactions, you may have noticed that many conservatives fundamentally did not understand why the Martin case was disturbing to so many people. For a sampling of conservative reactions chronicled and dissected, see John Cole, Roy Edroso, TBogg, Gawker, Angry Black Lady, and the more extensive archives of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chauncey DeVega. Some of the conservative commentary is mind-boggling. Some of it is pure bad faith and knee-jerk political combativeness, but there's also a heavy dose of sheer incomprehension. We are simply not speaking the same language.

This brings us back to Obama and Dreams from My Father. Obama is a pretty good writer, especially for a politician. Likewise, his much heralded speech on race in Philadelphia in 2008 was insightful, frank, and deft – at least, for a politician. Dreams from My Father is full of dialogue presented in direct quotations when it's unlikely Obama remembered all the exact words said – but this is a standard convention in memoirs, that the writer fill in the gaps of memory. The composite characters and shuffling of events isn't surprising, either, and Obama reveals it upfront. The implicit promise from the author is that these accounts have the essence of truth, that the particulars may be off (sometimes deliberately so, to preserve the privacy of those depicted), but that there was some real-life analogue to this or that incident, that a conversation did occur that went something like this.

In Dreams from My Father, Obama explores the turmoil of identity many young people wrestle with, and in his case, this also involves dealing with an absent father and being biracial. Perhaps most to the point, Obama's book is one of self-reflection, and naturally it invites the reader to engage in the same self-reflection, and consider these issues of identity (including racial identity) with some nuance. There are certainly other works that mine the same territory, including some classics in American letters. The most cynical of critics may feel that Obama's book is mostly careful fabrication (although it's hardly as warm, fuzzy, shallow or self-aggrandizing as many politician's books). Regardless, the book does invite substantive discussion on race, which can be, um, a touchy subject in certain crowds.

Movement conservatives are not noted for their empathy – in fact, they're proud of their lack of it – and the stereotypical conservative does not care much for nuance either. The conservative "scandals" over Dreams from My Father are fake, but the selective, ideological reading of it reveals a genuine tragedy – a substantive discussion on race is there to be had, but as usual, most conservatives have no interest in engaging in it.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Harvey (1950)

I watched Harvey for the first time in many years. Some of it has not aged well, particularly the supposedly romantic/comedic subplots with desperate women pursuing slightly abusive men. The contrived plot inventions of the start make for clumsy, strained comedy, and the adaptation of stage play to film can be inelegant (although this gets better as the film progresses).

However, there's still a certain magic to the film, mainly because of Jimmy Stewart's sweet performance and the film's endorsement of imagination, eccentricity and individualism. My dad was always fond of it for that reason, and for a few great comedic moments – the dictionary scene, and Veta finally noticing the portrait of Elwood with Harvey. The play, which won the Pulitzer in 1945, has remained popular with high schools, and has been filmed for television a surprising number of times, although the 1950 film is surely the best known version. On the DVD, there's an interview with Stewart, who related that strangers would mention Harvey to him more than most of his other roles. He further mentioned that some would ask if he'd seen Harvey recently – and he'd realize after a moment that they weren't kidding. Stewart would diplomatically say he had, and that Harvey was well, and that he would pass on their regards to him. Apparently, a number of people really wanted to believe in a six-foot, three-and-one-half-inch spirit called a pooka who looked like a rabbit. The idea of a beneficent, playful magic or guardian angel in the world is comforting.

Despite its flaws, I like the film overall, although as a kid, I disliked a particular line by Stewart as Elwood P. Dodd:

Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, "In this world, Elwood, you must be" – she always called me Elwood – "In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant." Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

At the time, this seemed to be promoting the same anti-intellectualism endemic to so much American pop culture, especially because it suggested one had to be one or the other. I still reject that notion, and would rephrase it – one can be clever without being wise, and clever without being compassionate. One can also be too taken with appearing clever, or powerful, or successful, to remember to be compassionate. That's the problem, and I prefer to take Elwood's words in that spirit. (Hey, art, even fantasy and light comedy, should speak truth on certain matters.)

Stewart's performance is simple and innocent on the surface, but also quite nuanced if one watches closely. Look what he does in this scene, for instance:

Stewart was very gifted at appearing natural, and he makes it look so easy it's easy to take his craft for granted, but there's depth there.

Stewart was nominated for an Oscar for playing this sweet, harmless eccentric, and Josephine Hull, who plays Elwood's sister Veta, won Best Supporting Actress for her work. I'm not fond of the early scenes, but Hull is very fine selling the key scene near the end, when she realizes that taking away what make Elwood "different" and forcing him to be "normal" would both be cruel to him and make the world a little less wonderful. It's central to the film, and if it's a nice way to conclude:

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

May Day 2012

For May Day this year, let's start with a little music. Here's a Woody Guthrie tune, "from Pete Seeger's 90th Birthday Concert (Clearwater Concert), Madison Square Garden, 5/3/09. Featuring Billy Bragg, Mike & Ruthy Merenda, Dar Williams [and the] New York City Labor Chorus":

This version (can't be embedded) is by Sarah Lee Guthrie and Arlo Guthrie, with Arlo telling stories and adding the funny "Ladies Auxilary" at the end. The sound ain't great, but it's decent and the segment's worth a listen.

Some other May Day related posts from the blogroll:

Alicublog: "What They Really Want." Roy Edroso finds a doozy. (I really do prefer it when conservatives just come out and say what they actually think. It's also worth reading the older piece Roy links.)

Crooks and Liars: Karoli provides "Why MayDay Matters: GE Versus Hard-Working Employees."

Paul Krugman: "Wasting Our Minds." Krugman looks at education and jobs, and the failures of conservative policies on both.

TBogg: "Kenyan Socialist Barack Obama Is Now A Late 19th Century German Marxist." Technically not for May Day, but how can you resist that title, and why would you want to?

Meanwhile, Digby notes that it's also Codpiece Day.

If you wrote a labor-themed post for May Day, feel free to link it in the comments. Thanks.