Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cruelest month, 2010

Earth Day was a real earthapalooza this year, wasn' it? We always celebrate by cleaning up a vacant lot or replacing some light bulbs, something to make us feel good. This year, though, Earth showed what she brings to the party. The volcano in Iceland was a spectacular but symbolic gesture -- a lot of people couldn't fly, but nobody was killed, even in Iceland. Airlines lost money, but they do that anyway. There was amazing video for the stranded travelers to enjoy on their portable media gadgets, and informative pieces about what volcanic ash does to jet engines. Then, as the excitement was dying down, Earth took off the gloves. A drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, and an unstoppable flow of oil began to pour into the water. At this hour, it pours on. By now, it has probably reached the shrimp beds and the bird sanctuary on the coast, and by tomorrow, Lake Pontchartrain. Kill, baby, kill! I'll bet President McCain is feeling pretty silly about authorizing offshore drilling all up and down the Atlantic...what? Who won? You're kidding.

For comic relief, Arizona has passed a law that requires police to stop people who "look foreign." The new law was inspired by the 1987 film Born In East L.A., written, directed by and starring Cheech Marin. He plays a man who gets caught up in an immigration raid on a factory, thrown on a bus, and driven to Tijuana. Then he can't go home because he doesn't have the documents to prove he was "born in East L.A.," since few Americans walk around with passports and birth certificates. I hope the Arizona legislature doesn't have 1984 in its Netflix queue.

Meanwhile, Virginia is nearing the end of Confederate Treason Month. (Their new Republican governor says "Confederate History Month," and I say the hell with it.) Many of our present problems stem from the tenderness America has always shown to traitors of the far right. We have imprisoned and executed people for spying for the Soviet Union and even for Israel, which is virtually the fifty-first state. We have ruined countless careers and even ended some lives for the crime of political incorrectness, i.e., opposing fascism before Pearl Harbor or after midnight on VE Day. But not one of the thousands of men who fought to destroy this country was executed in 1865.* On the contrary: we erected statues, named colleges and even military installations after them. Worse, we let them and their descendents control the historical narrative of their "rebellion" and reassert their control of the Confederate states through hideous violence. If it prosper, none dare call it treason.

This is not the case elsewhere. When Charles II returned to England to take up the monarchy, he got busy punishing everyone who cut off his father's head. He even had Oliver Cromwell disinterred and strung up. Cromwell's chief propagandist, John Milton, would have joined him on the gallows but for the intervention of Andrew Marvell and others. Harsh? Well, there hasn't been a civil war in England since the seventeenth century. Or a "Businessmen's Plot," or illiterates in silly hats assaulting members of Parliament. Think of that when your hear Teabigots proposing to "take back the country" by force, to demonstrate their love of democracy. They're not being ironic.

*I am not forgetting the poor sap who was executed for running the infamous Andersonville prison camp. There is probably a park named for Henry Wirtz in Winder, Georgia, which is named for his commanding general. With a statue.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

The first casualty

I'm a little cloudy today because I stayed up to watch The North Star on TCM. Usually these wartime productions about Our Gallant Russian Ally don't hold my interest. I bailed on Song of Russia the other night shortly after Robert Taylor arrived in Moscow to show the Russians how Tchaikovsky should be played (very fast, apparently). But I had previously only seen the expurgated version Armored Attack, and I wanted to check out the original.

All these efforts by Hollywood to open a second front are pretty cheesy, but they reflect the styles of the studios. Warner Brothers' Mission To Moscow, for instance, grabs you by the lapels and head-butts you with half-truths and outright lies about show trials and purges. In Song of Russia, MGM's Moscow looks a lot like the Paris of Ninotchka, full of sparkling streets, elegant shops, and handsome, well-dressed people. The Samuel Goldwyn studio pulled out all the stops for The North Star; it badly needs restoration (but is unlikely to get it) for the sake of the cinematography of James Wong Howe and the design of William Cameron Menzies. Lewis Milestone was a great director of battle and crowd scenes, and Aaron Copland wrote the score, although he may not have been responsible for the tinny folk-singing. ( SPOILER ALERT: I will be discussing the film in some detail.) The cast includes Dana Andrews as a bomber pilot who becomes the first Soviet kamikaze; Ann Baxter and Farley Granger as the young lovers, a few years away from stardom; Walter Huston as the village doctor (you can't have a propaganda movie without Huston, and I'm thinking of Gabriel Over the White House and Yankee Doodle Dandy as well as Mission To Moscow); Dean Jagger as the militia commander; and Walter Brennan as the clean old peasant.

When the Germans arrive, putting a stop to the folk-singing at last, they are a medical unit commanded by surgeon Erich Von Stroheim. He's a "civilized" German -- he despises his fanatical young subordinate, who can't believe he once studied under an eminent Jewish professor. He immediately recognizes Huston, and wonders what a world-renowned pathologist is doing in rural Ukraine, which is a good question. But he is still a German -- he rounds up the village children and drains their blood to transfuse wounded Germans. On a couple of levels, this makes no sense. Nazi notions of racial purity would seem to preclude polluting Aryans with the blood of Slavs. Moreover, adults have more blood than children, and their veins are easier to locate. Of all the atrocities committed by the German armies in the East, I had never heard of this one. It bothered me all night.

Today the penny dropped, as the English say. This is the infamous "blood libel" turned inside out. For centuries, Jews all over Europe were accused of murdering Christian children and using their blood to bake Passover matzoh. As recently as 1913, a Jew named Menahem Mendel Beilis was tried in Kiev for this very crime (the basis for Bernard Malamud's 1966 novel The Fixer). Perhaps Lillian Hellman got some emotional satisfaction from turning this absurd and vicious myth back on the Nazis. But was it wise?

The trouble with wartime propaganga is that wars end. Then people feel ashamed and foolish for believing the lies of the government and the media (in the case of Iraq, even before the war has ended). During the First World War, it was considered necessary to stoke anti-German sentiment in Britain, and later in the United States, through some fairly outrageous means. The Germans didn't help themselves when they invaded neutral Belgium and killed many civilians, including women and children, in retaliation for attacks on German troops. All wars involve crimes against humanity. But there is no evidence that Germans roasted babies and raped nuns for the sheer fun of it, and the story of the crucified Canadian proved as durable as the Angel of Mons (and as impossible to track down). Eventually "the Hun" was accused of every imaginable transgression including cannibalism, which may have been an innocent mis-translation of the word Kadaver (animal carcass) -- by 1918, starving Germans were certainly eating mules and horses.

After the war, it was stories like that as much as the horrific slaughter of the war itself that turned a generation into pacifists. By the 1930s France and Britain notably lacked the will or the means to oppose Nazi bellicosity; Neville Chamberlain was a national hero when he flew back from Munich with his pathetic piece of paper, proclaiming "peace in our time." When the war began less than a year later, the Allies were almost completely unprepared. In the United States, although many merchant ships had already been sunk by U-boats, the vast majority chose to hear no evil and see no evil until the late autumn of 1941. Not all of this was the fault of propagandists, but they had a lot of ground to make up. Making Americans hate the Japanese was depressingly easy, given American racism. Making them like and trust the Soviet Union even temporarily was hard, and it came at a cost. And the real cost was truth itself -- when horror stories began trickling out of occupied Europe, there were ample grounds for dismissing them as "propaganda." Not this time, tragically.

Once the window of amity closed, studio heads found themselves grovelling before Congressional committees now chaired by vengeful enemies of the New Deal. Jack Warner whined that he had made Mission To Moscow at the personal request of FDR, although the president was too wily to put anything in writing. Louis B. Mayer affirmed his love for America and something new called "Americanism" in the most hyperbolic terms. Sam Goldwyn buried The North Star, which had received six Academy Award nominations. Thousands of careers, and a number of lives, were ended. The bad feeling lasted into the 1990s, when Elia Kazan's Lifetime Achievement award was protested because he had "named names."

Conservatives like to complain about Hollywood liberalism, but it's a pale copy of the 1930s and 1940s. Many people carry an inbred fear of being political in any direction. I don't believe it's an accident that most films about our current involvement in the Middle East are more "get me out of here" than "gung ho." Entertainers feel themselves on much more solid ground when they raise money for environmental causes or disaster relief, than when they help promote a military action. For one thing, there is no pressure to lie. In war, it is said, truth is the first casualty. Sadly, it is never the last.


Saturday, April 03, 2010

Failure to communicate

I think I see what the problem is.

If you can't spell "socialism," you can't look it up and find out what it means. Then you might very well confuse it with Barack Obama's strenuous efforts to preserve capitalist systems like medicine-for-profit. He just added 32 million customers to the insurance industry. No wonder Wall Street had an orgasm. Even the incompetents at A.I.G. should be able to make money from this.

English spelling is a bear. It wasn't regularized until the eighteenth century, when the first reference books (like Johnson's Dictionary) were published. There are more exceptions than rules, and the only way to learn spelling -- apart from reading a lot -- is to memorize lists of words. Only English has spelling competitions, because all the other languages (well, maybe not Irish) make sense. So I'm not unsympathetic. I also understand that the right's effort to crush public education has borne lush fruit; an ignorant populace is a frightened, superstitious, hate-prone populace. So many people without a chance.

It will only get worse if the Texas schoolbook commissars can force their will on publishers of history texts. Among other things, they want to erase the entire presidency of Thomas Jefferson because he supported the separation of church and state. (As did Barry Goldwater, but he's a footnote.) This is beyond dumb; it's scary. A few years ago there was a book of photographs from the Soviet Union showing the original picture beside the retouched one, with some hapless comrade airbrushed out after his liquidation, leaving only empty air between, say, Stalin and Beria. "Unperson" is the term, popoularized in 1984 -- this is what Winston Smith did all day at the Ministry of Truth. Of course, it's happened here before, just not on this scale. This is a two-term president, the first Secretary of State, the author of the Declaration of Independence, among other things. It's a lot bigger than dropping Paul Robeson from the 1919 All-America football team. And that's just the beginning of the wholesale falsification of history demanded by "conservatives." As George Orwell observed, it all begins with the devaluation of language (see above).

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