Stalingrad Forever

On the 75th anniversary of the triumph of one of the greatest and most terrible chapters in history, a grueling forever battle where 1,129,619 Soviets died in life or death defense of not only their city but the civilized world itself, and killed 627,899 fascists, I want to share a beautiful sculpture and some beautiful words.

“Not a few married women in Stalingrad, including mothers of large families, joined the fighting armies, sometimes with rifles and hand-grenades, sometimes only as nurses, stretcher-bearers – or as ‘mothers’…

“These Stalingrad mothers only added to the drama and the heroism of the city. Defying machine-gun fire and bombs, they crawled through deep trenches and shattered walls to some ruin of a building or to a bomb-blown crater with thermos bottles of hot soup and other food for Russian soldiers…Not always did they reach their destination. Something often hit them on the way and they were heard of no more. The others carried on by day and night…They washed and mended clothes for their ‘sons.’ They cooked and baked for them. They listened to their tales of battle and cheered them with motherly blessings. They read the letters from the real mothers or wives, and again and again, when a son went off to fight and never returned, they wrote to these mothers or wives words of solace and courage and of undying faith in eventual triumph over the ‘cannibal enemy.’ Great will be the tributes that will some day find their way into poems, plays and novels to the Stalingrad mothers.”

-Mother Russia, Maurice Hindus, pg 147

Stalingrad mother

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A Dynamic World

Red Mars Kim Stanley Robinson

Red Mars is, quite simply, a perfect novel. It combines the thrilling driving intensity of a compelling plot with the capability for insight and introspection and revealing observation. Its descriptions of the fourth planet, Earth’s neighbor Mars, are stunning and beautiful, a combination of the author’s great labors in research and his astounding imagination.

This same skill in description applies to his treatment of the cabinet full of characters, charming and attractive and unpleasant and fascinating and throbbing full of life as they are.

It starts on the ship Ares, hurtling away from a Terran bubbling with trouble and strife, with a crew of 100 scientists and engineers at the top of their fields, chosen through a rigorous psychological examination and testing period itself led by the psychologist accompanying them, a Frenchman named Michel. Of course they have all lied and hidden their true selves to get there, the psychologist included.

They’re not the first people to set foot on Mars; a previous American crew of 4 had done so six years before, in 2020. One member of that crew, and the first man ever to step upon the red planet, John Boone is with them. This mission is led by, on the American side, Frank Chalmers, and acidulous, cynical, and brilliant, leader. The Russian half is led by the longtime cosmonaut Maya Toitovna, a Russian archetype of a woman: beautiful, passionate, clever.

There is also Arkady Bogdanov, fiery haired and Russian himself, and a left wing political radical with a different view of the future of Mars than the straightforward science mission, to be followed by transnational exploitation, envisioned by the United Nations Office of Martian Affairs. And then Sax, with ambitious dreams for the grand terraforming of the planet, and Ann Chalmers, who wants nothing on the planet to change because even before she the opportunity ever arose of heading to the planet she fell in love with it and wants to study every inch of it. Then also Nadia, short, sturdy, in contrast to her friend Maya of no great looks, but dependable and industrious, and a genius in the construction of the habitats and stations they set up upon landing.

Maya is variously in love with John Boone and Frank Chalmers, starting in the weightlessness of the Ares and continuing stormily on the Martian surface. All sorts of romances and dalliances spring up on board the ship, and Robinson doesn’t shy away from them. Hiroko Ai, the brilliant botanist who will be in charge of conjuring crops enough to make the colonists self-sufficient is whispered to be leading mystic orgies with the rest of the botanists.

At one point Maya thinks she sees a stowaway.

Down on the planet at the first settlement, Underhill, the rudiments of civilization spring up with the aid of robot builders and the industry of the settlers. Chief among these is Nadia, who is very sympathetic in her firm commitment to working, improving, fixing building. Her single minded purpose in doing all the work she can do, helping whoever she can, her detachment from the wider struggles and thought around her in the pursuit of the task at hand, sets her out from the other characters Robinson sets his focus on throughout the novel.

John and Frank and Maya play politics and squabble among each other in their triangle, John Boone determined to use his status as the First Man on Mars to forge a new Martian Society, all while Frank cynically manages things. Arkady has radical, anarchistic goals for the new world they will build, Sax throws himself into his own radical terraforming project, and meanwhile Ann, disgruntled and upset by the changes she sees being foisted upon her beloved red planet, focuses her attention on studying the it, finding answers to the questions about it she wants answered before the landscape and geology is changed irrevocably.

Robinson’s descriptions of the Martian landscape are breathtaking; a trip to the Northern polar ice cap affords a sunset scene that moves Nadia deeply and opens her eyes to the singularity of the planet she’s on.

Arkady and Nadia take a blimp to drop off small nuclear windmills all across the face of the planet as part of Sax’s plan to raise the temperature in the quest to construct an atmosphere capable of sustaining life. While the windmills actually turn out to be an unauthorized lichen seeding project, the trip with the laughing, passionate Arkady and the more introverted Nadia takes an expected turn that’s nevertheless genuinely thrilling, exciting and pleasant. They make love and fall in love and this turn of events is so appealing and perfect, and made me very happy. Happy for Nadia mostly, that Arkady could make her so happy, and that she could be so happy. The descriptions of the turn from unspoken intimacy to intimacy expressed and maintained left me grinning like a fool; recalling it now I’m doing so again.

Not long after the second batch of settlers arrive, and with it rapid change. A group of the First One Hundred, led by Hiroko and including the psychologist Michel, who’s dreadfully, terribly homesick, steals away from the settlement and melt into the Martian landscape to construct their own unique society away from the strictures of the UNOMA.

Time passes fast from here. We join John Boone again around a decade after Hiroko’s disappearance, with settlements speckling out over the planet, mushrooming up from all parts of the world. There is a campaign of sabotage throughout the nascent mining communities and expanding towns. John has a similar view of what Mars needs to Arkady, though not quite as radical or concrete. Where Arkady spurns Nadia’s practical minded liberalism by telling her that “Earth is a perfectly liberal world. But half of it is starving, and always has been and always will be…very liberally,” John’s prognosis is less certain. Still, he knows that the Martian society will have to be different. Ruminating, he observes that “societies without a plan, that was history so far; but history so far had been a nightmare, a huge compendium of examples to be avoided.”

His investigation has him traverse the globe in his rover, on and off again with Maya, meeting with myriad groups of new settlers, and being caught up in familiar and old aspects of human society: espionage, subterfuge, the unceasing battle between capitalism and democracy, the interests of profit asserting themselves in deadly and near deadly ways.

Part and parcel with these wanderings is a sort of spiritual and political journey for John. The Swiss he meets inspire him with their adaptability and his study of their constitution. He meets and travels with a Sufi caravan, a group he greatly admires. Before either of them he observes, in the vivid scientific referential language Robinson wields so well, that “consciousness was just a thin lithosphere over a big hot core, after all.” The core comes to the fore when John dances with the Sufis on a fervent night, chanting the names of Mars in different tongues, and spinning with them until he becomes disoriented and sick.

An old Sufi woman, helping him after he throws up, comforts him with a short evocative sort of aphorism: “The King asked his wise men for some single thing that would make him happy when he was sad, but sad when he was happy. They consulted and came back with a ring engraved with the message ‘This Too Will Pass…”

John’s investigation bumps into the ascendant presence of the transnationals and the reach of ever expanding government power. He’s targeted, assaulted, he’s almost framed for murder. Frank Chalmers eventually participates in the assassination of John, though not before the construction of a mighty space elevator and the tentative temporary return into the fray of the First One Hundred of Hiroko.

And so, This Too Will Pass. The murder of John Boone takes the book into a darker place, more time passes and the world, both worlds even, are thrown into malign chaos. Gerontological treatment extending lives indeterminately longer (perhaps more accurately: that reverse and arrest aging) radically overhauls the social fabric of the red and blue planets. Immigration soars to Mars, the old problems are exported, the transnationals look only to profit from it all.

Arkady is leading a movement, as are groups all over the planet. Settlers slip away and disappear, joining Hiroko perhaps, escaping the proscriptions of old commerce and government. But UNOMA, along with the transnationals, start preventing this. Anger from crime, extortion by the neglectful protection companies, as well as the romance of disappearance lead to the nascent idea of revolt. Frank Chalmers, old and acidulous as ever, tries to mediate this, defuse it, direct it. In the renegotiation of the Mars treaty he had tried to limit immigration to take pressure off the mounting cooker.

“They were so ignorant!” he thinks after addressing a crowd of striking American workers. “Young men and women, educated very carefully to be apolitical, to be technicians who thought they disliked politics, making them putty in the hands of their rulers, just like always.”

But even as he tries to tamp down the coming revolt he encounters those who already compare their current situations to the rebellions of the past.

“I suppose the real question…” one says, “[is] will we have a Lincoln?”

“‘Lincoln is dead,’ Frank snapped. ‘And historical analogy is the last refuge of people who can’t grasp the current situation.’”

When the revolution comes, it’s catastrophic, a huge compendium of examples to be avoided. The fighting is brutal, the “tents” that enclose human settlements are cracked open like balloons by missiles from above, hundreds, thousands asphyxiated, frozen to death, burned in explosions. Arkady is one of these, bursting into flame just moments after cheerily dictating to himself the happy similarities between his current revolutionary situation and that of Catalonia’s in the Civil War.

Aquifers are cracked open in explosions, sending absolutely massive flows of water coursing across the Martian terrain, filling Hellas Planitia, smashing settlements in their paths. The rebels bring down the space elevator, and the 37,000 kilometer wire smashes down into the planet two times over, a glowing diamond whip, slicing into the earth, killing, devastating the landscape and changing it forever.

Reading it brings to mind a sensation described earlier in a different context by Robinson: “his blood burned in his throat.”

Nadia and some of her confederates hop around the wracked world in planes, avoiding the strikes of the authorities, rebuilding and repairing wherever they go. What’s left of The One Hundred come to realize that they’re being targeted by the authorities who believe it’s them who are behind the uprising. Meanwhile on Earth desperate war itself rages.

Cornered by an invasion force at Cairo in the East, Nadia uses an old rigged system of Arkday’s to bring down Phobos itself, resulting in still further marsshaking transformation of the planet. A band of the original One Hundred escape with the help of Michel, come from Hiroko’s group to help them get out just as the troops break through.

A grasping devastating voyage dodging the destruction left by the flooding being caused by the impact of Phobos follows. At first the dust thrown up by that impact means they can travel in the special stealth rovers designed by Hiroko’s group during the day, but when the dust recedes and they encounter debris and disorder on the journey to possible safety with Hiroko near the Southern ice cap, the going get slow, and dangerous, and near interminable. During this epic voyage Frank Chalmers is killed, but Ann, depressed in the thought that her son Peter died in the collapse of the space elevator also has a revelation while the survivors eat dinner in the rover.

“It came to her that the pleasure and stability of dining rooms had always occurred against such a backdrop, against the catastrophic background of universal chaos; such moments of calm were things as fragile and transitory as soap bubbles, destined to burst almost as soon as they blew into existence. Groups of friends, rooms, streets, years, none of them would last. The illusion of stability was created by a concerted effort to ignore the chaos they were embedded in. And so they ate, and talked, and enjoyed each other’s company; this was the way it had been in the caves, on the Savannah, in the tenements and the trenches and the cities huddling under bombardment.”

They make it to Hiroko’s after near disaster for them all. Peter is there. The face of Mars has been transformed astoundingly since they arrived, further than Sax’s wildest dreams. At the end of this world bending chronicle, they are poised to once again rebuild their lives in an alien environment. There are two more books to come.

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Albert Hirschman Reviewed – “The Passions and the Interests”

In The Passions and the Interests, Albert Hirschman asks how the idea of capitalism won in a world where “commercial banking, and similar money-making pursuits…[had] stood condemned or despised as greed, love of lucre, and avarice for centuries past.”

The story he tells is one of an evolution of ideas, not new ones cut whole out of cloth or the replacement of a previous form in a single stroke. It is also a story of the euphemization of a rising economic system which sought to hide its worst aspects.

Hirschman begins his chronology of the idea by identifying it as “an endogenous process…whose final outcome is necessarily hidden from the proponents of the individual links.”

He takes us through a succession of thinkers, from Machiavelli to Spinoza, Mandeville to Smith, tracing the progression of the valorization of “the interests” as a vice that could be channelled for moral good. Just as a lust for glory on the battlefield could be transformed into honorable combat for one’s country, so too could the love of lucre be turned to beneficial aims.

This idea is omnipresent now, and widely accepted. The logic of capitalism, or so its defenders say, is that people are naturally selfish and greedy, and that can’t be changed. If the aim is to serve the common good this system of personal enterprise motorised by greed would seem to be a poor one for bringing about that good. But through that strange alchemy that Adam Smith would eventually call the invisible hand of the market, these forces actually could serve the common good.

How did these vices become accepted then? It coincided with a changing perception of state repression as the sole point of control in human society, as well as “the political consequences of economic growth”; in short, with the rise of commerce.

Thinkers like Montesquieu and Steuart became convinced of the moderating effects of trade on the despotic urges of the absolute rulers of their time. The focus here then, was not on the material impacts of commerce, but the changes it would effect in the behavior of rulers. Hirschman spends a bit of time treating of Machiavelli’s exploration of the subject, and there are some noteworthy details here. Among those that the idea of the interests overcoming the passions was first developed in the realm of politics, with the concept of checks & balances being one of the products and lineage of this line of thinking.

The exploration of the concept outside of politics was also exceedingly common.

“The idea of engineering social progress by cleverly setting up one passion to fight another became a fairly common intellectual pastime in the course of the eighteenth century” writes Hirschman. And “the comparatively novel thought of checks and balances gained in persuasiveness by being presented as an application of the widely accepted and thoroughly familiar principle of countervailing passion.”

Central to Hirschman’s exploration of these ideas, because this is a history of ideas, is a sort of inverse of the law of unintended consequences. Hirschman is equally fascinated by what didn’t happen and what was supposed to.

Making clear that “unintended consequences flow from human thought…no less than from human actions,” he identifies the practical result of the changing discourse around greed and the interests: “Once money-making wore the label of ‘interests,’ and reentered in this disguise the competition with the other passions, it was suddenly acclaimed and even given the task of holding back those passions that had long been thought much less reprehensible.”

This is the process of euphemization that I mentioned at the start, and Hirschman lucidly identifies it as one of the consequences of the debate around the newly emergent capitalism.

It holds an interesting parallel to the changing nature of the direction of acquisitive desires, from land and luxury goods to that of money, and how the transition motivated ever greater desires for money. Hirschman frames it through the concept of the law of decreasing marginal utility formulated by the German sociologist Georg Simmel. Hirschman describes that law like this: “Normally, he [Simmel] said, the fulfillment of human desire means an intimate acquaintance with all the diverse facets of the desired object or experience, and this acquaintance is responsible for the well-known dissonance between desire and fulfilment, which takes most frequently the form of disappointment; but the desire for any given amount of money once satisfied, is uniquely immune to this disappointment provided that money is not spent on things but that its accumulation becomes an end in itself: for then ‘as a thing absolutely devoid of quality, [money] cannot hide either surprise or disappointment as does any object, however miserable.’”

Money, then, had become a euphemism for the unrealized treasures that the industrious capitalist was capable of possessing. Part of this process intersects with the broader development of commerce, spurred onwards and made necessary by the conquest of the New World and other colonizations alongside it, with the faraway markets these adventures opened up. These long journeys over great distances needed legal instruments for their facilitation, and thus the bill of exchange was created. Montesquieu called this “an event in the history of commerce comparable to the discovery of the compass and of America.” With it there were “no limits to the expansion of commerce other than those of the globe itself.”

Here again, was a vivid representation of the process of euphemism that the infancy of capitalism created. A bill of exchange was an instrument of credit, and represented what Montesquieu called effets mobiliers, or movable property.

So, with the intellectual underpinnings of a movement that sought to bridle the excesses of despotism flourishing, and the legal framework of the thought coming into formation, this new politico-economic thought was coming into its fore. John Millar, a member of the Scottish Enlightenment then, “believe[d] it likely that…advances [in manufacturing and agriculture] will not be accompanied by the very great inequalities of fortune that were characteristic of the prior age, but by ‘such gradation of opulence, as leaving no chasm from top to bottom of the scale.’”

In a world where in the United States three men now own more wealth than the bottom half of the population, 163 million people, that Millar’s prediction has not come true is not a point that needs to be labored.

It was ultimately experience that shattered the nostrums of this high-minded thought that sought to justify the rapacious and expansionary instincts of the ascendant capital class. Alexander de Tocqueville identified some of these flaws as early as 1835, in his Democracy in America, which are acutely relevant today. Hirschman highlights Tocqueville’s observation that “if the citizens become absorbed by the pursuits of their private interests, it will be possible for a ‘clever and ambitious man to seize power.’” Perhaps Tocqueville was incorrect in maintaining that that man need be “clever,” but he is also remarkably prescient in identifying the danger of the discourse of “law and order,” expressed largely as being necessary for a “favorable business climate.” Writes Tocqueville: “A nation that demands from its government nothing but the maintenance of order is already a slave in the bottom of his heart; it is the slave of its well-being, and the man who is to chain it can arrive on the scene.”

Hirschman cites the Scottish philosopher and historian Adam Ferguson alongside Tocqueville in making an adjacent point about the effects of the pursuit of interests on the prospects for civic organisation. When “social arrangements that substitute the interests for the passions as the guiding principle of human action for the many [take hold, they] can have the side effect of killing the civic spirit and of thereby opening the door to tyranny.”

Hirschman acknowledges and accepts the lessons learned from the experience of the implementation of a system born from the minds and pens of the thinkers whose thought he lays out: “The idea that men pursuing their interests would be forever harmless was decisively given up only when the reality of capitalist development was in full view.” And in summing this up he makes the edifying point that perhaps the “failures” of capitalism were nothing such. Because the express goal was the taming of the passions, he calls the accusation that “capitalism…inhibits the development of ‘the full human personality’…a bit unfair, for capitalism was precisely expected to repress certain drives and proclivities and to fashion a less multifaceted, less unpredictable, and more ‘one-dimensional’ human personality…in sum, capitalism was supposed to accomplish exactly what was soon to be denounced as its worst feature.”

The greatest contribution of this book then, outside of being a fascinating and engaging exploration of the ideas that created the modern economic world, is its demolishing of the tacit dimension of capitalism. That ‘tacit dimension’ is the “propositions and opinions shared by a group and so obvious to it that they are never fully or systematically articulated.” Hirschman has articulated these ideas fully and systematically, and provided a perhaps unintentional road map for those who seek an alternative to the ruling propositions and opinions. There is only ever “no alternative” because of an absence of will in creating one. As Hirschman illustrates, it has been done before. And it will it be done again.

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Good God a Wonderful Philip Roth Novel

My Life as a Man Philip Roth

When Peter Tarnopol learns that Maureen has died, he is convinced that it’s another plot of hers, a set-up to get him to react callously, and so recorded in his coldness that the alimony judge will slap him with ever greater support obligations, and that he will never never be able to extricate himself from this hell Maureen has created for the two of them.

For the two of them, I say, but this torment does not begin or end with her, though Peter Tarnopol is uniquely wracked by it. My Life as a Man is dominated by the Herculean struggle of this evil little relationship.

Tarnopol is a good Jewish boy from Yonkers, raised right by his father, with the hours in the storeroom, the well provided for upbringing with its attendant unobserved ups and downs in fortune by the stolid Jewish father who loves, loves his boy, and this boy is brilliant enough and devoted to the Word (of literature, not religion) to earn himself a promising future as a brilliant young man of letters, with the early publication of a novel (it is titled A Jewish Father).

But he gets trapped with Maureen, a woman four years his senior, 29 at first, and she is mad, nutso, just out of it and she traps him. They scream and shout at one another and Tarnopol is not living life as a man, he is emasculated, and throughout the whole sorry narrative, even after Maureen’s death, which ends the novel differently from how it was presented earlier, has he ever even become a man?

Throughout the book he cries and he sobs and he unleashes torrents of thoughts and words and digressions and ruminations upon the reader and his psychiatrist Dr. Spielvogel, but it’s never clarified so clearly as it is in the two short stories that front the text.

We jump into them unaware that they aren’t the main narrative, and they tell a similar sort of story. The first of an industrious young Jewish boy from a good family with a good mind, who eventually meets a hot Jewish girl by the name of Sharon Shatsky, three years his junior and we are treated to Rothian descriptions of carnality and obscenity that are both entertaining and appealing. Memorably, Shatsky strips for this Nathan Zuckerman and penetrates herself with a cucumber, along with a litany of other torrid sex acts performed in very near view of their happy parents oblivious to the buggering and jamming and slamming going on near them.

This Zuckerman story is followed by a more subdued and solemn tale with a character that more closely resembles the Maureen that follows in the next two hundred pages. This Zuckerman falls for Lydia, an older woman in the creative writing course he teaches, a woman who has been through terrible travail in her life. She was raped (the word used to describe it here is ‘seduction’) by her father as a child, and Zuckerman is attracted to her writing and her, and tries to bring her to orgasm despite her dessicated genitals and her insecure disbelief in his attraction to her.

Maureen too comes from a harder background, one husband a woman beating brute and the other an actor homosexual (the book from 1970 of course so this, the horror and shame!). And she will not let Peter Tarnopol out of her grasp long after their hate has burned high and hard and desperately terribly like a bonfire of, not vanities no, but jealousies and grudges and sheer raving madness!

She tricks him into marriage through a faked pregnancy that she falsely verifies for Tarnopol by buying urine from a pregnant woman. And she forces him too by threatening to kill herself if he leaves. And she is petty and terribly jealous and distrustful of Tarnopol in any of the classes he teaches, of the girls oh the girls! The luscious undergrads who Tarnopol is just bursting with desire to seduce. And then he does of course, miserable and degraded by Maureen.

Does Tarnopol’s perspective blind us to some goodness in Maureen? Is she treated unfairly? Perhaps, but there’s no textual evidence to indicate this to the reader at all. She comes off unbearably vindictive and possessive. She will not allow a divorce, she is desperate to possess him always and forever. Why, she loves him but it’s a wild acquisitory love that will not let him, or her, escape from the toxic sludge that the husband and wife are bathing in.

During Tarnopol’s separation from Maureen, there is also Susan, a kind gentle lover of his, with a similarly broken past, a widow who inherited $2 million after a plane crash claims her young husband, and a timid girl who Peter boosts up and seems to enjoy. The narrative jumps around of course, and the Peter who is writing this account is a Peter who is no longer with Susan. She too attempted suicide after he left her, before trying to win him back broken in a white bikini. He left her because he knew she wanted children and to marry, things that he doesn’t want, and so he does not want to make her unhappy.

This is a Philip Roth novel, of course it is brilliant. The refracted frenetic prose brimming with introspection and thought upon thought upon thought creates an accretion of lively inquiry. The emotional content is compelling, the melodrama that Tarnopol ironically is aware of in his life of literary pretensions is impeccably presented. There is a sort of driving quality which is present in so much of Roth’s early work, oars pulling against the water and the slaves rowing propelling the novel forward forward forward to a buzzing conclusion.

The sexual detail is inventive and funny, the dialogue real, the people all too very real, the rendering of the divorce proceedings granular but rapid.

Roth makes it look so easy but to think, really think like his characters do is a remarkable achievement. They are so vibrantly cerebral that as you read the words your brain pulses with the sensation of the introspection, as if this first person rendering you are reading is actually the thoughts racing through your own brain.

The act of writing the book for Tarnopol means something about his terrible relationship, which with the immediacy with which it’s presented means that he has neither forgotten it nor let it go. It is a terrible terrible relationship, the type of setup that haunts every thinking or trying to love person like a nightmare. The most terrifying part is how completely its characters are trapped in it, however much they know and however early on that they are completely and utterly within its malignant grasp.

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Tim Snyder Reviewed – “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century”

“What is patriotism?” asks Timothy Snyder in the penultimate chapter of his slim book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. To begin his definition Mr. Snyder lists what he considers is not, and in doing so defines his politics more lucidly than an affirmative definition could.

His list of un-patriotisms begins with calling it not patriotic “to dodge the draft and mock war heroes and their families.”

Is this really true though? On mocking war heroes he is undoubtedly referring to the affair of Humayun Khan, the U.S. Army Captain who died in Iraq in 2004, and his father Khzir and mother Ghazala’s appearance at last year’s Democratic National Convention, as well as Donald Trump’s comments on John McCain rejecting that the Senator is a war hero. The Khans and McCain are more linked than just being on the receiving end of the president’s abuse. Khzir Khan told CNN last year that McCain was Humayun’s hero, and that he had sent his son McCain’s 2004 book Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life while Humayun was deployed.

I don’t know much about the Khan’s politics aside from their admiration for McCain, though it does at least feel wrong to mock the parents of a dead soldier, whatever one’s opinion of that soldier or their actions. I can feel human sympathy for Carryn Owens, the widow of the Navy SEAL who died in the Yemen raid that killed 10 children younger than 13, and six women, despite my rejection of the fetishization and celebration of the murderous soldiers that that grotesquely revered branch of the armed forces is often composed of.

So I can understand the visceral emotion Snyder expresses in his rejection of Trump’s treatment of those parents. But even ceding Snyder’s point in the case of the Khans leaves a few questions. Why is it not patriotic to dodge the draft? I s McCain really a war hero? And if he is, why does it matter?

The first question is easily resolved for me. If Trump’s “reasonable” generals plunge us into war with Iran and institute a draft, will it be unpatriotic to dodge that draft? Snyder’s standard would seem to hold that it would be.

McCain’s heroism is certainly not without dispute. He made propaganda films for the Vietcong while imprisoned, something utterly inconsequential for me but apparently deadly important to those who are in the business of bestowing the sobriquet “war hero” on those they consider worthy (and who often near unfailingly share their political leanings).

When I ask myself whether or not being a war hero “matters,” I’m asking myself a question about what I value. Those who place great importance on war heroes often view the United States as a unique nation which has carried out a liberatory mission throughout the course of its history. This flies in the face of the truth that I know, that the United States is the latest and most powerful iteration of Empire, an empire that has always had as its goal the preservation and protection of capital. Smedly Butler came to this realization after a highly decorated career in the military, and his testimony is one of the most cutting and lucid we have of a soldier who realizes how he has been used.

However they have been used there are undoubtedly brave soldiers, and even though they often fight for a cause I reject they also often display valor and courage under fire. When the guns start firing ideology can quickly take a back seat to self preservation and care for one’s comrades in arms. The problem then, of the appellation “war hero” is that it’s a political designation, granted mostly to conservative figures who have furthered the interests of capital. When Snyder asks us to respect war heroes, he isn’t really talking about honoring the individual accomplishments of brave men; he is demanding our subservience to the values of the state they committed them for. Like many defenders of the creed of centrism, he tries to wrap us into a political act by painting it as a neutral admiration demanded of all good citizens.

In another section of the book Snyder correctly advises to “make sure you and your family have passports.”

He calls having a passport “liberating.” So why does he demand of my patriotism to include submitting to a draft I will undoubtedly not agree with? The implication too is that those who fled to Canada to avoid the draft which Trump elided were not patriotic. The critique of Trump as draft-dodger is valid insofar as it highlights his hypocrisy in demanding a sacrifice he himself would not make. Snyder’s point feels different in his book, that we should be outraged not because of his hypocrisy but because resisting conscription is immoral. Should those objectors have carried guns into battle in a war they, and I, find wrong? Snyder addresses this point more to my satisfaction in his rebuttal to those who would avoid a passport in service of dying to defend “freedom” in America.

“These are fine words,” he writes, “but they miss an important point. The fight will be a long one.”

Indeed it will, and Snyder’s “patriotic” imprecations do not help us to do the hard work and maintain the maintain the stamina necessary to wage that fight. When a movement opens itself to charges of insufficient patriotism, it can descend into bathos in an attempt to prove its authenticity on that front to its enemies.

Treating of McCain is important too. There has been a liberal trend to canonize reactionary Republicans like McCain and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham over the past year, and it reached its nadir not long after Donald Trump’s inauguration. It was then that it exhibited perhaps its most perverse expression, in the effusive praise for war criminal George W. Bush’s aw-shucks routine. Not only were Bush’s rounds mendacious (no, the 43rd president does not give a damn about a free and independent press, nor does he consider it indispensable ), but they were also cowardly. The 70 year old charmer toured behind the shield of veterans with PTSD and blown off limbs, the victims and perpetrators of his bloodthirsty foreign policy.

Bush’s tepid criticisms, delivered with the necessary false agony of the Serious Guy about “speaking out” had the centrist “resistance” pining for the reappearance on the scene of this war-mongering expropriator. But this isn’t a surprise. Centrism as a political philosophy seeks to maintain nothing but the status quo, which today is the neoliberal imperialist order, a variation on the old theme that is capitalism. It sounds a little sweeter, sure, but it’s the same melody.

“The danger we now face is of a passage from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity, from a naive and flawed sort of democratic republic to a confused and cynical sort of oligarchy,” writes Snyder. Has he, this historian, lost his sense of history? Snyder says repeatedly how important an awareness of history is, but seems to view the developments of the past year as something new.

The difference is only qualitative.

The Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision is half a decade old; there is your cynicism. The concentration of wealth among the top 1/10th of the richest 1 percent of America is unparalleled in the nation’s history; there is your oligarchy. Of course none of this is new and these things were not even the first symptoms of the Situation Now™, they are only the most recent developments and those which are keenly visible today.

I have read some of Snyder’s essays, and he is a talented historian, but he seems blind to what has been wrought in the recent past. He rightly tells us that we teeter at the brink of a ledge over something which is sinisterly different. What he misses though is that to recover we not only have to take a firm step back, but we also must climb back the ledges we have already fallen from. Otherwise we only defer the final push to a more effective manipulator.

Snyder is a proponent of “resistance.” But resistance means only to stay in place against an advancing tide. It’s impossible to stand unarmed while a wave of concrete rushes towards you and expect not to be shattered. The only way to combat the coming threat is to acknowledge the present one, and to meet both head on and push back. There can be no half measures. Socialism or barbarism has completed its transformation from the comforting bedtime lullaby of the left to a reflection of the facts on the ground.

The task of the Left is to build far from the shore. The tempting analogy for a writer to make is to build this new project on the margins, but that should not be its promise. To avoid the necessity of these twenty actions, which range from the profound to the pathetic, it is required to build on solid ground: we must move inland, charting a course to the mainstream.

“For resistance to succeed, two boundaries must be crossed,” begins the most unlucky 13th lesson. “First, ideas about change must engage people of various backgrounds who do not agree about everything. Second, people must find themselves in places that are not their homes, and among groups who were not previously their friends. Protest can be organized through social media, but nothing is real that does not end in the streets. If tyrants feel no consequences for their actions in the three-dimensional world, nothing will change.”

This is certainly practical and useful, and for a certain audience no doubt a message that needs to be imparted. But what is the change Snyder wants? The deepest flaw of the book is its failure to articulate the world that we should be fighting for. There are brief sketches of a sort of liberal democracy, a reversion to the status quo. But that will leave the situation once again unconfronted; not only is that status quo inhuman and cruel, but the tyranny Snyder warns against will only reappear like the tides.

So how?

Protests are tremendously important, and Snyder is right to advocate that they must be where the government is. I was at the Navy Memorial on January 20th waiting for delayed hours while in the distance black smoke curled up from a burning limousine, and I joined in on the prolonged boo that greeted the newly-minted president as his own motorcade drove by. I saw his scowl looking out on the jeers, and know that anyone who has heard that unrelenting “boo,” more powerful than any chant or insult, a primal sound of dissatisfaction and rejection, can understand the utility of a protest. That sound is the answer to anyone who questions protest’s motivational utility.

But protest is not enough. Snyder is blinded by his allegiance to existing institutions, thinking that if we can just defend them fervently enough they can deliver us salvation. But this is clearly illogical; if our institutions were sufficient we would not be in the situation we find ourselves in now. They are not good enough, and now that we’ve identified the approaching tsunami we can no longer content ourselves with sandbags.

Only by building stronger, democratic, anti-capitalist institutions that we are genuinely a part of can we have a civil society that can defend us. Snyder talks about the importance of civil society, and civil society is important. But for civil society to do its job it has to flow from the people. So much of what is called civil society now is corporate funded, it’s astroturfed, it’s nothing but capital running cover. Civil society will only defend us when we are civil society, and if we demand that our interests are the ones it protects. When we have a civil society whose motive is not profit, that isn’t funded by the oligarchs and the banks, then Snyder’s defense of civil society will become valid.

Some of what Snyder writes is merely aggravating, general middle class liberal sentiment that just-doesn’t-get-it. Some is more shocking from a champion of liberal democracy. Snyder signals a lot of reverence for the fourth estate, with all the grandiosity that appellation implies. But in chapter 14, where he describes the importance of establishing a private life, he misses the chance to make a powerful point about the degradation of the border between what is public and what is private to take an odd swipe at reporting he deems unacceptable.

The whole setup he lays out is bizarre.

“During the campaign of 2016,” he writes, “we took a step toward totalitarianism without even noticing it by accepting as normal the violation of electronic privacy.”

He is speaking of the leaked Democratic National Committee emails, published by Wikileaks in July of 2016.

These “timed email bombs,” according to Snyder, were a “powerful form of disinformation.” He goes on to chastise journalists for not contextualizing the words and explaining why people would speak like they do in the emails, calling this “an act of falsification.”

“Meanwhile,” Snyder goes on, “in transmitting the privacy violations as news the media allowed themselves to be distracted from the actual events of the day” (italics mine).

He also calls the reporting on the emails a “mind[less] indulge[nce in] the inherently salacious interest we have in other people’s affairs.”

This insistence that the DNC’s emails are fundamentally worthless and revealed nothing valuable to us is a mainstay of the resistance, heard tendentiously in that enduring witticism “but her emails!”

Snyder’s 400 or so words here are a vaguely academic iteration of this boring refrain. He quotes Hannah Arendt, he uses the word “striking,” he tells us we are “participat[ing] in the demolition of our own political order.”

And it is clear he thinks of it as our order because it is his order. Snyder is blind to the idea that the current political order is not worth protecting. But like every protector of an order, he berates those who would reveal the real malevolence of that order.

He even uses as a criticism of reporting on the emails the alleged propriety of fashion and sports reporters, well known paragons of moral virtue.

“It is striking,” he writes between parenthesis, “that news media are worse at this [in his eyes, the revelation of the confidential becoming the story (and, I have to ask, why doesn’t Snyder consider this revelation newsworthy?)] than, say, fashion or sports reporters?” Say, of course, as if we are sitting in a cafe and just happen to use the first examples that come to mind as reference. “Fashion reporters know that models are taking off their clothes in the changing rooms, and sports reporters know that athletes shower in the locker room, but neither allow private matters to supplant the public story they are supposed to be covering.”

Snyder here frames the revelations in the emails as a “private matter.” At another point in the book Snyder emphasizes how despots and dictators take efforts to circumscribe discussion and shield themselves from investigation. Naturally this isn’t a favorable illustration that he draws, yet it is exactly the sort of behavior he defends in making this bizarre comparison.

Details of models changing and athletes showering are not in the public interest; that is why fashion and sports reporters don’t highlight them. The inside baseball of politics though, does meet that criteria. Not only did the emails reflect poorly on the character of those involved (who, after all, under a Clinton Administration would have actual power as likely White House appointees), but in the uncovering of things like Clinton’s public position/private position statement gave voters a clue to how far her promises should be trusted. And if a runway model or a second baseman for the Oakland Athletics is in line for a cabinet level position, and they are holding meetings on the policy they’re going to make in locker or changing rooms, I would urge a sports, fashion, political, in fact any type of reporter, to report on what’s going on behind those doors if they can.

The exception Snyder provides here explicitly reminds one of Trump’s defense of his “pussy-grabbing” comments as “locker room talk.”

The real policy of candidates for the presidency is dubbed by Snyder the supplantation of the public story by private matters.

And this contradicts his 5th lesson, which instructs us to “remember our professional ethics” in the face of demands upon them. A reporter reporting on a story is doing that. Snyder and those deathly concerned about propriety and good form (the ne plus ultra of liberal priorities) would exempt reporting on private matters obtained from a source that possibly has ulterior motives from the duty of journalists. But if reporters only wrote stories based on leaks from those exposing wrongdoing out of a sense of virtue, they would hardly find any stories to write. As long as the information being reported on is factual (and in this case it most definitely is), there is no reason to not report it.

This whole line of thought that Snyder espouses is typical of the political current he aligns himself with. Though his 11th lesson urges us to support investigative journalism and above that to ourselves investigate, it seems that his real view on the subject is not pure as the driven snow (as I might write with a straight face if my name were Keith Olbermann). He picks and chooses just like anyone else. Congressman Mike Pompeo links to Wikileaks, while CIA Director Pompeo calls them a criminal organization. Historian Timothy Snyder similarly is contradictory on the subject of journalism, though for him it is because he does not consider Wikileaks to be a legitimate journalistic outlet. Thus he valorizes journalists throughout, but the only journalism in this book that he treats of at length (though he does not name it) he bashes, and in terms that cast its effects as those which lead to Fascism.

The left critique of the liberal instinct is important, I think, and those who consider themselves left-liberal often mistake in good faith the arguments that the left puts forward. They talk about “circular firing squads,” evoking the image of Stalinist terror, or “purity tests,” which raises the malevolent specter of Nazi racial science. But the objective of such a left critique is to show the precarious situation so many are truly in. Snyder’s 20 points don’t meet this criteria. It’s powerfully true that the greatest sin from a liberal perspective is that of poor form. A slide into tyranny and fascism then becomes undesirable not because of the great material destruction it visits upon its victims, but because it is a grotesque and vulgar management style. Capitalism must be maintained, the thinking goes, but in style!

In the combat against tyranny and fascism, those with a liberal worldview are useful to ally with, not to follow, and only because those with that worldview are sometimes more capable of listening to the arguments of the left.

Yes, tyranny is on the march. Yes, a grotesque spectre is haunting the world. That spectre is capitalism; tyranny and fascism are only its familiars. To defeat tyranny and the fascism it brings, without forever banishing capitalism, only leaves us vulnerable for another day, and more steps down the path to oblivion.

Posted in Book Reviews, Fascism, Non-Fiction, Trump, U.S. Politics | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

I Will Never Read A Bad Book Again

The First Deadly Sin – Lawrence Sanders

Being recommended a book is always a risky proposition. Add being given a book to read and you’re in even worse shape. You could always pretend to have read the book, but why not just read it? I can’t be a snob, I’ve read and enjoyed Star Wars novels.

Recently I was given a copy of Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers, and found myself devouring it. I was turned on to how good Burgess is, the mix of high humor and feeling that he doesn’t alternate between but instead combines. Reading Burgess reminded me of Roth; literary, referential, with a compelling plot and an abundance of insight provided by sentences so perfect you think that they can’t be topped until they are on the next page, and repeatedly.

These are two writers of literature. The book that I ‘m writing about here was authored by someone very far from producing something that could be properly called that, though not for lack of trying.

The First Deadly Sin is an old detective novel published in 1973. Its plot is broadly formulaic, which isn’t a criticism. Its plot is boring and goes nowhere, which is. It follows Police Captain Edward X. Delaney, and never misses a chances to confidently declare that middle initial between the first and last names.

Delaney is a cop, been so all his life. There’s things that people who aren’t cops just don’t understand, like a former torture chamber in his old precinct building that produces a wry smile on his face. Another hallmark of the captain’s technique is ruminating constantly on the probable homosexuality of the serial killer he’s pursuing. Yes, this is a grim chase-him-down indeed. The city (New York) is crumbling and it’s brave and grave Edward X. Delaney who has to clean up the disorder, which he hates.

The killer is Daniel Blank, a successful business executive at Javis-Bircham, a publishing company. He’s in charge of the computer system there that runs circulation, etc. When Delaney finds out about this we’re treated to a thrilling rumination about how all the nerds end up being serial killers.

The book is full of these: deep ponderous thinks from the two characters who Sanders switches back and forth between. There’s Delaney expounding endlessly on how much of a CopTM he is, and how much nobody who isn’t one can get it. And there’s Blank off in a haze of clichéd serial killer traits. His internal monologue blabs about how much he loves his victims, he has ritualistic sex with his tediously profound girlfriend Celia Montfort, he wears ladies underpants and he is aloof and above the world always, searching for higher meaning, the greatest expression of which is his murders.

A genre book with a good plot but little to say can never be faulted. A compelling mystery, intriguing investigation, and thrilling action is always appreciated. This book has none of that though, and stretches itself out over 566 pages filling in the gaps of a dry plot with the philosophical meanderings of these dilettantes.

Blank kills his victims with an ice axe, he’s a mountain climber, and for hundreds of pages Delaney tracks down this connection while encountering the most mundane cut from cardboard characters that populate this dirty dirty city. At the same time his wife Barbara is dying from a strange disease, and he’s tormented about this. Well, sort of. Not enough to refuse the assignment from a faction within the police department to semi-officially track down the killer, and not enough for Sanders to treat the dying wife as anything other than a foil for Delaney’s contrived world weariness. Why does a faction have to recruit him in the first place? Some sort of inside baseball, a secret society within the city government that they don’t want to look good and get any credit for solving the murder. It’s never really explained and Delaney hardly asks, he doesn’t get caught up in stuff like that. He’s just a simple, hard-boiled cop.

All this grittiness is accomplished with a lot of “fucks” “shits” and “assholes,” as well as the constant consumption of rye highballs and beers, a profusion of farts belches and shits, and gratuitous descriptions of Daniel Blank’s sexual encounters, which somehow still manage to feel euphemistic.

Celia Montfort has a twelve year old brother called Tony who Blank rapes, Delaney dismisses speculation on this by calling the child a “little fag,” something they shouldn’t be concerned about. A newspaper reporter in the Captain’s good graces called Thomas Handry whines about other journalists calling the police “fascists,” and Delaney reminisces fondly about beatings meted out to petty criminals. Not only is the writing in this book dreadful and the plot painfully boring, but the worldview it espouses studiously reactionary and artificially cynical.

Blank is eventually apprehended just before the New Year, chased up to Chilton, across the Tappan Zee bridge and up to the top of a rock called Devil’s Needle, accessible only by a rock chimney which he’s climbed many times before. He’s fled after killing Celia, and is pursued by Captain Edward X. Delaney. They starve him out on the top of the peak where he accepts death from the elements rather than coming down, but not before we’re treated to a cornpone local lawman who talks likes he’s from an episode of the Dukes of Hazzard. Delaney “appreciates” him, and considers sin, life, being a cop, the night sky, being a cop, crime, God, and being a cop for forty more pages until Sanders finally fizzles it all out by having the Captain shout at a cop for being queasy about having to retrieve the body. A brisk epilogue wraps everything up with a laundry list of what happened to every minor and major character, and mercifully the book is over.

I may have been so repulsed by this book because I read it directly after reading Earthly Powers. That book is such a high expression of everything amazing that literature can accomplish that reading The First Deadly Sin after it is akin to eating dirt after a bowl of strawberry ice cream.

But it’s not just that. There exists a strain of literature that I don’t usually engage with, and this book is an example of it. Poorly written, intellectually grasping, and with a moral idiocy that’s founded on the received mores of a reactionary society. There are millions of these books out there, and I won’t give a single one of them a chance again. There’s too much genius out there, and too little time.

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Against Prevarication

There are going to be a plethora of these pieces published this morning, after the rest of the country wakes, after the genteel liberals hem and haw in their shock, woken from their slumber by the bright light of tiki torches cutting through the sky.  Of course this began a long time ago, this has always been with us, but perhaps now is the right moment to peel open the long dormant eyes of those who pretend not to see.

500 fascists marched through the night in Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the University of Virginia.  These pusillanimous slugs march here in the summer when students are out of class because they know that they would get torn to ribbons if they tried a show of force while school was in session.  Charlottesville is a city with a black population of 19%.  The purpose of this march is to sow terror, to make a mark, and to attempt a ecumenism among the splintered and often feuding sects of the American Neo Nazi movement.

The stated aim and name of the demonstration is “Unite the Right.”  By the right they mean the hard line fascist, white supremacist, male led (no women in the movement were permitted to carry torches), antisemitic movement that is populated often by career criminals, murderers and child molesters.  One of the scheduled speakers at the demonstrations coming up this weekend is Tim Gionet, who was filmed last month trying to pick up a thirteen year old girl at comic con. Austin Gillespie (who legally changed his name to Augustus Invictus), a former member of the Florida Libertarian party and current member of the Republican Party, was accused by his former girlfriend of, among other things, domestic violence and sexual assault.  A book of his under the pseudonym Franco A. Saint-Fond included descriptions of raping a 14 year old girl in Mexico.  The book, self-published on Amazon, is listed under Biography & Memoirs.

These examples only touch on the depravity of the speakers list.  In addition to these at best distasteful behaviors from the heritage and tradition gang, the rally will count among its attendance the National Socialist Movement, as well as speaker Jason Kessler’s myrmidon motorcycle gang muscle the Warlocks.  These two groups have been variously involved in murders, molestation, and drug dealing.

Will Kessler or Richard Spencer rage against the “degeneracy” of those within their ranks?  Richard Spencer himself is a rentier parasite, scion of a southern family which extracts its wealth from inherited farm land and benefits from federal farm subsidies in Louisiana.  Has he ever worked a day in his life for the ill-fitting suits he flounces around in?  Mark my words that he will.  There will come a day when the wealth he expropriates and the land the he exploits will return to the hands of those who work it.  His perverse pseudo-academic stylings coined the propaganda phrase “alt-right.”  Reject this word.  These men are fascists, rotten to their core.  I saw Facebook dubbing the marchers “far-right” in its headlines.  The New York Times used the honorific “white nationalist” to describe these fascist thugs, these white supremacists strutting and sweating in the dark under the paternal watch of the police and the national guard.

The rally tonight was un-permitted, but that did not prevent the police from treating the baying crowd with kid gloves; only one of their number was arrested, and the police largely did not intervene in the attacks on the small numbers of counter protesters who had the guts to stand in a circle around the statue of Robert E. Lee these forces of reaction are pretending to be protecting.  These august defenders of the first amendment also repeatedly attacked journalists, like those from Unicorn Riot.

Here is the reality.  These people will have to be ground into dust.  When they try to further their gleichschaltung by chanting “Blood & Soil” they should be introduced to those very two things.  The order in wish to do so is up to you.

Noogie these people.  These peabrained dimbulbs are all but dead.  Even still, push the death rattle back down their oleaginous throats, deny them unceasingly.  Give them no safe quarter.  When you see them spit in their eye.  These are fascists, they’ve marked themselves irrevocably so for quite some time.  Let this be the final branding, and don’t let them ever remove it with a skin graft.  Goodbye Volk, Goodbye fatboy Heimbach, Smoothbrain Spencer, Goodbye you pack of pedophiles, pill addicts, you festering swine.  Goodnight!  Sleep tight!  Not ready?

A bloo bloo bloo.

Posted in Fascism, U.S. Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments