Thursday, January 31, 2013

State of the Union

The annual address to Congress and the nation seems to be coming a little late this year, February 12.  I guess there just wasn't enough room on the busy House schedule to fit the President in during the month of January.

President Obama is riding a wave of popularity at the start of the year.  Washington Post has him with a 60% favorable rating, his highest since he took office back in 2009.  He has the added advantage of an improving economy, which would appear to debunk all the gloom and doom the Republicans would have had us believe during last year's election season.  This gives him a golden opportunity to finally put to rest the Bush Doctrine that was enunciated back in his 2002 SOTU address, a.k.a. "Axis of Evil speech," and has haunted us ever since.

It is clear he will outline his proposal for new gun control legislation.  We can also expect him to deliver something in the way of a new energy proposal, since his first bill was shelved in the wake of the health care battle.  It seems he might seek some federal legislation in regard to Lesbian and Gay civil rights.  We can also expect him to present a new immigration policy, which has garnered a lot of press lately.  And, no doubt he will press the House to end the phony fiscal cliff rhetoric and raise the debt ceiling so that we can move on with business at hand.

Of course, we will hear a rebuttal.  Bobby Jindal seems to have had a remarkable comeback since his horrible rebuttal back in 2009, poised and ready to response to President Obama once again.  It seems the Republican Party is desperate for fresh faces, having made Marco Rubio the go-to guy on immigration.  We've also been hearing a lot from Rand Paul in recent weeks.  Take your pick.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Still Bill

I saw a trailer for this documentary on my WWOZ feed.  I started listening to the New Orleans radio station after the first season of Treme, and greatly enjoy the variety of music on their live streams.  Bill Withers is still around, although most people wouldn't know it by the low profile he has kept in recent years.  I suppose it wasn't necessarily a matter of choice, but one hopes that the documentary has revived interest in this great musician, who seemed to straddle the divide between R&B and Folk.  His Carnegie Hall album from 1972 sends shivers down my spine each time I listen to it.

I'm Feeling Nostalgic

There's seems to be a nostalgia for Woolworth's lunch counter these days on Facebook.  I think many people don't know the history of Woolworth's in the South, or have conveniently forgotten it.  Here's a clip from the History Channel on the sit-ins during the 60s as Blacks tried to break the color barrier and have a hot lunch.

It seems a lot of folks have been "Gumped" when it comes to contemporary American history, preferring the warm and fuzzy world of Forrest Gump to what actually happened in the early 60s.  This nostalgia takes on many forms, ranging from Whitman's famous chocolate sampler to the way conservative politicians try to reshape the way we should view this deeply divided time by resorting to homilies.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Dink's Song

On a different note, the Coen Brothers have put together a movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, that captures "Village" life in the early 60s.  It seems to presuppose the folk scene before Dylan came to dominate the scene, with the lead character loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, whose posthumous book, The Mayor of Macdougal Street served as inspiration for the Coens.

Joel Coen jokingly compares his movie to Les Miserables, as the film is built around full length folk songs that were common at the time, but rather than rush the movie to theaters before the Oscar nominations, it seems the Coens were content to let the film build up some buzz this Spring with a clever trailer, before premiering it in Cannes in May.  The first screening seemed to be a hit with Elijah Wald, who helped Van Ronk compile his memoirs, but he cautions not to read too much of Van Ronk into the title character.

Here's Van Ronk singing Dink's Song.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Lincoln and Dixie

Two new books supposedly shed new light on old subjects: Lincoln as the great emancipator and the death of Dixie.  The first book, Freedom National, I already touched on in the previous post.  This book puts the argument that the Civil War was fought over slavery front and center.  As Howell Raines noted in his Washington Post review, James Oakes argues that from the moment Lincoln assumed office, he sought every political and military means to end slavery as we know it.  Marx may have said that Lincoln never made a move until he had the will of the people behind him, but in Oakes' view Lincoln wanted a lasting Constitutional solution to the problem, not an executive order that could easily be overturned by a succeeding administration.

Oakes makes the argument that emancipation was a process, not a means to an end.  He argues that the Emancipation Proclamation wasn't simply a means to keep the European nations out of the Civil War, as some historians have argued, but a proclamation that could only come after the United States had secured victories on the battle field, as other historians have argued.

It seems that Oakes covers similar ground as has Eric Foner in highlighting the actions of Benjamin Butler, who was the first Union general to institute Reconstruction in Louisiana, when he took control of New Orleans in 1862, invoking the hatred of Southerners in the process.  Foner has long argued that Reconstruction began in New Orleans during the war and spread as more Southern states fell to the Union.

Oakes, however, argues that Lincoln allowing slavery to continue in border states that had maintained their allegiance to the Union, wasn't incongruous, but rather a cold pragmatic decision to split the Southern states at the outset of the war, and make their effort at secession that much more difficult.  Of course, slavery wasn't as much a part of the culture in Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware as it was in the rest of the South, and there was strong federal feelings in all these states.

The second book, The Fall of the House of Dixie, looks more specifically out the devastation the Civil War wrought on the Southern states, but examining the slave economy and culture.  One can help but sense parallels to the present day in the way Bruce Levine describes a society controlled by a plutocracy of rich slave owners, yet accepted by most white Southerners.

Levine also argues that the presumptions this aristocratic class made that the slaves would stand by them during the war, proved to be their ultimate undoing.  These land barons had come to see themselves as a masters of their own universe, oblivious to the growing unrest during the war.  Levine argues, like Oakes, that slave interests were central to their decision to secede from the Union, and that these plantation owners  went out of their way to protect their most valued slaves by shipping them to Texas, which they considered to be out of arms way.  This forced the white underclass to essentially fate for the "negro aristockracy" as one soldier wrote in the ditches of Georgia.  By the end of the war, a third to a half of the Confederate army had deserted.

We still live with the fallout of the war today.  It took over 100 years to fully achieve emancipation at the voting booths, and in many ways the social and economic structure of the South echoes that of the antebellum days, which is why you see such nostalgia for this bygone era in places like Charleston, South Carolina and Natchez, Mississippi.  Civil War battles continue to be re-enacted and the battlefield sites are treated as hallowed ground.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

I Wish I Was in Dixie, Hooray! Hooray!

Chuck Thompson appears to have a lot of fun with the theme of his new book, Better Off Without 'Em,  He imagines a new Confederate States of America and the long term effects of secession.  Judging by the first pages, Chuck's main gripe is with the way religion has come to dominate Southern politics and in turn infect the nation.  The South is indeed the Bible Belt of America, and as one BBC pundit put it, Dallas is the buckle.  This is where you can find more megachurches with firebrand preachers per square mile than anywhere else in the country.

Touchdown Jesus,  Solid Rock Church, Ohio

But, Thompson apparently has a hard time coming to terms with Texas, which is probably the one state the United States can't do without.  I would add Florida and Virginia, but Thompson apparently has fewer problems with these states.  Of course, his views are couched as barbed wit, not meant to actually advocate secession.  He just wants it to be known that he can live without the lower eleven, as I imagine many other Americans living above the Maxon-Dixie line could as well.  It would certainly break the stranglehold the Southeastern Conference has had on the BCS championship game in college football.

With any such argument, there are some problems.  Notably, when the Southern states seceded back in late 1860 and early 1861 they didn't do so as one.  Far from it.  South Carolina was the first to secede, having threatened to do so on at least two previous occasions.  Other states reluctantly followed suit, and Virginia literally split over the issue, with West Virginia choosing to remain in the Union.  Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware also chose to remain in the Union.

The CSA was nothing more than a loose-knit confederation, with the intent of forming a protective shield against "Northern aggression."  It is highly doubtful these states would have clung together had they somehow managed to withstand the assault that followed.  After all, they believed firmly in their individual state charters and rights, believing their state constitutional rights took precedent over the US Constitution, citing Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence.

One can't help but sense a similar type of discord today like that which took place in state legislative halls and in Congress during those antebellum days as the Southern states saw their institution of slavery being threatened by such do-gooders as Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Abolitionists had risen up and taken over the Whigs, cleaving off to form the Republican Party in the 1850s, and putting forward a man, who might as well have been black, given how Southerners viewed Lincoln's ascension to the White House.  Only today, it really does seem to be about state rights.

James Oakes argues in his new book, Freedom National, that the issue of slavery was always at the forefront of Lincoln's mind, and while he may have used every carrot to keep border states like Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina in the Union, he never for one moment imagined not finding a way to end this pernicious institution.  What follows is a sublime study of how the ending of slavery was the casus belli for the Civil War and that Lincoln knew full well that the only way to end of slavery was through war powers, which Eric Foner notes (in his seminal book on Reconstruction) began when the first Southern states fell, Louisiana and Tennessee.

Ruby Bridges being escorted to school
So, where are we now?  That seems to be the question Thompson is asking.  Have the Southern states really grown more part of the Union since Reconstruction, or are they still playing the poor victimized stepchildren of the United States?  Thompson cites quite a number of statistics to show how the Southern states trail the rest of the Union in just about every economic and social yardstick, comparing the new CSA to a third world nation.  This is most visibly seen in a flawed education system that allows parents, who can afford it, to take their kids out of the public school system, allowing it to rot like a canker left over from Reconstruction days, when public education was instituted in the South.

Southern leaders' narrow minded views are couched in religious language, which appeal directly to their constituents.  Thompson doesn't seem to want to explore how much this kind of language has infected other states.  House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) can easily be seen as a reincarnation of Clement Vallandigham, and the Midwest strain of conservatism strongly resembles that of the Copperheads, which split Midwest political lines in the late 1850s and early 60s.  Of course, one can argue that this zealous language is little more than a means of gaining legislative power, and not borne of any real conviction, but then we have seen the rewriting of school syllabuses to introduce "intelligent design" in Kansas as well as Louisiana, and that textbook decisions in Texas can affect the nation as a whole.

I suppose you can only take your argument so far in 300+ pages.

The Trouble with Benghazi

The Republicans finally got their chance to call Hillary in on the mat, and what does she say, "I screwed up." If only we heard confessions like these from Bush cabinet secretaries.  Instead, all we heard for eight years was more lies and attempts at obfuscation to cover up one of the most heinous foreign policy records ever compiled by a standing president of any country.  But, the Republicans weren't going to let Hillary off that easy.  Paul Rand (channeling Donald Trump) said he would have fired her if he had been President (god forbid)!

The big show was a big let down, as Hillary pretty much took the blame for the Benghazi debacle, returning questions back at her adversaries by saying "what difference, at this point, does it make," when it was called an act of terror.  I'm sure that won't stop the Republicans from further questioning the White House response, despite McCain, Johnson and other Republican Senators missing briefings that were held specifically on the matter, and pretty much cleared up the situation beyond any reasonable doubts.  The Republicans successfully managed to undermine Susan Rice's presumed bid for Secretary of State, and have pointed questions at John Kerry on Benghazi during his confirmation hearings.

So, why all the fuss?  It seems Republicans desperately want an issue, any issue, to deflect attention away from more important matters at hand.  Benghazi is a thorn they want left in Obama's foot, despite the fact that most Americans have moved on from this issue.  One hopes with Hillary stepping down as Secretary of State, we can start once again thinking of broader foreign policy issues.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Ike's Bluff

Oliver Stone devoted a whole episode to Eisenhower, and it wasn't very complimentary.  He wanted to counter the recent spate of "I like Ike" books that have come out like this one.  Ike's "Hidden Hand' leadership has been both praised and derided by historians over the years.  Among many of Stone's and Kuznick's allegations is that the US essentially fought a proxy war in Vietnam under his watch, covering 80% of France's military expenses, and providing additional logistical support.  This was one of many proxy wars and other covert activities carried out during Eisenhower's administration.

Evan Thomas counters with the view that Eisenhower, being an excellent Bridge player, knew how to bluff at propitious moments in the Cold War, to avoid direct confrontation with the USSR, or full scale involvement in Vietnam, not wanting to repeat Korea.  His mission was to "avoid any war," says Thomas, at least directly.  This doesn't excuse him from the numerous covert activities that led to the deposing of leaders like Mossadeq in Iran, but it does put these events in the larger context of Ike's administration.  It reminds me of the foreign policy Obama has set in his administration.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Oliver Stone's America, or a Lefty's guide to American History since the Cold War

In case anyone is interested, here is the syllabus for Peter Kuznick's class on Oliver Stone's America at The American University in Washington, DC.  The focus seems to be on the role of film in history, Stone's films in particular, with Robert Toplin's Oliver Stone's USA as one of the required texts.  Other texts include Daniel Ellsberg's Secrets and Christian Appy's Working Class War.  After all the publicity generated by the Showtime series, the history department of The American University should offer this class on line.

We the People

That was quite an inauguration with a number of historic firsts in his address to the nation.  President Obama was the first president to explicitly reference gays and lesbians in an inauguration speech, noting Stonewall and equating the long struggle for equal rights with that of the Civil Rights Movement, by relating Stonewall to Seneca Falls and Selma.  He also called on a gay Hispanic poet, Richard Blanco, whose very inclusive poem of America, One Today, which echoed that of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself."

It was a very inclusive speech, repeatedly starting a passage with "We the people," as he reached out to the nation as a whole.  He also repeatedly referenced the middle class and its shrinking economic base, noting.

"our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class."

He spoke of his administration's commitment to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, dispelling the foul notion that these are somehow emblematic of a "nation of takers," and that the strength of the country rests on its ability to assure the welfare of its people.

He also promoted sustainable energy, noting "America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it."  Surprisingly enough, America still remains at the vanguard of sustainable energy with a great number of state-sponsored wind and solar farms, but Obama rightly is trying to promote a national initiative in the form of a meaningful energy bill that eluded him the first term.

The day was capped by a rousing rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by Beyonce, that had everyone smiling, especially Joe Biden.  President Obama seemed to linger at the threshold of the Capitol building, taking in the enormous crowd that had gathered on the cold day.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Surveillance State

Oliver Stone tells us that in 2011 the US spent 40 per cent of its national budget on the military, security and surveillance.  That is roughly $1.2 trillion, far exceeding the yearly average during the Bush administration.  He sees Barack Obama not as an agent of change, but rather a more effective "war president," relying on a "7000 drone armada" to police the world's air space.  The network of military bases and offshore naval fleets is now so great that virtually no country escapes US surveillance, and can be subject to US punitive strikes at any time.

It is kind of surprising that Stone would reserve his most bitter scorn not for George W. Bush, but for Barack Obama in the final episode of his Untold History of the United States.  Ollie spends roughly 20 minutes on Bush and over 30 minutes on Obama, often blurring the line between the two.  An example is the $700 billion TARP program, which was initiated under Bush, but oversaw by the Obama administration. Stone makes it sound as if this was Obama's baby from the beginning, chastising Obama for bringing so many "Rubinites" into his cabinet, because of the large Wall Street support he received during the general election.  Obama wasn't exactly repaid kindly for that magnanimous gesture judging by all the backlash from leading CEOs during the 2012 campaign, but that doesn't suit Stone's vision of post-Cold War America.

Instead, we see the same old theme play out, a presumably liberal president-elect falling under the influence of foreign policy hawks within his party and the same old corporate pyramid now "Too Big to Fail."  Stone doesn't point to one particular dark shadowy figure in the Obama administration, like he did Brzezinski during the Carter administration.  Instead, he seems to view it as a character flaw in Obama himself, "a wolf in sheep clothing."

I don't want to sound like an Obama apologist, because I too find a lot to fault in his administration, but the managed withdrawal in Iraq and the "surge" in Afghanistan were both well outlined in his election bid.  He even had a great number of multi-starred generals standing behind him in one photo op supporting his positions.  So, when Stone criticizes Obama for his troop build-up in Afghanistan (to help relieve the long-suffering NATO presence in the country) it seems Stone simply refuses to acknowledge Obama's campaign message.  Like many liberals, Stone appears to have seen Obama as a "Black Kennedy," and became bitterly disillusioned with the policies he set during his administration, notably his foreign policy, even when most of these positions had been enunciated during his campaign.

Stone sees the Obama administration as a thinly disguised version of the Bush administration, with many of the same players including Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense.  He notes that the drone attacks, torture and other forms of subversive tactics are still used, just more effectively and under an even greater shroud of secrecy.  He sees the raid on the bin Laden campaign as "vigilante justice," and the new film, Zero Dark Thirty, as a justification of this action, with the CIA actually providing information to the film's director, Kathryn Bigelow.

In Ollie's mind, Obama squandered another golden opportunity to reach out to former foes, in this case China, repeating the same mistake Truman made back in the late 40s.  This gives Stone an opportunity to present Henry Wallace one last time as someone who could have changed the course of history, if only he had been the Vice-President in 1944 and not Truman.  Instead, we embarked on an enormously costly and counter-productive Cold War, giving rise to a labyrinthine military-industrial complex that has trapped each succeeding President.

These later episodes aren't so much history as they are opinion held together by a loose conglomeration of clips, many of them from movies, with voice-overs in the case of Bush that sound like they came from Josh Brolin in Stone's movie, W, not from Bush himself.  Stone massages the text with his sleep-inducing voice as if he wants us to drift away into a semi-sleep where his message can seep into our subconscious and allow us to "remember the past, and step by step like a baby reach for the stars," with his image fading in at the end of the final segment like the Sandman himself.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Good Time Charlie

It was interesting to see Oliver Stone show a fragment from the 2007 movie, Charlie Wilson's War, to note how the US armed the Afghan mujahideen during the 1980s.  Apparently, one of the primary culprits was Charlie Wilson, who thought he was doing good to watch the movie.  But, this would ultimately become one of those snakes that would come back and bite you. 

The movie was no great shakes, but it was apparently based on a book by George Crile that came out a few years earlier.   Charlie Wilson comes across as a good ol' Texas boy in the movie, but to read his wiki bio, he seemed like a true blue Democrat.  Even though he had an unabashed taste for beautiful women, he championed equal right during the 70s.  But, unfortunately, when it came to Foreign Policy, it seems Charlie let himself be blindly led by rogue CIA operatives into regions he would have been well advised to stay out of.   Not only did he become a friend of the mujahideen, but supported thugs like Somoza in Nicaragua, which I well imagine was a deep sore point for Stone, who is an unabashed admirer of Daniel Ortega.

Judging by the bio, it seems that Tom Hanks' characterization of Wilson was PG-13 stuff.  Wilson was much more reckless, but I guess director Mike Nichols ultimately wanted to make Wilson a hero of sorts, at least someone who had his heart in the right place.

Looks like he imagined himself T.E. Lawrence in the mountains of Afghanistan, judging by the photo above.  Here's a short obituary from 2010.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The End of History, Part II

To continue the densely packed Episode 9, Ollie seems to think that the real reason for the Persian Gulf War was not so much oil, but rather to send a message to the Soviet Union that the US would remain the world’s dominant super power.  The Truman Doctrine revisited.  Stone shows us doctored photos, phony eye-witness accounts and other damning evidence that the first Bush administration built an unwarranted case against Saddam Hussein in late 1990 and carried out another illegal war (like it did in Panama a year earlier) largely to undermine the Soviet Union’s presence in the Middle East.

In Stone’s vision, Yasser Arafat didn’t recognize Israel because of pressure put on him by the United States, but rather in acquiescence to Gorbachev’s benevolent wishes.  However, a cursory look at Arafat's bold declaration in late 1988, while Reagan was still President, shows that secret negotiations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization had been going on since 1987 through PLO officials in Stockholm, leading up to Arafat's major concessions at a PLO conference in Algiers in November 1988.  Arafat would finally step forward with full acceptance of UN resolution 242, accepting Israel as a state, in Dec. 1988, well in advance of the Madrid Conference in 1991, where formal peace talks began.

Chalmers Johnson
Stone doesn't talk at all of Charles Schultz' Peace Plan Iniative, which began in early 1988, or efforts by European counties to broker talks.  He sees the Bush administration as a return to the days of Truman, focusing primarily on the two wars carried out during this time.  He seems to draw heavily from Chalmers Johnson's Blowback series, questioning the ever-growing number of American military bases around the world with the Soviet Union eroding before our eyes.   Stone delves into a little bit of the Bush family history and how this would shape Dubya’s subsequent administration after Republicans were forced to endure Clinton’s long tenure.

As Stone points out, it wasn’t like Clinton steered significantly away from the first Bush administration.  Clinton maintained a strong presence in Iraq, creating “untold” hardships on civilians.  The “peace dividends” from the end of the Cold War never materialized, as defense spending remained as high as ever.  The economy was also driven by the same forces.  It didn’t take a Republican House of Representatives to force Clinton in this direction, which Stone seems to imply.  It had been all spelled out in the 1992 general election.  If there was anything Bill learned as governor of Arkansas, it was how to work with conservatives.

Boris and Bill sharing a good joke
The Clinton administration embraced Russia and the new Eastern European countries, but rather than aid these countries in their development, Stone tells us that American advisers, notably Jeffrey Sachs and Larry Summers, sent these countries into an economic tailspin by pushing reforms these countries were ill prepared to handle.  He cites some woeful figures, such as the eroding life expectancy rates in Russia, to prove his point. 

However, what really got Ollie’s goat was Clinton’s expansion of NATO, with the addition of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 1999.  This apparently went against a verbal agreement between H.W. Bush and Gorbachev in Geneva.  As Ollie's story goes, Gorby would accept the unification of Germany, if the US did not expand NATO into Eastern Europe.  Gorby was pushing his revised dream of a Commonwealth of Independent States at the time.  Of course, Gorby was now gone and Germany unified, but what Stone fails to mention is that the Eastern European countries saw NATO as an insurance policy against any future Russian aggression, and were very amenable to NATO membership.  They weren't the least bit interested in Gorby's CIS.

Sadly, these small countries don’t really seem to factor into Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States.  I assume it is because there were no bloody civil wars with the US taking one side or the other, like there had been in Central America, which Stone went into great detail in the previous episode.  He mentions the Balkan wars only in passing, which is what led to NATO expansion in Eastern Europe.  Ollie appears to view history as a Manichean struggle between dominant powers, with the Soviet Union no longer around to challenge American hegemony.

He presents the United States as the New Rome with the century drawing to a close, replete with clips from Gladiator. This opened up a vast new landscape for the next president.  He introduces George W. Bush as Commodus, in his reference to the movie.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The End of History, Part I

In Episode 9 of Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, he cites Fukuyama’s famous declaration in 1989 that the collapse of the Soviet Union signaled the end of history as such, and the universalization of Western liberal democracy.  However, what may have appeared to be a new era of great peace soon found itself bogged down in another war. 

Oliver Stone sees the 1988 election of George H.W. Bush not so much an extension of the Reagan administration, but a new era in “triumphalism” that would continue through the Clinton administration, in which the US emerged as the world’s lone superpower intent on exerting its military and economic influence all over the world.  The opportunity had been missed to build a brand new alliance with the Soviet Union.

Stone assails H.W. Bush for not fully reaching out to Gorbachev at this time, but instead caving into neo-conservative interests that wanted to see the Soviet Union cleaved apart and made weaker.  Stone forgets to mention the great turmoil within the Soviet Union that led to its collapse in 1991.  Instead, he sees the Bush administration’s embrace of Yeltsin as a purposeful attempt to marginalize and discredit Gorbachev, who Stone cites as “one of the most visionary and transformative leaders of the 20th century.”

There are several things wrong with this premise.  First, the Soviet Union had been teetering on the edge of collapse for more than a decade.  Not once does Stone mention the Solidarity movement in Poland or bother to explore the fragmentation occurring in the country during this time.  It wasn’t just the Warsaw Pact that was splitting apart, but the Soviet Union was convulsing inside, with separatist movements throughout its vast union. 

Secondly, Stone erroneously ties the Baltic nations with the Eastern bloc nations.  The Baltics had been fully absorbed into the Soviet Union after WWII and would remain a part of the USSR for 2 more years, gaining independence in 1991, not 1989 as Stone implies in his brightly colored maps.  He also fails to note that Gorbachev used economic blackmail to hold the the Soviet Union together, cutting off natural gas and fuel supplies to the Baltics when they seceded in 1990.  Since the Baltics refused to buckle, long used to deprivations of this kind, Gorbachev commanded tanks to roll into Vilnius in January, 1991, in an attempt to crush Lithuania’s independence bid once and for all.  However, he seemed to have second thoughts.  His place in history as the great transformational figure might be lost if the uprising in Vilnius turned out to be just another Prague Spring, and so Gorbachev withdrew the tanks 3 days later.

Lastly, Gorby's vision of the new Soviet Union was of a “kinder, friendlier superpower,” just like George H.W. Bush had extolled for America during his 1988 election bid.  This is what Perestroika and Glasnost were about, only the restructuring and openness Gorby imagined was not what the suppressed republics within the Soviet Union imagined.  Gorby never for a moment imagined the fall of the USSR, and did what he could to hold it together.  It was only when the wheels began falling off, and Russia itself declared independence (led by the feisty Boris Yeltsin) that it became clear to Gorbachev his dream of a revitalized Soviet Union was over.

Oddly enough, Stone promotes this pipedream, saying that if H.W. Bush had worked more closely with Gorbachev, he could have helped hold the USSR together!  I was stunned, not just from my personal perspective, but from that of the 13 former Soviet republics which are now independent, and the incredible bloodshed witnessed in Chechnya for 10 long years in its failed independence bid.  Stone seems to think of Mikhail Gorbachev as the Man of the Century, his Henry Wallace writ large, and there is nothing that can deflect this opinion, as he reads from Gorbachev’s recent memoirs.

Lithuanians for Nixon

I did a double take last night when one of the television programs marking the confrontation with the Soviet tanks in Vilnius on January 13, 1991, showed Nixon before the nascent Lithuanian parliament in March, 1991.  This was before the United States had formally recognized Lithuania's independence.  It was part of a two-week visit to the Soviet Union, including stops in Tblisi and Moscow.  Apparently, Nixon had a soft spot for Lithuanians.  Nixon returned the favor by inviting provisional president Vytautas Landsbergis to Yorba Linda in May, and facilitating talks that led to the US recognition of Lithuania as an independent country.  Dan Quayle visited the country in February, 1992, after its second independence had formally been recognized by the United States.

Photo courtesy of profimedia.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Axelrod on Obama

Good episode on Charlie Rose the other night with David Axelrod.  It was a friendly loose discussion on the nature of Obama, his first term and what transpired in the recent election.  Axelrod noted how the Republicans have boxed themselves into a corner due to the current voter distribution in Congressional districts.  Democratic candidates won over 50% of the statewide vote in North Carolina, but only gained 27% of the Congressional seats due to the way the state has been gerrymandered in recent years.  He said not only is this bad for the House, but bad for moderate Republicans who don't stand a chance in the primaries against hard-line conservatives.  This voting trend occurred all over the country.

Axelrod defended Obama's record.  Rose raised some good points on Obama's ability to get his message across and whether he isolated himself from Republican Congressional leaders.  Axelrod countered by saying that when the stated goal of Republican leaders was to make him a one-term president what good would more discussions have done?  He said all discussions were adversarial with little attempt by the Republicans to compromise on key issues such as health care.  When Obama did deliver on a deal that cut Medicare costs, the Republicans used it against him in the elections, even when their own response was far more Draconian.

He touched on Obama's willingness to "chain" CPI, but didn't elaborate on it.  His point was that Obama has shown a willingness to compromise, to meet the Republicans half way, but that there has been little reciprocity.  Does that mean the President will be bolder and tougher in his second term, Rose asked?  Axelrod hedged on this one, apparently no longer in the inner circle of the White House, but suggested the President would continue to seek bipartisan solutions, as that is his nature.

Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall!

Much of Episode 8 of Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States focuses on the relationship between Reagan and Gorbachev, highlighted by Reagan's famous speech at Brandenburg Gate in 1987.  Stone skips around a lot in this episode, following little chronological order, but he does provide an entry to the Reagan years through Ford's and Carter's failed administrations.

Of note was the Halloween Day Massacre which occurred in October 1975 when Ford purged his cabinet of moderates and brought Cheney and Rumsfeld on board.  Two figures who would come to haunt American politics.  In turn, Stone blames Brzezinski  for leading Carter down a dark alley on foreign policy by instigating the Soviet-Afghan War with support of counter-insurgency groups in Afghanistan who were antagonistic to the Soviet-backed government.

Ollie uses these incidents as a set-up for the heinous foreign policy set by Reagan, which was pushed by neo-conservative think tanks led by Richard Perle and religious leaders like Jerry Falwell, although surprisingly Stone doesn't talk much about the growing "moral majority" in the Republican ranks.  Instead, he notes a book by Claire Sterling, The Terror Network, which apparently had a profound influence on William Casey, who Stone credits as being Reagan's top foreign policy adviser.

Then comes a long laundry list of all the counter-insurgency efforts the US supported in Central America, with money and training funneled through the US Army School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, with additional training in Panama.  There is even a clip from Stone's film, Salvador, to highlight the terror supported by the US at this time.

For the most part, Stone is spot on with his allegations, but one is left to wonder why he adheres to this line that the Soviet Union was a minor player in all this, and that the US had essentially invented an "Evil Empire" as an excuse to build its massive military-industrial complex.  He even castigates Carter for increasing defense spending during his administration despite all his talk of promoting human rights abroad, blaming his administration for dragging the Soviet Union into a war in Afghanistan in 1980.  Much of the statistics Stone cites about Soviet arms came out after 1991.  During the Cold War the Soviet Union padded its numbers, essentially taunting the US into an Arms Race.  All part of the "realpolitik" established during the Truman years.

Stone sees Gorbacev as the Soviet Henry Wallace who ascended to power in 1985 and sued for peace with the US and complete nuclear disarmament in talks in Geneva and Reykjavik in 85 and 86.  Unfortunately, Reagan was too much guided by Richard Perle, and not the advice of Charles Schultz and Paul Nitze, to heed the call for disarmament, preferring to hold onto his "space fantasy," which purportedly killed the deal. Not surprisingly, Ollie gives Gorby all the credit for the breakdown of the wall, and views Reagan as a "befuddled old man" at the end of his tenure, which was mired in the Iran-Contra affair.

It will be interesting to see how Stone deals with Gorby in the subsequent episode, especially as he cracked down on independence movements in the Soviet Union, notably in Lithuania on January 13, 1991, while Bush prepared the US for battle in the Persian Gulf War.

One very salient point that Stone notes is that Reagan's 1987 veto of a bill that would have made the Fairness Doctrine law paved the way for right-wing media moguls like Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, dramatically reshaping mainstream media in America. Ailes was one of Reagan's campaign consultants, noting that broad "themes," not details won elections.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Allegory of the Cave

Every once in awhile a movie comes along that truly captures the imagination, and for me that was Beasts of the Southern Wild.  It is gratifying to see it has received so many Oscar nominations, including best actress for young Quvenzhane Wallis.

This film is startling in so many ways.  Foremost is the humane way Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar have depicted the extreme poverty of this bayou community.  It makes you squeam watching little Hushpuppy make a meal for herself when she can't find her father, and flinch at her pain when stuck by a catfish her father forces her to strike with her tiny fist.  Yet, this little girl stands tall, literally growing in front of your eyes from beginning to end of this film.  Innocence gives way to world-wise young lady with the full impact of the storm is felt.

While this film is ostensibly a response to Katrina, the director breaks apart any sense of a conventional time and place, reminding me a little of Faulkner's The Old Man from If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem.  The local teacher (Miss Bathsheba) fills little Hushpuppy's head with antediluvian aurochs that lead her to imagine a post-climate-change world that she has inflicted upon the community by striking back at her father, in which these huge porcine beasts have been unlocked from the Antarctic ice and set free on her bayou plain.  But, unlike Malick's dinosaurs in The Tree of Life, these beasts fit with the semi-hallucinogenic world Hushpuppy lives in.

Zeitlin and Alibar have gone with non-actors from the local community, giving this film an authenticity few others have achieved.  There are holes, some gaping, as the writers grope to try to connect the "Bathtub" community with the outside world.  It probably would have been better to keep them isolated in their semi-primitive state like the band of cave dwellers Miss Bathsheba alludes to.  I was surprised to see A.O. Scott view it is as Spielbergian, on a budget, as this film is about as un-Spielbergian as you can get.  However, I did question the sentimentality Zeitlin squeezed from some of the scenes.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Washington Irving, Esquire

This will be an open discussion on Washington Irving for those interested in exploring his rich literary and diplomatic legacy.  Irving is probably best remembered for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle.  His work was wide and varied, including his Knickerbocker's History of New York and a biography of George Washington, whom his parents named him in honor of.  He was probably the first commercially successful writer in America.  He was well traveled, spending a large period of time in Europe, where he took a particular interest in Spanish culture, penning several works of fiction and non-fiction, notably Tales of the Alhambra.  In 1842, he was appointed US ambassador to Spain.

With so much to draw from, one would think that Brian Jay Jones would have written a very compelling biography, but alas it falls flat.  One needn't read the biography to join in the discussion.  Irving is one of those writers we have all heard of, and there is much directly available on the Internet to draw from.  Here is one such example, Washington Irving, Esquire, which focuses on his diplomatic career.

The Vietnam Syndrome

I struggled to find the right title for my thoughts on Episode 7 of Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States.  Many came to mind in watching the episode.  I also liked the famous quote he took from the clip he showed from Apocalypse Now, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."  I also was struck by how Ollie viewed American political figures as "Demons and Angels," presenting them more as caricatures in his long running narrative of America's Cold War, rather than as the complex figures they all were.

In this episode it is Lyndon Johnson who gets the short end of the stick, as Stone vilifies him as a Cold War demon, whose "foreign policy was profound in a primitive way."  Johnson was certainly intent on winning the war in Vietnam, and would accept no compromise, but Stone fails to mention that LBJ pushed through the Civil Rights Bill in 1964 and ended poll taxes and other nefarious forms of restricting black voting rights in the South with the passage of the 24th amendment, even as Stone alludes to the domestic turmoil in this episode.  Stone focuses exclusively on Johnson's role in Vietnam, and other heinous foreign policy decisions in Indonesia and Brazil.

Brazil Coup 1964
Stone sees McNamara, who served as Johnson's chief architect of the US's war in Vietnam, as a 1960s Oppenheimer, who came to see the ravages of war and could take no more of it, opting out as Sec. of Defense to become head of the World Bank.  But, Johnson kept Mac on a short leash, and used the World Bank to help topple the democratically-elected government in Brazil, by refusing to grant loans to the new government, which resulted in the military coup of 1964.  McNamara would come to regret all these decisions, which was evocatively captured in The Fog of War, a documentary by Errol Morris.  Surprisingly, Stone doesn't reference this film.

Instead, Stone references many other films including an odd 1977 film, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover,  in which he shows a feisty Martin Luther King, Jr. staring down a seemingly apologetic Hoover, shockingly out of character.  But, the scene suits Stone's sense of moral indignation over the roles the FBI and the CIA played in stifling protest movements in the US and civil insurrections abroad.

There is also a clip from Costa-Gavras' Z, to help illustrate how the US was responsible for the squashing of the newly elected democratic government in Greece, which I guess served to illustrate that the US was no better than the Soviet Union when it came to creating "satellite nations."

Surprisingly, there were few mentions of the Soviet Union or even China in this episode.  Stone bears down heavily on the atrocities the US committed abroad in this episode, noting that it was only with Sy Hirsch's daring expose of the My Lai massacre that Americans began to understand the brutality of this ugly war.  Yet, Lt. Calley got off with a partial pardon and the incident was brushed over by the media, as it did most everything else about the Vietnam War according to Stone.

A kind of "fog" descended over the American people, made even worse by the 1973 recession.  Nixon didn't fair any better in this episode, as one might imagine, but Nixon's role is largely seen as an extension of Johnson's policies, culminating in a Peace Agreement that Stone says was little different than the one Johnson first proposed in 1968.  No mention of SALT or Detente or Nixon's famous visit to China, just Vietnam and Watergate.  The scene of Nixon leaving the White House by presidential helicopter in 1974 is used to echo that of the air lift at the US embassy in Saigon.  An administration and a set of policies ended in failure.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Music, Sweet Music!

Mary Wells is finally getting her due, unfortunately this new biography appears to fall short of the mark.  Better to buy the wonderful retrospective of her early music put out by Motown and Hip-O-Select.  She would eventually be upstaged by Diana Ross and suffer through the last years of her life in obscurity, but for an all too brief moment she was the Queen of Motown, covering Berry Gordy's songs and collaborating with Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye.  This set includes seven duets with Gaye.  I leave you with Mary Wells singing My Guy.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Go get'em, cowboy

F-R-double-E-D, D-O-M spells Freedom! We fight for freedom, for one and for all! It's you-and-me-dom, and ten foot tall! Freedom, freedom, and oh-can-you-see-dom, we'll always beat 'em with star-spangled freedom! 

Criterion has released some wonderful box sets over the years, but one of the most delirious has to be this set of William Klein movies, including the fabulous Mr. Freedom.  This classic satire on American exceptionalism remains one of the best.  There was also the highly amusing Team America with perhaps the greatest depiction of the late North Korean strongman Kim Jong-Il.  While the freedom-loving puppets obviously owe their debt to the Thunderbirds, whose creator passed away recently, I think a some of the inspiration came from Mr. Freedom.