Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Blithedale Romance

This month's reading group will be The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  The critical reception of the book was mixed in its day.  Some thought it was an all too obvious critique of Brook Farm, while others simply took it as a romance novel.  Hawthorne and Melivlle were both critical of the Transcendentalists and the Utopian communities that were sprouting like mushrooms throughout Northeast and Midwest America, but from what I read it was more a sardonic pleasure in teasing Emerson and the Unitarians who established Brook Farm.

Hawthorne was actually a founding member of Brook Farm and throughout his life seemed to have struggled with his religious identity.  Modern day critics view the novel as an attempt to reconcile these emotions through his seven key characters.  It is obvious that he drew on his personal experiences in creating this novel, as any novelist would.  It is a story rich in symbolism and offers many interpretations.  We look forward to your comments.

Monday, July 29, 2013


I finally got around to watching the 2011 HBO special on Reagan.  It is a strange assemblage of clips and interviews that left me scratching my head through the first half of the documentary.  I was trying to figure why retired Col. Andrew Bacevich played such a big role in this documentary.  Turns out the war veteran is a well-respected political scientist who was one of the more outspoken opponents of the Iraq War, losing his son in 2007.  Yet, in this documentary he offered a largely favorable opinion of Reagan in restoring confidence in the military.

Unfortunately, the director doesn't provide any background to the interviewees.  Of course many of them you know like Michael and Ron Reagan, James Baker, George Schultz, Pat Buchanan and biographers Edmund Morris and Lou Cannon.  The voices speaking on behalf of Reagan outnumber those critical of him.  The best known critical voice was Robert Parry, who broke the story on Oliver North's role in the Iran-Contra affair, which dominates the second half of the documentary.

Morris turned out to be the most insightful, having noted the great deal of myth-making taking place since Reagan left office and how the modern conservative movement has made him into an icon, with Michael Reagan and Grover Norquist determined to get some kind of memorial of Reagan in every county in the country and have spear-headed efforts to get him placed on currency.  Morris said that Reagan himself was virtually inaccessible, resorting to diversionary anecdotes whenever he confronted him with questions on his past.

It was Ron Reagan who noted that his father was very slow to react to the AIDS crisis, responding only when someone he knew, Rock Hudson, was stricken with the "mystery illness."  He said his father needed a face to put to an issue.  He couldn't identify with masses.  Poverty to him was a matter of choice, which surprised Ron Jr. since his father grew up during the Depression and had championed the New Deal in his early years in Hollywood.  But, understandably, Ron offered a generally favorable impression of his father.

I suppose Eugene Jarecki was trying to be objective given all the strong emotions attached to Reagan, but unfortunately this resulted in a rather superficial treatment of Reagan's time as pitch man for General Electric.  His GE stint was apparently a very formative period, as it allowed him to travel the country and speak directly to people, honing his skills as the "great communicator."  He repeatedly referred to himself as "Ronald Reagan, American Citizen" during these tours.  It is noted that he no longer saw himself as a New Deal Democrat, having essentially become a corporate spokesman, which culminated in his successful run as a Republican for California governor.

The only directorial commentary seemed to be the music and movie clips Jarecki used to underscore some of Reagan's more dubious moments, such as his insistence on the Strategic Defense Initiative, which ground a nuclear non-proliferation agreement with the Soviet Union to a halt.  Here, Jarecki used a couple of clips from propaganda films Reagan made with the Army Air Forces Motion Picture Unit concerning a "secret weapon."  Apparently, Reagan was too near-sighted to see any combat duty.

Unfortunately, this film doesn't accomplish what it set out to do.  Jarecki didn't provide any sharper focus on Reagan.  Dutch remains a shrouded figure, largely of his own doing according to Edmund Morris and Ron Reagan, who both said the only person he was really close to was Nancy.  You get the feeling that not even his own children knew him very well.  Michael, who was adopted, seems to view his father in purely iconic terms.  At least Ron reached for his father's more humane side.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Re-writing the Constitution

There are quite a few Right Wing watch groups these days, but one of the blogs I enjoy is that of Warren Throckmorton, who has gone after David Barton and others attempting to inculcate their perverted interpretations of history on unsuspecting Americans.  One of the more recent examples is the so-called Institute on the Constitution, which presents a very Puritanical interpretation of the Constitution, audaciously claiming that the Founding Fathers were influenced by early Puritan ministers, not the Age of Enlightenment.

The Institute of the Constitution is offering a 12-part lecture series over the Internet, as well as taking their show on the road to anyone who will host them, and apparently there are many willing hosts.  While it seems organizations such as this one are working primarily through the conservative Evangelical community, the so-called scholars behind these tracts are getting wide spread attention through conservative media outlets, and their work appears to have influenced much of the Conservative view of history as espoused by GOP legislators at both the state and federal level.

The numerous books, which are being published through Thomas Nelson and other conservative printing presses, are making their way into school curriculi around the country.  Barton is particularly active in Texas in promoting new statewide curriculum reading, and as the New York Review of Books reported sometime back, as Texas goes so goes the nation when it comes to high school textbooks.

Not since the Dunning School has there been such an orchestrated attempt to reshape history, only William Archibald Dunning was actually a respected professor at Columbia University, whereas the current conservative crop of so-called historians hail from such universities as Oral Roberts with degrees in religious education, not history.

David Whitney, who heads up the Institute of the Constitution makes no bones about his conservative religious agenda, as active as Barton in promulgating these "American views" anywhere he can, oblivious to the criticism.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Crisis of a House Divided

A book that keeps popping up on my screen each time I open amazon is Allen Guelzo's Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America.  At one cent for a used hardback it is mighty tempting.  A little more through London-based amazon.  According to this NY Times review, Guelzo looks at the backstage politics of a very bitter Senate campaign, as well as the debates themselves.

I suppose why I keep returning to Lincoln is that it seems the House has never been so divided as before the Civil War, with the Republicans blocking any progressive legislation in Congress and states pushing socially divisive laws and challenging the federal government on everything from the Affordable Care Act to federal gun and marijuana laws.

Guelzo's book pretty much fell on the 50th anniversary of Harry Jaffa's seminal Crisis of a House Divided, which looks at the famous Debates within the context of a deeply divided union.  The earlier book has long been considered one of the key texts in understanding Lincoln.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Hello My Eastern European Friends

It's a great pleasure seeing so many folks from Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Romania looking in.  I've been running this blog from afar in my adopted home town of Vilnius.  Yet, my passion for American history and literature remains strong. I've also explored a great deal of Eastern European history in literature in the process, often finding interesting convergences.

One of my more recent personal discoveries was Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who fought in the American revolution and became great friends with Thomas Jefferson.  Ostensibly a military engineer, who worked under George Washington and later became a house guest of Jefferson.  Along the way he befriended Agrippa Hull.  The triad of Kosciuszko, Jefferson and Hull is the subject of Gary Nash's Friends of Liberty.

Kosciuzsko is claimed by at least three countries: Poland, Lithuania and Belarus.  He fought alongside Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth in its war with Russia during the late 18th century.  Eventually pardoned by the Tsar, he returned to the United States.  You can find memorials in many places, including Krakow, Detroit and West Point.  The one pictured above is in Detroit, looking a little bit like Pushkin's Bronze Horseman.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Education of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

If you can get past the cover there is a very good story inside on the radicalization of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but judging from reactions to the cover few will read what is inside.  It's not like the Rolling Stone article offers anything really new, but it does provide a compelling story line back to the late 90s when Dzhokhar's parents chose to seek asylum in the United States after they had both lost their jobs in Russia due to Chechan purges.  His father, Anzor, was apparently a well respected investigator in the state prosecutor's office in Dagestan before the purges.  Without a job, he took his family to Cambridge, where he had connections in the small Chechan community.

What follows is essentially the tale of "Jahar," as he came to be called by his friends and teachers, with side notes on Tamerlan, or "Timmy," as they tried to fit into their new world.  For young Jahar it was relatively easy, but Tamerlan struggled and never quite found his footing.  It seems he developed quite a big chip on his shoulder.  He rediscovered Islam sometime around 2009 with an all-consuming passion, which led him back to Dagestan hoping to become part of the ongoing resistance.  He was basically told "no thanks" by the rebels and returned to America with the need to prove himself.  The sad part of the story is the way he appears to have dragged his younger brother into his militant Islamic world, in large part inspired by their mother who had similarly gone through a conversion a few years before.

There are also two daughters in the Tsarnaev family that fall between Tamerlan and Dzhokhar in age.  Mama decided that they too had become too Americanized, and were shipped back to Dagestan and forced into arranged marriages.  The father remains an elusive figure, as you don't know what if any role he had in all this.  It seems the mother was the driving force in the family, having found redemption in Islamicism after decades of struggle and was determined to have her family cleansed, which also included divorcing her husband.

Anyway, it makes for interesting reading and I'm sure more will follow in the months ahead, especially when the trial takes place.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Stand Your Ground

Although George Zimmerman didn't invoke the notorious Stand Your Ground law, it seems it came tangentially into play in a Florida courtroom.  The lawyers for Zimmerman were content with the standard self-defense plea, which they used successfully to gain his acquittal, despite the judge allowing the jury to consider a lesser charge of manslaughter.  The defendant was being tried for second-degree murder.

The case does call into question the degree to which Stand Your Ground laws are being interpreted and the seemingly loose nature of self-defense these days.  Where before the threat had to occur on your property, now it seems it is enough to feel threatened anywhere.  Florida has spawned similar laws in more than 20 states, which allows a person to shoot another as long as he "reasonably" thinks he is in danger, which is pretty much what Zimmerman's defense argued.

The Tampa Bay Times identified over 200 cases in Florida alone where the Stand Your Ground law was invoked, with some very appalling results.  Not surprisingly, blacks are more likely to be victims than whites. Yet, it seems what caused the NRA and other conservative groups to rally around the Zimmerman case was protection of this gun law rather than the racially-charged aspects of the law.  The NRA has been very active in promoting this law throughout the country.

Zimmerman's defense team similarly relied on conservative pundits like Sean Hannity and conservative groups to elicit contributions to cover defense costs.  Yet, Zimmerman's lawyers are threatening law suits of their own if the Martin family seeks a civil suit against their client.  The GZ Defense Fund has even filed for the return of Zimmerman's handgun now that he is a marked man.

President Obama and others have called for calm in the wake of the acquittal, but one can only imagine the anguish Trayvon Martin's family must be feeling.  Yet, this is just one of many sad stories since the Stand Your Ground law was enacted in 2005.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Death and Transfiguration of JFK

It seems we will have another Kennedy Love-In this Fall as this November will mark 50 years since his assassination.  It is really remarkable how the legacy of Kennedy lives on.  My feeling it is more about the promise that his presidency held than it is any policies he set, but Larry Sabato, the director of UVA's Center of Politics believes fully that Kennedy was a transformative figure in American politics.

I suppose a lot of it has to do with the way LBJ literally carried his predecessor's torch as he pushed through Civil Rights legislation that had been first put forward by the Kennedy administration.  But, in reading Caro's recent book on LBJ and other accounts it is highly unlikely Kennedy would have ever gotten that legislation through Congress on his own, as it took someone with the determination and means of LBJ to get the bill passed by a very conservative Congress.  However, Kennedy is still given much of the credit for this and other legislation that was passed during the Johnson years.

The myth of Camelot has been nurtured by many others.  It was a time when the Presidency almost felt like nobility and Kennedy certainly surrounded himself with some of the best and brightest of cabinet members that offered a bold new agenda for a modern era.  However, America still seemed mired in a Cold War mentality that neither the Kennedy nor the Johnson administrations were able to shake.

Kennedy is probably best remembered for facing down Khrushchev over the Cuban Missile Crisis, which cost Nikita his premiership.  Even Caro contrasted a cool, level-headed Kennedy to a hot-tempered Johnson, as he portrays reason trumping emotion in this highly-charged episode.  But, there is little to suggest that Kennedy would have handled Vietnam any differently than Johnson, which LBJ became saddled with.

In many ways Kennedy was as conservative as his predecessors, but what set him apart was the vigor he was able to project in the Presidency and a bold spirit that captivated the world.  He embraced novel ideas like Peace Corps, but at the same time plotted third world coups as Eisenhower and Truman had done.  His untimely death elevated him above the more sordid aspects of his administration, and he became projected as the liberal ideal, especially with Johnson's administration bogged down with the Vietnam War in his second term.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Fear and Loathing Over Obamacare

Once again we see the loathsome "Obamacare" under fire with huge amounts of money being spent to fight it by conservative groups.  Kaiser Health News reports that negative ads outnumber positive ads five to one, and an estimated $1 billion will be spend on advertising in the year leading up to the midterm elections as the Republicans once again plan to make an "issue" out of it.

Of course, it didn't help matters that the Obama administration chose to defer mandates another year, ostensibly to avoid making it an issue in the midterms.  The news media pounced all over this, with many sources questioning the "Constitutionality" of the deferment.  But, I think it is just an attempt to move away from the overhyped Snowden affair onto another hot button issue, as the Obama administration is perfectly within its rights to delay the mandates, especially if they found holes in the system, which they claim they did.

It seems the GOP will never accept the Affordable Care Act, with many "red states" continuing to fight it, leaving potentially millions of Americans out of the loop. All that money and effort would be better spent trying to clean up the Act so that it is more comprehensive and can't get so easily abused.  But, until it fully kicks in, which won't be until 2015 now, there is no way of really knowing how effective the ACA will be.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Reading Suggestions?

It would be nice to think of ourselves as a nation of readers.  I would love to draw some of our onlookers into a reading group by asking viewers to suggest titles.  It doesn't necessarily have to be a recent history title, and we do American fiction as well, preferably classics.  Let's see what you have to offer?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Reclaiming Lincoln

You would think with a title like Lincoln Unbound, Rich Lowry would have plenty to say about Lincoln, but looking at the amazon preview there are 6 modest chapters totaling about 240 pages with 20 pages of notes.  This is less a history than an attempt by neoconservatives to reclaim Lincoln.  This book has been duly approved by William Kristol, Bill Bennett and surprisingly Michael Burlingame, who not so long wrote an epic account of Honest Abe.

The introduction is interesting as Lowry appears to set up a battle not only with progressives, who have long adopted Lincoln as one of their own, but the Libertarian right wing of the Republican Party, who has had a very unfavorable impression of the first GOP president, especially Thomas DiLorenzo, who saw Lincoln as little more than a tyrant, hell bent on creating a empire to rival that of Great Britan.

Lowry sees Lincoln as an advocate of free market economics, allowing him to find ground on which to build his much more favorable impression of a man, who he feels rekindled the American Dream by allowing more persons to have opportunities to participate in an open economy.  Lowry notes the land grants that were issued in the new territories and the great expansion of the railroad that took place during Lincoln's administration.

He looks at slavery from the perspective of Lincoln's earlier attempts to offer compensation to plantation owners to free their slaves, which Lowry feels is perfectly in line with neo-conservative thought.  After all, this was exactly what Ron Paul felt Lincoln should have done, rather than declare war on the South. But, as Lowry points out the Southern states, as well as the little border states like Delaware and Maryland were not interested in the compensation the federal government offered.  For them, it was a state's rights issue.

I have to wonder what the Dixiecrats-turn-Republican think of all this recent Republican fascination in Lincoln.  Even Rand Paul was extolling the virtues of Lincoln in his attempt to reach out to potential black voters at Howard University.  The former Dixiecrats specifically distanced themselves from the "Party of Lincoln," only embracing the party when Reagan re-invented it in the 1980s.  Even then it was more in response to the passage of the Civil Rights Bill under Democratic leadership.

It would be interesting to read a historiography of how Lincoln has been interpreted over the years, but it doesn't seem that Lowry makes that his mission.  For him it is a reclamation project.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Not to rain on the parade, but ...

A Canadian "former historian" weighs in on the American revolution, calling it a failure in this op-ed piece in the Washington Post.  I don't imagine many persons ever heard of Paul Pirie, including myself, but the article has been scarfed up by the mainstream media and I read it this morning on Yahoo! following the link to the Washington Post.

Not that it offers any penetrating analysis.  His opinion is short and draws mostly on CIA factbook references  What Mr. Pirie fails to note is that Canada probably wouldn't have enjoyed its sense of autonomy had not the British failed in securing the colonies.  It was as a result of the American Revolution that Britain began to consider extending a higher degree of self-governance to its colonies and eventually came up with the idea of the Commonwealth.

Understandably, Canadians are proud they withstood the invasion of 1812, when the United States threatened to annex Canada.  But, Pirie seems more interested in calling out the discrepancies when it comes to the crime and the distribution of wealth between Canada and the US, than he does getting into the root causes of the Revolution and its aftermath.  I guess this is why he is a "former historian."

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Decider

We saw Justice Roberts make the pivotal decision on "Obamacare" last year.  This year it is Justice Kennedy who proves to be the pivotal judge on two fateful decisions.  Kennedy is now the hero of the gay community, having been the deciding vote in overturning DOMA, but the goat among minority voters, who saw him vote to repeal a key section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  So, who is Anthony Kennedy, which Time magazine has dubbed "The Decider?"

If you have access to Time, which I don't, you can read its cover story.  Reading this story in Salon, it is easier to see how Kennedy may have reconciled his seemingly contradictory opinions, as he saw DOMA as "bare desire to harm a politically unpopular group."  He probably also saw Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in the same light, as it explicitly singled out Southern states.

His decision on DOMA also seems to have opened up an ugly wound in the Supreme Court, which saw him very much at odds with Antonin Scalia, who wrote a scathing dissent opinion in which he took exception to Kennedy's views on the separation of federal and state powers.  This is an age old argument, and one conservatives cling to in defending some of the most nefarious state laws, notably the Jim Crow laws that existed in the Southern states for much of last century.

I think few could argue that DOMA wasn't a bad law, which Bill Clinton had no business signing into law, especially after campaigning so heavily in gay communities in 1992.  One could also argue that the Voting Rights Act needs to be revisited, but can we honestly expect a deeply divided Congress to do so.  It seems to me that Kennedy should have taken a more humanist approach to the Voting Rights Act, as he seemed to do on DOMA.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Getting their due

A couple of new books that highlight women's roles in World War II, notably the New York Times bestseller The Girls of Atomic City.  Denise Kiernan focuses on a secret city created in Tennessee, where a predominantly women work crew the enriched uranium for the United States' nuclear program.  According to Kiernan, the women had no idea what they were working on, which I suppose avoided any moral ambiguity.  Reviews are light, but it seems Kiernan is aiming at a broad audience, focusing more on the women's individual stories than the program itself.

Rocket Girl, the story of Mary Sherman Morgan, appears to have gone straight to paperback.  Morgan was the first American woman rocket scientist, and had a better idea what was going on during the war, as she was designing explosives.   She switched to rocket propellants after the war and her research led to a fuel capable of putting rockets into orbit.  One of the unsung heroes of the early Explorer program.

Morgan's story brings to mind that of Hedy Lamarr, who is today recognized for helping to develop a missile guidance system, which is also used in cell phone technology.  She worked on the system of "frequency hopping" with her husband, George Antheil, a pianist.  Richard Rhodes, famous for his book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, wrote a book on Hedy's Folly in 2011, which looks like it would be a lot of fun to read.

Snowed Under

If there was any doubt that mainstream news programming hadn't become a reality show, the coverage of Edward Snowden's mad flight should do away with those doubts once and for all.  John Oliver had a field day with the coverage on The Daily Show, and it still continues with so-called news hounds sniffing around the Moscow airport for his whereabouts, when apparently he has been seeking asylum in Russia.

Putin appears to have given him the green light with the interesting caveat that he "stops inflicting harm on our American partners."  He probably meant embarrassment, because that is all it has been thus far.  Still, the "29-year-old hacker" (as Obama referred to him) couldn't resist yet another dig, lashing out at the administration for revoking his passport, essentially making him a "stateless" person.  Shades of Tom Hanks' Terminal here.  One can only assume that Snowden has very little to offer, if Russia is treating him so blithely, but maybe this is Mr. Putin's way of concealing some valuable information he might have received from America's latest "whistleblower."

Snowden did cause a fair amount of harm recently by releasing information to Der Spiegel that implied that the United States had bugged EU offices in New York and Washington, DC, but London's The Guardian remains his prime source, which has been extolling the virtues of Snowden ever since he took flight.  Apparently this latest Snowleak went through The Guardian and Washington Post, thereby verifying it in the minds of the editorial staff at Der Spiegel.

This did put the Obama administration on the defensive, forcing it to offer some kind of explanation, which Obama did, essentially saying it is all about getting additional information on our allies.  I'm sure the EU won't be satisfied with this answer, having already voiced indignation over these allegations of spying, saying it is a return to the Cold War, feeling that it is being treated as an enemy.  I can almost see the smile on Putin's face.

One can certainly read into this mad flight what one wants, and every news pundit has been doing exactly that.  Why they haven't had this much fun since Julian Assange managed to evade Swedish and American authorities last year and gain asylum in Ecuador, where he continues his ongoing quest to rat out international intelligence agencies!