Weekly Read: One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America

I was born in 1973, so I kind of came into political puberty in the mid 1980s. As a result, the Religious Right has been a part of my political scene essentially my entire life. My impression of them then, and still today, is that they’re mostly culture warriors, fixated generally on the sexual behavior of others (to steal Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”). It seemed like a natural reaction to the “free love” of the 1960s and, so, I figured that’s where it’s all come from. I’ve also read some theories that the operatives of the Religious Right largely came out of losing side in the battle over segregation, as they searched for new wedge issues in the culture.

In One Nation Under God, historian Kevin Kruse argues differently. His thesis is right there in the subtitle: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. The Religious Right isn’t an organic outgrowth of grassroots fervor. Rather, it’s the result of some careful calculation of big business interests searching for foot soldiers in their fight against the regulative state. What’s funny is that while they got the movement, it just never delivered on the goal they really wanted it for.

In Kruse’s telling, the Religious Right got its start in the 1930s as business leaders sought to combat Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. This was all prompted by the Great Depression. More directly, it was that Roosevelt dared to use the Federal government to try and lift the nation out of poverty, ushering in an expansion of power at a national level. It really was the birth of the modern regulatory state, which is something big business couldn’t deal with. But simply making their case – to the impoverished masses to whom some government regulation of the industry that drove the country into the ditch in the first place was a good thing – wasn’t really working.

Nor was it enough to fall back on paeans to the Founding Fathers and the American way which, to be fair up to that point, had involved a lot of lightly regulated capitalism. Again, it couldn’t really cut through the economic reality. That’s when religion appeared and alliance formed between politically minded preachers and leaders of industry to turn capitalism not just into the American way, but God’s way, too.

One of those preachers was Billy Graham. While not involved at the very start in the 1930s, he quickly became part of the new religion/business alliance. He was particularly important to bringing Eisenhower around on the whole idea, going to far as to write bits for some of Ike’s speeches (he’d do the same for Nixon later). The idea, floated somewhat when Graham died a few years ago, that he wasn’t part of the Religious Right as a political entity is, thus, complete bullshit. He wasn’t the only one, of course, but he was part of the cadre of religious leaders who turned the White House into a kind of religious bully pulpit.

As skeevy as the entire operation was, it does have a huge sense of irony about it, thanks to Eisenhower. He was the first President (and presidential candidate) to really embrace the idea of “ceremonial deism” and the canard that Christianity is the foundation of the Constitution. So, when he was in office and running things (and becoming the first President baptized while in office), the money men who put him there expected to finally be able to cash in on all their work and get the New Deal dismantled. Ike, however, balked, recognizing that dismantling popular New Deal programs would be political suicide, noting that the party that got rid of Social Security and unemployment insurance would shortly cease to exist. All that work and no reward!

Nevertheless, the movement these guys had birthed shuffled on into the culture war crusaders we know them as today (the first big fights were over school prayer). There is definitely a certain feel from the story Kruse is telling that the Frankenstein’s monster got loose and beyond its masters’ control, but one thing he doesn’t address is whether these guys were true believers in the first place. My natural cynical inclination makes me think they were doing whatever they thought was necessary to bolster the bottom line (co-opting eager religious leaders in the process), but I’m not beyond thinking they were getting high on their own holy supply, too.

“Ceremonial deism” – the idea that there’s no First Amendment issue with public officials invoking the name of God so long as it’s in a squishy non-sectarian (within limits) way – certainly has taken on a life of its own. As Kruse lays out, a lot of what we consider foundational parts of this – “In God We Trust” on money, “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance – are fairly recent inventions based on spurious readings of history pushed by these early crusaders. It didn’t take even a generation, though, for them to be evidence to prove the very “ceremonial deism” they were created to birth in the first place.

While Kruse makes a compelling case, I do have two beefs with how he does it. First, he refers to most of these captains of industry as “Christian Libertarians,” which doesn’t seem to fit to me. For all the things “libertarian” can mean it has to at least mean freedom from the state trying to dictate religious belief, which is essentially what these guys were (and are) pushing. I think “Theocratic Capitalists” would be a better fit. Secondly, with a couple of exceptions, Kruse doesn’t bother diving into how untethered from reality most of the arguments were that these folks made. He does discus it it somewhat in the epilogue and highlights an early example of how they selectively edited part of the Declaration of Independence (which has nothing to do with the law of this nation, by the way) to make it fit their agenda better. These folks are prototypical liars for Jesus but aren’t called on it enough.

Those small quibbles aside, Kruse has done important work here. In the modern world, where a little sleuthing can easily unmask the actual source of astroturfed “grassroots” political movements, we sometimes get lulled into thinking such campaigns are a fairly recent development. They’re not and it’s worth knowing the kind of long-term impacts they can have, even if they don’t meet their initial goal.

Weekly Watch: Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel

It’s unfair to judge a film by what you want it to be, particularly documentaries. Filmmakers are trying to do something specific and to say “I would have done it that way” doesn’t mean much as criticism. Taking the project at face value, however, and concluding that it doesn’t really work is more fair game. Those who made The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, to their credit, tried to do something other than the usual whodunit true-crime story. Unfortunately, that winds up pulling the series in so many different directions that it doesn’t really work as a whole.

The titular vanishing is that of Elisa Lam, a young Canadian woman who was on a solo vacation of the California coast. She checked into the infamous Hotel Cecil in Los Angeles – reputed to be haunted and the inspiration for the hotel in American Horror Story: Hotel and probably the Hotel Hyperion in Angel – and never left. A few days after she disappeared, her naked body was found in a water tank on the hotel’s roof (her clothes were in the tank, too). There was no sign of foul play.

That mystery would make a neat single episode, but to stretch it out to four, the filmmakers try to weave in a couple of other threads. The first is a survey of the Hotel Cecil itself and its place in the ecosystem of its Los Angeles neighborhood, the defining feature of which is Skid Row. Thousands of homeless people live on Skid Row, semi-permanently (one guy interviewed lived there for six years, IIRC), and the challenges of those who live there and how they might be helped could make an interesting documentary. It’s mostly used here for atmosphere, the home of the outcast existing next to the haunted hotel, so it doesn’t really amount to much. To their credit, there’s never any hint (from the filmmakers or police) that any of these homeless folks were the cause of Lam’s disappearance – there doesn’t appear to be a “round up the usual suspects” moment – so that’s something.

The other thread aside from the whodunit/what happened is the one that I thought would be the most interesting. Lam’s disappearance attracted a host of amateur sleuths, most working on YouTube and other social medial sites, who tried to figure out what happened to her. Perhaps not surprisingly, they lapse into baseless conspiracy theories and even publicly accuse a death metal singer of murdering Lam because, well, he writes songs about death and water (better round up the Marillion guys, too!) and stayed at the hotel. However, easy research shows that his stay at the hotel was a year before Lam’s disappearance and at the time she went missing he was in a Mexican recording studio working on an album.

All of that could have been teased out more, with an eye toward why these people all over the world felt compelled to investigate the case and then, as answers started to emerge, disregard them in favor of their already considered pet theory. It’s almost a paradigmatic case of apophenia, but the filmmakers aren’t really interested in going down that road. Whether that’s because the internet sleuths are the ones who take up most of the talking head time in the doc – and thus they’re not going to be probed to harshly – I can’t say. They still come off as, at best, people with too much time on their hands and, at worst, unhinged, so it’s hardly a flattering portrait.

So, ultimately, Vanishing isn’t a disappointment because of what it doesn’t do, but because of what it fails to do on its own terms. It’s a worth attempt at something a bit different – which should always be encouraged, even if the end result doesn’t live up to its promise.

Weekly Watch:Star Trek: Discovery (Season One)

I am not a religious man. Nevertheless, I am beginning to develop an abiding faith about something that might happen in the near future. I call it the “streaming singularity,” which is one of two things I hope will happen in the future. The first is that some of the new, myriad streaming services will go belly up and their content, or their brands, will get absorbed by a few, larger services. The second is that, after a while, content will migrate from service to service, so that things that are initially exclusive to, say Disney +, eventually wind up on Netflix, the way TV shows used to migrate to syndication.

Long story short – I’m really hesitant to sign up for new streaming services at this point, unless there’s something so compelling that I can’t pass it up. Which is why, last spring, I signed up for CBS All Access (soon to be Paramount +) for a free month so I could watch the end of the Champions League campaign. While I was at it, I dabbled in a few of their original series, blitzing through The Twilight Zone (not bad – uneven, as  you’d expect from an anthology series). As for the Star Trek universe, I watched the first episode of Lower Decks (not my thing) and the first two of Discovery, which, honestly, didn’t do much for me. I shut down the account before I had to pay for anything, then went on with my life.

Then, desperate for programming in a COVID world, CBS decided to show the first season of Discovery on real TV! Armed with my TiVo, I decided to give it a go again, to see how it all played out. In the end, I’m glad I didn’t actually pay for it, but it was entertaining enough to keep watching.

My big beef with Discovery – as with many modern properties that take place within established universes – is that I don’t really see why this story had to be told as a Trek story. I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of the JJ Abrams Trek reboot. To me they feel like more generic sci-fi action movies rather than “Trek” (in the same way that, to me, the Daniel Craig version of James Bond seems like a generic action hero, not 007 – your mileage may vary, of course). Discovery feels the same way. Aside from some of the labels used – Klingon, Federation, Vulcans, etc. – the story itself could be told just as well in a new universe built for its own purposes.

That story is solid, but not particularly Trekky. For one thing, for a show called Discovery, set largely on a ship of the same name, it’s disappointing that the overall plot is about a war. I mean, there’s not a whole lot of “boldly going where no one has gone before” in Discovery. Maybe that’s why my favorite episode was “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum,” in which a small away team goes to a strange planet, gets in trouble, and has to get themselves out of it. It services the overall war plot, but works perfectly well as a standalone episode and actually seems like Star Trek!

Most of the rest of the time, the show is so beholden to trying to fit into the Trek universe that it’s hamstrung (I understand that in season three the show catapults so far into the future it doesn’t have to worry about such things). Original series scoundrel Harvey Mudd shows up – twice! – for no other reason than to allow fans to point and say “that’s Harvey Mudd!” Really, what’s gained by making it that particular character instead a of a new, fresh, different one that could get fleshed out in different and interesting ways? Likewise, the Klingons are old school Trek, and while I didn’t mind the new look like some folks do, there’s an awful lot of assuming people know what Klingons are and what they do from other Trek products that they’re not really developed. An extended jaunt in the “mirror universe” (in which Spock has a beard!) is kind of fun but, again, feels like fan service.

Where the series strikes out differently is where it works best. The spore drive that allows instantaneous travel across the universe is pretty neat, but it’s doomed to failure (somehow) since it’s not in use in any other Trek product. The Kelpians, in particular Saru, are pretty interesting, too, and a nice addition to the Trek universe. But they could have been part of any universe, right?

I wanted to say one thing about the serial nature of modern streaming TV, too, because I think there, too, Discovery is kind of neither here nor there. The show is definitely of a piece with the modern streaming/cable predilection for serial storytelling. Nothing wrong with that, but at 15 episodes, it has more time and space to do some other things (most shows get 10 episodes per season, at most). I wish they had taken that time to throw in a couple of standalone episodes. Even in a tightly serialized show, a standalone ep or two can help change the pace a bit and provide a place for real character development to take place. Given how heavy most of the first season is, a couple of breaks would have been good.

I guess what I’m saying is that Discovery, at least in its first season, works best when it’s not trying to be what it is – a prequel to the original Star Trek that is trying to worm its way into that universe’s history and continuity. Unfortunately, that’s is reason for being, so there’s only so much of it the show can do, which is a shame. If Discovery had been a brand new show, in a brand new universe, telling its own story, I think I would have liked it better. As is, it’s not quite Trek enough for its own good, no matter how hard it tries.

Weekly Read: The Ball Is Round and The Age of Football

Does anyone really need to read more than 1500 pages about soccer? Or, in my case, listen to more than 63 hours of it? Probably not, but if you’re at all interested in the beautiful game beyond watching games, you could do worse. These two volumes – both written by journalist David Goldblatt – explore why the game developed as it has as well as the challenges facing it in the 21st century.

I should say, right at the top, that I’m going to call the game “soccer” throughout. As the history in these books points out, soccer is a derivation of “Association Football,” the actual name of the sport, and is a British phenomenon (in several quoted period sources the game is called “soccer”). It’s not just a heathen American thing – it’s a it’s-called-different-things-around-the-world thing.

The Ball Is Round is the more essential (and longer) of the two because it covers the history of the game, rather than the state of its current form (it was written about the time of the 2006 World Cup in Germany). And it starts with the beginning – surveying the games of ancient cultures to try, without real success, to find the ancestor to soccer.

As an aside, let me say that one thing both of these books have going for them is their scope. They deal with the game on a global level and while Europe (and South America, to a lesser extent) command the most attention, Africa, Asia, and the unholy alliance known as CONCACAF (North and Central American and the Caribbean) are examined pretty closely.

Getting back to the history of the game, more interesting than the nitty gritty origins of the sport and the codification of its rules (sorry, “laws” – soccer is serious business) is how the game spread around the globe. Given its origins in the UK and its spread while the British Empire was at its height, you’d think it was a simple question of imperial imposition, but it really wasn’t. Indeed, large countries with close ties to the British Empire have largely rejected soccer in favor of other pastimes, including the United States, Canada, India, and Australia. What really did it was the soft power of British industry and financing, the tendrils of which reached well beyond the formal boundaries of the Empire.

Thus, in lots of places, the game arrived with expat British workers and grew from there. It’s why so many big named clubs around the world actually have British origins, including Barcelona, AC Milan, and a host of South American clubs. Ever wonder why AC Milan’s big rivals are Inter? It’s because Internazionale was formed in response to the closed up Britishness of AC Milan!

Another interesting part of the development of the game is how tied it was to the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of more affluent working and middle classes (there’s an interesting intersection with the nascent labor movement, which was providing folks with more free time). This helps partially explain why Brazil, for example, has robust state championships based around big cities, in addition to a national league, as the big clubs grew up in cities, without a lot of development in the hinterlands.

Things get less compelling after the Second World War and the book focuses on what Goldblatt calls “industrial football.” That is, the rise of big money in the game, particularly with the increased profile of international competitions like the European Cup (now Champions League), the Copa Libertadores in South America, and, of course, the World Cup. The history is interesting, but Goldblatt slips into a style that is more a string of anecdotes than a compelling central thesis with supporting evidence. The result, as he checks in all over the globe, is a little numbing and overwhelming.

It also highlights some flaws in the book, such as some of the chapters that end with “you are there!” style descriptions of particular matches. Listening to the audiobook it was unclear whether these were taken from actual reports of the game, but it appears that they were Goldblatt’s creation. They’re fine, so far as they go, but it seems to me that writing about a soccer game is a little bit like Frank Zappa’s turn of phrase that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” – it just doesn’t capture the essence of what you’re writing about.

Speaking of the audiobook – the narrator of The Ball Is Round has some odd blind spots when it comes to pronunciation. My heart died a little bit every time he referred to Juventus as “Jewv” (as opposed to “Juve” – aka “you vey”). He gets some other Latin names wrong, too, just often enough for it to be an issue. Thankfully, Goldblatt himself narrates the sequel and it doesn’t have the same problem.

As for The Age of Football, it basically picks up where The Ball Is Round leaves off in terms of chronology – starting with the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and ending with the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Rather than just updating the history, however, this book focuses more on how soccer is intertwined with other aspects of politics and economics around the world. As such, it suffers from the same checking of boxes as we go all around the world seeing the same pathologies play out over and over.

In that sense, The Age of Football is pretty depressing. It shows how the game is used by regimes, authoritarian and otherwise, for legitimacy and national unity. It shows how money had become the primary driver of the global game, with little regard for what that means in places that are left behind.

Goldblatt notes how, for example, interest in local African leagues has plummeted since the advent of satellite TV and smart phones, which allow people all over the continent to watch top leagues in Europe instead. What’s funny is that the same is true, somewhat, in the United States, where diehard fans of English or German teams don’t give Major League Soccer the time of day.

Amidst the gloomy underbelly of the modern game, there is the damned near universal nature of its allure. All those places I mentioned above where soccer didn’t take root initially are starting to come along. China, where the game’s never had much of an impact, is ramping things up. The World Cup is one of the few moments of unity the world gets, which is worth celebrating. And the game is, as they say, the beautiful one, whether it’s played in a gleaming stadium in front of a worldwide audience of billions or in a bare field in the middle of nowhere.

Weekly Read: Blue In Green

I have a weird relationship with jazz, in that I can appreciate it a lot more than I can love it. I can easily wrap my head around the awesome amount of talent it takes to improvise with any kind of skill, yet I mostly find myself left cold by a lot of that improvisation, too. It’s not just a jazz thing – a lot more of King Crimson’s improvs leave me wanting than strike me in any particular way, too.

I say all that because Blue In Green is very much “jazz” on the page, as much as any graphic novel can be. As it turns out, that’s not a happy coincidence. As this interview with writer Ram V and artist Anand RK explains, this book gave new meaning to the term “pantsing,” as Ram says:

It was literally us getting together each morning, going, “Okay, this is the previous page. I have looked at it. And now I think this is what the next page needs to be.” So every ensuing page is in reaction to whatever he drew on the previous page.

Later, Ram V makes clear that this was a one pass thing:

No, no, there was no going back to pages, because I mean, you can’t go back when you’re improvising in music either. So if you’re playing and you hit a sequence of notes, that’s it, it’s there and you can’t go back.

One the one hand, this is profoundly cool and a brave way to create a graphic novel. On the other hand, I think within that lies the reason I didn’t like it very much.

The story is of Erik, a sax player who has been relegated to teaching kids who want to know if they’ll be able to figure out when they’re great (it’s a fantastic opening scene). When he finds out his mother has died, Erik goes home for the funeral (although where home is happens to be . . . an issue). There he winds up getting sucked into a mystery about a strange, long dead player and how he relates to Erik’s late mother. Along the way, we get a fairly standard riff on the idea that to be great an artist has to sacrifice himself to some higher power, deal with the devil, etc. It ends fairly bluntly, but it’s earned, to be fair.

The best part of the book is the artwork. It’s very impressionistic and flows through different styles lyrically. That said, sometimes the art is a little too abstract and it becomes hard to figure out just who is doing what to whom at critical moments. Still, you could get a lot of enjoyment out of the book just by flipping through it and soaking in the images.

The writing is a different story. My previous experience with Ram was These Savage Shores, which used a lot of letters and journal entries to push things along. Here, almost everything is conveyed through Erik’s monologues and there is precious little dialog. It’s like a film where nobody talks to each other and  it’s all voice over. Eventually, it just got to be too much for me. It didn’t help that the monologue was overwritten in places.

I mentioned where Erik’s mother lived and this is where I think the whole improvisation thing caught up with Ram and his collaborators. I’m pretty sure Erik lives in New York City. When he goes to his mother’s funeral he gets on a plane (where he ponders the meaning of death), so she must live somewhere else, right? But the rest of the story takes place in NYC and Erik goes back to the house multiple times. On the one hand it’s not very important, but on the other it really niggled the back of my mind.

I’ve read a lot of praise for Blue In Green and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on “best of” lists as the year draws to a close. It makes me think of Kind of Blue, the Mile Davis album (“Blue In Green” is one of the tracks on that album) that’s generally regarded as the best jazz album ever. You know what? It does nothing for me. It’s all laid back and cool and whatever, but it leaves me cold. It’s just not my thing. Seems like Blue In Green is in the same boat.

Weekly Read: The Humans

The beginning of Matt Haig’s The Humans is great. After a quick intro that implies the following narrative will tell a tale of a mission gone wrong, we’re thrown into the main character’s point of view as he arrives on Earth. An alien, he takes over the body of an Oxford scientist who’s just made a breakthrough humanity hasn’t earned. It’s the alien’s job to squelch all knowledge of the breakthrough, by any means necessary.

That could be the setup for a very heavy book, but instead Haig plays it mostly light, invoking the vibe of Douglas Adams. The alien spends quite a while learning about life on Earth and, in the process, giving Haig the chance to point out all the weirdness of modern human life, from coffee to soccer to TV news (which the alien observes should be rechristened “The War and Money Show”). This portion of the book is generally funny (in a “because it’s true” way) and a quick, breezy read.

It’s once the alien has learned about the world a bit where things go downhill. Not far, and not very fast, but enough to make me wish things had turned out differently. The plot is predictable, as the alien – who comes from a species that views everything as math (perhaps not wrong) and humans as murderous, greedy beasts – learns to love the place and that complicates his mission, particularly the parts that might require him to kill the wife and son of the man whose body he adopted (who is already dead, of course). Complications ensue, although they’re dealt with pretty easily.

I will say this for Haig’s alien – I love where he finds his breakthrough for loving humanity. What does it for the alien is music. Not just high-falutin’ classical music either, being entranced by not just Le Mer but also the Beach Boys and Air (among others). He even makes a reference to how fun it is to count music, which warmed the cockles of my progressive rock loving heart. The turn isn’t something unexpected, but it’s done pretty well.

Once the turn happens, however, the alien goes from being a sharp, amusing observer of the human condition to a mawkish purveyor of chicken soup for the soul. One chapter is entirely given over to a list of 40 pieces of “advice for a human” that he writes for his sort-of-son. A lot of this is pleasant, if not good, advice (“be alive” – who could argue!), but it includes those kinds of “live for today!” things that fall apart with any thought. Like, “don’t worry about your abilities, you have the ability to love – that’s enough,” which is a nice idea, but love doesn’t pay the bills or put a roof over your head. I’m not anti-love, far from it, but reliance on it as a life plan isn’t exactly solid. Or, “in your mind change the name of every day to Saturday, change the name of work to play.” Putting to one side how you’re going to figure out when anything happens in your new world of Saturdays (maybe there’s a book for that), but the thing about work is just insulting to anyone who does what they have to do (probably out of . . . .love!) to feed their family. Not everyone can lead a fulfilling professional life (I’ve been lucky in this regard) – some folks just have to scratch out a living. Or, “failure is a trick of the light.” No, it fucking isn’t! Sometimes you try something and fail at it – dealing with that is as much a part of life as anything. To see the supremely rational, mathematical main character fall so headlong into that kind of dreck is disappointing.

The other Haig book I’ve read, How to Stop Time, I thought wrapped up way too quickly. The same is true for The Humans. The alien eventually walks away from his semi-family, moving to California to teach and continue to live life. But, of course, he comes back and there’s a hopeful note of reconciliation in the end. This isn’t bad, necessarily, but it plays out over a chapter or two, whereas some detail of the alien’s life alone and what he does would have made the semi-happy ending feel more earned.

I don’t want to sound too harsh about The Humans. It’s a fun read, for the most part, and has some really funny bits, but it kind of peters out after a while. I understand that Haig wrote it after his own battle with depression and, through that lens, I can see the kind of zealousness of a convert coming through in the alien’s transformation into a lover of humanity. Maybe this is just one of those instances of the book ultimately disappointing me because it wasn’t what I wanted it to be which, after all, is my problem, not Haig’s.

One of my favorite current comics is Pearls Before Swine, in which the two main characters are a rat, cleverly named Rat, and a pig, cleverly named Pig. Rat is cynical, generally hates people, and finds fault with everything. Pig is open hearted, kind of lovingly dumb, and generally doesn’t let the foolishness of others get him down. I like to think that they reflect the two parts of my personality, constantly battling it out in my head (or think of it as killers and angels, if you like). This book, in the end, drove the Rat side of me nuts. The Pig side of me really liked it.

Make of that what you will.

Weekly Read: The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

One of my favorite semi-recent films is David Fincher’s Zodiac, about the lengthy hunt for the Zodiac Killer (made before everybody agreed it’s Ted Cruz). While that’s an apt description of the film, it’s also pretty shallow. What the movie is really about is obsession, about the need to find answers, and what it does to people who dedicate their lives to trying to find them, yet don’t.

I thought a lot about Zodiac while reading The Feather Thief. Not because the crimes involved are in any way similar or because The Feather Thief is a gripping whodunnit. In fact, there’s no doubt whodunnit – on June 24, 2009, an American flautist-in-training (!) named Edwin Rist, studying at the Royal Conservatory in London, travelled to the nearby village of Tring and stole nearly 300 specimens of rare tropical birds from a branch of the Natural History Museum. This is hardly a spoiler, as it’s right there in the prologue. If the story is that simple, why is The Feather Thief worth reading? For several reasons.

First, Kirk Wallace Johnson does a really good job of laying out why anyone would bother to steal a bunch of birds. This starts with a history of these birds themselves, many of which were captured and cataloged by Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s rival in developing the theory of natural selection. Then there’s the late-Victorian fashion fad of using rare birds (not just their feathers, either!) as status symbols and the backlash that produced one of the first animal conservation movements. Laws and treaties followed and the birds were generally relegated to becoming museum specimens at places like the Natural History Museum. They were in a small-town outpost in 2009 because they had been relocated there for safekeeping during World War II.

That these kinds of birds were basically illegal to possess, or at the very least sell on the open market, led to them becoming particularly valuable to a particular community – that of expert fly tiers. These are not folks that tie flies in order to use them fishing, but rather out of artistic drive and the desire for historical accuracy. Rist was not only a member of this community, but a leading light of it, even as a teenager. He was, broadly speaking, in the right place at the right time to know the value of these birds and have access to them.

The second thing that makes The Feather Thief compelling is Johnson’s role in this tale. He was once responsible for trying to rebuild parts of Iraq after the war, then transitioned into helping Iraqis who had worked with the United States seek asylum in the US.  Although he wants to know why Rist did it (which is pretty obvious), he’s more interested in trying to right the wrong and locate the birds that hadn’t been recovered via the usual process of Rist’s criminal prosecution (he got no time, thanks to a shaky autism diagnosis by – no shit – Sasha Baron-Cohen’s cousin). This began with a stray comment from a buddy while fly fishing and, well, the rest is history.

This is where the Zodiac connection really comes in. Almost everyone in The Feather Thief is driven by an obsession that border on all-consuming. Wallace spent years in the Asian jungles in pursuit of specimens (while Darwin jumped in front of him with the whole evolution thing). Rist took to fly tying the way an addict-in-waiting takes to heroin. The ecosystem in which he swam online was obsessed with these birds as a means to creating the perfect fly. And, finally, Johnson himself nearly let his life get away from him as he tried to track down all of Rist’s birds.

None of these obsessions really end well, which returns us to Zodiac. There is no happy ending here, except maybe for Rist – yes, he’s a convicted felon, but he got his degree from the Conservatory and is making a living as a professional flautist. Johnson doesn’t find a trove of stolen birds. He can’t make the museum, and science itself, whole. Instead, he has to walk away before it consumes him, unsatisfied that he wasn’t able to make a difference.

The Feather Thief isn’t the knottiest whodunnit. The bad buy here isn’t really that inscrutable (whatever he convinced a court about his motivations). It’s more about the impact of a crime and the need to try and set it right. Along with the realization that, a lot of the time, that’s a hopeless crusade.

Weekly Read: Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War Through the Cold War

Music, those who make it and consume it often think, is a universal language. A beautiful melody or an infectious rhythm or a soothing wash of noise doesn’t require any kind of verbal communication to enjoy. Surely if there’s something that can exist outside of the mess that is politics, music should be yet. Sadly, the takeaway from Jonathan Rosenberg’s Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War Through the Cold War is that politics, like religion, poisons everything, in spite of anyone’s best intentions otherwise.

Dangerous Melodies examines this through a particular lens – the American classical music community and how it interact with the First and Second World Wars and the early part of the Cold War. In each era, political considerations informed what was played, by whom and where.

One of the fascinating things about the WWI section of this book (along with PANDEMIC, which of course covers that time period) is how fervent people were with regards to the war and the United States’ role in it. Of course, this was the period of the Sedition Act and the Supreme Court’s deeply horrible First Amendment law, but it really brings the xenophobia home when you hear about German musicians being interned for nothing more than their nationality.

German composers proved a particularly tricky proposition, since, at the time, the American classical music scene was heavily indebted to Germany composers and musicians. Wagner, of course, featured prominently in all this, but he at least had the good sense to be dead when the conflict began. Discussions about whether to continue to stage his operas or play his music were a bit more esoteric than those surrounding, say, Richard Strauss, who was both very popular in American concert halls and still alive to cash the checks.

If the issue during the First World War was what to do with Germans in general, in the Second World War there was some attempt to distinguish between garden variety Germans and actual Nazis. This was easier said than done, however, since some great conductors were at least Nazi-adjacent, if not actual (if unenthusiastic) party members. Their rehabilitation after the war mirrored those of their predecessors in the Great War – in that the result of the uproar had little to do with actual facts and more to do with repeated assertions of bad behavior (I shook my head reading how a judge in a court case involving one conduct admitted there was no evident to prove his alleged sin, but enough people believed it that it didn’t matter).

One odd part about the Second World War is that, at least as Dangerous Melodies tells it, is that Wagner came roaring back and was basically unscathed. To the extent the Nazis glorified him and tried to make a paragon of the Reich it didn’t impact his work being played in the United States. On the other hand, there’s no discussion of Wagner’s well-documented anti-Semitism, which would seem like a pretty good reason for programming other stuff while the Holocaust is happening.

Where the intersection of classical music and the two World Wars was largely about restricting what was played (with one notable exception I’ll discuss in a moment), once the Cold War begins the tables turn. The universalists gain the upper hand, only to see that universalism weaponized in the name of American foreign policy. American orchestras made numerous state-funded tours of Europe, including behind the Iron Curtain. At best this was benevolent cultural exchange, but there was also some hope that it might show the Soviets that we weren’t all a bunch of burger eating, beer swilling, country music fans, either.

As an aside, after I read this book I listened to the Wind of Change podcast. Done by Patrick Radden Keefe (he of the amazing Say Nothing), it’s a deep dive into the conspiracy theory that the CIA wrote the Scorpions’ late Cold War hit of the same name. It doesn’t really prove that, but along the way it talks about how the American government used the same kind of state-sponsored cultural junkets in more popular music forms, too – sometimes without the knowledge of the artists.

There was one composer whose career spanned the Second World War and Cold War to devastating effect. One of the most famous and celebrated musical achievements of the Second World War was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, called Leningrad. Premiering in 1942 it was seen as embodying the resistance of the residents of that city (now, once again, St. Petersburg) to a lengthy Nazi siege. There was even a kind of bidding war over the US premier! It was a big fucking deal in a way that I don’t think we can comprehend in 2020.

But when the Cold War began, Shostakovich was drafted into the Soviet Union’s culture war against the West. There’s an episode in the book where a conference arranged in New York – assailed by Red hunters for being anti-American – winds up becoming a mouthpiece for Soviet propaganda, giving a not particularly enthusiastic speech condemning Western music that he pretty clearly didn’t write. Shostakovich got both the highs and the lows, in other words, of political influence in music.

As it happens, after I read the book, I dug out my recording of Shostakovich’s Seventh I have by the Dallas Symphony. The liner notes go into a little more detail on his most famous work and its political impact. According to his memoirs, published in 1979, it wasn’t the war anthem people made it out to be (it “had been planned” before the war started):

Naturally, fascism is repugnant to me, but not only German fascism, any form of it is repugnant. Nowadays people like to recall the prewar period as being an idyllic time, saying that everything was fine until Hitler bothered us. Hitler is a criminal, that’s clear, but so is Stalin.

* * *

Actually, I have nothing against calling the Seventh the Leningrad Symphony, but it’s not about Leningrad under siege, it’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.

Where does that leave music and politics? As Shostakovich learned, they’re inexorably intertwined. Thinking that music can escape the taint of politics when nothing else can is a pipe dream. At best what music can do, better than just about any other form of art, is escape the shackles of the political sometimes and reach across barriers. It ain’t much, but it ain’t nothing.

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Weekly Read: Freedom’s Detective: The Secret Service, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Man Who Masterminded America’s First War on Terror 

This is an interesting book (more interesting than compelling, sadly, given its detached, journalistic style) to think about in these times. I actually read it a couple of months ago, but it’s crept back to relevance over the past couple of weeks. How could it not, given that it tells the story of the United States’ first concerted effort to deal with racial terrorism, which also gave rise to an unprecedented expansion of police power and tactics?

It’s the story of Hiram C. Whitley, who from 1869 to 1875 was the chief of the Secret Service. At that time, the Secret Service’s primary job was dealing with counterfeiters (it’s Presidential protection role didn’t come until ??) – which it still does, by the way (one of my great Fourth Circuit victories involved a counterfeiting case). When Whitely took over he broadened the Service’s mandate (via bureaucratic slight-of-hand and without Congressional authorization) into a broader criminal investigative unit with its sights trained the Ku Klux Klan.

Not that Whitley was particularly a crusader for human rights. Before the Civil War he did some work as a slave hunter and he essentially bought his first child. During the war he led a Union regiment in New Orleans with such brutality that his men nearly mutinied. He was a shameless self promoter who wasn’t above working outside the law when he thought it was justified. He tortured prisoners. He arrested men and executed searches without warrants. He was even involved in a Watergate-style burglary and scandal later in his career.

His most lasting contribution, however, is introducing the concept of the undercover work to American law enforcement. The idea that you had to use bad people – or at least good people pretending to be bad – to catch other bad people was scandalous. In fact, the book recounts how in one counterfeiting trial, where the case was built on undercover work, the judge actually gave the jury a cautionary instruction about how unreliable undercover officers were! If only we could get an instruction like that now.

If anything, Whitley seems like the archetype of a character we’ve become familiar with over the years from all kinds of police fiction – the cop who can’t follow the rules, but it still celebrated in the end because he gets the bad guys (a trope that’s getting some fresh looks these days). You can’t argue that Whitley’s targets were evil – not just the Klan by political machines in New York City were targets – but, as this review points out, none of those resulted in convictions, partly due to Whitley’s overreaching. One of my chief criticisms of the book is that author Charles Lane doesn’t really examine what Whitley’s legacy was or how he was an exemplar of lots of cops that came after him.

That’s why the book had come back to mind in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the related protests. As a society we’ve been conditioned to give cops the benefit of the doubt (there’s even a “good faith” exception the exclusionary rule for Fourth Amendment violations), mostly on the expectation that if they cross the line they’ve got a damned good reason. But lines are drawn for a reason and not everybody the cops cross the line to get are “bad guys” and, even if they are, they deserve the due process of the law, too.

I won’t say we can draw a direct line from Whitley’s abuses to Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck 150 years later, but there are definitely echoes there. If Whitely really was “Freedom’s Detective,” it’s worth wondering what kind of freedom it was and whether, too often, it’s been the freedom to behave badly in the name of doing good.

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Weekly Read: The Last Emperox

I like John Scalzi. I really do. I came to him via his blog, Whatever, before I read any of his books, so I kind of got to “know” him first before I knew his work. I like the snark. I like the politics (mostly). I like the open and honest way he talks about his writing and the business aspects of it. He seems like a very open guy who is helpful to emerging writers and still a complete geeky fanboy about established ones (and, for the few moments he stopped by my table at the WV Book Festival a couple years ago, just a nice guy).

I wish I liked his books better.

Late last year when I was putting together my list of favorite books from the last decade I was surprised that only one of Scalzi’s made the initial cut based on how I’d rated them on Goodreads. Redshirts, which wound up making the final list, was the only one I’d given at least four starts. I’d enjoyed all the others – there were no 2-star clunkers – but most things didn’t get beyond “like” to “really loved.”

I mention that because I really hoped that The Last Emperox, the last book in the Interdependency trilogy, would break through that ceiling. The first two books (I reviewed the first one here) had a lot of promise, but seemed rushed, like there was more in them. With the end in sight I’d hoped it would tie things together in a super satisfying way. Instead, it was more of the same – good and good fun in spots, but ultimately short of great.

The best part of The Last Emperox (and the entire trilogy) is the idea of The Flow. Analogized to a kind of river in space it’s the in-universe way of travelling between distant stars. It isn’t really FTL, but it works like it. The operative fact for the trilogy is that The Flow is collapsing, which is going to cut off planets from each other and basically dooming human civilization.

Against this backdrop the story of the trilogy is various people coming to grips with this. Some are trying to solve the problem, some are trying to profit off of it, and some are trying just do the right thing. This is fairly interesting and some of the characters involved are great. Kiva Lagos is a great, fun character to read about. The suddenly and unexpectedly enthroned Emperox Grayland II is pretty interesting, too, as are several of the supporting players (one is essentially a sentient spaceship). All good stuff.

The problem is that all these interesting people are racing around pushing the plot so hard that sometimes the books come off like extended Wikipedia entries. Part of this has to do with some things that Scalzi does repeatedly that don’t work for me (your mileage may vary, as they say). One is that something will happen – suddenly, with no warning (given who the POV characters are), and often violently. Then we’ll get a couple of characters talk about what happened. It’s like in-world telling instead of showing. Plots – in the sense of plotting, conniving, conspiring – are a lot more fun when you can see the gears working during the wind up. Just getting the incident itself with an ex post explanation isn’t very satisfying.

Another thing that happens repeatedly is that something happens to a character that should move them off the board – a conspiracy foiled or an assassination – that really doesn’t mean anything in the end. The evil doer caught in the act escapes, the target of death really escaped serious harm – all explained after the fact. It gets to the point that when a very major “death” occurs in The Last Emperox you can’t care about it very much because there’s little chance it’s real.

Those issues wouldn’t matter all that much if the ending wasn’t so underwhelming. As I said, the entire motivation for this tale is that The Flow is collapsing and civilization is at risk. Folks come up with a clever way to save it and . . . then we learn that will happen years in the future, after this book is over. So, yay? You think it’s heading for a galaxy-defining moment and it just doesn’t.

Which brings me to my biggest gripe with this trilogy – it doesn’t feel like a complete story. It feels more like the first part of a larger trilogy (for epic space opera these books aren’t long), where a certain challenge is surmounted but the big one that would overarc the series has a lot of legs left to it.

I suppose that’s appropriate, though. The first two books mostly left me feeling the same way – I liked a lot of what they had to offer, but felt there was more there, lurking in the aether. I know the old show biz saying is “leave them wanting more,” but I’m not sure it applies to books – trilogies, especially.

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