Why Not Just Write Fantasy?

Over the winter my wife and I discovered The Great*, the Hulu series about (very loosely) the early reign of Russian empress Catherine the Great.

While I’m not certain the series quite lives up to the title, it is very entertaining and, in spots, riotously funny. What it definitely lives up to is the little asterisk the end of the title (as displayed in the opening credits, at least), which notes it is either “An Occasionally True Story” (season one) or “An Almost Entirely Untrue Story” (season two).

This post is very much not going to take the show’s creators to task for playing fast and loose with history, particularly since they admit it up front. Truth is, literature and theater and film/TV is full of examples of historical persons or events remolded for dramatic purposes. I know Salieri didn’t really work Mozart to death (they were pretty good buds!), but I still love Amadeus. Dollars to donvts Julius Caesar did not turn to Brutus and “et tu, Brute?” him in real life, but Shakespeare makes it work.

But as a writer, I wonder about the choices other writers made when playing with history. History is full of lots of interesting story fuel, after all. I’ve used some of it myself. I’ve said before that the idea for the basic arc of The Water Road trilogy came from seeing an “on this day” thing on Wikipedia about the anniversary of Napoleon’s return from exile to start the Hundred Days. I thought that sounded like something out of a fantasy series – a vanquished foe returning to the world to wreak further havoc – and wheels started turning in my head.

What never occurred to me was the make the story about Napoleon. I didn’t want to tell his story, but another one that might have echoes of his. Being a fantasy writer that’s not an issue, but with more traditional fiction things can get complicated. After all, a made up character doing made up things is the grist of fiction – sometimes everything even happens in made up places. But a made up town or neighborhood is one thing, what about a made up country?

I got to thinking about this again due to this piece in the New York Times about the recent glut of true-crime limited series that are all over streaming services. Things like Netflix’s Inventing Anna and Hulu’s The Dropout (both pretty good, though I’d go with the latter) are telling true-crime stories of recent vintage that, in most cases, have been thoroughly aired in other settings (Inventing Anna came out of a long-form magazine piece, The Dropout from a podcast of the same name). I don’t agree that just because these stories have been told in other mediums means the fictionalized TV versions are superfluous (not everybody consumes podcasts), but the author makes an interesting point:

Now, it is absolutely true that real life does not always give you neat “Rosebud” explanations; real people are often simply jumbles of unresolved contradictions. But that’s one reason we have drama: to make emotional, if not literal, sense of this kind of figure. (Hence Orson Welles reimagined William Randolph Hearst as Charles Foster Kane.)

Indeed, it seems much easier if you want to tell a story about a particular kind of person to do it with a fictional character rather than a real-life one. Legal issues aside, it allows you to mold and shape the story as dramatic (or comedic!) stakes dictate, without worrying about people complaining that you’re not “getting it right.” After all, fantasy only has to be compelling, not accurate.

So why not, if you want to tell a story that pretty much set in a fantastic version of a historical place, why not make it fantasy? What’s the pull of using a historical figure whose actual history you’re going to discard anyway? I suppose it’s easier to market a series about Catherine the Great (who’s not that well know in the US, anyway) with an ahistorical twist than it is to sell a bloody, bawdy, fantasy series nobody’s heard of before.

As I said, it’s silly to get bent out of shape about The Great’s lack of rigorous historicity. They’re doing something much more fun and not even hiding the fact. Nonetheless, it does make you think.

Come, join us in our fantasy worlds. The water’s fine – unless that’s not what you want! Huzzah!

“At Such Speeds, Things Fly”

Beginning in 1955, Donald Campbell piloted Bluebird K7, the world’s first functional jet-powered hydroplane, to a slew of water speed records. He didn’t just break the record, he shattered it over and over again – the record he initially broke was 178 miles per hour, while his last complete run, nine years later, was over 276 miles per hour.

On January 4, 1967, Campbell took Bluebird  to Coniston Water in England’s Lake District for another run, hoping to hit 300 miles per hour. After making the run one direction at over 297 miles per hour, Campbell began the return run. Then, tragedy struck:

It was big news in the UK, big enough that young Steve Hogarth, while not quite grasping what had happened, noted the emotional impact Campbell’s death had on his mother. Flash forward three decades and Hogarth, aka “H,” and his band Marillion release Afraid of Sunlight, my personal favorite album of theirs. One track, “Out of this World,” is about Campbell and his fatal voyage, complete with some snippets of radio traffic from that day.

So far not that interesting, right? A band writing a song about a tragic historical event is hardly rare (Marillion themselves have jokingly been referred to as a band specializing in songs about “death and water”). What’s really cool is what happened afterward. Bill Smith was not just a Marillion fan (he even sort of promoted a solo Fish show in Newcastle!), but an experienced salvage diver. Inspired by the song, he led a team that found Bluebird and raised it from the depths. The official photographer for the event? Steve Rothery, Marillion guitarist. You can hear more about that day on the latest episode of Hogarth’s podcast, The Corona Diaries, which includes an interview with Smith.

Again, that would be an interesting enough story, but it goes even further. Smith and his team restored Bluebird and, in 2018, it was in the water again, on Loch Fad in Scotland, where it hit 150 miles per hour.

Sadly, that wasn’t the end of things. There appears to be an ongoing legal dispute over where Bluebird should make its final landing. According to the BBC, the Campbell family promised Bluebird to a local Coniston museum (that has built a wing specifically to house the restored craft). Smith, however, argues that because some of the restored craft is made up of new parts, he “co-owns the craft.” Interestingly, in the podcast, Smith points out that the usual finders-keepers salvage law of the open ocean doesn’t apply to inland waterways.

I suppose it’s inevitable that when someone’s legacy is at stake the parties involved wind up at odds. I don’t think it’s a matter of money more than it is pride and obligation. I hope there’s a happy ending in there somewhere, a resolution that can please all the parties involved, if not completely.

All in all, there’s probably at least another song in all this.

“Louie, Louie” and the Wages of Satan

When I went to college most of the music I had was on cassettes recorded from the record collections of my brothers. As a result, I didn’t have the liner notes that came with those albums and, thus, no lyrics to pore over. This wasn’t a huge problem, but I did always wonder what Jon Anderson was singing about on old Yes albums.

I got online during my junior year of college and quickly discovered primitive websites devoted to bands I loved. Some of them even had song lyrics on them! So I dutifully dove into some of those old Yes albums and . . . didn’t really get any better understanding of the lyrics. Turns out Anderson was more focused on what words sounded like rather than meaning, so they were pretty vague on purpose – what on Earth (or beyond) is “cold summer listening” and how does “hot color melt the anger to stone,” anyway?

Still and all, Anderson never wound up in the crosshairs of J. Edgar Hoover. And he never inspired , one of my favorite Bloom County strips of all time:

The joke works, of course, because nobody really knows what the words to “Louie, Louie,” are, which is pretty amazing given how much the song has seeped into our culture. How exactly did that happen? Turns out, it’s precisely because purveyors of moral panic can try to make the lyrics be any old thing they wanted.

This article in Reason tells the tale. The song was written in 1956, but didn’t really breakthrough until it was recorded by the Kingsmen in 1963 (it peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard chart) and even then it took a while to get rolling. As the article points out, it’s not a particularly deep song:

It was nothing more than a lovesick sailor’s lament to a bartender about wanting to get back home to his girl. But because Jack Ely, the Kingsmen’s lead singer, slurred the words beyond recognition, it became something of a Rorschach test for dirty minds. Schoolyard rumors about filthy lyrics in “Louie, Louie” stoked parental fears, prompted fevered complaints, and ultimately triggered a prolonged nationwide investigation.

My favorite overreaction to this comes from the governor of Indiana who “claimed that the record was so obscene it made his ‘ears tingle’” and used his connections with radio stations to effectively ban the song in that state. That’s peanuts to the multi-year investigation that the United States government launched into the song, via the FBI and the fellas at the freakin’ FCC, among others. Even with all that time and all those resources involved, investigators couldn’t figure out what the Kingsmen were on about!

My other favorite detail is this – it took the crack investigators at the FBI 18 months to think to go look up the actual lyrics on file with the U.S. Copyright Office! Mystery solved, at least, right? Not really. There were “other versions” of the lyrics circulating in schoolyards and such, which seems to say less about “Louie, Louie” than it does about the hyper sexed minds of young adults everywhere.

There’s lots of other interesting stuff in the article, so I recommend the full read. I will go ahead and spoil the ending, though – “Louie, Louie” won, in the end, becoming its own kind of classic. Did you know that April 11 is International “Louie, Louie” Day? Now you do, just in time to celebrate and tell the censorious prudes to go fuck themselves.

Hey Kafka (Or, Ruminations on Dead Authors and Duties Owed to Them)

Five years ago I wrote a post about dealing with requests from writers to destroy their unfinished (or other) work upon their death. It was sparked by the destruction of the recently passed Terry Pratchett’s hard drive by running it over with a steamroller, per his desire. As I wrote then:

The comments I read when the news came out was mostly amusement and pleasure at Pratchett’s wishes being so scrupulously honored. After all, if he was so specific as to how his literary executor was to deal with his unfinished work he must have felt fairly passionately about it never seeing the light of day. Who could argue that the right thing to do is precisely what the author wants?

I got to thinking about this again reading Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge.

What I thought was going to be a particularly timely look at the social or political factors behind drives to ban books was actually a love letter to libraries and archives and the need for society to protect and support the collection and retention of knowledge. No great surprise, I suppose, given that Ovenden is the librarian at the famed Bodlean Library at Oxford.

In a couple of chapters, Ovenden discusses particular situations where authors either took affirmative efforts during their lives to destroy their unfinished work or asked executors/family to do the destroying once they were dead. In some instances (like Franz Kafka) it was unfinished work, where some others involved personal papers like letters or notes. Ovenden’s point of view is clearly that any loss of this information is a cultural travesty and implies that the heroes here are people who go against the wishes of their friends/loved ones and preserve their work anyway.

I get that, on the one hand. Destroyed knowledge is pretty much gone, after all, without any hope of getting it back. The world is undeniably richer for having Kafka’s unfinished work or the papers of someone like Sylvia Plath that gives insight into a writer’s life and process. But whose decision is it to make that determination?

The author’s wishes deserve at least some consideration, right? Maybe because in one side of my life I’m a writer and in another I fight battles to vindicate the Fourth Amendment and rights to privacy (usually unsuccessfully, alas), but airing things the original author never wanted to see the light of day seems like a violation. I’m not sure the world is entitled to anything the author doesn’t want to show it.

As is happens, after Burning the Books, I decided to read one of the most famous posthumously published works, Kafka’s The Trial.

I’d had it in my collection for a while but never got around to it. I’m glad I did, just to have been able to say I’ve read it. As a lawyer, you’d think it would be required reading, although the deep secret buried in The Trial is that there never is an actual trial that takes place. I sort of know that’s the point, but I expected a little bit more procedural chicanery – the kind of stuff that happens in regular courtrooms that get dubbed “Kafkaesque.”

The Trial definitely feels unfinished. My understanding is that the first and last chapters were actually written and designated as such by Kafka, but the rest was assembled by his executor, Max Brod, after his death. That said, it does have a memorable ending, so it doesn’t just peter out. I also found the atmosphere to be more dreamlike than nightmarish. The main character, K, is more frustrated and aggravated by the situation than he is terrified. In a way that makes it worse.

While there is no trial per se in The Trial, lawyers and the court system come off pretty badly. The part that stuck with me the most is a scene where K is in the court building and passes a group of litigants just huddled around not doing much of anything. It’s explained that they’re waiting for rulings in their cases, some of them for years, and that all they can do is continue to wait. That put me in mind of several of my clients who have watched their cases languish in court, just waiting for the judge to make a decision. They’d rather the judge get it wrong but actually get it done – at least then they could move on to the next phase of things.

My ultimate conclusion about The Trial is that I think K was dead the entire time. The suddenness of the accusation, the ultimate futility of fighting the charges, and the references to K needing to defend his entire life make me think that he’s in some kind of limbo (from which he’s ultimately released in the end). The way “the law” is discussed, too, sounds more like a religious concept than a purely legal one. It doesn’t ultimately matter, but it’s what jumped to mind while reading it.

Since I was on a Kafka kick, I decided to wrap things up with a book that dove more deeply into the battle over his literary legacy, Kafka’s Last Trial, by Benjamin Balint.

The titular trial here took place in Israel in this century and was a battle over where Kafka’s literary legacy would have its home. It stems from how Brod dealt with Kafka’s literary estate and whether it should be retained by the descendents of his secretary or should be taken into the National Library of Israel as a cultural treasure of the Jewish people (or even in an archive in Germany). The legal wrangling isn’t that interesting (it turns on technical distinctions between different kinds of gifts – you can read up on it here), but the question of legacy is really fascinating. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to the issue of whether Kafka was a German writer (though he lived in what is now the Czech Republic) who happened to be Jewish, or a Jewish writer who happened to write in German and what the answer to that question means.

Of course, that issue could be hashed out regardless of whether Brod had destroyed Kafka’s unfinished works as asked (assuming Kafka became a big enough name without it). And it would have avoided an awful lot of expensive litigation generations later. So, in the end, is it better to encourage executors, friends, and families to abide by the wishes of the writers who trust them to do so?

I’m inclined to think so, but I also think that the question may be moot. After all, once a writer is dead he or she isn’t going to know what their executors do one way or the other. One pleasant thing about death is you don’t have to worry about your reputation. Weighing all the considerations, maybe Brod was on to something in the first place.

The Gagarin Nonsense

A couple of weeks ago I talked a little bit about how, in reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, people and businesses had been cutting ties with all things Russian. Some of these make sense, as a way to starve the Russian economy and isolate/shame people with close ties to Putin, but some of them are pretty stupid, like pouring out (presumably quality) Russian vodka that you’ve already paid for. That’s a fairly pointless gesture, after all.

Which brings us to the weirdness revolving around Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin, of course, was the first human in space, an icon of the Space Race . . . and died in 1968. Putin was a teenager when Gagarin died, so it’s fairly safe to say he had nothing to do with the decision to invade Ukraine.

So imagine my surprise when I saw on Twitter over the weekend that Gagarin was being cancelled. Actually, what Tweet after Tweet said was that he had been “stripped of his honours” – complete with British spelling:

Where was this coming from? Even during the height of the Cold War I don’t remember Gagarin being treated as anything other than a pioneer. What would lead to his cancellation due to a war that started four and a half decades after he died? Turns out it’s slightly more complicated, at least in terms of the reach.

As it happens, there is a thing called the Space Foundation, which, according to Wikipedia, “is an American nonprofit organization that advocates for all sectors of the global space industry through space awareness activities, educational programs, and major industry events. It was founded in 1983.” At the beginning of April they’re having a Space Symposium (apparently a yearly event) that, according to Futurism, was supposed to have a night or panel called “Yuri’s Night.” Now, per a now deleted Tweet (cowards) it’s been renamed “A Celebration of Space: What’s Next.”

He’s a description of the event, from the Space Foundation website:

So it’s a schmoozy meet and greet cocktail party thing and, to me, sounds like it’s primarily geared toward fund raising. As explained in the Futurism story:

The nonprofit Space Foundation announced  in a now-deleted note that ‘in light of current world events’ it would be changing the name of a fundraiser from ‘Yuri’s Night” to ‘A Celebration of Space: Discover What’s Next’ at its Space Symposium conference.

‘The focus of this fundraising event remains the same — to celebrate human achievements in space while inspiring the next generation to reach for the stars,’ the deleted update notes.

I agree with the author of the Futurism piece that this is a “rather dubious show of solidarity with the Ukrainian people” and is ultimately a dumb move, but I can see how it happened. In an environment when every corporate entity has to take a stand on current events, you’re going to have places that decide to avoid any hint of controversy as much as possible (and trigger the inevitable backlash).

But let’s keep in mind what this is not – there is no cancelling of Gagarin going on here. He’s not being erased from history books. There are no “honours” the Space Foundation has bestowed upon him that they could now revoke. How could they? Gagarin will always be the first person in place.

My point here is not that the Space Foundation was the right one. I think it’s pretty stupid, but I think equally stupid, or maybe even more so, is the reaction to it which is fairly divorced from the initial decision. It feels to me like it’s one of those minor stupidities that blows up over social media based on details that aren’t accurate. Dealing with the fallout from the Russian invasion is hard enough without reacting to stuff that didn’t actually happen.

Weekly Read: The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled In Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime

Plus ca change
Plus c’est la meme chose
The more that things change
The more they stay the same
– Neal Peart, “Circumstances” from Hemispheres

Much has been written about how we’re living in an era obsessed with stories about crime. True crime podcasts and documentaries are everywhere. There’s something compelling about digging into an extended investigation of crimes and the people who commit them (the people against whom they’re committed usually get less attention). That’s true even for somebody who is knee deep in criminal law every workday. I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of more than a few of these cases.

Along with the rise in true crime media has been concerns about what it says about society or how it may shape perceptions of crime. While those are legitimate things to worry about, if you get nothing else out of The Invention of Murder  it should be that our societal obsession with crime, and qualms about it, are nothing new.

Victorians didn’t actually invent murder, of course, but Judith Flanders presents some evidence that it wasn’t very prevalent before the 19th Century (or at least widely reported). What occurs in that period is a convergence of emerging mass media, organized police forces, and growing cities that created a kind of perfect storm of crime and reflection upon it.

For the most part, Flanders works through the century by covering the details of a specific case, then showing how it was discussed in the press and, eventually, popular entertainments (Charles Dickens shows up in these an awful lot). Along the way we see the shift from public to private executions – public ones could attract thousands of people. We also see that the public interest in the stories of murders – which are often different from the facts – became insatiable.

This format gets a little redundant at times, but it allows Flanders to show that whatever the details of any particular petty atrocity, the press and popular entertainment could always make it worse, more salacious, more interesting. These includes not just novels, but stage plays (lots of stage plays – copyright wasn’t much of a thing in that era) and even marionette shows. Famous murders became quick reference points for certain kinds of maliciousness. Cases crept into popular culture so much that famous killers lent their names to ships and racehorses.

That the facts of particular cases didn’t always match the public’s perception mirrors our world today. I was struck when Flanders described the mid-century panic over murder by poisoning, even though they were so uncommon as to be nearly non-existent. A better example of a moral panic it would be hard to find.

Other threads running through these cases would feel familiar to a 21st Century reader. The modern police force was formed in the early part of the century and, almost as quickly, the police were criticized not as protectors of the general public but as enforcers of social order. Almost immediately after the Metropolitan Police Force was organized in London one newspaper listed among the “Necessary Qualifications” to be a cop the ability “to perjure himself with a clear conscience,” which could lead to “speedy promotion.” Then there are the repeated instances where a murder defendant is othered in some way (as a Catholic or Jew or Eastern European – I think there was one where all three were used!), set apart from the wider society that was reading about them.

One of the ongoing dialogs in the press that Flanders recounts is the requisite navel gazing as to whether the press coverage and popular media fascination with murder actually leads to the commission of crime. Throw in “video games” or “social media” and you have the same dialog going on today. What’s interesting is where this leads – Jack the Ripper. Flanders doesn’t argue that Jack’s crimes were caused by the Victorian obsession with murder, but does suggest that it’s kind of the final step in that evolution. What Jack the Ripper became in the public imagination couldn’t have happened a century earlier. If you’ve read Alan Moore’s From Hell this is a kind of reverse of the theory that animates (so to speak) that book, that Jack’s crimes were actually the birth of the 20th Century and all the mayhem that would occur during it.The Invention of Murder isn’t a quick read. It’s fairly dense and comes with pages of notes and source citations in the back, so it’s a serious historical work. But it’s also really entertaining, if you have any interest in how societies process crime. Flanders brings just enough snark to proceedings the lighten things up here and there. Definitely recommended.

Weekly Read & Watch: Eight Men Out

I’m not a baseball fan. I don’t hate it – life’s too short to get worked up about other peoples’ pastimes – but it doesn’t engage me. It might be odd, then, that one of my favorite movies is Eight Men Out, John Sayles’ exploration of the infamous “Black Sox” scandal, when a group of Chicago White Sox players threw the 1919 World Series.

Of course, what makes the movie work so well is that it isn’t really a baseball movie. It’s a movie about labor relations, in which the ballplayers are exploited at first by the club’s owner, Charles Comiskey, and then by unscrupulous gamblers who don’t even pay the players what they’re supposed to. I won’t say the baseball stuff is secondary (there’s a good deal of on-field action), but it’s definitely used in service to something other than your traditional sports movie narrative.

The film is based on a book of the same name by Eliot Asinof that was first published in 1963.

I only just got around to reading the book itself, which is an interesting contrast to the movie. They tell the same story, but there are some interesting differences that arise from Sayles really driving home the political point of view he’s coming from.

What the book does better than the film, since it has more time to cover the story, is provide more context to what happened in 1919. For one thing, while the movie presents the Black Sox scandal as almost sui generis – a huge breach of sporting life – it turns out the gambling-related scandals were pretty common in baseball at the time. Granted, they hadn’t gotten up to the level of the World Series, but in truth this was the straw that broke the camel’s back rather than a singular incident. Indeed, one of the earlier scandals involved the Sox’s opponents in the World Series – the Cincinnati Reds.

The book also provides more context for what is alleged to be the prime driver of the players’ interest in the fix – that Comiskey was a particularly miserly owner. The movie moves a couple of incidents (involving avoiding paying bonuses) from 1917 to 1919 to help drive this home. While the book argues that Comiskey was a tight wad, it also shows that the rest of the owners weren’t much better. In the days of the reserve clause, where free agency didn’t exist and players were forced to play for basically whatever wages the owners offered, it was easy to be a tightwad. There’s also attention given to contract terms that allowed players to be fired with 10-days notice for just about anything (including getting injured), but they had no similar right to walk away. It’s not as if your best player could fuck off to another team when their contract was up. More than that, given that the country was just coming out of World War I there was a rational (if not completely honest) basis for owners to worry more about money. Being a professional baseball player then wasn’t much better than being a professional women’s soccer player is these days, complete with the side hustles. The movie focusing on salaries makes that easier to convey in a dramatic narrative of just about two hours.

For all that context there’s one area where I wish the book would have provided a little bit more. Having read the book I’m still not sure where gambling fit into society at the time of the 1919 World Series. The gamblers involved in this story are all pretty sleazy characters with connections to organized crime, but gambling itself seemed to be much more open and notorious than it would be in later years. There’s a recurring motif of entertainer George M. Cohan being close to the fix (although not involved) due to gambling that makes it seem not quite illegal – but maybe not quite legal, either? I’d be interested to know what society thought of gambling back then as a way to help explain the reaction to the fix.

The book also dives deeper into the aftermath of the series and the eventual exposure of the fix. The movie keeps a tight point of view on the players, while the book follows the journalists and lawyers who probed the series and the gambling that surrounded it (Sayles compresses most of this into a jazz-fueled montage). In particular, I appreciated the details on how journalist Hugh Fullerton (played by Studs Terkel who, along with Sayles himself as Ring Lardner, act as kind of a Greek chorus throughout) was roundly vilified for daring to suggest that something wasn’t on the level. History proved him right, of course, but that might have been cold consolation.

As for the lawyers – well, if baseball came out of the entire scandal with a damaged reputation, my profession didn’t exactly cover itself in glory. Some of the more melodramatic parts of the movie – grand jury testimony being stolen, outbursts in the courtroom – weren’t added for dramatic effect, it seems. At the eventual criminal trial (where everyone, players and gamblers both, were acquitted) the players were represented by lawyers paid by Comiskey who were more interested in letting baseball (with its new, all powerful, commissioner) deal with the matter than the courts. But my favorite bit of lawyerdom in the movie is when Kennesaw Mountain Landis, a federal judge named the first baseball commissioner, takes the job for significantly more pay than being a judge – but keeps his seat on the bench, anyway.

Where the book and movie differ most importantly is when it comes to the genesis of the fix itself. In the book it’s clear that the fix began with the players, who reached out to gamblers about the possibility of fixing the series. The film is a bit more vague. The conversation where it’s first broached by Chick Gandil and gambler Sport Sullivan starts kind of in medias res, with no real indication of who made the first pitch (so to speak). I think it lets Sayles maintain his exploitation narrative without sullying the players too much.

Ultimately, though, it’s important to consider that the Sayles movie is a narrative work of fiction, not history, and the Asinof book is now nearly six decades old. As compiled by the Society for Baseball Research, more recent evidence has emerged that cast some doubts over the story told in Eight Men Out. In particular, maybe Comiskey wasn’t the miser he’s been portrayed as being, although that doesn’t much matter in the end. The book, to a lesser extent than the film, is telling this story from the players’ perspectives and whether their complaints with Comiskey were valid in a wider context doesn’t mean they still weren’t motivated by them.

None of this makes the any less engrossing or means it can’t get at broader truths about America and its economic life. There’s truthiness to it, if not absolute truth. Just means it’s history, which is ever changing upon further evaluation.

Weekly Read: The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War – A Tragedy In Three Acts

What if the CIA hasn’t been a bad idea all along? That’s the theory underpinning The Quiet Americans, a look at the early days of the agency and its roots in World War II. Fascinating and detailed as the book is, I’m not sure I completely buy Scott Anderson’s thesis that if the guys on the ground would have been allowed to do it their way things might have worked out better.

Telling even part of the history of the CIA is a sprawling affair, which Anderson does by focusing on four early agency operatives, all of whom came out of the hastily assembled intelligence groups the United States used during the war. This Washington Post review summarizes them well:

Frank Wisner, the first chief of the CIA’s covert-operations unit, provides a top-down view of the early Cold War, while Michael Burke, a jack-of-all-trades charmer, delivers an agent’s experience from the ground up. The German émigré Peter Sichel, the most intriguing and least known of Anderson’s characters, spends most of his time in Berlin and Eastern Europe, while Edward Lansdale, the best known of the four, traipses through the Philippines. Lansdale gives the book its title, borrowed from Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American,” rumored to be based on Lansdale’s misadventures in Southeast Asia. An early adopter in the emerging field of “psychological warfare,” Lansdale would become best known for his clandestine scheming in Vietnam, but Anderson captures him at an earlier moment, as a young man grappling with the moral and logistical complexities of foreign intervention — more “Lawrence of Asia,” as his nickname suggested, than Dr. Strangelove.

What the CIA eventually becomes – a black hole out of which clandestine operations toppled governments and propped up dictators – has an origin story in Anderson’s telling. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Soviets treated the areas of Eastern Europe they liberated less as newly freed lands than as conquered territories. They installed puppet regimes, stripped resources, and even hauled people away to work in the Soviet Union in scenes reminiscent of the transport of Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust. This was evil, without a doubt, but it was also a kind of fait accompli and there wasn’t anything short of another war that the US and its allies could do about it.

With Eastern Europe locked up, US foreign policy eyes turned toward what was now being called the Third World. The problem was that the thing that gave the Soviets such leverage in Europe – geographical proximity and boots on the ground – didn’t apply in Asia, Africa, or Central and South America. More to the point, populations in these areas often had legitimate grievances arising from generations of colonial rule. Instead of recognizing and working with that anger, the US saw everyone who didn’t toe their line as communists and battled against them accordingly.

A large part of Anderson’s story is about how the four titular quiet Americans came to become disillusioned with the CIA’s work. Part of that came from the abandonment of two American ideals in the name of fighting communists. The first was rejecting the anti-colonial position of the Roosevelt administration in favor of helping Cold War allies prop up their failing empires. This was always a bit hypocritical – we’ve got our empire, too – but siding with, say, the French in Southeast Asia over local independence movements only proved to the locals that if they wanted outside support it wasn’t coming from the Americans. Most spectacularly, this led to the morass that was the Vietnam War.

The other guiding principle that the US let slide in the name of fighting communism was a commitment to democracy. Two of the early CIA’s successes were orchestrating coups in Iran and Guatemala that deposed popularly elected leaders that were perceived as problematic. In Iran it was more down to British oil interests than anything else, while in Guatemala the CIA managed to turn an elected president who was, at most, a little left leaning into a communist scourge who had to be stopped at all costs (though Moscow didn’t even know who he was).

If ditching those principles were strike one and two, then the third was the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. For most of the Cold War up to that point CIA operatives had staged operations behind the Iron Curtain, flying in expat agents (many of whom were captured or killed – or both) and generally trying to lay the groundwork to aid in a popular uprising, should it come. When it did, in Hungary, the US didn’t do anything. Part of this was due to the specter of a nuclear war which everyone figured would arise from conflict in Europe. That led to the CIA guys, as one of them put it, not knowing what to do if they “won.”

Of course, there was no “winning” the games they were playing. I followed up this book with The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins, which focuses on the CIA’s role in overthrowing the Indonesian government in 1965. What’s interesting is that, in laying the background, Bevins provides some more detail on things like the Iranian and Guatemalan coups, making their unsavorinous clear, while pointing out the long-term consequences for those countries. In other words, even the successes of the early CIA really weren’t, in the long run.

This comes out sounding a little harsh on The Quiet Americans, which isn’t really fair. It’s a very compelling book, with lots of interesting details about not just some of the overseas operations, but also the political context back in the US. Indeed, one running thread was how J. Edgar Hoover pretty much had it in for the CIA from the beginning, since he wanted to run the intelligence show from the FBI. But there’s a definite theme that the CIA itself wasn’t a failure, but that it was failed by higher ups, in much the same way that, for years, the debacle in Vietnam was framed as what happens when the politicians don’t just get out of the way and let the military run the show.

But, overall, this is a very worthy read. Just remember to take it with just a few grains of salt.

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.

The International Misery Film Festival

Did you ever have the kind of weekend where you fell into an impromptu film festival? Naturally a festival has to have a particular theme, right? This past weekend, the wife and I fell ass over teakettle into a series of largely depressing, but mostly good, movies about various historical horribles. An International Misery Film Festival, if you will.

First up was a recent HBO documentary, The Art of Political Murder.

It’s about a Guatemalan priest and human rights advocate, Juan José Gerardi Conedera, who was murdered in 1998, two days after he announced the release of a report on abuses during that country’s civil war that implicated the government in various atrocities. The film works through the investigation and ultimate conviction of several perpetrators (army officers and a fellow priest), although it stops before diving into why they did it or if someone higher up the authorial chain ordered them to do it. The film tries to play like a whodunit, but it wastes time on alternate theories that don’t pan out, almost like it needs to delay the inevitable conclusion. Recommended for shedding light on an incident I wasn’t familiar with, but could have been better.

From Guatemala we next travelled to Cambodia. When the wife and I honeymooned in Cambodia we stopped for a day or two in Phnom Penh between stints exploring ruins around Ankor Wat and some beach days at Kep. That gave us time to experience the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, as well as the nearby Cheung Ek “killing fields.” It was a thoroughly heart wrenching experience. At Tuol Sleng we met one of the few survivors of the prison/torture facility the Khmer Rouge ran there, which it called S-21.

Turns out, the man and another survivor were central to our next film, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine.

Low budget (it was shot on video, I’m pretty sure), but harrowing and powerful, this doc brings those two survivors together at Tuol Sleng with a host of men who worked there for the Khmer Rouge – guards, torturers, drivers. A large part of the doc is given over to these men explaining what they did at Tuol Sleng and, in some cases, pantomiming their crimes and daily routines. What’s most amazing, to 21st century ears, is that while one of these men voices the expected “just following orders” defense, they don’t make any attempt to euphemize what they did. The word “torture” is used repeatedly, rather than, say “enhanced interrogation techniques” (the Khmer Rouge waterboarded, too!). They go to Cheung Ek and cold describe mass murder. The limitation of a doc like this is there’s very little understanding of what made people do this to one another, but on its own terms it’s very worth watching.

From the 1970s in Southeast Asia we moved to something influenced by what was happening in that region at the same time, The Baader Meinhoff Complex.

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This German film briskly covers the rise and fall of the first iteration of the Red Army Faction (sometimes known as the Baader Meinhoff Gang, after two of its leaders) from about 1968 to 1978. An outgrowth of the West German student protest movement, the RAF conducted a series of bank robberies, assassinations, and bombings in hopes of sparking a Marxist revolution. What was really interesting was how much motivation came from American activities in Vietnam and having military bases in West Germany. Indeed, some of the group’s bombings targeted American military installations, killing a handful of American soldiers.

There are issues that resonate with the modern world throughout the film. It begins with a demonstration by students against the visiting Shah of Iran. Once he and his wife leave the scene, the protestors are attacked by Iranian supporters, while West German police standby (they later join in, beating protestors and, in one case, shooting and killing one). It’s impossible not to watch that now and think of the police response (or lack thereof ) to various protests (and worse) in the US over the past few years. That the main RAF members wind up in solitary confinement pending their trial echoes in debates of how often that’s used in our modern penal system.

That said, the most interesting facet of the film is Horst Herold, the head of the West German police, played in a clever bit of casting by Bruno Ganz, the Hitler of Downfall fame. On the one hand, Herold does what you’d expect of a police chief chasing a band of murderous criminals and pulls out all the stops to catch them – at one point, he puts every police officer in West Germany on the street on a single say performing checkpoints, patdowns, and searches. Yet, he also recognizes that to combat terrorists you need to understand their motivations, which usually stem from legitimate concerns. That his more enlightened thoughts don’t carry the day point out a fundamental irony of the whole thing – in violently reacting to what it perceived as the West German police state, the RAF gave the state the justification it needed to really crackdown.

The film’s major problem is that it just has too much ground to cover. Intent on cramming as much action in as possible, it doesn’t spend enough time with some of the ancillary characters who drop in for an operation then disappear. It also doesn’t provide any idea of what happened to the RAF after its founding members died in prison. Still, a good watch and highly recommended.

I wish I could say the same about our sojourn in Ethiopia and London, Sweetness In the Belly.

Based on the novel of the same name, this tells the story of a British girl who is abandoned at a Sufi shrine in Morocco by her parents (who were probably killed over some kind of drug debt). She becomes devout, goes to Ethiopia just as the civil war there starts, and winds up a refugee resettling in London. There are issues of representation here – the story of African refugees told through the eyes of a white British woman – but the film’s biggest sin it that it’s just not very compelling. Lily, the main character, is a complete bore whose attractiveness to the two doctors of color she comes across (one in Ethiopia, the other in London) is completely inexplicable. The film fares better when it focuses on Lily’s bonding with another refugee in London, but that only goes so far. Not recommended.

Our final stop was the Soviet Union, via England and Wales, for Mr. Jones.

The title character is Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist who, in the early 1930s, was also an advisor to British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George. After scoring an interview with Hitler (the result of which is alarm that wasn’t fully heeded), Jones wanted to do the same with Stalin. Cut loose from the government due to budget cuts (it was the Great Depression, after all), he makes it to Moscow. He doesn’t get to talk to Stalin, but the murder of another journalist (allegedly during a robbery) and the fact that reporters are being restricted to Moscow, make him curious. He manages to sneak to Ukraine where he bears firsthand witness to the Holodomor, the man-made famine that killed millions of people and may (depending on who you ask) been an act of genocide. The Soviets had been covering the whole thing up until Jones’ reportage came out.

The film keeps its point of view close on Jones, which is effective for the most part, but it robs the Holodomor of any real context. We see the horrors of it – even if (according to his family) the real Jones didn’t experience all of them (such as cannibalism), as he does in the film – but don’t get more than a few passing mentions about how and why it happened. There’s also a frame story with Orwell writing Animal Farm and it just doesn’t work. I get it – Orwell’s fable is a takedown of Stalinism – but it seems like it’s just stuck on to Jones’ story, particularly given that there’s a scene where the two meet and talk about what they’re writing! Flawed, but ultimately worth a watch. So, there we are. This weekend, I’m thinking some mindless comedies to balance things out.