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.

On Pardons and Admissions of Guilt

I’ve almost written this post several times, but I’m only just getting around to it. I’ve gotten plenty of opportunities, at least.

Over the years, every time Trump has pardoned one of his cronies – as he recently did with Michael Flynn – one of the reactions (mostly on the left) has been that by accepting the pardon the recipient admits his guilt to whatever offense he is being pardoned for. I think this rests on a misreading of the relevant Supreme Court case. More than that, any quick thought about how pardons normally work show that one doesn’t really have anything to do with admissions of guilt at all.

The Supreme Court case at issue is Burdick v. United States, 236 U.S. 79 (1915). And to be fair, in Burdick the Court did say this, in distinguishing between pardons and legislative immunity:

This brings us to the differences between legislative immunity and a pardon. They are substantial. The latter carries an imputation of guilt; acceptance a confession of it. The former has no such imputation or confession. It is tantamount to the silence of the witness. It is noncommittal. It is the unobtrusive act of the law given protection against a sinister use of his testimony, not like a pardon, requiring him to confess his guilt in order to avoid a conviction of it.

Case closed? No quite, for two reasons. First, there is absolutely no citation to any other case or source to support the idea that accepting a pardon means confessing guilt. Second, no court, even the Supreme Court, proclaims on law in a vacuum. So what was it that was the actual issue in that case?

Burdick was the editor of a New York City newspaper that had published leaks from inside the Treasury Department. The local US Attorney convened a grand jury to investigate and called Burdick, hoping he would name his sources. Instead, Burdick invoked the Fifth Amendment and his right to remain silent. To get him to talk, the US Attorney went to President Woodrow Wilson and obtained a pardon, which would extinguish the ability of Burdick to plead the Fifth (which, coincidentally, is where Flynn is now). Burdick refused to accept the pardon, continued to refuse to testify, and was eventually convicted of contempt for doing so.

When the case reached the Supreme Court the issue was, in the Court’s words, a “narrow question, is the acceptance of a pardon necessary?” Ultimately, the Court held that it was and that the person to whom the President wants to give a pardon doesn’t have to accept it (this is one hook upon which hangs the theory that Trump cannot pardon himself). It was in discussing why someone might not accept a pardon that the Court noted that it can be perceived as an admission of guilt. Thus, what a pardon means to the person accepting it wasn’t the issue before the Court – it was whether the person could reject the pardon in the first place. To my reading, that doesn’t to a clear legal basis for saying that the acceptance of a pardon is an admission of guilt.

But beyond what Burdick actually says (and about what), the idea that parsons require admissions of guilt just doesn’t make sense in a lot of cases and would create some real perversity in other cases.

For one thing, posthumous pardons exist, though they’re rare. In 1999, Bill Clinton entered the first federal one for Henry Flipper, the first African-American to graduate from West Point. It came 118 years after Flipper’s court martial and almost 60 years after he died. Trump did something similar with heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, granting a pardon in 2018 for a bogus Mann Act conviction that occurred in 1913 – Johnson died in 1946. There are countless other examples of posthumous pardons at the state level. Needless to say, the dead cannot admit to anything (they can’t accept anything, raising questions of whether these pardons actually mean anything) or confess to a crime in order to receive pardons. Whether posthumous pardons make any kind of sense, they are a thing, and they argue against the act of pardoning involving any kind of admission of guilt.

For another thing, some pardons are issued in anticipation of prosecution, not after a conviction. The most notable example is Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon after his resignation, not for specific crimes for which he’s already been convicted, but for any crime for which he could have been charged. Notably, while Ford apparently carried hunk of Burdick around with him as proof that an acceptance of a pardon was a confession of guilt, Nixon’s own statement accepting the pardon didn’t confess to any particular crime (although he apologized for the “anguish” his actions had caused – the prototypical “I’m sorry because you’re sad” nonpology). What would the recipient of such a pardon confess to without having been convicted of something?

A related concern is mass pardons, which cover entire classes of people and aren’t concerned with the particular facts of any one case. Such pardons include Andrew Johnson’s mass pardon of ex Confederates after the Civil War (notably, the oath required to get one was all about allegiance going forward, not confessing to past crimes) and Jimmy Carter’s pardon of Vietnam War draft evaders.

Finally, requiring those who are offered pardons to admit guilt in order to receive them would lead to perverse results. Convicted people who are actually innocent may be loath admit to something they don’t believe – that they’re guilty of a crime – in order to get a pardon. This is the same dynamic that sometimes plays out with parole boards – they want some sign that the inmate at issue is remorseful and reformed, but if you’re wrongfully convicted how can you provide that? Furthermore, the use of the pardon power to spare the innocent is, arguably, it’s primary function. Thus, when the Governor of Illinois issue a pardon to Oscar Neebe and his codefendants (convicted in 1886 for taking part in the Haymarket bombing) in 1893, because they were innocent. In 2011, the Governor of Colorado posthumously pardoned a man who had been executed in 1939 because his conviction was based on “a false and coerced confession.” Other examples of similar pardons abound. If, as we’re often told, pardons are supposed to be a kind of safety valve in the criminal justice system, to allow executives to give relief to those who did not commit the crimes of which they were convicted, reading the acceptance of a pardon to mean a confession of guilt makes no sense. Pardons, as well as commutations of sentences, are acts of executive grace, the last vestige of the absolute power once granted to kings. They can be granted for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all. That’s the point – this is the one area where the executive gets to make that decision themselves. Maybe that’s an idea whose time has passed, but it would require Constitutional amendments to change. The very nature of pardons is that they don’t come with strings attached (unless they specifically do), certainly not the requirement of admitting guilt from the one being granted the relief.

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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Why We’ll Never Win the War

Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently – or perhaps on jury duty – you’re no doubt aware that infamous drug lord Joaquin Guzman (aka El Chapo) was convicted of charges in a New York federal court that will likely leave him in prison for the rest of his life. The US Attorney had a big press conference afterward in which he hinted that maybe this time, they’ll finally make some headway in the War on (Other People’s) Drugs.

That is, of course, horseshit. I’ve long said that the War is really a war on the human desire to escape our shitty world and no amount of law enforcement is really going to change that. Writing at The New Yorker, Patrick Radden Keefe sums this up more succinctly than I’ve ever seen before:

But there is a deeper sense in which the rhetoric we use when we talk about the border and the war on drugs is misguided and always has been. The real engine for the cross-border trade in marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl is not the clever salesmanship of Mexican crooks—it’s the rampant demand of American addicts and recreational users. This is a point that seldom impinges on our national dialogue about the border with Mexico: the drug trade is dynamic. What makes it unstoppable is not weak border protections or wily Mexicans but the insatiable American appetite for drugs. Where there is money and demand, trade will flourish, borders be damned. Years ago, I interviewed a former D.E.A. official who told me about a high-tech fence that was put up along the border in Arizona. ‘They erect this fence,’ he said, ‘only to go out there a few days later and discover that these guys have a catapult, and they’re flinging hundred-pound bales of marijuana over to the other side.’

Under, over, through: as long as there is an American demand for drugs, drugs will find their way into America.

I’m in the middle of a book about another long, pointless, costly war – World War I. One recurring theme of A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918 is that once the Western Front settled down into a stalemate, generals kept throwing offensives at the other side in spite of all the evidence that the only result was to get lots of men killed. It’s as if no one was capable of backing away and saying, “this isn’t working, we need to try something different.” The War on (Other People’s) Drugs is the same. It’s failed and it’s been failing for decades. When are we going to realize that one more offensive, one more big prosecution, isn’t going to change anything.

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Favorite Reads of 2018

Since it’s getting down to the wire – I’m not down with “Best of” lists that show up in October – I figured now was the time to give a shout out to my favorite books from 2018. Two important notes: (1) these are favorites, not necessarily bests or whatever; I just loved them, and (2) the key phrase is “that I read in 2018,” so it includes books from before 2018. With that said, here we go (in no particular order) . . .

Nemesis Games (2015)

Nemesis

I’ve basically been keeping one book ahead of where the TV version of The Expanse is, but with the next season on Amazon taking parts from both the fourth (Cibola Burn) and fifth (this one) books, I figured I had to get a little more down the road with this series. I read Cibola Burn this year, too, and while I got the criticisms some people had with it, I didn’t think it was this bad. In comparison to Nemesis Games, however, it was a wet patch on the road. To say “things change” in Nemesis Games is to severely undersell it. That the writing hive mind that is James S.A. Corey managed to explode the cast, sending them off in different directions before pulling them back together, is no small feat, either.

Saga, Vol. 9 (2018)

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Oh, boy, that last twist. The good news is that after nine volumes Saga continues to be inventive, thrilling, thoughtful, and capable of numerous gut punches. The bad news is that writer Bryan K. Vaughn and artist Fiona Staples are taking “at least” a year off from the series before getting back to work on it. Part of me thinks that’s a good idea, but part of me worries if this shunts Saga into the realm of great, unfinished stories. Given the way this one ended, I sure hope not.

If you’re not reading Saga yet, here’s why I think you should.

The Field of Blood: Violence In Congress and the Road to Civil War (2018)

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Many people know that, in the run up to the Civil War, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten by one of his Southern colleagues with a cane, providing the perfect metaphor for the turmoil that would soon rip the nation apart. What most folks don’t know is that, while Sumner’s beating stood out for its brutality, it was merely different in degree, rather than in kind, from numerous other incidents of Congressional violence. One Congressman even died in a duel (not on the House floor, to be fair). Not just a colorful “you were there” history, The Field of Blood looks back at another time when the political norms broke down and things sound frighteningly familiar to modern ears.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (2009)

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Pure fun. Well, pure darkly humorous fun, at the very least. Johannes Cabal sold his soul to the devil. To get it back, he’s have to deal in bulk, gathering 100 souls for the devil to replace his own, all while running a demonic travelling circus right out of the darker portions of Ray Bradbury’s psyche. This was probably the most fun I had with a book this year, partly because of what I’d just read before (see below), but also because there’s a sharp, dark wit that runs all the way through it.

Shattered Earth trilogy (2015-2017)

Broken

N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy – The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky – made history early this year when it won the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row, an unprecedented achievement. Is it that good? Absolutely. The Fifth Season, in particular, is a structural high-wire act that shouldn’t work, but completely does and leaves the reader knowing precisely why it was done. The other two books don’t quite reach that level, but the overall arc of the story and the characters that drive it is brilliant. Pretty heavy (I needed Johannes Cabal . . . to brighten me up a bit), but completely worth it.

I’ve written before about these books here and here.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist (2018)

CadaverKing

I wrote a review of this one here, so I won’t say much more. If you want to get really pissed off about what “justice” looks like in this country (and you should), this is the book for you.

Neuromancer  (1984)

Neuromancer

Yeah, I know, very late to the party on this one. My college roommate read it and, for some reason, I let it get away from me. Does it hold up? Pretty much, although it’s clearly a product of its time. As a foundational text for cyberpunk it’s something every sci-fi fan and writer should check out. That it continues to tell a gripping story while introducing a lot of ideas we now take for granted is icing on the cake.

Children of Time (2015)

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I gushed about this one right after I read it, so check out the details here. Suffice to say, any book that can make you care about the macro evolutionary development of sentient spiders is an achievement.

Scraping the Bottom of the Bucket(head)

One of my favorite Monty Python sketches – a “deep track,” if you will – is one where the whole crew (even Neil Innes) engage in suitably breathless election result reporting. Along the way we learn the fates of the Sensible party, the Silly party, and, eventually, the Very Silly party:

I’ve always assumed that was just satire about the pointlessness of politics. Little did I know that this was closer to a situation of art imitating life than I could imagine.

In the wake of the recent British elections, Christa over at Lawyers, Guns & Money tells us the tale of Lord Buckethead, occasional candidate for parliament. Lord Buckethead comes from a low-rent rip off of Star Wars and looks about like you’d expect a generic Darth Vader with a bucket on his head to look like. Freed from the service of that second-rate narrative, Lord Buckethead has run for Parliament three times since 1987 – all against Tory Prime Ministers.

Now, you might be thinking that even in the United States we have our share of nutty candidates who file papers. What’s different is that in this country we make sure nobody actually sees them during the process. By contrast, in the UK, Lord Buckethead (and whoever the Very Silly party is running) get to be on stage with the “real” candidates when the results are announced. As a result, things like this happen:

How would Lord Buckethead fare in American politics? Hard to say, but he’d at least have to find a different name. We’ve already got a strange guy with a bucket on his head – and he’ll shred all over that stove-pipe motherfucker’s ass:

This Argument Makes No Sense

Authorities in New Orleans have begun removing from public land a group of monuments dedicated to the Confederacy. It says something about how touchy a subject this is that the people doing the work had to be masked and protected by police snipers.

Among all the wrangling about this there’s one argument from the enablers of the Lost Cause that I just don’t understand, since it makes no fucking sense. It’s made repeatedly in the comments to this story in the Guardian. Here’s a representative sample, responding to the article’s point that this isn’t an issue of erasing history:

Yes it does. You have removed a piece of history from public view. Say you were walking past it with your young child and they said, “Daddy, what does that statue represent” then you could explain to them. Otherwise they are unlikely to learn about the past that has been removed, unless they teach it in school. But even then it’s not the same because it’s just words in books. It’s like removing fossils.

I can only figure that this is a post-hoc rationalization for a knee-jerk opposition to anything perceived as being done in the name of “political correctness,” because a couple seconds of thought shows is just doesn’t make a damned bit of sense.

Take this to its logical conclusion – once a monument of some kind has been erected, it can never be taken down without “erasing history.” If that’s true, we’re not exactly innocent:

IRAQ-BRITAIN-IRAQ-MILITARY-HUSSEIN-AUCTION-HISTORY-FILES

Then there’s the wholesale destruction of Nazi symbols and such in Germany following World War II. Or the toppling of statues of Stalin or Lenin following the end of the Cold War. The idea that monuments have infinite shelf lives simply isn’t rooted in history.

Beyond that, if a monument is history that can never be erased, does it create a perpetual obligation upon future taxpayers to keep it in good repair? Neither of those things can be true – they just don’t make any sense.

Let’s hypothesize using a silly example. In Futurama we learn that, sometime between Fry being frozen and thawed out, New York had a supervillain for a governor. Not only did he “collect” a bunch of famous monuments from around the world, he even added himself to Mount Rushmore:

Futurama_Mt_Rushmore

Now, years after the fact, are the citizens of New New York required to look at the face of evil everyday in the name of history? Do they have to pay to keep the super villain’s face looking crisp and life like? I’d say the answer is clearly no, but I’m not sure how those “this is erasing history” people could reach that conclusion.

Monuments and memorials are put up for a reason – because the people of that community at that time thought they were appropriate. There’s no magic in those intentions, nothing that shields the thing memorialized from future scrutiny. It’s entirely appropriate for future communities to decide that this thing is no longer worth celebrating.

The False Unity of Opposition

I had a thought on election night back in November, as we slowly crawled to the fact of President Trump. I wished I’d blogged it back then, but I’ll just have to ask you to trust me about this.

The thought, as I sat there and contemplated Republican control of both houses of Congress and the White House, was this – can the “party of no” go from playing opposition to actually governing? Recent events suggest they may not.

Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”), Republicans have pledged to repeal it. It was a promise Trump embraced enthusiastically during the campaign. If there was one clear thing Americans could expect a united GOP power structure to do, it was to gut Obamacare. Last Friday, House Speaker Paul Ryan withdrew the proposed “repeal and replace” bill, rather than watch it go down in flames on the House floor. Democrats only had to smirk from the sidelines.

What the hell happened? How could a party so unified in the past about a goal fall apart so quickly?

Because being the opposition helps creates a false sense of unity among those doing the opposing. Think about it – so long as the only thing a group has to do is say “no” to some outsider they don’t have to deal with their own internal divisions.

Make no mistake – during the Obama years, the GOP was the opposition. While they controlled both the House and Senate (for varying lengths of time), it wasn’t enough to override a veto, if it came to that. Measures with bipartisan support were possible (if vanishingly rare), but true GOP proposals were dead on arrival. Hence those 54 votes to repeals of the ACA, none of which actually accomplished anything (aside from being red meat for fund raising).

That’s not quite true – it papered over the differences in the party itself. After all, when the default position is anti-whatever the other party wants, it’s easy to stick together. It doesn’t matter why you take that position, only that you do. That one group of reps are coming from a deeply ideological direction and a second from a  more moderate one is irrelevant so long as they both arrive at the same result.

There’s an old saying that pure democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. While we can assume there’s at least two votes not to eat the wolves, we might not assume there’s the same support for eating the sheep. After all, one of the wolves could be a vegetarian.

So now, I suppose, the question is – how long before the GOP wolves finally figure out how to eat the sheep.

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