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The Edge of Genocide

North Carolina's Reparations for Eugenic Genocide is a Mere Down Payment on Justice

September 7th 2011

Book Covers - War Against the Weak

Twenty-seven American states joined a decades-long pseudo-scientific crusade to create a white, blond, blue-eyed, biologically superior "master race". Their misguided utopian quest was called eugenics. But only one state, North Carolina, is now readying a massive plan of financial reparations to its surviving victims. Just how much North Carolina should pay is now the subject of a historically wrenching debate.

Eugenics was a fraudulent social theory that a better society could be created by eliminating "undesirable" human blood lines and promoting the desirable types. Race science sprang to life in the socioeconomically convulsive first decade of the 20th century, during which Asians, Eastern Europeans, Mexicans, Native Americans, blacks and other ethnic groups and racial mixtures flowed into US cities, creating overcrowding and class conflict.

The intellectual, academic, scientific and financial elite believed better men and women could be cultivated using the same techniques a farmer would employ to create a better herd of cattle or field of wheat – eliminate the bad stock and proliferate the good. They planned to eliminate all those who did not resemble themselves, 10% at a time – that is, as many as 14 million people, at a slice. Their eventual goal was to eliminate as much as 90% of the population from the reproductive future of the United States.

The preferred method was gas chambers and other forms of euthanasia. The first public euthanasia laws were introduced into the Ohio legislature in 1908. That measure was unsuccessful, as were other death panel bills. The next best thing was forced surgical sterilisation under specific state authority that was validated as the law of the land in the US supreme court by one of America's most stellar jurists, Oliver Wendell Holmes. In 1927, Holmes ruled on an obviously collusive lawsuit seeking to justify the forced sterilisation of three generations of Carrie Buck's family. Holmes infamously noted:

"It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind … Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Read more ..

The Edge of Film

The Place for Super 8 Film in the History of Filmmaking

September 5th 2011

Film - Super 8 film

J.J. Abrams' science-fiction movie "Super 8" is a big, boisterous homage to the now somewhat distant technological and cultural phenomenon of 8mm film. Before there was cellphone video, there were camcorders, and before camcorders there were readily affordable 8mm cameras that exposed 8mm and Super 8 film stock.

The 8mm gauge—"regular 8"—went on the market in 1932 and was one of Eastman Kodak's most ingenious inventions. During the Depression, when the country's citizens were patronizing movie houses as never before, the inexpensive 8mm system arrived to give amateurs their own film-making tool.

The 8mm system was cheap and easy to use thanks to a clever innovation. An 8mm film spool actually held a 25-foot length of 16mm film (at first only black-and-white, but later you could obtain color film). When the spool was inserted in the camera, one half of the 16mm film was exposed during shooting, after which the spool would be flipped for exposing the other side. Developing processors would split the film down the middle, making a 50-foot, 8mm creation with a 3-minute 20-second running time. Read more ..

Film Reviews

One Day: A Movie that Shows a Director's Promise

August 28th 2011

Film - One Day

One Day. Director: Lone Scherfig; Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jim Sturgess, Sébastien Dupuis. Length: 90 mins.

How hard could it be for a former scholar of Winchester College to remember the legend associated with the patron saint of Winchester cathedral?

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain,
For forty days it will remain;
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair,
For forty days ’twill rain nae mare

Dexter (Jim Sturgess), the scholar aforementioned, is the principal male character in One Day and he has a vague recollection that there is such a legend. Also that it is somehow associated with the weather. More than that, however, he cannot say when he meets Emma (Anne Hathaway) on St. Swithun’s day (July 15th), 1988, after a night of revelry ensuing upon their graduation from Edinburgh University.

I’m only guessing here, mind you, but I think that David Nicholls, adapting his own best-selling novel for the screen, and director Lone Scherfig (An Education, Italian for Beginners) were thinking that Dexter would be more charming for forgetting (he is also drunk) than he would be for remembering. Bad call. At any rate, I don’t find him so, nor do I find him otherwise very prepossessing. In fact, he is little better than a lout, and by the time I saw him (inevitably) educated out of his loutishness, it was too late for me, at any rate, to feel much sympathy for him. Read more ..

Film Review

Our Idiot Brother: Ambivalence about Hippy Siblings

August 27th 2011

Film - Our Idiot Brother

Our Idiot Brother: Director: Jesse Peretez. Starring: Evgenia Peretz, Paul Rudd, Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Banks, Emily Mortimer. Length: 90 mins.

Having made his big-screen debut as a California high school version of Jane Austen’s Mr. Knightley in Clueless (1995), Paul Rudd is beginning to look more and more like Hollywood’s ideal leading man of the new century. Mild-mannered, unthreatening and vaguely feminine in his sensitivity and ability to express feeling, he manages to make the post-"Seinfeld" man-boy ideal look almost plausible in movies like I Love You, Man (2009) and How Do You Know(2010).

I wonder, however, if his star turn as the aging hippie naif Ned in Our Idiot Brother isn’t rather a reductio ad absurdum of what is becoming the Paul Rudd type? The movie, directed by Jesse Peretz and co-written by his sister, Evgenia (the children of Martin Peretz of The New Republic) with her husband, David Schisgall, starts with the highish concept of Ned as such an innocent that, in the vignette we are shown above the opening credits, he sells some marijuana to a uniformed police officer (Bob Stephenson). The movie begins, then, with his release from the county lockup to find that his pre-jail girlfriend, Janet (Kathryn Hahn), has not only dumped him for Billy (T.J. Miller), who might be his twin, mentally at least, but also claimed as her own his beloved dog, Willy Nelson.

Janet, though ostensibly a hippie pacifist herself, clearly has a thing for compliant and submissive males like Ned, who has been educated to her requirements in the hard school of his own female-dominated family. Now jobless and homeless, he is forced to crash, first, with his alcoholic mother (Shirley Knight) and then with one or another of his three beautiful and accomplished sisters, Liz (Emily Mortimer), Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) and Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), all of whom regard this family black sheep as something of a project to try to set onto some path to responsible adulthood. Perhaps you will not be shocked to learn that, from the Hollywood point of view anyway, the sisters have more to learn from Ned than Ned has to learn from the sisters. Gosh! Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Read more ..

War Against the Weak

Author Black Lectures at Virginia Tech on Eugenic Genocide

August 26th 2011

Book Covers - War Against the Weak

Award-winning author and investigative journalist Edwin Black will deliver a multimedia presentation entitled, "Eugenics-- From Virginia to Auschwitz" on August 28 at the campus of Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg VA. Virginians from across the state will be driving to the campus to hear Black speak. Among the groups will be groups of Native Americans victimized by state eugenics.

Black's many books have included IBM and the Holocaust, The Farhud, and War Against the Weak. The latter of these recounts the growth of the pseudo-science known as eugenics that was funded by corporate America and which sought to eliminate so-called ‘unfit’ people such as African-Americans, Native Americans, and the poor, through sterilization abetted by local and state governments. Black follows the connections between American eugenicists and their funders and supporters, such as Henry Ford and the Carnegie Institution, to Adolf Hitler and the logical terminus of their inhuman philosophy in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Author Black uses exhaustive research and dynamic literary style to bring alive the testimony of the victims of pseudo-science and intolerance in our own country and abroad. He will stop at Virginia Tech while travelling as a scholar-in-residence invited to North Carolina where, after speaking at several major universities, he will address the state legislature, which is currently considering legislation offering compensation to victims of forced sterilization. Click here to see lecture schedule.

In the early twentieth century and into the 1930s, over 60,000 people in the U.S. were forcibly sterilized in state institutions. The sterilizations were justifed because of the alleged criminality (generally poverty) of the victims, their race, intelligence, or perceived promiscuity, among other reasons. Virginia was the epicenter of the rash of sterilizations, having been the first place were eugenic genocide took place under official auspices. In next door North Carolina, over 7,600 people sterilizations took place that were assigned by a state eugenics board. Some victims were as young as 10 years old. This was done, said Black, to ostensibly improve the human race by eliminating undesirable humans. Read more ..

Film Reviews

Page One: NYT and its Self-Importance

August 25th 2011

Film - Page One movie

Page One: Inside the New York Times. Director: Andrew Rossi. Length: 88 minutes.

Watching Page One: Inside The New York Times by Andrew Rossi reminded me a bit of reading the Times itself: it's all a jumble of odd and unrelated stories held together and, indeed, utterly overshadowed by one thing and one thing only, namely, the paper's massive and unreflective self-importance. That's why when it brings before the camera one Michael Hirschorn, a man who wrote a piece for the Atlantic a couple of years ago suggesting that the Times might go out of business soon, it is only so that he and his article can be held up to ridicule from the Times-men who are treated so sympathetically by Mr. Rossi.

Can Mr. Hirschorn, they wonder, really be so preternaturally stupid as to imagine that the Times could ever go out of business? It's the Times, for God's sake!

A documentary whose main purpose is puffery is not likely to have much success with anything else it tries to do, and Mr. Rossi's veneration of his heroes at The New York Times leaves little room for anything else anyway. The heroes are, especially, Bill Keller, the paper's Executive Editor at the time the movie was made who has since stepped down in favor of Jill Abramson, Bruce Headlam, the media editor, and, above all, David Carr, media columnist. There's also a blogger named Brian Stelter whom Mr. Carr jokingly claims, is "a robot assembled in the basement of the New York Times to come and destroy it" but who is clearly a Times-man through and through. Read more ..

The Edge of Genocide

Edwin Black in North Carolina Scholar-in-Residence lectures on Racist Eugenics and US Complicity in Nazism

August 24th 2011

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black

Renowned investigative journalist and author Edwin Black, as part of his intercontinental lecture tour, will update audiences in North Carolina on his latest books and research as a scholar-in-residence. As a featured speaker, Black will mainly discuss his research on eugenics, the corporate-funded pseudo-science Made in the USA that sought to identify and eliminate so-called inferior classes of people. He will also lecture on direct pivotal corporate collusion with the Nazis. Black is expected to speak specifically on the issues raised by his books War Against the Weak, Nazi Nexus, and The Farhud: The Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust, and the perennial issues they raise for America today.

Edwin Black’s many books have exposed readers all over the world to his exacting research on subjects that have raised vigorous debate and controversy, including the involvement of U.S. corporations with the Nazi war machine and the Holocaust, the racist American eugenics and sterilization movement in the 20th century, and the far-reaching corruption and geopolitics that stem from America’s dependence on petroleum.

A key reason for Black's visit is to North Carolina is to address the question of state compensation for eugenic sterilization. The measure is now before the legislature. "North Carolina's war against its own citizens was nothing short of genocide," said Black. The state should compensate. But the guilt must be shared with the philanthropic organizations and academic groups that pushed the state to do the unthinkable and tried to rationalize it as sound science—when it was all a fraud."

Special sponsors and co-chair for the Edwin Black in North Carolina Scholar-in-Residence include Rep. Larry M. Womble (Winston-Salem 71st District), Rep. Earline W. Parmon (72st District), Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines, Gary M. Green, and Keith Grandberry. See the tour here. Read more ..

Film Reviews

Tabloid: Sex and Celebrity All Tied-Up

August 20th 2011

Film - Tabloid

Tabloid. Director: Errol Morris. Starring: Kent Gavin, Joyce McKinney. Length: 87 minutes.

Those who are unschooled in the ways of our cultural élites may find it somewhat strange that Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death, The Fog of War) has titled his new documentary, Tabloid. I hope you will not think it presumptuous of me if I undertake to explain what I take to be his thinking in doing so.

The movie tells the story of one Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen from North Carolina who was also blessed with spirit and determination but, alas, not very good judgment. She briefly became a tabloid sensation in Britain back in the 1970s - I was living there at the time and remember it well - on account of having (allegedly) kidnaped her Mormon lover, Kirk Anderson, who had left her back in the US. when he went to do his missionary service in the UK. According to the tabloids once she had abducted Kirk with the help of one or more hired goons, she whisked him off to an isolated cottage in Devon where she kept him as a "sex slave" who was "spread-eagled" and "chained" to the bed until he somehow managed to escape and alert the authorities.

It was, as one of Mr. Morris's interviewees put it, "the perfect tabloid story," and this is borne out by the probability that "sex slave" and "spread-eagled" and "chained" were all most likely journalistic inventions. Likewise the pleasingly alliterative "Manacled Mormon," as Mr. Anderson was known to the British papers during his brief period of notoriety. Miss McKinney, not surprisingly, says to Mr. Morris's camera that the whole thing was pretty much a tabloid invention and that it is not possible for a woman to rape a man. Employing a now-venerable witticism, she says that it would be like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter. According to Mr. Morris's lengthy interviews with her and others, there seems to be some doubt as to whether there was even any penetrative coitus between them. Read more ..

Edge on Film

Early Hitchcock Film Rediscovered in New Zealand

August 16th 2011

Film - Hitchcock White Shadow

Researchers in New Zealand made an amazing find recently when they discovered the 1924 British silent film The White Shadow.

The film is significant because it was one of the first movies made by famed director Alfred Hitchcock, who was its assistant director, writer, editor and production designer.

The White Shadow was made in Britain, where Hitchcock was born and began his career, but was distributed by an American company.

“We were sort of the end of the line, I think, from the U.S. They obviously traveled to Australia and across to New Zealand, and then when it got to the last screenings in New Zealand here, these productions were just destroyed,” said Brian Scadden, the head of the laboratory at Park Road Post Production in Wellington, where the film will be preserved. Read more ..

Book Reviews

Carthage Must Be Destroyed: And an End to Roman Exceptionalism

August 16th 2011

Book Covers - Carthage must be destroyed

Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization. Richard Miles. Viking. 2011. 544 pages.

England and France. Greece and Persia. Hapsburgs and Ottomans. Imperial rivalry is as old as history itself, but some rivalries can truly be said to have changed the world. The great contest between the Mediterranean city-states of Rome and Carthage falls into that category. At the end of three Punic Wars stretching over a century (264-146 BC), Carthage was literally wiped off the face of the earth. But in this fascinating new history, University of Sydney historian Richard Miles reconstructs a civilization whose memory continues to stir imaginations -- particularly among those who suspect that their own is not immortal.

History, as we all know, is written by the victors (or the ancient Greeks). As Miles explains, most of what we know about Carthage is second-hand, and most of that is anti-Carthaginian. But he is deft in deconstructing such sources. As he also makes clear, he doesn't always have to: the truth is that the Romans needed the Carthaginians, at no time more than after they had been vanquished. There could be no myth of Roman power without a legendary adversary on which to justify it. If you're careful, patient, and epistemologically humble, the truth has a way of surfacing, like pottery fragments from an archeological site.

For the lay reader, one of the more surprising aspects of Carthaginian civilization is its syncretic character, deeply rooted in the Levant. The North African city was founded by Phoenician traders who had deeply imbibed Greek as well as Persian culture. A maritime people whose trade stretched from modern day Lebanon to Spain, its peninsular position right smack in the middle was just about ideal for dominating the Mediterranean oval. For centuries, the island of Sicily was a key staging base for such operations. Read more ..

Book Reviews

American Uprising: Untold Story of Slavery that Misses the Mark

August 15th 2011

Book Covers - American uprising

American Uprising, The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt. Daniel Rasmussen. HarperCollins. 2011. 288 pages.

We are now in the middle of the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary commemoration of the American Civil War, the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and the 2012 Tea Party/presidential election campaign, and everything about the American past is politicized. In an earlier article posted on the History News Network, I discussed how presidential candidate Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) was creating her own version of the history of the nation’s founders and of nineteenth century abolitionists to support her belief in the specialness of the United States as a place where the inherent faith of the founders in liberty allowed the nation to eliminate the stain of slavery. In the article, I pointed out that in a sense Bachmann was half right. While Washington and Jefferson supported the enslavement of Africans in the United States, many of the nation’s founders from New York State were opponents of slavery and did work to bring it to an end.

Bachmann’s views about slavery are similar top those championed by Lewis E. Lehrman, a conservative Republican, co-founder of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and board member at the New York Historical Society. According to his website, Lehrman has also been a trustee of the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Heritage Foundation. In a New York Times interview, Lehrman argued that the institution of slavery was “supported throughout the world, but Americans took the initiative in destroying it.” Lehrman deplored the view expressed by some that “American history consists of one failure after another to deal with the issue of slavery.” According to Lehrman, “one of the triumphs of America was to have dealt directly with that issue in the agonies of a civil war.” Read more ..

Film Review

Captain America: The First Avenger Takes out Hollywood's Trash

August 15th 2011

Film - Captain America First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger. Directed by Joe Johnston. Starring Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci. Length: 124 minutes.

Infamous New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael wrote: “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.” The ability to appreciate "great trash" is an occupational hazard for anyone interested in film these days. Captain America: The First Avenger is proof, if any were needed, that Hollywood is content to carry on taking out the trash.

Chris Evans camps it up appropriately and delightfully to play Steve Rogers, a skinny calorie dodger with ambitions above and beyond his physical stature. Evan's and his co-stars, Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving aren't shy about hamming it up for a superhero movie which feels like a parody of the genre. Could director Joe Johnston finally have cracked the unsolvable conundrum of the lacklustre, underwhelming comic book adaptation with a bit of light-hearted entertainment?

A look at the top ten grossing films of the last ten years will you that what modern audiences want, for the most part, is spectacle and not art. What Captain America has going for it is that it does have pretensions beyond being just that, a spectacle. It has plenty of fun and engaging characters, colourful action sequences and some impressive if imperfect visual effects. The story will hold your attention enough so that when 1940s “Cap” awakes from a 70-year deep freeze nap in the Arctic circle and is confronted with contemporary New York City at the end of the film, you'll actually care what happens next. Read more ..

Book Review

J-Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami and his Misleading Book about Israel

August 11th 2011

Contributors / Staff - Isi Leibler headshot

Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of J Street, has written a highly misleading book titled "A New Voice for Israel" portraying himself as a passionate supporter of Israel and a dedicated Zionist and extolling the virtues of his purportedly "pro Israel pro-peace" organization

The opening section i.s sourced from the autobiography of his father Yitzhak Ben-Ami, whose antecedents settled in Palestine.

Yitzchak became a devoted follower of Zev Jabotinsky and was sent to the United States on behalf of the underground Irgun Zvai Leumi, initially to recruit volunteers for a Jewish army and then to support the campaign by the Peter Bergson [Hillel Kook] group to alert Americans to the plight of the European Jewry.

Together with Ben Hecht, Edward G Robinson and others, he confronted Rabbi Stephen Wise and the Jewish establishment who, under the spell of President Franklin Roosevelt, remained silent in face of the Administration's unwillingness to provide haven for European Jews being murdered by the Nazis.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of J Street, has written a highly misleading book titled "A New Voice for Israel" portraying himself as a passionate supporter of Israel and a dedicated Zionist and extolling the virtues of his purportedly "pro Israel pro-peace" organization

The opening section is sourced from the autobiography of his father Yitzhak Ben-Ami, whose antecedents settled in Palestine. Read more ..

Book Reviews

Starring New York: the Glamming of Grime in the Movies of the '70s

August 4th 2011

Book Covers - Starring New York

Starring New York: Filming the Grime and Glamour of the Long 1970s. Stanley Corkin. Oxford University Press. 2011. 272 pages.

One afternoon in the late seventies I stumbled on a film crew shooting on location in Washington Square Park in lower Manhattan. Extras had been set up doing the sorts of things someone imagined went on in the park on a daily basis – juggling, playing music, pushing infants in strollers. I thought nothing of it until a year later when the very same scene appeared before me on a silver screen -- a sanitized New York that offered the two main characters entertainment and diversion as they strolled about the park instead of the drug dealers and panhandlers that had been harassing me there since I was a teenager. The scenarist for that film, An Unmarried Woman (Paul Mazursky, 1978), permitted none of the hazards or traumas of urban life in the 1970s to sully the idealization of New York as a place where romance was possible.

Such sterilized scenes, according to Stanley Corkin, typified a certain genre of Hollywood film set in New York during the 1970s, films that reflected and reflected upon that city’s economic, demographic and cultural transformation from a declining industrial metropolis to what Saskia Sassen and others have called a “global city.” Corkin’s ambitious study uses the vast literature of recent urban sociology and geography (by Sassen, David Harvey, Neil Smith and others) to interpret nearly two dozen films produced between 1969 and 1981 by a new generation of Hollywood film makers, who broke free of the restrictive studio-based production system to begin a renaissance in independent American film. Read more ..

Book Event

The Launch of Reawakening by Armstrong Williams

August 1st 2011

Book Covers - reawakening virtues - williams

The evening of July 23, dozens of Washington’s journalism elites got out of the triple-digit heat for a few hours and gathered in Northwest D.C. to celebrate the release of Armstrong Williams’s newest offering, Reawakening Virtues. The gathering was hosted by the families of Morton Bender, the highly successful Washington real estate developer, and Dr. Benjamin Carson, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and legendary brain surgeon at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

Mr. Williams, author also of Letters to a Young Victim and Beyond Blame, signed books and gave a brief lecture to those gathered (including some C-SPAN cameras) about his thesis: that the only permanent solutions to our country’s problems is a refocusing on virtue, on personal excellence; and that our collective well-being depends upon our individual well-being. He exhorted the crowd to try to be more rather than have more.

He went on to explain how the darkest moment of his career—the No Child Left Behind Scandal—had forced him to reexamine his life and ultimately made him a better man. And, he said, being a better man does not mean sacrificing success: “I have been blessed tenfold,” he said, since what he referred to as his involuntary Sabbath took him out of the spotlight. After this speech, Williams worked the crowd with the wit and charm that, for decades, have come to characterize his radio show and television appearances.

Besides Williams, there were other leaders of the media elite, including Fox News’s Juan Williams, the Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page, and award-winner bestselling author Edwin Black. The turnout was a testament to the enduring literary power of Washington, as well as to the resurgence of Armstrong Williams as an author and media figure. As Williams himself put it, “there’s a lot of good people here.” Read more ..

Book Reviews

Warfare State Connects World War II and the Rise of Big Brother Government

August 1st 2011

Book Covers - Warfare

Warfare State: World War II and the Age of Big Government. James T. Sparrow. Oxford, 2011. 344 pages.

In the lifetime of most contemporary Americans -- in the lifetimes of most Americans, period -- the prevailing opinion has been that when it comes to federal government intervention in the lives of ordinary citizens, less is more. Those of us with a even a passing familiarity with U.S. history are aware that this has not always been so, and think of the middle third of the twentieth century in particular as a time when Big Government did not simply prevail, but was the prevailing common sense. And that this common sense took root during Franklin Delano's Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s.

In this important new book, however, University of Chicago professor James T. Sparrow corrects that perception in a significant way. It was not FDR's New Deal that really transformed Americans' relationship with their government, he says. It was FDR's Second World War. In the words of the title, what we think of as the welfare state was really a warfare state. Sparrow is not the first person to make such a case; scholars like Michael S. Sherry (In the Shadow of War, 1995) and Robert Westbrook, Why We Fought, 2004), have explored similar terrain. But Sparrow traverses it with a touch that is at once deft, informed, and imaginative. Rarely is so comprehensive an argument delivered in so concise a manner (about 260 pages). Read more ..

Book Reviews

Independence Chronicles The Struggle to Set America Free, But not from Slavery

August 1st 2011

Book Covers - Independence

Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free. John Ferling. Bloomsbury. 2011. 448 pages.

It’s hard not to feel bad for the Founding Fathers these days. After all, it is the Civil War’s moment. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of that ghastly war, and for the next five years it will get the lion’s share of attention. The challenge facing any historian writing a popular history of the Founders today, then, is to show that what they fought for—freedom, and independence—were not simple canards; that when the Founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they actually meant it.

That is the challenge facing John Ferling, a respected historian of the American Revolution, in his new book, Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free. To tell his story, he seizes on an underappreciated but profoundly significant moment in the eight-year War of Independence—the decision to not merely compel the British to reverse a series of onerous acts, but to break away from the empire entirely, and declare themselves a free and independent nation.

There was no precedent in history for such a move, and the Founders knew they were taking a great risk. By highlighting many of their early objections to independence Ferling captures just how parlous it was. The colonies had no real central government, and the body that would vote for independence, the Continental Congress, was itself a hastily formed government with no formal powers. The colonies had no standing army, and in case war broke out, they would have no way to fund it. Even if they found a way—but lost a war—the British probably would have been even more ruthless in their rule. Read more ..

Book Reviews

The Cambridge Companion to America's Great Past Time

August 1st 2011

Book Covers - Cambridge Companion Baseball

The Cambridge Companion to Baseball. Leonard Cassuto and Stephen Partridge, eds., Cambridge University Press. 2011. 280 pages.

Both the casual fan and baseball scholar should find The Cambridge Companion to Baseball a delightful read and companion for their enjoyment of a popular sport whose claim to be the national pastime is, nevertheless, somewhat dubious for this modern age. Editors Leonard Cassuto and Stephen Partridge have compiled fifteen essays, along with interchapters focusing upon important baseball personalities, prepared primarily by academics. The essays are well written and cover a wide range of issues from literature, film, and material culture to history, economics, race relations, and international development of the game which is also a business. The editors assert, “The story of baseball is, in an important way, the story of the interaction between the myth of the national pastime and the reality of the baseball business. The tension between these two is what drives this book”.

The essays need not be read in any particular order, and, indeed, part of the fun with a companion volume is selecting what catches one’s eye on a particular day or mood. This review, however, will discuss the pieces in their order of appearance within the book. The Cambridge Companion to Baseball provides readers with suggestions for further reading and a chronology of the sport’s evolution in the United States from the 1945 formation of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in New York to the steroids crisis of 2009-2010. The Companion presents a view of the unique role which baseball has played in America’s past while taking some note of the challenges facing the sport in the twenty-first century. Read more ..

Book Reviews

'Wasting Minds' and Why Johnny Can't Read or Cypher

July 28th 2011

Book Covers - Wasting minds

Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System Is Failing and What We Can Do About It. Ronald A. Wolk. ASCD. 2011. 256 pages.

Ronald Wolk, who grew up in Pittsburgh and now lives in Rhode Island, earned a distinguished reputation as an education journalist. As founder and first editor of Education Week, he established a high standard for thorough, professional coverage of the national school reform debate that was kicked into high gear by the “Nation at Risk” report (1983) and then into overdrive with No Child Left Behind (2002). He now chairs Big Picture Learning, the parent organization of “The Met” school in Providence, and, not surprisingly, shares the ideas of its founder, Dennis Littky.

Surveying the current national education scene, Wolk is not optimistic: “The conventional school is obsolete,” he says, “and may very well be beyond repair.” Although he “once believed that education research would lead us to the promised land of successful schools and high student achievement,” he no longer does (even though he then goes on to cite study after study).

The book’s first half targets “false assumptions” driving much of contemporary reform. I found much that was persuasive (for instance, I agree that NCLB relies too much on testing and has counter-productively narrowed the curriculum), much to disagree with (he asserts that a core curriculum is inevitably inflexible and unappealing), and much that is muddled (on the one hand, he says it is “neither fair nor true” to charge that many teachers are lazy or incompetent; on the other, until the teaching profession attracts stronger candidates and prepares them better, “we cannot reasonably expect to get the teachers our students need and deserve”). Read more ..

Book Reviews

Does the Noise in My Head Bother You or is it just Rock 'n Roll?

July 28th 2011

Book Covers - The buzzing in my head

Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?: A Rock and Roll Memoir. Steven Tyler. HarperCollins. 2011. 400 pages.

Like a meal at McDonald's, reading autobiographies of pop culture artists always seems like a better idea before I begin than after I'm finished. I start out wondering how particular works of art I've always loved got made, but by the time I'm done reading I find myself amazed that the person I've read about was actually capable of such achievements. Their tics, stories, and laments seem to demystify them to the point that putting down the book feels as if I'm finally parting after spending too long on vacation with someone I thought I liked. If familiarity doesn't breed contempt, it does engender impatience.

I've long been a fan of the rock band Aerosmith, and I've long liked its lead singer Steven Tyler, no time more so than recent stories about the graceful way he handled a wheelchair-bound woman as one of the talent judges of American Idol. Though long regarded as Rolling Stones knockoffs -- Tyler's autobiography arrives in the wake of Keith Richards' widely acclaimed Life -- Aerosmith was responsible for some of the memorable songs of the 1970s: "Dream On," "Sweet Emotion," and, of course, "Walk this Way," which received a new lease on life when it became a hip-hop hit for Run DMC in 1985.

After struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, Tyler and his bandmates enjoyed a renaissance with a string of pop hits in beginning in the late 1980s, greatly aided by some classic MTV videos (like "Crazy," starring Liv Tyler, a daughter from one of his three marriages), and had a #1 hit in 1998 with "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing." In recent years, the term "rock star" has become a metaphorical term for someone who's celebrated in his field. But back in the day when rock was king, Tyler was a bona fide rock star, and a title he's riding into a celebrity retirement. Read more ..

Book Reviews

Bush's Wars: A Useful First Draft of History

July 28th 2011

Book Covers - Bush's Wars 2.1

Bush's Wars. Terry H. Anderson. Oxford. 2011. 312 pp.

It is often said that journalism is the first draft of history. Bush's Wars is presented as the first major comprehensive study of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an effort to weigh the foreign policy legacy of President George W. Bush. This is how the blurbs and publicity for the book position it, and the way Terry H. Anderson puts it in his introduction: "to 'figure out,' in Bush's words, the history of the defining policies of his presidency -- and to do it during his lifetime."

But Bush's Wars is more a report of the journalism on those wars than a scholarly assessment in its own right. Strictly speaking, a piece of academic scholarship would draw on primary source research and advance an argument that had never been systematically articulated before. Bush's Wars distills an already voluminous literature into a 240 page narrative (whose footnotes are batched a little too aggressively to track sources all that easily). Its point of the view, that the Afghan war was bungled, and that that Iraq was both launched under false pretenses and bungled, has long been the conventional wisdom in U.S. society at large. So the book doesn't really have a lot to offer in the terms on which it presents itself.

Perhaps I should be praising it with faint damnation. Bush's Wars is actually a useful little volume that may well have a long shelf life for two reasons. The first is that there is indeed nothing like it: a piece of one-stop shopping that surveys its subject in a way that manages to be both wide-ranging and succinct. The second is that while there's little here that your garden-variety news junkie wouldn't already know, there are undoubtedly a large number of people who lived through the era without knowing much about it, and a growing number of people who were too young to really remember it. It is for those people -- i.e. college students -- with whom the book should find a home as what it really is: a course adoption text. Read more ..

Film News

Watch 'Enemies of the People' Free from PBS until August 12

July 20th 2011

Film - enemies of the people

Cambodia's communists, known to the world as the Khmer Rouge, slaughtered nearly two million people in the late 1970s. A Hollywood movie, The Killing Fields, brought the horror of the genocide to the consciousness of many, yet the systematic murders in Cambodia remain largely unexplained until now.

Thet Sambath, lead reporter for an English-language newspaper in Cambodia whose parents were murdered by the genocidal leftists, made it his goal to find out why so many were killed. Working on the film in his free time for a decade, Sambath would gain the trust of the men and women who perpetrated the massacres.

From the foot soldiers who slit throats to Pol Pot's right-hand man, the notorious Brother Number Two, Sambath and co-director Rob Lemkin record shocking testimony never before seen or heard, in Enemies of the People.

The film has been entered as evidence in the trial of octogenarian Nuon Chea, a.k.a. Brother Number Two, on charges of crimes against humanity. Brother Number Two, a leader in the Khmer Rouge politburo during the genocide answers Sambath's burning question, "Why?"

Produced in association with American Documentary | POV. A co-presentation with the Center for Asian American Media. Winner of the 2010 Sundance World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize. Read more ..

The Music Edge

Smithsonian Celebrates the Richness of American Rhythm and Blues

July 18th 2011

Art Topics - Jerry Williams swamp dogg
Jerry 'Swamp Dogg' Williams

Rhythm and blues. It's an American treasure and a powerful influence on popular culture. The evolution of this art form was celebrated at the Smithsonian’s recent Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington. Rhythm and blues was invented by African Americans more than 70 years ago. The term "R&B" was originally a marketing tool, but now refers to various musical styles including Gospel and Electric Blues, which was popularized by BB King.

Seventy years later, R&B is still going strong. At the celebration on the National Mall, thousands - young and old - came out to listen and dance. Some remembered the dance moves from the popular television show "Soul Train," which ran for 35 years. Many at the festival got into the moves and the mood. Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History, kicked off the R&B tribute.

"I realized this is the music that told us volumes about America, and it was also the kind of music that spoke about pain. It spoke about resiliency," says Bunch. "In some ways it becomes a universal music and then the music is so infectious. You can be anywhere in the world and hear people tapping their toes to Rhythm and Blues because it’s that special.” Read more ..

Book Review

A Timely Guide to Restoring America’s Greatness

July 17th 2011

Book Covers - reawakening virtues - williams

Reawakening Virtues: Restoring What Makes America Great. Armstrong Williams. New Chapter Publisher, 2011. 208 pages.

It was 8:21 on a Friday night, and there I was, reading yet another book on how to reclaim the morals and principles that America used to hold dear. What a way to start a weekend. Rather prudish, don’t you think?

When I found out that my husband had to work late, I decided it was as good a time as any to start reading the copy of Armstrong Williams’s new book Reawakening Virtues: Restoring What Makes America Great, which this newspaper had asked me to review. To be perfectly blunt, I was expecting to read what I’ve read (and even written about myself) a million times before.

The cry goes something like this: “Our nation is going to hell in a handbasket, and if we don’t do something fast, we’re doomed.” Don’t get me wrong—I believe the statement is true. The sad reality is that it is nothing new.

Mr. Williams’s book, however, is something new—and on that quiet summer evening, I discovered that it is quite powerful, too.

At the title of Chapter 1, Williams had my undivided attention: “The Virtue of the Sabbath.”

I immediately recalled a meeting I had several years ago with a friend—radio host and film critic Michael Medved—about the very subject of the Sabbath. Michael wanted to know why Christians seem to ignore the commandment about keeping the Sabbath. He had the same question about his own Jewish brothers and sister, too. Although I know the early Christians began observing the day of rest on Sundays because that was the day of Jesus’s Resurrection—I really could not answer as to why the day—whether it be Saturday or Sunday—has lost its sense of holiness with so many people of faith. What I do know is that it wasn’t destroyed by a secular culture. I can blame a lot of our ills on that, but not this one. No, the failure to take a complete day and set it aside to rest in God is the fault of every single Christian and Jew who chooses to ignore this very clear command—myself often included. Read more ..

Book Review

American War Machine: Deep Politics, War on Drugs, and CIA Obfuscation

July 13th 2011

Book Covers - American war machine

American War Machine: Deep Politics, The CIA Global Drug Connection, and the Road to Afghanistan. Peter Dale Scott. Rowman and Littlefield. 2010. 408 pages.

In their 1964 book, The Invisible Government, journalists David Wise and Thomas B. Ross wrote that “there are two governments in the United States today. One is visible. The other is invisible. The first is the government that citizens read about in their newspapers and children study about in their civics class. The second is the interlocking, hidden machinery that carries out the policies of the United States in the Cold War. The second invisible government gathers intelligence, conducts espionage and plans and executes secret operations all over the globe.” In the 45 years since these words were written, we have learned a lot more about how the secret government operates, above and beyond the law, and continues to do so long after the Soviet demise.

Peter Dale’s Scott’s American War Machine represents an important contribution. Building on the themes of The War Conspiracy (1972) and Deep Politics and the Death of JFK (1996), Scott, a professor emeritus of English literature at UC Berkeley and founder of its peace studies program, highlights the influence of right-wing cabals connected to Wall Street and the oil and arms industries in driving American foreign policy in a militaristic direction. Carrying out clandestine operations financed through off-the books channels, including the narcotics trade, they exemplify the crisis of democratic accountability in the United States and have yielded disastrous consequences in contributing to the destabilization of volatile regions and to the growth of international terrorism and drug production.

Scott begins the book recounting an incident in which a Vietnam Special Forces veteran who witnessed opium loaded onto CIA Air America planes had a large hole burned into the door of his car the night before their scheduled interview as a warning to keep silent. For Scott, this small act of terrorism exemplifies the repressive dimension of the American government, which most citizens are loath to acknowledge. Read more ..

Book Review

A Long Goodbye: Soviet Withdrawal and Failure in Afghanistan

July 13th 2011

Book Covers - A Long goodbye

A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan. Artemy M. Kalinovsky. Harvard. 2011. 320 pages.

There appear to be people who would like this book to be, in effect, Why the U.S. Will Fail in Afghanistan. Such people include the publicity department at Harvard University Press, whose press release for the book cites the "suspiciously familiar" set of reasons Artemy Kalinovsky cites for the Soviet debacle there. They also include investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, whose blurb for the book suggests he did not actually read it, since his remarks focus on this angle, which comprise about three (very good) pages on the subject. There are of course very good reasons, in both marketing and intellectual terms, for viewing The Long Goodbye through that lens (it is, after all, why I picked it up). But such a perspective also distorts what this book is and why it is valuable.

A more relevant, if still somewhat nationally narcissistic, historical analogy is more relevant: The U.S. and Vietnam. Before a few years ago, the comparison was downright proverbial: the Soviet decade-long (1979-89) adventure in Afghanistan was the USSR's Vietnam, the imperial incursion that brought a hegemon to its knees. Some would say it was actually worse, since it precipitated the end of the Soviet Union itself.

Kalinovsky does engage this analogy (a little). And he sees merit it. Certainly, he would agree that both Afghanistan and Vietnam posed knotty military problems (though he is among those who believes that the Soviet 40th army acquitted itself well). And that both generated dissent at home and disenchantment abroad. But the emphasis here is the reverse of what one typically sees in discussions of Vietnam: for the Soviets, maintaining credibility with its allies and the Third World were primary, while managing public opinion was not a serious issue until the war was almost over. Read more ..

Book Review

Rabbi Outcast: Rabbi Elmer Berger and Insights into Jewish Anti-Zionism

July 13th 2011

Book Covers - Rabbi Outcast

Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism. Jack Ross. Potomac Books. 2011. 296 pages.

Rabbi Elmer Berger, the leading ideologist and main strategist of the American Council for Judaism (ACJ), the American Jewish organization created in 1942 specifically to oppose Zionism, is the subject of Jack Ross’ sympathetic and well-researched. In this biography, Ross ably portrays and analyzes the sources and evolution of Berger’s anti-Zionist thought and traces the rabbi’s career as probably one of the fiercest and most enduring American Jewish anti-Zionists.

From his early thirties until his death at the age of eighty-seven, Berger dedicated himself totally to an unrelenting campaign against Zionism. In the course of this endeavor, he constructed perhaps the most systematic, aggressive, and persistent Jewish ideological and public assault on Zionism and its partisans in the United States. Between 1942 and 1967, his most productive years, Berger played a leading role in the ACJ. As the organization’s executive director and chief ideologist, Berger closely supervised the formulation of almost every official ACJ document and organizational policy. Despite Lessing Rosenwald’s and Clarence Coleman’s formal leadership as the presidents of the organization, it was Berger who played the commanding role in shaping and guiding the ACJ’s anti-Zionist campaign.

The ACJ came into existence in 1942 as the response of a group of Reform rabbis and lay opponents of Zionism who were alarmed by what they considered to be the rapid growth of Zionism in the U.S. and its intrusion into Jewish communal and religious life. Theirs was a direct reaction to a February 1942 resolution of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the one-time stronghold of Reform anti-Zionism, favoring the creation of “Jewish army” in Palestine as well as to the gathering of the Zionist Biltmore Conference in New York in May in which the Zionist movement openly declared its end-goal—the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Read more ..

Book Review

The Notes: Ronald Reagan's Private Collection and a Look at the Mind of the Gipper

July 11th 2011

Book Covers - The Notes

The Notes: Ronald Reagan’s Private Collection of Stories and Wisdom. Douglas Brinkley, ed. Harper. 2011. 299 pages.

The Notes: Ronald Reagan’s Private Collection of Stories and Wisdom is the latest publication to promise direct insight into the mind and work of America’s fortieth president. It follows compilations of his letters, radio addresses and diaries which targeted the common perception of Reagan as a passive simpleton and revealed him as a prolific and attentive writer. These earlier publications are of unarguable value to students of Reagan, of revisionist intent or otherwise, and The Notes seeks to match their importance to researchers and enthusiasts. Like The Reagan Diaries, with whom the book shares an editor, Douglas Brinkley, The Notes have their origin in the expansive collection of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Rather than his own writing, the book comprises Reagan’s own trusted collection of historical quotes, aphorisms and jokes which served as a constant aide to his public communication over forty years. This is significant and potentially revealing content, but suffers here for want of coherent organization or useful explication.

Brinkley believes in the collection’s importance. It is “the Rosetta Stone” which reveals “the real Reagan”; its publication is “a landmark event in Reagan studies,” “equally important” to that of his diaries. “For if Reagan is remembered as the Great Communicator,” Brinkley asserts, “these notes provide the most effective way of decoding his craft.” The editor, though, leaves the decoding to the reader, presenting the note cards in their raw form, organised into loose categories. Unfortunately, he leaves us without certain tools for the job. Brinkley explains in the introduction that only forty percent of the notes are written on White House stationery, but gives no indication in the body of the book which ones, or when any of them might have been collected. Read more ..

Book Review

Fire and Rain: The Beatles and James Taylor and All that Troubled Water of 1970

July 11th 2011

Book Covers - Fire and Rain: the beatles

Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970. David Browne. DaCapo Press. 2011. 392 pages.

As he contemplated writing this book, Rolling Stone contributing editor David Browne conceived an ambitious agenda: “The more I thought about it,” he says, “the more 1970 felt like the lost year: the moment at which the remaining slivers of the idealism of the ‘60s began surrendering to the buzz-kill comedown of the decade ahead….I couldn’t resist revisiting a moment when sweetly sung music and ugly times coexisted, even fed off each other, in a world gone off course.” An entirely reasonable idea. The book itself, however, is uneven—strongest when considering the “sweetly sung music,” weakest when describing the “ugly times” in which that music appeared and trying to establish why the times and the tunes were connected.

Occasionally the errors are factual. It’s certainly true, for example, that “the two years leading up to [“Bridge Over Troubled Water’s] release had been brutalizing ones,” but the years 1968 and 1969, saturated with violence though they were, did not include assassination of “both Kennedys.” Slips like that would matter less if there were sustained discussion of the world beyond the music, but there isn’t. We just get summary versions of the late-60s litany of “one piece of bad news after another”-- the killings at Kent State and Jackson State, the Weathermen’s turn toward violence, the seemingly endless arguments over Vietnam, civil rights, and urban crisis. But Browne doesn’t try to explain why 1970’s events made idealism surrender. Read more ..

Book Review

Clothed in the Robes of Sovreignty: Founding Fathers and Masters of American Symbolism

July 11th 2011

Book Covers - Clothed in the robes of sovreignty

Clothed in the Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors. Benjamin H. Irvin. Oxford. 2011. 378 pages.

Clothed in the Robes of Sovereignty tells the story of an unsuccessful experiment: the attempt by the infant government of the United States to create a semiotics of the American Revolution. We all know that the Founding Fathers were masters of the English language (one part of their patrimony they could never forsake). The attendant attempt to create a national system of symbols and rituals to go along with manifestos like the Declaration of Independence preoccupied figures no less than John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. From the mid-1770s to the mid-1780s, a period spanning the formation of the First Continental Congress to the Treaty of Paris, government leaders declared holidays, struck medals, built monuments, created currency, and took other steps to culturally institutionalize their government. But while some of these steps toward creating what Benedict Anderson has famously called "imagined communities" had an effect temporarily, very few of them ever took root.

As Benjamin Irvin, assistant professor of history at the University of Arizona, explains, there are a number of reasons why. Perhaps the most important in his view is that that the people -- make that the People -- had an unofficial vote in the adoption of collective symbols, and didn't passively accept what their leaders handed them. So a parade might turn into a riot, for example. Ordinary people could also send messages of their own. Irvin's first chapter describes an episode when Congressional leaders were forced to cancel a ball to be held in Philadelphia to mark the arrival of Martha Washington, because they were warned that such frivolity, which appeared to contradict Congress's own pronouncements about frugality, led to threats that the tavern where the event was to be held would be attacked. Irvin uses the phrase "the people out of doors," which has become something of a buzz phrase among scholars of the period, to describe such dynamics. Read more ..

Film Review

The Tree of Life: Considering whether Human Existence is a Good Thing

July 10th 2011

Film - Tree of Life

Tree of Life. Director: Terrence Malick. Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken. Length: 139 mins.

In a recent number of the Times Literary Supplement, Peter Singer paid an extravagant tribute to Derek Parfit, the ethicist whose magnum opus, On What Matters, he calls "the most significant work in ethics" in more than a century. Whether he is right or not, I am not competent to judge, but I do notice a blemish on the great man’s splendid surface that has apparently escaped Professor Singer’s attention. See if you can spot it.

Parfit also asks a less obvious question about all of human existence. If a massive asteroid hit Earth tomorrow, ending human history, would it have been a good thing that humans existed at all? Our answer may depend, Parfit thinks, not only on how we balance the suffering that has resulted from human existence against the happiness it has brought, but also on what weight we give to the badness of the fact that some people suffered greatly without having anything to compensate them for their suffering. Parfit answers his own question affirmatively, holding that human existence to this point has been a good thing, but he acknowledges that this may be wishful thinking.

Yet first of all, surely, our answer must depend on the fact that we ourselves are human, and that questions of value such as this are questions that only human beings are equipped to answer. They are therefore meaningless apart from the very humanity which is supposedly the matter under debate. In other words, it would not be possible for human existence to have been other than a good thing, since without human existence there would be no knowledge of good and therefore no good things. If the notion of a good thing is itself a good thing — as how can it not be? — then human existence must be a good thing. Indeed, the first and indispensable good thing. Read more ..


Sydney's Limmud Oz Attracts 1,100 to Nonstop Festival of Learning

July 5th 2011

Jewish Topics - Limmud Oz Banner
Limmud Oz--the Australian Festival

Despite a rainy and windy long weekend, over 1100 people enjoyed hearing over 200 presenters talk, act, sing, and argue about everything from Israel to asylum seekers. The atmosphere was amazing. It was abuzz from the first Saturday night June 11 through its Monday evening June 13.

Headline international presenters like Nazi-hunter Efraim Zuroff, Israeli singer Efrat Gosh, journalist and author Edwin Black, and former Knesset member Naomi Chazan drew the largest crowds, but participants enjoyed the opportunity to choose from a spectacularly diverse array of sessions and subjects. Limmud-Oz is one of the few opportunities for the entire Jewish community to come together. Israeli singing sensation Efrat Gosh performed while others attended sessions on Jewish identity, interfaith dialog, and Martin Buber.
The majority of participants came from Sydney, but there were also a number of attendees from Melbourne and elsewhere in Australia.  Read more ..

Film Review

Enemies of the People: A Film that Offers Justice to Victims of Cambodia's Killing Fields

July 5th 2011

Film - enemies of the people

Enemies of the People. Director: Thet Sambath. Writer: Rob Lemkin. Length: 93 minutes.

Cambodian journalist and genocide survivor, Thet Sambath, has won the 2011 Knight International Journalism Award for uncovering the secrets the Marxist genocide during the brutal Pol Pot regime of the 1970s. His documentary film Enemies of the People: A Personal Journey into the Heart of the Killing Fields will be used as evidence at the trial of the Khmer Rouge leaders which began in Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh, on June 27.

Thet Sambath spent a decade tracking down former Khmer Rouge officials and and eliciting unprecedented confessions and is a senior reporter with the English-language daily Phnom Penh Post. He interviewed Khmer Rouge cadres who participated in the orchestrated murder of hundreds of thousands of fellow Cambodians during the Marxist regime. Among the high officials he interviewed is Pol Pot’s deputy Nuon Chea (aka Brother Number 2).

His film Enemies of the People also won a Special Jury Prize for World Cinema at the Sundance Film Festival of 2010 and is to air on PBS television in July. The Knight Award is given annually by the Washington DC-based International Center for Journalists in recognition of media professionals who have taken bold steps to keep citizens informed despite great obstacles. A statement by ICFJ read, “[Sambath’s film] is arguably the most important documentary about the Khmer Rouge. Within Cambodia its impact was close to home and personal. It will be used as evidence in the trial of Nuon Chea this year, and it brought Cambodians some understanding of that tragic time in their history.”

Thet Sambath said of his most recent prize, “I am truly honored to receive this award for my work over the last decade. I believe its recognition will assist greatly in the process of finding out the truth of my country’s sad history and enabling us all, victims and perpetrators alike, to move forward together towards a more peaceful and just future.” Read more ..

Book Review

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris get an Eyeful and are Transformed

June 29th 2011

Book Covers - Greater Journey

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. David McCullough. Simon & Schuster. 2011. 576 pages.

The Greater Journey is a masterful exploration of the experiences of Americans in Paris in between the 1830s and the end of the nineteenth century. Some, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, only came for a few months. Others, like Oliver Wendell Holmes or James Fenimore Cooper, stayed longer, sometimes for years. Some, like Charles Sumner or Samuel F. B. Morse, kept coming back, and a few, like George Healy and Mary Cassatt, ended up settling in Europe for good. They came alone or with their families, or like John Singer Sargent, were been born in Europe of expatriate American parents. The book provides wonderful vignettes of people and places, but it is much more than that.

The title in itself evokes the main idea of the book: by going East, toward “civilization,” these Americans achieved as much for themselves and for the United States as a nation as others did by going West and exploring American “wilderness.”

Beyond the title, McCullough does not present an overarching grand argument upfront (there is no formal introductory chapter). Instead, relying heavily on letters, diaries and personal accounts, he immerses the reader in the experiences of Americans in Paris, and lets the picture emerge and come together. McCullough is a master story teller, but his touch is light, and reading The Greater Journey feels like taking a stroll through a gallery with an expert and passionate guide. It is fitting that much of the book focuses on artists, as it reads like a good painting. Brush strokes of varying width and depth make for a textured and multi-layered tableau, which will leave different readers with their own particular experience of the book.

The Greater Journey is organized chronologically. Part One explores the 1830s; Part Two, the 1840s through 70s; and Part Three, the last thirty years of the century. Each part is in turn divided into chapters revolving either around an important aspect of the lives of Americans in Paris, or around an important historical event, such as the cholera epidemic of 1832 or the 1870 siege of Paris. By choosing to approach his subject chronologically, McCullough achieves both a greater depth and a more subtle picture than had he chosen to treat each individual in separate chapters. It also allows him to make the narrative richer by inserting shorter passages on characters whose experience in Paris did not warrant full examination, or for whom he had limited sources. More importantly, the portraits croisés approach allows him to explore the relationships between his subjects, and to bring dynamism to the story by highlighting the evolution of both the city and its American visitors. Read more ..

Book Review

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Complexity and Mystery

June 23rd 2011

Book Covers - Reinventing Malcolm X

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Manning Marable. Viking, 2011. 608 pages.

Based upon the extensive Malcolm X project conducted under the auspices of the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, a deconstruction of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, oral histories and personal interviews, archival research, and an extensive investigation of FBI records and other government documents made available under the Freedom of Information Act, Manning Marable, the M. Moran Weston and Black Alumni Council Professor of African American Studies at Columbia University, has produced what should long stand as the definitive biography of Malcolm X.  Marable celebrates Malcolm as a “truly historical figure in the sense that more than any of his contemporaries, he embodied the spirit, vitality, and political mood of an entire population—black, urban mid-twentieth century America”.  Embodying the two central figures of African-American folk culture, the hustler/trickster and the preacher/minister, Malcolm displayed an amazing talent for reinvention that allowed him to reach the most marginalized sectors of the black community.

The theme of reinvention is, of course, crucial to Malcolm’s Autobiography, but Marable argues that the structure of the book may better reflect collaborator Alex Haley’s perspective than that of Malcolm. Haley originally envisioned focusing the book around Malcolm’s criminal career as “Detroit Red,” leading to his salvation by Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam (NOI).  According to Marable, the integrationist Haley viewed Malcolm’s life as a cautionary tale; for if the United States did not address its history and polices of racial discrimination then the result would be increased frustration and growing extremism within the black community.  This approach, insists Marable, encouraged Malcolm to depict himself as a far more hardened criminal than was really the case.  The split between Malcolm and the NOI, however, challenged this structure of the Autobiography.  Malcolm was assassinated before he could adequately review the material dealing with the break from Elijah Muhammad. The Autobiography, accordingly, centers primarily upon Malcolm’s early life, criminal activity as “Detroit Red,” prison conversion to the NOI, and his career as a minister spreading the message of Elijah Muhammad. Read more ..

Book Review

Together Alone: Fretting about Frittering Away our Time on the Net

June 22nd 2011

Book Covers - Alone Together

Alone Together: Why We Expect more from Technology and Less from Each Other. Sherry Turkle. 2011. 384 pages.

Over the course of the last quarter century, Sherry Turkle of MIT has become the sociologist-cum-philosopher of human-computer relations. This inquiry began in 1984 with The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, which was published just as personal computers were entering the collective bloodstream. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet arrived in 1995, and was again ahead of the curve, talking in depth about the "Multiple User Domains" (MUDs) that we've come to know as chat rooms. Alone Together is presented as the final installment of a trilogy of what Turkle calls "the inner life of devices." It works well as a point of entry to Turkle's body of work in tracing the questions -- she's less good on answers -- raised by the advent of our digital lives. It also suggests that in some ways, she's played out the string.

Alone Together is really -- and may well have been best published as -- two books. The first is in effect an inquiry into the coming age when robots will be a practical, and, perhaps, pervasive, part of our everyday lives. As she's done all along, Turkle pays particular attention to children's toys, not only because devices like Tamogotchis and Furbies were harbingers of more sophisticated devices, but also because she's keenly aware that the technological socialization of the young will have important implications for society as a whole. But she's (now) especially attentive to the other end of the demographic spectrum: the use of robots as devices, particularly psychological devices, for the care and company of the old. At least superficially, the logic seems irresistible: machines can perform tasks more efficiently and cheaply than people, and in many cases (like that Alzheimer patients, for example), artificial care, and caring, makes sense. Read more ..

Film Review

City of Life and Death: Once Again We Learn that War is Hell

June 22nd 2011

Film - city of life an death

City of Life and Death. Director:  Lu Chuan. Starring: John Paisley, Wei Fan, Hideo Nakaizumi, Yuko Miyamoto. Length: 132 mins.

Four years ago, the documentary Nanking by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman told the story of the horrific Japanese rape in 1937 of the city that was then the Chinese capital (it's now called Nanjing). That movie had the tag-line: "The True Story of How a Few Brave Souls Saved the Lives of Thousands," but this sounds a lot better than and is therefore movie publicists' code for "The True Story of How Many More Thousands Could Not Be Saved."

That is, we like to justify becoming voyeurs of the horrible deaths and sufferings of others by (among other means) emphasizing the uplift to be derived from the few who escaped - and maybe the patriotic pride involved in their doing so, since their escape in this case was effected mostly through the agency of Americans and Europeans in the diplomatic enclave which the Japanese mostly didn't interfere with. But for every one who escaped, hundreds more didn't, and that's what you were really watching when you went to Nanking. Read more ..

Film Review

A Somewhat Gentle Man: A Humorous Tale of Revenge

June 16th 2011

Film - somewhat gentle man

A Somewhat Gentle Man (En ganske snill mann). Director: Hans Petter Moland. Starring: Stellan Skarsgard, Bjorn Floberg, Henrik Mestad, Jorunn Kjellsby. Length: 90 Mins.

That the second iteration of True Grit has recently proved to be such a hit, even winning an Academy Award nomination as Best Picture, shows how the world of classic Hollywood somehow manages to live on in spite of all the formidable cultural forces now arrayed against it. Where in our culture today, except in the movies, is it any longer possible to present without irony a straightforward quest for revenge as something like what it was in the Hobbesian state of nature of Old Hollywood: that is, not only permissible but compulsory. True, the postmodern idiom in which today's movies are couched has done much to rob such a revenge saga of its moral force and justification. As Tony Soprano says to his son A.J. about The Godfather, "Jesus Christ, A.J. . . . It's a movie!" But if the culture draws back from the primitive grandeur of the theme, the movie itself doesn't.

To me, that's something to cheer about, because the pseudo-profundities of New or Revisionist Hollywood - which tends to produce movies like Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) or Mystic River (2003) that are tedious moralizing tracts against revenge - have never had much appeal. It's so easy for film-makers with an ambition to be seen as "deep" or "thoughtful" to stack the deck against revenge seekers by making their would-be victims into pathetic and pitiable creatures who often (as in Mystic River) aren't even guilty of the deeds for which they are being called on to pay the ultimate price. This is what Hans Petter Moland is doing, too, in the Norwegian movie A Somewhat Gentle Man (En ganske snill mann), though with rather more subtlety and a lot more humor than usual. Read more ..

America's Nazi Nexus

Infamous Auschwitz Tattoo Began as an IBM Number

June 16th 2011

Investigation - IBM in Auschwitz Phone Book Cropped

Auschwitz Phone Book Shows IBM Hollerith Buro Phone # 4496

In August 1943, a timber merchant from Bendzin, Poland, arrived at Auschwitz. He was among a group of 400 inmates, mostly Jews. First, a doctor examined him briefly to determine his fitness for work. His physical information was noted on a medical record. Second, his full prisoner registration was completed with all personal details. Third, his name was checked against the indices of the Political Section to see if he would be subjected to special punishment. Finally, he was registered in the Labor Assignment Office and assigned a characteristic five-digit IBM Hollerith number, 44673. The five-digit Hollerith number was part of a custom punch card system devised by IBM to track prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, including the slave labor at Auschwitz.

The Polish timber merchant's punch card number would follow him from labor assignment to labor assignment as Hollerith systems tracked him and his availability for work, and reported the data to the central inmate file eventually kept at Department DII. Department DII of the SS Economics Administration in Oranienburg oversaw all camp slave labor assignments, utilizing elaborate IBM systems. Read more ..

Film Review

Everything Must Go: A Story of Leaving our Stuff Behind Us

June 14th 2011

Film - everthing must go

Everything Must Go. Director: Dan Rush. Starring: Laura Dern, Will Farrell. Glenn Howerton, Christopher Jordan Wallace. Length: 90 mins.

Americans must have something of a love-hate relationship with their material goods. Just look at how they routinely refer to them collectively by using a common vulgarism for excrement. In Everything Must Go by Dan Rush, which is (very loosely) based on a Raymond Carver short story ("Why Don’t You Dance?"), Nick, the hero, played by Will Farrell, is fired from his job and comes home to his pleasant Phoenix suburb to find that his wife has left him, changed the locks on the doors of his house and deposited all his belongings on the front lawn. At first he retains his "normal" attitude to the relics of his life spread out before him: "This is my corner," he says, "I’m not leaving my stuff." But eventually he takes a certain pride in selling it all, or nearly all, in a gigantic yard sale. We hear him on the phone to his wife’s voice-mail — she refuses to speak to him — telling her that "I’m selling all my stuff, my crap," as if this might persuade her to give him another chance.

Yet Mr. Rush, a director of commercials making his first feature film, doesn’t quite persuade us. Even at the moment when Nick first sees his crap on the lawn, we sense something a little off about this scenario. Aren’t these things Mrs. Nick’s belongings too? It seems odd, to say the least, that a couple who have apparently been together for some years and have a joint bank account (which she has also shut him out of) should still think of the furniture in their shared home as his ‘n’ hers. Or that she should have gone to all the trouble of putting his stuff outside before abandoning the house altogether. The wife never appears in the movie, remaining a distant but malign presence throughout, but her breaking up of the matrimonial home into Nick’s crap and (presumably) the crap that, along with other things, Nick no longer has access to seems a shade too literal — as if she shared with Mr. Rush a Shakespearean ambition to present us with Nick, like Poor Tom on the heath in King Lear, as "unaccommodated man." Read more ..

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