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Book Review

How Hollywood Helped the Nazi Regime

September 12th 2013

The Collaboration - Urwand

The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler. Ben Urwand. Harvard University Press/Belknap Press, 2013. 336 pages.

The Hollywood film industry maintained close ties with the Third Reich and collaborated with the regime, this according to a new book. The book, written by Harvard University doctoral student Ben Urwand, posits that Hollywood’s major studios not only passively accepted Nazi censorship, but further actively collaborated with Hitler’s propaganda machine to protect their interests in the German market.

In the book, titled The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, Urwand, whose maternal grandfather and grandmother were Jews who hid in Hungary during the Holocaust, reveals documents that have never before been made public. The book offers evidence that heads of large Hollywood studios, some of them Jews, edited films, scene by scene, at the request of senior Nazi officials. The results were films that could easily have been used as Nazi propaganda. One document even suggests that Hollywood sent money to Germany to produce munitions.

“Hollywood [in the 1930s] is not just collaborating with Nazi Germany, it’s also collaborating with Adolf Hitler, the person and human being,” Urwand told The New York Times.

The fact that the Nazi regime intervened in the Hollywood’s film industry is known and documented, but Urwand suggests that the relationship between Hollywood and the Third Reich was much deeper and long-lasting than previously known, and that this warm relationship continued until the beginning of the 1940s.

According to Urwand, collaboration with the Nazis began in 1930, when Carl Laemmle, a Jew who headed Universal Studios, agreed to far-reaching changes in “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) after Nazis who watched the movie rioted. Later on, in January 1938, the German offices of Fox studios sent a letter with a request to receive Hitler’s opinion about several movies. The letter ends with the salutation “Heil Hitler.” Read more ..

Book Review

A Flawed Account of Oscr Wilde in North America

September 10th 2013

Declaring His Genius

Declaring His Genius. Roy Morris Jr. Belknap Press. 2013. 264 pp.

Oscar Wilde was only 27 when he undertook an 1882 lecture tour of the US and Canada, and a new book from Harvard University Press’s Belknap Press — “Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America” by Roy Morris Jr. — rates his trip “a remarkable feat of physical and emotional endurance.”

By the end of this tour, Wilde “had traveled some 15,000 miles, had appeared in 140 cities and towns from Maine to California… earning, after expenses, $5,600 — in modern terms, nearly $124,000.” In his wake, as Morris relates, “many” local arts schools, crafts centers, and sculpting studios sprang up, and “untold artists, male and female, took personal inspiration from Wilde’s message and his example.”

The value of Morris’ book is that it paints in great detail how Wilde’s American tour was “a complex media event, perhaps the most extensive of his time. Wilde functioned in essence as his own advance man, beating the drum for his upcoming lectures while carefully nurturing a more elevated image as the leading spokesman for the Aesthetic Movement, which he airily described as ‘the science of the beautiful.’”

Wilde at this point had published only one book of poetry and some articles, but he had already “become increasingly famous, although no one could quite say why.” At Magdalen College, Oxford, where he won the school’s prestigious Newdigate Prize for poetry, his bon mots became famous and even entered the popular language of the educated classes – like his observation that “everything and every one was ‘too too utterly utter’ for words.”

Thanks in part to the frequent caricatures of him by the cartoonist George Du Maurier in the humor magazine Punch, he was so famous that even the prince of Wales — the future King Edward VII — asked for an introduction, observing that “I do not know Mr. Wilde, and not to know Mr. Wilde is not to be known.” Wilde had become “the most talked about dandy since Beau Brummell,” and he “played his part perfectly, dressing in crushed-velvet coat, satin knee breeches, black silk stockings, and pale green necktie, with a giant yellow-and-brown sunflower pinned to his lapel.” The Aesthetes, who were decidedly more democratic than the art school-based pre-Raphaelites like Walter Pater (with whom Wilde had studied at Oxford), adopted the British craze for Japanese fashions — memorialized by Gilbert and Sullivan in “The Mikado” — and the lily, which imported from Japan in 1862, was adopted by Wilde as an early trademark. Read more ..

Book Review

Imagining the Story of Abraham and Issac

September 9th 2013

But Where is the Lamb?

But Where is the Lamb?. James Goodman. Schocken. 2013. 320 pp.

It's possible to describe this book in a fairly straightforward way, so I'll begin by doing that. But Where Is the Lamb? is an exegesis of nineteen verses from the Book of Genesis, a foundational piece of scripture for Jews, Christians and Muslims. James Goodman chronicles an array of interpretations these faith communities have generated with a slab of prose that's reproduced in its entirety on the cover of the book.

More specifically, Lamb (as I'll call it) is a reading of one of the most famous and perplexing stories in the canon of great world religions: God's commandment that Abraham sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, Abraham's preparations to act on this instruction, and the last-minute reprieve that gets delivered before Isaac is to be killed. Just what was God doing when he issued this injunction? Why did Abraham act on, if not execute, the order? Did Isaac understand what was happening? (The title of the book refers to the question he asks as his father prepares his sacrifice.) These are some of the questions Goodman plumbs in about 260 compact pages.

That said, the narrative arc of his study is vast, and, notwithstanding its brevity, surprisingly detailed. One can describe the first thousand or so years of interpretation as an intra-Jewish dialogue conducted against a backdrop of the rise and fall of Israel, the spread of Hellenism, and the expansion of the Roman Empire. So it is that we're introduced to the book of Jubilees, which argues that God always knew that Abraham would obey and was demonstrating this to Satan, much in the way he did with Job. The Hellenic-minded Philo, by contrast, emphasized Abraham's fidelity in a context of Greek religion, where the sacrifice of one's children was relatively common. (There's an intriguing anthropological subtext in the Lamb regarding the role of child sacrifice in the ancient world that might have been strengthened with a nod to places like pre-Columbian America -- it seems to have been remarkably widespread.) The Roman-era Flavius Josephus makes the tale of Abraham and Isaac one of fidelity by father and son, while Pseudo-Philo emphasizes the latter's conscious sacrifice, a model for Jewish martyrdom around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Read more ..

Film Review

The Act of Killing: How to Tell Good Guys from Bad Guys

September 7th 2013

Act of Killing

The Act of Killing. Director: Joshua Oppenheimer. Length: 90 mins.

It’s a truism that war robs us of our capacity for self-identification with others — or at least with those others whom we designate as "the enemy." The act of killing would obviously be impossible without this hardening of the heart, this psychological mechanism by which we teach ourselves to regard certain human beings as being, somehow, not quite human. Joshua Oppenheimer’s film, The Act of Killing takes as its starting point the pacifist view that war is caused by this assumed hardness of heart, rather than the other way around, and it sets out to illustrate that proposition in the case of a man, Anwar Congo, who admits to killing a thousand "communists" (the quotation marks are Mr Oppenheimer’s) in the aftermath of the Indonesian coup of September-October, 1965.

Now a grandfather bearing a faint resemblance to Nelson Mandela, Mr Congo is encouraged by Mr Oppenheimer and the promise of becoming a kind of movie star like the heroes of his youth (Elvis and John Wayne get special mentions) to re-enact his part in the bloody deeds by which he became something of a hero to the Indonesian faction which has held power there ever since. But when he takes on the role of victim rather than killer he learns to regard his own long-ago actions with a measure of remorse.

And what does this prove? If war takes away our compassion, ideology takes away our curiosity. Once we have got hold, as we imagine, of a system, an intellectual accounting for reality, all our own intellectual energies are henceforth diverted into defending that ideology, that version of reality, rather than investigating reality itself, which comes with no explanations or diagrams, no way of imparting meaning to it in advance. Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Younger Jews Reshape High Holiday Music

September 4th 2013

Jerusalem-Temple and Wall

September 4 through the 14 mark the main Jewish High Holiday season when Jews all over the world undergo 10-days of self-reflection, repentance, music and prayer. The holidays begin on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Traditional High Holiday music and liturgy is often hundreds of years old, and older. But some of those traditions are being reshaped by a younger generation of Jews who want to put their own mark on their ancient heritage.

The blast of a “shofar”, the ram’s horn, is the most ancient and traditional of Jewish High Holidays music. For millennia, Jews around the world have sounded it as a wake-up call to repentance. The shofar blast is supposed to mimic soulful sobbing, and to herald the symbolic arrival of God as King on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Most American Jews with ancestral roots in pre-Holocaust Eastern and Central Europe are also familiar with the chant of the synagogue cantor, or prayer leader. Read more ..

The Music Edge

Drumming Recalls Centuries-old Link Between Caribbean, Africa

September 1st 2013

Jerusalem TowerOfDavid

Throughout the ages and around the globe, drumming has been used for communication, entertainment, and prayer. That is especially true for the Rastafarians who performed at this year's Sacred Music Festival in Jerusalem.

If you haven’t heard of Nyabinghi drumming, you are not alone. It is sacred music, played as a communal meditative practice in the Rastafarian religion of Jamaica, and rarely performed in public.

As Jamaican reggae star Vivien Jones explains, it is a centuries-old link between the Caribbean and Africa. “That's been in Jamaica since we were taken there as slaves," Jones said. "Slave master used to bang the drums. So the drums were there from the time we landed on that island, the drums were being played. So it was African drumming … all the way from ancient Ethiopia. All it did was it traveled in a slave ship to Jamaica and then it bloomed and blossomed again in Jamaica.” Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Ethiopian Taxi Driver, Keyboardist Reinvents Music Career

August 31st 2013


One of the most popular keyboardists in Ethiopia is now working as a taxi driver in Washington, D.C. In the 1970s, Hailu Mergia performed with a famous band in Ethiopia. In 1981, he toured the United States with that band and then settled in Washington. But he kept his name and music alive in Ethiopian communities worldwide by producing his own recordings. Now one of those cassettes, from nearly 30 years ago, has been reissued after it was discovered in a music store in Ethiopia.
Mergia plays music from his 1985 reissued cassette, titled Mergia and his Classical Instrument, as he waits for customers at Dulles International Airport, located outside Washington. He said his Ethiopian customers get excited when they realize who he is.

“When I tell them my name, then they recognize my name, and then they say 'Are you Hailu Mergia, then they tell me how they appreciate my music," he said, beaming with pride. "Most of them ask me ‘Why do you drive a taxi,’ so I tell them the same answer, ‘Look, I just have to make money.’” Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Music Played Key Role in US Civil Rights Movement

August 29th 2013

Martin Luther King I have a Dream crowds photogs

For all its unity of purpose, there were many divisions in the civil rights movement. One of the most stark divisions played out in the music that urged the movement forward.

When we think about the civil rights struggle in the United States, a tune called “Freedom Song” comes to mind.  It was the type of music you could expect to hear at the civil rights movement’s mass meetings and protest rallies.  

“It was usually based musically in the spiritual tradition," said Suzanne Smith, author of Dancing In The Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit. "But the lyrics often reflected the exact situation that the activists were confronting at that moment. If they were arrested at a rally, they would often sing the songs in jail to keep their spirits up.” Read more ..

Film Review

Blue Jasmine: A Bleakness in Woody Allen's Worldview

August 29th 2013

Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine. Director: Woody Allen. Starring: Alec Balwin, Kate Blanchett. Length: 90 mins.

A key piece of information which is only revealed in the final minutes of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine and which, therefore, I must not reveal here changes everything we have thought about the film’s victim-heroine, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), up to that point. It’s obvious from the beginning that Jasmine — lately the wife of a fabulously rich Wall Street type who, like pretty much all Wall Street types in the movies, has turned out to be crooked — is an emotional wreck. We see her apparently chatting to her first-class seat-mate on a transcontinental flight about having met her husband to the strains of the Rodgers and Hart standard "Blue Moon" as if it were just a fond romantic reminiscence. We soon realize that she is talking to herself, as she does periodically throughout the movie, her own flashbacks to her comfortably well-heeled life with the fraudster Hal (Alec Baldwin) tracking closely with the movie’s.

Only in the last of these do we learn what has brought her to this pass, taking refuge not only in vodka and Xanax, but also in the fantasy of her former life on Park Avenue from her much less desirable real life in the present. "When Jasmine doesn’t want to know something, she has a habit of looking the other way," says her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) with whom she has come to live and whose supposedly proletarian apartment in San Francisco — are there still such things in the Mission District? — represents her new reality. Though both Jasmine (née Jeanette) and Ginger were adopted, Ginger jokes about Jasmine’s having got the family’s "good genes" as a cover for her own presumed inferiority. That is echoed in the vulgarity of her ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) and her new boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Chili tries to match Jasmine up with a similarly low-life pal, Eddie (Max Casella) whose blindness to his own unsuitability as a romantic attachment to this exquisite creature is the principal evidence of his social inferiority. Read more ..

Book Review

Mathew Brady: The Photographer Who Shaped American Visual Imagination

August 28th 2013

Mathew Brady Portrait of a Nation

Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation. Robert Wilson. Bloomsburgy. 2013

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Mathew Brady, who spent most of his adult life at the center of an emergent modern celebrity culture, is how little is known about him. His date of birth is unknown, as is much of his family life. Many of the most famous photographs associated with him are of uncertain provenance; his relationship with his peers have long been debated. And yet there is little question that Brady shaped the visual imagination of the nineteenth century. Amid ongoing uncertainty over exactly what he did, there is nevertheless substantial consensus that he was a major artist. That was true in his time, and remains true in ours.

In this relatively short, readable and incisive biography, American Scholar editor Robert Wilson deals with the dearth of information about Brady's life in two principal ways. The first is to mine the documentary record about which there is confidence with care and flair, analyzing the visual choices Brady made in the photographs he produced or supervised, and the context in which he chose to present them. (Many Brady photographs are reproduced in the book, though one can't help but wish there were more.) The other is compensate for the lack of record of Brady's inner life by situating in him in his time. To a great extent, this means looking at the careers of figures like Alexander Gardner and Timothy O'Sullivan, who began their careers as Brady's proteges but later became his rivals. (At times the book reads like it should have been titled Brady's Boys, a nod to Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson's 1996 book The Murrow Boys, about the pioneers of broadcast journalism.) Wilson acknowledges arguments that Brady exploited these people and that his relationships with them were marked by hard feelings, but regards them as exaggerations at best. In his telling Brady was no saint, but at worst he worked within the mores of people in his profession at the time. Read more ..

Significant Lives

Jazz Pianist Marian McPartland Dead at 95

August 25th 2013

Piano Keys

Marian McPartland, one of the best-known jazz artists in America, died August 20 in Port Washington, New York. She was 95. A musician who broke ground for women instrumentalists in the 1940s and ‘50s, she would later become best known as host of the long-running radio program “Piano Jazz.”

McPartland’s elegant approach to jazz gracefully spanned several major eras, from swing to bebop and beyond. McPartland brought the musical knowledge earned over decades playing in nightclubs to National Public Radio, where for more than 30 years she hosted “Piano Jazz,” a program that mixed conversation and performance with many of the world’s best musicians.

Born Margaret Marian Turner in Windsor, England, as a girl she took up piano. To her parents’ dismay, when she was 20 she left home to join a four-piano vaudeville act. On a tour playing for Allied troops during World War II she met American jazz trumpeter Jimmy McPartland. They married, and, after the war, moved to the United States. With her husband's encouragement, McPartland went on to lead her own small bands. Read more ..

BDS Bullies

BDS Extorts Afropop Star Salif Keita Into Canceling Jerusalem Benefit Concert

August 24th 2013

Salif Keita-albino-musician

Afropop musician Salif Keita on Thursday was forced to cancel a performance scheduled for today at the Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival on the recommendation of his management and agents after they said they could not guarantee his safety in the face of “threats, blackmail attempts, intimidation, social media harassment and slander” from the “extremist” Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

In a statement published to the musician’s Facebook page, addressed to “Sacred Music Festival, Hadassah Hospital, Salif Keita fans,” Keita’s non-profit, The Salif Keita Global Foundation, said: “The reason for the cancellation is not one which was made by Mr. Keita, but by his agents who were bombarded with hundreds of  threats, blackmail attempts, intimidation, social media harassment and slander stating that Mr Keita was to perform in Israel, ‘not for peace, but for apartheid.’ 

These threats were made by a group named BDS, who also threatened to keep increasing an anti-Salif Keita campaign, which they had already started on social media, and to work diligently at ruining the reputation and career that Mr. Keita has worked 40 years to achieve not only professionally, but for human rights and albinism.”

“Of course, we do not agree with any of these tactics or false propaganda, but management’s concern is to protect the artist from being harmed personally and professionally. Although, we love Israel and all his fans here, and the fantastic spirit of unity of the Sacred Music Festival, as well as the important work your hospital is doing for albinism, we did not agree with the scare tactics and bullying used by BDS; therefore management decided to act cautiously when faced with an extremist group, as we believe BDS to be,” the message said. Read more ..

Book Review

The Muslim War on Christians

August 22nd 2013

Crucified Again

Raymond Ibrahim. Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians. Regnery Publishing, 2013. 256 pp.

As Egypt’s Islamists blame Christians for the ouster of Mohammed Morsi, anti-Christian violence has reached epidemic levels, with an estimated 82 churches across Egypt attacked and heavily damaged by Morsi supporters in a mere 48 hours.

Unfortunately, the persecution of Christians is nothing new in Egypt or other Muslim-majority countries. But thanks to the mainstream media, few Westerners understand the true scale or nature of the horrors involved.

As you read this, Christians around the world are being murdered, raped, plundered, abducted, forcibly converted to Islam, or otherwise oppressed by Muslims. Christians in Muslim-majority areas are some of the most vulnerable and horribly oppressed people on Earth; they live at the mercy of the mob and receive little or no protection from the police or other government institutions.

The reach of this silent tragedy is sweeping—a global religious genocide on “slow burn” with occasional conflagrations that make it into the mainstream media. There are an estimated 100 million persecuted Christians.

This massive crime is documented in shocking and painstaking detail in Raymond Ibrahim’s new book Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians. The book is required reading for anyone who cares about religious freedom, human rights, and/or the survival of Christians in their ancestral lands. Read more ..

Book Review

An Overdue Tribute to a Man Whose Achievements Are Often Noted But Rarely Plumbed

August 21st 2013

Mathew Brady

Mathew Brady. Robert Wilson. Bloomsbury USA. 2013. 288 pp.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Mathew Brady, who spent most of his adult life at the center of an emergent modern celebrity culture, is how little is known about him. His date of birth is unknown, as is much of his family life. Many of the most famous photographs associated with him are of uncertain provenance; his relationship with his peers have long been debated. And yet there is little question that Brady shaped the visual imagination of the nineteenth century. Amid ongoing uncertainty over exactly what he did, there is nevertheless substantial consensus that he was a major artist. That was true in his time, and remains true in ours.

In this relatively short, readable and incisive biography, American Scholar editor Robert Wilson deals with the dearth of information about Brady's life in two principal ways. The first is to mine the documentary record about which there is confidence with care and flair, analyzing the visual choices Brady made in the photographs he produced or supervised, and the context in which he chose to present them. (Many Brady photographs are reproduced in the book, though one can't help but wish there were more.) The other is compensate for the lack of record of Brady's inner life by situating in him in his time. To a great extent, this means looking at the careers of figures like Alexander Gardner and Timothy O'Sullivan, who began their careers as Brady's proteges but later became his rivals. (At times the book reads like it should have been titled Brady's Boys, a nod to Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson's 1996 book The Murrow Boys, about the pioneers of broadcast journalism.) Wilson acknowledges arguments that Brady exploited these people and that his relationships with them were marked by hard feelings, but regards them as exaggerations at best. In his telling Brady was no saint, but at worst he worked within the mores of people in his profession at the time.

The son of Irish immigrants from upstate New York, Brady moved to Manhattan as a young man and apparently benefited from the tutelage of Samuel Morse, who dabbled in early photography on the road to inventing the telegraph. He opened a gallery in downtown New York in the 1840s, shrewdly exploiting what were apparently excellent social skills and building a reputation by offering to photograph prominent people for free as a means of building up his business. Before the Civil War he was already established as a leading figure in the field, a portraitist known for his images of figures ranging from presidents to the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind, whose 1850s tour of the United States made her the Taylor Swift of her time. Read more ..

Book Review

The Drugery of Daily Life and Labor

August 19th 2013

Cotton Tenants

Cotton Tenants. James Agee. Melville House. 2013. 224 pp.

In the summer of 1936 the business magazine Fortune operated by Henry Luce dispatched staff writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans, on loan from the Farm Securities Administration, to Alabama to examine the economic plight of white cotton tenant farmers. Agee’s report was a powerful indictment of the Southern economic system, but the story was killed by the magazine. One might surmise that Fortune found the piece too critical of Southern capitalism, but researchers have been unable to locate any correspondence explaining why this indictment was rejected for publication. Although Agee’s 1936 trip to Alabama did provide important research for his 1941 book on sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the original manuscript was part of the writer’s papers discovered by his daughter in Agee’s Greenwich Village home. The James Agee Trust then transferred this collection to the University of Tennessee Special Collections Library where the typescript “Cotton Tenants” was found. In 2012, approximately one-third of the document was published in The Baffler by editor John Summers who worked with Melville House to release the complete document. The result is an attractive little volume illustrated with photographs from Walker Evans’s two-volume album, Photographs of Cotton Sharecropper Families, held by the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division with an introduction by novelist Dam Haslett.

Agree was born November 27, 1909 in Knoxville, Tennessee. After his education at Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale University, Agee became a journalist noted for his film criticism. Although Let Us Now Praise Famous Men sold few copies when it was initially published in 1941, it is now considered a classic journalistic and artistic account of tenancy. His autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family was published after Agee’s death from a heart attack and was awarded the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Read more ..

Book Review

More than a Book on Downs Syndrome

August 18th 2013

Special Mother

A Special Mother is Born: Parents share How God Called Them to the Extraordinary Vocation of Parenting a Special Needs Child. Leticia Velasquez. Westbow Press, 2011. 256 pp.

Leticia Velasquez, mother of a cherished daughter with Down’s syndrome and co-founder of KIDS – Keep Infants with Down Syndrome – had a brainwave when she thought of this book: instead of concentrating on children born with special needs she decided to focus instead on their mothers, whose lives have been indelibly altered by the birth of their special children. By describing them as “special mothers,” Velasquez wants to emphasize the faith that is required in these circumstances: the belief that God has chosen a particular mother and a particular family for a particular child, despite all the demands and challenges that this child will bring.

So it is a book, first and foremost, of faith – in the teachings of the Church, and of trust, love and hope. That said, the stories related in its pages do not try to minimize the problems of giving birth to children with often multiple impairments, both physical and intellectual. The message is that if you accept the baby that you certainly did not plan and initially were afraid to welcome, you will receive unasked for gifts that you could never have anticipated.

Velasquez asked many women to relate their own experiences; their stories are most moving to read. They speak of struggles, confusion, fear, a sense of helplessness at the tasks ahead of them – but also of miracles, conversions, marriages healed, the love of siblings and of families made stronger and more united. She writes, “Every day hundreds of women are presented with an unexpected invitation to maternity and in order to give life to their child, must make nothing less than a heroic choice.” Read more ..

Book Review

Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution

August 16th 2013

Difficult Men

Difficult Men. Brett Martin. Penguin Press. 2013. 320 pp.

Historians of popular culture know the pattern: every so often a confluence of developments -- technological change, new revenue sources, emerging audiences, and last (and, mythology notwithstanding, very possibly least), artistic innovation -- converge to create an unexpected cultural flowering in an established medium. It happened in the publishing industry circa 1850, radio circa 1930, the record business in the 1950s, and in Hollywood in the 1970s. As we're all aware, we seem to be living through such a moment now with cable television, reflected in the excitement of dramas like The Sopranos (1999-2007), The Wire (2002-2008), Mad Men (2007-), and Breaking Bad (2008-). One difference that may distinguish this particular efflorescence from previous ones is the degree of self-consciousness in the breadth and depth of the cultural commentary. It usually took a while, for instance, for good books to show up on even as recent a phenomenon as the rise of independent cinema. But in the case of cable, we have Alan Sepinwall's highly regarded The Revolution Was Televised, which came out last year. And we now have Brett Martin's newly published Difficult Men as well.

The most obvious model for Difficult Men is Peter Biskind's now-classic 1999 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-Rock & Roll Generation saved Hollywood. As befitting the different cultural moments, Martin's subjects -- notably Sopranos creator David Chase, The Wire's David Simon, and Mad Men's Matthew Weiner -- are a notably more dour, business-savvy crowd than the manic Francis Coppola or Martin Scorsese. But they're comparably driven personalities able to take advantage of a relative vacuum in a medium and realize passionate artistic visions. In the case of Hollywood in the seventies, this was a matter of an industry that had lost its way commercially. In the case of a network like HBO, it was a matter of very low, if not confused, expectations about how to proceed. In both cases, early success pushed open a door for others to follow -- in movies, it was a figure like Steven Spielberg; in the case of cable, Vince Gilligan (of Breaking Bad fame). Both were more mild personalities who seem to be able to work within the system (in Gilligan's case, the once-benighted world of basic cable like AMC, which acquired Mad Men as well as his show). Read more ..

Book Review

A Rational Examination Asking Why So Many Chose to Escape

August 13th 2013

The Deserters

The Deserters. Charles Glass. Penquin Press. 2013. 400 pp.

In a nation where World War II is commonly celebrated in films and TV in an aura of triumphalism, Charles Glass’s book The Deserters” re-examines a phase of the war that has essentially been overlooked by extollers of the "Good War." (Glass was the chief Middle East correspondent for ABC News from 1983 to 1993 and also covered Africa and the Balkans.)

The unfortunate Eddie Slovik may have been the only GI executed for desertion during the Second World War, but his desertion in 1944 was hardly an anomaly (hence the executon, pour encourager les autres). In the Civil War, which took the lives of 750,000 soldiers, about 300,000 deserted from Union and Confederate armies, Mark Twain famously among them. During World War I, more than 300 British soldiers were executed, among them many deserters. Not until 2006, following a campaign organized by a citizen’s group “Shot at Dawn,” did the British government finally deign to pardon them. During World War II, the number of deserters executed by the German Wehrmachtnumberd in the thousands.

The Deserters is not a defense of desertion. It is a rational examination asking why so many chose to escape. Glass tells us is that during World War II, 100,000 British and 50,000 American soldiers deserted, several thousand Americans were punished and 49 received death sentences, though only Slovik's was carried out. Glass focuses on three deserters: the Americans Stephen Weiss and Alfred Whitehead and John Vernon Bain, a British soldier.

At age seventeen, Brooklyn-born Stephen Weiss volunteered and fought in Italy and France. Stranded behind German lines he joined a group of French partisans. When he reconnected with his unit, his buddies asked him why he even bothered to return. Tried and found guilty of desertion he was imprisoned, eventually freed and is today a psychiatrist in California. Read more ..

Book Review

Boilerplate Presentation of Libertarian Ideology

August 9th 2013

The Great Degeneration

The Great Degeneration. Niall Ferguson. Penguin Press. 2013. 192 pp.

I'm a sucker for lecture series books. For many years, Harvard University Press has published the William E. Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization, which have included wonderful titles like Lawrence Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow (1988), Richard Rorty's Achieving Our Country (1998), and Andrew Delbanco's The Real American Dream (1999). Louisiana State University Press's Walter Lynwood Fleming Lecture series is also very good, notable for Drew Gilpin Faust's The Creation of Confederate Nationalism (1989), among other titles. What's nice about these books is that they often distill a cast of mind into highly readable, short volumes that can be digested in chunks. They're typically small in terms of trim size and their number of pages.

What's not typical is for a major commercial press like Penguin to publish a series of lectures. But then Niall Ferguson is not exactly a typical author -- he's an academic superstar with appointments at Harvard, Oxford and Stanford and a veritable journalism and television brand. In The Great Degeneration, he offers a précis of his libertarian brand of thinking with an expansive view of Anglo-American society -- and why it's falling apart. It rests on a key insight, and a questionable prescription.

The insight -- a usefully provocative one -- is to view the United States and Britain (with occasional references to the rest of the West) through the lens of institutions. Actually, it's a little surprising this isn't done more often. In recent years we've tended to focus on things like climate/geography, brilliantly argued in works like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) or culture (the orientation of neoconservative intellectuals such as Thomas Sowell). Ferguson instead focuses his four chapters, bounded by an introduction and conclusion, by four institutional forces in everyday life: government, the marketplace, the legal system, and civil society (he's a big Tocqueville fan). In each case, he locates the triumph of Anglo-American life in the last three centuries to the way England and the United States have organized these institutions relative to their rivals. And in each case, he also cites the degeneration of the title, which he captures with brief, vivid strokes (and a few graphs). In diagnosing a problem, he's fairly persuasive. Read more ..

The Film Edge

Outdoor Movies Gain Popularity in US

August 7th 2013

Drive-In Movie

More than half a century ago, there were 4000 drive-in movie theaters in the United States, and watching a movie from your car was a popular way to spend an evening. But with the number of drive-ins reduced to just a few hundred, a new breed of outdoor movie has been popping up across the nation. Going to an open-air theater has become a modern summer pastime for many movie fans.

A huge inflatable screen is being erected in a park in downtown Rosslyn, Virginia, a busy suburb outside of Washington. It is for a film festival that night.

Brynne Magaziner came early with her husband. “We try to come at least a couple times every summer. Just nice to be outside in the beautiful weather and watch a movie. And it is free, which is a bonus.” Nick Donner came with friends. "I enjoy the social aspect being with friends and seeing movies that I haven’t seen in a while. It’s relaxing to be here.”

The Rosslyn Business Improvement District, known as BID, started the Outdoor Film Festival in 2007. It features a free movie every Friday night during the warm weather, from mid-May to the end of August. Lee Anne McLarty is the group’s acting director of communications. Read more ..

Book Review

Sleepingwalking into World War I

August 6th 2013

The Sleepwalkers

The Sleepwalkers. Christopher Clark. Harper, 2013. 736 pages.

At one point early on in The Sleepwalkers, University of Cambridge Professor Christopher Clark cites a perception—certainly one I had growing up—of the First World War taking place on the far side of a historical divide. "It was easy to imagine the disaster of Europe's 'last summer' as an Edwardian costume drama," he writes, attributing this view to Barbara Tuchman books. "The effete rituals and gaudy uniforms, the 'ornamentalism' of a world still largely organized around hereditary monarchy had a distancing effect on present-day recollection. They seemed to signal that the protagonists were people from another, vanished world."

The Sleepwalkers—particularly the first of the book's three parts—bracingly, even joltingly, revises this view. We are introduced to a shadowy world of fanatical terrorist cells engaged in plots that range across state borders, funded and armed by secret organizations that are connected, with carefully constructed plausible deniability, to official government ministries. The fanatics in this case are Serbian nationalists rather than Islamic fundamentalists (though it should be said that Serbian nationalism has long had strong religious overtones), but their outlook and methodology seem startlingly modern. So too are the polarizing pressures and media attention their activities generate, especially in terms of a positive feedback loop in which even presumably moderate figures feel compelled to emphasize their militancy for fear of appearing weak. When, after a series of botched attempts, one youthful member of an organization known as the Black Hand finally succeeds in murdering the heir apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it triggers a war in which many of the participants have only a peripheral relationship to its proximate cause. Iraq and Afghanistan suddenly don't seem so far away from the Balkans. Read more ..

Book Review

A Fascinating Life

August 5th 2013

Hedy Lamar

Hedy Lamar. Ruth Barton. University Press of Kentucky. 2012. 312 pp.

Described as “the most beautiful woman in the world” during her Hollywood film career from the late 1930s to the 1950s, Hedy Lamarr is less well known today among film fans, with the exception of viewers who enjoy Turner Classic Movies. Nevertheless, Lamarr is the subject of three recent biographical studies, perhaps due to her long overlooked status as an inventor. During the Second World War, Lamarr joined with avant-garde composer George Antheil to develop a patent for spread spectrum communication and frequency hopping -- an innovation necessary for wireless communication from the pre-computer era to modern times. Ruth Barton, a lecturer in film studies at Trinity College Dublin and the author of several books on Irish cinema, is a scholar who employs archival film research coupled with an exhaustive examination of secondary sources to create a profile of Lamarr as a European émigré who was never quite comfortable with Hollywood and her adopted country. While acknowledging that Lamarr’s 1966 controversial autobiography Ecstasy and Me, which focused upon her love life and six marriages, contains elements of truth, Barton seeks to understand Lamarr as more than just a sex symbol.

Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914 in Vienna, which was then still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She was the only child of an affluent and cultured Jewish family that attempted to assimilate into Viennese society. As a young woman she displayed a passion for the theater and failed to complete her secondary education. She gained considerable notoriety when she appeared nude in the art film Ecstasy (1933) directed by Czech filmmaker Gustav Machaty. Barton notes that Hedy’s private life and many of her early Hollywood films were similar to the plot of Ecstasy. A beautiful young woman is married to an older man, but she is finally able to discover passion with a younger lover. Hedy’s career in German and Austrian film was cut short by her marriage to Austrian munitions maker and fascist sympathizer Fritz Mandl, approximately twenty years her senior. Although Hedy was allowed a generous expense account, Mandl controlled the movements of his young wife. With World War II looming on the horizon and her husband concentrating upon politics and business interests, Hedy was finally able to escape Mandl, fleeing to Paris and eventually Hollywood where she signed a contract with MGM and Louis Mayer. Read more ..

Book Review

Portrait of a Small Group of Immigrants to Shores

July 30th 2013

Little Ethiopia of the Pacific Northwest

Little Ethiopia of the Pacific Norhwest. Joseph W. Scott and Solomon Getahun. Transaction Publishers. 2013. 170 pp.

Often a book will be idly described as “timely” on one thin ground or another. This book on Ethiopians who migrated from their home country in Northern Africa (via Sudan?) and settled in Seattle fits the needs of all who are focusing on immigration policy at this moment and wish they knew a whole lot more about those who came here voluntarily and involuntarily.

Little Ethiopia is a detailed analysis of how the elite of Ethiopia reacted to Communist control of their North African country after the 1974 Revolution; how they fled (chiefly) to Sudan; how they got selected there as immigrants to the United States; how they settled in Seattle and hated, endured, or succeeded in Life there; and how after soul searching, some returned to the homeland where maybe the old ways would again prevail.

The newcomers from Addis Ababa and vicinity are by no means “typical” in the sense of the 11 million immigrants who worry policymakers (and a lot of our public) at this moment. The Ethiopians who came to “the Pacific Northwest” were “sojourners” who expected to return home before too long. Borderline “middle class” and/or “elite” at home, they were full of illusions about the life that suddenly faced them during what seemed likely to be a temporary stay in our land of freedom and opportunity.

Soviet meddling with their home country had blocked money transfers, produced threats of bodily harm and more, produced jail and exile, and changed lifestyles born through the distant centuries. Stranded, these new and definitely involuntary long term visitors to the U.S. (some 175,000 in all) began a long process that illusions indicated would bring some form of relief and even happiness.

The bedrock of this innovative sociological study is extensive and very carefully framed interviews with 70 individuals on topics that center on “the trials and tribulations of transplanted Ethiopians who came from an ancient, agricultural, low-tech poor society....” They hoped to “adapt, survive, and thrive” in their new environment, one that might well turn out to be a “young, industrial, postmodern, high-tech, rich society....” The ages of the sample were 20 to 53. Read more ..

Book Review

The Rebirth of Union City's Schools

July 28th 2013

Improbable Scholars

David Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and a longtime observer of American education, has written an invaluable book that is remarkable for its good sense and insight, and even more remarkable for appearing in the midst of an ongoing educational conversation that has long been marked by an almost willful air of unreality.  For at least thirty years, writing aimed at the general public and educators alike has embraced false dichotomies (skills v. content); false analogies (schools as businesses); dubious panaceas (vouchers, charters, high-stakes testing); and sloganeering disguised as curriculum reform (“21st century skills”).  A quick tour of the past three decades can remind us of how the atmosphere got polluted—and make clear why Kirp’s book is such a welcome addition.

In 1983, “A Nation at Risk” sounded its alarm about American public education, and popular narratives about what was wrong and how to fix it popped up like spring flowers.  Unfortunately, they were often simplistic and extreme.  Even the movies, which both influence and reflect what many people are thinking, got into the act.  Remember “Stand and Deliver” (1988), with Edward James Olmos’s uncanny impersonation of Jaime Escalante’s classroom heroics?  (Jay Mathews, the Washington Post’s excellent education writer, came out with a book shortly thereafter, showing that Escalante wasn’t exactly the Lone Ranger: he had help.  But Mathews’s book was dramatically subtitled, “The Best Teacher in America.”)  Hardliners were more taken with heroic principals.  Remember Joe Clark, his baseball bat and bullhorn, in “Stand By Me” (1986)?  He became a celebrity, even though, as Kirp notes, his school remained a mess and within a few years he was out of education and trundling around the “motivational speaking” circuit.

The penchant for the rhetorically grandiose seeped into policy with the standards movement of the 1990s (the standards were always to be “world class,” in schools that would “break the mold”) and then, most emphatically, with the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001.  Every child was to be taught by “highly qualified teachers” (often inflated by superintendents and commissioners into “great teachers”), and schools that failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress were subject to being “transformed”—after all, schools were supposed to be in a “race to the top.” Read more ..

The Movie Edge

Lebanon's Arts District Brings Back Silver Screen

July 27th 2013

Elizabeth Cleopatra Taylor

The cosmopolitan district of Hamra was the intellectual center of Beirut until the Lebanese civil war drove many writers and artists to flee the neighborhood. The war also led to the closing of more than a dozen cinemas but now the silver screen has returned.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Hamra's café culture attracted Arab writers and artists from across the Middle East. It was also where you could watch the latest American movies in more than two-dozen neighborhood cinemas. 

Moviegoers even braved the first few years of the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990 and dodged gunfire to glimpse their favorite Hollywood stars. But that did not last. By the end of the conflict, even the small cinemas had shuttered. Some later re-opened but could not survive the arrival of videos and home entertainment.

Now the silver screen has returned to Hamra with the opening of the first neighborhood movie theater in the district in a decade. The Prime on Bliss Street has opened opposite the American University at Beirut and is equipped with big modern screens and the latest sound technology. The cinema’s manager, Jean Elhelou, says moviegoers like the surround-sound and big screens that capture the special effects of the blockbuster films.  Read more ..

Economic Jihad

How Entertainers Are Bullied Into Not Performing In Israel

July 26th 2013

Elvis Costello

Israeli fans of golden oldies won’t be hearing Eric Burdon grind out his signature House of The Rising Sun. The lead Animals singer canceled his appearance, a victim of intimidation including death threats to stay away from the Jewish state.

Welcome to the ‘pro-peace’ bullies of the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) campaign, a movement whose public face is a “nonviolent pressure to end the Occupation”—but whose thinly-veiled tactics range from “shunning” to threatening celebrities who refuse to cave to the ‘big lie’ that Israel is an ‘apartheid state.’

BDS’ fixation on celebrities into taking outlandish positions on the Mideast makes perfect sense. In our world, Celebrity=Media coverage.

UK’s self-anointed celebrity Middle East activists have brought a certain panache and chutzpah to their hypocritical anti-Israel street theatre. Last year, a letter signed by three-dozen British celebrities, including actress Emma Thompson, followed unsuccessful demonstrations to force a cancellation at London’s Old Globe Theater of a Hebrew language performance of The Merchant of Venice by Israel’s renowned Habima Theater. Read more ..

The Music Edge

N. Korean Defectors to Perform at Concert for Peace

July 25th 2013

Piano Keys

Pianist Kim Cheol Woong and a young violinist are preparing for a special concert. She does not want her face shown in video because, like Kim, she is a North Korean defector to South Korea.

Kim is headlining a “Concert for Peace” in Seoul on July 26 commemorating the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War but also left the country divided. Kim hopes his music can help one day bring the two Koreas back together again.

“I want to provide an insight which can help South Koreans to understand North Koreans through my music," he said. "So South Koreans can understand better when they hold talks with North Koreans. I want to create a foundation where people can understand each other by understanding the culture through my music.”Kim is not a typical North Korean refugee. He was once part of the privileged in Pyongyang and, after living in Seoul for a decade, he has become a famous entertainer. Read more ..

The Way We Are

Rebels with a Cause Slam Corporate Greed

July 23rd 2013

Drain to ocean

Two new films explore fictional fringe groups that take social justice into their own hands. The capers, The East and Now You See Me, offer 21st century Robin Hood-type plots where young vigilantes target corporate greed.

The underground organization called "The East" warns before it attacks:  “Change your ways or pay the consequences.” Its members don't kill, not directly anyway.

Instead, they turn the corporations’ practices against them. They feed CEOs their tainted medicines. They force them into rivers their companies’ pollute. Ellen Paige plays Izzy, one of the radicals. Brit Marling plays Sarah, a corporate spy who goes undercover to infiltrate “The East” in order to expose its members. She ends up joining the group instead. “When we started shooting the film a week before Occupy Wall Street blew up, we were so excited," said Marling, who also co-wrote the script. "We felt like, ‘Oh gosh!’ We were telling a story that is really prescient and what people are feeling.” Read more ..

Book Review

America: Empire or Umpire

July 23rd 2013

Hoffman-American Umpire

Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman. American Umpire. Harvard University Press, 2013. 448 pages.

What role should America play on the world stage? What has been its exact role historically? Is our current position in the world a break from tradition—or a continuum? Is America a force for good—or is our international involvement the source of many of the world’s problems?

In American Umpire, Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman offers a sweeping, wide-ranging, and remarkably in-depth overview of the history of American foreign relations. In a work bound to inspire fierce debate, Hoffman, the Dwight E. Stanford Professor of American Foreign Relations at San Diego State University and a National Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, argues that those that criticize America’s role in the world have it all wrong: “One of the most commonly held scholarly assumptions of our day—that the United States is a kind of empire—is not simply improbable but false.” (5) Above all, critics do not understand America’s history.

The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 started a process whereby “the world of monarchies and empires disappeared” (3), a trend that continued to the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. The birth of the United States “was the pivot of this worldwide transformation,” because of what it symbolized. To Hoffman, the accelerating trend towards democratic capitalism has been shaped by “access to opportunity, arbitration of disputes, and transparency in government and business.” Hoffman has an optimistic tone throughout; she writes that the second half of the past century “witnessed greater global economic development than any other period” in human history. Democratic capitalism, she argues, “brought down the world order known as empire.” Hoffman also asserts that “1898 to 1946 was the one and only period in which the United States sustained an Empire” (3–13). Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Playing "20 Questions" with Operatic Talent Soprano Rachel Black

July 22nd 2013

Rachel Black
Rachel Black

Kansas City Opera Institute (KCOI) recently played 20 questions with up and coming opera talent, soprano Rachel Black. The revealing interview follows:


To get to know our singers better, we’re playing 20 Questions. We asked each singer the same set of questions – but the answers are as unique as the singers themselves.

1. Rachel Black, what is your role with KCOI this summer?

I am singing in two scenes: Juliette in the final scene of Romeo et Juliette (Gounod) and the Cat Duet (Rossini).

2. When did you start singing? WHY did you start singing?

My first performance was The Little Mermaid in my first grade talent show when I was six. My mom made me fins. It was epic. For me, there is no why do I sing, it just is. From as long as I can remember, singing has been a huge part of my life and has brought me so much fulfillment and happines.

3. What brought you to Kansas City?

My husband and I got burned out on city life in New York and needed some “green” in our lives. I have family here and we made the big decision to move. We love it here and have never looked back! Read more ..

Book Review

The Fall of Anglo-Saxon England: A Social Revolution

July 21st 2013

The Norman Conquest

The Norman Conquest. Mark Morris. Pegasus. 2013. 464 pp.

I didn't realize until after I had finished Marc Morris's The Norman Conquest that I had done so shortly after reading another book about a pivotal battle in the history of a nation, Allen Guelzo's new book on Gettysburg, The Last Invasion (see my review here). In that book, as in every account of Gettysburg, there are countless subjects for speculation -- what Robert E. Lee was really thinking; how many effective troops the two armies actually had at their disposal; who really should get the credit for the Union army's retention of Little Round Top (and if that really mattered). But whatever questions may arise about that or any other battle in the American Civil War, the documentary record is immense. We know, for example, what Abraham Lincoln was doing on any given day, often on an hourly basis.

In the case of the Battle of Hastings, an epochal event in the making of England, the amount we don't know is vastly greater than what we do. History in such cases rests on the slimmest of written accounts, which often contradict each other. At one point in his narrative, Morris compares such accounts with the visual depiction in the famed Bayeux Tapestry, and then quotes himself on some of the terms he used in preceding sentences: "seems"; "looks very much like"; "appears"; "as if." Though the battle took place was a "mere" 947 years ago, he has less to work with than even some ancient historians.

And yet Morris's professed uncertainty gives us confidence in him. He is as attuned to the historiography of his subject as he is the primary source record, which he deconstructs in some cases and affirms in others, often through a process of triangulation. Though clearly intended for a trade audience, and written by a non-academic (Morris is a magazine writer and broadcaster), The Norman Conquest is a tour de force piece of scholarship. Read more ..

The Edge of Crime

Stolen Masterpieces Feared Burned In Romania

July 20th 2013

picasso show on the road

One of the biggest art heists in years appears to have ended with a mother doing what she felt she had to do to save her son.

Olga Dogaru says she burned the art as criminal investigators turned their suspicions on Radu Dogaru, one of three Romanian suspects charged with stealing masterpieces from Rotterdam's Kunsthal gallery in October 2012.

The stolen paintings were: Pablo Picasso's 1971 "Harlequin Head"; Claude Monet's 1901 "Waterloo Bridge, London" and "Charing Cross Bridge, London"; Henri Matisse's 1919 "Reading Girl in White and Yellow"; Paul Gauguin's 1898 "Girl in Front of Open Window"; Meyer de Haan's "Self-Portrait," from around 1890; and Lucian Freud's 2002 work "Woman with Eyes Closed." It was the biggest art theft in the Netherlands in more than a decade. The stolen works have an estimated value of between 100 million and 200 million euros ($130 million-$260 million). Read more ..

The Edge of Film

Drive-In Movies in US Still Draw Crowds

July 19th 2013

Drive-In Movie

Drive-in movie theaters were once a vibrant part of American culture. The outdoor theaters with huge screens reached their peak in the late 1950s with more than 4,000 of  them across the US.  These days it's tough to find one.  However, some drive-ins still bring in big crowds just like the old days. 

Cars line up at the entrance to the Family Drive-In Theater in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. It's about 130 kilometers from Washington, D.C., where ticket attendant still great visitors cheerfully.

Shannon Scott and her family, like many others, arrived here more than two hours before the scheduled show. “You get the ambiance, you get the fun concession stand," Scott said. "You get to wait for the dark so there is family time together.”  

Since her family discovered Family Drive-In three years ago, Scott said they have often made the hour and a half drive to enjoy two movies for less than the price of one where she lives. “It's a beautiful drive," she said. "It is worth it to come here all the time. We love it." Read more ..

Book Excerpt

The New York Times' Favorite Imam: An Excerpt from 'The Brotherhood: America's Next Great Enemy'

July 18th 2013

Sheikh Abu Adam

"You are the first person I’ve given an interview to in a long time. The media, they tell lies about me.”

Sheikh Abu Adam spoke in an almost mournful tone as he led my cameraman and me down a dimly lit hallway in his Munich flat. His burly bodyguards, both dressed in similar al-Qaeda–like garb, flanked us on either side, as they would throughout the next three hours. Our destination was a small back room of the apartment where a Middle Eastern–style spread of chicken, rice, and pita bread awaited us.

This was Germany but it could have easily passed for Gaza—a fitting atmosphere for the Sheikh, an Egyptian native of Palestinian origin whose real name is Hesham Sheshaa. At the time of our meeting, his three wives and ten of his twelve (some say he has more) children lived with him in the cramped flat. Read more ..

Book Excerpt

Excerpt from 'The Brotherhood: America's Next Great Enemy'

July 17th 2013

The Brotherhood

The Brotherhood: America's Next Great Enemy. Erick Stakelbeck. Regnery Press. 2013. 256 pp.

The man they call “Islam’s Savior” appeared in desperate need of one.

Tariq Ramadan, darling of the European Left and arguably the West’s most influential Islamist, had just been informed that eight minutes still remained in our interview, which was scheduled to run a full half hour. He looked at me with a nervous, almost pleading smile and checked his watch, seemingly counting the seconds until he could bolt out the door and back into the warm embrace of his effete leftist admirers at Oxford University, where he’s comfortably ensconced as a professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies.

At that moment, I imagine Ramadan was wondering how in the name of Allah his handler at Oxford could have possibly scheduled our little sitdown. My line of questioning increasingly centered on his alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and while respectful, I kept probing. I had made the hour-plus trip from London to Oxford to learn more about the inner workings of the Brotherhood from Ramadan—a man who is literally heir to MB royalty—and I was determined to make my time with the notoriously evasive Islamo-spin-doctor worthwhile.

“I’m the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was a fact and is a fact and which is well known,” Ramadan told me, barely masking his annoyance. “And even when I was invited [to the United States] by the State Department, this is the way they were introducing me. So, this is something which is known. I’m not a member [of the Muslim Brotherhood], I never was a member—so this is something also which is known.”

Yet one needn’t be a “member” or formally tied, say, to the Brother- hood’s leadership in Egypt in order to promote the Ikhwan’s agenda. As we’ll see, that’s not how the organization operates. For instance, the Brotherhood’s former Supreme Guide, Mustafa Mashour, confirmed in a 1998 interview that belonging to the MB is about adhering to a specific ideology and way of thinking—no membership card required. He added that the work carried out by Tariq Ramadan and his brother, Hani Rama- dan, “is totally in keeping with the purest traditions of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Read more ..

American Lives

R.I.P.: Bookseller Karl Pohrt Passes Away as do Independent Bookstores

July 17th 2013

Karl Pohrt

Karl Pohrt was the founder of Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor MI and a friend. He passed away on July 10 after losing a battle with cancer. Brain tumors made it impossible to continue blogging as of May of this year. The academic and broader community of Ann Arbor, which is home to the University of Michigan, mourned his passing. He was 65 years old and leaves his wife Dianne, daughters Tanya and Tasha, and three grandchildren as survivors. His brothers, Richard and Thomas, honor his memory. Brother Tom is a renowned author and illustrator in his own right.

Karl was renowned not only for his learning and business acumen, but also his kindness and vision. He served several terms as president of the American Booksellers Association, while in Ann Arbor he served on the boards of the Downtown Development Authority and the State Street Association for many years. Friends knew him for his gentle nature, which was peppered by a self-deprecating and acerbic wit.

His exequies were handled by the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Ann Arbor.

On May 10, he wrote in his well-regarded blog:

“A few days ago I had a seizure that the doctors discovered was due to three small brain tumors. I decided to end this blog--to exit the Hotel Karma (at least for the time being)--while I'm still in sound body and mind. I plan on being in sound body and mind for a while yet, but you never know.” Read more ..

Book Review

Jackie Robinson: A Civil Rights Pioneer

July 16th 2013

Beyond Home Plate

Beyond Home Plate. Michael Long, Editor. Syracuse University Press. 2013. 248 pp.

Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of "The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad."

The courage and athletic ability demonstrated by Jackie Robinson in breaking Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947 and making the Brooklyn Dodgers a dominant National League club during the 1950s resulted in the ballplayer’s induction into the pantheon of baseball immortals at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Robinson’s career after he retired from the sport following the 1956 season is, however, less well known, but Robinson’s decision to take an active role in the civil rights movement provides ample proof that the courage displayed on the playing field carried over into the struggle for a democratic nation freed from the scourge of racial discrimination and segregation.

Robinson’s post baseball career advocacy for civil rights is well developed in this collection of the former ballplayer’s columns for the New York Post from 1959 to 1960 and the New York Amsterdam News from 1962 to 1968, both of which offered Robinson national syndication to air his views. This collection of columns is edited by Michael J. Long, an associate professor of religious studies and peace and conflict studies at Elizabethtown College who is the author and editor of several scholarly volumes including First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson (2007), in cooperation with Jackie’s widow Rachel Robinson. Although Robinson enjoyed professional writing assistance at both newspapers, Long persuasively argues that the ideas presented in the columns were those of Robinson who was given considerable freedom to write on a variety of topics, offering considerable insight into his views on American politics and the civil rights movement. Read more ..

The Edge of Film

Nigeria's Film Industry Enters S. African Market

July 15th 2013

Nollywood Film Crew

Nigeria turns out full length feature films at a rate second to only India. Nollywood, the movie-making industry of Nigeria - known for shoe-string budgets and lax editing - is now maturing in quality and looking to expand its reach. iROKOtv, a website that streams movies and also a DVD distributor, has just entered the South African market - hoping to gain new interest, new customers and establish a strong African foothold for Nollywood films outside of Nigeria.

At the C.C. African Shop and Supermarket in central Johannesburg, there is a stand full of iROKO-branded Nollywood movies set up next to a heavily fortified cash register. Charity Udeze, the shop’s owner, says iROKO approached her to sell its movies because the neighborhood has a lot of Nigerian immigrants and she keeps her shelves full of Nigerian beans and plantains not always found in Johannesburg shops.

"They came and approached us that we should advertise it and sell it for them…. They have sold many of it anyway. From here we have sold up to 50 pieces," she explained. iROKO has offices in Lagos, London and New York - all places where it has a significant customer base. But now the company has turned its hopes to South Africa. Read more ..

Book Review

Channeling the Past: The Politicization of History--A Hard Look

July 14th 2013

Channeling the past

Channeling the Past: Politicizing History in Postwar America. Erik Christiansen. University of Wisconsin Press. 2013. 264 pp.

For many decades now, survey after survey has shown that American students learn little American history in their classrooms. So disappointed historians should be glad that, at least since World War II, popular history has been, well, popular. But, no. Instead, most academic historians who pay any attention to popular history at all spend much of their time lamenting its inaccuracy, its blandness, its frequent failure to conform to scholarly standards and to academics’ own particular interpretations.

Erik Christiansen, a historian and public history coordinator at Rhode Island College (Rhode Island is a small state, but we’ve never met), repeatedly registers these familiar complaints in his study of five organizations and programs that brought American history to the public in the two decades after World War II. Happily, despite its predictable (and presentist) fussing about their content and interpretations, the book adds valuable new insights into just how the History Book Club (still in operation today), the Du Pont Corporation’s “Cavalcade of America,” CBS’s “You Are There,” the Freedom Train (nearly forgotten today), and the Smithsonian presented the past to the American public in the two decades after World War II.

The “usable pasts” these programs created were not identical, but they shared many characteristics, including a tendency to rely on memory and nostalgia rather than critical analysis, and an unwillingness to rock the boat of Cold War consensus. Christiansen generally emphasizes the similarities, tracing them primarily to demands and limitations imposed by corporate or governmental sponsorship. Read more ..

Book Review

The Last Invasion--Unexpected Excellence

July 10th 2013


Gettysburg.--The Last Invasion. Allen C. Guelzo. Knopf. 2013. 656 pp.

I didn't expect to see a book about Gettysburg from Allen Guelzo. His early work focused on religious history; in recent years he has emerged as a Lincoln scholar of first rank on the strength of work like Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999) and Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Shaped America (2008).  Making a typical move for a senior historian seeking to bolster his credentials, he published Fateful Lightning, a survey of the Civil War and Reconstruction, last year. But Gettysburg: The Last Invasion is a work of straight military history.  I had my doubts that an essentially intellectual historian could really master a distinct subgenre. But the recent sesquicentennial prodded me to pick up this sizable tome, which I read during the anniversary of the battle. I'm glad I did.

Guelzo delivers the goods you expect with a book like this: an overview that sets the stage, a blow-by-blow account of the fighting, thumbnail sketches of the principals, counterfactual assessments of the might-have-beens. We get lots of active verbs: regiments and brigades don't simply attack; they "lunge," "bang"or "slap" each other. In his recent review of the book in the New York Times, David Blight criticized Guelzo for this, invoking the great John Keegan's complaint about a “'Zap-Blatt-Banzai-Gott im Himmel-Bayonet in the Guts' style of military history." I take the point. But overall I have to say that Guelzo's approach animates his narrative without really trivializing his subject. Indeed, Guelzo uses numbers to suggest the gravity of the three-day battle, noting that in the most conservative estimate, the damage sustained by the Army of Northern Virginia was equivalent to two sinkings of the Titanic, ten repetitions of the Great Blizzard of 1888 and two Pearl Harbors -- and two and a half times the losses taken by Allied armies in Normandy from D-Day through August of 1944. Union losses were comparable. Read more ..

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