Clark Stooksbury writes from Knoxville, Tennessee.
The song begins with a litany of complaints: “I can’t eat, I can’t talk, been drinkin’ mean jake, Lord, now I can’t walk.” “Jake” refers to Jamaica Ginger, a patent medicine that was legally available during Prohibition in spite of its high alcohol content.
When patients started showing up with a frightening new constellation of symptoms—the most prominent being an exaggerated gait caused by pain and weakness in the legs—medical professionals struggled to identify the cause. But several recording artists, largely confined to the “race” and “hillbilly” genres, accurately diagnosed the source of the affliction. The tale of woe quoted above was put to wax by the Allen Brothers (Austin and Lee) in a Memphis recording session for the Victor label in June 1930. Though “Jake Walk Blues” tells of personal loss and failure, it is an upbeat number, accompanied by a banjo, kazoo, and guitar.
The earliest report of Jamaica Ginger Paralysis, as it would come to be known, occurred in February 1930, when Dr. Ephraim Goldfain of Oklahoma City started seeing a series of patients, all men, exhibiting the same symptoms. A March 7, 1930, article in The Oklahoman told of “spinal afflictions, believed to be the result of poison whiskey, which has afflicted 60 men in Oklahoma City in the last ten days. … The strange malady affects the spine, causing a partial paralysis, especially of the feet, resulting in inability to walk normally.”
Jamaica Ginger had been used as a patent medicine for decades without side effects. But under Prohibition, the Treasury Department required that jake be sold with a higher concentration of ginger solids, resulting in an incredibly bitter taste, and tested bottles by boiling the contents and weighing what was left over. To pass this test without rendering jake unpalatable, some bootleggers added castor oil. Harry Gross and Max Reisman, two brothers-in-law from Boston, instead added a chemical plasticizer known as tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate. TOCP was tasteless and cheaper than castor oil. It was also a neurotoxin.
The nexus between American roots music and epidemiology might have been lost to history but for the efforts of John Morgan, a former professor of pharmacology at the City University of New York who styled himself a “pharmacoethnomusicologist” to Dan Baum for a 2003 New Yorker profile and wrote about the phenomenon in a 1976 article in the Annals of Internal Medicine (with coauthor Thomas Tulloss). Morgan, who died of leukemia in 2008, was an advocate of drug-policy reform and the coauthor of the book Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts.
The Annals article was subtitled “A Toxicologic Tragedy Mirrored in American Popular Music.” In it, Morgan briefly discussed the medical background of Jamaica Ginger poisoning before moving on to the songs. Morgan apparently felt it necessary to engage in Cliff’s Notes-style explanations such as “commercial recording of rural southern artists (black and white) began in the 1920s.” He helpfully instructed his readers on a particular guitar style requiring that “some hard object … be placed against the strings … and slid back and forth for the desired pitch. This method is sometimes called ‘slide guitar.’” One can almost picture a suburban doctor, relaxing in his Scarsdale study with a martini while listening to Mantovani, contemplating this “slide guitar”—while his teenage son blares the Allman Brothers’ At the Fillmore East from his upstairs bedroom.
One of the songs Morgan considered is by the Mississippi Sheiks, an African-American string band who recorded “Jake Leg Blues” at about the same time as the Allen Brothers recorded their similarly titled song. The Sheiks, apparently having witnessed the ill effects, warned that “if you sell him jake, you’d better give him a crutch too” and “if he drank this jake, it will give him the limber leg.”
The second line refers to another problem alluded to in a number of songs, perhaps most clearly by Mississippi Delta Bluesman Ishmon (sometimes spelled “Ishman”) Bracey. In “Jake Liquor Blues,” Bracey explained: “You have numbiness [sic] in front of your body, you can’t carry any lovin’ on.” To make the point clearer, the next verse featured a second opinion: “Aunt Jane, she come runnin’ and screamin’, tellin’ everybody in the neighborhood ‘that man of mine got the limber trouble, and his lovin’ can’t do me any good.’”
Bracey, along with Tommy Johnson, made the first recordings to allude to Jake poisoning in March 1930, as doctors were first grappling with the crisis. According to Morgan, “Tommy Johnson and Ishman Bracey were friends, and both were from Central Mississippi near Jackson. … Both performances, [Johnson’s] ‘Alcohol and Jake Blues’ and [Bracey’s] ‘Jake Liquor Blues’ were backed by the New Orleans Nehi Boys, leading one to believe that they resulted from the same recording session in early 1930.”
At the time of Morgan’s article, there were no extant copies of Tommy Johnson’s record, and Morgan speculated that it had never been issued. It has since surfaced. Johnson was evidently a troubled man who drank heavily; in 1967, about a decade after Johnson’s death, his older brother told journalist and blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlaw that the musician would “drink anything—bay rum [aftershave], canned heat [Sterno fuel], shoe polish, moonshine, Solo [paint thinner]—anything that had alcohol in it.” Johnson’s taste for Sterno served as the basis for his better-known song “Canned Heat Blues,” which provided the name for the blues-rock band Canned Heat.
Reliable demographic data about victims of jake poisoning do not exist, though the profile of the typical suffer was an itinerant, male heavy drinker. Estimates of the total number varied from fewer than 5,000 up to 60,000, out of a population of 122 million according to the 1930 census. In addition to poor record-keeping and black victims’ being blocked from segregated hospitals (some health-care professionals thought blacks to be immune), the affliction carried a stigma. “On April 1 cards were sent to about 2,500 physicians in the 77 counties [of Oklahoma]. On April 23 approximately 40 per cent of these had been returned and showed 536 cases in 39 counties,” wrote the American Journal of Public Health in 1930. “Because of the tendency to be ashamed of the affliction it is safe to assume that this number represents only about one-third of the cases and that there are therefore between 1,500 and 2,000 in the state.”
Whatever the total number of victims, the outbreak inspired an unusual number of songs. Morgan speculated to Dan Baum that “no other incident has inspired as much popular music as the jake-walk epidemic.” (Another contender may be the 1927 Mississippi River flood: It affected several hundred thousand people, mostly in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, and and inspired numerous songs, including “High Water Everywhere” by Charley Patton, “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues” by Barbecue Bob and Kansas City Joe, and Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks,” later covered by Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan.)
The most likely reason for the large number of songs is that the category of people who were recording roots music records around 1930 overlapped with that of people who were looking for ways to get drunk during Prohibition—mostly male, both black and white, and often economically marginal. Morgan didn’t report on which songs were works of journalism carved in wax and which were the work of memoirists, though it is a good bet that Tommy Johnson’s work falls into the latter category. But Morgan did note that most of the songs were “devoid of the sentimentality and moralizing that are an integral part of most narratives of tragedy in American ballads recorded commercially.”
“Jake Walk Blues” by the Allen Brothers is indeed devoid of sentimentality, moralizing, or self pity on the part of the sufferer. The song features a changing point of view from that of the shiftless jake sufferer to that of his woman, who is lacking in sympathy: “Listen here, Papa, can’t you see, you can’t drink jake and get along with me. You’re a jake walkin’ papa with the jake walk blues; I’m a red hot mama that you can’t afford to lose.” Alas, her man won’t change—shiftlessness runs in the family: “My daddy was a gambler and a drunkard too; if he was living today, he’d have the jake walk too. When I die, you can have my hand; I’m gonna take a bottle of jake to the Promised Land.”
Toward the end of the Annals article, Morgan reflected on the ephemeral nature of popular culture and looked forward to what we might lose in the future. “These performances, valuable in many ways, were not saved systematically. … We have never located the Johnson [since found] and Daddy Stovepipe [still missing] recordings, and the Allen Brothers song that generated this project came to us from a German collector.” He included a helpful table of where to locate the songs he discussed, several of which were only available on tape from archives and collectors.
He suggested that “perhaps in 2016 a scholar will bemoan the loss of all prints of ‘My Little Margie,’” a fate that has yet to come to pass.
Clark Stooksbury writes from Knoxville, Tenn.
Although it violates the first canon of literary criticism, let me judge Buyer’s Remorse by its cover, or at least take note of a couple of its features. On the back, Senator Bernie Sanders artfully praises the book without criticizing its subject—the outgoing president. On the spine, there is the logo for the publisher Threshold Editions, a conservative imprint of Simon & Schuster. Other recent Threshold authors include Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Mark Levin. But ultimately, a book must stand on the words inside the cover, even if it were published alongside a work by Donald Trump, another Threshold author.
Bill Press builds his case by examining virtually every aspect of the Barack Obama’s presidency and frequently finds him lacking. There are instances where he makes a strong case that the president could have achieved more, although Press attributes mystical power to Presidential Leadership and—in a phrase that should be stricken from the pundit lexicon—the Bully Pulpit.
It seems like ancient history from the vantage point of 2016, but Barack Obama took office in the midst of a an economic crisis that could have consumed his presidency. The fledgling administration’s response was to cobble together what would eventually pass as a 787 billion dollar stimulus plan to jump-start the economy. Christina Romer, the president’s chief economic advisor, initially argued for a much larger amount, and outside critics, most notably Paul Krugman, argued that the program was much too small and overly focused on tax cuts. Obama would have been wise to give a hearing to Romer, instead of relying on Treasury Secretary Larry Summers—as he would have been wise to pass on the Clinton administration/Wall Street retread in the first place. But Press clings to a fantasy world where the president only needs to go golfing with Republicans and be willing to “twist arms and knock heads together” in order to get his way from Congress. Press, however, has a point about the president’s negotiating skill in not seeking a larger amount up front.
The president’s signature achievement has been the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare. To Obama’s GOP foes, the program is tantamount to evil. Repealing it would have been President Cruz’s top priority. But progressives generally see it as a win, though Bill Press is here to rain on the victory parade. To him, Obamacare is a compromised, Heritage Foundation-inspired retread that fails to achieve progressive goals: “It’s a half-baked measure that falls short of what is needed and of what was politically possible. Its main provision is to force people to buy health insurance from a private insurer if they’re not already insured by their employer. That is certainly not a progressive idea. In fact, its not even a good conservative idea.”
While Press nails the act’s shortcomings, he doesn’t make the case that more was achievable and he doesn’t give sufficient weight to the problem of Joe Lieberman as one of the Democrats’ 60 Senate votes needed to break a Republican filibuster.
The single issue that most helped to propel Barack Obama past Hillary Clinton in 2008 was his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, which contrasted sharply with Clinton’s vote to authorize the war. By 2008, the phrase “Iraq War” was shorthand not only for the disastrous invasion itself, but also for the campaign of lies and half-truths (remember the phrases “smoking gun” and “mushroom cloud”?) used to sell it, the use of torture, and the surveillance state built to contain the constant threat of terror in the United States that the war was supposed to alleviate.
Barack Obama was dealt a very weak hand from the preceding Bush administration on foreign policy. He played it poorly from the outset by arguing that the “real war” was in Afghanistan instead of Iraq. That might have at one time been true, but by 2009, that was a difficult case to make—and our time there since 2009 has accomplished little. Press writes that “with the Taliban still controlling vast areas of Afghanistan and with no guarantee that any central government … will survive, many Americans are wondering why we went there in the first place, what we achieved in the long run, and why we stayed so long. President Obama could have pulled the plug on Afghanistan [during] his first month in office. The end result would have been the same.” Press is also critical of Obama’s war in Libya, which was fought absent congressional support, and that accomplished little more than turning the country into a failed state.
One area where Barack Obama made a clean break from his predecessor was in the use of torture against terror suspects. Buyer’s Remorse duly gives the president credit for this break, with reservations: “On January 22, two days after his inauguration, Obama followed through by signing a series of executive orders banning the use of torture, ending so-called extraordinary rendition flights and closing secret torture prisons in Poland, Thailand, Morocco, and Britain’s naval base at Diego Garcia. So far so good. But there were already clouds on the horizon.” Press, and many others wanted the president to bring charges against members of the Bush administration, starting at the top.
Buyer’s Remorse makes numerous valid criticisms of Obama, but suffers from Press’s need for a political savior. All the president had to do to meet with his approval was to enact single payer health care along with a two trillion dollar stimulus, indict the outgoing president and vice-president as war criminals, and enact cap-and-trade—and that’s just as a start. Obama failed to be a Progressive Savior, but he has succeeded well enough to launch the GOP into a paroxysm of Trumpian insanity.
For the premise of Buyer’s Remorse to hold, there would have to have been another progressive savior available in 2008, but Obama’s only serious opponent for the Democratic nomination that year was Hillary Clinton, who went on to enact some of the policies that Press (rightly) objects to as Obama’s secretary of state. It is difficult to imagine how a Clinton presidency would have been radically different than Obama’s. Having a front row seat to the failed impeachment of her husband, the one area where Clinton might have been better prepared than Obama in 2009 was in sizing up the implacable nature of the Republican opposition.
While reading Buyer’s Remorse, Press reminded me more than once of Mother Paroo from The Music Man, skeptically evaluating her spinster daughter’s high standards for a mate consisting of a “blend of Paul Bunyan, Saint Pat and Noah Webster,” with which no man could ever hope to compete. His naive expectations are more startling since, as he repeatedly reminds the reader, he is a grizzled veteran of the White House Press Corps. Since his advice to Bernie Sanders, should he make it to the White House, is simply to “be yourself,” it would appear that the veteran correspondent hasn’t learned from his disappointment in the last eight years.
In the 2001 cult classic “Ghost World,” Steve Buscemi plays Seymour, a reclusive, somewhat misanthropic collector of old 78-r.p.m. records and other arcana. The character—who did not appear in the Daniel Clowes comic from which the film is adapted—is loosely based on director Terry Zwigoff. Seymour rejects most modern culture, preferring the films of W.C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy, along with his collection of some 1,500 blues, jazz, and ragtime records.
The fictional Seymour fits right in with the real-life record collectors who fill the pages of Do Not Sell at Any Price. Indeed, author Amanda Petrusich praises Seymour’s description of a record by Skip James, an artist whose few surviving records loom large in her narrative.
Cable television abounds with programs about people who hoard and haggle over junk. But the record collectors Petrusich studies are a different breed—they aren’t stockpiling shellac just to fill space. Instead they seek exceedingly rare country blues, hot jazz, ragtime, cajun, hillbilly, and other varieties of vernacular music recorded in the 1920s and 1930s. Without the work of these collectors, a treasure trove of great music would have been lost, as most recording masters from this period do not survive.
One of the more influential and eccentric collectors here is the late Harry Smith, who compiled the “Anthology of American Folk Music” from his own collection of 78’s. The six-LP vinyl collection was released by Folkways Records in 1952 and reissued in 1997 on compact disc. All of the songs on the set were recorded between 1927 and 1932, described by Petrusich as “that fruitful five-year span between the advent of electric recording and the apex of the Great Depression.” The anthology made a deep enough impression on Jerry Garcia that the Grateful Dead cofounder helped financially support Smith in the last years of his life.
Harry Smith was not the only collector to have an impact on the development of folk and rock music in the years after World War II. Pete Whelan—who would build a legendary collection, sell it to finance a move to Key West, only to build yet another—released the first reissue of Charley Patton recordings on his Origin Jazz label. Patton was a seminal figure in Mississippi Delta blues music who would influence later bluesmen, as well as artists such as Bob Dylan and Canned Heat.
No reissue of country blues from before World War II is more important than “King of the Delta Blues Singers,” the first album of the recordings of Robert Johnson. The 1961 release was sourced both from surviving original masters and from the private collections of, among others, Pete Whelan and Columbia Records executive John Hammond. Johnson would influence the trajectory of rock music in the 1960s, most notably that of Eric Clapton, whose cover of Johnson’s “Crossroads Blues” would become his early signature song.
I should note here that many of the collectors featured in Do Not Sell would be annoyed at this line of discussion, and they would have my sympathy to a degree. “For a while,” Petrusich writes, “the blues’ stepping-stone role in the development of rock n’ roll became the genre’s primary narrative—this must have enraged collectors, seeing a music so vital and whole relegated to a supporting part—and rock fans were taking a sudden interest in reissue records previously made by and for 78 collectors exclusively.”
Petrusich traveled the length of the country, meeting the (mostly) men who have amassed large collections of rare records. Whelan was not only a collector but also the editor and publisher of a magazine called 78 Quarterly, which stands as an amazing artifact in the annals of obsession. The “quarterly” was only aspirational, though it did manage to appear on an annual basis for a few years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Petrusich glosses over this unusual publication too quickly, but she correctly notes that it is a “tremendous resource and a surprisingly energizing read.” It featured multi-issue articles about obscure record labels and artists—stories that required patience from readers, who often had to wait years for the next installment—but the heart of each issue lay in the alphabetical lists of rare jazz and country-blues records owned by Whelan and a coterie of collectors, usually accompanied by letters to the editor complaining about the lists.
Petrusich visited Whelan in Key West, where she saw his record collection as well as his palm-tree collection. One of the records that Whelan played for Petrusich illustrates the elusive nature of music pressed in wax in the 1920s. The artist is Kid Bailey, and the disc “was recorded at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis in 1929, in a session for Brunswick records.” As Petrusich relates, “For years, there were rumors … that Bailey may have been a playing partner of Charley Patton’s or … that ‘Kid Bailey’ was actually a pseudonym for Willie Brown, another blues singer who had confounded and titillated collectors for decades.”
Do Not Sell at Any Price doesn’t devote a great deal of discussion to dollar figures that rare records go for, in part because so many of the collectors that Petrusich interviews acquired their records decades ago, when they were thought of as junk. But in the opposite corner of the lower 48 states from Whelan’s Key West lives one collector—John Tefteller of Grants Pass, Oregon—who is willing to pay top dollar for the records he wants. He made headlines in 2013 when he paid $37,100 for a copy of record by Tommy Johnson, of which he owned the only other known copy. His aggressive style involves more than his checkbook. He researches and puts legwork into finding the records he wants. Petrusich compares his methods to her chosen profession. “This was journalism, sort of,” she writes. “Tefteller was pursuing his prey with the kind of vehemence typically employed by a PI stalking a client’s ex-wife, or a cop chasing a kingpin.”
While rock has Memphis and New Orleans has jazz, the unlikely Mecca for country blues lay in Grafton, Wisconsin, where Paramount records were recorded and pressed. In 2002, Tefteller blanketed the area with advertisements and direct mailings looking for records and memorabilia that eventually yielded a previously lost copy of a recording by an artist known as King Solomon Hill and a full copy of the only extant photograph of Charley Patton.
Petrusich’s style of journalism is personal, and while studying fanatical record collectors she succumbs to their passion. She accompanies one collector to a sketchy-sounding flea market in rural Virginia and laments the lost treasures when they learn that an early bird beat them to a vendor selling old records. As well as scanning flea markets, Petrusich makes her own pilgrimage to Grafton. Since Tefteller had thoroughly searched the Wisconsin town at ground level, Petrusich decided to act on urban legends about Paramount employees tossing records and recording masters into the Milwaukee River and went diving for some black gold. The odds of finding anything of value were beyond ridiculous, and her dive predictably yielded nothing more than a bit of wisdom. “What I had learned was how intoxicating—how overwhelming and how crushing—the search could be, even (or especially) when it didn’t yield any results. I hadn’t found a rare Paramount 78, but, just the act of looking had provided and instant remedy to the over saturation of contemporary life.”
Among the collectors that Petrusich visits is Joe Bussard of Frederick, Maryland. Now in his late 70s, Bussard started going on the road to search for records as soon as he could drive and amassed a collection that he estimates at 15,000 discs. His fame has led him to be the subject to numerous media profiles, as well as the 2003 Australian documentary “Desperate Man Blues.” He branched out from Jimmie Rodgers and country music to build a collection of jazz—a genre he says died in 1933—as well as blues, bluegrass, and cajun. Bussard also founded his own record label, Fonotone, most notable for recording guitarist John Fahey.
Though Bussard has thousands of 78’s, he is closely associated with several recordings on the Black Patti label that he purchased for 10 dollars in 1966. A “race record” label selling recordings by black artists intended for black audiences, Black Patti began and ended in 1927. Bussard regales Petrusich with his often repeated tale of finding the records in southwest Virginia after taking a wrong turn while looking for a flea market. “Best left turn I ever made,” he tells her. The most prized disc of the bunch, by a mysterious duo known as Long Cleve Reed and Little Harvey Hull, brought an offer of $10,000 in 1966. This recording of the “Original Stack O’ Lee Blues,” a widely recorded murder ballad that has appeared under numerous titles, may just be the most valuable 78 in the world, but Bussard isn’t selling—at any price.
After studying numerous collectors alive and dead, Petrusich attempts to discover what drives a person to devote so much time, energy, and money to amassing old records—possibilities include obsessive-compulsive behavior and addiction, but she ultimately fails to find a satisfactory cause. “The more I thought about why,” she writes, “the less I cared. I still don’t entirely believe that the collector’s work is driven exclusively … by appreciation, but on occasion I find myself feeling profoundly grateful, unconcerned by why they did it or whatever personal consequences their habits may have wrought.”
“Whatever called these folks to save these records,” she concludes, “I’m thankful that it happened at all.” Her gratitude is justified: their work has kept a rich vein of American music from disappearing down the memory hole, music that was worth saving for its own value and also for the influence it would have on the popular styles that followed.
Clark Stooksbury writes from Knoxville, Tennessee.
Nearly seven decades after its end, the Second World War still provides fodder for historians, filmmakers, novelists, and other storytellers. With The Deserters, globe-trotting journalist and former ABC News correspondent Charles Glass sheds some light on an under-examined aspect of the great conflict of the 20th century.
The best known American deserter of World War II was Pvt. Eddie Slovik, who became the only U.S. soldier since the Civil War to be executed for desertion. Slovik’s death-penalty appeal occurred in January 1945, while the Battle of the Bulge was raging. It was not a good time for General Eisenhower to be seen as soft on deserters. The Army was apparently embarrassed by the execution and covered it up, telling his widow only that he died in the European theater. Slovik’s story was eventually revealed by William Bradford Huie, who published The Execution of Private Slovik in 1954.
While Glass briefly mentions Slovik and provides some background on the subject, The Deserters is an often fascinating group memoir that assembles into a single narrative the harrowing stories of three other men—two American one British—who decided they had experienced enough of war and deserted.
Men affected by the horrors of trench warfare during the Great War were described as having “shell shock.” Glass cites a report from 1943 in Fortune which revealed that “nearly half of the 67,000 beds in Veteran’s Administration hospitals are still occupied by the neuropsychiatric casualties of World War I.” The shell shock of the Great War era was described as “combat fatigue” during the Second World War. Glass describes the view that prevailed among the brass during World War II as favoring “psychiatric as well as traditional medical care in forward aid stations” over General Patton’s preferred treatment of shooting the “cowards.”
Even as military leaders were aware that men would crack under prolonged exposure to combat, the need for frontline troops was immense. The term “replacement” comes up repeatedly in The Deserters. Replacements were soldiers trained and inserted into combat units to, well, replace those who were killed, maimed, or otherwise unavailable for service. Army chief of staff George C. Marshall instituted the replacement policy to keep combat divisions on the line and simplify logistics, even at the cost eroding unit cohesion. Alfred Whitehead, one of the soldiers profiled by Glass, eventually deserted because he resented being a replacement—rather than returning to his old outfit—after recovering from appendicitis.
Whitehead—who wrote about his experiences in a self-published memoir (often viewed with skepticism by Glass) that he later sold in his barber shop—was sent to the 94th Reinforcement Battalion for reassignment. Before deserting Whitehead became insubordinate: instructing, for example, a superior officer to take an inadequate rifle and “shove it up his ass.” At that point Whitehead was a highly decorated combat veteran who had seen continuous action from D-Day through the end of 1944 and felt above the petty indignities foisted upon him by superiors, many of whom had seen no action.
There was a natural tension between frontline troops and those who had not been in combat. Paul Fussell wrote in The Boys Crusade of the infantryman’s “common hatred” for “anyone occupying … a position to the rear of the infantryman.” Most men who went AWOL—Absent With Out Leave—did so from combat units. While on the run, they were not infrequently helped out by other frontline troops. Glass quotes from a 1951 study published in the American Sociological Review stating that “most combat soldiers are sympathetic toward other fellows who go AWOL,” while those in the rear were reluctant to lend aid. Steven Weiss, a deserter who had fought in Italy and France, contemptuously referred to rear-area “pencil pushers” who ate well and treated their Parisian girlfriends to food and cigarettes intended for the infantry.
Although it is counterintuitive, occasionally soldiers went AWOL toward the front lines and back into the war. Weiss did not exactly do that, but becoming inadvertently detached from his unit in August 1944 did not mean his war ended: he was smuggled by the members of the French Resistance through a German-occupied area to relative safety. While separated from his unit, Weiss joined the Resistance. It was a style of fighting that suited him better than the infantry, where he had sometimes clashed his superiors. “Steve Weiss embraced clandestine warfare more than he had the life of an infantryman,” says Glass. “Resistance fighting allowed him his independence, and usually let him sleep in a bed at night. Such luxuries were denied the ordinary infantryman, who obeyed orders and spent nights outdoors under enemy fire.” From the Resistance, Weiss reluctantly went to serve with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
Weiss eventually came to respect his fellows in the OSS, as he did those in the Resistance, but an individual soldier’s preferences count for little during wartime and his request for an official transfer was denied. Still a teen and respectful of authority at this point, Weiss later stated that it didn’t occur to him simply to refuse and utter the words, “No, Major, I’m not going back. You might as well call the MPs.”
Eventually Weiss decided that he had seen enough after incidents both terrifying and humiliating convinced him that the consequences of desertion were less unappealing than those of staying in the infantry. For his desertion and refusal at the court martial to return to the infantry Weiss received a dishonorable discharge and a life sentence. He would later be paroled when he agreed to fight in the Pacific theater, though a directive from General Eisenhower that no soldier would be forced to serve in more than two theaters of operation exempted him from that fate. Having already served in the Mediterranean and European theaters, writes Glass, “Weiss was free, but he was not going to the Pacific. He was on his way to Paris. The last laugh was his.”
The one Englishman profiled in The Deserters became a well known poet in the postwar period under the name Vernon Scannell. While in the army he was known as John Bain, and he was a serial deserter. He had already taken an unexcused three-week break while still training in Scotland, and Bain again deserted while in the field in 1943 after witnessing his fellow soldiers plunder the corpses of both German and British dead after a battle in North Africa. Bain did not run from battle out of fear: instead, as he described it, he “seemed to float away” from the aftermath of combat.
The result for Bain was a term in an infamous prison in Britain’s Mustafa Barracks near Alexandria in Egypt. Inmates at Mustafa, known as SUSs—soldiers under sentence—were subject to an exhausting and humiliating regimen, one aspect of which would inspire a novel, The Hill by Ray Rigby, and a film of the same name starring Sean Connery. SUSs were required to perform tasks of “Sisyphean absurdity” involving a large pile of sand:
On the morning after the SUSs had piled the sand up in one corner of the square, the staff sergeants ordered them to collect two buckets each. Columns of inmates ran double-time with a bucket in each hand, filled them with sand, ran to the diagonal corner of the square and poured it out. The morning’s labor succeeded in moving the entire hill from one corner to the other. When they had finished, their lungs gasping for the dry desert air, the men were ordered to move the sand back again. This would be repeated, along with drills and physical training, every day.
One result of such harsh treatment was to make horrifying alternatives seem bearable. After serving six months, Bain went before a Sentence Review Board looking for prisoners who would return to combat. After hearing a colonel refer to his desertion as a “damned bad show,” Bain accepted an offer to return to the war and a new front in Europe.
Men frequently sought escape from the horrors and rigors of combat, but the final time Bain deserted, he was in England shortly after the end of the war in Europe. This time Bain ran from the banality of life in the military. As he put it, “if I stayed in the Army any longer I would be finished, I would become a brown automaton, a thing without imagination, intelligence, ambition.”
There is a tension, evident in The Deserters, pitting an army’s need to maintain discipline among the troops—to keep the men who are supposed to be on the front line there—against the risk of pushing men too far. It is essential to a functioning military that men subordinate their own interests, including their physical safety, to their mission. The stories told by Glass indicate that the armies of the United States and Great Britain in Europe had some difficulty maintaining the balance. Deserters quotes from a report to the deputy theater commander in Europe to the effect that “the problem of war weary men in the Infantry of the old divisions which fought in Italy is one of the most severe we have … these men should be removed from the Infantry because they have lost their ‘zip’ and tend to weaken the fighting spirit of the new men.”
Maj. Gen. John Dahlquist, one-time division commander over Steven Weiss, wrote those words in February 1945, and they marked a change in his thinking from earlier in the war when he wanted to see more men punished for desertion.
Glass is sympathetic to his subjects even when he is skeptical of their version of events. Humans have always engaged in warfare, but the sort of mechanized, mass-scale killing of the Second World War is a recent phenomenon, and the men of The Deserters had to endure it for prolonged periods of time. They, along with thousands of their fellow soldiers, knew what to do when they had seen enough.
Clark Stooksbury writes from Knoxville, Tennessee.
Since the Vietnam War, America’s more successful interventions have been brief. That war engendered a legitimacy crisis in the United States military. Domestically, large numbers of young men resisted the draft or took advantage of deferments, but conscription still kept the armed forces supplied with men. In Vietnam, the military was riven by drug use, racial strife, and “fragging”—the assassination of unpopular officers by their troops. Operation Desert Storm in 1991 may be a model for a successful large-scale intervention post-Vietnam: the coalition allied with the United States dropped some bombs and sent an overwhelming ground force; Saddam capitulated while Lee Greenwood provided the soundtrack. If one ignores pesky issues such as the fate of Iraqi Kurds who were encouraged to rebel and the blowback from stationing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, the first Gulf War was a big success.
The United States fares worse when our goals are more ambitious and the enemy doesn’t quickly fold. When a volunteer army becomes bogged down in an unpopular war, protesters don’t fill the streets the way they did in 1969, and soldiers don’t “frag” their officers—people simply stop joining the military. The quest to fill that enlistment gap is where the investigative work of English journalist Matt Kennard comes in. In Irregular Army, Kennard documents a series of disturbing trends in the military: lowered standards, inadequately treated mental-health and substance-abuse problems, and the enlistment and retention of white supremacists, Nazis, and gang members.
Irregular Army begins with an investigation of undesirable elements who in years past would have had difficulty entering and staying in the military, such as racists and Nazi skinheads. Such extremists have made it into the military before—I briefly served in the Marine Corps in 1986 with someone who described himself as a racist skinhead—but Kennard provides background on how today the military often looks the other way to keep the ranks filled. He interviewed one neo-Nazi who had tattoos (a Celtic Cross and a Nordic warrior) that recruiters are supposed to flag. Forrest Fogarty’s story somewhat undercuts Kennard’s thesis, however, since he actually joined the Army prior to the War on Terror. He is something of a celebrity as the leader of the skinhead band Attack; he took leave in 2004 to play two concerts in Dresden, Germany. A bitter former girlfriend alerted the military to his leanings by sending pictures of him at neo-Nazi events, but that didn’t derail his military career. After his discharge the Southern Poverty Law Center intervened to keep him out of a job with a private military contractor.
Kennard’s confused timeline indicates that the seeds of the extremist infiltration problem existed before the Iraq War descended into a quagmire, although figures he received from the Department of Defense indicate that the military almost stopped the policy of denying reenlistment to undesirables at the height of the Iraq occupation, with the number of rejections falling from 4,000 in 1994 to a mere 81 in 2006.
Neo-Nazis have been joined in the military by members of African-American and Latino gangs. This came to light in an ugly and frightening fashion in 2005, when soldiers who were also members of the Chicago-based Gangster Disciples beat an Army sergeant to death in an initiation gone awry while stationed in Germany. Tracking gang membership in the military is difficult, as there is no specific prohibition against belonging to a gang, and according to Kennard the FBI “cannot gauge the problem of criminal gangs in the country’s fighting forces because the military [has] refused to report gang activity.” While the killing is the most disturbing gang-related incident reported in Irregular Army, Kennard reproduces numerous photos of gang graffiti in Iraq and military personnel flashing gang symbols, indicating that the 2005 incident was not simply a fluke.
One disturbing commonality between gang members and neo-Nazis is the possibility that they look upon the military as a training ground for their own private wars. Kennard quotes Dennis Mahon, a National Guard veteran with ties to various extremist organizations, who says, “the soldiers learn from unconventional warfare in Iraq and they realize that they can use that type of warfare in America and it’s impossible to stop.” Mahon is now serving time for a bombing in Arizona. Similarly, Kennard quotes an anonymous FBI agent suggesting that gangs may use the military for training purposes, noting that they would “get great weapons training… and access to weapons and arms, and be able to use that knowledge.”
Although the idea of the government training violent extremists and criminal gangs in the art of war is disturbing, it is only one upshot of the personnel crisis that has plagued the military in recent years. The tragic story of Specialist Travis Virgadamo illustrates another. Virgadamo displayed disturbing signs while on leave from Iraq in 2007. Instead of going AWOL as he contemplated, he returned to service,
But his superiors obviously knew something was wrong as they placed him on suicide watch and removed the bolt from his rifle, rendering it useless. He was given more pedestrian desk jobs as he tried to sort out his head. But, inexplicably, Virgadamo was cleared for combat the following month, and on the night of August 30, 2007, was given his bolt back. Three hours later he walked out of his barracks and shot himself in the head.
Suicides among soldiers and veterans reached epidemic proportions in the later years of the War on Terror. Viragadamo was one of 115 troops to commit suicide in 2007, a number that would increase to 245 in 2009. Irregular Army features several stories of soldiers who should have been routed into treatment but were instead sent back to battle, often with a prescription for Prozac or other antidepressants. The problem is severe enough that it would be inaccurate to describe troops with mental health issues as slipping through the cracks—they are plummeting through a chasm. Suicide isn’t the only concern when troops are pushed beyond the breaking point; they also commit crimes at home and atrocities abroad.
One rogue soldier who caused the Army and the government a great deal of stress in the last few years would likely have been rejected had the military not been desperate for warm bodies. Bradley Manning had a very troubled entry into the service. Kennard writes that Manning “was in such a disturbed mental state before his deployment that he wet himself, threw furniture around, shouted at his commanding officer, and underwent regular psychiatric evaluations.” He made it through, in spite of his problems, as Kennard quotes American Conservative contributor Chase Madar, because of the Army’s “desperation for soldiers with IT and analytic skills during its historic low in recruitment.”
“Desperation” is the key word, and Kennard documents a variety of other ways in which the military’s desperation has led to declining standards of recruitment. Overweight, less intelligent, or older recruits are not as extreme risks as Nazis, but they still present challenges. Perhaps the most disturbing large-scale change has been the rise in age limits. Young people are a better fit for military service because they both possess more physical endurance and are more malleable than older people, but in 2006 the Pentagon raised the maximum age for new recruits from 35 to 40 and shortly thereafter to 42. Kennard quotes one solider saying that “the type of training they receive is pretty much geared in one direction and focused on 18- and 20-year-olds just coming in.” The Army has compensated by lowering physical standards for older recruits, but as Kennard notes, war doesn’t discriminate: “older recruits… were at much greater risk of death and injury. In June 2010 it was reported that 566, or 12.1 percent, of the deaths in the War on Terror had been suffered by over-thirty-fives, a figure which dwarfed their representation in the fighting force.”
Kennard examines attempts to ameliorate the recruitment crisis, including the opening of a “Patriot Academy” on a National Guard base for the purpose of educating and giving diplomas to would-be soldiers who are short of credits for high-school graduation. The No Child Left Behind law, passed before the War on Terror, gave a gift to military recruiters in the form of access to contact information for high school students from institutions receiving aid under the bill.
The recruiting crisis has abated in recent years due to the weak economy and the drawdown in Iraq, but military needs still cannot be met without the now necessary aid of mercenaries, lately euphemized as “private military contractors.” Kennard notes that “it was impossible to do without them: the broken military could not long stand on its own two feet.”
Irregular Army goes into great narrative detail to illustrate an unfolding disaster that has engulfed the U.S. military, particularly the Army and Marine Corps. My biggest criticism of Kennard’s book is that it desperately needs charts, graphs, and timelines. For a book whose thesis has to establish that something went horribly wrong circa 2005-2006, it is often difficult to tell when particular events occurred. Neo-Nazi Forest Fogarty is Kennard’s star witness, but it is difficult to figure out that Fogarty actually joined the Army well before the War on Terror, which is also true of some of the others that Kennard profiles. Yet even if one concedes that some of these problems have antecedents before 9/11, Kennard still demonstrates a serious weakness in America’s ability to recruit a long- or even medium-term occupying force. He makes an obvious point that should be chiseled into the walls of the Pentagon: American culture is not conducive to maintaining a force to occupy another country. Policymakers should take heed—it is preferable that America’s next occupying force not be brought into existence at all, but if it must be, it shouldn’t come draped in Nazi regalia.
Clark Stooksbury writes from Knoxville, Tennessee.
“I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you and me.” The oft-recorded folk standard tells of a misty encounter with the legendary labor activist and member of the Industrial Workers of the World. Hill was executed in Utah in 1915, after a dubious trial, for a double murder he most likely did not commit. In Manufacturing Hysteria, a wide-ranging history of sedition panics and government repression in modern America, journalist Jay Feldman uses Hill’s execution as an example of fear run amok.
Feldman begins with the administration of Woodrow Wilson. The 28th president was an authoritarian who began stoking fears of “hyphenated-Americans”—whom he claimed “poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life”—before the United States went to war with Germany. After entering the Great War, the Wilson administration and a compliant Congress enacted the Espionage Act of 1917, which gave the government vast powers of repression. Senator William Borah of Idaho, one of the few legislators to vote against the act, stated that “a more autocratic, more Prussian measure could not be found in Germany.” The legislation apparently wasn’t Prussian enough and was soon joined by the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to “utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States.”
Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs became the most famous free-speech prisoner during the Great War. He was indicted in 1918 for declaiming at a Canton, Ohio Socialist picnic that, inter alia, the “patriotic duty” of the ruling class “never takes them to the firing line or chucks them into the trenches.” The prosecuting attorney called him “the palpitating pulse of the sedition crusade.” The jury agreed, and Debs received a ten-year sentence, served until it was commuted in 1921 by President Harding.
The Sedition Act gave Postmaster General Albert Burleson power over every publication in the country. Burleson directed local postmasters to “keep a close watch on unsealed matters, newspapers, etc.” The Post Office then proceeded to ban numerous, mostly Socialist publications. When an issue of The Masses was censored, editor Max Eastman protested to Woodrow Wilson, as did Amos Pinchot and John Reed. Their complaints went unheeded, and Burleson added insult to injury by revoking the second-class mailing permit from The Masses and other publications that had had an issue banned, on the grounds that they were no longer periodicals.
Manufacturing hysteria is much easier with the aid of a compliant press. Feldman documents the leading role played by the New York Times in stoking fear of “hyphenated-Americans” and immigrant radicals. When the anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were deported, the Times practically spat nails at them. “With the general American gratification at the departure of these unclean spirits may well be mingled something of shame to remember how long they suffered to afflict us.” It wasn’t just the Times—Feldman quotes papers from the Seattle Times to the Washington Post supporting the deportation of, as the Post put it, “bewhiskered, ranting, howling, mentally warped, law-defying aliens.”
Elite newspaper editors used words, but angry mobs often resorted to bloodshed. Manufacturing Hysteria begins with a prologue describing numerous examples of mob violence, including the 1918 lynching of Robert Paul Prager, who was suspected of being a spy. “On April 3, a group of miners seized Prager and, employing the ritual widely practiced on anyone suspected of disloyalty, compelled him to kiss the flag.” Collinsville, Illinois officials made feeble attempts to save Prager’s life, but the mob broke him out of custody and hanged him from a tree. Eleven defendants were eventually acquitted of his murder in a trial described as a “farcical patriotic orgy.”
After the war widespread paranoia fostered several attempted or successful terrorist bombings, allowing the federal government to keep the heat on socialists and anarchists. A series of mail bombs caused explosions that rocked seven cities on June 2, 1919, including at the home of U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. A leaflet found near the Palmer residence spouted incendiary rhetoric: “There will have to be bloodshed; we will not dodge; there will have to be murder; we will kill, because it is necessary; there will have to be destruction…” The crimes were never solved: evidence suggested that the federal government suspected a small band of Italian-American anarchists known as the Galleanists, but it chose instead to fan fears of a national conspiracy.
The 1919 Red Scare helped advance the career of a young J. Edgar Hoover at what was then the Bureau of Investigation (BI). In 1921, he was elevated to its assistant director under President Harding. After a Justice Department house cleaning in 1924, the new attorney general, Harlan Fiske Stone, promoted Hoover again. Feldman notes Hoover’s cynicism in portraying himself as a “champion of civil liberties and tolerance” to please the new regime. The cynical ploy worked so well that Hoover won the endorsement of the American Civil Liberties Union after he convinced ACLU founder Roger Baldwin that he had not been a supporter of the Palmer Raids and repressive tactics of the BI. Once ensconced, Hoover gripped the reins of power so tightly that they could only be pried from his cold, dead hands nearly 50 years later.
Stone instituted reforms to reel in the BI and refocus it on law enforcement instead of tracking subversives. The rise of organized crime during Prohibition helped to give the bureau new purpose for a time. President Franklin Roosevelt—whom Feldman notes possessed an “often cavalier disregard for civil liberties”—uncorked the bottle again when he met with Hoover in 1936 to discuss the subversive activities of suspected Fascists and Communists. FDR was particularly concerned with the German American Bund. The result was an FBI back in the business of domestic intelligence gathering.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Roosevelt administration issued a proclamation restricting the activities of Japanese aliens in the U.S., and shortly thereafter he would do the same regarding German and Italian aliens. Only people of Japanese ancestry, however, were placed in internment camps on a large scale. Feldman writes that “a cloud of suspicion hung over all three communities, based in large part on the assumption and fear that aliens’ loyalties were necessarily divided between the United States and their countries of origin.” German and Italian aliens avoided large-scale internment because they were too great in number and were protected by the administration’s fear of angering the sizable German-American and Italian-American communities. Feldman quotes two very different columnists supporting the internment of people of Japanese ancestry:
Such disparate and influential syndicated newspaper pundits as the measured liberal Walter Lippmann and the acerbic conservative Westbrook Pegler both came out in favor of removal. In a piece called ‘The Fifth Column on the Coast,’ Lippmann argued for ‘a policy of mass evacuation and mass internment,’ and three days later Pegler fulminated, ‘The Japanese in California should be under armed guard to the last man and woman right now—and to hell with habeas corpus until the danger is over.’
The aftermath of World War II saw the country embroiled in a second Red Scare. In the 1940s, former spies Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers publicly admitted to having been Soviet agents and exposed, among others, high-ranking officials like Harry Dexter White and Alger Hiss as being spies as well. White denied the charges and died of a heart attack within days of testifying before Congress. Hiss also denied the charges under oath and was later convicted of perjury. Both were implicated by the secret Venona Project, which tracked Soviet espionage in the United States. One weakness of Manufacturing Hysteria is that Feldman gives too little credence to these charges and neglects to mention the Venona evidence.
After Republican gains in the 1946 midterm elections, the Truman administration began a series of anticommunist loyalty investigations within the federal government, establishing the Employees Loyalty Program by executive order in 1947. The fear of communism set the stage for the rise of Joseph McCarthy, who gave his infamous Lincoln Day speech in Wheeling, West Virginia on February 9, 1950, just days after Hiss was convicted of perjury. “McCarthyism” would become a byword for second Red Scare.
With his explosive charges of Soviet spies in high places, McCarthy became a dominant force in American politics before sawing himself off of the limb he sat on. The Wisconsin senator ceased to be a significant force after he was censured by his fellow legislators in 1954, but the hunt for subversives continued. The FBI instituted a series of “Counterintelligence Programs”—COINTELPRO—during the 1950s to entrap real and imagined subversives. The most famous target of Hoover and the FBI was Martin Luther King. The investigation of King was based the assumption that some of his associates were Communists, but the FBI’s level of attention suggests a more personal motivation. Hoover intervened to keep Marquette University from granting King an honorary degree and was especially agitated at King’s winning a Nobel Peace Prize. The bureau’s most egregious abuse of power in this case was a crude attempt to wreck King’s marriage by sending him illegally recorded tapes of his marital infidelities, accompanied by a crudely forged letter encouraging him to commit suicide before his “filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”
The harassment of King and other COINTELPRO abuses came to light toward the end of Hoover’s career as the level of trust Americans had in their government was collapsing. COINTELPRO was exposed by a group styling themselves the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI, whose members broke into a federal office in Media, Pennsylvania and began mailing pilfered documents to reporters and legislators.
Feldman calls for vigilance in the wake of continuing assaults on civil liberties, and there are plenty of areas of to be concerned about, from the national hysteria that followed the 9/11 attacks to the trend toward militarization of law enforcement. There have been notable civil-liberties successes, however, in the last century: if the Bush administration had had the same level of authority in 2002 as Woodrow Wilson did in 1917, the feds would have strangled The American Conservative in its crib, and the war critics who filled its pages would have gone to prison.
Clark Stooksbury writes from Knoxville, Tennessee.
The paranoia in this post by Gary Graham at Big Hollywood is epic. The subject is the new HBO series Veep, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Can anyone guess what Graham’s complaint is? Correct, the show is mean to Sarah Palin:
I tuned in to HBO’s new comedy “Veep” and saw Julia Louis Dreyfus dressed up as . . . Tina Fey dressed up as . . . Sarah Palin.
So after suffering through “Veep” I’m yet even more mystified than before by the Left’s obsession with Palin. The only conclusion I can come up with is this: They are so terrified of a Palin candidacy, for anything that they just can’t let go.
Nevermind that Palin is not running for anything; what’s salient is merely the spectre that she may, at some point in the future, throw her hat back into the political ring.
This is absurd. HBO uploaded the first episode to YouTube so you can judge for yourself, but the main character is nothing like Palin. The writers could have given Vice President Selina Meyer any number of traits to make her like Sarah Palin. The could have made her an Evangelical Christian, given her a large family and a funny accent; but they didn’t. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, like Palin, is an attractive woman of a certain age with dark hair, but they don’t look alike. Since the fictional Veep’s big issues are green jobs and an attempt to replace plastic utensils with ones made of corn starch, she sounds like a Democrat; though her party is never named.
I read the Victor Haug commentary from The Washington Times that Jordan Bloom noted on Thursday and found it to be problematic from the beginning, where Haug states that, “while the Internet has changed much about music, one thing that hasn’t changed is its popularity and cultural impact. According to a study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, in 2009 the average American youth listened to music for two-and-a-half hours per day.” I’d like to see a definition of “youth” as well as “listened.” I assume that since so many young (and not so young, for that matter) people have iPods and smart phones giving them continuous access to their songs, much of that two-and-a-half hours of music is in the background.
By the second paragraph, Haug loses me completely. He states that he “conducted research on popular music over the last 65 years, counting the swear words and references to drugs, violence and sex in the top 10 songs of every year since 1946.” Now why would anybody want to do that? I could barely stand to listen to, or read the lyrics of the top ten songs for any one year much less the last six decades. I don’t doubt that pop music is more coarse today than in the 1940s, although Bloom correctly observes that suggestive lyrics aren’t a new phenomenon. Haug, however doesn’t offer a reason why this is the case.
I think that one reason why the culture has become more coarse is that the authority of the institutions regulating this sort of behavior collapsed. In the 1930s a Roman Catholic organization called the Legion of Decency arose to combat immorality in the movies. Thomas Doherty wrote about the phenomenon in the book ,Hollywood’s Censor,which was excerpted in Reason a few years ago.
The Legion was as good as its word, and it put its word into writing with a brilliant tactical device, the Legion pledge. A prayer-like pact, the Legion pledge was a contractual avowal signed by parishioners and recited in unison at Sunday masses, Knights of Columbus meetings, Ladies Sodalities gatherings, and parochial school assemblies. “I condemn absolutely those debauching motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land,” affirmed the pledger. “Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.”
The campaign worked for a time and the movie industry appointed Joseph Breen to enforce a production code. I can’t see the Church or any other institution succeeding with such an effort today. Back in the 1980s, Tipper Gore, the wife of Al, became an object of derision because of a fruitless campaign against raunchy lyrics.
Of course, one may ask why institutions have little authority anymore and that’s a question too complex to be addressed in a blog post, but I can offer a partial explanation via a quote from Walker Percy , printed in his posthumous essay collection, Signposts in a Strange Land:
To state the matter as plainly as possible, I would echo a writer like Guardini who says simply that the modern world has ended, the world, the world, that is, of the past two or three hundred years, which we think of as having been informed by the optimism of the scientific revolution, rational humanism, and that Western cultural entity which until this century it has been more or less accurate to describe as Christendom. I am not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that the optimism of this age began to crumble with the onset of the catastrophes of the twentieth century. If one had to set a date of the beginning of the end of the modern world, 1914 would be as good as any. . .
“Smitty,” the Other McCain’s other blogger seems to be a bit confused about the charges against George Zimmerman:
If the Left had facts, they’d pound the facts. If they had law, they’d pound the law. Having neither, they’re setting up to pound the courts.
. . .The judge is going to apply reason, and reject this, and the Left is going to cry foul. . .
The Left will blame the courts, and try to use this as a rallying point to whip up the troops about these ‘activist’ judges who are denying ‘justice’ to Trayvon. What a despicable, evil act that will be, if it unfolds that way. I’d like to be wrong, but the patter of the last three years is nothing if not consistent in its diabolical, omnidirectional attack on all we hold dear.
The interesting question, after all this, will be George Zimmerman’s take. He’s being crucified on the false cross of the Left’s quest for power. Does he break, and blame himself, or does he realize what a sick, Satanic scam the Left is running?
So allow me to clarify for him. Zimmerman isn’t charged with “raaaaacism” and he isn’t charged with Crimes Against Obama. He’s charged with second degree murder because he shot and killed somebody. As it turns out, Bill Ayers isn’t the governor of Florida and Saul Alinsky isn’t the prosecutor—Florida’s Republican Governor, Rick Scott appointed Angela Corey to investigate the case.
From the available evidence, the conservative movement these days is little more than a tribe and the important issue in any public dispute is who is Us and who is Them. Smitty and his fellow rightwingers seem to have decided that George Zimmerman is one of Us.
UPDATE: Smitty replies and denies seeing Zimmerman as one of “Us” but he can’t discuss the case without reference to a series of “Them.” My favorite comment compares me to my least favorite magazine editor. “I see that Stooksbury’s Rich Lowry Dress Up Kit arrived in the mail.”
As much as I hate to admit it, Ben Shapiro has a point with his list of overrated songs although his fogyish pose is tiresome. It even reminds me a bit of something I wrote a few years ago. He’s correct that songs like “My Generation” by The Who, and “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin are overrated even if he errs by not demonstrating how highly rated they are in the first place. And I agree that John Lennon’s “Imagine” isn’t only overrated, it’s terrible. Of course, for Shapiro, the worst part is Lennon’s Liberal Bias. “This could be the Barack Obama campaign song – but it would express too clearly what the redistributionist left wants for the world: no borders, no God, no meaning, no values, and no wealth. And it’s being penned and sung by one of the richest people on the planet.”
He’s on shakier ground discussing Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” The post I linked to above was prompted Rolling Stone magazine’s faux authoritative list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time that has “Like a Rolling Stone” in first place. I would rate any number of Dylan songs (“Tangled Up In Blue,” “Gotta Serve Somebody”) as better, even if “Stone” is, um, a milestone.
Shapiro clearly doesn’t just think “Like a Rolling Stone” is overrated, he hates it: “The song itself makes no sense. What is a ‘mystery tramp’? Why should you ‘turn around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns’? Are they sad clowns? What does a ‘Siamese cat, have to do with anything? And then he articulates these nonsensical lyrics as though he has no front teeth.”
He can’t handle the fact that a lot of Dylan’s best songs don’t make much sense and in Breitbartworld everything is reducible to politics. “I’m sorry, but screaming “How does it feel?” with an organ in the background is not great music. That’s Jeremiah Wright on an off-day.” Now, how exactly did we get on to Reverend Wright?
One theme that he comes back to on more than one occasion is his struggle to avoid becoming a guru or generational spokesman, such as when he was awarded a honorary degree from Princeton: “When my turn came to accept the degree, the speaker introducing me said something like how I distinguished myself in carminibus canendi and that I now would enjoy all the university’s individual rights and privileges whereever they pertain, but then he added, ‘Though he is known to millions, he shuns publicity and organizations preferring the solidarity of his family and isolation from the world, and though he is approaching the perilous age of thirty, he remains the authentic expression of the disturbed and concerned conscience of Young America.’ Oh Sweet Jesus! It was like a jolt. I shuddered and trembled but remained expressionless. The disturbed conscience of Young America!”
The Jay Cost post from The Weekly Standard that Rod links to argues, as the title indicates, that “liberals” were “surprised by the Supreme Court,” and many perhaps were. In the body of the post, he noted Bob Shrum’s delusions about John Kerry’s prospects in 2004 and says, “I imagine a lot of liberals felt a similar letdown reading the transcript of Tuesday’s arguments on Obamacare.” He later states, that “the Court might very well uphold the law, but it will not nearly be the slamdunk that almost all liberals thought it would be.”
I am confused as to why Cost is only imagining the letdown that liberals felt instead of, you know, checking with some actual liberal commentators and blogs. They aren’t that hard to find. And I would like to see a source for the claim that “almost all liberals” thought that a win in the Supreme Court would be a “slam dunk”
With a minimal effort I found a post from John Cole stating “I’m really completely uninterested in the actual arguments being made in the ACA case before SCOTUS. It just doesn’t matter what the law is, as these guys have proven time and again that they’ll do whatever they want.” Here’s Paul Krugman stating that, “while most legal experts seem to think that the case for striking the law down is very weak, these days everything is political.” Another liberal blogger I found wrote that “only one thing is relevant to this case for the Court’s Wingnut Four: the needs of movement conservatism.”
It doesn’t sound like these guys thought that Obamacare would be a “slam dunk” in the Supreme Court, but it is possible the three that I quote are unrepresentative of liberal opinion. However, it takes only a minimal effort to find weak spots in Cost’s argument.
Cost also makes the following observation:
The problem for the left is that they do not have a lot of interaction with conservatives, whose intellects are often disparaged, ideas are openly mocked, and intentions regularly questioned. Conservative ideas rarely make it onto the pages of most middle- and high-brow publications of news and opinion the left frequents. So, liberals regularly find themselves surprised when their ideas face pushback.
It would seem that Cost is the one enclosed in a bubble.
Geraldo Rivera reached a new low when he blamed the hoodie for the killing of Trayvon Martin, and he has now apologized for saying so. But the race to the bottom is never ending and to prove it today Rush Limbaugh and Dan Riehl and a blog called “Jammie Wearing Fools” plunged even lower by noting that the Obama campaign is cashing in on Martin’s death by selling (or “pimping” as JWF put it) hoodies. JWF has a garbled link (ungarbled here) to the Obama 2012 twitter page noting the hoodie. But the page also has a tweet hawking t-shirts for kids today and I imagine promoting Obama 2012 merchandise is a regular feature.
The Obama reelect campaign — Obama 2012 — is now selling hoodies that say, “Obama 2012” on them. The Barack Obama reelection effort is exploiting the death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in order (obviously, here) to secure votes (as though he needs them) from African-Americans. Hoodies, 2012!
I can’t think of a more appropriate response than to say that these people are being incredibly stupid. The Obama 2012 store sells lots of items. And with a little help from something called a “search engine” I discovered that the Ron Paul store also sells a hoodie. If that isn’t shocking enough, the Romney campaign also has a “Believe in America” hoodie for sale.
George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida on February 26 is gaining national attention; and for good reason. Adam Weinstein has a primer of events and recordings of several calls to placed to 911, including Zimmerman’s. Here is a clip from Zimmerman’s call (full transcript):
Dispatcher: Yeah we’ve got someone on the way, just let me know if this guy does anything else. Zimmerman: Okay. These assholes they always get away. When you come to the clubhouse you come straight in and make a left. Actually you would go past the clubhouse. Dispatcher: So it’s on the lefthand side from the clubhouse? Zimmerman: No you go in straight through the entrance and then you make a left…uh you go straight in, don’t turn, and make a left. Shit he’s running. Dispatcher: He’s running? Which way is he running? Zimmerman: Down towards the other entrance to the neighborhood. Dispatcher: Which entrance is that that he’s heading towards? Zimmerman: The back entrance…fucking [unintelligible] Dispatcher: Are you following him? Zimmerman: Yeah Dispatcher: Ok, we don’t need you to do that. (emphasis added)
Zimmerman appears excessively suspicious and he never gave the dispatcher a solid example of wrongdoing by Martin to warrant suspicion. The Sanford Police appear to have accepted Zimmerman’s version of the event uncritically:
“Mr. Zimmerman’s claim is that the confrontation was initiated by Trayvon,” Police Chief Bill Lee said in an interview. “I am not going into specifics of what led to the violent physical encounter witnessed by residents. All the physical evidence and testimony we have independent of what Mr. Zimmerman provides corroborates this claim to self-defense.”
To claim self-defense, someone has to show there was danger of great bodily harm or death, Lee said. “Zimmerman had injuries consistent with his story,” Lee said.
Zimmerman had a damp shirt, grass stains, a bloody nose and was bleeding from a wound in back of his head, according to police reports.
“If someone asks you, ‘Hey do you live here?’ is it OK for you to jump on them and beat the crap out of somebody?” Lee said. “It’s not.”
The police chief supports the claim that Martin initiated the confrontation even though Zimmerman indicated to the 911 dispatcher that he was pursuing the unarmed teen. There is some evidence of an altercation before the shooting, but Martin had as much right to defend himself as Zimmerman and he had a very good reason to fear the man who shot him.
Leave aside the racial angle for a moment—Trayvon Martin was black—the state of the law in Florida is seriously distorted. Not only is there no duty to retreat in a public place before shooting someone; if this case is typical, Armed Floridians can start the trouble and still get away with murder. Emily Bazelton at Slate quotes a Florida prosecutor saying (before this shooting occurred) “The ultimate intent might be good, but in practice, people take the opportunity to shoot first and say later they had a justification. It almost gives them a free pass to shoot.” It would appear that he is correct, although the Federal Government is now investigating the case.
The Hill: “Nearly 60 percent of all Americans think the war in Afghanistan is no longer worth fighting, with more than 50 percent saying U.S. troops should withdraw even if Afghan forces are not ready to fend for themselves.”
So, Americans, will you remember this the next time it seems like such a good idea to go into war and perhaps be a bit more skeptical? Oh, who am I kidding?
Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan have an op-ed at CNN.com on Rush Limbaugh’s “slut” tirade from last week and they call for the novel solution of having the Federal Communications Commission yank the licenses of the hundreds of radio stations that carry his program:
Spectrum is a scarce government resource. Radio broadcasters are obligated to act in the public interest and serve their respective communities of license. In keeping with this obligation, individual radio listeners may complain to the FCC that Limbaugh’s radio station (and those syndicating his show) are not acting in the public interest or serving their respective communities of license by permitting such dehumanizing speech.
I won’t bother to detail the blindingly obvious arguments about the virtue of countering offensive speech with more speech, or the danger of having the FCC suppress speech one doesn’t like. Just as a matter of practical politics this is a dumb move. Limbaugh’s allies have been on the defensive (by trying to change the subject to Bill Maher, for example) for a week now, while his program bleeds sponsors. To the extent that anybody is paying attention—and who’s been waiting for Jane Fonda’s input?—it puts Limbaugh’s supporters back on the offensive, as is clear in the Memeorandum thread.
And I keep tripping over the following paragraph:
Limbaugh doesn’t just call people names. He promotes language that deliberately dehumanizes his targets. Like the sophisticated propagandist Josef Goebbels, he creates rhetorical frames — and the bigger the lie the more effective — inciting listeners to view people they disagree with as sub-humans. His longtime favorite term for women, “femi-nazi,” doesn’t even raise eyebrows anymore, an example of how rhetoric spreads when unchallenged by coarsened cultural norms.(emphasis added)
I find difficult that none of these women, or any editors at CNN, noted the irony of complaining about Limbaugh’s use of “femi-nazi” in the very next sentence after comparing him to Goebbels. And the lesson of the internet age is that everybody is a Nazi, eventually.
Updated with a couple of minor edits.
According to Rod, Limbaugh loathing has jumped the shark and he may be right, especially since Rush Limbaugh will be in the soup again in the near future—he can’t help himself. His allies, however, keep making themselves look ridiculous by trying to turn this fiasco into a positive; as in this post where Glenn Reynolds projects his own rage onto the President:
THE POLITICS OF HATE: Dems Incite Death Threats Against Limbaugh. And Limbaugh’s already had to call the bomb squad to his house. That’s their approach. Marginalize, then brutalize.
When will President Obama speak out against this hatred and extremism? Probably never. But since it’s been established that this sort of thing happens via close coordination between the White House and Media Matters, etc., there’s no denying responsibility now. I call upon the President to denounce his supporters’ hateful violent rhetoric, to promise not to engage in or encourage it again, and to apologize to Limbaugh for stirring up this cesspit of hatred among his followers. A President is supposed to lead, not incite violence
What is lacking in this post or any of the links is evidence that the president or the Democrats are inciting death threats against Limbaugh. The post from Big Government that Reynolds links cites comments from Facebook—some indeed threatening, others just nasty. It has nothing to suggest these comments result from anything other than a reaction to Limbaugh’s own bile.
Reynolds doesn’t give a link for his bomb squad claim but I assume he is referring to this story:
Palm Beach police spokesman Fred Hess says the item investigated Thursday afternoon turned out to be an electronic plaque sent by a listener of the radio talk show host’s program as a “business opportunity” for Limbaugh. It concerned the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth.
Hess says no charges will be filed against the sender because no crime was committed. He says the sender was very apologetic.
As Reynolds says; “marginalize, then brutalize.” Whatever.
I like to imagine an alternative universe where the mouthpiece for movement conservatism possesses a keen intellect and a mordant wit, instead of being a cretin like Rush Limbaugh (and I’m pulling my punches here for H‘s benefit).
Western Man is promiscuous because something unprecedented has happened. As a consequence of the scientific and technological revolution, there has occurred a displacement of the real as a consequence of which genital sexuality has come to be seen as the substratum of all human relationships, of friendship, love, and the rest. This displacement has come to pass as a consequence of a lay misperception of the physicist’s quest for establishing a molecular or energic basis for all interactions and of what is perceived as Freud’s identification of genital sexuality as the ground of all human relationships.
A letter to Dear Abby:
I am a twenty-three-year-old liberated woman who has been on the pill for two years. It’s getting pretty expensive and I think my boyfriend should share half the cost, but I don’t know him well enough to discuss money with him. (emphasis added)
If Limbaugh had cited Percy instead of channeling any random, dull-witted high school sophomore; then rightwingers like Dana Loesch and William Jacobson wouldn’t have had to waste their energy on lame attempts at damage control.
Update: I edited out an extraneous word that I put in the Percy quote.
A post by Scott Eric Kaufman at Lawyers, Guns and Money links to Matt Taibbi’s acerbic sendoff to the late Andrew Breitbart and suggests it will “will demonstrate which conservatives are competent readers and which aren’t.” Chalk Aaron Goldstein at The American Spectator up as an incompetent reader. He quotes the nasty part of Taibbi’s obit but leaves out all of the nice parts and whines about how mean liberals are to conservatives:
All of which raises two questions.
1. Why do liberal pundits delight in the death of conservatives?
2. Why do liberal pundits have no shame in publicly expressing these sentiments?
You can probably give the same answer to both questions. Liberal pundits hate conservatives and their hatred of all things conservative knows no bounds. I would also add that liberal pundits aren’t very mature.
Breitbart played hardball when he was alive by, among other things, dancing over Ted Kennedy’s fresh grave a few years ago. I held no particular animus towards Breitbart and take no joy at his premature death, but I see no reason to pretend that he was anything other than a nasty character who earned his hatred.
So Rod’s clarifying moment is muddy once more. For all the talk about how the Komen Foundation was “bullied” by the left, the episode resembles the Netflix/Qwikster debacle of last year; especially since Komen recently employed (via Memeorandum) Ari Fleischer who “drilled prospective candidates [for a PR position] during their interviews on how they would handle the controversy about Komen’s relationship with Planned Parenthood.” Nothing says “competence” like a Bush II alumni.
I hadn’t thought much about the Komen Foundation before their recent PR fiasco, but I am inherently suspicious of big organizations and they are a giant in the breast cancer industry. That they peddle awareness with pink buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken and a pink-ribboned NFL only increases my skepticism. Barbara Ehrenreich (who was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago) skewered the culture promoted by organizations such as Komen in her book Bright-Sided(reviewed in TAC here):
The first thing I discovered as I waded out into the relevant sites is that not everyone views the disease with horror and dread. Instead, the appropriate attitude is upbeat and even eagerly acquisitive . . . There are between two and three million American women in various stages of breast cancer treatment, who, along with anxious relatives, make up a significant market for all things breast cancer related. Bears, for example: I identified four distinct lines, or species, of these creatures, including . . . the Nick and Nora Wish Upon a Star Bear, which was available . . . at the Komen Foundation Web site’s “marketplace.”
And bears are only the tip, so to speak, of the cornucopia of pink-ribbon-themed breast cancer products. . . “Awareness” beats secrecy and stigma, of course, but I couldn’t help noticing that the existential space in which a friend had earnestly advised me to “confront [my] mortality” bore a striking resemblance to the mall.