Friday, September 28, 2007

Ken Burns, Liar

The War is a documentary film, but one that reminds me not so much of a brilliant scholarly work, a single-volume history, a collection of primary material artfully organized, or even a popularized retelling of a story so much as a clips show. There's nothing about the story that hasn't been done better elsewhere, and possibly even more economically if you cut out all the commercials on the History Channel and its brethren. I won't get into quibbles on the history, as I did previously with (the much superior) Civil War and Baseball, because that's beside the point. If Burns' mission was, as he's intimated in interviews, to correct the misapprehensions of American high school students that World War II was fought against Russia, he could've used a few Cliff Notes devices to get the point across a little more succinctly. If the true motivation of the film, as one suspects, is to explore the "why we fight" theme for "the good war" in an age of diminishing moral clarity about the use of armed force by nations (which is itself a relativistic assessment), then he's buried his lead rather ham-fistedly. (Embarrassingly so: the script uses foreshadowing in a way that would get a 10th-grade English essay a "B", with one-off lines about a soldier enlisting in 1942 'who would find out why he fought in 1945' -- is there going to be a concentration camp liberation in the last episode, by chance?) If the point of view was supposed to be the close to the ground social web of a Studs Terkel, the backgrounding which takes up over half the movie is inexplicably discursive. If it's to provide that survey course everybody in this country needs in World War II 101, then the bullet points got messed up during the transfer from PowerPoint.

If, as the term "documentary" suggests, it was meant to be a collection in the first person -- Burns has also cited the rapid disappearance of World War II vets to the march of time as a reason for doing this project -- then perhaps it should've spent more time with veterans who hadn't already told their story elsewhere, much more thoroughly. The starkest example is Quentin Aanenson, the fighter pilot who touched on virtually the entire American campaign in Western Europe (and ended up on the ground as a forward air observer and close attack coordinator, so had the unique combination of a bird's eye and a worm's perspective). Aanenson did a magnificent, DIY documentary 15 years ago, "A Fighter Pilot's Story", which was a remarkably gritty, grim, and honest description of a job overly associated with glamour and gung-hoism. So in the Burns version, we get a watered-down cut-and-paste, better photographed and produced but already distinctly a third-person second-sourcing even when Aanenson is being interviewed directly.

What did PBS do with the release of "The War"? It pulled the DVD of "A Fighter Pilot's Story" from sale last month. That should describe in detail the educational motivations of the network.

All that said, my text today is the lying that passes for documentary film-making. I'm not speaking of specific historical facts; as I said, mine is not to quibble on this front. It's the Burnsian technique of mixing still photos, narration, sound, soundtrack, and in this case, archived film amongst his set-piece interviews. (This is a common issue, one not unique to Ken Burns, of course, but whenever there's a well-spoken of documentary, the fact that it is mostly artifice and very little in the way of on-screen truth-telling should be brought up.)

The problem is this. The viewer hears a narration about men in a particular battle, while a picture taken from another battle is shown. That's a lie. It creates the false visual association of what the picture conveys with what the narrator is talking about. Perhaps the picture is an accurate reflection of that experience, perhaps it isn't. But the viewer isn't given the fact that it's not a "matching" picture to make up his or her own mind. Similarly, nearly every time you hear an explosion, a ratatat of a machine gun, or another sound in this film you're hearing something that's been pasted on to the film, not something that was recorded at the same time and place as the visual image displayed. It's no different than, say, Saving Private Ryan, or even Sands of Iwo Jima; it's a war created in post-production. The experience of the sound of the war, of the moment, might match what the sound editor and director have inserted, but I doubt it.

This is not documentary. It's a form of historical fiction, which no matter how well-researched or well thought-out to convey the larger truth of the situation, is simply an act of artifice. As such it's also ahistorical, a form of narrative that's about the filmmakers' understanding and not the topic at hand.

How do I know this? To even the amateur historian, there are plenty of tells. Some of the footage and stills is familiar. To the simply observant viewer, there are plenty more tells. Describing the ascendancy of Major General George Patton in the Tunisia campaign, for instance, we see a picture of Patton surveying a dusty battle field -- wearing three stars, the mark of a Lieutenant General. In footage of the D-Day landings in June, we see stock footage of Navy personnel apparently supervising the bombardment -- wearing winter clothing. We have pictures of "H Hour" at Omaha Beach, which are all from the third wave or later (the lack of photos from the first waves has been a well-discussed issue; the combat photographers in the first wave lost their equipment or spoiled their film, leaving only one partial roll of pictures.) I noticed at least a half dozen more such anachronisms in a very short period of film, and as I said, I'm an amateur.

One might argue that a filmmaker without access to a true visual record of a specific event isn't obligated to do more than provide a backdrop to the verbal text. But by the same token, it would then be OK to provide erroneous captions to photos in history books if one is missing a really good photo for the text on the opposite page. I don't buy it.

Can you footnote a TV show? Yes -- by simply having accurate date and place descriptions attached to photos or film when they're played. This would at least break up the associative array in the viewer's mind when they hear one thing and see another.

But this is rarely done, because it breaks up the visual continuity of the film. That's what this ultimately comes down to: the filmmaker who wants a flow, a pace, a visual feel, who uses the pan and the fade and the wipe and the timed edit, because those are his or her tools to create an emotional response in the viewer.

And that, in turn, is the bottom line here. When documentarians and historians sacrifice accuracy for beauty, they're creating something that, fact-based and reality-driven though it may be, is intended for emotional consumption, not analytic consumption. It's as much a work of fiction as any John Wayne shoot 'em up.

I don't mean this as a blanket condemnation of Ken Burns' work, which has had some real virtue to it over the years. But there's a difference between recreating the Civil War, which in the collective consciousness is entirely a fourth-hand memory, and World War II, which is still available as a first-person. One thinks the money and time spent on this documentary would've been better spent getting lower-tech, archival interviews with surviving vets and Americans of the era, doing real first-person documentary work, maybe a higher-effort version of the many Oral History projects that are proceeding spottily in the country (as has been done quite well for holocaust survivors). If the point was to put together a survey, the way the Civil War did, there wasn't perhaps quite enough of a rethinking of the canonical recounting of the War, the point of view or voice, or the basic (and now nearly dreadfully famliiar) film technique for making that story. In a war that arguably had even higher stakes than the Civil War -- not just the future of the country, but of the world, at stake -- the dreadfully desperate situation doesn't seem quite so vivid. The World at War, forty years old now and done for a foreign audience originally, actually still has a more direct approach to the topic.

The controversy over the "inclusiveness" of Burns' talking heads (even if they aren't historians, but participants, they're still talking heads) misses the point that there's so much clutter in this film, which is neither a good survey nor a good first-personer, nobody's going to learn the real social history of the war accurately from it, anyway. A braver filmmaker might've trusted himself to stick to only interviews and maybe still pictures of the interviewees and their families, and left them to speak for themselves without the all-too-available action footage of combat. (That in itself is a kinetically-charged succubus to a movie maker - soooooooo sexy, visually.) Or alternatively, to put together that good single-volume modern semi-revisionist history to show to our high school kids, made it a bit more exciting and ignored the artifice of pretending to be an inclusive first-personer, simply rifling his interview subjects for the goods and using what works. (The number of truly boring and unilluminating anecdotes left in this movie is rather startling.)

Here, I think, is the real point of the film:

Burns closes the film with a picture of his dead WWII vet dad, the man who never told Ken his own story. The Spielbergian-missing-father psychological motivation for making a film is a little too pat, of course, although it's very, very tempting. But look at how PBS is positioning this: it's a nostalgia trip, launched during fund-raising season, aimed not at the World War II generation or even at today's callow and misinformed youth, but at Burns' generation, the Baby Boomers who need to have that emotional connection with their own parents affirmed as their parents die off and they in turn become the senior generation. That's what this film plays as. And if that happens to get more corporate sponsors from that generation, or pledges during pledge drive week...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Angry Dead White Men

Oh the bemusing juxtapositions one gets when one's reading list is selected by a three-year old semi-randomly based on the cover. A few weeks ago my little Oprah picked out James A. Garfield by Ira Rutkow ("Look, Daddy, it's Abraham Lincoln!" -- he recognized Garfield from the 'Presidents of the United States' place mat but couldn't quite place him), Orbit by John Nance ("Hey Daddy, it's the space shuttle!"), and Ralph Ellison: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad ("Look! It's Daddy's friend!" referring perhaps to the statue of the Buddha Ellison is posing with on the jacket cover).

The Garfield biography is part of a comprehensive series of biographies of all the Presidents. One of the problems with a project like this is one gives equal shelf space to the administrations of Franklin Roosevelt and William Henry Harrison. You're stuck finding a biographer for all of them, and in Garfield's case, at the second shortest tenure among our chief executives, there's probably a good reason why there's a paucity of biographers. Garfield's chief achievement was to have died a lingering and probably medically unnecessary and excessively painful slow death after being shot by a whacko. So the editors of American Presidents tapped a medical historian to detail Garfield's life, and the result is unsurprisingly weighted a bit towards Garfield's agonizing and fairly disgusting final three months.

Now, being a fan of accounts of strange 19th-century medical practices and obscure Presidents, I have no objection to this, and I did learn a thing or two about the late President. (Disclaimer: as a callow youth in Cleveland, on occasion I was known to have partied on Garfield's grave, as well as frequenting the nearby and then-incredibly-disgustingly-cool collection of lancets, tumors in jars, and other pleasing medical memorabilia at the now sadly-modernized Dittrick Collection, which featured some of the instruments used to "treat" Garfield). Ironically enough, he was a believer in homeopathic medicine, which in the early first-do-no-harm school of thought, would probably have saved Garfield by leaving him the hell alone. But the "heroic" (read: medieval) school of medicine was employed on Garfield, largely because his cabinet made the decision as to which physician to put in charge of him (medical ethics and laws suggest this would not have happened in an earlier and certainly not a later age, when his wife would've made the decisions on this front), and the poking, prodding, and literally horse-manured handling of Garfield's wound in an unnecessary effort to get the assassin's bullet out gave Garfield multiple infections and finally blood-curdlingly (literally, perhaps) painful sepsis. What is especially disturbing is that the work of Dr. Lister concerning sterile environments and germs was well-known, widely practiced in Europe, but misapplied in the US. Comprehensive sterile practice was associated with medicine's younger generation, and in a guild-oriented system where some of the most senior practitioners had little formal medical training by current standards, time-honored practice and precedent was honored and practiced over the considered novelty of empirically-derived medical science. In a time when the scientific method as we understand it was still being developed, for those without an analytical approach to the human body, disease, and so forth, it was difficult to distinguish a genuine breakthrough from faddish quackery. So much the better reason to engage in time-honored quackery instead. So as a "compromise" position, some of the practices of sterile medicine were adopted with an obvious failure to look at the underlying cause and effect. In the specific case of Garfield, the surgeons would douse his wound with alcohol but introduced unsterilized hands and instruments directly into his wounds. And it was the senior (and therefore least knowledgeable) physicians who had charge of the system (and thrall over the US hospital system in general) by the very gravity and importance of the patient. The family were kept in the dark about his condition, the chief physician and the opposing homeopathic family physician fought battles over Garfield's care via the press instead of in medical conference with one another.

As for Garfield, this strikes one as a familiar story: raised by a single mother in poverty, he escapes his hick town through ambition, currying of favor, and natural talent to get to an elite Eastern college (in this case, Williams). In an age of open rapacious capitalism where government was viewed in very limited terms with respect to forging national prosperity but in the most open terms when it came to patronage and personal gain, our hero ascends the ranks through a combination of pluck, greed, good timing and back-slapping charm. Managing to make the most out of an 18-month military career in the civil war that started with a political appointment and ended up with a staff job that lead to a Congressional seat in the middle of the war, Garfield ascends through the ranks of Congress by being utterly affable and fairly unremarkable in terms of taking extremes on any issue. Along the way, he commits not a few infidelities to both spouse and country. He emerges from a brokered convention as a compromise moderate candidate, and takes an utterly corrupt Vice President whom he can't personally stand on as political deal as part of the nomination process. It's the all-American story! Only instead of ending with the puppy licking his face, Garfield ends up getting shot at by a delusional nut job who wanted to become ambassador to France and thought the less than luminary Chester A. Arthur presented a better opportunity than Garfield, who rejected him repeatedly (he was hanged, of course, instead of being committed.)

A couple more odd factlets I learned from this book: despite Lincoln's assassination, Presidents still had very light protection - Garfield walked by himself to the Capital building and various appointments, for example, and the assassin simply read his schedule in the paper and trailed him to the train station. Congressmen typically also picked up extra money as lobbyists in those days, Congressional pay not being enough to support a person in Washington, and Garfield as a practicing lawyer did all sorts of lobbying that would be shocking today (if done above board, at least). There was no revolving door - none necessary, as you could keep your seat in Congress, represent the robber barons, and still be re-elected by landslides because of your alleged war record.

Garfield himself comes across as likeable if arrogant in fairly recognizable ways. One gets the sense that he would've been a competent caretaker President had he survived, which is a favorable contrast to the Peter-Principle incompetence of the Grant and Hayes administrations and the execrable accidental Presidency of Arthur. (It's a sign of how prosperous the country was during the guilded age that the rampant corruption and general mismanagement seemed to have had a negligible effect on the overall commonweal, even if it was an egregious offense to certain segments of society, notably the freed slaves in the post-Reconstruction era.) If he's forgotten, it's probably because he was so much of the type that he wouldn't've been that memorable even had he lived.

One more footnote: I was a bit surprised at the description of the national mourning and keening over Garfield's death. Even if he was well-enough liked, he did not win the Presidency by much of a majority and his election and person still represented division in a country at internal odds with itself. Even his own party was disputation and divided: the nature of this schism in the Republican party played a role in the mindset of his assassin. But then one considers the nature of Garfield's death, played out by hourly telegraph bulletins and in broadsheets over an extended period. The media hasn't changed much here, either, considering the coverage of celebrity deaths and cute missing persons in exotic locations. If Garfield weren't as well loved as the noting of his passing might have indicated, people had come to believe he was. Which is why there's a gigantic honking memorial tomb of him in Cleveland, and why nobody remembers who he was otherwise.

Orbit had all the earmarks of the kind of brain candy I normally find very amusing: an everyman hero who wins a trip into space on a private spaceship and who, after a freak accident kills the pilot, finds himself alone and on his own in orbit around earth with a broken spaceship and only five days of oxygen. It's the kind of story that Robert Heinlein should've written in the 30s or at least in his boy-science-fiction phase in the 50s. Alas, Orbit's hero isn't a plunky 12 year old but a middle-aged white guy on his second bad marriage, disrespected by his haraden of a wife and blamed by his eldest son for the untimely death of his psychologically unbalanced first wife, living vicariously while drudging away at a meaningless if well paid white collar job for the pharma industry and lusting secretly at the hottie PR director of the private space tourist company (who of course lusts after him, too). This wouldn't quite make it one of the worst, most self-indulgent pieces of crap I've ever read, but the implausible, techincally dubious, and extremely unsympathetic schtick that follows does. See, our hero, Kip, who is presented as a man of action, decides to write up his biography-cum-theory-of-life into the laptop that functions on the spacecraft, for the benefit of future generations fifty years hence when his body and the ship just might be recovered. The theory here is that no man is as free with his thoughts as the dying man, in this case literally free of the constraints of society, not even to mention gravity. Even though all his communications have been blacked out by the space junk impact that killed the pilot (but conveniently left the life support system and the laptop intact), there's one of those "backdoors" the author apparently read about (probably in the same report that Senator Stevens used to describe the giant Tubes on the Internet), linked up to a downlink that works but can only transmit information one way (are you following?) So what Kip thinks he's writing for posterity is actually being scrolled real-time on the internet thanks to an intrepid hacker-boy. Kip's honest truth-telling makes him an instant worldwide celebrity, and his screeds representing the poor oppression of upper class white guys in America become the inspiration for millions of ungrateful teenage boys to start respecting their dads, millions more uptight biatches of wives to start putting out for their husbands again, and for America to regain its faith in the promise of technological space over pussy-domestic politics as the true measure of its national masculinity. Oh, and then after he's spent five days spieling to the world, he suddenly figures out how to fix the spacecraft and land it all by himself, against all odds, of course, so he can return to earth and teach his eldest son how to flyfish, divorce that bitch of a wife he has, and swap fluids with the pliant PR director who's never really met a 44-year old man quite like Kip. While one might argue, in a different universe, how the abstractions of fiction, particularly putatively science fiction, ought not to be confused with autobiography, I'm fairly certain about how John Nance feels about issues such as the Carter Presidency (America's limp-wrist), Ginger vs. Marianne (Ginger), Don Imus vs. Larry King (Imus is a hoot, King's a long-winded bag of gas), government bureacrats (agin' 'em!), brave-hearted venture capitalists (for 'em!), and a number of other rather extradiagetic matters of zero national or fictional concern. To give credit where credit is due, the plotting at least had me reading to the end to find out the ultimate-if-predictable fate of our truthtelling hero. The theme of this book seems to be: if there's one segment of society that's ignored, it's the high-income middle-aged white male in the middle of the military-industrial complex. I would go so far as to say most self-published books are better at providing new voices.

Speaking of familiar stories voiced by the over-voiced, here's a familiar tale. Brilliant but misunderstood young man raised in poverty by a single mother knows he is an artist and is certainly smarter than everybody else around him and yearns to get out of his backwater provincial hometown. Thinking himself to be a great musician but torn between jazz and classical music (as represented by two very different teachers), he yearns to go to an elite educational institution where at long last people will understand him. Through hard work and perseverance, not even to mention quite a bit of talent, arrogance, ambition, and personal appeal, he manages to get to said college...only to arrive and find it to be a place of petty academic politics, anti-intellectualism, sexual hypocrisy, and tight-fisted failure to recognize his genius at whatever it is he might be doing. He sticks with it for years, miserable, and finally drops out to go to the big city -- New York City -- in order to make it big as an artist, except now he's decided he's a sculptor, not a musician. Eagerly falling in to the cocktail-party circuit of left-wing politics, he becomes a radical and accumulates a blue collar resume of short-term dead-end jobs even while becoming the darling of a certain segment of the radicals for what he represents much more so than who he actually is. Along the way he marries a fireplug, a woman with talents and ambitions that exceed his own, a relationship that of course falls apart under the weight of his own ego. Finally deciding that he's a novelist, not a sculptor or musician, he embarks upon a seven-year struggle to write the Great American Novel. Oddly, his talent and ambition and pretension and strange combination of self-taught mythology, literary criticism, and sweeping class history of the country actually produce something close to the Great American Novel. Parts of it leak out. Even as he's eating stale macaroni and cheese and fighting periods of homelessness, hints of its genius sweep across literary circles, and he is encouraged and then supported by a series of benefactors and foundations to finish the novel. Given a hefty advance, he then finds his perfectionism won't allow him to finish the book. He finds numerous ways to procrastinate when the writing, which doesn't come easy, doesn't go well: he takes up photography, he builds his own amplifiers at home, he obssessively makes coffee according to an exacting procedure. He seeks a teaching job only to reject it when it's offered to him. Years drag on as he works and reworks it under the respectful and supportive eye of his abused second-wife, who never will get the credit she deserves in the great book that follows. Along the way, the hero does a political one eighty and becomes a strong advocate of a progressive but mainstreaming approach to society's gravest ills. Finally the book gets published, not just to great acclaim, but to international acclaim. It's banned in Ireland and Boston as obscene, blamed for riots and the downfall of America's youth, while simultaneously being proclaimed as the voice of his people and generation by everybody except his people and generation. He wins prized and awards and becomes a sought-after board member, foundation director, guest commentator, lecturer, interviewee, et alia.

And there's the rub. He then spends the next four decades praised for his seminal first work, and completely unable to finish his second. Shades of the Great American Novel about Writing the Second Great American Novel (cf. Michael Chabon and Wonderboys, Richard Russo and Straight Man, etc.) His very success makes him the target for attack as a new generation of young writers comes along and attacks the bourgeois nature of the writer. As the years wear on, the accolades continue, as do the one-year teaching appointments, the special fellowships, the lecture appointments, even as his audience begins to wonder if he's really working on a second book after all. Is he blocked? Does he have the writer's affliction? No! He's working on a novel, after all -- and it's 2000 pages and counting and there's no end of it in sight. He ends his days surrounded by his manuscript, supported by his long-suffering wife, with prizes aplenty but an uncertain legacy.

OK, so this sounds not unlike the Bret Easton Ellis story thus far. But because it's Ralph Ellison's life, you have to introduce the fact Ellison was black, born into the worst era of Jim Crow and to what some consider to be the golden age of the American intellectual. The story is quite a bit more complicated as a result.

Still, the Ralph Ellison story can be told very simply in two acts: boy spends the first half of his life writing his first novel; spends the second half of his life not finishing his second novel. Part of Ellison's fascination for me has been this very fact that he managed to get one great novel out but tanked on another. Harper Lee (whether or not she actually wrote To Kill a Mockingbird is beside the point, perhaps), another case in point, seems not to have even tried. Ellison, having struggled to write a strangely beatnik book (IMHO) that is a funny and kind of surreal ride, was determined to write a topper. I'm actually fairly convinced that he had just made up his mind he was an Intellectual and a Novelist, having a thin skin and a huge ego, and was stuck living that out (shades of Vonnegut's dictum about we become that which we pretend to be.) Ellison, but all these accounts, was quite a brilliant thinker in his way but also thoroughly addicted to the canon, for better or worse. I've never read anything he wrote except Invisible Man and an excerpt of Juneteenth, which itself is a posthumously-edited excerpt of the 2000+ page unfinished second novel. What I did read in this biography seems distinctly of its time; a period when criticism was perhaps unduly respected, an attitude that resulted in a highly constructed novel but (to me at least) pretty stale non-fiction. God, what a name-dropper of a biography this is: every literary light of the mid-20th century in America (the alleged golden age of America's novel) is here someplace. Ellison's buddies with John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, the protege and then opponent of Richard Wright, the employee of Langston Hughes, the dinner mate of TS Eliot (whom he worshipped, but who probably loathed Ellison if he thought of him at all), and so on all the way up to Toni Morrison.

The kind of ur-tragedy of Ellison's life is his identification as a "black" writer (then: Negro; now: African-American). From what one gleans of Ellison's basic character, he would have done much better to have been born in a time where he would've simply been an American writer, or a writer, period. As such, with the racially-tinged and pseudo-autobiographical flavor of Invisible Man defining him, more was read into Ellison as a black writer than he was perhaps naturally willing to express on his own behalf. He struggled for a theme and a plot even for his first novel, practically taking notes from his wide reading, lectures he attended, dinner party conversations, and so forth. He had more natural love for Melville and Joyce and Eliot than for the writers he gets associated with in survey classes. Speaking as someone who read Ellison during the same summer I devoured William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and discovered PK Dick, taken on face value I'd lump Invisible Manmore in that line than with Black Boy just on the experience of this reader. Of course, what one brings into reading a book in terms of life experience and cultural baggage has much to do with how one reads it, and the fact that, say, Burroughs and Kerouac are practically the only 20th century writers not dragged into this biography perhaps speaks to my bias here.

I have the distinct impression that had Ellison been born, say, fifty years later, he'd've ended up a perfectly well-liked and respected but obscure professor of English someplace, teaching Mark Twain and Jane Austen. If he'd been born, say, fifty years earlier it's unlikely he would've achieved what he did. He managed to squeeze a considerably articulate talent, if overly ambitious and, dare I say it, lazy one, into a window where because he was born African-American in the society he was born into, produced a life that was at once burdensome and strangely easy. To be brutal about it, one gets the impression that Ellison spent the last forty years of his life riding on his laurels -- which consist of one book -- at perhaps the only time in history when one could've gotten away with it. To take nothing away from his talents as a critic and lecturer and teacher, which no doubt were considerable. But it's equally hard to imagine the talented author of a single book today, regardless of his ethnicity, cultural background, or other descriptive characteristic, being able to make a career out of one book.

I dislike the biography-as-criticism. I read biography to live another person's life vicariously, and in turn, one hopes, to apply that to my own life, or at least be entertained by it, or at least to learn more about the times and life closed off to me. The problem with this book, or perhaps Ellison's life, is that I'm fundamentally uninterested in the fact that Ellison paid $10 to have his windows washed in 1954 or that a lot of his colleagues were sleeping with one another at the American Academy in Rome or that NYU had a mandatory retirement policy. It's a comprehensive biography, very scholarly, but after slogging through all 700+ pages I'm still left wondering at the essential question of Ralph Ellison's life, which to me is the second act. I find it unremarkable in a way that a talent such as his rose to the top despite the odds; I do find it remarkable that, if he really did think of himself as a novelist, he couldn't pull the trigger again, and mysteriously tragic that he couldn't reinvent himself otherwise except in the rather mainstream way he did.

Invisible Man: that was the book we didn't read in the "books by black authors that show up on the reading lists" back in school in the 70s. There's too much sexual content, strangely confusing and anachronistic racial commentary, bizarre imagery for a high school teacher (at least back then) to be able to accommodate. We got Black Boy (instead of, say, Native Son) and Mockingbird and maybe a little selected Maya Angelou because they lent themselves to teacher's guides, and fit into the then- (and possible still-) fashionable approach of solving the problem of the traditional canon by simply adding authors on to the traditional reading list and dropping out a few of the more boring and mostly dead white guys that had padded it out. Invisible is a more challenging book not the least because it's not really autobiography so much as a filter of Ellison's biography, and there's more meat to it in the long run, even if there's a lot more baggage to riffle through as well. That Ellison started out a Communist and ended up about as bourgeois as they come is another subtext one can read in the book, the fulcrum of his life, if we were going to stoop to reading subtexts. I still can't decide if Ellison was a talent that had to be wrung hard, or an opportunist, but in keeping with my self-professed attitude towards biographies, maybe I should just abandon Ellison the man and re-read Invisible Man. Literary biography, after all, isn't dessert, it's not even sauce, it's more of a place setting -- salad fork? -- that may be completely unnecessary if one has finger food and a ravenous appetite, not even to mention little regard for making a mess of one's face.

Monday, August 06, 2007

You Don't Love Me Yet

Jonathan Lethem, 2006

Two things:

  1. OK, here's how it goes. Fiction itself is probably 10,000 years old, since the first story embellishment took place around a hunting campfire. Written verse is half that old, and the novel is only a couple of hundred years old and may or may not itself be dying out (pity the poor best-selling poets of yore). Music follows a somewhat parallel history, with written music being even younger than written fiction, the "group" being hundreds of years old, and the rock group only fifty or sixty years old (although you could make a case the "combo" is older yet.) There hasn't been a huge amount of time to digest the two forms and see what can be done with them in the salad dressing bottle of art (although each may be more fleeting than we suspect, so time's a wastin'). So if you ask me a question about whether you should dance about architecture, I say, go ahead, just because it appears to be an impossible task doesn't mean it can't be done. And thus we come to the question of writers trying to capture the rock group on paper, which without the benefit of audio would seem to require some extremely special gifts. (One notes parenthetically that the number of really good movies about rock groups (real or fictive), which have the benefit of being able to provide audiated audio instead of merely imagined audio, is an extremely small number.) The writer being afflicted as she or he is by attention to language, in such a work the lyrics of songs immediately begin to take an importance outsized with their actual importance in the viscera of a rock band. The factorialized relationships possible with a nice little four- or five-person group certainly make for a tantalizing challenge for the novelist, and one would hope that this multi-faceted aspect of the life of a group -- a hydra of a social construct well beyond the merely binary complexities (even if serially) of, say, a romance -- would eventually attract some kind of interesting narrative approach. There's basically one point of view and one hero in this particular book (Lucinda), and along with the aforementioned handicap concerning lyrics, I am going to have to say nice try, but no cigar. As I said earlier, dancing about architecture isn't necessarily a bad thing, anyway. I'm still waiting; maybe something I should take a stab at so I can fall on my own sword (having done so with an axe back in the days of my own apprenticeship.)
  2. I thought the character of the kangaroo was uncharacteristically underdeveloped.

Friday, June 08, 2007

The End of the End of The Sopranos

So, in full disclosure mode, I'm not much of a Sopranos fan in that I've only seen season 1 and parts of season 2, thanks to the spottiness of "free HBO weekends" on my satellite provider and a general ennui with television phenomena. While I can't say as I was a bowled over as most TV critics apparently are/were by the saga, I have enjoyed the show when I've seen it largely for its tongue-in-cheek qualities.

However, with the Grand Finale coming up this Sunday -- I would've missed that, too, had it not been for articles in every paper in the country the last few weeks, although of course I'll miss the actual finale, too, since this most assuredly is not a Free HBO weekend -- I will speak from the gentle ignorance of not having seen seasons 3-7 (and half of season 2, as long as I'm doing something else on Bravo repeat nights, you freakin' mother-crunchin' bowdlerizers). Somehow I don't think this will be much of a handicap.

As I understand it, Tony Soprano is supposed to be our modern Shakespearean anti-hero King, a bit of Lear and Macbeth and an inside joke nod to Michael Corleone. Be that as it may, it has always seemed to me like the fact that the dude is in therapy is the simultaneous linchpin and MacGuffin of the series. The basic premise of modern psychiatry is: people do have the ability to change their behavior, if not their internal workings. For the latter, with chemistry all things may yet be possible, but psychiatry will inevitably bow to neuroscience in the end, and chemistry isn't quite as sexy as psychiatry (see also Ingrid Bergmann and Gregory Peck, et alia). I don't for the life of me know how they managed to extend the schtick over eight years -- one thinks either the patient or the therapist would've seen the pointlessness of it all at some point. But I still take the basic dilemma as the heart of the show: is Tony a good guy, and if so, can he make himself become a good guy in behavior? Is it a good and evil thing, or love versus fear in the Lynchian reductio?

So, again without the benefit/curse of having seen more than a few dozen episodes, if that, I present my own proposed ending to The Sopranos:

Tony just disappears.

If you really want to provide the twists and thrills and speculation for the audience, you can enhance this disappearance with various possibilities designed to prolong the debate and leave open the possibility for a sequel (or a reunion movie a la Rescue from Gilligan's Isle). The reason for Tony's disappearance? My advice is not to suggest any of these, but all of these.

  • he gets whacked. You can leave open a whole list of who-shot-JR possibilities, ranging from Carmela to Dr. Melfi and every hood in between. (Substitute AJ or Meadow if you want to get all Greek about it.)
  • he gets killed as the random victim of a crime (not shown on screen, merely suggested by circumstance, say, an abandoned SUV). The point, however, might be lost on many.
  • Tony becomes gradually schizophrenic during the last episode, suggesting he might have wandered off to become a crazy person and/or a philosopher-king of the hobos.
  • Tony develops an interest in eastern mysticism and jokes off-handedly about giving it all up to go become a zen monk. Abandoning desire might allow Tony to walk away from having to deal with his own legacy, and it would certainly set up a cool cross-over sequel to Kung Fu.
  • Tony becomes mentally well but is overwhelmed with guilt brought on by a sudden embrace of the catholicism he's claimed to follow. He commits suicide (or becomes suicidal) knowing that by taking his own life he assures his own damnation.
  • Or, he just mismedicates himself now that Dr. Melfi is off the scene and possibly might commit suicide.
  • Space alien abduction. Listen, if half of what I've been reading about the creative team's unconventional approach to Tony is true, alien abduction is not at all out of the question.
  • He just up and leaves to go start over as a citizen someplace, sans Buddhist overtones.
  • Tony just continues on forever.
The perfect way to set this up: you could show Tony in his final scene, say, at the edge of a cliff, with a masked gunman sneaking up behind him, an airline ticket to Tibet in Tony's left hand and a rosary in his left, a spilled bottle of pills at his feet, while a terrorist-hijacked plane plummets from 30,000 feet directly towards Tony and a mysterious glowing light in the sky swells.

I don't mean to be glib. I do think just having the character disappear, without explanation but with many possibilities, is the appropriate way of resolving by not resolving this issue of whether somebody can truly change or not by force of will.

Further, it will put a delicious ambiguity on the end that comes to all. The void left by Tony's disappearance -- one without closure -- will be filled with chaos and will only underscore the decline and fall of the mafia, Tony himself, and the American century. Not even to mention the Paramus Mall.

In any event, simply disappearing at the end of an artfully-planned-to-end saga is the ultimate post-post-modern post-irony ironic touch. After all, in the days when series were simply cancelled, and didn't write themselves out of existence like so many Escher self-portraits, that's what happened to heroes and audiences alike. They were left hanging in limbo, forever, and had to move on to something else with the wonder about what it all meant left deliberately unaddressed. Which, again, would seem to me to be more than a mere metaphor for life on earth.

At least, that's what some poor Media Studies PhD candidate is going to write in a decade or so.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Chorus vs. The Echo Chamber

Forty Signs of Rain
Fifty Degrees Below
Sixty Days and Counting
The Years of Rice and Salt
Kim Stanley Robinson

I've recently finished the 40-50-60 trilogy from Kim Stanley Robinson with the kind of reluctant anticipation of one who was given a paperback of the first book without foreknowledge that it was part of a set. In the particular instance, the three books are very much on the installment plan, with a dramatic pause of sorts separating one from two and two from three, but without much in the way of plot resolution.

Therein lies the rub, the pebble in the shoe of the author who is trying to make an entertaining infonovel on a Really Big issue that just happens to have science as its theme and scientists as its heroes (OK, a couple of scientiests, a Dalai Lama figure or two, and a politician who is married to a scientist and who really wants to be a scientist if only he weren't such a political guy who was devoted to being a stay at home dad). I'm a fan of fiction about science, which isn't at all the same thing as science fiction either by genre conventions or topic matter, but it may be one of those genres whose oxymoronic characteristic prevent the authoring of even a single decent book. It's as if one took a longish New Yorker article on a scientific topic and tried to jazz it up with some fictionalized characters.

The 40-50-60 trilogy really revolves around Frank Vanderwal, a sociobiologist who has been tempted by fate and misfortune away from his beloved SoCal to Washington DC to work for the National Science Foundation. Without giving away the main plot point -- OK, here it is, Global Warming is REAL and upon us, you forced it out of me -- let's just say it's hard to work in a lot of action hero adventurism in the Michael Crichton right-winger mode for a thoughtful nuanced middle-aged geek. Not that Robinson doesn't try: he lets Frank become a wild homeless man by day, White House aide by night, wielding a prehistoric home for self-defense while plotting out massive global interventions to save humanity from its own bad self. (The positive glorification of homelessness as the ultimate low-carbon lifestyle in an industrialized society is one of the more bizarrre bits of wish-fulfillment in this alternatively apocalyptic and hopelessly optimistic saga.) Throw in a mystery woman fighting deep dark secret spook agencies set to steal elections on behalf of big oil Republicans who, yes, becomes instantly attracted to him for an attempt at a sort of 'Enemy of the State' contrapunto, you've got the 21st Century Action Man science hero guy.

I should say parenthetically that the character I identified most with was Charlie, the stay at home Dad who really didn't want to go back to work, although in his case his boss ends up being President of the United States and forces his hand, and his child may be the reincarnation of a Tibetan Lama. You think you have problems balancing work and home, eh? Ha!

So the long and short of this is it's more or less a failure as a dramatic novel -- way too wordy and heavy on exegesis of the whole the planet is in serious trouble now stuff. But as agitprop, I proclaim it a success, since it was just entertaining enough and the characters compelling enough to convince me to get to the end of the trilogy, and at the end while I was annoyed with all the happy endings and sunsets (literally) for the charactrs I was, in fact, panicked about global warming and hypersensitive for weeks on end about my own carbon footprint. Such that I am left grasping at whether some energy-efficient light bulbs and their noxious mercury waste are in balance better than my seasonal-affective-disorder-friendly incandescents. At least, I'm remembering to turn off unused lights more frequently after reading it. So, job well done, Mr. Robinson.

Between installments of 40-50-60, though, I read the award-winning (tm) Years of Rice and Salt, in which Robinson re-encapsulates the entire history of science via an alternative history device, to whit, the entire race and culture of Western Europe is wiped off the map by the great plague of the 14th century, never to return. Instead, Muslim and Chinese civilizations expand, fettered only by a temporarily-reprieved and therefore not-entirely-weakened Native American unified society and a science-loving subcontinental culture that has a sort of Wilsonian foreign policy even while being the weakest of the major powers. So you try re-telling 800 years of history, from 1350 to the mid-21st century. What I like about this book is the challenge the author took upon himself, to use consistent characters in each re-imagined alternative historical period, from medieval Aristotileans discovering monastically-transcribed texts to a faux renaissance to a double-enlightenment to a parallel universe Union of Concerned Scientists that actually manages to quash the bomb before the Manhattan Project gets off the ground. How does he have the same cast of characters through all these years? Why, reincarnation, of course! Each episode is separated by a little bumper of life in the bardo, as the characters come together to try to figure out how they screwed up this time on the great cosmic wheel. Part of the fun is in deciphering the characters in each incarnation/chapter of the book, as the clues are only provided by the actions of the characters themselves (who change sex, status, role in the story, etc. from chapter to chapter along with their names). It's a great writer's workshop kind of exercise, and at the same time the liberating aspect of alternative history -- one can research what one wants, and make up the rest if one feels like it -- makes it easy to get resolution for each character. Since they all die in the end -- that is, the end of every single chapter -- you get all that sequelitis taken care of at once, as well as the importance of adding resolution to the characters' lives for the reader. Oh, sure, you get sort of shallow characters as a result, and the MacGuffin of the Removal of Western Civilization from the History of the world becomes less of a lesson in multicultural education than it does a description of the universalism of the rotten parts of human character. But that said, it made for a good yarn in only one volume in a way that 40-50-60 did not in three tomes.

Anyway, more power to Mr. Robinson. Michael Crichton can't even be bothered to get his science straight these days, if he ever could, even if he magically convinces the allegedly liberal Hollywood establishment to make his books into movies, which are, after all, the main vehicle for agitprop, anyway. That's always the problem with liberal science fiction, or fiction of any sort: to be a reader these days, you already have to have a somewhat flexible approach to the world, that is to say, adaptive, and on that score no matter what the literary accomplishment, it's preaching to the choir.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A Brief History of The Brief History of the Dead

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier (2005)
  1. A vague third-hand understanding of various ancestor-worshipping cultures' understanding of the idea that there are two levels of the after-life, one where we go as long as somebody on earth remembers us and which resembles this world, the other completely unknown.
  2. An even vaguer understanding of the paradoxes of modern scientific cosmology which hold that consciousness itself actually really does direct certain aspects of reality.
  3. A classic dualism of two stories seemingly unrelated, one of the "first" afterworld as it quickly empties out following the mass extinction of the human species from a modern pandemic pathogen, the other of the one surviving human on earth who is the common link between all those who 'survive' in the first afterworld.
  4. An incredibly spunky female protagonist as the last-person-on-earth, fighting for survival in the antarctic winter while she fights to discover what's happened to the world.
  5. Borrowing some of the structures of science fiction (global warming, genetic revolutions, near-future internet, etc.) to give it that certain sense of future-surreal near-truthiness; mixing in satiric references to the poisonous influence of corporate culture instantiated in the Coca-Cola Corporation.
  6. Structurally predictable unfolding of the interconnectedness of humans through the lens of this one person, as seen through the discovery by the Undead Dead of the single thread holding them together -- in existence -- in the spunky heroine.
  7. Narrative which finally gives away to two chapters of imagistic writing, of course encompassing the death of the heroine and the end of life and consciousness as we know it. This brave choice precludes this book from ever being made into a mainstream Hollywood movie, and thus earns the respect of respected respectable literary critics everywhere.
  8. A Magritte-esque front cover which seems to be profound but actually could've been on the cover of a 45 RPM new wave record if the aspect had been square and not rectangular.
  9. 251 pages plus one paragraph, close to the publisher's ideal of 250, to ensure said respectable respected persons will actually read to the end.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Selling the Iraq War, the Jingle

If it says Libby, Libby, Libby
On the libel, libel, libel
You can swear it, swear it, swear it
On your Bible, Bible, Bible
Cause Karl wanted to sell the
War on Babel, Babel, Babel
Although double you em dees were
never on the table, table, table
And that Rove now laughs his ass at
the jokey, jokey, jokey
That it's Libby, Libby, Libby,
In the pokey, pokey, pokey
That's why Libby, Libby, Libby
Made the libel, libel, libel,
Now that Sunnis and the Shiites all
are tribal, tribal, tribal
And Scooter, Scooter, Scooter, is still more
liable, liable, liable
to be home sooner, sooner, sooner,
Than our US troops are able, able, able.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Now That's Treason!

Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America, by Evan Carton (2006)

I confess that, prior to reading this book, I had the popular image of John Brown in my mind of a half-crazed religious zealot who had the right cause (the abolition of slavery) and the wrong technique (half-cocked schemes of violent revolution starting with a raid on Harper's Ferry's federal armory to arm the thousands of non-existent converts to his cause). This book takes a mildly sympathetic look at Brown with more than a little contemporary revisionist intent on its mind, in particular the whole issue about what constitutes patriotism or treason. The abstract philosophical issue -- which Brown clearly would've loved to debate today, since he sponsored home debates among his friends and family on a nearly nightly basis for much of his adult life -- centers on whether it's treason or patriotism to defy one's government in order to live up to the actual ideals it espouses.

In Brown's particular case, it is an act of uncivil disobedience, if you will, that stands out. While Thoreau, for instance, might've been willing to spend a night in jail because he wasn't willing to pay a poll tax to support the Mexican War, you didn't see Henry David out there smacking down the saber-rattlers directly. Brown had few compunctions about engaging in armed uprising against the national government because it wasn't living up to the 'all men are created equal' proposition in its founding document.

I remain unconvinced that Brown's actions were a cassus belli that helped radicalize the Southern reaction towards secession that wouldn't've happened otherwise. He may have been a bolus around which separatist factions, North and South, rallied their talking points, but there's nothing compelling in either his biography or the penumbra of events around the 1859 raid that suggests the civil war was avoidable. The irreconciliable difference was one of political power, in that the minority population, the Southern states, felt the nature of federalism required the Northern states to respect their own laws about slaves. This effectively, after Dred Scott, meant that no black person, anywhere in the United States, was effectively outside of the bounds of slavery. Slave catchers could go anywhere they wanted, and without habeas corpus being extended to free blacks in the North, it effectively meant everyone was at risk merely due to the color of their skin. Northern States actually had the 'States Rights' issue on their side, when it came down to it, in that they did not want to extradite or aid in the re-enslavement of blacks within their borders. (Imagine if you will that Georgia decides to make homosexuality illegal, and starts extraditing sodomites from New York City and San Francisco. The governments of New York State and California would be put in a difficult position.) The precipitating causes were the events in the 1850s where a minority of Americans managed to take control of the Senate, and the Presidency for the most part, in order to keep the possibility of reconciliation of these laws in the favor of manumission off the table. It was, in short, a conservative and reactionary revolution that created the Confederacy, one where a minority wasn't willing to recognize an election that conformed to the Constitution and laws of the United States because it did not want to lose the instruments of power. Brown was a violent man, in the end, in a decade of violence, but his only uniqueness was that he was a Northern Liberal. Southern Conservatives had engaged in violence repeatedly, starting with slavery itself, extending to the bleeding Kansas mini-civil war of the mid 1850s, and to the infamous affair when a southern congressman, Preston Brooks, nearly beat a Massachussets Senator, Charles Sumner, to death on the floor of the Senate -- with impunity. In an era of violence of this sort, with Southern culture deeply tied to a martial tradition, war was the inevitable result of the inherent conflict over slavery.

Brown's symbolic value to the north, in the end, is he was the Christian who wouldn't turn the other cheek. While the William Lloyd Garrisons argued for a path of non-violent political engagement, not unlike the methods of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., Brown acted directly. He acted directly personally, in that, rather remarkably for the time even among Northern liberals, he mixed freely with African-Americans and seemed to genuinely regard them as equals (something 99% of the rest of the white population did not, whether or not they believed in slavery) and did so without condescension (something the remaining 1% did not do). But here was a guy who was willing to fight back. His fatal flaw, very ironically, was that he wasn't really familiar enough with the nature of slavery to understand that merely being called to revolt wasn't enough for most enslaved persons to be able to revolt. When slaves revolt, failure is always fatal. People are willing to give their lives for principles of freedom, but they're unwilling to flush them away if achieving those principles is impossible.

In the end, Brown as a symbol of a person willing to die for the principle may have been the more important rallying cry to the North once hostilities opened up in 1861. Having a model, a martyr, however misguided, can provide courage in odd ways.

What I find interesting about Brown, though, is the way he came to be a revolutionary. Revolutionary he was: prior to launching the Harper's Ferry raid he drafted a detailed "provisional" constitution, albeit one that forbade rebellion against the existing governments, except where they allowed slavery. It was an oxymoron to be sure, but one that was premised on adherence to the 'founding principles'. That he used terrorist tactics -- outright murder of political opponents among the civilian population -- in the case of the Kansas war, makes him no different from most other revolutionaries, successful or unsuccessful. What he was after was a toppling of the regime that allowed slavery, and to him the shortest path was to have the slaves themselves, like Toussaint L'Overture did in Haiti, lead the way.

The path to this moment, as I say, is the really interesting thing, and one in which this book sheds no additional light. It does rather extensively cover the entire long span of Brown's life, which was largely peaceful if increasingly radical. His own family, fanatically loyal to his anti-slavery vision, mostly drifted away from the old time religion, so the religious fanatic explanation of Brown's conversion to violence holds little water. Brown runs slaves through the underground railroad early on in his adult life, but seems easily distracted into worldly affairs, particularly when his business ventures falter. He continues to see his life as having a calling to the anti-slavery cause, but his methods seem to him increasingly beside the point. He's unafraid of confrontation, but also a utopian, which is what brings him and his family to Kansas in the first place, to stand with the free soilers from New England who were attempting to out-colonize the place prior to self-determination on the subject of slavery. But without violence against him personally, what motivated Brown to orchestrate the infamous Pottawottamie Massacure, a mass-killing of five pro-slavery neighbors (who had, not incidentally, threatened to kill Brown and his family repeatedly) in a pre-meditated, cold-blooded, and particularly gruesome manner? Brown's pre-emptive strike there almost certainly forced fencesitters to choose up sides in the Kansas dispute, which may have been his intention. And once bloodied, he became a part-time but mildly effective guerilla leader on a quite tiny scale by comparison to any other revolutionary struggle or the civil war itself. He crossed his own rubicon to embrace violence as a means to an end, perhaps helping others to that same conclusion, but the moment at which he went from being an advocate to a violent revolutionary remains a strange one. He was not a man given to dueling, fistfights, or even unfriendly argumentation. He was not this crazy guy that history tends to portray him as in the one-paragraph summaries in high school textbooks (the reasons for that could fill a volume unto itself). He was a rational person who, finally confronting an abominablly irrational institution, let slip the dogs of war from within himself.

If you side with John Brown's tactics, you may also side with the people who kill abortion doctors. That's the problem of the logic that preventing a greater violence justifies a lesser violence. (That is also the problem with the logic of the death penalty, of course.) One is left floundering at what just causes are, and the degree to which they merit violent reaction.

But I also cautiously am reminded that when violence is used, and the political process subverted -- as was the case in Kansas, as was the general case with slavery becoming reinstitutionalized in the 1850s in a way that threatened to grow it, make it permanent, and transform the country politically -- the Brown reaction is almost certainly inevitable. The cycle of violence in Iraq is certainly an example. Most revolutionary movements have some kind of celebrated massacre of the innocents on their calendar: the casbah killings in Algeria, the Odessa steps in Russia, the Boston Massacre in the US, to name but a few. I'm sadly ignorant of Iraqi internal history to know if there's a single incident of similar import in the current civil war, but once the revenge killings start, it's almost immaterial.

What really is treason, of course, is stifling peaceful political debate -- done so much in recent years by calling that treason. It's the peaceful debate, engagement, and inclusive negotiation that prevents treason from ever taking place. Brown, the master debater, was wasted on political violence. As are we all. But let the discussion continue.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

My Country, Wrong or Wronger

Stephen Decatur: American Naval Hero, 1779-1820, by Robert J. Allison

Among the spate of recent Decatur biographies, this volume stands out. Decatur's biography is swashbuckling stuff, to be sure, easy on the merit of the facts to make into a compelling story. But intricately, often subtly, woven into this book is the story of America moving from revolution to a budding empire, from underdog barely surviving in a dangerous world to conqueror, from a nation obsessed with concepts of honor and hot violence to one of commerce and enterprise. Of particular interest in the sad tale of Decatur's ultimate demise by the hand of a fellow officer is the intricate personal politics of the time, that both created the myth of the individual hero on which Decatur's reputation rests and the ascendancy of the organization, in this case the United States Navy, as having life and supremacy over the mere invididual. On this last matter, the often-overlooked contributions of Decatur towards professionalizing the Navy, assuring its subservience to civilian control -- this at a time when rumors of military coups abounded, and when the great fear of a standing Navy was its potential role in toppling the Republic -- and helping guide the administration of the service are presented ably by the author. (One cute story is that of the original 'pork barrel' politics and corrupt defense contractors -- who supplied bad pg meat from the interior of the country as part of a deal to help provide multi-state political support for the blue-water Navy.)

Of particular current interest is the treatment of Decatur's involvement with the Tripolitan states -- America's first wars with Islamic states, from 1803 to 1815. The role of Decatur in the Navy's expeditions against what are now Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia are essential in understanding the historical context of the use of American force in that region, as are the political and economic currents that produced the reasons for our involvement.

The words for which Decatur is dimly remembered by the general population -- frequently misquoted as 'My Country, right or wrong!' were more precisely, a toast: 'In her intercourse with foreign natons, may she always be right; and always successful, right or wrong.' Decatur uttered these words in the context of the nearly-disastrous War of 1812, which saw the country closely divided over its declaration, then invaded, rent by political decisions concerning the conduct of the war, and then nearly divided by a late secessionist movement that would have sought a separate peace. Decatur was no polished orator, and his intention in the context of his experience seems to have been to make the case that, it being far easier to deal with the world from a position of victory and superiority, there is no substitution for preparedness and planning. The author puts this sobriquet in further relief by quoting the opposing contemporary viewpoint, in the person of John Quincy Adams, then an experienced diplomat some years away from the Presidency, who wrote to his father, the former President, "I cannot ask of Heaven success, even for my country, in a cause where she should be in the wrong. I disclaim as unsound all patriotism incompatible with the principles of eternal justice. But the truth is that the American union, while united, may be certain of success in every rightful cause, and may if it pleases never have any but a rifghtful cause to maintain." The debate between these two views of our national conduct and security continues to this day, of course.

The ugly irony of Decatur's death by duel with a fellow officer over a matter of "honor" was that it was no such thing, involving no substantial issue of "right or wrong" but merely the perceived issues of status and career. It is a sad rhyme that such a distinguished American's ability to contribute to our national defense and conversation about the nature of security in a free Republic came to a violent and wholly unnecessary end.