Fascism for Beginners, Part 3: Torpor

Our local public television station has been airing two excellent films lately, both related to fascist politics. One of them is the 1962 version of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, about American P.O.W.s hypnotized by Reds during the Korean War. There’s much more to this brilliant movie, but if you haven’t already seen it, I won’t divulge the plot.

The other movie is JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG. It’s loosely based on fact, and it concerns the post-WWII trial of four German judges who, under the tent of Nazism, helped carry out a sterilization program and sentenced innocent people to death.

One of the judges is a rabid Nazi who shows no remorse. Two of the judges are weak and confused. But the fourth judge, “Ernst Janning,” is a tragic figure.

Highly intelligent, respected both inside and outside of Germany for his judicial knowledge, Janning is a man of great ideals who holds himself above his less enlightened peers. But during the Hitler years, he slowly and inexorably became corrupted. He despises what the Nazis did, but he also despises himself. He is tormented by the knowledge that, because of his actions, he’s turned his entire life into “excrement.”

The defense attorney wages an admirable but futile battle to exonerate Janning, who is a hero of his. At one point, American prosecutors show film footage of liberation of the concentration camps (this is actual footage, and it’s not for the squeamish). The defense attorney becomes so desperate, he tries to justify the judges’ actions by blaming other nations and individuals for Germany’s descent into barbarism.

I’d like to briefly discuss these accomplices, who also figure largely in William Shirer’s book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Joseph Stalin

Russia: In April 1945, the first troops to enter bombed-out Berlin were the Russians, hated by both Hitler and the Western democracies (Joseph Stalin was as fascistic as Hitler or Mussolini, just a different political stripe). Had not the Russians repelled German forces at Stalingrad in 1942-43 – maybe the bloodiest confrontation in the history of man – the war would have had a different outcome. But in August 1939, Hitler and Stalin had signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact. This treaty enabled the two dictatorships to mutually carve up Poland and Eastern Europe.

Stalin was as brutal, cunning, and power-obsessed as Hitler. He just didn’t share Hitler’s pathological theories on race. Stalin’s great mistake was that, like so many others, he trusted Hitler. But Hitler despised Communism almost as much as Judaism, and he ridiculed the Pact from the moment it was signed. Thus, it wasn’t surprising when, against his top generals’ advice, Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941. Stalin’s uncharacteristic coziness with Hitler during the Pact allowed the Germans to build their military and expand their territory for a period of two long years.

The result: hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, Jews, Bolsheviks, and resistance fighters in the East were ultimately rounded up and exterminated by Nazi Einsatzgruppen.

Nazi “Einsatzgruppen” executing a Ukrainian Jewish mother and her child (whom she’s clutching to her chest). This 1942 photo was never intended for distribution, but was somehow smuggled outside the Nazi sphere.

France: France had an opportunity to stop Hitler early on. On March 7, 1936, German forces illegally broke the 1925 Locarno Treaty and entered the demilitarized zone in the French Rhineland. Author Shirer was present when Hitler made the announcement to the German Reichstag, and recorded in his diary the disgusting scene that follows:

All the militarism in their German blood surges to their heads… Their hands are raised in slavish salute, their faces now contorted with hysteria, their mouths wide open, shouting, shouting, their eyes, burning with fanaticism, glued on the new god, the Messiah.

Had the French stood up to this blatant act of aggression, it would have rendered Hitler weak and unreliable in the eyes of Germans, and possibly shortened the reign of the Third Reich. In 1936, the German army was not the juggernaut it later became. Additionally, army Commander-in-Chief Werner von Blomberg had already decided on retreat in case of French countermeasures. But France had been devastated by the previous war and was “paralyzed by internal strife” and “sinking into defeatism.” Hitler’s military coup in the Rhineland set the stage for similar maneuvers in Austria and Czechoslovakia, and ultimately the invasion of Poland.

Neville Chamberlain

Great Britain: under the terms of the Locarno Treaty, Great Britain was obligated to assist France after Germany’s invasion of the Rhineland. Instead, it incomprehensibly believed Hitler when he assured the European democracies that he only desired peace, and that his actions weren’t hostile. Then, in 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain brokered with Hitler the Munich Agreement, which allowed Germany to annex parts of Czechoslovakia (this after allowing the Nazis to force an Anschluss and annex Austria, creating a “Greater (Nazi) Germany”).

Chamberlain’s continued appeasement of Hitler was greeted with huge approval by British citizens and Parliament, since it prevented outright war (although succeeding Prime Minister Winston Churchill remained highly critical). In reality, it merely delayed the inevitable, for it permitted Germany to strengthen its armed forces and opened the door for Hitler to invade Poland, which officially started World War II. Soon, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France also toppled to the Germans.

Many of those same British who applauded the Munich Agreement would soon be huddling in bomb shelters while the German Luftwaffe roared overhead.

***

There’s one other “accomplice” I’d like to talk about. But I’ll wait until the fourth and final installment of “Fascism for Dummies” to discuss my home country.

(Header image: detail from the “Hell Panel” from “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymous Bosch)

Fascism for Beginners, Part 2: Feeding the Beast

On February 24, 1926, leading NSDAP (aka National Socialist, or Nazi) officials met in the town of Bamberg in southern Germany. Hitler attended. In the crowd sat a skinny young man with blazing eyes and a crippled leg named Joseph Goebbels.

The Bamberg conference would be a defining moment for Goebbels and the Nazis. Until now, the well-educated but impressionable Goebbels had supported a northern German Nazi leader named Gregor Strasser.

Strasser was a typical Nazi: nationalistic, militaristic, and racist. But he was strongly opposed to Hitler’s 25-point Program (see previous post), and he competed with Hitler for party leadership. At the Bamberg assembly, Hitler delivered a withering two-hour speech. Any opposition to his extremist program was quickly smothered.

After Bamberg, Goebbels, like an adoring schoolgirl – and like so many other Germans – began to fall under Hitler’s spell. He would eventually rise to become Nazi Minister of Propaganda, one of Hitler’s most trusted henchmen, and, next to Hitler, the person most responsible for bamboozling an entire country. Strasser would later be executed by Hitler.

Two days after this meeting, just 213 kilometers west of Bamberg, in the beautiful city of Frankfurt, a Jewish girl named Margot Frank was born. Exactly 19 years later she would die of starvation, exposure, and disease, along with her younger sister, Anne, in a concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen.

***

Historians and writers have been scratching their scalps for over 70 years over how a Western democracy, albeit a fragile one, could elect a dictatorship, then permit a bunch of misfits and sadists to start a global conflict, rape their nation, and commit the greatest act of genocide in history. There’s more than one reason, and they’re all very complex. But William Shirer discusses some of them in his book, THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH. I lack the space to adequately cover them, but I’ll try to graze the surface:

Margot Frank. Like her sister, Margot kept a daily diary while her family was in hiding. It’s never been found.

Sonderweg: “Sonderweg” is a German word meaning “special path.” It’s a theory that German peoples’ values developed differently from other Western nations due to the nature of their leaders, as well as the writings and teachings of certain German philosophers and thinkers. Before WWII, historians looked at Sonderweg in a positive light. But after the war, they viewed it as having hindered development of liberal democracy, and helping give rise to fascism.

Shirer discusses Sonderweg and proposes that Nazism was a logical evolution of a national character that dates to Martin Luther in the 16th century. Luther is famous for his “Ninety-five Theses,” which broke from Roman Catholic dogma and helped initiate the Protestant Reformation. But Luther also openly hated Jews and advocated violence against them. His anti-Semitic writings, needless to say, were circulated widely in Nazi Germany.

Shirer cites a number of Germans after Luther whose beliefs (Shirer claims) contributed to a rising German nationalism and sense of Aryan superiority. Philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Hegel, and composer and writer Richard Wagner are the most well-known. While these cultural giants undoubtedly influenced 20th-century German thought and attitude, Nazi propaganda skillfully selected only those ideas of theirs which helped promote its cause, then twisted them for its own purposes. For example, although Nietzsche is famous for his philosophy of the “Übermensch” (a superior human who creates new values in the absence of God), he also spoke out against anti-Semitism, and he didn’t intend his humanistic philosophies to imply Aryan racial or German national superiority.

But did many Germans in the Depression look beneath the surface of the Nazi propaganda?

The THIRD Reich: Hitler and Goebbels sold many incredible fictions to the country during their moment in history’s spotlight. One of them was that Nazi rule represented a third realm, following the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806) and German Empire (1871-1918), and it would last a thousand years. It lasted less than a baker’s dozen, but enough gullible Germans became convinced that Hitler followed a line of great rulers that began with Prussian King Frederick II (Frederick the Great), and continued with Otto von Bismarck.

Both Frederick and Bismarck have mixed legacies. They made Germany strong, but they did so through relentless militarism and imperialism. Additionally, Frederick marginalized Jews and despised the Poles, referring to them as “vile apes.”

Frederick II (Frederick the Great)

Hitler kept a miniature portrait of Frederick up through his final days cowering in his Berlin bunker.

Treaty of Versailles: Germany and Austria-Hungary were the aggressors in World War I. After it was defeated by the Allies in 1918, Germany was required to accept responsibility for starting the war, disarm its military, relinquish large tracts of territory, and pay reparations (the equivalent of $442 billion U.S. dollars today) under Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles. Many, including some in the Allied sphere, considered the penalties too harsh (although not the French, who suffered most during WWI).

Every political party in the Weimar Republic, from the liberal Social Democrats to the Catholic Centre Party to the conservative German National People’s Party, railed against the treaty, but none more so than conservatives, nationalists, and ex-military leaders. Many of them – especially the far-right National Socialists – found a convenient scapegoat in socialists, communists, and especially Jews, who had been successful as business leaders and were thought to have benefited from a weakened Germany.

Hitler was very skilled at gaining traction for his extremist ideas by appealing to Germans’ patriotism and racial heritage and demonizing “the other.” Hitler knew that once you can convince enough people of a shared enemy, and create an impression that this enemy is sub-human and has devious motives… it’s extremely easy to get people behind you. Hitler’s most fanatical adherents were young people who could be easily indoctrinated (“Hitler Youth”), and the lower educated, who could be easily duped. Although the Nazis took the tactics of demonization to unparalleled lengths, such behavior has been exhibited over and over throughout history by people in power seeking political gain. The strong preying upon the weak. It happens in dictatorships, as well as democratic republics… including the U.S.

But I digress.

Once the Jews, Bolsheviks, and intellectuals could be purged from Germany, Hitler argued, “Der Vaterland” would be purified. It could then unify its many independent provinces, regain its lost territories, and expand on them (providing Germany its “Lebensraum,” or “living space”). Then, once again, it could bask in the greatness for which it was preordained.

As jobs became ever scarce and German exports slowed to a trickle in the first years of the Depression (1929-1933), citizens hungered for quick and easy solutions… even if some of the solutions made them a little queasy, or might be temporarily “uncomfortable.”

Hitler and the National Sadists provided these solutions with gusto.

***

(Thanks for sticking with me in this unsavory topic. In the next installment of my “Fascism for Dummies” series, I’ll discuss how German citizens weren’t the only ones who contributed to the rise of fascism in Germany).

 

 

 

Fascism for Beginners

WWII Map

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which – George Orwell

I’m reading a very good book right now. It’s called THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH by William Shirer. I bought it a few years ago in honor of the 50th anniversary of its publication, but until recently it’s been sleeping on my bookshelf. I’m reading it now because, like many people since the November election, I’m pretty deflated, and I’m thinking this book will be a good antidote. Maybe it will put things into perspective. As low as America is right now, it would have to claw a lot more dirt out of the pit to reach the depths of 1930s-40s Germany.

RISE AND FALL is considered the definitive history of the Nazi Party. It’s a 1,150-page book of small print, so reading it is a long haul. I’m just past the rise and starting on the fall. Churchill has replaced Chamberlain in England. Germany’s vaunted army has finally been repulsed, on the icy Eastern front, by Russia. The U.S. has reluctantly been pulled into the war following the sneak Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

I’ve never been much of a WWII buff. As far as historical conflicts go, I’ve always preferred the more antiquated and seemingly altruistic slaughter of the American Civil War. My wife loves the Second World War. Any time one of those black-and-white newsreels about WWII is broadcast on television, she grabs the remote. I can’t watch them. Inevitably, there are clips of that shrieking madman with the greasy hair and Charlie Chaplin mustache. I usually leave the room. The sight of him makes my skin crawl.

So until recently, I was probably like most Americans, in that my knowledge of Nazi Germany was limited to a few names, dates… and one monumental atrocity. But Shirer’s book has made it abundantly clear that Nazi philosophies and practices were aided and abetted many years prior to the war and the Holocaust. The war and the Holocaust were just fascism brought to its logical and horrifying conclusion.

Charlie Chaplin spoofing Adolf Hitler in “The Great Dictator” (1940). Hitler was considered a big joke in the beginning. After the clown makeup came off, the world saw something else.

What’s the definition of fascism? The “Merriam-Webster Dictionary” defines it as follows:

A political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.

That’s a mouthful. But let’s look at the first part: “…exalts nation and often race above the individual.”

The Nazi Party was founded by a man named Anton Drexler and three other far-right Germans in Munich on January 5, 1919. At that time, it was called the German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or DAP). By 1921, a onetime vagabond and former Austrian colonel named Adolf Hitler had, through boundless energy, skillful oratory, and not a little fanaticism, wrested control of the party.

Anton Drexler, founder of the Nazi Party

Hitler added the words “National Socialist” to the name, making it NSDAP, or “Nazzy” (Note: the word “Socialist” here was merely used rhetorically and had little to do with the philosophies of various leftist parties in Germany at the time, which Nazism eventually extinguished). Hitler and other party leaders also delivered a 25-point manifesto. Two of the manifesto points were as follows:

Point Number 4: “Only a member of the race can be a (German) citizen. A member of the race can only be one who is of German blood, without consideration of creed. Consequently, no Jew can be a member of the race.”

(This ignorant stipulation mistakenly assumes that precious “German blood” equates with race, when Germanic heritage is actually an ethnicity. And note the casual singling out of one particular group for discrimination: Jews. Evidently there were few Arabs in Germany at the time – at least, any that had social or economic significance).

Point Number 8: “Any further immigration of non-citizens is to be prevented. We demand that all non-Germans, who have immigrated to Germany since 2 August 1914, be forced immediately to leave the Reich.”

(August 2, 1914 is the day Germany mobilized for WWI, which it ultimately lost. The 1918 Treaty of Versailles required the country to make reparations for its aggression, including a substantial loss of territory. This left a lingering bitterness throughout the prideful nation. The date of August 2, 1914 was probably significant to the most nationalistic Germans, but totally arbitrary to most immigrants).

Nation and race. Nationalism and eugenics. Always choice ingredients in a recipe for disaster. Remember, this Nazi “Program” was drawn up in 1921: eighteen years before Germany invaded Poland to start the next world war. Although NSDAP was still only a radical fringe group in Germany, the party principles had already taken root. Hitler and his henchmen would adhere to these two points, and all 23 others – and expand on them – until their empire of sadism finally toppled.

My stomach’s starting to churn, so I’ll break off. But please check back for the second part of my “Fascism for Dummies,” where I’ll be examining how citizens allowed a political party and its leader to turn their country into a pigsty.

The Craziest Meal I Never Had

dinner party

Not long ago, I was goofing around on YouTube, and I landed on an interview with a particular musician.  One of the interview questions was: “If you could have dinner with any three people, whom would you invite?”

I think the interviewer was a high school student (probably on assignment for the school paper).  My first reaction was “This is cute, but kinda silly.”  Then I thought about it. “Hmm, that’s actually a pretty good question.  It’s a fun way to identify a person’s root influences, especially if the interview subject decides to elaborate.”  But I was a little shocked at one of the musician’s choices for dinner guest.

His first choice was John Lennon.  OK, I can agree with that one.  Songwriting genius, witty, well-informed, candid, gift of gab.  If Lennon was my guest, I could easily see us (once I stopped trembling) enjoying our marshmallow pie while trading views on Brexit and sarcastic jibes about Sir Paul.

His second choice was someone I know nothing about.  But the third choice had me scratching my head: Miles Davis.

For those unfamiliar, Miles Davis was a legendary jazz trumpeter.  He was a gifted composer and improviser who broke musical barriers and influenced a generation of jazz musicians.  But despite being the king of “cool jazz,” he was reputedly as unpredictable as a white cop with a hemorrhoid.

Why would you invite a ticking time bomb to a dinner party, an occasion that’s supposed to be about relaxation and light repartee?  I can envision the exchange:

“Mr. Davis, I’m a big fan of yours.  In fact, ‘Kind of Blue’ is my all-time favorite album.”

Then the sound of soup being slurped, with a few droplets splattered onto Davis’s oversized sunglasses, followed by a string of raspy, mumbled curse words.

melville

Herman Melville

I mean, come on.  He’s a superb musician, yes, but isn’t this a waste of a dinner choice?  Then, of course, I thought about whom yours truly would invite.  And I have to admit: one of my choices would make Miles Davis look like Martha Stewart.

I wouldn’t hesitate to invite Herman Melville (author of “Moby-Dick” and a bunch of other heavy shit).  He’s my favorite writer.  I’d love to probe Melville’s oceanic mind about the whiteness of the whale and Captain Ahab’s maniacal obsessions.  Maybe I could conveniently work into the conversation Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

I’d also invite Billy the Kid.  Even though he was a cold-blooded killer, the Kid was also a party animal with a great sense of humor.  He loved a good game of faro, and had an eye for the ladies.  And there’s only one authenticated photograph of him, so I’d like to see if he’s as buck-toothed and scatterbrained as he looks in the photo.

billy-the-kid-western-wanted

Billy the Kid

But my third choice might send Herman and the Kid scurrying toward the door long before dessert is served: Crazy Horse.

Crazy Horse (aka Tasunke Witko) was a war leader of the Oglala Lakota Sioux.  He was at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and helped fertilize the Montana hills with the bodies of Custer and the 7th Cavalry.  He was one of the last Plains Indians to surrender to the U.S. Army, and only did so because his people were starving.  Very spiritual, he experienced visions, and refused to allow his photograph to be taken.  He died in 1877, bayoneted in the back while being led to an army jail on a trumped-up charge.

Crazy Horse, for me, was a person of great integrity.  After all, he died for his people’s survival.  And since no one knows what he looked like, our dinner together would give me the opportunity to stare at him a lot.  Does he look like Rafael Nadal?  Or more like Ed Ames?  I can almost guarantee whom he doesn’t look like: smiling Chief Wahoo, the controversial cartoon mascot for the Cleveland Indians.

But how would our conversation go?  Assuming he understands and speaks English – and Herman and the Kid approve of his presence at the table – it would probably be very stilted.

So while my ever-tolerant wife serves the cocktails… whiskey for the Kid, rum for Herman, cold spring water for Crazy Horse, and Dogfish Head Midas Touch Golden Elixir ale for me… I begin to live out a longtime fantasy:

“Mr. Horse… I mean Mr. Witko… uh, sir… it’s truly an honor to sit with you.”

Silence.

“I don’t have any Indian pipe tobacco, but maybe after dinner we could dip into my humidor.  I think I still have a couple Cohibas from my excursion to Nogales a few years ago.”

More silence, as he gulps his water from a bison-hide flask.

“Ya know, I’ve heard that you have visions.  That’s really cool.  I don’t have any pharmaceuticals on hand, but my son lives in Colorado, and he might be able to parcel post a special package – ha-ha, if you know what I mean – for our next get-together.”

He glares at me, expressionless, without responding.  I feel a drop of perspiration roll from my armpit.

“Sir, I know you don’t like having your picture taken.  But my squaw has this gadget called an I-phone, and if I take your photo and you don’t like it, I can immediately delete it.”

He turns his head and gazes out the window at our autumn blaze maple.

Maple Tree

Autumn blaze maple tree (Acer rubrum)

Desperate for some assistance, I glance toward the Kid.  But his face is bright red, and his shoulders are shaking, as if he’s stifling laughter – and doing a poor job of stifling.

Then I pivot in my chair and glance toward Herman.  But Herman’s sitting erect, stroking his massive beard, and he appears buried in deep thought.

So before Herman has a chance to excuse himself to return to his kerosene lamp and his notes for “Billy Budd,” and before the Kid embarrasses me by doubling up with laughter and accidentally firing his Colt single-action revolver, I decide to divert attention from Crazy Horse.

“Hey, guys,” I carefully and surreptitiously maneuver.  “Whaddaya say we head into the den to check out my baseball card collection?”

But I quickly decide that this, too, is a bad idea.  I never imagined that entertaining my heroes for dinner could be so stressful.

“Honey, could you bring us another round of drinks… please??”

black hills

The Black Hills, South Dakota, where Crazy Horse lived and is (supposedly) buried

Book Review: “Blood on the Marias: The Baker Massacre”

book

(I just read the new book “Blood on the Marias: The Baker Massacre” and reviewed it on Amazon. It’s a tragic story, but I’m sharing my review here because, even at this late date, I think it’s important people know what happened on January 23, 1870)

***

It’s hard to fathom. But there was a time when the U.S. government actively engaged in ethnic cleansing.

And U.S. military and political leaders actually pondered the idea of genocide… on American soil.

American Indian history isn’t taught much in schools today. And it’s easy to understand why. Our treatment of the aboriginals of this country is a dark stain which may never be erased. And one of the most appalling chapters in this sad saga is the story of the Piegan Blackfeet of northwestern Montana. “Blood on the Marias” deals with that chapter.

Most Americans have heard of Little Bighorn, even if they don’t know the details. Colorful cavalryman George A. Custer had his last stand here. But few Americans know about Sand Creek, Washita, Ash Hollow, Bear River, and Wounded Knee, where innocent Cheyenne, Sioux, and Shoshone women and children were slaughtered in the name of Manifest Destiny. And only a precious few historians know of the Marias Massacre, also known as the Baker Massacre. There’s a reason why this abomination has been kept secret: as shocking as the above episodes are, the bloody encounter on the Marias River in 1870 is perhaps the most shocking of all.

Author Paul Wylie came upon this story by accident, while researching for a previous book. But he’s produced the first comprehensive analysis of the Baker Massacre, and his scholarly treatment is long overdue. It evidently took him years to pry details of this massacre from the iron vaults of the National Archives, and from army correspondence papers, personal letters, and obscure newspaper accounts. He frames his examination of the massacre – in truth, a “mass murder” – with a solid history of the Piegan Blackfeet, including their fascinating and fortuitous 1806 encounter with explorer Meriwether Lewis.

We also get the all-too-familiar perfect storm scenario that led to the attack: the inevitable broken treaties, murders (on both sides), settler and newspaper hysterics, and heinous practice of whiskey trading by unscrupulous frontier lowlifes. This all dovetailed with a U.S. Army run by commanders who were hardened by the Civil War, who had a penchant for glory-seeking, and whose brutality was informed by racism at best, and sociopathic tendencies at worst (Sheridan and Sherman receive full treatment here).

Without giving away too much, the Baker Massacre had several things which separated it from similar atrocities against Native Americans: first, the Piegan village that was attacked was, at the time, being ravaged by smallpox; second, most of the Piegan braves had gone hunting, leaving primarily women, children, and elderly; third, the attack occurred at dawn, in sub-zero temperatures, with minimal resistance from the villagers (only one soldier was killed, with a minimum 173 Indians killed, although probably many more); fourth, the commander and many of the troops were drunk; and fifth… it was the wrong village.

Wylie, a retired attorney, must have really struggled to restrain his emotions while writing this book. He slips into subjectivity only once, in his Preface, when he describes what happened to those villagers as being one of the saddest things he’s ever encountered. The rest of the book is entirely objective and buttressed by credible footnotes.

The Baker Massacre is, indeed, incredibly sad. It’s also one of the most shameful incidents in this nation’s history. It’s been kept under wraps because the army wanted it kept under wraps. If you’re a history teacher, please devote class time to the history of Plains Indians and the Baker Massacre. If you’re not a history teacher, but enjoy reading about history… strike a blow for truth and get a copy of this book.

Blackfoot_tipis

Blackfeet tipis, circa 1910.  Photograph by Arthur Rafton-Canning

Book Talk: Harper Lee and John Densmore

harper leejohndensmore7

This is an unlikely pairing of authors, I’ll admit. A Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and a ‘60s rock drummer?? But each has a couple interesting books in the news, so I’d like to talk about them.

First, Harper Lee. She is, of course, the celebrated author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I’d rank this book in the Top 10 of American novels (and the film, starring Gregory Peck, is just as good). It’s a semi-autobiographical tale of how three children lose their innocence during the Jim Crow era in an isolated Alabama town (think moonshine, racial violence, rural poverty and weirdness… classic Southern Gothic stuff). “Mockingbird” was darkly compelling, alternately grotesque and transcendent, and it took America by firestorm when it was published in 1960.mockingbird book

But Lee was never comfortable as a celebrity, and she disappeared from public view long ago – not unlike her ghostly character Arthur “Boo” Radley. She never wrote another book.

However, this week the 88-year-old was pulled into the spotlight when news of a second book by her appeared. It’s called “Go Set a Watchman,” and Lee actually penned it before “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It deals with the main character, Scout. But instead of being a young tomboy, Scout’s a mature woman who revisits her hometown to visit her father, Atticus Finch (the Christ-like hero of “Mockingbird”). Lee intended this book to be her debut, but her editor wisely convinced her to instead focus on a story dealing with flashbacks to Scout’s youth. The result was “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The announcement of the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” has been met with skepticism and criticism. Was Lee pressured to authorize the release? Did the recent death of Lee’s elder sister Alice, who was her firewall against public scrutiny, influence the publication? Will the book, a fledgling attempt by an amateur writer whose editor shelved it, tarnish Lee’s legacy?

Times have changed since 1960. At one time, books – good, bad, or indifferent – were honored upon their release with insightful opinion by knowledgeable literary reviewers. But as one New York Times writer noted, “Internet culture, where a one-star Goodreads review by a 14-year-old can be as persuasive to some as a book critic’s 1,200-word newspaper essay, has leveled the field.”

Harper Lee is from the “old school.” In 2006, she famously emerged from seclusion and wrote a letter to Oprah Winfrey about her fascination with books when she was a child.

Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.

I’m with you, Ms. Lee.

harper lee3

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“To Kill a Mockingbird” came out in 1960. Five years later, two UCLA film students joined two Maharishi adherents and formed a band called The Doors. They released one of the most phenomenal rock music albums in history. This musical debut was just as darkly compelling and powerful as Harper Lee’s literary debut.

I’m a big fan of The Doors. I bought their eponymous first record after my freshman year in college (summer of 1978). It was just before a huge Doors revival, which was ignited by publication of singer Jim Morrison’s sordid biography “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” the spoken poetry album “An American Prayer,” and the movie “Apocalypse Now,” which featured the band’s music.

TheDoorsalbumcover

I liked everything about the band. Morrison’s looks and voice intrigued me (and to be honest, his mysterious early death). And as an impressionable and introspective English student, his Blake and Nietzsche-inspired song lyrics also appealed to me. But I especially liked the music. Clever, tight arrangements. Moody vocals. Ray Manzarek’s Tin Pan Alley keyboards. John Densmore’s creative jazz percussion. And guitarist Robbie Krieger had penned perhaps my all-time favorite song, “Light My Fire,” a stoned psychedelic classic that sent shivers through my tiny frame when I first heard it on the radio in 1967.

Today, I occasionally jump on the nostalgia train and pull out one of my old Doors records. Only recently I learned that drummer John Densmore had self-published a book in 2013: “The Doors: Unhinged.” Most of the stuff I’d already read about Morrison and the band I considered sensationalized junk. But I did sort of like Densmore’s earlier book, “Riders on the Storm,” a confessional memoir about his rocky relationship with the mercurial Morrison. So I decided to look into “Unhinged.”

The subtitle of the book is “Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial.” And as I soon learned, this legacy literally went on trial, because Densmore actually took his two surviving bandmates to court. These shenanigans are nothing new. unhingedMembers of rock bands have been squabbling in court ever since The Beatles crumbled. But usually it’s a fight over royalty payments. What makes Densmore’s legal battle unique is that he was fighting not to make money. Yes, you heard right.

In 2002, Manzarek and Krieger teamed to form The Doors of the 21st Century, a band devoted to resurrecting old Doors songs. Problem was, all of the advertisements displayed “of the 21st Century” in microscopic print! Also, Morrison’s name was frequently invoked to advertise the band – without his permission, of course.

Densmore contacted Krieger to complain that his and Manzarek’s actions stank of exploitation. But Manzarek and Krieger persisted. Densmore managed to enlist the help of Morrison’s family (including Morrison’s elderly father, George Stephen Morrison, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy), and they filed a lawsuit. This book discusses the long trial, which at one point resorted to the seedy and timeworn tactic of character assassination.

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The short-lived Doors of the 21st Century. L-R: Manzarek, Ian Astbury, Krieger, Stewart Copeland (ex-Police)

But there’s a larger theme to Densmore’s book. Densmore asks “How much money is enough?” for people who are already wealthy. He discusses what he calls the “greed gene,” which propels some individuals and corporations to amass and hoard ungodly amounts of money, while others struggle to eke out a living.

Of course, Densmore’s not a scientist or economist, and he uses the term “greed gene” only in a rhetorical sense. And this book won’t win a Pulitzer Prize. But it’s refreshing because, despite being a wealthy rock musician, Densmore comes across as an “everyman,” and an unlikely crusader. You don’t often hear rock stars turning down easy money to stand on principle. But the man backs up what he says.

Case in point: as the trial progressed, Manzarek and Krieger countersued Densmore for refusing to co-sign a contract with Cadillac, who wanted to use the Doors song “Break on Through” for a TV commercial. Densmore was the only one of the three to balk (“What’s next,” he asks, “’Break on Through’ to a new deodorant??”). He didn’t want to cheapen the band’s legacy, nor the integrity of one of their strongest songs. In the process, he showed how much integrity and strength he has: the Cadillac deal would’ve grossed the band $15 million!

Recent photo of Doors drummer John Densmore

Recent photo of Doors drummer John Densmore

But what does the “legacy” of Jim Morrison have to do with all this? According to Densmore, when Morrison was alive the band was approached by Buick, who wanted to use “Light My Fire” in one of their commercials. The other three were all eager to sign. But the Lizard King nixed the idea. He also insisted the band share equally in the song copyrights, and added a clause to their contract that each of the members had veto power. In true Sixties, hippie counterculture fashion, he wanted the band to be a self-contained democracy. No dictators, no power plays, no selling out to corporate America. The music would take precedence over the money. Sort of a rare thing these days, don’t you think?

One could argue that all this was just pie-in-the-sky idealism. After all, another part of Morrison’s legacy was anarchy and self-destruction. But the fact that Densmore still lives by the band’s original credo is, to me, admirable. Yes, the hippies made mistakes. Many were hangers-on, young hedonists merely latching onto fashion. But Densmore believes the Sixties also planted a lot of seeds, some little and some big, and many of them are now in full bloom… or, if not, they just need a little fertilizing to help them grow. He urges all of us to get out our “watering cans.”

Like Harper Lee, John Densmore is also “old school.” Which is fine by me.

By the way, he won the court case.

 

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Edward Abbey: An Anarchist Who Fought the Good Fight

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In 1956 and 1957, a young, iconoclastic writer with a GI Bill education and an FBI dossier found employment as a park ranger at Arches National Monument in remote and desolate southeast Utah.  While working there, he lived alone in a trailer.  He met and conversed with tourists and a few rangers and ranchers, but he was alone for most of the time.  His solitude allowed him to do a lot of observing and thinking.  Ten years later he published a book about his time at Arches, entitled “Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness.”

I just finished reading the book.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read something as evocative and hard-hitting.  So I’m devoting this post to “Desert Solitaire” and the philosophy of Edward Abbey, who died 25 years ago Friday at age 62.

Wilderness is a necessary part of civilization and it is the primary responsibility of the national park system to preserve intact and undiminished what little still remains.

Abbey’s writings contributed to modern radical environmentalism; he was a spiritual father to both Earth First! and Greenpeace.  But he was around long before the word “environmentalist” even existed.  Blunt in his opinions, a man whose pen was both poetic and fierce, and who raged against government, the military-industrial complex, unrestrained technology, industrial tourism, and agri-business, Abbey recognized as far back as the 1950s that America was rapidly losing large chunks of pristine wilderness areas… and that desert wilderness isn’t just barren wasteland, but it possesses its own unique vibrancy, mysticism, and spirituality.

Motionless and silent (the desert) evokes in us an elusive hint of something unknown, unknowable, about to be revealed… Once caught by this golden lure, you become a prospector for life, condemned, doomed, exalted.

cartoon abbeyAbbey found grandeur everywhere he looked: in the “red-walled canyons” and “smoke-blue ranges” that stretched out hundreds of miles around him; in the constellations that provided a canopy at night; even in a lone juniper tree that grew outside his trailer.  He was one of the last humans to raft the Utah stretch of Colorado River before “bureaucrats” and “pencil-pushers” erected Glen Canyon Dam so that motorboats could buzz over what used to be ancient grottos, natural tunnels, emerald pools, and the pictographs and petroglyphs of mysterious, indigenous societies of long ago.

Half the beauty of Rainbow Bridge lay in its remoteness, its relative difficulty of access, and in the wilderness surrounding it, of which it is an integral part.  When these aspects are removed the Bridge will be no more than an isolated geological oddity, an extension of that museumlike diorama to which industrial tourism tends to reduce the natural world.

solitaireAt the end of “Desert Solitaire,” Abbey talks about meeting a park visitor who accuses him of being opposed to civilization, science, and humanity (familiar accusations levied at those of us who feel wilderness should exist on its own terms, and not on man’s terms).

We were not communicating very well.  All night long we thrashed the matter out, burning up half a pinyon pine in the process… With his help I discovered I was not opposed to mankind, but only to man-centeredness, anthropocentricity, the opinion that the world exists solely for the sake of man; not to science, which means simply knowledge, but to science misapplied, to the worship of technique and technology; and not to civilization but to culture.

Regarding the difference between civilization and culture, Abbey offers some analogies:

Civilization is Jesus turning water into wine; culture is Christ walking on the waves;

Civilization is a youth with a Molotov cocktail in his hand; culture is the Soviet tank or the L.A. cop that guns him down;

Civilization is the wild river; culture, 592,000 tons of cement.

(Ed. note: regarding the second quote above, longitudes does NOT endorse acts of terrorism against living things)

There are many sections of “Desert Solitaire” that left me with my mouth agape.   I was astonished at the John Muir-like care and detail that Abbey took when discussing desert flora and fauna; what he termed the “rare furtive creatures of incredible hardiness and cunning,” and “weird mutants from the plant kingdom, most of them as spiny, thorny, stunted and twisted as they are tenacious.”

__________________________

After burning up those pine logs and parting with his tourist friend, Abbey says the man disappeared from Arches sometime before the following evening.  But he did leave “a forged signature in the registration book which wouldn’t have fooled anybody – J. Prometheus Birdsong.  He won’t be back.”

Then Abbey closes the chapter:

“But don’t get discouraged, comrades – Christ failed too.”

Although Abbey may have sent this tourist packing with tail tucked between legs, I wonder how quickly the guy returned to his job in the city – emboldened with blueprint dreams of monolithic dams and soulless asphalt thoroughfares.

Regrettably, comrades, many are the J. Prometheus Birdsongs in this world.

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