Book Review: “How Democracies Die”—Unwritten Rules of the Game

 

how democracies die

For those of you late to the game, I’ve been reviewing a recently released book by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt called How Democracies Die. The gist of this book is that democracies usually don’t die via military coups, but instead crumble from within, via legitimate elections and failures of “gatekeeping” measures, and that conscientiousness on the part of political parties is the best guarantor of maintaining democracy.

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Americans are justly proud of their Constitution, which frames our government, and stipulates a federal separation of powers, the rights and responsibilities of state governments, and which includes 27 important amendments (the first ten of which are known as the Bill of Rights). I’ve talked with a few people who feel America’s constitution (our written “rules of the game”—see previous post) is so strong, that our country is impervious to democratic breakdown.

But Levitsky and Ziblatt say that America’s constitution is often vague and ambivalent and susceptible to radically different interpretations. Also, the U.S. Constitution has been used as a model, almost verbatim, in countries like Argentina, Brazil, and the Philippines, yet those nations nonetheless plunged themselves into dictatorships (under Juan Perón, Getúlio Vargas, and Ferdinand Marcos, respectively). Germany’s Weimar Republic had a constitution “designed by some of the country’s greatest legal minds,” yet it “collapsed rapidly in the face of Adolf Hitler’s usurpation of power in 1933.”

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Franklin D. Roosevelt

The authors argue that, while written rules of the game are important, along with referees to enforce them (e.g. judiciary), these work best in conjunction with unwritten rules, or basic norms, such as mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.

Mutual toleration is the idea that “we may disagree with, and even strongly dislike, our rivals, but we nevertheless accept them as legitimate.”

And institutional forbearance means “avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit.”

Think of democracy as a game that we want to continue playing indefinitely. To ensure future rounds of the game, players must refrain from either incapacitating the other team or antagonizing them, to such a degree, that they refuse to play again tomorrow….In politics, this often means eschewing dirty tricks or hardball tactics in the name of civility and fair play.

The authors cite certain powers held by the executive and legislative branches that are vaguely addressed in the U.S. Constitution, or not at all, but both branches have adhered to certain unwritten rules regarding them. For example, the Constitution doesn’t limit the number of terms during which a president can preside. However, all U.S. presidents since George Washington, other than one, have limited themselves to two terms in office.

The Constitution also does not limit the number of justices serving on the Supreme Court. However all presidents (again, other than one) have adhered to the unwritten rule of limiting the court to nine justices.

Additionally, the U.S. Congress has the power to filibuster (which the framers designed to assist minority parties in the Senate), block presidential court and cabinet appointments (“advice and consent”), and impeach. But for most of the country’s history, Congress has exhibited institutional forbearance, courtesy, and “reciprocity” regarding these powers.

How Democracies Die highlights that, excluding the Civil War era, on only three occasions since 1776 have democratic norms (checks and balances) been seriously violated in America:

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U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy

  1. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt at court packing, his issuance of 3,000 executive orders, and his decision to seek a third term in office. (However, FDR never slipped into autocracy due to bipartisan resistance. Also—due to the dire situations of the Great Depression and WWII, most historians have given FDR a pass, similar to what occurred with Lincoln’s violation of habeas corpus during the Civil War.);
  2. McCarthyism and red-baiting in the 1950s;
  3. Richard M. Nixon’s authoritarianism and illegal activities in the 1970s, which resulted in a looming impeachment and his eventual resignation.

On all three occasions, guardrails held due to bipartisan cooperation. “Episodes of intolerance and partisan warfare never escalated into the kind of ‘death spiral’ that destroyed democracies in Europe in the 1930s and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s.”

But the authors state that, beginning with civil rights legislation in the 1960s, things began to slowly change in the United States. Mutual toleration and institutional forbearance, which have held our democracy together like cement on brick, have increasingly become passé.

And over the past few decades, our unwritten rules of the game have been violated at an alarming rate, creating a toxic atmosphere that has allowed a Donald Trump to attain the highest office in the land. Levitsky and Ziblatt discuss this trend in a powerful chapter entitled “The Unraveling.”

I’ll tackle that chapter next time.

nixon

Book Review of “How Democracies Die” – Guardians at the Gate

how democracies die

“The erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal, often in baby steps.”

In my last post, I discussed how authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book How Democracies Die, show how certain democracies have failed worldwide (e.g. those in Germany, Italy, and Venezuela).  Some countries, however, have successfully prevented democratic decay when threatened by authoritarianism.

Belgium is one. In the economically depressed 1930s, Belgium resisted an urge to swing toward fascism. Two far-right parties, the Rex Party and the Vlaams Nationaal Verbond, surged in Belgian polls. (The leader of the Rex Party later collaborated with the Nazis.) Belgian centrist parties appeared to be in retreat. The mainstream Catholic Party was partly sympathetic with the popular Rexists, and could have joined with them. Instead, it went in the opposite direction.

The Catholics weeded out pro-Rexist candidates.  They also employed Rexist-style propaganda techniques, and created an anti-Rexist “Catholic Youth Front.” Their most effective gatekeeping technique, however, was to ally with the Belgian Socialist Party and Liberal Party behind leader Paul van Zeeland, to create a robust coalition that sidelined the Rexists. (At least, until the Nazis invaded Belgium.)

Similar gatekeeping occurred in Finland, when an extreme-right Lapua Movement surfaced in 1929. Finland’s more moderate conservatives pulled together to snuff out this “brief burst of fascism.”

More recently, in 2016 in Austria, the main center-right party (Austrian People’s Party) had an opportunity, but refused to ally with the ideologically similar but anti-immigrant, radical-right Freedom Party of Austria, ultimately defeating it.

(Notice how these various right-wing extremists were all toppled, not by their ideological opposites – liberals and socialists – but by moderates and fellow conservatives who were ideologically similar.)

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Emblem of Finnish Lapua Movement

And America has its own laudable record of squelching extremists. Henry Ford, radio personality Father Charles Coughlin, Charles Lindbergh, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace were all enormously popular with certain segments of America. But Ford, Coughlin, and Lindbergh were virulent anti-Semites, Wallace was a Southern racist and segregationist, and McCarthy was a rabid and reckless Red-baiter. (Long was assassinated, but some historians claim the “Kingfish,” who claimed he was the Constitution, had all the characteristics of a demagogue.) All of these men had political ambitions, and some succeeded at the state level. None, however, were able to progress beyond their current stations, chiefly due to a strong U.S. party system that prevented it.  (McCarthy was ultimately censured and disgraced. He began drinking heavily, became addicted to heroin, and died at age 48.)

As mentioned earlier, America’s best gatekeepers are our political parties. Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that, ironically, the oft-citicized “smoke-filled room” of party bosses serves to weed out extremists that otherwise might threaten democracy. They say there’s always a tension between “will of the people” (which Alexander Hamilton warned about, and which has resulted in figures like Long, Wallace, and Trump) and too much gatekeeping, such as elite party leaders.

But democratic gatekeepers aren’t limited to political parties; they also include political institutions and non-political figures. To illustrate this, the authors draw parallels between democracy and a soccer game. A fair soccer game involves referees, rules, and equal opponents. When any one of these gatekeepers is debilitated, the game can tilt.

Referees: Who are the referees in politics? The judicial system, law enforcement bodies, and intelligence, tax, and regulatory agencies. Without strong referees, the authors argue, “The president may break the law, threaten citizens’ rights, and even violate the constitution without having to worry that such abuse will be investigated or censured.” He can buy off opponents (including those in the media), pack the courts, and threaten impeachment of justices.

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Anti-Semitic radio host Father Charles Coughlin (photo Detroit Free Press)

Opponents: Once referees are in tow, autocrats then turn to their opponents. However, the authors say that most contemporary autocrats don’t wipe out all dissent, such as Mussolini or Castro did, but merely sideline “key players” opposed to their government. These players include opposition politicians, business leaders, and cultural or religious figures who have good standing with the populace.

Rules: To entrench power, autocrats must also change the rules of the game, such as altering constitutions and electoral systems to tilt the playing field against opponents. Example: post-Reconstruction Southern states. To circumvent the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, Southern white Democrats used anti-democratic poll taxes and literacy tests to prevent blacks from voting, which consolidated white power in the South for a hundred years.

“Citizens are often slow to realize that their democracy is being dismantled—even as it happens before their eyes.”

How Democracies Die points out that autocrats often take advantage of national crises, which allow them to break free from democratic institutions, often legally. Defense of democracy is often used as a pretext for its subversion.

Example 1: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, was an outright subversion of democracy, and a black mark in an otherwise exemplary presidency.

Example 2: after 911, the controversial USA Patriot Act, signed into law by George W. Bush, “never would have passed had the September 11 attacks not occurred the previous month.” But Americans, including a bipartisan Congress, gave Bush a pass.

And then there are those leaders that invent crisis, like Adolf Hitler. No one knows for certain whether, as Hitler and Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels claimed, a communist Dutchman set fire to the Reichstag on February 27, 1933. Some historians believe the Nazis did it themselves. Nonetheless, it ushered in a thunderstorm of Nazi barbarism that didn’t end until a dozen years later.

(To be continued)

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Burning of the German Reichstag

Book Review: “How Democracies Die”

how democracies die

Two posts ago I previewed a book I was reading called How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (see “Tolling Bells?”). I finished the book, and now want to share my thoughts.

I’ll offer one more preface, though. In my view, since the election of Donald Trump, the American electorate can be separated into three groups: those who will support Trump no matter what, based on one or more narrow ideologies that they view Trump as upholding; those who are disgusted with Trump’s personal and/or political behavior, yet who, in the words of writer Sinclair Lewis, believe “it can’t happen here”; and people like me, sickened by what they see, and who also believe democratic principles in America are eroding now, and have been for a while.

How Democracies Die has only reinforced my feelings about the road America is traveling down.

It’s a small book, but contains many ideas. Therefore, it’s probably best I break the book into digestible bits:

Fateful Alliances.  Most authoritarian leaders ascend not through violent coups, but through legitimate elections, and alliances with established political figures. The most well-known are, of course, Hitler and Mussolini. Hitler exploited a reeling German economy and infighting between the major German parties, and an alliance with conservatives who believed they could “contain” him. Mussolini used the power of theatricality, his party’s 35 parliamentary votes, divisions among the political elite, fear of socialism, and the threat of violence by his own Blackshirts to gain premiership. Political order was restored, and the Italian stock market soared.  Mussolini became a rock star…but only briefly.

While Nazism and Fascism were the two most horrific examples of democratic breakdown, the authors discuss a more recent example. Military leader Hugo Chávez in Venezeula was assisted to power by democratic President Rafael Caldera, whose popularity was waning, and who saw an alliance with Chavez as a political lifeline. He considered the demagogic Chavez a passing fad. He was mistaken. In 1998, Chavez was elected by a majority of voters.

Levitsky and Ziblatt ask “(W)hat kinds of candidates tend to test positive on a litmus test for authoritarianism? Very often populist outsiders do.” They cite five of 15 presidents elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela between 1990 and 2012 as being populist outsiders who ultimately weakened democratic institutions.

They also provide four indicators of authoritarian behavior:

  1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game
  2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
  3. Toleration or encouragement of violence
  4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media

They argue that all democratic societies require “gatekeepers” to prevent authoritarians from gaining power, and the greatest gatekeepers are political parties and their leaders. Keeping extremists off party ballots, resisting alliances with extremist parties, resisting the urge to “normalize” extremists (as Caldera did with Chavez), and uniting with parties of opposing ideologies to block such extremists are all effective gatekeeping techniques.

They conclude “Fateful Alliances” with this:

For its part, the United States has an impressive record of gatekeeping. Both Democrats and Republicans have confronted extremist figures on their fringes, some of whom enjoyed considerable public support. For decades, both parties succeeded in keeping these figures out of the mainstream. Until, of course, 2016.

(To be continued)

Fleetwood Mac: The Forgotten Years (Re-Post)

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NOTE: I just learned Danny Kirwan of Fleetwood Mac died Friday, at age 68.  Kirwan was an important member of the band before Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined in late 1974.  He played a luscious vibrato guitar, and more importantly, wrote some of the band’s best songs.  Sadly, he suffered from alcoholism and mental illness and left the band in 1972.  Until he died Friday, he seemed to be a forgotten man.  Longitudes loves good songwriters like Kirwan (they’re in short supply these days).  So, I’m re-posting this 2014 essay about the Mac.  Thanks for your beautiful songs, Danny.

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On a recent Sunday while drinking my coffee, I turned the TV to the long-running television program, “CBS Sunday Morning,” hosted by Charles Osgood. This enjoyable show always has at least one segment devoted to popular culture. Past shows have included interviews with Keith Richards and Gregg Allman. This particular show included a puff piece on the pop-rock band Fleetwood Mac. The rationale was drummer Mick Fleetwood’s recent (and 2nd) autobiography, which coincides with the band’s 61st (or maybe 62nd) reunion tour.

Full disclosure here: Fleetwood Mac isn’t one of my favorite bands. Their songs are tuneful, albeit in an effete sort of way. But “the Mac’s” unthreatening, southern California brand of rock was perfect ear sweetener for the somnolent mid-‘70s to early ‘80s, and there’s still nostalgia for that stuff amongst baby boomers. So I wasn’t too surprised to see them profiled on TV alongside segments devoted to the wedding of George Clooney and “The Timeless Allure of Swing Dancing.”

What really stuck in my craw, though, was the narrator using a sweeping statement, during a buildup to the gilded Buckingham-Nicks years, that “other band members came and went.” There was no mention of founder Peter Green. No mention of Danny KirwanJeremy Spencer, and Bob Welch… forget it. Seven different band members, eight years, and nine albums brushed aside.

So, once again, I feel the need to set the record straight. Nothing against Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham. But there was a band called Fleetwood Mac that existed long before those two joined in 1974 to help catapult them to superstardom. They were English. They had a curious and colorful biography, and they were very talented.

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Fleetwood Mac sprouted in 1967 from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, an English blues band that featured virtuoso guitarist Eric Clapton. Clapton was, and is, one of the most formidable blues guitarists in history. When Clapton quit the Bluesbreakers to form the legendary Cream, his place was taken by a guy named Peter Green. Not only did Green have a great first name, he also had the challenge of replacing a guitar god. Most rock critics would agree that he more than met the challenge. John Mayall felt so, too, and after only one album with Green, he encouraged Green to “go thither into the world” and form his own band.

Green did just that. Before long he selected bass player John McVie (also from the Bluesbreakers) and a drummer named Mick Fleetwood, whom he knew from two earlier bands. For added punch, he added Elmore James-influenced slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer. Being a humble guy, leader Green named the band after his rhythm section… neither of whom were songwriters!

THEN PLAY ON, the last album that featured Peter Green

THEN PLAY ON, the last album that featured Peter Green

This early version of Fleetwood Mac released three studio albums: FLEETWOOD MAC, MR. WONDERFUL, and the double album THEN PLAY ON. At this juncture their music emphasized blues-based rock, and they had a reputation for being a dynamic live act. Green was a powerful guitarist and had a distinctive guttural voice that perfectly complemented his blistering guitar licks. He was also a skilled songwriter, going from the sublime (“Man of the World” and “Albatross)” to the earthy [“The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Prong Crown)”] and “Oh Well”) to the mysterious (“Black Magic Woman,” which was covered by West Coast band Santana and became their signature song). Jeremy Spencer was also notable. He often closed the band’s shows by doing old rock ‘n’ roll numbers and mimicking people like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. The band was a regular attraction at 60s-era ballrooms like the Shrine Auditorium, Avalon Ballroom, Fillmore West, Fillmore East, and Boston Tea Party.

Then the first tragedy occurred. Like so many creative artists from that era, Green began experimenting with LSD. And like Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd) and Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys) before him, he became a casualty of the drug. He began wearing long robes on stage and drifting off into endless guitar solos. Although the undisputed leader of Fleetwood Mac, Peter Green had to leave the band he had founded. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and entered a mental hospital. In the late 1970s, there was a rumor he was working as a gravedigger.

Some people seem to pull an ace out of their sleeve just when it’s needed. Fleetwood Mac’s ace was a guitarist named Danny Kirwan, whom Green had enlisted before the THEN PLAY ON album. Although Kirwan wasn’t the singer or instrumentalist that Green was, he was (at least to these ears) the best songwriter the band ever had. Kirwan guided the band through the next three records: KILN HOUSE, FUTURE GAMES, and BARE TREES.

KILN HOUSE, with artwork by Christine McVie

KILN HOUSE, with artwork by Christine McVie

Kirwan played a unique vibrato guitar and was responsible for some of the group’s most melodic songs, gorgeous gems like “Dragonfly,” “Jewel-Eyed Judy,” “Earl Grey,” “Woman of a Thousand Years,” “Bare Trees,” “Sunny Side of Heaven,” “Dust,” and others. For support, Kirwan leaned on John McVie’s wife, Christine Perfect McVie, who’d sung for the blues band Chicken Shack and joined the Mac during the KILN HOUSE sessions (and who created the striking artwork for that album sleeve). One of her songs, “Spare Me a Little of Your Love” from the BARE TREES sessions, became a staple of the band’s repertoire.

Kirwan, however, was always a little unstable. He was a heavy drinker and frequently succumbed to major mood swings. He was fired in 1973 after one particularly violent outburst. He later made three solo albums, the first two of which are very good (though not many people have heard them…they’re available for listening on YouTube, including the lovely “Cascades“).

Spencer, too, had quit in 1971 during a tour. While in Los Angeles, he’d gone out to buy a magazine, then disappeared for several days. The group later discovered he’d met a stranger on the street corner, who’d convinced him to renounce his former life and convert to a religious cult known as the Children of God.

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Fleetwood Mac circa 1972. From left to right, John McVie, Danny Kirwan, Christine McVie, Bob Welch, Mick Fleetwood

Fleetwood Mac’s seventh and eighth studio albums were PENGUIN and MYSTERY TO ME. They were a bit of a letdown after the creative Green and Kirwan years, but the latter LP had at least one great song in “Hypnotized,” which became a favorite on American FM radio. This tune was written and sung by Bob Welch, an unknown Californian who’d joined the Mac just after KILN HOUSE. Welch wasn’t on a songwriting par with Kirwan, but he helped in three ways: he provided vocal and writing support; he eased them into the American market with radio-friendly material like “Sentimental Lady” (which Welch later re-recorded as a solo artist, becoming a Top 10 hit); and – most significantly – he convinced them to move their offices from London to Los Angeles.

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BARE TREES, one of Fleetwood Mac’s best records

Welch was the last significant member to join Fleetwood Mac, until Nicks and Buckingham in ’74. He quit the band after the ninth album, HEROES ARE HARD TO FIND, when he became tired of touring, as well as fighting a legal battle over ownership of the band’s name (in another strange twist in the band’s history, Mick Fleetwood and band manager Clifford Davies, to fulfill a contract obligation, sent out a fake Fleetwood Mac on tour in 1974; Fleetwood later claimed he knew nothing about the ruse. This fake band later changed their name to Stretch and had a No. 16 hit with “Why Did You Do It?” which was aimed at Fleetwood).

In late ’74, Fleetwood made the acquaintance of American Lindsay Buckingham, who’d recorded an album with his then-girlfriend, Stephanie “Stevie” Nicks. He asked Buckingham to join the band to replace Welch. Buckingham agreed, but only if he could bring along Nicks. Fleetwood nodded “Yes,” and Fleetwood Mac’s long mystery train finally rolled toward that nebulous place where English blues musicians, Wall Street mercantilists, and inaugurated U.S. presidents get together to harmonize.

 ***

Today, founding member Peter Green keeps a low profile. But as late as 2010, he was doing short tours with his own band. In its list of Top 100 Guitarists of All Time, Rolling Stone magazine placed him at No. 38. Mojo Magazine ranked him No. 3.

Jeremy Spencer is still associated with the Children of God (now called Family International). He’s lived all over the world, has jammed privately with both Fleetwood and John McVie, and in 2009 appeared at the Chicago Blues Festival.

Bob Welch took his own life in 2012. His widow said he was in intense pain after recently undergoing unsuccessful spinal surgery. She thinks his pain medication may have also contributed to his suicide. In 1998, Welch was not included with other band members for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RnRHoF). He’d earlier filed a lawsuit against the band for underpayment of royalties, and he believed that Fleetwood and the McVie’s convinced the hall to blackball him.

Not much is known about Danny Kirwan. According to Wikipedia, his mental health declined after leaving Fleetwood Mac in 1973 (he was supposedly homeless for a while in the ‘80s and ‘90s). Unlike Welch, Kirwan was inducted into the RnRHoF with other members.  But he didn’t show up at the ceremony. John McVie was quoted as saying that a Fleetwood Mac reunion with Green and Spencer is a possibility, “but I don’t think there’s much chance of Danny doing it. Bless his heart.”

 

first album

Tolling Bells?

how democracies die

A year-and-a-half into the presidency of Donald Trump, there have been a number of books about the ramifications of his election. Some are “celebrity” memoirs, such as those by former FBI Director James Comey and former National Intelligence Director James Clapper. But one book that has jumped out of the pack, for me, is How Democracies Die (Crown Publishing) by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

It goes without saying that the provocative title might be construed as advertising a book-length opinion editorial. This book does point a firm finger at the current government in D.C. (How could it not?) But it goes deeper and analyzes how a demagogic figure like Trump could have been elected in the U.S., and what this means for the future of American democracy. Levitsky and Ziblatt aren’t partisan propagandists, but professors of government at Harvard University who have studied democratic breakdowns in Europe and Latin America, independently publishing books and articles related to world governments, including the U.S.

I’m partway through the book, and hope to share a review in a coming longitudes post. But for now, here’s a teaser, taken from the Introduction to How Democracies Die:

Is our democracy in danger? It is a question we never thought we’d be asking. We have been colleagues for fifteen years, thinking, writing, and teaching students about failures of democracy in other places and times—Europe’s dark 1930s, Latin America’s repressive 1970s. We have spent years researching new forms of authoritarianism emerging around the globe. For us, how and why democracies die has been an occupational obsession.

But now we find ourselves turning to our own country. Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity. Our Constitution, our national creed of freedom and equality, our historically robust middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large, diversified private sector—all of these should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere.

Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president.

What does all this mean? Are we living through the decline and fall of one of the world’s oldest and most successful democracies?

Maybe this book can offer some valuable insight into a troubling time in the U.S. I’ll try to share what I learn.

Stay tuned…

The Small Faces, “Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake”

 

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Longitudes certainly enjoys 50th anniversary specials. But can you blame me? I was a nipper in the 1960s, so I have fond memories of that time. And in 1968, I lived in Detroit, Michigan, when Motown music ruled the world, and the Detroit Tigers took the World Series. I can claim that I actually knew hitting legend Al Kaline, because his kid got shot up by the same allergist as me.

1968 was a violent year in America, but there are some good things that occurred.

However… this latest installment in ‘60s nostalgia boards the QE2 to sail “across the pond.” It profiles a record by a Brit band that pulled the difficult trick of marrying style with substance, which are usually mutually exclusive, and very few rocksters have been able to combine both. Elvis, the Beatles, James Brown, Hendrix, Bowie, Roxy Music, and the Clash come to mind. All made great music but were also visually dazzling.

Another is the Small Faces, a limey band that literally “carried the colours,” at least in England, for the mid-’60s British Invasion jump-started by the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Four working-class geezers, three of whom hailed from London’s rough East End, the Small Faces were the prototypical Mod band.

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The Small Faces. L to R: Kenney Jones, Ian McLagan, Steve Marriott, Ronnie Lane

“Mod,” short for modern, was an English youth movement that began in 1959, similar to American subcultures like beat or hippie, but smaller, and less threatening to the status quo. Mods wore flashy clothes, drove Vespa scooters, listened to soul music, and took speed drugs. Mod gave an identity to English working-class kids. Pete Townshend documented Mod culture with the 1973 Who album Quadrophenia.

The Small Faces were Mod to the core, but could also play instruments. The band members were lead singer/guitarist Steve Marriott, bassist Ronnie (“Plonk”) Lane, drummer Kenney Jones, and organist Ian McLagan (who replaced Jimmy Winston early on). All four stood under 5 feet 5 inches tall (Eric Clapton, upon meeting them for the first time, said they all looked like little “haw-bits”). Their short stature, mischievousness, and stylish Carnaby Street threads made them the most eye-catching band in England for a time, especially beloved by screaming young girls (“birds”).

For music fans, between 1965 and 1968 the songwriting team of Marriott-Lane churned out a basketful of sophisticated pop hits in the UK, one quasi-hit in the U.S. (“Itchycoo Park,” which reached #16 in ‘67), and one LP masterwork, released in May ‘68. Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake is considered a classic by “those in the know,” but often overlooked when classic rock albums are bandied. I could give several reasons, but I’d rather just rave on.

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Move over, Lennon-McCartney

The first evidence that this record is a cut above most is the packaging, as visually arresting as the band’s Mod bob haircuts, tangerine and lime-green blazers, and winklepicker shoes. Ogdens’ was the first record released in a round sleeve, designed to resemble an old tobacco tin, and the name parodies an 1899 brand of tobacco. The sleeve unfolds to four circles with moody black-and-white pics of the band members (photographer Gered Mankowitz).

Musically, Ogdens’ is equally mind-blasting. After the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, Ogdens’ was the first “concept album,” preceding both S.F. Sorrow by the Pretty Things and The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society by several months. The second side is a Ronnie Lane-inspired musical fairy tale about “Happiness Stan,” who goes on a quest, assisted by a friendly fly, to find the other half of the “dangly” moon. Linking various musical snips is daft narration by English comic Stanley Unwin, who combined the Small’s cockney slang with his own nonsensical “Unwinese” speak (Unwin supposedly influenced John Lennon’s absurdist lyrics and poetry).

As “knees-up” as side two of Ogdens’ is, the heavy hitters are on side one. The title song opener is an instrumental that explodes with Lane’s thunderous bass, McLagan’s altered Hammond organ, and sweeping woodwinds that include cello.

“Afterglow” showcases ace-Face Marriott’s wailing voice. In a non-racial world, Marriott’s soulfulness would be held in similar regard as Ray Charles and Otis Redding. I know what some of you are thinking: he’s bloody white, mate! But I say: bollocks, mate! Great pipes is great pipes. None other than Keith Richards and Ozzie Osbourne have cited Marriott as one of their favourite singers, and those two blokes know something about singing (amongst other things, wink-wink).small faces 2

“Long Agos and Worlds Apart” is one of only two numbers Ian McLagan wrote with the band (the other is “Up the Wooden Hills to Bedfordshire”). Like the Who’s John Entwistle, McLagan wasn’t prolific, but his two songs are highlights of the band catalogue. He has a world-weary voice that contrasts Marriott’s full-frontal assault. This song has a loping instrumental line that I can’t determine is organ or guitar. But it’s an intoxicating arrangement, with a dollop of appropriate psychedelia.

“Rene” is an ode to a waterfront prostitute, “groping with the stokers from the coast of Kuala Lampur.” Marriott, as cockney tour guide, leads us into working-class East London. If you think you’ve suddenly ducked inside an English music hall, it’s because, before discovering rock ‘n’ roll, Marriott was a precocious child actor/singer who starred as the Artful Dodger in the London stage musical Oliver! (he was also in several films, one of which starred a pre-Clouseau Peter Sellers). “Rene” is a rousing singalong tune, the second half a chugging instrumental where our hyper tour guide goes berserk on distorted guitar and blues harp.

“Song of a Baker” is a Ronnie Lane special. Though an inner-city lad, Lane had an affinity for rural life, and later moved to an isolated farm in Wales. “Song of a Baker” is a heavy rocker, but its heart is in the country. Some of the album’s best lyrics are “I’m depending on my labour / The texture and the flavour” and “So I’ll jug some water, bake some flour / Store some salt and wait the hour.”small faces 6

Side one closes with one of the band’s best A-sides, the theatrical “Lazy Sunday.” Marriott wrote it after his neighbors had him evicted for noisemaking. He was always trying to distance himself from his acting roots (which fortunately managed to slip through in the music), and didn’t want this song on the album, but Immediate Records had final say. It’s quintessential English, slice-of-life escapism (think “Penny Lane,” the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” the Hollies’ “Bus Stop,” the Zombies’ “Beechwood Park,” and the Smalls’ own “Itchycoo Park”). The bouncy melody is broken by cockney-esque poetry like “Cor blimey, ‘ello Mrs. Jones, ow’s your bird’s lumbago?”

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Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake reached #1 on the UK Albums Chart and stayed there for six weeks (America had too much on its plate in ‘68, and missed the boat). Due to the record’s complexity, including orchestration, the group never performed it live. This fact contributed to their demise. They knew they could never top Ogdens’. Also, Marriott wanted to get into guitar-heavy, R&B-styled rock and distance himself from the teen-scream scene (though one of the special things about the Small Faces was their playful irreverence). So, he quit the Smalls seven months after the album’s release. He joined with guitar hotshot Peter Frampton (ex-Herd) to form Humble Pie. The other three were briefly adrift, but eventually hired Ron Wood and blond, sexy Rod Stewart, both much taller and recently exiled from the Jeff Beck Group, to become the Faces.small faces 3

Whilst not as artistically satisfying as the Small Faces, both Humble Pie and the Faces achieved the popular success in North America that had escaped the Smalls.

Drummer Kenney Jones is the only Small left. Steve Marriott died in a tragic house fire in 1991; Ronnie Lane succumbed to multiple sclerosis in 1997; and Ian McLagan died of a stroke in 2014. If you fancy rock bios, you’ll be gobsmacked by McLagan’s book All the Rage, which is one of the best fly-on-the-wall rock bios I’ve yet read.

As for Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, it’s been rereleased several times, on CD and vinyl, with music and packaging variations. The original UK vinyl version with the round gatefold cover is the one to get. But you may have to put your home on the market, or place one of your children into indentured servitude to afford it.

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NOTE: Perhaps you noticed I didn’t mention Hall of Fame (HOF) inductions or Rolling Stone (RS) magazine lists here. It’s become fashionable to do this—as if a coterie of music-critic aristocrats with crabs in their beards decide which music is worthy of being anointed for artistic posterity. Cor blimey, I’ve even cited their shite once or twice! But never again, mate. Inductions, lists, polls, rankings, and record sales are poor indicators for determining what is “good” music and what isn’t, by gor, and a lot of these HOF and RS critics are daft, anyway (and get dafter every year). Therefore, longitudes says “rubbish” to all of it.

By the way, I’m right chuffed to say that longitudes has deemed Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake the 19th greatest rock record ever, Steve Marriott the 9th greatest rock vocalist, Marriott-Lane the 4th greatest rock songwriting duo, and the band is in the longitudes hall of fame as a separate act from the Faces, which was a totally different band, musically.

Now, are we all sitting comfy-bowl? Good, then I’ll meet you at the Crown and Anchor, mate. I’ll be wearing pink winklepickers.

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A Boy and a Raccoon

Rascal book

“It was in May 1918 that a new friend and companion came into my life: a character, a personality, and a ring-tailed wonder.”

Among other neuroses, I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It may have started in 1968 when I was 10 and became obsessed with having a wild animal as a pet. A therapist might deduce that I craved attention. Having a wild animal as a pet, instead of a dog or cat, draws attention and makes a young person special.

My favorite wild animal was the raccoon (Procyon lotor). I became a child expert on raccoons, and I’ve always remembered the Latin name that I just tried to impress you with.

It started in fifth grade when I read a children’s book called Little Rascal, about a boy and his pet raccoon. A few months later, I graduated to the full novel, Rascal. The novel was a 1963 bestseller, Newbery Honor book, and the first Dutton Animal Book Award winner. It was popular enough that it became a 1969 Disney movie starring Bill Mumy and Steve Forrest (critic Leonard Maltin gives the film two-and-a-half out of four stars, which I might agree with… movies are seldom as good as the books they’re based on).

I read Rascal several times and saw the movie in the theatre the first week of its release. Eventually, my obsession with raccoons became so strong that in 1970 I captured my own baby raccoon in a box trap and made him a pet, with my dad building a 10-foot-tall cage at the side of our house. Rascal II and I became the talk of the neighborhood. My chatterbox friend used to perch on my scrawny shoulders, his black mask like a pair of racing goggles, while we tooled around the streets on my red Schwinn Sting-Ray. For a short time in 1970, before Rascal felt the call and disappeared to locate a mate, I was a minor celebrity.

But enough about my OCD. May 2018 is 100 years since author Sterling North became acquainted with an animal that changed his life, so I’d like to talk about him, his pet raccoon, and his special book.

Sterling North House

Sterling North House (photo public domain)

Sterling North was raised in the small town of Edgerton in southern Wisconsin, on the banks of Rock River near shallow Lake Koshkonong. In 1918, Lake Koshkonong was a wild and scenic lake rimmed by dark forest. But a dam was built in 1932, creating an enlarged reservoir that is now studded with public beaches and boat landings, and an interstate now cuts along the western shore, so much of the lake’s wildness is gone (in the 1970s, the lake came perilously close to hosting a nuclear power plant). In 1918, North was age 11 and spent many hours both on the lake and in the woods surrounding it. He lived alone with his often-absent father, his mother having died when he was only 7, his two older sisters having moved away, and his older brother, Herschel, was far away in France, fighting to end the war to end all wars.

One evening in May, he and his friend Oscar venture into Wentworth’s Woods, where Sterling’s devoted St. Bernard, Wowser, digs up a den of raccoons. The mother and babies hightail it into the brush, but Oscar scoops one of the babes into his cap. He knows his tyrannical father won’t let him keep it, so he gives it to Sterling. Over the next year, Sterling and Rascal have numerous adventures together.

On the surface, Rascal appears to be a just children’s story about a boy frolicking with a wild animal. But it’s a book equally appealing to grownups. I read it again 9 years ago and discovered layers I didn’t know existed. North’s relationship with the lovable, intelligent Rascal is a friendship as tangible as that between people. In the book, he instills human characteristics in his furry hero, but without stretching credulity or sounding trite. He also captures a bygone time of innocent rural Americana, when hickory and walnut hunting, whippoorwill sighting, pie-eating contests, and trotter races are small treasures, and not corny anachronisms.

Sterling North Society

Sterling North and friends (photo Sterling North Society)

In Rascal, North makes plain that his childhood is unorthodox. His father allows him to keep numerous wild and domestic pets, wander deep into the woods, sleep alone outdoors, skip school, etc. The entire living room is cloaked in sawdust from a canoe that Sterling is building by himself. While Sterling’s martinet eldest sister, Theo, scolds their father for creating an unhealthy household environment, his other sister, Jessica—a surrogate mother for Sterling—is more tender and understanding. She realizes that Sterling’s world of flora and fauna is a way of coping with their mother’s death.

And Sterling’s father indulges their self-sufficiency, knowing that being “different” and not trotting after the pack are a healthy thing.

Sterling’s pet raccoon introduces humor and sunlight into the boy’s life. Rascal also brings about a jarring awakening. After seeing a picture of a trapped raccoon on the cover of his fur catalogue, the sensitive boy pictures Rascal’s soft, inquisitive hand clamped in a jaw trap, and he decides to give up trapping. He declares a “peace” with nature on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. North concludes this chapter with the memorable sentence: “It is perhaps the only peace treaty that was ever kept.”

John R. Sill

Lake Koshkonong (photo John R. Sill)

***

North grew up to be a successful reporter and editor and wrote a children’s book that became a 1949 feature film, So Dear to My Heart, featuring Burl Ives. But Rascal is the book he’s most known for. In Japan, the book became a cartoon series in 1977, and the raccoon character is still very popular there, supposedly bigger than Mickey Mouse.

When he retired, North and his wife moved to Morristown, New Jersey, choosing the location specifically because there were lots of woods and wild animals, including raccoons.

During this time, my aunt and cousin lived in nearby Millington, New Jersey. When my family visited in the early ‘70s, my aunt found out about my interest, and telephoned the North home to see if I could stop by to meet my favorite author (I was too shy to call myself). But Mrs. North said her husband was suffering from a long illness and was unable to have visitors. She said he’d be pleased to hear that I’d called, though.

In January 1975, while a sophomore at boarding school, I read in the back pages of Newsweek that Sterling North had passed away at age 68. It was like another piece of my childhood had passed away.

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(Author photo)

Martin Luther King and “The Other America”

(Photo Santi Visalli / Getty)

The March for Our Lives students are presently receiving death threats and profanity-laced tirades, from so-called adults, for their campaign against American gun violence.  However – between pop quizzes and learning how to drive – they’re undeterred.

Someone else experienced a similar backlash for his activism.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached nonviolence to end segregation, poverty, and war.  He was ridiculed, threatened, jailed, beaten, and ultimately assassinated… 50 years ago today.

In a speech at Stanford University on April 14, 1967 (known as “The Other America” speech), he said something that could be equally applicable to today’s debate over gun control laws:

Although it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated.  Even though it may be true that the law cannot change the heart, it can restrain the heartless.  Even though it may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, it can restrain him from (killing) me… And so while the law may not change the hearts of men, it can and does change the habits of men.

King followed this by observing that, once habits change, attitudes and hearts will follow suit.  Based on the behavior of many of our current (elected) leaders, history has yet to render a verdict on this.

On this dark anniversary, it’s good to remember we had a leader of integrity, who was also unafraid to dream.

(To hear King, click the link above, and scroll to 30:00 for the quote)

(Photo Agence France Presse)

Marching for Our Lives

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She was standing alone. A pretty girl, she couldn’t have been more than 15 or 16 years old. I don’t know how she arrived at City Hall, in downtown Cincinnati, on this shivery March day, with wet snow beginning to fall. Maybe her parents dropped her off? Maybe she rode with some older friends?

She was holding a large orange sign with hand-scribbled words and numbers. The numbers signified annual handgun deaths in various countries around the world. The statistic for America was staggering. It dwarfed the others. While I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the numbers, it is true that the U.S. gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher than other high-income nations.

At the bottom of her sign, as a coda, she’d written “God Bless America.” Probably a touch of sarcasm. But she’s young, and she looked like she was from a good family. Personally, I’d have chosen a more scorching coda.

***

It was the March for Our Lives rally in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A. on March 24, 2018, and “Eliza” was just one of thousands who’d gathered in front of City Hall to protest. There were many other rallies around the country, in addition to the one in the nation’s capital that drew a quarter million people – many of them young – in the wake of the recent mass murders in Parkland, Florida.

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Eliza, with some sobering figures

The rallies are an effort… another effort, after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Portland, and other tragedies too numerous to count – to force our intransigent elected officials, many of whom campaign using gun lobby dollars, into addressing America’s shamefully lax gun laws.

At one time, firearm deaths were handgun-related only, guns purchased both legally and illegally. They were primarily restricted to the inner city, the evolutionary endpoint of a welfare society infected by poverty, drugs, racism, and corruption, attributed to punks, criminals, and cops (some of whom, as we’ve seen recently with crystal clarity, enjoy squeezing triggers). And attributed, secondarily, to the gun industry. Most of us got our dose of gun violence via local evening news: “info-tainment,” delivered while we sipped our cocktail of choice. Then, later in the evening, we jumped to fictionalized violence, courtesy of “the All-New (fill in the blank)” television drama.

Slowly and imperceptibly, however, gun violence crept into our suburbs. And now it’s exploded in our educational institutions. Our schools were once places of learning, and also havens of safety. Now, our kids and grandkids are getting blown away by legally purchased AK-47s.

There’s something profoundly sad when children are forced – literally, at gunpoint – into organizing a protest to repair the damage wrought by their parents.

***

I arrived at 801 Plum Street fairly early. The streets around City Hall were cordoned by police, and several cops were stationed at various points. A large television camera was positioned in front of the building near the edge of the street. Several long tables were pushed against the building, with several volunteers manning them. About 50 people milled about the front steps. One of them was adjusting a microphone stand.

Is this all there is? I thought. I’d attended a gun control rally in downtown Columbus back in the ‘90s and was disappointed at the small turnout. I’d hoped for a larger turnout today. Maybe the 32-degree temp and snow forecast discouraged people. I overheard one woman remark “Does the NRA control the weather, too?”

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Some ugly guy with a green sign. If you want change, you’ve got to vote.

Gradually, though, the crowd swelled. It eventually spilled into the street, then the opposite sidewalk, then extended down the street. It was a diverse cross section: young and old, male and female, white and black. Most of them carried signs, many homemade. The signs expressed all different sentiments. Many of them blasted the National Rifle Association (NRA), at one time merely a club, but now a potent right-wing political force. Some singled out individuals, like Trump, or Ohio Senator Rob Portman (R), or Ohio congressman Steve Chabot (R), who have consistently pandered to the NRA.

In fact, some Republican politicians refuse to even use the phrase “gun control” (similar to their avoiding “climate change”). I’ve visited their websites off and on for years, so I know. Their dropdown boxes for issue selection have no options for “Gun Control” or “Firearm Violence.” Instead, it’s “Crime/Violence” or “Second Amendment Rights.” They know who buys their meal tickets.

Eliza’s sign was my favorite: a cold, clinical dose of reality. Another favorite was the one that bragged about the “F” grade the sign holder had received from the NRA.

I didn’t bring a sign, but one of the volunteers asked if I’d like to encourage voter registration, and I agreed. During the speeches and subsequent march, I held my sign high, so the NRA can at least see that its opponents and critics are voters, too.

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All ages showed up.

The speeches began about 11 a.m. The first speaker was Rasleen Krupp, a junior from nearby Wyoming High School. This girl was amazing. Her bullhorn voice seethed anger and power, as she implored the crowd to stand up to opponents of gun control and fight to reform America’s gun laws. She delivered an oratory that would make Cicero proud.

Ethel Guttenberg, from nearby Amberley Village, had a granddaughter killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Her speech was courageous and strong, calmly thanking everyone for turning out, and, like Krupp, encouraging everyone to keep fighting, to not give up despite the disappointments ahead. She also noted that some politicians refused to even meet with her.

I wonder if she was referring to Portman, or Chabot, or both.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley (D) spoke, to mild applause and a few boos. He decried gun violence (someone yelled out “from cops!”) and encouraged people to register and vote in November.

A teacher from Mount Healthy school system spoke while hugging his son. He lambasted Trump and others for suggesting teachers be armed, saying that he’s “not trained to use a firearm,” and shouldn’t be required to defend his students just so individuals can legally purchase weapons of death.

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Whole families turned out to peacefully march and protest.

A young boy spoke. I didn’t get his age, but he looked about 9 or 10. He’d earlier addressed City Hall. He explained, haltingly, that his school had held a drill, like a fire drill. The kids were told to huddle together in a corner of the room. He said that he wanted to be in the center of the huddle, so that he might be more protected from gunfire, but that he felt sorry for his friends in the outer circle. I’m not a psychologist. But I would think a drill like this could have lifetime consequences for a child.

***

The march went for about a mile, winding through downtown Cincinnati. Lots of chanting, a few sidewalk spectators and building residents cheering us on. It felt good to be moving with passionate people of similar mind. The march conjured memories of old marathon races I’d run, except this race had much more significance.

After the march, all the signs were dumped on the steps of the local office of Senator Portman. Not surprisingly, he didn’t show his face.

***

Some people are saying that the Parkland massacre is a tipping point. That American citizens are finally getting fed up. I thought this same thing after Sandy Hook, when first-graders were mowed down in cold blood. Yet nothing happened in Washington. Once we verbalized our thoughts, and said our prayers, we shuffled back to reality TV.

Another riveting speaker on Saturday, a woman representing Mom’s Demand Action, noted that this is a “uniquely American problem.” Other nations, including allies and some we’ve defeated in wars, now look at us and shake their heads in disgust. 0324181039-00America is fast losing the global standing and respect it once had. And it’s not just about Donald Trump. It’s about a culture of guns and violence that has permeated our fabric and is ripping us apart from the inside.

If we’re going to remedy this cancer we’ve encouraged for so many years, it’s going to take much more than thoughts, prayers, marches, and speeches. Right now, gun manufacturers and the NRA have a stranglehold on our elected officials. The only way to loosen that grip is to fire the political puppets we currently have and remain single-minded on regularly and consistently electing gun-control candidates in local, state, and national elections, who will raise their middle finger to the NRA, and pass common-sense gun legislation.

At this latest juncture, it’s youth who are leading the charge (and who can blame them, when their lives are on the line?). While their activism is encouraging, young people’s priorities shift, just as my generation’s did after Vietnam and Watergate: we fall in love, start careers, get married, invest in Wall Street… we lose focus, and forget.

A public health crisis on this scale requires the attention of everyone, who will remember never to forget.

Never.

 

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The Massacre at My Lai, South Vietnam

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Friday, March 16, was the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre. It was the worst atrocity committed by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam (there were others).

A total of 504 unarmed Vietnamese, including 173 children, 56 infants, 82 women (17 of them pregnant), and 60 elderly men were systematically murdered over a period of four hours. Many women and young girls were gang raped.  The soldiers took a lunch break after the killings.

Two villages were involved: My Lai and My Khe, located a mile away on the South China Sea.

This war crime was quickly covered up by U.S. military leadership (retired four-star general and former Secretary of State Colin Powell  denied allegations of similar Vietnam brutalities).

The massacre was only revealed to the public over a year later through the efforts of independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. Only one soldier was ultimately convicted: Lieutenant William Calley. He was sentenced to prison at Fort Leavenworth, but a day later President Richard Nixon ordered him released and transferred to house arrest at Fort Benning, pending appeal. He served only three and a half years of house arrest, then was released.

The atrocities at My Lai and My Khe were one tragedy.  Here’s an article in The Atlantic about the behavior of many Americans afterwards, and the lesson the U.S. should have learned, but hasn’t:

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/03/my-lai-50/555671/

(Header photo San Francisco Bay View)

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