A Hollywood Legend Shares Her Wisdom

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Last month, I wrote about 102-year-old actress Olivia de Havilland’s lawsuit against FX Networks for defamation of character, instigated by that network’s unflattering and unauthorized depiction of her in the first-season installment of its pay-television series,  Feud.

As often happens when I write something, my curiosity led me deeper into the subject. I did some internet clicking, and discovered a 2 ½-hour interview with de Havilland from October 5, 2006 (back when she was a mere 90 years old). The interview was conducted by the Academy of Achievement, of which de Havilland is an inducted member. Most of the interview consists of her reminiscences of her childhood, family, and acting career. It’s a fascinating overview of a life well-lived, possessing great cultural value.

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De Havilland in Oscar-nominated role in 1948 film “The Snake Pit” (Getty Images)

But at the tail end, she holds forth on subjects more expansive and contemporary: the importance of experiencing foreign cultures; literacy and book reading; the lessons of warfare; the European Union; and the American Dream. Her views on these subjects resonated with me.

However, (obviously), de Havilland has more street cred than longitudes. She’s been around a bit longer and experienced a bit more. She was born in Japan to British parents, raised in the U.S., where she became a citizen and had a long movie career, and she’s lived in France for many years. Her words carry slightly more weight than this author’s.

So, here, I’m doing something a little unusual: I’m going to shut up and let someone else talk. I’m re-printing that conclusion of the Academy of Achievement interview. (To view the entire interview, click here, or to read the transcript, click here.)

Please note: this interview occurred a year before the iPhone became embedded in global culture…and ten years before the election of Donald Trump.

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“The Last Belle of Cinema,” Washington, D.C., October 5, 2006 (original source: Academy of Achievement)

Academy of Achievement: You’ve said that in addition to going to college, you believe that American young people should travel abroad.

Olivia de Havilland: I think it is terribly important for this country that the young have at least one year of university in some foreign country. It’s extremely important to understand another culture, another people. Here we are isolated, this huge continent, isolated from the rest of the world by two great oceans. passportWe don’t understand other peoples. It’s so ironic, because we are made up of people of every race whose origin—origins were other countries. We are almost completely ignorant, and we are rather arrogant in our ignorance, and we are going to make terrible blunders that are injurious to other peoples abroad, and in the end, to ourselves. It’s imperative.

Otherwise, we will be a retrogressive nation…and we are on our way. I know three university students: one is going to do postgraduate work, a brilliant girl; another, who I think will also do postgraduate work; another who is 19, a sophomore. The 19-year-old has a capacity for analysis which would be counted as absolutely brilliant in a 45-year-old woman. (But) she can’t spell. She knows her way around a laptop with these mechanisms that spell for you, but she can’t spell, didn’t think it was necessary. Neither can these other two girls. Top students they were. Can’t spell. Now, that’s retrogressive. I’ll bet you anything they can’t add either, because they’ve got the calculator. Also, one of the reasons they can’t spell is they will watch television, you see, instead of reading books. They won’t look up anything in their dictionary even. It is all done by pressing buttons.

girl readingReading! Think of what the brain goes through! It is a very, very special function. When you read, you visualize. You imagine the characters. When you go and watch television, it is not only physically passive—reading is physically passive, certainly—but it is all done for you. It does arouse your interest, your full attention, and your emotions, but by a different process. The other process, the capacity to envision yourself, is very important to develop. If you do that, you are apt to learn to spell anyway, because you will see the difference between words that sound the same, like “manor,” m-a-n-or, and “manner,” m-a-n-n-e-r, and how they are used, how they are spelled differently. Oh, it is imperative, and I think something has to be done to encourage them to learn to spell, to read, to add and subtract.

Academy of Achievement: You’ve lived in France for many years now. You speak French, and you have written very charmingly about life in France. Do you think that living there has changed your perspective?

Olivia de Havilland: It’s been an extraordinary experience, absolutely extraordinary to learn about another culture and other people. It is an immense privilege and an exciting adventure. Not only that, but just living in Europe has been an extraordinary experience, because I have been living in a culture of peace. Those 19-year-old American boys—Omaha Beach, and up and down that coast—they didn’t die for nothing. Think of it. Europe, with all these different countries, each country separate from the other in terms of history, culture, language, all of them, for 2,000 years and more, at war with each other, generation after generation. And all of a sudden, after World War II, they didn’t want to kill each other anymore, and we now have the European Union. It is a miracle. And the culture there is, indeed, a culture of peace, and the thought of solving a problem, a disagreement through war…unthinkable. Unthinkable.

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Cemetery near Omaha Beach, Normandy, France (site of 1944 D-Day invasion)

Imagine if the United States had been created 2,000 years ago and from then until now, Nevada had declared war on California regularly all through those centuries. If Florida had been at war with Alabama, North Dakota with South Dakota, Oregon with Washington and Idaho and Montana and the rest of them, Nebraska, Mississippi, all at war with each other for 2,000 years, and suddenly, one day, they decide they don’t want to kill each other anymore. That’s what’s happened in Europe. War is a very stupid way to settle a disagreement. Unthinkable. Won’t do. And in Europe, you have the feeling that the whole human race has been raised to another level by what has happened there.

Academy of Achievement: What is your sense of the American Dream? Does it still hold true for you?

Olivia de Havilland: I think we have abandoned our dream, and we must get back to it. We must. We absolutely must.

APTOPIX France Olivia de Havilland

(AP photo)

Speaking Truth to Power in Tinseltown

Olivia de Havilland portrait

She is 102 years old. Her first screen appearance was in 1935 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 1939 she co-starred in one of the most popular films of all time, Gone with the Wind. She was romantically linked with billionaire Howard Hughes, actor Jimmy Stewart, and director John Huston. She has won two Academy Awards for Best Actress, been nominated for three other Oscars, and been awarded or nominated for multiple other acting trophies.

She changed the face of Hollywood in the mid-1940s with the De Havilland Law, which helped terminate the oppressive “studio system” by freeing artists from tyrannical labor contracts.

She was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II. She received the highest order of merit in France, the Légion d’Honneur, from Nicolas Sarkozy. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts by George W. Bush. Since 1956, she has lived in the same three-story house in Paris.

Olivia de Havilland is the last surviving actor of 1930s Hollywood, and one of the last of its Golden Age. She’s also the last person one would think would be compelled to file another lawsuit, this one an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. But in these surreal days of infantile tweets by U.S. presidents, when up is down and down is up…anything is possible.

***

In 2017, a mini-series called Feud: Bette and Joan came out on FX Networks. It concerns actress Bette Davis, who was supposedly very feisty, and actress Joan Crawford, supposedly extremely vain (even for Hollywood). The two notoriously clashed during and after the 1962 production of the macabre film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The recent Feud stars Susan Sarandon as Davis, and Jessica Lange as Crawford.

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Movie still from Baby Jane.  Crawford is on left, Davis is on right.

Olivia de Havilland knew and worked with both Davis and Crawford. Her character, portrayed by Catherine Zeta-Jones, narrates Feud. However, de Havilland was never consulted before or during the making of the series.  

I have not seen Feud, so I can’t comment on its artistic merits. But judging from the subject matter, it sounds not unlike most of the glossy soap-opera trash that Hollywood often promotes as serious “drama” today. (According to de Havilland’s 112-page petition, the mini-series is devoted to “the theme of women actors cat-fighting, using vulgar language, and backstabbing one another.”)

Miss de Havilland’s lawsuit argues that Feud and executive producer Ryan Murphy (previous credit: The People v. O.J. Simpson), take considerable liberties with the truth, to put it politely. But this isn’t unusual in Hollywood (or anywhere else, for that matter). Ever since D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1915, which depicts the Ku Klux Klan as heroic, historical truth has been a malleable commodity in moving pictures. Usually, the factual acrobatics are for artistic and commercial benefit. Sometimes there’s a political or social agenda involved, as with Griffith’s film.

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Davis and de Havilland during the Baby Jane follow-up, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). De Havilland replaced Crawford early on. (Joe Farrington/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

But sometimes these artistic liberties cross a threshold and create false impressions that have a deleterious effect on peoples’ character. Such is the claim of Miss de Havilland and her legal team.

Specifically, and related directly to her, de Havilland objects to a scene where she refers to her late sister, actress Joan Fontaine (with whom de Havilland had a cold relationship), as a “bitch.” She also objects to a scene where she makes snide remarks about Frank Sinatra’s alcohol use. The fact that Feud is presented as semi-documentary lends additional weight to de Havilland’s grievance.

Now, these Tinseltown skirmishes may seem petty and inconsequential to most of us. We’ve been raised in an age of constant media diversion, where fact and fantasy often coexist and overlap, and where manners are seemingly…well… “gone with the wind.” We live in a much cruder time. But Olivia de Havilland is from an earlier era. A time when unwritten codes of conduct were adhered to, and not everything—whether fact or fantasy—was splashed onto a screen. Freedom of speech and artistic license are one thing. But libeling someone in the name of art is another.

“Tens of millions of people* viewed “Feud,” and for a new generation, most likely all they know of Petitioner is found in the unauthorized lies and mischaracterization of her life, her work, and her nature as put forward in that series…This false portrayal has damaged Petitioner’s reputation.” (from Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, Oliva de Havilland, DBE, Petitioner v. FX Networks, LLC and Pacific 2.1 Entertainment Group, Inc.).

The Supreme Court appeal was filed in September. It follows an original petition in March 2017, which was struck down by two appeals courts, including the California Supreme Court. In both cases, Murphy and FX Networks successfully used the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to justify their “artistic license” to reputedly stretch the truth and stain the character of both living and dead persons.

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De Havilland, circa 1940 (Photofest)

In earlier essays, longitudes has touched on issues related to the First Amendment, which protects Americans’ freedom of speech, religion, press, and right to peaceably assemble. Television stars and their supporters have flaunted the Constitution to defend the right to employment after employer termination for vulgar, bigoted remarks (Duck Dynasty vs. U.S. Constitution). Armed political activists have clumsily brandished the Constitution while illegally occupying federal land (This Land is Your Land: Domestic Terrorism in Oregon).

We’ve also seen the U.S. Supreme Court misinterpret the First Amendment in order to protect corporations and enable them to donate unlimited amounts of money to the political candidates they hope will serve their purposes (Citizens United v. FEC).

Longitudes is an enthusiastic fan of Olivia de Havilland. Anyone who has seen either The Heiress or The Snake Pit is aware of her immense talent, not to mention her beauty. But that’s not why this blog supports her in her campaign for truth and decency. It’s because the First Amendment was not intended by the Founders to protect businesses like FX Networks from fictionalizing, in a negative manner, the words and actions of people in the pursuit of commerce, and in the guise of “art.”

Unfortunately, judging from certain recent court decisions where the First Amendment is involved, and the unprecedented clout of U.S. industry today, longitudes doesn’t hold out much hope for Miss de Havilland.

Then again—like a rubber ball bouncing between walls in a closed room—American laws have never been fixed, and their trajectories are purely determined by whomever is doing the bouncing at any given time.

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Promo card of de Havilland in play Alice in Wonderland, 1933.

* Variety magazine reported that 5.1 million people total watched Feud when first broadcast.

(Header photo: Laura Stevens, Variety)

Serena Williams, Entitlement, and Tennis Hooligans

APTOPIX US Open Tennis

Feeling under the weather today. Had trouble sleeping Saturday night. Just too keyed up. I thought I’d seen it all in sports. Olympic medalists raising clenched fists. Taunting and touchdown celebrations. Steroid use. Temper tantrums.

But Saturday night was a new low. Why? Because this time, deplorable behavior wasn’t restricted to just the athlete. This time, it was boorishness by committee: player, fans, announcers, and association president.

I’m referring to the 2018 women’s tennis final of the U.S. Open in New York City.

As often occurs in professional sports these days, the Big Top was overshadowed by a sideshow. Although 20-year-old Naomi Osaka of Japan won the champions’ trophy by obliterating American Serena Williams in straight sets, 6-2, 6-4, the vast majority of news stories are now focusing on Williams’ massive meltdown. Warned of being coached from the stands, she was then penalized a point for smashing her racket on the court, then penalized a game for verbally abusing the chair umpire for doing what he’s paid to do. The tantrum went on for, oh, maybe ten solid minutes, and continued in slightly milder fashion on the podium and in her news conference.

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Queen Serena lectures Ramos

Here are some quotes from Queen Serena:

“I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose!” after being warned of coaching from the stands. (Though, after a history of angry outbursts at the U.S. Open, she seems to have difficulty losing.)

(And though cameras distinctly showed her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, gesturing her to move forward, and Mouratoglou himself later admitted he was, indeed, coaching.)

“You stole a point from me and you are a thief!” after chair umpire Carlos Ramos penalized Williams for destroying her racket by slamming it on the court.

“You owe me an apology!” screamed over and over and over.

If this wasn’t bad enough, the raucous, one-sided crowd was behind Williams the whole way, consistently booing Ramos, as well as poor Osaka, whose heroine is (inconceivably) Williams, and who played her heart out.

Then on the podium after the match, USTA President Katrina Adams actually said “Perhaps it is not the finish we were looking for today.” She followed this biased remark with the even more remarkable “This mama (Williams) is a role model and respected by all.” Loud cheers follow, as Osaka—again, the victor and champion—continued to weep, undoubtedly due to the ugly dramatics around her as to her unlikely victory.

Williams refused to praise Osaka for her tennis playing, and instead played to the crowd by pretending to console Osaka…for Osaka’s victory.

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A sore loser consoles a shaken victor

The jellyfish announcers, Mary Carillo and Lindsay Davenport, seemed stunned by all of it, offering merely token praise to Osaka, and not once criticizing Williams for her antics. I’m just guessing here, but perhaps these two are aware that Williams does commercials for Chase, one of the tournament’s major sponsors? Quid pro quo, anyone?

Today, the majority of U.S. tennis fans are, in a disturbing shadowing of our petulant president’s behavior, tweeting all over cyberspace that it was the umpire’s fault their Queen lost, and that she deserves congratulations for speaking out against sexism. The Queen’s supporters include official women’s rights spokesperson and former tennis champion Billie Jean King.

The Katrina and Serena show continues as well. They’re joining King in shifting the focus from Williams’ disgusting tirade to the nebulous yet safe and fashionable issue of sexism. (A nice little club here.)

Am I the only one who feels like he’s living in an inverse universe, where values and priorities are turned upside down?

With seemingly everyone congratulating Williams for speaking out against sexism in tennis—by behaving like a spoiled brat because she lost—the tennis court has evidently now joined the football field as a place to air social grievances. (Despite significant differences between the motivations of sore losers like Williams and idealists like Colin Kapaernick.)

If wagon circling of big-money, entitled, immature superstars is where women’s tennis wants to be in the 21st century, count me out.

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By the way…Naomi Osaka, 2018 U.S Open champion

My New Book: Final Artwork

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Hello fellow bloggers and readers.  Some of you know that I’ve been writing a book.  Well, the artwork is finally completed!  I think the artist did a great job, and I’m looking forward to publication, which is right around the corner.

You folks are my biggest writing supporters, so I wanted you to know first (after my long-suffering wife, Lynn).  I’ll be providing updates as Evergreen Dreaming gets closer to publication.

Thanks, everybody, for hangin’ out here in longitudes with me!

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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Fantastic Lies One Could Live With

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Peder C. Lund died last year. His company died with him.

I don’t expect many of you to know Peder (pronounced PAY-der). Only unless you’re the type that stockpiles nitro-glycerin and regularly dons camo fatigues on trips to the 7-11.

I didn’t know his name until recently. But many years ago, Peder and I crossed paths. I’ll go into that later. Right now I’ll (try to) describe the man and what he did in life.

Lund was the co-founder and owner of Paladin Press, founded in 1970 by Lund and a fellow Vietnam Green Beret, Robert K. Brown. This publishing firm, based in Boulder, Colorado, produced instructional books and videos with titles like How to Kill Tanks, The Revenge Encyclopedia, How to Shoot Your M16/AR-15 in Training and Combat, The Ultimate Sniper, How to Open Locks Without Keys or Picks

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Typical tacky Paladin Press book cover

You get the picture. Not long after the company’s founding, Brown sold his interest to Lund and started the comparatively tame Soldier of Fortune magazine (emphasis on “comparatively”).

Paladin Press specialized in how-to manuals about killing, in addition to more innocuous, garden-variety gun, ammo, and martial arts books. All were characterized by bad writing and tacky graphics. One of their more ivy-league and humorous publications is How to Get Rich as a Televangelist or Faith Healer. The author, one Bill Wilson (probably a pseudonym), claims his book teaches “how to tailor your message for maximum gain, and…weasel out of trouble when your lavish lifestyle or personal misconduct hits the fan.”

Snipers and televangelists. Like peanut butter and jelly.

Lund knew the makeup of his buyers, and he supplied their dope. Who were the buyers? Well, the government-phobic right wing, for starters. Venture to the fringe of this species, and you encounter a more dangerous sub-species. Insecure men; outsiders who find identity, acceptance, and machismo in paramilitary clubs… perpetually adolescent, excessively nationalistic, and probably racist; white males with survivalist obsessions, plagued with small minds and, if you believe some people, small genitals. And here and there, a few clinical sickos. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was a customer for Paladin’s Homemade C-4: A Recipe for Survival.

(I know what some of you are thinking: this pond scum seems to be everywhere these days).

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A skinny Lund trying to look macho on the cover of his buddy’s magazine

Lund did well as a publisher. He built an opulent man-castle in the Colorado foothills, complete with indoor fountain, his own forest in back (perfect for guerilla maneuvers), and an expansive view of downtown Boulder, a town populated by New Age hippies, health food junkies, and rock climbers. Lund went through four wives. He was an adored paterfamilias at Paladin, supposedly paying and treating his employees well, and each year he rewarded their loyalty with a free trip to Baja. On the outside, he cultivated the image of an average, common-sense, all-American small businessman.

Then in 1996, Lund and Paladin made national news. They were sued by a Maryland family who claimed a Paladin book called Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors was used by a contract killer, James Perry, in the assassination killings of three family members, including a quadriplegic boy, to get trust fund money. The case became a First Amendment cause cèlébre. The ACLU, New York Times, and Washington Post jumped to Paladin’s defense. The case went as high as the Supreme Court (which refused to hear it), and eventually was settled out of court, with the family receiving millions in damages.

Lund claimed he didn’t want to settle, but his insurance company pressed for it. Paladin destroyed all warehouse copies of Hit Man.

The author of Hit Man, who used the pseudonym “Rex Feral” (Rex is Latin for “king,” and feral means “wild”) was never implicated. Writer Karen Abbott was able to track down the real Rex Feral. It turns out she was a divorced mother of two who lived in a trailer park and got her ideas from TV, movies, and mystery novels… (Isn’t America great??). When Abbot pressed for a personal interview, the woman declined, saying she didn’t want to be a hero, “tragic or otherwise. I just want to sit on my rocker on my porch and tell my grandsons stories they’re certain are fantastic lies.”

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Paladin Press’s most notorious title

After the Hit Man case, Lund continued to publish his how-to books on killing, but the rise of web journalism gradually took the steam out of Paladin. He died on June 3, 2017 while on vacation in Finland. Paladin Press closed its doors this past December.

***

Earlier, I said that I once met Lund. Here’s what happened:

I was just out of school, confused about what I wanted to do, and living in Boulder. Back then, my road map was the beat classic On the Road, so I did a lot of tramping. I was returning to Boulder from Cheyenne, Wyoming. I was dirty and beat and just wanted to collapse on my bed in the boarding house. But my extended right thumb was getting windburned.

Just as the sun was dropping over the spires of the Rockies, a shiny Porsche passed, then eased into the gravel in front of me. I ran up, opened the door, and hopped in with a relieved “Thanks!” The guy looked about 40, with thick black hair and bushy eyebrows. Memory is fuzzy, but I think he was wearing several rings as big as halogen lamps. My impression was a conceited guy who liked to flaunt his wealth.

I’m reconstructing the conversation, but these are the basics:

“How far you headed?” he asks.

“Downtown Boulder’s fine,” I answer.

“I’m headed to a club about eight miles ahead,” he says. “Is that good?”

“Sure, that’s great,” I respond, inhaling his aromatic cologne. “Thanks.”

Then a brief, awkward silence, the kind that inevitably follows introductions between a driver and hitchhiker.

“Where do you work?” he asks.

“At Häagen-Dazs,” I respond sheepishly. “I just graduated, so I’m still trying to break into my field. Not easy with this recession.”

“What did you study?”

“Journalism.” More awkward silence. Then it’s my turn to break it.

“What kind of work do you do?” I ask.

“I own a publishing company.” My body sinks deeper in his bucket seat.

“Wow, imagine that!” I respond nervously, with thoughts of a possible job interview, but also feeling embarrassed that I scoop ice cream for a living.

The guy’s now smirking like he knows he’s hot shit. “Journalism, huh? My company’s called Paladin Press. Ever hear of it?”

Yes, I had. Only a few years earlier, I’d read a story by popular syndicated columnist Bob Greene about this controversial publishing company. Greene was relentless in his criticism. He basically eviscerated Paladin, but only after drawing, quartering, and decapitating.

“Actually, I think so,” I reply, maybe hoping he won’t ask where I’d heard about it. At this point, I’d snuffed any idea of a job interview.

“Where’d you hear?”

“Uh, Bob Greene.”

This response shatters Lund’s previously cool exterior. No longer James Bond, he becomes a raging Bill O’Reilly on amphetamine.

“That f#@*ing liberal bastard!!” he yells. “He came out here to interview me and $#!*#!$!@#…”

(I forget what all he sputtered, but he went on for a while).

After he quiets down, the remainder of the ride is silent. I can now smell perspiration and a little seething mixed with the cologne. He lets me out in the crowded parking lot of Boulder’s premier discotheque. I thank him, shut the door, and walk the rest of the way home.

***

Paladin Press may have had a Constitutional right to publish its death porn. The Supreme Court never rendered a verdict, so by now it’s a moot point. But there’s another law besides U.S. Constitutional law. A child pornographer may be innocent of rape when one of his readers rapes a child, but isn’t the pornographer an accessory? If not legally, then morally?

Like I said, memory isn’t foolproof. However, impressions and feelings are. And my feeling is the same now as on July 30, 1983, when I thanked Lund for the ride then slammed his car door.

I’m damn glad that I ruined his evening.

 

Denver Post

(photo by The Denver Post)

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

(Illustration courtesy Edward Camp)

“…(U)pon the banquet of his funeral they most piously do pounce… And for years afterwards, perhaps, ships shun the place; leaping over it as silly sheep leap over a vacuum…” – Herman Melville

When I was in high school, we were assigned a novel called THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark.

It’s about three cowboys who are accused of cattle rustling and murder. While the cowboys insist on their innocence, a vigilante posse is convinced of their guilt. The vigilantes outnumber the cowboys, so they get the upper hand. The cowboys are hanged after a long night of drunken accusations and brutality. After the vigilantes commit their dirty deed and ride home, they’re stunned by what they discover: the cowboys were innocent after all.

The book is fiction, but it was my introduction to several life realities: warped vigilante justice…the concept of “court of public opinion” … the behavioral trait where people will do things in a group which they wouldn’t normally do alone (mob mentality) …and the idea that the majority in a democracy is not necessarily right. I’ve never forgotten the book. If you don’t like to read, you should at least see the movie, starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, and Anthony Quinn. It will stay with you.

Clark published THE OX-BOW INCIDENT in 1940. The 1943 movie was nominated for Best Picture. One would think such a powerful story would offer a moral lesson to those who would rush to judgment. But in the late 1940s and 1950s, America underwent the Hollywood blacklist and McCarthy hearings, a demagogic, Cold War smear campaign to hunt down alleged Communists. Careers were permanently destroyed.

In 1950, a slow-witted man in England, Timothy Evans, was tried, convicted, and executed for mass murder, despite later being found innocent. His case contributed to England’s abolishment of the death penalty. The U.S. is now the only Western nation to execute prisoners, despite numerous death row inmates later being exonerated.

Currently, America is in the throes of public figures being accused of sexual misconduct.  The entire reality show is sad and tawdry, a perfect second course to last year’s election. For some people, though, it’s a form of gladiatorial entertainment.

The latest name to fall from grace is author and radio personality Garrison Keillor, accused by an unidentified woman of sexual misconduct.

I usually walk the other way when I see sensational “soft” news like this. While I definitely don’t belittle the problem of sexual misconduct, obviously more widespread than anyone could have imagined, I’m more concerned about things like health care, income inequity, environmental degradation, and gun deaths. I know only a few details in the cases involving Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, John Conyers, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Al Franken. The reason I’m writing about Keillor is because for many years, off and on, I’ve listened to his live radio show A Prairie Home Companion, one of the best programs on radio.

Another reason is that, whether Keillor’s guilty or innocent, there are some troubling signs.

On November 29, Keillor was suddenly fired by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), after 42 years of employment, for alleged improper conduct with a woman. The station had hired a law firm back in October to independently investigate allegations. Both the law firm and MPR have been silent about the details. Not so Keillor, who retired from A Prairie Home Companion last year.

“I put my hand on a woman’s bare back,” Keillor explained. “I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness, and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. She recoiled. I apologized…We continued to be friendly right up until her lawyer called.”

On Facebook, Keillor commented “It’s astonishing that 50 years of hard work can be trashed in a morning by an accusation.”prairie image

MPR didn’t just fire Keillor. Similar to what happened to late football coach Joe Paterno at Penn State University after the child sex abuse scandal, it’s trying to erase all evidence of his presence, including cancelling rebroadcasts of his old shows, removing them from the MPR website, and canceling production and distribution of his syndicated series The Writer’s Almanac.

It’s almost assured that, after MPR’s actions, listenership for A Prairie Home Companion will suffer collateral damage and decline. Keillor’s already been consigned to the Bill Cosby Memorial Landfill, so this won’t be punishing him.  Similar to what happened at Penn State, when NCAA sanctions punished students, alumni, and fans, listeners of A Prairie Home Companion will be punished. The show, now hosted by Chris Thile, may end up dying a slow death.

Additionally, PBS recently pulled an episode featuring Keillor from its “Finding Your Roots” genealogy series.  Venues around the country are also canceling prescheduled shows with Keillor. Berkshire Theatre Group in Massachusetts was one, commenting that it “finds all victimization of people deplorable.”

(Does “all victimization” include Keillor and listeners of A Prairie Home Companion ?)

Just so no one thinks I’m excusing Garrison Keillor and downplaying this woman’s suffering, I’ll emphasize that he may indeed be guilty of more than just sliding his hand across a woman’s back to console her.  In which case he deserves a just punishment.  But he also may be innocent.  No one knows the truth at this point except Keillor and the woman (or women).  Not even MPR.

My problem is MPR fired him without ever consulting him about the allegations (at least, that the public is aware of).  They and others also want to erase any evidence of Keillor.  Though still a far cry, this expunging of history nevertheless has the whiff of Nazism and the dystopian worlds of Kafka and Orwell.

Once more in America in this age of tweet-friendly soundbites, a new term has been coined: “outrage machine.” But if there truly is outrage, how is it possible a man can be elected to the presidency after incontrovertible evidence of misogyny and sexually inappropriate behavior? Are we a nation of hypocrites?

***

If my wife or daughter were the victim of sexual harassment, I’d be at their sides in a heartbeat. At work, I’ve participated in ethics training. A good chunk of this training involves how to associate and how not to associate with employees of the opposite sex.

Some things are obvious. You don’t invite female co-workers to your bachelor pad to watch X-rated actors like “Long Dong Silver,” like one of our Supreme Court justices reputedly did (and I emphasize “reputedly”). You don’t grab them in their private parts, like our sleazeball president advised men to do (and here, I’ll emphasize definitively advised).

But there’s a large grey area (philosophical, not physical). One person’s idea of harassment could be another person’s attempt at being friendly or compassionate. There’s also the dating game. How many times can an employee request a date without it being considered “harassment”? Three times? Twice? Or should it be absolutely forbidden to request social time with an employee of the opposite sex?

Can you compliment someone on their outfit or hair? If she’s feeling depressed, can you put your hand on her shoulder? If so, does the shoulder have to be clothed, or can it be bare? Can you move your hand slightly while it’s on this bare shoulder?

I’m not being facetious, I’m totally sincere. Judging from what’s happened lately, I think we now need to ask ourselves these questions.  How are we going to define sexual misconduct? Should an office manager now be concerned about smiling at a co-worker? Could a friendly smile be construed as a sexually suggestive “leer”?

***

Garrison Keillor’s guilt or innocence isn’t the point of my essay. My point is that, even before all evidence and testimony are in, and despite his denial of sexual misconduct, he’s been hung by the neck in the court of public opinion. The court here includes Minnesota Public Radio; all those who have cancelled his future appearances (some adding editorial spice, like Berkshire Theatre Group); and various journalistic sharks around the country who smell blood.

The Republican Party, dominated by white males, is completely out to lunch regarding the problem of sexual misconduct by public figures.  The Keillor story is the opposite extreme: knee-jerk liberals anxious to judge, convict, execute, and expunge all traces of a man who didn’t even get the opportunity to defend himself.  And I say this as a liberal.

The idea is to discourage and punish sexual misconduct.  You aim for the bullseye. But you don’t pull back on the string until the bow’s ready to snap. Otherwise, you miss the target completely. And you could do a lot of harm in the process.

 

ox-bow incident

An Incident on Mount Adams

Note: Some of you know that I like to do short backpack trips. I always stuff a journal in my pack, to record anything interesting that might occur. Maybe it’s a naïve hope, but I’d like to one day turn my experiences into a book. Anyway, last year I did a short hike on the Appalachian Trail in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. What follows is an incident that happened on one of the peaks, Mount Adams. If you feel inclined, let me know your thoughts. Your feedback improves my writing and motivates me to get closer to that elusive book.

The hikers become thicker as I near the base of Mount Adams. Most of them hike in groups. Occasionally, I move to the side of the trail to let them pass. Sometimes they glance up and acknowledge me. Other times they continue to converse with their companions, keeping their eyes on the ground.

Everyone’s different. Even at work, or at the gym, or in the park, some individuals never make eye contact. But at least out here on the trail, they’re not clutching their smartphones as a baby clutches a bottle.

Soon, I arrive at a large, open field. Off to the right are several worn footpaths leading to a rocky summit: Mount Adams. President John Adams always seems overshadowed by larger-than-life Washington and Jefferson, so I commit myself to climbing the summit in honor of our second president. Like Adams the man, the peak is small, but it’s majestic. A number of other hikers also scramble to the top. There’s no worn path, just a jumble of grey boulders to negotiate however one chooses. Unlike at Mount Jefferson, where I left my pack at the summit base, I haul my pack up Adams, which makes for a slow climb. But pretty soon, I’m at the top, surrounded by a mass of day hikers.

For the first time in a while, there are no clouds, and I’m treated to a panoramic view. The view isn’t as stunning as at South Twin Mountain a few days ago, but I also don’t have to deal with that day’s heat or exhaustion. Since it’s still early in the day, I linger here longer than normal. The Labor Day crowd makes for a buzzing social scene.

Back on the Appalachian Trail, at a large cairn signaling the mountain’s location, there was a bustling crowd of kids and adults. I figured it was maybe a church or civic group. Not long after summiting Adams, several of them make their way to the top. Immediately, I notice something a little different about them. The kids all have dark tans and very long hair. They wander by themselves, without adult supervision, and chatter excitedly. One of them, long-haired and lithe, looks neither boy nor girl.

Then a man bounces over the edge of a boulder, standing with his hands on his hips, scanning the crowd on the top. He’s wiry and healthy-looking, with a sandy brown ponytail that’s streaked with grey, and he has a beaming smile. I can’t tell his age. He could be in his late thirties, but with his greyish ponytail, he could instead be twenty years older.

“What an amazing view!” he exclaims with extroverted zest. “And all these amazing hikers!” I see him shoot me a quick, white-toothed glance.

He scurries around the rocks, taking in all the views. I sit on a rock in silence, observing two large dogs panting nearby. But my ears are open. Before long, the ponytail guy is carrying on a conversation with two young men. I overhear him say “Plymouth” and “Blue Bell Bakery,” or something. They chat for about five minutes, interrupted by the man’s gasps of amazement at the views. At the end of the conversation, I hear him extend an invitation to the two men to visit the bakery.

This is one of those times when I feel isolated. Like I don’t belong. I get this way occasionally. I’m not a shy person, in most situations. But in other situations, I have a difficult time opening up. It’s probably a combination of the loner in me, some bullying as a kid that made me wary of people, plus the social anxiety I’ve dealt with most of my life. These three people, after only five minutes, act like they’re old friends. Yet I can know someone for five years and still feel like a stranger.

I observe this ponytail guy like he’s a celebrity or something. He looks good, and there’s a magnetism about him. His wispy ponytail and extroverted manner remind me of certain freespirited hippies I knew back in school. They always seemed comfortable with themselves, and never took things too seriously. While I’ve always been drawn to these types, envious of them, I’m also always a little intimidated. For lack of a better word, they exhibit a “karma” that I don’t have, and probably never will.

Eventually, I zigzag my way down Mount Adams. The descent seems longer than the ascent. Which boulder should I choose to step on? This one. No… this crested rock is a good fit for my boot.

The two dogs and their owners quickly pass me by. So do the two young men. Ponytail guy is already at the cairn with his large group. I don’t see the kids anywhere.

I reach flat ground and angle toward the AT. But I deliberately taper my angle so I can pass by the cairn. I’m still curious about ponytail and his group. Maybe I can pick up some clues from their conversation.

As I get closer, I shoot a few glances out of the corner of my eye, hoping that I won’t appear nosey. But ponytail guy catches me looking.

“You’ve got a big pack there!” he shouts at me. “Where are you headed?”

I veer toward him. “Headed for Osgood Tentsite tonight,” I answer shyly. “Then my car tomorrow, and back home to Ohio.”

He asks me a few more questions, and before long, we’re into a free-flowing conversation. We talk about the White Mountains, Mount Washington, the scenery, the details of our respective hikes, and the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. He and his group are doing a several-day hike. Then I see the long-haired kids. They drift in and out of the group. If their parents are here, I’m unable to determine who they are. The kids seem to belong to no one, and everyone.

Then I ask him his name.

“Shemet,” he says with a smile.

“Sh…Shemet?” I ask.

“Yes, Shemet.” Then he tells me it’s an old Hebrew name that he adopted a while ago. Suddenly, a young teenage girl approaches us.

“This is my daughter, Mehenomet.” Mehenomet tilts her head and smiles.

Hmm.

Shemet tells me that all the members of his group have adopted Hebrew names (despite the fact that they’re probably all Gentiles). He then tells me he used to work as a park ranger. He hints about certain unsavory activities he engaged in when he was younger. (“Didn’t we all!” I assure him). He and his wife divorced, and he eventually joined the group he’s with today. But he doesn’t give me the group’s name, or its purpose or affiliation.

I ask Shemet why he’s no longer a park ranger. It’s a career which I thought about pursuing when I was younger, and which I’ve always considered meaningful and fulfilling.

“I had no meaning or fulfillment,” he says. “I got tired of rattling on about birds and animals and lakes. There’s a bird, here’s a lake,” he says mockingly. “I didn’t want to serve nature anymore. I wanted to serve people!” he says enthusiastically, as if people and nature weren’t inseparable, and park rangers didn’t serve both wildlife and people.

His rock-headed revelation hits me like a right hook to the jaw. So much for that blissful “karma” I thought about on top of Mount Adams. His coolness quotient drops as precipitously as the mountain. But I guess I’d set myself up for this shock. I had it coming.

We continue to chat, but I slowly inch my way toward the trail. Then, a swarthy, dark-haired man approaches and introduces himself. It’s another Old Testament-type name. He hands me a pamphlet and tells me to read it at my leisure. I thank him, wave goodbye to Shemet and Mehenomet, turn northward on the trail… and feel like a leash has been removed.

I slip the pamphlet into a pocket on my pack, promising myself to at least glance at it later. After I return home, I do. The title is “The Twelve Tribes.” Just below the title is a watercolored illustration of long-haired stick people, children and adults. They’re holding hands and dancing in a circle. I read the bubbly, upbeat words inside the pamphlet. Later, I visit the internet and read more about The Twelve Tribes.

I try to be open-minded about things. And you can’t make snap judgements from a pamphlet, and certainly not the internet. But like so many other “clubs” that rely on dogma and a fixed set of beliefs and practices, what I learn about The Twelve Tribes convinces me it’s not for me, and it’s further proof of Shemet’s scrambled thinking.

Shakespeare undoubtedly had a pithy observation about all of this. In lieu of his words, I’ll go with someone more contemporary, like singer John Prine:

“It’s a big old goofy world.”

(If you want to get the lowdown on all my Appalachian Trail hikes, please check out my book Evergreen Dreaming: Trail Tales of an Aging Hiker.)

 

 

A Review of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

I’ll confess outright that I love Ken Burns documentaries.  I’ve wallowed in Burns’ mammoth definitive overviews of the American Civil War, jazz music, the Old West, the national parks, WWII, and I came very close to the final innings of his mammoth definitive overview of baseball (I started yawning and felt a strong urge for a hot dog and beer, so I missed the last few pitches).

Last year, I read with relish the transcript of his slow-roast of Donald Trump during his commencement address at Stanford University. It was a grand gesture by someone who has strong feelings about America, and it’s not Burns’ fault that the petulant child was elected president. Nobody heeded my  words, either.

Burns has been criticized in some quarters for too frequently spotlighting race and racism. While “The Civil War” and “Baseball” can be excluded from these charges, I feel there is also some validity to them, although Burns would argue the spotlight is necessary.

Nevertheless, he’s been called “America’s storyteller,” meaning he has many great stories to tell about America, glorifying this country and its citizens, whether they be black, white, brown, red, or yellow.

Most recently, Burns applied his wizardry (along with co-producer Lynn Novick) to a mammoth definitive overview of the Vietnam War. Considering that this war is still fraught with controversy, this latest documentary series is maybe his most courageous undertaking.

However… like Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg… this time he was unable to secure the high ground.

Why? Unlike the American Civil War, many people from the Vietnam War era are still alive, and some remember things differently. And unlike WWII, America didn’t win, and we weren’t even the good guys. Some American patriots have trouble with that reality, but it’s reality. Burns is at his best when America is at its most noble. But there was little American nobility with Vietnam.

***

Before I discuss why the patented Ken Burns treatment doesn’t work this time, though, I’ll imitate certain mainstream publications (like Rolling Stone, Time, and Cleveland.com) that treat critical American history as if it’s a Steven Spielberg movie:

“Stunning visual achievement!” “Never-before-seen-footage!” “It will make you weep!” “America’s storyteller has done it again!” “A mammoth, definitive overview that will be discussed for years to come!” “Riveting entertainment!” “America is ready to heal, and Ken Burns is the healer!” “A sexy, action-packed adventure!”

(The last two may  not be valid).

On surface, I will admit, “The Vietnam War” is breathtaking. Burns and Novick unearthed hundreds of striking images and film bits to pull things along.  They present revealing audio of taped conversations from the Johnson and Nixon White Houses that are agonizing to listen to.  We know full well the many lies of Richard M. Nixon.  But these tapes drive home what a devious, worm-like man he was.

Burns and Novick are also masters at taking a person or persons and creating suspense by slowly fashioning a story for them. One of the most memorable is that of the Crocker family. Each time we see the middle-class house with the front porch and American flag, and hear the peaceful music, we know how the story of Denton “Mogie” Crocker will play out, but we’re addicted to the narrative. We’re voyeurs into how the impressionable Mogie, raised on John Wayne movies and Cold War jingoism, becomes a symbol of young patriotic males everywhere, then ends up dying a grisly death on an anonymous hill in a distant land… for nothing.

Then there’s the horrific Nick Ut photo of the naked South Vietnamese girl (her name is Phan Thi Kim Phuc) running down the road after being napalmed by a South Vietnamese bomber. Burns takes it a step further and provides a wider landscape. He includes color video footage of the bombing, then people emerging from the fireball, fleeing in terror, with several minutes devoted to the girl, her arms stretched out, the flesh on her back seared.

(Nick Ut/Associated Press)

This rare footage is one of the things Burns is so good at. He stretches the camera frame. He taps our emotions, and we feel the full horror of war through the heart-tugging image of a scarred innocent.

The problem is this: we don’t  see the pilot who pressed the buttons that released the napalm bomb. He’s off-camera. Protected.

***

Burns opens his series with his favorite narrator, compelling counterculture statesman Peter Coyote, intoning that the war was “begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings.”

“Decent people” is a subjective term that probably doesn’t belong in a historical documentary, especially when the “people” are surreptitiously leading a nation down the road to war. But no matter.

“Good faith…fateful misunderstandings.” This editorial, at the commencement of the 18-hour presentation, raises significant questions:

Is it good faith that the U.S. funded a French war effort to colonize Vietnam? Then, later, is it good faith that President Johnson, Defense Secretary McNamara, and the U.S. Navy created the fiction of a North Vietnamese attack at the Gulf of Tonkin, to provide a legal basis for Johnson’s escalation of open warfare in North Vietnam?

The only “fateful misunderstanding” was U.S. obsession with a fallacious domino theory of Communism. The rest of our early blunders were the direct consequence of Western arrogance. After France’s hundred-year colonization attempt came to a screeching halt at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, America thought it would be easy to slip in and resume the colonization program. But we didn’t call it colonization, we called it “nation-building” and “winning hearts and minds.” We figured the mighty United States of America could easily subdue a backwater jungle country whose ideological leader was a skinny, sickly Asian.

Ho Chi Minh, speaking in Paris in 1920

The misunderstandings came later. We misunderstood our ability to act as puppeteer to a corrupt and inept South Vietnamese government. And we misunderstood the resolve of the Viet Minh and Viet Cong.  This time, they were the patriots and we were the redcoats.

Behind the shiny narrative, here’s the hard reality that Burns and Novick were too coy to discuss:

The U.S. invaded and destroyed another country because that other country wanted a form of government different than the one the U.S. was willing to allow it to have.  To prevent that country from exercising the “consent of the governed” that the U.S. deifies as the highest political expression of civilization, the U.S. killed six million Vietnamese, most of them civilians.  That is the number from the government of Vietnam.  The U.S. spent $168,000 for every enemy combatant it killed.  The average Vietnamese earned $80 per year at the time.  To carry out this act, the U.S. dropped 14 billion pounds of bombs on Vietnam, three times more than were used by all sides in all theaters of all of World War II combined. 

The U.S. carried out industrial-scale chemical warfare on Vietnam, spraying it with 21 million gallons of the carcinogenic defoliant Agent Orange.  It destroyed half of the nation’s forests, leaving the greatest man-made environmental catastrophe in the history of the world.  When the U.S. destroyed neighboring Cambodia to cover its retreat from Vietnam, the communist Khmer Rouge came to power and carried out the greatest proportional genocide in modern history.  The U.S. dropped 270 million cluster bombs on neighboring Laos, 113 bombs for every man, woman, and child in the country.  Vietnam had never attacked the U.S., had never tried to attack it, had no desire to attack it, and had no capacity to attack it.  All of this was justified through a purposeful campaign of lies to the American people that was sustained by five presidential administrations over more than two decades.   

(from www.commondreams.org)

Instead of “begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings,” substitute the above, or similar, as an introduction, and you lay the groundwork for an entirely different documentary. Keep an eye on the reaction of sponsor David H. Koch.

In “The Vietnam War,” Burns presents the micro, but not the macro. He offers numerous anecdotes that imply the war was wrong (big surprise). But we never see just how  wrong it was. In the blur of images, interviews, and stories of valor and personal conflict, Burns doesn’t pull his camera back to offer the big picture. There’s sadness and regret, but only a modicum of rage and disgust. We don’t once hear the phrase “war crime.” He plays it safe, struggling to maintain balance and be all things to everyone, left, right, and center. Unless it’s a dead politician, he’s afraid to offend anyone. Including, perhaps, his hefty financial backers.

Burns had ample opportunity (ten years) to make this more than a standard, albeit glittery documentary on a war, and he could’ve lifted it above a stock reiteration of “hate the war, love the warrior.” For example, he profiles Pascal Poolaw, a Kiowa Indian, who fought in WWII, Korea, and died in Vietnam. “The Vietnam War” totally misses the irony of a Native American waging war on indigenous people for a racist, invading nation that, a hundred years earlier, killed and conquered Poolaw’s ancestors in the name of manifest destiny. Instead, we get a brief and awkward puff piece on a minority who earned a lot of medals and died for his country.

There’s an uncomfortable attempt at equivalency, too. “We called them ‘dinks,’ ‘gooks,’ ‘mamasans,’” Coyote ticks off. Then, as if to, again, provide balance, he continues. “They called us ‘invaders,’ and ‘imperialists.’” The first terms are racist and dehumanizing. The last terms are accurate. There’s no equivalency here.

L to R: Secretary of State Dean Rusk, President Lyndon Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara

And there’s no equivalency between anti-war activists and the so-called “silent majority.” At the end of the documentary, Burns profiles an anti-war activist who breaks into tears and apologizes to vets who were (supposedly) spat on and called baby-killers “and worse.” Yet there is not one bit of video or audio in “The Vietnam War” to substantiate this claim. There hasn’t been any evidence anywhere else, at least, that I’m aware of.

However, there is relentless footage of pro-war Americans screaming at protesters, attacking them, beating them, and berating them as being Commies and traitors… behavior that had its apotheosis in the murders at Kent State by National Guardsmen summoned by Gov. James A. Rhodes of (my home state of) Ohio, who referred to the protesters as “Brownshirts” and “the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”

Where in “The Vietnam War” is the apology from these  people?

***

Maybe the biggest question raised by “The Vietnam War” is this: How do Americans want to remember their history? Do we want it to consist of stories of heroism and hubris, triumph and tragedy? Or merely be a series of episodes, a narrative of people, places, dates and events?

Or do we want our history to also inform our present and help determine the course of our future?

Since Vietnam, we’ve continued to send military “advisers” to third world countries, secretly funnel money and arms, initiate coups, topple regimes we dislike, pursue dead-end policies of nation-building, attempt to “win hearts and minds,” wage war under false pretenses, tax Americans to fund war, alienate civilian populations, and label dissenters as being unpatriotic. The only thing we haven’t done is institute a draft.

But there’s no mention of any of the above in “The Vietnam War.” I guess Burns feels it’s OK to offer a static history, as long as it’s dramatic. He’s America’s storyteller, with many great stories to tell.

***

Here are some links related to this article:

The Nation (a liberal publication)

The American Conservative (a conservative publication)

Nick Turse (author of “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real Vietnam”)

Christopher Koch (the first American reporter to visit Vietnam)

 

The Songs of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

PBs_Burns

Most of these longitudes essays relate to whatever’s on my mind at a given moment (“Thoughts in Woods…”). Right now, I’m into the Vietnam War. I’m reading “Vietnam: A History” by Stanley Karnow, and I just finished watching the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick multi-part documentary “The Vietnam War.”

I’ve seen eight of the ten episodes of the series. After a second run-through, I’ll probably offer my usual two cents. Other people’s critiques on the documentary appear to be as polarized as the actual war, and I’m learning as much about the war (or, at least, how it affects people) by reading their reviews as by the documentary itself. Folks seem to either love “The Vietnam War,” or hate it.

As with so many things these days, there’s no demilitarized zone.

But, although I’m not ready to comment on the merits of the Burns-Novick documentary, I’m always ready to squeeze the trigger on music, and music plays a major role in “The Vietnam War.” So I’ll offer my assessments now. Having been born in 1958, I grew up listening to a lot of the film’s 120 songs, and I still listen to them regularly, so now’s a good opportunity to share my enthusiasm, or lack thereof.

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The Vietnam War was the first (and perhaps only) conflict to have a soundtrack. For maybe the first time, song lyrics were being written directly about a war. Other songs weren’t necessarily about the war, but they elicit such a strong emotional response amongst veterans of both the war and peace movement, they’re forever linked with Vietnam in people’s minds.

I’ve divided the music of “The Vietnam War” into four categories: the original score; songs that directly deal with war (lyrics related to Vietnam, or war in general); songs indirectly about war (songs with universal themes that could be associated with war); and songs of the time period that have little or nothing to do with war.

The original score: Good background music should bolster and reflect the mood of the film. Though I’m not a fan, Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and his collaborator Atticus Ross created a brooding mix of industrial noise, eerie sound effects, and minimalist piano that convey the weirdness and horror of what happened over there. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble borrowed themes inspired by Vietnamese music for the scenes in Asia. I applaud the producers for their good sense in choosing these artists.

Songs about war: We’re talking 1960s and ‘70s, so “songs about war” means protest songs, but I was somewhat disappointed in these choices. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” was one of the first such written, and it’s perfect. Also great is Country Joe McDonald’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” (“Well it’s one, two, three, what are we fightin’ for?”), and Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” effectively sets the tone for what’s to come, and his “With God on Our Side” is more than appropriate, a savage statement about promoting war through a lens of false piety (sing it, Zimmy).

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Country Joe McDonald, at Woodstock Festival (photographer unknown)

In fact, there are no less than nine Dylan songs here, and “With God on Our Side” is featured twice. Dylan’s a dazzling songwriter, the poet of the counter-culture, and he wrote some searing anti-war songs. But nine songs are overkill. Joan Baez and Phil Ochs, contemporaries of Dylan, only got one song apiece (Baez’s cover of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and Ochs’ classic “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”). I can think of at least a half-dozen Ochs songs directly about ‘Nam, such as “We Seek No Wider War,” “Cops of the World,” and “White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land.”

Dylan eventually cloaked his songs in obliqueness, whereas Ochs and Baez never wavered from blunt social protest. They deserve more than one song apiece.

Songs indirectly about war: A big thumbs up for the Byrds’ version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which Seeger adapted from a Bible verse. Also, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which he wrote partially about the Vietnam War, but also about inner-city militancy and police brutality, and a song where Gaye courageously broke from traditional Motown song formulas.

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Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, England, 1965

Songs of the time period: This is, by far, the largest category of songs in the documentary. For a lot of these songs, I was scratching my head. “It’s My Life” by the Animals was blasted on top of an interview with the mother of a fallen soldier, and is jarringly out of place. The Velvet Underground’s “The Gift” is a Lou Reed short story set to music, about a lovesick sap who mails himself to his girlfriend. “The Vietnam War” uses the music only, since the lyrics have nothing to do with war. But even the music is obscure, since it was never played on the radio, and the album from which it was taken (WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT) sold only a few copies when it was released in December, 1967.

Jimi Hendrix, a former army paratrooper, has three songs featured: “Are You Experienced?,” “Voodoo Chile,” and “All Along the Watchtower,” the last-named written by guess who. Hendrix’s muscular, metallic guitar is a good choice for a war documentary, but more pertinent would have been the live version of “Machine Gun,” one of his most intense songs, propelled by combat sound effects, or his searing interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from the Woodstock Festival.

And since it’s the Sixties, and drugs were everywhere, including the killing fields of ‘Nam, we have to have a drug song, correct? But “White Rabbit” must be the dumbest song ever written about drugs. Weren’t any of the producers aware of Sainte-Marie’s “Codine,” or Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death,” or the Velvets’ “Heroin,” or Joni Mitchell’s “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire”? I guess not.

(If they’d have contacted me, I’d have gladly advised them about drug songs).

Another blunder: Barry McGuire’s overcooked “Eve of Destruction” (written by P.F. Sloan) is just as embarrassing now as when it was released. Big mistake.

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Jimi Hendrix (photo Rolling Stone magazine)

There are lots of good R&B songs, though. A couple Booker T. and the M.G.’s songs, a couple Otis Redding numbers, including “Respect” (and I’m glad they chose Redding’s version instead of Aretha Franklin’s). The Temptations are represented with “Psychedelic Shack,” although “Ball of Confusion” might have been more appropriate.

My big revelation was the Staple Singers covering Dylan’s “Masters of War” (the arrangement of which Dylan borrowed from the traditional English folk song “Nottamun Town”). Dylan’s version is stark and unmerciful, a knife into the gut of those who play with the lives of young people like “it’s (their) little toy.” The Staples version is as spooky as it is angry. “Pops” Staples sings like Delta bluesman Bukka White, his ghostly guitar notes ringing like tolling bells, and the moaning background voices sound like they’re conjuring the grim reaper. I’d never heard this version before, but for me it’s a highlight of the film score.

Neil Young’s “Ohio,” which he wrote the day after the Kent State murders: he never allows this song to be licensed for use, but he made an exception here. Choosing this song to close Episode 8 was a no-brainer.

(Note: in an interview with Esquire, Burns revealed that one of his editors had no idea that “Ohio” is about the Kent State killings. This is mind-boggling. But it’s proof that popular music has become so cheesy and mass-marketed, people today are numb to even the most overt lyrical statement. Either that, or they’re dumb to American history. Numb or dumb, it’s profoundly disturbing).

Appropriately, there are several Beatles songs. But John Lennon’s “Revolution” is the only one that makes sense. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is excellent for LSD tripping, but not for a Vietnam War discussion. And the producers evidently are patting themselves on the back for choosing “Let it Be” as their closer.

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Musically, yes, this song is grandiose, and a heart-tugger. There were undoubtedly tears shed by some viewers. By choosing “Let it Be,” I think Burns is suggesting it’s time for Americans to heal by making peace with each other.

Maybe this documentary will be a partial healing. But the topic will always be contentious, and relevant to the future, and the various op-eds I’ve read on “The Vietnam War” bear this out. Burns is smart and talented (and sports a nifty Beatle haircut), but reminding the audience of his “whispered words of wisdom,” and hoping his documentary will be a “vaccine” seems a bit arrogant to me, and as pointless as the post-war cacklings of Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford. He shouldn’t be allowed the last word.

Here’s my suggestion for a musical closeout: the acoustic demo of Phil Ochs’ “Cross My Heart.” Ochs was an American street soldier for peace who – until his suicide in 1976 – never gave up the fight:

I don’t know

But I see that everything is free

When you’re young the treasures you can take

But the bridge is bound to break

And you reach the end

Screaming it’s all been a mistake

 

But I’m gonna give all that I’ve got to give

Cross my heart

And I hope to live.

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