The True Story of How The Lone Ranger Became African American

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Standing in a co-worker’s office recently, the following conversation took place:

Co-worker: “I’ve noticed that photo of Martin Luther King that you use as your Skype identifier. I’m assuming you admire him?”

Me: “I do.”

Co-worker: “Ever hear of the black lawman Bass Reeves? I read about him in my NRA magazine.”

(I’m not sure how Bass Reeves relates to Martin Luther King, Jr., other than both men were black. I’m also not sure why he specified his NRA magazine, other than he knows I despise that gun organization. But I immediately thought “There’s some psychology going on here.” Regardless…)

Me: “No, never heard of him.”

Co-worker: “He was a former slave who became a lawman in Oklahoma. Arrested his own son. He’s also the inspiration for The Lone Ranger.”

Me: “Really! Well, hi-yo Silver.”

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TV version of The Lone Ranger, with masked man, Tonto, and Silver

My co-worker then pulled up a Wikipedia bio of Reeves and read aloud from it. I returned to my cubicle. Work being non-existent, I did my own research on Bass Reeves (1838-1910). It took me all of ten minutes of internet clicking to get the lowdown.

In 2006, a professor and historian named Art T. Burton published a biography of Reeves entitled Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves (Race and Ethnicity in the American West) (University of Nebraska Press). In his book, Burton cited a 1997 book by John W. Ravage that asks the question “Could Bass Reeves be the prototype for the Lone Ranger character?” Burton wrote that, although Ravage’s claim cannot be “conclusively” proven, Reeves “is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier of the nineteenth century.” (Burton, p. 14).

Burton made five “suggestions” in his book’s first chapter to back up his claim that Reeves is “the closest real person”:

  1. The Lone Ranger wore a mask. Burton claims Reeves sometimes used disguise to track fugitives. (No source provided.)
  2. The Lone Ranger had Tonto as his partner. Burton says that when in unknown territory, Reeves often hired an Indian as a guide.
  3. The Lone Ranger always left a silver bullet as a calling card. Burton says that while tracking the Dalton Gang, Reeves paid for a meal, and tracking help, with two silver dollars. (Source: family lore.)
  4. The Lone Ranger rode a white horse (“Silver”). Burton says that Reeves—at one time—rode a grey horse, which “can look anywhere from near black to near white” (Burton, p. 13).
  5. The Lone Ranger story began on Detroit radio in 1933. Burton says that many of the fugitives captured by Reeves were sent to the Detroit House of Corrections.
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Recent film version of The Lone Ranger

Since his book came out, some people have taken Burton to task for questionable research and nuanced writing. The nuance arises from the fact that Burton doesn’t outright say Reeves is the prototype, just that the two strongly resemble each other; but his implication is apparent, especially when taken in conjunction with his use of the Ravage quote. One who delved into this implication is an award-winning radio and television historian named Martin Grams, Jr., who did his own research for a 2018 publication, “Bass Reeves and The Lone Ranger: Debunking the Myth.”

Regarding the first two of Burton’s suggestions—and assuming they’re true—Grams notes that Reeves would not have been unusual among frontier lawmen in concealing his identity while hunting fugitives. Nor was he unusual in employing Indian scouts; both lawmen and the U.S. Army did this. And one doesn’t have to be Judge Judy to see how tenuous Burton’s last three suggestions of resemblance are.

But the most damning argument against Burton’s implication are typewritten letters Grams uncovered from 1932-33 by Kunsky-Trendle Broadcasting Corporation, the company that created The Lone Ranger for radio. These letters specifically mention fictional character Zorro and cowboy movie star Tom Mix as sources for The Lone Ranger.

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Early Western actor Tom Mix

There is no mention of Bass Reeves in these letters. Would radio writers and executives have even known about Reeves, considering that in the 1930s most black cowboys and lawmen were barely footnotes?

Here’s the real problem, though: if Burton’s book had sold copies like my blubber book had, his cavalier conjectures would have been lost in the ether. But unlike my book and Ravage’s pre-internet book, Burton’s was read and discussed by a lot of people. Soon, like a prairie brush fire, a myth spread that The Lone Ranger was modeled on an African American, exploding on blogs, consumer book reviews, reference sites like Wikipedia, and magazines…including certain publications by certain lobbyist groups (see above). Burton even managed to sell his implication to the highly regarded Old West magazine True West.

Compounding the problem of an unsubstantiated rumor “going viral,” many readers of Burton’s (carefully chosen and suggestive) words lack the discernment to separate conjecture from fact. Still others, anxious to further a cause, set aside any doubts and enthusiastically embraced a kernal of wild speculation, turning a fiction into their own fact and proceeding to sound the trumpets.dime novel

For many years when I was younger, there was a myth that television character Wally Cleaver (Leave it to Beaver) was played by glam rock star Alice Cooper. That myth was silly, but fun (except perhaps to actor Tony Dow, who actually played Wally Cleaver). This myth is more sinister, because it pushes American history closer to dime novel territory.

As Grams writes, “Historians are expected to present only the facts to avoid spawning rumors, misconceptions and myths that ultimately take decades to debunk.” Mr. Burton violated his responsibility as a historian by deviating from fact and making a reckless speculation. In many people’s minds, now, The Lone Ranger was modeled on a black man. A probable fiction.

***

This story interests me because it not only deals with U.S. history, but also ties together many disturbing social trends: the prevalence of fake news, political (in)correctness, racial emotionalism, historical revisionism, the power of social media in fueling myth, and an increasing lack of critical analysis by readers, listeners, and viewers. My co-worker seems like a smart guy, despite being an NRA member, so he should have been more careful.dime novel2

Most historians and academics are trained to use reliable and objective sources that can be verified. Their peers expect this and will go to great lengths to verify truth is being disseminated (or as close to truth as is possible). I would have never been able to sell my blubber book to an academic press had I not done the nitty-gritty and been conscientious of reliable bibliography and footnotes. And a good editor would have bled red over any conjectural passages.

It’s an unfortunate fact that American history has been horribly skewed (to put it mildly) against ethnic minorities: blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and—without a doubt—native Americans, who not only had to deal with U.S. government-sponsored ethnic cleansing, but John Wayne movies as well. But if we don’t adhere to truth, we’re a boat without a rudder, careening from one rocky shore to the next.

Bass Reeves is a fascinating historical figure; a black law officer in the American West who defied stereotype, and who deserves to be known by more people. His story is interesting enough without being embellished by a well-meaning but overzealous historian with socio-political concerns.

***

Postscript: later in the day, I presented this information to my co-worker. With a straight face he said “Well, if they based The Lone Ranger on Tom Mix, and since Tom Mix lived out west while Reeves was still alive, Mix may have known Reeves, and he might have told those radio guys about Reeves, who then created The Lone Ranger partly based on Reeves.”

I returned to my cubicle.

An Earth Day Tribute to Wallace Stegner

Photo by Mary Stegner

While laid up after my surgery, I read several books. One is a biography of writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner. This book was sent to me by my WordPress friend Cincinnati Babyhead. (One day I’ll have to ask about his pen name, considering Cincinnati is a long way from his domicile in Vancouver, British Columbia.) Babyhead had read my magnum opus Evergreen Dreaming, and saw that I had included an epigraph by Stegner.

(This is one of the great things about blogging: establishing a “cyberspace” relationship with a stranger based on a mutual interest. Not to mention sharing, and learning. Not to mention that, occasionally, some strangers will urge me to place my head in closer proximity to where my surgery was.)

Anyway, when I inserted that epigraph in my book, I knew very little about Stegner. My only prior knowledge came from the pages of Sierra Magazine. I’m a member of the environmental organization Sierra Club, as was Stegner for many years, and the club’s member periodical often features perceptive essays and quotes by him.benson book

I find it a minor crime that the name “Wallace Stegner,” and his achievements, are not known to more people…including me, for a long while. So here’s a short tribute to him, with gratitude toward Vancouver’s Babyhead.

***

Most people have heard of Ken Kesey. He wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, then gained infamy as a Merry Prankster riding a psychedelic bus through the pages of Tom Wolfe’s classic of New Journalism, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). But many don’t know that Kesey studied creative writing at Stanford University under Wallace Stegner (as did writers Larry McMurtry, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Evan S. Connell, and many others).

Other than producing some of America’s finest literature, Kesey and Stegner couldn’t be more unlike.

Wallace Stegner was born in rural Iowa in 1909. He had a brutish, bullying father who yanked the family from one place to the next in search of quick, easy wealth. (Stegner’s 1943 novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain examines this restless quest.) Stegner’s most vivid childhood memories were formed in an isolated town called Eastend, in flat and rural Saskatchewan, Canada. Here, he learned hard work and how to hunt and fish. He learned how a cold prairie wind could slice through a person like a sickle through a snowdrift. He learned loneliness and deprivation, but also resourcefulness. A small boy on an immense prairie under limitless sky, Stegner early on gained a respect for the awesome majesty of the outdoors.

George Stegner zigzagged his family across the American West until settling in Salt Lake City, Utah. Young Wallace was able to find some permanence here. He excelled in school and on the tennis court, and loved to hike and camp in the sagebrush canyons and gingerbread flanks of the Wasatch Range of the Rockies. Although taking a dim view of the Mormon faith (and “denominational narrowness” in general), he made many Mormon friends and gained a lifelong respect for their solidity of character, love of family, and emphasis on roots, eventually writing two acclaimed books on Mormon history. This idea of the importance of history and roots would crop up again and again in Stegner’s work.

John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation

The young writer (photo: John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation)

He attended University of Utah, then earned a master’s and doctorate at University of Iowa, where he met Mary Page, who would be his wife for 60 years. While in school, he learned his father had left his mother while she had cancer. (George Stegner later killed himself, after murdering his mistress.) For the rest of his life, Wallace battled the ghost of his father, while simultaneously drawing on memories of his mother’s affection and strength.

Wallace and Mary eventually moved to Vermont, where he honed his writing at the famous Bread Loaf writers retreat, which also counted Robert Frost, Willa Cather, and Bernard DeVoto among its faculty. He fell in love with the untrammeled green beauty of Vermont and simplicity and self-sufficiency of its residents. He became close friends with the prickly but brilliant DeVoto, and later wrote an acclaimed biography of him, The Uneasy Chair (1974).

While many writers concentrate on one form—fiction, nonfiction, short stories, poetry, history, biography—Stegner refused to be limited. He won three O. Henry Awards for short fiction, a National Book Award for The Spectator Bird (1976 novel), and a Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose (1971 novel). His biography of Colorado River explorer John Wesley Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1953), has been called “one of the most influential books ever written about the West.”

In 1946 he founded the creative writing program at Stanford University, and mentored hundreds of student-writers for the next 25 years. He retired in 1971, wearied by students (like Kesey) who he felt undervalued the virtues of diligence, and who were obsessed with the “Now” and had scant appreciation of history, tradition, permanence, and place, in either their lifestyles or writing.

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With wife Mary in Alaska, 1965 (photo: Wisconsin Historical Society)

Some have ranked Stegner with John Steinbeck. He’s been called the “dean of Western writers.” His admirers argue he’s not better known due to an elitist Eastern literary press. For years, The New York Times snubbed him. In fact, after he won the Pulitzer for Angle of Repose, the newspaper clumsily hinted he was undeserving.  (On the 100th anniversary of Stegner’s birth, the Times did offer a small mea culpa.)

And while Wikipedia lists Stegner’s many awards and publications, its biography of him seems woefully brief. For proof, compare Stegner’s Wikipedia bio to 25-year-old pop star Justin Bieber’s. (On second thought, don’t ruin your day.)

While this woeful scribbler has shamefully yet to become acquainted with Stegner’s fiction, biographies, or histories, I am familiar with his articles, having read his collection, The Sound of Mountain Water (1969). One of the essays here is Stegner’s famous public letter urging passage of the Wilderness Act, eventually made law in 1964. In this letter, Stegner—who in the 1950s assisted David Brower of the Sierra Club in blocking construction of Echo Park Dam and saving Dinosaur National Monument—writes eloquently:

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed…We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”

Wallace Stegner’s accomplishments during his 84 years are beyond impressive. He was the first person to destroy the myth that the West is a land of rugged individualists, instead arguing it is a cooperative idea, and should be cherished and preserved rather than exploited by private interests. mountain waterHe was a novelist, biographer, Western historian, seminal environmentalist, and beloved teacher. He was special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. He had a work ethic that makes most of us look like panhandlers.

He was also a man of principles. A liberal of the old-fashioned variety, when Stegner received a National Endowment for the Arts award not long before his death in 1993, he refused it on the grounds that the NEA was being manipulated by political conservatives. “People like Patrick Buchanan and Jesse Helms have been attacking it for a long time,” he said, “and the (G.H.W. Bush) administration played into the pressure…You can’t conduct arts with censors…”

Those who block dams, shatter myths, and spurn awards while standing on principle are rare birds, indeed, and deserve to be celebrated.

Happy Earth Day, Professor Stegner

STEGNER

(Photo: Associated Press)

 

Those Who Don’t Know History are Doomed to Lose Money on “Jeopardy!”

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The evening game show Jeopardy! is a loose tradition in our family, encompassing three generations. My wife and I watch it faithfully, our son recently tested to compete, and my 93-year-old mom shocked me one night when, out of the blue, she called to breathlessly announce she’d gotten five answers correct. (God love her.)

Unlike most TV game shows, Jeopardy! is less about luck than skill and knowledge. On a recent show, there was a category about European history. One category answer was (WHAT IS) THE MAGINOT LINE?*

Only one of the three contestants got it right. He was Canadian. The other two were Americans.

Fear not, I won’t play the liberal parlor game of bashing Americans and extolling Canadians (as much as I like maple leaf country). Rather, I want to highlight that Americans today, as the Sam Cooke song goes, “Don’t know much about history.” And I will also add literature to history.

I use Jeopardy! as my proof positive because the contestants represent a healthy cross-section of educated people across America. Over many years of watching the show, I’ve noticed they do OK with subjects like science and math, and even better with technology, current affairs, and general trivia. And, like hungry canines, they gobble up modern TV and movies.

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If Alex Trebek says “Oh no” for the Daily Double, it’s not only a wrong guess, but probably a dumb guess.

But questions concerning historical subjects prior to, say, the year 1990—and which haven’t been dramatized in a popular Hollywood movie—often result in ringing silence. This includes questions about Americans’ own history, to the embarrassment of Yanks like me.** Beloved Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek (a Canadian-American, and who recently startled fans by revealing he has pancreatic cancer) has also noted these difficulties with historical topics.

Jeopardy! contestants tend to lean toward eggheadedness. Therefore, if they struggle with history, one can only imagine how vacant Wheel of Fortune contestants might be.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author/historian David McCullough (The Johnstown Flood, Truman, John Adams, 1776) has also expressed dismay. A few years ago, after giving a talk at a prestigious university in the U.S., he was approached by a young co-ed who said “Mr. McCullough, until your talk, I never knew where the Thirteen Colonies were located!”

Since history is joined at the hip with geography, knowledge of this subject also seems to elude many Americans. I once volunteered for a local GED tutoring program. One of the other volunteers was a full-time, accredited high school teacher. One evening, I mentioned I’d just returned from running a marathon in Vermont, and she asked me where Vermont was.

(To her credit, though, she was a whizz at algebra and geometry. She also had the greenest eyes I’ve ever seen shamrock.)

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David McCullough, dean of popular histories

Recent statistics show that the U.S. is ill-prepared to remain a global leader through the 21st century. A 2015 Pew Research Center study of 71 countries ranks America 38th in math, and 24th in science, based on worldwide scores of 15-year-old students. Americans’ reading and foreign language skills are also extremely low. Paradoxically, though, more Americans than ever are entering the workforce with a minimum bachelor’s degree.

This discrepancy between low educational scores and a plethora of university degrees tells me that, while high schools may be handing out diplomas like Tootsie Rolls, and colleges are spitting out graduates while adding decimal places to their tuition figures, there’s not much actual education going on. One-dimensional specialization, vocational training, and earning capability, perhaps. But not education. It doesn’t help that university history curriculums include fluff elective classes like “History of Rock and Roll 101.” (I speak from experience, having two kids who wasted our money on this cotton candy.)STEM-Logo

While I applaud leaders like ex-President Obama, who made science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education funding a priority, I’m concerned that other subjects are falling by the wayside. The inference, I think, is that the liberal arts—which include history as well as social and physical sciences, geography, philosophy, English, and creative arts—are “soft” subjects, and aren’t as important. In other words, they won’t insure America’s economic and military dominance. I guess the thinking is that we can accept slipping behind western Europe, and now even Taiwan, regarding education, health care, and environment, as long as we still have a powerful Wall Street and Pentagon.

I may lack certain education and research credentials, but my “man-on-the-street” observation tells me that de-emphasizing a well-rounded education is not only misguided, but also dangerous. I won’t go into the stick-figure political leaders Americans are now electing. I will say, however, that philosopher George Santayana was on the mark with his aphorism “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”map_glasses

Unless America returns to its desk from recess and determines that funding education is more crucial than funding an irresponsible notion like a “Space Force,” and schools return to emphasizing a full and healthy course diet—a diet that includes the dreaded vegetable known as History—we will continue to replicate our historical errors, and creep further into a global village version of Skid Row.

And with the handheld computer now a far more insidious distraction and time-waster than television ever was, even the most qualified and dedicated teacher faces an ominous fortification of apathy and indifference.

______________

* The Maginot Line was a line of French fortifications constructed after World War I and intended to thwart a possible future invasion by Germany. As we now know, it didn’t work. But at least the French tried.

** To avert charges of hypocrisy, Mister Know-it-all here had two good history teachers who probably discussed the Maginot Line many years ago. But Mister Know-it-all forgot about it, and his Jeopardy! clicker remained inactive. Sorry, Mr. Oswalt and Mr. Kozub. But, like the French, I try.

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Pearls Before Swine: “Balaklava”

50 years

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Last February, I wrote an obituary/tribute to a gentleman named Tom Rapp (see A Knowledge of Ashes). Rapp was a singer-songwriter and recording artist from 1965 to 1976 who retired from music to become a civil rights lawyer. He was a musician of uncommon intelligence, with an unyielding commitment to social justice, leavened by the unexpected humorous wink. His music was too cryptic and melancholic to ever earn a listing on the Billboard Hot 100.  So if you’re unfamiliar with him, it’s understandable.

To put it another way, James Taylor or Dan Fogelberg, Tom Rapp was not. But artistic ambiguity and professional obscurity have never prevented longitudes from recognizing someone. In fact, they often indicate a vision too luminous for most of us to process.

Fifty years ago, Rapp released his second, most ambiguous, and arguably best album, credited to his band Pearls Before Swine, on the underground label ESP-Disk.  It’s called Balaklava.

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Tom Rapp

Scholars of European history might recognize Balaklava (also spelled with a ‘c’, “Balaclava”) as the name of the place where a famous British cavalry charge occurred in 1854 during the Crimean War. The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson immortalized it in his poem about valor, The Charge of the Light Brigade. The truth was that this charge was an unnecessary military action, a suicidal maneuver that dissolved 40 percent of an entire brigade. Valor in suicide. Irony, like this, was a Tom Rapp specialty.

The year 1968 had a similarly senseless military action going on, this one in Southeast Asia. More irony: Rapp dedicated his record to WWII soldier Eddie Slovik, the only U.S. soldier executed for desertion since the American Civil War.

“Some people thought (my) songs were hopeless…I was being realistic about the pain that’s out there. If you say life is wonderful, people know it isn’t true, but if you talk about the pain, someone will listen.” (Crawdaddy, December 2008)

Tears are often jewel-like…

The first thing that makes Balaklava different from other records is its unusual sleeve art. Album reproductions of paintings later became popular, but Balaklava is one of the first examples, and the painting chosen partially relates to the music inside. It’s a reproduction of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s 16th-century, apocalyptic oil panel “The Triumph of Death,” with typewriter characters of the band name and album title stamped across the top…as if this record is a dispatch being wired from the abyss below.

Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, Shot for Desertion 1944

Private Eddie D. Slovik, shot for desertion in 1944

The back cover features surreal illustrations by French avant-garde writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. Also, a quote from American philosopher and poet George Santayana: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” And yet more irony: a photograph of a freckle-faced girl wearing a shy smile, with a daisy protruding from her plaid dress, and a button reading “Pearls Before Swine.”

(The photo was snapped at a peace rally by photographer Mel Zimmer. The girl’s button actually said “Flower Power.” Zimmer identifies his photo as “Molly Stewart.”)

So, the listener has an idea where this record is headed even before the needle strikes the wax. The packaging is deliberate and unapologetic. As Dante wrote in “The Inferno:” All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

Another striking thing about Balaklava: the music is introduced by a ghost. The first “song” is titled “Trumpeter Landfrey,” and is the actual voice and bugle call of a survivor of the Light Brigade charge, a man named Martin Leonard Landfried. With brimming pride, Landfried announces, “I am now going to sound the bugle that was sounded at Waterloo, and sound the charge that was sounded at Balaklava on that very same bugle, the 25th of October, 1854.” Landfried’s scratchy voice comes from a cylinder recording from 1890 that was reissued on a vinyl record that Rapp owned.

Friends of Shoreham Fort

Martin Leonard Landfried (Photo: Friends of Shoreham Fort)

Landfried’s bugle notes smoothly segue into the strummed guitar notes of “Translucent Carriages.” Wikipedia calls this one of Rapp’s “most enduring songs,” a shivering tune whose title again harkens to yesteryear, and whose languid music includes ghostly background whisperings. One of them is the Herodotus quote “In peace, sons bury their fathers / In war, fathers bury their sons.” Another is the Rapp quote “Jesus raised the dead / But who will raise the living?”

The recurring chorus goes “Every time I see you, passing by, I have to wonder…why?” The identity of the “you” can be interpreted differently. Are they ancient carriages, perhaps Roman? Hearses? Maybe a woman? Is Rapp referring to Jesus? Or the pointlessness of war?

“Images of April” burrows deeper into the murky surreal. It features vocal echoes, flute, bird songs, and even frog croaks to paint a world of desolation, where springtime exists in fleeting images that only memory can summon. If you’re open to something strange, hypnotic, and completely different:

As unconventional as is “Images of April,” the next song, “There Was a Man,” is totally conventional—the guitar/vocal music, that is. The words, maybe less so. They relate a story about a stranger who one day arrives in a village. The stranger has a scar on his head, “where there used to be a crown.” He amazes the people by doing wonderful, magical things. Then the stranger leaves, sadly, suddenly. He has heard “the news from the war.”

“I Saw the World” is maybe the most passionate song on Balaklava. Rapp pleads, with palpable emotion in his voice, that he’s seen the world “spinning like a toy,” and “hate seems so small compared to it all.” A melodious cello and piano passage helps boost this song to another plane.

Rapp was an admirer of songwriter Leonard Cohen, and the “Swine” honor him with a rendition of Cohen’s “Suzanne.” They supposedly recorded this song in one take, while sitting on the studio floor, in the dark, with candles burning. (Yes, very Sixties.) The hushed ambience they created must have succeeded, since this is one of the most respectfully rendered versions of this acclaimed song.

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Florence Nightingale

Other titles include “Guardian Angels” and “Lepers and Roses,” both of which further the odd, time-frozen quality of Balaklava. At the end of the record, there’s another vintage 1890 recording, this one of Florence Nightingale, who oversaw the nurses during the Crimean War. She prays that her Balaklava “comrades” will all return “safe to shore.” The record trails off with Trumpeter Landfried’s opening again. It’s a reminder that everything is a circle, that everything “comes back again,” both love and hate.

***

While not a perfect record, and certainly not for every ear, Balaklava’s best moments overflow with a perceptiveness, mystery, and beauty not usually occurring in rock music. Today, we hear the word “alternative”—which means “different” or “unconventional”—applied to a certain style of music (for the sake of convenience, branding, and marketing).  But Pearls Before Swine’s Balaklava defines the word alternative.  There’s not another record like it.

Even more, the record is a unique and fervent indictment of the idea that warfare is some kind of glorious endeavor. It is music with meaning. But unlike most anti-war artists of the Sixties—idealistic and well-meaning, but who relied on anthems or derivative platitudes about peace and love—Tom Rapp used irony, surrealism, and religious and historical allusions to present his worldview. He drew from a war in 1854 to indict a war of 1968, which still resonates in 2018.

We’re all familiar with that line in Tennyson’s famous poem…that universal expression of blind patriotic duty, which goes “Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die.” Tom Rapp and Pearls Before Swine question that sentiment with Balaklava. And, I think they’re also saying…shouldn’t everybody?

molly stewart by mel zimmer

Photo by Mel Zimmer

 

 

The Truth about Veterans Day

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(Note: November 11 is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I)

Many years ago, I read a semi-autobiographical novel called Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Part of this book deals with Vonnegut’s very real experience as a U.S. soldier stationed in Dresden, Germany during that city’s bombardment by Allied forces in 1945. In the book, Vonnegut gives his opinion on America’s holiday every November 11: Veterans Day.

“Armistice Day has become Veterans Day. Armistice Day was sacred, Veterans’ Day is not. So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.”

The “truth” I mention in the title is that Veterans Day began as Armistice Day, established at the end of World War I as an international day of peace. The First World War, of course, was referred to as “the war to end all wars.”

Our wars, sadly, didn’t end. Following a second world war, Armistice Day was pointedly renamed Remembrance Day in the British Commonwealth. There, the renaming was designed to commemorate British soldiers of all wars who died in the line of duty (the equivalent of America’s Memorial Day).  In Britain, Remembrance Day is not a public holiday, and Armistice Day is now increasingly recognized there, concurrently with Remembrance Day.

In the United States, on June 1, 1954 following the Korean War, the Congress also replaced the word “Armistice.”  November 11 is now known as Veterans Day, a public holiday honoring U.S. veterans. It is not to be confused with Memorial Day, intended to honor dead American soldiers.

France and Belgium, invaded by German ground forces in both world wars, still recognize Armistice Day.

***

Some of you are undoubtedly thinking “He’s going somewhere with this.” Well, you’re right. There’s another part to the “truth” in my essay title.

While I won’t go as far as Kurt Vonnegut in declaring a public holiday as “sacred,” even one devoted to recognizing peace, I do see his point.NY Times

One has to ask (well, “one” doesn’t have to, but I do)… Why was a day intended to commemorate peace shifted to a day to commemorate soldiers (in the U.S.)?

Rory Fanning, a U.S. veteran, and the author of Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America, has an idea why. He says Veterans Day is “less about celebrating veterans than easing the guilty conscience of warmongers.” (The italics are mine.)

“Armistice Day was sacred because it was intended to evoke memories of fear, pain, suffering, military incompetence, greed and destruction on the grandest scale for those who had participated in war, directly and indirectly.  Armistice Day was a hallowed anniversary because it was supposed to protect future life from future wars.

“Veterans Day, instead, celebrates ‘heroes’ and encourages others to dream of playing the hero themselves, covering themselves in valor.  But becoming a ‘hero’ means going off to kill and be killed in a future war—or one of our government’s current, unending wars.”

As with Vonnegut, I don’t totally agree with Fanning.  I’m not convinced that everyone who supports a Veterans Day is a “warmonger.”

And I don’t intend to slight U.S. military veterans. Many, including some in my immediate family (and a good number of my ancestors), served to protect the freedoms we too frequently take for granted.

But I do agree that America is too often too quick to fling around the term “hero.”  And I’m suspicious of the shadowy forces that buried Armistice Day and, instead, hoisted Veterans Day up the flagpole.  Perhaps Fanning is correct in his belief that Veterans Day is yet one more salve that the U.S. employs to make it easier to enter—or, in the case of Vietnam and Iraq, to start—the next war.

We need fewer heroes and more peacekeepers.  “Armistice Day” and “Veterans Day” aren’t just words. They also carry meaning.

Tonight, there will be no war movies for me on Turner Classic Movies. Instead, I plan to celebrate Armistice Day: an international day of peace.

Fototeca Storica Nazionale_Getty Images

(Photo: Fototeca Storica Nazionale / Getty Images)

Source links:

https://www.va.gov/opa/vetsday/vetdayhistory.asp

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/11/us-observe-armistice-day-more-comfortable-war-than-peace

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armistice_Day

Header photo: Royal Engineers No. 1 Printing Co. / Getty Images

 

A Hollywood Legend Shares Her Wisdom

Olivia_de_Havilland_in_The_Adventures_of_Robin_Hood_trailer_2

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.

The Snake Pit

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.

___________

“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)

Book Review: “How Democracies Die”—More Unraveling

how democracies die

Longtime readers of this blog probably know that I lean leftward politically. So maybe I should offer a disclaimer now: my intention here isn’t to “stab” Republicans and conservatives. (I’m a middle-aged white male, so most of my peers and friends—those few that I have—are Republicans.  If that means anything.)

But I’m offering a synopsis of a book.  Also, I’ve never subscribed to today’s fashionable tendency toward “equalization” in all things, especially regarding political parties.  Political parties exist because their members differ on the issues, and they often differ radically. And while they share certain behaviors, in many ways they also behave differently.  And I don’t think this can be disputed.

History has shown numerous examples of political parties around the globe that cease to exist because they overextended themselves.

How Democracies Die illustrates how and why the Republican Party has shifted so far to the political fringe, much more so than the Democratic Party, and I touched on this in my last post. In this post, I’ll briefly list more examples of why authors Levitsky and Ziblatt feel both parties have abandoned their roles as democratic gatekeepers, yet conservative Republicans have far exceeded Democrats in an “unraveling” of democracy in the United States.

2000 Presidential Election: a U.S. presidential election was determined, not by voters, but by a court, when the Supreme Court ruled (in a 5-4 conservative opinion) to cease a recount of votes in a too-close-to-call election in the state of Florida.  The end of the vote recount resulted in a narrow Electoral College victory by Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore (Gore won the popular vote).

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Conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh (photo Huffington Post)

Tom DeLay and Karl Rove: while Bush promised to be a bipartisan president, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay reportedly told him “’We don’t work with Democrats. There’ll be none of that uniter-divider stuff.’” Bush’s political consultant, another Texan named Karl Rove, pushed Bush to govern “hard to the right.”

Senate Democrats: Democrats responded to the Bush presidency’s hard-right governing by “routinely filibustering Bush proposals they opposed” and rejecting or ignoring Bush’s judicial nominations. The 110th Congress filibustered “an all-time high of 139—nearly double that of even the Clinton years.” Later, during the Obama presidency, Senate Democrats responded to Republicans’ obstructionism of a Dem president by voting for a so-called “nuclear option” that eliminated the filibuster for most presidential nominations. Obama himself engaged in norm-breaking with unilateral executive actions in the face of “an increasingly dysfunctional Congress.”

House Republicans: “If Democrats eschewed forbearance to obstruct the president (Bush), Republicans did so in order to protect him.” The Republican House of Representatives essentially abandoned the practice of “regular order” which allowed minority parties to amend legislation, and began introducing bills under “closed rules.” The authors point out that the GOP-ruled House “conducted 140 hours of sworn testimony investigating whether President Clinton had abused the White House Christmas card list,” yet didn’t once subpoena the Bush White House, even during the controversial Iraq War.

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Former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin (photo AP News)

State redistricting: the longstanding norm of state redistricting every ten years to maintain equal populations was shattered by Texas Republicans (led by DeLay) when, in 2003, they gerrymandered in order to isolate black and Latino voters and ensure Democratic defeat. It worked. “Six Texas congressional seats changed hands from Democrats to Republicans in 2004, helping to preserve Republican control of the House.” Racial gerrymandering by Republicans continues today, most notably in the state of North Carolina, which contains what one NC pastor called “apartheid voting districts.” It worked there, too. In 2012, although more Democrats than Republicans cast votes statewide, nine of North Carolina’s 13 congressional seats were won by Republicans.

Conservative media: during the Clinton years, “the emergence of Fox News and influential radio talk-show personalities—what political commentator (and former Bush speechwriter) David Frum calls the ‘conservative entertainment complex’—radicalized conservative voters, to the benefit of ideologically extreme candidates.” While the authors give Bush credit for not questioning his Democratic rivals’ patriotism during anti-Muslim hysteria following 911, they point out this was not the case with conservative commentators. “Commentators began at times to link Democrats to Al Qaeda—as Rush Limbaugh did in 2006, when he accused Senator Patrick Leahy of ‘taking up arms for Al Qaeda’ after Leahy probed Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito on the Bush administration’s use of torture.”

Conservative writer Ann Coulter joined the hue and cry with books featuring simplistic and melodramatic titles that portrayed Democrats and liberals as an existential threat: Slander, Treason, and Guilty. Not satisfied with these histrionics, she employed religion to emphasize her point: Godless and Demonic.

The authors say this “right-wing media ecosystem” reached a watershed with Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency. He was cast, by Fox News and others, as “Marxist, anti-American, and secretly Muslim” and linked with terrorists like Chicago professor and ex-Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, because Ayers had hosted a gathering for Obama in 1995. Fox News filled its programming with “at least sixty-one different episodes during (Obama’s) 2008 campaign” discussing the Ayers story.

McConnell (Reuters)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (photo Reuters)

Levitsky and Ziblatt say that the most disturbing aspect of this “right-wing media ecosystem” isn’t so much the extremism of the media itself, but its enormous popularity amongst right-leaning voters, and that its influence has, more now than ever before, seeped into the words and actions of powerful and influential Republican politicians:

Newt Gingrich: Obama is “the first anti-American president.”

Tom DeLay: “…unless Obama proves me wrong, he’s a Marxist.”

Iowa GOP Congressman Steve King: Obama is “anti-American” and will lead America into “totalitarian dictatorship.”

Sarah Palin: Obama has been “palling around with terrorists.”  (Words that elicit, from her fawning crowds, cries of “Treason!,” “Terrorist!,” and even “Kill him!”)

Rudy Giuliani: “I do not believe that the president (Obama) loves America.”

Ted Cruz: Obama is a “threat to the rule of law.”

Donald Trump: “I have people who have been studying (Obama’s not being born in America).”

Former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has admitted that “If you stray the slightest from the far right, you get hit by the conservative media.”

The combination of slanted conservative media coverage (read: propaganda) and reckless statements by conservative political leaders has been shown to profoundly effect voters:

According to a 2011 Fox News poll, 37 percent of Republicans believed that President Obama was not born in the United States, and 63 percent said they had some doubts about his origins. Forty-three percent of Republicans reported believing he was a Muslim in a CNN/ORC poll, and a Newsweek poll found that a majority of Republicans believed President Obama favored the interests of Muslims over those of other religions.

Even during a time of national crisis, such as the 2008 recession, Republican leaders refused to exercise bipartisanship. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced, immediately following Obama’s election, the “single most important thing we want to achieve (in the Senate) is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

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Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland (with President Obama)

And after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in February, 2016, the GOP-ruled Senate refused to hold nomination hearings for Obama’s replacement choice, Merrick Garland—a moderate with more federal judicial experience than any Supreme Court nominee in history—claiming it was too close to the November presidential election. It was an unprecedented act, yet another partisan maneuver to give Republicans an edge, this time to maintain a 5-4 conservative majority on the Court.  And it worked. Republican Donald Trump was elected, he nominated conservative Neil Gorsuch, and Gorsuch was confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate.

***

Recall that, at one time in America, the two major parties were able to restrict extremists, such as Henry Ford, Father Coughlin, and John Birch Society leaders, to the fringes of the political landscape. Political gatekeeping, mutual toleration, institutional forbearance, and a respect for norms and unwritten rules were the order of the day. Political leaders exhibited moderation, restraint, and civility (in varying degrees).

By the election of 2016, however, “open attacks on President Obama’s legitimacy (and later, Hillary Clinton’s) were carried out by leading national politicians.” Also recall that such questioning of the legitimacy of one’s opponent is one hallmark of democracies that have crumbled elsewhere in the world. This disturbing trend has allied itself with an almost total abdication of institutional forbearance, as exemplified by the Senate’s unprecedented blocking of the Merrick Garland nomination.

Enter Donald Trump.

Book Review: “How Democracies Die”—The Unraveling

how democracies die

Young people today might have difficulty with this: at one time in America, the two main political parties shared similarities, and actually showed civility to one another.

As the late, great Lou Reed once sang, “Those were different times.”

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book How Democracies Die, describe an America in which many conservatives actually voted Democratic, and many liberals actually voted Republican. The conservative South voted solidly Democrat, a tradition that dated to Reconstruction. And the urban Northeast was populated by fiscal conservatives, many of whom were fairly liberal on social issues. (My dad was one of them.) And—hard to believe, now—but white evangelical Protestants actually leaned Democratic.

This era encompassed 100 years of American history. But there was a dirty caveat to this calm bipartisanship: African-Americans were excluded from the democratic process.

With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, which brought black citizens into that process, a sea change occurred in American politics. Previously, heterogeneity characterized both parties. Whereas they divided on the issues of taxes, federal spending, government regulation, and unions, they did agree on race. But with these two Congressional acts, the Democratic Party became the party of civil rights, while the Republican Party became the party of a white status quo.

“In the decades that followed, southern white migration to the Republican Party quickened. The racial appeals of Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and, later on, Ronald Reagan’s coded messages about race communicated to voters that the GOP was the home for white racial conservatives.”

gingrich_1979 (AP Photo)

Newt Gingrich in 1979 (AP Photo)

And while this was occurring, blacks (and, later, other minority groups) not surprisingly supported the party that emphasized human rights.

This is significant, because “for the first time in nearly a century, partisanship and ideology converged.” (The bold type is mine.) Today, the two parties are divided not only by policy, but they also represent, as How Democracies Die aptly displays, “different communities, cultures, and values.” This polarization was exacerbated by religion, especially after the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, and Ronald Reagan’s outreach in the 1980s to the so-called “Moral Majority”: white Christians opposed to legalized abortion, gay marriage (later), and who advocated school prayer.

How Democracies Die says that this ideological separation occurs in other Western nations, such as Britain, Germany, and Sweden. However, these nations don’t have parties exhibiting the same hostility as in the U.S. Part of this may be due to America’s long history of only two major parties, so the “anger” is less diffused. But that doesn’t explain all of it.

Levitsky and Ziblatt note that, while both parties have shifted closer to the fringes, this polarization has been “asymmetric, moving the Republican Party more sharply to the right than it has moved Democrats to the left.” They cite a 1964 essay by historian Richard Hofstadter that discusses “status anxiety,” which occurs “when groups’ social status, identity, and sense of belonging are perceived to be under existential threat. This leads to a style of politics that is ’overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic.’” The authors conclude that Hofstadter’s essay is far more relevant today than when it was written.

Bill_Clinton

Bill Clinton

What is the “existential threat”? It is the changing demographic landscape in America. Blacks, Latinos, gays, non-Christians, and other once- disenfranchised groups (most of whom vote Democratic) are growing, and Christian Caucasians (most of whom vote Republican) see their numbers slipping.

The authors cite many events and trends since the Nixon administration’s “Enemies List” and illegal wiretaps—the latter condemned and punished via bipartisan gatekeeping—that indicate with clarity why political “mutual toleration” and “institutional forbearance” (recall that these are the unwritten rules, or the glue that binds democracies) have become obsolete. I’ll highlight a few of them:

Newt Gingrich: the former GOP Speaker of the House began his Congressional career in 1978 in Georgia with a “cutthroat vision of politics” that “questioned his Democratic rivals’ patriotism.” His team actually distributed memos to Republican candidates encouraging them to use pejorative descriptors to characterize their Democratic opponents, such as “pathetic, sick, bizarre, betray, anti-flag, anti-family, and traitors.” Gingrich encouraged a no-compromise style of political hardball, and “was one of the first Republicans to exploit” severe polarization as a political tactic.

Filibuster abuse: before the 1970s, the annual number of filibuster attempts never exceeded seven, but “by 1993-94, the number had reached eighty,” under a GOP minority in Congress hostile to the presidency of Bill Clinton.

Clinton hostility: “Senate Republicans…pushed aggressively for investigations into a series of dubious scandals, most notably a Clinton 1980s land deal in Arkansas (the so-called Whitewater investigation).” They followed this by appointing independent counsel Kenneth Starr to investigate. When Gingrich became Speaker in a GOP landslide in 1994, the party “adopted a ‘no compromise’ approach—a signal of ideological purity to the party base—that brazenly rejected forbearance in pursuit of victory by ‘any means necessary.’” This bore fruit with a five-day government shutdown in 1995; a 21-day government shutdown in 1996; and reached its “apogee” with the impeachment of Bill Clinton in December 1998 for lying to a grand jury about extramarital sex. It was a strictly partisan maneuver by a Republican House to bring down Clinton.

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Tom DeLay (photo Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)

“In an act without precedent in U.S. history, House Republicans had politicized the impeachment process, downgrading it…to ‘just another weapon in the partisan wars.’”

Tom DeLay: Gingrich left Congress in 1999, but his brutal style of no-compromise politics was inherited by a Texan, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. DeLay “shared Gingrich’s partisan ruthlessness,” packing lobbying firms “with Republican operatives” (the K Street Project) and starting a “pay-to-play system that rewarded lobbyists with legislation based on their support for GOP officeholders.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt accuse DeLay of carrying “routine norm breaking into the twenty-first century.”  Longitudes accuses him of idiocy, based on statements like “God wrote the Constitution.”

(I’ll pick up with the 21st century next time…there’s sadly much more, starting with the explosion of propagandistic conservative media outlets that began during the Clinton years.)

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.

***

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.”

FDR

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.

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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