Cultural Apocalypse

In reading Hampton Sides’s excellent In the Kingdom of Ice I came upon the story, only a side story in the book, of the Yupiks, a native population in Alaska.  They were destroyed when the white man came along and killed their food source and supplied them with alcohol.   In their case it was the walrus and not the buffalo. 

It was the Arctic version of a story well known to Americans, the story of the buffalo and the Indians of the Great Plains.  Here, as there, the wholesale slaughter of a people’s staple prey had led, in a few short years, to ruinous dislocations, terrible dependencies – and a cultural apocalypse.  

I have read a good deal of history books.  I was a History Major and eventually an American Studies Major.  Yet, this slaughter is something I have never heard of.  It took place as late as the 1880’s,  hardly ancient history.  That is less than 150 years, the span of two human lives. 

When we, as a people, go into a region, such as we have in Iraq, do we really know the history of what went on there?  There is so much we don’t know about our own history.  There is so much that we don’t know period.  How do we make informed political decisions, especially when human life hangs in the balance? 

In the Kingdom of Ice

hampton-sides-06

The writer Hampton Sides has a new book out called In the Kingdom of Ice.  I have only just started reading it, so I don’t want to say too much about it, but if it is anything like Sides’s other books it will be worth every penny.  Sides is one of my favorite history writers.  Following in the footsteps of Shelby Foote, Sides knows how to write accurate history with a the eye of a cinematographer and the gift of natural storyteller.  Every single one of his books has opened a new world up to me.  I can’t even imagine the insane amount of research and work that goes into these books.  His other three books, all worth reading, are as follows:

Blood and Thunder:  This is the story of Kit Carson and the Indian Wars that take place largely in New Mexico.  Along with the equally fascinating Empire of the Summer Moon, written by S.C. Gwynne about the Indian Wars in Texas, this book book is at the top of my list for my favorite history book.  If you read both of these books you will have a great idea of what actually happened during our westward expansion.  Both of these books are fascinating, intelligent, and page turners.  

Ghost Soldiers:  This is Sides’s book on the Bantam Death March and the operation that took place to rescue the survivors.  It is at times both haunting and exciting.  Also, many of the little details that Sides includes are fascinating.  It makes you understand why the Japanese Empire was doomed to failure for the way that they treated those that they conquered.  Another interesting fact is that the American government introduced speed to our soldiers during World War II.  They gave it to the soldiers performing the rescue operation so that they could stay up for several days to complete the operation in the time needed.  

Hellhound On HIs Trail:  This is a book about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and James Earl Ray.  The subtitle of this book is The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History.  It does deliver all of the details on the manhunt of James Earl Ray, and it is fascinating.  I did not know, for instance, that James Earl Ray had actually escaped from prison.  But what makes the book really fascinating is the juxtaposition between Martin Luther King Jr. and James Earl Ray.  King believed in nonviolence to the point that he refused to travel with armed body guards.  And although Sides does not shy away from King’s adultery or other human failings, you understand after reading the book about why he was such an inspiring figure.  His vision for humanity was one of decency and dignity.  Meanwhile Ray is one of life’s losers, a man without any clear goal or passion.  He is a hollow man whose small-mindedness brought him to violence.  They are figures at the complete opposite ends of the human spectrum.  

I was a History Major and eventually an American Studies Major in college.  There is no reason that history shouldn’t be fascinating.  Occasionally you should challenge yourself with a large sprawling work like William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, as these kinds of books can present the big picture in ways that other books can’t.  But usually if history is hard to read, and Shirer’s book is not, it just tells a very complex history, it is the fault of the writer.  Sides’s work is no less valid for being readable.  He is simply a great writer as well as a great historian.  If you are interested in our country, all of these books are worth looking into.  You will learn a great deal while being entertained.  

Passport Propaganda

Last night I forgot one of my books and was stuck in a situation where I had nothing to read.  I started reading the quotes in my passport and realized that almost everyone was propaganda and most were easily disproved.  They are all part of, as George Carlin would say, “the national bullshit story.”  I thought I would post the quotes and then follow up with why a response to each one:

The principle of free government adheres to the American soil.  It is bedded in it, immovable as the mountains. – Daniel Webster

Ok, total bullshit.  First of all soil cannot be bedded with principles of anything.  Our soil, aside from possibly the particular chemical makeup of it, is no different than any soil.  Also, democracy and free governments are never immovable.  They are things which need vigilant citizens to maintain.  Just look at the history of our voting rights.  Look at the current NSA scandal or things Hoover’s FBI did or any of number of things to learn how free government and democracy are easily eroded. 

We have a great dream.  It started way back in 1776 and God grant that America will be true to her dream.  – Martin Luther King

I am nitpicking with this one.  Martin Luther King was obviously a great man.  The quote itself is fine in a kind of whitwashed way.  However in 1776 they did let slavery remain legal.  Also, whether or not there is a God, it is again going to take actual people to make us stay true to the founder’s more noble ideas. 

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.  – John F. Kennedy

Again, I like John Kennedy fine, but this is simply untrue.  If we look at the history of Guatemala or the Congo or many other examples, there are plenty of times that we let liberty be snuffed out. 

This is a new nation, based on a continent, of boundless possibilities. – Theodore Roosevelt

This might have seemed more true in Roosevelt’s time.  However, with our modern environmental problems we are seeing that even our vast continent is not boundless in its possibilities.   Nothing physical is boundless. 

Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come from the heart of America. – Dwight D. Eisenhower

This is a very vague statement.  What exactly is the heart of America?  Is it the people?  If so there have been many times when presidents passed things by executive order without the outright consent of a large amount of people.  Is it Washington?  If that place always has a heart I’ll shit myself.  Besides, the decisions they make there, look at Iraq, don’t always pass in the world as planned.  Again a vague statement that is a bunch of meaningless feel good nonsense. 

For this is what America is all about.  It is the uncrowded desert and the unclaimed ridge.  It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground.  Is our world gone? We say “Farewell.”  Is a new world coming? We welcome it – and we will bend it to the hopes of man. – Lyndon B. Johnson

Again vague feel good nonsense, this time rooted in American exceptionalism.   Johnson himself found the limits to our power in Vietnam.  Case closed. 

May God continue the unity of our country as the railroad unites the two great oceans of the world. – inscribed on the Golden Spike, Promontory Point, 1869

This refers to the transcontinental railroad.   It should be noted that much of the work was done by Chinese laborers.  Although it is disputed how many, varying wildly, many of these workers died. 

We send thanks to all the Animal life in the world.  They have many things to teach us as people.  We are glad they are always here and hope it will always be so. – Excerpt from the Thanksgiving Address, Mohawk version

There is nothing wrong in and of the quote itself.  However when you use it as a selling point for our country it helps to remember how we treated the Indians and how we have exploited animals.  The Mohawks also fought against us in the Revolutionary War and The War of 1812.  We also took their land.  Also, look how we treated the buffalo, which we almost wiped out of existence during the western Indian wars.  Look now at how we treat animals in factory farming.  Again the statement is fine, but when you examine it closely as a selling point for America, it kind of makes you wonder. 

The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or sect, a party or a class – it is the cause of human kind, the very birthright of humanity – Anna Julia Cooper

This statement is another one that is fine in and of itself as an idea.  However, it is false when used as a selling point for America.  Also, first of all, you are not born with the right to anything.  Rights have to be fought for and maintained by vigilant citizens.  If we were born with rights we wouldn’t have needed the Civil War or the women’s suffrage movement.  Also if one looks at gerrymandering today, you can still see that our freedoms, in terms of the right to truly govern ourselves as a true democracy, are still being eroded.  We are also not free in a lot of ways.  If I get caught with weed in Texas, a victimless crime that hurts no one, what freedom I do have will dissappear.  

My point is not to be a killjoy or to say we should stamp out attempts at using language to aspire to greater things.  It is just that we need to, as individuals,  to think.  Democracy and freedom are not birthrights, are not unique to America, and do not come from God.  Only by being vigilant citizens, paying attention to what is going on, and by standing up for those that are oppressed,  can we truly have a democracy that represents all.  Also, total freedom is an illusion.  To be free in a way in which we can all persue our own version of happiness, as long as we don’t hurt others, is still along ways off. There is much work to be done.

Pro Gay Rights

As gay marriage and gay rights comes more to the forefront of our society, I must simply state that I support anything that allows people to find personal happiness.  Life is hard.  Finding someone else that sees the world in the same way as you is one of those things that can make it less so.  Marriage itself is no promise of happiness.  Neither is sex.  However, if the law at least allows for that pursuit of happiness, then I am all for it.  I like some gay people I have met and dislike others, just like I like some heterosexual people and not others, or I like some guitar players and not others.  I think people should be treated as individuals based on their own merits.  Why judge anyone on a personal level other than how they act with you personally?  It seems silly to be typing this in the year 2014.  This is not a brave stance.  But although the side that represents decency is winning, the battle wages on.  Soon enough the bigots will seem as historically stupid as those that hated the Irish and Italians way back when.  Let it be soon. 

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology Review

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is an incredibly powerful film.  It is somehow able to pack in all of the ideas of a great book or the best of a college course, while also being highly entertaining.  It combines films, philosophy, religion, psychoanalysis, history, and politics.  Although the film was directed by Sophie Fiennes, whose visual mastery should not go unnoticed, the film belongs to the narrator and star Slavoj Zizek.

Zizek uses films such as They Live, Full Metal Jacket, The Sound of Music, and others to dive into big ideas.  Clips from the films are shown interspersed with shots of Zizek appearing on recreations of the sets of the same films.  Zizek’s narration is powerful because he is able to make even the headiest of ideas understandable.  The movie is so packed with interesting ideas that I feel that I would be doing the film a disservice without watching it again, or several times, before I tried to list all of the things it covered.

One of the biggest ideas in the movie is that all power, whether that is in the form of religion or even totalitarian atheism, drives from peoples’ belief in the Big Other.  The Big Other could be God or history or any idea that exists outside of the self that allows people to follow orders without questioning them.

He also talks about having the right and wrong dreams.  We often dream of an idealized version of the reality that is presented to us, a dream which would not make us happy if achieved.  In order to make the world a better place we need to change the kind of dreams we have.  An example is our common thinking that we would just be happy if we had more money, etc.; when it is very possible that the organizing principles of our society are what bring about so much unhappiness.  He focuses on ideology because from the very beginning he talks about how trying to see outside of ideology is painful and we often resist it.

He also talks about capitalism vs. environmentalism.  He asks the question why is it easier in some ways in our existing order to imagine the end of life as we know it rather than make a few small adjustments to our economic system.

Even if you end up not agreeing with Zizek, if you are the kind of person that welcomes big ideas this film will leave you with plenty to chew on.  I feel as if I am not doing this film justice.  This is a subversive, intelligent, entertaining movie that should be watched if you are looking for something stimulating.

P.S.  Make sure that if you watch the film that you watch through to the end of the credits.  This film is available for streaming on Netflix currently.  

Was the Past More Sophisticated?

Today, with a crushing hangover, I was listening to Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely.  I have always enjoyed the crying clown album cover.  I was thinking about how, compared to a good deal of modern pop music, complex the melodies are.  I also think the same thing when I think about how popular Joni Mitchell was for awhile.  Were music listeners more sophisticated in the past? If so, why were they?  Maybe I am viewing the past through rose tinted glasses, but it seems as though there was a degree of sophistication and complexity allowed in the mainstream that you rarely see these days.  It takes time and effort on behalf of the listener to appreciate things that aren’t easily digestible.   Maybe our culture has become too fast paced? I don’t have any answers today, only questions.  If you have thoughts on this, feel free to chime in. 

George R.R. Martin Interview

http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/george-r-r-martin-the-rolling-stone-interview-20140423

A thoughtful interview with George R.R. Martin, the writer of The Song of Fire and Ice series more wildly know as Game of Thrones. (The title of the first book and of the TV series that the series is based on.  I thought his comments on history and on the complex nature of man were particularly interesting.  I’ve read all of the books and caught up on the series when I was home last week.  I need the next book to come out!