Ken Burn’s The Civil War and Thinking Critically

center_03

As I have said in prior posts, I’m watching Ken Burns’s The Civil War.  As a point of entry and an overview, I think it is outstanding.  I think it is an extremely well done documentary series that includes an incredible amount of information in an easily understandable way.  It is great TV.  I think it is good history too, as long as you view it as an overview.  One could make a documentary series just about the battle of Gettysburg, or any number of things that this covers.

I can’t help but feel watching parts of it though, that it is sanitized history.  I don’t necessarily mean this as a dig against the series.  When I was a history major in college I realized that the larger the period of time that you covered, the more the class was only going to deal with surface events.  If you took European History you would get names and dates and a couple of overreaching themes.  I took a class on just the years of the Third Reich leading up to World War II, for instance, and you got much deeper into the human mud of what was going on in that time.  So I think that in dealing with a subject as epic as the Civil War, only having eleven and a half hours to tell it, they did about as good as anyone could.

Let me diverge for a minute.  In the TV show Deadwood, which is a western TV show that takes place in the town of Deadwood, there is a scene where the army comes to town.  The commander of the army makes a speech that is the kind of speech you can imagine a commander making.  Meanwhile a deranged looking soldier mutters things like, “We ate our horses.”  In one scene you are getting the noble version of a story and the less noble truth at the same time.

Now before I go any further I want to make something clear.  I am not saying that people shouldn’t believe what they read in history books.  I’m not saying that every event has a conspiracy behind it and that traditional history is a deception.  In fact many history books are brutally honest.  But one should always read history with a critical eye.  Most of the time historians are doing their best to get at the truth.  But everyone has certain biases, only certain information might be available at anytime, or they just might have real world issues like certain time constraints upon their work.  Some people are just better writers than others.  As with most things in life approaching something from multiple viewpoints is the best way to get a well rounded portrait of something.  I read two or three books on Custer last year, I honestly can’t remember, and each book made the picture a little clearer.

But by sanitized history I mean that something paints a narrative that, while telling the truth, doesn’t challenge the existing order of things.  I mean Lee is constantly treated as revered.  It’s always mentioned that he had time for privates, that he was a good man at his core, that he was a brilliant general. But he fought for Virginia because he believed that is where his duty lay.  He let duty lead him to fight on the side of slavery.  Now I understand, and I myself risk simplifying things, that slavery at the start of the war, wasn’t the only thing that people were fighting over.  I also understand that you have to try to look at things in the context of their time.  But at the end of the day he did do just that, he fought on the side that wanted to protect slavery.  And while he was no doubt a brilliant general in a lot of ways, he sent many troops to their slaughter at Gettysburg in a terrible blunder.   Stonewall Jackson, in the book I am reading, is often sweet and good natured in his private life, but could commit acts of war with bloody ferocity.  Both his private kindness and his public savagery were allowed to exist because he, and many in the Civil War, believed they were instruments of God.  Well it would be a an incomplete picture to not present them as complicated, fully realized humans, that had both good and bad qualities, too often often history does not lay it out bare that these people were emotional mutants.  They could play with children and then send those children’s fathers to die for state pride at best, and the right to maintain slavery at worst.  It is true that Grant could also send large numbers of troops to die, but at that point emancipation was on the table, and that was something morally worth fighting for.

I think the show Deadwood, a work of fiction based on reality, does a far better job than a lot of history in terms of exposing the ugliness, and sometimes the human grace, in our past.  I mean these Civil War battles were truly things of the utmost horror.  Thousands of people were often shot down in mere minutes.  These were battles of butchery and savagery.  The documentary series shows dead bodes, and uses words like butchery and savagery, but I don’t think it makes it vivid enough how truly horrible these battles were.  They too often seem like things of the past, safe from the modern world.  These were our ancestors, only two human life spans away, that were dismembering each other in the most horrible ways imaginable.  This wasn’t the middle ages.  There was a scene in the episode last night where white and black Union troops were fighting the Confederates.  The Confederates were saying, if there were captives to take, “Take the whites and kill the niggers.”  That’s somebody’s great great grandpa!  I mean slave owners were selling people’s children off.  People that did that shit helped build this country!  Again, all of this stuff is talked about in the show, but there it seems to be treated almost too reverential at times.  While the show often acknowledges the horrible, it often doesn’t acknowledge the absurd, and these things are often disconnected from our present.

I actually think this is a great documentary series, despite my criticisms above.  My point is not to disparage the show.  I think, again, given the amount of material they had to cover in a given time, they did so in a truly extraordinarily way that is a great overview of this time in history.  But I think one can hold the contradictory opinion of acknowledging someone’s achievement while also criticizing it.  The filmmakers did an outstanding job, but the viewer must now do theirs in thinking critically about the information presented.

One of the Best Books of the Year?

Rebel-Yell-Gwynne-bgcolor1

One of the best books I’ve read in recent years is S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon.  This book is an account of the Comanche Indian Wars that took place in Texas and the surrounding areas.  It was a book that was incredibly informative while also being an absolute page turner.  I just saw that Gwynne has a a new book out.  This book is an account of Stonewall Jackson called Rebel Yell:  The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.  If it is anything like his last book then it is simply a must read as far as I’m concerned.

Here is a link to Gwynne’s website to learn more about the book:

http://www.scgwynne.com/rebel-yell-stonewall-jackson/

Authenticity and Doubt

Although I have been slacking off lately, I read a lot.  If there is anything that I have learned through learning, it is that there is so much I don’t know.  It’s unbelievable the amount of stuff that I see or hear about on a daily basis that makes me think to myself, “Jeez, I don’t know much about that do I?”  The world is an infinitely complex place.  At any one time there is more that we don’t know than we do know.  That’s why I respect people that are unafraid of doubt.  I also respect people that are authentic.  The two things go hand in hand really.

When I write here I try to be as authentic as possible to what I’m feeling in the moment.  However, don’t confuse being authentic with being right.  I try to “tell it like it is”, but there are times when I am acting on incomplete information, and other times when I just might be out and out wrong.  However, in trying to be authentic I believe there is value for the thinking person.  If you read enough of what I write, if you know my background, my biases, and so on, you can use what I write as a measuring stick against what you have read, and what other sources are out there.  It is only by comparing and contrasting many different things that we can even hope to get at the truth of a matter.  Everyone’s knowledge is incomplete.  However, for even this to succeed you need to hope that your multiple sources are authentic, in that they are at least trying to get as close to the truth as possible.  Someone that is trying to spin something or sell you on something is of no value whatsoever.  You see these kind of people all the time in the media.  If someone loves everything Obama has done or hates everything he has done, you can pretty much guess that they are not to be trusted, as an example.

Someone that I used to like to watch on TV, that I rarely agreed with, was Pat Buchanan.  Now I’m not vouching for his career in politics, but only on how he came across a couple years ago on MSNBC when I used to have cable.  (Although surprisingly he was friends with Hunter Thompson, who was a great bullshit detector.)  I couldn’t be more different in political thinking than him most of the time, but he seemed authentic.  He had enough sand to admit when he felt his own side was wrong.  You couldn’t necessarily predict his opinion just because he was on the right.  He seemed to be thinking through each issue as it came in front of him, instead of arriving at a preordained belief that was the result of groupthink.  Meanwhile when you watch a lot of political pundits you can pretty much guess where they are coming down on something, and you have no sense of what they really believe.  You can’t intellectually work with that.  Someone might as well be blowing fart noises in your ear.

I think if you want to figure out what is going on out there you shouldn’t look for people that just toe the line of what you believe, unless they seemingly get there by thinking through each issue.  But you should also try to read or watch or listen to people that have different beliefs as long as they are being authentic.  If they come from someplace true you can measure comments that they make against what they have said in the past.  And anyone honest knows that there are times they don’t know what the fuck is going on.  If someone can’t admit to having feelings of doubt at times, then don’t trust them.  Not for a minute.

John Lydon On Voting and Russell Brand

This will be my last post on John Lydon for awhile, but since I have been posting about him, and I included a post about Russell Brand yesterday, I thought that this would be a good video to put up.  I can’t agree more with Lydon about voting.  I also completely agree with his advice on reading.

I apologize.  I originally linked to the wrong video.  The correct video is now above.  

Would Jesus Want to See a Cross?

A lot of Christians wear crosses around their necks. You think when Jesus comes back he ever wants to see a fucking cross? It’s like going up to Jackie Onassis wearing a rifle pendant.  - Bill Hicks

I’d be lying if I said I knew Hicks work that well, though I certainly have heard of him.  Mark, our saxophone player, tipped me off to this quote last night.  I have always thought it strange that many people’s symbol of hope is also a symbol of one of the most excruciating ways to die possible.  Do some reading on crucifixtions sometime, it’s horrible!  If you really wanted to follow Jesus wouldn’t it be better to wear some kind of symbol of love or peace or understanding?  That is why I find things like The Passion of the Christ so wrongheaded,  it dwells on all of the wrong things.  But then again, I guess most churches do the same….

A Little Bit of Magic

I have just put up over 900 posts since I started this blog in August of last year.  Slowly, but surely, the amount of people coming here has grown.  I can’t thank all of you enough for spending time here.

The first thought I have when I write something is, “Why would anyone care?”  I can only hope that there is enough people out there that have somewhat similar interests to me.  I’m throwing baseballs blindly over a wall and hoping that there are people on the other side to catch them.  I have only kept writing in public because of those of you that keep coming back.

Last night I played music in front of what looked like a couple thousand people at a festival in Conroe, Texas.  However, I have played plenty of nights where there were maybe five or ten people in the audience.  No matter what I try to always play my best.  When we read we read alone.  How many times have you gone to a movie and been one of the only people in the theater?  There is still that chance that that book or movie or album or live performance might connect with someone.  I can think of all the times that something connected with me in an important way when there was no one else to experience it.  Everyone matters.  If you do something and it even reaches even one person it has value.  That person’s life has as much value as your own or anyone else’s.  A connection with even one other soul has a little bit of magic in it.  As long as someone keeps coming back I will keep writing.

Thanks again to all of you that keep coming here.  If you would be kind enough to tell other’s of my writing I would be eternally grateful.

In the future when all’s well…

Jeff

New Haruki Murakami Book

9780385352109_custom-0f3fbbdbb53bd816cb906ed2438061ba089645f8-s99-c85-2

For those readers out there, another one of the world’s current great authors, Haruki Murakami, also has a new book out.  It’s called Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.  My favorite three books of his are probably Kafka On the Shore, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.  I think that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is probably his masterpiece, but Kafka On the Shore is probably the best place to start as it is more accessible.

For anyone that has seen a David Lynch movie, Murakami has the same sense of the uncanny that Lynch has.  He has the ability to make the everyday seem strange and haunting.

I spent time in Japan last year and I have been interested in their culture for a long time.  After going there I read a little bit about their culture.  Because they have stricter rules than us concerning personal interaction they are more comfortable with ambiguity.  There is a certain amount of ambiguity and abstraction even built into their language.  Often what is meant is inferred by body language and facial expression, instead of being overtly expressed.  I’ve commented before that this plays a role in their art.  If you watch any movies that are wildly popular in Japan, they will seem much more surreal than our popular entertainment.  Anyone that has seen movies like Spirited Away can attest to that.  Murakami’s work, although it can be extremely realistic at times, also has many moments of this surrealism as well.

I love art that has a certain dream logic to it, as I often see the world as being dreamlike.  If this is something you find yourself drawn to then I highly recommend that you check out Murakami’s work.