Wednesday, July 4, 2018

American Story: Thirty Days by Greyhound and a Meditation on Patriotism

I’d done a year and a half of college, done okay, sort of, but must have felt that it was a path that was being mapped out by someone else, so that summer in 1980 I mapped out my own course, a bus trip across the country by Greyhound, staying at youth hostels, and lit out. I was 20 years old.
          I remember plotting it out over a map of the United States spread out before me on the floor of my bedroom in the suburban home I grew up in. I would go to New Orleans, then up to St. Louis, out across the Rockies to Colorado, then to Salt Lake, then to San Francisco. Id turn back east stopping at the Grand Canyon; make a stop in Ohio to see my grandparents. And then I would come home. That’s how I decided it, just like that, sitting on the floor and looking at a map. I would do this using a Greyhound Bus Ameripass, which in 1980 allowed you to travel for 30 days, wherever and as much as you needed to, for $300, staying in youth hostels along the way.
It was a humidity-sodden day in July—the kind of day in D.C. when everyone seems to be somewhere else; the kind of day that feels like you could lose it like so much soggy lint in your pocket—that I boarded a bus at the depot in Silver Spring, Maryland, the neighboring town to my own Bethesda, Maryland. Silver Spring, then, was (at least in my memory) a smoggy, congested concrete attachment to the nation’s capital, surfeited with carry-out joints and failing strip malls. This was just how I remember my departure on this adventure of mine across the country—humid, non-descript, a lost little day in mid-summer. The bus depot manager was a moon-faced fellow in a baseball cap from whom I bought the Ameripass that same day, but I told him I was headed to my first stop in New Orleans. I’d be taking the regular bus south to Richmond—it left two or three times a day—and all of the dozen or so other passengers waiting in the dingy little station were heading either to Richmond or to points north of there along the way. I would be switching buses several times in several stations in the old confederacy before reaching my destination; it was early afternoon when the bus departed and the plan was for me to arrive in New Orleans mid- or late-afternoon of the next day, something more than a 24-hour journey. But when the bus was ready to board the moon-faced manager called out “New Orleans” as if I was heading, maybe, across town or across state. I was in gym shorts, sneakers, and a T-shirt carrying one large grimy yellow knapsack stuffed with clothes, a smaller pack with books, a camera, snack food and the like, and a waist pack where I carried cash and my packet of bus tickets.
It was a young man’s adventure, the kind of thing undertaken with not much more forethought or cautionary planning than I have just described. I had tried the college thing—both my brothers had gone off to schools before and were now graduated into the world—and while I hadn’t done badly, it hadn’t been a good experience. I had taken the second semester of my sophomore year off, come home to live with my parents, and worked at a drug store (a local DC chain then called “People’s Drug Store,” that would be bought out later by CVS). There was a plan in the works for me to attend a different school in the fall, but truthfully I wasn’t much focused on that; what I wanted to do was get out from under what felt like everyone else’s script and scout around the great world of my own country.
It was an idea born of books I had read—especially, as a teenager John Steinbeck’s "Travels With Charley," "Grapes of Wrath," "Tortilla Flats" and "Cannery Row"—and an ethos I had absorbed from other writers and poets and singers and songwriters, the idea that to discover the country you had to go out and visit it, and in visiting it you would be transformed yourself. So that your own self-discovery was intimately linked with your discovery of what it meant—or some small piece of what it meant—to be an American.
Something like that. Sounds a tad melodramatic, perhaps, but it’s a theme that runs deep in American literature. I’ll confess up front, though, that while there are some highlights, viewed from a certain vantage point it can look mostly like a kid in sneakers and a t-shirt on a bus, drinking a shitload of beer wherever he was able. (And I should add that the reader will have to trust me; I have no documentary evidence of this adventure, neither pictures nor the diary I carried have survived, and some pockets of this excursion have blurred with time.)
And yet…I have today, more than 35 years later, a great affection and respect for my younger, adventurous self, and it was a journey that has stayed with me. I go over these recollections every now and again, trying to polish and make shine what it was that stays with me, what it is that seems significant today. It did change me, and it was one in which I did come to know my amazing country more intimately. This is an American story.

It went mostly as planned. I toured the French Quarter in New Orleans, then stayed two nights in a dormitory at Tulane and rode the streetcar up and down the Garden District; spent one night in a homeless shelter in sweltering St. Louis (it was something like 111 degrees) because I arrived on a Sunday and the hostel was closed (so that didn’t go quite as planned); spent four nights in Boulder, Colorado, trying to absorb the fact that people there casually walked around doing their business with those mountains in their backyard; spent a couple of nights in Salt Lake, treating myself to a Holiday Inn (what I mostly remember is how clean the city was, and my amazement that there were non-Mormon churches, plenty of them, there.) From San Francisco, I hitchhiked north to the wine country, and south down the coast to Carmel (receiving a ride in a pick-up truck I will never forget). Turning back east, I stayed in Flagstaff, Arizona where the youth hostel at the time was atop a bar-cafĂ© called Charlies; because of its proximity to the Canyon, it attracted young people from all over the world as well as students from Arizona State, and folks from the town--it was a lively place at night and in the morning you could hitch a ride to the Canyon, 90 miles north.
I learned a lot that summer and I wonder why it feels slightly embarrassing to say that one of the things l learned was to love my country. Certainly, I thought I loved my country before, or would have said so if someone had asked me—after all, I had said the Pledge of Allegiance in grade school and sung (or lipsynced) the National Anthem at ballgames and had been told through twelve-plus years of American public school that I had everything to be grateful for being born here. But getting to see the colossal land of my birth or a fraction of it, gave me a physical, sensual sense of the country I hadn’t had before. I suppose it may have first come to me with my first glimpse of the Rockies; it was a breathtaking source of wonder to awaken in Boulder, Colorado and step outside and see a mountain—not the little green hills we call mountains back east, but a great, jagged-tooth eruption of God’s earth tipped at the top with snow—looming over you. It will humble anyone’s provincialism. Standing on the grounds of the youth hostel in San Francisco at Fort Mason on Fisherman’s Wharf at night, looking out at the twinkling lights of the city, I marveled at the distance I had travelled, and at the vastness of the country, aware for the first time and in a way that has stayed with me, that we are part of something that is larger than our own narrow ideas about it.
        (There are times, I confess, when I sometimes don’t feel very American and think I might “fit in” better in, say, England or some chilly Scandanavian place, where everyone’s emotional temperature is lower. I can’t quite master the habit of sunny optimism, the idea that the trend is always up, that it is always morning in America and I think, in fact, American culture would benefit from a better apprehension of the tragic sense of life. But this is a matter of temperment. The truth is, I couldn’t live anywhere else.)
         Probably, people like me—by which I mean people who identify, with varying degrees of allegiance, with the political left of center—should be less shy about expressing profound feelings of patriotism; that reticence has allowed others, who have the most anemic and emaciated counterfeit of love for their country, to portray us as enemies of a most fundamental sort. It’s an easily manipulated (and easily counterfeited) thing, patriotism. “The last refuge of scoundrels,” an Englishman said of it four centuries ago. More recently, Joan Didion wrote in an essay, “On Morality” that she distrusted the word “morality,” distrusted it’s use in any but the most irreducible sense—as when (this is just how irreducible she meant the only sense in which it was trustable) you vow not to leave a dead body out on the desert, because the buzzards and coyotes will feed it on it. That’s “immoral.” Anything more abstract, or symbolic than that, than vowing not to leave dead bodies on the desert floor, is horseshit. 
          Well, I feel just about exactly the same way about patriotism. To me it means something real, that awareness that struck me when I first saw the Rockies or looked back across the country from the wharf in San Francisco, of the vastness of the country, its variety, its neon-lit gaudiness, the realization that it is larger than my, or anyone’s, imagining. This sense of the whole—derived from a little bit of reading, a little bit of travel, a little bit of education, and, okay, maybe, a little bit of hearsay—is fused inseparably with my own personal experience of being an American: childhood summers in rural Ohio or on the eastern shore, watching the moon landing late at night on a scratchy and crackling television set on the eastern shore, the riotous American abundance at county fairs on warm summer nights. I carry it around with me, this awareness—just as I carry around with me the awareness of my name (though I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my name, or boasting to others, “I am Mark!”).
        The problem, maybe, is that patriotism is easily identified with its symbols—a flag, an anthem—which are then easily fetishized. Consider: some black athletes take a knee during the national anthem; okay, you might say with reason, it’s an act that requires no great courage from young people earning millions of dollars to play a game six months of the year. But it does stem from something real, at least as real as the experiences I have described (if not a lot more so) the felt experience among black Americans that they are more liable to die or be roughly and unfairly treated at the hands of the police. (The game they play, by the way, despite the millions of dollars, is going to discard them when they are not yet out of their youth, and when they may be significantly brain damaged for the rest of their lives).
        But mark the response from the Vice President of the United States who flies to a football game with the express purpose of walking out of the game when the players kneel. Now here is an act that approximates almost perfectly the exact juncture of cynicism, phoniness, opportunism and infantalism. Call this nearly mythical place, Horseshit Central. Here is an act that requires exactly zero courage, costs exactly nothing (to the Vice President; the rest of us foot the bill for the plane ride); it may have leant some thin, short-lived symbolic support to police officers who may feel themselves aggrieved—maybe—but the audience the Vice President was really playing to wasn’t cops, but people whose purchase on ersatz patriotism becomes tighter once they’ve sunk into the barcolounger and started in on that first six-pack. Oh, look! He’s walking out! Look at him go! Yep, there is he, walking out! You can almost hear one of those nameless, brainless “color” commentators who litter the professional football airwaves, saying, “There he goes, Joe, walking out! Is that some integrity? Or What?”
       The tacky and sinister phoniness of this repellent charade is enough to make you read the last rites over American self-government; to borrow a phrase from Christopher Hitchens, you can’t eat enough to vomit enough. For the record, I think I would prefer the players stood during the anthem, if only because their protest contributes to the pervasive sense of entropy everywhere, the sense that things are falling apart. I like patriotic songs and think it is a sweet thing to sing them at sporting events, although—forgive me—the Star Spangled Banner is just a song, not a great one. It's difficult to sing and the lyrics are grammatically a little weird. I prefer God Bless America or America the Beautiful or My Country Tis of Thee.
       It was probably inevitable—given the bad shape professional football is in and its dubious future—that the owners would give in to the President and enact their little ban on freedom of speech. The President’s supporters are free to hail this as some kind of victory, but if mandatory political rituals are your idea of patriotism, you might want to try North Korea. You can stand at attention all the live long day.
       Not every topic of discussion about patriotism, or that evokes declarations of patriotism, is so frivilous and dumb. The debate about immigration engages fundamental questions—What is an American? Who is an American? What does it mean to be an American?—and things real rather than only symbolic. A border is a very real thing—I can show you where it is on a map—and the liberal left (never failing to seize on an opportunity to miss an opportunity) makes a big mistake when it speaks of open borders, or in platitudes such as “no human being is illegal.”
     `But an immigrant (and her child) is also quite real, and the immigrant—almost always throughout American history derided as dirty, disease-carrying, or criminal—is in the realest sense just exactly what America is about. (Want to engage in an act of patriotism? Visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York.)
      The conservative writer Brett Stephens recently made the
interesting case that the United States needs more immigration. And he had this to say:
“Immigrants — legal or otherwise — make better citizens than native-born Americans. More entrepreneurial. More church-going. Less likely to have kids out of wedlock. Far less likely to commit crime. These are the kind of attributes Republicans claim to admire.
   Or at least they used to, before they became the party of Trump — of his nativism, demagoguery, and penchant for capricious cruelty. It was nice to hear Republican legislators decry the family separation policy. But there’s no sugarcoating the fact that a plurality of Republicans, 46 percent,
favored it, while only 32 percent were opposed, according to an Ipsos poll commissioned by the Daily Beast.
    This isn’t a party that’s merely losing its policy bearings. It’s one that’s losing its moral sense. If anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools, then opposition to immigration is the conservatism of morons. It mistakes identity for virtue, entitlement for merit, geographic place for moral value. In a nation of immigrants, it’s un-American.”

     Then, too, there is this: It occurred to me that anyone seeking a picture of our possibly bleak future should contemplate not the “illegals” coming over our border, but the face of a white man legally born in the United States—the 21-year old gunman who two years ago shot nine Charleston, South Carolina churchgoers at a Bible study. I suppose this young man might be able to name the author of The Declaration of the Independence, and possibly “Huckleberry Finn.” But I doubt seriously he could say who wrote “The Scarlet Letter,” “The Great Gatsby,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Leaves of Grass,” or “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Eve”; doubt seriously he could say the historical significance of Plymouth Rock, Jamestown, or Williamsburg, let alone Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Pearl Harbor, or Selma, Alabama; doubt seriously he had ever visited a National Park, or could even name the state where the Grand Canyon is.
Illiterate, or anyway sub-literate, bereft of any knowledge of our history, literature or geography, he is only nominally American. Jobless, mentally ill, vaguely aware that he is somehow falling behind, he does not have a high school education, but he does have enough information, gleaned from surfing the Internet, to determine that it is someone else who is the cause of his troubles. And he does have access to a gun.
        To carry your country around with you--that is the beginning and end of patriotism. Two of my favorite writers and thinkers are Andrew Sullivan and the late Christopher Hitchens—both of them Anglo-immigrant writers who never declined to extol the virtues of America (they can also be acidly critical of this country). Hitchens had this to say on an interview show when a caller asked him to say whether he thought America is the greatest country on earth:
        "I think I like America most on all the days when people are not going around `USA! USA! We're number one! We're the greatest!' I prefer the days when they don't do that. It's a matter of `always think of it, never speak of it.’"
       But then Hitchens reflected and added, "Of course, objectively as well as subjectively, the American Revolution is now the only revolution with a fighting chance of survival and success: the idea that you could create a multicultural democracy over a vast expanse of the earth's surface that could possibly be emulated by other people.”


I was on my way back from the Canyon, my last day there, hitching south back to Flagstaff, and I had gotten started late because I had lingered in the Canyon for a few hours before heading back up and by the time I got to the lip and began hitchhiking back it was late afternoon. The traffic going south from the Canyon is on interstate 180, which breaks southeast toward Flagstaff about 45 minutes in, at a little spot on the map called Valle; but some of the traffic continues due south to Williams, and my first ride dropped me at the intersection with Flagstaff still the better part of an hour away.
    The traffic had seemed to slow—most of the families had headed back to wherever they were going earlier in the afternoon—and I looked around at a vast desert around me as the sun began to set. There was, I think I remember, a building of some kind in the middle distance, but it was pretty lonely out there and a sense of foreboding began to build as I scanned the empty highway for southbound traffic. Darkness was not far off.
   It’s a moment that has stayed with me, as defining as any of the other more dramatic points along this journey—arriving at night in New Orleans, seeing the Rockies for the first time, the ride in the pick-up along the Big Sur, the Canyon, looking out at San Francisco at night from the Wharf—but to anyone viewing the scene they would see only a guy with a knapsack and his thumb out over an empty highway. It was an entirely interior moment, but I have never forgotten it, and have come to believe in it as a kind of hinge in my life.
   It was, simply, a decision not to panic, a determination not to be scared—although I was. That’s all I can tell you. I had come this far, I had charted this journey on my own, I had staked a claim of sorts on a vast, vast country, and now I felt myself to be a different, older person than when I had left—and somehow I would work this out. (In truth, I’m not sure what I could have done had the situation really gotten desperate; there was, maybe, that building in the distance—it might have been a post-office or some such thing—and there may have been a payphone there; maybe I thought I would stand on the highway and force someone, or a truck, to stop. Who knows? ) Anyway, I stuck my thumb out and waited. It did start to darken, but of course in time a ride came and I arrived back at Charlie’s well before nightfall.
   Maybe a lot of the most important moments in our life are like that moment of mine on the desert highway—private, interior transitions and epiphanies that can scarcely be conveyed to any others. A few weeks after returning home, I was off to a new school experience, a little bit more mature, more confident that I was capable of writing my own script. I had changed.
   Someday, I would like to recapitulate this adventure (although now I’m not sure I could deal with 30 days on a bus!). I’d like to travel a northern route, through the Great Lakes region, the iron range of Minnesota, the Dakotas, the great Northwest. I’d like to visit my country again.
   At the conclusion of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Chief Broom, newly escaped from the institution to which he had been harnessed his adult life, contemplates the open road and the continent that surrounds him.
“I might go to Canada eventually, but I think I’ll stop along the Columbia on the way. I’d like to check around Portland and Hood River and The Dalles to see if there’s any of the guys I used to know back in the village….Mostly, I’d just like to look over the country around the gorge again, just to bring some of it clear in my mind again.

“I been away too long.” 

 Me too.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Piano Lesson

Her back is turned to me
A small Asian beauty in black
Straddling the bench at the ominous grand,
A concentrate of my daughter’s face
Behind her in a shiver of light.
Alone, it is just the two of them now,
And they work.

Well, it is I that brought her here,
I say to myself,
Sinking in the sofa in a darkening room,
Apart, and pay the monstrous fee.
I have been undone by small chores
I think, as if dishes were not done too
By elites of discipline I never could muster
And now on the outside looking in, never will.
They work.

Not just piano but pianissimo
Through the hour made long
By the early winter dark
And the repetitions of “softer, softer….”
She is learning, my daughter, from the heir
Of an ancient dynasty, the world is nuanced,
Infinite in believable interpretations
If only you are trained to summon them,
And having summoned, can believe in them,
And by belief give reason to believe.
But that, I suppose, is for the advanced.
We once saw the teacher in a recital hall
Seduce the Brandenburg from a harpsichord
So that we thought it might get up—
I mean the music itself!—climb into the seats
And shake hands with us.

They work until the hour winds down
And the teacher releases her back to me
We look alike, it’s said, and I do bear
The ghost in my face of the child 

My daughter will soon cease to be.
Cease, for I know now in that hour
One of the ways of becoming
Someone other than who she might
Have to be, has been slipped
Into her fingers like a code.
And already as we head to the door
She has become less mine, more her own,
Than she was before.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Reflections at the Lorraine Hotel

The modesty, almost the meanness, is what strikes you when you see it, the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel—so familiar from the photo everyone has seen of Dr. King’s friends standing over his body and pointing across the street at the boarding house where the shooter had made his lair—and that room with the thin carpet and the shabby curtains where he stayed. Memphis, is a modest city, Beale street notwithstanding, an American southern city; in the center of town, in the courthouse square—a sweet quiet little green space—a plaque commemorates the first mayor of the town, who proclaimed that his most cherished accomplishment was being able to look out over this little park and watch the birds. The streets around the Lorraine Hotel are modest, too, crooked little streets with grass overgrown in the cracks in the pavement, tumbledown houses and burnt red brick buildings in need of some repair. Millions of people have by now passed this way, through these streets, but it does not have the feel of a tourist destination—at least not as Washington or New York or Chicago would conceive of one.
   Maybe only someone from Washington could be struck by the modesty of the place. How did one suppose an entourage of black men might have been travelling in Tennessee, in 1968, when they weren’t entirely welcome? Or maybe it is the immodesty of our time, when our “leaders” and “spokespersons” are bloated, gorgon egos riding on digital airwaves, tweets, disconnected entirely from the real, deteriorating American landscape they claim to speak for. The hotel, that balcony, the humble room—room 306—preserved as the culminating exhibit in the National Civil Rights Museum to which the hotel is attached, resonate with the street-level realness of the time. King and his friends were there in Memphis, not to attend a conference or to christen a monument or a new building or to receive an award or enunciate a new social theory of race relations. He was there to support a sanitation workers’ strike.
   It’s been said that 1968 was the worst year in American history (I think our time may now make that claim obsolete) but there is a compelling sense of the real, the particular, about the battles of that year and the years leading up to it, as if the period exhales the breath of its excited, hyperventilating participants. Christian theology speaks of a “scandal of particularity”—the outrageousness, the unacceptability of the idea that the divine would make itself manifest into an unwashed human being, in a time and place, dusty backward ancient Palestine. The Bible is repetitive throughout in its assertion that God works in just this way; the arc of salvation history is bent not by people making the loudest noise.
   Writing in Harpers in 1961 James Baldwin said of MLK that “he has succeeded, in a way no Nero before him has managed to do, to carry the battle into the individual heart and make its resolution the province of the individual will. He has made it a matter, on both sides of the racial fence, of self-examination.”
   Baldwin’s writing from the period, too, exhales that breath of the real, like steam coming off the hot summer pavements. I first read his magisterial essay, “The Fire Next Time”—actually published as two separate tracks (“My Dungeon Shook” and “Down at the Cross”)—as a teenager in the 1970s when so much about that period seems to have exhausted itself. How I came across his work I don’t know—it may have been my mother’s influence. Or it may have been simply because I was, at the time, deeply enamored of everything about “the sixties” and felt that I had been born ten years too late; one book may have led to another and to Baldwin.
   If King insisted the “race problem” was a problem of the human heart, Baldwin in his writing took it further to say that it was more explicitly a problem for white people to overcome; it was for white people to liberate themselves—and for black people to insist that they do so—from what Baldwin called “the racial nightmare” of white supremacy. What Baldwin couldn't tolerate was the notion that white people could comfort themselves with the idea that they--we--had done some great deed by letting them eat at the lunch counter, as if it were a privilege, ours to confer. (Contemplate this--something I learned from George Will: when Jackie Robinson made his appearance in the major leagues, and the Dodgers would eat at a restaurant or tavern, some places would throw away all of the plates and silverware on which Robinson might have eaten after the team left. There is a great essay to be written, if it hasn't already been, about the relationship between prejudice and the enormous human fear of germs, of bacteria and of disease) . Anyway, the liberation that Baldwin wrote about (and King testified to) was something more far reaching than than integrated school or lunch counter.
   I have uttered in my time some embarrassingly callow, shallow and fatuous things about race from my protected status—I argued in my twenties in the 1980s that institutional systemic racism was over—so I’ll resist it now, except to observer that perhaps it was too much to expect. I don’t know. Or perhaps the wheels are still turning. It is very hard to stand in front of that hotel, that balcony, in those humble streets of Memphis and not think sadly of the distance that has been travelled, or not, since that time to ours—Black Lives Matter, Tamir Rice, Freddie Grey, school shootings, Charlottesville, Donald Trump. Baldwin asked us in Down at the Cross to consider the face and eyes of a southern sheriff (and he must have had Alabama’s notorious Jim Clark in mind) for a glimpse at the spiritual bankruptcy that results from the white American grip on its delusion. I shudder to think what Baldwin would make of the men and women who stand in vast throngs at Donald Trump’s rallies braying for a wall, to be paid for by Mexico.
   What will become of us? “Here we are,” Baldwin wrote in the thunderous conclusion to Down at the Cross, “at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise….If we do not falter in our duty now, we be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of the prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

"7 Days in Entebbe": I Fight So You Can Dance

The opening scene of "7 Days in Entebbe" introduces us to Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company in rehearsal of an electrically weird choreography. I thought: this is going to be different, this is going to be good.
  Alas. The movie was just about sort of okay. "7 Days in Entebbe" turns out to be a fairly conventional “thriller” about the famous Israeli rescue raid in 1976, but the dance number and the film’s none-too-original meditation on the endlessness of the Israeli-Palestinian war over a twice-promised land aspire to give the film some higher calling it doesn’t really live up to.
  The dance itself—apart from whether it works within the structure of this otherwise conventional popular movie—is inspired and the choreography is remarkable. Alongside the narrative of the hijacking of an Air France passenger jet by a Palestinian and West German radical left group, and the planning in Israel of a military operation to rescue the hostages, we witness the dance company, one of whose performers is the girlfriend of a soldier who will take part in the rescue raid, polishing its work. Twenty some performers are seated on chairs in an arc and begin, in shadows, to throw their limbs about in sharp synchrony; it has the feel of something disturbingly unnatural, like the ritualized movements of an autistic child, and conveys the sense of being captive to an exhausting, unnatural, and repetitive exercise, one that will never end. But it is at the same time beautiful in its precision—a violent precision, if that is possible, a marvel of synchronized execution, (just like the raid itself, carried out by a unit of Israel’s most fearsome fighters). And over and over, as they rehearse, one of the dancers always falls out, pitches forward from the chair, collapses on the floor.
   One soldier, Jonathan Netanyahu (whose letters I first read in my 20s) was killed in the operation. The raid has become legendary, a model for heroic planning and lethal precision. In fact, it did not go off perfectly as planned, and a lot could have gone wrong. The narrative of the preparation for the raid revolves around the endlessness of the war and its inescapability. Like the dancers, one of whom is the girlfriend of a soldier who will take part in the rescue raid, the combatants on both sides are trapped in a repetitive and profoundly unnatural exercise. “I fight so you can dance,” the soldier tells his girlfriend.
   Compelling as the choreography is, its juxtaposition with—or its insertion into—a relatively workaday narrative feels slightly forced. The rest of the movie (that’s how distinct these two mechanisms feel; there is the dance and there is the rest of the movie) is a mixed bag. There is at least one really fine performance by Lior Ashkenazi who plays Rabin—cautious, tortured, a former fighter and general who knows the realities of war and is reluctant to commit 200 of his very best men to a mission that might have been calamitous. His military underlings, too, play their part with a plausible verisimilitude.
   What is distinctly weird and off-putting, though, is the depiction of Shimon Peres. Played by Eddie Marsan, he looks, first of all, just plain bizarre—over made-up, maybe, or shot at angles that seem to emphasize an odd shape to his head and face. The character is played with an unsmiling, shifty-eyed calculation, meant to convey the sometimes Machiavellian political maneuvering for which Peres was known. (His rivalry with Rabin, who regarded him as an inveterate conniver, is legend among Israelis of that generation.) The effect though is, again, weird; he comes off more like some drugged Manchurian candidate.
   A little better is the depiction of the two German terrorists, Bridgette Kuhlman and Wilfred Bose, deluded idealists sidelined in the operation by their Palestinian counterparts who don’t harbor any illusions about the Israeli’s willingness to negotiate. They are plagued by their German-ness, and aware of “how it looks”—Germans singling out Jews for death when it comes time to separate the Israeli passengers of the Air France flight from the others. The portrayal of Kuhlman, especially, hints at the thin border that divides radical idealism and mental illness. For a really electric dissection of that border go see, "The Bader-Meinhof Complex," about the Red Army, the West German underground group of which Kuhlman and Bose’s  Revolutionary Cells, was an off-shoot.
   The makers of "7 Days in Entebbe" want to tell us something more than a story about a daring rescue mission. It doesn’t really come off. But it did make me want to go learn more about the Batsheva Dance Company.

Monday, March 5, 2018

A Conference in Hawaii

A conspiracy of intention brought the delegates together
To the mirrored halls of these meeting rooms
And the marble lobby with its water falls and stone statues
Of Island gargoyles designed to invoke
A colonial benevolence no one recalls.

It began in the conventional way.
The heat grew desperate in the rooms
Amid a panic of commitment,
Opposing positions took on a flesh
That seemed to walk among us,
And for a while it became possible to think
That our sullen flesh might soon be shorn  
For a new and unimaginably brilliant habitation.

But then from the 23rd floor
A stick figure in black like a doodle by Kafka
Lofted a dove from its hands
That fluttered a while before it fell
Through a shaft of Hawaiian light,
Turning as it dropped into a clutter of littering confetti.
And when I looked up again
The earnest delegates and their forbearing wives,
Their motions and resolutions,
Were gone.


Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Hubris: A Hitler Biography by Ian Kershaw

Luck greased the way of Adolph Hitler on many an occasion, from before he was born in fact, when an obscure Austrian customs official named Alois Schicklgruber changed his name to Alois Hitler. It’s the first revelation in Hubris, the first volume of Ian Kershaw’s biography of Hitler. “Adolf can be believed,” Kershaw writes, “when he said that nothing his father had done had pleased him so much as to drop the coarsely rustic name of Schicklguber. Certainly, `Heil Schicklgruber’ would have sounded an unlikely salutation to a national hero.”

Luck, in plentiful measure, greased the path of this misfit and mediocre artist to absolute power in the first modern totalitarian state—luck and the self-interested calculation, rationalization, prevarication and cowardice of a great many enablers along the way. It’s a fascinating story told by a master historian and fine writer; his command of the material, primary and secondary sources, and his range over the factors—social, cultural and political—that helped to make Hitler possible is remarkable. It’s the riddle of how Hitler happened that drew Kershaw, originally a medievalist, to Hitler. Among Hitler and Third Reich historians (for all of whom, this is the question: how did it happen?) Kershaw is a “structuralist,” focusing on the structure of German society that allowed the man to become who he became, rather than the man himself. In a preface entitled, “Reflecting on Hitler,” Kershaw meditates on the myriad difficulties facing a biographer confronted with the figure of Hitler. “What has continued in the writing of the book to interest me more than the strange character of the man who held Germany’s fate in his hands between 1933 and 1945 is the question of how Hitler was possible…….If the answer to that question cannot be presumed in the first instance to lie in those attributes, such as they were, of Hitler’s personality, then it follows that the answer must be sought chiefly in German society—in the social and political motivations which went into the making of Hitler.”

He dispenses with quickly (and, one senses, has little patience with) some of the stuff that has floated around over the decades to “explain” Hitler—an occluded Jewish ancestry; deformed genitals; sexual eccentricity or perversity; a Jewish doctor who may have been responsible for his mother’s death. These are all either unknowable speculation or rumor possibly originating with political enemies or those who, after the fact, wanted to pile on.

His father was brutal, so much can be discerned, and mother was a doormat. And no doubt there was something extremely strange about Hitler from adolescence on—most notably, from the historical record, the absence of any real human relationships. Everywhere, he stood apart; those who got close to him testified to a sense of never really knowing him, a sense of someone always acting, playing a part.  It’s a common enough experience around run-of-the-mill narcissists and phonies. Hitler seemed to have this quality of “something missing” to a very great degree. The “un-person” is Kershaw’s term for this enduring blank space, and it works as a way to understand what must have been a deeply ingrained, and comprehensive disorder of personality. When Hitler would find his place as an agitator and beer-hall speaker, the un-person would find a convenient way to hide his deformity, by projecting outward and upward an image to which millions of Germans became enthralled.

In this it has to be said that Hitler possessed, distinctly, a kind of genius, that happened also to be wed to a ferocious single-mindedness. Very often it took the form of a negative kind of genius, an instinct for the long game, a knack for waiting out his enemies, a willingness to dissemble and play nice when it suited his purposes, and an eye for his adversary’s weaknesses. His one positive, or “creative” talent was speaking—more precisely, propaganda, what today we would call “messaging.” He grasped intuitively, instinctively, what the German people wanted at that time, in those circumstances, after so much misfortune: a Fuhrer—and then he became that thing. It was a conscious projection, a kind of trick of acting, of making his own un-personhood disappear—so that the real man, the absurd, weird looking, unsmiling guy with the bad mustache didn’t really matter. He projected it upward and outward away from himself, as if he were painting on the sky; people looked up and when he shouted and shook his fist at those rallies, what they saw was the charismatic leader, the Fuhrer, they needed. 

The man had an unpromising start, to say the least. He wanted to be an artist, spent some time in Vienna where he applied to the Vienna Art Institute. Denied, he was crestfallen. He spent a lot of time scrounging around Vienna selling paintings and drawings in bars or wherever else he could, and imbibed the politics of the era, including the potent anti-semitism. He lived in a men’s home, was regarded as a weird bird with strong opinions. It is easy enough to imagine him, at this stage, aging as a crank and an oddball.

The war that broke out in Europe in 1914 was a destiny changer. He enlisted and served as a sentry, showing some bravery and earning a medal for it. Toward the end, in October 1918, when every “norm” had been shattered and poison gas came into use at the front, Hitler was partially blinded in a mustard gas attack by the French at Yrpes. He was hospitalized, and for the failed artist for whom the war was an escape from the emptiness of his un-personhood, it was over. “And little though he knew it,” Kershaw writes, “the Army High Command was already maneuvering to extricate itself from blame for a war it accepted was lost and a peace which would soon have to be negotiated.”

One month later, with Germany bankrupt and depleted by war, the German socialist workers party staged an uprising. Amid extreme chaos and an extraordinary amount of political violence on all sides, the socialists came to power and established, briefly, a highly unstable Soviet-style republic. “It lasted little more than a fortnight,” Kershaw writes. “But it ended in violence, bloodshed, and deep recrimination…..”

The importance of the 1918 revolution and Germany’s capitulation (after four years of propaganda lies from the high command that it was winning the war) cannot be overstated. A conspiracy theory that Germany’s war effort was sabotaged by Bolshevik Jews—the “stab in the back”— gained wide currency. For Hitler, it became an enduring obsession, down to his dying day. Revenge on “the November criminals” can reasonably be regarded as the motivating element in everything Hitler would do for the rest of his life.

(Christopher Hitchens, in his review of Kershaw’s work, emphasizes, as well, the likely lasting importance of Hitler’s experience of being gassed. That makes sense. It is easy to imagine the experience as one that never quite goes away entirely—the odor, the severe pain it causes in joints and limbs and behind the eyes.)

During the war, Hitler had become known among the ranks as a fanatic, and he attracted the attention of military higher-ups after the socialist republic was overthrown, replaced by an uneasy coalition of mainstream parties and the military. Hitler hadn’t wanted to return to civilian life, and he was spared that fate when one Captain Karl Mayr became the first of Hitler’s many, many enablers, hiring him as a speaker or “educator” in anti-Bolshevik courses for the troops. In Mein Kampf he would record this revelation—“I could speak”—as seminal. From there it was on to the beerhalls where he earned a widening following and would in time assume leadership of the National Socialist German Workers Party.

“Gathering storm” is a clichĂ© hard to avoid as the rest unfolds. The darkness does gather, at first out on the horizon, seemingly ignorable, but inexorably marches in closer: social and civic unrest as the shambling Weimar republic totters; growing strength of the Nazi party along with the enervation of the mainstream parties; rise of the Brownshirts; the failed Beer Hall Putsch and Hitler’s trial in which he was treated as a kind of renegade celebrity, speechifying in a way that actually managed to increase his popularity; the stint in jail where he wrote Mein Kampf; consolidation of Hitler’s power within the Nazi party following his release from prison; the Night of the Long Knives, when Hitler had to shatter the growing power of the Brownshirts; the fall of the Weimar Republic and Hitler’s ascension to power; the systematic destruction of all other parties and of independent civic life (with the notable exception of the churches) that did not conform itself to Nazi goals; Hitler’s early successes—especially the re-entry of German troops into the disputed Ruhr valley—and the growing Fuhrer-cult that grew up around the man. 

“Perfect storm” is another one. Things fall in place for Hitler all along the way. There’s that luck of his. But there are also a lot of people in positions to thwart Hitler and put him in his place, but who found it convenient for one reason or another to accommodate him. Hitler had gathered up through the years a nationwide following of brutal, violent, racist thugs, and lots of people were frightened of it. Quite a lot of others, including military types and the cultured elite, saw Hitler as a vulgar crank, gauche and ridiculous. But his power was such that he couldn’t be ignored. Chief among the reasons for why he was tolerated by so many who knew better, was the fear of socialism, more particularly of Soviet-style bolshevism, shared by virtually everyone in the country, and disgust with Weimar-style democracy, regarded by many as “un-German,” a foreign import. Emblematic is the cartoonish, top-hatted Franz von Papen, the industrialist who was instrumental in allowing Hitler to assume the Chancellorship, believing he and allies in the military and business could contain him, could use him for their own purposes (destroying socialism, defending private enterprise, ending the mess that was Weimar democracy). They underestimated him mightily, but they wouldn’t know that for a while. “We’ve hired him out,” Papen said.  
So what of the man himself, the un-person who might have, in another time and place, grown old muttering and cursing to himself on the street? Where he appears at all human, he is quite ridiculous. As dictator, he slept in late, lounging in bed watching movies. King Kong was a favorite, as was Snow White. In his early days, he was known to carry around a dog whip. During his beerhall days, he befriended one Putzi Hanfstaengel, a cultured part-American who would for a while be Hitler’s press attache. “Hitler was a regular guest at Hanfstaengl’s home, where he regularly gorged himself on cream-cakes, paying court to Hanfstaengl’s attractive wife, Helena, in his quaint Viennese style. `Believe me,” Helena told her husband, `he’s an absolute neuter, not a man.' "

I don’t know about you, but I love that (maybe it’s the “believe me”) and enjoy imagining Helena as a languid Weimar vixen for whom not a lot is new under the sun and who might have spotted from a million miles away an overcompensating loser. The Hanfstaengls introduced him to the high life in Munich. “In his gangster hat and trenchcoat over his dinner jacket, touting a pistol and carrying as usual his dog-whip, he cut a bizarre figure in the salons of Munich’s upper-crust.”

The really scary part of Kershaw’s story describes the growing radicalization of the entire German society under Hitler’s dictatorship, what Kershaw calls “working toward the Fuhrer”—how all sectors of civil society were expected to “do their part” toward realizing what were assumed to be the Fuhrer’s goals, racial purification especially. It’s here where the German people themselves become most culpable. It's also here where you can begin to believe in something like supernatural evil, something demonic,  some unholy force that took on a momentum no longer containable--radicalization begot radicalization, as norms, one after the others, were shattered.  

Alas, it is the great virtue of good historians to remind us that all of history is, finally, human history. Like Lanzmann’s Shoah, Kershaw’s detailed account of the period shows us there was nothing supernatural about it. It was the culmination of specific policies, procedures, protocols, actions by individuals—stupid, blind, arrogant, greedy, self-interested or cowardly—arising out of a specific culture at a time and in a place where it all was possible. More than possible, it all seems--such is the command of Kershaw's narrative--logically predictable. “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets,” goes the clever contemporary aphorism of systems analysis. And so it was, once upon a time in Germany, 1933-1945.

Sunday, November 12, 2017


It’s light that tells us how lonely they are,
Bleached yellow and harsh, that light,
Piercing even, turning to white, a pure oblivion
To match their beginnings and ends.
It migrates alive from the corner shop to the shadowed night
Animating blue-green streets, rich red brick,
Corridors of a poor commerce, a corner of time
Revealed in a light more vital than faces.
What are faces in such light but skin and bone?
It’s light that tells us how lonely they are,
That draws them together, that leaves them alone. 

The coffee shop is gone. (Now Phillies are a buck.)
A laundromat maybe, garage or bank, a fake
Has occupied the place, no home to nighthawks.
All four—the woman too, her sultriness, her sex—snuffed out,
All but incidental, caught as they were in the same bright blast
That migrates alive through our lives
From the first cold hour to the last,
Or any hour where you and I are,
Sleepless in our separate selves.
A cruel glare reveals how alike we are
In our caul of skin and bone,
Lets us know how lonely we are,

Draws us together, leaves us alone.