Friday, September 29, 2017

Goings-on in the Kirkconnel Lea

Kirkconnel church and graveyard
Dùn Phrìs is Gall-Ghaidhealaibh, or Dumfries and Galloway as its called in English, is the southernmost district of Scotland. Row eastwardly across the Irish Sea or drive down the road to Carlisle and you’re in County Cumbria, in England. As a border district, it has a colorful history of 300 years of antagonism and border reivers (the Scottish word for plunderers) from the end of the 13th to the beginning of the 17th centuries, during the age of the Stuarts in Scotland and the Tudors in England. Colorful being a euphemism for bloody, of course. Dumfries, a onetime Royal Burgh, is remembered as the place where Scotland’s hero Robert the Bruce murdered Comyn the Red, son of Comyn the Black, at the altar of the Church of the Greyfriars. Details are somewhat fuzzy. It took place in 1306.

Up in the northern part of the shire is a village called Kirkconnel, sometimes written with two l’s and without the second k, and associated with Sir Walter Scott’s “Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.” One of the ballads contained in this work, published in 1802 or 3, is the Ballad of Fair Helen.   

The story goes like this. Fair Helen belonged to the prominent Irving family. They wanted her to
graves of Fair Helen and her Adam
marry within her station and decided that among her many suitors the most suitable was Robert Bell. Helen had other plans, having fallen in love with Adam Fleming, of a not so prominent family. Coming across Helen and Adam in an embrace one day, Robert pulled a gun and fired, intending to kill Adam. But Helen saw what was coming and threw herself in front of Adam, taking the shot. Adam, crazed with grief, set upon Robert and hacked him to pieces with his sword. He then fled the country, only to return some years later, where he was discovered, by a servant of the Bell family, lying dead across Helen’s grave. The Irvings had come around by then and allowed them to be buried together.

countertenor with absolutely
no connection with this
story whatsoever
If you grew up in a Protestant tradition, you may be familiar with the lovely and eminently singable hymn, “Alas! did my Savior bleed,” - which derives from a popular tune based on Scott’s ballad of Fair Helen. Or perhaps you remember it without the blood reference as “As Pants the Hart (sic) for cooling streams,” not to be confused with the more ponderous tune of the same name by Georg Friedrich Händel, sung here by the Tölzer Boys’ Choir (with how’bout them apples countertenor and handsome Sudanese Superdude, Magid El-Bushra, at left).

On a very different plain, but still very much to my taste these days is Scottish folksinger Archie Fisher’s version of the ballad, available on YouTube.

Here is Scott’s original ballad, if you’d like to follow along.  A ‘lea,’ by the by, is another word for pasture or grazing land that goes back to the 12th century and possibly earlier. I trust the Scottish words are not stumbling blocks – “meikle” for “much,” “nae mair” for “no more,” and “burd,” which normally means “flattering” but I take here to mean “fair.”

You’ll note that Archie takes some liberties with the text and leaves out some verses, as I’ve indicated with italics and double indentation:

I wish I were where Helen lies!
Night and day on me she cries;
O that I were where Helen lies,
On fair Kirconnell Lea!

Curst be the heart, that thought the thought,
And curst the hand, that fired the shot,
When in my arms burd Helen dropt,
And died to succour me!

O think na ye my heart was sair,
When my love dropt down and spak nae mair!
There did she swoon wi' meikle care,
On fair Kirconnell Lea.

As I went down the water side,
Kirkconnel Lea today
None but my foe to be my guide.
None but my foe to be my guide,
On fair Kirconnell Lea.

I lighted down, my sword did draw,
I hacked him in pieces sma,
I hacked him in pieces sma,
For her sake that died for me.

O Helen fair, beyond compare!
I'll make a garland of thy hair,
Shall bind my heart for evermair,
Untill the day I die.

O that I were where Helen lies!
Night and day on me she cries;
Out of my bed she bids me rise,
Says, "haste, and come to me!"

O Helen fair! O Helen chaste!
If I were with thee I were blest,
Where thou lies low, and takes thy rest,
On fair Kirconnell Lea.

I wish my grave were growing green,
A winding sheet drawn ower my een,
And I in Helen's arms lying,
On fair Kirconnell Lea.

I wish I were where Helen lies!
Night and day on me she cries;
And I am weary of the skies,
For her sake that died for me.

That was in the 1600s, three hundred years after Comyn the Red met his maker at the altar of the Church of the Greyfriars. Hacking somebody into little pieces - I hacked him in pieces sma, - isn’t quite as dastardly as the blasphemous slaying before a church altar, and is of course mitigated by la passion d’amour. But there’s still blood and death involved, lest you think the peaceful “land of lochs and legends” Scotland has become today happened overnight.

Wikipedia’s Kirkconnel page tells me not to confuse this Kirkconnel the ballads of Fair Helen of Kirconnell (sic – no second k), but I suspect Wiki’s left hand may not know what Wiki’s right hand is doing, since when one clicks on the Helen of Kirconnell site, one is informed that Scott’s ballad
concerns one Helen Irving, who lies in a grave with her lover, Adam Fleming, in “the burial ground of Kirkconnell, near the Border.”

Further corroboration that Scott’s Kirkconnell and modern day Kirkconnel are one and the same is provided here in an alternative take on this tale of the Romeo and Juliet of the Scottish borderlands.

And if that’s not convincing, try this one.

Kirkconnel today is a town of some two thousand souls, in the Strath of Nith, strath being the Scottish word for river valley and Nith being the River Nith, not far from its origins, before it makes its way past Dumfries to the Irish Sea. As best I can determine, the town has maybe a dozen named streets, including a Main Street and the A76 trunk road which runs for sixty miles between Kilmarnock and Dumfries, right through Kirkconnel. Kirkconnel Church remains the town’s most notable landmark. It ceased to be a place of worship in 1640 and what ruins remain today are but a shadow of its original glory. A sign posted outside tells us that the church was probably the family vault of the Maxwell family and includes a cross memorializing the 8th Lord Maxwell, a Scottish Catholic nobleman who was once found guilty of treason, in 1588, for participating on the Spanish side in the organization of the Spanish Armada, but was somehow freed a year later on a bond of £100,000 and reinstated three years after that as “Warden of the West Marches.”  

A brief discursion here… March, you may know, is a medieval geographical term for borderlands: march, in English, margo, in Latin (from whence “margin” is derived), marz in Persian and Armenian, mörk in Old Norse, mark in German and Danish (thus Denmark, and Ostmark to signify Austria after the Anschluss). And the guy who runs the mark?  Why, the marquis, of course, (or the English marquess, if you prefer (the Scots use marquis), along with his good lady, the marquise, sometimes marchioness.

But back to business.  John Maxwell, 8th Lord Maxwell, was  “slain (we are told) unarmed (stress mine) by the Johnstones in 1592.”  More bloody violence, a marquisicide this time, to saddle on the history of Dumfries and Galloway.

It's possible, of course, that it was this bloody history of his birthplace that drove my grandfather to leave Kirkconnel for America in 1902. Another, more likely, explanation is the fact that the town probably had only one single road at that time.  I’ll never know. Anybody who might tell me is long gone.

Thomas McCornick sailed at the age of 22 from Glasgow to Boston, where he met Mabel Johnston (no e at the end and no relation that I know of to the Johnstone fellow who did in the 8th Lord Maxwell) of Nova Scotia, where they both settled in their senior years and are buried. But not till after raising three boys in Connecticut: Thomas, John and William, each of whom, in their turn, raised two children of their own. I was the firstborn of the six. My father was the middle son.

Like most young people, I had little interest in the origins of my elders when grandpa was still in my life, before I rode off into the California sunset, and knew of my grandfather’s Scottish roots because they were highlighted by the time we spent in Nova Scotia, where you could still hear bagpipe music on the radio everyday when I was a kid, and the catholic descendants of Mary, Queen of Scots, still kept Gaelic alive.

I wonder what he would make of this internet age, when one can call up photos online of the kirk in the town of his birth. And have instant access to the poetry of Walter Scott and Rabbie Burns (who died at Dumfries at age 37, by the way) at whim, without having to find a library or bookstore. And find one’s name on a ship’s manifest and learn that the ship would end its days off the coast of Newfoundland a few years and ocean crossings later, miraculously with no casualties. And discover that there is another person carrying your name on the UK census of 1891 two years older than you.

Brave new world, this world of the internet. Wish he had lived to see it.

Or that I had known enough to google his brain for answers to so many questions now coming to mind about who he was and where he came from, now that I’ve lived long enough to understand why one might want to ground one’s identity with more and more specifics.

We had Irvings and Flemings and Maxwells among our circle of family friends, I remember, as a kid. Did he ever make connections with the ancestors of those folks, the Fair Helen Irving who took a bullet for Adam Fleming, for example? Or the Maxwell House coffee can I cut my hand on in Nova Scotia at the age of 16 which put me in the hospital in Antigonish where the priests of St. Mary’s would come and teach me Gaelic? The same Maxwell House the eight Lords (and more) of the Scottish Westmarch belonged to, they who once actually owned the land where my grandfather was born?

I think not, somehow. He was a man who moved forward, not back, as illustrated by the fact that he never went back to Scotland in all the 77 years he lived in the U.S. and Canada.*

But maybe if we could get together and talk today, I might find some interesting missing bits of history. He’d be 131, so it might be slow going.

I still hear his voice.  “Go on!” he used to say when you’d say something he found hard to believe.  

Did you know, pa (we all called him pa), that you and Fair Helen of Kirkconnel fame share a birthplace in common?

“Go on!” he'd say.

"Go on!"

Photo Credits:

Graves of Helen and Adam in the Kirkconnel churchyard 

Kirkconnel Church 

Kirkconnel Lea today

*Correction: Cousin Betty reminds me they did make a trip back one time. I was too young to appreciate the significance and failed to pick his brain for impressions. I stand corrected.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Don't make me remember

Statues near Japanese consulate in Hong Kong
Jun Yamada, the consul general of Japan in San Francisco, has an opinion piece in today’s San Francisco Chronicle which puts my teeth on edge. “Memorials are alienating Japanese public” the headline reads. He’s referring to the statue that went up in Hong Kong this last July to commemorate the sex slaves in the Second World War which the Japanese pressed into service chiefly from their Chinese and Korean subjects.

I heard one Japanese official declare that Japan actually did the world a favor by creating brothels for their troops. Without them, he suggested, there would have been far more rapes. It’s an interesting argument. Logic suggests he has a point. But who seriously wants to be making that kind of argument, that it’s OK to destroy the lives of some women to protect the lives of others.

In any case, most Japanese, like most people everywhere thinking calmly and rationally, are offended by any defense of a policy of forced sexual slavery. And, to add insult to injury, the use of the term “comfort women” is particularly egregious, I think, since it allows the perpetrators to frame the discourse from their perspective. I doubt “comfort” is the first word that comes to mind when the women – girls – pressed into sexual slavery sit and reflect on those early years in their lives.

statue near Japanese embassy in Seoul, Korea
Where Mr. Yamada gets under my skin is his claim that “this has all been dealt with.” That, it seems to me, very much depends on what kind of skin you have in the game. It has been dealt with by modern-day governments, perhaps, who have a clear interest in moving on to good relations between Japan and Korea. Who set this whole thing up as a Japanese/Korean confrontation.

To be fair, Mr. Yamada has an even stronger argument when he says that two-thirds of the “surviving former comfort women” (his term, again, and not mine) have accepted a 2015 agreement between Japan and Korea on how to settle the claims the women have against Japan for the wrong done to them. In that agreement, Japan made (yet another) apology (there was one in 1993) and set aside $8.3 million to provide care for the women still alive. Significant is the fact that this time the funds come directly from the Japanese government. Previously, the government found a way to fund this care program privately, thus avoiding any suggestion of a recognition of official responsibility.

It’s been a long time coming, this recognition of a particularly hideous crime against women. For many years there was no mention in the schoolbooks of even the term “comfort women.” So it’s not surprising that the turnaround is not a clean one. There is still lots of resentment in the air.

But Mr. Yamada’s claim that this should now all be put to rest because “memorials are alienating (the) Japanese public” just pours more kerosene on those flames of resentment, it seems to me. “Alienating the Japanese public,” you say. “Alienating the Japanese public?” Is that the concern here? Seems to me the Japanese public needs to get the hell out of the way. This is not their picnic.

When the Second World War came to an end, the Axis powers could not be expected to all stop marching in one direction and march in another overnight. It took years and years for Germany to “denazify” and many worry the process was never totally completed. But the point is, when the fiftieth anniversary of war’s end came around, Der Spiegel did a survey among Germans and found that a majority of them had come to the view that the Germans benefited in the end from losing the war. The defeat of the Nazi thuggish regime cleared the way for the model democracy Germany has become among nations today. Germany has excellent relations with all nine of its neighbors and is admired around the world for its accomplishments, as well as for its government. And central among the reasons for its success has been its ability to disassociate itself from the fascist ideology that held sway in the middle of the last century. It's not the same place.

Japan, too, has become a successful democracy, but compared to Germany, it has its head in the sand, as a visit to the semi-official Yasukuni Shrine will attest.  Although a majority of people are opposed to the right wing institution, where war criminals are honored along with ordinary soldiers, Japanese prime minister Abe showed up there to pay his respects as recently as last December. Just as you walk in the door, you are faced with a map of Asia and the explanation that World War II was fought to free China and the rest of Asia from European imperialism.  For some reason, perhaps because it believes it important to stress the fiction of a single unbroken imperial line and the ancient nature of Japanese tradition, the Japanese seem to be less interested in staking out that difference. “Focus on the future, not on the past” sounds like a great idea until you come to realize that it’s just another way of avoiding responsibility for past actions. To tell Jews to forget the Holocaust and think only of happy days to come may be good advice on a personal individual level, but on a national level, it is the beginning of a false interpretation of history, and weakens the struggle to uproot anti-semitism worldwide.

Perhaps an even better example of what’s wrong with forgetting is what’s going on in the United States today where a new level of consciousness about the wrong done to the descendants of slaves has people in the south trying to claim that the American Civil War was fought for states’ rights and not in order to free the slaves. And that Robert E. Lee was a great leader (and gentleman) to be remembered with statues in the public square, instead of as the leader of the military forces of the states that broke away from the United States and went to war to defend the institution of slavery. The fact that the Confederacy was founded primarily to maintain the institution of slavery is to be found in black and white in their founding documents, and to deny this fact is a slap in the face of any American of African ancestry – and, in my view, any American period. Here again, to call this "a difference in perspectives" is to dishonor the goals of the American striving for democracy and human rights for all, and not just white supremacists.

The now clichéd Santayana aphorism is apt – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." 

"There are widely conflicting views," Mr. Yamada claims. Yeah, right. Let's have a debate between wife-beaters and non-wife-beaters and get all points of view. A big part of the problem is the tribal behavior of both Japanese and Koreans, so that it becomes sets of "Japanese" views on the one hand and "Korean" views on the other, rather than the views of people (both Japanese and Korean) who see the actions of the Japanese militarists as despicable and people who don't.  If you could get that kind of divide, the people who support the militarists would eventually dry up and blow away. Unfortunately, we're stuck in a "my country, right or wrong" mentality, which Mr. Yamada, as consul, has done absolutely nothing to chip away at.

What Mr. Yamada fails to note is that some views are historical and some are bogus. Dig a little. Mr. Yamada suggests this is all a plot generated by the Koreans and Chinese to squeeze more money out of the Japanese treasury.  Whether there is political opportunism involved (and I believe the jury is still out on that) doesn't change the fact of the slavery. Those facts have been corroborated even by Japanese sources. In any case, the money issue has been put to rest now; it's not about money any longer, and many women say it never was, for them - it was always about restoring dignity.

The statues commemorating the sex slaves of the Pacific War are there because the women deserve to be remembered and honored. Whether modern-day bourgeois sensibilities find that unbecoming is of absolutely no concern. Mr. Yamada ought to know that.

Photo credit: Korean statue 
Hong Kong statue


Monday, September 18, 2017

Ken Burns on Vietnam - a first look

We watched the first episode, “Déjà Vu,” of Ken Burns and Lynn Novik’s history of the Vietnam War last night. I’d been looking forward to it with considerable restlessness. The Vietnam Era is my coming-of-age era, so there’s no escaping its impact. There was no way I was going to not be sitting in front of the tube.

Once we got into it, I became aware that I had somehow managed to assume it would be “entertaining,” probably because nothing in the media these days is acceptable if it is merely instructive, but not simultaneously entertaining. It wasn’t entertaining. It was like sitting through a university lecture. A course I’d taken before. And while it was speckled with new bits of information for me – I didn’t know, or had forgotten, that Ho Chi Minh had worked as a pastry chef in the U.S., as well as Britain and France (these “facts” are contested) – it was pretty much a review of information I had absorbed almost fifty years ago now.

Try as I may to approach this history with a fresh openness, I find myself still summarizing the era as the time America might have joined with a freedom fighter (Ho Chi Minh) but threw its lot in with the colonizers (the French) he was trying to free his country from instead. America’s tragic moral misstep into the era we now live in, where “land of the free, home of the brave” revealed itself to be a largely hollow slogan. Whether it was ever thus is debatable. After Vietnam, there was no denying it anymore.

I’m also aware that this view of mine marks me as a lefty ideologue, one who misses the reality of the struggle against communism and the need for Realpolitik. And there you have it. Fifty years and we’re still fighting that ideological battle. It has not been resolved, and if anything Americans have only sunk deeper into the mire of hypocrisy and deception, albeit (if you listen to those who claim to be patriots) for a good cause.

A Huffington Post review  of the first episode backs up my lefty take on things. They write:

… the film … recount(s) a history in which the United States failed to allow for elections in the South after Vietnam had been divided following the French defeat at Dienbienphu. Everybody knew North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh would win the election, and so the United States set about building a client regime in the South which rigged a referendum and then massacred thousands of suspected communists.

These facts point to the United States violating the sovereignty of Vietnam and betraying the American mission of supporting democracy around the world.

Where I differ with Huffpost is that they think this is covered up in the documentary. I found it plain to see. I don’t think I was projecting; I think the facts were presented accurately.

I share with Huffpost the notion that the documentary reflects too closely the imperialist views of the Nixon, Kennedy and Johnson administrations and misses the fact that efforts at self-determination around the world – in Greece, for example, and Okinawa – were actually supported not by us but by our arch-nemesis, the Soviet Union.  Which, of course, was in the end just another empire, so don't paint me all Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, now.  In any case, there is no escaping the political context in which we live, where we routinely misrepresent ourselves as a force for self-determination and justify the hypocrisy by pointing out (with considerable justification) how dastardly and authoritarian our opponents are.

I'm reminded of what a Korean friend once told me. "Korea can only be truly be in control of its own fate once the last of the Japan-educated members of the Ministry of Education are gone." He had less to say about whether the presence of North Korea today should give me pause in thinking fighting communism in Vietnam was a mistake.

It remains to be seen what comes from watching further episodes, whether it’s just more of history as “just one damn thing after another,” bombarding us with war porn and mind-numbing repetitive detail. Or whether something new and enlightening will come from watching.

My expectations are still high. As Burns and Novick tell us, this is not an attempt to provide answers; the film's intent is to generate more questions. It's time for America to deal with Vietnam. We never have. Not really. Not adequately.

No way I’m going to miss it, in any case.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

History as Fiction - a film review

Plummer as the reprehensible and witty Kaiser Wilhelm
I blogged yesterday about what I take to be America’s greatest weakness, its propensity for believing truth to be whatever you really want it to be. Some would argue it’s only the number two weakness, the greatest weakness being income inequality – the fact that the richest 1% now own more than the bottom 90%. No point in arguing over this, I think. It’s sufficient to note that both of them together have destroyed any hope of democracy. We are now an oligarchic society and there doesn’t seem to be any way of changing that fact. With truth for sale, you can’t persuade people to use the ballot box to replace corporate America’s lackeys that run the Congress with the kind of men and women who might actually do something about inequity.

You know what I’d like to see? I’d like to see us mark the day the scales first fell from our eyes, the first time we came to see how much we are battered by bullshit. Like birthdays and anniversaries. And the first time you have sex. Perhaps it’s generational. In my day, ROTC was a college requirement at Middlebury, where I went as an undergraduate. Remember ROTC? The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, designed to develop officers for the military. In the class on military history the lieutenant teaching the course went on one day about something that had happened in the Mexican-American War when a student who had been raised in Cuba stood up and contradicted him. How rude, I thought. I had yet to learn that history was largely comprised of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, to cite the book title of a book by James W. Loewen that I came to read years later. After college, when I entered the army and worked with the Army Security Agency, I had a chance to note first hand that the “truth” I was exposed to, not only from a variety of national sources but from first-hand experience as well, often contradicted the “truth” I’d read in the American press. Still later, I discovered Howard Zinn, and things never looked the same again.

When Oliver Stone’s movie on the assassination of JFK came out in 1991 it immediately started a world-wide debate which is actually still going on over whether Stone got the facts right or whether his film is fictionalized history. Whether conspiracy theories are your thing is not what I’m trying to get at, however. What I’m more interested in getting at is whether this willingless to subject ourselves to a liar like Donald Trump is furthered by our willingness to find fictionalized history perfectly acceptable. It certainly seems to be, and almost anything can be justified as long as it’s entertaining. What’s a little massaging of facts as long as a little popcorn and ninety minutes of fun at the moving picture show takes our mind off the dreary and the depressing. I just want to have fun!

My nightly Netflix/Amazon Prime entertainment last night was a 2016 film called The Exception. It stars Christopher Plummer, and I have to tell you I think it’s probably his best role ever – and I’m including Sound of Music here. Plummer plays Kaiser Wilhelm II in retirement in Holland just as Hitler invades and decides to lay claim to him before he, Wilhelm, can cast a shadow on Hitler’s place in the sun.
actual historical Willi

I put the movie in my queue because I have a fascination with Prussia and the Hohenzollerns. I love the arrogance of Kaiser Willi, changing his military uniform five times a day and parading around with a bird on his head, oblivious to how silly that was bound to make him look in the course of time. 

I raise the question of truth vs. entertainment because it plays a major role in The Exception. King Willi doesn’t merely get white-washed. He actually gets to play the good German, the one who saves the Jewish girl from Himmler. I guess if you’re going to toy with historical fact, you might as well go all in. It’s a preposterous fiction. Willi, from all reports, was a colossal bore. Plummer turns him into a hero.

We owe no special loyalty to this historical figure. In fact, if you dig through early 20th Century history (and way before, actually) for the beginnings of modern Germany, it's pretty clear Hitler didn't invent anti-semitism, but built on what was already there - in case you missed that in history class. Willi's biographer John Röhl even suggests Willi thought the way to get rid of the Jews might be to gas them. And Willi loved being “emperor,” loved the idea of going to war, didn’t appear to care much what happened to the little guy, and stands in contrast with his charming and more gentlemanly grandfather, Kaiser Wilhelm I, as the guy under whose reign the Prussian monarchy gave way to the Weimar Republic. 

No matter. Somebody decided it’s time for some happy history. You’ve got your Hitler (snarl, snarl), your Himmler (Satan personified), your affable old Kaiser living out his life in Holland, entertaining himself by feeding the ducks and chopping down trees for firewood and yearning for the restoration of his throne. Alongside Willi is his second wife Hermine, who, unlike her outspoken husband who thinks Hitler is basically an ass, is willing to kiss ass, even bribing Himmler – anything to be able to return as queen to Berlin.

It’s not in the cards. Himmler promises Willi he will bring him back, but that’s a deception. His reason for the lie is to encourage all the anti-Hitler nobility to expose themselves, so they can be eliminated.

full frontal good nazi
Brandt, sent to spy on the Kaiser
Along with Plummer as Willi and Janet McTeer as Willi’s wife, Princess Hermine Reuss of Greiz, both of whom really steal every scene they are in, are the two “main” characters, Captain Stefan Brandt, played by Australian Superhunk Jai Courtney, and the Dutch maid, Mieke, played by Lily James of Downton Abbey fame. So what you have here is a very strange fictional tale of the last days of the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II played by a cast of first-rate actors. Brandt was part of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, where he saw brutality up close and was freaked out by it. Wounded, he was then assigned the supposedly humiliating task of heading up the Kaiser’s guards - and checking up on the Kaiser while he's at it. No sooner does he arrive in Holland than he meets maid Mieke, commands her to undress (completely) and has his way with her. No problem, it turns out. The next day, she marches in and commands him to return the full frontal favor and mounts him on the bed, making this whole spectacle some kind of semi-porn event.

Actually, it’s a romance, but this is 2017, so the sex has to be big and bold. And in the end, you actually find yourself rooting for a Nazi soldier and his impossibly unlikely Jewish girlfriend, who, when discovered as an enemy agent, gets bailed out with the aid of the Kaiser.

History as you like it. Not politically correct, exactly, but rewritten to show there were soldiers in Hitler’s army that were sexy as hell, kindly as hell, capable of being a Mensch, and if not throwing a wooden shoe in the gears of the Nazi war machine, exactly, at least slowing it down by making love, not war.

Janet McTeer as Kaiserin Hermine, Lily James as Mieke
with Plummer, the Kaiser
So what do you think? Is this fictional history a lie? It’s good entertainment – good acting, humor, tension, surprise, hot sex – but is it a lie? Can you make up historical fact? If so, can you stay below the threshhold where any harm appears to be done? Is this the equivalent of a white lie, this manipulation of historical fact? Or does it just soften us up to more serious things such as the genocide of the American Indian, the claim that the Civil War was fought for States’ Rights and not for the elimination of slavery?  That the Taliban hate us because we’re free, Ho Chi Minh was not fighting to free his country from French colonialism but because he was a dirty commie, that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that had to be taken out, and that the mess in the Middle East that followed from the Iraq war was due to the fact that Islam never underwent a period of enlightenment and is therefore a religion of war and oppression?

I’d like to think I'm blowing things all out of proportion, that we can actually play with historical fact and not be hurt by it.

But I had to ask.

And if you find yourself aching for the good old days when the Willis were on the throne, you're not alone.

Photo credits:

Plummer as Willi: 
Actual Willi as Willi with bird on head:,_German_Emperor 
full frontal nazi:
Brandt in uniform: 
McTeer, James, Plummer: 


Saturday, September 16, 2017

Kurt Andersen

It’s not that I don’t think Trump should be impeached. It’s that the calls for his impeachment make me nervous. I’m concerned that people are missing the woods for the trees. Focusing on the wrong aspect of the problem. The main problem is not the loss of American dignity or even the carelessness shown by the American electorate which paved the way for this clown to claim the White House, although these are certainly serious problems. When it comes down to what put America at serious risk as a nation and as a democracy, it's the American habit of thinking belief is equal to knowledge that made the current disaster possible.

Novelist and host of the radio program Studio 360 Kurt Andersen has a book coming out shortly titled Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire – a 500-Year History. And you don’t need to wait for it to get the jist of his arguments. He’s got an article titled “How America Lost Its Mind” in  the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic, which sums them up. Andersen has hit the nail on the head, in my opinion. Two things led to the current dumbing down, he says: a history of credulity that runs from Cotton Mather to Kellyanne Conway, and the internet, which has made it possible for any idiot with a half-baked theory who knows how to type to find a critical mass of others who buy into the same hogwash, and then shut down the gates to other sources of knowledge and live tribally on an island of smug self-assurance.

Andersen is a lot more generous toward religion than I am. He sees religion as an enabler of idiocy, rather than a cause. I’m more inclined to think it’s the prime mover, since once you establish that your belief system, i.e., your particular set of alternate “facts” is as valid as any other, you’re already over the line into gullibility. It’s just a question of time before the next snake-oil salesman comes down the road with his “Have I got an idea for you!”

In an hour-long Aspen Institute interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Andersen tells how the idea for the book came from his marveling at America’s gullibility and his desire to know more about it. He is fond of quoting Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s now much cited: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” And, despite his own clearly liberal bent, he has a very high opinion of American historian Daniel J. Boorstin, who wrote as early as 1961 “We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them.” Thinking at first that this fantasyland was born in the 60s, Andersen eventually concluded that it goes all the way back to the colonial period, that people self-selected as outliers who needed space to create their own (chiefly religious) truths and their own “American Zion.” It's the other side of the coin from the positive spin on the line we teach our kids in school - that people came here seeking the right to worship God in their own way.

Examples of this widespread and “promiscuous devotion to the untrue” are everywhere. A third of Americans believe the creation myth in Genesis to be historical literal truth. Two thirds believe there are angels and demons actively involved in making good and bad things happen. A third deny global warming, a third (not necessarily the same third) believe our earliest ancestors (Adam and Eve?) looked just like us. A third (again, not necessarily the same third as in the other cases) believe the government is in cahoots with aliens – or pharmaceutical companies – to hide the cure for cancer or the presence of extraterrestrials. 15% firmly believe the government sends signals through television to control the minds of citizens, and another 15% believe it’s possible. A quarter of Americans still believe in witches – and that U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

Another reason I’m not as keen on impeaching Trump as some of my friends are is that it would leave us with President Mike Pence, perhaps the greatest homophobe in Congress (and that’s no mean claim to fame). Once again, religion. Not the “love your neighbor” kind of religion, but the kind known for giving particularly virulent instructions about demonizing one's neighbor's sexual behavior, particularly if he or she is homosexual, rather than, say, expressing compassion or avoiding violence or deceit. The special wacko Christian cults grown on American soil like Pentecostalism whose people babble in the belief God has a “spirit language” alongside natural language. Or Mormonism, which traces its origin to a nut job who translated a supplement to the Bible written in “Ancient Egyptian” by sticking his nose into a hat. Without bothering to ask why God couldn’t communicate directly. To say nothing of what the hell “Ancient Egyptian” might be. Coptic?  I’m not keen on letting these wolves loose upon the land. They've done enough harm already.

Not everyone who feels weighted down by what we call the Trump phenomenon wants to spend a lot of time tracing the history of the mindset of America’s deplorably silly people. Some just want this nightmare to be over.

In the Jeff Goldberg interview, Goldberg cut to the chase. What can we do about this American malady, this propensity to believe expertise is just another word for elitism and universities are places for generating commies and socialists, he asks (my words, not his). Andersen’s answer is that we need to be prepared for a long haul. You don’t chase stupid out of town overnight. You scrub it out gently. Don’t shout and scream. Just sit next to your jingoist brother-in-law and let him talk. Then ask him to explain himself until he takes note of the fact he’s in a boat out to sea with no anchor.

And don’t get tired.