Dialogue with the Enemy

"DESTROY THIS MAD BRUTE - Enlist U.S. Army" is the caption of this World War I propaganda poster for enlistment in the US Army. A dribbling, mustachioed ape wielding a club bearing the German word "kultur" and wearing a pickelhaube helmet with the word "militarism" is walking onto the shore of America while holding a half-naked woman in his grasp (possibly meant to depict Liberty). This is a US version of an earlier British poster with the same image. Dated ca 1917.  (Credit:  Sus scrofa / Wikimedia Commons)

“DESTROY THIS MAD BRUTE – Enlist U.S. Army” is the caption of this World War I propaganda poster for enlistment in the US Army. A dribbling, mustachioed ape wielding a club bearing the German word “kultur” and wearing a pickelhaube helmet with the word “militarism” is walking onto the shore of America while holding a half-naked woman in his grasp (possibly meant to depict Liberty). This is a US version of an earlier British poster with the same image. Dated ca 1917. (Credit: Sus scrofa / Wikimedia Commons)

Atrocity stories are a staple of war propaganda. Harold Lasswell, writing in 1927, understood that they are a necessary ritual to motivate an otherwise reluctant public with images of a murderous aggressor. For the enemy to be perceived as satanic, he must be represented as “atrociously cruel and degenerate in his conduct of the War” (Propaganda Technique in World War I, MIT Press edition, p. 81).

Accordingly, beheadings of captive Westerners by the Islamic State provoked the public to support the Obama administration’s bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria.

The logic of war reduces to the premise that you must destroy such an enemy by military force. You cannot negotiate with evil. (more…)

Witches

Scene from Macbeth, depicting the witches' conjuring of an apparition in Act IV, Scene I. Painting by William Rimmer

Scene from Macbeth, depicting the witches’ conjuring of an apparition in Act IV, Scene I. Painting by William Rimmer.

Back in the day, at the corner down the street from my grandmother’s house, there lived a grim, wiry and solitary Old Lady who was wrinkled with age. To our horror, she could usually be found every afternoon sitting on the porch before her garden, leaning on her cane and smoking a cigar.

To our minds—we were a gang of seven-year olds playing in the street—that was evident proof that she was a witch.

Sometimes an adventurer among us would dare to approach her garden and pick a flower or a leaf. That would set her off. She would chase us away brandishing her cane, spewing tobacco fumes and shouting curses in a loud screech: “Look here, you damned little…” What was always surprising was that our parents and elders, instead of complimenting us for giving a witch her just deserts, would sternly reprimand us: “Don’t bother that Old Lady. She means no harm.”

This was puzzling to us until one day when we were being bullied by a gang of eleven and twelve-year olds who would not return to us our baseball. (more…)

Clown Dynasty

Postcard photo of the main cast of Chicago's Bozo's Circus. From left: Ringmaster Ned (Ned Locke), Mr. Bob (bandleader Bob Trendler), Bozo (Bob Bell), Oliver O. Oliver (Ray Rayner), Sandy (Don Sandburg). (Credit: WGN-TV via Wikimedia Commons)

Postcard photo of the main cast of Chicago’s Bozo’s Circus. From left: Ringmaster Ned (Ned Locke), Mr. Bob (bandleader Bob Trendler), Bozo (Bob Bell), Oliver O. Oliver (Ray Rayner), Sandy (Don Sandburg). (Credit: WGN-TV via Wikimedia Commons)

We have had occasion in this this space (see “American Exceptionalism” post) to conjure up the name of H.L. Mencken, and to celebrate his insight on U.S. society: “Here in the very citadel of democracy, we found and cherish a clown dynasty!

We find that from the very beginning of the Republic, clowns have been an enduring element of our social fabric. Frederic Jackson Turner, in his essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” relates that “backwoodsmen” from across the Alleghenies petitioned for statehood by advancing the following argument:

Some of our fellow-citizens may think we are not able to conduct our affairs and consult our interests; but if our society is rude, much wisdom is not necessary to supply our wants, and a fool can sometimes put on his clothes better than a wise man can do it for him.

This argument is based on faulty premises: 1) it assumes that the fool understands what “clothes” are; and 2) it assumes that the fool has learned the proper way of wearing clothes. “This forest philosophy,” Turner concludes “is the philosophy of American democracy.”

Truer words were never written. (more…)

Fool’s Errand

"The Fool," Stratford-Upon-Avon, Great Britain (Credit:  Irene Ogrizek / Wikimedia Commons).

“The Fool,” Stratford-Upon-Avon, Great Britain (Credit: Irene Ogrizek / Wikimedia Commons).

Andrew Bacevich, historian of American militarism and empire, has declared the U.S. war against the Islamic State a fool’s errand. His argument is captured in the title of his Washington Post opinion piece, “Even if we defeat the Islamic State, we’ll still lose the bigger war.”

The U.S. is involved in a decades-old enterprise to bring order and stability to the Middle East, which is both costly and counterproductive. “Regime change has produced power vacuums.” The Islamic State is the most recent iteration of “America’s never-ending Middle East misadventure.” We are “inadvertently sowing instability” and thus digging the hole we’re in even deeper.

Bacevich’s critique invokes the mythic force of the archetype. The fool’s errand, as an idiom of war, places the U.S. under the spell of a heroic quest. It is a grand undertaking that has no chance of success, a pointless task carried out against our better judgment.  (more…)

Ambrose Bierce on the Meaning of War

J. H. E. Partington: Ambrose Bierce (painting).

J. H. E. Partington: Ambrose Bierce (painting).

Ambrose Bierce—Indiana youth, Civil War soldier, and newspaper writer—did not much like people. His infantry years were perhaps the highlight of his life, even though he killed men in battle and was, himself, shot in the head.

Bierce took a rather bitter view of human affairs. His two sons preceded him in death, one committing suicide and another dying from complications of alcoholism. He divorced his wife, suffered from asthma, and finally disappeared at age 71, supposedly into the chaos of the Mexican revolution, where maybe he joined up with Pancho Villa and perhaps wrote to a friend that he expected to be “stood up against a Mexican wall and shot to rags,” which “beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs.” (more…)

Day of the People (Día de la Raza)

Salvador Dalí, The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, 1959, oil on canvas, 410 x 284 cm, St. Petersburg, Florida: Salvador Dalí Museum.

Salvador Dalí, The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, 1959, oil on canvas, 410 x 284 cm, St. Petersburg, Florida: Salvador Dalí Museum.

My grandmother was a retired 1st grade schoolteacher who lived in a large cement house with my uncle (my mother’s brother) in the barrio of Los Pinos in Havana. She had come to Cuba with her family as an adolescent from Barcelona, and was already a widow when I was born. Every day when I returned home from school I would receive a supplementary education from her. (more…)

Founding Mothers

Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrea, 1750.

Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrea, 1750.

Weary of the litany of yet another clownish politician invoking the Founding Fathers of the country without acknowledging Founding Mothers, I wrote down the following list of exceptional women who should be given no less credit for the formation of the soul and character of the nation.

The list parts from two premises: 1) following Mark Twain, the belief that political institutions are only a small part of the life of a country; and 2) that unless you are the goddess Athena, sprung motherless from Zeus’ brow, all human beings and activities can trace their origins back not only to fathers, but also mothers.

Borges once said that all lists immediately compel the memory of names and things that are left out of the list. He implied that the true purpose of lists is precisely to highlight the names of people and things that have been left out. In that spirit, and with no conviction of being complete or exclusive, the following personal minimal list is offered: (more…)

American Underdog

Underdog. (Credit: Randomnessu / Wikimedia Commons)

Underdog. (Credit: Randomnessu / Wikimedia Commons)

The archetypal myth of the underdog is not always so explicit as David slaying Goliath or so blatant as Rocky Balboa defeating Soviet boxer Ivan Drago on Christmas Day in Moscow. Sometimes the myth is veiled but equally compelling.

Walter Pincus’ recent report in the Washington Post on the “Islamic State’s Bloody Message Machine” is a case in point. The story in paraphrase goes like this: (more…)

FOX Gets It

Fox News, is an American basic cable and satellite news television channel that is owned by the Fox Entertainment Group subsidiary of 21st Century Fox.  (Credit:  FOX News Channel / Wikimedia Commons)

Fox News, is an American basic cable and satellite news television channel that is owned by the Fox Entertainment Group subsidiary of 21st Century Fox. (Credit: FOX News Channel / Wikimedia Commons)

My nephew made a good point the other day when he asked, tongue in cheek, “Who would watch FOX if they didn’t constantly make it sound like the sky is falling?” I had been mocking the network’s cynical claim to render the news “fair and balanced.”

FOX’s motto is an affront to many of my political ilk. Embedding rightwing talking points into its “hard news” reporting is commonplace. Likewise, introducing a discussion of immigration policy with a Rush Limbaugh rant, conducting a rhetorical war on Obamacare with one-sided coverage and newsroom graphics such as “HEALTH CARE LAW INCLUDES 20 NEW OR INCREASED TAXES ON AMERICAN FAMILIES OR SMALL BUSINESSES,” or featuring former Reagan aide K T McFarland to discuss White House “excuses” for Benghazi—all of this is business as usual (Eric Wemple, “Fox News All Day: Hard and Conservative).

Bill O’Reilly, host of FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, knows the motto well. By his own account, he is “the fairest guy on the planet.” Mitt Romney knows that FOX News viewers are “true believers.” And nearly half the people in a 2011 poll (including 77% of the Republicans surveyed) believe FOX News is “fair and balanced.”

An academic colleague of mine vowed to watch FOX News only. I feared for his soul. A year later he was still sane and seemingly not possessed. (more…)

Through Heavy Lenses

Photo of Jonathan Winters performing one of his routines on the television program NBC Comedy Hour (formerly known as the Colgate Comedy Hour).  (Credit:  NBC Television)

Photo of Jonathan Winters performing one of his routines on the television program NBC Comedy Hour (formerly known as the Colgate Comedy Hour). (Credit: NBC Television)

My colleague, the maestro Jeff Thomson—an astounding painter and scene designer—is fond of re-enacting an old comic skit by the great Jonathan Winters. Winters plays an army general who is giving a speech for his troops before going into battle:

“I wanted to be with you, but they need me here. However, I will be observing through heavy lenses.”

Like Winters’ general, we are fond of using other people—sometimes foreign, but local to the theater of war—to fight our wars. We arm them, provide them with a meagre subsistence, praise them with idealistic rhetoric, and send them into battle while we watch—judgmentally—through heavy lenses. This cynical strategy usually ends up badly for the combatants. (more…)