Friday, April 22, 2016

The Haunting of Hillary

One thing that made the Clintons so mad about the 2008 presidential election is that Hillary would have won in a walk. That knowledge alone can account for Bill Clinton’s anger back in that campaign over the realization that Barack Obama would be getting the nomination. Bill had lashed out at Obama in January 2008 over his superior “anti-war” stand, in opposition to Hillary’s vote for the war in Iraq: “Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairytale I’ve ever seen.”

The same sort of anger by the former president was displayed some ten days before the New York primary when Clinton again lashed out, this time at Black Lives Matter protesters in Philadelphia who yelled that black youth weren’t “super-predators” and Bill shouted back, “You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter.” That both incidents eight years apart fell into a shadow caused by race may not be coincidental.

Back in 2008, John McCain was a weak candidate made even weaker by his selection of Sarah Palin as half the ticket. Who profited? Of course, Barack Obama, who may have not become the first African-American president without running against such a vulnerable pairing. It was six of one, half-dozen of the other. It would have been either the first woman president or the first black president. How easy an election did it turn out to be for Democrats? Americans elected a black man to the highest office in the land, that’s how easy. This is not hindsight. It was obvious at the time.

Previous to the recent New York primary, which Hillary Clinton won handily, the same 2008 dynamic was at play. And that is why she showed anger against the Sanders campaign, its mucking up of her march to history. Whatever the final act of the Republican implosion theater turns out to be, it will present the American people with an even more damaged alternative than McCain/Palin.

As Donald Trump tries to clean up his act, now cross-dressing as presidential, rational, and contemplative, both Clintons, thanks to their domination of the New York State political apparatus, may step back from and lessen their irrational fears of losing the nomination again. It remains to be seen if Senator Sanders plays along and stems his straight forward attacks against many of Hillary Clinton’s obvious shortcomings. He has saved Republican super PACs millions of dollars in advertising expense by doing their work for them. But, once she is the nominee they will unload their millions in the same sort, and worse, of vilification.

I happened to be in Israel when the news of the Monica Lewinsky scandal first broke in 1998, standing atop storied Masada looking out at the Dead Sea. Some Israelis were joking that it was a Mossad plot, inserting Lewinsky into the White House. When Trump’s campaign first gained steam, I heard from fellow Americans that he must be a Democratic agent, so successfully was he crashing the Republican house of cards.

Both surmises are doubtless equally true, being not true at all, except in effect. If Trump is the GOP nominee and Hillary Clinton the Democratic, she should walk into the office easier than Barack Hussein Obama did.

In 2008, sufficient Americans placed their hope in a young, relatively untested first-term Senator from Illinois, while the Republicans presented their dysfunctional odd couple, McCain/Palin, for the country’s approval. This time around who will they select? Trump/Kasich? Trump/Haley? It is conventional wisdom that vice presidents don’t matter, but this coming election may prove that wrong, for a lot of obvious reasons, balance, gravitas, etc. Nonetheless, the Democrats, barring the fatal unknown, should win, furthering the mixed legacy of the Obama presidency.

Obama, as it turned out, wasn’t too good to be true. That he was - at least he was true to himself. He just turned out to be too good to be as effective as his voters hoped.

The HuffPost version here:

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Revenge of the Sixties

Ted Cruz, the Dump Trump movement’s great white hope, is the kind of guy who gave high school debate teams a bad name. A hectoring know-it-all who favors Chautauqua — not Hillary Clinton’s Chautauqua — stage gestures and oratory. Ineffably smug. But the oddity is that the Democratic number two, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, shares some of these same qualities, the hectoring know-it-all side at least, though he seems, unlike Cruz, lovable and grand fatherly.

I recently gave a talk at Lone Star College in Houston on the humanities and income inequality. Lone Star is part of the state’s junior college system and the students know first hand a lot about income inequality. I brought up the 19th century bohemian tradition, which meant to make poverty bearable and discussed beatniks, hippies, and the short period during the Sixties and beginning Seventies when anti-materialism was afoot. Back then there was enough surplus capital around, and higher education, at least in state schools, was not very pricey. Students actually had time on their hands to join movements and protest and organize.

Of course, that period ended with a bang and hardly a whimper. Reverence for the rich came in full bore with Ronald Reagan. Education policy changed, resulting in the for-profit college explosion over the last three decades, a form of privatizing, which was going on everywhere, even, and most stealthily, in the military itself. First end the draft, second begin to privatize around the edges. In modern history one result of that could be seen in Benghazi, an event more about contractors than enlisted soldiers.

During the same time line Wall Street average salaries in the NYC securities industry went from about 50 thousand dollars a year in 1981, double that of all other private sector jobs, to 400 thousand a year by 2008, whereas other jobs were only slightly above 55 thousand. The Wall Street bonus economy bloomed in the 1980s. Salaries skyrocketed from double to more than six times everyone else’s.

That rise didn’t just affect people working on Wall Street. CEOs across the land, top executives at most every corporation, including academia, felt deep in their souls that they were being underpaid. If those twenty-somethings at Goldman Sachs were making a half million, why weren’t they? Salary inflation at the top was contagious. During the 1970s the ratio of CEO pay to the company’s workers was around 20 to 1. By 2012 it went to 350 to 1. And that figure is the average.

These three developments, privatization, Wall Street profligacy, CEO salaries, were not disconnected. It was an imperfect storm, but well thought out. One example of this forward thinking is the so-called Powell Manifesto, his “Confidential Memorandum: Attack of American Free Enterprise System,” written by the future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell in 1971.

Various commentators claim it “influenced or inspired the creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Accuracy in Academe, and other powerful organizations. Their long-term focus began paying off handsomely in the 1980s, in coordination with the Reagan Administration’s ‘hands-off business’ philosophy.” The memo is a remarkable document, prescient and alarming, though not in general circulation till the 1990s.

The right-wing think tanks were created and the changes to universities certainly came to fruition, though even Powell didn’t foresee the wholesale privatization, or the creation of the one percent, resulting in the current state of income inequality. The one percent/ninety-nine percent phrase was more or less coined in 2011, during the Occupy Wall Street eruption — though a movement largely feckless, the Occupy label has continued, stuck on all sorts of demonstrations.

Our culture values persistence and Bernie Sanders has been persistent. He has two or three things to say and he’s being saying them since he began to run for office in Vermont during the 1970s. What is amazing is that it has taken nearly five decades for his message to be heard. He is the revenge of the Sixties, a pied piper who has captured the young, with the distilled elixir of his (and my) youth. He has stepped out intact from a Sixties time capsule. He doesn’t look like a hippie, a beatnik, no serape or beads, no candles in Chianti bottles.

Bernie Sanders wears suits, but the excesses of the right over the same span have become so egregious, brazen, and successful, that no one, even the least sophisticated (i.e. Trump supporters), can miss or deny it, especially college students who are footing a lot of the bill — just to be educated. The older folk who are solidly in Bernie’s camp tend to be remnants of Ralph Nader-ites; Nader, in his youthful incarnation, was one of Powell’s chief villains in his mordant memo.

And though Bernie is running for the Democratic nomination, his campaign does have the atmospherics of a third party contest. As does Donald Trump’s. There is a divide being created that may turn into a chasm and it is still unknown if it can be healed, if Hillary Clinton ends up the nominee. As Bernie would remember, back in 1968 a lot of the titular Democratic young did not vote for Hubert Humphrey, allowing Nixon’s win, because, as was often said back then, progressives wanted to “heighten the contradictions.” Humphrey lost by less than one percent of the vote. Alas, over the decades, thanks to the Republican right, the contradictions have certainly been heightened.

The Huffington Post version can be found here:

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Accidental Presidencies

Donald Trump isn't the surprise frontrunner he's made out to be. He is the result of a long trend line, heading downwards, in American politics. I wrote a book on the '96 presidential campaign (Campaign America '96), about the second-term election of Bill Clinton running against Bob Dole. Clinton, himself, is an example of the accidental president, insofar as he wouldn't have been elected in 1992 without the wacky intervention of the slightly be-crazed third-party campaign of Ross Perot. Perot dropped out of campaigning and dropped back in at the end. And we think Trump is unstable? Perot, evidently, hated George H. W. Bush and effectively did him in.

George H. W. Bush, Reagan's veep, ran as Ronald's running mate to heal divisions their primary race had caused within the GOP. Bush won his own presidential race in 1988 against the accident of Michael Dukakis, an unfortunate campaigner. (Tank photo, Willie Horton.)

Bush picked Dan Quayle as his veep, a strategic choice, given that it was made to help his sons down the road, since Bush Senior knew the Vietnam War cohort had to be vetted and Quayle would serve as the lightning rod for that debate, after his experience guarding the golf courses of Indiana during his national guard service. Quayle took the heat and made the subject of required military service less inflammatory. Unfortunately for Bush, in '92 he ran against Bill Clinton, the draft-dodging, etc., but Quayle had made all that history less toxic for the Vietnam generation. George W., though, eventually profited from his father's foresight. W was an accidental president, too, since he lost the popular vote and had to be elevated to the office by the Supreme Court.

Elections aren't necessarily always a roll of the dice, but the vagaries of pure chance are often quite spectacular. President Obama's election history demonstrates this: his 2004 Senate race was aided by a sex scandal that knocked out his white Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, and the local Republicans came up with a last minute replacement, the carpetbagger Alan Keyes, who had a bit too much beamed-down-from-the-mothership in his makeup. Recall that Obama had lost his previous primary election bid to congress in 2000.

Keyes had been Bill Kristol's roommate at Harvard. Kristol, of course, played a similar role when Obama ran for president. The default candidate of the Republicans in '96 and 2008 had been an older maimed war veteran, Bob Dole and then John McCain. McCain's fate was sealed when Kristol, among others, recommended the irrepressible Sarah Palin for vice president.

A lot of slips between cups and lips in presidential races. Now, for 2016, we have the new Trump-istan brewing, his chance of being the Republican nominee growing, but The Donald, setting aside his appeal to the angry and alienated, has been, and continues to be, aided by the strange coincidence of two Cuban-Americans (or one Cuban-American and one Cuban-Canadian) making it possible for his dedicated followers to win battles and state primaries no one thought he would win. Who can make this stuff up? Yet, very few horse races have seventeen animals in the starting gates.

Vulgarity in presidential politics, unfortunately for Hillary Clinton, began with Bill Clinton and his Oval Office trysts. Consult the Starr Report paperback for all the graphic details. It's a doozy.

Ceci n'est pas une cigar, as Magritte might have said. Now that Trump's pictorial similarities to Il Duce have been widely noticed, The Donald, our own Herr Mousse-olini, has his followers doing stiff-arm Sieg Heil pledges. It is a little much. Trump is certainly leaning in. But look who he is running against, the two die-hard gusanos, and the placid Ohio governor, splitting the vote disastrously.

The GOP deep bench is laughable. Not that the Democrats have any sort of bench to speak of. Beyond the short-lived campaign of the former white mayor of Baltimore, Governor Martin O'Malley, Democrats have two septuagenarians running. One reason Bernie (U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders) won't be Hillary Clinton's veep is that he is too old. What has happened to both the major parties? I do have a clue. In my 1996 campaign book, I quote an acquaintance saying that the presidency is now middle management and that is why you don't get the best people running for the job.

Back in the Bill Clinton days, Beltway types would refer to "President Rubin," the former secretary of the treasury. Now he had some power. President Obama, after holding office for a while, was quoted as saying one thing he was allowed to do had made him "really good at killing people."

Of course, there are a few other things a president can hope to do. And the American people have seven more months to decide just who that president might be.

Friday, January 29, 2016

My Hillary Problem -- And Yours

For close to a year I have expected Bernie Sanders to embarrass Hillary Clinton in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries. It now looks as if he well may injure her.
Most Democrats, I assume, thought Bernie would be a salubrious tonic for Hillary, keeping her honest, more or less, during the primary season, and, then, after sufficient chastisement, Bernie having made his points, she would walk off with the nomination, and, given the chaos of the Republican field, win the presidency, if not easily, at least convincingly.
Well, so much for conventional wisdom.
If Sanders wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, the gloom and doom now percolating in the pundit class about Clinton's second presidential campaign will only increase, and, as most history proves, battering primaries injure the eventual nominee, given that they serve as a period of free oppo-research for the other party. Indeed, the Republicans have mostly aimed their ire at Hillary, considering Sanders superfluous, evidently, too easy a target.
Eight years ago Iowa signaled Clinton's likely electoral downfall. It showed white folks would vote for the African-American candidate. In that way, it was the most important primary in presidential election history.
It's at this point difficult not to consider what a Clinton 2 presidency would have looked like back then. Certainly, Hillary would have not shown the naivete that Obama displayed his first term. I have always been surprised that no one took him aside after he won the election and told him, "You know, the last Democrat who won the presidency for two terms was a white good old boy, called Bubba by many, from Arkansas, and you know what the Republicans did to him? They impeached him. What do you think they will do to you, Barack Hussein Obama?"

Hillary, doubtless, would have been more combative from the get-go, not being as easily hoodwinked by the big pharma-medical industry complex, perhaps even not caving in to the no-tax GOP zealots by letting all the Bush tax cuts expire, reverting to her husband's not-so oppressive era of taxation. Why those tax cuts were set to expire was that even the Republican bought-and-paid-for economists couldn't claim the deficit wouldn't balloon if they stayed.
Didn't happen, obviously. Obama persisted in his Rodney King why-can't-we-all-get-along? presidency for too many years. The deficit went down a few times, but only at the price of the country's infrastructure collapsing, corroding, imperiling many here there and everywhere. What may have remained the same in a Clinton 2 presidency is Obama's handling of the Middle East maelstrom. Hard to imagine Hillary doing anything much different.
But now she is haunted by Bill's two terms, thanks mainly to Donald Trump, everyone's naughty Puck in his own gaudy production of his extended Midsummer's Night Dream (or nightmare), abetted by the other players in the Republican crowded cast. The various scandals of Clinton 1 parade around, the sex imbroglios, the Defense of Marriage Act, the end of Glass-Steagall, the deregulation of the big banks, etc.
And the Internet serves up cheap reproductions of all this history as fast as McDonald's puts out french fries.
Not that I don't think Hillary still could win it all. Bernie does make her appear younger. She is well-qualified, though that doesn't appear to be currently part of the job description.

The presidency, as we have seen for the last seven-plus years, has limited powers. Neither Hillary, nor the long-shot Bernie (but not as much of a long-shot as a young black Senator with the middle name of Hussein who ran seven years after 9/11), will have that much weight to throw around, especially if the Supreme Court gelds the office as the conservative justices on the Court seem to want to do this coming June. And the reason most staunch Democrats put up with their flawed candidates is that the president still nominates Supreme Court members.
The coming months of the election cycle may be painful, but they won't lack for morbid entertainment. To turn a well-known Orwell remark around, we all get the presidential campaign we deserve.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Days of Rage review


    The Vietnam anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s was a mixed bag, populated by individuals who were pacifists, socialists, activists, young, old, mainly white, but with strands of people of color, since its roots, though tangled, were deep in the Civil Rights movement that preceded it.  Days of Rage, though, is not mixed at all. It covers only the violent side of the anti-war movement, beginning in 1969 with Sam Melville, “the man who started it all,”a white, thirty-something, long-haired New York City bomber, famously gunned down two years later during the Attica prison revolt.  It’s a curious place to begin, but one must start somewhere.

    Bryan Burrough has published five other books, three covering financial figures, one on NASA, another on the early years of the FBI.  He is an odd author to tell this tale, given his attachment to the magazine Vanity Fair (he effusively thanks its editor, Graydon Carter, “the best in the business”).  VF has perfected a sort of celebrity journalism featuring the rich and the powerful behaving badly.  There’s a lot of that going on.  But Days of Rage doesn’t escape VF’s personality-centric style.  The book lists a “Cast of Characters,” 54 people, members of six groupings Burrough’s assembles, such as the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army, the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberaction Nacional Puertorriquena), and others, some little known.  Given the span of history the book covers (roughly late 60s, early 80s), this is actually a small amount of people; Burrough seems to ascribe to the theory that history is driven by individuals, rather than so-called larger forces.

    Indeed, Burrough’s object, he states, was to write a “straightforward narrative history of the period and its people.”  He means to keep his judgments “to a minimum.”  Earlier, he criticizes John Castellucci’s dense book on the Brink’s Robbery of 1981, The Big Dance, for being “so loosely structured it is often hard to follow.”

    The world of the not loosely, but tightly, structured, straightforward narrative, is meant to be fast-read history – if any book of nearly 600 pages can be said to be read fast. A number of odd revelations stand out with this method.  Burrough alternates white groups followed by black groups and Puerto Rican groups (the FALN), then mixed racial groups, concluding with the strange (though all the stories are strange) account of two white couples, plus children, merry bombers and eventual cop killers.

    Being so schematically structured, Days of Rage presents the White/Black/Puerto Rican worlds as separate, occasionally invaded by the practically all-white FBI, and other law enforcement groups with sparse minority representation, looking for the diverse underground perpetrators. Burrough thus sets up, perhaps unconsciously, a weird race-based story.  Succinctly put (which he seldom attempts, brevity-being-the-sister of art not being his strength), he shows that the white radicals went to college, the black radicals went to prison, and the Puerto Ricans did a bit of both, for their sessions of radicalization.   

    That’s the trouble with fast-read  history; it often leaves out nuance.   Burrough’s caused cause for all the depicted mayhem is White students’ guilty solidarity with Black struggles: “What the underground movement was truly about – what it was always about – was the plight of black Americans.” He downplays the Vietnam war, the draft, etc.; but the history is more complicated than he allows.  He never notices, it seems, that righting wrongs heaped upon Black Americans was not so much the reason for the conduct described, as it was a justification. Not coming from the generation he writes about, Burrough misses other motives, including the effect of WWII’s Holocaust, being fitfully revealed as these kids grew up, on their consciences.

    So, beyond the great “man” theory of history, we get the violent theory of history, which is that nothing of importance happens in the world without violence.  It’s the “American as cherry pie” analysis of social change, from the street philosopher and former head of SNCC H. Rap Brown, whom Burrough’s quotes. In Days of Rage you will read the Top 10 quotes of the era; he doesn’t miss those beats.  His book has been assembled from research, other people’s books, a lot of memoirs, and a few important interviews he undertook with prominent movement veterans.  This is the method of magazine journalism, yet Burrough’s most important contribution is those interviews – especially the ones with Liz Fink (nomen est omen), a radical lawyer active in the circles described since the late 1960s, Cathy Wilkerson, the Weatherman who survived the 1970 11th Street townhouse explosion, Ron Fliegelman (Burrough’s chief scoop), Wilkerson’s partner in crime and father of her child, and a few peripheral others, plus a handful of talky former FBI agents.

    From a writer of three books dealing with the modern financial world, I was surprised Burrough didn’t have any sort of political economy analysis to offer, even of the Freakonomics sort: Why were all those college kids able to drop things and run off to protest, both in the Civil Rights arena and the anti-war movement?  He still doesn’t seem to know.  It’s the economy, stupid.  The 60s and early 70s still had enough surplus capital floating around to allow for youthful leisure, this being before Ronald Reagan made sure all that money went into the right hands. It’s one of the larger forces Burrough neglects.

    Burrough keeps saying throughout, in one version or another, that the world the underground bombers occupied, began to “change”.  No one cared anymore, “America yawned.”

    The book ends with a Where-are-they-now? Epilogue.  I enjoy that sort of thing as much as anyone, but still there is no hard reckoning of how the world changed. That might have forced the author to make “judgments”.  But, Burrough should know:  His most recent previous book is titled The Big Rich.

    Days of Rage is full of period highlights and if one is well versed in the history Burrough doesn’t cover, it’s easy to add context. (The name Berrigan isn’t found in the Index or the text, though Burrough refers once to the “Catholic underground,” though that too missed the Index.)

    Fresh ruminations, though, can arise from his depictions:  One: The black, violent revolutionaries were among the first to be globalized, to travel abroad, to see their plight in a geo-political context (see Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, etc.).   Two: That as the underground and the bombings continued for over the decade of the 70s women became more central, yet remained at the beck and call of the men – their feminism increased, but remained paradoxical because of what they would let the men get away with.  An early form of this was Weather-woman Bernardine Dohrn’s hybrid persona of sex-pot and conflicted proto-feminist. This internal volatile dynamic finally helped implode the remaining straggling violent groups.   

    Heavy on facts and light on analysis, readers not familiar with this material will read Days of Rage chiefly as a lurid tale, a text-movie un-spooling before their eyes: The sexual revolution as adapted by radicals, the boyfriend/girlfriend world of political motives and decisions (though Bill/Hillary are not discussed), the fun of blowing things up (Made it, Ma, top of the world!), thrills and chills, the Patty Hearst circus revisited once again, wild ironies on display and jaw-dropping episodes of coincidence, how drugs fueled so much of the late violent manifestations, and all along the “feckless” FBI fumbling through. Burrough, preposterously, speaks admiringly of J. Edgar Hoover, but the FBI doesn’t come off well, as usual, in this account. But, however flawed, I hope Days of Rage secures a wide readership, especially among the uninformed young.

    Though Burrough’s book doesn’t tell you, the Black Panthers’ outbursts led to the militarization of our country’s police forces. The flirting with violence of the Catholic Left led to the Catholic Right’s attacks on abortion clinics and physicians. History was upended; those most prone to violent protest switched sides.

    Burrough’s central thesis is all this past has been “forgotten”.  But by whom? 

    America’s talent for forgetting can be salubrious. The problem is not what we forget, but what we remember. That propensity produces many grim examples, one being what the recent Stars-and-Bars-waving young killer, Dylann Roof, chose to remember in Charleston, SC.  He murdered nine – no radical bomber in Days of Rage killed nine people at once.   Look out for what you remember.

A shorter version of this review ran in the October 23-November 5, 2015 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

To Kill a "Second" Novel

Most of what has been written about the “To Kill a Mockingbird”/”Go Set a Watchman” controversy has been wrong — at least in one important way. Harper Lee’s second novel, just published, “Go Set a Watchman,” keeps being referred to as an early draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It obviously isn’t a “draft,” as almost any published writer could tell you.

It’s clearly a first novel, a first book. And it was sent in 1957 to an editor who, though not wanting to buy it, suggested Lee write another book. A draft is an earlier version of the same novel, one eventually published. It may often have a different title. Authors are not always the best title-ers.

But the editor wanted a different book. Most editors, strange as it may sound, want books that sell. Tay Hohoff, Lee’s editor, thought “Go Set a Watchman” wouldn’t. Why? Even from the reviews, it is quite clear why: Who in the late 1950s wanted to read about a young woman who fled to New York City from a dreary Southern town with a racist father and unpleasant friends? But, Hohoff saw a way out. There was this character Scout, the book’s protagonist when she was a young girl. A novel in her voice might do the trick.

Back in the 1950s/60s, Southern racism was in the news and wasn’t news to many. Large numbers of Americans do not like to read realistic fiction about the unpleasant here and now. I should know, since I published one of the earliest anti-Vietnam War novels in 1974, while that war still raged. No one, as I wrote long ago, wants to discuss fire in the middle of a conflagration. There were a number of advantages Lee’s editor saw in a novel told with a child’s precocious voice. The events recounted moved back in time, whereas “Go Set a Watchman” was too contemporary, too much of the times in the late 1950s.

Lee’s editor functioned as some modern editors do today. Writers I know have, occasionally, succumbed to them. When a manuscript is offered up and these (mainly) young editors see talent and possibility, they will ask for “revisions.” But what the editor really wants is a different work: a novel that will sell. In extreme cases, like Lee’s, that creates an entirely new book. New last chapters. New first chapters. New characters. New protagonists.

Hack authors of the past have been accused of writing to formula: westerns, police procedurals, etc. Today, it is the editors who want to impose a formula: likable characters, happy endings, general uplift, rather than dour downers.

They think they know what sells. Look at the tables of trade paperback novels at the bookstores. Do their covers all look alike? They do. There’s a reason.

Lee’s editor was ahead of her time. She wanted Lee to write then what today is one of the few flourishing fiction genres left. A Young Adult novel, a YA. One with uplift. Uplift is important. The Pulitzer Prize in fiction historically is given only to uplifting works. Novels thought to be leading candidates for the prize, even when presented to the board, have been denied the prize for supposed lack of uplift. Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” for instance.

Nonetheless, quite a few second books published by young authors don’t achieve the same success as the first. That is because the second book published is often the first book written, published because of the success of the first book. It happened to me. My first book (“The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left”) was successful enough to cause my second (“The Meekness of Isaac”), which I had written before the Harrisburg book, to be published. It happens enough to be noticed as a second-book letdown. It’s because the second book was actually the first.

But that didn’t happen to Harper Lee. In her case, her (unedited!) second novel, actually her first, is a flabbergasting success, over a million copies sold. But that is only because she waited — if that’s the word — over 50 years to let it be published. She got that right.

A version of this ran Sunday, July 26, 2015 in The South Bend Tribune.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Torture? What Torture?

Torture? What Torture?

Americans have a rather baroque view of what constitutes torture.  That is easily seen in the 2 - 1 endorsement of the conduct that went down under the Bush II administration at various CIA black sites during the first two wars Bush and Company ran.  So many fellow Americans are ready to agree with Dick Cheney, and a small segment of the legal community, that all of that was merely enhanced interrogation.  All societies, it seems, define torture with some specificity, based on their own ideas of cultural norms, what the general public thinks is cruel and unusual punishment. And our country’s moderate and modulated response to the early December release of the Senate CIA torture program report bears this out.

When I was a very young man, hardly a teenager, some decades ago I used to look at so-called men’s magazines that some older boys and fathers had left around.  These were not girlie magazines, but men’s magazines, full of manly subjects.  One of the most compelling was the often used spread on “Arab” crime management, the cutting off of hands and sometimes heads for minor infractions, or what I thought of at eleven as minor.  Now that was what I would have classified as torture.

What the Saudis may think of such acts I do not know, though they apparently continue to this day.

No, what Americans think of when they think of torture usually involves chain saws, or sledge hammers, or the like.  Walk though any of the mega-hardware stores of the modern period, as Hollywood producers often do looking for new ways to kill people in movies, and you can gather what constitutes torture to most of the population.

It’s usually entails cutting, smashing, gouging, body parts lost, whatever carnage that  has appeared over the last couple of decades at the local multi-plex.

I have always thought it curious that waterboarding has taken pride of place in the torture sweepstakes that have been roundly condemned of late.  Americans have very conflicted views about water and it has been seldom looked at as outright torture.  True, it has been seen as a vehicle of catastrophe, of peril, but not necessarily as an instrument of torture:  Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, for instance. But that of course, is weather. Various myths about water have taken hold in the American psyche: parents, particularly fathers, throwing children into pools as a means of instruction to either sink or swim.  Sharks in the ocean are scarier than the ocean itself.  Backyard pools were always a luxury to aspire to.  Everyone, or a lot of people, have found themselves at one time or another choking on too much water, either learning how to swim, or because of some other mishap when at play. Water water everywhere.

Former Vice President Cheney on Meet the Press made one odd concession to our country’s most recent form of waterboarding, in order to differentiate it from the WWII Japanese sort, for which perpetrators were hung by the neck till dead, Cheney said that we “elevated” the feet of the waterboarded, so they wouldn’t actually drown.  I had never heard that before, the elevated feet business, and I’ve paid attention over the years to the placating statements that the overly involved have made.

And all the business of slamming people into walls, and other sort of rough treatment.  Americans seem to give that a pass too, as official torture, given that NFL stars are knocking out their wives in casino hotels’ elevators and beating their children with switches, to say nothing of all the non-stars bad treatment of wives and children we all see about us.  Torture?  Almost usual behavior of some alarmingly high percentage of our fellow Americans.

But it is the waterboarding that people keep coming back to.  Somehow water’s properties are too conflicted, so many good, so few bad, for Americans to see water as real torture.  It is something: EIT.  Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.  George Orwell is spinning in his grave. Hanging from ceilings, sleep deprivation, so much of that sounds too familiar to too many people, something they have put up with. Rectal feeding?  Apparently, some folks have enemas for fun.

It does seem that Americans, at least 2 - 1, roughly 70 percent, are ready to give the CIA and the Bush II administration a pass on the torture question, as long as they don’t turn up at their doors someday with chain saws and sledge hammers, or gardening scissors and red hot pokers.

A version of this ran in the South Bend Tribune, January 10, 2015: