Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

Thanks to a link on HNN's blog Cliopatra, I recently read Ron Rosenbaum's retrospective of William Shirer's classic The Rise and Fall of
the Third Reich
posted on Smithsonian.com. Rosenbaum praises Shirer for writing about Nazism and the Second World War, particularly the Holocaust, at a time when many aging participants and some nations were content to sweep all the bad memories and guilt under Father Time's carpet. With great skill and solid historical method, Shirer lifted that carpet and shone the light. Although Rosebaum mentions the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Israel as playing a role in the book's popularity, I think something should be said of the 1960 presidential race towards contributing to a revival of interest in the war. Both John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were war veterans and the former's exploits in PT-109 were the centerpiece of the Democratic candidate's personal narrative. I am one of those people who read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I read it in high school and it captivated me throughout. Although I did not become a European historian, I would say that this book vastly increased my interest in history. What I found especially interesting was how the author explained the rise of the Nazi's and the path to war. I cannot say how this work holds up in the current historiography, but few writers possessed Shirer's literary skill. It is a well organized work capable of being both concise and deep. Nevertheless, I continue to read about Hitler and the Nazis when I can. As Rosenbaum points out, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, is very critical of the German people for going along Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party's insane rampage across Europe. It is for this reason that I believe everyone should study the period, even if only to get some awareness of the forces at play. It is a worthy civic and historical question to ask why an educated people with a fresh democracy followed their leader into the most destructive war in history. It is one of the most important lessons we can learn from history.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Name of our Age, an Attempt at Cultural Criticism

An Osceola county, Florida man was recently arrested for impersonating a police office. Incidents of this odd crime are rising all over the country. It seems every other week there is such a story here in Colorado. In a bizarre twist on this theme a Fort Collins woman who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by a police officer imposter, was, herself, fabricating the story. What is striking about the Florida man, however, is that he previously was arrested for impersonating a physicians assistant in a hospital emergency room. A serial impersonator putting the public at danger, how scary is that ?!? This strange bit of news actually helped me clarify something, however. I have been asking myself, what is a good name for our age? A couple of common names are the Internet Age, New Gilded Age and Age of Terror. Thomas Friedman has talked about how technology has made the world flat. All this technology constantly interrupts us, hence he calls this the Age of Interruption. Opting for my own name, I originally dubbed out times the Age of Snark. Snark, which often erroneously masquerades as wit, has become an overused rhetorical tool to the point where it is derailing our dialogue and thoughts. It generally involves ad hominem attacks designed to belittle one’s opponent. This in itself would not be noteworthy, except for the fact that it has invaded and poisoned every realm of public discussion. Let’s take politics for example. Television and radio personalities on each side (right and left) deploy snarky commentary to completely dismiss their opponents. Instead of an exchange of ideas, both sides have created straw men and women to attack. This reduction of all ideas to their most buffoonish and cartoonish element has just about killed any serious exchange on ideas. If the Democrats are all secular socialists and the Republicans all apologists for the 1%, as the reasoning goes, where can we find any common ground? One sure sign of snark is the f-bomb. It is indeed the only adjective available for the smart, snarky set in the blogosphere. I have to say that not all snark is bad, it certainly can be funny and genuine satire is a great tool for commentary. I cite Anthony Bourdain as a great practicioner of snark at its best. The problem is when it becomes a worldview. I wavered a little on this generalization after hearing the story of the Florida man. Snark just doesn't cover the police impersonators, fakers, pretenders, or, for that matter, the vulture economy, way overpaid professional athletes, super bowl hype, $200 concert tickets, Lady Gaga, Facebook stalking, students texting in class, salads at McDonald's, deposed Nigerian princes who want me to give them my bank account and meet them in Rome, computer viruses, North Korea, or many other trends in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Therefore, I re-name our age to include all of these trends. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Age of Bullshit!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Chet Arthur on Film?

The other night I watched The Cattle King, a 1963 movie staring Robert Taylor. Most likely I would not have watched this film had the plot not been summarized as a rancher who sought the assistance of President Chester A. Arthur. The movie itself is very dated and chock full of Cold War analogies. All in all, I would say it urged a middling policy, one that stressed fighting when it was only absolutely necessary, but avoiding unnecessary and provocative violence. It is also dated in the way that everyone is killed with one clean, bloodless gun shot and falls right over like they were suffering from extreme narcolepsy. No blood and certainly no agony. How did Chester Arthur get there? The movie is set in the summer of 1883 when the 21st president traveled to Yellowstone National Park for some much needed rest. The celluloid Arthur was much shorter and thinner than the original. I imagine Arthur had the same gracious manners, but not sure if he would have had the same vigor. Like several other trips the president took during his term in office, the train carried a weary man on this vacation. Although Arthur is recognized as one of the least hard working of our nation's chief executives, he still suffered from a debilitating case of Bright's Disease, one that sapped his energy and ultimately took his life. He was always trying to hide the attacks of this illness. One one trip to Florida in spring 1883 a crippling attack of Bright's Disease was reported as food poisoning. Nevertheless, it was good to say a Gilded Age president make it to the big time!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Roosevelt in Africa

I am a big silent movie buff and couldn't resist looking up some of the movies Gregg Mitman discussed in the first chapter of his Reel Nature: America's Romance with Wildlife on Film. I really wanted to see "Silent Enemy," a movie about Native Americans in Canada released in 1930, but that doesn't seem to be on Youtube. I did find "Roosevelt in Africa," a documentary of sorts of former President Theodore Roosevelt's 1909 African hunt. According to Mitman British filmmaker Cherry Kearton happened to be in Africa on safari when he crossed Roosevelt's path in August 1909. Although there was potential for a great film, the result was a dud, a flop. A "short" of less than 20 minutes, "Roosevelt in Africa" lacked any semblance of drama. Despite the title Roosevelt makes only several appearances in the film, and none of them dramatic. Instead of the Rough Rider bringing down lions and the like, the movie goer gets to see him planting a tree! The African war dance was probably the most interesting item, although 100 years later it is hard to get a feel how much emotion an earlier viewer would have felt. I found a scene in which the Roosevelt party crosses a river to be the most telling. Here the white hunters, nattily dressed, hopped on the back of a native porter who carried him across the water. It says so much about the deplorable racial attitudes of the time as well as to the power of the colonial overlords.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Reel Nature

In Reel Nature: America's Romance with Wildlife on Film Gregg Mitman chronicles

this history of Hollywood portrayal of wild animals on film. What I really learned from this is that this battle happened very early on (1910s) and authenticity caved in to theatrics and staged events. Of course, nature can be boring and it was difficult in the 1910s and 1920s to get the big bulky cameras anywhere close enough to view wildlife unobstructed. By the 1930s conservationists willfully overlooked the managed or staged parts of the films on the proviso that it portrayed some version of reality (a lion attacking a wildebeest, is a lion attacking a wildebeest, even if it is on a game farm in California and not Africa) while equally contributing to a sympathetic view of animals. By the 1940s Fairfield Osborn of the New York Zoological Society started to create a nature film series to prompt conservation.

I would only add that several people predated Osborn by 30 years in their appreciation of film and photographic images as beneficial to conservation. In 1913 William Temple Hornaday and T. Gilbert Pearson (of the National Association of Audubon Societies) used a film provided by Edward McIlhenney to lobby Congressmen to pass a plumage ban during Woodrow Wilson's tariff reform. If McIlhenney's name looks familiar it is because he belonged to the family that produced tobacco sauce. Thus he was a well-to-do hunter in the gentleman-sportsman mould who wanted to put the market hunters out of business. He filmed some footage of dead herons and egrets, lost young who would soon die of starvation because their parents had been killed by hunters, and market hunters skinning their pray. The film produced positive results, although it had not been alone responsible for convincing Congress to enact the ban. Hornaday, likewise, used graphic images in his books, most notably Our Vanishing Wildlife (1913). Hornaday placed pictures of dead herons on their nest, and nestlings baking a slow starvation in the hot summer sun in his conservation book. He consciously sought to tug on the heart strings of his readers, challenge their cultural assumptions (i.e. motherhood), and affect the behavior he wanted. Images might not have been solely responsible, but they were an important part of his message. Although he used films rarely over the remainder of his career, he continued to present photographs through stereoptic slide presentations.

As far as Hollywood, Hornaday never warmed to film. He was too old-fashioned and politically conservative to do anything but reject the consumer cultural challenge to Victorian morality. There are some excellent letters from the mid-1920s in which he eggs the Federation of Women's Clubs to boycott and protest movies by Fatty Arbuckle. Although King Kong is some ways a critique of the Hollywoodization of wildlife, I think Hornaday would have pegged it the ultimate nature faking film if he had seen it.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

5 worst Vice Presdidents

Historians love to rank the presidents from best (usually George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln) to worst (usually Richard Nixon and James Buchanan). Having done it myself it is a fun intellectual exercise. However, I doubt any one has ever made a list of Vice Presidents. Here is my list of the five worst Vice Presidents in United States History:

1. Aaron Burr (1801-1805). The election of 1800 still operated under the constitutional and arcane rules for selecting the president. The winner of the electoral college received the presidency and the runner-up became vice president. When this system was adopted under the constitution no one was prepared for the advent of political parties. In 1800 Burr ran as

Jefferson's VP, but lo and behold, they tied in electoral votes. Instead of stepping aside and acknowledging popular intentions, Burr challenged Jefferson through 36 ballots in the HOR. Jefferson won the election, but he never trusted Burr again. As well he should not have. Burr engaged in treason by hatching a plan to lead a revolt in the west. Only after General Wilkinson betrayed Burr was he arrested and later tried for betraying his country. He was aqcuitted on what today we would call a technicality.

2. Spiro Agnew (1969-1973). Agnew was Nixon's verbal hit man (not that he really needed one) and issued such colorful alliterative phrases as "the nattering nabobs of negativity", which he used

to describe the liberal media and the anti-war protestors. Agnew, however, was not Mr. Clean. In 1973 he resigned from the office of VP because he had been charged with accepting bribes as Baltimore County Executive, Baltimore Mayor, and VP.

3. John C. Calhoun (1825-1832). Calhoun of South Carolina started his political life as a nationalist who looked to the federal government to build roads and canals, and promote economic growth. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, however, changed Calhoun's mind and he feared the growing electoral power of the north with its free labor ideology (which was not exactly anti-slavery where slavery already existed but not in favor of expanding slaver territory). Calhoun

realized that the growing number of immigrants in the north would outweigh any benefit the south had in the HOR with the 3/5 clause. The battle had to be fought in the Senate to maintain enough slave states to block any effort to diminish slavery. For example one thing southerners feared was the prohibitive taxation of slaves (this is why Patrick Henry objected to the Constitution in the first place). So Calhoun became the arch states rights advocate to argue against any federal power because it might be used against slavery. To make his point, while VP, he persuaded South Carolina to nullify the Tariff of 1832. This led to a great crisis. Calhoun resigned his seat as VP to become US Senator from SC, but he had already sowed the seeds for disunion, crisis, and possibly even civil war. Fortunately, the crisis was averted by a compromise on the tariff, but Calhoun provided an example that would be followed in 1860.

4. Chester Arthur (1881). President James G. Garfield worked to bring the civil service under control and, like his predecessor Rutherford B. Hayes, he fought against Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York. Arthur sided with Conkling and conspired against his own president. When the a

deranged man shot Garfield (who died after two months of agony) he said something to the effect that now Chet Arthur will be president. Arthur recovered his composure when he became president but he never had the trust of the people. As VP it is hard to find anyone who worked so hard to undermine the president he was elected to serve.

5. Thomas Marshall (1913-1921). A former Indiana governor, Marshall is most famous for saying that "what this country needs is a good five cent cigar." In addition to this deep socio-economic analysis Marshall loved to play pranks on people when he was traveling the country on the railroads. When President Wilson was incapacitated by a stroke in 1919 Marshall essentially crawled under a rock. The country remained leaderless. No one was in charge as chaos reigned in

the Red Scare (the Palmer Raids, not the McCarthy Red Scare that would come 30 years later), and one of the most pressing issues in the history of American foreign policy (the US Senate vote on the Versailles Treaty which would have meant membership in the League of Nations). While I tend to doubt that American entry into the League of Nations would have prevented WWII, it sure wouldn't have hurt. The country never needed the VP to act more than it did in 1919 and Marshall failed to do anything meaningful.