Land Of The Free

A week or so ago, I wrote about a book that I read named The Half Has Never Been Told. It makes the argument that slavery was a key engine in the growth of the industrial age and that, without the Civil War, there’s a very good chance that slavery as an institution was not going to naturally die out.

As is typical with such histories, there was so much more interesting / tragic items in it that I found interesting that I had to leave out for length.

So, just to get it out of my system, here’s some of the things that I learned while reading that I previously had no clue about:

Texas independence is conventionally taught as a movement of plucky settlers rebelling against the repressive remote central Mexican government. Conveniently enough, President Santa Anna was painted as the cartoonish prototype of a third world despot.

As courageous as all of that sounds, slavery could very well have been at the heart of the rebellion. Always in search of new land to grow cotton and leave stripped bare of nutrients, Southern slaveholders ventured into the Mexican territory of Texas. There, naturally enough, they recreated what they previously had by creating plantations worked by slaves.

Mexico had outlawed slavery some time back. They tolerated the settlers for a while, but realizing that they were losing control of their territory, they tried to actually enforce their anti-slavery laws. This caused the settlers to get all up in arms about federal interference (remember, from the government whose territory they voluntarily immigrated to). This outrage was one of the sparks that led the movement for Texas independence.

Despite all of the historical talk about the moral Northerners and their general disgust with the horrors of slavery in the South, in fact the Northern states benefited greatly from slavery and actually enabled it.

The Bank of the United States funded the slave trade. It was Northern banks that led to the growth of securitization of slaves. By putting a value on slaves and then allowing the slaves themselves to be used as collateral, this allowed the Southern plantation owners to greatly increase their credit, resulting in ever more land and slaves.

Cotton that was picked in the South was sent North to such textile towns such as Lowell, Massachusetts. There the cotton was spun into fabrics. Such fabrics included the rough cloth that was worn by slaves, thus completing the economic cycle.

Considering the plantation farming itself, the financial securitization of the slaves, and the textile manufacturing from cotton, it was estimated that close to half of all economic activity occurring in the United States had slave labor at its core.

In 1850, there were 3.2 million slaves in the United States. They had a market value of 1.3 billion dollars. That value by itself represented 20 percent of the country’s wealth.

Is there any wonder that the South felt that it had the North by the balls and that there was nothing that anyone could do about it?

From that perspective, you can see what an almost incomprehensible blunder the Civil War was for the South. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was in no way advocating the freeing of slaves. His campaign was just to stop the spread. It can be argued that (and some Southerners certainly believed) stopping the spread was equivalent to the beginning of the end to slavery, but the fact remains that his platform did not advocate the abolition.

It was the South’s strong belief that cotton was indeed king and that the North (not to mention England) could not live without it that led it to its fatal calculation that led in turn to the Civil War.

And what was the result of this miscalculation?

In 1860, the wealthiest nations in the United States were: South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, and Alabama.

Those states are now (in the same order as listed above): 43, 50, 44, 32, and 47.

Remember that this is 150 years after the Civil War. Some mistakes reverberate for generations.

Advertisements

New Journalism Goes To Vietnam

4339

Title: Dispatches

Rating: 4 Stars

New journalism is a style of reporting that came of age in the (of course!) 1960s. Journalism is traditionally the reporting of facts. There could certainly be opinion, or even bias, in journalism but the facts themselves are unquestionable.

As with many things in the 1960s, this somewhat restrictive definition of journalism was questioned. Instead of just dealing with facts, there was the thinking that journalism should be more concerned with truths. Facts themselves could be adjusted, shifted, and rearranged, if in so doing the journalist arrives at a destination that highlights a greater truth than the sum of the facts.

The term, at least as it compares to the current definition, came from Tom Wolfe. I believe that one of the first journalists to use this technique was Gay Talese, writing for Esquire magazine. One of the most famous examples of it is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. A more extreme example of it is Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

It leads to kind of an interesting philosophical question. Is it fiction or non-fiction? The stories told are true. The characters are real. However, the quotes might not be. Even in some cases, the characters might actually be composites. In Cold Blood is usually filed under fiction, as is Thompson’s work. Herr is frank about the literary license that he took while writing Dispatches.

Interestingly enough, Rolling Stone sent Hunter S. Thompson to Saigon to cover its fall. Apparently, he kind of took a look around, said fuck this, and left.

Before that, in 1968, Esquire magazine sent Michael Herr to Vietnam to do feature reporting. He spent a year there. From that, we have Dispatches.

To a large extent, they do read like dispatches. 1968 was a critical year in Vietnam. He witnessed, and, at times, actively participated in: the Tet Offensive, the Battle of Hue, and the Battle (ie siege) of Khe Sanh, which were three of the key turning points of the war. He was up and close as possible to the battles. While there, he talks about his own fear and occasionally his own courage. He develops close relationships with the soldiers. They show themselves to him, in all of their fear, courage, insanity, exhaustion, cruelty, and loss.

At these battles, the absurd disconnect between what the generals are saying at briefings and what the soldiers are witnessing on the ground was a chasm too wide for our country to bridge. Journalists recently returned from the field openly scoffed at generals during their briefings.

Through all of this, the journalists, as well as the soldiers, self medicate themselves through alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, and morphine. The drafted soldiers cannot even fathom journalists voluntarily exposing themselves to danger for very little pay. Even so, the soldiers are solicitous of the journalists and as much as they can, make sure that they are protected.

But the soldiers can only do so much. Among Herr’s closest friends are Dana Stone, Sean Flynn (yes, swashbuckling Errol Flynn’s son), and Tim Page. These three, especially Flynn, are tough, brave, and lucky journalists that even the soldiers respect.

Stone and Flynn take off on motorcycles to get closer to the front lines and are never seen again. It’s rumored that they were handed over to the Khmer Rouge and executed. Their bodies were never found. Tim Page, injured a couple of times in ever more serious fashion, finally gets a chunk of metal deeply embedded in his head. He lives and even kind of recovers but his war journalism days are over. He’s twenty-five.

Dispatches can only be described as quasi hallucinogenic field reporting. Given the time and the place, perhaps this is the only way that the ‘truth’ of the Vietnam War can be told.

Just Another Clown Rom-Com

22286

Title: Clown Girl

Rating: 2 Stars

I had really high hopes for this book. It’s about a professional clown living in Baloneytown. I thought that this was going to be an edgy, thought-provoking social comedy using the absurd premise of a clown town being the lens through which to view it. And maybe a little Roger Rabbit thrown in.

Alas, it was a quite pedestrian tale of an stereotypically emotionally overwrought woman looking for love.

It’s the story of Nita, otherwise known by her clown nom de plume of Sniffles.

She is indeed a professional clown and is pretty much constantly in clown makeup for nearly the entire book. The love of her life, Rex Galore, himself a clown of some renown, the father of her unborn child, is temporarily away trying to make it big in San Francisco.

Nita has recently had a miscarriage, which has left her traumatized. She’s desperately trying to reach out to Rex for support, who is unresponsive to her plaintive calls.

This leads her to neglect her body, she faints while blowing up balloons, and ends up in the emergency room, where a local cop named Jerrod takes an interest in her.

This is a problem because Baloneytown is on the wrong side of the tracks. The man that she rents a room from is selling drugs. Those two facts makes it very awkward for Nita when Jerrod the cop increasingly starts showing up uninvited.

In the meantime, she has two other clown friends who are constantly trying to lure her into working business events for large sums of money. However, this is considered corporate clowning, while she considers herself a purist.

Who will Nita choose to be with? Will it be Rex the glamorous yet caddish clown or the gentle Jerrod that’s always looking out for her? Will she sell her soul and become a corporate clown, or to make the selling out imagery even more blatant, join one of her friends to become a clown hooker?

I can see that the book is aspiring to be something larger. It’s about art vs money. It’s about prejudice against a certain type of people (eg clowns) exclusively for how they look. It’s about the revulsion and attraction that people feel for the forbidden.

It’s this last part that’s kind of offensive. It is clearly making the point that lust of clowns and fear of clowns are deeply interwoven concepts. Unless I’m totally missing out, it seems to be using clowns as a stand-in for race. Comparing the centuries long torturous relationship that white men have had with black women via this metaphor is at best problematic.

Even with these grand ideas, the execution is just so blah.

Baloneytown isn’t anything special. It’s just a poor part of the city. Nita is playing the part (at least to Jerrod) of the manic pixie dream girl (girl is all messed up, slightly goofy, gets into silly escapades, needs a man to help her out). The whole romantic triangle tension totally blows up when Rex completely turns into a cad and actually blames Nita for her miscarriage. There is no conflict for her to work through. She is done with Rex and ends up with Jerrod.

So, at the end of the day, it could have easily been a mundane rom-com that Meg Ryan, at her peak, could have done while in a coma (with, of course, a young Tom Hanks as the earnest Jerrod and possibly Hugh Grant as Rex the cad).

 

Laughing At The Bleakness

30079724Title: Homesick For Another World

Rating: 4 Stars

I first encountered Ottessa Moshfegh last year when I read Eileen. It’s really hard to say that you love a book that tries so hard to be unloved. Eileen is one of the most unlikable protagonists that I’ve ever read. She’s resolutely unhappy and full of self loathing. Centering an entire novel around such a character and keeping you interested, if not exactly rooting for her, is a literary triumph.

Home For Another World follows along the same course. Instead of a novel, it’s around a dozen stories of bleakness. The central characters are almost invariably unattractive, whether it be their looks, their personality, or their motives. They all pick at scabs, sometimes literally. These are not people that, in the real world, anyone would root for.

Yet, in story after story, Moshfegh succeeds in pulling you into it and making you care. Beyond just making you care, there’s usually at least a line or two in each story that makes you laugh out loud, even if, after you laugh, you feel slightly guilty or uncomfortable about the laugh and wonder what that says about you.

For instance, Bettering Yourself features an alcoholic grade school teacher who screams at her students, tells them about her sex life, and obsessively calls her ex-husband until he pays her to stop.

Malibu concerns a man with pimples, a rash all over his body, and bad teeth out looking to meet a woman. His mentor giving him girl advice is his uncle on permanent disability who has a colostomy bag that he never properly cleans.

Slumming is the story of another teacher (high-school English this time) that has bought a summer house. At the end of every school year, she goes out to spend the entire summer at the house. While there, every day she gets a sandwich from the local sub shop and then walks over to the abandoned bus station, where she goes into the men’s room and buys whatever drug that is being sold that day. It changes from day to day and she never asks what it is, but somehow, magically, it is always precisely the drug that she needs at that moment.

I could go on, but I think that the point is made. In Moshfegh’s universe, you’re never going to meet a good person. You’re never going to meet anyone with unsullied motives. The happiest ending that you’ll probably get is that the person chooses to live another day.

Stylistically, her short stories owe a pretty strong debt to Carver. The characters live on the fringes of society. There is a best a minimal plot. Characters make their choices and willingly live with the consequences. You have small stories told in a minimalist style, but that punch way above their weight.

The opening stories are much stronger than the closing stories. If the quality had been maintained throughout, the collection would have entered Knockemstiff territory. Even if it doesn’t quite reach that level, still this was the strongest collection of stories that I’ve read in a while.

Command or Control – Choose One

I’ve been re-reading Ron Rosenbaum’s The Secret Parts of Fortune. This is at least the third time that I’ve read it. It’s a collection of his essays from the 1970s to the 1990s, so they are understandably dated, but even so they are still a fascinating read.

The essay that I’m currently on now concerns our nuclear command and control system. This is a pretty scary subject. Podcast fans might remember, I think it was This American Life (or Radiolab, I can never tell them apart) had a piece on it. Eric Schlosser wrote an entire book on this subject (Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety). Some time ago, I read Raven Rock, by Garrett Graff, which is more about the infrastructure of keeping the government going in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

The concerns boil down to the phrase command and control. On the one hand, we want to make sure that if that horrible time comes when we must launch a full nuclear war, that the command will be carried out. On the other hand, we want to make absolutely sure that the launch order is never made accidentally or inappropriately (that is, there is control over the order).

Those two requirements make absolute sense and should be the bedrock of nuclear policy. The problem is that those two requirements are paradoxical.

Take a look at each requirements. Let’s start with command.

Back in the 1950s there was kind of a weird power struggle over who should have control over the nuclear weapons. The armed forces, thinking that this was just another weapon, fought to have launch authority. After all, a general doesn’t go to a president if, in a battle, he needs to use a tank. If I recollect correctly, I believe that it was actually Eisenhower, the only US president in our time that exuded an authority that the military respected, that ended that question once and for all in favor of the president having that authority.

Of course, the enemy would know that and would target the president in the case of a surprise attack. What if the president died? Then, it devolves to the vice president. And so on. At the end of the day, if the Strategic Air Command can’t get hold of anyone in the case of an emergency, then the SAC commander has the authority.

So, by making sure that the nuclear launches will be carried out even if the command structure is removed, we are, to a large extent, sacrificing control.

How about the other hard requirement? We certainly want to make sure that we don’t accidentally launch the missiles. We’ve invested billions of dollars in monitoring / tracking equipment to try to detect foreign missile strikes so that we can respond appropriately.

And yet…

In 1960, a moonrise over Norway was misinterpreted as a USSR mass attack.

At the height of Watergate when Nixon was at maximum stress and regularly drunk, he once told a group of congressmen that “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead”. It was so concerning that calls were made to the Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, who quietly instituted a policy that all launch orders go through him or Kissinger (wow, that does not make me feel much safer).

In 1979, a training scenario was incorrectly loaded onto the production computer and it falsely reported that 2,200 missiles were in the air coming from USSR. The National Security Adviser at the time, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was woken up in the middle of the night and told that the president had three to seven minutes to decide upon a retaliatory attack. Brzezinski, thinking that the world was coming to an end, did not wake his wife because he wanted her to not be aware of her imminent death.

In 2010, the military lost monitoring control over 50 ICBMs for nearly 45 minutes. They had no idea if they had been hacked and/or taken over by rogue elements.

On the other side, in 1995, Boris Yeltsin actually activated the Russian nuclear briefcase over a Norwegian research rocket. Norway had informed the Russian authorities of the planned launch but that had never been passed on to the nuclear authorities. Yes, Boris Yeltsin was contemplating launching a nuclear retaliation. This is the same Boris Yeltsin, also in the same year of 1995, who was making a state visit and was caught in the middle of the night, drunk out of his mind, in his underwear, outside on Pennsylvania Avenue, trying to hail a cab so that he could get a pizza. The secret service agents escorted him back to the White House.

If you think that with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War that this question is moot, keep in mind that we still have about 6800 nuclear weapons in various stages of operation and that Russia has about 7000.

And the world leaders with their proverbial fingers on the button? Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Sweet dreams everyone.

Sycophants Gone Wild

mv5bmtcxmdc1njcynl5bml5banbnxkftztgwndu0ndyxmzi-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_

Title: The Death of Stalin

Rating: 4 Stars

Every now and then I see a movie that I swear was custom designed for me. For instance, about twenty years ago, there was a movie called Dick. It was a juvenile comedy about Watergate. There were inside references to such things as the taping over of locks at the Watergate complex, Deep Throat, and the 18 1/2 minute gap. At the same time, it was the story of a giggly teenage young woman that had developed a crush on Richard Nixon, writing his name repeatedly on her pee chee, and blurting out, in moments of complete silence, how much she loved dick.

Note that this movie came out twenty-five years after Watergate. I believe that the Venn diagram of people that would have simultaneously enjoyed the subtle and inside nods to the Watergate conspiracy and have a deep appreciation for sophomoric humor didn’t extend that far beyond me.

Now, I see that another movie has come out. It’s about the death of Stalin and the immediate chaotic fallout after his death. As with Dick, this is a comedy right smack dab in history geek’s wheelhouse.

I’ve read Montefiore’s The Red Tzar a couple of times now. Stalin’s reign holds an almost obsessive fascination to me. How does a country let this happen? Stalin ordered several purges during his time. He purged anyone that was even remotely a threat to him. He purged the original so-called Old Bolsheviks. He purged the small landowners (the Kulaks) that wanted to keep farming their own lands. He purged the army of its officers (which turned out not to be such a great move right before the start of WWII).

It was so simple. He’d pressure / torture someone to confess and name names. He’d then have those who were named arrested and repeat the process. Desperate to avoid torture, a person arrested would quickly confess to the most absurd crimes and then name as many names as they could come up with. Following this process, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and ultimately millions would ultimately be executed.

And then, of course, the torturers themselves would then be arrested and executed.

The movie starts at this point. Lists of people are sent out to be arrested. In his dacha, Stalin and his small cadre drink and make jokes. This cadre, Stalin’s inner circle (Beria, Krushschev, Malentov, Kaganovich, and a couple of others), possess enormous power but are aware that at any moment Stalin can yank that power away from any one of them and send him to his death. In fact, one of them, Molotov, unknowingly is on a list soon to be arrested. So, although they drink and laugh and shout joyously, they all do it while nervously eyeing Stalin. It’s much like the Twilight Zone episode of the six year old kid that has absolute power over all of the adults.

Later that night, Stalin has a stroke. He is not dead but he is incapacitated.

At first, they are all paralyzed. They are so used to living under Stalin’s thumb that they are at a loss of what to do. They’re afraid at first to even touch him (think of medieval times where it was a crime for a commoner to even touch a king). Even though he’s lying on the floor, comatose and incontinent, they debate the merits of bringing in a doctor. This situation is even more complicated by the fact that just recently many Moscow doctors have been arrested or executed as a result of a purge (the doctors’ plot).

Eventually, Stalin dies. Beria sees his chance. He makes his move to seize power. Will Krushschev be able to block him? The weak Malentov is technically the next in succession. Who will he support? Who will get the legendary General Zhukov’s, the leader of the army, support?

That forms the plot.

It is an entertaining and funny movie. The machinations of these previously toady sycophants trying to become the next supreme ruler of the USSR is absurd to watch. The actors (especially Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Steve Buscemi as Krushschev, and Simon Russell Beale as Beria) all do exceptional comedic work.

It kind of gets the fact right but clearly this is a comedy, not a documentary.

It is a timely movie for many reasons. First of all, think of the situation in Russia. Putin is, as I write this, about to win a landslide election. He has no significant opposition. Within the Russian government itself, there is nothing that appears to be a succession plan. In fact, it appears that not much happens without his approval. If he were to drop dead tomorrow, what would the Russian government do?

And it’s not like the US is in much better shape. Especially with the recent firings, Trump’s cabinet is a chorus of yes-men (and women) who occasionally make appearances together to compete in fulsome praise of the vision and talent of our great leader. Mike Pence goes to great lengths to be as subservient to Trump as the most pliable lapdog.

Let’s face facts. Our president is an obese man in his 70’s who does not eat well and counts golf as exercise. Would any of us be really all that surprised if he stroked out?

And what if he did? Imagine him prone on the floor and surrounded by Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, and Steve Mnuchin. Who from that sorry mess would you want to take the reigns and start issuing orders?

So, yes, it was a funny movie that I enjoyed watching. However, the fact that a comedy about an autocrat that died sixty years ago caused me to reflect upon our current political situation was, to say the least, unsettling.

Slaves Built More Than The White House

31938922

Title: The Half Has Never Been Told

Rating: 4 Stars

This book has a couple of provocative themes. One is that the modern industrial world might never have happened without American slavery. The other major theme challenges the accepted wisdom that slavery was going to fade away over time because slave labor cannot compete in terms of productivity with a free workforce paid wages. Baptist makes the argument that slave labor is relentlessly and brutally efficient.

Most people with a passing knowledge of history are aware that the Haitian Revolution is one of the very rare instances of a slave revolt actually succeeding. It ended up creating a nation that was free of slaves and actually run by the former slaves.

During the uprising, Napoleon sent troops to shut it down. The French troops were defeated by the Haitians. As a direct result of that defeat, Napoleon agreed to sell to America the land that made up the Louisiana Purchase.

The territory in the Louisiana Purchase was fed by the Mississippi river, which led to the land being incredibly fertile. As soon as this was discovered, the American government began to negotiate treaties with Native American tribes at the point of a gun. The Native American were progressively pushed out of their homelands and settlers moved in.

As this was happening, demand for cotton was beginning to skyrocket. The rich, fertile land of the Louisiana Purchase was perfectly positioned to grow cotton.

The invention of the cotton gin was a significant advance in separating cotton from its seed. However, the act of picking the cotton was still a very labor intensive effort requiring many hands. Therefore, cotton farming generated a tremendous demand for slave labor.

Do you see what just happened there? Because of its success, a slave revolution in one country indirectly led to a dramatic increase of slavery in another country. Historical irony isn’t always subtle.

Concurrent with this, textile manufacturing was making tremendous gains in England. Technological advances were being made that allowed dramatically greater productivity with the same number of workers. This led to ever greater demand for cotton. In fact, if the cotton growers hadn’t been available to meet that demand, there wouldn’t have been such a dramatic increase in technology because there wouldn’t have been a point.

In fact, the American South became a powerhouse for cotton growing. In 1800 the South produced 1.4 million pounds of cotton in 1800. In 1860, they produced 2 billion pounds.

Textiles were the engine for technology. Textiles were a significant percentage of all industrial output. The regular supply of cotton made sure that the engine was always running, and not only that, but always improving. It can be said that this symbiotic relationship of raw cotton and textile manufacturing was the most significant factor in creating the world in which we live today.

So, how did the South do it? How did it increase its output by a factor of more than 1,000 in about 60 years?

Sure, there was more land. There were some advances in the cotton seed that produced a slightly fluffier end product. These factors weren’t even close to enough to explain the difference.

The key factor was the increased productivity of the slaves. Closer to the year 1800, the best slaves were picking at most 100 lbs of cotton a day. When you think of how light and fluffy cotton is, I can’t even imagine the effort that it would take to pick 100 lbs of cotton in one day.

By the year 1860 rolled around, slaves were averaging closer to 500 lbs of cotton a day.

Yes, their productivity increased by a factor of five. Notice that there was no advance in technology for the cotton picker. No new tool was invented. There was no innovation that somehow automated part of the picking. It was hard, bloody, manual work. While England was gaining tremendous advances through technology, the slaves that fed the raw product for those machines were doing the same work 60 years later but were picking five times as much cotton.

How? By basically terrorizing and working the slaves to their deaths. Everyday, each slave’s output would be weighed. Each slave was assigned a specific quota. If the slave did not meet the quota, he/she would be whipped. If the slave exceeded his/her quota, then guess what? That new total became his/her new quota, and if the next day, he/she didn’t meet that quota, then a whipping would result. This remorselessly efficient process led the slaves to drive themselves to higher and higher productivity.

Accounts from slaves during that time tell the story of basically leaving their minds and just becoming a ruthlessly efficient machine, with both hands working independently in a blur.

This was how the modern industrial world was built.

Why Hitler?

I’ve been re-reading parts of Ron Rosenbaum’s The Secret Parts of Fortune. It’s a dated collection, but it’s a re-print of long form articles that he did over a 30 year period on topics as diverse as the rise of the original hackers (that hacked into the phone system using, among other things, a Cap’n Crunch whistle), his obsession with the play Hamlet, the strange deaths of twin gynecologists (the basis for a movie starring Jeremy Irons), a mysterious death involving Burt Reynolds, and the apparent suicide of Danny Casoloro (who was investigating / reporting on a wide ranging government conspiracy he called the Octopus).

Even though this collection was published in 2001, so it includes articles that he wrote way back in the 70s, it still makes for compelling reading. It’s clear that he himself is a somewhat obsessive person, so reading of him diving deep into his fellow obsessives makes for entertaining reading.

One of his articles later itself became a full length book. It was called Explaining Hitler.

It tries to answer the fundamental question, how did Hitler become Hitler? How does an apparently normal person once so unsuccessful that he was a penniless painter nearly homeless in Austria ultimately end up not only rising Germany up from the ashes of its defeat but then nearly conquer all of Western Europe and kill six million Jewish people?

Various historians and psychoanalysts have come up with a number of theories over the years.

Some theories fixate that there must have been something in Hitler’s background that made him hate Jewish people. One theory is that his beloved mother that painfully died of cancer was treated by a Jewish doctor that could not cure her. Another theory is that Hitler’s father was himself fathered by a Jewish person and Hitler was tormented by the fact that he was ‘tainted’ with Jewish blood. Yet another theory is that, when he was a starving artist in Vienna, he picked up a venereal disease from a Jewish prostitute.

I’m not making this up. These are theories that have been put forward in published books by respected authors. There’s something dismal in all of these theories. They all, in one form or another, no matter how subtle, somehow shift the blame onto some lone Jewish person and makes him / her somehow the root cause of the Holocaust.

Another theory is that Hitler’s father beat him mercilessly and somehow that triggered something. There is very little evidence for this and other theories emphasize the gentleness of his father, so this seems shaky as well.

Another theory is around hypnotherapy. After Germany’s loss in WWI, Hitler was so traumatized that he experienced hysterical blindness. He was apparently cured by hypnosis. Specifically, the hypnotist told Hitler (while he was hypnotized) that it was his destiny to lead Germany to greatness and therefore he must regain his sight so he that could assume his rightful place. The theory here is that the idea implanted so deeply that it made him a monster.

And then, of course, there’s the ‘one ball’ theory. There apparently was a German soldier serving in WWII that knew Hitler from his childhood and would tell a story (until he was arrested and sentenced to death) of when Hitler was a child, on a dare, he tried to urinate into a billy goat’s mouth and the goat reached up and tore one of his testicles off. So, apparently, the Holocaust and the untold misery in the Soviet Union was the result of overcompensation?

Even going beyond the root cause, there is even now serious disagreements regarding what Hitler’s motives were. Some historians believe that Hitler was sincere in his actions. They believe that he thought it was his moral mission to remove Jewish people (and Poles and Slovaks and …) for the betterment of the world.

Other historians equally fervently believe that he was basically an actor. He was an ambitious opportunist that did whatever necessary to gain the reigns of power and then basically responded to the will of the people.

Yet another group of historians believe that he started off as an actor but ultimately there reached a point where he began to believe his lines. After acting as an opportunist in the early stages of the war, specifically after he achieved such massive success in the initial stages of the Soviet Union invasion, he became convinced that his will was destiny; this delusion became his downfall.

There’s another whole school of thought that Hitler should never try to be understood. He is beyond humanity. To try to understand Hitler is to try to explain Hitler. It’s a short path from explaining Hitler to excusing Hitler. To venture even a little down this path of trying to understand evil is itself an immoral action.

Why does this seem so important now? It seems to me, not just in the US but in the world, the inevitable advance that democracy had been marching upon over the last several decades has seemed to reach a pause. There are now parties arising in many countries that seem to be hearkening back to a more dangerous time.

Obviously not all such parties are going to lead the world to global conflagration. There’s a very good chance that none of them will. It’s just that now might be a good time to look back into history and see if there’s anything that we can learn to make sure that we recognize the next Hitler, if such a one ever tries to emerge again.

Two Firemen Are In A Smoked Filled Room

Many years ago (I think it was probably in the late 1980s), I went to see a comedian named John Fox. He was the headliner. He came out, and the first words out of his mouth were, “Two firemen are in a smoked filled room butt fucking”. This led rapidly to the punchline. For his entire set, he did a rapid-fire set of unrelated jokes. The jokes were so quick and risque that he had the crowd in stitches.

About ten years later, I just happened to see that he was touring and was stopping off in Seattle. Remembering how much I enjoyed him, I decide to see him again. He walks out onto the stage and the first words out of his mouth were, “Two firemen are in a smoked filled room butt fucking”. It was ten years later and his act was, word for word, identical.

Going to see Anthony Jeselnik this week got me thinking a bit. As I previously wrote, he is, despite his extremely dark humor, actually a conventional joke teller. His act is not personal. I learned nothing about Jeselnik by listening to his act. For all I know, he could have a staff of crack writers that grind out the jokes that he delivers.

This is counter to the current trend of comedy. Comedians today generally are much more personal. They delve into their psyche and their personal lives and use what they discover there as the subject matter of their humor. I listen to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast pretty regularly. He is definitely one of the reigning senior spokesmen for the current state of comedy. He’ll talk to fellow comedians and he’ll occasionally reference some other comedian and say that he/she tells jokes. Although he tries to be impartial, it’s pretty clear that he kind of holds them in some disdain. Such comedians that simply tell jokes are, in his eyes, children of a lesser comedic god.

The deeply personal comedic perspective is a tradition that goes back 50 or more years. Before that, comedians told jokes. In fact that was their job. It was to tell jokes. It was not  their job to write jokes. There’s a famous book named the Joe Miller joke book. Joe Miller was an 18th century British actor. Shortly after his death, a joke book was published in his name. It consisted of 247 jokes.  Over the years the book was revised and new jokes were added.

By the time that vaudeville and then later the Catskills Borscht Belt were going on, there were comedians still making use of those same jokes from the Miller book. There were comedians who were successful for decades and never changed their act. In fact, I might have my facts screwed up here, but I believe that one of the great vaudeville comedians, Eddie Cantor, was in real life pretty much incapable of natural humor.

Clearly, the reason why they were able to do it was because there was extremely limited recording taking place then. Most people would only occasionally go to comedy shows, so the fact that large numbers of comedians were using essentially the same material was not a big deal. Comedians regularly stole successful bits from each other. It was known and just accepted.

Things started to change in the age of television and radio. Suddenly, a comedian could reach millions of people with one show. A comedian could go on the Ed Sullivan show and do some piece of his act. Well, when he went out on the road again, many people in his audience would have seen his act and wouldn’t want to see it again. Unlike singing, comedy does not improve with repetition. People who had been touring for decades were effectively driven out of the business, unable to come up with new material.

Desperate for new material, joke stealing became a real issue. Someone could go on a national show with stolen material and would ruin that material not only for him/herself but also for the comedian that originated it. Milton Berle, Mr Television himself, was an infamous joke thief.

Some famous comedians hired a team of writers to generate new content constantly. However, it was a losing battle. Every new joke that came out could be instantly stolen.

Some comedians started trying a different approach. Led by so-called coffee house comedians like Mort Sahl and yes, Lenny Bruce, instead of just telling jokes, they began to tell stories. These weren’t generic let me tell you about my wife kind of stories. These were deeply personal experiences that were clearly unique to them.

By telling such personal stories, they were inoculating themselves from thieves. The stories just wouldn’t make sense to be told by other comedians with obviously different life experiences. Not only that, but the personal nature also changed the delivery of the act. Instead of a rapid fire set of gags, the comedy act became more thoughtful. This more thoughtful style was so foreign to the more typical joke thief that even if they tried to steal it, they’d just look silly trying to imitate it.

Lo and behold, the audience grew to appreciate this kind of humor. It effectively made a tighter emotional bond between the comedian and the audience. It created a depth to the comedy that was previously missing. From the coffee house, it expanded outward and eventually became the de facto technique for most future comedians.

However, think now of the stress that is placed on modern comedians. Many comedians have Netflix deals. Some comedians have a contract to release a new special every year or so. This places tremendous pressure upon them. Every year, the comedian has to delve deeply into his/her past or psyche and come up with another hour of comedy. I can’t even imagine the difficulty that goes into doing that.

Tig Notaro’s show about her fight with cancer and Patton Oswalt’s show about the death of his wife are now rightly considered landmark comedy. Today, if you look back on youTube at the giants of comedy from the vaudeville or early radio/TV days, you’ll find yourself amazed at the difference in sophistication between the comedy of today and comedy then. It has quite literally morphed into a different form of art.

And to think that to a large extent that this transpired because someone was trying to keep fellow comedians from stealing their jokes.

Laughing At Murder / Suicide

6hclu4ks_400x400

Title: Anthony Jeselnik

I first watched Anthony Jeselnik when he did his Netflix special Thoughts and Prayers. Some of his jokes were kind of obvious and sophomoric but he won me over with the Thoughts and Prayer part of his routine, where he explained why he sends out really insensitive tweets after major tragedies. It was insightful social commentary that still resonates even now, I think of it whenever I hear a politician send out thoughts and prayers to shooting victims but then does absolutely nothing to help and/or solve the problem of mass shootings.

Mo Welch opened for him. She did a strong set. She’s in the mold of the the current  tradition of extremely personal comedy. She is gay, grew up poor, and her father apparently spent a substantial amount of her childhood in prison. All of these topics were fodder for her humor.

She was a good opener for Jeselnik because, like him, her comedy pushed boundaries. She had a riff about how a lesbian’s finger is her penis, meeting a friend who was from Joliet (a famous prison), and joyfully exclaiming that her father did time there, and an extended bit about wanting to marry her mother when she was a child (ending with a joke about sex with her mom).

She received good laughs and warmed the audience up well.

Jeselnik then came out. His act was in the same style as his Netflix special. He assumes a character on stage. He acts cocky to the point of arrogance. He frequently assures the audience of the brilliance of his jokes. He stalks the stage like a tiger. When he gets to the punchline, he stares directly out at the audience with a fierce intensity.

And that’s the interesting thing about Jeselnik. He tells jokes. The current trend of comedians is personal. If you think of the current top comedians like Louis C.K., Marc Maron, Sarah Silverman, or Chris Rock, they tell stories about themselves. Sure, they address larger themes, but they come from a personal place to express it. The trend is still ongoing. An up and coming comedian like Ali Wong goes into extremely graphic (and hilarious) detail about her pregnancy, giving birth, and raising a child.

Jeselnik stays aloof on stage. Even when he does tell a story about his father, it’s pretty obvious that it’s not based in reality. It’s like the old school unmarried comedians making jokes about their wives. It’s a vehicle to a punchline, not a personal observation.

And that’s OK. I just find it interesting how he’s going against the stream. He clearly owes a debt to Mitch Hedberg and, even earlier, to Steven Wright. Like Hedberg and Wright, he has fun with language. He’ll start talking and it follows a very predictable path and then, still staying in context with what he’s talking about, he takes a very dark twist. The unexpected path and the abruptness in which it happens is the source of his humor.

It usually is very effective. I have noticed that you can get into the rhythm of his bits. If you listen carefully and project just a bit ahead, you can with some regularity actually predict the joke, which of course lessens the impact.

I think that it’ll be interesting to see how Jeselnik’s act will be in ten years. Will he be in the same persona? Will audiences still want to see him? Over time, I see his act becoming more and more predictable. It’ll be interesting to see if it evolves.

Tonight, as usual, he tested his audience to see how far he can take them. He does a bit on baby dropping. From what I recollect, I believe that he did a similar bit on his Netflix special. I think the idea of getting people to laugh at such an obviously absurd comedic premise is a challenge to him. Similarly, he had extended bits on murder / suicide, abortion, and racism. His abortion bit especially skirted the edge of exactly what he could say that would be simultaneously funny and shocking.

I’m wondering if he had one true moment during the end of his routine. He talked, in an ironically obsequious manner, of what a great crowd the audience was. He then made an offhand comment about the time he was at Bumbershoot and half the audience walked out on him. There’s no reason to actually believe him, but knowing that Bumbershoot is basically a bunch of random people deciding to catch a show, not knowing who Jeselnik was, that could very well be the one true fact of the evening. He tossed out the little aside with just enough of a hint of a bitterness to make you think that it actually happened and that it stung him a bit.