One of Them Got It Right

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Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Representative Tulsi Gabbard have both said they would get US troops out of Afghanistan, but their clash during the October 15 debate shows only one of them really means it.

Tulsi Gabbard.

Gabbard has been smeared as an “agent of Russia” for her call to bring American soldiers home. Buttigieg didn’t call her that, but he did say pulling out from Syria was a “betrayal.” He described a Kurdish woman with a dead child in her arms, implying it was America’s fault. The issue in Syria — and also in Afghanistan — he said, was “keeping our word.”

The bottom line, he said, was that withdrawal “undermines the honor of our soldiers.”

Better to attack Hawaii, even though the odds were that Japan would last only three years and be defeated by the United States.

I recall reviewing a book in 2013 about Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941: Eri Hotta’s Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy.

In the fall of 1941, President Roosevelt gave Japan an ultimatum: remove your invasion troops from China or else. A few in Japan, fearing a war with the United States, were willing to consider it. But the argument against it, which prevailed, was that any withdrawal from China would dishonor the Japanese soldiers who died there. It would be a betrayal. Better to attack Hawaii, even though the odds were (as Japan’s generals were told by its war-college war gamers) that Japan would last only three years and be defeated by the United States.

I remember the don’t-betray-the-troops argument and the maintain-our-credibility argument during the war in Vietnam. These arguments did not prevent the loss of the war, but they did lengthen the casualty lists.

In Afghanistan and Syria, the United States is not going to win.

Buttigieg, who served in Afghanistan, is right that getting out would mean the government’s breaking its word, and doing that would undermine its credibility. And no matter where US troops are committed for any length of time, they have helpers and allies, and pulling out would leave allies in the lurch. Is that dishonorable? Yes, it is. But in Afghanistan and Syria, the United States is not going to win. Why not accept dishonor now, before it grows any bigger? The cost of postponing defeat is more killing, wreckage, and debt.

Gabbard will not be elected president. She’s right, though.




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Hunter Biden, Universal Genius

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“In retrospect, look, I think that it was poor judgment on my part. Is that I think that it was poor judgment because I don't believe now, when I look back on it — I know that there was — did nothing wrong at all. However, was it poor judgment to be in the middle of something that is ... a swamp in — in — in many ways? Yeah.”

Thus Hunter Biden, in a snuggy interview granted to ABC on October 15. Biden, the 49-year-old “kid” (as he calls himself) of a former vice president, was defending his choice by a Chinese state bank to receive more than a billion dollars in investments, and by a Ukrainian energy company to do some unspecifiable work for a salary of $600,000 a year. At the time, his “dad” was conducting diplomacy with China and bragging about how he got the Ukrainian government to fire a prosecutor by threatening to withhold a billion dollars of US aid.

Hunter Biden must be a universal genius. That’s why he’s not embarrassed to rattle so frankly through his list of jobs.

I’ve quoted a representative part of Hunter’s eloquent self-defense. But to me the most interesting part was his proof that he was overqualified to serve on the board of the Ukrainian natural gas company.

I was vice chairman of the board of Amtrak for five years. I was the chairman of the board of the U.N. World Food Program. I was a lawyer for Boies Schiller Flexner, one of the most prestigious law firms in — in the world. . . .

I think that I had as much knowledge as anybody else that was on the board — if not more.

So. There are two alternatives.

One: Hunter Biden is a universal genius. He knows more about law, investment banking, natural gas, worldwide food distribution, and the way to run a railroad than anyone else in — in — in the world. That’s why he’s not embarrassed to rattle so frankly through his list of jobs. (Which is, becomingly, only partial.)

Two: Hunter Biden is so stupid as to think he deserved those “jobs” — so stupid, indeed, as to be disqualified from any normal employment.

I’m betting on Two. And I have the strange idea that at least 50% of our ruling class has the same kind of CV that Hunter has, and the same unembarrassed attitude about it. They’re just too stupid to know they’re stupid.




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The Last Cargo

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The launch last month of “The 1619 Project” by The New York Times unleashed a barrage of partisan volleys and countervolleys consisting mostly of debatable claims, finger-pointing, and innuendo. It’s predictable for the polarized times we live in. Some of the Democratic presidential candidates are calling for reparations for the nation’s original sin of slavery (were the 360,000 Union deaths not enough?); and we’ve elected a president whom many consider racist — an accusation resorted to glibly, promiscuously, and with a keyword so broadly defined and overused it’s become as meaningless as the word “love.”

The NYT presents the project as an appropriate bookend to the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship, the White Lion, to arrive at the continental US, at Jamestown. But perhaps a more apt bookend might be the arrival of the last slave ship, the schooner Clotilda, in 1859 (or 1860, according to some sources), 240 years after the White Lion docked at Point Comfort in Virginia.

It’s taken quite a while for the Clotilda’s story to air.

Although the transatlantic slave trade had begun in the early 1500s with destinations to the Caribbean and Brazil, the 20-odd Angolans aboard the White Lion — taken against their will — were classified as indentured servants, some of whom later acquired their freedom, as per that definition. Children of those Africans who did end up as slaves were born free — according to the laws of that time.

It’s taken quite a while for the Clotilda’s story to air. Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), whose four grandparents had all been slaves, interviewed Cudjo Kossola Lewis, the second-to-last survivor of the Clotilda, in 1927. She’d trained as an anthropologist under the tutelage of Franz Boas, considered the “Father of American Anthropology,” and this was her first serious project.

Boas had introduced and firmly established the concept of cultural relativity as an investigative axiom: “a person's beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person's own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another.” As a field tool, the concept allowed Hurston to present Kossola’s narrative more objectively, through his eyes. She’d attended Howard, Barnard, and Columbia with classmates Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead (who got a bit creatively carried away with the cultural relativity bit in the South Pacific).

Hurston’s transcription of Kossola’s dialect is inconsistent, slaloming between her efforts at accurate transcription and reversion to more conventional English when the task became overwhelming.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” the book that resulted from Hurston’s interviews with Kossola, remained unpublished until May 2018. Back in 1931, Viking Press rejected it. They would only accept the manuscript if Hurston rewrote Kossola’s vernacular into standard English. They had a point (though not the one I want to make right here). Hurston’s transcription of Kossola’s dialect is inconsistent, slaloming between her efforts at accurate transcription (which she thought essential) and reversion to more conventional English when the task became overwhelming. Additionally, according to novelist Alice Walker’s foreword in the book, “There was concern among ‘black intellectuals and political leaders’ that the book laid uncomfortably bare Africans’ involvement in the slave trade.”

And that’s not the only inconvenient truth buried in Barracoon. Hurston, a black female anthropologist, was an independent thinker. She opposed school integration and programs that guaranteed blacks a right to work. In 1955 she claimed that "adequate Negro schools" already existed. (See John M. Eriksen, Brevard County, Florida: A Short History to 1955, chapter 13; and "Negro Writer Opposes Court Ruling,” Titusville Star Advocate, September 30, 1955, p. 2.) And she was a Republican during the New Deal.

Although John McWhorter, a linguist and Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, has called Hurston "America's favorite black conservative," she’s been more properly characterized as a libertarian by David and Linda Beito ("Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Zora Neale Hurston on War, Race, the State, and Liberty," Independent Review 12, Spring 2008) She was no social conservative and, in foreign policy, was a noninterventionist. And then there are the controversial watermelons.

Although John McWhorter has called Hurston "America's favorite black conservative," she’s been more properly characterized as a libertarian.

Kossola lived life to his own rhythms, tending his gardens and active in his church. To ingratiate herself with him and unlock a volubility concealed behind an apparent reticence, Hurston would bring peaches, hams, and watermelons as gifts. Once they shared an entire iced watermelon, gnawed down to the rind, taking up all their allotted interview time but unlocking a trust and warmth that sealed a lasting friendship. Whether the association of watermelons and blacks’ taste for them already existed is a question best left to pop historians. But Alice Walker in her foreword to Barracoon again picks up a racial trope, “Imagine how many generations of black people would never admit to eating watermelon!”

* * *

Kossola, an Isha Yoruba, was captured in a slave raid by the army of King Glélé of Dahomey (in present-day Benin), which consisted of about 7,000 male and 5,000 female warriors — the renowned Dahomey Amazons. He was 19 and engaged to be married. His village was stormed by the Amazons, all belted with the dangling heads of opponents killed in battle. Kossola reported that they were the equal of any man. The old and infirm were decapitated on the spot (so much for the nurturing nature of the gentler sex). Meanwhile, the male Dahomey warriors were stationed at the gate posts to ambush and capture the fleeing villagers, Kossola among them.

After about four weeks in transit, three spent in a barracoon — a holding cell for newly-captured slaves — the captives were treated to a big feast by their captors: “the people of Dahomey come bring us lot of grub for us to eatee ’cause dey say we goin’ leave dere. We eatee de big feast,” recalled Kossola.

Captain William Foster, owner, builder, and skipper of the Clotilda — which was anchored outside the surf zone (the port of Whydah lacking any docking facilities) — purchased 130 of the captives. He chose equal numbers of males and females. Although offered, he “preemptorily” [sic] forbade their branding. Each captive cost $50 to $60 on the coast but could be sold in Alabama for about $800 apiece (nearly $23,000 in today’s money).

His village was stormed by the Amazons, all belted with the dangling heads of opponents killed in battle.

Foster’s fellow investors in this slaving venture consisted of the brothers Jim, Tim, and Burns Meaher from Maine. The Captain carried $9,000 in gold. The Clotilda was manned by a crew of 12 (all Yankees), including him. Although the importation of slaves had been illegal since 1808, the Meahers, who owned a mill and shipyard, built swift vessels for blockade running and “filibustering expeditions.” At the time, smuggling slaves from Cuba was common practice.

Transporting and loading the captives into the Clotilda through the heavy Atlantic surf required the services of skilled men of the Kroo tribe, men, an ethnic group of independent operators who specialized in negotiating breakers with sleek surf boats. Their skills as mariners were so expert that the Royal Navy enlisted many of them from 1820 to as late as 1924. But Kroo canoes had limited capacities. Kossola, naked and terrified, thought he’d breathed his last. He was the last captive loaded onto the Clotilda.

After 116 of the slaves had been brought on board, Foster became aware of possible treachery involving Dahomans planning to recapture the cargo and holding him hostage. He immediately gave orders to abandon the cargo not already on board “and to sail away with all speed.”

Kossola, naked and terrified, thought he’d breathed his last. He was the last captive loaded on board.

The Clotilda got away, but the next day was chased by an English cruiser on the lookout for slavers. Foster escaped by pressing sail. The slaves down in the hold were in cramped conditions (although they had much more space — five feet of headroom — than many slaves in previous Middle Passage transports) After being kept below decks for 12 days, mainly because of real or false alarms, they were brought on deck so they might limber up. The captain ordered the crew to help them walk and exercise. For the rest of the passage, except for the twentieth day, when another British cruiser was spotted, and near the end, on the approach to Mobile, they spent most of their time on deck — 116 slaves to 12 crew. Only two died. The crossing took 70 days.

According to Hurston, the Clotilda arrived in Mobile Bay under cover of darkness in August 1859 (other sources say July 9, 1860). Fear of discovery and prosecution, and the fact that blacks illegally brought in could not be enslaved, made their sale problematic. In fact, Foster and the Meahers were later tried in federal court in Mobile, though not convicted, for lack of evidence: the Clotilda and its manifest had been burned and sunk, the black captives well hidden. Other sources say they were found guilty and charged heavy fines, which were never paid. The outbreak of the Civil War prevented further pursuit of the case.

Forty-eight of the slaves were secretly sold. The remaining 60 (according to one of the discrepant sources) were divvied up among the principals: James Meaher took 32 (16 couples), Burns Meaher took ten, Tim Meaher eight, and Captain Foster ten. Kossola went to Jim Meaher, where he acquired the name Cudjo Lewis. “Cudjo” was a name given by the Akan people of Ghana to children born on a Monday, while “Lewis” is probably a corruption of Kossola’s father’s name, Oluale, which Meaher had difficulty pronouncing.

The Clotilda was chased by an English cruiser on the lookout for slavers. Foster escaped by pressing sail.

Cudjo reported that they were not immediately put to work; first they were trained by American slaves, who ridiculed the Africans for their ignorance and “savage” ways. He became a stevedore loading wood for Jim Meaher’s cargo boats on the Mobile to Montgomery run. He was worked hard, but praised his master for taking good care of his slaves:

Cap’n Jim, he a good man. He not lak his brother, Cap’n Tim. He doan want his folks knock and beat all de time. He see my shoes gittee ragedy, you know, and he say, ‘Cudjo, if dat de best shoes you got, I gittee you some mo’!’ Now das right. I no tellee lies.

“Cap’n” Tim’s brother Burns was also cruel, but it seemed to have its limits. Cudjo reported that their slaves worked the brothers’ plantation fields:

Dey got overseer wid de whip. One man try whippee one my country women and dey all jump on him and takee de whip ‘way from him and lashee him wid it. He doan never try whip African women no mo’.

This astonishing account of slave resistance without repercussions is reminiscent of a similar incident reported by Frederick Douglass in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.

* * *

Douglass was a proud, headstrong man. Like my brother John, who was drafted for the Korean War — and looking forward to proudly serving his country, only to be discharged for being “temperamentally unsuited to taking orders” — Douglass was not cut out for servitude, though instead of “proudly serving his master,” he just complied with performing his duties . . . as long as he was treated with respect.

As a boy, Douglass had not only been treated well, he’d been taught to read and write. But he ended up with a master with “quite a number of differences” with him. During the nine months he spent with Master Thomas, “he had given me a number of severe whippings, all to no good purpose.” So Thomas decided to send Douglass to Edward Covey, a man who, for a price, specialized in breaking recalcitrant slaves.

After a series of particularly brutal beatings, Douglass decided — to his own surprise — to fight back.

Covey set about the task with alacrity, putting Douglass to brutal work in the fields: “During the first six months, scarce a week passed without his whipping me.” He was treated so brutally that he admitted that at one point “Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me.” But this was not to be permanent.

After a series of particularly brutal beatings, Douglass decided — to his own surprise — to fight back . . . come what may. During a two-hour tussle, Douglass “drew blood” and got, by far, the better of the encounter. Covey retreated. “The whole six months afterward, he never laid the weight of his finger upon me in anger. This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave.” From then on, civility — or what passes for civility in a master-slave relationship — was the order of the day. Douglass performed his duties; Covey let him be.

Douglass’ analysis of the event demonstrates the intelligence and wisdom of this young man. Covey could only go so far. Slaves were extremely valuable property: to render one unfit for service was financial suicide — not to mention that Douglass wasn’t his slave (or that Douglass had seriously beaten Covey).

Mr. Covey enjoyed the most unbounded reputation for being a first rate . . . negro-breaker. It was of considerable importance to him. That reputation was at stake; and had he sent me — a boy about sixteen years old — to the public whipping post, his reputation would have been lost; so, to save his reputation, he suffered me to go unpunished . . . I was nothing before; I was a MAN NOW.

The incident was so pivotal to his life that Douglass filled 11 pages of his first book on it, and 32 in the subsequent autobiography. In contrast (and I digress here somewhat), David W. Blight in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, gives it only two pages and ignores Douglass’ analysis and insights.

Slaves were extremely valuable property: to render one unfit for service was financial suicide.

I suspect an ideological bias, such as surfaces in his introduction:

[Douglass was] a proponent of classic nineteenth-century political liberalism . . . he strongly believed in self-reliance . . . but fundamentally was not a self-made man.

Let’s take a closer look at these assertions. Inserting “nineteenth-century” between “classic” and “liberalism” implies, to these libertarian sensibilities, that classic liberalism was an outdated, even discarded philosophy. But nothing could be further from the truth. Classic liberalism is alive and thriving today. And to say that Frederick Douglass, the epitome of a self-made man, was not a self-made man is to contradict all the evidence contained in Blight’s flawed tome. In at least a dozen instances in the book — instances of Douglass solving problems, escaping bondage, rising to the occasion, creating opportunities, helping others — Blight is unambiguously forced to aver that Douglass was in fact a “self-made man,” using those exact same words (p. xv).

Inserting “nineteenth-century” between “classic” and “liberalism” implies that classic liberalism was an outdated, even discarded philosophy. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Douglass’ examination of Mr. Covey’s behavior is a classic liberal analysis of conduct based on economic self-interest, a perspective that Blight either refuses to acknowledge or completely ignores. It does not fit his worldview, and he refuses to give it air time — in spite of the fact that Douglass’ analysis of the event was a formative experience in his life.

Blight reveals his biases more artlessly whenever he mentions Republicans — never mind that, for abolitionists, Republicans were the only game in town. About the 2013 unveiling of a statue of Douglass in Washington DC, Blight’s introduction condescendingly observes:

Congressional Republicans walked around proudly sporting large buttons that read FREDERICK DOUGLASS WAS A REPUBLICAN. Douglass descendants present, as well as some of us scholars with, shall we say, different training and research, smiled and endured.

Yes . . . that was in 2013. But Blight can’t help projecting modern biases into the past, through subtle wording and innuendo throughout the book, especially when Douglass becomes active in Republican Party politics. This is but one reason why the book was a chore to get through. Blight is no Ron Chernow or Robert Caro.

* * *

But back to Cudjo Kossola Lewis. The Africans were unaware of the start of the Civil War, but when the Union blockade and the surrounding fighting made food scarce, “Cap’n Jim Meaher send word he doan want us to starve, you unnerstand me, so he tell us to kill hogs. He say de hogs dey his and we his, and he doan wantee no dead folks.”

On April 12, 1865, only three days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, but five or six (some sources say four) years of Cudjo’s life as a slave in America, Union soldiers told him he was free. The Africans celebrated by making drums and beating them “lak in de Affica soil.” Their first inclination was to return to Africa: “dey [the Meahers and Foster] ought take us back home.”

When they discovered the cost of such an improbable venture, they nonetheless worked hard and saved their money. But finally deciding that going back to Africa was unrealistic, they deputized Cudjo to approach the Meahers for land to settle on. Tim, the meaner of the Meahers, jumped to his feet and responded, “Fool, do you think I goin’ give you property on top of property? I tookee good keer my slaves in slavery and derefo’ I doan owe dem nothing? You doan belong to me now, why must I give you my lan’?

Union soldiers told him he was free. Cudjo and the other Africans celebrated by making drums and beating them “lak in de Affica soil.”

Notwithstanding Tim’s rebuff, James, the kinder and gentler Meaher, might have helped finalize the deal. The Africans bought Meaher land three miles north of Mobile at Magazine Point, establishing a settlement they called Africatown — but now known as Plateau — in 1866 (the date Hurston provides, but according to Sylviane A. Diuf, in the Encyclopedia of Alabama, Cudjo bought two acres on September 30, 1872 for $100 — or about $2,000 today).

Cudjo became a naturalized American citizen, married, had six children, and became sexton of his church. In 1902, while driving his buggy over train tracks, he was hit by a train and injured. A sympathetic white lady who saw the accident ensured he was well taken care of and told him he had a case against the railroad. Cudjo knew nothing about American law. The lady hooked him up with a lawyer who took on contingency his case against the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. Cudjo won and was awarded $650.

But he never collected. Cudjo reported that after the verdict, a yellow fever epidemic hit Mobile. The lawyer and his family headed north to safety, but on the way the lawyer died. Yet another source (Encyclopedia of Alabama) says that the verdict was overturned on appeal.

Cudjo Kossola Lewis died on July 17, 1935.

* * *

In these times of “fake news,” the publication of Barracoon — finally — should be a breath of fresh air. I say this notwithstanding the fact that while writing this review I discovered so many discrepancies in the account that I’m left wondering how to account for them: a year’s difference in the arrival of the Clotilda in Mobile; the number of years Cudjo spent in bondage; the resolution of Cudjo’s lawsuit; Hurston’s purported plagiarism from earlier sources; and other, more minor controversies. They seem to be endemic to the genre.

Whatever the causes of the discrepancies in Kossola’s story, at least they don’t seem to be rooted in ideological manipulation — a shortcoming that has bedeviled American slave narratives since at least the times of William Lloyd Garrison. Antebellum abolitionists resorted to widespread hyperbole concerning the horrors of slavery in order to convince an ill-informed and often indifferent public.

While writing this review I discovered so many discrepancies in the account that I’m left wondering how to account for them.

Yes, I know, you’re thinking, How can one overstate the evils of slavery? It’s like exaggerating the fires of hell. I don’t know about you, but accuracy works best to convince me about anything. When people resort to lies, or just don’t check their facts well enough, I lose trust, no matter how well-intentioned the narrative may be.

The altering of facts continues to this day. The movie 12 Years a Slave, based on the book by the same title (and reviewed in these pages by Jo Ann Skousen, “A Slave Narrative, and More,” November 10, 2013), contains at least four falsifications, all of which are ideologically based. As Jo Ann points one out:

Some of the vignettes simply don’t ring true, as when the lecherous and sadistic slave owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) whips Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) almost to death because she has spoken back to him. Patsey is his most productive slave. She picks twice as much cotton every day as any of the men do. She is a valuable, unblemished piece of property, even if he doesn’t acknowledge her humanity. It does not make sense that he would destroy such a valuable capital good in a fit of pique.

The movie depicts William Ford (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), the slave owner, in quite another light than Northup, the slave (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), described him in his book: “There never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford.”

Only the well-off could afford to own slaves before the war, and they weren’t likely to burn $23,000 for fun.

Falsifications like the one Skousen points out are particularly egregious. Not only do they go against basic economic theory but they paint human nature in the worst light possible.

This out of The Atlantic:

In the film version, shortly after Northup is kidnapped, he is on a ship bound south. A sailor enters the hold and is about to rape one of the slave women when a male slave intervenes. The sailor unhesitatingly stabs and kills him. This seems unlikely on its face — slaves are valuable, and the sailor is not the owner. And, sure enough, the scene is not in the book. A slave did die on the trip south, but from smallpox, rather than from stabbing.

But the worst one, which I haven’t seen referenced, was a passage in the book where Northup is sent on an errand that requires crossing a gator-infested bayou. Along the way, he encounters an alligator, and sweats bullets. In the movie the scene is changed. Instead of an alligator, he encounters two rednecks whooping it up hanging a black.

Please!

The heydays of lynching blacks were after the Civil War, not the 1840s, when slaves were worth about $23,000, average, in today’s money. And though crackers were the foot soldiers of the Ku Klux Klan during and after Reconstruction, only the well-off could afford to own slaves before the war, and they weren’t likely to burn $23,000 for fun.

Barracoon discloses some inconvenient truths, and in doing so, to my mind, enhances the credibility of the horrors of slavery by revealing not just its inhumanity but the glimpses of humanity that at times appeared. Caricatures and satire only succeed with the ignorant and the convinced.

In the movie the scene is changed. Instead of an alligator, he encounters two rednecks whooping it up hanging a black.

And instances of behavior that tempers the conventional narrative of slave societies run through many slave biographies. Besides Douglass’ and Northup’s (dictated, despite Northup’s literacy, to David Wilson), check out The Life of Olaudah Equiano, Prince Among Slaves; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; The History of Mary Prince; and The Barber of Natchez (a free black in 1830s Mississippi).

Perhaps it’s our knowledge of the Holocaust that makes some of us project its atrocities back onto our slavery era. I don’t know. But for now, let’s keep the two separate and not make too many generalizations about universal human behavior. Truth is the best antidote to propaganda, however well-intentioned.


Editor's Note: Review of “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’” by Zora Neale Hurston. Amistad, 2018, 171 pages.



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Joker: Nothing But Scary PR?

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In 1960 Alfred Hitchcock created a trailer for Psycho unlike any other. Instead of editing together a composite of actual scenes from the movie, he took audiences on a six-minute tour of the Bates Motel and mansion, telling them where certain murders would take place — including the famous “ba-a-a-athroom” — without revealing who would be killed, or by whom. He also warned audiences that they would not be admitted to the theater after the film had begun, a revolutionary concept in an era when it was common to enter a theater whenever you happened to arrive and then stay through until it had looped back to your personal starting point — when you would get up and leave, often uttering the phrase, “This is where I came in.” Some theaters took Hitch’s kitschy trailer one step further, assuring audiences that medical personnel would be on the premises to treat the fainthearted.

I was reminded of this innovative marketing plan during the week before Joker opened, when somber-faced newscasters offered advice to those who planned to see it: “Look around for people who might be in the theater alone”; “Have a plan if the theater is attacked”; and “Always know where two exits are located.” Despite their somber faces I had to wonder — what’s their motive here? Was it just helpful advice? Or was there more? Did I detect a tinge of hope that a big news story was on the horizon, a shooting of hurricane proportions? Or was the hype part of the marketing scheme, focused more on helping the advertisers than the viewers? Certainly I sensed a bit of hypocrisy from an industry that calls for gun control in its political posturing while producing films full of violence.

It’s the sympathetic victimization of the Joker that troubles most fans and many critics, yet it’s what makes the character so fascinating.

The news hype led me to wonder whether I should risk the copycats and wannabes who might be goaded into taking a gun into a packed theater. Did I feel lucky? Well did I, punk? I also expected a film full of torture and gore, based on the warnings, which made me wary. In addition, fans carped about the audacity of creating a sympathetic backstory for Batman’s most famous nemesis, a psychologically twisted character steeped in pure evil. Meanwhile, the New York Times wondered in its review what all the fuss was about. I decide to find out for myself.

It’s a terrific movie, and would be so whether or not it was a backstory for a Batman character; the Batman references that weave in and out of the story are surprising and satisfying but not necessary. The movie could stand on its own as a film tracing the dark psychological journey of a man struggling to find happiness and acceptance while dealing with psychiatric issues stemming from a tortured childhood. It’s the sympathetic victimization of the Joker that troubles most fans and many critics, yet it’s what makes the character so fascinating. In his journal the Joker writes, “The worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” That’s probably true, and most of us are guilty of having had that expectation.

The film is set in 1970s Manhattan — er, I mean Gotham — when Times Square was home to derelicts, gangs, and XXX peepshows. A Guiliani-esque voice excoriating the filth and promising to clean it up is heard on the radio as the film opens. Little does he know the filth that is building up in one of his citizens.

When it does happen, the onscreen violence is shockingly quick and bloody, but not gruesome.

Before becoming the Joker, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a wannabe comedian who works as a clown-for-hire, writes potential jokes in the journal his psychiatrist has prescribed as therapy, and lives with his mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy) — dotes on her, really. He washes her hair while she’s taking a bath, smiles when she tells him to “put on a happy face,” and crawls into bed with her to watch “The Murray Franklin Show” –a program starring Robert De Niro and based not-so-loosely on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” The distinctive Ed McMahon chuckle of Murray’s sidekick on the couch is a subtle contrast to Arthur’s uncontrollable stress-induced laughter, a malady akin to Tourette’s Syndrome. In a later scene he curls up beside his mother’s pillow à la “A Rose for Emily” (a scene also alluded to in the Psycho trailer). Something is not quite right in the Fleck home. The Psycho connection I noted before seeing the movie turns out to be fairly apt, and not just for the marketing scheme. A bit of Marnie enters into this story as well.

Less bloody than any Tarantino flick, Joker has a way of creating suspense that is more akin to Hitchcock than to a slasher or gangster film. In fact, much of the killing takes place off screen, leaving the viewer to wonder what actually happened in an eerie, “surely he didn’t . . . ?” kind of hopefulness. The soundtrack, heavy on deep bass bowing and street percussion, and the lighting, full of flickering shadows, is also reminiscent of Hitchcock’s style. When it does happen, the onscreen violence is shockingly quick and bloody, but not gruesome. Very crazy, and very effective.

What makes this film work is its star. Joaquin Phoenix reaches deep into the quirks and self-deceptions of a man both victimized and victimizer, a man who laughs because he’s crying. He deliberately avoided portraying the symptoms of any single disability because he didn’t want audiences to smugly diagnose the Joker and thus think they understand him. Phoenix said in an interview, “I was never certain what was motivating him. I have my own opinion. I think I know what it is for me. But I wouldn't want to impose on anyone who hasn't seen the movie." This makes his character utterly unpredictable and devastatingly dangerous.

Artie’s killing sprees are often followed by an oddly erotic celebratory dance made more macabre by Phoenix’s 52-pound weight loss to prepare for the role. Phoenix said of his extreme dieting, “What I didn't anticipate was this feeling of kind of fluidity that I felt physically. I felt like I could move my body in ways that I hadn't been able to before. And I think that really lent itself to some of the physical movement that started to emerge as an important part of the character." That fluidity of motion extends to a fluidity of character, moving between pathos and demonic psychosis.

Should we empathize with a school shooter, if we discover that he had a tortured youth? Does victimhood give the criminal a pass?

So what is Joker’s own backstory? I won’t reveal too much, but I will say that a couple of moments made me gasp with surprise. Like many kids with tortured backgrounds, Artie is isolated, lonely, and frustrated. He’s picked on, bullied, beaten, and laughed at. His dream of becoming a standup comedian is thwarted by his handicap of uncontrollable laughter that worsens with the adrenaline that comes from facing an audience.

Moreover, his therapist is pretty useless. She provides pills when he asks for them and recommends he keep a journal. She asks him questions, but seems not to listen to the answers. He wants help, but he isn’t getting much of it. And what little he is getting comes to an end when funding is cut by the mayor (yes, we can blame the government for creating the Joker). This too feels like a warning about the dangers lurking in school hallways today, where troubled kids are allowed to fester without help until they erupt with a cascade of gunfire. Zazie Beetz, who plays Artie’s love interest, rejected the idea of the Joker as a sympathetic character but told an interviewer, “It’s kind of an empathy toward isolation, and an empathy towards what is our duty as a society to address people who slip through the cracks in a way. There is a lot of culture of that right now. So is it empathy for that or just an observation on personalities who struggle?”

Good question. Should we empathize with a school shooter, if we discover that he had a tortured youth? Does victimhood give the criminal a pass? We are definitely made to feel sorry for Artie, and thus to understand his motivation for killing, even as we are horrified by what he does. For that matter, is it fair to see Bruce Wayne as a hero and Artie Fleck as a villain, when both are driven by a desire for justice and revenge? This is where Arthur Fleck departs from Batman’s Joker. Joker is amoral, detached, cold, and brilliant. Arthur is all emotion, his tormented laughter coming from a place of deep personal pain. The Joker is heartless; Artie is all heart. The result is a fascinating case study of a psycho.


Editor's Note: Review of "Joker," directed by Todd Phillips. Warner Brothers, 2019, 122 minutes.



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Who Will Police the Secret Police?

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The most famous remark about the American “intelligence [sic] community” was made by none other than Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer: “Let me tell you: You take on the intelligence community — they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you."

One would have expected those words to have been uttered as a challenge to the activities of the FBI, CIA, NSA, and the rest of them. One would have expected them to set all Washington atwitter about the arrogance and vindictiveness of the Men in Suits. But no such thing. The words were cynically spoken, as a rebuke to President Trump for being “dumb” enough to quarrel with the intelligencers; and they were cynically received by the general populace. The secret police are now regarded as a grim inevitability, the subject of helpless humor, like death and taxes.

The words were cynically spoken, as a rebuke to President Trump for being “dumb” enough to quarrel with the intelligencers.

If you’re in the intelligence community, this is very good news for you. You can now do whatever you please. For instance:

1. You can collude with a presidential campaign to produce false evidence against associates of a rival presidential campaign.

2. You can leak the purported evidence to the press, then use the resulting press statements to justify secret judicial proceedings, secret surveillance, the planting of spies, and the smear of “treason” against the candidate and party you covertly oppose.

3. You can arrest and imprison the people you are investigating, claiming that they lied to you.

4. When the person you oppose manages to win, you can immediately start trying to get rid of him: you can entrap him into damaging statements; you can leak truths and falsehoods promiscuously to the press; and you can lean with so much gravitas on co-dependent “investigators” that they reprimand you, at most, for being “less than candid.”

You can arrest and imprison the people you are investigating, claiming that they lied to you.

5. When you fail in your attempt to convict the duly elected president of colluding with a foreign power, you can try to convict him of colluding with another foreign power, itself the enemy of the first foreign power.

6. You can decline to investigate, and scoff at the idea of investigating, the leaders of the political party you favor whenever there is prima facie evidence that they or their associates have colluded with or intimidated foreign powers, to the vast enrichment of themselves.

7. When the president suggests to the leader of a foreign country that such apparent misdeeds be investigated, you can leak his conversation in such a way as to engineer impeachment by his political enemies, who are eager to use the force of law to ransack the private papers and conversations of him and his associates, hoping to discover additional and unrelated “crimes.”

8. You can employ every imaginable tactic of obstruction to prevent the publication of your own proceedings, declaring that national security would be irrevocably damaged if anyone but your own “community” were permitted to decide what should be known about themselves.

The much more obvious, much more urgent question is “Who the hell empowered the CIA to spy on the president and try to remove him from office?”

9. You can go on social media and try to obstruct the president and the justice system by encouraging unlimited numbers of government employees to make damaging accusations, regardless of their truth or falsehood (see for instance this, from September 28).

Those are a few examples of what you are free to do; readers can continue the list for themselves, relying on their own knowledge — because anyone who cares to read knows all these things, and more.

Yet the current subject of dispute is, “What exactly may have been the subtext of President Trump’s conversation with the president of Ukraine?”, and not the much more obvious, much more urgent question: “Who the hell empowered the CIA to spy on the president and try to remove him from office?”

There are many reasons why that second question should be important and urgent to everyone, including people who don’t like the current president. The most significant reason is the most obvious: if the secret police can do these things to the president, they can, and they will, very happily and self-righteously do them to you. The fact that this idea seems to have registered on so few people is a truly terrifying indictment of today’s political mentality.




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