The Vietnam Documentary

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Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary about Vietnam is impressive, but various people have criticized it. A number of criticisms seem valid.

One is that, with all the many interviews in the film, only a very few explored the experience of the peasants, particularly of South Vietnam, whose experience of the war was long and arduous. The film concentrated mostly on the view of soldiers–American, North Vietnamese, and South Vietnamese. One article noted that most soldiers served only for short periods, and didn’t stay in one place. Peasants, who didn’t have the luxury of moving (unless they left for a city to eke out a living in that environment), had to stay in one place and deal with soldiers of different allegiances, not to mention artillery, Agent Orange, etc. That gave a much different perspective, which arguably wasn’t represented in the movie.

Another criticism is that the broader perspective of Southeast Asia was hardly mentioned. The fall of the Cambodian government, due largely to bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail in eastern Cambodia and Laos, prompted the ascendancy of the Khmer Rouge and their genocidal behavior. And while the presence of drugs in Vietnam, and the habits many soldiers brought back to the USA was mentioned, what wasn’t was that the CIA was largely controlling the trade in heroin, the opium being grown in the Golden Triangle, where, according to a NY Times article, some Chinese warlords settled after the Communists took over mainland China. The CIA, according to this article, has been involved in the drug trade since the Korean War.

The documentary hinted that the US had financial interests in Vietnam when it showed a clip of Richard Nixon explaining the Domino Theory and mentioning Vietnam’s nearness to Malaysia, from which we obtain rubber and tin, but never really talked about any financial motives for the American side of the war. Of course those who built military bases, military equipment and armaments must have made plenty of money, but there’s the question of whether there were natural resources we wanted from the country. I don’t know what they might have been, but won’t exclude the possibility.

Most of the reason for the war seems to have been ideological: The United States didn’t want any more successful Communist countries. There’s some debate about the situation, but briefly, the Communists under Ho Chi Minh had largely taken the country over by the end of World War II and wanted to remain independent. They had been a French colony, and the French returned after the war, trying to take the country back. The United States supported them in this, even though (most notably) President Eisenhower didn’t think the war winnable, and neither did Senator John F. Kennedy, an obscure figure at that time who later became president and committed the country to a larger military presence.

A friend, critiquing my previous post, defined the dynamic of our involvement as showing small left-wing countries who weren’t doing what we wanted that we could ruin them without suffering any great damage ourselves. Of course we DID suffer damage because of the war, but nothing like what the Vietnamese (both North and South) suffered. They lost 1-3 million people, many of them civilians, suffered ecological damage from substances like Agent Orange, and continuing problems from unexploded mines and artillery shells. The war also suddenly changed traditional patterns of life, often not for the better, as peasants who were displaced to cities often had to turn to prostitution and other corrupting practices to survive. A good many children of American soldiers were born to Vietnamese women, and probably weren’t well accepted. The USA lost 58,000 soldiers compared to millions of soldiers and civilians, and no damage to our land. Our damage was moral and psychological, primarily.

That’s not to minimize the suffering of our veterans, many of whom were physically and psychologically wounded. It’s only that far fewer of them were so badly damaged than the Vietnamese. That being so, US officials could see the costs of the war as acceptable, a “win” compared to Vietnam’s situation. That may have made us more willing to invade other small countries. The most notorious of these have been Iraq and Afghanistan, but there have been many others that we ordinary citizens have heard little about.

Much of the damage suffered by the USA has been division between people who found the war horrible and immoral, and other people who thought it justified and supported it more or less uncritically. Those divisions continue, and continue to cause distrust between people of different political beliefs, and between many people and their government. Many Americans thought their government would never lie to them. Few believe that any longer.

As my friend put it, it’s not accurate to talk about our involvement in Vietnam as a mistake that was based on good intentions. Our intention was intimidation. We made our point to other small countries, and then withdrew when it no longer suited us to fight. President Nixon had promised President Thieu that we would continue to supply the South Vietnamese army, but we didn’t. That’s at least partly because Nixon had his own problems with Watergate at the time, but things might not have been greatly different if he hadn’t. We never really cared about the Vietnamese, and when the war became too inconvenient, we abandoned them.

That was a moral mistake. I think it may have been a strategic mistake too. If we had been willing to help former colonies become independent we might never have had to have a Cold War with Communist Russia and China. According to the documentary, Ho Chi Minh became a Communist because of Lenin’s writings on colonialism. The USA didn’t have to accept the role the Communists cast us in. After all, we fought a revolutionary war ourselves, and left behind our colonial past. We could have conceivably had a hegemony based on friendship instead of power, where we persuaded various countries to do what we wanted instead of all but destroying some, and more or less forcibly meddling in the internal affairs of others.

Instead, we took on the role of the foremost colonial power, previously Great Britain (though other colonizers behaved no less viciously, only on a smaller scale), and repressed any small country whose behavior we didn’t like.

At one time, much of the world looked up to us. After the past seventy years I think fewer do, and we’ve managed to make ourselves hated in much of the world. We didn’t have to do that.

 

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Explaining Hitler

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Explaining Hitler is the title of a book by Ron Rosenbaum. The cover of it shows a picture of Adolph Hitler as a two year old. It’s a reminder that he was once as innocent as any other baby. Why did he grow up to be one of the most monstrous murderers of the 20th century (though Stalin and Mao arguably killed more)? Hundreds if not thousands of books have been written trying to explain why he hated so bitterly and turned to genocide as the way to right what he believed to be wrongs. There are all kinds of different views on the matter. Some deny the Holocaust, some deny that Hitler caused it, others try to apportion the blame. The book tries to take an objective look at the variety of views, none of which has been accepted as definitive. Probably none can be.

Hitler was strange. Pretty much everyone agrees on that. His strangeness may have been part of his appeal, which seems to have been pretty overwhelming, not only during his lifetime, but still. Why else would so many people continue to write about him and argue about the validity of their views? Why else would some continue to idolize him?

Part of his strangeness is his background. His paternal grandmother had a baby at age 42 without any husband, and she didn’t volunteer a name for the father. She was a maid, and rumor had it she’d worked for a Jewish family and been impregnated by the son of her employer (who would have been twenty or more years younger). But there wasn’t any such Jewish family in the area. Jews had been forbidden to live in that part of Austria, though some traders may have traveled there.

Some years later she married a man named Hiedler. He might have been the father of her baby, whom she named Alois. Alois eventually changed his name from Schiklgruber to Hitler (a slight spelling change from Hiedler), but waited until he was forty to do so. Why wait so long, and why change it at all?

Maybe he thought Hitler sounded better, and didn’t suggest the isolated area around Döllersheim in eastern Austria that he came from, which seems to have been inhabited by the Austrian equivalent of poor white trash. Interestingly, after Hitler united Austria and Germany the area of Döllersheim was used for artillery practice, effectively destroying the church in which the birth of Hitler’s father was registered. We don’t know if Hitler personally ordered this, but he may have. Hitler is also quoted as saying to a nephew who was trying to get money from him after he attained power in Germany that, “No one can know where I come from”. What was he trying to hide? Possible Jewish blood? Or something else?

Another aspect of his strangeness was that just as his paternal grandmother had supposedly worked as a maid, his mother (who was related to his father) had served his father as a maid while Alois’ first wife was dying, and had become sexually involved with him then, marrying him several years later. She supposedly always called him “Uncle”.

Adolph Hitler became sexually involved with his own niece, who was working for him as a maid, making it three generations of that pattern. After he became prosperous in the mid-1920s he hired his half-sister and niece to keep his Munich apartment clean. After he acquired the Berghof on a nearby mountain he had his half-sister stay there while his niece stayed with him in Munich. It was potentially catastrophic when she was discovered shot to death in her room in the apartment. No one knows exactly what happened. Hitler may have shot her, he may have told someone else to do it, or she may have shot herself. But her body having been found in his apartment made sexual and murder scandal quite likely. The incident was successfully covered up, but just why the young woman died has been a matter of debate since.

We know that Hitler was jealous of her, didn’t like her going out, and that they’d argued about her desire to go to Vienna. Whether that was enough to prompt the death is debatable. One suggestion that later emerged was that Hitler practiced a sexual perversion in which he had Geli squat naked above him and urinate (or possibly defecate). We don’t know if that is true either, and Rosenbaum sees the suggestion as a way of seeing Hitler as so completely strange that he was unrelated to ordinary people. None of us could possibly have done what he did because we ordinary people aren’t perverted. The allegation rests on the word of Otto Strasser, whose brother had been murdered by Hitler, so there’s reason for doubt. Whether or not the alleged perversion affected Geli so strongly that she committed suicide, most of the other women he got involved with attempted suicide. Because of him? Or because he was attracted to women prone to suicide attempts?

Psychohistorian Robert Waite sees Hitler’s relationship with his niece, as well as his having only one testicle (“Hitler had only one left ball…”),  as basis for diagnosing him as a borderline personality, the sort of person who does dangerous and dramatic things. The diagnosis may or may not have been accurate, but Waite thinks the missing testicle is very significant, and we don’t know if it’s true. One doctor who examined him said he was normal in that respect.

It’s true that, as Waite pointed out,  Hitler didn’t always seem to want to win the war he later started: he could have destroyed the British army at Dunkirk, but halted his troops for two or three days instead. And after Pearl Harbor he declared war on the United States, committing himself to a two-front war that he had vowed to avoid and excusing Franklin Roosevelt from having to persuade the USA to go to war against Germany. Not only that, but he rerouted trains that should have taken supplies to the Eastern Front to deliver Jews to the death camps instead.That’s not enough to make Hitler a madman, exactly, though. Hubris may be enough to explain that and his behavior when the Russians began getting the better of his troops, and he refused to let them retreat.

But questions remain, and are hard to answer. Was Hitler sincere in his desire to kill the Jews, or was he just an opportunist? Did he believe killing them was right to do? If he did, why is he quoted in the book recording his table talk during the war as commenting (to Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler) on the “rumors” about exterminating the Jews, when they were “merely parking them in swamps”, though they deserved to be exterminated?

And whether he was sincere or not, what caused him to want to do that? Was it simply that Jews (and others) cost too much to feed? Did he do it because he was a sexual pervert? Or was it (as has been suggested) that a billy goat took a bite out of his penis? That  a Jewish doctor took care of his mother during her fatal illness? Or that he caught syphilis from a Jewish prostitute?

Let’s consider some of the different interpretations of what he did.

Perhaps the earliest attempt to understand Hitler was by reporters of the Munich Post, which early decided he was bad news and tracked his behavior and that of his party members. Not just the street violence by the SA, Hitler’s private army, which often enough resulted in injuries and deaths, but the question of Hitler’s ability to live a comfortable lifestyle without visible means of support, and the sexual improprieties of some of his followers, including Ernst Röhm, head of the SA, who was notoriously homosexual.

They also covered the death of Geli Rabaul and the political murders the Nazis began committing in the last two years before Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. As determined as they were, and as assiduously as they documented Hitler’s crimes, not enough people paid attention. Once he achieved power the paper was shut down and any of the reporters who were unable to leave the country in time were sent to concentration camps or murdered.

Fritz Gerlich was another journalist who did the same. He had been a rightwing nationalist like Hitler, and might have supported him, but when Hitler asked him for support, he asked Hitler to promise not to mistreat von Kahr, the politician he supported and not to try a putsch. Hitler promised, then did attempt a putsch (sudden revolution) and arrested von Kahr during the course of it. Gerlich could never trust Hitler again. He started his own paper, but he and the Munich Post both denounced Hitler as a counterfeiter who lied about what he wanted, who he was, and especially about the myth that Germany had only lost the First World War because it was stabbed in the back by politicians and financiers, which meant JEWISH politicians and financiers. This was more comfortable to believe than that Germany had lost the war.

Gerlich in particular was able to get under Hitler’s skin. In a piece he published in 1932 he analyzed Hitler’s nose according to the racial characteristics that Hitler endorsed, saying that it wasn’t a Nordic nose, but looked much more Mongolian, and Mongolian mixed with other races. This was a way of pointing out that Hitler looked very little like his supposed blonde- haired blue eyed Aryan ideal.

The racist stereotypes that Hitler supported also stated that real Aryans loved freedom and thought for themselves. This obviously contradicted what the Nazis were advocating, that Germans selflessly dedicate themselves to following their Fuhrer’s direction, and Gerlich commented that this too was, according to racist views, much more Mongolian than Aryan.

Just two years later a book was published in Germany lauding Genghis Khan for being willing to commit mass murder in building a state, the largest continental empire ever known. Hitler may or may not have read this book, but he absorbed the ideas from somewhere, because he gave his SS troops a pep talk just before the invasion of Poland, urging them to kill without mercy in order to secure the “living room” (lebensraum) that Germany needed. He told them to be like the Mongols because Stalin’s Mongols would have no mercy on them if they lost. Gerlich was somehow able to intuit what Hitler was thinking, and he was soon killed by the Nazis for his insight.

The problem with any one interpretation of Hitler is that there is almost always evidence to contradict it. During World War II the Allies compiled as much information about him as they could, and one part of it purports to be information proving Hitler never had sex, while another part says he had too much of it. Both can’t be true–maybe neither are.

Rosenbaum says there are a number of legends of evidence hidden, sometimes in Switzerland, sometimes known to one person who died or was killed before being able to tell it. One is the story that Fritz Gerlich managed to publish a pamphlet accusing Hitler of murdering Geli Rabaul. If it ever existed, it hasn’t come to light. Another says that the doctor who treated Hitler for hysterical blindness at Pasewalk at the very end of World War I deposited his case history in a bank in Switzerland, but entrusted no one with the information of how to retrieve it. Did this happen? Is the information still there?

Rosenbaum also mentions a story in the Hearst newspapers using Alois Hitler Jr as a source. In it, Alois says he’s the son of a cousin of Hitler’s father, when actually he’s Hitler’s older half-brother of the same father. Rosenbaum points to this as the kind of petty criminal outlook characterizing the Hitler family. Hitler was always very concerned about his image, and protecting it. We’re unlikely to find any more previously unknown evidence, and it’s questionable that any one thing could explain his actions anyway.

Since the war there have been further interpretations made. One interpreter, David Irving, lived in England during the war, and didn’t find information given by the Allies persuasive. He came to believe that, because no order signed by Hitler authorizing the Holocaust had been found, that it had all been the work of his underlings–until he came across papers written by Adolph Eichmann after the war referring to that order being received by Himmler. Rosenbaum reports that Irving says he thought, “Oops, how do I explain THIS away?”

He managed to find a way. He managed to meet a number of old Nazis, whom he respected for their intelligence and accomplishments, and their views of Hitler influenced him.

Perhaps the most important of these was Christa Schroeder, who had been Hitler’s secretary. Rosenbaum recounts a story he says rang true to him that Schroeder told Irving.

During the Night of Long Knives in 1934 Hitler purged the Nazi party, primarily of Ernst Röhm, who may have wanted authority over the German army, or parts of it, and whom the army cordially detested. Hitler also had other enemies and dissidents murdered at the time.

Christa Schroeder accompanied him to the SA barracks in Bavaria, where he arrested Röhm and other SA leaders. Afterwards they flew back to Berlin, where Schroeder got something to eat, and Hitler disappeared. When she saw him again he told her he had just had a shower and was now as clean (probably meaning as innocent) as a baby.

Franz Kafka, the famous writer, has often been credited with predicting the sinister bureaucracy the Nazis employed, writing stories like “In the Penal Colony” and The Trial. Perhaps amusingly, an American GI in 1946 visited Hitler’s Munich apartment in which Geli Rabaul had died, and found a lawyer named Kafka living there.

But there are deeper connections than that. Dr. Eduard Bloch, who cared for Hitler’s mother during her terminal illness of breast cancer, used iodoform  to pack her wound. Rudolph Binion argued that Bloch had used too much iodoform, causing Klara Hitler great pain without any good effect. Hitler later compared the Jews to “abscesses” on the body of the nation, which played into his fantasy of himself as “Dr. Hitler” purifying the German people.

Of course this is another one- explanation theory, which makes it dubious, as does Hitler’s documented gratitude to Dr. Bloch. But yet another Kafka enters the story, a nephew of Dr. Bloch, who deeply loved and respected him, and resented Binion’s theory, saying there’s no way any one Jew was responsible for the Holocaust. He, another respected scholar, followed Binion around and heckled him wherever he spoke, and said he would never stop.

Claud Lanzmann, who created the 9 1/2 hour documentary Shoah. took a different approach, from a concentration camp guard who reportedly told a prisoner, “There is no why here.” His rationale seems to have been that trying to understand such horror inevitably leads one to excusing it, which is at least a questionable idea, and which led Lanzmann to attack anyone who disobeyed that commandment and others, even survivors of the death camps. While there is some virtue in denying that understanding all inevitably means forgiving all, Lanzmann himself apparently behaved as tyrannically as the Nazis in denying others the right to their opinions.

One of the people he attacked was Dr. Louis Micheels, himself a survivor of the camps, who insisted, there MUST be a why. He and his fiance had been sent to the camps, where they were separated. Both survived, but didn’t marry each other. They stayed in touch, though, and in the 80s she appeared in a Dutch documentary about the period. Also appearing was a Dr. Munch, who had refused to be a “selector” choosing which Jews would immediately perish when they arrived at the camp (Auschwitz, in this case). He was the only one of the Nazi doctors to be acquitted in a war crimes trial, at least partly because many survivors were grateful to him, even though he hadn’t resisted the brutal system in other ways. Though Micheels thought the film was flawed, he also thought it raised important questions, and invited Lanzmann to see and discuss it. Lanzmann accepted the invitation, then denounced the movie and Micheels for “revisionism”, which apparently means Micheels was trying to excuse the Nazi crimes. Rather unlikely for an Auschwitz survivor.

One possibly valid question is how the Jews could still believe in God after the Holocaust. If the Jews were still the Chosen People, how could God have refrained from intervening. Dr. Yehuda Bauer says that God can’t possibly be all-powerful and just too; if he’s all-powerful, he’s Satan; if he’s just, he must want to intervene, but not be powerful enough to make a difference. Of course there are still Jewish believers, whether or not they’ve thought the issue through as thoroughly as Bauer. Or are we (the whole world, rather than just the Jewish world) supposed to take the Holocaust as a moral lesson for which we should be grateful? Thus, the question is less whether God is dead than whether he has responsibility for, or complicity in, Hitler’s “radical evil”, a more satisfying formulation than his being, or the Holocaust’s being, the product of blind forces no human can withstand. As one commentator put it,, “No Hitler, no Holocaust.” That does seem to be valid.

Emil Fackenheim was struck by the idea expressed by some people he met that we all have a “Hitler within”, an idea he strongly disagreed with. He saw Hitler’s evil as so radical that it couldn’t be found in ordinary human nature. For this reason, he didn’t speak about Hitler or the Nazis for twenty years, until the Six Day War in 1967 between Israel and a coalition of Arab States. He feared a second Holocaust, and decided he must say SOMETHING. He decided he needed to add to the 613 rules of worship and behavior of Orthodox Judaism, so he added: “Jews are forbidden to allow posthumous victories to Hitler.”

He, like Lanzmann, saw a danger in explanations of Hitler. Too much empathy could lead to excusing him. So he recommended use of empathy to understand Hitler, but a resistance to any temptation to explain away his evil. So not allowing Hitler posthumous victories means not only opposing anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism, but not refusing to believe in God anymore because of the Holocaust, when one could hardly be blamed for believing that God had failed to hold up his end of the bargain.

George Steiner, the novelist, wrote a novel entitled, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. This has Hitler escaping Germany to South America, being tracked down and forced to defend himself at a trial conducted in the wild. According to Rosenbaum, even some of Steiner’s supporters believe that he let A.H. get away from him, and Steiner had to wonder himself after seeing his character in a dramatization of his novel, and hearing him applauded.

Steiner said that he had already known he had to be careful with the Hitler character, and had vowed not to let his work be translated into Hebrew or German. The Word is very powerful, and can be very destructive. One of Steiner’s earliest memories was of the voice of Hitler on the radio, and of having to flee. His family made it safely to America (on the last ship from Genoa), and as he grew up his father’s dream for him was to return to Europe because if he didn’t, Hitler would have won a victory. Europe would be Judenrein (Jew-free). His father felt the same as Fackenheim.

Steiner became fascinated with Hitler. He knew Hitler and the philosopher Wittgenstein had both gone to secondary school in Linz, and must have at least seen each other in passing, as there was only two year’s difference in their ages. He thought that when Hitler was in Vienna he must also have passed people like Freud and Mahler on the street, and asked that as many photos of the period as possible be searched to see if they could be found together. He mentions that Karl Kraus, a very popular literary satirist in Vienna in 1909 said, “Soon in Europe they will make gloves of human skin.” He sees Franz Kafka too as having either conjured up the concentration camp world, or intuited its coming. The fascination of the best and worst aspects of European civilization existing together, some of them in the same city where they could potentially interact as individuals, and be inseparable. The highest and lowest intermingled.

There’s a photo of Hitler in 1919 standing on a street corner in pouring rain, unnoticed by anyone. As each year progresses he’s noticed by more and more people, which Steiner ascribes to the power of his words, which he compares to Martin Luther’s. This was the proximate inspiration of the novel, part of which wrote itself as he sat down to it.

The climax of the novel is when Hitler is being tried in the jungle when the people who tracked him down are unable to bring him back to civilization. At the end of the trial he speaks, saying that his mission had been to eradicate the people who had brought the idea of conscience into the world which, and whose religion had engendered Christianity and Islam, which had crippled the world with unnecessary suffering. A kind of reprise to Dostoievsky’s Grand Inquisitor. The idea that the religious ideas of the Jews had asked too much of humanity, and had a malignant effect on them. He compares what the Nazis did to what had been done earlier by the Belgians in the Congo, the concentration camps invented in the Boer war in South Africa, and the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. “We were not the worst,” he says. He adds that in a sense he is savior of the Jews because his war on them made it possible to return to Palestine and found the state of Israel.

Did Steiner somehow reveal Hitler’s actual thoughts? Are the thoughts and words attributed to him in the novel so potent that they can convert others into anti-Semitism and what goes with it? Steiner didn’t think so. He thought they were questions that needed to be answered, perhaps first and foremost by Jews. Rosenbaum asked him if the Jews shouldn’t have conceptualized self-transcendence. Should they have apologized for it?

Steiner answers, no. That they would have done better to demand it more of themselves than of other people (which certainly applies to Christians and others as well), but that it would indeed be a very good thing if humans learned to love each other as themselves. Some do, some have, but these are rare. And humans hate being told they must be better. They are likely to hate anyone who tells them that, especially if the teller isn’t clearly better themselves.

This seems a sophisticated way of blaming the victim. However, Steiner goes even further. He believes the Jews as victims were the occasion for lowering the bar of humanity, showing just how bestial humans could be, and that the difference between the Holocaust and previous massacres was ontological: Jews were murdered not because of what they had done, but because they existed. Those who performed this obscenity became worse than beasts. In his willingness to look at the implications of the Hitler of his novel, and what his Hitler says, Steiner is playing with fire, says Rosenbaum. The obscenity that was applied to the Jews can also be applied to any other group.

Other voices shift the blame elsewhere. Daniel Goldhagen blames the German people as a whole for accepting the propaganda of the anti-Semitic press of the late 19th and early 20th century, and being all to willing to murder Jews when they were asked to. This assertion is answered by George Steiner, who says that the Germans may have been the LEAST anti-Semitic of the European countries. Had the Holocaust started in France, he says, it could have been much worse. Also worse seem to have been Austria and eastern European countries. It’s possible to see the passivity with which the Jews refused to fight back in Germany as a love for the country that had allowed them to assimilate and achieve. Anti-Semitic as it may have been, it was better than other countries. All of which is not to absolve Germans or anyone else of the Holocaust.

Hyum Maccoby blames Christianity, and with some reason. Blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus begins in the New Testament and continues for almost 2,000 years. Once Christians achieved political power in the 4th century CE they began persecuting other Christians for heresy, pagans, and (of course) Jews. Persecution was relatively mild at first, but one landmark of change was at the beginning of the First Crusade when the collected crusaders decided to massacre the local Jews.

From then on persecution became more severe. Jews were expelled from England. They were forcibly converted in Spain, children being kidnapped from their parents to be brought up Christian, parents sometime killing their children to prevent it. Eventually some willingly converted, but then practiced rituals of Judaism at home. When this was discovered it set off the Spanish Inquisition in a burst of paranoia, which led to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain too, where they had lived peaceably with Christians and Muslims for much of the previous 700 years. The next step was putting them in ghettos. Some eventually left the ghettos and tried to assimilate, but were still resented. Hitler, at least in some respects, was the culmination of all this history.

And the ostensible cause is darkly ironic. We celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus, the appointed sacrifice, then blame the Jews for doing the dirty work from which we all supposedly benefit. On top of that, the more you hate Jews  the more you are saved yourself because you can’t be implicated in the crime of killing Jesus. Just as hating Jews means you couldn’t possibly be one.

Rosenbaum recalls medieval “debates” in which a Christian would debate a Jew as to which religion has the truth. Of course the debates were fixed. Christians had to win. The best Jews could do was try to maintain their dignity in a discussion they had no interest in.

Maccoby sees St Paul as perhaps the originator of Christian anti-Semitism since he purged early Christianity of Jewish law, converting gentiles and telling them they didn’t need to be circumcised  or follow the dietary laws. When the gospels were written (somewhat later than Paul’s epistles to the churches he founded) the story of Judas became prominent as the archetype of betrayal, and considered by many to be the archetypal Jew. What many fail to consider is that Jesus must have been a singularly poor judge of character to make Judas a disciple in the first place, if Judas actually was as portrayed. But this portrayal of Judas and the Jews for 1800 years made the Holocaust possible. Maccoby thinks Christianity would be (and would have been) better served by concentrating on Jesus’s life rather than his death.

There’s yet another interpretation of Hitler and what he did, a “mystical” one. In The Spear of Destiny Trevor Ravenscroft said that Hitler, during his sojourn in Vienna as a young man, had found ways to expand his consciousness and had found a spear which had belonged to one of the Holy Roman emperors in a museum, where he was observed by another young man, a student of the occultist Rudolf Steiner, who saw how much he coveted the spear.

Ravenscroft’s thesis, which I don’t assert the truth of, but which fascinated me when I encountered his book more than forty years ago, was that the spear was the one which had been thrust into the side of Jesus when he was on the cross. Jesus’s blood had made the spear a formidable magical implement, so that anyone who possessed the spear would make history on the world stage.

One possessor of the spear was the emperor Constantine, who made Christianity legal in the Roman empire, giving it political power which eventually made it the national religion and banished paganism. Another was Frederick Barbarossa, one of the outstanding Holy Roman emperors. Hitler wanted it too. But in his process of expanding his consciousness he took mescaline, which Ravenscroft interpreted as black magic, especially when used for the purpose of accumulating political power. In doing so he allowed the spirit of the AntiChrist to possess him, which seems a cogent explanation of his behavior–if you can believe in the AntiChrist. It’s not hard to think of his behavior as figuratively demonic, though I think Ravenscroft belives it to be LITERALLY so.  I neither include nor exclude this possibility.

The final view the book deals with is that of Lucy S. Dawidowicz, who doesn’t see Hitler as ever being hesitant about the Holocaust, but cunningly making it seem as if he was. She sees him as an actor, but not as an actor who is merely an opportunist, but an actor who creates a persona that affords him deniability. She sees him doing this through “esoteric” language that his inner circle would understand, but others would not. He is a criminal not only in small ways, but on a grand scale, and protects himself with a counterfeit persona which seems still to convince some today.

She comes to this conclusion from what he says in Mein Kampf  about being in the sanitarium in Pasewalk, where he was treated after being gassed and apparently suffering a case of hysterical blindness, perhaps brought on by the news of Germany’s surrender to the Allies after a naval rebellion and a revolution had forced the abdication of the emperor. She quotes him as saying, “There is no making pacts with Jews; there can only be the hard either-or.” 

This is when Dawidowicz believes he made the decision, though she adds that he may have made it as late as 1924 when he was writing Mein Kampf. She also thinks he decided to conceal his ambition from all but his inner circle. Extermination on such a scale isn’t a goal to advertise. If she’s correct, he concealed his goal very well. Most historians think he gradually became more radical in what he was willing to do as he acquired more power, so that he didn’t REALLY decide on extermination until 1941 when that became more convenient than continuing to feed them. That’s probably a good model for the murders committed by Stalin and Mao: they were willing to commit them, but murder wasn’t their goal from the beginning.

Hitler did make remarks about hanging Jews from every lamp post, or that having gassed thousands of them in 1918 might have prevented German defeat, but most people didn’t take that too seriously. Dawidowicz points out that just after the war Hitler was still attached to the military, who liked what he was saying, but didn’t want him speaking too plainly. So he used code words: “usurers”, “profiteers’, “exploiters”, all descriptions that had been applied to the Jews before.

As Rosenbaum says, Dawidowicz doesn’t have solid proof that Hitler had decided what he was going to do so early, but neither can anyone else prove that he hadn’t. Hitler is quoted in a speech from 1937 to a Nazi party group in which he says that everyone knows their goal, but that he will do whatever he can to maneuver the enemy into a corner from which he can’t fight back.

She gives several indications of how he concealed his direction of events. He gave no order for Kristallnacht, the nationwide pogrom against the Jews in 1938, but when Himmler tried to get Goebbels to stop instigating the violence, Hitler prevented him.

In January 1939 Hitler made a speech saying that if the Jews started a war it would be their destruction. In September 1939 he spoke declaring war on Poland. This speech stands out because it was one in which he never mentioned Jews. But no less than four times in the next three years he referred to the September speech as the one in which he had threatened the Jews. Dawidowicz takes this as meaning that extermination was the REAL reason for starting the war, and that Hitler “slipped” in thinking he had threatened the Jews in September rather than January.

And she says the threat is also linked with laughter. In several speeches Hitler says the Jews have laughed at him, but that they are laughing no longer. It’s pretty hard to imagine Jews laughing at him in the late 1930s, let alone the 40s. The laughter is really Hitler’s. The extermination of Jewish laughter is the extermination of Jews.

Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper believed that Hitler was “convinced of his own rectitude”. That he was doing something right and appropriate, but that doesn’t fit this kind of laughter. This laughter is, as Rosenbaum puts it, from someone who RELISHES what he’s doing, and the illicit nature of it. While he liked to picture himself as Dr. Hitler destroying a life-threatening infection, he was enjoying what he did in a way that actual doctors don’t. Killing bacteria isn’t something they take personally. Killing Jews was something Hitler DID take personally.

According to Milton Himmelfarb, abstract historic forces didn’t compel Hitler to kill Jews: he did it because he wanted to, and perhaps he saw what he did as an ironic form of art, like the motto at the entrance to the death camps: Arbeit Macht Frei. Work makes freedom. A last good joke on the Jews before they died. Perhaps, Rosenbaum suggests, it’s easier for us to believe that Hitler was some kind of freak, insane or perverted, an opportunist who believed in nothing, and only killed Jews because it was convenient. Instead, this picture is of Hitler who knows his own malignance and delights in it.

Emil Fackenheim called Hitler “an eruption of demonism into history”. That could be seen as justifying the idea that he was possessed by the spirit of the Antichrist. Doesn’t that explain his actions as well as anything? Of course there have been mass murderers in the past, and Stalin was already responsible for the death of millions by the time Hitler came to power. Can we explain either of them by any abuse they suffered as children? Or did they simply have a predilection for evil and a genius for getting into position to exercise it?

But it does seem better to say Hitler was as consciously evil as it’s possible for a human to be, and not liberate his memory from responsibility for what he did and caused. That would be, as Fackenheim said, allowing Hitler a posthumous victory.

Atlantis

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We got the story of Atlantis first from Plato, who got it from his ancestor, Solon, who got it from the Egyptians. Now mainstream historians and archaeologists don’t believe it existed. Joseph Campbell was quoted as saying there hadn’t been enough time for humans to develop a high civilization earlier than the Sumerians, Egyptians, and Indians, but that’s not accurate.

We’re now aware that our kind of human being has been around for at least 100,000 years, maybe 200,000, or even longer. Considering that the history we know much about (beginning mostly with writing) is only five to six thousand years, that leaves plenty of time for a high civilization to develop. Why don’t we see traces of these civilizations? Maybe we do. Graham Hancock has spent more than twenty years writing about the evidence for a previous high civilization, most recently in Magicians of the Gods. 

There are many megalithic monuments around the world. In most cases we have only vague ideas when they were built, and how is a complete mystery, though archaeologists (in some cases) think they know. The most obvious examples are the Great Pyramid and the Great Sphinx, though there are many more.

The above two are probably the most famous monuments in the world. We, with modern technology, might be able to duplicate the Sphinx, but it would take a major effort. as it’s 260 feet long and 65 feet high, and carved out of bedrock. Few people nowadays would be willing to make that kind of investment.

The Great Pyramid is not only immense, but mysterious. The first mystery is how it was built. It has well over a million stone blocks in it, most of them weighing at least a ton, some well over a ton. The ceiling of the King’s Chamber is roofed with slabs of about 70 tons apiece. How would you, first of all, cut the stones very precisely, then move them, and finally place them with extreme precision? Precision is one of the other mysteries of the pyramid, but far from the last.

The timeline of civilization says that agriculture began around 8,000 BC, and towns were necessarily built, since people would have to stay in one place to farm. That makes a place like Göbeckli Tepe particularly mysterious.

It’s a site in southern Turkey, the beginning of which has been dated to about 9600 BC, making it the oldest known megalithic monument in the world (with one possible exception). It seems to have been used for more than a thousand years, then covered up. That it was covered is convenient for archaeologists because it means that the organic material covered can be accurately dated. It must be from when each area was covered, rather than from when it was built, which means the structures could be much older, but these are certainly old enough.

And it’s IMMENSE! The archaeologist interviewed by Graham Hancock five years ago said that after eighteen years of continuous excavating much more is still buried than has been uncovered.

Making it even more mysterious, the builders seem to have been hunter-gatherers. How did they acquire the skills, when they had to spend most of their time acquiring food in order to survive? Besides, the best workmanship so far uncovered is also the oldest. What does that mean?

That’s a parallel with ancient Egypt, which had few pyramids built before the Great Pyramid, but nonetheless created it as a masterpiece of architecture; then, within a few hundred years, apparently forgot how pyramids are built. Those built in the late third millenium BC are ruins. For a monument 4500 years old, the Great Pyramid is in pretty good shape. Why would the oldest Egyptian monuments so exceed more recent ones? The obvious hypothesis is that they had learned from a predecessor civilization, rather than developing the necessary techniques themselves.

Even older is the Great Sphinx. About 25 years ago it was studied by geologist Robert Schoch, who determined the erosion of its body was from rain, and lots of it, not wind. It seems that the last time there was lots of rain in Egypt was about 5,000 BC, so Schoch decided it couldn’t have been built any later, which means it might have been built much earlier. But according to the commonly accepted historical timeline, there were no high civilizations that could have built anything like it or Göbekli Tepe anything like as early.

There are some four hundred legends of the Great Flood around the world, including in the Americas, where legends from the Middle East are unlikely to have reached. The Flood was universally believed to have occurred by Europeans until about two hundred years ago when Enlightenment thinkers reacted against the Bible and the idea of the supernatural. Ice ages were conceived of partly as a way to account for things like boulders found in geological areas they weren’t related to. But an ice age doesn’t preclude a Great Flood, or vice versa. The first could have led to the latter. And a supernatural cause isn’t necessary either.

But a Great Flood, or equivalent calamity could explain why we don’t know about civilizations predating Sumeria, India, and Egypt. Written documents from before the calamity haven’t survived–or haven’t been found yet, though one of the Assyrian kings claimed to have a library of books from before the flood, which he claimed to be able to read, which apparently since have been lost –so our information about it is only legendary.

But legends, especially widespread ones, usually have some truth to them. If such a catastrophe had happened, what would a high civilization do, especially if it saw it coming? It would probably try to preserve as much of its knowledge and wisdom as it could. How would it do that? One way would be to teach the skills of civilization to other humans. According to widespread legends, that’s precisely what happened.

One legend is about a being named Oannes who wore a fish suit, but had human feet and, after teaching skills of civilization all day to humans of what is now southern Iraq, retreated to the sea for the night.

Another group were the Seven Apkallus in the northern Middle East, who are depicted as looking like part men and part bird.

A third was Osiris, who taught the ancient Egyptians, then is said to have traveled around the rest of the world to teach others.

A fourth was Quetzelcoatl in Mexico, who arrived from the eastern sea with a group of other teachers, but ran into a hostile god who apparently objected to his trying to end human sacrifice in the region.

Yet another was Viracocha in the Andes in South America. Interestingly, both Viracocha and Quetzelcoatl are depicted as WHITE men with full beards, unlike the natives of both regions, who were and still are dark skinned. Their whiteness may help explain how the Spanish were so easily able to take over the Aztec and Incan empires: they looked like the revered legendary gods. By the time the natives found out they weren’t, it was too late.

Not only does this ancient culture seem to have sent out missionaries of a sort, but Hancock suggests that monuments like Göbekli Tepe and the Great Pyramid were built as time capsules to prevent antediluvian knowledge and wisdom from being lost. The catch is that a civilization must have attained a high level of knowledge to access what’s in these time capsules. We seem to only now be getting there.

Another way to preserve knowledge is orally. There are also numerous legends of spiritual teachers whose traditions go back thousands of years. Could these traditions have been begun by a civilization (or more than one)  both spiritually and technologically advanced?

Hancock notes that there are things about the statues found at Göbekli Tepe that remind him of ancient statuary he’s seen elsewhere in the world. These statues seem to be part human, part animal, with human arms extending across their bellies with fingers almost touching, and holding things that look like bags. Hancock remembers artwork in Mexico with similar figures, as well as in Easter Island. If this is accurate, they may have been products of a worldwide civilization.

Other mysterious sites are in western South America: around Cuzco, Tiahuanaco, Lake Titicaca, etc. Again, structures are built of unbelievably large stones precisely cut and set. When Hancock asks the archaeologist who, with his father, has been studying the area for over a hundred years, how the building was done, the archaeologist thinks there was lower gravitation (perhaps a device to make things lighter?) allowing stones to be put into place relatively easily. The archaeologist also thinks the stones were subjected to extreme heat to make it possible to shape them like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and fit them together. In this case too, the most ancient monuments are the most impressive. Later South American civilizations were also impressive, but couldn’t compete with their predecessors.

Even older than Göbekli Tepe, apparently, is Gunung Padung in Indonesia. Hancock points out that Indonesia is the remains of a fabled extension of the Indian subcontinent called Sundaland, which was destroyed by flooding, volcanoes and earthquakes, probably during the time the last Ice Age was ending. It was supposed to have been a large and fertile land with mountains and at least four river systems, and with schools of wisdom too. Gunung Padung, in the local language, means Mountain of Light or Enlightenment.

It was believed to be a natural hill until archaeologist Danny Natawidjaja and his team began using ground penetrating radar and other techniques to survey the area. Then they realized that it was a pyramid, and began using radiocarbon dating on organic material underlying the surface structures, then from tubular drills penetrating to much deeper levels.

The first results were dated between 500-1500 BC, but lower levels gave increasingly older dates. 3,000-5,000, 9600, 11,000, 15,000, then 20,000-22,000 and even earlier, which means they began to be built before the end of the last Ice Age.

The end of the last Ice Age was the beginning of a tremendously traumatic period in earth’s history, when many animals, and even a number of genera (related species) went extinct. The worst part of it seems to have been between 10,800 BC and 9600 BC, called the Younger Dryas, when temperatures, which had been getting warmer, suddenly got colder again. Before that time North America had been home not only to the Clovis people (who may have gotten there two or three thousand years before), but to mammoths, horses, camels, giant sloths and beavers, and saber-toothed tigers. None of these species were alive at the end of the period, and though the Younger Dryas was a worldwide phenomenon, North America (maybe the Americas in general) seems to have been hardest hit. What happened?

Some scientists now think that a large comet came very near to earth and parts of it separated, several chunks hitting the immense glaciation covering most of what is now Canada. Ice and ground vaporized, and were propelled into the upper atmosphere, blocking the sun, which caused the downturn in temperatures that lasted about 1200 years. It also started an immense flood from the melted glacier and a very large lake that then was located approximately on the US/Canada border. An area in eastern Oregon called the “scablands” seems to be the result of this flooding.

The scablands are a large area in which canyons were eroded, and some scientists now think, very quickly. The archaeologist Hancock interviewed said it wasn’t just water, but soil, boulders, and huge chunks of ice running very fast through the passage that became the scablands. There’s still very little topsoil in the area.

This seems to have been a very large but localized flood. The extreme erosion happened because the flood, immense as it was, was still confined to relatively small passages. That amplified the force of the liquid mixture in its ability to erode.

Whether there was actually a universal flood remains an open question. There were certainly local floods that surpassed any seen before, and there have been reported fossils of whales in mountains in Alabama and Ontario. Were these relatively recent fossils, from only about 10,000 years ago, or are they much older? Also reported have been a cave in England full of bones of hippopotami and a site where mangled bodies of polar and equatorial animals were mixed together. The latter case sounds like evidence of a universal flood. The former may be something else.

Fascinating as tracking down evidence of Atlantis or other ancient civilizations may be, it doesn’t really matter anymore, does it? Hancock gives some reasons to believe it does.

One is that the various legends of the Flood often include the idea it happened because of human wickedness. High as our civilization is, our behavior often isn’t admirable. Consider the way we treat each other and the world in which we live. Cruelty and exploitation characterize our behavior. If God is watching, it’s quite possible She is displeased.

But there are other indicators. One is a column in Göbeckli Tepe that draws attention to the winter solstice when our sun aligns with the center of the Milky Way galaxy when rising in the constellation of Sagittarius. That’s been where it rises since 1960, and will continue to be through 2040. The The Mayan calendar also predicted an age ending and one beginning in this period.

A precessional cycle; that is, the wobble in the earth’s rotation that causes constellations to seem to move slowly across the sky especially in relation to the equinoxes and solstices, is not quite 26,000 years. We are about half a precessional cycle from the time the asteroid some scientists tell us hit the earth and started the Younger Dryas period, that is, more than 12,000 years ago. There are meteor streams which come near us cyclically, and Hancock believes ancient astronomers in Göbekli Tepe, Egypt, and Mexico left us warnings that the cataclysm that destroyed their civilization may return to destroy ours. If an asteroid of, say, one mile in diameter were to hit the earth, it would destroy our civilization, and possibly the whole human race. Humans who could survive such a catastrophe would be those used to surviving on very little, the hunter-gatherer societies that remain today.

We have the science and technology to possibly be able to ward off such a collision, if we could detect the body coming soon enough. It would take quite an effort, but the potential is there. But will we make the effort? If the danger is now, we’d better start planning pretty soon.

I’m not very optimistic. Hancock says that when NASA became aware of the danger in the late 20th century, they were told to play it down. We’ve heard a lot about climate change, and while some accomplishments have been made, they haven’t been enough to make a substantial difference. If an asteroid collides with earth, climate change will be the least of our problems–it will probably occur too, but so will explosive destruction, fire, flood, earthquakes, volcanoes, as well as a possible new ice age.

If one wants to see such a collision as punishment for our collective sins, it would be ironic if it came after we had ALREADY made great progress in destroying ourselves and our civilization by refusing to change our destructive habits in terms of how we treat our habitat and our fellow humans.

I hope my pessimism is misplaced. Right now I see few signs that it is.

Genesis as History

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I watched a movie last night expressing what I guess are current views of Creationism, some of which I can buy, some of which I can’t.Of course Creationism sees the Bible as being accurate historically. I don’t entirely disagree, but think there are contradictions.

The movie began with a rationale for believing in the Great Flood, something I tend to agree about. The geologist appearing in the movie calls the Grand Canyon convincing evidence for the Flood, seeing the geologic layers revealed in it as having been laid down suddenly and catastrophically, rather than gradually over millions of years, as mainstream science contends. I think that’s possible, whether it was a local flood or worldwide. There’s a less known site in this country, in eastern Oregon, which some scientists believe was similarly eroded by huge volumes of water moving very fast. They think that one was caused by an asteroid striking the ice pack then covering most of what is now Canada, vaporizing or melting large amounts of ice, and also releasing water from a large lake, just as the geologist believes about the Grand Canyon.

The viewpoint the movie cleverly takes is that of catastrophism, which was anathema in mainstream science for quite awhile.

There’s other possible evidence for a Great Flood too: that the Great Salt Lake in Utah and the Caspian Sea in Asia are saltier than they ought to be for their apparent ages. There are also two salt lakes in the Middle East at high altitudes, Lakes Van and Urmia. Lake Titicaca in South America is also at high altitude and is a salt lake, but it seems to have once been a seaport that got lifted up when the Andes mountains were formed.

So far I can agree with much of what the movie says. But part of its quarrel with the conventional dating of the Grand Canyon is, according to the geologist, that the various dating methods for ancient stone and fossils do not agree. That’s certainly a problem, but not enough of one to justify the belief that the world is only 6,000 or so years old. That figure has been a dogma among certain Christians since the 18th century, which makes it questionable in itself.

One of the examples used to justify that figure is a site in which there are fossils in many layers, and the geologist says that each layer shows its own ecosystem. He attributes this to the Great Flood washing over the world more than once. Were this true, it seems to me the fossils would be jumbled up together, as sites reported by other sources state.

The Creationists seem to be on firmer ground questioning natural selection as the evolutionary mechanism. Not that it doesn’t work in producing variations within species, but the idea that all life on earth has a common ancestor is hard to believe. For this to happen, one would have to expect new species being produced from other species. There are variants of many species (cats and dogs are two examples), but those are different breeds, not different species. We haven’t seen new species being created since human beings began to write about 5,000 years ago.

For another thing, it would take a very long time for life to begin from bacteria and differentiate into vegetables, marine life, amphibians, and mammals. Creationists have a point when they question if enough time could have passed. There’s a point in the fossil record (I think after the dinosaurs went extinct) that an explosion of new species occurred. How did that happen? If the asteroid strike which made the dinosaurs extinct was that destructive it’s hard to see how much of any kind of life could have survived, especially many species with no obvious ancestors.

But part of the reason for the question about time scales involved seems to be the Creationist desire to prove Genesis literal. Thus they talk about the process of creation described in Genesis as only taking literally six days. Why is that so important?

One question the movie didn’t address was that of Cain: if his parents were the first humans, as we who read the English translation of the Bible are supposed to believe, how did Cain, after leaving his family, find someone to marry? Let alone found a city? The sensible solution to this is that in the original Hebrew the Adam and the Eve were treated as generic human beings instead of individuals. The story of the Fall would refer to individuals at a later time.

But the movie sees dinosaurs as being part of the punishment of humans for the Flood, and representing the corruption and violence of the world after the Fall of Man. Then it has the dinosaurs dying in the flood, which must have taken place (according the their version of the age of the earth) not much more than 4500 years ago, or about 2500 BC. Again, the questioning of timelines by the movie’s makers doesn’t really provide evidence to suggest that the earth isn’t much older than that. It does suggest that tests to determine the ages of rocks, artifacts, fossils, etc, don’t agree with each other, which does call science’s view into question, but doesn’t give positive evidence.

Another question the movie doesn’t address is one that started people thinking about evolution in the first place: how did life survive the Great Flood in the Americas (where are there are flood legends, just as in Asia) when the animals couldn’t have possibly been taken to or picked up by Noah’s ark? And the thing that really began to make scientists think was the variation in animals and plants around the world. The New World had examples of both that the Old World didn’t, and species in isolated places (like solitary islands) developed in unique ways. The New World also DIDN’T have species found in the Old World, like horses and elephants, fossils of which were found later. But different species and variants within species were an example of evolution at work in isolation from other parts of the world, though not an example of new species being derived from old. It also doesn’t explain the evolution of humans from apes, though we do seem to be closely related to them.

I don’t object to Creationists questioning the findings of science if they do so in a rational way. Scientists can be biased and make mistakes too. What I DO object to is trying to rationalize taking the book of Genesis literally, as well as other Christian dogma, unless there’s very strong evidence for it.

“I Am Not Your Negro”

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Author James Baldwin undertook a project in 1979, to tell about the lives of three of his friends who had been assassinated in the 1960s: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. He had only written thirty pages of notes by the time he died eight years later of stomach cancer.

Raoul Peck, Haitian film-maker put together the movie I Am Not Your Negro using Baldwin’s own words (sometimes from TV talk shows, sometimes read by Samuel L. Jackson) to express what he felt about race in America. The result is powerful.

Early in the movie there is footage shot in the South in the early sixties of hate-filled white people carrying signs. One says, Miscegnation is Communism. Another says it is the Antichrist. It’s dolefully ironic that miscegnation (sexual relations between black and white) was initiated by white slaveowners who then blamed black men for wanting to rape white women, thus turning the dynamic inside-out. Black men are still blamed for their sexuality, though, just as women are blamed for tempting Adam to eat the apple. A good myth is hard to give up.

Also early in the film is a black girl walking alone to go to a white high school surrounded by whites carrying signs saying they don’t want to go to school with blacks. They’re jeering and spiting at her too. Baldwin speaks, saying that he saw this footage in France, where he was then living, and besides being enraged was filled with shame, adding, “One of us should have been there with her. ”

It’s hardly surprising he died of cancer. Cancer and heart disease are in part caused by stress, and he had the stress of being both black and gay. A recent article says it’s a shame the movie didn’t address his being gay too, because Baldwin did in his writing. The three of his novels I remember best spoke of homosexuality as well as race. Actually, I don’t think Giovanni’s Room talked about race. So sexuality was very important to Baldwin too. He comments in this movie that black men aren’t allowed to show their sexuality (that may be less true now), and that movie star John Wayne, who spent most of his time on screen admonishing Indians, had permission, because of his whiteness, not to grow up. It was okay for him to kill Indians. He didn’t have to learn to negotiate with them as equals.

Baldwin met Medgar Evers early in the 1960s and traveled with him as Evers attempted to gather evidence about voting suppression. The sixties weren’t far advanced when he was murdered himself. Baldwin says he was extremely frightened traveling through Mississippi, but also felt he needed to do that as a witness, and that he needed to travel widely as a witness. Eventually he also traveled to Georgia and Alabama where some of the famous Civil Rights protests had been. More footage of police beating defenseless men and women.

Baldwin says he watched Malcolm X and Martin Luther King come from very different positions to eventually drift into almost exactly the same position. Footage is shown of Malcolm X criticizing King for not wanting blacks to fight back when abused by whites. However understandable his feeling, it’s also obvious that taking on whites in a race war in which they would be vastly outnumbered and outgunned would be a self-defeating strategy. King replies to Malcolm X by saying that he sees love as being a powerful force rather than a cowardly surrender. Did Malcolm X come to appreciate that position before he died? Baldwin says he was in London with a friend taking a day off when he learned of Malcolm X’s assassination.

Baldwin came home from France in the later sixties. He said he missed very little about America, but missed his brother, sister, their children, and his mother. He was visiting them in 1968 when his sister was called away from the table. When she returned she said nothing, but he felt something was wrong. Then she said, “Martin Luther King was just killed. Reporters are coming to get your reaction.”

He attended the funeral, and said he tried not to cry, felt that many others were trying not to cry too, and for the same reason: they didn’t know if they could stop.

He felt he had to visit the widows and children of those leaders, also not easy. Perhaps especially because none of the three lived to be as old as forty.

I was vaguely aware of the strife of the sixties, but didn’t really feel it. I had problems of my own taking up my attention. But the sixties shaped my political views. In the 1950s we had had a comic book portraying Rosa Parks taking a white person’s seat in the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and refusing to get up. That’s where I first heard of Dr. King.

In 1963 I was with my grandmother while she watched coverage of the March on Washington, and got to see in real time Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech. Hairs stood up on the back of my neck. What the Civil Rights movement was protesting was so obviously unfair that I didn’t see any alternative to being a liberal. It seemed that all conservatives were racists, a term that has since been used too lightly for too many frivolous reasons. No one in the Civil Rights movement has had the kind of gravitas Dr, King had, which is a shame. He and the other two were murdered because they held up a mirror to show us all what we were, causing panic fear. People comfortable with segregation felt their world was coming apart, and had no answer but violence. After King was killed, many others felt THEIR world was coming apart too. If my heart was in the right place in feeling sympathy for the movement (which is debatable), I did nothing about it, to my shame.

Baldwin didn’t only report his feelings about the movement and the death of his friends (as well as many other more anonymous people), but looked at the larger picture of America, its racism and other forms of injustice. He saw white America being as entangled and imprisoned by racism as black America, and striking out in violent resentment of it. Black Americans never wanted to come here, but neither did whites, he says. Using blacks as slaves made them prisoners too.

The fact is that the American way of life hasn’t made many people happy. Satiated, in some cases, but not happy. That many of us have secure lives that most people in the world can’t even imagine, and yet are fearful of people unlike ourselves is ironic, if not paradoxical. Look at some of the things we lead the world in: numbers of prisoners, people killed by police, consumption of illegal (and legal) drugs. Those things don’t indicate a happy culture. More people have a higher standard of living than any time previous in the world, but they aren’t happy, and their standard of living comes at the price of devastation of other peoples and the waste of natural resources. They, who are WE, prefer fantasy to reality, because experiencing the reality of what WE are complicit in would mean we must experience overpowering guilt and responsibility. Nobody wants that. So we’ll have to pay in another way.

The climactic scene of the movie is footage from the Dick Cavett show. A new guest enters and says he disagrees with what he’s heard Baldwin say, and asks if there isn’t any other way for him to connect than through race? Surely he must feel more connection with a white author than with an illiterate black.

Baldwin answers that the man is invoking an idealistic vision that he has seen no evidence of. Is he to trust not only himself, but his relatives and children to an idea which he’s never seen manifest in real life? The other seems to have nothing to say–or maybe it’s just that I can’t imagine him saying anything to refute Baldwin.

The idea that racism was once a problem, but is no longer, is popular in some circles. When people complain about it, or even try to talk about it, they’re said to be “race-baiting”. I don’t suppose people with this view are even insincere–that they’re aware of. One such person friended me on Facebook during the past year or so, complimenting me on the posts I’d written on this blog, and trying to persuade me of his views. He was nice to me, never being rude when I stated my own views (which he probably saw as liberal cliches), and even defending me from some of his friends. But I couldn’t agree that racism was no longer a problem, nor could I support his candidate for president. I’m not sure if this movie would mean much to him. I’d like to think it could open his eyes, but that might be too much to expect. There are quite a few people who seem pretty sincere in their disagreement with what I believe. And I certainly am not always right.

The movie Raoul Peck has made isn’t perfect. As one writer complained in a recent article, he didn’t address Baldwin’s homosexuality, even though Baldwin wasn’t shy about that. If he had, the movie would probably have been longer, and even more powerful. As the writer pointed out, Baldwin was criminalized in two ways: not only as a black man, but as a gay man. He was doubly an outsider in ways most whites don’t experience, unless they really want to. Most of us want to be accepted, so don’t confront the injustices we see. That’s what is known as white privilege, a term some people are impatient with. They don’t see themselves as privileged. They also don’t think to ask how a black person might see them.

The movie quickly surveys several movies with themes of black vs white. One is the movie in which Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are handcuffed together after escaping from prison. At the end of the movie they’ve managed to get rid of the cuffs and are running to catch a train and ride in the box car. Poitier climbs onto the train, Curtis clutches at his hand, but can’t hold on, and falls down the hill. Poitier jumps back off the train. This, Baldwin says, is to reassure a white audience that black people still love them, in spite of the way whites have abused blacks. But, says Baldwin, the black audience had a completely different reaction: they said, “Fool, get back on the train!”

Do we want to know how the people we live with, who had a major role in building this country, but got very little out of it, actually feel, or do we prefer a fantasy? The answer to that question may go a long way to determining our future, as Baldwin says.

Vampires

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A program shown on PBS tells of corpses found in Anglo-Saxon villages in England of about a thousand years ago which had been mutilated. Not many of them, but a few, had had their heads removed after death, and placed between their legs. Why? Apparently because they were suspected of vampirism.

The idea of vampires is a pretty old one, and seems to have been common to much of Europe. It died out in England, but not in other places, especially in eastern Europe. The documentary speaks to a peasant in Rumania who had helped unearth a recent corpse which had red around its mouth and a swollen belly, which he and the others had taken as evidence that the person was a vampire. They had opened the grave because a young woman said her uncle, who had recently died, had visited her and sucked her blood. The peasant said he had removed the corpse’s heart and burned it at the village crossroads, after which the young woman got better.

The idea of vampires is identified with Rumania, partly because of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, which is partly set in Transylvania; and partly because a fifteenth century monarch of Rumania, Vlad Tepes, was called Dracula, and is thought to have been a (or the) model for the literary character. Vlad Tepes was certainly not a pleasant man, having been notable for impaling people he didn’t like. That is, seating them on a wooden stake, pushing it up through their rectums into their bodies, then letting gravity slowly kill them. Probably rulers in that time, and maybe particularly in that place, had to be severe in order to survive, but Tepes seems to have been extreme even there and then.

The documentary says that Stoker based his novel on actual folk beliefs about vampires (it was unclear to me whether he added some powers to his character that weren’t part of common beliefs or not), but changed the image of the vampire from a problem found in rural Europe to a well-dressed cosmopolitan aristocrat. That’s the image that got popularized in plays and movies over the last hundred years. The question is, was there ever anything to the vampire myth, or was it simply misunderstanding?

Scientists and historians interviewed in the documentary argue that the idea of the vampire came from ignorance. Red around a corpse’s mouth and a swollen belly are the work of bacteria after death. The interviewees believe that the concept of vampires was used to explain illnesses the peasants were vulnerable to.

One historian notes that in the country away from the fireside the world is absolutely dark at night, except for a candle or torch that could be carried. It would be different in larger towns and cities, but villagers had to fear warriors sneaking up on them as well as storms and illnesses.

Some of the illnesses were pretty fearsome too, like leprosy, tuberculosis, and bubonic plague. We have to remember that nobody at that time had much idea where disease came from, and peasants would be more ignorant than most. If people began having horrible symptoms and dying, there was almost nothing anyone could do. How could they defend themselves against something they utterly failed to understand? In that situation, blaming illness on the dead was as reasonable as anything else. As one historian points out, the suspects usually were people most hadn’t liked when they were alive. The idea seems to have been common in much of the world, too. People living in the Himalayas seem occasionally to have been concerned about vampires as well. In Bulgaria and Italy too.

The hypothesis seems pretty plausible, but I wonder if there may anyway have been something to the old view. Vampires seem to resonate with a lot of people. Whether or not they literally drank blood, it doesn’t seem too strange to think of people who might drain in some manner people of vital energies, perhaps by doing something as simple as constantly demanding attention.

While vampirism as explanation for illness is probable enough, the documentarians didn’t look into the illness of the young woman in Rumania. Was it bacterial or viral? Or psychosomatic? Knowing that would go some distance toward deciding if the traditional idea of vampirism is totally invalid. It may seem totally stupid, but some of our ancient ancestors knew things we no longer know, as shown by some of the monuments we have no idea how to build. It’s not impossible that they knew more than we do in cases like this too.

 

The Secret Book of Kings

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This novel revisits the early history of ancient Israel at the beginning of the monarchy. Its central point is the power of the story. Yochi Brandes, an Israeli Biblical scholar, makes it very plausible that many of the stories in the Old Testament showing King David in a favorable light are propaganda, making it seem that claiming him as an ancestor might be similar to claiming Hitler or Stalin. David merely acted on a smaller stage.

Some years ago I read a history of ancient Israel in which the author expressed some wonderment that David was so venerated when his career wasn’t much different from many opportunists.

In this novel the story of his rise is told by Michal, daughter of King Saul, his first wife, who was advantageously placed to see what happened. She tells how she falls in love with David as a teenager, though he is less enthusiastic about her. She travels with him to entertain the troops, then goes home and tries to get him to go with her. He refuses. He has other things to do.

The other things include organizing an army of his own, led by his relatives, and marrying other women. One of my acquaintances thought David had a sexual relationship with Jonathan, and remarked that David behaved better during that period than he did later. The fact that David defected to the Philistines (as told in the Old Testament) and helped organize the invasion of Israel that killed Saul, Jonathan, and all of Jonathan’s brothers, suggests that whatever relationship he had with Jonathan was a totally cynical one on his part.

After the invasion he arranges his own coronation, then takes Michal and the remainder of her relatives to live with him in his palace with his other wives. Michal had previously married a man who had waited a long time for her. David separates them, and arranges for her husband to be killed. Later, their son and the remainder of her young relatives are also killed. David also conquers neighboring countries and commits what would now be called war crimes there.

All this is told to the narrator of the novel, who turns out to be the great-grandson of King Saul, and the grandson of MIchal, now known as the Mad Princess because she spends every night lighting many candles all over the palace and screaming. This behavior is a cover for her: if she can be dismissed as insane, she’s not perceived as a threat. I suspect this part is invention.

The narrator has been brought up by foster parents in the tribal territory of Ephraim, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. His mother lives in seclusion in a retreat for lepers which she never leaves, and where she always covers her face. She doesn’t have leprosy, but is in danger from the royal family. Shelomoam, the narrator, becomes disenchanted with his foster family, largely because he senses something wrong with the story he’s been told about his background. He leaves his home village to go to Jerusalem to join the army.

On his way there he meets Hadad, an Edomite, who trains him for the army. Edom is one of the neighboring countries conquered by David, and Hadad is determined to get it back. He believes Shelomoam is the key, and we find out why when Shelomoam meets Michal. His father was her son, Nebat, who was killed along with most of her other relatives.

Shelomoam is tested by the authorities and sent to Ephraim to be the head tax collector. David’s policies have preferred his tribe, Judah, to the rest of the tribes, who now (during the reign of Solomon) suffer from high taxes and forced labor, as Solomon carries out grandiose building projects and collects foreign women for his harem. Michal has told Shelomoam how Bathsheba manipulated her way into David’s bed, how (with the aid of her grandfather) David managed to get away with the murder of Bathsheba’s husband with a slap on the wrist, and how Bathsheba managed Solomon’s accession to the throne, in spite of David’s older sons.

Shelomoam is in a dangerous position: he must produce taxes and laborers, or be punished, but if he does, he’ll incur the hatred of the people of Ephraim. He manages this crisis through communication. He persuades the wealthy of the area that by taxing them higher than the poor people they will manage to avoid ruining the area. The rich will eventually be ruined too, and forced labor will ensure a shortage of labor and ruin of the laborers’ families. He becomes very popular. He even manages to prevent punishment when demands to raise taxes and send even more laborers come. He sends fewer laborers than demanded, and tells the authorities that he has to reduce taxes to prevent ruin. The other tribes follow his lead, and this provokes a plot to kill him, so he takes his family and flees to Egypt.

His flight to Egypt is true, according to the Old Testament; I’m not certain we know about the narrator’s early life. When he returns to Ephraim a couple of years later he has changed his name to Jereboam, signifying that he will increase the population of Israel, and manages the separation between Israel and Judah. The novel ends on an optimistic note.

But things in the long-term didn’t work out as well for Israel as Judah. A book about the Old Testament tells us that Israel, though it was richer, more willing to innovate, and more integrated into the life of the region (Judah was a poor and isolated country), was also more volatile. David’s line was preserved in the kings who ruled until the sixth century BCE, when Babylon conquered Judah and deported many of its ablest people. Israel had been conquered by Assyria about a century before, and unlike Judah, was never able to put its kingdom together again. In that time there had been multiple dynasties. The Samaritans mentioned in the New Testament were descendants of the northern kingdom, and detested by the Jews, who lived in Judah (called Judea by the time the Romans conquered the Middle East), which was why the parable of the Good Samaritan is found in the Bible. The Jews had been more conservative, and some were fanatical, at least about the presence of the Romans.

Interestingly, a book I read about twenty years ago, said there were still Samaritans surviving in the Middle East, but only a few hundred. The account said they had their own Torah (not including equivalents of the later books of the Old Testament, apparently), which was somewhat different than the Jewish version which has come down to us.

It seems that the northern kingdom, which seems superficially more attractive than the southern one, was less stable, though the southern kingdom also suffered a great deal. Assyria probably deported a lot of Israelites, and the suspicion is that many of them assimilated. Jews would later assimilate too, but not often (this was not always their doing).

The only obvious moral is to beware of propaganda. It seems that even David’s most famous feat wasn’t really his: Goliath seems to have been killed by someone else. This novel doesn’t credit Saul’s supposed attempts to kill David; it says Saul would have succeeded if he’d tried. Nor does it credit Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor. All these incidents were propaganda created by the victor to justify the treason that gained him the monarchy. Propaganda is no less dangerous today, and no easier to decode. It may be even more ubiquitous than in the past: America took the lead in creating the advertisement industry which influenced Adolph Hitler in particular. There may be other morals here too: perhaps that suffering and faith mean more in the long run than wealth. That’s not a particularly welcome message.