Colson Whitehead’s Slavery Novel “The Underground Railroad”: A Ferocious History of the Present

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If you want to read a really insightful and incisive review of Colson Whitehead’s deeply disturbing and sneakily-complex new novel, The Underground Railroad, you could do a lot worse than reading Adam Gopnik’s review of a new book on the Attica uprising in last week’s New Yorker. In talking about the slaughter that ensued when the state police, national guard and (tellingly) other prison guards took back the jail from the nearly all-black inmates, Gopnik writes:

In a curious way, the psychology of the (almost exclusively white) troopers and guards, more than the ideology of the inmates, seems most haunting now, as part of the permanent picture of American fixations. The inmates were doing what anyone would do in their situation: having seen a protest turn unexpectedly into a revolt that was sure to be short-lived, they desperately improvised a way to keep their dignity and be heard, to avoid the worst punishment and get some small reforms. Their occasionally overblown rhetoric was the act of men who, stripped of dignity, try to reclaim it. But the troopers and guards retaking the prison were indulging an orgy of racist violence neither ordered nor wholly explicable. There was no need for them to conduct a massacre to reassert their authority. They had all the firepower; the prisoners were armed only with homemade knives; the guards had control of the yard within minutes. Nor were they, so far as anyone can detect, under direct commands to kill. In an American tale already known fully to Mark Twain, a white ethnic proletariat could distinguish itself as superior only by its ability to be brutal to a still more subordinate class of color. When its members were denied their exercise of this “right,” they turned crazy and violent.

If you want to learn more about the novel, look at any Blue Lives Matter Facebook group, flip to a Trump rally, or read some hot takes on Colin Kaepernick. These will tell you as much about Whitehead’s book as any discussion of the past, because, while it is meticulously detailed, and unflinching in its cruelty, Whitehead is describing an American obsession with race, with oppression, and with the assertion of might. The novel isn’t a metaphor for today– it isn’t secretly about Michael Brown or Garfield Park– but it is all the more harrowing because of that. It doesn’t need to be. The story barely changes.

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Good Books Friday: The Rivers of America Series

Note: I’ll be out of town between the 4th and the 15th, in a wilderness repast, with little to absolutely zero connection to the internet or my phone. Posts during this time, written in advance, will be bigger-picture, or more idiosyncratic, rather than directly pegged to the news. If events happen that supersede or negate anything I say, think of these as a more innocent time capsule. Try not to let the country burn down while I’m gone.

A few years ago I was doing a periodic dive into Chicago history, as will frequently happen, and was perusing the relevant section at the local library. Over the preceding few years, I had gotten more and more interested in Chicago as a city built on a lake and river, which we all know, but tend to take for granted. While Chicago is a major port city, for most residents, that takes places completely out of sight. The river and the jawdropping lakefront are for recreation and beauty; they are no longer the economic engine.

So an old book called “The Chicago” caught my eye. It was plain blue, no jacket, but you could tell it was going to have that musty and delicious old book smell, with pages that hadn’t taken a breath in years, if not decades. It was by an author named Harry Hansen, and not knowing too much about it, I put it on the pile. How bad could it be?

It turned out to be a thing of wonder. Hansen was an old-time Chicago journalist, originally from Iowa, who loved the city but looked at it skeptically. The book blended history and the present- or, rather, Hansen’s present, as it came out in 1942, but was clearly written before the outbreak of war. He took us up and down the still dirty and gritty river, which still had grimy industrial buildings and warehouses and factories on most of its grim banks.

But he also took the reader through time. He had the history of exploration, the Kinzies and Du Sable, and the earlier French explorers who found the portage. It was amazing to read, as he’d talk about a place at, say the 31st and Western, on the south branch, and talk about what was there when he had come to the city some 40 years beforehand, when the smoke from the fire could still be detected in memory and the city had yet to celebrate its first century. And, reading it some 80 years later, both waves of history have been lapped, but both are still present in any given spot.

This journey, it turned out, was part of the Rivers of America series, a huge, sprawling, ambitious piece of Americana that spanned nearly 40 years and three publishers. The idea was to tell the history of America through its rivers, those first highways, along which all cities were built. It is a 50-book series, with the first being The Kennebec in 1937, and the final one The American  in 1974. It’s also instructive to think of how much America itself changed over the years. The series takes you from Panama to Alaska, and from Maine to California. It is, fully, American. (Towns End Books and Wikipedia have complete lists)

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Michael Hayden Tells His Side

Penguin Press

In the August/September issue of Reason, Brett Max Kaufman of the ACLU (and of the most alternately triumphant and nervous fanbase in sports) reviews Playing to the Edge, Michael Hayden’s apologia for the post-9/11 security state, and why he would do everything he was able to do to protect us.

But it is not a good sign when your memoir’s central metaphor breaks down in the foreword. Hayden’s conceit is that those who run intelligence have a duty to “us[e] all the tools and all the authorities available, much like how a good athlete takes advantage of the entire playing field right up to the sideline markers and endlines”—the edge. As he’s said elsewhere (he’s been on this kick for nearly a decade), “Playing back from the line protected me but didn’t protect America. I made it clear I would always play in fair territory, but that there would be chalk dust on my cleats.”

The first problem is that if you get chalk on your cleats, it means you’re out of bounds. (Or at least you are in football, Hayden’s obvious inspiration.) That this has apparently gone unremarked to Hayden over the years—even by Dan Rooney, the owner of Hayden’s hometown Pittsburgh Steelers and Hayden’s high school football coach, with whom he watches too many Super Bowls in this book to count—is notable in itself. That it goes entirely unexamined in the book’s numerous invocations of the image is, alas, characteristic.

Worse still is that “taking advantage of the entire playing field” is a pretty odd way to describe the main thing that good athletes do. Of course, spraying one down the right-field line or throwing it deep and wide can sometimes help the team. But they are hardly required to win the game. Hayden never bothers to explain why pushing it to the edge is a main point of his duty as a public servant. Like so much in the book, it is simply assumed that people of good faith will agree.

That’s sort of the whole ballgame: we know what’s best, and you don’t. There is a “trust” factor in intelligence that assumes a one-way relationship. While no state wants entirely transparent intelligence, it is assumed that America should have the same level of secrecy, and the same dom-sub relationship with our intelligence forces, as the most fly-bitten police state in the world. It’s an argument that sounds persuasive on the surface, but can and should be taken easily apart.

Brett, who is one of the best at crafting an argument that is both forceful and legally exacting (sort of a hyperlogical polemicist, employing the best of both world), is the right man to tear it apart.

Karen’s Greenberg’s “Rogue Justice” Review

The fine folks at Just Security were kind enough to ask me to review Karen Greenberg’s excellent Rogue Justice, about how we transformed into a security state following 9/11. It’s a great read, and persuasively argued (the book, not my review). One of her key insights, beside the great reporting, is that the decisions made after the attacks fundmentally changed our relationship with the government, in ways we didn’t realize, and that I think will affect the national character for decades.

I’ll have more on the book later on, a few longer essays on some of the themes. In the meantime, here’s the review. Thanks to Just Security, especially for keeping the Huck Finn theme throughout.

 

This complicity came from careerists worried about rocking the boat, politicians in both parties worried about being painted as weak on terror (with notable and noble exceptions), and to an uncomfortable extent, the general public. The terrorist attacks in 2001 made everyone realize that anyone could be a target, but we didn’t see — or didn’t want to see — that in a very real way, we also became a target of the government. Many of the policies enacted in the wake of 9/11 made everyone a suspect as much as a target. Through official secrecy aided by general indifference, we allowed ourselves to be passively dragooned into being on both sides of a war.

The Borges Retrospective: Borges the Film Critic

The Borges Retrospective:

To make the claim that Borges is well-read is like walking up to a stranger, preparing to brandish your dueling gloves, and proclaiming that water is wet. His vast and endless erudition is, along with his blindness and fascination with Angl-Saxon lore, one of those most striking things about him. There seems to have been little he hadn’t read, and little he didn’t remember. Even after blindness overcame him, he still had the library in his head, and if he didn’t recall a line exactly, could get someone to read it to him by remembering the book, and where it was located on his vast shelves (Hitchens, who has written many times and movingly about meeting Borges, spoke in Hitch-22 about having the honor of reading to him).

(Sidenote: one of the limitation of this series is not being able to talk about everything, so I do want to share his quote on blindness, from “The Other”, in which the old Borges meets his younger self. “When you reach my age, you’ll have almost totally lost your eyesight. You’ll be able to see the color yellow, and light and shadow. But don’t worry. Gradual blindness is not tragic. It’s like the slowly growing darkness of a summer evening.” Has a more beautiful and aching line about the enveloping process of decay ever been written?)

So, given his incredible range of reading, it stands to reason that he’d be a fine literary critic, being able to weave the vast tapestry of the human story into all his writing. What might strike readers as surprising is his proficiency as a film critic in the early days of cinema, as silent movies turned into talkies, and as the medium grew up. It is hard to imagine him as taking time away from his books, but he did, and often. I confess it delights me to imagine the young Borges, sitting in a darkened theater, in the cool the juxtaposes the Buenos Aries summer, head filled with ancient myths and knife-fights, and watching a giant ape palm a screaming blond.

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The Borges Retrospective: “The Secret Miracle”

The Borges Retrospective: Part I: Intro.  (I know I said we’d begin with “The Aleph”, but how stupid a thought is that? We’ll end at the Aleph. We were always going to end at the Aleph.)

 

The great genuis

 

Think first of the carpenter who picks up a plank, and lays it perpendicular on another one. With careful skill and a substantial brutality, he hammers a cross, setting in motion thousands of years of ecstasy and pain. He unwittingly, doing a job, lays the groundwork for Pere Brébeuf ‘s agony at the roasting pole, and Kateri Tekawitha’s sublime conversion. He sets into motion dramas in lands which he could never imagine.

Think then of the builder who attaches a wooden mane on a great horse, which bears in its womb countless Greeks with a berserk desire for murder. These are the creators of our great dreams, and our great dramas. They build the stage on which we tell our tales. But in one of the greatest stories Borges ever tells, he steps back, and tells the tale not of our great builders, or our blood-covered warriors, but of a man who fell victim to Hannibal, to the Druidic gods, to the madness of Hitler. In “The Secret Miracle”, he tells the story of creation, the story of telling our stories, and makes it more sad and more heroic than any of the great tales.

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