OK, I know it’s been a little bit since I’ve written. I would really like to do so more as we round into the new year, and as we try to save our democracy from a death-cult that worships only the raw exercise of power. But for now we’re going to look at the last year in books.
As in other years, this is NOT a “best books of 2019” or anything. I wouldn’t lay claim to having read enough to begin to adjudicate that. These are just my favorites: books that have moved me, that have educated me, that have made me see things differently.
Anything I’ve missed you think people should read? Please leave it in the comments. I’m always on the lookout for my next book, and the one after that, and the one after that…
Of all the lies America officially tells itself, one of the strangest is that “We have never occupied conquered territory.” The story goes that since the US didn’t occupy Germany after either of the wars, nor did we take any Japanese territory, there is a nobleness to our cause.
Needless to say, that’s absolute bunkum. There is not a single region of this country that wasn’t taken from Natives. Yes, the Louisiana Purchase was from France, but of course, it wasn’t filled with Frenchmen who immediately left: it was filled with Natives who were promptly extirpated.
Of course, if any action gives immediate lie to that notion, it is the occupation and annexation of enormous amounts of Mexican territory following the brutal and phony war of 1846-1848. The occupied and stolen territory gave America its western bulk; it made destiny manifest.
One thing that America does very well is rapidly internalizing our myths. It doesn’t matter that the war was pushed by southern slave interests hoping to create an empire of chattel. It doesn’t matter that the secession of Texas was a reaction to Mexico outlawing slavery. While a mere 20 years later slavery was defeated, the idea that this territory was anything but given to the US by God was not even entertained.
The idea of these stories, and how they have shaped the American character, is the focus of Greg Grandin’s sweeping The End of the Myth, an electrifying read which takes you from the Cumberland Gap to Gettysburg to Martin Luther King’s radicalism to the perfidy of NAFTA, all with a unifying theme.
That theme is that of the frontier, specifically, the frontier as famously articulated by Frederick Jackson Turner. The nut of the thesis, developed by the then little-known Wisconsin academic in 1893, is that “(t)he existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development.”
It’s complicated, but basically that the waves of expansion (which are neither steady nor consistent) are what drives the American spirit. People come out, fight and die, scratch out an existence, fall back, push forward, etc. The land is tamed, capital moves in, people get itchy, and go to the next frontier. Violence, horror, success, railroads, and so on.
Now, you can (and should!) quibble with the idea that the land was “free”; the need for violence in the form of the US Army disproves that myth instantly. But the land was, I suppose, gettable. It could be got if you knew the right people (i.e. the US Army).
Grandin doesn’t so much deflate this myth as expose it for what it has always been: a pernicious way to both foment and excuse violence and expropriation while running a constant scam against the idea of freedom itself.
To back this, Grandin paraphrases Martin Luther King, who argued that the ideal “fed into multiple reinforcing pathologies: into racism, a violent masculinity, and a moralism that celebrates the rich and punishes the poor.”
This is all true, and it plays itself off as a sort of devil’s bargain. As Grandin explains:
There is a lot to unpack in the argument that over the long course of US history, endless expansion, either over land or through markets and militarism, deflects domestic extremism. How, for example, might historical traumas and resentments, myths and symbols, be passed down the centuries from one generation to another? Did the United States objectively nned to expand in order to secure foreign resources and open markets for domestic production? Or did the country’s leaders just believe they had to expand. Whatever the answers to those questions, the United States, since its dounding, pushed outward and justified that push in moral terms, as beneficial equally for the people within and beyond the frontier.
The frontier was a constant regeneration, taking the traumas of conflict and using them to start another battle, another front. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book talks is the section on the Spanish-American war, a conflict so ginned up it made the Mexican-American war look honest.
In our accepted history, the Spanish American war is a completely different era than the Civil War. That’s just how history is often taught; separate eras split by thick black lines and different quizzes. But of course, it was barely 30 years after that conflict ended. Most of its veterans were still alive. This was also barely 20 years after Reconstruction came to an ignoble and murdered end, unleashing a wave of democratic suppression and racist terror that persisted for 100 years.
And, as Grandin explains, basically no one was more excited about the Spanish-American war, and the colonial occupations that followed, than ex-Confederates. This, for them, was a way to be welcomed fully back into the American population, to prove themselves as fighters, and to kill non-whites. The Confederate flag flew over Cuba, and the Rebel Yell was heard in the Philippines.
Why does this matter? Because it was another expansion of the frontier. It was a way to regenerate the American myth after the Civil War and (maybe just as importantly) after Reconstruction. Grandin skillfully weaves the betrayal of Reconstruction with the dark decades of Jim Crow, Martin Luther King, Vietnam, and more.
This makes sense, when you start to look at American history as a continuous thing, and not something that actually happens in waves. The war for Mexican territory was fought to expand slavery. It was fought to create an American empire across the continent. The stories that we told about it- pablum about freedom, the brave men of the Alamo, standing up to an oppressive Mexican government who hated freedom so much that they outlawed slavery- was part of the same story we told ourselves of the Lost Cause, the noble South, the valiant Lee: stories that still exist.
And that, ultimately, is the lesson here. These stories are still being told, but there is nowhere left to go. The frontier has reverberated. Grandin takes us back again and again to the border, as it becomes militarized, filled with swaggering racists, both in real uniforms and in the jackal armament of vigilante militias. He brings us to a border suddenly filled with factories and economic refugees. He brings us to a border where people fleeing American-led violence in Central America end up. He brings us to a border whose fences, a cynical bargain made to pass NAFTA, trap people on both sides and make crossing a mortal threat.
In short, he brings us to today.
Trump and the End of the Myth
If you were to say one good thing about Donald Trump- and Christ, you really shouldn’t- it is that by being so openly vulgar, with such id-driven racism, and supplemented by such cowardly sycophants, he has forced us to recognize the cruelty that has always driven much of American policy.
Reading Grandin, this makes sense. The frontier has always allowed us to push that cruelty outward, to find newer enemies, and to believe in regeneration. But now there is nowhere to go. Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and everywhere else) are dim echoes of empire, grinding distant slogs only remembered with the faintest pantomimes of covered-heart “gratitude.” Global capitalism is seen as a dumb joke played on all of us, with the benefit that it is also destroying the present. The frontier, long-rumored to be dead, is officially gone.
That’s why Trump’s wall is the true end of the myth, as Grandin’s subtitle implies. We’ve been heading that way. It could easily be argued that violence against Mexico is just as much a part of the American character as slavery and genocide. It has been a centuries-long preoccupation (and real occupation). And now it has found its post-Polk apotheosis, at a time when everything seems to be crumbing.
Trump’s wall is the closing of the frontier, a sealing off of even a hypocritical American dream. And we have, just today, entered a new phase.
The firing/resignation/who cares of Kirstjen Neilsen is concentrating power in the hands of Trump and the wiry evil of anti-immigrant fanatic Stephen Miller. Today was a purge, as Mark Joseph Stern explained.
After firing Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen on Sunday, President Donald Trump purged the agency’s senior management on Monday. According to CBS News, Trump secured the resignation of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Lee Cissna, DHS Undersecretary for Management Claire Grady, and DHS General Counsel John Mitnick. He also fired U.S. Secret Service Director Randolph “Tex” Alles. Trump adviser Stephen Miller, an immigration hard-liner, reportedly masterminded the DHS purge as part of an effort to crack down on immigration at the southern border.
So what does that mean? Well:
Trump didn’t want Grady; he wanted Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. It’s easy to see why. Under McAleenan’s leadership, CBP repeatedly broke the law to implement Trump’s first travel ban, earning a rebuke from DHS’ Office of Inspector General. McAleenan is a strong proponent of a border wall as well as new laws to curb asylum-seekers’ entry into the country. He infamously failed to inform Congress that a 7-year-old girl died in CBP custody when he testified before the Senate just three days after her death.
In other words, the real hardliners are taking over. I don’t know if Nielsen was a true believer or just a spineless sycophant, and she deserves a lifetime of scorn and opprobrium either way, but apparently there were lines even she wouldn’t cross. With this purge, the Trump people are looking for people who don’t believe in lines.
We’re living in an era of a hyperactive Border Patrol who are setting up Constitution-free zones in 75% of America’s populated areas. It’s an era where ICE is given full reign to destroy people. These are the spears of the new America, and they are being molded in Trump’s lawless image.
There might be pushback (apparently, some CBP officials didn’t like Trump telling officers they didn’t have to follow the law). Trump wants us to believe that “the country is full”, which is of course laughable, except he doesn’t mean it literally. He means that we have enough brown people, and we don’t want anymore.
And that’s the heart of the wall, and the heart of the frontier, and the heart of the American myth. That this is a land destined for white people, who can do no wrong. It’s why we believe that we don’t occupy territory when the whole country is occupied. It’s why we believe that land taken from Mexico has always been American, and why were are insanely resentful that anyone could question that. It’s why we take natural migration patterns as an affront to our sacred ideals.
The wall isn’t the antithesis of the frontier, it is its howling echo. It is its fulfillment. It is the promise of white nationalism with nowhere else to go, caged and furious. It is standing athwart history and pretending it didn’t happen. It is the stupidity of Trump and the cupidity of his enablers made concrete. It is the railroad and it is Pickett’s Charge; it is Custer and Andrew Jackson; it is James Earl Ray, and it is everyone who built their life around cheap consumer goods made by broken hands in child-filled maquiladoras.
The wall is the American Dream. It’s a reality from which we need to awake.
In some ways, it’s been a bit of a weird and dark year. For some evidence of that, you can check: this blog’s entire archives. If you don’t feel like doing so, you can just reflect on why you need to pull tight the cloak around your shivering body, nervous with dread at each new dawn, wondering what horrors await. Either way!
But it’s also been a pretty good year for books. I’m usually pretty terrible at reading new things, especially new fiction, but for a few reasons have made more a point of doing so this year, in addition to the usual nonfiction.
So, here’s a totally subjective list of some of my favorites. This isn’t to say the “Best Books of 2017”, since that would be absurdly arrogant, not to mention extremely myopic. Here are the best books I read this year, with no real division between fiction and non. I’m sure there are many I am missing, and will kick myself later on. I really need to start writing this stuff down.
The first list are ones published this year, then a shorter one of books I finally read, whether a few years old or many.
There’s no real order here, except the first one would probably be on top if I did.
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.
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 Kennebecin 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)
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.
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.
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.
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.