Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Flashman and the Redskins by George MacDonald Fraser

(Book Review)

And here I am with the 7th book in the Flashman series. (After having read Flashman, Royal Flash, Flash for Freedom, Flashman at the Charge, and Flashman and the Great Game, Flashman's Lady and the original source material Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes.)

One of the reasons I enjoy the Flashman series is that it takes me to so many exotic places. I've so far followed Flashman to the British occupation of Afghanistan, pirate fighting in Borneo, criminal gangs in Singapore, slave traders on the coast of Africa, the Sepoy rebellion in India, the charge of the light brigade in Crimea, peasant rebellions in Russia, insane dictators in Madagascar, et cetera.

This book, from beginning to end, takes place entirely within the boundaries of the United States. Having been born and raised in America, this doesn't strike me as quite so interesting as some of Flashman's previous adventures. But perhaps the American West is regarded as a little bit more exotic in England, where this book was originally published. (Or for that matter in Australia, where I purchased this book.)

However, once I got into the book, I did find it interesting enough.

The story is divided into two parts. The first part takes place in 1849-50, right after the events described in the 3rd book "Flash for Freedom". (Although the first 5 books in this series were chronological, they're starting to jump around all over now.)

Flashman ends up taking part in the great migration of wagon trains across the American West caused by the 1849 gold rush. But it's not your standard "wagon train across the plains" story. There's a bit of a twist. Through the usual series of convoluted events, Flashman ends up in charge of a wagon train of prostitutes, who are going out to set up a new brothel in Santa Fe.

These books can be pretty ludicrous, to be sure. They're also occasionally a bit trashy. But they're great guilty pleasures. Knowing what we know about Flashman's character, we know he's not going to be able to resist temptation, and it's obvious he's going to get himself into plenty of trouble before this trip is over. The pleasure is in waiting to see exactly how Flashman will manage to screw everything up this time.

However, as usual, mixed in with the guilty pleasure are a lot of historical tidbits. This book is even more heavily footnoted than the previous volumes (81 end notes total) meaning that just about every couple of pages you have to break from the story and flip to the back of the book to find out that so-and-so was actually a real historical person, or that such-and-such was a real place, or that this or that event really happened. As always these books are so thoroughly researched it makes a great way to justify reading these otherwise trashy stories.

The second half of the book takes place in 1875-76, and is focused on Custer's Last Stand, and the events leading up to it. Flashman, again through the usual series of convoluted events, ends up being present at Custer's last stand, despite doing just about everything he can to avoid it.

Custer's Last Stand is one of those famous events that everyone has heard about, but no one really knows anything about it.
Or maybe I'm just speaking for myself. Anyway I certainly didn't know what the issues had been leading up to this conflict, nor what exact military blunders Custer had made.

This book does a pretty good job of walking you through the major historical points. Flashman is at the meeting with the Native Americans when the negotiations break down. (Flashman is of the opinion that the negotiations were intended to break down so that the government would have an excuse to go to war.)
Flashman also spends a lot of time with Custer in the months leading up to the conflict. The picture painted of Custer may boarder on being a little bit cliche and one-dimensional. (He's portrayed as being an emotionally fragile, glory seeking basket case.) But again, much of it is backed up with historical footnotes.

And finally, at the actual battle itself, Flashman sees exactly how Custer allowed himself to blunder into a much bigger Native American force.

I have a few more thoughts on this book, which I am presenting below in no particular order:

* Flashman in all of these books is always portrayed as an anti-hero. You root for him to survive everything because he's the only protagonist you've got. At the same time, you're also kind of hoping for him to get his just desserts, and usually most of his evil deeds do come back to bite him in the butt in one way or another.

In the past books, Flashman has done some truly despicable things. And he continues to push the boundaries in this book. For example he sells colored girl into slavery to pocket the money. He also participates in the massacre of a Native American tribe. (Not willingly, albeit. He is in a position where he either has to participate or be killed himself. But he doesn't hesitate to kill the Indians if it will save himself.)

This put me off of the book a little bit. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it. When writing about an anti-hero, there is a fine line. On the one hand the whole point of this series of books is that its protagonist is a bully and a coward. (And, based on the portrayal of Flashman from the original source material, "Tom Brown's Schooldays", it would be inconsistent for him to ever do anything that wasn't mean or spiteful.) Still, you don't want to push your audience too far away.

Then again, I suppose the fact that these books give you a protagonist that makes you feel uncomfortable is what's interesting about them. Although it would make me hesitant to recommend them.

* The book perhaps overuses the deus ex machina plot device to deliver Flashman from various tight spots. More than once in this book Flashman will appear to be doomed, and then a stranger will suddenly appear out of nowhere to save him.

* Although this story is about the American West, having it written by a British author does bring a unique perspective to some of the historical details.
For example, more than once the Custer's military blunders are compared with the Charge of the Light Brigade in Crimea. The bungled diplomatic negotiations with the Sioux at Black Hills, and the arrogance of the American government, are compared with William McNaghten in Afghanistan (both incidents described in previous Flashman books).
The relationship between the Native Americans and the British government is touched on (Sitting Bull apparently had a badge of King George III.)
I also learned that President Ulysses S. Grant was a big fan of "Tom Brown's Schooldays" (the original source material for the Flashman character, and there's an interesting joke about this in the book) and that before Texas had officially joined the United States, Britain had once entered into negotiations with the object of persuading Texas to join the British Empire. (Flashman claims this was a bit of a sore point among the Americans of the time.)

* I'm not entirely sure why this book has such a politically incorrect title. To keep with the pulpy feel of the story, perhaps?

Actually speaking of political incorrectness, large parts of this book do seem aimed at upsetting liberal views of history. The author, George MacDonald Fraser, seems to be of the opinion that modern history has completely white-washed the Native Americans, and made them into passive victims of Western Imperialism while ignoring the fact that the Indians committed a lot of atrocities themselves.

Some of this viewpoint comes out through the character of Flashman himself, and admittedly Flashman is not intended to be a reliable narrator in all things. But it also comes through in the historical footnotes, where the author complains about "Indian apologists."

What the actual historical record is, I'm no expert on. It's more than possible that there were plenty of atrocities committed on both sides. However I'm a little uneasy that Fraser seems to think that the Native Americans have gotten off too easily. I seem to remember them being portrayed as bad guys more often than not in many of the films I watched as a child. (Some of these films were a bit older, but dated or not they are still part of the collective media environment.)
Also, in his book "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong" (A), James Loewen makes the case that, contrary to popular belief, most history textbooks actually downplay the atrocities committed against Native Americans.

However to Fraser's credit, he certainly shows that the atrocities were not one all way. And he gives a sympathetic viewpoint of the Native American position regarding the Black Hills conflict. (As mentioned above, he places the blame for the negotiations breaking down on the United States government, not on the Indians.)

In conclusion: although I feel conflicted about some of the things inside this book, I certainly can't complain that it was a boring read. It did an excellent job of holding my attention. I enjoyed reading it, and I like to think I learned a few things from it.

Link of the Day
John Pilger Interviews Noam Chomsky 25 Nov 1992

Also: Obama’s War on Schools
The No Child Left Behind Act has been deadly to public education. So why has the president embraced it?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Thoughts on the Red Dawn Remake

In the fall of 2000 I was finishing up my education degree at Calvin College. In one of our evening seminars, we were talking about the pros and cons of a nation-wide standardized test that was required for all school children to take.

I don't remember the exact name of the test. (This was 10 plus years ago now). But there is something that does stick in my memory.

The professor was reading through a list of the objectives that the test was supposed to promote: reading skills, writing skills, math skills, and patriotism.

"That patriotism part disturbs me a little bit," the professor said. And to illustrate his point, he showed us an example math question.

The question had a bar graph showing how much each nation spent on it's military. North Korea spent by far the highest, then China, and then the United States. The question read something like, "If for example North Korea spends $10 billion on its military, and China spends $9 billion, and the United States spends $7 billion, what percentage of the Chinese and North Korean military budget does the United States spend?"

"Now," the professor said as he changed slides, "here are the actual figures."
The next chart he showed made my bar drop. The United States military spending was just off the chart. It spent far more than any other country. It spent more than the next 10 countries combined. To get some sort of visual sense of this, click on this link here to see a comparative military chart from 2002 (link here).

This was one of those life changing moments, when I realized just how insidious the nature of propaganda is. It wasn't technically a lie, because the test never claimed these figures were accurate. They were just example numbers for some made-up math problem. But it was a subtle way of influencing how school children thought about the world. North Korea and China are obsessive war mongering countries that spend much more on their military than peace loving countries like the USA.

And this kind of subtle propaganda was everywhere. It was in the movies we watched, the newspapers we read, and now I learned children are even propagandized in the questions on mandatory standardized tests.

All this is, of course, a digression, but I couldn't help but remember this when I heard that the new "Red Dawn" remake was going to feature North Koreans as the bad guys.

For anyone unfamiliar with the "Red Dawn" movie, it is a 1980s movie in which the Soviet Union invades and takes over the United States. All the adults are rounded up and put in re-education camps, but a group of teenagers hide out in the mountains and wage a guerrilla warfare against the Soviet Army.

In the re-make, now, it is the North Korean army that is going to take over the United States.

The website Bleeding Cool has, to their credit, already done a couple of articles illustrating just how blatantly ridiculous and boarder-line racist this is. (Links here and here.)

And perhaps the premise is so absurd on it's face that any thinking adult would just laugh it off, and doesn't need my help pointing out how utterly stupid this plot is.

I mean, you would have to believe that a nation with 24 million people would be able to take over 310 million people.
You would have to believe that a nation that has just barely begun it's nuclear weapons program, and does not yet have long range missiles, would be able to take over a nation that has 20,000 hydrogen bombs stockpiled.
...That a nation with a military budget of $10 billion dollars could take over a nation with a budget of $741 billion dollars.
...That a nation completely isolated from the world would be able to take over a nation with obligatory mutual defense treaties with several nations.
...That a nation which has for the last 60 years not been able to take over its own peninsula is now capable of world domination. And that instead of exerting their military influence in their own region they would fly across to the United States.

The really ironic thing is that historically Korea, as a small kingdom surrounded by greater Asian powers, has a history that is very consistent. They are always the ones being invaded, (first by the Chinese, then by the Japanese, then by the Americans). They are never the invaders. And there is no indication that they want to be.

To illustrate the stupidity of this film, you would have to imagine the Roman Empire, at the height of it's powers, making movies about them being overrun by the Celts in Britannia. You would have to imagine Nazi Germany making films about being taken over by Belgium, or Russia making a film about being overrun by Afghanistan.

So, yeah, clearly this is ridiculous on it's face, and you don't need my help pointing out all the real world flaws in this plot. But once the movie gets released and becomes part of our culture, it will be yet another way in which children are surrounded by propaganda (a world view that is reinforced in the movies as well as standardized test questions).

Perhaps I've given this movie, which might not even be that successful, more time and thought than it deserves. I just wanted to get this off my chest so it would stop bugging me in the back of my mind.

And of course, I should remember the golden rule of movie reviewing: never review movies you haven't seen. Once this movie comes out and I see how they actual execute the concept, it's possible it might be better than it looks. (According to Wikipedia (W), it looks like the North Koreans are going to get some backing from the Chinese. Which makes it only slightly less ridiculous.)

Final thoughts go to Noam Chomsky, who's got spoken eloquently on this subject many times before (a 1993 speech, but still applicable today, taken from this website here):

...There is a very characteristic development going on in the U.S. now. It's not the first country in the world that's done this. There are growing domestic social and economic problems, in fact, maybe catastrophes. Nobody in power has any intention of doing anything about them. If you look at the domestic programs of the administrations of the last ten years -- I include here the Democratic opposition -- there's really no serious proposal about what to do about the severe problems of health, education, homelessness, joblessness, crime, soaring criminal population, jails, deterioration in the inner cities -- the whole raft of problems. You all know about them and they're all getting worse... In such circumstances you've got to divert the bewildered herd, because if they start noticing this they may not like it, since they're the ones suffering from it. Just having them watch the Superbowl and the sitcoms may not be enough. You have to whip them up into fear of enemies. In the 1930s Hitler whipped them into fear of the Jews and Gypsies. You had to crush them to defend yourselves. We have our ways, too. Over the last ten years, every year or two, some major monster is constructed that we have to defend ourselves against. There used to be one that was always available: the Russians. But they're losing their attractiveness as an enemy, and it's getting harder and harder to use that one, so some new ones have to be conjured up... So it was international terrorists and narco-traffickers and crazed Arabs and Saddam Hussein, the new Hitler, is going to conquer the world. They've got to keep coming up, one after another. You frighten the population, terrorize them, intimidate them so that they're too afraid to travel and cower in fear. Then you have a magnificent victory over Grenada, Panama, or some other defenseless Third World army that you can pulverize before you ever bother to look at them -- which is just what happened. That gives relief. We were saved at the last minute. That's one of the ways in which you can keep the bewildered herd from paying attention to what's really going on around them, keep them diverted and controlled....


and

...The fact of the matter is, this [Iraq] was a Third World country with a peasant army. It is now being conceded that there was a ton of disinformation about the fortifications, the chemical weapons, etc. But did you find anybody who pointed it out? Virtually nobody. That's typical. Notice that this was done one year after exactly the same thing was done with Manuel Noriega. Manuel Noriega is a minor thug by comparison with George Bush's friend Saddam Hussein or George Bush's other friends in Beijing, or George Bush himself, for that matter. In comparison with them, Manuel Noriega is a pretty minor thug. Bad, but not a world class thug of the kind we like. He was turned into a creature larger than life. He was going to destroy us, leading the narco-traffickers. We had to quickly move in and smash him, killing a couple hundred or maybe thousand people, restoring to power the tiny, maybe eight percent white oligarchy, and putting U.S. military officers in control at every level of the political system. We had to do all those things because, after all, we had to save ourselves or we were going to be destroyed by this monster. One year later the same thing was done by Saddam Hussein. Did anybody point it out? Did anybody point out what had happened or why? You'll have to look pretty far for that.


Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky Responsibility and integrity: the dilemmas we face

and Alarmed by the so-called crisis in Japan? The invisible hand of the free market explains nuclear safety

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

(Movie Review)

A few weeks back I was having coffee with a friend, and for reasons I don't quite remember we got to talking about Heavenly Creatures.

I had seen this movie purely by chance. I was a Freshman at Calvin, and the Calvin film committee had been showing weekly movies every Saturday night. Sometimes when I couldn't get myself invited out to a party somewhere I would kill my solitary Saturday nights by wandering over and watching whatever movie they were showing. One week they showed Heavenly Creatures.

I had known absolutely nothing about the movie before it started--never even heard of it before. The abrupt tonal shift at the end of the movie took me completely off-guard. Up until the end I had thought I was watching a movie about a friendship between two girls with elements of a children's fairy tale fantasy. The horrifying ending really shocked me. And yet, because it had shocked me so much, the movie has stayed vivid in my mind years 15 years later (unlike countless other movies in the intervening years which I've watched and promptly forgotten.)

I must have been getting a little bit too animated in trying to convey all this, because my friend just laughed and told me to calm down a bit. I apologized, and then said "but isn't it true that the movies that really chill you are the ones that stick with you?"

She thought about this for a minute, and then said she agreed. And said the last movie that had really chilled her, and stuck in her mind for this reason, was "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."
Up until this time, I had no interest in watching "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." As a literary snob, I'm always wary of bestselling books. And the movie had seemed a little bit too art-house trendy for me. But after this conversation, I decided I wanted to check it out.

So the next time my brother-in-law and I were in the video store looking for something to rent, I suggested this movie.

It is, of course, always an exercise in futility to go into one movie expecting it to make you feel the same way as another movie. A problem to this genre in particular is that there are only so many times in this life that we can be genuinely shocked before we start to become immune to it. When I was 18 I was, at least as far as my movie going experience is concerned, probably a lot more innocent and naive than I am now.

And so, not surprisingly, this movie failed to make as much of an impression on me as Heavenly Creatures did.

In fact I found it entirely forgettable.

This is your average mystery/ suspense thriller movie, of which there are a dime a dozen, and I didn't find it particularly better than any of the other various mystery suspense movies I've seen over the years.
It wasn't any worse, mind you, but at the end of it I was left wondering what all the hype had been about. (The video rental box had bragged that this was the biggest money making film in Europe in 2009, and the highest grossing Swedish film in history.)

My brother-in-law had the same reaction. "If this hadn't been a foreign language subtitled film," he said, "I would just have considered it a bad movie."

I wonder about that myself. If this film had been released as just a normal English language film, and if it had been released without any of the hype, would people have even noticed it?
(Yes, the sexual assault scenes were disturbing to watch, but they in me produced revulsion rather than a really chilling horror. Plus the far-fetched plot made it hard for me to forget at any time that I was watching a movie, and that these were fictional characters and not real life situations.)

However, I won't go as far as to say the film bored me. It had my attention all the way through.
The film starts off as a mildly intriguing murder mystery. I was watching to see what would develop. There were also a couple different plots going on at once, and I was curious to see how they would come together. "The girl with the dragon tattoo" herself seemed at the beginning to be a minor character in her own movie, and I was curious to see how the plot was going to come around to her.

As they work to solve the crime there are a couple surprises and a couple red-herrings along the way, but that's pretty standard in these type of movies. And the bad guy, when he is ultimately confronted, turns out to be a pretty sick and twisted individual, but if you've seen "Silence of the Lambs" (or any equivalent suspense movie) there's really nothing new in here.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: Gaza - One Year Later

and: The Fustercluck Doctrine

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Brief Summary of the Conservative Arguments Against NPR

(Partly inspired by this latest Cal Thomas editorial (link here), but applicable to a wide range of Conservative whining around the issue the past few weeks.)

1). NPR has a well-known liberal bias. Tax payers shouldn't have to pay for NPR because it has a liberal bias. We should cut public funding, and if liberals like NPR so much, why not just let them make up the difference out of their own pocket?

And...
2). Aha!! Liberals are contributing to NPR. And worse yet, NPR is accepting money from liberal donors. That just proves it has a liberal bias. Therefore we should cut its budget.

And return to point number one. And round and round the circular logic goes.

I actually enjoy NPR. More because I think they do quality programing than because of any ideological slant.

Of course you should always have your eyes wide open, and know about the ideological constraints of any media you listen to. Chomsky has some very interesting stories about his own experience with NPR (link here).
[And I know I link to a lot of Chomsky stuff, but this clip is seriously worth the 5 minutes it takes to watch, especially if you listen to a lot of NPR.]

As a nominal anarchist, I should have problems with state funded media. And indeed I do have some misgivings. Government funded radio is necessarily going to reflect a certain point of view that would be different from, say radio controlled by the workers.
I think this is a reason to be skeptical of it. I don't think this is a reason for doing away with it completely, because I tend to believe the world is a richer place for having more opinions available.

From an anarchist perspective there is of course a legitimate question about whether citizens should be forced to fund government radio, and in theory this is a reasonable objection to NPR. But in practice, the commercial networks have been doing such a poor job of keeping us informed that I shudder to think how the political dialogue would suffer if we were only left with cable news and talk radio. So until we reach the anarchist utopia of citizen controlled radio, I'd just assume prop NPR up as a counterweight to the corporate controlled media.

Also, call me crazy, but I don't think NPR is all that liberal. Of course if you go through their archives with a fine enough tooth comb you can prove any point you want to (as Cal Thomas does in his column), but even then his examples are pretty weak. If these are the best examples of liberal bias he can come up with over several years, then that's saying something in and of itself.

But the intended result of this is entirely predictable. After being beat-up so much for having a "liberal bias", the head executives at NPR are going to be very careful in the future about including any information or view points that Republicans might possible disagree with. At best NPR will become totally toothless and afraind of covering any contraversial issue, and at worst they will start to shift to the right. And this I believe is the true objective of the Republican campaign against NPR.

Link of the Day
Chomsky: is Iran a threat?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Free-Born John by Pauline Gregg

Subtitle: A biography of John Lilburne

(Book Review)

Before I get into the actual book itself, let me start with the subject matter and how I became interested in it.

I first became interested in “The Levellers” when reading “A People’s History of the World” by Chris Harman.
Now, I know I had a number of negative things to say about that book, but in spite of all its flaws there are one or two things Chris Harman does a pretty good job on.
One theme that Chris Harman does a good job of emphasizing is that in any era of history, the bottom rungs of society have never really accepted that their lot is simply to be poor and miserable.

This is notable, because it is in contrast to another view of history: that before the enlightenment philosophers and French Revolution got the mobs all riled up, the idea of political and economic equality never really occurred to people. I had one Latin Professor at college who I remember once espoused this view to us at length, and was at great pains to emphasize to us that we could not try and understand the ancient world by using our modern ideas of equality. Sure, there had occasionally been peasant rebellions and slave revolts, but this did not mean that people like Spartacus believed in equality as a philosophical principle. Spartacus and his like were simply rebelling to improve their own lives. No one back then, not even the lower classes, could comprehend the idea that everyone should be equal.

Harman, I think, does a fairly good job of demolishing this point of view by showing that throughout history the lower classes have not only fought for equality, but (in the instances where their writings have survived) spoken and written in favor of equality. (This is also in accordance with Chomsky’s view that human beings have a natural desire for freedom and equality, and they don’t have to be taught about these things by philosophers.)

To support this view Harman covers numerous rebellions and movements, but one of the more interesting movements that Harman touches on briefly is the Leveller Movement, which occurred in England during the 1640s—something that had been left out of my history education completely, but which I found fascinating. At the time, there was a civil war going on between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. The Parliamentarians wanted to establish a republican system of government, but one in which only wealth land-owners could vote.
However within the ranks of the common people and soldiery, there emerged several more radical egalitarian movements, such as the Leveller Movement, which believed in universal suffrage and the removal of all social distinctions. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the Leveller’s had great influence in the Parliamentarian army, and for a while were a real threat to Oliver Cromwell and the Grandees (as Parliament's leaders were known). Cromwell and Ireton were even forced to debate the Leveller’s at the Putney debates.

I was curious to find out more about the Levellers after this, but living in Japan at the time I did not have access to a decent English library. And so I did the standard geek thing and wasted a lot of time reading about them on the Internet.
Wikipedia alerted me to the fact that the Leveller Movement had recently been the subject of a British television mini-series “The Devil’s Whore (W).”
At the time, there were several copies of “The Devil’s Whore” up on YouTube (and they might still be up for all I know, if you want to try and watch them yourself) so I tracked down the various parts and sat through all 4 hours of it.
“The Devil’s Whore” retells Leveller history as a sappy romance saga (fellows should be warned ahead of time) and it does get pretty sappy at points. But it also did do a great job of introducing me to Leveller figures such as Edward Sexby, Thomas Rainsborough, and John Lilburne, and for this reason alone I give it a cautious recommendation if you can track down a copy.

Now that I’m back in an English speaking country, and have access to the University library, I decided to try and seek out some actual books on the Levellers.

Once I actually got deep into the library, it turns out that there are quite a number of books dealing with the Leveller movement—about 3 or 4 rows worth. Some of these books are a bit older, and some of them are published by University presses, but they are out there if you bother to track them down.

Many of them are written in a dry and stuffy academic tone. And a lot of them are analytical history, intent on analyzing the Leveller movement and its causes rather than telling a story.
When I’m reading history for pleasure, I always prefer a book that reads like a story. I also tried to find the most readable book on the subject. After flipping through several books, it looked like “Free-Born John” by Pauline Gregg was the most readable of the bunch.

For the amateur historian, this is a good armchair history. It’s not the best written book I’ve ever come across (parts of it are a bit dry) but for the most part it’s a very smooth read and, like any good armchair history book, reads like a story.

While reading this book, I was a little bit surprised at just how much information existed about John Lilburne’s life. Considering, for example, we know next to nothing about Shakespeare’s life (Lilburne’s near contemporary) I had assumed that historical records for the common people were just lacking for this period. But not so for everyone obviously. Partly because Lilburne (a shameless self-promoter) wrote so much about himself in his published pamphlets, the author is able to reconstruct a pretty detailed history of his life.

But that’s not to say there aren’t a few gaps from time to time, and occasionally the author has to resort to sentences like “It is easy to imagine John Lilburne might have also been with the crowds on that day.” In fact, the first 100 pages or so are filled with speculation about what John Lilburne probably did, almost certainly did, and could not have failed to do.
Also during the first 100 pages the author will fill in some of the gaps in the narrative by writing about the intellectual climate at the time, or even long boring descriptions of what London was like during this period.

Another problem, again not wholly the author’s fault, is the somewhat repetitive nature of John Lilburne’s tale. Much of the book is simply recounting the cat and mouse game between the Leveller’s printing press and the authorities. The Levellers will publish an illegal pamphlet, the authorities will try suppress it and find out who is responsible, the Leveller’s will publish another pamphlet, and the cycle will repeat again. It’s interesting to a point, but some of this might have been better off summarized. (Although reading a book like this does make you appreciate the importance of living in a time and country where freedom of speech is protected.)

Also like any martyr to a cause, John Lilburne spends a lot of his life locked away in jail. And it’s hard to write an interesting biography of someone lingering in jail for years. The author I think does the best that can be expected under the circumstances, and writes about the pamphlets Lilburne smuggled out of the jail, the various friends and enemies he made in the jail, and his ability to sometimes influence outside events from within the jail.
Often, given the turmoil of the period, what is happening outside of the jail is much more interesting than what is happening inside, and the author will jump back and forth between the greater Leveller Movement and Lilburne.

However there are plenty of parts of Lilburne’s life that are fascinating.
The book is also filled with plenty of scenes of court room drama, and because every time Lilburne was up before a court he wrote long pamphlets about his experiences, the entire proceedings are usually documented in surprising detail, and the author has plenty to draw on here for details.

The ever changing relationship between Cromwell and Lilburne is well documented in this book as well. As a member of Parliament, Cromwell actually starts out as an admirer of Lilburne, and is instrumental in freeing him from his imprisonment. As Cromwell becomes more powerful, however, he becomes obsessed with suppressing Lilburne and the Levellers. However, as the book shows, Lilburne and Cromwell still retain some fondness for each other even as enemies. When he perceives Lilburne is no longer a threat, Cromwell is even capable of acts of kindness towards Lilburne and his wife, for which Lilburne writes Cromwell letters gushing with thankfulness.

Throughout the book, John Lilburne comes out as someone who is remarkably dedicated to his cause, and can also be remarkably stubborn in pursuit of his ideals, refusing to be bought out or to compromise. However the author does not gloss over his faults either. She shows him as occasionally egotistical and a self promoter. Also, although Lilburne made his name standing up for the poor and dispossessed, there is one unfortunate incident when he appears to have acted harshly as a landlord towards his tenants, and Pauline Gregg dutifully records this.

And although largely sympathetic to the aims of the greater Leveller Movement, the author also points out some of their ideological shortcomings and inconsistencies. For example, the program which the Levellers introduced and petitioned the government for is hard to classify in terms of ideology. They wanted more government interference in cases where the poor would benefit from government involvement, and less government interference otherwise. They appealed to ancient Anglo-Saxon law in cases where it supported their cause, and appealed to the will of the people in all other cases. Basically their platform was designed to help the poorest members of society, but that was the only consistent thing about it.

(Although this is probably not unique to the Leveller Movement. Probably most political parties have a platform that was designed first to benefit its supporting members, and then try and backfit an ideology onto it afterwards. The same could probably be said about today’s modern Democratic and Republican parties. For example you could really do your head in trying to figure out if Republicans support more or less government interference.)

[An interesting side note here on another of my interests—the history of anarchism. According to this BBC radio show “In Our Time: The history of Anarchism" (link here)--which is totally worth listening to if you’ve got a free minute—the origins of the modern anarchist movement date back to the Levellers. Not that the Levellers actually were anarchists, but they were accused of anarchism by Cromwell and the Grandees because of their constant appeals to the will of the people. This had the effect of putting the word into the idea of anarchism into the political discourse so that later on, in the 19th century, theorists like Proudhon and Bakunin would take what had previously been a derogatory word and use it as a label for their own political philosophy. Or at least so the BBC claims (this may be a slightly Anglo-centric way of viewing what was primarily a Continental movement. I’m not sure the French Proudhon or the Russian Bakunin really read a lot about the English Civil Wars). But for what it’s worth, Pauline Gregg does record the accusations of anarchism used against the Leveller movement.]

Pauline Gregg also takes care to emphasize that the Leveller movement was not socialist, but held private property as a sacred right even while emphasizing political equality. Gregg contrasts the Leveller movement with other groups at the time such as the Diggers (who were actually early Agrarian Communists) and wonders whether the Levellers would have had more success if they had managed to form an alliance with the Diggers.

[Although I should note that apparently not everyone is clear on this point. I've recently had discussions with members of the Socialist Party who have apparently been reading different books than me ("Cromwell and Communism" (A)) and they believe that the Levellers were actually early communists. But my own readings on the internet have confirmed what Pauline Gregg asserts.]

Reading about John Lilburne and the Leveller Movement, a few thoughts did strike while reading this book. I'll just jot some of them down briefly.

1). It was interesting how Christianity was used by all sides on the English Civil War, both those fighting for repressive government and those fighting for people's rights both clearly believe that they had God on their side. I suspect this was probably partly because in the pre-enlightenment era, people couldn't conceive of a world without religion, and so religious terminology was all they knew. I suspect a lot of these progressive movements would use more secular language if the same battles were being re-fought today. But there's no denying that John Lilburne and the other Leveller leaders were just as deeply religious as the Royalists and Grandees they were fighting against.

2). The success of the Leveller Movement was that it so thoroughly infiltrated the rank and file of the army. Because most of the common soldiers were attracted to the ideals of the Levellers, the movement had power.
In fact, if you think about it, just about every successful revolution is successful because it wins over the army. (French Revolution, Paris 1848, Paris Commune, Russia 1917, Germany 1919, et cetera).
The lessons of history are clear that any revolutionary movement which hopes to succeed must involve itself in campaigns for soldiers' rights. This is something that the left has perhaps been neglecting in recent decades, and indeed it is a difficult balancing act to be against the imperialist nature of the modern army, but still trying to recruit its soldiers. But I think it's an issue that deserves more thought than it has been given in recent years.

3). However, despite having support from the rank and file of the army, as well as the London citizens, the Leveller Movement was ultimately defeated. As I was reading this book, I was constantly wondering how they allowed themselves to be defeated despite having so much support, but, as Pauline Gregg tells it, in the end most of the soldiers proved reluctant to mutiny against their established leaders, and the few mutinies that broke out were easily dealt with.
This is probably another all too common theme in revolutionary history. People are so used to submitting to authority figures, that often the movements don't realize how powerful they really are.

One last note:
This book is a bit older—it was published in 1961. I’m sure the history remains the same, but I’m told that in Britain interest in the Leveller movement and the Leveller martyrs revived during the 1970s, and so perhaps a more recent book might have more to say about the Leveller legacy.

Link of the Day
The Fifth Freedom

Bonus Link: On the subject of Cromwell, if you like mixing your history lessons with Irish folk rock, here's the Pogues "Young Ned of the Hill" (A curse upon you Oliver Cromwell)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Megamind

(Movie Review)

This movie may not be Citizen Kane, but it sure is a lot of fun. It's got a really good premise: what is life like from the supervillian's point of view? And, if the supervillian ever happened to win against the hero, what would he do next? Since supervillians often purely exist just to antagonize the hero, would a supervillian still be able to find purpose in his life without having a hero to fight?

What's more, unlike so many movies that start out with a great idea but then drop the ball, this movie actually lives up to the comic potential of its premise.

The movie takes a standard comic book superhero story.
Actually it's a thinly veiled parody of Superman. The superhero has all the same powers as Superman, the same origin story, a reporter girlfriend just like Superman and there's even a parody of Marlon Brando (who played Superman's Dad in the Christopher Reeve series)as spacedad. In fact given how litigious DC comics can sometimes be about protecting Superman's copyright (they sued Captain Marvel for copyright infringement back in the 1950s (w)) I'm almost a little surprised they got away with this.
But then, given how interconnected media conglomerates are these days, there's probably some mutual parent company.

What's interesting about this movie is that it tells the story from the bad guy's perspective.

Of course, by now it's nothing new to try and deconstruct superheroes or parody superhero movies.
Some of this movie was vaguely reminiscent of The Incredibles. Other parts of the movie, which tried to show the more mundane side of supervillian life, reminded me of the Dr. Evil segments from Austin Powers.

But when it's done well it can still be a lot of fun. And this film is fun. You can't help but laugh at the frustration of Megamind, who has spent his whole life living in comic book superhero cliches, and then becomes frustrated when the world suddenly no longer lives up to those cliches. You can see his frustration when one superhero forgets to show up to fight him, or fails to give him witty banter while they are fighting, or when another superhero retires to pursue his music career.

In addition to sending up comic book cliches, the movie also makes you think just a little bit about the true nature of evil, or (to put it in Calvinist terms) the problem of free will. It doesn't really get into any in depth discussions, but then you can't really expect a 90 minute movie to do that. In depth discussions are for books, the best a movie can do is just raise the question and then throw it out to the audience to ponder.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on U.S. Foreign Policy

and The non-acquiescers of Planet Glox.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Superbad

(Movie Review)

I guess this film is a bit of a cult classic. I missed out on it because I was in Japan. (The big budget Hollywood action flicks usually do pretty well in Japan, but humor doesn't always translate, and especially films with kind of quirky humor like this do not get big releases in Japan, and they can easily fly under my radar.)

But a friend loaned me this movie the other day, and I enjoyed it. I mentioned the movie to a couple people, and they immediately responded, "Ah, Mclovin!"

Even people who hadn't even seen the movie seemed to know about Mclovin. One friend told me, "a couple years ago that scene was always on TV back in the US."

It's amazing how much mileage this movie gets out of that one joke--the fact that a nerdy high school kid picked a ridiculous name for his fake ID. As the police officers repeatedly shout out his name, this gag alone probably accounts for about half the movie's humor right there.
And yet, it had me chuckling. [Mclovin! (Chortle) ahh, Mclovin. You crazy kids.]

This is the kind of film where the humor sort of grows on you. At least for me. I wasn't laughing very hard while I was actually watching it, but there were a number of things that stuck in my mind, and had me quietly laughing to myself the next couple days. (For example Jonah Hill being so upset that he didn't have a partner in Home Ec, or Michael Cera singing "These Eyes.")

Judged in an absolute sense, this may not be the best movie ever. But film review is always comparative. And as high school comedies go, I think this is near the top of my list.
I was talking with a friend who complained, "When I was in high school, we had 'American Pie.' What a terrible movie that was! I would have loved to have had 'Superbad' back then instead."

He was a couple years younger than me. I was in college when 'American Pie' came out. But his general point was well taken. There's a real quirky humor to this film that is a lot of fun. Also it manages to capture the awkwardness of high school without veering into sentimentality, so it gets another point.

I wasn't sure the police officers entirely fit into this film. There completely moronic banter was so different from the conversation of Jonah Hill and Michael Cera that they seemed to have been lifted out of another film entirely. At first I was worried they were going to ruin the whole film, but by they grew on me as well. By the end of the film I thought they had justified their existence.

Also a great soundtrack.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: “This is the Most Remarkable Regional Uprising that I Can Remember”

Also--more music on youtube. possibly the best version of "Masters of War" that I've heard yet.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Some Thoughts on Wisconsin

Just some brief thoughts that I'll jot down in no particular order.

1). I'm no constitutional lawyer, but if what is happening in Wisconsin and Ohio isn't already illegal, then it should be.
Because our forefathers will worried about legislative assemblies voting away certain basic human right, they added the The Bill of Rights to our constitution. It doesn't matter how many votes you have in the senate, you can't legally vote away someones right to freedom of religion, or freedom of speech.

If the right to collective bargaining isn't already guaranteed by our constitution, then it should be. State legislatures should not be able to legally strip unions of their rights. I'd like to see federal law makers in Washington introduce a new constitutional amendment to prevent this from happening in the future.

2). In recent years Fox News, Glenn Beck, and Jonas Goldberg have made a career out of comparing liberals to fascists. (And if you don't believe me see "Glenn Beck's Nazi Tourette's", 24-Hour Nazi Party People, Bill O'Reilly Defends His Nazi Analogies, and Liberal Fascism by Jonas Goldberg (A).

In general I try and stay away from fascist analogies, but...If we are going to go down that road...

Anyone with any historical knowledge whatsoever knows that Franco and Mussolini rose to power by first trying to demonize the labor unions and then proceeded to crush the labour unions once they got into power. Fascism as it developed at least in Spain and Italy can be said to be a right wing reaction against trade unionism.

Now of course I'm not saying that the labour unions have to win all the time, or that reasonable people can never disagree with union demands. But when you support legislative efforts to strip unions of their collective bargaining rights--well, I'm just saying people who live in glass houses should be careful about throwing around Nazi analogies.

3). Short digression here, but speaking of Glenn Beck: I can usually disagree with someone without thinking that their insane. But I just don't know about Glenn Beck. Watch this video here from his show(in which he ties together the Libyan protests with the Madison Wisconsin protests, and then talks about the end of the world order as we know it) and make up your own mind about whether this man still has a firm grip on reality.
This wouldn't bug me so much if the man were a marginal figure, but he's not. He's got a very highly rated program, on the highest rated cable news network in the country. I was just in airport bookstores recently, and he has authored not one, but several books being displayed prominently on the shelves. His name is even being used as an endorsement to sell other people's books.

I cringe often when I imagine what future historians are going to write about the political dialogue from our time.

4). The Daily Show has been doing a great job recently satirizing the right wing hostility towards public school teachers. Highly recommended viewing (see here, here, here, and here.)

Nor, by the way, is the right-wing attack on teachers anything new. See this "This Modern World" cartoon from back in 1997.

It's worth remembering at this point the high turn over rate of teachers (Washington Post Article here), especially first year teachers.

Anecdotally, I can't begin to tell you about the number of disillusioned former teachers I have talked to over the years. As an education major in college myself, I know several former classmates who taught for one year, and then decided the level of stress involved in teaching at the public schools just wasn't worth it, and then quickly switched over to easier and better paid jobs.
As an English teacher in Japan, I also encountered several former public school teachers who had decided teaching in public schools in America wasn't worth the stress, and decided to escape by becoming English teachers abroad instead.
I also know several people who started out as Education majors, and then were warned that the stresses of the job were rapidly beginning to outweigh the rewards. I could probably write a book about all the things former teachers have told me over the years.

Now, with public school teachers becoming villainized and their pay attacked, I can't imagine anyone with any talent that would be remotely attracted to this job. So remember this the next time you hear a pundit complaining yet again about how American education is falling behind, or how talented people never seem to want to go into teaching.

Which brings me to point 5

5). Remember this e-mail from some anonymous wall street stock trader that was circulating a few months back? Full text here, brief quotation below.

Go ahead and continue to take us down, but you're only going to hurt yourselves. What's going to happen when we can't find jobs on the Street anymore? Guess what: We're going to take yours. We get up at 5am & work till 10pm or later. We're used to not getting up to pee when we have a position. We don't take an hour or more for a lunch break. We don't demand a union. We don't retire at 50 with a pension. We eat what we kill, and when the only thing left to eat is on your dinner plates, we'll eat that.

For years teachers and other unionized labor have had us fooled. We were too busy working to notice. Do you really think that we are incapable of teaching 3rd graders and doing landscaping? We're going to take your cushy jobs with tenure and 4 months off a year and whine just like you that we are so-o-o-o underpaid for building the youth of America. Say goodbye to your overtime and double time and a half. I'll be hitting grounders to the high school baseball team for $5k extra a summer, thank you very much.


This was making the rounds on facebook a few months back, and most people were responding with the predictable "hey buddy, if you think it's so easy to handle 40 unruly inner-city middle school students, I'd like to see you try."
And no doubt there's some serious misrepresentation going on here. (Contrary to popular belief, teachers can't just abandon the classroom to take bathroom breaks whenever they feel like it. Nor do they retire at 50. And summer break is down to 2.5 months).

But all this is to miss the point. For the sake of argument, let's just assume everything this guy asserts is true. Let's assume that he and his Wall Street buddies are super talented, and the rest of us really suck, and that they could just swoop down and take our jobs whenever they feel like it.

Assume all that's true, and perhaps you begin to see the absurdity in his threat. I would absolutely love it if the most talented people in society would choose to become teachers. Instead, it appears all the talented people are sucked up by Wall Street, where they produce absolutely nothing of value.

And this ties in with the whole problem of capitalism. In a capitalist economy all the profits go to the people who create none of the wealth. The workers who actually manufacture the goods and services that power the economy get paid only a small portion of the value of their labour. However the stockholders, bankers, and Wall Street traders, who do not do any of the work of production, get all of the profits which result from the workers' labour.

And when the economy crashes because of poor choices made by banks and Wall Street, you better believe that they are not going to be the ones who have to pay the price. When sacrifices have to be made, it's the teachers' unions that have to be broken.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on Wisconsin protests (From Democracy Now!)