This Department features reviews and summaries of new books that link history and current events. From time to time we also feature essays that highlight publishing trends in various fields related to history.
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Much has been made in recent years of many students’ lack of interest in social studies, and of their poor performance in various measures of U.S. history knowledge. Starting with the 1983 publication, A Nation at Risk, and continuing through various studies conducted by Diane Ravitch, Chester Finn, and their peers, advocates of fact-based history study have argued that American students do not know their history as well as they should.
During the same period of time, researchers including Sam Wineburg (2001), Keith Barton & Linda Levstik (2004) have urged a different approach to improving secondary history education in American public schools. These researchers have rejected a “back to basics” focus emphasizing U.S. history as a consistent story of progress, with information presented primarily by the teacher and the text. Instead, they have suggested that students study history more like historians do: by considering different perspectives and by building a sense of empathy with historical figures in order to avoid judging historical actions by present-day standards. This approach is evident throughout editor Marcus’s recently published Celluloid Blackboard, which features several authors’ discussions concerning teaching and learning history in secondary U.S. History courses using popular films. The authors of the ten-chapter work frequently cite, Barton, and Levstik in their studies, stating that students need the support in developing more critical views of films as well as other sources of historical information.
Celluloid Blackboard makes a compelling case for exploring the use of film in teaching history. Alan S. Marcus (with Thomas H. Levine) argues that “historical film literacy should be a vital aim of history teachers” (p. 3) and notes that in one recent study, 92.9% of teachers used film an average of at least one time per week in their teaching. Marcus reports that over half of all students indicated they had seen Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Pearl Harbor, The Patriot, and Saving Private Ryan before taking U.S. History in high school. The editor notes that Hollywood has “bequeathed us with depictions of the past which are simultaneously moving, dramatic, and problematic.” As Stuart Poyntz states in Chapter 3, “The blockbuster film is not going away and it is these forms of representation that educators must learn to use productively if history education is to provide young people with the tools necessary to operate in a democratic society” (p. 91). While exemplary U.S. history instruction might not require watching films in class, most teachers do include films in teaching the subject, and most students’ background knowledge of events in U.S. history is at least partially shaped from Hollywood movies. Thus, Celluloid Blackboard’s content is relevant to teacher educators, as well as current and future social studies teachers....
Studies into ‘isms’ are not too inviting for they are habitually abstract and incoherent; however, this tome will not disillusion political science students any further. For the record, this is no polemic. Kaufman succeeds in his aim to provide both a theoretical and historical source in defense of the Bush Doctrine. Kaufman’s water-tight case navigates the post-September 11 sea-change in international affairs, course-plotting through the sea-lanes of International Relations theory cruising to geographically diverse ports taking history aboard. All this makes for a memorable voyage.
Edward Said’s is “Orientalism,” Francis Fukuyama’s is “The End of History,” Samuel Huntington’s is “The Clash of Civilizations,” Norman Podhoretz’s is “World War IV”; Robert Kaufman’s will undoubtedly be “moral democratic realism.”
Kaufman distinguishes between moral democratic realism and the three predominant schools of thought subscribed to in what Henry Luce coined, the “American Century”: isolationism, liberal multilateralism and realism (neo and classical). Ever since the days of Woodrow Wilson, foreign policy mandarins have defined the tyranny of their adversary as the root cause of the conflict. Bush is no different. No overview could possibly do justice to Kaufman’s cerebral analysis here. It is unputdownable.
Kaufman chastises amoral Nixonian/Kissingerian realpolitik favoring Trumanian/Reaganite muscular vigilance-cum-messianism; for the latter were triumphant in that they pooled sagacity for power politics with a moral-democratic fixation for ideology and regime dynamic. Presidents who only did one or the other—such as the liberal multilateralist Jimmy Carter or the realist Richard Nixon—were, as Kaufman pens, not only less than successful but presided over a nadir in American foreign policy. Worse still, trawling back further in time, Senator Taft’s philosophy created a world safe for the ilk of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo; similarly, a Buchanan-like isolationist stance today would embolden the Mullahs in Iran. Let us take a Fergusonian perspective: “Anyone who looks forward eagerly to an American retreat from hegemony should bear in mind that rather than a multipolar world of competing great powers, a world with no hegemon may be the real alternative to U.S. primacy. Apolarity could turn out to mean not the pacifist utopia envisaged in John Lennon’s dirge “Imagine,” but an anarchic new Dark age” (Colossus: p.xxii-iii).
An attention-grabbing parallel leaps out at the reader regarding the Philosopher-King-like relationship (or lack of) between the Ford White House on the one hand and the Bush White House on the other à propos dissidents. Unlike 1975 when President Ford refused to meet with the Soviet dissident and author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Gulag Archipelago), George Bush, a generation on, in 2004, met with former Soviet dissident and author, Natan Sharansky (The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror). Why the policy change you ask? Well, it all comes down to realism and neoconservatism—sorry, mean moral democratic realism (for Kaufman does not adequately distinguish between the two for me: p.90). Both of the titles present a provocative moral case chronicling “the grotesque horrors” of totalitarianism, in all its forms; one discarded to the proverbial dustbin of history (pp.62, 104-105), the latter placed on the Oval Office bookshelf was a leitmotif in both Bush’s Inaugural Address and State of the Union speech (2005).
Bush is said to be a narrow-minded, arrogant revolutionary. History says otherwise. Bush’s meeting with Sharansky harks all the way back to Plato’s day. Plato claims it is a common fact of life that people seek counsel solely from experts in a particular field. For example, in the Theaetetus, Plato says:
"…wherever human life and work goes on, you find everywhere men seeking teachers and masters…."
After a triumphant Eighties—a “Weightless Decade”—the Noughties are the midwife to a doctrine that will duly survive its brave originator for it is vastly superior to the alternatives (indeed, such a hegemonic foreign policy doctrine ought to repel the sterility of partisan debate); you only need to read this hardback to comprehend why and how history will be kind to Bush, for he has written it. Kaufman’s text illuminates that, as written elsewhere by the precocious essayist, Douglas Murray, “there are still some who are willing to stand between the cowards and the barbarians and plant the flag of reason.”
In a number of ways, The Atomic Bazaar is a very disturbing book. Written by William Langewiesche—who served for years as a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, in which this material first appeared—it exposes the secret progress of nuclear weapons proliferation over the past few decades. Based on extensive investigation of licit and illicit nuclear technology ventures, it provides a dismaying portrait of how national rivalries, supplemented by human greed, are producing an ever more dangerous world.
Langewiesche begins by taking a look at the nuclear issue that most frequently grabs the attention of the communications media and of the American public: the prospect of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons. Somewhat reassuringly, he does not think it likely that they will obtain such weapons on their own. Although he provides a frightening picture of rotting, lightly-guarded nuclear weapons facilities in Russia, surrounded by sullen, desperate local citizens, he considers a commando-style raid there by terrorists unlikely to succeed. International smuggling of highly-enriched uranium out of Russia is a better bet, he concedes, especially given the country's porous southern borders. Nevertheless, as he remarks, "The construction of a bomb is not a casual project," and might well be discovered by snooping neighbors or the authorities, even in chaotically governed nations. Thus, he concludes, the odds are stacked against a would-be nuclear terrorist.
Terrorism, however, does not constitute the greatest nuclear danger. Washington, London, and New York, Langewiesche argues, "are unlikely anytime soon to suffer a nuclear strike—though certainly the possibility exists. More at risk for now . . . are the cities of the nuclear-armed poor, particularly on the Indian subcontinent, and in the Middle East." In the past few years, millions of Indians and Pakistanis twice came close to nuclear annihilation, and "this is the world in which increasingly we live, of societies . . . that are weak and unstable but also nuclear-armed."
Pakistan, particularly, Langewiesche notes, "is the great proliferator of our time." And this, in turn, owes much to the work of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan. Trained as a metallurgist, Khan began his career as a nuclear proliferator in the mid-1970s, when he returned to Pakistan from employment in the Netherlands. Drawing upon stolen nuclear designs, he dramatically built up Pakistan's nuclear facilities through the Khan Research Laboratories, which produced highly enriched uranium, the fissionable material necessary for Pakistan's nuclear weapons, and designed the warheads and missiles to deliver them. Along the way, Khan became a sort of demigod in Pakistan, living in luxury, accepting awards of every kind (including six honorary doctoral degrees, 45 gold medals, and three gold crowns), and, as Langewiesche notes, "holding forth on diverse subjects—science, health, history, world politics, poetry, and (his favorite) the magnitude of his achievements."
In fact, Khan was not an independent operator, for his nuclear activities received the lavish support of the Pakistani government. Langewiesche observes that Khan's budget "was apparently unlimited. Eventually he hired as many as ten thousand people," and "also launched a massive shopping spree in Europe and the United States." Given his government's largesse, Khan could offer two or three times the going rate for nuclear-related products manufactured by corporations in more industrially advanced nations—products which they happily provided.
Khan's importance to the Pakistani regime reached an apparent zenith in 1998, when it exploded its first atomic bombs. Shortly after a technician pushed a button and proclaimed "Allah-o-Akbar" (God is great), a fierce nuclear explosion shook the test mountain, shrouding it in dust. Pakistan had become a nuclear nation.
By this point, Khan was dealing on a much larger stage. Eager to enhance his considerable personal fortune, he sold vital nuclear information and material to the governments of Libya and Iran. During the 1990s, he also worked out a deal with the North Korean regime, in which that government provided him with missile prototypes (which were then modified and produced at the Khan Research Laboratories) and he provided that government with centrifuge prototypes and advice on uranium enrichment and procurement.
Ultimately, these arrangements led to Khan's downfall. With Khan's extensive nuclear sales operations revealed by the Libyan government, the U.S. government demanded that Pakistan's dictator, General Pouvez Musharraf, take action against him. Although Musharraf and other Pakistani officials were deeply complicit in Khan's activities, the general arranged to have Khan make a formal confession on television in which he accepted the sole blame for them. "I also wish to clarify," Khan stated on that occasion, "that there was never ever any kind of authorization for these activities by the government." As a reward for Khan's willingness to take the heat, Musharraf pardoned him. But the general kept Khan under house arrest in one of his mansions, where he would remain out of sight, out of mischief, and out of reach of independent inquiries.
For Langewiesche, the moral of this sad story of corruption and the dispersal of nuclear weaponry is not to abandon efforts at nuclear nonproliferation, but to find "the courage in parallel to accept the equalities of a maturing world in which many countries have acquired atomic bombs, and some may use them."
But much of his evidence can also support a different conclusion—one pointing to the failure of nuclear-armed nations to live up to their responsibilities. Time after time, as Langewiesche shows, the U.S. government—despite repeated warnings from U.S. intelligence agencies—was content to ignore Khan's operations because of the assistance Pakistan could provide to U.S. military ventures. For example, starting in 1979, the U.S. government drew upon Pakistan as a base for anti-Soviet operations in Afghanistan. Beginning in 2001, it cozied up to Pakistan to secure that nation's cooperation in subduing Al Qaeda and the Taliban in that same country. In these circumstances, the U.S. government found it relatively easy to accommodate itself to Pakistan's role as a nuclear nation and, for a time at least, as a nuclear Wal-Mart.
Furthermore, as Langewiesche concedes, much of motivation for building the Bomb among Third World leaders was based on their resentment at the world's nuclear two-tier system: nuclear weapons for some nations and no nuclear weapons for them. There was, as he writes, "a moralistic rejection of the discriminatory nuclear order." For all his venality, Khan shared this sense of grievance. "I want to question the bloody holier-than-thou attitudes of the Americans and the British," he wrote in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, in 1979. "Are these bastards God appointed guardians of the world to stockpile hundreds of thousands of nuclear warheads, and have they God-given authority to carry out explosions every month?" By contrast, if Pakistanis "start a modest programme, we are the satans, the devils." Although Khan exaggerated the numbers of nuclear warheads possessed by the U.S. and British governments, he did not exaggerate their national arrogance.
Of course, coupling the abandonment of nuclear weapons by the nuclear nations with the renunciation of nuclear weapons by non-nuclear nations is the bargain that was struck under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968. If we want nuclear safety, it is more likely to come in that form than in the form of further nuclear proliferation. But moving in the direction of this kind of equal playing field—a nuclear-free world—requires that the nuclear powers accept the responsibility to fulfill their treaty commitment to their own nuclear disarmament. Until that happens, we can expect what Langewiesche predicts: further nuclear proliferation and a heightened danger of nuclear war.
The Bush administration is undoubtedly among the most unpopular in American history, with critics left and right denouncing its destructive foreign policies and incompetence. Prominent neoconservative intellectuals, including those affiliated with the much-maligned Project for the New American Century like Francis Fukuyama, have joined the chorus of dissenters, calling for a more grounded approach to foreign affairs that holds the promise of winning back some of America’s previous international credibility and prestige. Doug Bandow’s collection of writings, Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire, represents yet another “insiders” critique of Bush, this one from a self-fashioned libertarian-conservative who served as a special assistant to Ronald Reagan. He is aghast at the misappropriation of government funds and abuse of power.
At the core of Bandow’s critique is his identification of one of the central paradoxes of Bush-style conservatism- the preaching of small government while spending billions of taxpayer dollars on defense appropriations and military adventurism. According to Bandow, the end of the Cold War had presented an opportunity for the United States to scale down its military spending, which the Bush I and Clinton administrations failed to take advantage of. Bush II has taken this “folly” to a whole new level in orchestrating the failed invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
One of the major problems is that there has been no correlation between the rise in defense expenditures and use of force with an improvement in American public security, despite a bi-partisan consensus favoring it. In fact, as Bandow convincingly argues, the opposite holds true. The more America intervenes militarily, the more it helps to destabilize already volatile regions of the world and escalates vicious circles of violence rendering support for extremist groups like Al Qaeda. The United States is particularly vulnerable as a target of international terrorism because of its alliances with tyrannical regimes like the Saudi Royal family and support for Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. For those living under the yoke of oppression in the Muslim world, the double-standards of U.S. foreign policy are often too much to bear.
The failure of American social engineering projects, according to Bandow, has further contributed to the backlash against the United States. He is particularly critical of efforts to export humanitarian ideals by force or at the barrel of a gun, justifiably so. Bandow advocates for a less missionary-like foreign policy, which holds the promise of promoting American strategic interests and limiting anti-American hatred. He is also concerned that an over-reliance on military power has dangerously expanded the size of the federal government. Bandow recounts the history of state abuse in the United States – from the McCarthy purges on down, and worries about the threat to civil liberties engendered by Orwellian organizations like the Department of Homeland Security. Here again, his critique is well-grounded and insightful.
On some levels, though, Bandow gives the Bush administration and its predecessors too much credit. While stressing the misguided character of U.S. foreign policy, he constantly refers to its “good intentions” and overly idealistic quality. He fails to address its underlying hegemonic aspirations (as outlined in the Project for the New American Century’s blueprints for Iraq) and economic motivations, including the desire to promote foreign investment and to exploit the Middle-East’s oil resources. These belie the claim about “good” intentions. Writing from a strictly proto-nationalist perspective, Bandow generally limits his criticism of U.S. foreign policy to its effects on Americans. This causes him to ignore any serious discussion of the devastation inflicted on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, including the stoking of internecine conflict, uprooting of families, demolishing of homes and villages (and cities like Fallujah), destruction of infrastructure, and crippling, maiming and killing of tens of thousands of people. Last year, a team of researchers at John Hopkins released a report estimating that 655,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed since the U.S. invasion or Iraq, at least one- third by coalition forces. This damning evidence does not make it into Bandow’s writings, which whitewash similar historical crimes like the Indo-China Wars, and place primacy on American interests and the loss in American lives. The narrowness of this approach, and underlying cultural jingoism associated with it, is striking.
Equally disturbing, Bandow displays a degree of ignorance about the roots of various regional conflicts and historical legacies of American foreign policy that is unfortunately all too typical of mainstream media and intellectual commentary. In speaking about the “folly” of American humanitarian initiatives in Somalia and the Congo, for example, he neglects to mention that the United States is in part responsible for the deplorable conditions pervading these so-called “failed states.” In Somalia, for example, the U.S. was a major supporter through the 1980s of the murderous Siad Barre dictatorship, which he excoriates for plunging the country into economic destitution and chaos. (As a special assistant to Reagan, Bandow certainly should have been aware of this!).
Well-documented in Adam West’s edited volume, Genocide, War Crimes and the West, the U.S. poured in millions to Barre’s state security forces, which committed a de-facto genocide, in order to “contain” the Marxist revolutionary regime in neighboring Ethiopia that had overthrown the U.S. client, Haillie Selassie, in 1976. The erasure of these details from the public record was central to the mythology of Black Hawk Down (which Bandow accepts uncritically); that the 1993 U.S. invasion was strictly for humanitarian purposes and undertaken by an innocent power. With regards to Congo, Bandow laments the “liberal” urge to try to “save” the country through military intervention, arguing that the U.S. holds limited strategic objectives there, and would have grave difficulty in engendering any kind of functional democratic system. While I agree that military intervention would be inexpedient, Bandow phrases his argument in strictly colonialist terms. He insinuates that the Congolese are “helpless” in spite of the best motivations of Western humanitarians, and that this backwater in dark Africa is not worth sparing the lives of innocent American youth. Denying the Congolese the capacity to shape their own future independently, and typecasting the people as coarse and uncivilized, Bandow neglects to mention that Western “humanitarianism” in the Congo fostered the whole-scale looting of the country’s rich resources through the 20th century and murder of its most charismatic and popular post-independence leader, Patrice Lumumba. As an heir to Belgium- which killed millions of people through forced labor, the U.S. propped-up dictator Joseph Mobutu (after the CIA aided in Lumumba’s murder), and later backed the joint Rwandan-Ugandan invasion in the 1990s, plunging the country into further violence and chaos. Having trained Rwandan leader Paul Kagame, who many consider to be an international war criminal par excellence, and given millions to Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni because of his embrace of neo-liberal globalization, the United States is far from an innocent by-stander to the bloodletting, as Bandow depicts it, whether it decides to adopt a full-scale invasion or not (though with the unfolding “quagmire” in Iraq, this seems unlikely in any case).
On the whole, despite this and other mischaracterizations, and a parochial outlook, Bandow’s writings are insightful in their domestic political analysis and provide a useful critique of the Bush administration and its double standards. Bandow is particularly sharp in showing how many of the flawed policy ideals that led to the disaster in Iraq – such as an overweening faith in the use of military force and war – have been supported as virtual state doctrine by both parties. He is quite wise to suggest that the escalation of defense budgets and governmental power is counter-productive, represents a threat to civil liberties and is a boon to international terrorism – especially given the animosity engendered by recent U.S. foreign policy actions. It would indeed by of great benefit for us all to take a dose of humble pie from our recent experience and seek diplomatic solutions to international conflicts as a starting point for the initiation of more systematic social change.
SOURCE: Montreal Gazette ()
This is an awkwardly written book written about one of America's most awkward politicians by an author caught in his own awkward predicament.
It is hard to read Conrad Black's book about Richard Nixon without linking the Watergate scandal that destroyed the U.S. president with the alleged financial abuses that have disgraced the media baron. Actually, it is simply hard to read this book. Slogging through more than 1,000 pages is challenging enough; wading through the bizarre word choices and infelicitous phrasings made reading this book an ordeal. In Black's world, the loud Bella Abzug was "voluminous" not voluble, you snatch defeat from the "stomach of victory," not the jaws. The title itself is nonsensical - how can a "quest" be "invincible"?
The semi-literate prose is unfortunate, because when he is not butchering the English language, Black tells a good story. He offers some fresh perspectives on his compelling subject, whose legendary life fused Greek tragedy with the American dream. Black appreciates Nixon's great achievements while condemning his foolish, self-destructive mistakes.
The book documents the difficulties this most anti-social of men had in this most social of professions. Unlike his serene mentor Dwight Eisenhower and his graceful nemesis John Kennedy, Richard Nixon was most famous for his sweat. Nixon laboured to overcome his lower-middle-class origins in pre-boom time southern California, attending law school in the 1930s and serving in the navy during the Second World War. His huffing and puffing worked. Born in 1913, he became a congressman in 1947, moving up to the Senate in 1951. By 1952, not yet 40, he was Eisenhower's victorious vice-presidential running mate.
Along the way, Nixon acquired a reputation as "Tricky Dick," the Republican hatchet man. Black recounts the battles that scarred young Nixon, especially his tough prosecution of the State Department traitor Alger Hiss, his bruising battle for the Senate against the "Pink Lady," Helen Gahagan Douglas, and his 1952 humiliation when accused of benefiting from a millionaires' "slush fund" for Senate expenses. Without caricaturing Nixon, Black portrays someone who, for all his faults, was unfairly abused by his critics.
By 1960, Nixon had proved to be a formidable Cold Warrior and possibly America's most consequential vice-president, yet he was only in mid-career. Heartbreaking losses in his 1960 run against Kennedy for the presidency and his 1962 bid for the California governorship sent him to private life. Yet in 1968 he won the presidency after a horrific year of political assassinations and riots.
Black considers Nixon a great president, establishing detente with China and the Soviet Union, seeking peace in the Middle East, pushing a moderate domestic agenda that included establishing the Environmental Protection Agency. Black blames the Democrats for the Vietnam War, saying by January 1973 Nixon had extricated his country from the conflict on reasonable terms. Fresh from his landslide re-election and diplomatic triumphs, Nixon expected sweet vindication as a popular and successful president.
Black says Nixon stumbled - and ultimately failed, resigning as president in August 1974 - because success made him complacent, not because of his ruthless drive to win. Hubris, not an established record of criminality and immorality, is the flaw Black sees in his subject. The Watergate scandal then becomes a series of bungles that ended Nixon's presidency and turned the Vietnam stalemate into a devastating American loss. Feeling freer to speculate about "what ifs" than most historians, Black believes that the Democratic Congress, empowered by Nixon's failure, abandoned South Vietnam, setting the stage for the Communist invasion and U.S. humiliation.
Phoenix-like, Nixon rose again, becoming an elder statesman and foreign policy expert. By the time he died in 1994, the Democratic incumbent, Bill Clinton, and Nixon's egomaniacal rival Henry Kissinger eulogized him while millions lionized him. Nixon's story represents the peaks that most ordinary American could reach while reaffirming that no one is above the law.
Nixon self-pityingly predicted the Watergate scandal would eclipse his achievements. In making a brief for this president who was "viciously and unfairly attacked by the media, [and] the Democrats," in concluding "he fully paid for his misdeeds," Black hopes to vindicate Nixon. One walks away wondering whether Black is also hoping the public - and the jury he now faces - will similarly vindicate him.
SOURCE: Special to HNN ()
The Roman Empire is falling. That, in a phrase, is what the Baker report says. The legions cannot impose their rule on Mesopotamia. Just as Crassus lost his legions’ banners in the deserts of Syria-Iraq, so has George W Bush… The policy “is not working”. “Collapse” and “catastrophe” - words heard in the Roman senate many a time - were embedded in the text of the Baker report.-- Robert Fisk
Thrust aside James Bryce’s aphorism that “The chief practical use of history is to deliver us from plausible historical analogies,” in favor of Kenneth Stampp’s acknowledgement that “With the historian it is an article of faith that knowledge of the past is a key to understanding the present.” Notwithstanding the lessons of Munich and Vietnam, let us travel back in time––some two millennia––to Roman times for our review here. Post-9/11 discourse surfs an imperialist wave leading commentators––not exclusively leftists and right-wing isolationists––to draw lurid images of America as an embryonic Roman-like empire. Amid the (ostensible) corruption engulfing the Bush White House, Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire becomes all the more prescient (where a blossoming and blameless republic metamorphoses into a dangerous and dissipated empire) (p.192). Saying that, Cullen Murphy’s “Are We Rome?” gives the trope a more nuanced and convincing reading. Indeed, what Murphy presents is a succinct comparative historical study––an unrivalled one at that.
Intoxicated on analogy-drinking commentators stumble inside the analogy-alehouse when ordering an imperial equivalent to twenty-first century America––bellowing that nineteenth-century Britain best fits the bill. However, analogy-regulars should count themselves fortunate for they are not being served their usual (for we are already under the influence of Bernard Porter’s Empire and Superempire: Britain, America and the World) but rather being offered to indulge in a new historical cocktail––and it is a powerful concoction.
For those Rome (TV) aficionados who now yearn for an introductory read––Murphy’s prologue lucidly familiarizes the reader with a coterie of “empire” enthusiasts and enemies alike: from “triumphalists” and “Ambrosians” to the “declinists” and “Augustinians” (pp.7-9). Previous to this Murphy opens with an absorbing comparison of an emperor-cum-presidential visit: from the mensores (p.2) and frumentarii (p.41) (CIA-like security personnel) preparations ahead of arrival to the Chief’s glaring “eagle” when eventually entering the city (p.3). George Bush’s “government in microcosm” (comitatus) (p.4) was in full view when traveling myself through Sharm el-Sheikh in 2003. What is most transfixing though is not just what us mere spectators see but “Looking south from the windows of his residence, an emperor would have seen what the American president, looking south, also see: an obelisk, Rome’s in the Circus Maximus, Washington’s beyond the Ellipse” (p.197) (Niall Ferguson previously made the analogy in Colossus: p.14).
Rome duly speaks across the centuries. As a corollary we have to ask ourselves a pertinent question: “What is Rome saying to us today?” (p.17). In answering this Murphy draws six major parallels (assigning a keyword to each we can label them “the 6 C’s”):
1. “One parallel involves the way Americans see America; and more to the point, the way the tiny, elite subset of Americans who live in the nation’s capital see America –and see Washington itself. [Likewise] Rome prized its status as the city around which the world revolved” (p.18). Murphy terms this “The Omphalos syndrome” (the focal point) (p.43).
2. “Another parallel concerns military power… Amid all the differences, though, two large common problems stand out. One is cultural and social: the widening divide between military society and civilian society. The other is demographic: the shortage of manpower. For a variety of reasons, Rome and America both start to run short of the people they need to sustain their militaries, and both have to find new recruits wherever they can. Rome turned to the barbarians for help… America is increasingly turning to its own outside sources – not the Visigothi and the Ostrogothae but the Halliburtoni and the Wackenhuti” (pp.18-19).
3. “A third parallel is something that can be lumped under the term “privatization,” which can often also mean “corruption.” Rome had trouble maintaining a distinction between public and private responsibilities – and between public and private resources… America has in recent years embarked on a privatization binge like no other in its history, putting into private hands all manner of activities once thought to be public tasks…” (p.19).
Murphy cerebrally pens that, “Yesterday’s Conan the Barbarian is today’s Conan the Contractor” (p.87). For more of the same turn to the third chapter (“The Fixers: When Public Good Meets Private Opportunity”) which proves a hard-hitting exposé.
4. “A fourth parallel has to do with the way Americans view the outside world – the flip side of their self-centeredness… [leading] to the same preventable form of blindness…” (pp.19, 145).
“At the most expansive strategic level of all, that of historic purpose, both Rome and America have considered their way to be the world’s way. As early as the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville described America as “proceeding with ease and celerity along a path to which no limit can be perceived.” America believes that the Western creed of political democracy and free-market economics is applicable to everyone… Virgil, a poet in a political scientist’s role, gave the Romans an explicitly imperial destiny. So did Pliny the Elder, in an evocation of Rome that combines equal measures of Ronald Reagan and Emma Lazarus: 'A land chosen by divine providence to unify empires so disparate and races so manifold; to bring to common concord so many rough, discordant voices; to give culture to mankind; to become, in short, the whole world’s homeland' ” (p.72).
5. “And then, fifth, there is the question of borders. Historians in recent decades have invested much effort in the study of Rome’s frontiers, showing that the fringe of empire was less a fence and more a threshold… When historians describe life along the Rhine or the Danube frontier in Roman times, an American reader can’t help conjuring up an image of another boundary zone: the one that includes the Rio Grande” (pp.20, 161).
6. “Finally, sixth, comes the complexity parallel. Sprawling powers like Rome and America face a built-in problem. They inevitably become impossible to manage, because the very act of managing has unpredictable ripple effects, of global scale, which in turn become part of the environment that needs to be managed” (p.20).
Murphy is to be commended––not castigated––(for the Founding Fathers started the tradition which still grips the American imagination) for cataloging newfangled parallels. So what if it is not entirely symmetrical? History never is (we need only reference Mark Twain). As French historian Marc Bloch noted: “History is, in its essentials, the science of change. It knows and it teaches that it is impossible to find two events that are ever exactly alike, because the conditions from which they spring are never identical.”
So “Are We Rome?” Murphy mirrors Bloch’s philosophy for he confesses that to “press it too far, or invoke it too literally, and the Rome-and-American analogy breaks down in strategic places” (p.192).
An additional ‘C’ (just as important, if not more, than the preceding six) is communication; though here, there is no parallel to be found… or is there in fact? Murphy scholarly illustrates how the Roman Empire’s “far-flung parts were run by capable proconsuls of high stature, their autonomy enhanced by great distance and poor communications” (p.57). Today’s Washington could not be more dissimilar. “Modern communications ensure that no job is beyond potential presidential supervision, even when decentralization and autonomy might be all to the good. Lyndon Johnson personally selected bombing targets in Vietnam.” Murphy reiterates “that “out there” is subject to manipulation from the center” (p.57). All is not so problem-free though: “Ironically, in an age of instantaneous communications, American intelligence often suffers from a time lag just as significant.” Murphy succinctly updates this quandary: “Bureaucracy is the new geography” (p.135). The author would do well to cite Ferguson’s Colossus and principally General Anthony Zinni’s remarks in becoming a “modern-day proconsul, descendant of the warrior-statesman who ruled the Roman Empire’s outlying territory, bringing order and ideals from a legalistic Rome” (pp.6, 17) (saying that, Murphy does employ a similar line––though in relation to Paul Bremer: p.148).
Again, contrary to Rome, Ferguson reminds us that “[the US] republican constitution has withstood the ambitions of any would-be-Caesars––so far. (It is of course early days. The United States is  years old. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C., the Roman Republic was 460 years old” (pp.34, 89)). So, 2236 is the year to look out for––only then would it be possible to judge how right George Santayana is.
Notwithstanding all talk of “overstretch” (imperially speaking) an author would be forgiven for producing a work deemed understretched (authorially speaking) when tackling a topic of such gravity. Provocative, but never hyperbolic, this is a little gem of a hardback. Incontestably erudite, unendingly thought-provoking supported by juxtapositions galore all make “Are We Rome?” a book to muse over. Murphy is to be further applauded for rejecting polemic declinism in favor of a more scholarly prescription. The highest plaudit one could possibly offer is that the editor at large for Vanity Fair has penned a majestic tome in Fergusonian prose.
SOURCE: San Francisco Chronicle ()
Between 1840 and 1900, more than 2 million Chinese laborers left their homeland to work in plantations and mines around the world. Twenty-five thousand of them joined California's Gold Rush. By the 1860s, Chinese immigrants were a vibrant part of the state's economy, accounting in some rural counties for one of every five residents. But by the turn of the century, more than half of a Chinese American population that once reached 80,000 was gone - deported, exiled or dead -- and the survivors herded into urban ghettoes.
How and why this happened is the subject of "Driven Out," a complex and riveting portrait of one of the most neglected episodes in American history. Its author, University of Delaware Professor Jean Pfaelzer, pulls no punches: What the Chinese experienced in the Pacific Northwest reminds her of pogroms, ethnic cleansing and Nazism. Does she make her case and, if so, how come most people don't know about this reign of terror?
Pfaelzer is not the first historian to address this topic. Alexander Saxton's "The Indispensable Enemy" (1971), for example, explores how anti-Chinese racism drove a divisive wedge through California's labor movement; in "This Bittersweet Soil" (1986), Sucheng Chan reclaims the role played by Chinese immigrants in California's agricultural development; and in "A Different Mirror" (1993), Ronald Takaki humanizes the experiences of previously anonymous Chinese immigrants.
But Pfaelzer's book breaks new ground. It provides the first in-depth account of a protracted racist campaign that culminated in what the Chinese called pai hua -- the driven out; it rescues for history the hitherto forgotten story of a sophisticated and tenacious Chinese resistance movement; and it invites us to consider the relationship between anti-Chinese persecution and mainstream American racism.
Written for the most part in straightforward prose, "Driven Out" comes to life in its extraordinary illustrations and in the stories of the Chinese themselves, recovered by the author's enterprising research from letters, diaries, songs and legal documents. Pfaelzer traveled to many small towns throughout Northern California, where she excavated records from local historical societies and oral histories from longtime residents. Her base for many of these forays was the small coastal community of Big Lagoon (where, I should disclose, the author and I discussed race and eugenics in California, and for which she thanks me in her acknowledgements).
In gut-wrenching detail, "Driven Out" takes us from the first "race war" that took place locally between miners competing over gold diggings along the American River in the early 1850s, through the U.S. government's Exclusion Acts of 1882 and 1902, which banned immigration of Chinese people for 60 years. The campaign to identify, target, humiliate, segregate and "disappear" the Chinese was a tour de force, involving the participation and collusion of a wide swath of good Californians.
One hundred pogroms took place throughout the Pacific Northwest in the second half of the 19th century. Thousands of Chinese were rounded up and "violently herded into railroad cars, steamers, or logging rafts, marched out of town, or killed," writes Pfaelzer. The violence was regionwide and systematic. In Los Angeles in 1871, a mob lynched 16 Chinese men and one Chinese woman. Chico's Chinatown was destroyed by fire in 1876. Around the same time, arson, murder and terrorism forced the Chinese out of Truckee. In 1885, after a night of "exuberant violence," a gallows was built in Eureka as a warning to any Chinese who stayed in town. "It took barely a century to virtually clear the coast of the redwood forest," observes Pfaelzer. "It took barely a weekend to clear Eureka of the Chinese."
Mob violence was supported by local elites and backed up by anti-Chinese legislation, police and judicial collusion, and a barrage of humiliating images documenting the "yellow peril" -- portraying the men as sneaky, feminized and sacrilegious, the women as diseased and racially disposed to "hygienic lassitude." Pfaelzer scours the scarce evidence to bring us the lives of the women, who made up a small proportion of Chinese immigrants. Most were imported as sex slaves and locked up in brothels. The small number of upper class women married to Chinese merchants experienced their own kind of imprisonment: their feet bound to enforce immobility and chastity, they were "locked," writes Pfaelzer, into an "invalid's seclusion."
"Driven Out" is not only a litany of hate and despair; it is also a chronicle of extraordinary opposition and resistance. The Chinese, Pfaelzer demonstrates, "did not go quietly." They went on strike in Shasta, formed their own fire brigades in Truckee, organized a militia for self-defense in Amador and refused to leave Monterey and San Jose. With the support of the Chinese government, they made the case that anti-Chinese terrorism was an international crime. With the active involvement of merchants in the Chinese Six Companies, based in San Francisco, they sued for compensation for damage to property and injunctive relief against police brutality. In the decade following the first Exclusion Act, they filed more than 7,000 legal suits.
Pfaelzer convincingly argues that Chinese Americans were pioneers in the struggle for "reparations." By combining civil disobedience with class action legal suits during the 19th century, they anticipated tactics of the 20th century civil rights movement. Their resistance peaked in 1892 with widespread opposition to the Geary Act, known popularly as the Dog Tag Law because it required Chinese Americans to carry an identity card or face deportation. Pfaelzer describes this nationwide legislation as the country's "first internal passport" and the protests it triggered as "perhaps the largest organized act of civil disobedience in the United States." The Six Companies ordered all 110,000 immigrants to refuse compliance; in China, the lives of American missionaries were threatened in retaliation for the abuse of Chinese Americans.
But in 1894, the Chinese government betrayed the movement by abandoning its migrant workers in exchange for a profitable trade deal with the United States. The Six Companies dutifully followed suit, advising all Chinese workers to "comply with the law." Meanwhile, some 10,000 Chinese were arrested, with many languishing in jail for months. They paid for their mass civil disobedience, concludes Pfaelzer, "with lynchings, night raids, and deportation."
Pfaelzer certainly makes the case that California engaged in ethnic cleansing. She also demonstrates how genocidal policies against Native peoples and post-Civil War Jim Crow policies shaped attitudes to the Chinese, and vice versa: "The Ku Klux Klan assaulted blacks in the South, the military and volunteer militias drove tribal people off their lands, murdering thousands, and the Order of the Caucasians, the Workingmen's Party, and the Democratic Party rounded up and expelled the Chinese in California, burning Chinatowns to the ground. "
Pfaelzer draws upon her academic background in women's studies and practical experience as a labor organizer to give us a multi-dimensional view of the cultural, class and gender anxieties that fuelled "apocalyptic violence" against Chinese Americans.
The core of the book is thoroughly and convincingly documented. Its subjects are fully realized, with the exception of the Six Companies, which remain something of a cipher. There are some areas, too, where the author whets our appetite but doesn't give us enough to chew on. I'm hungry for more information about the Mexicans who sometimes joined the white vigilantes in hunting down Chinese victims, about West Coast Jews who supported the Anti-Coolie League, about the African Americans who distanced themselves from the Chinese struggle, about the white women of Chico who deplored their men's violence, and about the personal relationships between Chinese men and American Indian women. I'm also not convinced, without evidence, that the wives of Chinese merchants were "true pioneers, forging settlements and building communities in new rural towns."
If you grew up in California, think back to what you learned in school about Chinese history. Perhaps you remember a homogenous group of nameless hard workers, who were here for a while and then mysteriously gone. A typical primer, written in the 1940s, includes a graphic of happy Chinese laborers waving to a train as it steams by on the tracks they helped to build. No mention of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, who died on the job.
If you were educated during or after the Vietnam War, you no doubt learned that everyday life was not so sunny for 19th century Chinese immigrants. They were "not welcomed and were not treated fairly," as a widely used social studies textbook, published in 1984, succinctly understates some 60 years of persecution.
For most of the 20th century, California's leading professional historians facilitated the cultural disappearance and degradation of Chinese Americans. My personal library includes a popular 1930s textbook that warned students about the dangers of "Oriental domination of the land." Similarly, Robert Cleland, an influential historian based at the Huntington Library who shaped the teaching of California history for generations, promoted the view that the Chinese were to be distrusted because they "kept almost entirely to themselves, did not understand the white man, had no desire to associate with him, and refused to adopt his customs or manner of life." To late California historian Rockwell Hunt, exclusion of the Chinese was "a distinct benefit to the United States."
"Driven Out" sets straight not only the historical record but also the historians who made racism respectable. Pfaelzer's book ensures that we can no longer treat the ethnic cleansing of Chinese Americans as an exotic, albeit deplorable footnote to the California story. Now that we know better, we are obliged to act: It's time to offer sorrowful apologies, create public memorials, honor Chinese resistance and rewrite the textbooks and lesson plans.
SOURCE: Special to HNN ()
The Enlightenment is often called the Age of Reason. Thinkers sought to remove the cloak of custom to understand the laws of the natural and human worlds supposedly underneath. As Tom Paine wrote in Common Sense, "A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom." Reason, however, could see through custom to discover what Thomas Jefferson referred to as "self-evident" truths, none more so than natural rights. But what made these rights self-evident, asks Lynn Hunt in her important book Inventing Human Rights.
The American and French revolutions boldly asserted that all men are created equal, profoundly challenging custom. "How did these men, living in societies built on slavery, subordination, and seemingly natural subservience, ever come to imagine men not at all like them and, in some cases, women too, as equals? How did equality of rights become a 'self-evident' truth in such unlikely places? It is astounding that men such as Jefferson, a slave owner, and Lafayette, an aristocrat, could speak as they did of the self-evident, inalienable rights of all men," Hunt writes.
Self-evident truths about human equality did not emerge just because Paine, Jefferson and others reasoned their way back to nature; they also corresponded with eighteenth-century Europeans' emotional responses to human suffering. Claims for self-evidence rested on an "inner emotional reference point," Hunt argues. She seeks to tell us when and how this emotional reference point emerged and why it supported human rights.
Kings and nobles had once assumed that the world was naturally divided into distinct orders. Sometime in middle 18th century, however, elites came to believe that people in vastly different social realms were more alike than different because they feel pain and joy in the same way. When we see a person's suffering, Adam Smith wrote, "We enter as it were into his body and become in some measure him." This process-- what we now call empathy-- opened elites' eyes to the common elements of human nature, making it possible to talk about what unites rather than divides human beings from each other.
Why did we start to empathize in new ways in the 18th century? The most important factor was the experience of reading novels or accounts of torture that invited readers to identify with suffering characters. The epistolary style of Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747-48) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Julie (1761), for example, enable readers to experience the main character's anguish directly. Despite the social space that might have separated an elite reader from Pamela, readers felt her pain.
Based on recent work in neuroscience, Hunt adds that the experience of empathizing with a character literally transformed the minds of readers. "Reading accounts of torture or epistolary novels had physical effects that translated into brain changes and came back out as new concepts about the organization of social and political life." The experience of identifying with Pamela's suffering was so intense that it re-oriented people's minds in ways that enabled them to assume that every human body experiences pain. Once our minds can empathize it becomes difficult to look away when we see human suffering.
Richardson's and Rousseau's readers had intensely "visceral" reactions. After finishing Clarissa, the poet Thomas Edwards wrote, "I never felt so much distress in my life as I have done for that dear girl." A reader of Julie told Rousseau, "You have driven me crazy about her. Imagine then the tears that her death must have wrung from me... Never have I wept such delicious tears. That reading created such a powerful effect on me that I believe I would have gladly died during that supreme moment." Such intense reactions demonstrate readers' emotional transformation as they, perhaps for the first time, empathized with a stranger from a different social sphere.
Once readers learned to see in strangers a common ability to feel pain and joy, the age-old practice of torture quickly came under attack. In 1762 a debate broke out after a Toulouse court convicted Protestant Jean Calas of murdering his son to prevent his conversion to Catholicism. Calas was sentenced to death by breaking on the wheel. First he was subjected to the "preliminary question," judge-overseen torture to get Calas to reveal any accomplices. Wrists tied tightly to a bar behind him and his legs held down by a weight, Calas's arms were stretched by cranks and pulleys. When Calas did not confess, pitchers of water were forced down his throat. Finally he was placed on the wheel.
Breaking on the wheel has two steps. The executioner first ties the body to a cross and then crushes the condemned's forearms, legs, thighs, and arms. A wince dislocates the vertebrae. The broken body is then attached to the wheel and left in anguish.
The Calas affair galvanized French public opinion. Voltaire, among others, argued that torture violates human nature. Before it could do so, Hunt argues, people had to learn to internalize the suffering of Calas, a man unknown to them. By the latter half of the eighteenth century, empathy convinced penal reformers in the Atlantic world that torture was barbarous. As Benjamin Rush noted in 1787, criminals "possess souls and bodies composed of the same materials as those of our friends and relations. They are bone of their bone."
It was in the context of these new emotional responses that the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) were published. Once men like Jefferson and Lafayette, or Voltaire and Rush, concluded that other bodies respond to pain much like theirs would, it followed that rights were vital to protect the dignity of all persons. Empathy, Hunt concludes, was the precondition to making these documents plausible to their writers and readers.
If the European world underwent an emotional transformation in the eighteenth century, why have human rights been consistently violated in the years since? Hunt has two answers. First, during the nineteenth century the locus of rights shifted from nature to the nation-state. Second, and more disturbing, she concludes that the emotional transformation she traces produced its antithesis-- an ability to experience erotic pleasure from suffering, embodied in the Gothic novel. Like empathy, gothicism asks us to imagine ourselves in the position of others in pain. Before we can take pleasure in others' pain, however, we must first learn to empathize with them.
Hunt's emphasis on empathy over reason as the basis of human rights might trouble those who wish to found rights on transcendent principles, whether rational or divine. Yet Hunt never claims that human rights lack such justification, but that their vitality depends on our emotions. In Hunt's words, "Human rights are not just a doctrine formulated in documents; they rest on a disposition toward other people."
Hunt reminds us that reason alone cannot sustain human rights. This is what is really at stake in the current debate over whether Americans sanction torture as part of the Global War on Terror. We talk of law and its limits but ignore the real issue: how would we feel if we were America's prisoners? If we stop empathizing with the bodies of suspected or actual terrorists, we act as if their bodies are different than our own, dehumanize them, and thus open the door to relativism by making humans less, not more, alike.
SOURCE: Boston Globe ()
Lots of former Bush boosters have been in damage-control mode ever since the spotlights of "shock and awe" that they focused on Iraqis and American liberals began turning back on them. Some even associate themselves retroactively with the early war skepticism and genuine contrition of William F. Buckley Jr., who wrote recently, "If I knew then what I know now about what kind of situation we would be in, I would have opposed the [Iraq] war."
Al Gore is having none of it. In his new work, "The Assault on Reason," he quotes Buckley's confession and answers, "One of the central points of this book is that we as Americans should have 'known then what we know now' -- not only about . . . Iraq but also about the climate crisis, and what would happen if the levees failed to protect New Orleans . . . and about many other fateful choices that have been made on the basis of flawed and even outright false information."
Gore insists that Bush boosters, especially, had every reason to know but made reason itself their enemy. And they intimidated us "as Americans" out of our civic-republican capacity to work up sound public intelligence through open communication, disciplined inquiry, and the self-confidence not to jump to conclusions.
While the pre-Bush past wasn't quite as Periclean as Gore implies, he's right that it's "simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse." Something has changed for the worse, and Gore names not William Kristol or Rupert Murdoch, but viruses they carry that are weakening our "immune system" against sound-bite alarmism.
The most virulent of these, he thinks, is "corporate consolidation and control over the marketplace of ideas," which diminish entrepreneurial and democratic freedoms by monopolizing the electronic media, whose relentless, ever-more-intimate intrusions are turning us from active citizens into passive consumers, sapping our disposition and skill to govern ourselves.
Gore isn't remotely conspiratorial or anticapitalist about this, as some may claim. He revives analyses of the public sphere by Walter Lippmann, Marshall McLuhan, and Jürgen Habermas to show how TV's one-directional image-making stimulates impulsiveness over reflection. Print's "meaningless" symbols make you think; repetitively violent TV imagery does the opposite, leaving a mental "vacuum . . . filled by fear, superstition, ideology, deception, intolerance, and obsessive secrecy."...
SOURCE: News & Observer ()
When urban cowboys condemn rap music's celebration of violence, they overlook the celebrity outlaws peppering the Western tradition. Billy the Kid, Jesse James and other desperadoes still captivate Americans, more than a century after they terrorized citizens and occasionally killed lawmen. Even today, long after the supposed death of the Western, black hat myth-making remains big business. Over the decades, hundreds of books and comic books, television shows and movies have told the tales and enhanced the legends of the Western gunslinger. By unraveling the mystery of one, can we discover their hold on us all?
The Western author and PBS host Michael Wallis certainly believes that Billy the Kid's story can unlock broader secrets of the American psyche. The author of the best-selling "Route 66" and a book about another charming bandit, Pretty Boy Floyd, Wallis valiantly sifts through the conflicting accounts of the Kid to "present a clear, concise, and truthful story of a young man who became a legend in his time."
Wallis believes the story of this "romanticized youth" can explain America's "culture of violence," while the fluctuations in his standing reflect wavering American attitudes regarding the disparity between the rich and poor, the establishment's credibility and the ubiquity of corruption. Billy the Kid has been praised as a crusader for justice, a modern-day Robin Hood for Hispanics. He has been pitied as a victim, buffeted by the post-Civil War South's social dislocation, crushed by the lawless and corrupt powers that dominated the Gilded Age Southwest. And he has been feared as a "bloodthirsty man-killer, a homicidal maniac." In fact, Wallis laments in one of his most colorful lines, "There has never been much middle ground when it comes to judging Billy the Kid, just black and white with scant gray to calm the palette."
The Kid was the famous -- or infamous -- teenage bandit, who roamed America's Southwest. His short career was abbreviated by the single-action .44 Colt pistol the legendary sheriff Pat Garrett fired on the night of July 14, 1881. He died before reaching his 22nd birthday.
He has lived on, however, portrayed in more than 50 movies by Roy Rogers, Paul Newman and Emilio Estevez, among others. Writers fascinated by the Kid include Zane Grey, Gore Vidal and Michael Ondaatje. Woody Guthrie, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, and Jon Bon Jovi all sang about him; Aaron Copland wrote the music for a ballet about him. Googling "Billy the Kid" generates 1.4 million hits.
Wallis, however, downplays the contemporary myth-making machine. He plays the historical detective, assessing the elusive facts of his subject's life. Wallis is thorough, cautious, sometimes to a fault. The book teeters on the edge between a salutary judiciousness and pedantic tediousness; there is so much hemming and hawing in the text, not the footnotes, some chapters read like the transcript of a Hedgers Anonymous meeting.
Still, especially, in the book's second half, the narrative gallops ahead, as Billy the Kid plunges into the violence that makes his life story so compelling. If his life had a turning point, it occurred in September 1875, in Silver City, N.M., when Billy was arrested for hiding and for wearing the clothing that an older criminal stole from the local Chinese laundry. Until then, 16-year-old Henry Antrim -- who was probably born in New York City -- was a rambunctious but relatively law-abiding orphan whose Irish-born mother had recently died of tuberculosis (they'd moved West hoping the climate would improve her condition). He had never known his father, and his stepfather had no interest in caring for him.
After two days in jail, the slender youth shimmied up a narrow chimney hole. Covered in soot, he went to a kindly woman who was his surrogate mother. She shipped him off to Arizona, where his stepfather had settled. After the stepfather told him to scram, the teenager spent the next two years traipsing around the mining camps, gambling, stealing horses and working as a saddle tramp.
By late 1876 -- the same year Custer died at Little Big Horn, Wild Bill Hickok was killed and the members of the James gang, save Jesse, were shot up -- Antrim's antics had earned him the sobriquet The Kid or Kid Antrim. "Kid was the common nickname for juveniles of the delinquent variety or at least teenagers who were handy with guns," Wallis reports. He would only be christened Billy the Kid in 1881, the last year of his life.
By 1877, on the lam after murdering at least one man, and yet another daring escape, Kid Antrim was living in the New Mexico Territory's Lincoln County. The looming war there between ranch-hands and the proprietors of the biggest general store would be the setting for his ascension into popular culture immortality. Wallis writes: "Against a backdrop of ethnic hostility, greed, and corruption ... Lincoln County epitomized the desires of the lawless. Crooked politicians, ruthless cattle lords, and hired gunmen cohabited there in a milieu of unspeakable cruelty and vindictiveness." The Kid indulged in all the available sins, except that apparently he rarely smoke or drank.
The ruthless, pointless war between the Kid's faction, the Regulators, and their rivals made Billy the Kid a legend. His significance emerged not "from the part he played in the war, but for the standing he achieved in American folklore." The bloody battle was manna for America's emerging pulp fiction industry. Editors delighted in singling out Billy the Kid, as the boldest, toughest, baddest bad guy. His youth, charm, marksmanship, derring-do, his colorful moniker and his daredevil escape from the Lincoln County Jail -- along with the corpses he left behind -- transformed him into a Western pop star.
Still, despite his reputation, the Kid was more troubled teen than heartless killer. The most surprising twist for those weaned on the legend of Billy the cruel is how frequently the Kid tried to go straight. He repeatedly negotiated an amnesty with Lew Wallace, the governor of the territory who would earn fame for writing "Ben Hur." Clearly, the absence of a firm guiding hand made the lure of all those Western vices irresistible to this wayward youth.
With his deliberate, careful approach, Wallis leaves the reader aware of the gap between The Kid's exploits and the fanciful and often more brutal adventures journalists, novelists and screenwriters would concoct. But the outlaw's allure remains more assumed than explained. The most interesting aspect of Billy the Kid's life begins where the book ends, when he dies but his immortal legend is born as his exaggerated exploits become epic and iconic.
On one level, it is easy to see why passionate characters lacking impulse control would appeal to a nation of desk-jockeys, laptop warriors living vicariously through computer monitors and television screens. Yet Americans seem more dazzled by these myths than Europeans, who are equally desk-bound and technology-addled. These celebrity bad guys' continuing appeal reflects a grittiness and volatility encoded in the American DNA. Remember, our country was founded in Revolution and settled by iconoclastic individualists. Wallis' interesting, crisp book is welcome for feeding our fascination with Billy the Kid and his comrades, even if it does not fully explain this defining, enduring American obsession.