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If there's one goal that seems to have universal human currency since the Second World War, it would be human rights. Ever since the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the concept has been celebrated as a foundation of international law: never something that could be taken for granted, and yet something to which all nations would pledge allegiance. Even nations that denied human rights -- and, of course, there have been many -- nevertheless paid lip service to them, and committed offenses against them as secretly as possible (which, thanks to organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, has not always been so easy). Many consider human rights synonymous with the very idea of civilization itself. In this provocative little book by Columbia University historian Samuel Moyn, however, the global history of human rights is rife with irony, if not contradiction.
The first and perhaps most potent irony is that a concept whose appeal and power derives from principles that transcend the nation-state has almost always rested on national sovereignty. Widely regarded touchstones like the Declaration of Independence (1776) or the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) derived their justification and effectiveness from state power: rights followed flags. Even in those rare cases where activists challenged a government's power to project itself into the lives of citizens (a key word here), it has almost always been on the basis of the state's own criteria (like a constitution). This high degree of dependence on the state would eventually be overcome, but fuzzy thinking on the part of those who championed the cause would make that difficult and obscure how it happened.
Indeed, Moyn asserts that the history of human rights is, in effect, a history of amnesia. He challenges the widespread perception that the modern movement's core energies derived from the experience of the Holocaust, as suggested by the timing of UN Declaration in its immediate aftermath. But, as he shows, this is very misleading. In fact, all kinds of other agendas took precedence of human rights in the years after World War II, principal among them the Cold War. The emerging U.S.-Soviet rivalry, combined with older powers' efforts to salvage disintegrating empires, effectively made the UN itself largely beside the point. And that meant high-flown rhetoric celebrating transnational human dignity was as well. The Last Utopia opens on a note of mordant humor; the UN celebrated the 20th anniversary of Human Rights with an international conference in the Tehran of the Shah Rezi Pahlevi (!), much of which was devoted to denunciations of Israel. There can be few more vivid illustrations of the irrelevance of independent internationalism.
Which brings us to another irony. The postwar decades did witness the emergence of a global anti-colonial movement that brought about the dissolution of old European empires, as well as the emergence of independent Third World nations that sought to escape the clutches of superpower domination. One might think that the rhetoric as well as the concepts of human rights would have been embraced as a vehicle in such quests. They were not. That's partly because insofar as the energies and language of the movement had much life, they were propelled by intellectual forces (notably a re-energized Catholic Church) that were correctly seen as conservative. Moreover, the meaning of concepts like"self-determination" had a decisively collective character -- it was peoples, not persons, who were seen as the repository of freedom. In particular, revolutionary movements on the left still had utopian hopes attached to them, particularly in the Latin America of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
And here we have perhaps the final irony: the modern human rights movement was at least as much a matter of disillusionment as it was idealism. In particular, it was the experience of 1968, and the realization that neither side in the Cold War -- or its proxies -- could be trusted to treat national, ethnic, or religious communities in a non-exploitative manner. A very specific set of contingencies brought about decisive change. Among the most important was the U.S. failure in Vietnam, which created an opening in the Democratic Party that allowed Jimmy Carter to become president. It was Carter's human rights campaign of 1977, a campaign that somewhat unintentionally both took on a life of its own, that allowed a genuine international movement to take root. This one was grounded far more in non-government organizations than in the UN, depended on grass-roots organization (typified by the explosive growth of Amnesty International in the late seventies), and had a decisively secular orientation. In the thirty years that followed, it was this movement that took the airy abstractions of international law and began to breathe real life into them. While there's still a long way to go in this regard, it's clear that a kind of critical mass has developed here in what has become a global discourse with a language, protocols, and membership that sees itself as engaged in a meaningful enterprise.
And yet, for all this, Moyn sees the human rights movements at a crossroads. To a great degree, that's because its adherents have never really grappled with the implications of some of these contradictions. For example, in its impatience with ideology, the human rights movement has drawn its strength from a perception that it is essentially apolitical. Insofar as this is really possible -- and it may well be so when it comes to things like opposing torture or genocide, two commitments that have really come into focus in recent decades -- it is also limited. One reason why the movement never got much traction in mid-century is that political communities in the Third World were looking for rights that were often economic and collective: it's good not to be tortured, but it would sure be nice to have a job. In a way, the triumph of human rights reflects the collapse of any effective challenge to the logic of global capitalism, and in that regard may be legitimately considered conservative. Or, at any rate, elitist: Moyn that the role of expertise in NGOs now has crowded out some of its attractive grass-roots features of Amnesty International in its heyday.
Although Moyn doesn't really explore this, one also wonders how well the individualistic premises at the core of human rights will fare in a world in which the Confucian foundation of Asian cultures, as opposed to the Christian foundations of western ones, will dominate. Whether or not this is right question, The Last Utopia makes a compelling case for a specifically historical understanding of the world (even if it is a bit repetitive at times; the content of the last chapter, for example, might have been folded into themes of the preceding ones). As he chides its uncritical adherents, human rights were made, not discovered. They're contingent, not timeless. And if they're evolutionary, it's an evolution of mutations and sudden emergence, not gradual change. It's the people who have their stories straight who are most likely to realize their ends.
SOURCE: Gay City News ()
In his groundbreaking 1990 book “Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two” (later turned into a 1994 documentary film), the late gay historian Allan Bérubé gave us, for the first time, a stunning portrait not only of how homosexuals were omnipresent in the “Greatest Generation,” but also of the way in which that conflict led many of those in uniform to adopt a defined sexual and personal gay identity. In fact, the war, Bérubé showed, was a major catalyst for the sexual liberation of queers that followed in the subsequent decades.
Bérubé wrote, “Ironically World War II helped to loosen the constraints that locked so many gay people in silence, isolation, and self-contempt. Selective Service acknowledged the importance of gay men when it drafted hundreds of thousands to serve their country and broke the silence when it asked millions of selectees about their homosexual tendencies. The draft, together with lax recruitment policies that allowed lesbians to enter the military, placed a whole generation of gay men and women in gender-segregated bases where they could find each other, form cliques, and discover the gay life in the cities.”
James Lord, a biographer, art connoisseur, and memoirist who died last year at the age of 86, was one of what unthinking romantics would call that Theban band of brothers who confirmed their sexual orientation in this way. Farrar Straus Giroux has just posthumously published “My Queer War,” Lord’s lush autobiographical account of his years in uniform during World War II.
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious,” and this new book will not please the flagwavers, for the title of Lord’s memoir refers not just to the author’s sexuality but to the odd ambiguities, bureaucratic stupidities, and moral contradictions of war itself.
Lord, the cultivated son of privilege (his father was a wealthy stockbroker), had displayed an early talent for writing, having completed a biography of Beethoven before his early teens. He joined the army in 1942 at the age of 19, after coming to recognize during his prep school years his homosexual desire, something that tormented him.
As he writes of that adolescent prise de conscience: “I suddenly saw like an appalling sunburst, fatal and final, that what I really wanted to do with the good-looking boys whose best pal I longed to be was not just horsing around in the locker room but doing freely with them in bed after lights out everything I had always till then been compelled to do in solitude with myself. In short, the creature I’d suddenly seen was that abnormal, that abominable thing called a homosexual, a loathsome mistake of nature, a cultural criminal whom any feeling person would naturally put in prison.”
Joining up was, for Lord, no act of patriotism. He writes that, in fleeing to the Army, “I had miserably run away from the inconvenience of being queer.” After confessing he was gay to his father, young Lord was sent straightaway to a therapist who recommended that he stop wearing Old Spice immediately.
While still in basic training in Nevada, he fell in love with a young soldier named Johannes Friedrich Kessler, who went by the name of Hanno, just like “the last of the Buddenbrooks in Thomas Mann’s novel.” Lord becomes romantically fixated on the handsome, mysterious, but apparently sexually unobtainable Hanno, with whom he nurtures what his love-object eventually describes as their Burschenherrlichkeit, or (as Hanno translated it) their “glorious fellowship.”
The missed cues of their near-coupling on one of their many excursions together to the ghost towns and mining camps within driving distance of their base are ultimately revealed as the unfortunate product of the virgin Lord’s malfunctioning gaydar, when several years later (and no longer bereft of sexual experience), he is shocked when he runs into Hanno and Hanno’s then-boyfriend in a bar crowded with same-sexers in uniform.
Hanno, with whom Lord shared literary tastes, was the author’s masculine ideal and also appealed to his pronounced Germanophilia. Lord writes: “It is odd, surely, that while my homeland was at war to destroy the Third Reich, do away with its criminal rulers, and shame the German people for their slavish adulation of the führer, at the same time I was deeply in love with things profoundly German, the music of Beethoven, the imagination of Thomas Mann.” For Lord, Hanno was not only a totem of masculinity but “the superior shiver of high culture,” the embodiment of “another Germany.”
The threnody of Lord’s unrequited love for Hanno runs throughout this memoir. Separated from Hanno, Lord eventually loses his virginity the following year to a fellow soldier while stationed at a military intelligence training center at Boston College, where soldiers were being prepared for undercover duty in France (Lord had vacationed with his family in Paris as a lad, and already spoke passable French). His deflowering on the grass of a secluded campus spot at the hands of a bubbly, insouciantly queer PFC named Jerry Weintraub ushers in the period of Lord’s sexual education: “‘This is your first time, isn’t it?’ he said in my ear. ‘I can tell. I’ll show you what it’s like. You’ll like it. Just let yourself go, baby.’ So I did, and he did, and I did.”
Thanks to Weintraub, Lord is introduced to the delights of the bar at Boston’s Statler Hotel, wall-to-wall with gay men in uniform unabashedly cruising each other, to which the author returns again and again (the portrait of this bar is one of the best sections in the book). Weintraub also takes Lord to his first exclusively gay bar, The Napoleon, located on “a darkling side street”. Lord describes this Boston queer rendezvous, to which he and his buddy Weintraub are admitted after scrutiny through a peephole by a queeny black man: “In the high, long room upstairs a comfortable crowd of men eddied along the bar; there was a huge painting of Napoleon astride a charger and a baby white upright piano against the other wall, a bald gent in a tuxedo tickling the ivories and singing ‘Mad About the Boy’ in a whispering falsetto.”
Lord is picked up there by a charming young architect exempted from war-time service because of a slight limp (from childhood polio), the first of many casual sexual encounters this memoir recounts, although somewhat prudishly. Lord gives us portraits of an aging Harvard don and his harem of available young men, and of the private sexual parties which made gay civilian life livable in those pre-Stonewall days, with the added spice of uniformed men from all the armed services.
Lord, by then a sergeant, is eventually sent to France and to the Rhineland, where he continues his chronicle of his reticently described sexual escapades but never fires a shot in anger — the war is nearly over. Lord’s military career is marked by more or less constant insubordination to his superiors (including those who propositioned him) and to the often-idiotic bureaucracy of the armed services. This is particularly true of Lord’s period as an interrogator in the horrific American camps for prisoners of war and displaced persons, where Lord revolts against the dehumanizing treatment America’s soldiers meted out to the human detritus housed there in appalling conditions. Despite this, his unfruitful intelligence work unaccountably wins him a Bronze Star.
Lord spends his leaves in Paris, and on a three-day pass in December 1944 he makes a beeline to Picasso’s studio on the Rue des Grands-Augustins, where he thrusts himself upon Picasso and his longtime muse, Dora Maar — a talented photographer, painter, and poet in her own right who inspired Picasso masterpieces like “The Weeping Woman” — and also finagles his way into the entourage of Gertrude Stein (whom Lord describes in one of his three earlier memoirs, “Picasso and Dora,” as “a burlap bag filled with cement and left to harden”).
“My Queer War” ends before Lord returned to Paris in 1947, resuming his friendship with Picasso and Dora and becoming a kind of Boswell to the artistic and social elite in France and, to a lesser extent, Britain. In Europe, as his New York Times obituary put it last year, “he spent most of his time and energy socializing, buying art, traveling and living a giddy expatriate life surrounded by artists and aristocrats who may or may not have noticed that he was taking careful notes.”
In addition to the three volumes of memoirs, he also wrote two novels, “No Traveler Returns” (1956), about a rich American traveling in Europe in search of love and happiness, and “The Joys of Success” (1958), set in Hollywood, but neither were well-received critically. Lord’s literary reputation rests largely on two things — his finely etched, candid, and frequently unflattering portraits of the cultural acquaintances he avidly pursued, including Jean Cocteau, Balthus, Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning, and Peggy Guggenheim; and his written accounts of the Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti, whom he first met in Paris in 1952.
“A Giacometti Portrait,” a slim volume published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1965 in connection with a retrospective showing of the artist’s work, recounted the 18 sessions in which Lord posed for a portrait by Giacometti, and was instantly acknowledged in the art world as an unparalleled and perceptive description of the master’s working style. In 1985, Lord published a universally hailed full-length biography of Giacometti, which the New York Times described as “the definitive work” on the artist.
Lord also single-handedly saved Cezanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence from destruction when local authorities wanted to tear it down and build a high-rise, raising money from other wealthy Americans to preserve this pilgrimage site for future art-lovers.
“My Queer War,” which Lord did not live to see published, can be viewed as a fascinating micro-addition to the sociology of gay life in World War II, but it is of uneven quality. After reading the first chapter, I said to myself, “Well, this is certainly over-ripe.” But the book improves somewhat as one gets deeper into it and gets accustomed to the irascible author’s stylistic quirks, and even to his sometimes hysterical outbursts of purple prose.
In an afterward, Lord recounts that his first novel, based on his war years and written shortly after the conflict’s close, was rejected by publishers, and that he finally abandoned it. The stylistic excesses of “My Queer War” often smack of the over-written efforts of a neurotic debutant writer, anxious to show off his erudition; the book is laden with obscure Latin phrases, quotations, and literary references, and may owe something to that discarded first novel.
Still, there’s enough perfume of that earlier time Lord recounts to hold the reader’s interest right through to the book’s somewhat unsatisfying end.
Have you ever found yourself contemplating how different the Second World War may have turned out if Churchill had been claustrophobic? Well, neither had I until I began reading Richard Holmes’s Churchill’s Bunker. Holmes, Emeritus Professor of Military and Security Studies at Cranfield University and the Defense Academy, is no neophyte when it comes to Churchill studies or military history. Author of more than twenty books, he developed the BBC series “In the Footsteps of Churchill,” is a retired officer in the British Territorial Army, and was the general editor of the Oxford Companion to Military History.
Utilizing a variety of printed and previously unseen primary sources, Holmes offers a fresh look at Churchill and the Western Front from the perspective of the basement of the Cabinet War Rooms in London. It is a work that views the war—literally—from the bottom up, as it reexamines Britain’s wartime decision-makers and explores the subterranean confines of their London headquarters. Churchill, upon first seeing the storage basement located close to the Houses of Parliament as the western conflict broke out, stated, “this is the room from which I will direct the war.”
The War Rooms were also where Churchill thereafter descended “to growl out the words of so many of those broadcasts which helped keep Britain’s hopes alive, and, from late 1941, to make his crucial transatlantic telephone calls.” Holmes thus digs into the history of the Second World War from amid the cramped quarters of the underground Cabinet War Rooms, a location kept hidden for so long and a story surprisingly overlooked even amid the overwhelming deluge of Churchill scholarship.
This short history is a little over two hundred pages, with about twenty of pictures of life inside the bunker. The bunker itself does not effectively enter the literary landscape until page fifty- five, as Holmes begins first with a summary of Britain’s early twentieth-century military high and low points and the origins of Britain’s modern military bureaucracy. The book thus illuminates much more than the dim world beneath the bunker’s flickering fluorescent lights. Churchill and his staff in fact only rarely descend beneath the protective cement of “The Hole,” even amid the seemingly omnipresent threat of falling German bombs. Although Churchill worked his people “very hard indeed,” Holmes also discusses their frequent forays above ground, of weekend tennis and “that sadistic but apparently genteel game, croquet,” of film viewings (always chosen by Churchill himself) and lavish food and plentiful drink amply provided at Churchill’s country residence in the Chilterns.
Such excursions kept relations between Churchill and his inner circle generally sufferable, though by no means always amicable. Churchill’s incessant interference in the affairs of his subordinates was “often resented.” While a clear admirer of Churchill, Holmes readily recognizes, too, that “had Churchill enjoyed untrammeled authority over the chiefs, the result would have almost certainly been disastrous, with armies and ships endangered for the sake of action rather than in measured pursuit of strategic goals.” Luckily, there was instead “fruitful compromise, a synthesis between daring and caution, soaring amateurism and hardened professionalism, optimism and pessimism.” Here, as well, Holmes shows off his intimate familiarity with the main cast of characters in Churchill’s wartime play.
Holmes also provides a fascinating study of the “culture of secrecy” surrounding Churchill’s inner circle and the hectic world of their predominantly female secretaries. Wartime information was funneled through the “beauty chorus,” the lines of colored telephones linking Britain’s various key organizations; “the telephones had flashing lights rather than bells and three were fitted with scramblers so that, if the wires were tapped, conversations would be incomprehensible.” With maps lining its walls, “here indeed,” Holmes notes, “was the world at war.” The secretariat itself was composed of “a flotilla of efficient, intelligent, poised and fashionably dressed young women” like Ilene Adams and Wendy Wallace. While Holmes emphasizes the importance of the female staff, the attitudes of their male superiors toward them “would, no doubt, horrify later feminists”; “there goes a fine filly” and “may I say what very fine legs you have,” though considered harmless flirtation, exemplify the gendered bias of the era that was magnified within the bunker’s confines. But Holmes also explains the singular access to secret military information that these women enjoyed, especially Joan Bright, senior administrator of the British delegations to allied conferences, archivist to the commanders-in-chief and chiefs of staff, one who possessed the “reputation for being at the heart of the ‘Inner Circle.’” Historians of women and foreign policy in particular will glean much from this section.
Churchill’s Bunker was published on the seventieth anniversary of the bunker becoming operational and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the opening of the Cabinet War Rooms to the general public, as noted by the Director-General of the Imperial War Museum, Diane Lees, in the introduction. I would recommend reading this book before visiting either site. From European grand strategy to digressions on the bunker’s mundane menu of cold soup, bacon, and biscuits, Holmes tenderizes the tough meat of military history, making it intellectually palatable to a general, as well as a more narrowly academic, audience. Anglo-American members of the so-called Cult of Churchill will find the fare particularly tasty.
SOURCE: HNN ()
Daniel Clark begins by quoting a grumpy Andrew Carnegie: “A college education unfits rather than fits men to affairs.” Clark, a historian at Indiana State University, then spends the rest of his monograph showing how popular new, mass-audience magazines, including “Collier’s Weekly,” “Munsey’s Magazine,” “Cosmopolitan,” and the “Saturday Evening Post” contributed to dramatically changing that stereotype. “American mass magazines,” says Clark, “spearheaded a cultural reconstruction of college and middle-class masculinity…in the years surrounding 1900, as they emerged as a central national cultural forum, our nation’s first truly national media.”
Clark thus posits an answer to the important question of how and why the undergraduate college experience, previously limited to tiny fraction of the population, increasingly came to be considered an important, even essential, part of middle class life. In 1900, less than 4% of college-age youth attended college, but that figure has approximately doubled every 15 years or so ever since, and nowadays we hear that everyone should aspire to a college degree. Although Clark places too much emphasis on mass magazines as causal factors, he is entirely successful in showing that college life was moving closer to center stage in American culture at the turn of the twentieth century.
A perennial and central issue in interpreting the relationship between popular culture and social change is determining whether the culture is driving such change or merely reflecting it. By using verbs such as “spearheaded,” Clark tends toward the former, and this tendency is accentuated by the fact his book on “creating the college man” is more interested in the “man” than it is in the “college.” That is, the context in which he places his arguments and evidence is the by-now familiar historiographical site featuring the “crisis of masculinity” at the turn of the century, while the changes already under way in the colleges themselves—and which gave the magazines something to write about—receive relatively little attention.
One would not guess from Clark’s book that after the Civil War (and well before 1890), many colleges were abandoning the prescribed classical curriculum in favor of electives (pioneered by Harvard President Charles Eliot in 1869) and more utilitarian courses and courses of study (“I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study,” said Ezra Cornell in 1868). The classroom changed, too, as faculty-enforced drill and recitation gave way to lectures and even seminars. Finally, extracurricular life, particularly athletics, became for many men (the overwhelming majority of college students were male) by far the most important part of their college days. Robert Grant (Harvard 1873) later cheerfully celebrated the “C Man’s” advice to students:
“Avoid probation” is the tag he whispers to the young,
“Or otherwise some college team is likely to be stung.
A skillful choice of studies makes one’s afternoons all free;
The chief merit of electives to the man who aims at C.”
Such are the words of wisdom he utters from his throne,
For the C man owns the college and sets the college tone.
The four mass magazines that Clark studies brought changes already occurring on campus to the public’s attention. No longer was college portrayed as the refuge for sissies and near-sighted, bookish weaklings hiding from real life. Rather, in an increasingly organized, bureaucratized society, as Americans worried about how young men could prove their mettle, the college came to be seen—and increasingly presented itself—as the appropriate arena for learning about manhood. Clark argues convincingly that “the single most potent appeal of the college experience would be the way it could seamlessly unite the various discordant facets of ideal masculinity in transition. The college man could be the vigorous athlete and the civilized scholar, the genteel leader and the modern professional. He could find fraternal bonding and ‘instant’ tradition, while indulging in a raucous sporting culture. He could simultaneously prove his self-worth through athletics and work (as a student or after graduation).”
Clark’s systematic survey of the four magazines demonstrates a large and increasing amount of ink being spilled on college-related topics. The “Saturday Evening Post” even ran “College Man” issues; its 1900 version included articles by, among others, Stanford President David Starr Jordan (“The College Man’s Advantage in the Coming Century”), former president Grover Cleveland (“Does a College Education Pay?” [answered in the affirmative], and Princeton President Francis Patton (Should a Business Man Have a College Education?” [he agreed with Cleveland]. Short stories, many aimed at capturing the excitement of college athletics, especially football, further glamorized the campus scene. Indeed, says Clark, “the rise of manly sports on college campuses no doubt was the key factor in the transformation of the image of college.”
Clark’s most vivid evidence comes from the clothing advertisements: as the twentieth century’s first decade unfolded, rugged, jut-jawed college men (the Arrow Shirt man’s cousins, perhaps?) wearing fashionable, ready-to-wear suits, became the new models for young men—whether on campus or working as managers in the new firms and corporations. Daube, Cohn, and Company even produced a line of “Harvard Clothes,” which “traded on the cachet of the Harvard name and its myriad associations with upper-class refinement and culture.” (Imagine the lawsuits that would result from such a marketing strategy today.) Clark concludes that the magazines’ “embrace of college, especially with regard to advertising images, ended up twisting the appeal of college into associations appropriate for a new age of consumption.” What was being marketed, in short, was not so much education (at least as generally understood) as a particular kind of maturational experience, one that would give a young man a leg up on the corporate managerial ladder in the new world of big business.
Of course, not everyone was expected to be able to take advantage of such experience. Women, even educated ones, were expected to be accessories; immigrant men (in this era of the New Immigration from southern and eastern Europe) were quite literally not part of the picture these magazines painted. And yet, rhetorically at least, college was not explicitly confined to the “right sort” of fellow. Clark does not discuss the widespread alarm among many elite college leaders after the century’s turn when a growing number of Jewish students began arriving on their campuses—alarm that led to many years of exclusionary policies. Nevertheless, what Clark rightly refers to as “the seeds of democratic openness” inherent in American ideas about “merit” (based partly on older conceptions of “the self-made man”) were there, waiting for the right moment to be used by the excluded.
Overall, Clark’s book is a valuable addition to the growing historical literature on the meaning and significance of higher education in America. Despite its repetitiveness (due partly to its thematic organization) and omissions, it clearly and thoroughly illuminates crucial sources of popular images of college life. Such images remain familiar to this day and, whether we realize it or not, shape our own expectations and perceptions of what college is and should be about.
Louis Armstrong (1901-71) is one of those artists -- his contemporary, Norman Rockwell, comes to mind as another -- who were very popular with the masses in their lifetimes but regarded with disdain, if not outright hostility, by the critical elite then and since. Like Rockwell, however, Armstrong has been the subject of increasingly respectful reappraisal in recent years. Armstrong revisionism dates back to the time of Gary Giddins' 1988 study Satchmo. So Terry Teachout's appreciative new biography of Armstrong, soon to be out in paperback, does not exactly break new interpretive ground in that sense. But it is a notably fresh reading of the man nonetheless.
There are a number of reasons why. The first is the quality of the research (though I will confess I found checking the citations to be clumsy). Teachout draws heavily on newly available writings and taped recordings Armstrong made in the last 25 years of his life. Armstrong's idiosyncratic prose voice, no less than his musical one, is delightfully off-beat. (I'll tell ya watcha do now," he instructed a group of musicians during a taped television broadcast."Not too slow, not too fast -- just half-fast.") He also includes a bevy of previously unpublished photographs that bring his subject to life, along with excellent captions to go along with them. Armstrong's irrepressible personality -- funny, profane, subject to occasional rages and funks -- leaps off the page.
Teachout can take some credit for that. A critic for the Wall Street Journal and Commentary, his prose is polished to a high sheen, and can be playful without ever being precious. Responding to Armstrong's assertion later in his life that he took better care of himself than his colleagues (there's an absolutely hilarious private postcard Armstrong made for friends celebrating the virtues of an herbal laxative), Teachout writes,"He did not see -- or refused to admit -- that he was in the same boat, and it was sinking fast." He also does a terrific job of placing his subject in a broader cultural context, both culturally and politically.
The publications Teachout writes for have a conservative tilt, and this comes through in his stance toward his subject. For a long time, the standard line on Armstrong -- one articulated most sharply and influentially by John Hammond, the giant of American ethnomusicology who in this case allowed his blue-blood disdain for populism to get the best of him -- was that he betrayed his talent. In this version of the story, Armstrong was a Promethean genius, an organic musical intellectual who sprang from the whorehouses of New Orleans and helped found an entirely new jazz idiom in the 1920s. But by the end of the thirties, he stopped playing in the ensembles that showcased his talent, and became increasingly content to work with indifferent collaborators and sadly thin pop material. His defenders at the time and since in effect celebrated him despite, not because, of this. Yet Teachout stoutly defends Armstrong's work over the course of his life. He concedes that a vein of passivity in Armstrong's personality did cost him opportunities at different times. But he asserts that songs like"Mack the Knife" and"Hello Dolly" have their place in the Armstrong canon right beside"St. Louis Blues" and"West End Blues." It is stunning to read that Armstrong's collaborators ranged from Jimmie Rodgers to Barbara Streisand, and there is something truly Whitmanic about Armstrong's range and generosity of musical spirit toward these and many other people. Even Bing Crosby seemed to like him (and that's really saying something).
The other dimension to this musical fault line is a racial one. The bebop artists who came of age in the forties had little patience for Armstrong's accommodationist sensibility. To a great extent, history was on their side, both in terms of Civil Rights politics and in giving a distinctively African American genre a new generational lease on life. But Armstrong was never exactly a patsy. He made international headlines in 1957 when he criticized President Eisenhower for his inaction on Civil Rights, and described segregationist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus as"an uneducated plowboy" (the Associated Press could not run with what he originally said). Perhaps more to the point, it's hard not to be awed by the sheer resilience of a man who started with nothing and became one of the gigantic figures of the 20th century, a global symbol of what was best in America. You don't attain those heights without strength and discipline, part of which involves being able to ignore slights.
Similar to his line on Armstrong's music, Teachout asserts that Armstrong did not pander to middle-class values. That's because he avowedly embraced them. Comparing the trumpeter to Horatio Alger, Teachout claims Armstrong's house in Queens"was the home of a working man, bursting with a pride not from what he had but what he did." He may be pushing his luck here in suggesting that Armstrong's lifestyle was anything like that of from his fictional Queens neighbor, Archie Bunker. But insofar as he's right, such a perspective serves as a reminder that conservative values have never been white property alone. Booker T. Washington was no patsy,either.
Teachout's encapsulation of Armstrong's life, offered in the introduction of Pops (a moniker he gave to virtually everyone he saw, whether he remembered their names or not) seems like a good way to end here:"He was a man of boundless generosity who preached the stony gospel of self-help, a ferociously ambitious artist who preferred when he could do what he was told, an introspective man who exploded with irrepressible vitality when he stepped into the spotlight, a joyous genius who confounded critics by refusing to distinguish between making art and making fun." God Blessed America when he gave us Satchmo.
In 2003, Samantha Power who now serves as an advisor to the Obama administration won the Pulitzer Prize for her book A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide which lamented the reluctance of successive US administrations to intervene militarily to halt unfolding genocides. Her book inspired the Save Darfur movement which called on the US government to halt genocide from taking place-- by military intervention if necessary. Paradoxically, activists within the movement and Power herself raised little moral outcry about the humanitarian catastrophes bred by US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, nor about the global torture gulag that Washington had established under the guise of the so-called War on Terror, except to lament how it had damaged America’s international credibility. Power’s choice of genocides which Washington allegedly could have prevented was also selective, and included cases where the term was inappropriate. It avoided cases, furthermore, where the United States directly supported mass atrocities or genocide (as in Indonesia in 1965 and Guatemala in the early 1980s) and where US actions can be considered genocidal, or at least quasi-genocidal (Vietnam 1955-1975, Laos 1965-1973 and Cambodia 1970-1975, Iraq in the 1990s under the sanctions regime, and under US occupation).
In their important new book The Politics of Genocide, Edward S. Herman, professor emeritus at the Wharton school of business, and David Peterson, an independent scholar, chronicle how interventionists like Power have provided important intellectual justifications for the sustenance of the military-industrial complex while channelling liberal opinion away from the antiwar and anti-imperialism of the 1960s. The authors observe that “during the past several decades the word genocide has increased in frequency of use and recklessness of application, so much so that the crime of the 20th century for which the term was originally coined often appears debased. They add that “just as the guardians of ‘international justice’ have yet to find a single crime committed by a great white northern power against people of color that crosses their threshold of gravity, so too all the fine talk about responsibility to protect and the end of impunity has never once been extended to the victims of these same powers, no matter how egregious their crimes.”
Building off of a model first developed in Herman and Noam Chomsky’s path-breaking book (sadly neglected among mainstream historians), The Political Economy of Human Rights: The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, Herman and Peterson shed light on this process by which mainstream media and so-called human rights intellectuals like Power and her colleagues at the Harvard Carr Center for Human Rights, play into US government interests by broadcasting only those atrocities committed by opponents of the US. Sometimes mythical and sometimes real, these “nefarious” genocides and bloodbaths, as the authors term them, are usually exaggerated, taken out of political context or in some cases fabricated in order to advance a specific foreign policy objective or political agenda, including military intervention. The authors contrast these bloodbaths, with “constructive” and “benign” bloodbaths in which mass killings and atrocities are carried out by clients or allies of the US, or in which Washington is a major participant in mass killings and violence. In the latter case, little sympathy is exhibited towards the victims, while the perpetrators are lauded as valued allies of the West and for bringing stability, as was the case with General Suharto of Indonesia and Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam.
For Herman and Peterson, the Iraq sanctions regime and US invasion and occupation under George W. Bush (and now extended by Obama) represent “constructive” bloodbaths in contrast to the “nefarious” bloodbath carried out by Saddam Hussein in the Al-Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the 1980s which was only recognized years later in order to promote support for war. The scale of humanitarian devastation has been underplayed or ignored in the media and framed in a way that the US appears to be benevolent in its intent. Much like in the Vietnam War, when the US killed directly and indirectly an estimated 2-3 million people and destroyed the societal fabric, state propagandists such as New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman and CNN’s Michael Ware among others, claim that a US presence is actually needed to stave off a bloodbath.
Meanwhile, more than one million Iraqis have been killed as a result of the US invasion which was undertaken in violation of international law, Iraq’s cultural artefacts have been looted, several million people have been forced out of their homes and cities like Fallujah have been destroyed. Another half million were killed in the 1990s under the sanctions regime, including thousands of children who were denied proper drinking water, medicines and food. The war in Afghanistan represents another “constructive bloodbath” which is an act of aggression under the Nuremburg laws. American and NATO occupying forces and their warlord proxies have committed an untold number of civilian massacres, bombed wedding parties, systematically tortured prisoners of war and killed hundreds if not thousands of civilians in computerized Predator drone attacks in Pakistan, including over 100 in the village of Bola Baluk.
Israeli violence in the occupied territories (such as the recent invasion of Gaza) and Lebanon in 1982 (the Sabra and Shatilla massacre), US backed violence in Central America in the 1980s, and the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 are other cases of “benign” bloodbaths which did not arouse much media attention or the indignation of mainstream western intellectuals because they were carried out by US clients and were supported by Washington. In the propaganda system, according to Herman and Peterson, they thus don’t qualify as atrocities or acts of genocide, which can only be committed by official enemies.
Much like Hussein’s al anfal campaign, Cambodia in the 1970s represents one of the “nefarious bloodbaths.” Media commentators at the time expressed horror at the Khmer Rouge atrocities, while ignoring parallel atrocities by the US-backed Indonesia military in East Timor and by the US-backed the Lon Nol regime, which carried out pogroms against Vietnamese from 1970-1975 and allowed for massive US bombing attacks. According to Yale historian Ben Kiernan, these attacks killed several hundred thousand civilians and “drove an enraged peasantry into the arms of the Khmer Rouge,” helping to precipitate their reign of terror. A more recent “nefarious bloodbath” has taken place in Darfur, where Western moralists led by Power, New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof and Save Darfur spokesman John Prendergast have reduced complex political violence and killings to a simple morality play in which “evil” Arabs are systematically slaughtering innocent black Africans. They have in the process misrepresented the reality on the ground, contributed to the demonization of Islam and played into Washington’s foreign policy agenda in its aim of isolating China, a supporter of the Khartoum government. All the while they have provided a distraction from the more significant human rights atrocities carried out by the US in Af-Pak and Iraq and those committed by its allies in Ethiopia and the Congo, where the death toll is higher than in Darfur.
Herman and Peterson put into additional question whether genocide took place in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda during the 1990s, as was claimed by Power and other proponents of “humanitarian intervention.” In the former cases, they argue that while Serbian leader Slobodan Milosovic was guilty of ethnic cleansing, many of the massacres attributed to his forces, including at Racak, were exaggerated in order to drum up support for a military intervention which was designed to provide legitimacy to NATO after the end of the Cold War. Undertaken without United Nations Security Council authorization, the NATO bombing constituted a “constructive bloodbath” which killed and displaced thousand of civilians, and caused a spiralling cycle of violence. And while Milosovic was guilty of his share of crimes, so were US allies, including Bosnian Muslim Alija Izetbegovic, an extremist who was openly pro-fascist and sympathetic to the Nazi Ustase movement in World War II, Croat Franjo Tudjman, another Nazi sympathizer responsible for perpetrating myriad atrocities, and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which was guilty of ethnic cleansing operations after the NATO bombings, and was heavily involved in the narcotics trade. None of these activities received any attention in Power’s book which transformed a complex civil war with myriad atrocities committed on all sides into a simple good versus evil tale. Recent scholarship confirms Herman and Peterson’s view. David Gibbs’ 2009 book, First Do No Harm, for example, shows that Washington along with Germany undermined diplomatic settlements after the break-up of Yugoslavia, strained the country’s economy by pushing for structural adjustment programs which created a climate ripe for war, and backed forces such as Izetbegovic and Tudjman implicated in terrible violence which was on par with that of Milosovic, or at best only slightly less criminal.
For Herman and Peterson, the 1994 “genocide” in Rwanda was another “nefarious” one because the victims were Tutsi whose leader Paul Kagame, head of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) had been trained in US military academies. Prior to his leading the RPF invasion of Rwanda in 1991, Kagame served as director of military intelligence under Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni, another Washington client, and with American backing, invaded the Congo in 1996 and again in 1997-98, leading to the death of five million people or more. The US supported the invasion under fraudulent pretexts because of a desire to tap into Congo’s rich resources and mineral wealth (including coltan, the material used to manufacture cell-phones) in the post-Mobutu era, and to gain strategic advantage in a region of growing importance. While characterized by western apologists as a the equivalent of Abraham Lincoln and the founding father of a new Africa, Kagame stands out, according to Herman and Peterson, as one of the outstanding mass murderers of the modern era, an equivalent of Idi Amin, whose major crimes against humanity have been whitewashed because he is a client of Washington. He continues to receive lavish support along with Museveni who is also responsible for mass atrocities in the Congo war, represses the northern acholi population and runs a domestic police state similar to Kagame.
Herman and Peterson present a revisionist history of the Rwandese “genocide” of 1994. The standard narrative holds that it was precipitated by the murder of Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana by “Hutu Power” extremists who could not accept a coalition government with the Tutsi, previously marginalized within Rwanda. The international community did not intervene because it did not care enough about the fate or people of Rwanda. According to Herman and Peterson the problem, however, is that the American power elite (and not necessarily US citizens who were clueless about what was actually going on) cared too much. Its main objective was to muscle out French and other European interests in the region, which were tied to the Habyarimana government, and so encouraged the retrenchment of UN troops as a means of ensuring Habyarimana’s fall and the US-trained Kagame’s rise to power. Drawing on an eight year French study report, they argue that it was the RPF and Kagame, and not Interhamwe (Hutu militia) extremists, which shot down president Habyarimana’s plane in 1994, precipitating the orgy of violence. Kagame according to their calculations was unwilling to accept a diplomatic settlement or power-sharing arrangement and allow for elections which the RPF were destined to lose.
Despite the romantic portrayals of it in the West, Herman and Peterson note that the RPF committed brutal atrocities after they sparked a civil war by invading Rwanda in 1991 from Uganda. In a secret memorandum drafted in September 1994 for the eyes of Secretary of State Warren Christopher, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) relayed their conclusion that the RPF and Tutsi civilian surrogates killed 10,000 or more Hutu civilians per month in a campaign of ethnic cleansing to clear areas south of Rwanda for Tutsi habitation. At the highest levels, American officials thus knew exactly what was going on and raised nary a concern for the Hutu victims since they were on the wrong side, much like with the million or so alleged PKI members slaughtered by the Indonesian military in 1965 (as is well documented in the leading scholarship on the topic).
Once in power, Kagame and the RPF continued the bloodletting in Congo where they hunted down Hutu refugees and slaughtered them in refugee camps and forests, using the pretext of a security threat. They went on to install as ruler of Congo Laurent Kabila, a former revolutionary and diamond smuggler, and then reinvaded when he began moving against RPF interests. Having tired of its former client Mobutu, who pillaged the country for over three decades, the Pentagon actively supported the two invasions, providing military weapons and training and teams of CIA and Special Forces operatives to assist their Rwandan and Ugandan clients. Besides the millions who have died in the conflict, countless more have suffered from displacement and disease in one of the world’s worst ever humanitarian catastrophes. It received little attention in the West, however, or by so-called human rights activists and the media and was never characterized as genocide like Darfur. When the plight of the war refugees was brought to light on the Oprah Winfrey show Washington’s complicity was never mentioned.
Herman and Peterson provide much evidence to back up their analysis and draw on leading scholarship for all the interventions which they discuss.
This is no conspiracy theory, though there are a few flaws in their reasoning, particularly with regards Rwanda. From research that I have done at the National Archives, I discovered that during the Cold War, the US supported the Hutu power governments of Gregoire Kayabinda (1960-1973) and Juvenal Habyarimana (1973-1994), and built up their security forces under the guise of police training programs because the Tutsi were seen as left-leaning and backed by Maoist China (a claim which was actually greatly overstated). Viewed by Hutu leaders as collaborators with the old colonial order, the Tutsi faced terrible repression in this period with US complicity. Many were forced into exile and were subjected to reprisal killings. They in turn organized in Uganda under the banner of the RPF to return to their homeland. For the dispossessed Tutsi, Kagame and his cohort Fred Rwigyema, who was killed during the initial phases of the 1991 invasion, are heroes. They are the equivalent of Ché Guevara and Fidel Castro whose revolutionary campaigns against the Batista dictatorship provided a model.
In order to present a fuller depiction of the crisis in Rwanda, the authors should acknowledge the historical injustice faced by the Tutsi and how it contributed to the growth of the civil war. In addition, the authors are too harsh on human rights organizations. While in some cases divorcing their analysis from a larger geopolitical framework, these groups do a lot of first-rate reporting. In the case of Rwanda, they provided significant documentation on the killings perpetrated by Hutu militias which whipped up hatred of the population in the face of the 1991 RPF invasion, deriding all Tutsis as “inyenzi,” kinyarwandan for cockroaches. Mass slaughters and genocide did indeed take place, though it was not one-sided and does not justify later RPF action.
On the question of the shooting down of Habyrimana’s plane, Herman and Peterson present a lot of evidence that make me question the standard narrative. Their portrayal of Kagame as ruthless and cunning Machiavelli-type is in my view correct and an important contribution of the book. African scholar Gerard Prunier, who wrote one of the standard histories on the genocide, now admits that he was captivated by the Tutsi narrative of events, but after more sustained study has realized that the RPF was no mere innocent force and was responsible for myriad atrocities during the civil war and later during its invasion of Congo. And in his book When Victims Become Killers, Columbia University scholar Mahmood Mamdani similarly shows how, rather than being a case of good versus evil or a repeat of the Jewish holocaust, the conflict was rooted in Rwanda’s colonial history and the artificial ethnic divisions that were socially constructed under German and Belgian rule. Both Hutu and Tutsi were at once victims and killers as a result of socio-historical circumstances. Dutch author Filip Reyntjiens, who has been expelled from Rwanda, shows most recently in his book The Great Congo War that Kagame and the RPF committed mass killings of Hutu refugees under the pretext of securing Rwanda’s border and plundered Congo’s resources through manipulation of proxy armies in the late 1990s. He also points to the US involvement through arms sales to the RPF and provides significant evidence that Special Forces operatives and the CIA provided direct combat support to Rwandese units as they invaded Congo.
Herman and Peterson’s analysis is thus for the most part sustained by leading scholarship, albeit again with a few points those leading scholars may object to. On the whole their work is illuminating and provocative, and challenges readers to think critically about the political manipulation of the term genocide and human rights to justify foreign interventions. In a conversation with former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans over the implementation of a new UN provision on the responsibility to protect (R2P), Noam Chomsky pointed to the need for a universal standard on human rights and to acknowledge western violations of international law. “If it’s a crime of somebody else, particularly an enemy, then we’re utterly outraged. If it’s our own crime, either comparable or worse, either it’s suppressed or denied. That works with almost 100 percent precision.”
True humanitarian intervention, if such a thing is possible, will require that we own up to our own atrocities and crimes and address the underlying factors shaping US support for vicious and reactionary regimes like those of Kagame and Museveni and their many counterparts. Until we do that, the calls among western intellectuals such as Samantha Power for military intervention to halt genocide will remain hollow and a mask for imperialism.
Who or what determines American citizenship? By the same token, what are the responsibilities, rights and privileges of American citizenship? Despite Constitutional guarantees, the elite powers have tried to limit exactly who can call themselves “American citizens.” The most glaring example is the treatment of African Americans, who were subjected to the most blatant disregard of their basic civil rights, despite the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment making them citizens of the United States.
When the United States entered the Great War in 1917 and instituted a draft, many African Americans saw service to their country as a means of gaining respect and, more importantly, recognition of their rights as American citizens. What they discovered, according to Adriane Lentz-Smith in her revealing book, Freedom Struggles: African Americans in the First World War, was just the opposite. President Woodrow Wilson’s proud declaration that the United States would make the world “safe for democracy” did not extend to persons of color, especially those in his native land. Wearing the American uniform did little for African American civil rights—not when Jim Crow travelled with the armed forces to Europe and back home again. Indeed, the soldiers and other African Americans like YMCA workers and nurses who went to France found that racism was deeply ingrained among their fellow white Americans. The harsh realities and experiences of African Americans in this first world conflict did, however, sow the seeds of the Civil Rights movement thirty years later.
Lentz-Smith views the experiences of African Americans through the prism of the experiences of a variety of men and women. While men who served in the armed forces dominate the story, she also includes women like Kathryn Johnson, a college educated activist with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who went to France on behalf of the YMCA with two other African American women, Addie Waites Hunton and Helen Curtis. Johnson articulated the view that the true prize for her people was civic equality, and like soldier Ely Green, she believed “that manhood and nationhood were intertwined.” The intersections of nationhood, masculinity and civil rights for many African Americans arose from their experiences in the war.
From the beginning of American involvement in the war, it was clear that including African Americans in the armed forces would exacerbate rather than ameliorate Jim Crow racism. The 1917 riot in Houston, Texas was emblematic of the brewing hostilities between the two races. The arrival of the 24th Infantry’s Third Battalion, a group of veteran African American army regulars, in Houston in July, 1917, brought to that city “ more seasoned, more traveled” African Americans than “Houston had ever seen before.” The presence of this elite, privileged group of African Americans scared the local white population, especially since the civilian authorities had no control over what happened on a military base. The frequent comings and goings of black women on the base also alarmed the white citizenry, who would later point the blame at the women as the underlying cause of the riot. Part mutiny, part race riot, and part revolt, as the author states, Houston was the poster child for racial tensions arising from the presence of African American soldiers. In fact, Houston was only one of the cities which saw racial violence that summer of 1917. Memphis, Tennessee; East St. Louis, Illinois; Chester, Pennsylvania; and Newark, New Jersey all seethed with rioting as well. The African American soldiers did not have to go to the battlefields to face life threatening situations.
Once the soldiers arrived in Europe, their hopes and dreams for equality went with them, only to be dashed in the face of racism--or as the author states, “God might have made all men interdependent, but the Army made some more subject than others.” Indeed, African American soldiers were usually given the most dangerous, difficult, nasty jobs, especially on the docks. Their treatment was appalling, working long hours with little rest or even proper nourishment. While the African American experience varied, their stories “contributed to a cohesive picture of the disaffection that would radicalize a generation of African American men.”
At the same time, African American soldiers did have the opportunity to meet white Europeans as well as military personnel from Africa. These encounters broadened their horizons, what Sergeant Christopher Columbus Watts referred to as “the world’s experience.” France provided exposure to a different place, where their universe could expand beyond the borders of Jim Crow America. Not only that, encounters with African soldiers also served to expand perspectives, and engendered in many African Americans a kinship with and understanding of persons of color around the world. Intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois posited the international nature of racial politics long before the war. Other leaders such as A. Philip Randolph and Charles Owen, furthered the call for solidarity among the black race across international borders. While nowhere near as militant as Marcus Garvey, these men expounded a world view of their people and a need to join together to combat racism whether in Jim Crow America or in colonial Africa or wherever such ignorance abounded. As Lentz-Smith points out, while many African Americans were not yet conscious of the concept of the African Diaspora, this nascent internationalism would be important to budding civil rights activists in post-World War I America.
When the African American soldiers came marching home in 1918, they did not find a better nation. If anything, the presence of so many trained military personnel who happened to be black only hardened racial lines and intensified Jim Crow. The summer of 1919 was filled with race riots in cities North and South. The hopes that many African Americans had of making their homeland accountable for its high minded rhetoric about liberty and equality for all were dashed in a reinvigoration of racism symbolized by the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan. Lentz-Smith uses the murder trial of Sergeant Edgar Caldwell to point up the insidious influence of Jim Crow all the way up to the Federal government. At the time Caldwell was accused of murdering a street car conductor in Anniston, Alabama, he was still in the service. Throughout the course of his trial, the defense insisted that he could not be tried in a civilian court because he was still in the military. Although condemned to death, Caldwell’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Edward Douglass White, a former slaveholder, wrote the majority decision against the soldier. Caldwell was eventually executed, but the solidarity his trials engendered, including donations from African Americans around the country, did point to a growing racial cohesion among blacks and a determination to fight for equal justice.
World War I proved to be integral in nurturing the calls for civil rights in the United States. In Freedom Struggles Adriane Lentz-Smith has offered readers an intelligent argument of the impact of that conflict on African Americans of that generation. These men and women learned from their experiences in the Great War, which prepared them for World War II and the Civil Rights movement. They claimed their American citizenship with all that it means.