CAT | Social Science & History
I started out last Monday writing my weekly movie review when a report of terrorist activity in Montevideo, Minnesota landed on my desk.
The FBI press release had it that someone named Buford “Bucky” Rogers had been arrested in a raid on his parent’s trailer home on Friday. The FBI claimed they’d seized lots of guns, including a Romanian AKM assault rifle, Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs.
It’s a bit outside of our coverage area but it seemed serious, so up I went and spent most of the day in the trailer park outside of town, talking to the Rogers family, a.k.a. “The Black Snake Militia” and their neighbors, and watching the TV news people from as far away as Minneapolis and Sioux Falls come and go.
Since then I’ve caught the news reports of the terrorist plot as it’s gone national. The FBI claims they’ve saved Lord knows how many lives.
It’s all bull$#!+ and a lot of so-called journalists should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves!
The “terrorists” are father Jeff Rogers, a man four years younger than I am who looks 20 years older. He’s wheezy, out of shape, and had open heart surgery not long ago. His son Shawn is 17, though neighbors told me they guessed his age at 13-14, which should give you an idea how dangerous he looks. As it turns out Bucky doesn’t live there but with his girlfriend and their 10-month-old baby in town, which is actually where he was arrested.
These people aren’t terrorists. They’re dumb as stumps, nutty as fruitcakes – but probably harmless.
The talking heads pointed their cameras at the family, asked a few questions – and sat back and watched them rave about implanted microchips and their “militia.” Because everybody wants to be a movie star, and this was likely the most attention they’d gotten in their lives.
But they’ve got guns!
All of them legal and registered to Jeff. A sizable collection but no bigger than those of friends of mine who include teachers, county commissioners, farmers, and cops.
They wear camouflage!
For God’s sake, cammie is the right-wing equivalent of “Che” T-shirts and “Mao” paraphernalia. “Look at me! I’m wearing the battle dress of a military I don’t remotely qualify to join.”
Nobody gets upset when college students parade around campus wearing the faces of mass murderers on their shirts. Nobody cries “racist” that one was the greatest murderer of Hispanics in the 20th century.
Why the hell aren’t journalists asking intelligent questions?
If the FBI found bombs in the trailer home – why aren’t the Rogers family in custody? According to Jeff, they weren’t even mirandized.
Molotov cocktails? That’s an incendiary made by filling a bottle with gasoline and stuffing a rag in the neck for a fuse.
Nobody stores Molotov cocktails! They keep cans of gas, rags, and bottles around and assemble them as needed!
Shawn Rogers said the FBI carted off a box of scrap plumbing pipe. I believe him, The Rogers seem to eek out Jeff’s disability pension by collecting and selling scrap. I got Jeff Rogers to open the “bomb factory” shed – it’s a junk heap!
Some reports more cautiously said they had “bomb making materials” in their house.
That I believe. But then again, so do I – and so do you. Between your kitchen and your bathroom you have the ingredients for at least two high explosives which I won’t name, but they go off at a harsh look. Everybody is one chemistry lesson away from a bomb.
Bucky Rogers I haven’t met. Word from people in the school system is he was a trouble maker but not scary in school, but his little brother is rather liked by his teachers.
Bucky was on probation for burglary, but didn’t do time. He mouthed off a lot on Facebook in ways that could be seen as threats. The FBI said he admitted after a Miranda warning to firing his father’s AKM at a gun range.
Gotcha! Probation violation – which is what he’s been charged with so far. So why hasn’t he been charged with making terroristic threats?
Bucky’s parole officer might have taken him aside and told him to dial the nutty stuff down until he was off probation.
Instead the FBI swooped down on Montevideo, roped in several local law enforcement agencies, and when the FBI show up in your office you don’t say “No thanks.” They staged a major operation at considerable expense which I seriously doubt the local law will ever get reimbursed for.
Many readers I’ve talked to are quite sensibly skeptical about the sensationalist news reports. Good on you! The county sheriff has been admirably restrained and rather noncommittal in his public statements. The FBI is often disliked among local law enforcement agencies, but it is not wise to antagonize them.
But why all the commotion? Not to mention the expense.
If I were a right-wing conspiracy nut, I’d suspect that in the aftermath of the Boston bombing the PC Patrol is desperately searching for terrorists who aren’t Muslims. The Rogers are the people America has been taught to fear – white, redneck gun nuts.
But since I’m a cynic I have to wonder if the FBI affidavit didn’t give it away. The agent who signed it said he’d been at the Minneapolis office since he graduated from the academy in 1999. If I had to guess, I’d wonder if someone is tired of being stuck out in the boonies and sees a big score that’ll get him back to the bright lights in the big city.
Note: This is the self-syndicated column I submitted to my subscriber(s) for this week. I usually wait a while before posting on my blog to give the print-only outlets a head start. Currently this is re-posted on the websites of rural newspapers in a five-state area in the upper midwest.
I am expecting the compost to hit the thresher over this one. We’ll see, and stay tuned for part 2.
Yesterday, May 1, I saw a Facebook post by an academic I’ve known for… a long time. He teaches history in an east coast college and advertises himself as a “labor historian.”
He, or somebody, had filched the classic “We can do it!” WWII poster of a working woman flexing her bicep and appropriated it to promote International Workers’ Day. He urged everyone to “honor labor.”
Just because I get intensely irritated by the kind of intellectuals and academics who would do anything for the working class – except join it, I left a comment.
I said, “Good idea! How about everyone honor labor by listing all the jobs we’ve done that involved demanding physical labor. Mine are: waiter/bartender, garbageman, framing carpenter, bucking hay in season, sewage treatment plant operator, and in between journalism gigs I drove a grain truck for harvest.”
At any rate, I got curious and looked up a few things about the date. For one, nobody remembers but April 30- May 1 is the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane that used to mark the beginning of summer. Great bonfires were built and cattle driven between them to be purified by the smoke. Everyone would douse their house fires and relight them from the sacred bonfires.
In the 19th century May 1 was promoted by socialists (my academic acquaintance is a socialist), communists, syndicalists, and anarchists as a day to honor labor. The day was chosen to commemorate the date of the Haymarket Square bombing in Chicago in 1886. (Which actually happened on May 4, I don’t know why the date was changed to the first.)
During a demonstration a bomb was thrown at police by person or persons unknown, killing seven of them. The police returned fired on the crowd, killing four.
In the aftermath, eight radicals were tried, four executed and one apparently committed suicide in his cell in a particularly grisly fashion with explosives.
For well over a century this was considered the judicial murder of innocent people for the crime of having unpopular opinions, until historian Timothy Messer-Kruse dug up an awful lot of evidence that seems to show that the trial was quite fair by the standards of the time, and if any innocent people were executed, it was because their lawyers were more interested in making points than oh, say preparing a defense. You know, that thing lawyers are supposed to do?
At any rate, eight years later in the aftermath of the Pullman Strike of 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed the bill declaring the first Monday in September Labor Day, unofficially marking the end of summer. The date was chosen specifically to avoid any association with May 1.
Nonetheless May 1 remains a labor holiday in over 80 countries world-wide.
Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.
According to Entertainment Weekly, “42” made Hollywood history with the highest-grossing premier of any baseball-themed movie. Which is true but almost beside the point. It’s not just about baseball, it’s about honor.
It’s about men doing the right thing at a time when it was unpopular and dangerous to do so.
It’s good for people dissatisfied with current progress towards universal equality to remember things were once a lot worse. And it’s good for those so proud of conspicuously having all the correct attitudes to remember there was a time when wearing those convictions on your sleeve carried a price.
“42” is the story of Jackie Robinson’s first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946-47, that broke the color line in baseball. The number was Robinson’s, and the only number to be retired by all of baseball.
The movie, like baseball, has a star but it’s about a team.
Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) president and general manager of the Dodgers, wants to break the color line. Because he’s deeply offended by the stain of racism on the game he loves passionately. Because he’s been carrying the humiliation for years of not having done enough for a black man who was his friend.
And because he sees a tremendous opportunity in the huge number of black baseball fans and the chance to have first pick from an untapped reservoir of talent.
There’s an important point there. It’s good when people start to realize something is wrong, better when people realize it’s not only wrong but unprofitable.
Rickey needs just the right player, an extraordinary athlete but one who can keep his temper under the worst provocation.
He finds him in Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman). Robinson plays baseball, football, basketball, and even tennis well. He’s intelligent, articulate, and high-spirited. That last characteristic having gotten him a court-martial in the Army when he refused to move to the back of a bus.
Rickey tells him he’s going to have to watch that.
“Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Robinson asks.
“No,’ Rickey replies, “I’m looking for a negro with guts enough not to fight back.”
And it takes guts for sure. The film does a great job through a series of scenes showing the daily casual humilitation Robinson and his new bride Rachel (Nicole Beharie) have to put up with. And for a while it only gets worse, mounting in viciousness as Robinson goes through training and then takes the field with the Dodgers.
But they also have a lot of support from friends like African-American sports reporter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) and a redneck-looking workman who approaches them, initially terrifying Rachel.
“I want to tell you something,” he says. “I want to tell you I’m behind you, a lot of us are. I figure if a man’s got the goods he ought to have a chance.”
And that’s what “42” is all about. There is no affirmative action in sports. A player has the goods or he doesn’t, and there’s no excuse for failure and no hiding ability.
Robinson had it, and once he got on the field there was no denying it.
“I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a ****n’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded,” says Leo “Nice guys finish last” Durocher (Christopher Meloni).
And therein lies the point about discrimination, and honor.
Any man of honor will be offended by discrimination. Because if you don’t give a man a chance, you’re never going to be sure you’ve deserved your accomplishments, or got them because somebody else was denied the chance.
“If he can take my job, he’s entitled to it,” says shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black).
Reese has something to prove by standing up for Robinson publicly in front of his Southern relatives. This is brilliant shown in a scene where a young boy who is starting to pick up on the detestable behavior of the grownups around him – until Reese walks over to Robinson and puts his arm around him before a game.
Many who stood up for Robinson were Southerners, and some of the worst bigots were Yankees, and thank y’all most kindly for making that point.
“42” makes all these points and more, but doesn’t hit you over the head with them. If there’s anything at all to be regretted it’s that you don’t see more about some extraordinary people, but it might just inspire you to learn more about Rachel Isum Robinson, Reese, and how people like Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman) eventually changed and grew.
Note: This is my syndicated column.
Well, we know the rest of that old saying isn’t true. Words hurt. Sometimes a lot, depending on who says them.
In every society children are taught social rules for what kinds of speech are appropriate, when and with whom. Rules backed by sanctions ranging from dirty looks to social ostracism, or in extreme cases an educational beat down.
These days though, speech is policed on many university campuses by speech codes – and “policed” is no idle metaphor for speech deemed “offensive.”
Recently my attention was drawn to this website “Microaggressions” http://www.microaggressions.com/
According to the creators, “Microaggressions are the subtle ways in which body and verbal language convey oppressive ideology about power or privilege against marginalized identities.”
The site solicits contributions from people with “marginalized identities” about ways people have conveyed their oppressive ideologies.
Already I’m not liking this. But maybe that’s because I get antsy when people start talking about offensive speech in ways that seem to indicate a need for legal remedy rather than say, a punch in the nose.
But have a look at the site by all means. There’s a mix of valid, invalid, too-easily offended, and some that infuriate you with how thoughtlessly cruel people can be.
A random sample:
*”Entered an informal backgammon tournament (8 players, all men but me) and won my first round. Was told by another player that I was “good…for a woman.” My vanquished opponent called him out on that – and noted that it was likely the attitude why more women don’t play.”
Valid, irritating, what an idiot. Note that the idiot was called on it though.
*”I go to a McDonalds for lunch break, alone. I sit down at an empty table next to an elderly man, who immediately comments, “What a pretty little thing, I wonder if she’s waiting for her man to come along.” Made me feel like my only purpose is to be some man’s ornament.”
Annoying, but can we give the geezer a break? He’s from another age, probably lonely and trying to start a conversation with an attractive lady. Overreacting.
*”’I wish I could bring my dog out to eat with me!’ Teenage girl and mother to me at a Chinese restaurant; I’m a 23 year old male with a service dog.”
Overreacting, get over it, they were trying to be nice. Perhaps a bit clumsily.
*”I was walking behind a male coworker when he stopped in his tracks and began backing up into me, dancing, while singing “Big Booty Bitches.” I’m a woman. Made me uncomfortable, angry, demeaned.”
In a more civilized age any gentleman within range would have offered to thrash this boor. Regrettably in this age you can get into lots of trouble for that – but a job complaint is definitely in order.
*”’If she wears those shorts out there, it’s her own fault if she gets into ‘trouble.’ My grandmother referring to my shorts on a cruise in Turkey. Apparently if I wear short shorts out, I’m asking to be raped. I’m 18. Made me feel upset, exposed, scared.”
GRANNY IS RIGHT YOU TWIT! Do not go to another country, with a radically different culture, and expect them to abide by YOUR rules.
*”’My first words to her were what any father would say to their own daughter: What were you thinking walking alone like that!’ The director of Campus Security in a lecture to first-years. The girl she was talking about was sexually assaulted when she was walking back to campus at night. 300 students, no one objected.”
No, those would not be my first words to my daughter. They’re true, and will eventually have to be said, but there is a time and a place for everything.
*”’Well, there are many meanings of the word [rape] other than what you’re talking about.’
Comment made by my MFA program director when I asked her not to use the word ‘rape’ casually in class, after sharing that I am a survivor of sexual assault. Earlier that day she had referred to something jokingly as ‘internet rape,’ and I was so triggered that I had to leave class and cry in the hallway.”
Heartbreaking. What a clueless idiot the instructor was.
*”The learn-to-speak-German tapes I’ve been listening to will ask me to “Say ______ in German” and then will ask me to say the same thing “as if you were a woman” (because some aspects of the grammar are gendered and would be different depending on the speaker). But I already am a woman.”
It’s called “grammar.” Take it up with the Germans if it offends you.
Note: My syndicated column of a couple weeks back. I sometimes forget to archive them here right off, but better late…
On March 13, the white smoke let the waiting world know the conclave of cardinals had elected a new pope, following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on 28 February.
The new pope is a Jesuit, which is the first interesting thing about the election. The Jesuits, though technically in subordination to the pope, have throughout history often functioned as a separate center of power within the Roman Catholic Church. Though Pope John Paul II was known for demanding, and getting, the subordination of the order, for the first time the two centers of power will be united in one person.
The former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio let it be known he wished to be called Francis, following the precedent established by John Paul I of picking a name never worn by a previous pope.
This he said, was in honor of the beloved St. Francis of Assisi, called by some cynics, “history’s only practicing Christian.”
“The man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man,” the Pope said. “How I would like a poor Church, and for the poor”.
Francesco d’Assisi was born a privileged brat who grew up to be a carouser, a brawler, and a wencher until he had a conversion experience during his service as a soldier for his city. Many men go to war and come home crazy. Francis went to war and came home sane.
Though a lot of people at the time must have thought he was pretty crazy. Francis, who by the way was never ordained, preached sermons to the birds and animals he loved, and wrote hymns to “my brother the sun, my sister the moon.”
There is also the famous story of how Francis went to Egypt to try and convert the Sultan. He failed but the Sultan was so impressed with Francis that he sent him away laden with rich gifts, which Francis used to help the poor.
Interestingly, some Sufi writers, members of that mystical brotherhood within Islam that claims they seek the truth behind all religion, have a different take on the story. According to Sufi writer Idries Shah, Francis was not on a mission of conversion, he was paying a visit to a brother in the same lodge for an evening of conversation.
This is interesting in the light of the good relations Pope Francis has with both the Islamic and Jewish communities in his native Argentina.
But there is another St. Francis that means something to the new pope, St. Francis de Sales. As a young priest, Bergoglio was mentored by a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest, Stefan Czmil of the Salesian Order, and as a result knows the Byzantine liturgy.
St. Francis de Sales is by the way, the patron saint of writers and journalists, known for spreading the faith through pamphleteering and gentle persuasion.
The new pope is going to need the aid of St. Francis de Sales. The Roman Catholic church is under sustained assault from within and without.
The election of a traditional conservative Catholic is not going to please leftist atheists who want a strong Christianity to disappear, or yield to the cult of the almighty state.
It’s going to discomfort American cafeteria-Catholics who wish the church would endorse a “one from column A and one from column B” approach to doctrine.
The new pope is going to have to deal with the elephant in the room, the still-unresolved issue of clerical child abuse. And sooner or later someone is going to have to address what is increasingly obvious but never mentioned; that there is an ongoing, more-or-less organized campaign by pedophiles to infiltrate the Catholic clergy. (If you don’t think pedophilia is organized, Google “NAMBLA,” but prepare to lose your lunch.)
The new pope may or may not be able to get a handle on the recurring problem of corruption involving Vatican finances.
Whatever he does or does not accomplish, a lot of people are going to be disappointed.
I wish this new pope well. Evidence suggests he is a good man, and we need good men in positions of spiritual and temporal power. For those who expect miracles I recommend contemplation of two things.
One, any center of power and wealth is subject to corruption, for the simple fact that we are men, fallible and corruptible. The Church has always known this and has always maintained an awareness that there are two churches: one temporal and subject to the sins of our nature, the other spiritual which is the ideal men strive for.
The other is that in the Church we have an organization whose central purpose is to last until the end of time – literally. While acknowledging that change happens, and hoping that it might be for the better, one does not want to go around making irrevocable changes for what may turn out to be passing fads.
Note: This originally appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.
Kine die, kin die
And so at last yourself:
But this I know that never dies
How dead men’s deeds are deemed.
- Hávamál: The Words of Odin the High One, from the Elder Edda
“Vikings” is I believe, the first venture of the History Channel into historical drama.
The gold standard for Viking movies is still, “The Vikings” with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, based on a book by Edison Marshall. The movie begat a TV series, “Tales of the Vikings” (1959-1960).
Everybody loves Vikings, which is kind of odd and paradoxical. On the one hand, you have a people who were energetic, active, and wonderfully bold. They had a robust sense of humor, the laughter of free men. The mostly dealt justly with each other, and women probably had more rights in their society than anywhere else, or at any other time until the present.
On the other hand, for a couple of centuries these admirable people liked to take annual sea voyages down to Europe where they’d steal anything that wasn’t nailed down, rape everything in skirts, and kill anyone who got in their way, or sometimes just for fun. (I’d tell you what “carving the blood eagle” was, but not before lunch.)
“Vikings” is the story of the beginning of the age of Viking raids in the ninth century, told as the story of the semi-legendary Ragnar Lodbrok (Travis Fimmel), known to history as “Ragnar Hairybreeks.”
Ragnar and his wife the shieldmaiden Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), and his brother Rollo (Clive Standen) are progressive, forward-looking Vikings who want to discover new lands to plunder. They are opposed by the backward-looking Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), who wants to keep raiding the poverty-stricken Baltic coast.
“A furore Normanorum, libera nos Domine!” medieval monks prayed. “From the fury of the Northmen, deliver us Oh Lord!”
Deliver us Oh Lord, from writers who can’t be bothered to get their history right!
There is so much that could have been done with this. They have the scenery down. They built a Viking village whose authenticity you can almost smell, and one very cool longship,
They have an outstanding cast. In particular Katheryn Winnick, a Canadian actress of Ukrainian origin who looks like she carries genes from the Viking kingdom of Kiev. She is also an accomplished martial artist and pulls off the role of a warrior woman to perfection.
There is in the first episode, a law case that ideally should have set the stage perfectly. A man kills an enemy in a dispute that would ordinarily have called for weregild, the blood money paid to the family of someone you’ve killed, even if it was self-defense.
But in this case, the killer passed by three houses before he announced the killing, and thus is technically guilty of “secret murder” a heinous crime. A very nice touch indicating someone has done their homework.
Unfortunately, they’ve got too many things in here which are just flat absurd.
Ragnar has learned how to use a sun disk and a sun stone. The first is a wooden plate with a peg in the middle. You float it in water and take note of the length of the peg’s shadow at noon, which gives you a pretty good idea of longitude. The latter is a piece of crystal which polarizes light, enabling you to see the sun through heavy clouds.
They follow this up with the absurd notion that the Vikings didn’t know about the existence of England, except as legend!
The ninth century was when Vikings and their Irish thralls colonized Iceland!
They make Earl Haraldson out to be a scary, semi-psycho who rules with an iron fist and terrifies everybody.
In reality ninth century Viking society was very decentralized, with local chieftains jealous of their independence and quick to speak their minds, even to their kings.
When Ragnar returns from the first raid into England with booty, and a captive monk who speaks their language, Earl Haradson demands all of the treasure as compensation for their having disobeyed him.
No earl wielded that kind of authority to begin with, and while a chief might claim a share of the spoils, no one could have gotten away with taking it all.
And as for the Saxon monk, Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon were probably close enough for the Viking and the monk to talk to each other with a little practice anyway.
I’m sorry, there is much to like about this series, but there are too many sour notes that spoil it and can’t be fixed within the constraints they’ve written themselves into.
Note: This is last week’s syndicated column.
Every now and again a term gets coined and comes into circulation that perfectly describes in shorthand a phenomenon you used to have to use whole sentences, paragraphs, pages or books to describe.
The late psychedelic guru Timothy Leary called these terms “neurologically exact.”
Do you remember the first time you ever heard someone say, “Hey, don’t get uptight”? You didn’t have to ask what they meant, did you?
Well recently I was exposed to a term which perfectly describes a phenomenon whole books have been written about. For example Diana West’s, “The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization,” or David Mamet’s, “The Secret Knowledge.”
I encountered it in the online version of the humor magazine Cracked. I remember Cracked as a sort of poor relation to the much better-known and influential MAD Magazine of beloved memory, before “the usual gang of idiots” died off or retired and MAD was possessed by the Devil, a.k.a. AOL/Time-Warner.
It was in an article titled, “How the Karate Kid Ruined the Modern World” by David Wong. I’m not sure if Wong invented the term or not, but it’s a good one.
The essence of it was that movies like “The Karate Kid” show someone going from being bad at something to being good at it over the course of a two-minute musical montage, after a sudden enlightening attitude change.
Ever work that way for you?
Me neither. Like Daniel-san I was a skinny kid who got picked on. But I acquired my instructors credentials in two martial arts and intermediate/advanced level skill in a half-dozen others via thousands of dollars spent on lessons and reference materials, and tens of thousands of hours of practice.
I switched professions in mid-life when I was living and working in Eastern Europe in an exciting milieu of dramatic change, civil war, and international intrigue.
After getting some great stories as an amateur I went back to school. I then became an underpaid reporter at my first newspaper – one with less than 12,000 circulation. I’m on my second, somewhat larger paper now.
I cover local government, agriculture, small business etc. It’s called paying dues.
Success in most professions does not require genius. It requires a certain minimum of study, experience and a lot of paying dues.
The classic, reliable way of getting rich for those of us not in on the ground floor of the Next Big Thing, is not at all complicated. Get a job, any job. Gradually increase your earning power via skills training. Do a conspicuously good job. Put aside ten percent of your earnings, regular as clockwork, for years and years. Invest it according to the best advice you can find, which itself takes a lot of research. Get married, stay married, buy a house. By the time you’re ready to retire, barring disaster, you’ll be at least comfortably, maybe very well-off.
And yet, every year a multitude of college students graduate from our institutions of higher learning expecting to own the world, or a substantial piece of it, while they are still young and good-looking.
That’s when they run into effort shock.
Notice that formula for success is not complicated, merely very, very, difficult. It requires sustained patient effort, and delay of immediate gratification, over years. And years. Not to mention the fairly frequent bad luck, or bad judgment, that means you have to start all over again.
This applies to success in all things. How many people can’t stay married, not because of those “irreconcilable differences” but because staying married is hard?
Of course people have always encountered effort shock, but it does seem to be more pronounced these days.
If I had to guess, I’d say modern civilization makes us a little too comfortable. Not many of us grow up on farms anymore where kids are part of the workforce from an early age. We don’t grow up working hard just to stay afloat.
I wouldn’t give up those civilized comforts. On a not-too-spectacular salary I still have a house full of stuff people used to pay fortunes for when I was a kid, if they existed at all.
But sometimes I wish I could make life a little harder for my children. And sometimes I wonder if that’s not going to happen anyway.
Note: Cross-posted on my professional blog at The Marshall Independent.
In my post on recommended reading for anyone whose interest in Cold War history has been piqued by the FX series, “The Americans” I provided a reading list of sources which have been authenticated to a reasonable degree.
There’s something else I’d like to mention, but this is in the realm of pure speculation.
One of the sources I found when researching my review said there are estimates of “as many as 50 couples” like the couple portrayed in the series, in place in the U.S.
I have no idea how they got that figure or what it’s worth. But some years back I heard a very intriguing rumor.
According to this, the United States was never able to put agents in place within the Soviet Union. Among other reasons, their society isn’t as mobile as ours. They don’t habitually move around the country looking for work, or just because they think they might like someplace else better. Most people grow up among people they’ve known all their lives.
For another, functioning in their society required a lot of documentation, official permissions etc that presented an almost insurmountable barrier to passing as a native.
What U.S. intelligence did was to have American handlers recruit locals to pass information with the promise that they and their families would eventually be extracted and taken to live in the U.S., as Col. Kuklinski’s family was.
The Soviets on the other hand, had little trouble putting agents in place in our country. Constructing an identity is not terribly difficult. I understand it starts with touring cemeteries, looking for someone who died in childhood who would have been about your own age. You then write to the county records office and say, “I’m so-and-so and I’d like a copy of my birth certificate.”
With the birth certificate you generate all the other documents you need. It won’t pass a background check of the degree of thoroughness required to get a job with the FBI, but that’s not the point. You can settle in a part of the country that’s rich in information, and blend into society, hoping to cultivate the acquaintance of people who do have access to useful information.
No here’s the rumor I heard. The Soviets could do that – but they tended to lose people.
Agents in place, like the couple in the series, would realize, “Life is good here. Life is not good back home.”
If you’ve generated one identity, it’s no trick to generate another and move somewhere else in this vast and varied country of ours.
So why not just defect? Turn yourself in.
Well, there’s another rumor, and it’s an ugly one.
The U.S. government did not in fact welcome all potential defectors with open arms. The reasoning is that unless they came with valuable information or skills, it was better to leave malcontents in place within Soviet society where they were a potentially disruptive influence.
We know defectors have been turned away. Vasilli Mitrokhin was, that’s how the British got the KGB archives first.
There is a rumor that defectors who didn’t have sufficiently valuable information were sometimes traded back. (I was told this by an Air Force noncom with a hobby interest in political and military history.)
So, blend in, lie low, and never tell your children.
I wonder about this. Are there living among us people who appear like any other of our countrymen, who were born half a world away?
I wonder if we’ll ever know.
Note: I see “Argo” won an academy award, and I see I neglected to post my review which first appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent. So here it is.
After a slow beginning the reputation of “Argo” as a taut psychological thriller and intelligent action flick is getting around.
“Argo” achieves the most difficult feat for a thriller, keeping you on edge even when you know the outcome walking in. As action flick it hearkens back to an earlier time before the “non-stop action” genre, when films paid attention to set up and character development. And for once, the CIA are shown as the good guys.
And if you’re paying careful attention there are some interesting questions about realpolitik and ethics versus practicalities raised therein.
“Argo” tells the story of the “Canadian caper,” a joint CIA-Canadian operation that spirited six American diplomatic personnel out of Iran during the Iranian hostage crisis in January, 1980.
Since a generation has passed since those days, the film begins with a narrator relating the background. In 1979 the Shah of Iran was forced into exile and the Ayatollah Khomeni returned from his own exile to assume spiritual leadership of the new Islamic Republic of Iran.
Enraged that the U.S. admitted the Shah into the country for medical treatment, militants stormed and seized the American embassy, taking the staff hostage for what was to become a 444 day ordeal.
Six diplomats escaped out a back door and ultimately found refuge in the residence of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber.)
CIA officials brainstorm various plans to extract the six, discarding all of them as impractical, until agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs) comes up with an audacious plan to extract the six disguised as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science fiction movie to be called Argo.
The plan is green-lighted as the “least bad” option.
Mendez contacts makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) who did contract work for the CIA with disguises.
“Let me get this straight, you want to come to Hollywood, make a fake movie, and do nothing?” Chambers asked. “You’ll fit right in.”
Chambers helps Mendez recruit producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to establish a thorough cover for the operation.
“If I’m going to make a fake movie, I’m going to make a fake hit,” Siegel said.
The cover involved a real script that justified an exotic location shoot (an adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s novel, “Lord of Light” by the way,) full-page ads in Variety, press conferences, casting calls, and an office that existed to answer precisely one phone call from Iran to verify that Mendez’s cover character was “out of the country on location.”
The understated tension is marvelously done, Afleck has a great future as a director. The living conditions of the six, in comfortable but cramped conditions, living in fear, getting on each others nerves, is shown in images with few words. A glimpse of a man shot by firing squad through a window, a man hanged from a crane, the growing suspicion that the Iranian housekeeper knows who the ambassador’s guests are. This could be a textbook illustration of the novelist’s dictum, “Show – don’t tell.”
“Argo” doesn’t shy away from the moral ambiguity of the U.S.- Iranian conflict. Yes the U.S. sponsored a coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953, and supported a despot who ruled with the brutal CIA-trained secret police SAVAK.
But with the Shah gone, what replaced him? Even more brutal religious fanatics who threw a rich and modernizing country into poverty and chaos.
And who were the militant leaders? Mendez tells the six while briefing them. Not semi-literate goat-herders but American and European-educated English speakers who had seen the west close up, and hated it. Hated the west enough to throw away ancient laws on the treatment of diplomats and stage sadistic mock-execution with their captives.
There’s food for thought here, now more than ever.
There’s also some choices Afleck made he should have thought twice about. “Argo” has it the six were refused refuge at the British and New Zealand embassies. In fact both embassies aided the six in important ways, as did the Swedish embassy which briefly sheltered one of them.
Afleck calls this dramatic license to heighten the sense the six had no place else to go.
No, having the Swissair plane chased down the runway by gunmen in trucks as it’s taking off is dramatic license. This is slander.
After the preview at the Toronto Film Festival in September, critics charged “Argo” unfairly minimized Canadian participation in the operation. Well perhaps, but then again the Canadians got all the credit until 1997 when the operation was declassified and Mendez got to claim his Intelligence Star medal, and Chambers his Intelligence medal.
Note: Cross-posted from my blog at The Marshall Independent.
My review of “The Americans” appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.
For those wishing to know more about that era, or just want to know if I’m a paranoid conspiracy nut or not, I can recommend a few books.
You can read the short form here, but there’s a lot missing.
Col. Kuklinski contacted and started passing information to the CIA when as a member of the General Staff he discovered the Soviets not only planned to invade Western Europe, but had written off Poland as the proverbial self-lighted glass parking lot if the war went nuclear.
A controversial figure in Poland even today, his grave in the Honor Row of the Powazki Military Cemetery in Warsaw has been vandalized on a few occasions.
The Wikipedia article mentions his two sons died in America. What they don’t elaborate on is that one was killed in a hit-and-run accident, the driver was never found. The other disappeared on a diving trip along with a few friends. His daughter is living in hiding in America.
Whatever they call it these days, the KGB still has a long arm.
This is a fascinating read. The book was conceived after Usdin met a Soviet scientist who spoke perfect English. The scientist told him he’d learned it in school.
Usdin replied, “You didn’t learn that Brooklyn accent in school.”
The scientist turned out to be Joel Barr, one of the two members of the Rosenberg spy ring who escaped to the USSR and together with fellow escapee Alfred Sarant helped found Zelenograd, the “Soviet Silicon Valley.”
It turns out not only were the Rosenberg’s guilty, they were so guilty you have to wonder what the heck the FBI was doing, sitting on their hands?
The KGB officer who was sent over to be the ring’s handler was shocked at the amateurishness of these idiots. For example, before their handler taught them the elements of tradecraft, Julius Rosenberg’s self-chosen code name was “Julius.”
Interestingly, though the Rosenberg ring did indeed pass on the atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets, the more practical secret they gave them was the proximity fuse, the force multiplier for artillery. The A-bomb was after all never used by the end of the Cold War, but artillery certainly was.
And speaking of the A-bomb, if anybody doubts that nuclear weapons technology was stolen from the U.S. by the USSR rather than developed independently, “The Red Bomb” documentary disposes of that lie.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen it but I remember there was an interview with the head of the Soviet bomb project just before his death, in which he freely admitted that every month he got a box full of documents straight from Los Alamos, which only he was allowed to read.
The Venona Transcripts… you don’t want to read thousands of source documents unless you’re a professional and you have to. A good book about them, and how they came to be can be found here. Or just glance at the Wikipedia entry, with the proviso that the ‘pedia is sometimes incomplete, sometimes contains deliberately planted disinformation, and is sometimes just flat wrong.
“The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB” by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin.
Mitrokhin wasn’t a KGB field agent, he was an archivist with unlimited access to KGB files. Of course with that kind of stuff in his head they’d never have put him in the field. What he did was make copies and immensely detailed notes of documents in the archives from 1972-1984. He retired in 1985 and defected to the United Kingdom in 1992 – after the CIA didn’t believe he could have done this and turned him down.
And of course the classic “Witness” by Whittaker Chambers. First published in 1952, this is the almost-forgotten autobiography of a former American Communist and Soviet agent who became a Christian, a political conservative, and an editor at National Review.
Chambers was vilified for accusing respectable and powerful upper-class figures such as Alger Hiss and Harry White of being Soviet agents. Surprise! He was right and they were liars.
Word of caution, it’s looooong and I first read it out of a sense of duty to history. However it’s oddly compelling and there is a sweet sense of nobility about Chambers’ apologia pro vita sua. He knew he wasn’t going to win any popularity contests, and to the end of his life he never quite shook the Marxist notion of historical inevitability. He thought he’d jumped ship to the losing side.
For the testimony of another former communist who didn’t go quite so far right, I’d recommend “Being Red: A Memoir” by Howard Fast.
I love Howard Fast’s novels. In particular, “Citizen Tom Paine,” “April Morning,” and “My Glorious Brothers.”
Unlike Chambers, Fast never quite got over his time in the CPUSA and referred to his old comrades as “Some of the finest people I’ve ever known.”
Or was he just terrified, who knows?
This is one of those autobiographies that tends to confirm the adage that you should never meet an author whose work you admire. Fast tells how as a Communist Party official writer, he had an advance look at Krushchev’s “Secret Speech” to the 20th Party Congress on February 14, 1956, in which Stalin’s atrocities were confirmed. However Fast didn’t quit the CP until years later.
Fast talks about how traumatized by the shattering of his illusions he was, and how he had to work it out with his analyst.
Uh, what about the tens of millions of victims Howie?
There is a fascinating glimpse into the origins of Political Correctness herein. Fast records his disaffection with the CP hierarchy when they published lists of words and phrases not to be used. For example, never use the expression “whitewash” because it’s racist.
That’s a writer for you. Tell him tens of millions of innocents were slaughtered by his hero and he starts to get a bit uneasy. But tell him how to write and his indignation knows no bounds!
If you’re interested in the history of that period, this list is a good starting point.
What you can get from it is 1) the realization that the history that “everybody knows” can be a lie, 2) the truth does tend to come out in the end, and 3) no kidding, truth really is more interesting than fiction.