Monday, September 18, 2017

Ken Burns on Vietnam - a first look

We watched the first episode, “Déjà Vu,” of Ken Burns and Lynn Novik’s history of the Vietnam War last night. I’d been looking forward to it with considerable restlessness. The Vietnam Era is my coming-of-age era, so there’s no escaping its impact. There was no way I was going to not be sitting in front of the tube.

Once we got into it, I became aware that I had somehow managed to assume it would be “entertaining,” probably because nothing in the media these days is acceptable if it is merely instructive, but not simultaneously entertaining. It wasn’t entertaining. It was like sitting through a university lecture. A course I’d taken before. And while it was speckled with new bits of information for me – I didn’t know, or had forgotten, that Ho Chi Minh had worked as a pastry chef in the U.S., as well as Britain and France (these “facts” are contested) – it was pretty much a review of information I had absorbed almost fifty years ago now.

Try as I may to approach this history with a fresh openness, I find myself still summarizing the era as the time America might have joined with a freedom fighter (Ho Chi Minh) but threw its lot in with the colonizers (the French) he was trying to free his country from instead. America’s tragic moral misstep into the era we now live in, where “land of the free, home of the brave” revealed itself to be a largely hollow slogan. Whether it was ever thus is debatable. After Vietnam, there was no denying it anymore.

I’m also aware that this view of mine marks me as a lefty ideologue, one who misses the reality of the struggle against communism and the need for Realpolitik. And there you have it. Fifty years and we’re still fighting that ideological battle. It has not been resolved, and if anything Americans have only sunk deeper into the mire of hypocrisy and deception, albeit (if you listen to those who claim to be patriots) for a good cause.

A Huffington Post review  of the first episode backs up my lefty take on things. They write:

… the film … recount(s) a history in which the United States failed to allow for elections in the South after Vietnam had been divided following the French defeat at Dienbienphu. Everybody knew North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh would win the election, and so the United States set about building a client regime in the South which rigged a referendum and then massacred thousands of suspected communists.

These facts point to the United States violating the sovereignty of Vietnam and betraying the American mission of supporting democracy around the world.

Where I differ with Huffpost is that they think this is covered up in the documentary. I found it plain to see. I don’t think I was projecting; I think the facts were presented accurately.

I share with Huffpost the notion that the documentary reflects too closely the imperialist views of the Nixon, Kennedy and Johnson administrations and misses the fact that efforts at self-determination around the world – in Greece, for example, and Okinawa – were actually supported not by us but by our arch-nemesis, the Soviet Union.  Which, of course, was in the end just another empire, so don't paint me all Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, now.  In any case, there is no escaping the political context in which we live, where we routinely misrepresent ourselves as a force for self-determination and justify the hypocrisy by pointing out (with considerable justification) how dastardly and authoritarian our opponents are.

I'm reminded of what a Korean friend once told me. "Korea can only be truly be in control of its own fate once the last of the Japan-educated members of the Ministry of Education are gone." He had less to say about whether the presence of North Korea today should give me pause in thinking fighting communism in Vietnam was a mistake.

It remains to be seen what comes from watching further episodes, whether it’s just more of history as “just one damn thing after another,” bombarding us with war porn and mind-numbing repetitive detail. Or whether something new and enlightening will come from watching.

My expectations are still high. As Burns and Novick tell us, this is not an attempt to provide answers; the film's intent is to generate more questions. It's time for America to deal with Vietnam. We never have. Not really. Not adequately.

No way I’m going to miss it, in any case.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

History as Fiction - a film review

Plummer as the reprehensible and witty Kaiser Wilhelm
I blogged yesterday about what I take to be America’s greatest weakness, it’s propensity for believing truth to be whatever you really really want it to be. Some would argue it’s only the number two weakness, the greatest weakness being income inequality – the fact that the richest 1% now own more than the bottom 90%. No point in arguing over this, I think. It’s sufficient to note that both of them together have destroyed any hope of democracy. We are now an oligarchic society and there doesn’t seem to be any way of changing that fact. With truth for sale, you can’t persuade people to use the ballot box to replace corporate America’s lackeys that run the Congress with the kind of men and women who might actually do something about inequity.

You know what I’d like to see? I’d like to see us mark the day the scales first fell from our eyes, the first time we came to see how much we are battered by bullshit. Like birthdays and anniversaries. And the first time you have sex. Perhaps it’s generational. In my day, ROTC was a college requirement at Middlebury, where I went as an undergraduate. Remember ROTC? The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, designed to develop officers for the military. In the class on military history the lieutenant teaching the course went on one day about something that had happened in the Mexican-American War when a student who had been raised in Cuba stood up and contradicted him. How rude, I thought. I had yet to learn that history was largely comprised of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, to cite the book title of a book by James W. Loewen that I came to read years later. After college, when I entered the army and worked with the Army Security Agency, I had a chance to note first hand that the “truth” I was exposed to, not only from a variety of national sources but from first-hand experience as well, often contradicted the “truth” I’d read in the American press. Still later, I discovered Howard Zinn, and things never looked the same again.

When Oliver Stone’s movie on the assassination of JFK came out in 1991 it immediately started a world-wide debate which is actually still going on over whether Stone got the facts right or whether his film is fictionalized history. Whether conspiracy theories are your thing is not what I’m trying to get at, however. What I’m more interested in getting at is whether this willingless to subject ourselves to a liar like Donald Trump is furthered by our willingness to find fictionalized history perfectly acceptable. It certainly seems to be, and almost anything can be justified as long as it’s entertaining. What’s a little massaging of facts as long as a little popcorn and ninety minutes of fun at the moving picture show takes our mind off the dreary and the depressing. I just want to have fun!

My nightly Netflix/Amazon Prime entertainment last night was a 2016 film called The Exception. It stars Christopher Plummer, and I have to tell you I think it’s probably his best role ever – and I’m including Sound of Music here. Plummer plays Kaiser Wilhelm II in retirement in Holland just as Hitler invades and decides to lay claim to him before he, Wilhelm, can cast a shadow on Hitler’s place in the sun.
actual historical Willi

I put the movie in my queue because I have a fascination with Prussia and the Hohenzollerns. I love the arrogance of Kaiser Willi, changing his military uniform five times a day and parading around with a bird on his head, oblivious to how silly that was bound to make him look in the course of time. 

I raise the question of truth vs. entertainment because it plays a major role in The Exception. King Willi doesn’t merely get white-washed. He actually gets to play the good German, the one who saves the Jewish girl from Himmler. I guess if you’re going to toy with historical fact, you might as well go all in. It’s a preposterous fiction. Willi, from all reports, was a colossal bore. Plummer turns him into a hero.

We owe no special loyalty to this historical figure. In fact, if you dig through early 20th Century history (and way before, actually) for the beginnings of modern Germany, it's pretty clear Hitler didn't invent anti-semitism, but built on what was already there - in case you missed that in history class. Willi's biographer John Röhl even suggests Willi thought the way to get rid of the Jews might be to gas them. And Willi loved being “emperor,” loved the idea of going to war, didn’t appear to care much what happened to the little guy, and stands in contrast with his charming and more gentlemanly grandfather, Kaiser Wilhelm I, as the guy under whose reign the Prussian monarchy gave way to the Weimar Republic. 

No matter. Somebody decided it’s time for some happy history. You’ve got your Hitler (snarl, snarl), your Himmler (Satan personified), your affable old Kaiser living out his life in Holland, entertaining himself by feeding the ducks and chopping down trees for firewood and yearning for the restoration of his throne. Alongside Willi is his second wife Hermine, who, unlike her outspoken husband who thinks Hitler is basically an ass, is willing to kiss ass, even bribing Himmler – anything to be able to return as queen to Berlin.

It’s not in the cards. Himmler promises Willi he will bring him back, but that’s a deception. His reason for the lie is to encourage all the anti-Hitler nobility to expose themselves, so they can be eliminated.

full frontal good nazi
Brandt, sent to spy on the Kaiser
Along with Plummer as Willi and Janet McTeer as Willi’s wife, Princess Hermine Reuss of Greiz, both of whom really steal every scene they are in, are the two “main” characters, Captain Stefan Brandt, played by Australian Superhunk Jai Courtney, and the Dutch maid, Mieke, played by Lily James of Downton Abbey fame. So what you have here is a very strange fictional tale of the last days of the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II played by a cast of first-rate actors. Brandt was part of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, where he saw brutality up close and was freaked out by it. Wounded, he was then assigned the supposedly humiliating task of heading up the Kaiser’s guards - and checking up on the Kaiser while he's at it. No sooner does he arrive in Holland than he meets maid Mieke, commands her to undress (completely) and has his way with her. No problem, it turns out. The next day, she marches in and commands him to return the full frontal favor and mounts him on the bed, making this whole spectacle some kind of semi-porn event.

Actually, it’s a romance, but this is 2017, so the sex has to be big and bold. And in the end, you actually find yourself rooting for a Nazi soldier and his impossibly unlikely Jewish girlfriend, who, when discovered as an enemy agent, gets bailed out with the aid of the Kaiser.

History as you like it. Not politically correct, exactly, but rewritten to show there were soldiers in Hitler’s army that were sexy as hell, kindly as hell, capable of being a Mensch, and if not throwing a wooden shoe in the gears of the Nazi war machine, exactly, at least slowing it down by making love, not war.

Janet McTeer as Kaiserin Hermine, Lily James as Mieke
with Plummer, the Kaiser
So what do you think? Is this fictional history a lie? It’s good entertainment – good acting, humor, tension, surprise, hot sex – but is it a lie? Can you make up historical fact? If so, can you stay below the threshhold where any harm appears to be done? Is this the equivalent of a white lie, this manipulation of historical fact? Or does it just soften us up to more serious things such as the genocide of the American Indian, the claim that the Civil War was fought for States’ Rights and not for the elimination of slavery?  That the Taliban hate us because we’re free, Ho Chi Minh was not fighting to free his country from French colonialism but because he was a dirty commie, that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that had to be taken out, and that the mess in the Middle East that followed from the Iraq war was due to the fact that Islam never underwent a period of enlightenment and is therefore a religion of war and oppression?

I’d like to think I'm blowing things all out of proportion, that we can actually play with historical fact and not be hurt by it.

But I had to ask.

And if you find yourself aching for the good old days when the Willis were on the throne, you're not alone.

Photo credits:

Plummer as Willi: 
Actual Willi as Willi with bird on head:,_German_Emperor 
full frontal nazi:
Brandt in uniform: 
McTeer, James, Plummer: 


Saturday, September 16, 2017

Kurt Andersen

It’s not that I don’t think Trump should be impeached. It’s that the calls for his impeachment make me nervous. I’m concerned that people are missing the woods for the trees. Focusing on the wrong aspect of the problem. The main problem is not the loss of American dignity or even the carelessness shown by the American electorate which paved the way for this clown to claim the White House, although these are certainly serious problems. When it comes down to what put America at serious risk as a nation and as a democracy, it's the American habit of thinking belief is equal to knowledge that made the current disaster possible.

Novelist and host of the radio program Studio 360 Kurt Andersen has a book coming out shortly titled Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire – a 500-Year History. And you don’t need to wait for it to get the jist of his arguments. He’s got an article titled “How America Lost Its Mind” in  the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic, which sums them up. Andersen has hit the nail on the head, in my opinion. Two things led to the current dumbing down, he says: a history of credulity that runs from Cotton Mather to Kellyanne Conway, and the internet, which has made it possible for any idiot with a half-baked theory who knows how to type to find a critical mass of others who buy into the same hogwash, and then shut down the gates to other sources of knowledge and live tribally on an island of smug self-assurance.

Andersen is a lot more generous toward religion than I am. He sees religion as an enabler of idiocy, rather than a cause. I’m more inclined to think it’s the prime mover, since once you establish that your belief system, i.e., your particular set of alternate “facts” is as valid as any other, you’re already over the line into gullibility. It’s just a question of time before the next snake-oil salesman comes down the road with his “Have I got an idea for you!”

In an hour-long Aspen Institute interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Andersen tells how the idea for the book came from his marveling at America’s gullibility and his desire to know more about it. He is fond of quoting Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s now much cited: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” And, despite his own clearly liberal bent, he has a very high opinion of American historian Daniel J. Boorstin, who wrote as early as 1961 “We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them.” Thinking at first that this fantasyland was born in the 60s, Andersen eventually concluded that it goes all the way back to the colonial period, that people self-selected as outliers who needed space to create their own (chiefly religious) truths and their own “American Zion.” It's the other side of the coin from the positive spin on the line we teach our kids in school - that people came here seeking the right to worship God in their own way.

Examples of this widespread and “promiscuous devotion to the untrue” are everywhere. A third of Americans believe the creation myth in Genesis to be historical literal truth. Two thirds believe there are angels and demons actively involved in making good and bad things happen. A third deny global warming, a third (not necessarily the same third) believe our earliest ancestors (Adam and Eve?) looked just like us. A third (again, not necessarily the same third as in the other cases) believe the government is in cahoots with aliens – or pharmaceutical companies – to hide the cure for cancer or the presence of extraterrestrials. 15% firmly believe the government sends signals through television to control the minds of citizens, and another 15% believe it’s possible. A quarter of Americans still believe in witches – and that U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

Another reason I’m not as keen on impeaching Trump as some of my friends are is that it would leave us with President Mike Pence, perhaps the greatest homophobe in Congress (and that’s no mean claim to fame). Once again, religion. Not the “love your neighbor” kind of religion, but the kind known for giving particularly virulent instructions about demonizing one's neighbor's sexual behavior, particularly if he or she is homosexual, rather than, say, expressing compassion or avoiding violence or deceit. The special wacko Christian cults grown on American soil like Pentecostalism whose people babble in the belief God has a “spirit language” alongside natural language. Or Mormonism, which traces its origin to a nut job who translated a supplement to the Bible written in “Ancient Egyptian” by sticking his nose into a hat. Without bothering to ask why God couldn’t communicate directly. To say nothing of what the hell “Ancient Egyptian” might be. Coptic?  I’m not keen on letting these wolves loose upon the land. They've done enough harm already.

Not everyone who feels weighted down by what we call the Trump phenomenon wants to spend a lot of time tracing the history of the mindset of America’s deplorably silly people. Some just want this nightmare to be over.

In the Jeff Goldberg interview, Goldberg cut to the chase. What can we do about this American malady, this propensity to believe expertise is just another word for elitism and universities are places for generating commies and socialists, he asks (my words, not his). Andersen’s answer is that we need to be prepared for a long haul. You don’t chase stupid out of town overnight. You scrub it out gently. Don’t shout and scream. Just sit next to your jingoist brother-in-law and let him talk. Then ask him to explain himself until he takes note of the fact he’s in a boat out to sea with no anchor.

And don’t get tired.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Anything else I can help you with?

Ordering a smart phone in America. A romance.

I have a cell phone. You flip it open, hit the minus sign in the upper right-hand corner which brings you to contacts. To keep life simple, I only use the phone to call my husband, so there's only one step to remember.  You scroll down till you find his name and you press “Send.”  Not call.  “Send.”

Not that I have a problem with counterintuitivity. I’m an old dog, but I am still moderately teachable.

What I am vulnerable to, though, is the number of people who see me using my flip-top and reacting as if I were peeing on the sidewalk outside of Starbuck’s. What? You don’t have a smart phone? How do you order Uber? How do you find your way home?

I see, I see. Still living in the 19th century. How quaint.

I resisted until my current $100 per year phone-only contract ran out with Verizon and finally decided to bite the bullet. Went online to “research.” Nearly drove myself insane with the offers for things I knew I didn’t want for prices that would take me straight to the poorhouse. I gave up and turned the task over to Taku, who for some reason is still young.

He recommended Cricket and the Apple SE phone. Nice thing about Cricket is they have an outlet at Telegraph and Ashby, a five-minute walk from the house.

So yesterday I walked over there and said, “I want to sign up for your basic plan, $40 a month reduced to $35 once I sign up for automatic payment. And I want the Apple SE for $229.00. And I want to use my old number. Here’s my phone. Where do I sign?

I had done my homework. I should not have taken more than ten minutes of the agent’s time, but what he said back to me was not, "Yes, sir, I'll be happy to help you," but “I’m sorry. We don’t have any SEs left at the moment.”

Well, when can you get one?

He gets on the phone, calls the outlet across town, confirms that they have one. I hear them promise to hold it for him. He will pop by there tonight and would I please come back at 1 p.m. tomorrow (today) and we’ll set you up.

Dandy. I can wait a day. My service doesn’t run out till tomorrow.

So I go back at 1 o’clock today. There’s another gentleman waiting on customers. I wait about ten, fifteen minutes till he’s finished with them. He says to me, “Are you the guy who ordered a phone yesterday?” “I am,” I said.

“Well, I’m sorry, but they sold it.”

“What? Did you not commit that phone to me?”

“I’m sorry. Can you come back another day?”

Another day?

“Or you can order online. Which is better anyway, since you can save yourself the $25 sign-up fee.”

Fine. I’ll go home now (I know it’s only a five-minute walk but that’s two hither and backs, and with my old man feets, that’s twenty minutes in the sun.

So I grouse awhile about how service in America ain't what it used to be and how nobody's word is worth peanuts anymore and then go online to and start the process. 

I find the plan, put it in my cart, find the SE phone, put it in my cart, click “continue” and enter my name, credit card info, the name I want to use for the account, enter a password with lots of letters and numbers, upper and lower case, including the Icelandic letter ð, and click on the order icon.

Rejected. The credit card is rejected.

I call the company. Get a chat going. I’m told I need to use a different credit card.

Well, no, I don’t want to use a different credit card. I only use one credit card. I like to keep track of things.

agent is typing…agent it typing…agent is typing…

I’m sorry sir, there is a problem with your credit card. You need to call your bank.

Fine. I call the credit card company, learn that the charge didn’t go through because of a fraud alert. Twenty minutes on hold (some of our centers are busy because of Hurricane Irma, I’m told), I get a real person. I tell her the problem, assure her it’s really me, and am told the hold is now clear and I should reprocess the application.

Rachel (not her real name) at Cricket is still waiting. That’s good. I try resending, but the problem reappears.

“Try a different browser,” Rachel tells me.  I go from Safari to Chrome and try again. This time I cannot enter my user name because “that name is in use.” It wasn’t when I first applied some fifteen minutes ago, so that’s going to be a problem. Same with the address and credit card. “Already in use.”

I then lose the connection with the Rachel at Cricket. So I click on chat again and get Geraldo (not his real name.) I tell Geraldo the sob story from the beginning. Can’t get in.

Can you use a different credit card?

That’s not the problem, now. The problem now is I cannot enter my user name or the phone number because you think somebody else (which  I know is me) is using it.

It’s now 3:30. I’ve been trying to sign up for this "smart" phone for an hour and a half now.

“Will you try again tomorrow? Maybe your name will be cleared by then.”

Maybe?  OK. I’ll try tomorrow.

Is there anything else I can help you with?

Are you sh**ting me?

Call me on my land line.

I have no plans to leave the house for at least a week.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Close Knit - a film review

Kenta Kiritani (Mikio), Rinka Kakihara (Tomo),
and Tomo Ikuta (Rinko)
The film, 彼らが本気で編むときは (Karera ga honki de amu toki wa) – in English, Close Knit – is a must-see. It made its first appearance at the Berlinale last February, opened later that month in Japan, and I saw it last night at the New People Cinema in San Francisco.  All out-of-the-way places as far as Hollywood is concerned. But it deserves the widest possible viewing and I can only hope word gets around fast.

Close Knit is the story of an eleven-year-old girl, Tomo, being raised by a single mother who neglects her, comes home drunk, and then runs off with someone, and not for the first time. Tomo knows the drill. She goes to her uncle, her mother’s younger brother, who takes her in. This time, though, Tomo discovers that Uncle Mikio has a live-in girlfriend, Rinko. Rinko, it turns out, was born a boy but is now a post-surgical transsexual woman.

Tomo’s life goes from darkness to light overnight. Rinko develops a strong affection for the lost little girl and in no time Tomo has not one but two caring parents who actually begin thinking about the possibility of adopting her.

Outside this warm and welcoming new home, things are not so idyllic. In a supermarket one day,
Tomo Ikuta, when he's not
they run into one of Tomo’s classmates, Kai, and his mother. The mother has been warning him to stay away from “such people” as Tomo and her family, an ironic bit of bigotry which backfires considering that Tomo had been going along with classroom bullies in shunning Kai for being gay and he ends up in the hospital after a suicide attempt.

How the story turns out is best left for viewing this almost impossibly touching treatment of beautiful kindly folk living in a harsh homophobic environment. The title comes from the fact that Rinko has channeled her anger and hurt into her knitting, and has been planning for some time to knit 108 penises – 108 being the Buddhist number of “earthly
Kenta Kiritani, when he's not being a nerdy
but sensitive uncle
temptations” one must overcome. Rinko has determined to set them on fire to symbolize her acquisition of a female identity. She succeeds in getting Tomo involved, and eventually Mikio as well, also as a means of channeling anger and disappointment.

The idea of knitting as mental health therapy, writer/director Naoko Ogigami tells us, comes from personal experience, when she returned to Japan after six years in the States to hard times. She also had to channel her dismay that Japan, while gradually coming to terms with homosexuality, was still a long ways from treating trans people with the respect they deserve. The result is a remarkably understated story told with exquisite Japanese sensibility. The acting is superb.

family photo credit (from a review worth reading)