Category Archives: Books and literature

A more lethal angle on the Russia scandal

I am completely obsessed by the Russia story. Can’t get enough of it; watch way too much cable news and read way too many on-line sources, trying to put it all together. The Robert Mueller investigation strikes me as working with ruthless deliberation, flipping witnesses and issuing subpoenas and indictments, and the net is inexorably closing around the President. John Oliver calls the story ‘stupid Watergate,’ and that seems apt; so many of the players have seemed like dolts, not the least of them Sam Nunberg, whose meltdown on cable news show after cable news show earlier this week will be the comic highlight of the movie, when it gets made.

But there’s an angle on the whole thing that I haven’t seen explored much, and it might provide an answer to a question that I keep going back to. Here’s the question that kept pestering me: why hasn’t Paul Manafort flipped? Why does this guy sit there, under house arrest, day after day, and not just cooperate? He’s going to jail; if they charged his assistant, Rick Gates with bank fraud and money laundering, what do they have on Manafort? It might because Manafort is a die-hard Trump loyalist, a True Believer, the most committed pro-Trump partisan in this whole saga. But in every other context, Manafort comes across as the ultimate pragmatist, a survivor, an opportunist. Wouldn’t cooperation with the Special Counsel be his best strategy?

Yes, if reducing his criminal liability and lessening his jail time is his objective. I don’t think that’s what’s going on, though. I think he’s afraid for his life.

I recently read a terrific book, highly recommended; Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing is True, and Everything is Possible. Pomerantsev is a Brit, but with Russian ancestry and Russian language fluency. He left a producer’s job with the BBC, and moved to Russia for ten years, to work in the Russian TV industry, producing documentaries and reality shows. The Russians learned a very important lesson from the Soviet years. They learned how to use television. The problem, they deduced, with Soviet-era TV was that it was boring. In Putin’s age, that can’t be allowed. No endless televised lectures on Leninist Marxism; Russian TV borrows from the world of Western entertainment. Reality shows, quiz shows, crime dramas, sitcoms. A Russian version of Married With Children is very popular. Pomerantsev learned about a school for young Russian women; lessons in how to seduce powerful men. How to Become An Oligarch’s Girlfriend. His reality show followed one ambitious young woman in particular; you saw the classes in which she learns the art of pleasing older guys, grooming, body language, subservience. Popular show; the school’s applicant pool grew after it aired. That’s Russia today, where high-end prostitution is lauded as a career.

I thought about Pomerantsev’s book when I read the story recently about Anastasia Vashukevich, who also goes by Nastya Rybka, a Belurusan escort girl, now incarcerated in Thailand, who claims to have secretly taped conversations between a Russian oligarch and a top Russian government official while she was with them on a yacht. She says they talked about the US election, and may have been joined by three Americans. She says she recorded 16 hours of their conversations, and she’ll trade them for extradition to the US. Vashukevich was arrested while teaching a sex seminar in Thailand, which she says was just about seduction techniques and how to be a good girlfriend. (!) She says she does not want to be extradited to Belarus or Russia, because she’s afraid she’ll be killed.

The Russian oligarch she was with on her yachting adventure was aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska.  The government official was Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko. Deripaska is a billionaire, close to Putin. He’s also a former employer of Paul Manafort. And, in the fall of 2015, Manafort was desperate. He owed Deripaska millions of dollars. So he volunteered to serve the Trump campaign as an unpaid consultant. Eventually, of course, he was named Campaign CEO. When he got the gig, he apparently told Rick Gates, he was relieved. It might ‘make him whole’ with Deripaska.

The glossy surface of Russian TV and the other high profile events that Putin has appropriated–the Olympics, the World Cup this summer, the Miss Universe pageant–serve to hide this reality. Russia is a kleptocracy. It’s hopelessly corrupt; corruption defines the modern Russian reality. Everyone knows it. It manifests itself in a million ways. Pomerantsev talks about the time he decided he needed to get a drivers’ license. He was a Londoner, where you don’t need to drive; in Moscow, public transit isn’t as good (though their subways remain amazing). He went to a driving school, where he was told ‘the bribe for a drivers’ license is 100 dollars, American.’ He told the guy he didn’t want to pay a bribe; he genuinely needed to learn how to operate a motor vehicle. The driving school guy was puzzled. ‘The bribe is 100 dollars,’ he repeated. The idea of someone taking a class and then passing a licensing test was completely foreign.

Law and order is maintained by the Russian mob. The role of police (and they do have police), is to arrest young guys, so they can go to prison and learn how to become mobsters. Any interaction with any government official might (and probably will) involve a bribe. The prevailing ideology is nihilism. They tried Marxism, and they tried Democracy. Neither worked; what does work is force and money. Russia’s vast natural resources, especially oil, gas, steel, aluminum, have created vast fortunes. If ever you see any news stories involving the Russian economy, like Russia’s GDP for example, understand any and all statistical evidence from the Russian government are exercises in fiction.

And they kill people. Over 200 journalists have been murdered in Russia since 1991. Former Russian Press Secretary, Mikhail Lesin, was bludgeoned to death in Washington in 2015. Alexander Litvinenko, an outspoken Putin critic, was poisoned in 2016. Anna Politikovskaya, a journalist who published a book critical of Putin, was murdered outside her apartment by a contract killer in 2006. Her colleague, Natalia Estemirova, was shot to death in the woods outside her home in 2009. Stanislav Markilov, a human rights attorney, was murdered later in 2009. Boris Nemtsov, former deputy prime minister, was shot to death outside his home in 2015. Boris Berezovsky, an oligarch who had a falling out with Putin, was murdered in his flat in London in 2013. Paul Klebnikov, editor of the Russian version of Forbes, was murdered, another contract killing, in 2004. Sergei Yushenkov, a liberal politician, was murdered in 2003. And, of course, Sergei Magnitsky, a human rights lawyer, was arrested and murdered in jail in 2009. His murder led to the US passing the Magnitsky act, barring a number of Russian officials from traveling to the US or purchasing American assets. Other EU countries followed.

Has Oleg Deripaska been linked to murder? Yes. He’s accused of arranging the murder of Felix Lvov, a Russian/American stock trader.  Deripaska is known to have connections to the Russian crime syndicate Izmaylovskaya. More significantly, Deripaska was a key figure in what become known as the Russian aluminum wars, in which over a hundred aluminum industry executives were murdered in the 1990s.

In short, Oleg Deripaska is not a guy you want to cross. And Vladimir Putin is not a man you want to criticize. These guys are murderers, many times over. They’re close associates, and they protect each other.

We know now, from reporting in a variety of news outlets, that the Russians wanted Donald Trump to be President, and put enormous resources into making that happen. We also know that the specific Russians involved are deeply corrupt, and completely unafraid of lethality. That threat, the threat of violence and death, lie beneath the whole web of intrigue and collusion that Mueller is investigating. They have their guy in the White House. I suspect they’ll go to some lengths to keep him there. No wonder Paul Manafort has decided not to cooperate.

Sleeping Beauties: Book Review

Stephen King is, and always has been, an extraordinary popular novelist. I don’t mean that disparagingly; not in any sense. The stories he tells are meant to entertain, but that doesn’t mean they’re not built on a solid foundation of clear, honest, and even at times, lyrical prose, well-drawn characters, and situations that somehow feel plausible, even when utterly fantastic. With Sleeping Beauties, his son, Owen, joins the family business. They co-wrote this, and I couldn’t tell who wrote which passages, so that’s all to the good. Anyway, I enjoyed the novel immensely, Couldn’t put it down, in fact. When I say that they seem to be aiming for a profundity they never quite achieve, I say that with full appreciation for everything the novel does accomplish.

It’s a genre novel, of course, but it’s really more sci-fi than horror. It traffics in the supernatural, but through a character that seems more alien than fantasy. Above all, it’s a novel about gender. It’s about men and women, and the ways we’re different, and the ways we’re similar. In fact, as the title suggests, an examination of ‘gender’ is at the heart of everything the novel is trying to achieve. I have a sneaking suspicion that it resonated with me because I’m a guy, and it’s a novel about women written by guys. I wonder if it would be a different novel if Stephen King had written it with a daughter (if he has one; I don’t know), instead of with a son. Or with his wife, Tabitha, a fine novelist too.

Okay, here’s the premise. In the town of Dooling, a town of 30,000 in the American Midwest, the sheriff, Lila Norcross, has worked a long overtime shift, is dog tired and ready for some shuteye, when she’s called to a crime scene. In a low rent trailer, next to a shed where he cooks meth for sale, one Truman Mayweather sits with his meth-head girlfriend, Tiffany, and a visiting cousin, when a woman, a stranger, astonishingly strong, breaks in, kills the two men–ramming one’s head through a trailer wall–and then disappears. Lila sees her, covered with blood, walking mostly naked down the middle of a highway. She arrests her, takes her into custody. This woman, who will only identify herself as Eve, is, in appearance and language and skillset, otherwordly. Not sure what else she can do with her, Lila arranges for her to be incarcerated, not in the local jail, but in the town’s nearby women’s prison, where her husband, Dr. Clinton Norcross, works as the prison psychiatrist.

About the same time, all around the world, women fall asleep and do not wake up. I don’t mean that everyone falls asleep at once, but just that when women do fall asleep, they don’t wake. Instead, they quickly are covered with a kind of cocoon. If anyone removes the cocoon, the women instantly wake, are possessed with a superhuman strength, and commit unspeakable acts of violence to whoever woke them. They then go right back to sleep, and the cocoon reforms around them. While sleeping, though, they’re fine. To the extent that medical personnel can measure their vital signs, they’re perfectly healthy. But all bodily functions stop; they don’t seem to need to eat or relieve themselves. And this mysterious affliction, which media dubs ‘Aurora’, hits every woman in the world. No men, all the women. No exceptions.

Except one. Eve, the mysterious stranger in the Dooling women’s prison. She can sleep and wake up. She also can talk to the prison’s resident rats (all prisons, apparently, are troubled with rodents), and the rats do her bidding. As Dr. Norcross observes her (and talks to her), she also can read minds. What the good doctor does not know is that she can also communicate with other animals, including a fox, and including the ubiquitous moths that begin gathering.

Knowing that they won’t be able to wake up, many women choose to stave off sleep. All groceries and drug stores have runs on any kind of upper drug. The women in the prison in charge of the mess hall brew up a super strong batch of vile-tasting but effective coffee. Men, meanwhile, freak out. Riots break out. Violence increases–civil order is disrupted. Of course, lots of men try to wake up their wives and sweethearts, and suffer immediate and lethal consequences. The news media sends out the direst of warnings. The CDC is overwhelmed. And in Dooling, mobs begin to gather. Rumors spread of this strange women, Eve, who is immune to the illness. And vigilantes decide it’s time to take matters into their own hands.

Guys, in other words, act like guys. Irrational and violent. Aggressive.

About halfway through the novel, we learn where all the women are. The women of Dooling (and apparently, nowhere else), find themselves in, well, Dooling. But it’s an overgrown ruin of the town they knew. Time moves at a different rate in Our Place, as the women begin calling it. And they build a new society. With no men around, they cope for themselves just fine. They find food. They grow crops and they kill game. They manage to rebuild the electrical grid. A few of them were pregnant when they fell asleep; they carry their babies to term, and give birth, and the children born to them are the usual mix of boys and girls. And they’re determined to raise their male children to be less, well, guy-like. Less aggressive, less violent, less irrational.

I’m not going to give away the ending. But the novel posits two separate worlds, one with no men, the other with no women, and draws parallels between them. Except the guy world is pretty dystopic. And the gal-world is . . . less so.

In other words, gender is described about the way you’d think it would be described by two men who would self-identify as feminists, but who are not particularly sophisticated students of gender. (For one thing, the novel never even mentions transgender people).

As I said, I enjoyed it a lot. I thought the characters were very well drawn, including Frank Geary, an animal control officer with a real temper who becomes the head of the vigilantes and probably serves as the novel’s villain. He’s an interesting character, though, and I liked that he wasn’t really painted as ‘good’ or ‘evil.’ I thought the two Norcrosses, Lila and Clint, who are the leaders of the two worlds, were both superbly drawn. And I loved “Eve”, the supernatural character.

I do think the Kings were striving for something more important, a statement of greater significance, than what they achieved. I still, I liked it, very much indeed. And, like Stephen and Owen King, I do worry about my gender, especially in the light of recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein and his ilk. Anyway, it’s a good one. Give it a read.

Autumn of the Black Snake: Book Review

William Hogeland’s Autumn of the Black Snake is one of the finest books of popular American history I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Such familiar figures as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson and Henry Knox, come to life as never before, not as saintly paragons of civic virtue, but as they sometimes, often, were: grasping, venal, impatient, corrupt, and fundamentally indifferent towards people they regarded as their inferiors, particularly peoples of color. This is Hogeland’s fourth book about eighteenth century America, and all of them are remarkable, but I absolutely couldn’t put this one down. Above all, although I’m a history junkie–especially American history–Autumn of the Black Snake tells an extraordinarily important story that I’ve never heard before.

The book’s full title is Autumn of the Black Snake: The creation of the US Army and the Invasion that opened the West. Above all, it tells about the first real war fought by the new, fully constituted United States government. This war had no generally accepted name–not the War of 1812, not the Revolution, not the French and Indian war, though it was related to all three. And the stakes could not have been higher. Would the United States of America remain an eastern seaboard nation? Or would it expand, beyond the Alleghenies, and into what was then known as the ‘Northwest Territory’; the area we now know as western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. And once that territory was inhabited, cultivated, domesticated, administered, what was to stop further Western expansion?

George Washington had started his career in that territory, moving from his base in Virginia, on to surveying in Ohio, then land speculation, and also, of course, military adventurism.  He knew the area well, and thought it contained the richest land he had ever seen. Some of the richest plots, he had surveyed and claimed for himself. Any Virginia planter was anxious for new land, as tobacco farming (and later, cotton farming) so badly depleted the soil. Now, it was 1791, and he was President of the newly formed United States of America. Ohio beckoned. And his vision for America required aggressive west-ward expansion. And Washington was happy enough to try to purchase land from the peoples who already lived on it. When that failed, though, it could always be obtained via conquest.

Only the first attempt to send an army to conquer it was a catastrophic failure. The Shawnee leader, Blue Jacket, and the Miami leader, Little Turtle did not agree about much, but they did agree that the future of their peoples required military cooperation between all the tribes of the Ohio Valley. They were fighting for the survival of their people. They had, against all odds–including the difficulties of coordinating the efforts of people who spoke different languages, worshipped different Gods, were in every sense from different cultures. None of that had come to matter. Now they were busy getting their heads around a new identity–not as Shawnee or Miami or Ojibwa or Potawatomi, but Indians, as their enemies saw them. And so, Blue Jacket and Little Turtle led their forces against American militiamen, led by General Arthur St. Clair. They had fought and they had won. St. Clair may have lost 650 men; he might also have lost 900, casualty lists being unreliable. Every student of American history knows about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and the defeat of General Custer by forces led by Sitting Bull. Almost no one remembers St. Clair’s defeat. But he lost, at least, twice as many men, and his defeat looked far more consequential. The western boundary of the United States looked to be the Allegheny mountains.

To Washington, that result was unacceptable. And he knew what had caused it. The soldiers who lost so disastrously were poorly trained, poorly supplied, and poorly led. And this, in Washington’s professional estimation, was inevitable, given Congress (and most Americans) detestation of a ‘standing army,’ and corresponding love of militias.

Militias fed an enduring American myth; the freeholding soldier/citizen, who left his plow, grabbed his musket, and ran off to victory in combat. Washington had tried to win a war using militiamen, and knew them to be entirely untrustworthy and ineffective. Most Americans thought of standing armies as following the British model–poorly paid mercenaries, drawn from the dregs of society, instruments of royal tyranny. But Washington knew this truth; that soldiers are as good as their training, their discipline, and their effective leadership. Alexander Hamilton, who had been Washington’s Chief of Staff, knew it too. So did Henry Knox, Washington’s head of artillery. America needed an army; Washington and Hamilton conspired to persuade Congress to provide it one.

Commanding it would be General Anthony Wayne, a man who Washington knew well from his Revolutionary War days. Wayne is in some respects another American archetype; the military man par excellence, who can’t do anything but soldier. Wayne had been an effective commander; post-war he proved an abysmal businessman, a hopeless financier, a miserable and corrupt politician. He was good at one thing; training and leading troops. Washington promised him five thousand soldiers, fully supplied, and sent him to Ohio.

I have always known about the militia vs. standing army rift in early American politics–it was a major theme in the fight over constitutional confirmation. I knew that, initially, we didn’t have an army. Then, suddenly, we had one, and have had ever since. I just assumed that at some point in the late 18th century, Congress had decided to authorize one. What I didn’t know was that St. Clair’s disastrous defeat (which I hadn’t heard previously known ,much about), provided the impetus Washington needed to get Congress to act.

And so, Anthony Wayne trained his army. It took him over a year. He built forts, and guarded supply lines, and his army began marching, inexorably, west. His movements may have appeared ponderous, but they were incredibly effective. Little Turtle, the singular military genius opposing him, said, in admiration, ‘Wayne never sleeps.’

We know how it turned out. I’m from Indiana, and we have a town named Fort Wayne. As late as the 1930s, Anthony Wayne was a sufficiently notorious military hero that a strapping young actor with an unfortunate name, Marion Michael Morrison, took Wayne’s last name for his own screen persona. Ohio was made safe for white people. Within fifteen years, its population grew, from a few thousand to 150,000. And the United States became known for west-ward expansion.

At what cost? And that’s part of the genius of Hogeland; he never forgets the cost. Washington, Jefferson, Wayne himself were all slaveowners. Indians could be defeated and killed because, well, they weren’t white. We know the names Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton. We don’t know Little Turtle, or Anthony Wayne. Hogeland writes:

That the more decisive war, and thus, the more important people, has lapsed into obscurity points to a vacancy in American memory when it comes to what is perhaps the longest-lasting legacy of George Washington’s career, and to the political, moral, and existential burden his career, and its national indispensibility, will forever carry. That legacy is the formation of a permanent military establishment, via the conquest of indigenous people, in pursuit of the industrial and imperial power that, with our victory in its first war, the United States did go on to achieve.

Ultimately, the hero of this book is not Washington, nor Wayne, nor Wayne’s treasonous second-in-command James Wilkinson (who I haven’t talked about, but believe me, his story is insane). It’s Little Turtle. Little Turtle, who saw clearly how this professional army should be fought, and could be defeated. Little Turtle, whose outlook was never melancholy, but always tragic, who saw clearly what defeat would mean, who fought valiantly to prevent it, but who knew, in his heart, that his people were doomed.

Empires know what conquest costs. And the building of an American empire came on the backs of black slaves, of brutal and uncompensated labor by a people deemed inferior. And by the defeat of indigenous peoples, whose only crime was living on land Americans wanted, and who paid for it via genocide. Our history is not triumphant. It’s tragic. Hogeland captures that tragedy, while acknowledging genuine achievement. Can we hold that paradox in our heads?

The Circle: Movie and Book review

The Circle is a 2013 novel by Dave Eggers. I suppose you could say it’s both dystopian and futuristic; it has a 1984/Brave New World vibe. I found it more or less by accident, and liked it so much I recommended it to my wife and daughter. They both read it, and liked it as much as I did, and so, last Friday, we decided to go together to see the new movie based on it. The movie was quite good too, though we agreed it wasn’t quite as effective as the novel. I should point out that the movie got horrible reviews, with a very low score on And also that liking the novel is, apparently, exceptionally uncool. Guilty as charged: I liked both movie and novel a lot, and think the critics that didn’t like either are wrong. I will add that the theater was packed when we saw the movie, and, shamelessly eavesdropping as people left, heard enough to think that pretty much everyone who saw it the same night we did liked it too. Found it as chilling as we did.

I’m going to take it a step further. I think it’s an exceptionally prescient and important novel. I think the questions it raises are important ones, and exactly the sorts of questions we should be asking ourselves right now. So there.

The Circle is a high tech company; that’s its name. It combines the best features of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Paypal, Amazon, and any five other exceptionally big, hi-tech companies. It’s the coolest place to work you could possibly imagine. It offers the best benefits–dorm-like housing, gyms, off-the-charts health care–provides the best after-work social life, and sells the best products. Today, you may have an Amazon account, a Facebook account, a Twitter account; you probably have thirty internet accounts, each with its own password. The Circle gets rid of all that inconvenience; you get everything through The Circle.

Mae Holland is a young woman, bright and ambitious, working in a dead-end temp job. But she has a friend, Annie, who works for The Circle, and who gets her an interview. Which she aces. Next thing you know, she works in Customer Care. Better money than she’s ever made in her life, plus they extend her health benefits to cover her parents. This is huge, as her father suffers from MS. Mae is ecstatic.

Except, it turns out, her social score is kinda low. She goes home weekends, to help her Mom; she’s a no-show at various Circle parties. Her bosses notice, and she’s called on the carpet; kindly, of course, but firmly. After-hours social events are, of course, completely voluntary. But a low social score is, hmm, a matter of concern.

Circle-world is a place where everything is enumerated, evaluated, rated, assessed. Every customer care interaction is scored on follow-up customer surveys, and she’s encouraged to follow up on the follow ups, inquire about low scores.  She’s also given a side responsibility; product surveys, attitude polls. Plus, you know, there are all these parties she has to get to. She acquires a boyfriend, Francis, who, after love-making, wants to know how he did. What’s his score? And who gets real whiny if he doesn’t get a perfect 10. It’s not worth the hassle telling him he’s closer to a 3.

The tone of the novel is matter-of-fact and straightforward. Eggers specializes in scenes that are both comic and kind of horrifying. Mae is our window into this company, and her character serves Eggers well. She loves the place. She’s a compelling character, and we want to shake her; we want to shout ‘run!’ But she doesn’t. Whatever unease she may feel, she works off by kayaking. Or in love-less, frantic, self-destructive sex with Mystery Man, Kalden. We can absolutely see what makes Mae the most all-in Circler of them all. Though we’re worried to death for her.

But there are warnings. Not just Kalden; Annie, her friend, who landed her the gig, is clearly losing it. And Mae’s specifically warned by her ex-boyfriend, Mercer. Mercer’s kind of a doofus; he makes chandeliers from deer antlers, and is pretty much a Luddite. Or at least, an anti-Circle version of one. Mercer is close to and wonderfully kind to Mae’s parents. But Mae wishes he’d just stop pestering.

The Circle has a political agenda, too. The company has three CEOs, one of which, Eamon Bailey, is, of course, like, the perfect boss. Kind, generous, endlessly sympathetic, a plausible surrogate father for all the young Circlers. And Eamon is the main spokesperson for the multiple uses for SeeChange, a small, easily overlooked digital camera with excellent video and audio pickup. Eamon urges followers to put SeeChange cameras everywhere, every public place. SeeChange, he says, will end both government tyranny and terrorism, through complete, radical transparency. He also urges all politicians to go transparent; wear a SeeChange camera 24/7. People behave better, he says, when they know other people are watching. He suggests that transparency is a basic human right. Privacy is Theft becomes one of the company’s slogans. (Sharing is Caring is another). And Mae, to set an example, goes transparent too. Wears a camera everywhere; is on display, on the internet, always. A more-aware ramped-up Truman Show.

Okay, spoiler alerts. All these policies and devices are revealed publicly, in a big  Circle auditorium (which in fact, is not an arena, but a proscenium, the one public space configuration that most emphasizes performer domination and control. Bailey’s radical democracy looks a lot more authoritarian the more we interrogate it). Anyway, Mae introduces a new Circle innovation; using SeeChange to find missing miscreants. It becomes a game; let’s see if we can find this fugitive from justice, everyone! And they do, in less than ten minutes. Then the crowd insists that Mae use that technology to locate Mercer, who has become something of a hermit. (Of course they all know about Mercer; they know everything about her). And all those busy SeeChangers out in the world find where Mercer’s holed up. Panicked, he gets in his truck, tries to escape, run away from all the cameras and drones. And Mae doesn’t call it off. And he runs his truck off a cliff.

To people who essentially live virtually, for whom the internet and it’s many uses and possibilities, I can see how this movie could be seen as a gratuitous attack on the coolest thing on the planet. I think that may explain at least some of the bad reviews. But Eggers is on to something; people do not necessarily act better when they know people are watching, especially when they’re part of a crowd. Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed describes dozens of instances where people’s lives have been ruined by the collective judgment of internet users. And we may not have quite reached the point of The Circle‘s notion of radical transparency, and SeeChange cameras may be a few (very few) years off, but everyone has cameras, and it’s much much more common nowadays for particularly shocking (but context-less) images to go viral. Dr. David Dao was, no doubt, treated shabbily by United Airlines, but United flies millions of passengers around the world without untoward incident. Should the company pay? Undoubtedly. Should it be hounded out of business? Am I an old, clue-less white guy intimidated by technology? Of course I am. How implausible is the fictional Circle? Not remotely. Is Eamon Bailey something of a cartoon villain? Okay, sure. So’s Big Brother.

The movie takes the same essential scenario as the novel, but creates a filmic narrative around it. Mae’s two love interests disappear–there just isn’t time for Francis, who is in any event an essentially comedic character. If the movie had gone for satire instead of cautionary tale, Francis might have worked. As it is, I didn’t miss him–he’s completely absent. Kalden likewise goes away, sort of; in the book, he is eventually revealed to be Ty, the Circle’s Founder and one of its three CEOs. That revelation comes much earlier here, and Mae and Ty don’t have a romantic/sexual relationship. Biggest of all is this change: Mae isn’t a Circle-worshipper in the movie. She actively wants to destroy it. And does, but that’s creepy too; she wins by buying in most completely to Eamon’s doctrine of radical transparency.

The casting is well-nigh perfect, with Emma Watson as Mae, Tom Hanks (who else?) as Eamon, John Boyega as Ty, and Bill Paxton, in his last screen role, quietly superb as Mae’s father. The one misstep, I thought, was Ellar Coltrane as Mercer, who never really found his footing in the role. Best of all, IMO, was Scottish actress Karen Gillan as Mae’s friend, Annie. In the book, Annie ends up in a coma, but it doesn’t really have the resonance of the movie, where we can read Annie’s self-loathing self-destruction in the actress’s face. That’s what movies are great at; faces.

The movie’s good. It’s great to look at, beautifully acted, and tells the story of The Circle with economy and dispatch. I found it almost as chilling as I found the novel. I did find the novel a bit richer, but that’s often the case of novels-turned-movies. Above all, I found myself cherishing privacy more than ever. I’m a fairly social person, I think, and I love social media. Up to a point. Any tool can be abused, including, of course, the most powerful tool of them all. The internet. Can we love it, and also find it terrifying? I rather think we can, and should.

The Circle: Book Review

Dave Eggers’ The Circle would have to be described as a dystopic sci-fi novel, though the future it describes is likely no more than five years or so off. It’s the story of an extremely nice, hard working, basically decent young woman named Mae Holland, and the great job she gets at the best company on the planet. She’s healthy and bright; she kayaks for relaxation. She has long since put her cynical sad-sack boyfriend behind her. She’s moving up.

The company she works for is called The Circle, and it combines the best features of working for, say, Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and any five other forward-thinking tech companies. Her best friend, Annie, has risen to a top executive position there, and gets Mae an entry-level job at CE, which stands for Customer Experience.

And Mae loves it. She loves her job, loves the company. Her father is very ill with MS, and dealing with insurance companies and arranging every aspect of his care has become her mother’s full-time occupation. The Circle puts him on Mae’s insurance, and suddenly, he’s getting the best health care on the planet. (Though he is expected to show some gratitude for it). The Circle is as interested in Mae’s social life, in what she does for relaxation and fun as it is in her work product, and opportunities for recreation abound. She’s making good money, and doesn’t have much to spend it on, so completely does The Circle see to her every need. And she rises in the company, eased along by her boss, the pleasant, genial, forward-thinker progressive Eamon Bailey, one of the Three Wise Men who run the place.

Eamon, in fact, believes in the possibility of human perfectability, and thinks it can be hastened along through technology. He thinks it can be accomplished through a kind of hyper-transparency. He wants cameras everywhere. He gets politicians to wear cameras 24/7. What do they have to hide? After all, Secrets are Lies, Privacy is Theft, Sharing is Caring. Don’t people behave better when they’re being watched? Isn’t it, therefore, in the best interests of all mankind if we’re all watched, everywhere, all the time? And can’t small, plantable, easily transportable cameras, with excellent sound and HD pictures, monitored on the ‘net, be put everywhere? Who could possibly object?

Eamon’s goal isn’t a totalitarian state. It’s a kind of totalizing democracy. The democratization of ubiquity. And so, so achievable. And Mae loses herself in his vision.

Really, The Circle is the story of a nice girl, a deserving young woman, who gets a great job, loves it, is great at it, and advances. It’s the story of a great company, that takes terrific care of its employees, and is genuinely committed to doing good in the world. It’s the story of technological whizzes re-inventing mankind.

And so, you think, there’s got to be a plot twist somewhere. It’s going to turn out like, I don’t know, Soylent Green. This utopia can’t be what it seems to be. There’s a catch. But there isn’t. At the end of Brave New World, everyone really is happy. At the end of The Circle, Mae and Eamon and the other Wise Men really are exactly what they seem to be.

And if we readers find ourselves completely terrified by it, that’s our fault, of course.

Joe Pickett novels: book(s) review

I’ve been reading a lot lately. Not writing, actually, as followers of this blog will have noticed; hand cramps. But I’ve always loved good books, and I’ve come across a writer and a series that are real corkers. And so I’m here to tell you about them.

Joe Pickett is a game warden, living in Saddlestring, a small town in Wyoming. He absolutely loves his job; loves hiking and horseback riding, loves hunting and (especially) fly fishing. He even enjoys riding into hunting camps and checking everyone’s hunting licenses. And Joe’s a good guy. Bit of a doofus sometimes, but devoted to his hyper-competent wife, Marybeth, and his three daughters. And the various horses and dogs that fill out the Pickett household.

He’s also exceptionally good at solving murders. In fact, he’s a bit like Miss Marple; his home community is an amazingly murderous place. But because he’s of that community, a local in good standing, he’s able to notice vagaries of behavior (or misbehavior) that suggest, well, untoward acts.

Miss Marple, though, sat back and ever-so-keenly, observed. Joe blunders into various fraught situations, has misadventures, and somehow survives them. He makes a lot of mistakes. But he’s so good-hearted, so resolutely honest, he wins our heart, and he solves a lot of crimes. He’s also aided by his best friend, Nate Romanowski, a former Special Ops whiz now living as a master falconer/off-the-grid survivalist, an exceptional shot with an oddball huge pistol. Who enjoys climbing trees in the nude, and communing, underwater, with fish. Nate’s a tremendous character, a wonderful sidekick.

And from time to time Joe’s asked to investigate some remote corner of the state by Wyoming’s flamboyant and eccentric Governor Rulon. The governor is Joe’s protector, though he could also teach a master class in plausible deniability. But his heart’s occasionally in the right place, and though he’s devious and unreliable, he’s also the reason Joe manages to keep his job. (Among other peccadilloes, Joe is terrible at getting along with sheriffs. Or, mostly, the FBI. Or bureaucrats of all stripes).

Joe’s also very bad with trucks. It’s a running joke in the series; how many state-issued trucks he ruins. Never mind, though; Governor Rulon generally gets him a new one.

Oh, yes, I forgot one of the series’ most memorable characters; Joe’s mother-in-law, Missy. She’s beautiful, well groomed and sleek, and also an utter sociopath. Her superpower is marrying up. She finds a wealthy man, seduces him, marries him, gets her attorney to draw up a pre-nup leaving the man’s fortune to her, and then she’s off to hunt down the next, even richer one. When necessary, she also has been known to add homicide to her repertoire. She also thinks her daughter Marybeth is too good for Joe, and urges Marybeth to divorce the bumpkin. Which she never does; not even tempted; Joe and MB are solid. Still, what fun during family holidays.

The Joe Pickett series is written by a Wyoming native named C. J. Box, who is, as it happens, also married with three daughters. And they’re wonderful fun.

I’m completely bonkers over these novels, as you may have guessed by the fact that I’ve devoured seventeen of them in two weeks. They’re exciting, beautifully paced, genuinely mysterious. And Box’s prose, though generally sturdy and straightforward, has lovely moments of genuine lyricism.

I like the books, in part, because I’m a Westerner myself, and recognize the landscapes and people he so memorably describes. But I’m also a political animal, and each of the books has a political dimension. Of course, one of the main characters is a Governor, so there’s some partisanship built into his interactions with the other characters. But many of the mysteries also have politics at the periphery (or at times, even the center) of their stories. Environmentalists are frequently villains in the novels, but not always, and Joe’s something of an environmentalist himself.

But I like that. I like the idea that politics matters, that political disputes can be folded into the texture of a mystery series. That political differences can even lead to violence, at times.

I imagine that Joe’s position on gun control is pretty resolutely Wyoming–Joe owns a number of guns, with which he’s frequently called upon to defend himself. As he’s fond of saying, “it’s about to get real Western around here.” And violence ensues. Just like it does for the Good Guys in most detective novels.

But Joe’s not a detective. He’s a game warden. And a terrifically drawn and utterly compelling central character for a series of mystery novels.  Very very highly recommended.

Book Review: Seveneves

Neil Stephenson’s Seveneves is one of those science fiction novels that invades your dreams and your subconscious. Days after you finish it, you find yourself thinking about it, and the implications of this scene or character or situation. Even finishing the book can be difficult; I found myself reading the last 100 pages at a snail’s pace, because finishing it meant I would have to stop reading. (Rereading, of course, is a possibility, but lacks the same sense of discovery).

It’s a somber book, appropriately, tragically heartbreaking. It’s also a book in love with technology. Stephenson has imagined his world so perfectly, you can sense his excitement over having created it. He’s not just interested in how stuff works, but also in what it looks like. A scene where a young woman waits for public transit to pick her up and deposit her somewhere else, that simple a scene, can be exhilarating. It’s also a book where, for the first two thirds, the title, Seveneves, makes no sense whatsoever, and thereafter makes perfect sense–is, in fact, the perfect title. And that moment of discovery comes at the moment of greatest despair, which also becomes the moment of greatest possibility.

And it’s a science fiction novel (or is speculative fiction the preferred label these days?), set entirely on Earth or in our planet’s general vicinity. It has space travel–a lot of space travel–but all of it close to home.

The basic premise couldn’t be more terrifying. Something, some Agent, splits the Moon. Shatters it. (The characters briefly speculate about the nature of the Agent, but without reaching any conclusions). The Moon, as it disintegrates, starts throwing off meteorites, which Earth’s gravity captures. Scientists (including one science expert character clearly modeled on Neil DeGrasse Tyson), calculate that it’s just a matter of a couple of years before all of the Moon comes crashing down, leading to catastrophe. In other words, the Moon’s destruction will wipe out all life on the planet Earth. If humanity is to be saved, it will have to be in space.

And so plans are made to build a large expansion onto the International Space Station. And to create smaller craft, which they end up calling ‘arklets’ for a group of young people, carefully selected from every culture on earth, representing earth’s diversity, with the ability to ‘swarm’ in order to dodge space rocks.

And in the meantime, we’re given time and space to imagine it; the ultimate Armageddon. The near-complete extinction of, not just the human race, but all life on Earth. It’s a staggering thought, shattering. Wisely, Stephenson allows us to experience it as we would–by showing the connections between a few characters and their immediate families. A woman and her fiancee; a man and his new wife; a young woman and her father and brothers. That’s how we would feel about it; that’s what the novel does.

I mean, we all come to this earth knowing that we’re going to die. But we do count on that three-score and ten. We want to make plans, excel at something, achieve, leave a legacy, if only a legacy of family and love and marriage. We are pretty well inured to dying. But life doesn’t strike us as hopeless. We do set goals, and take pleasure in achieving them. What if we were robbed of all that? What if we knew it was all going to end, for all of us. Strangely enough, as I read, I thought of Tom Lehrer, the great comic pianist/singer, and his cheerful, upbeat song about thermonuclear holocaust: “We’ll all go together when we go.” What if that were our reality? Still could be, obviously.

Could this work? Stephenson estimates that, after the initial bombardment, it would take Earth approximately 5000 years to cool down enough to sustain life again. Well, could humanity survive 5000 years in space? Could we work out some kind of artificial gravity, enough to keep bone density compatible with homo sapiens survival? Could we find shelter, from cosmic rays if not honking big pieces of moon rock? More to the point–and this is the saddest part of the novel–could we get along? Could we keep from killing each other? Could we survive mentally?

I don’t want to give away much in the way of spoilers. Suffice it to say that the novel seems both implausible and, just barely, possible. And it’s ultimately extraordinarily optimistic, even in the midst of terrible tragedy. That may be among it’s most remarkable achievements; that it’s ultimately kind of upbeat in tone.

I like science fiction. I also don’t keep up with the genre, and it may well be that there are ten other sci-fi novels out there as good as this one that y’all are going to tell me about. Still, this one is extraordinary. Just a superb read. Treat yourself.

Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, book review

On July 4, 1788, in Poughkeepsie, New York, the good citizens of the town gathered together for a patriotic celebration and parade. The parade culminated in a giant bonfire. And at the top of the bonfire, they carefully placed a copy of the proposed Constitution of the United States. And everyone cheered as the Constitution went up in flames. Why would they do this? Why, for obvious reasons. These were freedom loving people, patriots all. And this newfangled Constitution thing was the most obvious possible threat to American liberty.

Reading this story was just one of the many pleasures of Pauline Maier’s splendid new book, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. Maier’s book is exhaustively researched; as such, it’s full of surprises. We tend to think of our Constitution as kind of miraculous, as divinely inspired, even. Certainly nobody at the time thought so. Even it’s strongest defenders were convinced that it was a deeply flawed document, and in many cases, the best defense that could be mustered for it added up to ‘let’s try it, and in time, we’ll see clearly enough–and can amend–its most serious flaws.’ Heck, we could probably do worse, all things considered.

I did not know, for example, how much the Federalists (that loose coalition of people who fought for ratification), feared Patrick Henry of Virginia. Virginia was the ultimate swing state–the most populous in the union, the United States could not plausibly survive without it, and the ratification vote was likely to be very close indeed. And in part, that was because of Henry, Mr. “Give me Liberty or Give Me Death” (which he almost certainly never said). Henry was an extraordinary orator, inexhaustible and eloquent, and fiercely opposed to the Constitution. The fear was that that, all by himself, he could sway undecided delegates by the bushelful. And it turns out that what Henry probably wanted was essentially two independent American nations, one in the North and one in the South, with the Southern confederation retaining the peculiar institution of slavery.  I say ‘probably’ because he never quite was able to make that case explicitly–he seems to have been aware that it was too radical for most of his fellow delegates. So he limited himself to tying the convention in knots.

There was a general consensus that one fellow delegate might have the knowledge and eloquence to combat Henry, James Madison. Madison was not, however well, and initially didn’t even think he could manage to attend the ratifying convention. And when he did show up, his illness weakened him to the point that he was difficult to hear, apparently. (He was a slight man, physically, anyway). But even on the written page, Madison’s intellect just shines. The Virginia debate between Madison and Henry becomes one of those time machine moments; you wish you could have been there. (Understanding that Henry and Madison each spoke for hours at a time, in that multi-clause, densely punctuated 18th century prose).

The specific issues that the various ratifying conventions had with the Constitution read oddly today, though Maier does a brilliant job of putting them into context. In many instances, anti-Federalists were animated by local concerns, with issues specific to their own circumstances. One of the biggest worries is the brief reference in Article 2 Section 3 about ‘direct taxes.’ Those who opposed the Constitution often cited that provision as particularly odious. They felt that state legislators were more likely to tax people fairly, because of their close acquaintance with their circumstances; even then, the federal government was seen as too distant from citizens’ concerns. Nobody knew what ‘direct taxes’ were, or how they would function, but still they were feared. (Needlessly, as it happens; direct taxes were hardly ever collected, only at time of war, and were eventually superceded by the federal income tax after the passage of the 16th amendment).

Another major concern had to do with the office of Vice President. That office was seen as unnecessary and dangerous–in fact, the fear was that the Vice President would become uncontrollably powerful. That idea is amusing to us today. But since the Vice President breaks a tie in the Senate, and since the presumption was that Senators would disagree about everything, Anti-Federalists thought the VP would be breaking ties all the time, giving him near-dictatorial powers.

The biggest issue raised in all the ratifying conventions had to do with amendments. Pretty much everyone agreed that the Constitution was flawed, and would need to be amended. New York recommended dozens of amendments. For one thing, the Constitution didn’t have a proper bill of rights. And every state took issue with some provision or another, direct taxes being particularly controversial. So delegates at those state ratifying conventions had to decide; should they ratify now and amend later, or should they agree to ratify only if certain amendments were agreed to beforehand.

Our constitution might look very different today if those ratifying delegates had insisted on amendments as a precondition to ratification. Fortunately, no state did, though the margin was razor-thin in some states, most particularly New York, Virginia and Rhode Island.

If you love the Constitution, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. But don’t look for evidence of divine inspiration or miraculous interventions. Such were never part of the writing of the Constitution or of its ratification. Instead, what we had were a large number of intelligent and thoughtful men with very different agendas and priorities, arguing, discussing and eventually compromising their way to a document that none of them thought perfect, but which all agreed was probably the best they could come up with, given their circumstances. And it’s served us well. That’s miracle enough for me.


The Underground Railroad: Book Review

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is one of those novels that you don’t want to read too quickly, lest you deprive yourself of any of its pleasures, lest it break your heart. It’s beautiful, lyrical, as intellectually engaging as it is powerful emotionally. I don’t know anything else like it. The cliché here would be that I ‘couldn’t put it down.’ In fact, I frequently put it down, because it so often overwhelmed me.

Its subject, is, obviously, slavery and the Underground Railroad that conveyed escaped slaves north to freedom. It’s an historical novel, with the most resolute of protagonists–an escaped slave named Cora. But I can’t help myself from calling it a kind of science fiction, or at least speculative fiction. It’s built on two conceits; that the Underground Railroad really was a railroad, a subterreanean network of tunnels and tracks, with trains that take desperate fugitives from state to state. And second, that the experience of African-Americans differed radically from state to state, with each place exploring a different American possibility. It’s somehow a fabulist novel that doesn’t feel fabricated, an alternate history that feels like the most exacting and ruthlessly honest commentary on the actual history of America and race.

Cora begins in Georgia, living on a plantation owned by the Randalls, ferocious and brutal and corrupt, the worst plantation owners imaginable. Cora’s mother, Mabel, escaped, when Cora was just a child, and she resents it, being abandoned  like that. But what’s remarkable is that Mabel really did escape; she wasn’t brought back in chains by the ruthless and brilliant slave catcher, Ridgeway, to be tormented and brutalized and murdered like all other Randall escapees. (Eventually, we learn Mabel’s story, and it’s heart-breaking).

And so, Cora grows up a loner, a watcher, a fierce defender of her meagre belongings, but friendless and gossiped-about in slavery’s traumatized and treacherous culture. Then one night, Caesar, newly arrived at the Randall plantation, approaches Cora, the only slave he can trust, he says, and tells her he intends to escape, and wants her to come with him. He knows, you see, a station master. He can find his way to the Railroad.

And so, to South Carolina, a bastion of racial enlightenment, a place where blacks are allowed jobs and wages and an education, and even something resembling freedom. A real home. A paradise, pretty much. Until Cora learns the truth behind the benevolence and the real purpose behind the free medical exams she’s treated to.

The reality of slavery is, of course, economic. In King Cotton, the South had the perfect cash crop, the key to ever-increasing prosperity. Cotten needs tending and picking, and profit margins are greater if you don’t intend to pay your workers. But they came to understand that while African blacks make good workers–and can always be bred, increasing the labor market supply–they couldn’t really be trusted, could they? To remain placid and pliable. And in some areas, they had begun to increase in numbers; to outnumber whites. This wouldn’t do. Steps needed to be taken. South Carolina, priding itself in its sophistication and erudition, made the scientific choice. Forced sterilization. And other medical experimentation, to learn about infectious diseases and further deplete black numbers.

And as Cora contemplates her situation in oh-so-benevolent South Carolina, the implacable Ridgeway shows up, captures Caesar. Cora barely escapes alive. And she’s not expected on the train, and has to go wherever it’s heading. And that, it turns out, is North Carolina.

North Carolina is cruder, more direct. Reluctantly, its white citizenry has decided to bite the bullet, and pay its cotton pickers; not the black ones, of course, but impoverished European imports. That, again, leads to a superfluity of blacks, and a final solution. Cora barely survives, hidden, like Anne Frank, in an abolitionist’s attic.

And so on. Each state confronts the same demographic/economic problem, and each state deals with it differently. South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana. Yes, even a Northern state like Indiana. And each solution, in each state, is horrifying. At one point, Cora discovers books, and sees her own situation as analogous to Gulliver, and I buy that; the places Gulliver visits are grotesque, but illustrative.

And Cora is extraordinary. She’s a practical young woman, a farmgirl, hard working and determined and strong. She loves to read, especially loving Farmer’s Almanacs, for their pragmatism. She’s not terrifically romantic, but does fall in love, twice, with both relationships ending in horror. She’s a survivor. She’s also completely unimpressed with white society, and its protestations of civilized sophistication. She learns the Declaration of Independence, and considers it vicious nonsense. She’s an astonishing creation, and when the book ended, I did cry out, vocally: ‘no!’ I so wanted to spend more time in her company.

And the book’s ferocious and philosophical villain, Ridgeway, the slave catcher, is an equally astonishing creation. He’s a murderer, of course, many times over. But he’s also, in his own way, a thoughtful man, a man who sees his society clearly, and sees as well the necessary function of someone like him. He holds the Randalls in utter contempt, but is content to work for them, because the pay is good, and the work essential. Slavery is the key to Southern society. Not allowing slaves their freedom is the key to making the peculiar institution work. He is the face of white slavery, with all its intellectual pretensions, and quite possibly the scariest character in any novel I’ve read, because he’s also rounded, nuanced, complex. Smart. Evil? Well, obviously, but then this book redefines evil. Slavery isn’t just one evil though. It’s manifestations are legion; it infests American history and promise like demons infesting the Gadarene swine.

I haven’t read Colson Whitehead before now, and now intend to buy all his books and read them straight through. What a remarkable talent. What a story! What a rich and powerful and strangely compelling novel.


The Statesman and the Storyteller: Book Review

The period of American and world history from 1894-1904 marks, in a very real sense, either the anomalous beginnings of American imperialism, if you don’t think the US has remained particularly imperialistic, or the America’s debut on the world stage, a spotlighted position we have yet to repudiate or give up, if you rather think we haven’t given it up at all. Mark Zwonitzer chooses to examine that wonderfully contested history by focusing on two men, John Hay and Samuel Clemens. Hay and Clemens were about the same age, and came from similar backgrounds; small towns lining the banks of the Mississippi. They both arose to prominence and wealth from humble beginnings, and were deeply devoted to their wives and children. Both men lost children, and were prostrated by grief. Both emerge, in Zwonitzer’s narrative, as admirable men. And they remained friends, cordial, though infrequent correspondents. But as Hay once wrote: “No man, no party, can fight with any hope of a final success against a cosmic tendency; no cleverness, no popularity, avails against the spirit of the age.” As Zwonitzer puts it: “John Hay had learned this lesson early, and accepted it as an article of faith. He was not a man to fight a ‘cosmic tendency,’ and this served him well. Sam Clemens was less sure of this lesson. He learned it the hard way, and as you will see in the story that follows, kept unlearning it.”

John Hay was one of two personal secretaries to Abraham Lincoln, along with his close friend John Nicolay. After Lincoln’s assassination, Hay and Nicolay wrote the first biography of Lincoln, a multi-volume work that established the pattern for subsequent Lincoln biographies. Hay also was a poet of some distinction, especially known for a collection called Pike County Ballads; humorous verse written in dialect. Hay made his fortune the old fashioned way; he married into it. This gave him the freedom to pursue a career in government, and he eventually became US Ambassador to the Court of St. James, and finally, US Secretary of State under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. He was, in short, the Secretary of State during the Spanish-American War, and the diplomat who laid the political framework for the building of the Panama Canal.

Sam Clemens, of course, was primarily known, both in his lifetime and today, by his pseudonym, Mark Twain. As the book begins, Clemens was embarked on a desperate quest to salvage his family finances, a world-spanning lecture tour. This is the Mark Twain of the popular imagination; the cigar-smoking, white-suited contrarian, the witty, somewhat cynical humorist. He was, in 1894, dead-broke, having blown a sizeable fortune on an ill-conceived printing device. He insisted, as a point of honor, on clearing the entire debt himself, without resorting to bankruptcy proceedings. But proceeds from the tour were disappointing, as were sales from his published account of the voyage. (Although he did finally pay off his creditors, he never really did learn his lesson; he was still making bad investments practically on his deathbed).

Zwonitzer’s book cuts back and forth between the two men over the last ten years of Hay’s life, during that period when Hay was accommodating and enabling and administering the colonialist impulses of Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. Hay was an able administrator, in part because he was almost ego-less about it. His job was to serve as an extension of the President, and it was a job he devoted himself to, even at the cost of his health. And so Hay made himself indispensable, as the United States intervened in Cuba, appropriated Puerto Rico, swallowed Hawaii whole, captured Guam and Samoa, and ignored the democratic wishes of the freed Philippines, waging a savage war of conquest, so as to Christianize a nation full of Christians, and to govern a people too stubborn to realize they were ungovernable. And that’s without mentioning the US actions in Panama, actions applauded, at the time, as lacking even the tiniest vestige of legality.

John Hay was surely one of the most able men ever to serve as Secretary of State. He was certainly one of the most consequential diplomats in US history. And I wouldn’t say that Zwonitzer’s book demonizes him; quite the contrary. At the same time, his legacy is a troubling one. Teddy Roosevelt was an extraordinary man and a remarkably impactful President. He also believed in (and wrote books arguing for) the inherent racial superiority of Anglo-Saxon peoples, and the God-given requirement that that superiority gave white men: to govern. One of the saddest chapters in the book describes the Filipino diplomat, Felipe Agocillo, who came to Washington desperate for some kind of recognition of the capable, functioning government established by his boss, Emilio Aquinaldo, and hoping for some Filipino representation, at least, on the commission that would decide his country’s fate and future. He was never so much as allowed to present a letter to that effect to John Hay. His people were incapable of self-governance. Too brown of skin. Period. The Philippines would be administered from Washington.

And Sam Clemens, as he traveled with his ailing family from Italian villa to English country estate to US rental property, kept in touch with world events. And though he couched his criticisms in bitter irony, Mark Twain’s writings reveal how heartsick and furious he was with it all. Twain knew better than to publish all his writings from that period–in any event, he’d promised his beloved wife, Livy, that he would exercise some restraint. Even so, it’s remarkable, to see how willing Clemens was to take on the ruling ideology of his own age, how furious he was with the hypocrisy of American Christians and the complacent American acceptance of the most heinous war atrocities committed by our troops.

When most Americans think of the Spanish-American war, we generally think of two things, if we even give that particularly obscure conflict any attention at all. First, we may be able to dredge some memory of the phrase ‘Remember the Maine,’ though we likely don’t remember what that was about. And second, we might remember Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders capturing San Juan Hill. We don’t choose to think about our utterly unjustified invasion of the Philippines, or the brutal savagery of our war against the subsequent insurgency. We don’t think about water boarding, or the way US commanders justified the slaughter of eleven-year-olds, or our massacres of women and children.

Mark Twain was there. He was horrified and appalled on our behalf. Here’s what he wrote about it, in The War Prayer:

O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it — for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

We’ve forgotten John Hay, and though we still remember Mark Twain, we’ve generally forgotten the lonely, righteous anger of Sam Clemens. Mark Zwonitzer reminds us of them both, and the ways in which they were connected. And the specific points on which they differed, as friends. What a splendid achievement.