Archive for the ‘Civil War’ Category


November 29, 2014


Citizenfour is a documentary by Laura Poitras about the recent revelations of NSA spying on US citizens. For those who have been following this scandal, this film will reveal nothing new. It is primarily of interest as an historical document. There is footage of the first meeting between Snowden and Greenwald and Poitras in hotel room in a Hong Kong. In these scenes, Snowden appears confident, yet one sometimes senses a feeling of anxiousness in him. He is clearly concerned about what might happen to him. (Snowden has been criticized for seeking refuge in Russia, which is a dictatorship. This film tells us that he had intended to fly from Moscow to Ecuador. He no doubt had to give up this idea in the face of the US’s manhunt for him. A plane carrying Bolivian president Evo Morales was forced down because it was suspected that Snowden might be hiding on board.)

Citizenfour ends by hinting that there are even bigger revelations to come. Yet it never really addresses the question of why the government is doing so much spying. Is it really about the “War on Terror”, or does the government have a deeper motive? In one scene, Jacob Appelbaum suggests that the government collects this information so that it can target people who get too much out of line. This may sound conspiracist to some people, but it should sound plausible to anyone familiar with the FBI’s Cointelpro program.

You are being watched. Always remember that.

The Ruling Class

December 19, 2013


After the Irish actor, Peter O’Toole, died, some of my Facebook friends said that his best film was The Ruling Class. This piqued my curiosity, so I decided to watch it. (You can find the whole movie on Youtube.)

The Ruling Class is a 1972 film directed by Peter Medak, with a script by Peter Barnes, adapted from his own stage play.

The 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews) accidentally kills himself while engaging in autoerotic asphyxiation. His will leaves his entire estate to his only surviving son, Jack (Peter O’Toole). The problem here is that Jack believes he is Jesus Christ. He spends his time making speeches about love and hanging on a cross. This scandalizes the Gurneys and their aristocratic neighbors. Jack’s uncle, Sir Charles (William Mervyn) plots to take the estate away from him. He reasons that if he can get Jack to produce a male heir, he can then have Jack declared insane while having the Gurney line continue unbroken. Sir Charles persuades his mistress, Grace, (Carolyn Seymour) to woo Jack. Jack falls in love with her. They get married, and Grace soon gives birth to a son. Sir Charles’s plan, however, is complicated by the psychiatrist, Dr. Herder (Michael Bryant), who is determined to cure Jack of his delusion. After several failed attempts, Herder hits upon the idea of confronting Jack with a mental patient who also believes he is God. This appears to work; Jack seems to be restored to his old self. Sir Charles is still determined to have him committed, however, and he arranges to have a court-appointed psychiatrist interview Jack. The meeting gets off to a rocky start, but when Jack begins spouting reactionary and xenophobic political rhetoric, the doctor declares him to be sane.

The Ruling Class should have ended at this point. Instead, it goes into a lengthy coda, in which Jack convinces himself that he is actually Jack the Ripper, and he starts killing people. The joke here is that the “sane” Jack is actually a pathological murderer. This struck me as unnecessary, since it doesn’t build on the film’s previous ideas. What’s more, it makes the movie long: two-and-a-half hours. The characters and the situation simply aren’t strong enough to sustain one’s interest for that period of time. Satire is best done with a light, but sharp, touch. This movie does have many funny moments, though, and it benefits from strong performances. O’Toole is powerful and convincing as Jack.

It no doubt tells us something about O’Toole’s political views that he lobbied United Artists to make Barnes’s play into a film. He even went so far as to agree to do the part of Jack for no pay. The aristocratic Gurneys are portrayed as moral hypocrites. The movie strongly implies that Britain’s upper classes secretly yearn for fascism. Whatever his faults may have been, O’Toole was on the right side of history.


November 30, 2012

Last night I went to Spielberg’s and Kushner’s Lincoln, after having been apprised of the historical and political limitations of the film. I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed. The writing, acting, and direction were all splendidly done. Some moments were a bit schmaltzy, but not too much so. It was very restrained for a Steven Spielberg film. This film instilled in me a greater respect for Lincoln and for Thaddeus Stevens.

There has bee a lot of sniping at the film from some left-wing websites. It seems to me that what has provoked them is not so much the film itself, but the liberal politics of Kushner and Spielberg. In interviews, Kushner has compared Obama to Lincoln. Eve worse, he has taken a reactionary view of Reconstruction, claiming that

    The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies.

What’s interesting to me is that Kushner’s own screenplay contradicts his arguments. In it, Lincoln is not a cautious compromiser like Obama. In fact, he never really compromises at all. Instead, he uses various methods, some of them quite ruthless, to pass the 13th Amendment, which abolishes slavery. The closest he ever comes to compromise is when he agrees to meet with a Confederate “peace” delegation, in order to get conservative Republicans to back the Amendment. Yet he delays meeting with the delegates, fearing that if the war ends, Congress won’t pass the Amendment. When he finally does meet with them, after the Amendment has been ratified, he finds that they are unrepentant slave-owners who want to preserve slavery. “Slavery is done,” he tells them, ending the negotiations.

I don’t know how Kushner came to his views on Reconstruction, but his idea that Obama is somehow like Lincoln is common among liberals. Obama has done nothing to earn this comparison, just as he did nothing to earn the Nobel Peace Prize. The only thing he has in common with Lincoln is that both men are hated by Southern racists. When I lived in Eugene, Oregon; there was a restaurant there that had on one of its wall a drawing of Obama with a stovepipe hat and a Lincolnesque beard. The image was so large that it was almost impossible to ignore it. There is something about this sort of thing that is almost akin to the worship of the Kim family in North Korea. All right, that may be going a little far, but you have to admit that there is the same desire for a hero in each.

One of the things I liked about this film is its sympathetic portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens (brilliantly played by Tommy Lee Jones). Perhaps this film will reawaken an interest in Stevens. In addition to his opposition to slavery, this was a man who championed the rights of women, of Native Americans, of Chinese immigrants, and of Jews. He was a seminal figure in the forgotten history of American radicalism.

Barack Obama and the Persistence of the Old Regime

October 26, 2012

The Atlantic Monthly has dared to suggest what none have so far dared to say: that President Barack Obama should be impeached for the murder of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. There is, of course, zero possibility of this actually happening, but the idea is worth raising if only to show what a sham our democracy is. The Republicans are not going to make an issue out of this, no doubt because they don’t see anything wrong with what the President did. For all their huffing and puffing, the Republicans are not really an opposition party. (It would be more accurate to call them an obstruction party.) Certainly Romney would have done the same thing Obama did.

The historical trend has always been to give more and more power to the executive branch. There was a brief push back against this during the Watergate scandal, but that is ancient history now. The idea that the president is not above the law is now regarded as one of those quaint fads of the 1970’s, along with leisure suits and bell-bottom pants.

Consider, for example, how often the president is referred to as the “commander-in-chief”. This is misleading. The president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He is not the commander-in-chief of anything else. Reporters and pundits must surely be aware of this, but they use the term anyway, even though they must know that many people are not kwowledgeable about the Constitution. (And why aren’t they? That’s a question that will have to be addressed at another time.) One must seriously question their motives for doing this.

For the Left, there is nothing to recommend Obama. He has better positions on women’s reproductive rights than Romney does, but that is about it. Yet it can be argued that a defeat for Obama would be a triumph for the forces of reaction in this country. Every president gets criticized, but both the quality and the quantity of the criticism aimed at Obama are different from that aimed at previous presidents. Bill Clinton was the subject of paroxysms of paranoia on the right, but the attacks on him mostly had to do with real matters: Clinton’s marital infidelities, the accusations of sexual harassment (which were plausible), his involvement with the Whitewater scandal, and the slightly suspicious death of Vince Foster. Yet the accusations against Obama have nothing to do with reality. We’re told that Obama ia a Muslim, that he associates with terrorists, that he wants to create death panels and put people in re-education camps. There are accusations of a “missing” birth certificate that isn’t missing. This summer a movie was shown in theaters all across the country that argues that Obama is a “Kenyan nationalist” who wants to undermine the U.S. power in the world. (In fact, Obama has gone out of his way to try to shore up the U.S.’s empire.) It’s not hard to see that this is all tied to Obama’s race. Some people are incensed that a black man – the Other – now occupies the White House. Donald Trump, for angrily demands that Obama release his college transcripts. It is inconceivable to Trump that a black man could be more successful and better educated than he is. (I think it fair to say that most black people are better educated than Donald Trump.)

It has often been noted that the so-called blue state/red state divide bears a striking resemblance to the North/South divide of the Civil War. Race is at the center of both these divides, although people were more honest about this in 1861. The Republican Party has absorbed, and in turn been taken over by, the Old Democratic Party of Jim Crow. It is perhaps significant that in recent years, the idea of secession, once confined to a handful of crackpots, has crept its way into mainstream discourse. (The nitwits at CounterPunch bear some responsibility for this.) Romney is too smart to believe the Tea Party’s nonsense, but he pandered to them during the primaries, and a Romney victory will be seen as a win for them.

This raises a critical issue for the Left. Should the racism of Obama’s opponents be considered the most critical issue in this election? I haven’t made up my own mind about this, but I think it is a question that the Left should consider.

The Conspirator

April 18, 2011

Robert Redford’s new film tells the story of the trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who was accused of being one of the conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Surratt owned the boardinghouse where the conspirators met. Surratt’s assigned attorney, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) persuades a young lawyer, Fredrick Aiken (James McAvoy) to take over the case. Aiken, who was wounded while serving in the Union army, is at first reluctant, but he becomes convinced that Surratt, who is being tried by a military tribunal instead of a civilian court, is being treated unjustly. His attempts to get a fair trial for Surratt are opposed by the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), who argues that “swift justice” is necessary to keep the country together after the shock of Lincoln’s death.

The parallels with recent events are obvious. This film is an argument for the need to maintain the right to a fair trial even during a national emergency. The film is honest in that it doesn’t try to make a heroine out of Surratt. It makes clear that Surratt knew that the conspirators were up to something, even if she didn’t know all the details. However, the film also makes the point that if Surratt’s son, John (Johnny Simmons), who was one of the conspirators, had been captured right away, she probably would not have received the death penalty. Also, it shows that some of the witnesses against Surratt were not completely honest.

This film’s greatest strengths are the intelligent script and the fine performances. Wright is especially good as Surratt, making the character human without seeming pitiful. Kline exudes a brutal earnestness as Stanton. I recommend seeing this film.

Henry Adams on Robert E. Lee

April 16, 2011

Henry Adams

Gen. Lee

This year is the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, so there has been a lot of interest in that transformative event in our nation’s history. Robert Redford has made a film about Lincoln’s assasination, The Conspirator, which has been getting mixed reviews. I will have to see it.

I recently saw a rebroadcast of Ken Burns’s documentary series about the Civil War. Although it has flaws (there is no discussion of Reconstruction) it is nonetheless powerful to watch. One thing that struck me in the series was a quote from Henry Adams:

    I think that Lee should have been hanged. It was all the worse that he was a good man and a fine character and acted conscientiously. It’s always the good men who do the most harm in the world.

This is a remarkable dissent from the generally respectful way that Lee has been treated by historians. Yet I think I can see what Adams was trying to get at. The fact that Lee was generous and courageous only served to give the Confederate cause an appearance of respectability that it didn’t deserve. It would have been better for the whole country if Lee had been a coward and a buffoon.