Tag Archives: summer 2008

DOOM PATROL: Volumes 1-6

Grant Morrison, Richard Case, et al
Vertigo ($19.99 each)

by Ken Chen

What is a “novel of ideas”? The phrase is most frequently slapped on alpha male novels, swaggering to diagnose contemporary politics and mores, stacked up with bricks of data, historical trivia, and straggling cast members, and striding eagerly towards a shaggy ambition: to encompass everything. Yet what could be further from the world of ideas than a gluttonous story, eager to swallow the world? And, to tip-toe this argument a step further, what could be more antithetical to an idea than an actual story, less fresh and novel than the novel, that aggregator of empirical life and proper nouns, with every prop nailed firmly into this time and that place? Speaking as one who has long preferred books that levitate, buoyed up by ideas, what I would like is a genre of books about nothing, one that possesses zero time and zero place.

Many books fall within this hopped-up, helium category, but the work of comic book writer Grant Morrison nicely illuminates what it means to look at fiction not as a medium of stories, but of ideas. Morrison is perhaps the most creative writer of comics in English, and his idea-crammed virtues and vices can be seen in Doom Patrol, a superhero comic he wrote from 1989 through 1992, but whose characters existed for nearly thirty years prior. Writers Bob Haney and Arnold Drake created the original Doom Patrol, with artist Bruno Premiani and editor Murray Boltinoff, as a misfit inversion of the typical superhero group; the characters gained their powers through traumatic accidents (e.g. a totaled car, a plane crash) and had less kinship with photogenic supermen than with counter-cultural outsiders—much like the X-Men, another rebel superhero team that, apocrypha suggests, was a Doom Patrol plagiarism.

Morrison transformed Doom Patrol by interpreting its central trope— the superhero as freak—as an engine for freewheeling stories about psychedelic bicycles and magic dentures. One of his characters, Kay Challis, serves as a synecdoche for the whole project: abused as a child by her father, Kay’s trauma manifested itself as a strain of multiple personality disorder in which each of her sixty-four personality possessed a different superpower. While Morrison does use Kay to explore how an adult deals with child abuse, he seems more interested in writing a character that can always shed its skin and in writing a comic that is never finished, eternally new, and always spitting out possibilities.

DC’s Vertigo imprint recently collected Doom Patrol in six volumes whose titles—such as The Painting That Ate ParisDown Paradise Way, and Planet Love—serve as surprisingly apt keywords for Morrison’s aestheticism: he’s an absurdist, counter-cultural science fiction writer appropriating the civilized arbitrariness of the Dadaist flaneur, the joyful pastiche of ‘80s camp, and the mystical utopianism of hippie lovefests, English Romanticism and the Western tradition of magic. This is baroque brain-pop in which the protagonists—conceptual “superheroes” like Robotman, Danny the sentient (and transvestite) street, and Flex Mentallo, Man of Muscle Mystery—fight a man who hunts beards, a woman possessing every superpower you haven’t thought of, and the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E.

As you may have guessed by now, Morrison is a prolific inventor and, unlike most fiction writers, he does not see his job as the layering of details. In fact, reading Doom Patrol reminds one how much conventional novels are really about logistics. And while Doom Patrolwould have been disastrous as a novel, the comic form gives a visual specificity to a story that essentially avoids a setting and a focus on things. Most of Doom Patrol is drawn by Richard Case, whose dilapidated style possesses enough earth to ground Morrison’s vamping and enough wonkiness to animate Morrison’s cheerful lack of empiricism.

Morrison deploys two seemingly opposite traditions to help him generate, rather than develop, ideas: mystic allegory and action movies. While Morrison is obviously influenced by Western magical traditions—in one issue, Doom Patrol fights the sky-deleting eye of the Gnostic Decreator—this obscure canon may have had the more subtle effect of liberating his idea of character. Just as the Talmudic angels wore four faces so they would always gaze towards God, and just as the characters from Tarot cards are not persons but symbolic diagrams, the supporting characters in Doom Patrol are not psychologies possessing a past and future, but rather images nailed together into a compound meaning—such as the Candlemaker, a winged demon whose forehead fuses a vertical eye and a candelabra, or schizophrenic secret agent John Dandy, a naked man wrapped in twine, eyes covered by Scrabble letters and mouth by comb, head haloed by seven bald heads. Like Dadaist poetry, we cannot easily adjudicate whether such creations possess literary “quality,” but Morrison is an artist less interested in whether an idea is good, as long as it is interesting.

Once these characters are cobbled together, Morrison drives them like bumper cars through an action movie plot. The thrill of an action movie is not entirely different than the thrill of a lyric poem; both present ways of organizing intense effects. While Doom Patrol has obvious action-movie motifs—unashamed cliffhangers, images of devastated cities, and faux-tough guy patter—on a deeper level, it possesses the intellectualism of an action movie. Action movies are abstract surfaces, machines of plot that do not rely on our understanding of the world (as a realist movie might), but on an artificial framework the movie itself has created. This is why the action movie is so amenable to fantasy and science fiction (and Morrison’s strangeness)—it is already a closed context. Morrison deploys these action movie logics not just because of the kiss, kiss, bang, bang and the plot twists, but because they render his weirdness familiar. Several Doom Patrol stories culminate in a showdown with an unspeakable horror that we previously glimpse only via the supporting cast’s stunned reaction shots. While such climaxes may seem clichéd, they suggest that Morrison is really interested in the concept of the Sublime, the beauty that terrifies us. It is a problem he explores more deeply in later projects, such as The Invisibles and JLA, both about staving off an inevitable apocalypse, and his New X-Men, which actually features a villain called Sublime.

Morrison may explore a theme like the sublime, but you never sense that he’s searching to understand a given topic; his themes, rather, are conceits through which he can course his thoughts like electricity.Doom Patrol, for example, is an anti-dualistic comic: Morrison seems bored by the value-trapped bipolar world of heroes and villains, particularly when the Doom Patrol faces the Brotherhood of Dada, whose absurdist antagonists seek nothing more than to liberate the world from tedium. And the members of Doom Patrol even expostulate on their anti-dualistic postures, like Rebus, who is both man and woman, black and white, and Robotman, who argues with his metal body. One suspects Morrison sees his throw-in-the-kitchen-sink pastiche as a way of enlarging his work, which pinballs from high to low culture, and from future to past. But because Morrison’s goal is to explore a diversity of styles rather than things, and because he does not develop a single style, a style so natural that it no longer seems a style, Morrison is an ironic aesthete, not a fecund storyteller like Tolstoy or Dickens (or, more appropriately, Kirby/Lee on Fantastic Four or Claremont/Byrne on Uncanny X-Men). For some readers, then, Doom Patrol will seem too inorganic, arcane, and apathetic about character. (Morrison, incidentally, writes characters not as selves, but as quotations from different literary styles.) Yet I think Doom Patrol is a personal comic, but personal the way a poem, rather than a novel, is personal—in its aesthetic. As with the New York School poets, you are always aware of how much fun Morrison is having jolting the page with ideas. His mind lights up in vigorous sparks, illuminating Doom Patrol with an idiosyncratic human smallness, much like the novels of Flann O’Brien (whose At Swim Two Birds is, like Doom Patrol, fascinated with the color green), the fictions of Donald Barthelme, or even—work with me here—the short stories of V.S. Pritchett.

Doom Patrol came out within years of several comics that validated the medium for an adult reading audience: Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. But Morrison’s jumpy eclecticism reads like a preemptive rebuttal to these dour modernist masterpieces. While these comics sought to be respectable, realist, somber literary works, Morrison’s Doom Patrol is gleeful whimsy, full of aesthetic “mistakes,” and narratologically less similar to the psychological novel than it is to Burroughs and Borges, The Prisoner and Dennis Potter. Don't be scared off by Morrison's obscurantism or his obvious love of superhero comics (which are almost always appropriated with loving irony)—just revel in a comic that will tell you nothing about what it is like to be alive, but is instead giddy on what Apollinaire called "a liberty of unimaginable opulence."

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki, and Paul Buhle
Metropolitan Books ($17)

by Christopher Luna

This graphic novel of Howard Zinn’s seminal A People’s History of the United States updates the information found in the original (now in its seventh edition) and features the historian as a narrator and witness to the atrocities committed in the name of American power. Incorporating recent news events, factoids, and personal details from Zinn’s memoir You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train (Beacon Press, 1992), A People’s History of American Empire attempts to use the comics format to fill in the blanks in the commonly accepted version of events such as the Vietnam War, the Iranian hostage crisis, and World War II.

The stories provided here are essential to understanding America’s failure to live up to its promise, and its arrogant attempts to impose its will on smaller nations. Unfortunately, Mike Konopacki’s illustrations feel tossed off when measured against other well-wrought, politically-themed graphic novels such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus or Joe Sacco’s Palestine; they render devastating tragedies in such a banal manner as to strip them of their emotional content. This is particularly disappointing when one considers the strength of the tales being told by Zinn and the dramatic photographs and newspaper facsimiles used to illustrate key points throughout the graphic novel.

The prologue begins with Zinn typing an essay shortly after September 11: “So now we are bombing Afghanistan and inevitably killing innocent people because it is in the nature of bombing (and I say this as a former Air Force bombardier) to be indiscriminate, to ‘make no distinction.’ We are committing terrorism in order to ‘send a message’ to the terrorists. We have done that before. It is the old way of thinking, the old way of acting. It has never worked.” Then Zinn is seen at an anti-war rally, reminding the audience “our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are not unique events. They are part of a continuing pattern of American behavior.”

It is apparent that Konopacki is not the right cartoonist for the job from the very first chapter, which employs generic, goofy caricatures better suited for MAD magazine or Schoolhouse Rock than to tell the story of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. The images are so unsuited to their subject matter, in fact, that they ultimately become offensive. The conquest of the Philippines and the Ludlow Massacre are depicted in a similarly bland fashion, robbing them of their inherent emotional content.

Despite the artistic blunders, the text contains plenty of fascinating, overlooked chapters in our nation’s history—for example, there is a great exchange between Eugene Debs and conscientious objectors who were imprisoned for refusing to fight in WWI. But the most effective parts of the book highlight Zinn’s own story, which begins with his childhood in Brooklyn, NY. The young Howard Zinn developed his political consciousness through books such as Dickens’s Oliver Twist, the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, and a beating he took at the hands of police while protesting Hitler’s fascist regime during a demonstration in Times Square: “I woke up perhaps an hour later with a painful lump on my head. From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal—a believer in the self-correcting character of democracy. I was a radical, believing something was fundamentally wrong with this country.”

The chapter in which Zinn describes his time as a soldier in WWII is one of the few sections of the book where all the elements of the graphic novel—the images, drawings, photos, dialogue, and narrative—cohere. One of his final missions as a bombardier involved dropping barrels of “sticky fire” (later known as napalm) on the small French town of Royan. This experience, which inevitably caused the deaths of civilian men, women, and children, changed Zinn forever.

Although the book showcases America’s worst imperialist tendencies, Zinn ends his alternative history with a message of hope that acknowledges democratic triumphs such as the civil rights movement, the elimination of the Berlin Wall, the overthrow of apartheid and release of Nelson Mandela, and the national protests to end the Vietnam War:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. If we remember those times and places, and there are so many where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act. Hope is the energy for change. The future is an infinite succession of presents. . . and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of everything around us, is a marvelous victory.

The story of American imperialism seems well suited to be told through comics, a form that combines words and pictures to achieve both concision and passionate effect. Unfortunately this book, while filled with important lessons, fails to demonstrate the true power of the medium to depict our history.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


The Norling Photos
Brad Zellar
Borealis Books / Minnesota Historical
Society Press ($27.95)

New Suburban Landscapes
edited by Andrew Blauvelt
Walker Art Center / D.A.P. ($34.95)

by Deborah Karasov

Over fifty years ago, a pioneering developer named William J. Levitt created the largest planned community constructed by a single builder in the U.S. Christened Levittown, the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, suburb began the 1950s with muddy roads leading GIs and their brides to affordable homes of their own.

Levittown became the suburban blueprint for many communities to follow, including Bloomington, Minnesota, now known as the home of the Mall of America and the subject of a new book of photography called Suburban World: The Norling Photos. Built to encourage child-rearing, suburbs like Bloomington appealed strongly to young families. There, childhood was a story of Cub Scouts and block parties, of neighborhood barbeques and teen pageants, designed to extend the combination of childhood freedom and adult supervision into the turbulent years of adolescence. The new model of curvilinear streets, cul-de-sacs, and open, unfenced backyards that melted into one another formed wide swatches of open ground behind the houses. Children played in the street, around the houses, and through the neighbors’ backyards, with little complaint from the neighbors. In the summer they played well past dark or until their parents made them come in.

When Minnesota journalist Brad Zellar discovered a treasure trove of photographs by amateur photographer Irwin Norling in the vaults of the Bloomington Historical Society in 2002, he knew he had found something special. As Zellar writes in Suburban World, the book of carefully selected photographs he recently exhibited and published, among the 10,000 photos are “portraits of Shriners, shots of donkey baseball games, parades, rodeos, city council meetings, fires and horrific car crashes. There are family Christmas-card photos, documents of drug busts, and periodic shots of Met Stadium going up; there are pancake breakfasts, weddings and murder-suicides.” Norling captured the developing suburban America of the 1950s and ’60s “the way it was. And the way it was, that’s what I was after.”

A competitive amateur glued to his police radio, Norling also spent years chasing murders, traffic accidents, and home explosions. Zellar calls these photographs the “strange juxtapositions, incongruities, and dark corners” of the suburbs, but really they are the tragedies of any community, urban or suburban. The more particular dark sides of suburban communities were there even when Levittown began. Levittown discriminated against blacks, and domestic violence was never acknowledged. Introducing sprawl is another long-term effect for which Levitt has been widely criticized. To live in segregated utopias, where homes were calculated to keep both the rich and the poor out, families were willing to drive further to work, increasing dependence on automobiles and foreign oil with every decade that went by.

In short, the history of the suburbs has always alternated between reverence and rebuke. In post-World War II America, film and television often depicted suburbia as a land of calm and plenty, with gleaming appliances in every corniced kitchen. Representations grew increasingly critical in the 1960s and the decades following, perhaps most famously in films such as The Graduate and, more recently, American Beauty. From the beginning, alongside the American dream has been its exact opposite—suburbs as a place of stress, family dysfunction, and even despair.

Today, some experts would prefer that our ideas about the suburbs edge toward a more complicated middle ground. This is the story that the curators of the book and exhibition Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes try to tell. It is a story that includes religious longings and identity-building along with corporate duplicity and tax benefits, and one that addresses sprawl even as it concedes that not all suburbanites are white and middle-class.

Organized jointly by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Heinz Architectural Center at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art, and curated by Andrew Blauvelt of the Walker with the Heinz’s Tracy Myers, the thesis of the show is straightforward. As Blauvelt puts it in the catalog, “the contemporary suburb remains surprisingly unconsidered, at least on its own terms.”

Although that statement is not quite true for novelists, photographers, and movie directors, it remains a fair critique of the architecture world. Historian John Archer argues in his essay “Suburban Aesthetics Is Not an Oxymoron” that the aesthetic establishment “circled the wagons” against suburbia in the 1960s, outlining a conservative dogma that continues to shape the way critics want us to think about suburbs today: “the critique of suburbia has maintained its disdain for the working-class and petit-bourgeois tastes of those who choose, and prefer, to live in developer-built, mass-marketed, tract house environments.”

The architectural critic Peter Blake may be emblematic of this interpretation with his 1964 book, God’s Own Junkyard. In an often-repeated quote, Blake vilified suburbia’s “interminable wastelands dotted with millions of monotonous little houses on monotonous little lots and crisscrossed by highways lined with billboards, jazzed-up diners, used-car lots, drive-in movies, beflagged gas stations, and garish motels.”

If Archer’s essay sets up the primary target of the curators, then the majority of the book offers a revisionist, if not contrarian, take. With few exceptions, the catalogue contributors are eager to argue that the suburban landscape, once seen as bereft of possibilities, instead holds many opportunities for creative engagement.

Organized in nearly a patterned manner, the essays sometimes illuminate and complicate the art and architecture and vice versa. In one article, New York Times columnist David Brooks marvels at how millions of people constantly propel themselves forward, changing jobs, housing and communities, still clinging to the central cliché called the American dream. Following his essay are photographs by Minnesota photographer Laura Migliorino from her series The Hidden Suburbs: A Portrait, in which a family from Africa poses in front of their garage or a biracial family poses at the edge of a development’s lake. Subsequently, artist Dan Graham proposes his Alteration to a Suburban House(1978/1992), where he replaces the facade of a typical suburban home with a clear glass exposing the home’s inhabitants, as if divulging our fantasy-based dreams.

In another pairing, landscape architecture professor Louise A. Mozingo traces the styles of corporate campuses, estates, and parks, followed by artist Edward Ruscha’s aerial photographs of commercial parking lots, also presented formally as geometric patterns with mere traces of individuals.

Among the most compelling projects in the catalogue is a study by Teddy Cruz, the San Diego architect, on the two-way movement of attitudes as well as objects across the U.S.-Mexico border. His photographs document the process by which parts of older houses in the San Diego suburbs—garage doors, aluminum window frames—are salvaged before they can reach the landfill by professional or amateur contractors, who then drive them south across the border. There, they become the building blocks of ad-hoc housing in Tijuana and other poor Mexican cities.

Meanwhile, Mexican immigrants flowing legally and illegally into San Diego County bring their own traditions and tastes to the suburban landscape of Southern California, transforming its culture from the bottom up. Estudio Teddy Cruz is working on a prefabricated frame produced by a Mexican assembly plant for housing in Tijuana that uses these recycled materials, as well as a mix of affordable and senior housing for poor neighborhoods like San Ysidro in suburban San Diego.

Certainly there are limits to how architects can intervene in such dynamics. The curators would readily admit that they never intended to document every condition of the suburbs today, nor offer solutions. “Rather,” says Blauvelt in his introduction, “it features the work of artists and architects who, without that burden, have imaginatively considered the subject.”

Across the nation, new suburban neighborhoods that once held promise for thousands of families are now struggling with crime, blight, and falling home values. Perhaps before we prognosticate on what will happen, and certainly before we jump to retooling the neighborhoods, we could learn from those artists and architects who have a keen eye for the suburb’s weaknesses and possibilities. Quoted in the Norling book is good advice from the great American photographer Gary Winogrand: “There is nothing more mysterious than a fact clearly described.”

Click here to buy Suburban World from Amazon.com

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Click here to buy Worlds Away from Amazon.com

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008

THE LIFE OF THE SKIES: Birding at the End of Nature

Jonathan Rosen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($24)

by Spencer Dew

Near the start of his lush, expansive meditations around the subject of birdwatching, Jonathan Rosen proposes that there is “an erotic component” to knowledge. The thought is almost an aside, one of a thousand delicious tidbits and marginal notions that flutter through the text, but it echoes the book’s central, mystical tone. While Rosen returns again and again to Edward O. Wilson’s term “biophilia,” the innate human need for affiliation with the natural world, that concept is far too dry to convey the passionate impulse Rosen wants to explore. Repeatedly, too, museum collections of stuffed bird skins or bodies soaked in chemical preservatives are contrasted with the deep-texture experience of being “in the field,” snake-proof boots and all. While the scientific study of biology is celebrated in these pages, it is celebrated not only as a field of knowledge but as an arena for encounter with mystery. The figures with whom Rosen identifies—be it Alfred Russell Wallace collecting live cockroaches from a bakery in Malta to feed the pair of lesser birds of paradise he’s transporting from Singapore to London in 1862, or the contemporary curator of the American Museum of Natural History’s bird collection, recently tanned from a trip to Vietnam, explaining how the museum uses a colony of flesh eating beetles to clean skeletons for eventual display—are adventurers, even visionaries, dedicated to something slightly absurd and wholly wonderful. This, ultimately, is Rosen’s argument in favor of birdwatching; it might seem silly to stand at the outskirts of the municipal sewage treatment plant, binoculars in hand, but the experience is likewise awe-inspiring. The exhilaration of such communion, such knowledge, is, Rosen holds, religious in the most profound sense.

Rosen, author of The Talmud and the Internet, proceeds in a manner reminiscent of the rabbinic tradition of commentary via digression and multiple lines of storytelling. He gives a midrash on rheas and cassowaries, a homily on extinction, and weaves together a wealth of knowledge and experience such that the final product, this book, gives some sense of the thrill he associates with watching griffon vultures circling above the Golan Heights or knocking banana spiders off ones shoulders in the hopes of sighting the Lord God Bird tonguing insects from the trucks of trees in a Louisiana swamp. That John James Audubon’s rifle shares space with Emily Dickinson’s thoughts on the “Eclipse” that is God, and that Transcendentalists and Hasidim share space with the Persian Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar, whose The Conference of Birds is at once an “avian epic” of thirty birds on a religious pilgrimage and an allegory for religious phenomenology, seems as necessary as it is fascinating. The kabbalistic story of the shattering of the vessels in the act of creation and the ensuing responsibility of tikkun—the gathering, by humans, of individual divine sparks in order to repair the cosmos—stands for Rosen as “a very beautiful metaphor for birdwatching. Or perhaps birdwatching is a living metaphor for this mystical process.” Such interconnectedness is the great strength of this book. One can, of course, look for birds without looking for God, but as Rosen says sagely, “I do believe that even if we are not consciously working out certain questions, these questions are working themselves out in us nevertheless.”

In poetry, as much as in the startled rise of a chestnut-sided warbler, Rosen finds these questions rendered explicit, yet as moving as his readings of Walt Whitman or Avraham Sutzkever are, he also reads biologists and hunters as poets, and experience and place as poems. Standing among the used condoms and crack vials of Central Park, Rosen roots himself not only in the particular history of that spot of land (where, in the early 19th-century, the African-American community of Seneca Village stood), but also in some deeper, bodily memory of the human species itself. Reading a passage from Thoreau about scanning distant trees from his attic with a spyglass, Rosen recalls both Hegel and a Hasidic tale on the dynamics of history and belatedness. The intertextuality is both masterful and, Rosen argues, compulsive—a mark of our humanity, our shared intellectual equivalent of birds’ feathers. Rosen likes to cite Claude Lévi-Strauss, in Tristes Tropiques, when, traveling deeper into the Brazilian rainforest in search for isolated native tribes, the anthropologist can’t get a Chopin nocturne out of his head. This, the way our minds work, can also be seen as the subject of Rosen’s book. It’s not about birds, after all, so much as birdwatching, this quintessentially human act, an act of encounter and contemplation with existence writ large. And when we ponder the anthropomorphism of Audubon’s paintings, the mingling of bones at the Neolithic Tomb of Eagles off the Scottish coast, or how a falconer calls back his bird by swinging a lure, which the animal strikes, “hunching over it with almost copulatory zeal,” it is our nature and our place in the larger living universe that is most wondrous and strange.

Birdwatching, as metaphor and act, is yet another parable of resurrection, an engagement with the raw and uncontainable force of life itself, as exemplified, powerfully, in a story Rosen tells about the poet Robert Frost. Twenty-two years old, a college dropout, and rejected by the woman he loved, Frost travelled in 1894 to the Great Dismal Swamp along the Virginia/North Carolina border. “His plan seems to have been to kill himself there, or simply to vanish somehow into the earth. He walked into the swamp until the road ended, but found a plank bridge that allowed him to cross a patch of water and keep going deeper into the swamp. Darkness came on. He lost his way.” But of course, he did not die; he came to some truer awareness of life, instead. This, says Rosen, can happen in a backyard or a city dump or even from a garret window, through binoculars. Watching birds, we catch a glimpse of something much more.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008

THE ANIMAL DIALOGUES: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild

Craig Childs
Little, Brown and Company ($16)

by Bob Hussey

Roughly a quarter of the way into Craig Childs’s new collection of essays, the author comes face to face with a mountain lion in the Blue Range of Arizona. Childs is armed only with a small knife and the knowledge that mountain lions usually attack from the rear. As the lion stares him down, slowly angling to the side to get behind him, Childs’s instinct urges him to turn and run, a move his rational self knows will result in an attack. In the end, Childs holds his ground and the lion, not knowing what to make of him, eventually withdraws.

The other wildlife encounters that fill The Animal Dialogues are just as memorable. In the Sonora Desert, Childs serenades a coyote with a flute. Flying alongside a bald eagle in Alaska, he imagines what it would be like to step outside the plane and soar next to the bird. In the Utah desert, he happens upon a small canyon with ravens perched along the walls, celebrating their recent kill of an owl. On a shoreline in Baja, California, he watches a blue shark purposely beach itself in an apparent suicide.

Currently a writer and commentator for National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, Childs has at various times been a jazz musician, journalist, gas station attendant, beer bottler, college instructor, and river guide. For a number of years, he had no official residence or phone number, sleeping in the back of his truck, a tipi, or under the stars. His first books were written in bars, laundromats, and libraries. He is drawn to the wilderness, often venturing out alone, on foot and unarmed.

Despite these mild eccentricities, Childs brings a refreshing humility and humor to his journeys. In one essay, he silently stalks a traveling companion through the forest, only to learn his prey is a jaguar. A cat recruited to rid Childs’s tipi of mice decides hunting outside is more enjoyable. When a confrontation with a pronghorn sheep ends with the animal dismissing Childs as a threat and walking away, he is embarrassed.

His prose is simple, sparse, and often magical. Through his eyes, we see a raven as “a sorcerer wearing sleek black robes,” a hummingbird’s “throat the color of fresh raspberries, its back iridescent green like a metallic scarab.” His writing moves effortlessly between the scientific and the lyrical, describing the chemical make-up of rattlesnake venom before comparing the snake’s stare to “the steely gaze of Shiva, the destroyer God.”

Childs is critical of human impact on animal habitats, but subtly so, choosing the World Trade Center site and a military bombing range in Arizona as the settings for two essays. This skillful use of place allows Childs to avoid the preachy tone common in contemporary nature writing. Unlike many naturalists, he embraces anthropomorphism, citing the common desire among all living things to flourish. “Beyond that,” he notes, “our differences are quibbles.”

Ultimately, The Animal Dialogues is a celebration of the resiliency of life. Childs mourns for the various species being wiped out, but is buoyed by the fact that new species will eventually arise to take their place, offering new aspects of grace and beauty.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008

PHILOSOPHERS WITHOUT GODS: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life

edited by Louise M. Antony
Oxford University Press ($28)

by Simon Waxman

Americans, apparently, are developing a taste for the heathen life. The American Religious Identification Survey, performed in 2001 by the City University of New York, found that only 0.9 percent of Americans described themselves as atheist or agnostic, but a 2007 poll from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that a full 4 percent fell into that category. Such a rise in only six years ought to leave the patrons of orthodoxy wondering if they’ve got an insurrection on their hands.

In this climate of increasing disbelief a wave of atheist literature broke over the English-speaking world, with two authors, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, at its crest. Their books, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and The God Delusion, are bestsellers. Many commentators latched onto the tone of these two books. Hitchens’s is riddled with temper-raising adjectives like “diseased,” “babyish,” “stupid,” and “awful,” and Dawkins is not beneath generalization ad absurdum as evidenced by a phrase like “the weakness of the religious mind”—inspired in the text by one believer, applied, through the stupendous alchemy of the definite article, to all.

But the profound limitation of these books lies not in their prose; indeed, both men are enviable stylists, blessed, in an entirely godless sense, with wit and rhetorical grace. Hitchens in particular possesses a vulpine sensibility that ambushes the reader with unexpected humor and elegantly veiled insults, as when he describes believers harboring apocalyptic visions in a world already threatening to warm us out of commission as “those who are not willing to wait.” Rather, the mighty HMS Hitch-kins, its sails billowing with erudition, runs aground on the very same shores as Pat Robertson’s dinghy: all of them are convinced of a transcendent truth.

Dawkins would declare that statement preposterous; Hitchens might call it flagitious. But both, nonetheless, assert that the rightness of atheism as a principle by which to understand the universe is justified outside the context of human experience. How is this so? Hitch-kins points out that religious allegiance and fervency are matters of circumstance: had Luanne of Colorado Springs been born Husniyah of Damascus, she’d likely grow up in a Sunni Muslim tradition as opposed to an evangelical protestant one. This would surely affect her beliefs come adulthood.

Atheism, however, is not put to the same test. It is assumed that belief is influenced by individual circumstance, a function of the myriad ways in which social, political, and family life shape experience. By contrast, atheism is simply universal. It out-muscles the competing truths of irreconcilable religious beliefs, emerging as the one organizing principle. Reason, which is its mechanism, stands divorced from the peculiarities of mere existence, its associated emotions, contradictions, personalities, idiosyncrasies, contingencies. Reason, in short, is not accountable to life. Hitchens and Dawkins refuse even to countenance the possibility that their views of the world, too, are the results of highly imperfect individual development, not some unassailable ideal.

What The God Delusion and God Is Not Great lack is the human adventure of unbelief—a sense of women and men struggling with their own conflicting ideas, incomplete thoughts, and fallible perceptions, to come to terms with a world so grand in its beauty and strife that it defies our ability to fathom all at once. Inevitably, that immense personal labor leaves us richer, more attuned to our own lives and maybe better equipped to live with others. Philosophers Without Gods, a rewarding, but flawed new text, offers several takes on that adventure.

Philosophers differs from the Hitch-kins model in many ways—not least the general absence of mockery, the lone outlier an essay from philosopher Daniel Dennett who is reliably obnoxious, calling himself and his friends (Dawkins included) “brights”—but most acutely through the incorporation of a section entitled “Journeys.” Here, several thinkers, including the volume’s editor, Louise Antony, lay out their individual paths to atheism.

There is Joseph Levine, who began life in the yeshiva only to find that he could not abide the chauvinism of “the chosen people” nor the injustices they have perpetrated in Israel. More fundamentally, he decided that to believe required denial of his humanity. Or consider the chapter “Overcoming Christianity,” in which Walter Sinnott-Armstrong discusses growing up devout in a closed-minded congregation in Memphis, where, we are told, there was more Christianity than there was “water in the Mississippi River.” His Christianity morphed through high school and college, where he gleefully encountered liberal evangelicals, only to find that belief could not withstand intellectual honesty.

While Levine and Sinnott-Armstrong appear to have found the culmination of their journeys in atheism, Philosophers does not leave the impression that rejecting god is the expressway to enlightenment. Daniel M. Farrell’s “Life Without God: Some Personal Costs,” a handsomely written reflection on the apparent dearth of meaning that accompanies life sans a supernatural caretaker, ends in the author’s wistful lament that he cannot eschew objective value altogether.

But the journeys are too often marred by the philosophical predilection to analyze events in exclusively intellectual terms. There’s no grappling with the emotional and psychological content of human life, the slippery guts of being. In one illustrative instance, Sinnott-Armstrong recounts trying to convert people to Christianity. He asked folks walking on the street whether they wanted to hear about Jesus. “I could hear myself as if I were a bystander listening to what I was saying,” he writes. “It sounded shallow. I had doubts and could see the problems in my arguments, but I did not tell them. I felt dirty.”

This is not exactly an arresting account—the author seems more concerned with being wrong than feeling his world change, reducing the powerful visceral reality of epiphany to a hackneyed phrase. Of course, it would not be fair to expect riveting prose from a group of academic philosophers. But the arguments against god and religion are well known. Do we really gain anything by learning which particular ones convinced this group of writers? With rare exceptions, the journeys in Philosophers are emotionally truncated. They lack the sort of characters a reader can contemplate, connect with, and inhabit. The messy parts are kept out of sight, and, as a result, so is the humanity.

The latter half of the book, “Reflections,” promises theoretical discourse, and it delivers, although several essays are redundant. The most exhilarating among them holds that many people who claim to be religious are, in fact, atheists. That essay, Georges Rey’s “Meta-atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception,” contends that many theists are rational in other areas of their lives, but decline to apply to god the reason they otherwise employ reflexively. Rey does not go far enough, however. He might have pointed out that the moment a believer relies on logic and evidence to justify belief—as many, when pressed, will do—he has demonstrated that god is subordinate to reason. That is why creation “science” and evidence of supposed miracles is maddening and baffling. Real belief can make no recourse to reason. A believer who defends her faith through evidence, even faulty evidence, has no faith at all.

Though Philosophers devotes much scholarly effort to debunking god, the book’s focus is unquestionably more ethical than epistemic. It is animated by a line from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: In a world without god, Ivan Karamazov claims, “everything is permitted.” The authors of Philosophers, as well as Hitchens and Dawkins, point to a preponderance of evidence indicating that quite the opposite is true—it is belief in god that gives so many of us license to commit evil. But atheism does not have a monopoly on ethics, nor does religion on evil. Nonviolence is critical to many varieties of religion and for every Osama Bin Laden or George W. Bush, there is a Reverend Martin Luther King or a John Woolman, the Quaker preacher who worked diligently to abolish slavery.

And what of violent atheists? The “what about Hitler and Stalin?” argument, though practically a parody of religious objections to atheism, is a case in point. Hitch-kins dismisses it as one offered in bad faith; Dawkins assures us, probably correctly, that no one has spilled blood in the name of atheism. None of the authors in Philosophers pays it much heed. But the question needs to be taken seriously because it opens onto a larger problem. Just as religious people may feel compelled to do each other harm, so might atheists, and the fact that they do so for reasons unrelated to the absence of belief does not make their violence any less tragic. The question that ought to concern us is not whether religion or atheism causes more pain. Instead, we must ask: how can we be good, god or no god?

We might look inward, as some of the contributors to the Journeys section of Philosophers have done, and try to understand ourselves. That task, undertaken with honestly and humility, will never be complete, as Marvin Belzer’s essay amply demonstrates. But its ethical outcome is obvious. To pursue that often-burdensome enterprise requires that each of us have the opportunity to follow an individual agenda. To that end, we must reject evangelical atheism as much as evangelical religion, not pit them against each other, as Hitch-kins would have it.

This may seem a radically relativistic prescription, but even a relativistic society need not abandon ethical standards, as some unimaginative absolutists suggest, or tolerate unethical behavior just because it is founded in religious conviction. We can and should punish religiously motivated violence because our legal system enshrines the law of man above the law of god. Unfortunately, politicians bent on contemporary autos-da-fé seem unconvinced of this, and, in manifest contradiction of the first amendment to the constitution, repeatedly promote and pass laws to ban—among other things—same-sex union, embryonic stem-cell research, and euthanasia. These laws derive exclusively from religious appeals, and, as Sinott-Armstrong points out, there is no basis for American law outside the secular.

Atheists (and others) would do well to remind their fellow citizens and elected representatives of this point. A rule, established on religious grounds, may be good enough for a church, but it is not good enough for a state. Even these atrocious laws, however, are not to be blamed on fundamentalist believers, but on legislators and the American citizenry who seem to have forgotten that democracy does not mean acting on the majority’s every whim at the expense of those who disagree—a misconception shared by theists and unbelievers alike.

Ultimately, while it behooves us to make our government respect the many distinct journeys to goodness, we can do little save undertake our own. Philosophers Without Gods does not always strike the mark, particularly in some authors’ unyielding, Hitch-kinsesque demands that we all be logical, intelligible creatures. But for us mere mortals humble enough to recognize the incongruities of which we are composed, the message of this book is one of inescapable importance: you don’t need god to be good.

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THE ARGUMENT: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics

Matt Bai
Penguin Books ($16)

by Bob Hussey

For nearly a century, Americans have wrangled over the proper role of government. In the 1930s, Roosevelt successfully argued that government should protect citizens from the excesses of unregulated capitalism. In the ’60s Lyndon Johnson expanded government’s role to promote racial equality and provide access to health care for the elderly and poor. Since the election of 1980, the prevailing argument has centered on Ronald Reagan’s vision of limited government and lower taxes.

With the Reagan Revolution now largely discredited by the failures of the Bush administration, what new argument about government will drive American politics? New York Times Magazine reporter Matt Bai thought he spied it among the billionaires and bloggers trying to build a new progressive movement. Bai’s new book, The Argument, chronicles his attempt to understand these new progressives and the ideas that motivate them.

Shortly after the defeat of John Kerry in 2004, a group of billionaires came together to form the Democracy Alliance. Led by the likes of George Soros and Hollywood producer Norman Lear, the new group hoped to finance the creation of the same type of advocacy groups and think tanks that Conservatives have funded for decades. But their efforts quickly descended into petty squabbles concerning the structure of the Alliance and its mission. Underlying this bickering is the fact that the billionaires had no common philosophy to provide a framework for their movement.

The bloggers seem even less interested in framing a cohesive argument, bringing an almost religious fervor to their daily war of words with George W. Bush and his fellow Republicans. Bai joins Markos Moulitsis Zúniga, founder of the blog Daily Kos, and Jerome Armstrong of MyDD.com on a book tour that calls to mind Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. At each stop on their tour, Markos and Jerome are feted like royalty by the Democratic establishment, even though most of the old politicos don’t know quite what to make of the bloggers.

What becomes clear from reading The Argument is that these new progressives have no new argument to make to voters. Rather, they pledge allegiance to programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Affirmative Action—programs that represent the high points of 20th-century liberalism. Their blind adherence to these old programs makes the consideration of any new ideas heresy.

By the end of The Argument, one is left wondering whether new ideas about government have any place in the age of the perpetual campaign. When the business of governing takes a back seat to currying favor with voters or raising funds, new ideas run the risk of upsetting fragile coalitions, scaring voters, and leaving a candidate open to attack. Until the American people refocus on the hard choices and often-boring details of governing, reporters like Bai will exhaust themselves in a futile search for new arguments about how we govern ourselves.


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RAVENS IN THE STORM: A Personal History of the 1960s Anti-War Movement

Carl Oglesby
Scribner ($25)

by Robert Zaller

At least since the Civil War, each American generation has forged the narrative of itself on the field of social struggle. After the Abolitionists came the Populists and the Progressives, to be followed by the Old Left of the 1930s and the New Left of the 1960s. Whether it was agrarian reform or trust-busting, the social plight of the Great Depression or the agony of Vietnam, young Americans found in the various crises of our wayward republic a challenge to renew the nation’s promise. Those who love social justice will not necessarily lie in honored graves, but, as Kenneth Rexroth said in his wonderful elegy, “For Eli Jacobsen,”

It is
Good to be brave—nothing is
Better. Food tastes better. Wine
Is more brilliant. Girls are more
Beautiful. The sky is bluer
For the brave—for the brave and
Happy comrades and for the
Lonely brave retreating warriors.

These thoughts came to me in reading Carl Oglesby’s memoir, Ravens in the Storm, because the present American generation is the first that has known no battle and will remember no song. Cycles of American radicalism have come in thirty-year waves so regularly and for so long that they seemed part of the pulse of our democracy, but no longer. The last one was due in the 1990s, but we got instead the Harding-esque era of peace and prosperity the Clintons were recently so eager to dial up again. The Iraq war brought protesters back briefly into the streets, but they vanished with the first shock of combat. These were not the Armies of the Night.

Oglesby grew up in a similarly lobotomized time, the 1950s, and the early ’60s found him employed as a tech editor for defense contractors, first at Goodyear and then at Bendix. But he was also living in liberal Ann Arbor, and trying to establish himself as a playwright. His after-hours friends introduced him to Students for a Democratic Society. Within a few months he found himself deeply immersed in the antiwar movement, and within a year—having resigned his job, alienated his South Carolina family, and taken his own family from split-level to crash pad—he was president of SDS itself.

Oglesby tells this story rather impressionistically, but it is evident that the war awoke a latent social conscience and galvanized his formidable political and organizational skills. His theatrical bent made him a compelling orator as well. A little older than most of his colleagues in the New Left, he was soon its precocious elder statesman. (The New Left did not kid when it said not to trust anyone over thirty; the only old Lefty who played any significant role in its ranks was Dave Dellinger, and he was more activist than leader.)

The war was both the life and death of SDS, and of the larger, inchoate political force to which it gave birth and which had no other name but the Movement. Oglesby himself was critical in the transformation of SDS, a mildly reformist student group at first confined to community organizing, into a self-proclaimed revolutionary vanguard whose goal was nothing less than confronting the military-industrial complex, restructuring American life, and deimperializing American foreign policy. With a bit of poetic license (including lengthy conversations reconstructed from memory), Oglesby recreates the headlong excitement of the moment, in which even the Movement’s ostensible leaders were often largely bystanders as it grew exponentially, outstripping any capacity to organize or direct its protean energies.

The Movement’s fuel was the war, complicated by feminism and by the Black Power activism that had arisen from the civil rights movement. All of this, together with a rich pharmacopeia, blended uncertainly into something called the Counterculture, the communal lifestyle that opposed itself to bourgeois mores as much as to the war. To their often aghast (and occasionally seduced) elders, the children of the ’60s seemed a generation run amok. To those children, however, it was Cold War society itself that had run off the rails, with its militarized economy, its brutal repression of Third World resistance to the capitalist order, and its gaming of nuclear confrontation.

SDS tried to maintain itself as a focal point amid the chaos, but it was torn apart by the same forces that were driving the Movement as a whole toward destruction. Oglesby’s testimony is invaluable, and at times unbearably sad. A born tactician, he understood that building bridges to a wider antiwar community, including business leaders and even oppositional forces with the government, was essential if the Movement was not to marginalize itself and succumb to its own messianic impulses. To his younger colleagues, this was retrograde liberalism, and made Oglesby personally suspect. Hadn’t he worked for defense contractors, and enjoyed a security clearance? Might he not, in fact, be a government plant? In a scene worthy of a Stalinist show trial, Oglesby found himself confronted at the SDS national meeting in Austin in 1969, and essentially purged for his deviations from ‘Marxism-Leninism.’

At that point, SDS, or at least its most radical faction, the Weathermen, was ready to take the tragic plunge into violence. There is a certain point at which paranoia becomes normative thinking, and Oglesby, reflecting on the fact that both the Weathermen and the FBI operation that infiltrated the Movement, Cointelpro, were both products of the year 1968, wonders whether they might have been “in some way connected.” He does not appear to see the irony of this conspiratorial style of thinking, which was precisely what had indicted him in Austin. Thus did the Revolution devour its young.

Oglesby seems to be a fundamentally irenic man, and he is charitable even in personal disagreement. But his judgment of SDS’ fatal turn is untempered by the years: “They produced a theater of the absurd and called it the revolution.” There is harsh truth in this, but it begs a larger strategic—and moral—question. Oglesby concedes that SDS had written off mass demonstrations as a viable antiwar tactic even before the March on the Pentagon in October 1967, and that it had come to an impasse in its efforts to confront the war. The Tet Offensive, Lyndon Johnson’s subsequent withdrawal of his presidential candidacy, and the campaign of Robert Kennedy seemed to offer some hope of movement through conventional politics, and this is the course Oglesby favored. But Kennedy’s assassination dashed these hopes, and left the Movement without a plausible alternative to violence or quietism. Either way lay defeat, a defeat so severe that it produced a forty-year conservative backlash, and a lost generation on the left.

Recently I saw on my campus a group of students behind a small sign that read ‘SDS’. Could these be the first of the new ravens? For surely we are in a storm.

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BIG ENOUGH TO BE INCONSISTENT: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race

George Fredrickson
Harvard University Press ($19.95)

by Spencer Dew

The cottage industry of books on Abraham Lincoln represents both a process of national hagiography and the impulse to deconstruct the myth of Honest Abe, the Great Emancipator. George Fredrickson, pioneer of the comparative method of historical study, aims in this slim book for a middle ground between those who hold to a vision of Lincoln as a saintly anti-slavery advocate (albeit one who bided his time, waiting for the perfect political moment to champion emancipation) and those who argue that Lincoln was, as many of his statements seem to indicate, a racist. Fredrickson, who died this February at the age of 73, offers a close reading not only of Lincoln’s speeches, letters, voting record, and personal, off-record moments, but also of the wider cultural contexts in which he lived, from poverty in the slave state of Kentucky (a poverty blamed on the economics of slavery, which Lincoln felt made small farming impossible for non-wealthy whites) to success as a lawyer in the “free” (but virtually black-free, due to various legal measures designed to keep free blacks out) state of Illinois and, ultimately, to leader of a fracturing Union in D.C. Fredrickson’s most useful skill for this study, however, is his nuanced understanding of “racism” itself, the subject to which he devoted his entire career, as represented in such pioneering works as White Supremacy (1981), which traced parallel ideologies and systems of legal discrimination in South Africa and the United States, and Racism: A Short Introduction (2002), which presented a richly textured view of racialist theory and racism via examination of Nazi practice, apartheid, and Jim Crow.

Racism, Fredrickson argues in Big Enough to be Inconsistent, is “an imprecise umbrella term.” Indeed, there are “a spectrum of attitudes that might legitimately be labeled ‘racist,’ ranging from genocidal hatred of ‘the other’ to mere conformity to the practices of a racially stratified society.” Locating Lincoln along this spectrum, Fredrickson argues that, prior to 1860 at least, he was at once “genuinely antislavery” and “a white supremacist. . . of a relatively passive or reactive kind,” though Fredrickson goes on to consider whether or not Lincoln’s views on race might have changed during the war years.

The perennial problem for historical study of individuals, especially such a consummate politician as Lincoln, is that the line between sincerity and strategic dissembling in speeches and letters can never be fully drawn. Lincoln surely pandered to the public in his words and, moreover, compromised certain personal beliefs and desires for the overriding priority of national stability in a time of crisis. The value of Fredrickson’s study, however, goes beyond that of adding nuance to understandings of Lincoln. This book, through its engagement with the complicated tensions around race at the time of the Civil War, also offers a valuable insight into the continuing history of racism and the racial divide in American today. The legacy of slavery and segregation still characterizes our society, occasionally dominating headlines but far more frequently remaining a ubiquitous subtext in private conversations and national discourse. The noble goal of Fredrickson’s career was bringing such tension, and its ugly, tangled history, to the surface, so that we, his readers, can continue to repair our divided house. Fredrick Douglas, as early as 1876, observed that there were two ways to view Lincoln when it came to issues of race, and Fredrickson evokes these words as if to apply them to the nation as a whole. On the one hand, we are “tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent,” too slow and too blind to the continuing cancerous of racism and all its subtle manifestations. Yet we are also, as a nation, “swift, zealous, radical, and determined,” and it is to this optimism for harmony and reconciliation that Fredrickson’s important body of work testifies.

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MIAMI AND THE SIEGE OF CHICAGO: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968

Norman Mailer
New York Review Books ($14.95)

by C. Natale Peditto

Reading the fortieth anniversary reissue of Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago, we recognize a writer at the peak of his literary and journalistic talents. This was a period in Mailer’s career that included the remarkably wrought Armies of the Night, which earned both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize; both books remain to this day preeminent, although unorthodox, examples of the New Journalism style. What Mailer accomplished in these titles was to put himself, the author, in direct relationship to the events he was reporting—a third-person observer and simultaneous participant dedicated to revealing the public psyche while unraveling his own tangled motivations and ideology. In Armies of the Night, as the novelist and historian, he writes in measured prose with acuity and strength; in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, as “the reporter,” he is caught up in the pathos of the event.

The 1968 conventions occurred during a historically momentous year of protests and demonstrations, nationally and internationally. In the United States, Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination precipitated riots in over sixty cities around the country; that same month students took over Columbia University campus, and in June, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. Politically, the Vietnam War augured defeat for the Democrats under President Johnson’s leadership. The Republicans, meeting in Miami Beach, all but staked their future on Richard Nixon—the “new Nixon,” that is, in reference to whom Mailer commented, “America is the land which worships the Great Comeback”; yet in Machiavellian terms he also noted “there had never been anyone in American life so resolutely phony as Richard Nixon, nor anyone so transcendentally successful by such means.” Despite hopeless attempts by the liberal wing of the party to nominate Governor Rockefeller as a way of reclaiming the American electorate, the conservatives prevailed and subsequently claimed the future of the Republican Party. It was the predicable outcome of a lackluster and very conventional convention. Other than the Nixonettes, appareled in their boater hats and modestly clean-cut, down-home outfits, cheerleading, “Nixon’s the one!” (a catch-all phrase that would return to haunt Nixon during the Watergate scandal), much of the convention today is absent from popular memory.

The Chicago convention, on the other hand, evokes remarkable images in the historical consciousness of the nation. Mailer’s reporting from within the confining space of the Chicago Amphitheatre and on the streets and in the bars of the city, as well as from the safety of his hotel room in the Hilton, high above the crowds, is always salient. His analyses and insights tend to revolve around a dominant conceit: “Politics is property” (105), attributed to the liberal New York columnist and delegate Murray Kempton. Mailer makes the metaphor his own, even before crediting its source, harshly critiquing the idealistic supporters of Eugene McCarthy who opposed the corrupt but time-tested political pragmatics that involved “sensuous worlds of corruption, promiscuity, fingers in the take, political alliances forged by fires of booze, and that sense of property (my italics) which is the fundament of all political relations.”

Politics as property is a compelling trope that Mailer uses to maximum effect throughout the Chicago section of the book. McCarthy’s people in their liberal suburban, anti-hippy “clean for Gene” appearance depressed Mailer; Bobby Kennedy was the author’s choice candidate, noting the Kennedys’ “magical” appeal and encouraged by Bobby’s political coming-of-age, “his admixture of idealism plus willingness to traffic with demons, ogres, and overlords of corruption.”

Further references to political property are abundant in Mailer’s analysis; the hierarchy of the political machine dictates “the meanest ward-heeler in the cheapest block of Chicago has his piece.” Mailer is Machiavellian in his discursive style if not in the philosophy of his political prescriptions: “A politician picks and chooses among moral properties”; “politics as concrete negotiable power”; “the true political animal is cautious”; and finally, “the last property of political property is ego.” From a literary point of view, Mailer manages to exhaust his operative conceit.

Mailer indulges in rampart hyperbole, yet his version of events is much more factual when he’s reporting on what transpires on the convention floor and in the delegate caucuses, or when describing the great assembly of anti-war demonstrators in the parks and on the streets of Chicago, which at one point he joins as a speaker. Mayor Richard Daley was the powerful overseer of the main action, from the seating arrangements and control of media and delegate access to the convention hall, to directing orders to the police department to attack the demonstrators. According to Mailer, Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s constituency, of which Daley was a part, consisted of the Mafia and the trade unions at its base. Mailer tells us, “The Mafia loved Humphrey.” While the doves and left wing of the party were confined to the rear bleachers, Daley was down front, holding the floor for the preordained nominee, along with a crew of “hecklers, fixers, flunkies and musclemen. . . . guys with eyes like drills.” But despite Daley’s forceful control, Mailer could assert that it was “the wildest Democratic convention in decades.”

Which brings us to the bloody five-day battle in the streets of Chicago that the nation witnessed on their TV sets. For Mailer, it was a reflection of what was occurring on the convention floor—the older established order in direct conflict with the New Left tilt of the Democratic party, represented in the streets by the young activists of SDS and the Yippies, dedicated to poetry, street theatre and the satiric nomination of a pig for President. Mailer describes the Socialist faction as ideological and confrontational, while injecting a note of ridicule in his view of the Yippies who shunned power for a “politics of ecstasy,” but not without some admiration for their Dionysian music and “tribal unity.” Allen Ginsberg’s great voice of poetry, hoping to appease the beast of violence with a group Om-chant, as Mailer sadly reports, was raw and strained by the tear gas that pervaded the city.

Mailer claims not to be a revolutionary despite his established alliances with the protesters and the persuasive draw of their cause. Confessing a certain closet conservatism, he fears losing his livelihood and life style if the hippy revolution prevails. As a reporter he is off-duty at critical moments, self-consciously arguing his own duplicity behind a drink, and then has to rely on dispatches from various news sources, which he quotes at length, to describe the scenes at the barricades. He can easily envision a final scenario of martial law as the police and National Guard assert their dominance and the call for law and order invades the majority of Americans’ perception of the events. What survives the failure of people power is a crude existential cynicism, Mailer urging “let patriotism and the fix cohabit” and suggesting the idealists depart and leave the pickings to the political gang.

What Americans witnessed that August week in 1968 climaxed on the convention floor as Senator Abe Ribicoff took the podium to nominate George McGovern, the other peace candidate who would return in four years as the Party’s nominee. Ribicoff pointed to “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago,” confronting Mayor Daley’s shameful abuse of power by alluding to the Nazi Party. Seated down front, Daley rose to his feet along with his goons and shouted to the patrician senator to go fuck himself.

Conventions today are well-scripted and organized down to the smallest detail, the party “brand” set before the public as part of a mass media marketing campaign. Spontaneous demonstrations seem to be a part of the political past. We purposefully demean the “old school” politics that Daley represented as unfair and dirty—indicating an unhygienic and unhealthy mix of cigarettes and booze, cigar-smoking little cheeses pulling strings in the back rooms and making deals with the machine bosses, out of the spotlight of the media. Yet these were the dirty details that intrigued Mailer. Significantly, he opened his report on the Democratic convention with one of the most graphically vivid and visceral descriptions of the Chicago slaughterhouses—an extended description that rivals Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The way he evokes the smell of death in the air of Chicago that late August is alone worth the price of the read.

The penultimate chapter of Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Mailer’s gossiping with the journalists at the bar as they pronounce their cynical assessments about the future of American politics, is a last call for the author to self-reflect among the petty Mafia in the cocktail lounge, regarding organized crime as the alternative to the military-industrial corporations (“if one had to choose between the Maf running America and the military-industrial complex, where was one to choose?”) and expressions of bad faith when faced with the writer’s bitter task of completing his assignment. These are the final notes of Chicago’s brutal night song, a confrontation with the local police that almost puts Mailer in their clutches for a beating or arrest, or both. Mailer’s parting shot, “we will be fighting for forty years,” is prescient enough and ample reason to take him at his word.


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