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Twelve Years a Slave: the book

Four years ago I sat alone in a darkened theater in New Jersey watching the film, “Twelve Years a Slave”. It was the late show, but there was still a good crowd. The silence that that film imposed on the audience is fixed in my memory. Steve McQueen (the director, not the actor) had taken a story that had been all but forgotten, and dramatized it in the most uncompromising manner possible. Nothing I had ever read or seen drove home the evils of slavery with such clarity. I knew that the film was based on the memoir of Solomon Northup who had been kidnapped in 1841 in Washington DC and sold into slavery in New Orleans. But I assumed that McQueen had likely taken some artistic license to emphasize certain aspects of his story. It turns out I was mistaken.

Earlier this month I decided to read Northup’s memoir. Published in 1853 soon after his miraculous deliverance from a plantation on Bayou Boeuf, Louisiana, the book is remarkably free of vindictiveness. Twelve Years a SlaveHis account is both deeply personal and objective at the same time. Northup recognizes nuance in the civilization of the ante bellum south. There are good people who are essentially trapped in a wicked system, who otherwise are moral beings. And there are bad people made worse by the brutalizing nature of the institution. His remarks on the character development of the young son of his final master, Edwin Epps, is the best analysis I have ever read of how bigotry and violence are learned behaviors. He expresses sympathy for the boy, a talented and bright child; while recognizing the brutalizing effect the lash (whether on the back or in the hand) will have. It’s inevitable. They’re all lost souls.

I give a lot of credit to Steve McQueen for staying true to Northup’s words. If anything, it lends even more power to his dramatization of the story. I think all students should be required to watch the film (albeit with the caveat that they be at least seventeen, or possibly sixteen, years of age ). It is impossible to trivialize slavery and this period in American history after being exposed to Northup’s story. Reading his book only reinforces this.

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On Patriotism

An American flag has been flying from the front porch of our home all day long. I put it up three days each year:  Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and today (Veterans Day). I’ve always felt that it means a little more if it’s only there three days out of the year. Three-hundred and sixty two days out of the year, passersby just see the front porch, unadorned. But on those three days, there it is. I realize a flag is just a piece of cloth or nylon with various symbols on it. I also know that it’s held great significance for people operating in the most trying and desperate of circumstances (the Marines on Mount Suribachi in 1945 come immediately to mind). I honor veterans. I’ll never be a soldier, but I’ve researched and written enough about them to never take their calling lightly. My maternal grandfather, John Elco, served in France in World War I; and my father, the artist David Hanna, served in Laos during the period of the Vietnam War. The former (my grandfather) was a life-long Republican and ardent Reaganite, and my father was, as near as I could tell, a life-long political agnostic (though I do recall him speaking highly of John F. Kennedy). Neither used their military service to further a political agenda. To them, it was something they did, it was important, and it was very personal. Were they patriots? I think each in his own way would fit the definition. But in today’s America, it seems that a more superficial patriotism has gained ascendance.

The controversy over professional football players taking a knee in silent protest against what they perceive as a national sickness of racial injustice, seems to drive many to distraction, if not outright hysterics. My purpose in writing this post is not to evaluate the merits of the protesters’ position. Rather, I am interested in the genuine feeling of patriotism as opposed to its external display, or gestures. Those protesting are exercising their right of free speech, or, in a larger sense, their liberty of conscience. The First Amendment is pretty explicit on the point:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

I think in a larger, more abstract, sense, this is what my grandfather and father were fighting for. If those players want to take a knee, let them. It’s literally their right. Furthermore, what sort of demonstration of patriotism would it be if they’re forced to stand? I know for myself I would rather, if in a room of twenty people, stand with just three others that genuinely share my solidarity with a country or a cause etc. than stand with 19 others who do it as unthinking routine, or worse yet, who are bullied and shamed into doing so. That sort of patriotism isn’t genuine. It’s nothing but a forced show of false unity. You’ve got to believe. No one can make you believe.

Do I believe? I must admit, my patriotism has taken a bit of a beating since last year’s presidential campaign and election, and in the months since. I think to a certain degree this has been a healthy thing for me personally. I’m an American. But that’s more than a government.

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The other side of Jay Gatsby

Last weekend I caught the end of “The Great Gatsby” on television. Jack Clayton’s 1974 film adaption of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel has aged well, in my opinion. I remember Redford coverwhen I first saw it, after having read the book for the first time. I was disappointed. I suppose no film could ever capture what Fitzgerald had conjured up with his words. However, over the years as I watched it again on a number of occasions, I came to appreciate the film – and particularly Robert Redford’s performance as Jay Gatsby. This new found appreciation for the film was placed in high relief for me by Baz Luhrmann’s ill-conceived Gatsby film in 2013. At its core, the biggest problem with it was Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Jay Gatsby. He just lacked the gravitas to play that role. Even though Redford was the same age (thirty-eight) when he starred in Clayton’s film, that DiCaprio was when he played the same part, he stands out as a grown-up, someone with both a romantic sensibility and mystery to his character, that DiCaprio failed to convey.

I read the interview Redford gave in the current edition of Esquire, and I found it quite interesting how he emphasized the flaws in the “golden boy” characters that he often played as a younger actor. Jay Gatsby certainly fits that model. Someone with a past, secrets, with rumors following him. This dark underbelly of Gatsby’s life only partially reveals itself during the film. But the hints are enough, of course, to suggest that his glittering façade has been built on sordid – even murderous – business dealings. Of course, Redford’s Gatsby is such a sympathetic character, particularly in comparison to the Buchanans, that it’s difficult t imagine him actually doing anything sordid or murderous. Yet, in a long-forgotten episode of a television series, I felt like I caught a glimpse.

In 1963, eleven years before the Gatsby film, a young Redford made a guest appearance on the Prohibition era detective drama, The Untouchables. In the episode named “Snowball” Redford plays the handsome and suave “Jack Parker” looking to make it big as a bootlegger selling booze to college students in Chicago. The problem is that Parker is selling a product containing wood alcohol, blinding his customers. He’s ruthless. And when his loyal, but not very smart, accomplice becomes a liability he murders him in cold blood. It’s chilling. I remember when I saw this episode recently on a channel that broadcasts a lot of older shows, filmed in black & white, I thought “that’s it!” “That’s James Gatz on his way to becoming Jay Gatsby.” Redford was such a highly-coveted leading man by 1974 that he probably was offered the role without Jack Clayton having seen that episode. But I wonder? For those of you that are Gatsby, or Fitzgerald or Redford fans it’s definitely worth giving “Snowball” a look before you watch the film again:

The Untouchables “Snowball” (1963)

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Coates’s most recent article in the Atlantic

Just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s most recent article, “The First White President”, in the Atlantic magazine. He makes a compelling case for why Donald Trump should be viewed as such when taking into account his explicit appeal to white voters across the socio-economic spectrum. He also builds on a previous article he wrote for the magazine in the wake of last November’s election, in which he argued that the presidency of Barack Obama, and the deeply felt animus it generated among many white voters, made possible the rise of a political figure such as Donald Trump. I don’t agree with all of Coates’s claims, but I do find him to be a thought-provoking writer.

Ta-Nehisi Coates “The First White President” the Atlantic October 2017

I was first introduced to Coates by a friend who recommended his examination of the red lining and predatory lending policies towards African Americans in post-World War II Chicago. His call for an open, and frank, discussion on reparations for the descendants of slaves got my attention. Between_the_World_and_MeHe dives deep into history and takes unorthodox positions. His autobiographical work , Between the World and Me, received the 2015 National Book Award. When he has something new published I generally read it.

One element of his most recent article addresses the emphasis placed on disaffected white working class voters rallying to then-candidate Donald Trump last fall. Coates is not gentle with those of his counterparts who have essentially acted as apologists for the white working class voter taking out his or her frustrations on a globalist elite by casting a vote for Donald Trump. Coates is unwilling to overlook the explicit racial appeal of the “Make America Great Again” movement which those very same voters understood all too well. In other words, the intellectual Left has had a difficult time recognizing what Coates sees as a fundamental truth about the white working class – they can be bigoted and ungenerous, and at times cruel and violent. Somehow we (and I would place myself in this category as well) have placed the lean, self-reliant working man of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger songs , and Dorthea Lange and Ben Shahn photographs, upon a historical pedestal. And then we’re dismayed when their literal or figurative descendants vote for someone like Donald Trump. In fact, if one pays careful attention to American history one will find that this should come as little surprise. The bigoted, populist political careers of Andrew Jackson and Huey Long; as well as the widespread appeal of the 1920’s era Ku Klux Klan provide ample demonstration of this historical precedent. Not to mention the nativist riots in the 1830s-50s, the rise of the Know Nothings, the New York Draft Riots, and the multiple large-scale race riots during and immediately after World War I. The white working man has a long history of attacking those of a different race or creed alongside them on the bottom rungs of the American socio-economic ladder. Coates explicitly referenced the New York Draft Riots in his article. To be fair, he didn’t spend much much time on them, but for me it was an “ah hah!” moment of sorts. I’ve often been perplexed by the failure of Marxist historians such as Howard Zinn (someone whose work I greatly admire, and often reference) to explore this piece of history in any real depth. One suspects that if the mostly immigrant working class rioters had only focused their anger and violence at the wealthy supporters of the Union war effort, and not on the city’s black residents, the Riots would be treated as the greatest single expression of class-based revolution in U.S. history. Instead, because of the hideous things these mobs did to African Americans, this episode is given short shrift – an ugly example of a justified cause run amok, victimizing the innocent out of ignorance. But what if that’s really who they were? Those of us on the Left in the labor-capital divide, want so much to romanticize the struggle of workingmen to gain rights and their rightful piece of the American dream, that we rationalize or look away when those we romanticize act differently than we want them to. What Coates argues, in part of his piece, is that there are no free passes – or at least that there shouldn’t be. The legitimate grievances of a socio-economic group do not justify a delegitimizing act.

I have been, and will continue to be, a strong supporter of Labor. But I will never again romanticize it. I’ve wondered what Pete Seeger (a great man, in my opinion) would have thought of the 2016 Election? A lifelong champion of the working man and racial equality, what would he have said? He died in 2014.

I think in a much larger sense, that the lesson that can be learned here is not to romanticize any socio-economic, racial, religious, or political group in history. Sooner or later, if one takes the time to study history in a clear-eyed manner, they will disappoint you. That’s not to say that cynicism should be allowed to color one’s ideals, but don’t let hero worship do so either.

Getting back to Coates’s article, I highly recommend giving it a read. He’ll make you think, and in so doing force you to articulate your own thoughts on race and society, even if only to yourself.

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Thomas Fleming

Really liked what Richard Sandomir wrote in this piece on Thomas Fleming in yesterday’s edition of the Times. I was lucky to be able to call Tom both mentor and friend. He was one of the good guys. His talent is evident in the dozens of books that he wrote over the years – both works of fiction and non-fiction – often inspired by events in his home state of New Jersey. He was a wonderful raconteur, able to connect with people of all ages, races, and walks of life. He will be missed. The last time we spoke he was working on a play on a chaplain in World War I. His excitement was contagious, as he, in his late eighties, was trying to break into the world of theater…

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Memorial Day event at Short Stories Bookshop

I’ll be discussing the first Americans to fight in World War I, and signing copies of my book Rendezvous with Death. The event is scheduled for 11 a.m. after the parade. Short Stories Bookshop is located at the corner of Main & Green Village in Madison, New Jersey. Hope you can make it if you’re in the area.

Here is a link about the event on the bookshop’s web site:  http://www.shortstoriesnj.com/events-1/2017/5/29/memorial-day-talk-and-book-signing-with-david-hanna

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MAD Talk 1-30-17

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