Friday, April 24, 2009

History, Movies, and a Massacre in Italy

It's a safe bet that most Americans don't know that April 25 is a national holiday in Italy: Festa della Liberazione, or Liberation Day. It celebrates Italy's deliverance from fascism during World War II in 1945 and honors the Italian resistance. Our ignorance about Italy in World War II can be blamed partly on Hollywood. In the World War II years, American films such as Sahara or A Walk In the Sun portrayed Italians as friendly or fumbling. Such movies made the Italians under Mussolini seem like less of a threat, but they didn't help Americans understanding the complexity of wartime Italy. The latest American film about Italy in World War II, Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna, doesn't do anything useful to redress this problem.

In Miracle, Lee's goal is less an understanding of Italy than a valorization of African American soldiers in World War II. By itself, that's a worthwhile goal. Unfortunately, Lee attempts this in a sprawling and uneven film that mixes fact and fiction about wartime Italy in ways that have left some Italians infuriated.

Miracle tells a complicated story about Black GIs from the 92nd Infantry Division fighting in Tuscany. This is a story worth telling because, for utterly racist reasons, Black troops in World War II were often relegated to supporting roles like trucking and graves registration.

The problem with Lee's film, which has an exceptionally tangled plot, is that it weaves together real American racism, fictional GIs, a real massacre perpetrated by the Germans, and fictional Italian partisans. The resulting film introduces American audiences to the bigotry of white American officers commanding Black troops. But it also suggests that the resistance was infiltrated by traitors and that a German massacre of 560 civilians at Sant’ Anna di Stazzema was somehow triggered by partisan attacks or made possible by partisan perfidy.

This angers Italians who believe that the massacre was a simple atrocity staged to intimidate people. To make matters worse, for years Italian governments bent on post-war "normalization" did not acknowledge the killings, and only recently tried the Germans accused of the crime. (They were found guilty in absentia.)

In Italy today, where right-wing neo-fascism is a political movement of disturbing dimensions, the history of the Italian resistance in World War II--which was dominated by the left--is a politically-charged subject. It is also a great topic for historical debate and analysis in a Europe that is only recently coming to grips with the moral complexities of World War II--including, as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli points out, the popularity of fascism.

But in Miracle at St. Anna, fact and fiction mix so promiscuously that most American viewers are likely to come away confused or misled. If Miracle presented itself simply as a work of fiction, that wouldn't bother me that much. But by draping his film in the aura of history, Lee assumed an obligation beyond storytelling.

Lee succeeded in telling Americans about the courage of Black GIs. But the story of the Italians in World War II deserves much, much better.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

Today is April 23rd. We all know what that is, don’t we? Its Shakespeare’s birthday. Or at least, the day he was probably born in 1564. (He was baptized on April 26th.) I’ve been thinking about Shakespeare quite a lot recently, since Jane and I have embarked on the journey of reading the entire works of Shakespeare out loud to each other—we are currently doing a War of the Roses cycle, and we’re up to Henry IV, Part II. And I must say, the most disturbing article I read this week, even more in some sense than the revelations about torture, since those were in some sense unsurprising, appeared in the Wall Street Journal, revealing that several justices of the US Supreme Court, among them John Paul Stevens, Anthony Scalia, and former members Sandra Day O’Connor and Harry Blackmun, have or had come to the conclusion, that the works of William Shakespeare were actually written by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, a theory that has been popular among fringe Shakespearologists since the 1920s. Evidently there was a symposium on this ridiculous topic some twenty years ago, in which the justices were asked to rule on this matter, and several justices became intrigued by the Oxford hypothesis. All I have to say is, thank God they were never asked to officiate at a symposium about whether the Holocaust occurred.

Look, Shakespeare denial is a lot less offensive than Holocaust denial, but just as utterly without foundation. There is simply not a shred, a scintilla of evidence that anyone besides the person born some 445 years ago today in Stratford on Avon, wrote the 39 plays, 154 sonnets, and assorted other stuff usually attributed to William Shakespeare. Yes, as John Paul Stevens says in the article, the archival record that William Shakespeare has left behind is primarily about non-theatrical matters, and it is of course the thinness of the documentary record about Shakespeare the playwright than keeps these absurd theories alive. But as has been pointed out many times, we know more about Shakespeare than most other Elizabethan playwrights—John Webster, the author of the Duchess of Malfi, is a complete cipher, as is, to go back a bit further, Thomas Malory, the author of Le Morte Darthur, the classic English language collection of Arthurian legends. And Shakespeare was extremely popular and well-known during his life time, his works were frequently reprinted, and in the sincerest form of flattery, at least seven plays not by Shakespeare were published during his life. The most basic historical principle, Occam’s razor, the law of parsimony, go for the simplest explanation, until it is disproved, certainly applies here.

I am not sure why the Oxfordian hypothesis is so popular; Americans, as Richard Hofstadter has long ago pointed out has a paranoid, and conspiracy-hunting style of social explanation. The Oxford hypothesis is a safe conspiracy theory to hold. (If the Supreme Court wanted to take on a conspiracy theory, perhaps they should look into the JFK assassination again.) All I can say, I hope this is not how the justices of the US Supreme Court judge evidence before them—talk about your liberal construction-- and I would feel a lot more comfortable about their powers of discernment, and the future of this country, if none of the justices of the US Supreme Court believed that the Earl of Oxford wrote the works of William Shakespeare.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

An Editor's Dilemma

Herbert Aptheker (1915–2003) has always been a controversial figure. For many decades he was a pioneering historian of the African-American experience, writing and editing a number of significant works in the middle decades of the 20th century, when this subject was largely ignored by the mainstream historical profession. And at the same time, he was also for most of his career, one of the intellectual leaders of the American Communist Party, an association that led to his further marginalization within the American historical profession, and, in many circles, an underestimation of his significance as a historian. There have been in recent years a number of efforts to right this neglect, of which the most important was probably the anthology edited by Eric Foner and Manning Marable, Herbert Aptheker on Race and Democracy: A Reader (University of Illinois Press, 2006.) It’s a good collection, a needed collection, and it gives readers a broad overview of Aptheker's historical interests. But its editing gives a somewhat distorted picture of Aptheker's views that undermines efforts to develop a well-rounded understanding of the American Communist Party.

When I consulted the Foner and Marable volume recently, I noticed that one of the works anthologized was Aptheker’s pamphlet The Negro People in America: A Critique of Gunnar Myrdal’s “An American Dilemma” (International Publishers, 1946.) I had occasion to read the original Aptheker pamphlet a few years ago, and one excerpt in particular had stayed with me. In the course of a rather polemical assault on Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, Aptheker wrote (p.28) the “neglect of the Soviet Union, by the way, is an outstanding characteristic of the Myrdal work. Its practical omission from any work supposedly concerned in broad terms with social question—the oppression of minorities—can only be the result, it would seem, of deliberate perversion. For there we have a land of two hundred million people of almost two hundred different ethnic groups where such oppression once was rampant and institutionalized, but where today it is outlawed and non-existent.”

I looked for the excerpt in the Foner and Marable volume, but I could not find it. The volume reprinted only about half of the 70-page pamphlet. They do indicate in the preface that it was too long to reprint in its entirety, which is understandable, but in their reprint there are no indications of the sections that were elided, and it reads, somewhat confusingly, as a single, unedited document.

In their editing of The Negro People in America, in presenting Aptheker to a new generation of scholars, Foner and Marable made him seem more reasonable, and less dogmatically polemical, than he actually was. Foner and Marable's editing of the section of the pamphlet titled “Myrdal’s Philosophy” includes Aptheker's criticisms of Myrdal’s famous notion of the “American Creed.” They left out Aptheker's thoughts about Myrdal's failure to use or properly understand Marxism, which included the quote about the Soviet Union cited above. They also left out other of Aptheker’s riper polemical attacks. One of these links Myrdal’s scholarly sources (and implicitly Myrdal himself) to the arch-racists Theodore Bilbo and John Rankin. Another seems to link Richard Wright, John Dewey and Myrdal, if I am reading it correctly, to Joseph Goebbels.

In their volume, Foner and Marable are making an attempt at rehabilitating a reputation. It is entirely understandable that they accentuate the positive in Aptheker's work and draw the attention of readers to what in it is still living and useful. We all, I hope, will be judged by our best and not our worst efforts. And there is no question that Aptheker’s dogmatic Marxism and uncritical attitude toward the Soviet Union are aspects of his work which few would continue to find creditable. And there is much that Aptheker has to say about the Myrdal report that remains useful, and has been often echoed, though generally without the rabid rhetoric, in contemporary assessments of An American Dilemma. But by eliminating some of Aptheker’s choicer attacks, Foner and Marable’s excerpt from “The Negro People in America” has the effect of making him sound more reasonable in 1946 than he actually was.

And this, I would maintain, is at the heart of the tragedy that is postwar American communism. Foner and Marable do reprint from Aptheker’s critique of Myrdal his conclusion, wherein Aptheker outlines his suggestions for bringing about the racial change that America so badly needed. His prescriptions include “immediate outlawing of Jim Crowism,” a national FEPC, full and legal and voting rights for all minorities, elimination of inequalities in education, outlawing restrictive covenants, and paying attention to the growing problem in northern ghettos. Who in 1946 could have objected? Certainly not most non-Marxist liberals, who shared with Aptheker all of these ideals.

But rather than trying to make common cause with natural allies, Aptheker seems to have had problems distinguishing between civil rights liberals, Bilbo and Goebbels. Despite this Aptheker, and the post-war Communist Party in general, had much to say and do that was helpful and useful in the area of civil rights. How sad it was that they were generally better at alienating potential allies than in advancing the good cause they so fervently believed in.

Keep a Police Shack in One Police Plaza

Michael Wilson's report in today's Times that the NYPD is planning to close the existing police shack at One Police Plaza raises concerns that the department doesn't care much about being open to the news media. Of course, the long history of the police shack, a small office where news organizations post their police reporters, is not entirely a story of a heroic investigative press. Still, the shack provided an outpost of oversight in police headquarters. It ought to be maintained in some form.

As Wilson's piece recognizes, reporters in the police shack often collaborated with each other--thereby homogenizing the voices of an ostensibly competitive metropolitan press. And lifers in the police shack often identified with the cops they covered, reducing their ability to look at the NYPD with an independent eye.

Still, the NYPD's plan to close the existing police shack to create a command center should be balanced by opening a new facility, inside police headquarters, for reporters. Any plan that puts them at a greater distance from the department is a bad idea.

As a small-town police reporter in the 1970s, and as a researcher on crime coverage in the 1980s and 1990s, I know something about police reporting--and its flaws are many. It remains the one corner of journalism where one-source reporting (signified by the attribution "police said") is considered normal. Its veteran practitioners often identify with the police in all sorts of unhealthy ways. And too many crime stories exploit shock and horror for the sake of titillation and nothing more.

Despite all of these problems, we still need reporters stationed in the police headquarters. If they are on duty in One Police Plaza, there is still a better chance that they'll pick up something that helps the public understand, and when necessary investigate or criticize, the NYPD.

Len Levitt, the muckraking police reporter who used to work at Newsday, once said that today's NYPD is very much walled off from public scrutiny. That's bad in all branches of government, but it is especially harmful with an armed and powerful branch like the police.

We need more reporting on the inner workings of the NYPD, not less. The NYPD should keep a police shack open in One Police Plaza.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Memory, Forgetting and the Economic Crisis

The battle of memory against forgetting needs to fought over and over again, and nowhere more than in the current economic crisis. As Peter's post rightly remind us, the rise of the New Deal and its regulatory state was no easy thing. Nevertheless, the Americans of the 1930s had one strength that our present generation lacks: a fifty-year inheritance of arguing about the shape and purposes of the economy.

From debates over greenbacks after the Civil War to Populism to the Progressive Era, Americans of all sorts were consumed by arguments over finance, corporations, and the economy. Some of them even voted for a Socialist candidate for president, Eugene V. Debs. They were hardly of one mind on where to go, but the best among them raised questions and visions that informed the New Deal.

Today, most Americans lack the historical perspective that would help them claim this heritage. Confounded by the false glories of Reaganism and accustomed to the small measures of Clintonism, too many of us--the president included--seem wary of crossing the titans of Wall Street.

But the only way out of this crisis, as Peter observes in his post on Glass-Steagall, is for President Obama to stand firm in any confrontations with Wall Street. The big money men will want the recovery on their terms, and we can't have that.

I'm disappointed by the president's plan for dealing with toxic bank assets, which strikes me as socialism for the rich and risky markets for the rest of us. At the same time, I'm heartened by the president's insistence that troubled auto firms need new plans and new leadership before they get any help from the people. Yet I fear that the next thing we see will be enormous pressures on the United Auto Workers to give up the benefits and decencies that they won as union members.

We're moving through strange and spooky terrain. In these times, it is useful to remember what someone said, as I recall it, in the early years of the twentieth century: Sometimes, the task of government is to put rings in the snouts of hogs.