The Dark Side of History

Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States



I don’t often give movie reviews this degree of treatment, but Stone’s  story here is an ultra-long documentary, and it’s somewhat important for what it accomplishes. In the movie’s preamble Stone professes to be disturbed by what’s been left out of any commonly held history of the United States – school or otherwise. It’s a truism that every good thing has its dark side, and Stone wants us to have the benefit of such darkness in order to view our national legacy in perspective.

He begins with World War II and the development and use of the atomic and hydrogen bombs. Certainly Germany had a similar program, but they were unable to use it. The U.S. did use it, and Stone’s history has it as being unnecessary. As was the subsequent build-up of our nuclear arsenal and the fight we picked with the Soviet Union via the Cold War. Harry Truman is the culprit here in demonizing the Soviets while building up this arsenal, despite evidence that neither was necessary.  In counterpoint to Truman was his cabinet member Henry Wallace who cautioned against Truman’s posturing. Wallace was eventually fired and held up for scorn during the McCarthy era.

Then there was Korea – and Vietnam, which Stone knew from the ground up, having fought there as a soldier. His thesis here is that what U.S. leaders had us see as a monolithic Communism movement was in reality one severely tempered by the various nationalisms involved, beginning with Czechoslovakia, and eventually ending in the dissipation of the Soviet Union.

In modern times, Reagan spurned disarmament advances by Soviet leader Gorbachev. Cooperation in this regard may very well have resulted in a unique alliance of Russia and the U.S. Finally, Stone gives us G.W. Bush’s spurning of world opinion in using U.S. resources in unilateral war and empire advancement in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, leaving Obama to dismantle some of this and carry on the rest.

Stone’s bottom line here is that the several key, misfortunate decisions by U.S. leaders squandered a large chunk of our nation’s assets, hence its future. His facts are essentially true, I think, his opinionizing occasionally askew, but it clearly shows knowledge of our history and his concern and love for this country.  The documentary was apparently put together hurriedly, and the narration and piecing together of film segments suffered to some degree from it.


My rating: 17 of 20 stars.



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The Mysteries Lurking in Mind



Black Dogs, By Ian McEwan


I still find it odd that some (if not most) people will never re-read a book. I’ve just re-read this one because it was my first McEwan and I was so unfamiliar with his odd story structure that the essence of the book didn’t stay with me. But that was something like ten years ago. I like to think I’ve grown as both reader and writer in that time, so I knew the book would speak volumes to me now.

It does. But given that you might not have read it, a little something about the storyline.

English couple June and Bernard Tremaine are former Communists who have married immediately following WWII, Jenny their daughter, who subsequently marries the story’s narrator, Jeremy. By the time Jeremy and Jenny marry, the parents are separated, and Jeremy is fascinated with both, who use their son-in-law as a conduit to one another. By now both have forsaken communism, Bernard for something of a secular humanist approach to life, June immersed in spiritual practices. The book’s – and Jeremy’s – project is to discover the nature of their growing apart, presumably as a tool of understanding to prevent something similar from happening to Jenny and him. On the way to such understanding, Jeremy unearths the singular moment of the older couple’s division, an event occurring in France’s Midi, involving a pair of black dogs.


McEwan weaves his story back and forth in time and centers it on the heady days of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The narrator’s tone here is one of reasoned detachment, but that does little to erase the mystery of June’s experience with these black dogs, an event the Bernard didn’t witness and wishes to rationalize away.

Here the author personalizes the eternal conflict between human experience and humanity’s fascination with what might lie beyond such experience. It’s a skillful, tastefully told tale, measured as perhaps only McEwan can do today in giving us literary insight.


My rating: 19 of 20 stars





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The Good Earth of Portugal

Raised From the Ground, by Jose Saramago


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All writers – the ones who keep plugging away at their craft, that is – will eventually develop a style and voice uniquely theirs. I’m told that Raised From the Ground was the book that did it for Saramago, Portugal’s preeminent writer until his death in 2010. In a sense, it’s a throwback to the nineteenth century novels – the narrator dominates, even turns to address his “dear reader” occasionally, But Saramago’s style is more fluid than those of a couple of centuries past; his mimics a caffeinated elder, one who knows Portugal’s history, who knows its people, both landed and poor, and who is still a bit angry, with an axe to grind at the treatment of his people. And this is just such a sprawling tale, one with a reach back in history and into the psyche of the Portuguese people.

But how does one tell such a story? After all, there must be a focus; there must be characters common to both beginning and end. Saramago accomplishes this by telling of the Mau Tempo family over several generations. There’s nothing particularly unique about the Mau Tempos, except as the family name translated (Bad Times) implies, they’re not the stuff of Horatio Alger and his rags-to-riches stories. They’re peasant workers living in the  rather isolated town of Monte Lavre on a latifundio (plantation). The plantation owners aren’t particularly cruel, but they are grossly indifferent to the plight of their modern-day serfs, who make a coffee-like beverage from thistle, who will likely split a piece of bread four ways in order to make it though another day. The Mau Tempo boys will begin doing the work of men at an age at which they have little capacity for such work. When they’re abused by their supervisors, its more of a mischievous sort, born of idleness and an awareness of class and privilege. And in Saramago’s eyes, they’re little different from animals to their overlords. Little, then, has changed for families such as the Mau Tempos for centuries – and thus little has changed on the latifundio.

But then things do change. The workers want to be treated fairly, want a living wage, want, in their own way, a chance at a better life. This is the story of twentieth century Portugal, the rumble of two world wars heard faintly in the background, but hardly felt on the latifundio. Communism becomes a threat to the ruling class of António de Oliveira Salazar, who ruled Portugal in the twentieth century’s first half, as if he were a feudal lord. People such as the Mau Tempos, when seeking better lives, thus become a perceived threat, are indiscriminately hunted down, threatened, banished, jailed, as Portugal goes through the social growing pains much of Europe has already suffered.

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It’s a fine book (its first printing in English), powerfully written, and much of it reminds me of Steinbeck and his Joad family. What holds me back from lavishing this brilliantly written book with praise is that Saramago allows his anger to cloud his story, to distort his characters, and to thus weaken his narrative by preaching instead of simply depicting.


My rating 16 of 20 stars



Tales of City and Countryside

Anna Karenina – Section Two, by Leo Tolstoy

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Tolstoy doesn’t change horses as one might expect of an authorial dividing line between sections of this story. Keep in mind that serialized stories must be written so that each segment clings desperately to those on either side in order to keep readers enthralled. So we see Kitty in emotional agony over Vrónsky’s “who cares” attitude toward her. Of course, he’s smitten with Anna, and she with him, and their affair grows more public as time passes. Alexéi Alexándrovich, Anna’s husband senses the liaison, but he seems more concerned with decorum than with the violation of the marriage. Thus Anna comes to despise her husband.

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Meanwhile, Konstantín Lévin returns to his farm life, and he slowly wishes Kitty from his mind. The wheels to Vrónsky’s professional life begin to show signs of coming off over his insistence in hovering closely to Anna. And at a cavalry horse race, it becomes clear to Alexéi Alexándrovich that his wife’s heart lies elsewhere – Vrónsky’s horse tumbles, breaking the horse’s back and injuring Vrónsky. Alexéi Alexándrovich attempts to calm his upset wife, but she won’t have any of it – she admits to being Vrónsky’s lover.

And the section closes with Kitty receiving a bit of tough love from a new friend over her loss of both Vrónsky and Lévin.

Tolstoy more or less alternates cityscapes and their consequent drama with Lévin’s pristine rural life. Tolstoy’s purpose here is to depict good human qualities thriving in such a rural environment, with city life perhaps bringing out some of the worst in people. But he’s savvy enough as a writer not to make this too clear-cut. In a final scene, he argues with half brother Sergéi Ivánovich over the liberation of the serfs, Lévin taking a somewhat self-serving view of both the serfs and the prospect of their liberation.

The author’s project here, beyond the interweaving of his characters’ lives is a depiction of Russian life in its several facets. And toward this end, he already seems a master.


My rating: 18 of 20 stars




The Power of Charisma and Propaganda


The Coming Of The
Third Reich
, by Richard J. Evans


Historical writing, I’ve learned, is a conversation over the
years, in the hopes of more nearly portraying events as they really happened.
Such is the case with Evans’ The Coming
Of The Third Reich


The problem with writing about the Third Reich has been
multifold: first, Germany was a closed society during most of its twelve years
of existence. Too, following WWII, and despite scrupulous record-keeping by Nazi
officials, historians had to contend with these officials creating self-saving
spin for their actions. As well, that regime’s heinous social crimes created an
emotional atmosphere around National Socialism’s twelve years that colored the
facts. It’s been said that had the Soviets lost their war with Germany,
their equally heinous crimes against humanity preceding and during WWII would
have been seen in the same malevolent light in which we now see Germany’s. I’m an armchair historian at best, my knowledge of this war piecemeal.
So as I approached Evans’ book, certain questions remained:


With anti-Semitism so prevalent in Germany in
the run-up to the Nazi years, why didn’t the Jews get out of Dodge? Why were
they taken so unawares?

Did the German people buy into the National
Socialist agenda wholesale? I.e., are the German people as a whole as culpable
as Hitler and his inner circle for what transpired during these twelve years?

Given the Nazi Party’s name, how did its
approach to socialism compare to other socialistic and communistic experiments
in the twentieth century?


This is a book review, not an essay, so I’ll leave it to the
reader to plumb Evans’ fine scholarship for answers. Suffice it to say that the
author did answer these questions to my satisfaction. And Evans’ book isn’t a
grandiose op-ed piece; he provides over a hundred pages of footnotes and
bibliography for his detailed perspective on how – and why – the National
Socialists came to power in Germany.


It seems proper form in such writing to provide illustrative
photos, and Evans does. But he takes visual aids a step further, providing many
pages of demographic maps regarding the National Socialist rise to power.


And his prose, while sufficiently scholarly in tone, is very
readable. He uses the distancing effects of passive voice, and he summarizes in
the opening sentences of paragraphs – things skilled fiction writers won’t do.
Still, his writing is hardly dry. 
I’m tempted to cite examples, but I won’t – –


Still, for those interested in this aspect of European history
and culture and are willing to buy the book, but hardly have time to read its
nearly 500 pages, Evans provides an excellent summary of his arguments at
text’s end.

Were I to summarize his summary: Evans’ depiction of Germany
from the Weimar years to the beginning of WWII seems to be a historical anomaly. The Nazis didn’t
seize power; they were elected. Yet their representation in the Reichstag was
never a plurality. The Nazis rise, in a few words, was due almost totally to
the charisma of Hitler in rousing emotions to “renew” Germany following the
Weimar experience, and to Goebbels’ propaganda talents in isolating and
shutting off dissenting views. And to sheer luck on their part.


This book will be an important one to historians. But it
should also be read by everyone concerned with the power of propaganda and
charismatic leadership in the modern world.


My rating: 4-1/2 stars of 5