Alter-reviews: The Altercation Gift-giving guide, part I.
There’s a lot of great stuff this season, so I’m getting started early. City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York, 3-volumes I’m surprised not to have read more of this ambitious three-volume history of New York Jews. Its editorial pedigree is appropriate—not many would argue with the choice of Deborah Dash More as the series editor--and the historians recruited for each volumes strike one as appropriate to each topic. I attended a session of the American Jewish Historical Society conference last Spring in which each explained their ambitions and methods and have been looking forward to sitting down and spending some time with it ever since. (And I will, I swear, but not until it’s too late to recommend it in time for the holidays.) I even tried to design one of my courses around it—but that idea got the kibosh above my paygrade.
Vol. I. is called Haven of Liberty. It’s by Howard Rock and takes us from the landing in New Amsterdam in 1654 up through the end of the Civil War (during which time, by the way, the only anti-Jewish piece of legislation was ever passed in this country.) Given the history of the way Jews were, and could expected to be treated in Europe and the Middle East it’s an amazing story; a fact that gets lost in the fact that the stories that followed it are, in significant respects, even more amazing
Volume II, Emerging Metropolis, was written by Annie Polland and Daniel Soyer, pickus up where Rock leaves off and shows us how New York became the Jewish city we know and (if we are halfway decent people) we love as it takes us through the period of the great immigration.
Volume III, Jews in Gotham, by Jeffrey S.Gurock, chronicles the 20th century neighborhood life of New York Jews. Each volume also includes a “visual essay” by art historian Diana Linden which seek to illuminate Jewish culture through portraits, art, and architecture.
You can buy each volume individually or in an aggressively priced box-set which would, you know, make a nice gift. More here.
I am really enjoying all the fun stuff that comes with the deluxe version of the long-lost Stones documentary “Charlie is My Darling.” Shot in Ireland just weeks after the release of (I Can t Get No) Satisfaction, it’s a combination of wonderful behinds the scenes stuff—where the Stones sing the Beatles—and terrific live performances. The Super Deluxe Box Set (no, that’s really what it’s called) includes both DVD and Blu-ray discs (for some reason) plus a director s cut and producer s cut, and all the interviews, a couple of awesome audio CDs, one of which is the film s soundtrack album and the other a compilation of 13 live recordings the band made during the 1965 UK tour. There’s also a 10 inch vinyl record of the live material and a replica poster heralding the September 4, 1965 date they played in Belfast, one of over 200 Limited Edition numbered and enlarged cells randomly inserted from the film. I also really like the 42 page hardcover book heavy on photos, many of which are newly available, and color photos taken by Marc Sharatt, the Stones tour photographer. Finally we get reprints of vintage newspaper and magazine articles from the UK and Irish press covering the show and essays by David Fricke and Glen Hansard. More here.
I’ll admit I was pretty nervous on Election Day. Sure, I care about the country and all but I was most worried about having to wake up every morning and read or listen to some pompous pundit tell me what a wise brave man Mitt Romney (or Paul Ryan, or God forbid, John Bolton…) and then have to point out, for the millionth time, that this was not the case. In fact it was dangerous even to imagine such a thing….
So how did I manage to get through the day, you ask?
Well, thanks to the good folks at Columbia Legacy, Election Day coincided with the release of a bunch of box sets that could not help but put you in a good mood while you waited (though drinking helped too). Among them:
LOUIS ARMSTRONG – The Complete Columbia/Okeh & RCA Victor Recordings 1925-1933 10 CD box set features the Hot Five and Hot Seven sides of 1925 through 1928 on ten CD with liner notes by Ricky Riccardi, archivist at the Louis Armstrong House & Museum and author of What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Late Years (Pantheon, 2011). These have all been released before, twice in box set form regarding the Hot 5s and Hot 7s, but this is state of art, insofar as sound quality of eight-year-old recordings go.
DUKE ELLINGTON – The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection 1951-1958 9 CD box set. Rather like the Grateful Dead (and unlike say, the Rolling Stones) it’s impossible to pick just one period as Ellington’s best. Personally, I favor the Blanton/Webster years, but I could be talked into the mid-fifties as well. This is the beginning of the LP era, and working with Billy Strayhorn, to say nothing of Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Clark Terry, Ray Nance, Harry Carney and Rosemary Clooney among so many others, Ellington extended the possibilities of American classical music wihout ever losing sight of the importance of the adage that it would mean a thing if it lacked “that swing.” This nine-CD box set includes an essay by the excellent Loren Schoenberg who is Artistic Director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem and we’re grateful for that too. And given the price, well, if you are lacking a significant number of these releases, I’d say now’s the time.
BESSIE SMITH – The Complete Columbia Recordings 10 CD box set. This catalogue was recorded between 1923 and 1933, and includes over 160-plus master takes, with an essay by Ken Romanowski. They were originally released as five double CDs following the enormous success of the Robert Johnson CDs, and if that’s where the blues began, then this is where the blues began again. Overall, this is music to win elections by. More here.
Also, Shout! Factory has a 5-DVD/1 CD Box Set of Mel Brooks stuff that collects all kinds of things that are not Mel Brooks movies. It’s got a 60 page booklet and it’s got photos, program notes, and essays by Leonard Maltin, Gene Wilder, Bruce Jay Friedman and Robert Brustein. It’s called The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection Of Unhinged Comedy and it’s got stuff like:
"Mel Brooks And Dick Cavett Together Again"
"I Thought I Was Taller: A Short History Of Mel Brooks"
"An Audience With...Mel Brooks"
"Excavating The 2000 Year Old Man"
"Mel And His Movies, a New Five-Part Look Back"
Vintage appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Dick Cavett Show
Episodes of Get Smart, When Things Were Rotten and Mad About You
"In The Beginning: The Caesar Years"
Short Films, Tributes, Rarities and Much More
New Introductions by Mel
CD With Long-Lost Comedy Bits and Songs From Mel’s Movies
Lotta stuff there for a cold night (with a lot to drink…) More here.
As for yours truly, I think I’m going to Kansas City…
Now here’s Reed:
Stars in Our Eyes
by Reed Richardson
Ever since the dawn of our Republic, America has a held a strange, somewhat conflicted fascination with its military leaders. Given that our new nation was forged from a principled rejection of empire building and the excesses of standing armies, it’s not without irony that, after gaining independence we turned around and unanimously elected our foremost general, a professional soldier, as the first national executive. (And let’s be honest, we’d have little hope for the long-term democratic prospects of a country that followed a similar political arc today.)
George Washington, it turns out, was a fortuitous choice. His first two terms further cemented the Constitutional ideal of a plebian presidency and beat back the “royalist” leanings of other Founders, like John Adams, who favored a more aristocratic interpretation of the office. But it’s notable that, by 1828, the nation had essentially worked its way through the roster of potential presidents directly connected to the Revolution and, at that point, we vigorously returned to electing men who had achieved high military rank. In a still highly regionalized, provincial nation, battlefield exploits, as recounted primarily in the media, provided a rare platform from which a candidate could build nationwide support. And so, starting with Major General Andrew Jackson’s election and lasting until General Zachary Taylor’s victory 20 years later, four out of six elections were won by former generals and one—that of James K. Polk—by a former militia colonel.
When they weren’t dying in office, though, these former soldiers proved to be rather hit-or-miss as presidents. Perhaps soured on their track record, the public handed presidential defeats to high-profile generals—Winfield Scott and George McClellan, respectively—in 1852 and 1864. Civil War hero Ulysses Grant, who was lucky enough to run against perhaps the worst U.S. president in history—Andrew Johnson—in 1868, ended up serving eight years, but is generally regarded as barely an improvement over his predecessor. It then, might say something, that in the 136 years hence, only one former general—Dwight Eisenhower—has won the White House, though many—George Custer, Douglas MacArthur, William Westmoreland, Curtis LeMay, Alexander Haig, Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell—have had or have been rumored to have had national political ambitions.
This past summer, General David Petraeus’s name was not so subtly added to that list. Sure, this latest rumor was thanks to a blind item on Drudge Report, but there’s been a latent Draft Petraeus for President movement around since 2009. Though the Drudge item was rank speculation, the Beltway media, as it is want to do, expended a lot of energy eagerly dismissing the rumor, which, of course, only fuels the notion within the public that there might be some truth to it. Generals don’t make the cover of Newsweek three separate times, after all, without the media thinking they matter in the national conversation. And since his first tour of duty in Iraq in 2003—as commander of the 101st Airborne Division—Petraeus has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the press, which, up until last week, had essentially anointed him the most brilliant, hyper-competent, and humble soldier of his generation.
As such, the revelation that he had an extramarital affair with his official biographer and his subsequently abrupt resignation as CIA Director holds important lessons on several fronts. For the media, Petraeus’s downfall once again revealed a groupthink culture that is easily charmed and credulous to a fault as long as it gets its emails returned. Indeed, the gnashing of the teeth and rending of the garments by the Beltway media this past week, as curated by FAIR, bordered on religious fervor: “brainy ascetic,” “water walker,” “iconic figure,” “a magician,” “he made us all feel special.” Some in the press were so devout in their belief that they just couldn’t let Petraeus go—Roger Cohen’s mash note of a column begs the general to “get back to work” while lauding the general’s personal demeanor, physique, intellect, and resumé. Curiously, it spends precious little time defending his actual accomplishments, at the CIA or elsewhere.
And that is the tell. Much like the rude awakening conservatives experienced on Election Day, the media was “shellshocked” by Petraeus’s behavior because they, too, had bought into a myth and a narrative rather than try to understand the cold, messy reality of the man. His appeal to the press is easily understandable, though. His supposedly apolitical viewpoint (he reportedly gave up voting for president in 2002), his legendary focus on results, his willingness to forge relationships with presidential administrations from both parties: all of these are the hallmark traits of that long-beloved-by-the-media, but non-existent Washington species— the centrist. That he would succumb to something so pedestrian and venal as a sex scandal was a tragedy in the media’s eyes, in part, because his failure struck a blow against the press corps own institutional worldview.
As is often the case, though, the warning signs have been around for years. Wired’s Spencer Ackerman offers up this mea culpa about buying into the “cult of Petraeus” for years. Defense correspondent Michael Hastings takes an in-depth look underneath Petraeus’s well-constructed veneer and, though I feel like he takes it a bit too far, finds a striving, ambitious, “bullshit artist.” Agree or not, these cynical viewpoints, up until two weeks ago, would have been given not a single molecule of oxygen in the mainstream media’s atmosphere.
For what it’s worth, I too noted more than two years ago that Petraeus—during an incident strangely forgotten this past week—was capable of displaying shockingly poor judgment and an inappropriate willingness to step “outside his lane” and into the political arena. At the time, I questioned his decision-making as “worrisome” and “incredibly naïve.” But now, I confess, I think I was only half-right. Worrisome? Yes. But naïve? No. There was something else at work here. Just like his willingness to boldly airdrop his assessment of the Iraq war into the middle of the 2004 presidential campaign, just like his unilateral decision to pay off Sunni tribesman, just like his penchant for rosy, Blackhawk-borne VIP tours of Iraq, just like his savvy maneuvering to justify a “surge” in Afghanistan, and, yes, just like his willingness to conduct an illicit personal affair, Petraeus has time and again demonstrated a tremendous capacity for self-satisfying arrogance.
Still, there is no doubt that our modern officer corps is the best trained and educated in not only the world, but in our own country’s history. That today’s four-star general is just as likely to have an Ivy League PhD as a Ranger tab says something about the military’s emphasis on bringing more than just materiel to bear on the battlefield. So, to bemoan arrogance amongst the U.S. military’s flag officers becomes a lot like complaining about the weight of offensive linemen in the NFL. Without it, they probably wouldn’t be where they are in the first place. But what’s supposed to keep that arrogance in check, however, are things like civilian oversight and media scrutiny.
Unfortunately, we’ve reached a unprecedented imbalance in terms of the esteem the public holds these pillars of our society. According to a Gallup poll from this past summer, the public has three times more confidence in our Armed Forces than it does the media. The presidency and Supreme Court are trusted by barely more than one in three, and confidence level in Congress is mired in the teens. And it’s not just on the topic of trust, but on familiarity that we find this growing civil-military gap. Two generations ago, three out of four members in Congress were veterans; in this past Congress, the ratio was down to one in five. In the recent presidential election, neither party had a veteran on the ticket—the first time that’s happened since 1932.
The effect of all this has been to slowly but surely cede more and more of our political discourse to the military. A media increasingly fearful of treading on the military’s esteemed image naturally becomes more susceptible to uncritically parroting a general’s viewpoint as to what’s “best for the troops.” By the same token, politicians and civilian appointees who don’t fully embrace their Constitutional authority allow themselves to be more easily co-opted by a military that doesn’t share the burden of governing. (The fact that presidential candidate Obama clearly gained more politically from this noted 2008 campaign photo op than did his future subordinate Petraeus speaks volumes.)
We should take advantage of this moment, then, to recognize that Petraeus’s fall from grace has exposed the greater risk we now face thanks to our polity’s collective decision to lean heavily upon the military for not just our national defense but our overall foreign policy. What does this look like? Robert Wright, writing a bracingly honest, critical assessment, explains the alarming direction Petraeus’s CIA was and still is heading:
When, in the fall of 2011, David Petraeus moved from commanding the Afghanistan war effort to commanding the CIA, it was a disturbingly natural transition. I say "natural" because the CIA conducts drone strikes in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and is involved in other military operations there, so Petraeus, in his new role, was continuing to fight the Afghanistan war. I say "disturbingly" because this overlap of Pentagon and CIA missions is the result of a creeping militarization of the CIA that may be undermining America's national security.
This is the true lesson we should learn from David Petraeus—that for our democracy to imbue our all-too-human military leaders with the mantle of invincibility and air of infallibility is unfair to both them and us. We, as a nation, can no more afford to be blinded by stars on epaulets today than we could afford to be bound by the British yoke 236 years ago. Perhaps there’s a reason why no generals bother to run for president anymore; in a country that increasingly echoes the military’s messaging and emulates its policy prescriptions, they needn’t bother.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Henry St. Maurice
Stevens Point, Wisc.
Am I the only one who noticed a resemblance between Rove on Fox and Robert Shaw's Lonergan character in The Sting? Someone who thought he had a game fixed was beaten by someone who had outfoxed him.
Santa Rosa, Calif.
Really good column this week.
I just read Andrew Gelman's "Red State Blue State Rich State Poor State." So it may be informing my thinking more than is reasonable. The main thing I got from the book is that the poor vote for the Democrats and this is even more true in the red states than the blue states.
This has me thinking that the stunning success of the Republicans at making inequality skyrocket, has made these economic demographics very bad for them. As the rich get richer mostly at the expense of everyone else, the pool of poor people grows.
I write about it in a bit of detail here, mostly by complaining about Matt Taibbi:
Somewhere recently, I saw the numbers for the people who did NOT vote.
They were something like Obama winning 60%-30%. If Democrats could get the poor to vote in large numbers, Utah might turn blue.
Well, Mississippi anyway.
Jeremy Scahill writes, a paramilitary CIA is David Petraeus's legacy.
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