Bonfire of the Narcissists

While it is disheartening to watch the hollowing-out of the Great American Journalism machine, especially in these dog days following the passing of an innovator like Tom Wolfe, there are moments when I must wonder aloud whether some of the culling might be for the greater good.

A few moments ago a colleague forwarded to me (and about a dozen others) a notice that GQ was laying off a clutch of editors. On the surface, sad and evocative of much hand-wringing.

Pardon me if I do not join in.

For these were the editors (some of them, anyway) who in the April 19 issue of GQ let loose an anti-intellectual tirade against the Great Books (21 of them actually), suggesting that because these books were, you know, old or boring, they weren’t worth the time and effort of reading, and that there were 20 other hipper, more recent books that should be read instead.

I am all for inclusion, but I take the viewpoint that the answer to adding diversity to one’s erudition is to lengthen the list of the works to be read with other authors of merit, not arbitrarily cull the canon of the stuff that requires effort or that posits ideas one finds objectionable.

In a day and age of hypertext and short attention spans, I believe it lies with those placed in a position to influence the tastes and habits of our nation to make as loud a case for the consumption of intellectual fibre as they do for the ingestion of the dietary kind. I believe a failure to do so is pandering at best, and at worst a betrayal of the greater cause of belles lettres. As our list of periodicals shrinks, any indication that the remaining scribes will be those who fight for intellectual rigor is heartening to me.

Advertisements

Did Russia Start World War II?

Icebreaker: Who Started the Second World War?
Victor Suvorov
300pp.

English: Viktor Suvorov (Russian: Ви́ктор Суво...
English: Viktor Suvorov (Russian: Ви́ктор Суво́ров; real name Vladimir Rezun : Влади́мир Богда́нович Резу́н) (born April 20, 1947) – Russian writer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following my review of a small library about Russia’s fight against Germany in World War II in The Peking Review,  a reader introduced to me Victor Suvorov’s provocative Icebreaker: Who Started the Second World War? In this book, the author debunks the accepted idea that Hitler was the primary instigator of the war, suggesting instead that it was mostly Stalin’s fault.

The author sets himself against a mass of historical evidence and analysis in his work, and in so doing opens himself to accusations of being an apologist for Hitler. But Suvorov is not that kind of revisionist: his goal is not to exonerate the Austrian Corporal or the Nazis, but to prove that the accepted Soviet/Russian narrative about the war is wrong.

Much has been done to uncover the crimes of Nazism and find the butchers who perpetrated atrocities in its name. This work must be continued and stepped up. But while unmasking fascists, one must also expose the Soviet communists who encouraged the Nazis to commit their crimes, so that they could avail themselves of the results of these crimes.

The task would seem almost impossible given that Soviet historians had 44 years after the war to alter the historical record and eliminate any countervailing evidence. Suvorov manages to make an argument that is interesting to those of us who still puzzle over Stalin’s tactical idiocy in the opening days of Operation Barbarossa. Believing that the whole show was a Stalin set piece, even down to the sacrifice of tens of millions of Soviet lives, offers a rationale that seems to reconcile Stalin’s early bumbling with the Red Army‘s victories during the last 30 months of the war.

What is more, Suvorov is no longer alone in the effort to make Stalin a co-culprit in World War II. Timothy Snyder‘s excellent Bloodlands is a reminder that both Hitler and Stalin engaged in political killings and mass-murders of their own citizens and those of the lands they conquered.

Unfortunately, Suvorov’s book (and indeed much of his other work, including his Inside the Soviet Army) comes across rather less than an academic study and more as a political treatise against Soviet communism. When the book was written in the late 1980s, there was a receptive audience for such works. Today, Suvorov’s tone and approach seems rather quaint (although, I would argue, not as anachronistic as it may seem, given events in Russia.)

Stripping away that foible, though, Suvorov at least opens the door to further academic examination of his points. There seems a vast field for historians to sow in probing the degree to which initial Soviet defeats were calculated by Stalin to secure his own power and provide an opening for Soviet domination of Europe.

Re-Examining Oliver Stone

Twins.

“You can’t even make a movie critical of America practically, unless you do it in a very lighthearted way,” Stone says. The ‘70s were “a time where people were re-examining — what were we doing in Vietnam? But that hasn’t happened (since). What are we doing in Iraq? What are we doing in Afghanistan? There’s just no questioning in movies.”

Source: Oliver Stone still seeking movie truth in ‘Snowden’

Reading this quote, offered by the director upon the release of Snowden, one was left with the unmistakable impression that Oliver Stone was already making excuses for what would rank as one of his most egregious box-office flops, almost – but not quite as bad – as Heaven and Earth.

I was tempted upon reading this to ask Mr. Stone whether he is familiar with the vast corpus of documentary work that is scathingly critical of America? Or, indeed, whether he has heard of films like Lions for Lambs, Syriana, In the Valley of Elah, Margin Call, The Big Short, or Redacted, all of which were critical of the nation’s faults without descending into the cauldron of angry demagogic revisionism that is Mr. Stone’s customary swimming pool.

Regardless of whether it is hyperbole, ignorance, egregious self-promotion, or studied disinformation, Mr. Stone’s comment reflects poorly upon him and his exceedingly narrow world-view. Such a tunneled perspective in an auteur is only a problem when it is a reflected in his work. Unfortunately, given Mr. Stone’s choices of subject matter – recent American political history – this is indeed a problem.

Oliver Stone is no documentarian, and he has made clear his willingness to interpret historical events through the prism of his political beliefs. As Snowden drips its way into our living rooms, it is worth remembering that what Stone creates is works of interpretive fiction, not histories with dramatic license, and that in the end, his cause is not so much to reveal truth as it is the promotion of Oliver Stone.

 

Defining the Californias

Looking over Morro Bay, the epitome of a central Californian beach town. This is neither Laguna Beach nor Bodega Bay, and any similarities are purely physical.

Dividing California into regions is a matter of such ongoing debate and conjecture that it has become a cottage industry among geographers. As a student of geography and a native son of the Golden West, I figure I am as entitled as anyone to draw my own lines. To me, the division is as much cultural as it is physical or economic, and that sometimes those cultural divides can be intuited better than they can be rationalized.

In my time back in California after my two-decade sojourn in China, it has become clear that a very real change happens when you proceed north of the Inland Empire, the San Gabriel Valley, and the San Fernando Valley; north and west of Simi Valley; and west of the Conejo Valley. Pass those points, and suddenly a different California emerges, a more timeless place, a more relaxed pace removed from the intensity of Hollywood/tourism/technology/aerospace that is Southern California. Here the farm communities, beach towns, and megalopolis-resistant exurbs take over, dotted with Wal*Marts and Costcos, to be sure, but all in service of a life determinedly removed from the economic engines of media, commerce, and innovation.

In a sense, it is here where the state joins its singular geography of rugged coast, bucolic valleys and soaring mountains with a culture that blends midwestern sensibilities and values with a progressive spirit that seams to grow from soil, rock, and sea. It shouldn’t work, but it does, and it sets the region apart.

A similar change takes place traveling north. Something changes where the coast of Monterey Bay turns to face southward; where Gilroy’s garlic fields turn into Morgan Hill’s silicon suburbs; where the waters of the Central Valley begin to drain into San Francisco Bay; and where the tufa mounds of Mono Lake stand as mute testament to the resource rivalry that has always set California’s north and south against one another. This is the point where California begins its gradual shift into a climate and culture that share essence with the Pacific Northwest,  yet remain definitively Californian.

Can any of this be quantified? Probably not. But if you look with the right kind of eyes, stopping at a pull-off on the northbound 101 at the Conejo Grade just past the weigh station to survey what is ahead, you can see it. You enter a land where towns still have Main Streets, where man remains nature’s guest, and where wealthy retirees live next door to Navy engineers, sheriff’s deputies, and the prosperous, boot-strapped children of poor braceros. These elements foster a culture pleasantly distinct from the balkanization of SoCal and the hyper-gentrification of the Bay Area and its own sprawling exurbs.

So draw your own lines, if you must, but I submit that the dividing line between Southern and Central California runs roughly Point Mugu – Conejo Grade – Moorpark – Santa Clarita – Gorman – Palmdale – Barstow – Needles; and that the split between central and northern happens along a line of Santa Cruz – Morgan Hill – Modesto – Mono Lake – the point where US Highway 6 crosses the California/Nevada border.

I love this entire state for all of its regions and subcultures, but if you are looking for me, you’ll find me here, in between the lines.

Uber Un-diverse? Color me Un-Shocked

Under pressure from harassment and sexism allegations, the ride-hailing giant is rethinking its approach to hiring.

Source: As Uber Grew Hastily, Diversity Took a Backseat – Bloomberg

We can engage in long conversations about diversity in the workplace, but one thing should come as no surprise: that Uber executives behaved exactly as they saw fit, and social pressure, political correctness, and societal norms be damned.

Why are we surprised when we discover that the people who set out to make a lot of money by laying waste to entire industries are not very nice? Uber has never apologized for what it is: a bunch of guys armed with an ounce of vision, a pound of opportunism, a kilo of greed, and an algorithm that mixes all of that into an earth-scorching business proposition.

But we’re kidding ourselves when we ignore the fact that every time we take an Uber ride that we’re fucking over a cabbie, that every time we stay in an Airbnb we’re giving a little shafting to a housekeeper at the Hilton, or that every time we order a book from Amazon we’re devaluing that erudite guy earning 10.50 an hour at the local independent bookstore.

Whatever their economic value, robber barons have never been humanists. It is now, and ever will be, up to us to make sure their depredations do more good than harm.

 

Silent Twain

Silent Twain, Anaheim, California, February 2017

The venerable Mark Twain sits quietly dockside, as an army of Imagineers reroute Rivers of America and fashion Star Wars Land.

All of which makes one wonder: will Disney find a way to revive Rivers from its status as a quaint-but-tired throwback to the park’s founding?

And what will become of Tomorrowland when Star Wars moves out? After all, it was Star Wars that saved Tomorrowland in the first place. My bet: a huge facelift followed by a focus on the Marvel universe.