Friday, May 29, 2015

Rise of the Warrior Cop

Rise of the Warrior Cop: the Militarization of America's Police Forces
© 2013 Radney Balko
400 pages

A man's home is his castle...but now the cops have bettering rams.. Among the sins of George the III, according to the Declaration, was his practice of keeping a standing army.  Militias might be raised to defend against outside invasion, but they dispersed upon peacetime; standing peacetime armies were regarded always the weapons of tyrants. In Warrior Cop,  author argues that the nation’s civil police forces have been turned into a standing army, beginning in the 1970s after the Watts Riots but even more quickly in the 9/11 era.    Police violence has been especially notorious in the last year, but the recent spate of deaths is not an anamoly. As Warrior Cops indicates, not only have police forces assumed a more militaristic attitude in recent decades, but they now come armed with the army’s weapons.

In setting up his argument, Balko gives a brief history of law enforcement in the United States which expands in the mid-20th century, during a rising crime wave that put stress on the government to “do something”.  Law and order rose to become a mainstay, with liberals arguing for social programs that would combat poverty and reform criminals, and conservatives advocating  stern enforcement and prison expansion.  The latter approach met with more popular support, but few could predict what Nixon’s approach would result in. Balko details several problems that would arise in the decades to follow: first, the excessive formation and use of SWAT teams, initially devise to deal with extraordinary situations beyond the means of beat cops.   This initially meant high-powered rifles, but it wasn’t long before SWAT officers were lobbing grenades into private homes.  At the same time as they were using more brutal weapons, they were deployed for mundane ends, like serving arrest warrants. This stemmed from a use-it-or-lose-it mentality: if cities couldn’t point to any recent uses of  the team’s training and equipment, how could it justify further expenses to the public?  

Fortunately for them, that problem soon fell away when D.C. initiated programs that would funnel money to purchase arms, and equipment itself, to the cities.  This made it easier for local law enforcement agencies to purchase military  surplus, from the practical to the insane: one California city attempted to requisition a submarine.  Even as the wall keeping civil and military uses of force crumbled, the legal walls protecting citizens from illicit police force vanished together: warrantless raids and arrests skyrocketed after 9/11, leading to tragedy after tragedy.  Although advocates for “no-knock raids” maintained that they prevented intended arrests from destroying evidence and scampering away, the sudden and violent invasion of homes by  masked men screaming obscenities was time and again met with alarm, confusion, and legitimate attempts at defense that led to slaughter, especially tragic given how many times SWAT teams invaded the wrong house. Still worse, in the modern age new Federal programs helping military officers transition into the police force, or programs training police for anti-terrorist programs, mold the law enforcement mind in the pattern of  search-and-destroy soldiers.
Despite all of this, Balko sees some meager grounds for hope.  Legal objections to no-knock raids and police employed military equipment have for the most part fallen away, but in the light of widespread videography by citizens,   abuses are much more publicized -- and some parts of the war on drugs are finally losing support.  By way of offering grounds of hope, Balko looks at efforts at reintroducing community policing, in which police officers build relationships with the communities they patrol (preferably on foot) and create solutions that don't involve ramming down doors and rushing in with MP-5s at the ready. This is a profoundly disturbing book, but worth any American's attention, especially in light of the recent deaths at the hands of policemen in Balitmore and New York.

Thursday, May 28, 2015


Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse
© 1995 James Wesley Rawles
400 pages


Well, D.C. finally spent itself into oblivion. After decades of deficits and a series of bailouts that do nothing but inflate the problem, the financial sector is hemorrhaging and taking with it the entire American economy.  Few institutions will survive the crash, and now a generation is on its own. Todd Gray isn’t alarmed, though. He smelled the storm coming a long time before it hit; for nine years, ever since  September 11,  he and a group of likeminded friends have prepared for the worst. They’re survivalists, or ‘preppers’:  not only do they maintain extra supplies at home to see them through extended power outages or local disasters, but their group has purchased an expanse of land in rural Idaho to use as a retreat in case something catastrophic happens. From their retreat, this small band of friends will labor to rebuild the Republic.  Patriots follows their trials after the collapse, as they face off against human desperation, disease,  the threat of starvation, and worst of all: the government.

Patriots is a how-and-why argument for prepping in the form of a novel. There are characters and things happen to them, but mostly they’re there to explain what they’re doing to the reader, what they’re doing it with, why one tool or behavior is  better in this or that situation ,and so on. There is action throughout the novel, including car chases, first-fights, pitched brawls between raiders and strongholds, and even a town invasion, and its second half features a looming showdown between cells of free citizens who have survived, and a resurrected Federal government that employs UN soldiers to do its eeevil bidding.  Unlike One Second After or Lucifer’s Hammer, there’s not a great deal of emotional drama, let alone grisly scenes like cannibal hordes.  The book’s characters are preppers, calm in the face of whatever happens. They’ve spent nine years  practicing together, keeping one another’s skills sharp, running through scenarios and improvising solutions. They even purposely recruited members with diverse strengths, so whether they need an arm stitched back together or something welded, they’ve got it covered.

One is almost relieved when a helicopter descends from on high to deposit an overfed bureaucrat announcing that the Federal government is alive and well and on the way to ‘pacifying’ the country. The emergency does require some extraordinary measures on the government’s part, of course – a little suppression of free speech here, a little confiscation of guns there, total wage-and-price controls – nothing to worry over. It reads like a Top Ten List of Evil, and comes off as preposterous given that the United States’ entire civil and economic infrastructure has collapsed. By that point five years have passed, and society has recovered a bit, building around cells of order like the central characters retreat, but this is an armed society with no fond memories of the government, whose gross irresponsibility led to the collapse.  Regardless of the merits of this scenario, including the outlandish invasion of the United States by U.N troops, it at least gives the characters a challenge to overcome.

Whatever else, one must give credit to Rawls for  infusing a massive amount of information into novel form.   His characters’ actions are factual; every book and product they discuss is commercially available. I recognized a fair few of the book titles (The Encyclopedia of Country Living, for instance, and When There Is No Dentist).  Impressive, too, is the range of events he gives information on:  forging IDs, rain cachement, rotation of storage supplies, gun cleaning, home fortification,  and blood transfusions.  The characters are forgettable and the plot weak, but this is a mild kind of wish-fulfillment that combines action and lectures on food storage. It’s a strange kind of fun if you’re into self-reliance, disaster-preparedness, or attacking tanks.

One Second After, William Forstchen. An EMP attack shuts down most electronics in the United States.  Misery ensues.
Lucifer's Hammer, Larry Niven. Asteroid impact levels most of civilization.
World Made by Hand, James Howard Kunstler.  Peak oil novel.

Harvest of Rage

Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City is Only the Beginning
© 1997 Joel Dyer
307 pages

In the spring of 1996, the peace of Oklahoma City was shattered when a truck bomb ignited outside a federal office.  Nearly two hundred people were killed, and nigh a thousand injured, in one man's act of rage against the government.  But in Harvest of Rage, Joel Dyer writes that McVeigh was far from alone: he was part of a movement of thousands, spread across the country but concentrated in its withering agricultural heartland.  The farm crisis -- the growing poverty and destruction of rural life in the wake of globalization -- has created legion of homegrown terrorists, whose despair has been crafted into insurrection against the government. Dyer spent seven years interviewing and visiting anti-government types attempting to get to the bottom of rural militancy, and offers sections on the movement's ideological bases as well as his economic argument.  Although portions of this are badly dated, especially given that Dyer sees Endtimes-paranoia about the coming of the Millennium as a factor,  the central issues are alive and well twenty years later.

Dyer is not sympathetic to most of the ideas that he encounters during his seven-year investigation (he refers to the free enterprise system as one "in which the government does nothing to help people"), but he does empathize with the plight of his subjects, sharing some of their concerns if not their response. The central issue, as Dyer sees it, is economic:  as globalization allows for American firms to  manufacture goods and purchase food more cheaply overseas,  America's own primary industries are being gutted. Family farms are being eaten alive by monstrously large international entities like Cargill, and as they fail they take with them rural towns. Further , Dyer writes, a farm is different from  other small businesses; a farmer is more likely to have inherited the estate from his father, who inherited from his own. The farm is home,  and can contain within it an family's entire history. To be responsible for losing that heritage can be emotionally crippling: little wonder when this ruin looms,  some farmers clutch at whatever desperate straws they can find.

Having established the nature of the farm crisis as one not causing a shortage of food, but one obliterating the livelihoods of families and local economies of families throughout the west, Dyer then argues that their legitimate grievances are being twisted into sometimes violent conspiracy theories.   Farmers are not simply competing with multinationals;  in fact, they depend on them for storage, equipment, and some supplies.  Some chicken farmers are functional sharecroppers, doomed to contracts with  giants like Tyson which constantly demand equipment upgrades that keep them in debt.  The law is no recourse; not only are the oversight agencies tasked with keeping monopolies in check staffed by former members of the very companies they are policing, but the government bears responsibility in promoting “get big or get out” policies. Many of the families interviewed within were crippled by the farm policies of the 1970s and the monkeying-around with of interest rates.    On realizing how many of their woes came from monopolies, and their sinister connection with the government which was supposed to be fair referee,  the door was pried open for conspiracy.  Government policy was not simply inappropriate, or corrupt: it became viewed as evil. Here was a plot to destroy individual freeholders and replace them by massive conglomerates controlled by a few,  in one measure strengthening the cabal and undermining economic resistance. It was a sign of the times, the advent of a New World Order.   The architect of this scheme was not a pocket-lining bureaucrat, but Satan himself.  Obviously,  it was the duty of every true Christian to resist – little wonder the government was so interested in  taking the weapons of  Americans! From there follows militia movements, composed of individuals willing to shoulder arms in defense of their rights – against the tyranny of the state, if need be.

 All of this is tremendously interesting, although the central argument tends to wander away from its roots. Dyer’s goal is to link the farm crisis with rising antigovernment rhetoric and violence, but after some sections on farmers attempting to defraud lenders through legalese, he examines various parts of the antigovernment as a whole, not all of them with any rural dependence.   Religious obsession with the rise of the New World Order and doomsday, for instance, was common in the sect of Christianity I was raised in, but we haven’t been farmers for three generations.  The same is true of the book’s sections on strict Constitutionalism and monetary policy: one need not be a distressed farmer to hold the government in contempt for granting itself war powers in peacetime, or for entrusting the nation’s financial security to an entity that has control over the money supply, but no accountability whatsoever.   Dyer has a tendency to make sweeping statements – at one time, he urges the reader to go into any small rural town and take note of the abundance of people with Constitutions in their front pockets.  99.9999% of the time, he says, these people are involved to some degree in the antigovernment movement. Well, who isn’t involved in antigovernment activity to some degree?   He also assumes that all of the pipe bombs discovered in the United States in a given year were deployed by agents of the vast rural agenda.  Dyer is genuine, though, both in his concern about how the heartland is being devestation, and in his fear of what is to come.  No war of disaffected farmers ever broke out, however, despite the coming of  the Millennium, and I for one think Dyer’s extensive time embedded in some fairly radical groups gave him his own acute sense of  paranoia.   
Harvest’s argument is stretched too thin sometimes to be credible, but the facts and stories Dyer turns up are worth the read alone.  The issues at hand are still relevant: many of the grievances aired here drive the contemporary Tea Party movement, for instance.  Even with its tares, Harvest of Rage is a commendable look inside  American populism and how it can turn tragically violent.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Fiery Cross

The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America
© 1998 Wyn Craig Wade
528 pages

Living in the country as I did,  the bus ride to school always lasted over an hour, and in elementary school I remember being utterly petrified by older students telling we younger horror stories. They spoke of monsters in white sheets, demons from hell, who could rise from the ground, or who lived in the woods, and would come out at dusk or emerge from a fog and snatch little children up,  returning to their lairs to eat them.  This was my earliest exposure to the Ku Klux Klan. After having read The Fiery Cross, I wonder if those stories have some basis in 19th century folk history, of parents warning their young against the obscene danger that continued to erupt in the hundred years that followed the Civil War. The Fiery Cross is a history of America's own hydra, of a hooded  beast that has risen and been slain numerous times,  yet always comes back -- the Invisible Empire,  an organization where sheets hide a confusing jumble of motives, fears, and hatreds.

Although Lincoln's armies prevailed against those of the south, the Confederate cause was not totally lost until Andrew Johnson faced off against a Republican congress and was defeated. A southerner himself, Johnson's plan for quickly grafting South back into the Union  left Congress with a bitter taste in its mouth. What had been the point of the war, of those hundreds of thousands of men and boys dying, of all of the money spent, if the South was simply to be welcomed back with open arms?  Not settling for anything less than a total remolding of the south, Congress introduced its own re-admittance programs, incorporating various amendments and federal administrations like the Freedman's Bureau. Southern resistance manifested itself almost immediately, bristling at outside meddling and the humiliation of having been made second-class subjects of the law in their own land. The most forceful opposition came from shattered remnants of the Confederate army, either refusing to give up the fight or seeing resistance easier than submission, and the ranks of the old slave patrols. Both bands of men moved about and acted autonomously, taking the law into their own hands when they saw fit. Their violence against the new invasion of not only Union troops, but northern lawyers, government agents, and teachers, found a means of easy expression in the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan.

Curiously, the Klan proper did not begin as a political organization; according to the author, six young men formed a secret society complete withe elaborate titles and costumes for the pure purpose of gallivanting around the countryside at night, raising hell and having fun. When they started playing pranks on freedmen, however, pretending to be the ghosts of Confederate dead, things grew far nastier.  As the Klan grew in number, it took a life of its own, one demanding purpose -- and that purpose came to protect the supremacy of white southerners, both against the Yankee invader and against the usurping blacks.  The civil war continued again,  this time under cover of night, and fought more with terror than muskets. Although the Klan would be reorganized as a strict hierarchy, anyone with a bedsheet and the desire for vengeance could cause trouble.   Hooded hooliganism so swept the south that the "Grand Wizard" of the Klan ordered  the organization's self-destruction, and President Grant was forced to declare martial law to quell the anarchy.The Klan collapsed when the North washed its hands of the South, ending reconstruction and allowing the old planters to redeem their nation. Soon attempts at subduing blacks through fear and criminal means would find success in binding them by the law.

The Klan would revive in the early 20th century, but not as simple reaction against one government program. Credit for reviving the group is generally given to The Birth of a Nation,  a highly innovative piece of film-making that depicted the Klan as righteous saviors of civilization against moral bankruptcy. In truth, public response to Birth of a Nation was managed carefully by a evangelical preacher who thought the old clan admirable. Reusing old charters and titles, but adding a bit more organization,  he effected a comeback that was more potent and less obvious. The new Klan still maintained its racial message and support of segregation, but it was heavily influenced by the Fundamentalist movement, and drew support from the rising fear of social and moral anarchy. The early decades were a frightening world for many Americans: organized crime was on the rise, immigration from Europe continued apace and brought with it all kinds of new, strange, and sometimes dangerous ideas. Although from the 21st century it is easy to sit in judgment of our predecessors a century go for panicking about flappers and jazz,  this was an age of labor riots and anarchist assassinations,  in which increasingly very little could be taken for granted.  America was changing -- the country emptying out, the cities swelling. Farmers were in debt and industrial workers utterly at the mercy of their employers. Against this chaos, the Klan pitched itself as a rear guard of civilization. If political machines and bribe-taking cops wouldn't keep bedlam in check, the 'caped crusaders' would -- leaving ominous  messages outside the doors of evil-doers like men failing to support their wives, or blacks attempting to move into a white neighborhood. They held high the cross and flag, offering a social club that gave aid to its ailing members and offered them a chance to 'fight back', either as a political organization or through old-fashioned thuggery. They were a cult, a gang, an invisible empire justified unto themselves and utterly sinister.  Between World War 2 and the revelation that a Klan chieftan had kidnapped a young girl and tried to eat her,  however, the second Klan fell apart. Later iterations have never achieved much more than being vague threats; they have certainly lost whatever reputation they cultivated as guardians of civic order (cannibalism will do that) and settled for being lunatics on the fringe, content merely to stir up trouble.

The Fiery Cross is an exceptionally well-done history of a dismal subject, relying heavily on letters and charters for the 1870s clan, and interviews for the modern iteration.  Despite having grown up in the South, I knew next to nothing about the thing that is the clan, and I say thing because there's never been  just the one organization. It is instead an idea, a symbol -- rather like the V for Vendetta masks, not to slander those activists -- that creates association without unification.  One hopes that the Klan's day is now past, despite its occasional resurfacing.  Given that they have descended to becoming recurring characters on The Jerry Springer Show, there is is room for optimism.  The most fascinating section for me was that on the second Klan, given that its perverse masquerade as a civic organization manages to launch it to national success, flouring not only in the South, but in the northeast and especially the midwest.

Race with the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love, Joseph Pearce

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Wars of the Roses

The Wars of the Roses
© 1996 Alison Weir
496 pages

The wars of the roses sounds like a gardening contest run amok, but no genteel horticulturists were involved.  The strange appellation refers to a series of dynastic crises in 15th century England, punctuated by mass violence, which leave one dubious about the merits of hereditary monarchy.  The "war" was never declared, and rarely prolonged: at most there were some sixteen weeks of fighting throughout the span of several English kings.  The version of this history I remember faintly from schoolboy days is that the wars erupted near the end of the Hundred Years War and ended with the rise of the Tudors. As Alison Weir's much more thorough political history indicates, however, the succession crises hastened the end of the English in France by keeping them busy bloodying the fields at home.

The story begins with a despot, Richard II, who ruled so badly that the peers of the realm revolted several times before one of his cousins decided to assume command of the family business, throwing dear Rich in prison and leaving him to die. (Not that killing him did any good, as the new king would be bothered with Elvis-like reports of the ousted monarch surfacing and raising an army for decades thereafter.),A loyal opposition being completely alienated and threatened with violence before taking preemptive action and deposing the monarch turns out to be a recurring theme in this narrative.  The new king, Henry IV, would die an early death, weakened by constant resistance and rebellion to his reign. His boy Harry was a godsend for the family, achieving a magnificent victory at Agincourt and eventually humbling the French before dying of dysentary. It is during the reign of his son, Henry VI, that the wars truly take flower.  Little Henry was a baby, and infants are notoriously bad at political decisions: the rule of England was left to politicking peers,  and their divisive bickering would continue to hold sway long after the king had reached his majority. Throughout his reign,  Harry's dismal successor would be dominated either by the nobles or his wife -- a charming princess of Anjou who ruled as though she were the Queen of France. She might have made a superb  French monarch were she not in England, surrounded by men who failed to appreciate being told what to do by a haughty French woman.  Even worse, the king began to have spells of insanity. As court bickering and royal bungling saw England  sink into financial destitution and lose all of its continental territory,  one previously faithful servant decided enough was enough. The king was a catastrophe, even when he was lucid -- he had to go.

When Richard II was made to abdicate his throne, he had an heir apparent -- one who was completely ignored by Henry IV's ambition, and almost forgotten. His heirs knew who they were, however, and one was Richard, Duke of York, sometimes-Lord Protector of England during Henry VI's less-sane periods.  The "sometimes" is crucial, because the duke was frequently on the outs with the Queen's court party, and where the queen was concerned being on the out sometimes meant that you vanished at sea until someone stumbled upon your beached corpse. Rather than falling to that fate during one especially hairy period, York took up arms against his sea of troubles and things get deucedly interesting.   In the turmoil that followed, eventually the Sorry Sixth and his French bride would be run off, and York's son Edward crowned king.   But the story only picks up from there, for he too would be undermined by his wife  -- a common woman he became obsessed about. Not only did he marry her in private and then surprise the court with her, but he insisted on inserting her family into English politics, arranging marriages between her kin and the peers'.   This caused a great deal of aggravation and a great many bloody battles.

At the book's height, things are gloriously complicated.  One king, Henry, is in prison, and his wife exiled to France.   Their existence is a fixation for intrigue by the kings of France and Burgundy, who are delighted to be able to meddle in English politics: after all, the English virtually annexed France by manipulating their own succession crises between the Dukes of Orleans and Burgundy for the French throne. Turnabout is fair play. Despite needing to consolidate his newly-taken hold over English affairs, Edward instead weakens his position by alienating the faithful men who supported him in ousting out the former queen, and in desperation some consider overturning their late friend-turned-king and sticking Henry back on. All this scheming is creates an edge-of-the-seat drama,  even when Weir sometimes makes the multiplicity of Henrys worse by referring to "the king" generically when there's several kings running about.  She draws the tale to an end before the ascension of the Tudors, but the afterword indicates the complete stupidity of everything that has preceded. After all that bloodshed and mental energy exhausted, the silly ass who prevails in the end dies soon thereafter, followed by yet another monster.  One of the early battles, Towton, consumed so many lives that it was proportionately worse than even the Battle of the Somme.

Weir succeeds in creating order, and a riveting story, out of a thicket of English politics. It's information-dense, but her hand keeps it from being overwhelming.


Agincourt: Henry V and the  Battle that Made England
better subtitled in the UK as The King -- The Campaign -- The Battle
© 2006 Juliet Barker
464 pages

In the fourteenth century, nation-states as we know them did not exist. There was a England, and a France, but their borders were more fluid -- and entangled.  The English crown held title to much of France through marriage and ancestry, and because the English royal house descended from a Franco-Norman duke,  the king of England was technically a vassal of France.  This created the kind of tension  released only with knights and massed formations of archers: the Hundred Years War, a series of conflicts between two nations and several royal houses.  One of the most memorable episodes of the war was the upset at Agincourt, in which a small English force triumphed against a larger French array. In Agincourt, Juliet Barker tells the story of the battle in such

Henry V's motives for invading France were varied. The old claim of Edward III which inaugurated the Hundred Years War was not his; Henry could barely claim kingship of England, let alone France. His own father was a naked usurper who died early fighting resistance to his claim, and though the cloud of scandal was mostly lifted by the time the handsome young Harry succeeded, it hovered still.  France needed addressing, however: it remained a nuisance to English interests on the Continent, not only around Aquitaine but in Flanders.  England's prosperity came from trade, lately the Channel had become dangerous for shipping. Securing the coast would make it easier for England to smother piracy, and if the lush interior of France became a crown possession, so much the better!

It was not to be, however.  Initial hopes for a display of overwhelming force against the French countryside fell apart during a siege of a French harbor, Harfleur. The port was taken eventually, but its defenders' obstinacy cost the English army dearly. By the time the gates opened,  the invading force's strength had been sapped by disease. His numbers too much for the battered city to sustain, Henry decided to retire to the English held-port of Calais. He could limp to safety only through a country of enemies, whose watch over the rivers prevented a quick dash north.  After watching the dwindling army for several days, the French finally checked the king's march near the tiny village of Azincourt. Grossly outnumbered and weakened by sickness, the English should have been crushed. Instead, the Battle of Agincourt turned out to be one of the greatest upsets in western history. The  section on the actual battle isn't enormous, this is a story of why Agincourt happened and why it was important, and while the full story of the battle is delivered with talent, this isn't a military history.  The reasons for victory are there:   Henry drawing the French into battle on ground of his choosing, in an area that undermined the French cavalry and allowed the English to make the most of their excellent longbows -- and when the French desperately pushed through the mud and rain of death to assail the archers,  the English knights pounced!    In later campaigns Henry would achieve his aims (briefly) against the French crown; history would see them reversed, however, squandered by less heroic successors. No one save historians can remember the Treaty of Troyes -- but Agincourt has achieved greater fame. Not only did it save Henry from capture or death, but the miraculous upset seemed to impress upon the English that regardless of the spurious actions of his father, Harry was God's own anointed.  Why else would he have been spared? It was a triumph of not just arms, but belief.

There are undoubtedly more detailed military histories of the battle, but Barker's narrative gives the reader both a heroic champion whose surprising victory comes as a delight, and a lot of background information on early 15th-century English society and trade. For an introduction to the battle, it's quite serviceable and easy reading.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The South since the War

The South Since the War: As Shown by Fourteen Weeks of Travel and Observation in Georgia and the Carolinas
© 1866 Sidney Andrews
400 pages

In the autumn of 1865, as the dust and ashes were still settling over the graves of the Union and southern dead,  an Illinois journalist decided to spend the season exploring the land of prodigal brothers and late enemies.   His The South Since the War combines a travel diary with obsessive political journalism, recording the proceedings of three state conventions (the Carolinas and Georgia) as well as a conference of freedmen.  He is, upon completion, not a fan -- disappointed  in shabby hotels, defunct railroads, and the fact that the war has not given the southerners a thirst to transform themselves into New Englanders.  They remain a people apart -- ruined, owing to having been beaten in the fields, but still defiant.

There is immediate interest in Andrews' timing; so close does he follow on the heels of the war that some held in slavery have not yet heard that the institution was abolished.  Andrew Johnson is President, and for the moment charity prevails: pardons are being granted liberally, and the old aristocracy ready to resume their seats in Congress. After witnessing the three conventions,  Andrews closes with a warning that to forgive the south too easily would be to throw away the best chance the North has at remolding the old confederacy in its own image. Indeed,  in the year following  Congress will rebuke President Johnson for his grace, and they will institute some of the measures Andrews suggests, like granting suffrage en masse to male freedmen to undermine the old elite. But the hour of Reconstruction is not yet, and here readers are granted a look into that fleeting moment when the old South's destiny was in its hands.

Andrews is primarily interested in politics,  and endeavors to take the temper of the polis by not only attending back-to-back conventions, but in engaging southerners in conversation --  at least, planters, freedmen, and some merchants. He is more revolted than interested in poor whites, who don't take baths,  don't have manners,  show none of that Puritan work ethic, and don't  have an excuse. The freedman may be ignorant moral wretches, Andrew muses, but their growth was smothered by the old planters, who used it as a justification to keep them in bondage.  The conversations reveal a South defeated in arms, but not in spirit:  at best,  people acknowledge losing the war and are resolved  to make the best out of the peace. At worse, they echo the lyrics of a popular song at the time:

I can't pick up my musket
And fight 'um down no more
But I ain't gonna love 'um
Now that is certain sure
And I don't want no pardon
For what I was and am
I won't be reconstructed
And I do not give a damn

("I'm A Good Old Rebel", Maj. James Randolph)

The south was beaten -- thousands upon thousands of young men dead, leaving a generation of spinsters and orphans and   its finest cities were smoking ruins --  but the southerners remained obstinate. Andrews is baffled, appalled, and greatly annoyed. Their heroes are dead, in prison, and surrendered, but the conventions  act as though the first  Federal boot never crushed southern soil. They abolish slavery and repudiate the secession ordinances only grudgingly and debate whether or not they should petition the North to release Davis as a  token of good faith.  Do they not realize they lost?  The crusade was triumphant, but still the "heresy of States' rights" persists.   Although there are a few who own to being true-blue Unionists, who regret the late unpleasantness and the secession that led to it, by the large southerners are still unrepentant. A great many of them may scorn the fools who led them into the war, and the fools who bumbled it (Davis is either praised or scorned here, with no one offering a moderate opinion of him), but their devotion remains to the states which bore them. The question put to every delegate is this: did he, in the conflict, go with the State, or with the Union?    No one quotes Stephen Decatur -- "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong." -- but the Marylander's spirit is theirs.

Andrews' attitude is certainly skewed by the fact that he is writing for an audience back home, one thrilled with his reports of southern savagery like the account of Andersonville. Could he as a private individual have really expected southerners to act like chastened schoolchildren, repenting of naughtiness?  Eventually southerners would embrace the Union, grow to love again the striped banner that the good ol' rebel 'fit all he could', but an embrace of the old was never lost.  Could Andrews seriously expected southerners to want to become northerners, to rebuild Charleston in the shape of Boston?  He certainly believes they should: can they not see how scornful their rulers are of them? They are without education, with no exposure to grace and beauty: their lives are bereft of civilization itself.   His own horror at prolonged exposure to belching, burping, cussing farmers is matched by pity for them.  Although his constant sniffing at railroads and poor food can be annoying, his attempts at brotherly love are noble considering that at one point he is literally run out of town by a mob for interfering in a fight between a freedman and a cantankerous soldier.

Andrews' scornful Yankee-ness will no doubt be grating to a southern reader, but he raises a few interesting points, like the need for education and and the curbing of economic centralization. One man, an intellectual descendant of the brothers Gracchi, says:

Give a man a piece of land, let him have a cabin upon his own lot, and then you make him free. Civil rights are good for nothing, the ballot is good for nothing, till you make some men of every class landholders. Give the negroes and poor whites a chance to live -- what [do they] want of a vote?  (p. 371)
Andrews doesn't dwell on this, viewing a man with a ballot as king, but a vision of the south peopled by an abundance of citizen-farmers, secure on their homesteads and dependent on nothing but open lanes for trade, is obviously superior to an empire of massive plantations run on slavery with the poor white remainder existing on the fringe. A republic of homesteads is a positively Jeffersonian vision -- one the south would have shared in. Of course, that's not the way reconstruction actually developed; modernity has made resourceless proletarians of us all.   There is no doubting the importance of Andrews' work, though, given how many Reconstruction measures would be drawn up to address the other issues he raises: the need for moral and and technical education among the freedman, for instance, the matter of power still being in the hands of the elite.   As a proponent of local autonomy myself, I despite the specter of outside meddling...but this is, sadly, a case where we had it coming.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Hanging Curve

Hanging Curve
© 1999 Troy Soos
272 pages

St. Louis, 1922. Babe Ruth reigns as the king of baseball. Mickey Rawlings is no king, not even a prince, but he is at least in the peerage: a utility infielder for the St. Louis Browns.  This season, though, there’s more than  baseball on his mind. A man has been murdered, and his death may plunge the city into bedlam.  The story started when Rawlings,  desperate for a chance to play baseball instead of sitting in the dugout, accepted an intriguing offer to play one game between two local clubs  -- one of them being part of the Negro Leagues.   Professional white  ball players are forbidden from taking the field with black players by MLB management, and Mickey  was eager to test his skills against such obvious talent.  Crawford pitched magnificently, humbling the opposition, and then – days later – he was found lynched, hanging from the stadium’s walls.  There had been a fistfight at the game, and members of the Klan hovered about, but – would anyone murder for a baseball game?   With little else to do on the bench, Rawlings digs for answers.  His search casts a light on the simmering racial tensions in  Missouri, the widespread influence of the Midwest Ku Ku Klux, and a prenatal Civil Rights movement.

The golden age of baseball was not a golden age for its black fans.  Segregation flourished in early 20th century America, especially as southern blacks streamed northward in search of jobs. Rising racial tension led to a burgeoning Klan, and not only in its old home of the South:  the 1920s Klan was strongest in the midwest, practically taking over Indiana.  Racial unrest is the backdrop of Hanging Curve;   five years before its start, labor riots turned into a race war, leaving areas of East St. Louis utterly ruined. The death and mayhem of those hours haunts the memory of those who remain, but matters are rapidly deteriorating once again, apparently instigated by a baseball team. After Rawlings plays his match against members of the Negro League,  matters go awry. He played  unsuspectingly, with a team sponsored by an auto dealership, and many on it held an association with the Ku Klux Klan.  First a black player is hung, then beatings and arsons follow in reprisals and counterstrikes.  Those who survived the riots on both sides know where this is going, and it isn't a road  anyone wants to go down.  Blood feuds can take on a life of their own, though, and Rawlings has to work overtime to find a way to nip this one in the bud. He works closely not only with one of the dealership's Klan members, but with a NAACP lawyer to investigate who killed Crawford...and why. These budding relationships introduce Rawlings to two worlds which he had been otherwise blind to: the widespread popularity and influence of the Klan, and the segregated existence of America's black citizenry. Although the courts maintained segregation as separate but equal, not until Rawlings struck up a friendship with a black lawyer did he realize how factually bankrupt those claims were. In St. Louis, for instance,  the streetcars maintained two seperate lines,  but alloted so few cars and conductors to the black line that passengers were forced to wait far longer than their white counterparts. The Klan, too, was a surprise:  Rawlings thought it just a gang for roughneck racists, not suspecting the organization had a more sinister attraction on the respectable, masquerading as a civic organization.  The pieces of the puzzle indicate to Rawlings that the true motive for that first murder are just as hidden in deception as the Klan members who hovered around the game.

Hanging Curve is one of the most interesting  mysteries I've ever read, with a setting that invokes both warm, sentimental nostalgia for the lovely game of baseball and the sad reality of racial tension in America. Consider: the St. Louis Browns, who played in a city a stone's throw from Ferguson, are these days better known as the Baltimore Orioles. But as Rawlings discovers in Hanging Curve,  there is more to social dramas both in our day and in his than mere racism.  Rawlings was able to tease out the truth,  but will we?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Ender's Game

Ender's Game 
© 1985 Orson Scott Card
384 pages

            Andrew Wiggin is only a young boy, but in the eyes of his world’s leaders, he may be humanity’s only hope.  Decades ago, Earth was ravaged by invasions of swarming insect-like creatures and fought them off only by the skin of its teeth. What made the difference was superior command ability – a man who performed a miracle, a virtual inheritor of Alexander the Great.  Although the skies have been silent since, all Earth knows that somewhere in the depths must be another insectoid fleet, a third invasion, and  against an  empire stands one frail planet…and one not-so-frail boy. Ender's Game is the story of a young boy chosen to be groomed to be Earth's next saviour, The cost of Earth's salvation is his own childhood, as he is forced to leave  his sister on Earth behind for many years: enrolling at six, his first leave is scheduled for his sixteenth birthday. (He doesn't too much mind leaving his brother behind, since Peter is an abusive jerk with dreams of world conquest.)  Ender's Game is the story of Ender's upbringing on stations in space, living and training with other gifted children every day in highly elaborate zero-gravity games  Ender is the best of the best,  and forced to be so by the adults who condition him psychologically to be the ideal general -- not only strategically smart, but forcefully decisions, a man capable of taking the lives of thousands and the future welfare of millions into his own hands. Although the sci-fi setting is inescapably important, the book is  driven by character drama -- the book alternates between Ender's story and that of his sister Valentina's, who with Peter makes the Wiggin children a trio of dangerous intelligence.  Although Ender engages in combat virtually every day,  this comes in the form of in-person zero-g laser tag games or computer simulations.  Ship to ship combat is rendered only distantly, but that makes it exciting is experiencing Ender's thoughts as he takens in the chaos of the battlefield, sees patterns emerging, and then creates a plan on the fly to check the adversary. Ultimately things deeper than just a boy growing up to find greatness during a war; Card gets a little philosophical toward the end, a trend which I understand continues more in books like Speaker for the Dead.  Though I read this primarily for a reading challenge, I could see continuing in the series. 

Starship Troopers, Robert HeinleinHumans vs bugs, but more SF war and political philosophy, less childhood stress.

The Fall of Saxon England

The Fall of Saxon England
© 1975 Richard Humble
242 pages

History never rests. In the middle of the first millennium, the great tide of the Roman Empire began at last to recede. Its legions stationed in distant reaches of the realm, like those in Britain, were removed to better protect the heart of Rome from its many enemies.  The Britons were left to their own devices,  and into the vacuum left by Rome swept a multitude of European immigrants: Angles, Saxons, Picts, and Jutes.   Latin was an unknown tongue to them, but they came, they saw, and they conquered. Establishing their own kingdoms the tribes reigned supreme for a few centuries -- but then came the Vikings.  Beginning in the late 8th century, the Saxon lands became the object of attention of the Danes, and for two centuries invaders, raiders, and aggressive settlers would pummel the island. Isolated raids gave way to massive armies that broke several of the Saxon kingdoms, while the rest fell under the lead of one man -- Alfred the Great -- creating a patchy but unified English resistance. His brilliant successes would be undermined by less able successors, however, pitted against wilier foes.  The Fall of Saxon England is a blow-by-blow account of the Viking siege of England, ending with the invasion of William the Bastard.   Hailing from Normandy, itself a Viking-taken area of France, 1066 put an end to Saxon self-rule.  This storied military and political history of an England between Rome and Normandy has a sad end, but many of the actors are brilliant. Of special interest is a section on King Arthur, who the author speculates might have been inspired by Ambrosius Aurelianus.  Highly readable,  Humble delivers an education into how the great Saxon kingdoms, later earldoms, emerged and evolved until the Norman conquest.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Copperhead

The Copperhead
© 1893 Harold Frederic
108 pages

War can destroy a city without the first shell falling on it. Such was nearly the fate of Four Corners, New York, a small farming community in its upper reaches. Far removed from the battlefields of the Civil War, the village nonetheless suffered its injuries.  So far as Abner Beech was concerned, the world consisted of the Four Corners; the South was a distant land, its problems those of its own people. Before the crisis erupted, he was not alone in his sentiment:  most of his neighbors were kindred spirits, one Methodist lunatic excepting. That was Jee Hagadorn, from a long and illustrious line of puritanical scolds. He is, among other things, an Abolitionist, and once the war begins he ascends from the fellow everyone avoids to spearheading the town's support of the war effort. Abner Beech is astonished at how quickly his neighbors become enthusiastic about the prospect of great hordes of young men lining up to kill one another, and scandalized by the impending doom that lays in store for the Constitution in the wake of Abe Lincoln's assumption of war powers, and widespread support of it.   Beginning the book as a pillar of the community, Abner quickly falls from grace to become a pariah, spurned at church and forced by his own contrariness to keep to himself on his own farm.  Matters worsen as his own child marches off to war, wooed by the lunatic warmonger's daughter, and eventually he is subjected to  a torchbearing mob outside his home.  Although the original novel's Beech is not nearly as sympathetic as his dramatized counterpart  in Copperhead (the viewing of which prompted me to read this),  he is nonetheless heroic in both holding on to his principles, and his in being easy to forgive. The story ends on a happy note, indeed far happier than the movie's.  Modern readers will find Beech prickly, but the enduring lesson has not changed regardless. War is a sinister thing, able to turn friends into bitter enemies simply for holding the wrong opinion.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Faith and Treason

Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot
© 1997 Antonia Frasier
384 pages

       Remember, remember, the Fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot….or, as contemporaries called it, the Powder Plot.   Its scale, for the 16th century, was ambitious, especially so for its novelty.  No one-shot assassination, in this scheme at least thirteen conspirators worked together over a course of several months on a plan that would simultaneously involve kidnapping a royal princess and blowing up Parliament – killing, in one fell swoop,  King James, his son the prince,  the royal ministers, and the assembled lords of England. The plan was undone by a mysterious letter, but even its collapse was exciting, featuring explosions and a shootout before legal trials wiped up the last of those involved.  What possessed these men on such a murderous undertaking?  Faith and Treason is an excellent history of the affair, prudent and compassionate. While no one would fault Antonia Frasier for heaping abuse on men who knowingly plotted the death of innocents, who intended to create widespread confusing by massacring the entire government of England and then conspiring with foreign powers to impose order,  she does not. She simply tells the story of what happened with an eye for understanding why, and much of it seems to be misplaced youthful bravado, matched with the Crown’s longstanding persecution of religious minorities and the crushed hope of James' about-face from earlier tolerance. The tale is a tragedy, not only for the misguided aims of these men who were foolish enough to think anything good could come of obliterating a nation's entire corpus of leadership, but because it backfired. Despite the urging of the Pope for English Catholics to live in peaceful hope, despite  the general lack of restiveness among their populace, and despite the fact that the closest potential European allies (Isabella and Albert) had little interest in meddling in English affairs, the conspiracy persisted. In its wake, Catholicism bore the taint of treason, and would suffer it for two centuries more.   Fraser's history is remarkable for its lack of vitriol, and thorough depiction of how the plan came together piece by piece, man by man, and then abruptly fell apart.


I dedicated the month of April to England in part to clear space for reading a little Dickens and a little Austen, and here the month is past and I haven't read one of either. The month was still a success, though, with lots of history and historical fiction, and more to come. Read of England will carry on until I have read Dickens and Austen, and yesterday I launched into Great Expectations.  This is no self-punishment, because I'm not out of my mood yet and have two more English histories I'd like  to take on before moving on to another big theme.

So far, and note that a couple of these haven't gotten comments yet but will:

English Classics
...maybe Come Rack! Come Rope!, but does it count if no one has ever heard of it?

English History
Boudica, Vanessa Collingridge
Faith and Treason, Antonia Frasier
The Fall of  Saxon England, Richard Humble

 Fiction, Set in England
Armada, John Stack (Historical)
In a Dark Wood, Michael Cadnum (Historical)
The Other Queen, Phillipa Gregory (Historical)
Ruled Britannia, Harry Turtledove (Alt-History)
The Inimitable Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse
Bachelors Anonymous, P.G. Wodehouse

Books by English Authors
Medieval Essays, Christopher Dawson.
More will follow. After this reading will be fairly mixed until mid-June, when I'm planning for a bounty of books relating to colonial America and the patriotic rebellion of 1776.   More on that later.

Also, the 2015 Reading Challenge continues apace,  and I am twenty books into it. Those taken:

A book with more than 500 pages (Politics on a Human Scale, Jeff Taylor)
A book published this year  (The Empty Throne, Bernard Cornwell)
A book with a number in the title (Selma 1965, Chuck Fager)
A book written by someone under 30 (I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai)
A funny book (Bachelors Anonymous, P.G. Wodehouse)
A book by a female author (Boudica, Vanessa Collingridge)
A mystery or thriller (The Iron Web, Larken Rose)
A book of short stories (The Inimitable Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse)
A book set in a different country (Map of Betrayal, Ha Jin)
A nonfiction book (Winter World, Bernd Heinrich)
A book based on a true story (The Marriage Game, Alison Weir)
A book based entirely on its cover (The Internet Police, Nate Anderson)
A book that came out the year you were born (Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card)
A book with a love triangle (The Other Queen, Philippa Gregory)
A book set in high school (The Chosen, Chaim Potok)
A book with color in title (Green is the New Red, Will Potter)
A book that made you cry (The Pigman, Paul Zinde
A book set in your hometown (Casualties, David Rothstein)
A play ("The Importance of Being Earnest", Oscar Wilde)
A book you started but never finished (The Human Zoo, Desmond Morris)