Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Franklin D Roosevelt

Complicity Part Three

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday February 24 2015

Colman's Column3

It Can’t Happen Here

book

Here, There or Anywhere?

In 1930, Sinclair Lewis was the first writer from the United States to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Lewis published It Can’t Happen in 1935. This dystopian satire imagines a Fascist dictatorship in the US. The book serves as a warning that political movements like Nazism can come to power when people blindly support a charismatic leader. Although the book is out-of-print (I am working from a Kindle edition downloaded for $3.99) and hard to find, its themes will be quite familiar to Americans (and other nationalities)

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Contemporary readers would have seen the connection with Louisiana politician Huey Long who was preparing to run for president in 1936 elections when he was assassinated in 1935 just prior to the appearance of Lewis’s novel. Long’s career was used by Robert Penn Warren in his 1946 novel All the King’s Men. Later readers have noted resonances with the regime of GW Bush and Dick Cheney.

 

In Lewis’s novel, US presidential candidate Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip is going to rescue the USA from economic depression. He first wins the Democratic Party nomination, ousting Franklin D Roosevelt. He then becomes president by promising to tax the rich, and stop big business from abusing the common worker.

 

Windrip is a charismatic politician: a great showman, but not comfortable with intellectuals. He is  swept into office on a tide of revival tent enthusiasm and anti-intellectual populism. Despite the reformist facade, Windrip is really the candidate of big business.  He speaks of “liberating” women and minorities, as he gradually strips them of all their rights. Blacks and Jews do not fare well under his rule.

 

Soon after his election, Windrip puts the media under the supervision of the military. William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day and model for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, directs his newspapers to praise the government. The president forces Congress to provide unlimited funding to the military and to pass stringent, unconstitutional laws. He establishes military tribunals for civilians, and denounces critics as traitors. The most loyal followers become a private army, the Minute Men, answerable to no one. The book documents a rapid decline into barbarity and charts an  implosion of American culture: thanks to the weight of mass media,  the desire for security and comfort, and  endemic nationalism, civil society caves in at the touch of a charismatic politician.

 

Windrip is less a Nazi than a con-man-plus-Rotarian, a manipulator who knows how to appeal to people’s desperation, but neither he nor his followers are in the grip of the kind of world-transforming ideology like Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin. The message is that such an ideology is not necessary and besides, the USA has its own ideology that already dominates the world.

 

It Happened in Germany

 

Sinclair Lewis shows that it takes great courage to resist a totalitarian dictatorship. It even takes courage to withhold enthusiastic support. The novel, and the history of Germany in the 1930s, demonstrate that ordinary people can be persuaded to do extraordinary things out of fear or because they benefited from the system. In Nazi Germany, doctors planned, supervised and participated in sterilisation, unethical experiments on humans, torture, euthanasia and genocide. Ordinary policemen and nurses killed in cold blood even when they would not have been punished if they demurred.


Britain’s Imperial Image

 

I was a child in Britain in the 1950s. Much of the literature I was encouraged to read in my pre-teens was about the benevolence of the British Empire. The Boys’ Own Paper gave us tales of adventure in Africa. The Children’s Newspaper was a successful publication which ran for 46 years. During half  of that run of over 2,000 issues it was edited by Arthur Mee, a patriot and devout Christian whose Children’s Encyclopaedia also indoctrinated us with British Imperial values. Lord Baden-Powell was regular contributor. How different were the boy scouts from the Hitler Youth which counted Pope Benedict and UN General Secretary  Kurt Waldheim among its members.

I once asked a friend (we must have been about eight years old) what he would like as a career. I was thinking about being a footballer or a comedian (Max Bygraves was my idol at the time). My friend said he wanted to be a District Commissioner. I had a vague idea from BOP that this was a commendable vocation, which involved civilising savages.

 

The British Imperial brand had been burnished over many decades. The PR set the British brand apart from the brutal behavior of other European empires in Africa: King Leopold’s bloody rule in the Congo, the German genocide of the Herero in South-West Africa, and France’s disgrace in Algeria. The British were, quite simply, different.

 

Despite that, we have seen how British soldiers and police behaved in an inhumane fashion during the British Mandate in Palestine, participating joyfully in torture, summary executions and generalised thuggery. British “exceptionalism”’,   “the British way”,  is clearly a delusion. Chelsea fans continue to behave like British soldiers in Palestine. British soldiers in Iraq continued to behave like thugs.

Neil Ascherson, in the New York Review of Books, described an encounter he had in Cyprus in the late 1950s with a man called Pordy Laneford from Kenya. Who had been a member of the Kenya Police Reserve, the paramilitary force recruited mostly from white settlers. “He explained to me how important it was to kill captured suspects at once, without waiting for the ‘red tape’ of trials and witness statements. ‘Killing prisoners? Well, it’s not really the same thing, is it? I mean, I’d feel an awful shit if I thought I’d been killing prisoners.’”

Ascherson wrote, “I had met other Pordys before, in different parts of the Empire. It was that schoolboy innocence which made them so terribly dangerous, because it was an incurable condition. They were worse, in many ways, than those compulsive sadists who emerge whenever licensed savagery is in prospect. For Pordys, torture was just a lark, a naughty sport like shooting pheasants out of season.”

“The myth that British colonialism guaranteed a minimum standard of behavior toward ‘natives’ cannot—or should not—survive the evidence of twentieth-century Kenya. In the field, the security forces behaved like Germans on an antipartisan sweep in occupied France. In the detention and work camps, and the resettlement villages, the British created a world no better than the universe of the Soviet Gulag.”

Many civilians took an active role in the torture of Mau Mau suspects and settler volunteers ran the concentration camps. Katharine Warren-Gash ran the women’s camps at Kamiti. There, suspects were interrogated, whipped, starved, and subjected to hard labour, which included filling mass graves with truckloads of corpses from other camps. Many Kenyan women gave birth at Kamiti and buried their babies in bundles of six at a time.

The “Hola Massacre” has become part of British, as well as Kenyan history. On March 3, 1959, 100 detainees in the remote Hola camp defied orders to go to work. When the prisoners refused to pick up their spades, a prearranged onslaught began. An hour later, ten prisoners had been clubbed to death and dozens lay dying or injured.

Can It Happen?

We are shocked to read that doctors in Nazi Germany could participate in experiments on living human beings and wholeheartedly carry out torture, sterilisation, euthanasia, and mass extermination.

The recently published US Senate report on CIA torture makes it clear that American doctors were enthusiastic participants happy to make a profit from inflicting pain. Two psychologists, Dr James Mitchell and Dr Bruce Jessen, were paid $81 million to design the torture programme, and medical officers and physicians’ assistants are cited throughout the report as consultants who advised on things like forcing detainees to stand on broken limbs and “rehydrating” via a rectal tube rather than a standard IV infusion.

Dr  Steven Miles is a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School, a board member of the Center for Victims of Torture, and author of Oath Betrayed: America’s Torture Doctors. He has been studying doctors’ involvement in torture programmes since photos of the human rights violations at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were published in 2003. He maintains the website Doctorswhotorture.com, which tracks physician standards of conduct and punishments for doctors who aid torture around the world.

“The docs who get involved in this, number one, are careerists. They get involved for rank and career, and the regimes … extremely rarely coerce them. Instead, what happens is the regimes treat them as some kind of elite. The docs are generally not sadists. … docs seem to be entirely unaware, not only of the ethics codes, but also of the ineffectiveness of these interrogation strategies, that they never mount a protest.”

Public Complicity

During GW Bush’s presidency, Americans increasingly said they favored torture tactics, especially when they believed it would lead to vital information or save lives. Surveys showed that 47%   said the use of harsh interrogation tactics like waterboarding was “sometimes” or “always” justified, while only 22% said such torture tactics were “never” justified. Non-religious Americans were more easily convinced that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” were, in fact, torture. Most Christians were in favour of torture. Non-religious Americans were one of the few subsets that opposed the torture techniques – and that includes breakdowns across racial, gender, age, economic, educational, and regional lines.

The researchers said. “We believe that torture may have become a partisan symbol, distinguishing Republicans from Democrats, that demonstrates hawkishness on national security in the same way that being supportive of the death penalty indicates that a person is tough on crime”.

Goebbels successfully used media, that might seem primitive to us in 2015, to ensure complicity of ordinary Germans in the Nazi project. TV shows like 24 and Homeland serve a similar function. Stephen King, an admitted fan of 24, wrote, “There’s also a queasily gleeful subtext to 24 that suggests, ‘If things are this bad, why, I guess we can torture anybody we want! In fact, we have an obligation to torture in order to protect the country! Hooray!’ “

Well that’s OK then.

Brigadier General Finnegan believed the show had an adverse effect on the training of American soldiers because it advocated unethical and illegal behavior. In his words: “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about 24?’ The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.”

 

Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were enthusiastic fans of 24.

 

 

More on torture next week

 

Robert Lowell Part 2

 

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday October 12 2014

 

Go South, Young Man

Charlotte told Merrill Moore to get her son committed to an institution. Moore suggested that Lowell take a leave of absence from Harvard and study with Moore’s friend, the poet-professor Allen Tate who was then living in Nashville and teaching at Vanderbilt University.tate and gordon

It was agreed that Lowell travel south with Moore in spring 1937. On arrival, Lowell asked Tate if he could live with him and his wife, novelist Caroline Gordon,

gordon

and Tate joked that if he wanted to, Lowell could pitch a tent on Tate’s lawn; then Lowell bought a tent, set it up on Tate’s lawn, and lived in for two months. Lowell called the act “a terrible piece of youthful callousness”.

fugitves

After spending time with the Tates in Nashville (and attending some classes taught by John Crowe Ransom at Vanderbilt), Lowell decided to leave Harvard. When Tate and John Crowe Ransom left Vanderbilt for Kenyon College in Ohio, Lowell went with them and majored in Classics. He shared accommodation with other ambitious young writers: Peter Taylor, Robie Macauley and Randall Jarrell. Lowell graduated summa cum laude in 1940.

Catholicism

Lowell had converted from Episcopalianism to Catholicism. This was partly in rebellion against his parents, partly under the influence of the work of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and French philosopher Étienne Gilson. Part of the reason for his conversion was his dark moods and what his first wife Jean Stafford (Anne Dick had faded out of the picture) called “fire-breathing righteousness.” Lowell left graduate school in September 1941 to work briefly at the New York Catholic publishing house of Sheed and Ward. By the end of the forties, he would leave the Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, his particular brand of Catholicism shaped the character of his first two published books of poetry, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary’s Castle (1946).

 

Jean Stafford

 stafford and lowell

Lowell’s first wife, Jean Stafford, blamed Catholicism for the failure of their marriage. Her own Catholicism was “light-hearted…though she had serious moments about it.” Some of her closest friends remained unaware of her conversion. For Lowell it became a round-the clock obsession.

Stafford was twenty-two when she met Robert Lowell. Her father was a writer of pulp westerns whose pen names were Ben Delight and Jack Wonder. He was also a religious fanatic. Jean was an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, Boulder and won a one-year fellowship to study philology at the University of Heidelberg from 1936 to 1937. She first met Lowell at a writers’ conference in Boulder and later stopped by at Kenyon to visit him. When he made his first proposal of marriage to her, she told him yes, if he bought her another drink. Obsessed, he followed her east. “He wants you more than anything else in his life,” a mutual friend informed her. “It makes me sick because he is an uncouth, neurotic, psychopathic murderer-poet.”

In Boston, a drunken Lowell crashed his father’s car into a wall. Jean’s skull was badly fractured and her nose broken. Lowell tried to make his escape. They fined him $75 and took his licence. Lowell broke Jean’s nose again with a punch. She described her trauma in one of her best-known stories, “The Interior Castle,” and the disfigurement she suffered as a result was a turning point in her life. Nevertheless, on April 2nd of 1940, Robert Lowell and Jean Stafford were married at St. Mark’s in New York.

From the beginning, there was little marital bliss. Jean’s intellect intimidated most of Lowell’s friends. She was the only person they knew who had read Proust and could quote it. Lowell’s parents, especially Charlotte, disapproved, but then, Charlotte disapproved of all of Bobby’s women. Before he was imprisoned as a conscientious objector, Lowell had set Jean up with an apartment and she received his trust fund allowance of $100 a month. She found this hard to live on and told Charlotte so. Predictably, Charlotte was not sympathetic: “I hope, Jean, for your own sake, as well as for Bobby’s that you will see in the present situation an opportunity for courage, selfdevelopment, and integrity of purpose”.

One wonders what Charlotte thought when Jean’s first novel, Boston Adventure, was a huge critical and commercial success. The novel sold thousands of copies in its first printing, and the Overseas Book-of the-Month programme purchased and shipped thousands more to military personnel in Western Europe. The book made her enough money to buy outright a house called Damarascotta Mills in Maine. In October of 1945, Stafford wrote, “a house is really the only solution for anyone. And certainly for me, who desires to immobilize myself like an eternal vegetable.”

They entertained many guests at Damarascotta including Gertrude Buckman, ex-wife of Delmore Schwartz. Lowell and Buckman had an affair and talked of marriage. Stafford wrote about this in her short story “An Influx of Poets” in which Minnie Zumwalt is charming her way along the coast of Maine after her divorce from poet Jered Zumwalt. Buckman later recalled that at this time, Jean was drinking herself into stupor.

delmore and gertrude

Lowell and Stafford’s marriage ended in 1948 although they continued to correspond for many years. The following year he married the literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick.

Stafford wrote two more novels but her real forte was the short story: her works were published in The New Yorker and many literary magazines. In 1950, she married Life magazine staff writer Oliver Jensen but they divorced after three years. She had a brief period of domestic happiness with her third husband, New Yorker regular AJ Liebling, but he died in 1963. After his death, she stopped writing fiction. For many years, Stafford suffered from alcoholism, depression, and pulmonary disease. By age sixty-three, she had almost stopped eating and died of cardiac arrest in 1979.

stafford

Conscientious Objector

At LSU Lowell taught introductory courses in English for one year before the US entered World War II. While at St Mark’s, Lowell had written in the school magazine: “…not only the good that [wars] bring outweighs the evil, but also that they are essential for the preservation of life in its highest form”.

Lowell had volunteered for military service but was rejected. However, when he was called up in 1943, he refused to serve. He based his refusal partly on a newfound but principled pacifism, partly on political opposition to President Franklin D Roosevelt’s demand for Germany’s unconditional surrender. His conversion had strengthened his aversion to communism. He raised this point in a letter to Roosevelt and also condemned the Allied bombing of civilian populations.”Three weeks ago we read of the razing of Hamburg, where 200,000 non-combatants are reported dead, after an almost apocalyptic series of all-out air raids. This, in a world still nominally Christian, is news”.

He wrote to the President about “the betrayal of my country”. A major factor was the alliance with Stalin. He continued:”In 1941 we undertook a patriotic war to preserve our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor against the lawless aggressions of a totalitarian league: in 1943 we are collaborating with the most unscrupulous and powerful of totalitarian dictators to destroy law, freedom, democracy, and above all, our continued national sovereignty”.

As a conscientious objector, Lowell served five months in West Street Jail in New York City and in federal prison at Danbury, Connecticut, an experience he later described in poems such as “In the Cage” and “Memories of West Street and Lepke.”

These are the tranquillized Fifties,

and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?   

I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,

and made my manic statement,

telling off the state and president, and then   

sat waiting sentence in the bull pen

beside a Negro boy with curlicues

of marijuana in his hair.

 

A Jehovah’s Witness

 

… pointed out the T-shirted back

of Murder Incorporated’s Czar Lepke,   

there piling towels on a rack,

or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full   

of things forbidden the common man:

a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American   

flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.   

Flabby, bald, lobotomized,

he drifted in a sheepish calm,

where no agonizing reappraisal

jarred his concentration on the electric chair—

hanging like an oasis in his air

of lost connections….

 http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-75186-news-detail-go-south-young-man.html

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/thumb/epaper-images/37696.jpg

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/thumb/epaper-images/37706.jpg

 

Next week, Lowell’s first published book.

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