Saturday, October 23, 2010

Crib From This gets Hitched.

I know—dumb title; but who cares.

Over the years, we here at Crib From This have characterized the writings, spoken remarks, and ideas of Christopher Hitchens variously as dumb, smart, funny, and irrelevant [this is not a typo—ed.]. Through the thick and thin of these reactions to his work, it remains that Hitch is among the few commentators to appear regularly in the 'mainstream media' (whose ranks Hitchens—previously a longtime columnist for The Nation magazine—joined when he emerged as an early and ardent propagandist for prosecuting the Iraq War) to reliably possess any kind of panache or even sense of humor. So when Hitch revealed, a number of months ago, that he had been diagnosed with a life-threatening form of esophageal cancer, we, of course, felt that this was some pretty crap news.

So, in any event, when we happened accidentally upon a couple of his recent contributions to his column in Slate, we were pleasantly surprised to find that both are pithy and of a high caliber. Neither of them is—as Hitch has sometimes been perceived to be—controversial or even provocative. Rather, they both communicate successfully more-or-less obvious truths that lots of other commentators and/or media lack the clearheadedness or intellectual distance from the daily news cycle to state. This is the kind of commentary that is so thoroughly lacking right now and why 'the news', as it were, has become so unworthy of anyone's serious attention over the past six months or year-or-so.

Anyway, we link, first, to Hitchens's lucid take on the recent, bizarre, Rick Sanchez episode. Rick Sanchez is, by the way, a person I had never previously heard of and someone whose career, etc., I fail to find at all interesting. And this is precisely why Hitchens nails it: he doesn't find Sanchez or his remarks to be particularly interesting either. Part of the reason for this, Hitchens argues, is that it simply isn't controversial to "note the effectiveness of the Jewish Lobby."

And we link, second, to an article in which Hitchens reflects upon the inanities and utter lack of substance detectable in the supposed political 'debates' preceding the upcoming mid-term elections occurring across the country. A taste:
Asking my hosts in Connecticut if there was anything worth noting about the upcoming elections in their great state, I received the reply, "Well, we have a guy who wants to be senator who lied about his record of service in Vietnam, and a woman who wants to be senator who has run World Wrestling Entertainment and seems like a tough lady." Though full enough of curiosity to occupy, say, one course of lunch, that still didn't seem to furnish enough material to keep the mind focused on politics for very long.

And this dearth—of genuine topics and of convincing or even plausible candidates—appears to extend from coast to coast. In New York, a rather shopworn son of one Democratic dynasty (and ex-member by marriage of another) is "facing off," as people like to say, against a provincial thug with a line in pseudo-tough talk. In California, where the urgent question of something suspiciously like state failure is staring the electorate in the face, the Brown-Whitman contest hasn't yet risen even to the level of the trivial.
Hitch then carries this discussion in the direction of a general, broadly applicable, and yet incisive and satisfying question:
Consider: What normal person would consider risking their career and their family life in order to undergo the incessant barrage of intrusive questioning about every aspect of their lives since well before college? To face the constant pettifogging and chatter of Facebook and Twitter and have to boast of how many false friends they had made in a weird cyberland? And if only that was the least of it. Then comes the treadmill of fundraising and the unending tyranny of the opinion polls, which many media systems now use as a substitute for news and as a means of creating stories rather than reporting them. And, even if it "works," most of your time in Washington would be spent raising the dough to hang on to your job. No wonder that the best lack all conviction.

This may seem to discount or ignore the apparent flood of new political volunteers who go to make up the Tea Party movement. But how fresh and original are these faces? They come from a long and frankly somewhat boring tradition of anti-incumbency and anti-Washington rhetoric, and they are rather an insult to anyone with anything of a political memory. Since when is it truly insurgent to rail against the state of affairs in the nation's capital? How long did it take Gingrich's "rebel" forces in the mid-1990s to become soft-bottomed incumbents in their turn? Many of the cynical veterans of that moment, from Dick Armey to John Boehner, are the effective managers and controllers of the allegedly spontaneous Tea Party wave we see today.

Populism imposes its own humiliations on anyone considering a run. How many times can you stand in front of an audience and state: "I will always put the people of X first"? (Quite a lot of times, to judge by recent campaigns.) This is to say no more than that you will be a megaphone for sectional interests and regional mood swings and resentment, a confession that, to you, all politics is yokel.
I think that pieces like these—more reflective, more genial, less polemical, and yet every bit as unwavering—suit Hitchens's authorial voice just fine. It's almost as though his longtime infatuation with Orwell has begun to rub off on his style in a more direct way. I like it. Let's hope that the new, 'mature Hitchens' is able to stick around for a good while longer, because we need people to be writing like this in the midst of our present political/cultural landscape.

So, for as long as he continues to turn out work of a high caliber, we say: we'll gladly Hitch our wagons.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

"How completely isolated a world the German people live in..."

I'd like to share with you an excerpt from William Shirer's famous book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Shirer, a newspaper reporter who lived in Berlin throughout the 1930s and into the early years of World War II, recounts how startled he had been at the ease with which German propaganda managed to fool an ever-more gullible German public. What follows is Shirer's description of the headlines of German newspapers during August, 1939, during the final days leading up to Germany's wholly unprovoked invasion of Poland:
In Berlin [...] a foreign observer could watch the way the press, under Goebbels' expert direction, was swindling the gullible German people. For six years, since the Nazi "co-ordination" of the daily newspapers, which had meant the destruction of a free press, the citizens had been cut off from the truth of what was going on in the world. For a time the Swiss German-language newspapers from Zurich and Basel could be purchased at the leading newsstands in Germany and these presented objective news. But in recent years their sale in the Reich had been either prohibited or limited to a few copies. For Germans who could read English or French, there were occasionally a few copies of the London and Paris journals available, though not enough to reach more than a handful of persons.
"How completely isolated a world the German people live in," I noted in my diary on August 10, 1939. "A glance at the newspapers yesterday and today reminds you of it." I had returned to Germany from a brief leave in Washington, New York and Paris, and coming up in the train from my home in Switzerland ten days before I had bought a batch of Berlin and Rhineland newspapers. They quickly propelled one back to the cockeyed world of Nazism, which was as unlike the world I had just left as if it had been on another planet. I noted further on August 10, after I had arrived in Berlin:
Whereas all the rest of the world considers that the peace is about to be broken by Germany, that it is Germany that is threatening to attack Poland... here in Germany, in the world the local newspapers create, the very reverse is maintained ... What the Nazi papers are proclaiming is this: that it is Poland which is disturbing the peace of Europe; Poland which is threatening Germany with armed invasion...

"Poland, Look Out!" warns the B.Z. [cft note: Berliner Arbeiterzeitung] headline, adding: Answer to Poland, the Runner-Amok [Amokläuffer] against Peace and Right in Europe!"

Or the headline in Der Fuehrer, daily paper of Karlsruhe, which I bought on the train: "Warsaw Threatens Bombardment of Danzig—Unbelievable Agitation of the Polish Archmadness [Polnischen Groessenwahsn]!"

You ask: But the German people can't possibly believe these lies? Then you talk to them. So many do.
By Saturday, August 26, the date originally set by Hitler for the attack on Poland, Goebbels' press campaign had reached its climax. I noted in my diary some of the headlines.
The B.Z.: "Complete Chaos in Poland—German Families Flee—Polish Soldiers Push to the Edge of the German Border!" The 12-Uhr Blatt: "This Playing With Fire Going Too Far—Three German Passenger Planes Shot At by Poles—In Corridor Many German Farmhouses in Flames!"

On my way to Broadcast House at midnight I picked up the Sunday edition (August 27) of the Voelkischer Beobachter. Across the whole top of the front page were inch-high headlines:
There was no mention, of course, of any German mobilization, though, as we have seen, Germany had been mobilized for a fortnight.

The truth is a beautiful thing, even when it stings a bit. Do you suppose that the great William Shirer was spinning in his grave during the whole Weapons of Mass Destruction deception/embarrassment, which was aided and abetted by our American—putatively free, democratic—press?

I think it's fair to say that Shirer, like many in America's longstanding tradition of democratic patriots and truth-tellers, would be disappointed. He expected better of our elected leaders. We, unfortunately, have seen far too much arrogance and corruption among our leaders and their corporate handlers to reasonably hold the same expectation. But we can work hard to rebuild a genuine American republic in which future generations might reasonably expect it, just as Shirer did.