Friday, January 04, 2008

Council Winners

Watchers Council winners for the week of January 4 have been posted.

The winner in the council was The Freddys Seven by Soccer Dad. His entries often deal with issues relating to Israel, but this one reminds readers yet another attempt is underway to mainstream Al Sharpton, and it makes the case for this still being a bad idea.

Unfortunately for American politics, a certain number of people of all races will only accept a spokesman for black Americans whose sole strength is his commitment to confrontation. Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy might be a good read for such people:

[Kennedy's] main observation is that the views of most black "sellouts" can be legitimately analyzed as founded in the same concern for black uplift as the politically correct liberal orthodoxy. Just as the liberal firebrand considers himself to be doing good in calling on whites to desist in their racism and devote a Marshall Plan-style operation to saving the black poor, the black conservative who argues that poor blacks must learn to fend for themselves because no human beings have ever thrived without learning how to do so can make his argument with great love for his people.

Also getting votes were America Derangement Syndrome -- Or, Yes, You Can Call Them Unpatriotic by Bookworm Room, which takes up the familiar theme of Western European resentment of America via a book on the subject, which makes the point that it goes back a long way before George W. Bush.

It certainly does, and the roots of it are complex and often irrational. In the 18th century Thomas Jefferson had to work hard to rebut Comte de Buffon's scientific assertion that American mammals -- including, according to some of Buffon's French naturalist followers, Americans themselves -- were degenerate runts. Nineteenth century British publications poured out invective on everything they deigned to notice from the United States. The usual practice of British authors was to take every slander of one American by another in a hot political campaign as an absolute truth, and to present the most degraded characters from the frontier or the slum as the typical inhabitant of the United States.

"Both the travelers and the literary journalists of [England]," wrote Timothy Dwight the elder, "have, for reasons which it would be idle to inquire after and useless to allege, thought it proper to caricature the Americans. Their pens have been dipped in gall, and their representations have been, almost merely, a mixture of malevolence and falsehood."

And this was long before America threatened anyone else's sense of national security. The hatred was strong enough to overpower logic, even then. In 1863 the Very Rev. Henry Alford, DD, dean of Canterbury, wrote a "Plea for the Queen's English" which decried the "deterioration" of English in American mouths. He warned Englishmen to hold aloof from the American way with the language and compared the state of English in America to "the character and history of the nation":

its blunted sense of moral obligations and duties to man; its open disregard of conventional right when aggrandizement is to be obtained; and I may now say, its reckless and fruitless maintenance of the most cruel and unprincipled war in the history of the world.

It was the familiar list of crimes and vices and hypocrisies. Every learned Englishman could rehearse it and many of the finest writers, such as Coleridge and Sydney Smith, bent their considerable talents to spelling it out at length. Except that, coming in the middle of the American Civil War, Alford's screed replaced a now-doubtful entry in the catalogue of American vice with a freshly minted one. As H.L. Mencken noted, "Smith had denounced slavery, whereas Alford, by a tremendous feat of moral virtuosity, was now denouncing the war to put it down."

Votes also went to The Best Years of Their Lives: Hollywood and Franklin's War by Big Lizards, a big, fat, juicy post you can sink your teeth into, whether you agree or disagree or are puzzled by the whole thing.

Daffyd's question is, "Why were Americans so much more supportive of World War II" than they are of the current War Against ______. After dismissing the importance of Roosevelt's leadership skills as contrasted with Bush's, he writes, "In a single word, the answer is Hollywood."

I think he's largely right, but for different reasons than he does. He writes:

It is probably the only time in American history that the Brahmins of art and intellectualism were 100% behind the actions of a presidential administration during wartime. Gone was the world-weary cynicism, the smirking and winking, the nihilist anarchy we generally associate with the leftist intellegencia. Peer pressure, ideology, personal economic benefit, and the Vision of the Anointed crashed together in a perfect storm of patriotic production.

He adds, "It was not government leadership that drove patriotic support for the war; it was the vise-like grip on popular media by the pro-war Left," pointing out that the perception of America's entry into the war against Hitler on the side of Stalin was eagerly approved by the domestic left wing.

But I think he's confusing the old Hollywood with the new one. There might have been artists and intellectuals aplenty working in Hollywood in the 1940s, but they didn't control the process the way they do now. Then, the Studio System was at its height, and a mere eight companies ruled the world of moviedom, from the decision about what scripts would get made to the decision about whom to hire to sweep up the spilled popcorn in the aisles of the conglomerate-owned movie houses across America.

A handful of men who served as producers controlled everything. Directors, writers, and stars were as much in their power as the lowliest key grip or gaffer. Producers controlled every aspect of the making of a film and every creative decision was in their hands.

Hollywood then was a lot easier to herd than it is now. And, as is always the case when an industry is in the hands of a few wealthy men, it tended to be conservative and to identify its own interests closely with the government's. It also was more likely to do what it thought was expected of it to head off any call for censorship.

This site makes an interesting observation on the nature of wartime films:

Typically, these films focused on an small group of men involved in a life-or-death mission: struggling valiantly to hold an island or to attack a target deep behind enemy lines. Thus, the film "Air Force" told the story of a single B-17 Flying Fortress; Wake Island, the tale of the small group of marines and civilians who struggled to hold off a much larger force of attacking Japanese; and "Destination Tokyo," on a single submarine's efforts to enter Tokyo Bay in preparation for Jimmy Doolittle's raid on Tokyo in 1942. By focusing on a single isolated group, Hollywood was able to reveal the human meaning of war to individuals that the audience could identify with.

Invariably, this small group was a microcosm of the American melting pot, made up of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, men from diverse ethnic groups, and distinct personality types. "Objective, Burma!" had, for example, a Hennessy, a Miggleori, a Neguesco. The group's very composition underscored the fact that this was a democratic war - a peoples' war - drawing upon every segment of society.

Although these groups were usually commanded by a strong leader, success ultimately depended on the men's ability to operate as a team, balancing individual acts of heroism with professionalism and mutual cooperation. In "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," the story of Jimmy Doolittle's bombing raid, each man played a critically important role, whether he was a mechanic, a navigator, a bombardier, a pilot. Individualism and cooperation both were necessary, according to these films, to preserve American freedoms.

The films were less about our enemies than about us as we needed to be; they were less about changing our priorities than reminding us what they theoretically had been all along.

The good ones, at least. The whole list of Hollywood efforts from 1941 to 1945 contains, as always, much that is forgotten and deserves it. "Hillbilly Blitzkrieg" was one title. A book describes the plot of "Tarzan Triumphs" like this:

Nazi agents parachute into Tarzan's peaceful kingdom and occupy a fortress, hoping to exploit oil and tin. Johnny Weissmuller, a slightly flabby but still commanding noble savage, rallies his natives (all of whom are white) against the Axis. "Kill Nadzies!" Tarzan commands the natives. They nod eagerly. The Germans are so despicable even the animals turn against them. Tarzan chases the head of the Nazi troops into the jungle, and, just as the fear-crazed German officer frantically signals Berlin on his shortwave radio, Tarzan kills him. In Berlin the radio operator recognizes the distress signal and rushes out to summon the general in charge of the African operation. While Tarzan, Boy, and Jungle Priestess laughingly look on, Cheetah the chimp chatters into the transmitter. Ignorant of the fatal struggle in the jungle depths, the general hears the chimp on the radio, jumps to his feet, salutes, and yells to his subordinates that they are listening not to Africa but to Der Führer.

Hollywoood as we know it began only after 1948, when court decisions began to dismantle the studio system and deprive the producers of their artistic autocracy. Certainly Hollywood made a difference then, and it likely makes a difference in the other direction now. But there has to be something deeper than that going on.

For all its pretensions to importance, Hollywood reflects realities more than it creates them. Less than a year after Pearl Harbor, 12 percent of all film industry employees were in uniform, including some major stars, and by the end of the war a quarter of all the men who worked in the movie industry had served. Can you think of even one today? That, if you can explain it, is where the difference begins to appear.

Also getting votes were Did Bush Get Jamie Lynn Pregnant? by Cheat Seeking Missiles; Witness from right here, and Politics Anonymous by Right Wing Nut House.

Though it didn't get any first-place votes, I also would call attention to this week's nomination from The Education Wonk, for the sake of this item from the list of desiderata for 2008:

It would be really nice if the Bush Twins did something for the war effort rather than simply running amok attending social events at venues around the world. We would like to see one or both of the First Daughters in uniform, but if that's not possible, maybe these young ladies could put in a little volunteer time down at Walter Reed Hospital. Historically (and morally) speaking, it's the thing to do in "a time of war."

Come to think of it, Jenna Bush's fiance, former White House aide Henry Hager, is a fine, strapping young man of military age. Why isn't he in uniform? Might be a good idea if one is marrying a presidential daughter during wartime while so many of our nation's other fine, strapping young men and women of military age are spending time away from their loved ones over there in Iraq, Afghanistan, and A Hundred Other Countries. (The nation's future leaders preparing to lead by setting examples: sadly, this seems to be a novel concept nowadays.)

Knee-jerk attacks using the flabby Chickenhawk Meme are so prevalent on the left, and the sadistic wish to see other people's children suffer for the politics of their parents is so off-putting, that too few principled conservatives do what Wonk has done here and acknowledge that a tradition and a virtue that our forebears respected has been allowed to lapse in this administration. They don't have to slog it on foot patrols (and probably would do more harm than good there), but certainly there's a role they could fill. Refer to above statistics on Hollywoood actors in World War II.

Outside the council, the winner was Exploding Myths by Treppenwitz. The myths in question are perceptions about the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Votes also went to Patterico's Los Angeles Dog Trainer Year in Review 2007 at Patterico's Pontifications, which collects in one place all the cluelessness and chicanery Patterico chronicled at the Los Angeles Times; and to Ms. Hillary Does Pakistan at Power Line, which is a post about a post (I tend not to vote for those) about Hillary Clinton's apparent lack of knowledge about Pakistan's electoral system.

It's amusing to see how in some quarters Hillary is regarded as experienced in White House matters because of her husband's presidency. I think Chris Rock got that one about right on New Year's Eve:

"Being married to somebody doesn't make you good at their job. I've been with my wife 10 years now. If she got up here right now, y'all wouldn't laugh. At all. You get on a plane tomorrow, you want the pilot's wife flying you?"

And to a post I liked, The Wodehouse Primary, at The Debatable Land, by Alex Massie, a Scottish journalist living and working in D.C. I'm not among the devotees of Wodehouse, but I like how Massie worked the crowd of White House wanna-bes against a template of the literary characters.

In my sourer moments I find myself persuaded that Bertie Wooster's verdict on aunts also applies to politicians: "It is no use telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof."