Saturday, September 30, 2017

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by Tom Stoppard & Andre Previn

This is perhaps one of the more unusual reviews I have written. I am not an actor. Well, there were a few times back in my school days, sure, but not really. So it was certainly a change of pace to be cast in a role in an actual play. Not a speaking role, but a role nonetheless. 

This is also one of the more unusual plays I have reviewed. I expect that very few ever get the chance to see it live. The reason is directly related to the fact that I had a role in it.

Back in 1977, Andre Previn was the conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. This was before his stint as conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which is where my memory of him begins. (As an LA resident at the time, I remember it was big news when Previn retired, and Esa Pekka Salonen took over.) Anyway, Previn approached playwright Tom Stoppard with the idea of writing a play wherein the orchestra was a character. As Stoppard noted, this isn’t the sort of project one could or should say no to. The problem was, Stoppard didn’t really have any ideas about what to write. The original idea was of a millionaire who had his own orchestra. (Hey, maybe they should do that, rather than spend billions on sports teams…) But that didn’t really suggest an interesting and relevant plot. Then, Stoppard though about a lunatic with an orchestra in his head. That was more promising, but Stoppard still didn’t know where to go with the idea.

Then he met Victor Fainberg, a Soviet dissident exiled to the West, who had a fascinating story of being imprisoned in a mental hospital for his “antisocial” opinions. Things clicked for Stoppard, and the play came together. Previn wrote the music, and the whole thing was premiered for Queen Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee. Patrick Stewart and Ian McClellan were among the actors in the original.

I was able to find an online copy of the script (which is otherwise really hard to find). You can read it here in PDF, along with Stoppard’s introduction to the play, which is quite fascinating.

The main characters are two patients in the asylum, both named Alexander Ivanov. One is a political prisoner, locked up until he recants his “slander” and expresses gratitude for his treatment. The other is genuinely insane, and hears an orchestra in his head. Not just an orchestra, but a rather bad one. For purposes of clarity, the sane man is called “Alexander” in the script, while the mad one is “Ivanov.” However, both are referred to as “Ivanov” by the other characters.

There are four other characters in the play. The psychiatrist is also an amateur violinist in a real orchestra. (Which means in some scenes, he mimed along with us. We also parodied his practicing - there are a lot of musical jokes in the score, and they often come at the expense of the characters.) Alexander’s son Sacha struggles with his father’s imprisonment, and also rebels against the system. His teacher (unnamed) tries to make him conform. The final character is the Colonel, who must ultimately make the decision whether to free Alexander.

The play is a dark comedy. It ends on a positive note, but it is pretty tragic in the middle. It is also quite humorous, with music, geometry, politics, medicine, and more up for biting satire. A knowledge of music does help in understanding some of the jokes, as does a familiarity with Russian literature.

The opening scene begins with the orchestral overture, which Ivanov is conducting - and accompanying with a triangle. But it is not going well, clearly, and he cuts the orchestra off, complaining about them to Alexander.

Ivanov: I know what you are thinking.
Alexander: It’s all right.
Ivanov: No, you can say it. The cellos are rubbish.

It goes downhill from there, with successive sections of the orchestra being roundly abused by Ivanov, who really wishes he could have a better orchestra. Previn’s score includes crazy dissonances and weird rhythms to illustrate the jumble of Ivanov’s mind. It is supremely challenging stuff. 

 A bit of the violin part.

However, Ivanov has a fondness for musicians, even if he is tormented by his orchestra. He mentions that he even invites them into his home and feeds them real food. But he is mixed up in his head, and things don’t quite come out right.

Listen, I’ve had clarinet players eating at my own table. I’ve had French whores and gigolos speak to me in the public street, I mean horns, I mean piccolos...

Ivanov insists that Alexander tell him which instrument he plays. Alexander is not a musician and says so, but Ivanov won’t take no for an answer. Poor Alexander is legitimately afraid for his life given Ivanov’s erratic and aggressive behavior. The doctor has to figure out how to cure Ivanov, if possible, and “cure” Alexander, who will have none of it.

In a rather funny exchange, the doctor tries to convince Ivanov that while he, the doctor, plays in an orchestra, Ivanov does not.

Doctor: Did the pills help at all?
Ivanov: I don’t know. What pills did you give them?
Doctor: Now look, there is no orchestra. We cannot make progress until we agree that there is no orchestra.
Ivanov: Or until we agree that there is.
Doctor: But there is no orchestra. I have an orchestra, you do not.
Ivanov: Does that seem reasonable to you?

Alexander later complains about Ivanov to the doctor. The doctor notes that Ivanov complains about Alexander too:

Doctor: He complains about you too. Apparently you cough during the diminuendos.

I’m with Ivanov on this one.

The doctor and Alexander go at it on this and other occasions regarding the problem of Alexander’s incarceration. The doctor is a pragmatic man. He would like to help Alexander get out, but explains that he has to pretend to have treated Alexander, and Alexander must pretend the “treatment” cured him. But Alexander refuses to play the game, instead going on hunger strike. This is inconvenient, because Alexander’s name is known to the West, so his death would crack the facade that the Soviet Union has stopped murdering dissidents.

The problem, of course, is that the Soviets cannot handle dissent, and must suppress it by whatever means are necessary.

Alexander: I have no symptoms. I have opinions.
Doctor: Your opinions are your symptoms. Your disease is dissent.

The doctor indicates that the case is being personally handled by the Colonel, who is a “doctor,” but not a psychiatrist.

Alexander: What’s his specialty?
Doctor: Semantics. He’s a doctor of Philology, whatever that means. I hear he is a genius.

Later, Alexander and Sacha have a dialogue (but they are in different places, so it is a disconnected dialogue.)

Sacha: Papa, don’t be rigid. Be brave and tell them lies. Tell them lies! Tell them they cured you! Tell them you’re grateful!
Alexander: How can that be right?
Sacha: If they’re wicked how can it be wrong?
Alexander: It helps them to go on being wicked. It helps them to think that perhaps they are not so wicked after all.
Sacha: It doesn’t matter. I want you to come home.
Alexander: And what about all the other fathers? And mothers?
Sacha: It’s wicked to let yourself die!

This is a really telling moment. In a month where the term “grateful” has been thrown around as what protesters should be, it seems quite relevant. People should just stop protesting injustice, and show gratitude that it isn’t worse. On a related note, “ungrateful” is the “uppity negro” of the 21st Century. I think Alexander has it right. By playing the game, going along with the system, he would be allowing those who continue the system to think of themselves as less evil. And our modern protesters against a system of white supremacy would, by remaining silent, allow those who continue to benefit from and support that unjust system to think that they are somehow not really complicit with evil. This has come up too regarding my ongoing protest against Trump and those in the GOP who are openly white supremacist. I understand it makes people who voted for them uncomfortable. That is the point. I and others are here to remind you that you bear moral responsibility for the harm that comes to people such as immigrants, refugees, victims of police brutality, and those Americans in Puerto Rico who are being neglected in a way that white communities in Houston and Florida will not be. I’m not going to tell lies and pretend things are fine.

There are a number of other interesting and humorous scenes. There are also a couple of monologues by Alexander that kind of drag. I wondered about them until I read up on the play, and realized that Stoppard drew them from Fainberg’s memoirs. They aren’t just there to give background, but to give a voice to the real people who suffered under the Soviet regime.

Back to the humor. During one of the doctor’s sessions with Ivanov, he realizes he is late for his rehearsal. Ivanov is reciting his mantra about not having an orchestra, but the doctor fails to realize this, and snaps at Ivanov “of course there is a bloody orchestra.” Ivanov is thrilled to “discover” that his orchestra is “real.” And off the orchestra goes into triumphant music.

Ivanov is left by himself in the doctor’s office until Sacha comes for a visit. Ivanov impersonates the doctor, but goes off into an increasingly bizarre set of “postulates” by Euclid which confuse music and geometry.

“A triangle with a bass is a combo.”
“Two triangles sharing the same bass is a trio.”

And my favorite:

“A trombone is the longest distance between two points!”

In this particular performance, Jon Sampson played the colonel, Belle Born played Sacha, Abby Bowles-Votaw played the teacher. All were fine in these minor roles. Credit to Born for her sung parts - picking up the pitch from the music cannot have been easy given the scoring.

Ross Hellwig played Alexander. Hellwig came up from Los Angeles, and has some TV and stage credits. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a great view of his facial expressions from my angle, but overall, I think he did a fine job in the most difficult part. He seemed genuinely haunted and tormented.

Don Kruszka is well known here in Bakersfield for his puppet shows. Not only is he a talented actor, he designs and builds his puppets, which are astonishingly detailed and creative. My wife saw him act in something else a while back, but this was the first time I saw him in a full role on stage. He is quite good - and, since he got to sit with us in the violin section, we got to talk a bit. He is a down to earth guy with a sense of humor, and it was fun getting to know him.

Karl Wade took the role of Ivanov, and pretty much stole the show. It was interesting rehearsing with him, because he experimented with different takes on certain of the lines. All of the different flavors were great, fitting well with the lunatic character, even as they differed from each other.

It was challenging putting together a show like this on two rehearsals. The music isn’t easy, and we had technical issues to address. First, we only got to use the actual location and set for one rehearsal. That’s one as in “1.” Yikes. And furthermore, for reasons that are unclear - I wasn’t in the loop. We didn’t have electricity to our stand lights, and the actors lacked microphones. So full lighting and sound wasn’t in place until the performance itself. Cold sweat time. Anyway, kudos to the actors and to director Jennifer Sampson for rolling with it, and pulling off an excellent performance under trying conditions.

It was a real pleasure to be able to participate in an unusual and thoughtful production. May we all remember that totalitarianism starts with labeling dissenters as “ungrateful” and “antisocial.” Allegiance which is coerced isn’t real anyway. Respect is earned by governments no less than by people. And a trombone is always the longest distance between two points…

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Christianity and Culture PART 3: How We Evaluate Morality in the Context of Culture

Part 3: How We Evaluate Morality in the Context of Culture

In the first part of this series, Christianity and Culture PART 1: Asking the Right Questions, I explored the definitions of culture and Christianity in the sense of following Christ, and looked at how we can tell if a battle is really between Christ and culture, or just a battle between cultural preferences. I also looked at areas where the teachings of Christ very much conflict with culture, but Evangelicals have chosen the culture over Christ.

In the second part, Christianity and Culture PART 2: Scripture and Culture, I discussed the fact that the Bible was written by actual humans, who wrote in the context of their culture. I then presented my belief that scripture is most relevant when it appears to push back against the culture in which it was written, not when it appears to affirm the culture of its times. I also noted that the Culture Wars(TM) are about imposing the culture of the past on the present times - particularly the injustices and the privileges of the past.

In this part, I want to look at how we judge the action or inaction of people, past and present, for their relationship to culture. Specifically, when and how a person either goes along with or stands up against culture, and what that says about a person’s ethics and morality.

As I see it, we can divide the cases into four basic categories:

#1: Going along with the evil in a culture
#2: Going along with the good in a culture
#3: Standing in opposition to evil in a culture
#4: Standing in opposition to good in a culture

These are by no means intended to be exclusive categories of people, merely of specific actions or inactions. For example, Martin Luther stood in opposition to culture when he nailed the Theses on the church door. But he went along with the evil of anti-Semitism of his culture. On the flip side, someone like George Washington went along with the slavery of his culture while Louis XVI stood against the growing democratic culture in favor of aristocratic privilege and got shortened a little bit.

Now, let me acknowledge that good and evil are not in every case readily apparent and that we often disagree on whether something is one or the other. But really there is a lot that we can generally agree is good or evil. Likewise, “culture” isn’t monolithic, as I have pointed out in previous installments in this series. Culture wars are usually Culture versus Culture, not a lone person standing against a culture - but that does happen, as I hope to show.

Let’s unpack these a bit:

#1: Going along with the evil in a culture

This is the one where we end up judging people of the past by a different standard than the present. To use one of the above examples, most of us consider George Washington to be a pretty good guy, even though he owned slaves. But we would consider it a monstrous evil if someone today was discovered with hundreds of slaves.

Now, I hope we can agree that slavery was an evil institution, and that it was, morally speaking, wrong to own slaves. (Obviously, the Doug Wilsons of the world will disagree with me.) So we have the question as to why we judge Washington less harshly than we would a modern person?

We judge him less harshly because he was going along with the culture. In other words, his actions and inactions matched those of society and culture in his time and place. He may have acted out of ignorance (mistaken beliefs about human rights, the intelligence of Africans, and so on) or out of unwillingness to make waves, or just because there was no reason to believe differently than his culture.

Or, to put it a different way, Washington would have had to deliberately and intentionally chosen to go against his culture and didn’t. A current slave owner would be the opposite: he would have to deliberately and intentionally choose slavery against the flow of culture. 

 Guys who did some good stuff we celebrate, but also some bad stuff that their culture excused...

On another issue, we do not necessarily blame people of the past as harshly for believing women were inferior to men, for being tribalistic, or for being superstitious. We may believe they were wrong, but the degree of evil is softened by the times they lived in.

It is no virtue to go along with the crowd and do evil, but we don’t consider it as bad as intentional evil.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a certain amount of (possibly intentional) confusion between honoring a flawed person for the good that they did and celebrating the evil that they did because it was “of the time they lived in.” See below for more on this.

#2 Going along with the good in a culture

All of us do this all the time. To use myself as an example, did you know that I am opposed to segregation? I’ll bet that impressed you. Or not. Because, bully for me, I agree with the broader culture (at least most of it) on this issue. It does not take a lot of moral courage to oppose segregation in my culture. It might take some courage to, for example, go to one of Richard Spencer’s rallies and call him and his followers (correctly) Nazis, but I can guarantee you that my family and friends would not disown me for my position.

So, there is no shame in doing right when everyone else is, of course, and the world is at its best when the culture supports doing right. In fact, the beauty of a culture that supports good is that those with evil inclinations are often held in check. One example that comes to mind is that until recent electoral events, most people (at least here in California) were too embarrassed to hurl racial epithets at strangers and threaten children with deportation. The culture kept the hate in the closet, so to speak. (When you hear someone complain about “political correctness” ask them to explain what they would like to be able to freely say. It’s a real education to hear what comes out of their mouths.)

To borrow from Christ: if you only do good when it is easy, how are you better than the pagans?

#3 Standing in opposition to evil in culture

This is where true heroes reside. There is nothing more noble than to stand, at great cost to one’s self, against the tide of evil. There is a downside, however. These sorts tend to get themselves killed.

A few names come to mind: Jesus Christ, who definitely got on the wrong side of both the religious and secular authorities - but particularly the religious ones. He defied culture big time. Rosa Parks and others who defied the Jim Crow laws. William Wilberforce who opposed slavery before it was popular. Harriet Tubman, who attained the freedom of the enslaved in defiance of laws to the contrary.

And one of my favorites, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who paid for his opposition to the Nazi regime and culture with his life. He took spoke out against the religious establishment of his time, who went along with culture and hatred of the “other,” eventually writing from prison of his vision of a Christianity divorced from religion and railing against the moral stupidity in evidence within a culture and religion that lacked the moral awareness to stand against one of the greatest evils of the modern age.

He stood nearly alone against a culture who did not recognize the face of evil, but embraced a slogan-slinging tyrant who promised to make Germany great again at the expense of Jews and other ethnic and religious minorities, gays, and the disabled. And he paid with his life.

This is the hardest thing to do for two reasons. First, it requires the ability to recognize evil. Too often, evil hides well, and speaks familiar language, and leads us gently into places we never thought we would end up. But likewise, many, many people have stood up for causes that they honestly believed were noble, but who were mistaken. The late Fred Phelps, for example, devoted his life to antagonizing people to proclaim that God Hates Fags™. No doubt, he stood against culture, but I would hardly call it a stand for good against evil. More like hate directed against people who didn’t share his beliefs. Likewise, modern cultural warriors believe they are for good against evil by opposing immigration, promoting Social Darwinism, and so on. So first, being this kind of hero requires good judgment. And it requires a commentment to following the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” - the one commandment cultural warriors are most eager to avoid obeying.

Second, the true hero must be willing to sacrifice himself for his ideals. One sign that cultural warriors are not in this category is that they propose to sacrifice others to their ideals. If some refugees die, not a big deal, right? If the poor suffer from malnutrition or lack of medical treatment, it’s okay, right? If women have to stay in abusive marriages, well, God intended it. Look at who will suffer - it is never the cultural warrior. It’s always someone else. And often someone else’s children. True heroes sacrifice themselves, not others.

#4 Standing in opposition to the good in culture

If #1 represents those who lacked some degree of discernment or courage but were not true villains, #2 represents those who do right in the easy things, and #3 is where true heroes are found, #4 is where the truly evil reside.

And the problem is, this is where many cultural warriors can be found today. Certainly the Doug Wilsons of the world, who are determined to stand against every attempt to right the injustices of the past. Those who defend slavery, demean women, bully the weak, and so on. The Trumps of the world, who do likewise in their personal and not just their professional lives.

But also those who continue to oppose those who fight against racism. Those who proudly give the Nazi salute, or praise neo-Nazi novel The Camp of the Saints and stir up hatred against non-whites. Those who buck “modern” beliefs in the inherent equality of humankind. Those who seek to exclude those who do not look like them - particularly if they are poor.  Those who defy the 20th Century’s attempts to keep the poor from starving and dying from lack of medical care - insisting that they are lazy despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Those who continue to fight against the social, political, and economic equality of women (aka Feminism) - and suggest that patriarchal obedience is more important that women’s safety.

Again, look at that list. Does any of that seem to be remotely related to the commands of Christ? Do any of the above seem in any way consistent with “Love your neighbor as yourself?” I’m not seeing it. Instead, these are attempts to defy the Greatest Commandment and embrace the injustices of the past, tribalism, and selfishness. And they are indeed in opposition to the best in modern culture.

The point here is that these particular people - and political movements - are not just ordinary evil. They are the worst kind of evil. The intentionally choose to go against culture - and not to do good, but to harm others.

My problem with Evangelicalism over the last decade has been that, rather than purge evil people and evil ideas from the church, they have embraced - and protected - these people. There is nowhere that Doug Wilson can be accepted rather than rejected other than Evangelicalism. There is no group in this country who really supports Steve King - except White Supremacists...and white Evangelicals. Tucker Carlson can spew the rhetoric of the KKK (literally), and Evangelicals will continue to watch his show and repost his hate toward brown skinned people.

The problem isn’t that ALL Evangelicals embrace this. Clearly they do not. I know too many decent people who (for various reasons) remain in Evangelical churches to believe that.

The problem is that the one place where people who stand against the good in our culture, embracing the evil of the past, can feel most comfortable and supported is within the Religious Right. That a known hate group like the AFA can be promoted in church, and people just yawn when you point out the horrible things they stand for. That propaganda from open white supremacists can be re-posted and nobody is willing to say anything.

To paraphrase Saint Paul: It is actually reported that there is evil - racism, tribalism, hate, domestic violence - among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate…

THAT is the problem.


Note on celebrating evil in the past:

As I mentioned above, there seems to be confusion about the difference between honoring flawed people of the past for the good they did, and celebrating the evil that they did because it was “of its time.”

Case in point: Confederate statues.

First of all, these monuments and statues were not put in place right after the Civil War. Rather, the first boom just happened to coincide with the rise of the 2nd KKK in the 1910s and 1920s. And the speeches given at the time were pretty clear: these were intended to remind non-whites that they were not considered fully human and would not have equal rights. This isn’t a mystery - it’s the clear history.

But more than that, what are these statues and monuments honoring? Service in the cause of the Confederacy. Which was formed to defend the right of white people to own black people. It wasn’t until there was a perceived need to “whitewash” this history that the whole “Lost Cause Myth” was invented - to give a false air of nobility to an evil cause. Seriously, read the quotes by the Confederate leaders - they were clear the war was to preserve - and extend - slavery. And even if slavery was (arguably) culturally acceptable, why celebrate evil actions?

Let me give some further examples of the difference.

Richard Wagner was a rather amazing composer of operas. His composing techniques (particularly chromaticism and the use of leitmotifs) can be seen today in movie music from Star Wars on down. We can justly celebrate the beauty of his art, which is his contribution to our world.

However, Wagner was a pretty horrible person in other ways. He was a notorious womanizer, stole his best friend’s wife, left a trail of debts wherever he went, and was an anti-Semite. So we don’t celebrate that, to say the least. We acknowledge he was deeply flawed and celebrate the good he did.

What we do not do is erect a statue to celebrate his adultery. Or hold him up as example of how to treat Jewish people.

Or how about this one: Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most influential presidents when it came to the environment. Many beautiful places - including Yosemite National Park - were preserved through his efforts. He also was an early progressive, and worked to break up monopolies and prevent the accumulation of power by large companies. These were good things! And we celebrate them.

TR was also a real racist when it came to Native Americans. We don’t celebrate that. And we certainly do not hold him out as a positive example of policy toward Native Americans.

Celebrate the good. Acknowledge the bad - even if it was “normal by the standards of the times.” And certainly do not celebrate the evil.

Or how about one more: Martin Luther. We Protestants celebrate him because he challenged the evil in the Roman Catholic Church, and essentially started the Reformation. I believe that this was actually a positive thing for the Catholic Church as well, as it forced needed reforms, and began to separate it from politics. Without the Reformation, the Enlightenment probably wouldn’t happen, and we may never have gained either representative government or a separation of church and state. These were good things!

But, as I laid out in a previous post, Luther was also strongly anti-Semitic, and proposed pogroms against Jews. It was his screed that was used by the Nazis to justify the Holocaust as a Christian act. Was this “of its time”? Yes. Was it evil? Also yes. And that’s before we get into Luther’s views on women

So, we celebrate the good that Luther did. But we don’t put up a statue to him in Jewish neighborhoods.

And this brings us back to the point. Celebrating Confederates like Robert E. Lee - or KKK founders like Nathan Bedford Forrest - is by definition celebrating the evil they did. Without the Civil War or the KKK, would anyone care who they were? Probably not. Their entire claim to fame was because of the evil they did. We need to acknowledge that, and stop celebrating their evil.


WOULD you have supported Civil Rights?

When I was a kid (and after as well) plenty of the adults in my life made the claim that had they been around (or old enough) during the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement, they would have done the right thing. Really?

Well guess what? We are in another civil rights era. A revealing light has been directed on our policing, on our immigration policies, our voting laws, and on our prejudices.

I am seeing that quite a few of those who boldly claimed that they would fight for civil rights are, well, opposing civil rights now.

And I don’t want to hear the excuses. When our fellow Americans (and often fellow Christians) say there is a problem, why are we so allergic to listening and trying to make things better?

Sunday, September 24, 2017

When Books Went to War by Molly Manning

Source of book: I own this.

My wife was given this book by one of her family members. It looked interesting, so I decided to read it too.

In many ways, World War Two is the defining moment of the 20th Century. It was the last gasp of nationalism as a justification for war in Western Europe - really, the last strong assertion of 19th Century political philosophy, and the final fall of dictatorship in that region. True, it would live on in the nationalistic dictatorships of the USSR for another 50ish years, but Germany and Italy would transition to constitutional democracies thereafter, and Western Europe would enjoy an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity.

I have written before about how similar Nazism and Communism are to each other. Both embody the idea of a nationalistic utopia attainable by totalitarianism and the rejection of globalist ideals - and ideas. In both cases, it was deemed necessary to purge the nation of “un-German” or “un-Soviet” books. This idea of ideological (and usually racial) “purity” is central to all totalitarian systems, including religious ones.

Thus, in 1933, after the Nazis took over German, mass book burnings took place. It is estimated that over 100 million books were destroyed. That many of the books deemed unacceptable were written by Jews was not coincidental. The parallel with Communism is likewise unmistakeable. Ideological purity demands the revocation of freedom of speech and freedom of thought. I will also mention that the cult group I spent my teens in recommended burning of certain books - and toys - that were deemed too evil to exist. (Such as, to name one author, J.R.R. Tolkien.) The totalitarian instinct is the same however it is expressed. 

 History is important...

When it became apparent that the United States would enter the war, certain visionary individuals realized that the war was not just one fought by weapons and bloodshed. It was, at its core, a war about ideas. As the Council on Books in Wartime - the organization founded to provide reading material to US soldiers - noted in an essay kicking off their effort, the fighting wasn’t just taking place on the field, but in the realm of ideas. They correctly noted that the single most destructive weapon in the war wasn’t a bomb, it was Mein Kampf. That book caused an entire nation - an educated nation no less - to burn the great books. And that book furthermore caused millions of otherwise decent people to turn on their countrymen and viciously exterminate millions.

The types of books the Nazis destroyed are interesting. Goebbels specifically targeted books deemed “progressive,” singling out books about pacifism, socialism, reform, and sexual freedom. Is it any surprise that today’s right, which tolerates - even embraces - open Nazi slogans and symbols wishes to target these same ideas? One of the startling things about reading the Nazi propaganda is just how similar it is to the “traditional values” propaganda today - the bullcrap the Culture Wars people keep peddling. Return to the glory days of the past. Racial and cultural purity. Women belong in their place and need to have more babies so that the “foreigners” don’t out reproduce them. Stop feeding the inferior races and classes. And so on. Nothing has changed - this poison is back with a vengeance right now.

And so it was back then. In the days before the war, there were a surprising number of Americans who were sympathetic to Nazi ideals. (Not least of which was the KKK - which today likewise is in sympathy with neo-Nazism.) White Supremacy was pretty open in society back in the 1930s and 1940s. As Selden Menefee’s book (and later radio dramatization) noted, “large segments of the population are more interested in keeping the Negro in his place than in keeping Hitler and Tojo in their places. The resulting dissention must be very gratifying to Dr. Goebbels.” In another telling segment, a Southern politician tells Menefee that there is no “racial question.” “There is white supremacy, and there always will be white supremacy. We have no patience with fellas in Washington, with their anti-lynching bills, their anti-poll-tax bills, and their anti-discrimination clauses in war contracts.” Again, it has been disturbing to see this basic idea raise its head - and come to power again.

Even some of those who weren’t openly pro-Nazi instead adopted isolationist ideas. The US should just stay out, and look out for its own interests first and last. (Sound familiar?) Men like Wendell Wilkie argued the opposite, that countries need to cooperate with each other in order to achieve lasting peace and mutual prosperity. (In other words, a more globalist view. I am shocked that, after a half century of relative peace, this idea is controversial. Back even a decade ago, conservative politicians at least agreed that mutual trade relations helped support a peaceful world. Make profit, not war, right?)

To counter these poisonous ideas which very nearly destroyed free society 75 years ago, a group of people set out to make sure that the fighting men of the US military had free access to the world of ideas - particularly those which the Nazis deplored. And they succeeded in an amazing way. Furthermore, these idealists hoped to counteract the forces of White Supremacy in our own country. When Books Went to War tells this story.

The story is pretty compelling. There certainly was a demand for books by the soldiers. The war (as with most modern wars) consisted of hours of waiting punctuated by moments of terror and chaos. Those long hours needed to be filled by something other than thinking about dying or killing, and books were the perfect solution. So books needed to be provided.

There were two main phases of the effort. The first was a volunteer collection of books from private individuals. Millions of books were donated and sent to the military units. This was both good and inadequate. The books filled a need for a while, but they worked best at training camps and headquarters - not so well in the field. First, most books at the time were larger hardbacks. They were difficult to carry, heavy, bulky, and didn’t stand up to combat well. Eventually, it became clear that more was needed.

With that in mind, the Council convinced Congress to appropriate funds, and the major publishers to provide books at a very low cost, and the Armed Services Edition series was created. Eventually, millions of copies of over 1300 titles were distributed in light, compact, durable paperbacks to the troops.

Titles were carefully selected to represent a broad range of topics, taste, and genre. Poetry, westerns, classics, non-fiction, bestsellers, and more were all part of the series. Care was taken to find titles that were in demand, and that the soldiers enjoyed.

One interesting and gratifying result of this program was that many soldiers who were not readers before the war became addicted to reading. There wasn’t much else to fill the time, and peer pressure also helped encourage everyone to read. As a result, the men who came back from the front were generally better read and informed than they would have been otherwise, and an entire generation discovered literate reading.

[Side note: unfortunately, this effect failed to take hold in subsequent generations. The Baby Boomers were the first television generation, and even today, they are the generation least likely to have read a book in the last year, to have read a book since college, and so on. Millennials are actually more likely to be readers.]

There were some interesting books among the many titles. Perhaps the most beloved was A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. Also popular for nostalgic reasons was Chicken Every Sunday by Rosemary Taylor. I might have to seek that one out. Also notable was The Great Gatsby, which had been languishing in obscurity prior to the ASE program, but became wildly popular after it was “discovered” by the soldiers. I also have a fondness for the very first ASE book: The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N by Leo Rosten (originally under the pseudonym Leonard Q. Ross), one of my favorite humorous books - and one that humanized immigrants to me in a very real way.

There were some hiccups, however, in book selection. And, as is always the case when it comes to book controversies, the challenges came from the usual suspects: politics and religion.

On the politics side, the Republicans, horrified at the idea that Roosevelt might win a fourth term, snuck a bill through that essentially prohibited books with political ideas from being part of the ASE program. This was part of the greater fight over voting by soldiers - since most of them supported Roosevelt, active efforts were made to suppress their votes or influence their opinions in one direction or another. In what has to be one of the most impressive counteroffensives, libraries, publishers, and the armed forces leadership all pushed back against the bill. As the Council chairman at the time, Archibald Ogden, said, given the restrictions, all they would be able to publish was the Bobbsey Twins and Elsie Dinsmore. (That last one is darkly hilarious in retrospect. The Elsie Dinsmore books were super popular in the most Fundie homeschooling circles, of course. But they are far from free of politics. Rather, they are deeply racist and authoritarian. As in, if they are good Christians, black people will get to be white in heaven level racist. As in obey your abusive father and marry a man twice your age authoritarian.)

Fortunately, this counter effort was successful, resulting in the repeal of the bill. If anything, the Republican effort at suppression of political ideas backfired, particularly after it came to light that a German professor had predicted back in the 1930s that the Americans would ban their own books - the Nazis wouldn’t have to do it.

The other threat came from religion, specifically in the form of moralizers worrying about sexual content in some of the books. Some of these were not particularly high art, such as Forever Amber, a pulp bodice ripper. But the other book that came in for special censure was Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith, which told of an interracial relationship. Both books were at one time banned by the USPS - until Eleanor Roosevelt (rapidly becoming one of my heroes…) insisted the bans be lifted. In addition, the city of Boston banned them. Just in case you wondered where the phrase “banned in Boston” came from. Ogden stood firm on the subject, armed with the knowledge that the servicemen were on his side. He quoted one infantryman’s letter as follows:

“Pay no attention, absolutely no attention, to whatever organization tries to influence your selection of books. If the legion of decency approaches you, please leer at them in your most offensive manner, and tell them to stuff it.”

And the books that were challenged sold - as they generally tend to after an attempt to ban them. Ogden quipped, “It’s beginning to look as if all an author has to do to get into the armed forces library is to be banned in Boston.” Needless to say, this censorship attempt failed rather dramatically.

There was one issue, however, that did cause great consternation and loud complaints on the part of the soldiers. Occasionally, something would go wrong, and a book would turn up missing pages. I feel the pain, believe me. Nothing could be worse than getting partway through a book and not being able to finish it. Such mistakes were corrected, and soldiers which had an issue were given replacements.

The book concludes with some interesting information about the aftermath of the war. One of the key pieces of post-war legislation was the G.I. Bill, which provided free education to (most) veterans. Combined with the new-found love for books that the returning soldiers had and a thirst for knowledge (to the point where younger students complained they were wrecking the grading curve), the G. I. Bill led to a boom in skilled and educated workers in the 1950s - surely one of the contributing factors to the economic boom which ensued.

That said, the author correctly notes that not everyone was included. Because of segregated schools, African Americans did not have much in the way of opportunities to take advantage of the bill. Thus, racial inequality was increased. Likewise, women were not just ineligible, they were actively pushed out of the workforce to make way for the men.

Perhaps the best lesson to draw from this, though, is that investments in education and literacy pay dividends. Again, I am shocked that this is even controversial these days, and that state universities continually have to fight for adequate funding. But perhaps this too is a symptom of what ails the Boomers. Not valuing books much themselves, and benefiting from the prosperity the previous generation created, they haven’t been eager to pare back their own lifestyles to invest in the the Millennials, preferring to whine about how bad the kids all are. But, if they took a good hard look at the past, they might note that making America great requires an educated public, skilled workers, and investment of the public resources to make that happen.

It is mostly coincidence that I happened to finish this book at the beginning of Banned Books Week. But it fits.

The pattern of totalitarian systems of any age has been to suppress knowledge, eliminate dissent, and burn or ban books. In the war of ideas, knowledge is key - and empathy too. The best defense against the onslaught of fake news and hatemongering is real knowledge, real facts, and the ability to empathize with people outside the tribe. Books have always been crucial in this battle of ideas. Unlike clickbait articles or 140 character sound bites, books allow a bigger picture to be seen, people to be fully humanized, and ideas to be fully developed. Infowars and Stormfront are the Mein Kampf of our time, and the ideas haven’t really changed. They have just been re-packaged. One of the things that gives me optimism for the future is that younger people are more likely to be readers.

As this book shows, it isn’t just enough to have freedom to read. We must actually read, or we are missing the point. There is much for all of us to learn, and access to great ideas has never been easier. We owe it to ourselves, to others, and to our children to continue to learn and explore, and cultivate a love of knowledge, wisdom, and learning in our children.