Mike Huckabee once said this about Barack Obama:
Which prompted the following response by Stephen Colbert:
The important thing isn’t where the Mau Mau Revolution happened. The important thing is for people to start associating Barack Obama with the words “Mau Mau.” After all, wherever not in the United States the President grew up, he had a different childhood.
[ … ]
And you know what? You know what, sir? You know what, if it makes you a little more comfortable, feel free to throw in a Kenya here, a Kenya there, here a Kenya, there a Kenya, everywhere a Mau Mau.
President Obama, during his recent National Prayer Breakfast address, said this: “In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” As commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out in an article about the outcry over Obama’s remarks, “There were a fair number of pretexts given for slavery and Jim Crow, but Christianity provided the moral justification.”
I was raised in the Southern Baptist church, a church that in 1845 split with the Baptists over the issue of slavery (you can guess which side the Southern Baptists were on). Until I was twelve or so, I went to church every week. By then I had learned to associate bigotry with Christianity, and specifically with the Southern Baptist church.
I know, I know: my feelings about Southern Baptists won’t stand up in court. There’s bigotry in every faith. Rick (“I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money”) Santorum is a practicing Catholic. So is Mel (“You look like a fucking pig in heat, and if you get raped by a pack of niggers, it will be your fault”) Gibson.
But I grew up with Southern Baptists. When I heard words like “nigger” and “nigger lover” being spat out, it was Southern Baptists spitting them.
Southern Baptists preach that only born-again Christians, people who make up the congregations of conservative evangelical Protestant churches, can go to heaven. For people of other faiths, including fellow Christians who are Catholic or who belong to non-conservative Protestant denominations (never mind Jews, Muslims, etc), the default destination is hell. Period. If the basic tenet of your religious faith is intolerant bigotry, other forms of intolerance and bigotry are bound to follow.
I don’t apologize for my antipathy toward Southern Baptists. It’s one of the few childhood prejudices I haven’t been able to overcome … and I admit I haven’t tried very hard. Southern Baptists, regardless of whatever good they do, regardless of how they say they’ve changed, are close to the heart of intolerance and bigotry in this country.
I started this rant with the statement that turned me into a lifelong enemy of Mike Huckabee. For some reason the media still seems to think of Mike Huckabee (a Southern Baptist, by the way) as a nice guy. Maybe that’s because he smiles as he utters his hate-filled lies. He’s the Ronald McDonald of bigotry. And a most dangerous man.
“A low sound, barely audible at first, made him turn his head. For a moment he seemed almost puzzled. The sound was faint but growing and unmistakable, like distant thunder. It was engines, wide open. They were as if headed towards him. He could hear them, full and unwavering, suddenly very close, almost overhead, roaring down the runway, low, but in the clouds. He never saw them. Then they had passed, but the sound stayed there, heavy and prophetic, before slowly fading, leaving silence behind.” — James Salter, Cassada
Salter was there long before me, two wars — Korea and Vietnam — earlier, but judging by my experiences at USAF fighter squadrons in Germany and the Netherlands in the late 1970s and early 1980s, things in my day were no different than in his, and he has captured it exactly.
I know Salter’s pilots. I know their wives. I know the solitariness of flying single seat jets, one of the most individualistic of military occupations. I know the weather in Europe, and how it can suddenly go below minimums everywhere at once. I know what it is to be the new guy, minutely observed in everything you do as you strive to become accepted as a fighter pilot among fighter pilots. I also know what it is to be a seasoned squadron member, closely observing and making judgments on green lieutenants. I know what it is to see a new guy realize he’s not cutting it and will never fit in, and the haunted look in his eyes. I know what it is to lose a fellow pilot — weak or strong — and the profound effect it has on squadron mates, supervisors, and commanders.
Salter was there, and by our great good fortune has the gift of being able to write about it in a direct, spare, yet very personal way. The central drama of the book centers around a new guy, Cassada, in an F-86 squadron in Germany. The climactic event of the story seems on the surface mundane: Cassada, still an inexperienced wingman, is forced to take the lead when lead’s radio fails above terrible weather which has suddenly shut down almost every airfield in Germany, Spain, and France, and with fuel running low must take the flight down to absolute minimums to find the only runway they can land on. Having been in similar situations, I unconsciously tensed up as I read, and was emotionally exhausted when I finished the book — which I devoured in one intense sitting. Damn.
Salter not only makes me want to fly again, he makes me want to write. I mean that as high praise. Just as I admired the fighter pilots who had mastered their craft, looking up to them and striving to be like them when I was wet behind the ears, so I admire and strive to write half as well as James Salter.
The Zone of Interest
The Holocaust still has the power to punch you in the gut. I don’t think we’ll ever get used to the fact of it; that it not only happened but was conceived, organized, and carried out by people not unlike us. A love story and novel of manners set in the inner management circles of Auschwitz is a sly way to approach the subject, but the net effect is the same: it knocks the wind right out of you.
The good, highly readable Martin Amis is at work here; The Zone of Interest is a guilty pleasure, one of the more interesting and engaging novels I’ve read in some time.
The characters are, I believe, fictitious, but appear to be based on historical figures involved in the administration of the Auschwitz death camp and the nearby IG Farben Buna Werke, an industrial plant being built with concentration camp labor in order to produce synthetic rubber and oil for the Nazi war machine. Some of the horrors of the Nazi’s extermination programs are explicit and central to the novel, but many occur just off the page and are incidental to the plot, thus hitting the reader in a series of stealthy blows, administered when no one is looking, leaving bruises on parts of your body that won’t be noticed by others.
Another Goodreads reviewer pointed to a superficial similarity between The Zone of Interest and television’s The Office; the comparison is apt in that we’re privy to the thoughts and recollections of a few central characters who have quite different, sometimes deluded, perceptions of what’s going on. And yes, like The Office, the conflicts between what characters choose to see and what actually goes on is the source of humor, and that’s where most of the guilty pleasure of reading this novel comes from.
It’s clear Amis has researched his subject in depth. He’s just as shocked as his readers, and doesn’t try to hide it.
My overall reaction to The Zone of Interest? Brilliant and deeply disturbing.
Acceptance (Southern Reach #3)
Acceptance, the third book of the Southern Reach trilogy, doesn’t close the circle, but what could? The entity in Area X is unknowable, even by those who have seemingly become part of it: the lighthouse keeper, the biologist, Control. And because it is unknowable, we can’t understand why it’s here and what it’s doing, or even if it is consciously doing anything other than being. As I said in my review of the first book, Annihilation, “I’ve always felt that if we ever encounter something truly alien we won’t be able to understand what we’re seeing; our minds will instinctively reject it and we might not even be able to look directly at it. Such is the case with whatever is growing inside Area X.”
Unclosed circle or not, Acceptance is a brilliant finish to VanderMeer’s story. I accept what I cannot understand. The problem right now is how to review the book without retelling the story. I can’t and won’t, no worries.
VanderMeer has written a remarkable story; it is both the stuff of dreams and reality, from shifts in physical location and time to the smell of reeds and decomposing vegetation in brackish tidal water, from visions of destroyed worlds and the limbo-like fate of previous expedition members to village life in the pre-Area X “forgotten coast.”
Area X is in my head now, and isn’t going anywhere. I’ll remember these books for a long time to come.
Fat Man and Little Boy
I struggled to assign meanings to characters and events in Fat Man and Little Boy, all the while aware that attempting to do so was wrong-headed and futile. Little Boy and Fat Man, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs, born as human brothers at the moment of their detonations, three days apart? Sure. Extinguished Japanese souls attempting to be reborn, literally under the brothers’ feet? Okay. But what am I to make of the policemen, the short and the tall one? What do they represent? And for that matter … why France, why Masumi, why Rosie and Magnolia and Able and Baker?
What if this were a straight novel about odd, parentless, horribly filthy brothers who move from wartime Japan to post-war France, find a family and gradually become functioning humans, then take a short vacation in Hollywood? It wouldn’t pass muster. It wouldn’t be interesting. It wouldn’t justify its own existence. The conceit of atomic bombs exploding and being born as human brothers is what makes this novel worth reading. But where is Meginnis going with this conceit?
Questions upon questions! Fat Man lives with guilt, but why doesn’t Little Boy? Or are Little Boy’s physical failings the manifestation of guilt? The profuse life Fat Man and Little Boy spread about them is at first deformed and unviable, paralleling the effects of radiation in the survivors of the bombings and following generations. But why then, over time, do Fat Man and Little Boy’s progeny become normal and healthy?
Today many consider the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities a criminal act, but it was hardly considered so in 1945 or for many years afterward; it ended a horrific war that would have gone on to kill even more people than if the bombs not been used. Is that the meaning of the happy, well adjusted, celebrity actors Able and Baker? Are the former Vichy French Jewish internment camp and the frequent mentions of Marshal Pétain meant to force a comparison between the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities with the deliberate conduct of genocide by the Nazis and their puppet states?
But I babble. I’ve finished a book with more questions than I had when I started it. I could say the central conceit of the book doesn’t hold together, leaving readers frustrated and adrift. I could say the book is more poetry than novel, beautifully crafted despite its ambiguities, forcing readers to think and wonder. I choose the latter.
Birdman (Jack Caffery #1)
This is the first of Mo Hayder’s Jack Caffrey crime novels, and the second one I’ve read. Overall, I’ve been up and down with Mo Hayder. The other Jack Caffrey novel I read, Ritual, was readable but didn’t make much of an impression on me, other than the horrific cave-like flooded and buried canal one of the female characters found herself trapped in. Another novel, Pig Island, was laughably silly. The Devil of Nanking, however, was quite good, as is Birdman.
What all Mo Hayder novels seem to have in common is the author’s love of evil villains, and by evil I mean horrifically so: she specializes in gothically elaborate scenes of torture, bodily mutilation, spiritual humiliation … if it’s X-rated human evil you’re after, Mo’s your girl. She’s comfortable with her sadistically twisted bad guys, and has a knack for making readers shiver. As for the good men and women who pursue her unspeakable villains, she gives them life. You don’t find paper cutout characters in a Mo Hayder novel.
While Hayder’s stories are up and down, her writing is uniformly good, and I confess to a slight addiction. I’ll be back for additional chills and shivers.
Frederic C. Rich
An interesting essay, in the form of a novel, about how the Christian dominionist movement might take the reins of power in the USA. As I started reading I thought of Sinclair Lewis, who in 1935 wrote a famous novel titled It Can’t Happen Here; I was not surprised, a few chapters into Christian Nation, to see references to Lewis’s satirical novel.
Christian Nation might have been readable as a satirical novel. Instead, it’s an earnest, long-winded polemic with paper-thin characters who all talk the same, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of another author: Ayn Rand. As I progressed through Christian Nation, I found myself flipping through page after page of fictional speeches and addresses, much as I once flipped through the dreadfully tedious pages of Atlas Shrugged.
The trouble is, I’m fascinated by the possibility of a Christian dominionist or fascist takeover (take your pick; they’re much the same thing), and I wanted to see how Frederic Rich thinks such a thing could play out, so I made a mental adjustment and began reading Christian Nation as an essay, picking out the steps and stages whereby his fictional dominionists come to power and impose their theocracy upon the USA.
I say fictional domionists, but the first half of Christian nation, which deals with the years between 2001 to 2008, is pretty solidly based on the actual history of the movement and peopled with living characters: Ralph Reed, John Ashcroft, Tom Coburn, Ted Cruz, John McCain, Sarah Palin, the founders of Christian “colleges,” leaders of the homeschooling movement, prominent creationists … people whose words and deeds we can follow in the news today, people who’ve made no secret of their desire to see America become a Christian theocracy. As Rich says at the conclusion of his first chapter: “They said what they would do, and we did not listen. Then they did what they said they would do.”
I saw men and women like this begin to take control of US Air Force leadership in the 1980s and 1990s (they appear to have solidified their grip in the years since I retired). The Air Force Academy, from which these leaders come, sits in Colorado Springs, a hub of pentecostalism in the USA. For the past few years I’ve been writing a regular column on book banning in the USA, and as a result have become sensitive to attempts by the religious right to dictate what is taught in public schools, not just creationism and the belittling of science but also the whitewashing of history in accordance with the doctrine of American exceptionalism. In other words, I study dominionists in real life and have become something of an alarmist; in Frederic Rich I find a fellow alarmist.
Christian Nation is an interesting exercise in what-iffing. It’s a bad novel, though, which explains my relatively low rating. A book like this needs to readable if people are going to read it, and I think only people who share Rich’s concerns are likely to wade through it. It’s instructive to look at reader reviews from religious right readers on Goodreads and Amazon: they leave one-sentence denunciations stating how much they hate it, calling it leftist crap. One can safely assume they didn’t read more than a few pages. People like that would love to take charge of what we’re allowed to read and learn … and they will if we let them.
President Obama talks about Islam often, and he never fails to label terrorist attacks as terrorism. He avoids using the phrase “Islamic terrorism,” however, as many on the right demand he do. I’m with Obama on that. Too many Americans have decided the Muslim faith — its prophet, its holy book, its madrassas, its imams, its believers — is the problem, not groups of terrorists hiding under its umbrella, and are clamoring for a holy war against Islam itself. Should Obama start using the phrase “Islamic terrorism,” he’d be blessing holy war, with consequences we can’t even guess at.
Logically, you can’t blame Islam for the actions of terrorists who claim to be Muslim, any more than anyone blames Christianity for the evils done in its name. Emotionally … well, that’s another thing. ISIS is holding a 26-year-old American woman hostage. Imagine the reaction in this country if they execute her and put a video on YouTube. I’d hate to be an American Muslim.
But wait. About an hour ago ISIS claimed the American woman hostage was killed in the air strikes carried out by Jordanian warplanes yesterday.
If this turns out to be true, I don’t think Americans will react the way they would if the American woman were to be executed on video. But what do I know? Emotions are running high, and anything can happen.
Would I shed a tear if we dropped nukes on ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria? Nope, not a single tear. Yes, I know this is impossible and stupid, but I too am emotional about ISIS, and tempted to blame an entire religion for the actions of a few.
My wife loves Brian Williams, the NBC Nightly News anchor. She was busy planning a bridge party and didn’t see his on-air apology for lying about being shot down in a military helicopter in Iraq.
I’m not going to tell her about it. She’ll learn about it somehow or other, but if it comes from me she’ll think I’m reveling in his comeuppance.
I’m not sorry for him, but I’m not gloating, either. It’s a common human failing, trying to grab the shirttails of glory as it whizzes by. There’s a person in my family who claims he had an appointment on the 100th floor of the World Trade Center the morning of September 11, 2001, a meeting he was unable to get to because he couldn’t catch a cab in time. I know other people who claim they were supposed to be on flights that crashed, killing everyone aboard. I worked with one of those “stolen valor” assholes, a guy who claimed to have been a SEAL when it fact he washed out of Army boot camp because he couldn’t hack it. You would not believe how many Caspar Milquetoast types, upon learning I flew fighters for the USAF, have told me tall tales about their flying exploits.
So Brian Williams is just another chickenhawk, huh? What a surprise.
Two days ago Schatzi got into a scrap at the dog park. There were eight or nine balls on the grass, but Schatzi took a shine to one in particular, a thick rubber orange job about the size of a tennis ball. She’s going blind but still has some vision, and I suspect she could see this one more clearly than the others. The orange ball, though, had already been claimed by another dog, and that dog was determined to defend it.
The other dog lay down on its belly with the orange ball between its front paws. Schatzi stood face to face with it, the hair on her shoulders and rump beginning to rise, a low growl coming from her throat. The other dog began to bristle and growl as well. The other dog’s owner decided to defuse the situation by taking the ball away. He reached between them for the ball, and the fight was on.
It lasted only a second, but such yelping and barking! Most of which was coming from the other dog owners! The man who’d reached for the ball dove into the furball and pulled his dog away. I wound up being the one to pick up the ball, which I hid in a nearby tree. Neither dog was harmed.
Afterward, with no ball to fight over, Schatzi and her opponent chilled, and the other dogs, who’d gathered round to watch the fun, went back to chasing one another around the park. The humans gradually settled down, except for the other dog’s owner, who fussily harnessed and leashed his dog and left. I began to feel a certain chill in the air. The other owners were giving me side-eye, as if they thought Schatzi and I were to blame for the ruckus. So we stayed. And after a while I plucked the orange ball from the tree and tossed it to Schatzi, who was delighted to find it again.
Did I mention our dog park has two sides, with separate gates and fences, one for small dogs and one for large dogs? And that Schatzi and I were in the small dog side? With us in the small dog side were six or seven people and a dozen dogs, mostly small breeds but not all. Mixed in were some special snowflakes … a full-sized boxer, a lab, and a golden retriever, big dogs who, their owners will swear if you confront them, would never harm a flea (until they do), are intimidated by other big dogs, and how dare you object to my breaking the rules because my dog is special?
The dog Schatzi fought with? It was the golden retriever, an animal ten times Schatzi’s size. That had no fucking business being in the small dog enclosure. Whose owner is a dog park douchebag. Give me side-eye for being in the small dog side of the park with my miniature dachshund? Oh yeah? Wanna fight?
This blog really has gone to the dogs lately, hasn’t it?
Sorry, I can’t help it. None of us can. When we look at dogs we see ourselves in them, no matter how often scientists warn us against attributing human feelings, thoughts, and emotions to non-human animals.
I think dogs are a hell of a lot like us. They grow and learn, they have distinct personalities, and they’ve lived and worked with humans since the beginnings of time. Even the most disciplined and objective scientist, I bet, goes home at night and talks to his dog.
I hope you’ll indulge me, then, as I try to get inside a dog’s head.
We live with two miniature dachshunds, Schatzi and Maxie. Schatzi is the elder, very much the alpha dog. We raised her from a tiny pup, house-training and teaching her everything she knows about living with humans. Maxie is, we think, slightly younger; she came to us as an adult, perhaps five years old, her habits and behavior around people already formed.
Their diet is regular: dry kibble in the morning, a dog treat in the middle of the day, wet food at dinnertime. The wet food consists of frozen meat pellets, which we buy in bags at the feed store and keep in the freezer at home. The pellets are made of beef, venison, lamb, chicken, rabbit, and duck — we buy a different flavor each time. Since the pellets are frozen, we have to thaw them out first. Each night at dinnertime, as the dogs are eating, we put two fresh scoops of pellets in a plastic container which we leave in the fridge to thaw for tomorrow.
When Schatzi and Maxie eat, they wolf their food in three or four gulps and finish together. Once they’re done Schatzi moves over to Maxie’s bowl to lick the last traces of flavor from it, while Maxie does the same to Schatzi’s bowl. Even so, I watch them while they eat, because sometimes Maxie is a little slower and Schatzi will try to muscle in on what’s left of her food.
What slows Maxie down is this thing she does where she jumps back from her bowl, then warily sneaks back to finish her dinner. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does it’s clear something startled or frightened her. I started wondering what that something could be.
Whatever it is, it never happens at breakfast or treat time, only at dinner and then not always. So it’s not a fear of food, nor does it seem to be deference to Schatzi’s alpha dog status. It’s something else, and I think it’s me or something I’m doing.
Lately I’ve been watching Maxie closely as she eats. I’ve observed that she only jumps back from her bowl when I do a certain thing. Like the dogs, I too have a set dinnertime routine: I put one scoop of thawed pellets in each bowl, then put the bowls on the floor. As the dogs start to eat, I turn to the freezer, open it and pull out the bag of frozen pellets, then scoop tomorrow’s dinner into the plastic container to thaw.
Maxie starts in on her dinner without a care in the world, but as soon as I make a move toward the freezer she starts keeping an eye on me. She doesn’t jump back from her bowl until I open the freezer door, or at least that’s what I thought until last night, when I tried to observe her behavior more scientifically. Last night she kept eating as I opened the freezer door, but jumped back the second I reached inside for the bag. I’ll try to confirm that at dinnertime tonight, but I don’t want to take it any farther than that.
Exactly what it is that frightens her when I reach inside the freezer for that bag I’ll probably never know. But clearly it does frighten her, and that’s the last thing I want to do to this sweet little creature, who has always been wary and shy around humans. So after tonight, I’ll change my routine and stop preparing tomorrow’s dinner until both dogs have finished eating.
Maxie and Schatzi
We think we know and understand Schatzi, since she grew up with us. Maxie was an adult when we got her, her mannerisms and habits already formed. We don’t know much about her prior life. For a year or so before she came to us, she belonged to a friend’s daughter. The daughter was starting her own life, changing jobs and moving from apartment to apartment, so she had to leave Maxie with her mother, who already had two dogs of her own. Maxie was well loved by both daughter and mother, but we thought we could give her more attention and a permanent home, so we offered to adopt her.
The thing is, Maxie lived with someone else, possibly more than one person, before living with our friend’s daughter. We know nothing about that part of her life. Was she loved then, or was she neglected or abused? She had been spayed, but that’s all we knew about her medical history. Even her age was unknown — the vet, looking at her teeth, said she was probably a year younger than Schatzi.
We once had a coyote-collie mix named Duke, who like Maxie was grown when we got him. One day I dropped a glass on the kitchen floor and reached for the broom. Duke yelped and ran for the hills. It was pretty obvious he thought I was going to beat him with that broom, and he must have had a reason to think that, poor thing.
Maxie, like Duke, is afraid of something. You can fault me for anthropomorphising, but when she jumps back from her dinner I see fear. Did a previous owner do something bad to her? Probably, but it’s hard to imagine what it could have been. If she shied away from brooms and sticks, like Duke, cause and effect would be clear. But reaching inside a freezer? What could be threatening about that? We’ll never know, but it’s real to Maxie, and now that I realize it’s scaring her I won’t be doing it any more.
Most people who adopt adult dogs and cats call them rescues. Technically, I guess, Maxie’s a rescue, but I don’t like to think of her as that. She had a pretty good life, at least the life we knew about, when we took her in. It’s not like we were rescuing her from the pound or something. We thought she’d have a more stable life with us, and that she’d enrich our lives, and that’s how it’s turned out. Is she happy? If I may be allowed to attribute human emotions to a dog, I believe she is.