'One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star'- Nietzsche
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Monthly Archives: March 2020

Martha Mitchell from Bing

 

By John Kendall Hawkins

In June 1972, Martha Mitchell, wife of US Attorney General John Mitchell, was brutally beaten in her hotel room by a thug hired by her husband to watch over her and prevent her from communicating to the public.  Steve King, the man who beat her black-and-blue and had a psychiatrist stick a needle filled with tranquilizer in her cheeky ass, never faced criminal charges, and went on to become, 45 years later, the current ambassador to the Czech Republic — a Trump appointee unanimously approved  by Congress in 2017. Isn’t that a kick in the head.

Martha Mitchell was beaten and sedated because she was on the phone to a reporter — Helen Thomas, then of UPI. The phone was literally ripped out of her hand, and out of the wall, the last thing Thomas heard before the disconnection was: “You just get away.”  Martha, known as “The Mouth of the South” or as “a real life Scarlett O’Hara” who frankly didn’t give a damn what people thought of her opinions was a “sensation” on the DC social circuit and in the Press. Newspapers could always count on her to come up with some kind of colorful anecdote.  But President Richard Nixon hated her and insisted that her husband, John, find a way to muzzle her.

Just after their arrest, Martha had seen one of the Watergate burglars on TV — Jim McCord, a former chauffeur for her children — and was calling Helen Thomas to blow the whistle. Had she been able to communicate to Thomas what she knew of McCord, and his connections to the Nixon administration, the president’s re-election campaign may have unraveled and a second term quashed. Instead, a skittish press, and an unsupportive husband, accepted the premise that she was an unstable drunk having a breakdown. People turned on her, and, as she poignantly describes in an Episode 1 Dick Cavett interview, she was never able to trust people again — a devastating proposition for someone so extraverted. Further, during the interview, she expressed fear of being shot.

All of this powerful political and psychological tension is captured beautifully in the excellent new Epix series, Slow Burn. The series purports to relate important details overlooked or left out of the master narrative about Watergate and the Nixon resignation that has evolved over the decades.  Martha Mitchell rarely features in any ‘commemoration’ of the Nixon take-down. And yet, Episode 1 of the series makes an excellent case for how the press betrayed this insider.  More importantly, producer Leon Neyfakh, makes sure we understand that there are valuable parallels between the Nixon era and the Trump circus. We now remember Steve King, but Roger Stone, who just received a 40-month sentence for lying to Congress and witness-tampering, also makes a cameo appearance to describe Nixon’s cover-up.

In an interesting symbiotic development, the Epix Slow Burn series is a visual enactment of the prize-winning podcast series by the same name presented by Slate magazine.  I watched Episode 1 “Martha”, which is free at the site, then went back and listened to the podcast, which is about a half-hour shorter than the podcast. There are extras added obviously, such as the interview with Stone, and the visual stimulation allows us to see key unfamiliar figures, like Martha, and helps conjure up a photo album of the time.  Other figures, like Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas, and old friend Tom Snyder fill in the rough edges of the era. Going back and forth between TV and podcasts, as episodes stream, seems like a winning combination.

The series promises to deliver more of these vignettes and subplots that are off the beaten narrative track — up next is “Losing Ground,” forgotten Congressman Wright Patman’s attempt — way before the Watergate Hearings made Sam Ervin a household name — to force the conspirators to come clean on the machinations behind the break-in and cover-up. Patman, as Chair of the House Banking and Currency Committee, followed the money long before Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”),  a disgruntled FBI deputy director, famously insisted that WaPo’s Woodward and Bernstein do the same.  Though House Democrats at the time had the numbers to force Watergate conspirators to testify, they declined, and, in a farcical slap at the system, Patman held a hearing and interrogated four empty chairs. Compelling stuff.

Other episodes include “A Very Successful Cover-up,” “Lie Detectors,” True Believers,” “Rabbit Holes,” “Saturday Night,” and “Going South.” Again, all of the podcasts (and transcripts) are available for free online, either at Slate, or other easy-to-find places.

Producer Leon Neyfakh closes out the Episode 1 podcast with this note to the listener, which equally applied to the viewer:

In 1975, Martha got sick. She died the following year of cancer. Afterward, her hometown erected a bust in her honor. And on the bust’s granite pedestal, there was an inscription: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” In a letter to the editor printed in her local paper in Arkansas, someone wrote, “She was a kind of a dippy saint, a dizzy yet right on the target woman to whom freedom and honesty meant more than protocol and appropriate behavior.”

No doubt, she would have had something choice to say about Trump’s appointment of her attacker to the ambassadorship of the Czech Republic. Fuck Steve King.

And fuck Roger Stone, who Jack Anderson summed up so well so many years ago, if he thinks he’ll get away with a Trump pardon. Bring it over, Frankie Pentangeli. Get in line, DJ.

By John Kendall Hawkins

 

Since things and my body are made of the same stuff, vision must somehow come about in them; or yet again, their manifest visibility must be repeated in the body by a second visibility.

    • Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind

The opening line of “No Makeup,” the fourth poem in Sharon Olds’ new collection, Arias, chuckled me up some: “Maybe one reason I do not wear makeup is to scare people.” It’s funny, has a political edge, and gets you naughtily thinking about all the people out there hiding behind masks. (I saw a girl the other day and wondered whether all those Broadway layers of foundation, BB cream, highlighter and mascara were necessary to serve me up an Italian spuckie at Subway.)  Olds’ engaging humor always leads you toward an edgy question, like: Makeup for what?

Olds, former winner of the Pulitzer and T.S. Eliot prizes for poetry (and short-listed for the 2019 T.S. Eliot prize for Arias), is in a fine fettle here.  Mixing up memory and desire, but with nothing wasted, her humane, savvy, lyrical takes on ordinary experiences, that often exist somewhere between the concrete and abstract, are thoroughly enthralling, and often movingly accessible.

Born in 1942, Olds spent her early childhood in the Bay Area before being sent East to the Dana Halls School in Massachusetts. She did her undergraduate work at Stanford and earned her PhD at Columbia University in 1972.  According to the biographical information at poetryfoundation.org, she grew up a “hellfire Calvinist,” which seems to have had a significant effect on her psychosexual development and later personal mythopoesis. She has lived in New York City for decades.

Olds has been called a “confessional” poet, in the mold of Sylvia Plath or even Emily Dickinson, but it’s not like that: confessional poets are often stuck in a personal past that can strain an empathetic read; Plath, for instance, had a Nazi Daddy thing to resolve — which she did, in the end, with gas. But Olds, for all her mother-meted (and metered) childhood abuse, survives with witty and strange ontological bursts of insight. She puts her head into gas clouds of life-affirming atoms. She never strains empathy, but seems to produce new streams of it.

She’s also too hip to be darkly backward: she’s tuned in to the Now and Future, politically, sexually, intellectually, and poetically. Her poem, “My Godlessness,” fits right in with the virtueless times we live in.  Surprisingly, and anti-confessionally, she writes:

My mother beating me was not the source

of my godlessness. The source was not

the rape and murder of my classmate, or the rapes

and murders of our fellow citizens.

It was not earth, or water, or air.

Instead, perhaps envisioning Trump and the DC circus forever intown, she writes: “The source of my godlessness was cruelty / and abuse of power, its minions were like the / flame-headed one roaring now / from the pulpit, the orange-haired extinctor.”

Arias contains six parts: Meeting A Stranger, Arias, Run Away Up, The New Knowing, Elegies, and First Child. This gives some of the game away, but there’s more. I like to think of the collection as an opera, loose, decentralized, postmodern, but full of arias — 38 of them to be exact — and leitmotifs (“My mother beat me in 4/4 time” being the main one), finely executed music, sexual tension (and colorful release), and it’s a collection that features beginnings, middles and ends.  An opera, but more Tommy than Rigoletto. And Olds is a diva from birth to death in these poems.

There are many strands and streams of themes that run through the river of Olds’ work. In Arias, she has many poems about dealing with strangers, human self-destructiveness, sexuality, motherhood, and the brilliant flashes of a personal pantheism. All that in addition to paeans to language, love, and social awareness. Where to begin an appreciation …

Early in the collection, Olds conjures up a familiar remembrance of the confusion and horror of the WTC towers coming down.  Suddenly, there is that image of white dust and smoke coming at you like a billowing fog monster, people running for cover.  In “Looking South at Lower Manhattan, Where the Towers Had Been,” the poet in Olds wants to make sense of the horror and panic, but stops herself:

…if you see me starting to talk about

something I know nothing about,

like the death of someone who’s a stranger to me,

step between me and language.

She observes: “oxygen, carbon, hydrogen” and the “sacred ashes / of strangers,” coming at the onlookers — at you, me. The in-your-face failure of humanity.

But there is humor, too (sorta), in these transactions with strangers. At the airport, in “Departure Gate Aria,” she imagines herself at the airport as a “guardian spirit,” who comes across a beclouded woman with sandals and engages her in conversation just long enough to praise how her sandals complement the woman’s garments and soul: “You look / beautiful and good,” she says, and watches the clouds disappear from the woman’s face. The poet is chuffed and thinks:

I bustled off—

so this is what I’ll do, now,

instead of kissing and being kissed, I’ll

go through airports praising people, like an

Antichrist saying, You do not need

to change your life.

Spoken like a true hell-fired up Calvanist on a comical mission from God.

And stepping back, as the poet must, she observes in “8 Moons,” the human condition, its continued dissociation (One thinks: “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.” T.S. Eliot), even into the 21st century, she considers:

We can’t imagine the length of time

it took to make the universe.

And the death of the earth—for most of us,

unimaginable, and therefore

inevitable.

A failure of vision so deep it represents a black hole in consciousness where even the brightest lights of our species must inevitably perish.

Sharon Olds is known for going to poetic places where other more angelic types fear to tread — like the joy of sexuality — as if it only belonged on TV in, say, Sex and the City, but must get itself to a nunnery in poetic form.  Olds mocks this notion immediately in “Breaking Bad Aria,” when she imagines why the shifty Heisenberg (Walter White) resonates with men: “he gets sexually aroused by / cooking meth and having / killed someone, it excites him so much he fucks /

harder than he has ever fucked—” Later in the poem, she has her own quake: “What was arousing, to me, / for three decades, was faithfulness, the / chains of orgasms extreme beyond violent /in safety.” She never lost her faith.

In “Gliss Aria” she celebrates the bliss she’s had with the gliss of her lower lips, although, she writes, “sometimes I have left them untouched, / so they cannot sing, yet they’ve been sweet to me, / liquidy, sleek, lissome, with some / faint fragrance of salted nectar.” At other times it’s more about the music, as when she carts some LPs with her over to her lover’s place and gets laid for the first time:

—my body which had hardly been touched,

even through my clothes—to be that passive

verb, with flowered in it, by a light-shedding

laughing man who seemed to not love

anyone, like a god.

Her erotic mythopoesis at work. Her caesuras opening like orchidal maneuvers in the dark.

Some of my favorite sections of her work in Arias comes in the joie de vivre and humor of her baby poems. In “Objective Permanence Aria,” Olds imagines that first self-conscious moment of delightful other-being: “What a moment it was, in my life, when my mother / would leave the room, and I knew she still /existed! I was connected to that giant /flower on legs, that huge human / bee, even when the evidence of her / was invisible to me.”  In “My First Two Weeks,” the baby drolly ‘recalls’ “I lived in a collective, / a commune of newborns” and, as for her relationship to Mom, “I commandeered those teats!” Oh, sweet liebfraumilch!

But such Blakean songs of innocence are more than balanced out by her songs of experience in a childhood of beatings at the hands of her mother. Her many arias in the collection provide a leitmotif that provide a dramatic tension, as it were, a sense that the trauma is unresolved. You read a few poems after a beating, and move on to readings that delve into depths elsewhere and then — bam! — there she is again, in “Waist Aria,” this ghost-child being told,

Young lady—go up and wait for me

with your clothes off, below the waist—

Over and over again, these words cry out from the page unexpectedly, at first, until the 4/4 time becomes the scene of a crime the poet must return to or die in.

Because of Olds’ ardent love for her mother, she keeps searching for answers in the poetry of her pain.  In “I Do Not Know If It Is True, but I Think,”  the poet introduces the musical pathology she shares with her mother, as if the mother, too, found release in rhyme and time:

My mother beat me to the meter of “Onward,

Christian Soldiers.” She speeded up

the tempo which dragged, in church—Slow-ly

On-ward Bo-ring Chris-tian Sol-diers—

and she got to give pain, maybe the same

pain her mother had given her

and her mother’s mother had given her mother

The violent hairbrush passed on like an heirloomed musical instrument for use on her behind.

She is beaten because her mother wanted a boy, pre-named Timothy, and, instead, much to the mother’s dismay, a girl emerged out of the pain and quagmire of birth. In “Timothy Aria,” Olds writes, “I had been a star, / for a while, and I did not forget that I’d been / held, once, at some length, in passionate regard.” She holds the moment like a changeling, taking simple succor in the fact that her mother can love. In “Cold Tahoe Today,” the poet sub-merges with elements and goes to watery places:  “I was an agate hunter, /a diver for transparent stone. / It meant so much to me to be / entirely inside that liquid world—” because there “No one could hit you, in there, no one could / pull their arm back fast enough / to strike.”

Several lovely poems are devoted to the release of her trauma after her mother dies.  She tends, with her sister, to her mother’s pain-driven last hours from this realm in “Morphine elegy.” She becomes mother to her mother in “Dawn Song,” laying to rest a woman never at home in the world with these words, “And I want to say, to my / mother, my journeying laborer /who wandered here, with me in her hobo /sack—I want to put her to sleep / like an exhausted animal. Sleep, baby, / Sleep.”

My favorite poems from this collection have to do with Olds’ keen sense of existence seen not merely as anthropocentric, but as pantheistic: there is a sense of identifiable godliness in everything around us. Spinoza’s Ethics came to mind at first. But Olds’ is a pantheism that is devoid of moral authority; there is no guiding god; ours is a teleology of our own making.  Nevertheless, there is a divine force identifiable in everything — right down to the molecular level.  We interpenetrate each other, breath in each other’s dust, and ripple the fabric of creation when we exhale gases.  Carl Sagan once said we are “star stuff,” composed literally of the same stuff as stars, and that opens up a whole new way of seeing existence.

These phenomenological poems include “Her Birthday As Ashes In Seawater,”

where her mother’s ashes have been dispersed, leaving  “ —her nature unknowable, dense, / dispersed, her atomization a miracle.” She is part of the sea and the sea is part of the galaxy and the galaxy is part of — at least one of the universes. A reminder that when we scale up, anthropocentrism doesn’t fare well.

“My Parents’ Ashes (New York City, October, 2001)” returns the reader to the earlier Manhattan poem, written not long after 9/11, when the acrid dust of bones and buildings was still in the air, holding memory in place. It evokes an image of her parents’ ashes dispersed 3000 miles away in the Bay.  Her evocation produces:

Maybe a molecule of her

has lain beside a molecule

of him, or interpenetrated

it, an element of her matter

bonding to an element of his

the currents carry them

back and forth under the Golden Gate.

Olds’ caesuras move back and forth with and against the current, her rhythms and imagery, stretching into the diaphanous reaches of language’s primordial brine. Returning to a place of object impermanence.

For Olds, these interpenetrations of being can be playful and funny, too, as in “Animal Crackers,” where she pokes fun at the notion of transubstantiation:

I ate Christ, and the bunny,

I want a Levine matzoh, I want

Dickinson by her own recipe,

and Keats, bright oatmeal brooch.

Pagan cannibalism; ingesting the other; incorporating the power. Or, as the philosopher Lennon said, I am You as You are Me and We are all Together-er-er.

Like most poets, especially of Olds’ calibre, intertextuality has significant influences — she’s read everybody; it can be difficult to discern  her responses to other poets’ language.  There’s some Plath, but only in an anti-Plath way; I sense Dickinson somehow in her caesuras and maybe in the loneliness at the core of her ostensible extraversion; but, in at least one poem, “Cervix Aria,” I hear Blake:

When I held a snapdragon gently by its jaws

and squeezed, so they opened, it was as if

the volt at the hinge of the maw of the blossom leaped

open at the same instant as the glug!

at the core of my body

……

We almost knew this, at five, four,

three—when we saw the truth of beauty,

our body, abashed, gulped.

I’d give her Pulitzer Prize, too, for that.

“Cervix Aria” is a poem that could probably go far in summing up the aim of this collection.  We come into the world already full of the knowledge we will spend our lives seeking — through education, socialization — and we talk each other out of wisdom, our common language is also our common ignorance. We can only approximate each other’s being. And that we do through the poetry of love.

Poetry should be heard, they say, and not just be a product of textuality, of you performing in your own mind, but listening to the actual voice of an Other, hearing the tiny resin-driven flaws as the bow creates music out of friction.  Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is a rage of flaws driven to perfection. Olds can be heard reading her from ouvre at Poets.Org, site of the Academy of American Poets, where Olds has previously held the Chancellorship.

It’s always a wise thing for an avid reader, especially of politics these days, to take a break, step away from keyboard, hands in the air, and reconnect with metaphorical language, preferably away from the madding crowd, wandering lonely as a cloud somewhere.  Go and listen. To your thoughts. And sing.

 

-30-

 

By John Kendall Hawkins

Gotta get down to it

Soldiers are cutting us down

Should have been done long ago

What if you knew her

And found her dead on the ground

How can you run when you know?

    • Neil Young, “Ohio”

It’s generally true what they say about public history — that it’s easily trivialized and forgotten, so that we can soon start over again, and make the same mistakes next time, with more brio and technology-driven enthusiasm. And don’t even get me started on personal memory. Ever since postmodernism came along and said that just because the Foo shits on you doesn’t mean you have to wear it. We don’t really know what happened, or what hit us. We’re like the dinosaurs that way. Fuck, if I can remember where I left the keys, let alone my dignity. And I tell myself: if memory doesn’t flatter, what good is it?

I’ve been reading a lot of “history” lately. And it’s only made me more confused. Last year I read a book about mosquitoes the writer referred to as General Anopheles and how her bites changed the course of history. Napoleon might have ruled America, the writer claims, except that his men couldn’t handle the still loo water of mosquito incubation. So he sold Louisiana, and abandoned Haiti. One reads, gobsmacked, that the General has been responsible for the deaths of “as many as half of the people who have ever lived.” It’s not the butterfly effect we should be worried about, but the mossie effect.

And that’s history with some sobering science behind it. When looking into history that depends on “master narratives” the whole shebang is open to question. Says Who? is what you want an answer to. It depends on your point of view, and history, married to memory, is one big parallax view. Good luck, Mr.Truth! I keep these things in mind now as I plod through accounts in time — especially ones I thought for sure I understood, accounts pounded into me by thoughtless teachers playing out careers, accounts no more valuable in the end than the J-E-L-L-O ads I started out my language life with in the Fifties. Always somebody, selling something, against my will.

These were the deconstructive tools I took with me as I read into The Boston Massacre: A Family History by Serena Zabin. Rather than yet another standard angle on the bim-bang-boom of Red Coat muskets flashing and Sons of Liberty — plus Crispus Attucks — falling that cold snowbally night in March, Zabin asks the reader to consider other factors leading up to the “massacre” that paint the evening with more familial complexities at work. As she puts it,

In an eighteenth-century Anglo-American world in which family and

government were closely connected notions, the shooting in Boston

marked not the beginning of the American Revolution but the breakdown

of a family.

The Massacre didn’t lead to treasonous insurrection immediately — and Zabin tells us why.

Sagas of surly Empire, and their overseas colonies, are often told from the point of view of sea captains, army generals, rummy sailors, and the powdered wigs who provide policies and directives from back home. But as her title suggests, Zabin is keen to provide a human vision of events, somewhat removed from mere political interpretations. It’s complicated, and humans aren’t always avatars for His Majesty’s wishes: Real people eat, shit and fuck — the Ol’In/Out — and produce other humans who do the same; they need a system that produces food, provides proper places for inevitable poopery, and protocols of attraction and opportunities to taste the punch and fall in love. But integrating military and civilian lives in a colony can get edgy, Zabin implies.

Zabin spends a few chapters describing the complicated logistics of 18th century colonial maintenance. Not many Brits wanted to be Red Coats; recruitment was not easy. Zabin cites an Irish estate manager who “bemoaned the difficulty of finding men to enlist, noting that ‘people are so full of bread, at present, that they care neither to work, nor be under any command of any kind.’” It was difficult to find incentive to join. There were sordid tales of soldierly demise in far flung colonies. Zabin writes, “Troops stationed anywhere, even on sundrenched islands in the Mediterranean, lost their will to live after too much time in isolation.” Newfoundland soldiers after only a few years there, were “reduced to mere Ideots [sic] by Drink and Debauchery.”

Marriage was discouraged in the military officer’s handbooks; women were depicted as “distractions,” shady distributors of VD, and likely to get soldiers drunk. But many of the same officers conceded that women offered valuable services. They nursed the ill, and they washed clothes — “an essential task, since privates were issued only one uniform each year (which they had to buy out of their own wages).” So marriages happened regularly, women and children became part of the military, and vice versa, in a symbiotic union that redeployed or regularly “rotated” from colony to colony. Though there wasn’t much to recommend to a would-be soldier, writes Zabin, “Putting on a red coat was one way for a young man to improve his chances at marriage.”

Zabin concentrates on the 29th Regiment as they prepare to rotate from their base in Cork, Ireland to Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1765. She discusses the harsh administrative decision-making involved in such a move, especially the rule governing accompanying families — given ship space, a provisions budget, and abiding officer reservations about women — “only one in ten soldiers” was allowed to take along his family. Under this rule, hundreds of sorry soldiers would sail, leaving their families behind in destitution for years or even life. As he planned the rotation to Halifax, Lieutenant General Robert Rich, to avoid having Cork foot the costs of providing for families left behind, worked out a scheme that allowed all families to travel with their soldiers. Happy beams all around.

Zabin focuses on one family in the 29th Regiment — the Chambers. This device allows Zabin to humanize the soldiers (from the 29th) who fired on Bostonians that fateful March night. They were as ordinary as the townies they lived amongst; they were, you could argue, the equivalent of the National Guard who took out four students at Kent State 200 years later — not hated, until they fired, and immediately changed how the middle class saw their government. The miserable languishing in Halifax, with its privations, boredom, and limited opportunity for social engagement, seems set up by Zabin as a prelude to the bustling and raucous — and healthy — environment the regiments would be called in to police in Boston.

Zabin introduces us to the grievances behind Boston’s “troubles.” In a nutshell, England had been using a hands-off or laissez faire approach to its colonies, allowing for relatively stress-free local governance with limited local taxation. Zabin paints it like a family portrait — we’re all Brits in this frame. But then, the Sugar Act of 1764 placed an excise tax on sweet stuff, and that was followed a year later by the Stamp Act, which taxed “stamped, or embossed, paper, produced in London and used in the Colonies.” Invoices, receipts and bills of lading…. Zabin writes, “The Sugar Act had provoked grumbling; the Stamp Act would produce riots.”

Bostonians were feeling distinctly underappreciated,” writes Zabin. “Having paid for the [Seven Years] war in ‘blood and treasure,’ they did not see why the new costs of empire should fall on them.” Locals published threatening rhymes such as:

What greater Joy Can New England see

Than Stamp men hanging on a tree.

Massachusetts governor Francis Bernard panicked at the popular response and expressed in ‘hurried’ letters to other governing confidantes, such as Thomas Gage of New York, that he was “feeling completely powerless and ‘extreamly weak’ in the face of a popular uprising.” He fled from the city to an island in Boston Harbor and called in, against Gage’s advice, policing regiments from Halifax. Some of his pollie pals called him “spineless” behind his back.

But though popular pressure led to the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, it was soon replaced with the so-called Townshend Acts, a series of laws that included: import duties on glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea; and the precedent-setting establishment of the British Parliament’s right to tax the colonies. Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, decided to establish a collection commission headquarters in Boston. “That meant,” writes Zabin,” that the men responsible for overseeing the new taxes, known as the Board of Customs Commissioners, would be living in a town of only sixteen thousand people,” and knocking door-to-door to collect taxes. This was a new experience for Bostonians and it didn’t go down well.

It’s into this milieu that three regiments of Red Coats and their families– including the 29th with the Chambers family — arrived in Boston from Halifax in early November 1768. Matthew Chambers “[gazing] at the buildings ahead of him and the barracks behind him on Castle William…must have wondered where his own family, once they finally disembarked, would sleep that night.” His 29th Regiment ended up pitching tents “among the cattle that grazed” on the Boston Common.

Boston’s King Street was like a grand bazaar of worldly goods, imported and local — “French Indigo, Albany Peas, Connecticut Pork, Esopus Flour, new-York Butter-Bread, refin’d Iron, Pig Iron, Ship Bread, Cordage, Anchors, Spermaceti Candles, Cotton Wool, Silk Handkerchiefs, Feathers, Logwood, &c, &c.” — and slaves. There was strain in the new comminglings. As Zabin writes, “Given this influx of more than a thousand new residents, Bostonians could not help but encounter military families at every turn: in the streets, in the churches, and eventually even in their own homes.”

Bostonians had to accommodate the surliness of starchy officers drinking to excess and mouthing off in their beloved taverns, while soldiers marvelled at the general unruliness and disorder of the populace. Still, there were record desertions, 10% annually in Boston, according Zabin. Single soldiers were beatlemania-ed by uniform-loving local lasses; other soldiers created labor friction by working jobs for lower wages.

But behind the scenes was a controlling force, a virtual secret society called the Sons of Liberty, whose espoused purpose was to seditiously resist the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and any other forms of taxation initiated in London that amounted to “taxation without representation.” No, they said. And boldly blew governmental shit up to underline their point. (Oh, those italics.) Members included Paul Revere and Sam Adams, who would become important framers of the narrative describing the Incident on King Street and its eventual catalytic conversion to revolution. Oh, and those SOLs (soon to be sons of guns) didn’t much care for Red Coats dating their daughters.

Just days before the Shooting, there was an incident involving a local ropemaker and a Red Coat. The soldier was looking for work. Zabin writes,

[O]ne rope maker offered a soldier work requiring no particular skill: cleaning his latrine. The soldier was offended at what he took to be fighting words, and a quarrel escalated over the next several days, as each side brought more friends into the fray.

A dunny-brook of words ensued, as the People (“working class people”) and Soldiers got increasingly shitty with each other.

Then one ill-lit night (quarter moon, snowy sky, no torches) on March 5, 1770, 250 years ago, after days of exchanged catcalls and newspaper doggerels, Edward Garrick, an apprentice wigmaker, with a hair across his ass, yelled out to a freezing Red Coat, Hugh White, guarding the Customs house (wherein the evil taxes were stored), and busted his balls for non-payment of a peruke. Whatever Garrick said, he crossed the White line and received a musket-whipping for his troubles. The townie cried out in pain, the soldier called for help. The commotion emptied the bars, snowballs and sticks flew, more Red Coats arrived, and then — bimmety-bangety-boomany — down dropped liberty lovers in the night. Crispus Attucks, a recently freed slave, was the first to be shot by the po-lice in Red Coats (maybe the only totally believable part of the narrative). Here’s a re-enactment.

After the event, a word fight broke out in the Press between the Sons of Liberty and more conciliatory, circumspect media voices, and the fight to frame the narrative was on. Paul Revere got on his high horse and commandeered (i.e., plagiarized) a drawing by Henry Pelham that depicted the shooting. “Pelham called his work ‘The Fruits of Arbitrary Power,’” writes Zabin. “Revere, of course, called his ‘The Bloody Massacre.’” The Boston Gazette pushed Revere’s interpretation, and most Bostonians were in no mood to consider other angles. When the Boston Chronicle settled for calling the event an “unfortunate affair,” townspeople boycotted the paper and “most of its advertisers pulled their support…; it folded less than four months later.”

The war of words continued in the “official” accounts of what happened. Sons of Liberty members James Bowdoin, Joseph Warren, and Samuel Pemberton were assigned the task of coming up with a Boston-friendly account, which was long-titled, A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston, Perpetrated in the Evening of the Fifth Day of March, 1770, by Soldiers of the XXIX Regiment. This went up against the army version of events, A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance in Boston. Both versions played for the hearts and minds of politicians, wits and wags in London. It was the shot heard — across the bow.

The trial itself was a decrescendo from the high-strung, orchestrated noise that colored accounts of the event. The officer in charge of the Red Coat shooters, John Preston, was tried separately, and though it looked grim at first, as soon as he saw two buds on the jury, he knew he’d be walking. The others got off relatively easy, too, thanks to the wise counsel of Sam’s cousin, John Adams, the future 2nd president of the U.S. Zabin writes,

In the end, the defense was almost entirely successful. Wemms,

McAuly, White, and Hartigan were exonerated. Kilroy and Montgomery

were found guilty of manslaughter, not murder, and their punishment was commuted from hanging to branding on the thumb.

The soldiers left town before they could be lynched.

By the time the trial was over all the regiments had been removed from Boston and it was no longer a garrison town. And with the tension released, temperatures simmered for a few years until, lesson unlearned, the British parliament once again imposed new taxes and it was Tea Party Time. Late in the book Zabin owns that

In the end, however, even if we had the ability to ascribe responsibility for those deaths 250 years ago, the answer would bring us no closer to understanding how the massacre brought us to the American Revolution.

After all the music of her humane re-telling, the admission is rather disconcerting.

Tea parties come and go, in some we dress as Indians and in some we dress as Mad Hatters; and there have been only a few decades, since Crispus Attucks took one for the team, that Americans haven’t been firing shots heard around the world. As Zabin points out, even today, after countless hours spent by academic interrogators trying to break the privileged code of 18th century colonial Boston, nobody really understands the argot or what caused the events of that night to happen the way they did.

TIn some depictions, the Sons of Liberty were scalawags, as much as heroes– helpful to later democracy the way scalpers (scalperwags?) outside Fenway are helpful in liberating a couple of Benjamins from your wallet for Yankees tickets. Sometimes I wonder what Paul Revere got up to when he wasn’t riding his high horse. When I think of Sons of Liberty today, I think: Revere Sugar, Hancock insurance, and Sam Adams beer.

I don’t know if I like them apples or not.

 

 

Sung to the tune of Bobby Dylan’s “Corrina, Corrina

 

Corona, Corona
I been thinking bout you
Corona, Corona
You thinkin bout me, too?
Donkeys, poultry, camel, foxes
Just left in nine assorted boxes
Flown round the world

I got a bird flu whistles
Got a bird flu sings
I got a bird flu whistles
Got a bird flu sings
But I ain’t yet got Corona
Death don’t mean a thing

(bluesy mouth harp riff)

Corona, Corona
Got me double bind
Corona, Corona
Got me testing blind
O, I just can’t believe the data
Hmm, I might just lose my mind

Corona, Corona
I been thinking bout you
Corona, Corona
You thinkin bout me, too?
Hazmat badgers, hedgehogs and rats
Mice so squirr’ly, they were chasing cats
Flown round the world

I got a bird flu whistles
Got a bird flu sings
I got a bird flu whistles
Got a bird flu sings
But I ain’t yet got Corona
Death don’t mean a thing

(bluesy mouth harp riff)

Corona, Corona
Got me double bind
Corona, Corona
Got me testing blind
O, I just can’t believe the data
Hmm, I might just lose my mind

Corona, Corona
I been thinking bout you
Corona, Corona
You thinkin bout me, too?
You’ve cancelled ball games, travel’n too
Now just please cancel the Election
That’d be something (ooh)

I got a bird flu whistles
Got a bird flu sings
I got a bird flu whistles
Got a bird flu sings
But I ain’t yet got Corona
Death don’t mean a thing

(bluesy mouth harp riff)

Corona, Corona
Got me double bind
Corona, Corona
Got me testing blind
O, I just can’t believe the data
Hmm, I might just lose my mind
Just can’t believe the data
Corona, might just lose my mind

(repeat, extended bluesy mouth harp riff)

 

By John Kendall Hawkins

 

By the late-90s we must have sensed that the shit was hitting the fan. The fire at Waco. The Unabomber envelopes. The downing of Flight 800. The World Trade Center bombing. Blowjobs in the White House. Oklahoma City. Tokyo’s subway sarin attack. The Khobar Towers bombing blamed on bin Laden.  The ascent of Atlanta’s radio jockstrap Sean Hannity to national status on Roger Ailes’ newly established Fox News Network. OJ taking off the gloves. Rodney King wondering if we could all just get along.  Cruise missiles on Bosnia on the eve of Clinton’s impeachment for blowjobs. Distracted from distraction by distraction, as T.S. Eliot famously put it, years before Karl Rove’s prosaic promise to fuck with reality-based thinking in the wake of 9/11.

As if America didn’t have enough problems, a foot soldier in the Army of God was afoot in the wee hours of July 27, 1996 at Centennial Park in Atlanta, where the Olympics were winding up for the night. Eric Rudolph, formerly of the Army of Exceptionalism — he’d been a special ops soldier in the Airborne 101 — was strolling near some benches behind the park, wearing a green backpack. There were dozens of people milling about. Rudolph sat on a bench and surreptitiously opened his backpack and set a timer on a huge bomb and placed the pack under the bench, then walked away hurriedly. No one saw him.

Rudolph rushed to a phone bank outside a Days Inn a couple of blocks away from the park and called in the bomb threat to 911.  He used a plastic device to disguise his voice, and then, according to Kent Alexander’s account in the recently released film, The Suspect, the following took place: Rudolph said, “‘We defy the order of the militia …’ Click. The line went dead. The 911 operator had disconnected him.” Disconcerted at not being taken seriously, Rudolph called back, disguising his voice by pinching his nose, and said: “‘There is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have thirty minutes.’ He hung up. The call lasted thirteen seconds.” Confusion followed, with the 911 operator unable to find the Olympic Park address.  Transcripts show insufficient urgency followed:

Dispatcher: Zone 5.

911 Operator: You know the address to Centennial Park?

Dispatcher: Girl, don’t ask me to lie to you.

911 Operator: I tried to call ACC, but ain’t nobody answering the phone … but I just got this man called talking about there’s a bomb set to go off in thirty minutes in Centennial Park.

Dispatcher: Oh Lord, child. Uh, OK, wait a minute. Centennial Park, you put it in and it won’t go in?

911 Operator: No, unless I’m spelling Centennial wrong. How are we spelling Centennial?

Dispatcher: C-E-N-T-E-N-N-I—how do you spell Centennial?

911 Operator: I’m spelling it right, it ain’t taking.

Valuable time expired, and the bomb squad, when they were finally called to the scene, had insufficient time to properly clear the area before the bomb went off.

At the start of Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Richard Jewell, the title character is followed by the director as he makes his rounds as an AT&T security guard outside a busy Centennial Park.  Goofy and overstuffed, he is immediately seen as an oddball. Offering water to a pregnant woman in such a way that, though thanking him for it, she eyeballs him suspiciously.  He confronts a group of drinking teens who diss him. On his way to get help, he sees the bomb under the bench. He asks passersby if the pack belongs to them. Alarmed, he alerts the assigned police crew, urging them to take action immediately, seemingly certain the pack is loaded. Bystanders are pushed to safety by Jewell, and others, when the bomb booms.

Paul Walter Hauser plays the complex character of Jewell, who’s not as dumb as he looks (or sometimes acts), and who gets caught up in a media frenzy that is fuelled by the wild speculation of a misinformed newspaper reporter, played by Olivia Wilde, and the entrapping tactics of the FBI — John Hamm playing the principle scofflaw fed. As the world comes at Jewell like a viral contagion, annihilating his privacy and reputation, he is buoyed up by his mother, played by Kathy Bates (in an Oscar-nominated supporting role) and Sam Rockwell as Watson Bryant, his lawyer and friend.

Theres been considerable controversy over the film’s depiction of the newspaper reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde. Eastwood has taken heat for her depiction, but he didn’t write the screenplay.  The script is based upon Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article, “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell,” and The Suspect, Alexander and Selwen’s account of the bombing and its aftermath — including police investigations and news reporting.  Only the latter sets up the scene where Scruggs allegedly received the confirmation from police that Richard Jewell was the primary suspect.

In The Suspect, Scruggs meets up with her source (unrevealed) at a bar — “someone she had known over the years. The source was about as plugged in as it got. She got down to business.” She was seated across from her source, and there was no hanky-panky:

The meeting was strictly off the record—that was understood. They ordered drinks, made small talk. After a few minutes, Scruggs asked the question. Are there any new suspects? Yes, the reply came back. One. “It’s Richard Jewell.” Scruggs’s heart pounded. Bingo. Jewell, the hero. Until now.”

To this day, this source is unknown, although Alexander and Selwen drop a couple of insinuating names in a couple of places.

Compare the Suspect scene above with the screenplay version (45-6) written by Billy Ray.  In Ray’s account, Scruggs comes across as an eager beaver, who’ll do anything to get the scoop. Here’s how she’s depicted in the film:

Kathy:

I wouldn’t run it unless I had independent corroboration from a second source.  That would put us in a different zone, as you know. (her hand drifting) Tom.  You’re about to burst.

She leans in — that open blouse.  He’s hard as an anvil.

Shaw:

First time in my life I ever wished I was gay.

Kathy smiles… then Shaw gives it up:

Shaw:

The Bureau’s looking at the security guard.  Jewell.

WHOA.  Kathy freezes.  Did I hear that wrong?  Nope.  Trying to calm herself, she takes out her notepad.

The scene’s sexual banter is significantly longer in the film. There’s no question that it makes Scruggs look sleazy.  But it’s also a condensed, slightly spiced up sum of all parts which Alexander and Selwel suggest throughout The Suspect.  Is it Eastwood’s role to change a script for fairness to perceived reality?  While Richard Jewell is based on actual events, Eastwood never pretends that his movie is “journalistic,” the way Katherine Bigelow did for Zero Dark Thirty. Did Scruggs sleep with cops to get information? The film says Yes, and The Suspect says Maybe (with a wink).

But Marie Brenner, in her Vanity Fair piece, “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell,” draws attention to a far more damaging assault on Scruggs’ reputation — the question of attribution in her story on Jewell and her reliance on ‘Voice of God’ journalism.  Her lede reads:

The security guard who first alerted police to the pipe bomb that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park is the focus of the federal investigation into the incident that resulted in two deaths and injured more than 100.

Well, says who?  Further defamatory sentences follow (here is the article) — without any attribution at all. It’s the Voice of God at work. Ironically, VOG was AJC’s rule: they’d “essentially banned” the expression “sources said” because readers might believe a quote was “fabricated.”

Brenner opens up the possibility that there was no source, per se, at all. And this line is taken further by Alexander and Selwen when they allude to the 1984 LA Olympics Turkish Bus bomb — planted by the ‘heroic’ officer who found the bomb. It may be, The Suspect suggests, that Scruggs had been given the hero-bomb anecdote and ran with it, in her passion to be the one who broke the story. Alexander and Selwen cite previous admonishments: “She was so eager to run with what trusted sources disclosed to her that editors often had to slow her down until she got more corroborating details.”  Maybe there was no secondary corroboration.

The worst thing of all is that Jewell didn’t find out that he was a suspect until the AJC piece broke and went wild across the local and national airwaves.  Overnight he went from a profile in courage to the profile of a loser — and, if he was imitating the LA ‘bomb hero, not particularly original either. None of it makes Scruggs look good as a reporter. But the AJC, believes the film has gone too far in portraying her as a quid pro quo “floozy,” and in “The Ballad of Kathy Scruggs,” Jennifer Brett complains that the harsh appraisal of Scruggs’ journalism is not balanced. She cites Scruggs’s brother, Lewis, who recalls, “… She was proud the FBI called her about Jewell. She was proud of the way she reported it to begin with.” But she shouldn’t have been proud.

The FBI did a disgraceful job handling the bombing, starting with director Louis Freeh, who micromanaged the investigation, and may have pushed the notion that Jewell be regarded as the prime suspect to his underlings in Atlanta — suspicions drawn from false profiling.  It continued with the leak to Scruggs. But the most despicable thing they did was their attempt to entrap Jewell in a fake interview during which they hoped to extract information that ‘only the bomber could know’.  Jewell caught on, called a lawyer, and sought solace and protection behind his forceful and articulate mother, Bobi (played by Kathy Bates). Eventually the FBI conducted an internal investigation of their handling of Jewell, although the FBI later admitted, “We never went after the leak.”

Ultimately, it may be that it was FBI director Louis Freeh’s actions that were under-scrutinized in the half-assed investigation that followed.  In The Suspect, Alexander and Selwen make clear that Freeh was calling the shots from Washington, and that he may have pushed the ‘bomb hero’ scenario on the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) of the agency, forcing them to push out a false profile — without independently gathered evidence.  Scruggs used their “lone bomber” profile, even though she should have known that Jewell couldn’t have been at the scene and making phone calls up the road — at the same time. He would have needed an accomplice, negating the “lone bomber” theory.

Richard Jewell might have perished emotionally or even have ended up imprisoned for the bombing, if not for his mother’s courage and ability to sway the media, as well as Watson Bryant, his lawyer, who is there when Jewell needs him, yanking back the naive and over-talkative suspect from FBI entrapment.  Everyone seemed to be coming at him in his 88 day ordeal, before he was cleared. Not only was there the usual swarming rush to judgement, stoked by the sensationalist media, but he was viciously turned on, suddenly going from hero to goat.  NBC Late Show host Jay Leno, was particularly horrid, referring to Jewell as “Una-doofus,” while he was a suspect, and calling him later, after he was cleared, “white trash.”

In the end, as we all know now, Eric Rudolph was arrested almost seven years later, for bombing a gay bar and two abortion clinics.  In a plea bargain deal, he also copped to the Olympic Park bombing.  Rudolph, an ex 101st Airborne special ops soldier, was a survivalist who went on the lam for five years after the Centennial bombing.  He claimed that he was motivated in his bombings by hatred of gays, abortion, and general government over-reach. He fit the profile of a “lone bomber”.

Back in Jennifer Brett’s recent AJC piece, “The Ballad of Kathy Scruggs,” which seeks to correct the image presented of the reporter in the Clint Eastwood film, a friend, Tony Kiss, defends Scruggs, “She was never at peace or at rest with this story. It haunted her until her last breath,” Kiss said. “It crushed her like a junebug on the sidewalk.”

It’s ironic that both Jewell and Scruggs had a thing for cops — and in both cases they were let down, at great cost to their lives and reputations. The event produced a convergence of ill-will and evil rarely seen:  media manipulations, police corruption, political and social reactionaries, insensitive Late Show jokes, a Christian terrorist who likes to blow people to Kingdom Come, frenzy and sensationalism.

Neither ever recovered. Jewell died aged 44; Scruggs died at 43.

by John Kendall Hawkins

 

“‎The struggle of maturity is to recover the seriousness of a child at play.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

 

I remember fondly now the early days of my anthropology studies as an undergrad, talking bones in class, smoking bones after. Studying cultures, living it.  Talking with my professor about Julian Jaynes’s crazy theory that human consciousness originated in “the breakdown of the bicameral mind.”  And philosophy classes. Foucault, Sanity and Madness, the Narrenschiffen seaside asylums. Dancing in a tie-dyed tee after Mandela’s release from the apart-hate system. Reading The Left Hand of Darkness (talk about mind fucks). Global Marley, white blues Dylan, we were changing the world one tune at a time, in our minds.

Two of the most-enduring cultural scenarios offered up in my studies prior to changing my major to philosophy, anthropology’s old stomping ground, were the matriarchal community at Catal Huyuk and the Mbuti pygmies of the Ituri Forest. The former offered up a vision of a benign matriarchal world that was said to have existed long before, as Lennon put it, women became “the nigger of the world,” and the latter seemed to depict a human world among the elephants that was truly communistic, without Marx, and the need for imported white intellectuals to translate ‘dialectical materialism’ to the jungle hoi polloi. It just worked.

But that was long ago, before the Internet came along, and made writers of us all, with sometimes out-of-control avatar egos requiring management by unknown moderators who, for all we know, are trolls in their full time day jobs.  (Or work for intelligence hunters-and-gatherers who find such behavior valuable and ‘play’able.) Everybody’s clickety-clacketing; each of us knows how to solve the World puzzle. Everybody’s talking at me — and you — and we can’t understand what anyone is saying over our typing.

Out of all the din of such being, it brings to mind the ‘father’ of American anthropology (a German named Franz Boas) who wrote an essay, “On Alternating Sounds,” which describes our inability to understand the tones of others; we have sound-blindnesses we need to overcome.  Mark Twain expressed the problem best: “In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.” Tone-deafness abounds today, blind-sounds leading blind-sounds. Why, it’s almost a postmodern Tower of Babel.

Not hearing, seeing, or understanding each other properly is the major concern of Charles King’s new book, Gods of the Upper Air: How A Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century.  The main title comes from a line out of Zora Neale Hurston’s memoir, Dust Tracks On A Road. And the book describes the career of Franz Boas, who, as a migrant from Germany, became the founder of the American anthropological movement, based at Columbia University. There he attracted the minds and likes of such intrepid spirits as Margaret Mead, Edward Sapir, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ella Cara Deloria, who spread out, social scientists intent on letting living data drive them to the reality of Man.

The conclusions these American anthropologists came to believe and disseminate, alone and together as a Circle, are now well-known, though then radical, and can be summed up in an expression: Cultural Relativism. Instead of mocking the perceived differences between cultures from a ‘privileged’ position, we should be celebrating the variety of Man and revelling in our e pluribus unum. The more steps you took in another culture’s moccasins the more the sweat of their soles seeped into your blood until, with enough mileage, you came to an understanding of two cultures — the foot’s and the moccasin’s — by osmosis.

At the time, this conclusion flew in the face of the prevailing conceit summed up in the popular book, The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant (1916). Grant expounds on the need for a eugenics (weeding the DNA) that would return us to the glory days of Nordic superiority. Hitler called this stuff his “Bible,” and married it to his Kampf, Wagner’s Siegfried, and the weak-minded gullibility of the Good German.  This “scientific racism” (which showed how racist science could be, if given half a chance) eventually got adopted and incorporated as the modus o. of American Exceptionalism.

Charles King’s strategy throughout the book is to show how the adventures and expeditions of these anthropologists are entangled with the personal puzzles each explorer is trying to resolve.  It’s a quest not only for the answers to the nature of humankind, but a method of psychodramatically playing-out the kinks and knots of their own private foibles and flaws — including questions of race, sexuality and gender. It all makes for rich characterization as you, the reader, play it out on the stage of your mind.

King begins by bringing us through the museum of Boas’s memories, past stuffed archetypes, reified racial postures, and cobwebs of neural connections past their prime. We come to understand how his early experiences, education and family background led him, almost inevitably, toward a life devoted to finding out what made People tick — How are we different from each other, and the same?  Is the observer superior to the observed? Do we live lives of one-way mirrors on each other? King describes Boas’s upbringing in a fully assimilated Jewish family comfortable in German culture – “being Bürgerlich—urban, educated, freethinking, bourgeois—was as much a defining feature of life as being members of a minority faith.” Boas could afford to explore — and he did.

Franz Boas, writes King, was a product of Aufklärung, the German Enlightenment, a reader of noisy newspapers, knockin’ on Heaven’s door by way of Luther, a believer in the categorical imperative of Kant (the rich man’s golden rule).  He was influenced by the vision of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who observed, “Human civilization was a jigsaw puzzle of these distinct ways of being, each adding its own piece, some more rough edged than others, to the grand picture of human achievement.” Boas got his first serious taste of jigsaw pie, when he went as a young man to frozen Boffin Island, fifth largest island in the world, where he lived among the Inuits, observing, laying down data-driven Krackelfüsse (chicken scratches) in his journal.

Just as personal contradictions would torment members of his Circle later, Boas, too, had ritualistic hang-ups he couldn’t deny.  For instance, he had the need to posture, early on, demonstrating his mensch-hood by engaging in glove-slap fisticuffs. Boas was at home playing piano once when a neighbor shouted to keep it down, and Boas got out there, “escalated the confrontation into … a duel,” during which each received a sword tick or two, they proudly called, Schmiss, or duelling scars.

Looking at Boas later in life, you would have drawn the conclusion that he had a lot of need, as the scars left him “scrimshawed like an old walrus tusk, with Schmisse on his forehead, nose, and cheek, a jagged line running from mouth to ear.” Anthropologists have gone to dark and exotic places to note and analyze the schmisses of others. Maybe that occurred to him as chair of the anthropology department at Columbia.

Early in his tenure at Columbia he was called on by the federal government to gather data among residents of Kleindeutschland (known today as the Lower East Side), which was “brimming with Jews, Poles, Italians, and Slovaks,” to gather statistics on assimilation. But as King notes, “The deeper concern was how to distinguish advanced, healthy, and vigorous northern Europeans from the lesser subraces now stumbling over one another on the streets and alleyways of the Lower East Side.”  Nibelungen everywhere.

Inspired by the “scientific racism” found in such popular reads as The Passing of the Great Races, which asserted that superior Nordic races had been enervated by overexposure to democracy, the government was looking to avoid a cultural dilution to America’s Way of Life.  But Boas and his anthropologists had some bad news for the blue bloods.  These groups easily assimilated. And may, in fact, have displayed all the virtues of the American Way — especially multiculturalism.  Boas’s data disputed government assumptions; it revealed fascistic prejudices simmering just beneath the surface of public policy.  The reader can imagine how a different set of data might have led to purges. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America comes to mind.  No wonder Hitler winked.

For Boas, notes King, “No one should be creating broad theories of human difference until more data had been collected.” Franz Boas’s most famous anthropologist was Margaret Mead. Intellectually informed by von Herder’s Sturm und Drang literary movement (itself a Goethe-Werther nod), Boas had put Mead to work on the Cause by suggesting that she complete her doctoral dissertation by considering the question: “Was the transition from childhood to adulthood, with young women and men rebelling against their stultifying parents, the product of a purely biological change, the onset of puberty?”

He arranged for her to go to America Samoa to find an answer. When she got there — Pago Pago — she found “the largest naval deployment since Theodore Roosevelt had sent the Great White Fleet around the world as a display of American sea power.” Her thoughts were constantly plagued by some ship in the fleet playing “ragtime.”  She wrote to Boas, “The only sizable villages were ‘over-run with missionaries, stores, and various intrusive influences,’ … and were much corrupted by the influence of the Americans.”  Writes King, “This was no way to study primitive tribes [and] she vowed to get as far away from Pago Pago as possible.”

She sailed from Pago Pago to T’ua, hundreds of miles away, where she lived with an American couple.  Even there, she was unsure of how she would proceed, when a fortuitous hurricane suddenly changed the course of her study. King paraphrases her thinking,

What if the real way to understand people wasn’t to gawk at their ceremonies or even to share in their most important work, as Malinowski had done, but to be beside them in their most unguarded moments—sweeping up debris, rebuilding a house, reweaving a damaged mat, comforting a wailing child?

She went to work, fitting in and taking copious notes.

In her Samoan field work, and later working with children on Manus Island, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, she came to some startling data-driven conclusions about the transition from childhood to adult. Unlike in America or Germany, or any other number of Western countries, the children didn’t carry their ‘magical thinking’ over into adulthood, and there was no real ‘sturm und drang.’

The Western presumption was that the transition, for boys and girls, was a natural by-product of growing up – “rebellion against authority, philosophical perplexities, the flowering of idealism, conflict and struggle – [were] ascribed to a period of physical development,” Mead found.  At the end, as at the beginning, she asked herself the Question: “Were these difficulties due to being adolescent or due to being adolescents in America?”  She went with the latter.  It’s all culturally relative.

Out of all this came Coming of Age in Samoa, which became very popular in academia and helped give wings to the growth in the Humanities, which saw its heyday in the late 60s and 70s.  Mead’s book quickly found itself listed by conservatives “10 Books That Screwed Up the World,” joining favorite hates like, Darwin’s The Descent of Man, Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto, and Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. It was a badge of honor for Mead.

King also explores and describes in some detail all the sexual tension implicit (and sometimes explicit) in Mead’s many love entanglements.  She was a kind of proto-feminist. She wouldn’t marry the linguist, Edward Sapir, who, feeling somehow ‘betrayed’, turned on her later and was a harsh critic of her work.  She married three other men — Luther Cressman, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson, who she referred to as “a William Blake in safari cottons.”  And she left Ruth Benedict unrequited and standing at the altar of love. Naturally, this all informed her anthropology somehow.

Another free spirit attracted to Boas’s world was the novelist — and anthropologist — Zora Neale Hurston, the so-called Queen of the Harlem Renaissance, and tightly connected to Langston Hughes.  The author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the first novel written that made Black vernacular the star of the show and inspired writers like Toni Morrison later.  Urged on by Boas, she sought to develop an ethnographic history of residents of Eatonville, the first self-governing all-black municipality in the United States, and of South Florida in general.  King explains, “Between 1890 and 1930, Florida had, per capita, more public lynchings than any other state in the country, almost exclusively of African Americans—twice the number in Mississippi and Georgia, three times that in Alabama.”

Out of her field experience she produced Mules and Men.  Rich in folktales, it delved into the Black experience like never before, and revealed previously unknown secret pagan doings. Hurston wrote, “Hoodoo, or Voodoo, as pronounced by the whites, is burning with a flame in America, with all the intensity of a suppressed religion. It has thousands of secret adherents…The way we tell it, hoodoo started way back before everything.”  (Suddenly, I had a new understanding of the CCR song “Born on the Bayou,” wherein hoodoos are chased by hound dogs.)

With a Guggenheim scholarship, Hurston continued here explorations of Black living by trekking to the Caribbean for “a study of magic practices among Negroes of the West Indies,” focussing on the ex-slave colonies Jamaica and Haiti.  As King describes her experience there, King writes that Hurston saw that “Culture wasn’t just a set of rules or rituals…It could also be a set of chains that individuals dragged around with them after the prison wardens more or less fled the scene.”

To get a better feel for the living Black spirit in Jamaica, Hurston drove to St. Mary’s parish in the Blue Mountains and came across “a country wedding” with music, dancing and cake (think: “Sweet and Dandy”).  From there she joined the Maroons in “a boar hunt that stretched over several days, traipsing up and down the mountain slopes, slogging along in her riding boots, the hunters’ dogs yelping when they got too close to the boar’s razor-sharp tusks.” From there she went to another parish where she attended a nine-day “wake” at which the corpse was “nailed tight to the interior of the coffin” so that its “duppy” spirit, “the dark matter inside any person” couldn’t “take flight” and fuck with the community.

From Jamaica, Hurston sailed to Haiti, where she uncovered the Home of Hoodoo-Voodoo and was introduced to a zombie by the name of Felicia Felix-Mentor, a product of local voodoo practices.  Dumped by her husband, and suffering ‘a total eclipse of the heart’, King describes Hurston’s situation: “[M]edical records showed that [Felicia] had died in 1907…[Hurston’s account] remains the first known depiction of a person whom her Haitian neighbors knew as a zombie.

As Hurston poignantly adds though,

That was the real story of Felicia Felix-Mentor. Put away, disregarded, institutionalized, forgotten, willed by others to be effectively dead—her condition was very much like that of many people Hurston knew, the black women and men she had met from Florida labor camps to whites-only universities. It was just that Haitians had invented a word for it.

(Eventually, we got around to creating a Netflix series, The Walking Dead.) Hurston wrote a whole book on the subject, Tell My Horse.  She describes ceremonies involving bocors (dark magicians) and instances where loa inhabit the body of local believers and “ride” them.  An enactment of such a ritual involving such horse-riding is depicted in the Papa Legba scene of David Byrnes’s film True Stories.

Like Mead, Hurston, too, showed signs of free-lovin’.  While she was still at graduate school, and married, she fell in love with a fellow student there by the name of Percival Punter.  With him she “sputtered and sizzled” and had to be with him. She said of this affair, writes King, “I did not just fall in love,” she recalled. “I made a parachute jump.”

One final member of the Boas Circle who King provides details for is Ella Cara Deloria, who grew up on a Sioux reservation on South Dakota. Enrolled at Columbia’s Teacher’s College, she was “summoned” one day to meet with Franz Boas, who wanted to use her a translator for Native American projects he had going.  She was a highly regarded liaison and ethnologist.

In the Preface to her novel, Waterlily, which tried to bring to life in fiction the Dakota people, as Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God had done for Blacks, the publisher writes, “Deloria was an ideal intermediary between the predominant American traditional Dakota cultures, and she took that role seriously.”  In the Boas tradition, Deloria believed that “To write properly about Indians, you had to stop using the past tense.”  She lived with her people, while she wrote about them, and made sure her accounts came from authentic voices.

Early in Gods of the Upper Air, King identified its purpose: “This book is about the women and men who found themselves on the front lines of the greatest moral battle of our time: the struggle to prove that—despite differences of skin color, gender, ability, or custom—humanity is one undivided thing.”  They were up against social Darwinists and scientific racism. The Boas Circle, with their studies in Cultural Relativism, celebrated the diversity of multiculturalism and its consequent public policies, which over the years have resulted in a righteous vilification of racism, sexism, and gender-bound roles.

As for the greater realization of a common humanity, it’s a tough sell these days in an era of catastrophic Climate Change, rising global authoritarianism, and looming pandemics of body and mind.

But at least they tried.