By John Kendall Hawkins
In the 1963 horror-thriller, The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock wants his viewers to understand the world from the point-of-view of birds. Angry birds. Birds angry at humans. The question is: Why? Why are the birds angry? Why have they gone amok, seeding chaos, and what will be the solution?
My favorite shot in the movie comes when Hitchcock has a seagull floating over a town on fire and in full-flight panic — as if the bird were considering its work below, like a parent determining whether the administered spanking to a brat had been enough. And then another birds shows up in the frame, and another, and another, and then they all descend again. Why are they so angry?
Maybe part of the answer is attitude — hubris — or, as Bobby Dylan once sang, “Man thinks ’cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please.” In 1962, Rachel Carson released Silent Spring, a cataloguing of Humanity’s catastrophic treatment of the natural environment. Man was shitting his bed regularly and seemed proud of it. The ever-ironical Hitchcock was providing payback for the angered birds: Who’s luffing now?
In Timothy C. Winegard’s The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator, the author goes one better than Hitchcock by substituting birds with mosquitoes and providing the creature’s point-of-view going all the way back to the Age of Dinosaurs. As far as Winegard is concerned, mosquitoes have been calling the shots throughout history in the animal kingdom, but especially with human beings, who, seemingly, have seen the decisions of virtually every ‘Great Man’ affected in pivotal moments by contact with the tiny disease-bearing predators.
The male mosquito does not bite and, according to Winegard, lives a Beautiful Life of procuring sex and nectar. When it’s time for the woman warrior to come looking for larval love, the males form a “swarm” tunnel into which she swoons, looking for a “heartbeat boy” on a version of “If You Are the One.” If you’re ‘lucky,’ one of these swarms might occur right over your head — and can extend “1000 feet into the air” — as you’re walking. Writes Weingard, “You are not paranoid, nor are you imagining this phenomenon. Take it as a compliment. Male mosquitoes have graced you with the honor of being a ‘swarm marker.’” Once the sperm is obtained, he says, all they need is blood — yours or mine. Winegard pictures a knocked-up mosquito landing on a patch of human skin. He provides almost an engineer’s description of the mechanical processes involved in biting into and drillin’ for blood:
She conducts a tender, probing, ten-second reconnaissance, looking for a prime blood vessel. With her backside in the air, she steadies her crosshairs and zeros in with six sophisticated needles. She inserts two serrated mandible cutting blades (much like an electric carving knife with two blades shifting back and forth), and saws into your skin, while two other retractors open a passage for the proboscis, a hypodermic syringe that emerges from its protective sheath….
On and on it goes, but, in short, she sucks your blood, and goes off to deposit her blood children in a pool of still water.
There is a cartoonish anthropomorphism that winds its way through the book. It’s clear that Winegard has fun referring to the principal lethal mosquito as General Anopheles — for almost 600 pages. Winegard has a military history background (but reads more like Jeremy Scahill than some swaggering apologist for the Pentagon), and his last book, The First World Oil War, was about the underlying fight to control petroleum during “the war to end all wars.” So, he’s comfortable dressing the mosquito in a general’s uniform and leading him into battle — always the victor, one way or another. General Anopheles is our hateful enemy.
“We are at war with the mosquito,” Winegard declares in his introduction. We’ve been at war for the whole shebang of human time. Almost half of the 108 billion humans who have lived in the last 200,000 years, perished by exposure to toxic mosquito bites. This is a staggering fact, if true (he’s extrapolating from data). But as Weingard indicates, “The biting female warriors of this droning insect population are armed with at least fifteen lethal and debilitating biological weapons against our 7.7 billion humans deploying suspect and often self-detrimental defensive capabilities.” Some of the maladies have been with us for a long time — malaria, dengue, yellow fever — weapons humans have struggled mightily to overcome.
Because Weingard approaches the history from a battlefront perspective involving Big Man confrontations, a lot of time is spent detailing how said maladies are used to advantage by various warriors. As so many battles Weingard describes seem to involve one side drawing the other into literal quagmires of infested mosquito zones, one imagines a briefing of some sort warning soldiers of what to watch for.
Walt Disney put out an especially effective film, The Winged Scourge, in 1943 that explains to soldiers the cycle of infection. (A soldier at the time, Dr. Seuss was also given an opportunity to spread the word to his mates and put out a pamphlet, “This is Ann…She drinks blood,” that likened malaria to a venereal disease delivered by some floozy — seemingly with green eggs and sore hams.) As Weingard repeats, over and over, malarial infections among soldiers had often-catastrophic consequences for fighters.
Winegard’s account of mosquitoes covers millions of years. The best approach to understanding how he proceeds and what the reader can expect is to provide a sampling in, say, four separate historical epochs. I found interesting his speculations on the disappearance of dinosaurs, his alternate take on the comings and goings of Ghengis Khan and the Mongols, Napoleon’s first use of biological warfare, and, probably most interesting (and controversial) of all, from an American’s point of view, the role mosquitoes played in New World slavery.
There was a time when we wondered about the extinction of the dinosaurs, and came to the conclusion, after much debate, that it was all about the fiery spitballs from outer space. That was a long time ago. These days time seems to be speeding up. Is it a natural fact, I wonder, or just old age? I think more about the extinction of great thoughts, The Sixth Extinction, and what, if any of it, mattered. Winegard argues that “that up to 70% of regional species were already extinct or endangered” by the time the asteroids hit. He credits the floozy from the oozy for the greater part of the kill, and we should be thankful: “Aided by her role in eliminating these top-tier dinosaur predators,” he writes, “mammals, including our direct prehominid ancestors, evolved and flourished.”
The Nazis admired Mongol tactics, writes Winegard; they were so similar to Blitzkrieg, encircling “their hapless enemies with breathtaking, unrivaled speed and ferocity.” But “the mosquito sucked dry their dreams of European subjugation,” and as “the mosquito helped prevent the west from being completely overrun. She harnessed her malarial might and held the reins of Mongol conquest, steering them away from Europe.” They returned East.
However, Winegard points out the greatest achievement of the long Mongol reign, stretching from Ghengis Khan to Kublai Khan, is that they opened up a permanent means of communication, transport and commerce between East and West, later called The Silk Road. “The Mongols were willing to allow traders, missionaries, and travelers to navigate their entire empire, opening China and the rest of the east to Europeans, Arabs, Persians, and others for the first time…These new land routes opened by Mongol military expansion created an immeasurably smaller global society by fusing two larger, previously distinct geographical worlds.”
Napoleon had his own Empire-building problems with mosquitoes. The African slaves he hoped to build a sugar-producing colony in Haiti with revolted in 1791. The natural defenses against malaria (such as sickle-cell anemia) that most slaves brought with them from Africa, argues Winegard, allowed them to resist and defeat the French soldiers sent to quell the resistance, but who had their own waterloo problems with mosquitoes. “Although the United States was the first to be born of revolutionary mosquitoes,” writes Winegard, “her battlefield prowess in support of the slave rebellion in Haiti forced Napoleon to sell his North American lands.” As he notes, the Louisiana Purchase that followed saw France give up a quest for American colonies and doubled the landmass of America overnight.
However, Napoleon learned from his defeat in Haiti. And at Walcheren, in 1809, Napoleon drew attacking and superior British forces into a marshland where they perished so miserably from contracting malaria that they couldn’t fight on. But, writes Winegard, Napoleon’s biological tactic also “ushered in the worst epidemic of malaria that Europe had ever seen.” When a defeated Napoleon was sent into final exile in 1815, the British ship Musquito guarded over him.
Perhaps the most compelling portion of Winegard’s narrative is his discussion of African slavery and how it changed everything in the Americas. He tells the story of NFL defensive back Ryan Clark, Jr. who fell ill on a team plane and was later diagnosed with sickle-cell disease. One in twelve African Americans have sickle cell trait, and, according to Winegard, “Advanced by natural selection, sickle cell is a hereditary genetic mutation passed on precisely because it was originally a net benefit to the people who carried it…The evolutionary design that nearly killed Ryan Clark was initially a lifesaving human genetic adaptation.” It provided Africans with the trait with almost total immunity from some forms of malaria.
According to Winegard, such immunity only made the African slave value grow, as it allowed colonists to not only settle in, especially in the Deep South, but to expand empires of cotton and sugar. He notes:
…African slaves were relatively unafflicted by malaria and yellow fever, and simply did not die at the same rate as non-Africans. Their genetic immunities and prior seasoning made Africans an important ingredient of the Columbian Exchange and indispensable in the development of New World mercantilist economic markets.
The slave ships brought wi\th them the anopheles and aedes mosquitoes, which would prove sop lethal to both the colonial and indigenous peoples of the Americas. Winegard’s observations about the interplay of the mercantile development of the New World with slavery and malaria is long and fascinating.
Probably the only white hat Hero introduced in the narrative is the discovery, almost by accident, of quinine. Winegard writes, “Quinine was a New World treatment for an Old World disease. The disease itself, and its vectoring mosquitoes, were born of Africa and the Old World and were transported to the New World, where they flourished.” Coffee, chrysanthemums and, my favorite, gin and tonics, are all known to stave off malaria. And Big Pharma has some cures too. But mosquitoes and malaria are still very much with us.
The murderous disease-bearing mozzies are still with us 200 million years later, driving us nuts at night as we try to sleep, and making us wonder how that 190 million-old buzz, which has us slapping out, could be an evolutionary advantage rather than the taunt it seems. We are still fending them off the same old ways– with smoke, nets, drained swamps, and anti-disease medications. Not only do they still bring malaria in most parts of the world, they now carry the Zika virus, Eastern equine encephalitis, and many other potentially deadly viruses. Scientists continue to remind us that we are overdue for a mosquito-borne pandemic, with amplified effects due to climate change extending breeding seasons.
Some scientists believe that the succubus’ quarter-of-a-billion years reign is enough and it’s time for things to change. Enter CRISPR and the notion that we can genetically modify “humanity’s most dangerous predator.” But there are worries: we’d be messing with nature; we can’t yet guarantee something disastrously unforseen wouldn’t occur. What if we somehow — in our Lamarckian chutzpah — made our most dangerous predator stronger? Or created a real-life Jurassic Park (amber-bound mosquitoes do exist)?
I have mixed visions of Octavia Butler’s “Blood Child;” the recent movie Mosquito-Man (which sucked); and being shown as a child how to make a mozzie pop by squeezing the skin around their proboscis as they sucked — until they exploded, like a gory scene from Scanners. They bring out our latent sadism.
The Mosquito is a fascinating account of a primordial predator — seen almost-empathetically, by Winegard, through the lens of Great Man theory. It is unique in that sense. But it is also overwhelming in its comprehensive claim that mosquitoes were lurking in so many watershed moments of history. You follow his Hum-eric narrative, wowed by the endless stream of Anopheles triumphs that Winegard cites. Then, frankly, scepticism sets in. You seek out secondary sources, and discover that his claims are largely valid. It seemed, at first, a narrative gimmick — the Life and Times of General Anopheles — but ends up a revelation; Hitchcock’s birds eye view..
The Mosquito is yet another reminder to the reader that we live in a world where we don’t really call the shots and never have. We like to tell ourselves sagas of how Men Have Come Seen and Conquered, and sit around vain bonfires telling tales of our Darwinian conquests. But Winegard replaces our historical agents — our manly Caesars and Odysseuses — with female mosquitoes, buzzy little valkyries with a high-pitched nasal drawls. Imagine a civil war won not so much by guns and stratagems, but by reactions to diseased mosquito bites and the requirements of care to ensuing sickness. As Winegard reminds us, half of all human beings who have ever lived suffered “mosquito-inflicted deaths.” Heil Hit-ya, General Anopheles — thwack!
Looking back, it’s almost as if President Dwight D. Eisenhower were trying to warn the American public, in his Farewell speech of 1961, of mad doctors at work in the labs of our exceptional democracy — what we’ve come to call the Deep State. Said Ike: “We should take nothing for granted: Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Then, in the fall of 1963, came the Big Bang of Dallas, re-constellating the bright and shiny firmament of the American Dream. All we Americans who came of age in the Sixties know that the afterglow of the Baby Boomer years came to a shocking end the day John F. Kennedy was blasted onto Abraham Zapruder’s 8MM movie camera. Good night, Camelot. It was as if from that moment on, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, “the broken mirror of innocence” could be seen in each and every face.
American journalists spent the next generation trying to dig up a presumed government cover-up of the who, what, why, where and how of that dark Dallas day, leading to no definitive resolution decades later. The manifest destiny of American Exceptionalism has been weighed down with pathogenic cynicism and paranoia ever since. One measure of this is suggested by the exponential rise of guns owned in America, from approximately 80 million in 1960 to a whopping 400 million today, as well as a complementary rise in right-wing militias — estimated to be 500 groups. Underneath it all, Americans know something is happening, but they don’t know what it is.
One senses this growing cultural angst, while plodding through the first 100 slushy pages or so of Seymour (Sy) Hersh’s recently published memoir, Reporter. Given that he is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, as well as a five-time winner of journalism’s most coveted award, the George Polk, I expected Hersh to jump right in medias res, with, say, a previously unknown anecdote about his My Lai massacre coverage, or, perhaps, an analysis of the state of journalism in these reactionary “fake news” days of the Trump era. But Reporter is a memoir, a story about a life, not just reporting. Re-performing those pages according to the rhythm Hersh intended reveals to this reader a deeper understanding of his ideological roots.
It’s important to know that Sy is a first generation son of immigrant Eastern European parents come to America to escape the persecution of the Nazi death-machine. It’s telling information to learn that he had relatives who perished in a concentration camp. You can see how he sees: the excesses of unrestrained power have devastating effects on the lives of ordinary people. One can imagine his exposure to people from all walks of life as he worked long hours in his father’s dry cleaning business. It’s instructive to trace his kindled desire to write for the public, from his copy boy days, to a stint in the Army as a journalist, to his luck-laden climb up the ranks of wire service work — re-writes mostly, but also the first signs of his investigative instinct coming to fruition. His first major publication, a piece on the US government mistreatment of the Oglala Sioux on their reservations, made it to the Chicago Tribune in 1963.
And so these many pages go, an account of a young man’s growing consciousness of the workings of the world that parallels the social and political awakening of the general population after the first Kennedy assassination. It’s a truism, but Hersh writes, “It’s the core lesson of being a journalist — read before you write.” Hersh did plenty of that: he has a law background; he’s history buff; and he knows the value of fiction for relating facts, as attested to by some his favorite reads – – Saul Bellow, William Styron, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Nelson Algren, James Farrell.
He continued down the Road to Erudition, moving from Chicago to Washington in the process, where he met legendary journalist and mentor I. F. Stone. The “kindred spirits” took long walks together. Hersh writes, “We talked incessantly about how to do better reporting, and I was in the hands of a master; it was to the shame of the mainstream media—and my pipe smoker colleagues in the Pentagon pressroom—that his bi-weekly reports and analyses, as publisher of I. F. Stone’s Weekly, were viewed as little more than a nuisance.” Hersh has met with similar disdain from the MSM, despite once having been part of it.
Taking after Stone’s exposure of the CIA false flag operation in the Gulf of Tonkin that precipitated a full scale military ‘retaliatory’ bombing of Hanoi (an operation Stone points out that was previously tried out in Yemen by the British), Hersh continued his muckraking work at the Pentagon, until it lead him to his own first major investigative journalism piece on the not-so-stars-and-stripey machinations of the military — specifically their handling and cover-up of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) stockpiles scattered throughout America. The piece, “Just a Drop Can Kill,” appeared in the May 1967 issue of The New Republic, and announced to the Journalism world that a new sheriff was in town and, like Stone, he had no intention of looking the other way.
As his reputation for integrity grew in Washington, especially amongst the more-honorable officers in the Pentagon, more and more information was leaked to him. One of his favorite targets was Robert McNamara, who was the embodiment of the MIC, being both the Secretary of Defense and the former president of Ford Motors. Who would know better than Bob about assembly line wars? Today, it’s America’s biggest export.
Just before his career as a top-notch investigative reporter took off, he met up with the somewhat taciturn Mr. Deeds-like character, Ralph Nader. The two got together regularly. Writes Hersh,
“My [office] neighbor a few doors down was a young Ralph Nader, also a loner, whose exposé of the safety failures in the American automobile industry had changed the industry. There was nothing in those days quite like a quick lunch at the downstairs coffee shop with Ralph. He would grab a spoonful of my tuna fish salad, flatten it out on a plate, and point out small pieces of paper and even tinier pieces of mouse shit in it. He was marvelous, if a bit hard to digest.”.
Together, they were like two Davids forming a tag-team tandem up against the Goliath forces of the public government mask of the Deep State, which is to say, the military-industrial complex that Ike had admonished the nation could only be restrained by “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry.” (Nader is still pointing out turds to this day.)
Reporter gathers pace as Hersh recounts the background details leading to the richest years of his investigative career. After leaving Pentagon officials aghast with the CBW revelations, he gets wind of a hushed-up massacre that took place in a Vietnam village in which a captain is accused of being responsible for the murder of 109 unarmed civilians, including women and children. The My Lai Massacre happened 50 years ago. Thanks to Hersh’s reporting of the event, the so-called Noble Cause in ‘Nam was seen differently by the appalled public, who reading Hersh’s freelance account and gazing at lurid Life magazine photos, realized they were supporting war criminality on a scale even Exceptionalist Americans found unacceptable. Hersh’s report flamed the already growing fiery anti-war protests. “I knew it would end the war and win prizes,” he writes. Hersh was right about the prize (1970 Pulitzer), but not about the war.
One of the best things about his memory of his My Lai investigation is his description of the nuts and bolts of how he went about uncovering facts. After Hersh tracks down a lawyer for Lt. William Calley, the officer scapegoated for the massacre, he humanizes with his source to ease the way to the information he seeks: “It was an extreme example of the Hersh rule: Never begin an interview by asking core questions. I wanted him to know I was smart and capable of some abstract thought. And I wanted him to like me and, perhaps, trust me.” After years of reporting, Seymour Hersh has many trusting sources.
Following his freelance work alerting citizens about My Lai, Hersh accepted an offer from the New York Times, where he went on to tackle Watergate issues, his work as important and groundbreaking as the more celebrated duo Woodward and Bernstein at the Washington Post. Hersh also revealed the secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, which led him to look into the power relationship between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Hersh details how the two plotted to take down the democratically elected government of Chile.
Pertinent to our times, Hersh also reported on the Kissinger-ordered wiretapping of political foes and, more importantly, the secret surveillance and infiltration by the CIA of domestic groups, including anti-war protesters, a gross violation of their charter (not to mention illegal). Such activity seems quaint today, given the global surveillance of people everywhere by the NSA and 5 Eyes, as revealed by the courageous whistleblowing of Edward Snowden.
Hersh has even reported on the danger, in the closing days of the Nixon Watergate crisis, as he was getting set to be impeached, that Nixon might call in the military to surround the White House in order to stay in power — in short, a coup d’etat. What might Trump do, if his presidency were similarly pushed?
Such investigative work would be enough for one career, but Hersh went on from there to provide hidden details in a number of other cases. In Reporter he discusses his 9-11 reporting and its aftermath, including the failures of communication in the Bush administration leading up to terrorist attack, as well as the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and the failures of the Osama bin Laden story following his execution in Pakistan. He’s even reported on the shortcomings of the John F. Kennedy legacy in The Dark Side of Camelot. (Interestingly enough, Kennedy didn’t come up once in the first 100 pages.) Hersh’s career represents a mountain of momentous public service work.
But Reporter is not a retirement account; Hersh is still at work, digging, revealing and not only continuing to provide important information to keep the public ‘alert and knowledgeable’ about Deep State machinations, but, perhaps more importantly, acting as a crucial gadfly to the shortcomings of the mainstream media, which has largely abrogated its responsibility to be adversarial advocates for the greater democratic good. It turns out that not only the bastards in Congress and the White House need to be kept honest by good reporting, but also the Fourth Estate. Trump’s view of the MSM’s reportage as “fake news” is not as false as it should be. While Reporter makes one nostalgic for the good ol’ days of real ‘resistance’ to the bastards in power, one wonders whether there is enough wind left in the sails of the ship of state to move forward, or are we headed for the militias? Will be ‘allowed’ to keep an eye on the deep Surveillance State?
The film classic Sunset Boulevard begins with a drowned William Holden looking up from the bottom of a Hollywood mansion swimming pool and recounting in a voice over, with flashbacks, all the years of narcissism, excess and grand delusions that led to his fateful, if avoidable watery demise.
Of late I’ve been feeling like a drowned crawler, not so much swimming as “scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” and, indeed, in my own bottom-fed reflections I own that I am nothing so manly as William Holden, but rather, and in keeping with the now-established T.S. Eliot vibe, a latter day Prufrock succumbing to the dead pool of human consciousness, where humankind cannot bear too much reality, and I am wholly terrified by the cleft and cling of any proffered peach.
All of this leads in a roundabout way to the freestyle swim my mind took while recently watching The Birth of a Nation(1915) in its entirety for the first time. I’d read rumors about this “great” controversial epic film, but admit I was somewhat repelled by the idea of watching three plus hours of black-and-white silence (not counting the mostly classical music soundtrack); after all, I already knew, anecdotally, that the film was regarded as an apology of sorts for the excesses of the antebellum South and a quaint glorification of the “moral” motivation of the nascent Ku Klux Klan.
It wasn’t until I had seen Griffith’s new techniques favorably compared to the “great” Nazi film propagandist Leni Riefenstahl that I sat up from my watery gravity and listened for the first time, as it were, to the mermaids singing each to each.
Having now viewed and reflected on Griffith’s Birth, I can now see the likeness of intent that Griffith’s vision seems to share with the Nazi propagandist. There is at work in Birth as in Triumph the archetypal symbolism, the broad simplification of human motivations, the idealizations of the master-slave dialectic (Griffith’s slaves pick cotton like it’s candy, and smile at their masters as only blackfaced whites playing blacks can do in teasing up the Southern Siegfried idyllism), and the absence of meaningful economic or political systems at work. Indeed, considering that it’s meant to be a three-hour epic journey into the psyche of a nation, you’d be forgiven thinking that the nation depicted in this film was filled with the stiff poses and gesture dialogues you’d expect to find in those old Classics Illustrated tales of history and happy empire.
All nations have significant “birth” moments – catalyzing events that shape national mythologies and promote characteristics and traits meant to be badges of identity. The French, the Brits, the Turks, the Czechs have all had such moments. And in 1915 – a hundred years ago – the Great War that swept Europe and Asia Minor was nothing if not a sorting machine for national identities.
In this context, Griffith’s film is a weird depiction of a nation leaning toward deep pacifism, with respect to the rest of the world in the Reconstruction decades following the carnage-filled Civil War. Birth of a Nation has two parts: in Part One, the viewer is invited to regard the antebellum South as benign and flourishing with happy plantation slaves keen to labor, and anxious to please, while the North is set up as a provocateur using the Abolitionist movement as a tool to tear down the Peaceable Kingdom that is Dixie; in Part Two, raging and triumphant Abolitionists and carpetbaggers complete their quest of raiding the plantation “lifestyle” for no other purpose than greed.
In perhaps the most bizarre twist to the depiction, Griffiths has mulatto Thomas Lynch – played as a kind of blackfaced “supremacist” who makes Malcolm X seem like Michael Jackson by comparison – set mobs (Lynch mobs – get it?) on local whites throughout the Carolinas, and to beat them down and put them in their rightful place, including, ironically, disenfranchisement of the white right to vote. This outrageous take-over and suppression by Northerners leads to the rise of the rebelling vigilantes who will soon become known as the KKK. What Griffiths ends up pushing, intentionally or not, is the outrageous notion that the white knights of the Ku Klux Klan rose up like the twerking Scots (from whom the Klan claim to derive their esoteric roots – at least, as Griffith paints it) led by kilt-clad Mel Gibson in Braveheart to fight back against black oppression. It’s all rather astonishing really.
The Birth of a Nation was released midway between the beginning of post-Reconstruction in 1865 and the legal establishment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which as meant to enfranchise millions of African Americans either not allowed to vote outright, or whose voting capacity was often suppressed by obstructions such as poll taxes, threats to employment, literacy issues, and ID snafus. It is now clear that Birth also led to resurgence of a waning KKK, and, consequently, helped lead the country toward many more tears of misery and injustice for African Americans throughout the States, but especially in the South, where voting problems continue to exist.
Griffith’s film was widely panned by “liberal” critics of the day, while at the same time being received radiantly by white Southerners who felt kicked around some by the mandates of Reconstruction. It is tempting to write this film off as a cinematic and political anomaly (Griffiths himself was said to be shocked by Birth’s polarizing effects), and to assume that it is not a true picture of the national psyche. And yet it is equally tempting to see the Pax Antebellum, with its devotion to slaving, as deeply emblematic of the kind of exploitative capitalism contemporary American neoliberals still inflict upon the many plantation states of the developing world, and one sees, without looking too hard, a suggestion in the easy rise of the KKK of a tendency – even a preference – for fixing things abroad with a kind of vigilantism and fiery symbolism. For what is the War on Terror in many respects if not a turn to extrajudicial white sheets and the burning crosses of Pax Americana?
Which leads to an especially relevant segue, as 2015 is also the centenary of the birth of blues goddess Billie Holiday, who sang the brooding and literally haunting “Strange Fruit,” which lyrically conjures up the long legacy of Deep South lynchings that were so much part of Holiday’s consciousness. It’s a good time, too, to reflect on the tragedy that was Holiday’s life – the drug addiction, the exploitation by agents – and to lament how she was pursued to her dying day, like a character out of Les Miserables, by police and federal agents who saw her black ballads as a threat to domestic order.
I started out by recalling William Holden reflecting on a wasted life from the bottom of a pool. But it’s fitting to end this piece by alluding to the tragic end of Rodney King in 2012. A strong swimmer, he was discovered droned at the bottom of his backyard pool. A neighbor reported to the media that shortly before he splashed in he had been sobbing with a voice “sad and crying.” King had once famously tearfully asked his fellow Americans on TV, “Can’t we all just get along?” following his beating by police and the subsequent rioting the video release of the beating provoked. Clearly, his death, and the events in America since, such as in Ferguson, suggest that the answer is decidedly NO. Not really. Not for long.
In this light, it may have been Griffith’s next film – Intolerance – that more powerfully suggests what a post-natal America has grown up to embody.