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Civil War & Reconstruction

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It’s Not Even Past.

“The early American economy was built on slave labor. The Capitol and the White House were built by slaves. President James K. Polk traded slaves from the Oval Office…[B]lack history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it…Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge — that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.”

In a long, deeply-researched, and very worthwhile essay, Ta-Nahesi Coates surveys the sweep of American history to make the case for reparations — “by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences”. “Liberals today mostly view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality. They ignore the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success — and the elevation of that punishment, in the mid-20th century, to federal policy.”

Coates’ historical case here — ranging from 1619 to the present day and resting on works by Edmund Morgan, Eric Foner, Ira Katznelson, and others (he even gets in the oft-forgotten Tulsa riots) — is air-tight and undeniable. At the very least, we could all stop pretending that four centuries of shameful discrimination and brutality didn’t happen, and acknowledge that, as Coates points out, it remains manifest in everything from our housing policies to the wealth gap to our absurd incarceration rates.

Along those lines, granted this may be changing soon, but it remains ridiculous that we have a very powerful Holocaust Museum on the Mall, but no equivalent museum or memorial about our own national original sin, slavery. The Holocaust Museum is very appropriate for DC: It is an unforgettable reminder of the systematized depravities that even supposedly civilized societies can commit. But we need to start considering the beam in our eye more seriously as well.

This piece also dovetails nicely with one of my favorite Cornel West quotes: “To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America — this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes, needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.”

Four Score and Seven Slides.

“This dialect is notable for its use of bullet points, objet trouve clip art, and gratuitously intrusive animation. Speakers are commonly found in business, academia, government, and the officer corps of the military. While some TP speakers are bilingual in English, many of them see complete paragraphs as only so much babble.”

The Atlantic‘s Robinson Meyer delves into the conversion of classic texts into “Terrible Powerpoint”, including Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and the Gettysburg Address. “It is so that these TP speakers might be saved that I have translated Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians into their native tongue.”

Nihilists, Dude.

“‘It’s imperative to act now, Cruz warns, before the full benefits of Obamacare kick in and Americans get “hooked on the sugar, hooked on the subsidies.’ His plan: Yoke the defunding of Obamacare to the must-pass budget bill the House will take up in September. The endgame? To force a government shutdown so painful and protracted that Barack Obama would have no choice but to surrender the crown jewel of his presidency. ‘As scary as a shutdown fight is,’ Cruz insists, ‘if we don’t stand and defund Obamacare now, we never will.'”

Another dispatch from the madhouse: In a fine piece of reporting, Rolling Stone‘s Tim Dickinson delves inside the Republican suicide machine. “Having backed the GOP into a shutdown fight that congressional leaders never wanted, the insurgents are winning, and establishment leaders are running scared. America is now careening toward a catastrophic voluntary default on our debt because no one in the Republican Party with the authority to put on the brakes has the guts to apply them, for fear of being toppled from power.”

An important point Dickinson makes here that cannot be emphasized enough: We didn’t just stumble into this crisis: Taking the government and the debt ceiling hostage was the strategy all long, and the right-wing insurgents have been planning for this for months. “They’d drawn a dangerous lesson from the previous battle: Brinksmanship works…In February, the House temporarily suspended the debt ceiling — intending to give the president’s poll numbers three months to come back to earth.”

Hey, speaking of polling numbers coming back to Earth

In any case, see also the NYT on this: “To many Americans, the shutdown came out of nowhere. But interviews with a wide array of conservatives show that the confrontation that precipitated the crisis was the outgrowth of a long-running effort to undo the law, the Affordable Care Act, since its passage in 2010 — waged by a galaxy of conservative groups with more money, organized tactics and interconnections than is commonly known.”

So we’re not in this hostage crisis by accident. The GOP even changed the House rules so they could maximize this confrontation. Republicans saw Obama fold in December 2010 on the Bush tax cuts and in August 2011 on the last debt ceiling hike. They think they can make him fold again here, and on every subsequent debt ceiling hike, and sadly, history is on their side on this. As Ted Cruz put it a few months ago: “If you have an impasse, you know — one side or the other has to blink. How do we win this fight? Don’t blink.”

Another small digression: If, like Ralph Nader this morning, you’re wondering why the right-wing of the GOP always seems to pull these sorts of stunts off while the left-wing of the Dems are usually completely marginalized, two quick answers: 1) The lefties don’t have billionaires backing their plays, and 2) we’re the People’s Front of Judea. They’re the right, they’re inherently better at the goose-stepping.

That being said, this whole episode also illustrates why it’s useless for Democrats to try to meet these fools halfway on policy: Republicans have now spent almost three years voting constantly to end the Affordable Care Act. To break a health care law originally penned by the Heritage Foundation and enacted by Mitt Romney, they have shut down the government and sent us to the brink of an economic default. So, how, exactly, would things be different if we had just passed Medicare for all, and/or a public option? They were going to lose their shit regardless, just like they did on Social Security, on Medicare, and any other progressive issue you can think of. There’s no point in trying to placate people who aren’t bargaining in good faith.

Anyway, as it happens, and as Andrew Sullivan recently pointed out, we’ve seen a minority party in America rejected at the polls try to take the entire nation hostage before. Here’s Abe Lincoln in 1861:

“What is our present condition? We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. In this they are either attempting to play upon us, or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum. A year will not pass, till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union.”

So too here: This time the scalp the GOP wants is the Affordable Care Act, or the Ryan budget, or social insurance cuts, or Malia Obama. “‘The girl. Bring us the girl,’ said Congressman Steve King (R-IA)..’The bill may pass, but the firstborn shall be ours.'” It’ll be something else the next time and the time after that.

That’s why John Judis is calling this “one of the worst crises in American history“, and why Jon Chait wrote that “Allowing Republicans to default on the debt now is better than trading something that allows them to threaten it later.” Because if Obama buckles this time — and, let’s remember, we already gave the GOP their sequester-funding-levels — the Republicans will just keep taking the American government and economy hostage to get whatever they want. And quicker than you can say he-said, she-said, the rest of the lazy Beltway media will come to treat this sort of hostage-taking as politics as usual. It has to end here, or it never will.

Scholar, Journalist, Cop, Hoopster.

“‘I would say that my ideal of writing history is to give the reader vicarious experience,’ Professor Morgan told The William and Mary Quarterly. ‘You’re born in one particular century at a particular time, and the only experience you can have directly is of the place you live and the time you live in. History is a way of giving you experience that you would otherwise be cut off from.’ Edmund Morgan, 1916-2013.

“Well I never knew it was a man’s world! I never accepted that. I thought I had an education just as good as a man’s. I deserve to have the same opportunities and advantages. So I antagonized a lot of people, but I fought for women’s rights and blacks’ rights and civil rights. Discrimination against women was very bad. There was no reason to accept discrimination. No reason.” Helen Thomas, 1920-2013.

“‘My personality was formed by Chicago,’ he told Cigar Aficionado magazine in 1999. ‘It’s very American, very straightforward. If you can’t find it, or make it there, you won’t make it anywhere. It’s a very honest place.'” Dennis Farina. 1944-2013.

“I was the Knicks’ third-leading scorer [8.1 ppg], I also finished third in the league in assist average [2.0], and my salary was 60 dollars per game. Ha! These days, the players make about sixty dollars a minute. Don’t get me wrong, though. I have no jealousy or resentment over how much money these guys make today. I think they’re the best athletes in the world, and they’re worth every red cent. I’m just proud to have been one of the NBA’s pioneers.” Ossie Schectman, 1919-2013.

The Last Full Measure.

“The American republic was, in 1863, a dangerously isolated democratic flower in a garden full of aristocratic weeds, and if the Civil War succeeded in sundering the United States into two separate pieces, it would be the final confirmation that democracies were unstable and unworkable pipe dreams. ‘The central idea pervading this struggle,’ Lincoln said in 1861, ‘is the necessity…of proving that popular government is not an absurdity,’ for ‘if we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.’ That ‘proving’ was what Gettysburg – and its roll of dead – provided.”

Seven score and ten years ago today, the Battle of Gettysburg began. “[F]rom these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion –that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Djettison Django?

“Basically, Django Unchained is a B movie. A damn fine B movie, but still a B movie…Despite its slavery setting, Django Unchained isn’t an exploration of the subject. It offers no critical insights into the circumstances, no nuances exploring the political realities (as Lincoln does). In the end, slavery is a prop to excite audience emotion and motivate the action.”

Continuing his recent renaissance as a cultural critic, Kareem explains why the otherwise entertaining Django shouldn’t be an Oscar contender. I agree with the take-films-seriously sentiment, but, at least as far as Oscar goes, that ship sailed decades ago (and he’s too charitable to the excellent-but-also-flawed Lincoln.)

Also making the round today, Christoph Waltz and the SNL gang’s Djesus Uncrossed. A funny idea almost redeemed by Waltz, but as with so much SNL fare the execution is less clever than it should be.

Fact-checking Lincoln.

It’s not a question of being wrong, it’s just inadequate,’ Foner said…In fact, he says if the 13th Amendment had not passed in January 1865, Lincoln had pledged to call Congress into special session in March. ‘And there, the Republicans had a two-thirds majority and would ratify in a minute,’ Foner said. ‘It’s not this giant crisis in the way that the film’s portraying it.’

Historian Eric Foner, who knows of what he speaks, fact-checks Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln. I enjoyed the film quite a bit, and would recommend it to all comers, particularly Daniel Day Lewis’s typically amazing performance. That being said, I thought the excessive emphasis on the virtues of compromise in this story was fundamentally wrongheaded.

For one, the death of slavery would never have reached the House floor were it not for several decades of uncompromising agitation by abolitionists. “On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.” As many of y’all know, that’s William Lloyd Garrison in 1831, giving one of the most definitive statements against compromising with an evil like slavery. Point being, compromise didn’t end slavery in America — an abject refusal to compromise did.

For another, as Foner notes, Lincoln had the votes in the next Congress — so there was no real need to compromise in this situation in any case. And besides, is it really a heroic moment for Thaddeus Stevens to be downplaying his commitment on the House floor to basic human equality? Surely, misleading the public about one’s true beliefs in congressional debate is not something we should be applauding. Nor does Washington, now or then, need any more erstwhile reformers who think the right thing to do when confronted with a stand on fundamental principle is to obfuscate and capitulate.

Of course, this nation was founded on compromise — some of them quite repellent, like the Three-Fifths — and the United States wouldn’t exist without it. And at other times, intransigence on principle has lost battles that compromise would clearly have won, such as the stubbornness of Woodrow Wilson dooming the League of Nations to defeat in 1919 and 1920, But the problem with this — mostly contemporary — emphasis on compromise is that it leads the filmmakers to a flawed understanding of the history of this period.

However much research Tony Kushner did on Lincoln here — and the film is indeed very well-written — it’s unfortunately quite clear that he doesn’t know jack about what came after the War. Here’s what he said to NPR on the subject:

“I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of war was a very, very smart thing. And it is maybe one of the great tragedies of American history that people didn’t take him literally after he was murdered. The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.'”

This, I’m sorry to say, is nonsense. Here, Kushner is blithely reciting a century-old popular myth, perpetuated by the Dunning School and D.W. Griffith, that isn’t just anachronistic and wrong. It’s been widely discredited, by some of the very same authors the film cites as sources.

The noble cause and the Klan did not arise because the North was mean to the former Confederate states. They arose because many in the South refused to accord African-Americans the basic civil liberties for which the war had ultimately been fought. To “forgive and reconcile with the South” would mean acceding to the disfranchisement and general abuse that many whites desired to levy upon African-Americans in the former Confederacy. Indeed, when Kushner’s desired move to “forgive and reconcile with the South” came with the end of Reconstruction in 1877, it was followed relatively soon thereafter by the emergence of Jim Crow. In short, Kushner’s argument here is pure wishful thinking, and it has been exposed as bunk by the last 40-some-odd years of Civil War and Reconstruction histories.

TL;DR: Lincoln is an entertaining and worthwhile film, but, then as now, compromise can be overrated. (Kushner quote via Tropics of Meta.) Update: More from Foner.

A Stillness at Appomattox.


This settles the fate of all coming time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come. Shall we stop this bleeding?” The trailer for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is now online, apparently covering roughly the last month of the president’s life. It definitely looks more than a little Spielberg-y around the edges, but I can’t wait to see Daniel Day-Lewis — love the accurate high-pitched Kentucky voice — and Mr. Lincoln’s army of sterling character actors in this. (Showing Hal Holbrook early on was a touch of class.)

Sixteen.


Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln gets a poster. Hard to believe this project is finally almost in the can.

Back in the River City.


Lincoln’s visit to Richmond produced the most unforgettable scenes of this unforgettable war. With an escort of only ten sailors, the president walked the streets while Porter [Admiral David D. Porter, actually one of my ancestors] peered nervously at every window for would-be assassins.” 146 years after a visit from the sixteenth president, and several weeks after Daniel Day Lewis was spotted as casual Lincoln in a Richmond restaurant, the actor is photographed in full Lincoln garb by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Uncanny.

The Things I’ve Seen…


In the US History is Surprisingly Short department, an eyewitness to Lincoln’s assassination appears on TV (for a February 9th, 1956 episode of I’ve Got a Secret, to be exact.)

Mr. Lincoln’s Army.

Finally setting off on his long-rumored Lincoln biopic — with Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field as Abe and Mary Todd respectively — Steven Spielberg fleshes out his cast in impressive fashion. Joining Mr. Lincoln, among others, are Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Robert Todd Lincoln), James Spader, John Hawkes, Bruce McGill, Joseph Cross, Hal Holbrook, and Tim Blake Nelson. A team of rivals, and no mistake.

Confederates at Gitmo.


The military trial of civilians is an atrocity!” Why, yes, yes it is. And, if you didn’t think so already, Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, an occasionally flat but still edutaining courtroom drama, aims to sway you to that point of view by coming strong with the history — in this case, the 1865 trial of Mary Surratt for her alleged role in the murder of President Lincoln.

The good news is The Conspirator is nowhere near as preachy and inert as Redford’s last attempt at liberal muck-raking, Lions for Lambs. (I’ll confess I don’t have much patience for didactic message movies that bray at me to embrace opinions i already hold — See also Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone.) Nonetheless, this film still occasionally suffers from the same mix of well-meaning blandness and dramatic torpor that characterizes almost all of Amistad, Steven Spielberg’s similar 19th century courtroom exercise: The values being reified are all laudable, to be sure, but the story as told is strangely lifeless (and I say that as someone who probably enjoys the genre of movies-to-be-shown-in-high-school-history-when-the-teacher-is-out more than most.)

Fortunately, the movie grew on me after awhile. Its depiction of broader Washington DC often feels stagy, and some of the acting support here doesn’t help matters. (As Surratt’s daughter Anna, Evan Rachel Wood overdoes it in her every scene, and the very 21st-century Justin Long is just miscast here as a Union veteran.) But as the lens of the story narrows down to the nitty-gritty of the court case in its middle hour, The Conspirator finds a surer footing. At its best moments, Redford’s film feels like an episode of Law and Order: Civil War Unit, one whose resonances — military tribunals, indefinite detentions, victor’s justice, and whatnot — still feel “ripped from the headlines.”

After establishing that our protagonist here, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy, with an impressive American accent — he should help out his countryman Ewan) is a Union war veteran wounded in his nation’s service, The Conspirator begins with the terrible crime that will concern us. On the night of April 14, 1865, only five days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, several men attempt to kill President Lincoln, Vice-President Johnson, and Secretary of State Seward, with mixed results. Seward manages to survive some nasty stab wounds, Johnson’s killer loses his nerve…but, as we all know, the flamboyant actor-turned-assassin John Wilkes Booth manages to kill the 16th President of the United States in cold blood. It is a horrible act of treason, the first assassination America has ever seen, and, make no mistake, everyone involved will pay.

And so, under the direction of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline, only slightly less Cheneyesque than Richard Dreyfuss in W) the conspirators (minus Booth, who is shot during capture) are rounded up and put on, for all intent and purposes, show trial — one headed by military men and quite clearly designed to come back with guilty verdicts. (FWIW, this film mostly elides over the Manhunt part of the story.) Nonetheless, according to that quaint old Constitution, even such dastardly criminals as these deserve defense counsel, and ultimately the young Union lawyer we met at the outset is roped into defending Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) by his mentor, Maryland senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).

Captain Aiken takes to his new position reluctantly, especially since he feels pretty certain that Surratt — the proprietress of the boarding house where the conspirators plotted — is guilty as all Hell. But as he learns more of Surratt and her pious Christian, Ur-mother ways, he starts to wonder if maybe she’s just taking the fall for her son John (Johnny Simmons of Jennifer’s Body), who is still on the lam. And, as he grows ever more sick of the obvious railroading happening at trial under the direction of Judge David Hunter (Colm Meaney) and prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston, doing his officiously sinister bureaucrat thing), Aiken becomes a convert to his duties, even as proper Washington society begins to shun him for seeming to take on the Confederate cause. Sometimes a man has to make a stand, etc. etc.

I don’t know much about the Mary Surratt trial other than what Wiki has to offer, so I can’t tell you if Redford and screenwriter James Solomon have done justice to the specifics of the story — It seems to have a versimilitude about it, at any rate. But one place where I thought The Conspirator faltered is in establishing the Big Picture. True, the film begins grimly with Lincoln’s assassination — hard to fault it there, I suppose. But particularly once the courtroom scenes take hold, it doesn’t do a very good job of putting everything in emotional context — that all of this is happening mere days and weeks right after the close of America’s bloodiest war. (Nor, for that matter, is slavery mentioned.) And so, while the Law and Order aspects of the story are often compelling in their own right, the trial also feels flat, and strangely disconnected from all the events that put it in motion.

Which is too bad, really. Since, if anything, that Civil War backdrop adds depth to the viewpoint Redford seemed to be trying to uphold. There we were after four years of bloody war, 600,000 dead and the president assassinated, and Aiken is still taking a stand for the constitutional rights of Mary Surratt — even though an innocent verdict might well put the sides at each other’s throats again. (Contrast this with the cowardly behavior our past two administrations have shown with regard to tribunals, detentions, Gitmo, etc, even though, neither on 9/11 or since, has Al Qaeda ever represented the kind of existential threat to our republic that we faced in 1865.)

Speaking of the Civil War angle: In a way, I admire the shrewdness of this film: It tries to pitch a civil liberties morality play in such a way that the people who will feel most aggrieved about the injustices being shown, civil libertarians notwithstanding, are the folks among us with residual sympathy for the Confederacy — not normally a left-leaning or libertarian bunch. But, let’s get real: They’re not going to see this film, or, if they do, see it as anything other than lefty propaganda. Like Inside Job or Casino Jack and the United States of Money, The Conspirator is for the most part just preaching to the choir. One of the best things you can say about it is that, for the middle hour at least, you may not mind humming along.

The Last Debt Fight.

After the Civil War, political leaders in the defeated South announced their intention of resuming their seats in Congress and of using their power…to compel the federal government either to pay off all debts of the Confederacy or to default on the national debt which had been borrowed to finance the Union war effort…For this reason, [Reconstruction Republicans] wrote into our fundamental law an absolute prohibition against defaulting on the national debt. Its language establishes a complete firewall against the misuse of governmental power by one political faction to get its way by wrecking the public credit.

As congressional Republicans try to bluff their way through another round of hostage-taking with the American economy, this time vis a vis the debt limit, Garrett Epps reminds us that the debt limit idea is actually unconstitutional, by way of the 14th Amendment (already not the GOP’s favorite accomplishment.) “This requirement is absolute. It is contained in Section Four of the Fourteenth Amendment, which directs, in no uncertain terms, that “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law…shall not be questioned.

150 Years Ago, a Union Broke.


The firing on that fort will inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has yet seen…you will lose us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet’s nest which extends from mountains to ocean. Legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary. It puts us in the wrong. It is fatal.” — Robert Toombs.

All dreaded it, all sought to avert it…Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And so, 150 years ago this week, the war came.

There’s Something about Mary.

A military trial of civilians is an atrocity…” Now isn’t that quaint? Union war hero James McAvoy finds himself reluctantly defending Robin Wright (a.k.a. Mary Surratt), a possible accessory to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, in the trailer for Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, also with Kevin Kline, Justin Long, Alexis Bledel, Evan Rachel Wood, Colm Meaney, Danny Huston, and Tom Wilkinson. Here’s hoping the historical setting here can ease the didacticism that marred Lions for Lambs.

The Tell-Tale Five.


The National Archives gave the document prominent display, putting it on tour along with other important Lincoln documents. But for several years, archivist Thomas Plante had been troubled by the document. The ‘5’ appeared to be darker than the rest of the document and was perhaps covering another number.

A decade after attempting to secure fifteen minutes of fame, amateur historian Thomas Lowry is caught tampering with original Lincoln documents: He made it seem Lincoln’s last official act was pardoning a Union deserter named Patrick Murphy, actually pardoned in 1864. “Lowry’s purported discovery was hailed by historians when he came forward in 1998. At the time, a Civil War expert with the Archives said Lowry had made ‘a unique and substantial contribution to Lincoln research and to the study of the Civil War.’

Abe Drinks Your Milkshake.

Daniel Day-Lewis would have always been counted as one of the greatest of actors, were he from the silent era, the golden age of film or even some time in cinema’s distant future. I am grateful and inspired that our paths will finally cross with ‘Lincoln.’

On the seven score and seventh anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, Steven Spielberg announces he has acquired a new Lincoln in Daniel Day-Lewis, replacing the long-attached Liam Neeson. My, that’s good casting.

Liam: No Lincoln.

I’m not actually playing Lincoln now. I was attached to it for a while, but it’s now I’m past my sell-by date.” Along the lines of Guillermo del Toro leaving The Hobbit, Liam Neeson announces he’s now off Stephen Spielberg’s long-rumored Lincoln biopic, mainly because it’s taken too long to get off the ground. (Neeson was first rumored for the role in 2005.) Well, that’s too bad. But, if it takes another decade or so to move, Adrien Brody should fit in nicely.

“Law & Order: Civil War Unit.”

Redford says he didn’t want to simply re-create Lincoln’s assassination and deals with that mainly as setup. ‘All the President’s Men was very similar, because you had this big historical event taking place, but what people didn’t know was what these two reporters did, digging in under the radar. You didn’t need to show Nixon a lot,’ he says.

USA Today checks in on the set of Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, about the trial of Mary Surratt, with Robin Wright Penn, James McAvoy, Toby Kebbell, and Alexis Bledel. (This is not to be confused with the long-gestating film adaptation of Manhunt or Steven Spielberg’s seemingly cursed attempt at a Lincoln biopic.)

Thrill of the Chase…Letter.

Score one for eBay: After three-score years lost to the winds, a long-missing Lincoln letter is returned to the National Archives by the Arizona collector who ended up with it. “Federal officials, who have not ruled out its possible theft from a government collection, discovered it two years ago during routine monitoring of online auctions.

His Soul’s Marching On?

“‘It’s a great, great project,’ Brolin told us. ‘The script was already out there; I read the script, I loved it. It would be a very tough character for me to play. We’re going to do some tests once I’m done with this, but it’s a great script and story. Somebody who I know, because of Howard Zinn’s thing, and I know the character really well.’” After Jonah Hex and the next Woody Allen film, will Josh Brolin be frontlining a new John Brown biopic? That’s the word I’m hearing from my abolition-minded colleagues at Coming Soon.Net. Let’s just say the authorities at Harpers Ferry had best be wary.

Donald, Considered.

“I was able to sit at Lincoln’s side and see how he thought and how he acted, and how he felt about what was going on around him. I felt the pressures that were on him. You can see what people were writing to him, how they were nudging him.” Historian David Herbert Donald, 1920-2009. “‘It is the most balanced of the biographies out there,” Mr. Foner said in a telephone interview Monday. ‘It is not a work of hero worship, nor does it have a prosecutorial brief. He presents Lincoln as a rather passive figure, not at all in charge of the forces raging around him, which is quite accurate.’

The Ghosts of Ford and Bourne.

As most everyone keeping up on current events these days knows, the people around the president, as well as the president himself, spend a good bit of time emphasizing the pragmatic nature of this administration. One senior administration official recently deemed the president a “devout nonideologue”, and Obama himself has argued several times that he aims to tackle the myriad problems before us with a “ruthless pragmatism.” Now, we’ve seen nothing to indicate that Obama’s pragmatic nature is an act. If anything, from installing Sen. Clinton as his Secretary of State to keeping Sec. Gates at Defense, it’s clear that pragmatism, accommodation, and inclusiveness are his temperamental instincts as a politician. Nevertheless, it’s also clear that comparisons to Franklin Roosevelt, and the “bold, persistent experimentation” Roosevelt promised in 1932 — and subsequently followed through on over the course of the decade — aren’t entirely undesired by the White House.

Well, I’ve been traveling over the past few days, and thus haven’t been following the news as closely as usual. Still, even given President Obama’s health care announcement on Monday (highly reminiscent of the NRA in that it purports to let the big players in the health care industry help write the codes, so to speak) and the welcome declaration on Wednesday that the administration would soon seek a new regulatory apparatus for derivatives markets, Franklin Roosevelt was not the first president that came to mind as a point of reference for Obama this week.

No, that would be Gerald Ford, who, most historians agree, was an honorable man thrust into a thorny dilemma by the crimes of his predecessor, and who grievously hamstrung his own brief administration by deciding to pardon Richard Nixon. And now, it seems, history gets dangerously close to repeating itself. For, it’s moved beyond obvious that the Dubya administration not only willfully engaged in torture — clearly, bad enough — but did so to compel false confessions of an Iraq-9/11 connection that they knew never existed. And yet, we’ve already witnessed the ungainly sight of President Obama equivocating on the question of prosecutions in the name of some dubious “time for reflection, not retribution.” (Never mind that, as President Obama reminds us on other matters, wounds, like corruption, fester in the dark.)

This week, President Obama has compounded his recent error — twice. In the first of two eleventh-hour reversals, Obama — who has promised us “an unprecedented level of openness in government” many times over — instead chose to side with the publicists of the Pentagon and block the court-ordered release of new photographs detailing detainee abuse: “‘The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals,’ Obama said yesterday. ‘In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in danger.‘” (How bad are they? If Sy Hersh is correct, and there’s no reason to think he isn’t, they could be very, very bad.)

Then, today, the Obama administration announced they will continue using extra-legal military tribunals, not federal courts or military courts martial, for Gitmo suspects. “‘Military commissions have a long tradition in the United States,’ said Obama in a statement. ‘They are appropriate for trying enemies who violate the laws of war, provided that they are properly structured and administered.’” (The key line of the WP story: “In recent weeks, however, the administration appears to have bowed to fears articulated by the Pentagon that bringing some detainees before regular courts presented enormous legal hurdles and could risk acquittals.)”

Obama’s statements aside, the arguments — re: excuses — in favor of blocking the release of these no-doubt-horrifying photos and maintaining extralegal tribunals — now with 33% less illegality! — are the thin gruel you might expect. The WP’s Dan Froomkin already eviscerated the former quite devastatingly, while Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald, laudable as usual, has taken point on the idiocy of the latter: “[W]e’ll give due process as long as we’re sure we can win, and if we can’t, we’ll give you something less.” In both cases, the principle animating the advice given to President Obama seems mainly to be the usual self-serving, CYA behavior of Dubya holdovers at the Pentagon.

But that doesn’t absolve President Obama of his failures here. For whatever reason — perhaps he’s trying to smooth things over in these areas so he can focus on the considerable domestic problems on his plate — Obama is increasingly making the exact same mistake as Gerald Ford. As other commentators have pointed out, by shoving the rampant illegalities of the GWoT under the rug — or worse, perpetuating them — Obama is dangerously close to making his administration retroactively complicit in the crimes of the previous administration.

Now, I’d like to move on to fixing the economy and universal health care — not to mention voting, lobbying, and campaign finance reform — as much as the next guy., But sidestepping the tough choices on torture and the imperial presidency, as Paul Krugman (whom I’ve had issues with but am in complete lockstep with here) noted a few weeks ago, is simply not an option, if we are to maintain anything resembling our national soul after this egregious wallowing in torture and illegality.

Speaking of which, a quick comment on the emerging question of what and when Speaker Pelosi knew about torture (which the Republicans have shamelessly latched onto like a life raft — see in particular Karl Rove frantically pointing at her to save his own skin the other day. You can almost smell the desperate flop sweat exuding from his every pore.) Well, let’s look into it. Commissions, investigations, prosecutions — let’s quit screwing around and start getting to the bottom of this fiasco. I can’t believe I have to keep writing this like it’s even a bone of contention, but look: If we can’t get it together enough to collectively agree that torture is both immoral and illegal, and that those who designed and orchestrated these war crimes during the Dubya administration be subject to investigation, prosecution, and punishment, then we might as well call this whole “rule of law” thing off. As ethicist David Luban noted yesterday in congressional testimony, the relevant case law here is not oblique. Either the laws apply to those at the very top, or they don’t — in which case, it’s hard to see why anyone else should feel bound to respect them either.

Which brings me back to pragmatism. Hey, in general, I’m all for it, particularly when you consider all the many imbecilities thrust upon the world by the blind ideological purity of the neocons of late. But, let’s remember, the limits of pragmatism as a guiding national philosophy were exposed before all the world before Obama, or even FDR, ever took office. When, after several years of trying to stay well out of the whole mess, Woodrow Wilson entered America into World War I in 1917, the very fathers of Pragmatism, most notably philosopher of education John Dewey, convinced themselves war was now the correct call and exhorted their fellow progressives, usually in the pages of The New Republic, to get behind it. (Many did, but others — such as Jane Addams and Nation editor Oswald Villard — did not.) War went from being a moral abomination to a great and necessary opportunity for national renewal. Given it was a done deal, the pragmatic thing to do now was to go with the flow.

Aghast at this 180-degree shift in the thinking of people he greatly admired, a young writer named Randolph Bourne called shenanigans on this “pragmatic” turnaround, and excoriated his former mentors for their lapse into war fervor. “It must never be forgotten that in every community it was the least liberal and least democratic elements among whom the preparedness and later the war sentiment was found,” Bourne wrote. “The intellectuals, in other words, have identified themselves with the least democratic forces in American life. They have assumed the leadership for war of those very classes whom the American democracy had been immemorially fighting. Only in a world where irony was dead could an intellectual class enter war at the head of such illiberal cohorts in the avowed cause of world-liberalism and world-democracy.

Now, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger cheerleader for the progressives than I. But the fact remains that Bourne, who perished soon thereafter in the 1918 influenza epidemic, was prescient in a way that many of the leading progressive thinkers were not. The emotions unleashed by the Great War and its aftermath (as well as the sight of the accompanying Russian Revolution) soon fractured completely the progressive movement in America, and proved exceedingly fertile soil for the reascendancy of the most reactionary elements around. (Back then “Bolshevik” and “anarchist” were preferred as the favorite epithets of the “One Hundred Percent American” right-wing, although “socialist,” then as now, was also in vogue. At least then they had real socialists around, tho’.) And the pragmatic writers and thinkers of TNR, who thought they could ride the mad tiger through a “war to end all wars,” instead found their hopes and dreams chewed up and mangled beyond recognition. They wanted a “world made safe for democracy” and they ended up with the Red Scare, Warren Harding, and an interstitial peace at Versailles that lasted less than a generation.

The point being: however laudable a virtue in most circumstances, pragmatism for pragmatism’s sake can lead one into serious trouble. And, as a guiding light of national moral principle, it occasionally reeks. As Dewey and his TNR compatriots discovered to their everlasting chagrin, you can talk yourself into pretty much anything and deem it “pragmatic,” when it’s in fact just the path of least resistance. And, when your guiding philosophy of leadership is to always view intense opposing sides as Scylla and Charybdis, and then to steer through them by finding the calm, healthy middle, you can bet dollars-to-donuts that the conservative freaks of the industry will always be pushing that “center” as far right as possible, regardless of the issues involved. And, eventually, without a guiding moral imperative at work — like, I dunno, torture is illegal, immoral, and criminal, or the rule of law applies to everyone — you may discover that that middle channel is no longer in the middle at all, but has diverted strongly to the right. In which case, welcome to Gerald Ford territory.

Nobody wants that, of course. We — on the left, at least — all want to remember the Obama administration not as a well-meaning dupe notable mainly for its unfortunate rubberstamping of Dubya-era atrocities, but as a transformational presidency akin to those of Lincoln and the two Roosevelts. To accomplish this goal, it would behoove the White House to remember that Lincoln, pragmatic that he was, came to abolition gradually, but come to abolition he did. Or consider that Franklin Roosevelt, pragmatic that he was, eventually chose his side as well. “I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match,” FDR said in his renomination speech of 1936. “I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

I should like to have it said of President Obama’s administration as well. The alternative — Obama’s sad, “pragmatic” capitulation to Dubya-era criminals — is too depressing to contemplate. But the picture below (found here) gives you a pretty good sense of what it’ll mean for America if we don’t get to the bottom of this, and soon.

U.S. History for Dummies.

As many readers here well know, I’ve spent a good bit of time over the past decade studying US history. (In fact, over the past few years, I’ve occasionally helped my advisor keep a textbook up to date that recently drew the ire of right-wing blowhard Bill O’Reilly. Apparently, those damn pesky facts were somehow mitigating O’Reilly’s ability to spew forth the usual idiotic blather.)

Anyway, over that period of time, I believe I have in fact learned me a few things. So, as a public service of sorts, and because, after this morning’s revelations, I’ve reached the limit of craven and/or patently stupid falsehoods that I can feasibly ingest over so short a time, some “U.S. History for Dummies.” I expect most everyone who comes by this site with any frequency knows all this, but ya never know. Apologies for the didacticism in advance — if this were this a Coors Light commercial, this would be where i vent. (And thanks to Lia for the timely visual tax lesson, above.)

  • The Tea Party: As you no doubt know, the Boston Tea Party of 1773 was recently appropriated by FOX News and the conservative group Freedomworks to simulate a widespread popular uprising against high taxes. (In other words, it was an “astroturf,” rather than a grass-roots, movement.) And, yes, the inconvenient fact that President Obama and the Democratic Congress actually lowered income taxes for 95% of Americans earlier this year didn’t seem to dissuade them from trying to jury-rig some rather dubious anti-tax ramparts and gin up enough disgruntled FOX-watchers to man them.

    At any rate, as most people remember from high school, the original 1773 Tea Party was not a protest against high taxes or high prices at all. (In fact, legally imported tea — i.e. that of the East India Company, which was both suffering serious setbacks over in India and losing market share to smuggled Dutch tea at the time — was actually cheaper in the colonies after the Tea Act, since it was now exempt from the usual obligations.)

    In small part a reaction of the East India’s commercial rivals to this sweetheart deal, the Boston Tea Party was mainly held to uphold the principle of No taxation without representation. Which I don’t think I need to explain. So, with the minor exception of DC-area conservatives who attended the tea gathering in Washington (without crossing over from Virginia or Maryland), the, uh, “teabaggers” don’t really have a leg to stand on here. This is particularly true after you consider that both ruthless gerrymandering and the vagaries of the Electoral College (I’m looking at you, Wyoming) actually tend to lead to over-representation of conservative Republicans in our halls of governance, even despite heavy losses for the “Grand Old Party” in 2006 and 2008.

  • The “Right” of Secession: Apparently, Rick Perry, the right-wing governor of Texas, really wants to keep his job. As such, he’s scared stiff of the forthcoming primary challenge by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who happens to be much more popular than he is among Texas Republicans. So, to sow up his “activist” (re: freak show) bona fides, this desperate fellow has been doing anything and everything he possibly can to prostrate himself before the paranoid ultra-right, including appearing before the current poobahs of the GOP’s lunatic fringe, Glenn Beck and Michael Savage. As you no doubt know, this recently culminated in Gov. Perry’s upholding Texas’ right to secede before a crowd of rabid teabaggers. Said the Governor: ““We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that…

    Well, in fact, no state in the Union has any legal right to secede. (Not even Texas.) The existence of such a right was posited and debated quite often in the early years of the republic: by Jefferson and Madison in the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions, by the members of the Hartford Convention, by South Carolina’s philosopher-politician John C. Calhoun, and countless others.

    But the illegality of secession was eventually confirmed — in blood — when eleven states attempted to pull out of the Union in 1861, due mainly to differing opinions on the institution of slavery and its expansion into the western territories. As a result of this insurrection by the southern states, a violent conflict broke out, which we call the Civil War. It lasted four years, and it was kind of a big deal.

    Prior to the war, the states of the Confederacy believed secession to be their natural right, while those remaining in the Union believed it to be tantamount to an act of treason. With the Union victory in that conflict, and the subsequent readmittance of southern states in such a manner that reaffirmed that no right of secession exists, the question was settled. So it remains to this day.

  • Waterboarding, Torture, and “Just Following Orders”: In the wake of recent revelations, there’s been a renewed push among certain conservatives to laugh off waterboarding as not being constitutive of torture. (See also Rush Limbaugh’s fratboy defense of Abu Ghraib a few years ago.) But (as even John McCain concedes), in the years after World War II, there was no question among Americans that waterboarding is torture. In fact, Japanese soldiers were tried and convicted of war crimes for waterboarding American GIs and Filipino prisoners. When you think about it, it’s not really a tough call.

    Another argument we’ve heard lately — today Sen. McCain made it with his usual comrades-in-arms, Sens. Lieberman and Graham, while trying to protect Dubya’s lawyers — is that the CIA officials who actually conducted these recent acts of torture should be exempt from prosecution, because they were following the legal dictates of those higher-up in the administration. (To follow the reasoning around the circle, the torturers should be exempt because they were listening to the lawyers, and the lawyers should be exempt because they didn’t do the actual torturing. Cute.)

    Anyway, whatever you think of the merits of this argument, this is usually referred to as the Nuremberg defense, and it is in fact no defense at all. Argues Principle IV of the Nuremberg Principles, devised by the Allies after WWII to determine what constituted a war crime: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.” Insert “CIA interrogator” for person in that last sentence and you can pretty much see the problem.

  • Is America a Christian Nation?: At the end of his recent European tour, President Obama told an audience in Turkey the following: “We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.” This statement — well the “not a Christian nation” part of it, at least — prompted no small amount of consternation from the porcine-moralist wing of the GOP — James Dobson, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, and sundry other freaks of the industry — all of whom fell over themselves to proclaim to the Heavens and preach to the FOX News choir that, yes, Virginia, America is a glorious Christian nation.

    America is not a Christian nation. This will be patently obvious to anyone who’s ever heard the phrase “separation of church and state.” Unlike, say, England, America does not have and has never had an official, established church. This is very much by design. For proof of this not-very-radical claim, see the very first clause of the very first amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

    If that doesn’t do it for you, see George Washington’s famous 1790 letter to the Jewish residents of Newport, Rhode Island. “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

    Or consider that Thomas Jefferson skipped his presidency on his tombstone to make room for his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: “Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” (We could also make mention of the Jefferson Bible, but let’s start slow.)

    Is the reasoning here too circuitous for Rove, Gingrich, et al to follow? Ok, then, here’s the cheat sheet: the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, passed by a Congress of our Founders without declaim and signed into law by President John Adams. It begins: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…” Did y’all catch it this time? Good, let’s move on.

  • A Smile for Chavez: Our new president also attended the Summit of the Americas recently, at which he was photographed smiling and shaking hands with Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez, a particular bete noire of the right who has said all manner of unpleasant things about America over the past few years.

    After the picture was taken, conservatives went predictably livid, with Matt Drudge headlining the offending photograph with the usual red text, Dick Cheney deeming Obama “a weak president” on FOX News, and Gingrich arguing that it made Obama look “weak like Carter.” “We didn’t rush over, smile and greet Russian dictators,” said Newt, and he wasn’t the only potential 2012’er aghast at Obama’s behavior. Sen. John Ensign of Nevada called the president “irresponsible” and the consistently shameless Mitt Romney painted Obama a “timid advocate for freedom”.

    Um, ok. Well, let’s see here…


    I could go on. With regards to that last one — Reagan yukking it up with Mikhail Gorbachev, then of “the evil Empire” — it didn’t take long before (surprise) Newt was caught in a contradiction. Apparently, Gingrich had previously argued on his website that Ronald Reagan’s good humor with Gorby was a sign of strength, not weakness.

    Speaking of which, as Lawrence O’Donnell noted on MSNBC the other day, saintly old Ronald Reagan didn’t just smile and shake hands with America’s enemies. His administration sold them weapons under the table. So, please, assorted puddin’-heads of the GOP talkocracy, spare me your warmed-over tripe about poor diplomacy and weak leadership. As with everything else above, I’ve swallowed enough of your swill over the past few weeks to last me a lifetime.

  • A Dark Hour for Lincoln.

    “A source close to Spielberg says the director is busy with his next film, Tintin, and is not wringing his hands over Paramount’s decision. But another source associated with the project, asked about the process, said, ‘I think it’s called water-boarding.'” Will Steven Spielberg’s long-gestating Lincoln biopic (with Liam Neeson and Sally Field as the president and first lady respectively) become a victim of the downfall of Dreamworks? “This past weekend, he’s been waiting for executives at Paramount–the studio he ditched last year–to decide whether to make the film and hire him to direct it.

    Well, the dubious merits of Amistad notwithstanding, I can think of a couple dozen other movie projects I’d like to see the plug pulled on before this one.

    We are Lincoln Men.

    “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” Happy 200th, Mr. President.

    On the Shoulders of Giants.

    Two recent and choice Columbia-related links by way of Ted at The Late Adopter:

    “Lincoln is important to us not because of his melancholia or how he chose his cabinet but because of his role in the vast human drama of emancipation and what his life tells us about slavery’s enduring legacy…In the wake of the 2008 election and on the eve of an inaugural address with ‘a new birth of freedom,’ a phrase borrowed from the Gettysburg Address, as its theme, the Lincoln we should remember is the politician whose greatness lay in his capacity for growth.” In The Nation and on the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, Eric Foner evaluates the continuing legacy of the 16th president.

    “Economic orthodoxy — which gave high priority to balanced budgets and fiscal restraint — remained a powerful force in the 1930s, even as its limitations became increasingly obvious. Similar arguments can still be heard today…The New Deal was least successful when it was least aggressive–when it let concerns about fiscal prudence override the urgent need to pump enormous sums of money into a moribund economy.” And, over in TNR, Alan Brinkley notes what the Obama administration can learn from the New Deal.

    Update: “Most Americans, I suspect, if asked whether they would prefer a president with strong principles or one who prefers pragmatic politics, would choose an idealist over a realist in a flash. But almost all successful politicians combine principle with pragmatism constantly.” In a TNR piece that ties the two above together quite well, Prof. Brinkley speculates on the fatal flaw in Dubya’s make-up: certitude. “For whatever reasons…Bush has seemed to be comfortable only when he could make quick and firm decisions, however complicated the issue, and then move on. Admitting mistakes or changing course seems almost contrary to his nature.

    Obama: Don’t Tread on Me.

    “‘The use of patriotism as a political sword or a political shield is as old as the Republic,’ Obama said. ‘Still, what is striking about today’s patriotism debate is the degree to which it remains rooted in the culture wars of the 1960s — in arguments that go back 40 years or more. In the early years of the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War, defenders of the status quo often accused anybody who questioned the wisdom of government policies of being unpatriotic.’

    From Unity (NH) to Independence (MO), Sen. Obama — pushing back against the current GOP strategy — delivers a long and eloquent speech on the issue of patriotism. [Transcript.] “His speech put the issue in a sweeping historical perspective, speaking of charges that Thomas Jefferson had sold the nation out to the French and that John Adams was in cahoots with the British. He also questioned policies enacted in the name of patriotism, from Adams’ Alien and Sedition Act, Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese Americans…’I give him credit. He is taking this very seriously,’ said presidential historian Robert Dallek.

    Abe Lincoln and the Land of the Sundered Republic.

    Lincoln laughs last? It seems that due to rewrite issues with the rumored Abbie Hoffman film, Steven Spielberg has put his Lincoln biopic back on the front-burner, to be shot right after Tintin (a la Jurassic Park/Schindler’s List and War of the Worlds/Munich.) Other than Liam Neeson and Sally Field as President and Mrs. Lincoln respectively, no other casting has been announced.

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