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Southern California Stories

I’m working on private writing assignments and creating some summer lessons but I’ve gathered a few links to recent Southern California-themed articles for those who might be interested and may have missed reading them online or in the newspaper. My exclusive interview with the Ayn Rand Institute’s new CEO, Jim Brown, who talked with me at his Irvine office about management, including what he’s learned from serving in the United States Air Force, was published in the Los Angeles Times Orange County edition; you can read it here. Brown, whom I think is planning to attend and address next month’s OCON in Pittsburgh, names his favorite Ayn Rand lecture and works by longtime Orange County resident and ARI founder Leonard Peikoff. Brown also identifies what he considers the institute’s greatest success.

The head of another Southern California institute, the newly formed Institute for the Study of Los Angeles (ISLA), recently sat down with me at the host campus quad at Occidental College for a wide-ranging interview about plans for the future. Professor Jeremiah Axelrod discussed his family’s unique migration to LA from Alabama, restrictive covenants and the top places to visit in LA in my exclusive new piece about his thoughts and interesting historical facts about the region. The article, which runs this week, is available to read here.

One sordid chapter in LA history is the serial crimes by the Hillside Stranglers, which was integral to the downfall of one of the city’s first prominent shopping malls. I recently profiled Eagle Rock Plaza, which has since been nicknamed the Mall of Manila but was once a popular attraction for events featuring a teen idol, Olympic gold medalist and a movie starlet. Tenants over the years included Howard Johnson’s, May Company, The Wherehouse, See’s Candies, Bob’s Big Boy, Baskin-Robbins and Vroman’s Bookstore. Before the mall opened, local LA residents were so excited, they demanded to have “Eagle Rock” put in its name and the city of Glendale was so nervous about losing tax revenue to the competition that the local government mandated free downtown parking — before Eagle Rock Plaza even opened. But when two serial rapists and murderers showed up, posing as policemen, stalking a bus stop by the shopping center and picking up their youngest victims there, business slowed. Read the shopping center story here.

Strictly Occidental

While doing research for assignments related to a college in Los Angeles, I wanted to know the origin of the term ‘occidental’. I knew from my Oxford English Dictionary that the word means that which relates to the countries of the West.

So I asked Paul Anthony Jones, author of etymological guides and The Accidental Dictionary in the United Kingdom and creator of the language website Haggard Hawks. Kindly, he answered by e-mail, starting with a comparison of the words oriental and occidental, which he wrote has to do with the sun: “[E]tymologically orient comes from the Latin for ‘rise’ or ‘begin’, occident from the Latin for ‘set’ (or ‘fall down’). It’s the association between the location of rising and setting sun that permanently attached the words to the east and west…That gives the words some interesting and quite unexpected cousins. Orient is related to abort and origin, and probably even orchestra somewhere along the line. Occident, in the sense of a falling or setting, is related to incidents and coincidences, accidents, and deciduous trees, as well as all the words that end –cide, like patricide, fungicide and homicide.”

This word, occidental, is also the name of a small, private college in northeastern Los Angeles.

Alan Bliss memorializes mass murder victims of 9/11. Photo courtesy of JSBProductions

Alan Bliss memorializes mass murder victims of 9/11. Photo courtesy of JSBProductions

Occidental College is where an attack on a U.S. flag memorial was waged in three waves on this year’s 15th anniversary of the 9/11 Islamic terrorist attack on the United States. Alan Bliss, the sophomore pictured here who coordinated the besieged free speech exercise, tells me that he’s granting Occidental College the benefit of the doubt in protecting campus free speech despite the evidence to the contrary. The young Texan spoke with me in an exclusive interview on campus last fall. Read the story of his simple free speech exercise, its assault and destruction and the college’s appeasing response in my article here.

Occidental College is located in LA’s Eagle Rock neighborhood, where a wine lounge recently hosted a pair of Occidental professors for an enjoyable lesson on the Greek god Dionysus (read the article here), in which they discussed Plato, Aristotle, sparagmos, Alexander the Great, and why Dionysus is best regarded as more complex than the god of wine. The club’s lounge is owned by an Occidental graduate who chooses to host art exhibits, readings and lectures and other exercises of free speech at his Colorado Wine Company, located on Colorado Boulevard, a few miles from the hillside college.

As I ponder the word occidental as emanating from the setting sun and meaning that which pertains to the West, I must note that the college which sustained, and arguably minimizes, a siege against the freedom of speech, is where Barack Obama, the nation’s 44th president, Jack Kemp, the 1996 Republican vice-presidential nominee, Ben Affleck and director Terry Gilliam (Brazil) once studied. That this credible institution of higher education now claims (as a college spokesman told me for this article) that the school “doesn’t have the resources” to protect a student’s exercise of free speech—and, instead, seeks to coddle and appease its attackers—underscores the precarious state of the First Amendment.

Today, the 45th president vowed to strip citizenship of or imprison anyone exercising the right to free expression by burning a flag. More than before, the absolute right to express oneself, whether by burning or planting a flag, is crucial to the future of the West.


Related Links

Occidental Professors Lecture on Ancient Greece by Scott Holleran

Occidental College Responds to 9/11 Assault on Freedom of Speech by Scott Holleran

Movie Review: Jackie

Dissecting the wife of the first modern celebrity president to become martyred through assassination—President Kennedy—is the aim of leading actress Natalie Portman’s tragic horror movie, Jackie. A pretentious, arduous fictionalization it is, too. Jackie is as grisly as a horror movie and as maudlin as a Tennessee Williams play.

No one can accuse writer Noah Oppenheim and director Pablo Larrain of romanticizing the Kennedys, though the president’s widow as the film’s subject garners some degree of sympathy. This, too, may depend on one’s take on the grief-stricken housewife with no apparent passion for anything except perhaps vanity, proximity to the opposite sex and prestige by the estimates of others. This may have been part of the intended point of Jackie, which is meant to be unnerving and is often merely uninteresting.

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Beginning with a black screen, droning sounds and scattered shots of glimpses of the film’s three main focal points—the November 22, 1963 assassination in Dallas, a 1961 First Lady’s televised tour of the White House and a post-assassination meeting at the Kennedys’ property in Massachusetts—Jackie delves into dark moments. Given that it’s one of the most iconic, photographed presidencies, it’s hard not to want to watch what’s happening on screen, if for no other reason to match it up with famous pictures.

“I will be editing this conversation in case I don’t say exactly what I mean,” the First Lady tells an interviewer after the assassination in the movie’s framing device. In flashbacks to the deadly motorcade, hospital, Air Force One and the White House, the grieving widow’s lament comes in three arcs; before, during and after Dallas. It plays as a psychodrama, as Portman’s version of Jacqueline Kennedy sucks cigarettes, pops pills, melts down and confides, breathlessly wandering halls and rooms in her tidy little outfits like a battery-operated doll gone glitchy.

Jackie Kennedy was real and the movie that bears her name, enamored with her grief, hints at and shows nothing of what came before or after her White House Kennedy years, so there’s nothing about her Republican politics, interest in publishing or even much about what attracted her to her Catholic husband (whose presence in the movie is relegated to a few glimpses and a halting speech). The whole movie is overstyled, like a reality cable show’s recreation, focusing on the victim’s personality more than on pivot points in depicted events that define or recur over a lifetime (like The Queen, Lincoln or The Iron Lady). Jackie is moody, twitchy and awfully derivative. I do not think depicting a woman at her worst for nearly 90 consecutive minutes is inherently brilliant, however.

Jackie amounts to a re-enactment based on morbid curiosity. From scene to scene, certain tidbits emerge, from Mrs. Kennedy’s defense of guiding the White House tour, in which she finds “history, identity and beauty” in material possessions and points out that she funded restoration of the White House entirely through private donations to President Lincoln’s funeral as the impetus for her husband’s. The impressions soon fade amid more pill-popping than Valley of the Dolls, a distracting score, chain-smoking and a brutal portrayal of a shallow, unstable woman. “I used to make them smile,” she says to a priest (John Hurt, V for Vendetta) after asking what men will think of her now.

Add scenes with the kids and Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Mr. and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant) as the closest Jackie has to villains other than the grieving widow herself and her late husband, whose flaws are suggested, never named. As Mrs. John Kennedy, Portman is affected, overly mannered and sincere. As a journalist, Billy Crudup (Spotlight) is flat, though this may be the way the role is written and it’s hard to tell because the journalist behaves less as a journalist and more as a sycophant.

For all the pageantry and re-enactment, the majesty Jackie apparently believes it exhibits only holds if you think celebrity has majesty (it doesn’t), if only for one brief shining moment. Jackie feels, however, like one, long gauzy eternity, at once both fawning and cruel to the woman who later made a career for herself independent of men. When the priest to whom Jackie Kennedy confides finally tells her that one can’t ever really know anything, anyway, and that, upon realizing this truth, most people accept it as true, kill themselves or stop seeking answers, I knew in that instant that this is what Jackie is really made to say. Sadly, it’s all that Jackie‘s made to say.

Movie Review: The Birth of a Nation (2016)

“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.” This Thomas Jefferson quotation from his Notes on the State of Virginia, which also appears on my favorite memorial in Washington, D.C., the Jefferson Memorial, prefaces and predisposes Nate Parker’s provocative movie about the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner.

That the young filmmaker, whose picture was bought at a film festival by Fox Searchlight with great expectations only to be downgraded by recent disclosures about Parker’s past, casts the historic rebellion as God’s vengeance—religionists and atheists alike should note that Nat Turner’s God is vengeful—undercuts the true nature and power of Nat Turner’s story. The Birth of a Nation makes everything seem too pat.

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The two-hour film lacks the impact its topic, a preacher slave’s rebellion, deserves, leaving it well short of achieving the promise implied by its title. That said, Parker’s movie raises questions, provokes thoughts and contains powerful performances and images and hair-raising scenes.

Framed by an African mythology of wisdom, vision and leadership set by a tribal chief, screenwriter and director Parker’s story of the antebellum South begins in earnest with frolicking children named Turner—one slave child, one slavemaster’s child—in what becomes, or could have more fully become, a fascinating plot spiral about how slavery rots the life of both slave and slavemaster. The boys grow into Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) and Nat Turner (Nate Parker). The white male goes from Nat’s childhood friend to defender while slowly turning to alcohol for comfort as the reality of owning his friend sets in. The black male goes from Samuel’s childhood friend and favored servant to rebel leader while slowly turning to religion for justifying his righteous wrath.

Both boys begin as innocents. Both become wrecked by slavery. The Birth of a Nation doesn’t dramatize every facet of their doomed relationship let alone do so in universal terms of its essential meaning, but it is there even if muted in power. It is one of many missed opportunities in this otherwise occasionally searing film, which is safe and uneven.

For example, the romance Nat Turner develops with his future wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King, ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder) follows predictable turns, lines and scenes. Yet when she’s attacked later in the film, an unseen depth of commitment is presumed to serve as a catalyst for full-scale revolt. Their relationship is more abbreviated than demonstrated, going from a kind of rescue to rehabilitation thanks to Nat Turner’s knowing, loving mother (Aunjanue Ellis, For Colored Girls) to a kind of gentleness that feels contrived as Parker’s performance veers from saccharine to seething. Cherry and Nat as a couple never go deep and take root.

This is an ongoing problem in The Birth of a Nation, which is sufficiently tense, gruesome and gripping given its subject matter. Important scenes have either been cut or not filmed and in either case there are gaps of what the audience should be seeing on screen. Some of what’s left off screen includes the murder of babies, which is part of Nat Turner’s legacy, and other heinous acts such as sexual assault. Smaller details, too, however, are left out of the movie. Among these are how Nat Turner, who was literate, used his knowledge to formulate his plan for an uprising as a means of leading his fellow slaves to freedom.

Surprisingly, and disappointingly, there is not a single scene of serious, point by point plotting of the rebellion. Instead, there are constant and overwrought scenic references to the landscape and its orientation to sunlight, which dovetails to what I take as Parker’s theme, with co-screenwriter Jean McGianni Celestin, for The Birth of a Nation: mass murdering slave as God’s prophet. Given Parker’s selective recreation of the historic insurrection, with its omission of deeper analysis of Turner’s motives other than his faith in God, the Bible and religion, and certainly he appears to have been a religious zealot, this is the meaning of the motion picture, which treats his rising from a whipping as God’s will.

Why Nat Turner chose to believe in God after he acquired the ability to read is as left undone as how he learned to ride a horse or master the details of planning a regional rebellion. The Birth of a Nation deals with the injustice of slavery in fragments of fast-cutting scenes, often half-shown while in progress, with Jackie Earle Haley as his most spine-chilling villain since his role as a sexual deviant in Little Children and Roger Guenveur Smith (Chi-Raq, Malcolm X) as a house slave who opposes the rebellion.

The style has the effect of leaving the most pressing questions, facts and details of the rebellion out of the picture. Slavery and Civil War-themed pictures such as Amistad, Lincoln, Glory and 12 Years a Slave, which are outstanding movies, laboriously yet deftly and often brilliantly dramatize key parts of history in terms of essentials. Escape from Sobibor put planning a slave rebellion at the center of the film, so it’s possible to capture the howling hurt and anger of oppression and the cold, hard facts of rebellion in cohesion. Here, adding drone-type shots of lingering sunsets and Nina Simone songs to the soundtrack comes at the expense of character development. Gabrielle Union’s character, for instance, is a pretty but wordless character who smiles and dances before her downfall.

This movie about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion fills its frames with harrowing images of acts of evil and acts of retribution. Set in Southampton, Virginia, and filmed in Savannah, Georgia, the South comes off as a miserable, rotten and unhappy place of muggy swamps, cotton fields and buzzing insects with drunken, lazy and sadistic white men lording over enslaved Africans and I think this much is true. Intentionally or not, Nate Parker depicts the South’s misery as a byproduct of slavery’s total failure in every sense including as an engine for sustained economic production and it’s clear that it’s not at all an example of capitalism, as has been claimed. An outstanding performance by Esther Scott as Nana, Nat Turner’s grandmother, adds to the story.

But in leaving out certain facts, centrally details of the rebellion, The Birth of a Nation suggests that this young slave, who freed himself and whose life ought to be studied with other freed slaves such as Solomon Northrup and Frederick Douglass, was fundamentally a man of faith with only an impulse to take vengeance as a vessel of a supernatural being. And, Nate Parker’s movie implies, to enter an afterlife and become a martyr. This might be true, though I doubt it. I suspect that the truth is mixed and that Nat Turner may have been motivated by secular thoughts, too.

The Birth of a Nation presents horrifying fragments in pictures that float but do not tether disturbing questions about good and evil and the confusing, death-inducing mixture of both. It simply depicts that Nat Turner acted on faith—obeying a religious text commanding that the enslaved who believes he is a messenger of God act without mercy—to go forth and slaughter a few of his oppressors and mostly the innocent in proximity. Then The Birth of a Nation leaves it at that, trivializing an influential and horrifying act of rebellion and reducing it, in today’s parlance, to “so, this happened”, brushing aside exactly what, how and why.

Nationalism, Statism and Propaganda

This month’s major political conventions will be historic. Nationalist Donald Trump, presumptive nominee of the philosophically bankrupt Republican Party, and welfare-statist Hillary Clinton, presumptive nominee of the New Left-dominated Democratic Party, are the most untrusted and, incidentally, unpopular presidential candidates in modern history. Clinton, exonerated this week by the Obama administration under a cloud of suspicion after the attorney general met with her spouse, the ex-president Bill Clinton, will be the first woman nominated for the presidency by a major party. Trump, generating controversy as always and this time by re-posting a Star of David superimposed on a pile of money via social media, will be the first non-Republican and explicit anti-capitalist nominated by the party which once advocated some degree of capitalism and individual rights. Both will be nominated in American states which were once great industrial centers; Clinton in America’s first capital, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Trump in Cleveland, Ohio.

Look for what today’s digital public relations, marketing and social media types call optics at the GOP (July 18-21) and Democratic (July 25-28) conventions. Halting, hair-splitting, cackling Clinton may try to come off as softer, less harsh and hostile and more easygoing as a leader; the safer choice. Spewing, ear-splitting, rambling Trump may try to pass himself off as essentially charismatic and strong, less harsh and hostile and more decisive as a leader; the stronger choice. He will try to be a man of the people, an unapologetic village crier and throwback to pre-Obama days, undoing Obama’s legacy by throwing up tougher, state-sponsored fixes at the strongman’s sole discretion. She will try to appear as a woman of the people, a servant carrying on the Obama presidency’s New Left agenda while silently signalling that the age of statism and egalitarianism—policy dictates defining one’s identity by race, sex or culture—has just begun. The next few weeks will be heavy on optics for two power-lusting frauds in American politics.

Look closer for signs of propaganda, however. Whether at the statist’s or the nationalist’s convention, despite whatever riots, anarchy and attack may be carried out, the coming conventions and 2016 will be filled with symbolism and signs of what’s to come. Trump is a master of this—Clinton is not—as he demonstrates by tagging media personalities, streams and channels to generate greater exposure and attract new followers (read my post on The Circus Cycle). Though Trump polls as a loser, polls have been wrong for years, from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s upset loss to this summer’s Brexit victory. I suspect the Trump voter conceals his planned vote from others. Watch for propaganda to foreshadow (unless Libertarian Gary Johnson is elected president) the new presidency.

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Propaganda, as shown at a recent exhibit at the Richard Riordan Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles, has the power to push a civilized nation to dictatorship. Through visual manipulation, such as digital memes, cartoons and posters, especially in today’s increasingly anti-conceptual, perceptual-level culture, the public can more easily be persuaded of certain assertions. National Socialist propaganda, including promotions for Hitler’s Mein Kampf (which translates as My Struggle), was thoroughly premeditated. Read Leonard Peikoff’s The Cause of Hitler’s Germany for a fundamental explanation of Nazi Germany.

As displayed in “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda”, which runs at the Downtown LA library through August 21 (read about the traveling exhibition here), the Fuhrer (“leader”) and his top Nazis clearly grasped the importance of graphic arts in disseminating their philosophy of duty to the state and submission of the individual to serving others, i.e., altruism, in the name of the god-state-people-race. In certain cases, graphics and images glorify the upshot of National Socialism in practice: mass death and total government control of the individual’s life.

The exhibitionproduced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, shows how “the Nazis used propaganda to win broad voter support in Germany, implement radical programs, and justify war and mass murder”. The exhibit continues in Texas and Louisiana (see the schedule here).

Nazi Propaganda Poster LAPLNazi propaganda posters, movies, art and designs also illustrate attacks on Jews, capitalism and profit. There are other lessons, too. Note the cult of personality employed to foster worship of the charismatic leader. Observe similarities to recent U.S. campaign themes, such as Obama’s “hope and change” paraphernalia, the controversial “Ready for Hillary” capital H with its arrow, and, of course, Trump’s chronic emphasis on himself as the charismatic leader for nationalism, bellowing against others—illegal immigrants, Moslems, Apple, businesses that trade with China—as causing America’s downfall. Clinton, and especially Sanders, target others, too—businesses, Apple, traders on Wall Street, the wealthy—and both sides explicitly target the individual for persecution.

What is so alarming about the 2016 presidential election, and what makes National Socialist propaganda particularly relevant, is the erosion of freedom of speech in America. Obama’s administration attacks free speech, from censoring news to censoring movies and intimidating Americans who would exercise free speech (read Obama Vs. Free Speech). Clinton, who once proposed outlawing divorce for couples with children, has been a part of Obama’s assault on the First Amendment and she sought to evade public and press scrutiny during her entire four years as secretary of state while denouncing an American film as the cause of an Islamic terrorist act of war on the United States. Trump, who cuts off microphones at press conferences, proposes eliminating free speech by weakening libel law and jokes, then says he means it seriously, about having journalists targeted for state-sponsored death.

NaziFlowChartThese are explicit policy ideas, plans and actions. Insidious state sponsorship of media and the arts, like something emanating from the Nazi flow chart pictured here, includes quasi government control of the Oscars (Michelle Obama Ruins the Oscars) and arts and technology conferences (SXSW).

As the free press, too, diminishes with the spread of quasi-government control of industry, subsidizing state-favored cable TV monopolies like Time Warner and Comcast which own and operate major media (CNN, HBO, Warner Bros. Pictures, MSNBC, NBC, Universal Studios), coupled with the dumbing down of American education and culture, it becomes both easier and less apparent for the state to impose controls, cronyism and influence, i.e., blacklists. Only this summer did Tribune Publishing, which owns the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun, change its name to the term “tronc” (without the quotation marks but with the bad punctuation), an amalgamation of “Tribune online content” in what appears to be a bid to seem modern, generic and anti-conceptual.

Convergence of today’s aggregated, dumbed down media with secretive, oppressive censorship cannot be far behind.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, whom the world lost last week, lived his entire life warning of the danger of staying silent while ominous government insidiously gains the power to destroy life. As the summer of ’16—with Clinton, tronc and Trump—goes down shoveling propaganda in conventions and toward a darker history, this is the moment to stay tuned, call statist and nationalist propaganda what it is and speak out.