Saturday, June 30, 2012

Give Ireland Back to the English

In a recent BBC interview, Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin, once again used the word "colonialism", referring to the British presence in Northern Ireland. This is the same tired old word that has fueled five hundred years of Anglo-Irish conflict. As an Irish-American Catholic, the word hasn't made much sense since at least 1949 when the Republic of Ireland was established. The majority of people in Northern Ireland were loyal to the crown, Protestant, and considered themselves distinct from the people living in the Republic, even if some of their families had been living in the six counties of the North for centuries.

The British, who haven't emerged from the "Troubles" spotless, are unfairly represented as the villains in this melodrama. The real baddies are the terrorists of the IRA, one of whom, Martin McGuiness, shook hands with the Queen this week. Considering that the Queen's own cousin, Lord Mountbatten, was murdered along with his 14-year-old grandson, when the IRA blew up his boat in 1979, it must've been galling for the old girl to do it. When the IRA took responsibility for the bombing of Mountbatten's boat, they issued this typically crass statement: "This operation is one of the discriminate ways we can bring to the attention of the English people the continuing occupation of our country."

Occupation by whom? The British Army? They were only there to keep the Protestants and Catholics from butchering one another, which they would certainly have done. The Loyalist Protestants? By now, they're "more Irish than the Irish themselves" as historians now refer to the 12th century Norman invaders of Ireland.*

Doubtless the IRA believes, with Clausewitz, that "War is a mere continuation of politics by other means." The politics of Sinn Féin, the political branch of the IRA, are avowedly Marxist/Leninist - i.e. revolutionary. It may have been politically expedient for then-President Bill Clinton to welcome terrorist-spokesman Gerry Adams with open arms to the White House in the '90s, but I considered it an outrage. Just as the Queen's handshake with reformed murderer Martin McGuiness is a symbol of the rapprochment of both sides, now the IRA has promised to abandon murder as a political tool. But even with her old ears, the Queen must've heard the whirring noise, as she placed her hand in McGuinness', of her dead cousin spinning in his grave like a lathe.

*All the Irish names that begin with "Fitz" are examples of the "Gaelization" of the Normans. Fitz is a corruption of the French word fis, which means "son". Illegitimate Norman children were often named "Son of" the Norman in question. Hence, Fitzsimmon, Fitzgerald, etc.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

An Outcast

One of the things I have discovered since I came to live in the tropics is how people of European descent, like me, are not cut out for it. What an odd, ugly figure we cut!. The first thing you notice about us is that we don't know how to dress.

I remember awhile back, when Rome was hosting the World Cup, how the Italians complained about the ugliness of the English fans' manner of dress. They had no understanding of the Italian bella figura - the innate talent for looking good at any time, in any weather. When they weren't overdressed, being unprepared for the hotter temperatures of the Mediterranean, the English wore ugly togs and t-shirts, exposing acres of their pasty white flesh.

I have seen far too many expats, who have lived here much longer than I, apparently not caring that they looked like hell, walking along the streets in flip-flops, ragged shirts and shorts. I have noted the few expats who know how to dress, despite the heat and humidity. I spoke about it with a friend and he mentioned some nonsense about the wisdom of "blending in" with one's surroundings. I thought it absurd since my friend was at least six feet tall.

Joseph Conrad met many more expats than I ever will, and immortalized some of them in his novels. At the beginning of his second novel, An Outcast of the Islands, Conrad wrote about the man who was the inspiration behind the character of Willems:

The man who suggested Willems to me was not particularly interesting in
himself. My interest was aroused by his dependent position, his strange,
dubious status of a mistrusted, disliked, worn-out European living on
the reluctant toleration of that Settlement hidden in the heart of the
forest-land, up that sombre stream which our ship was the only white
men's ship to visit. With his hollow, clean-shaved cheeks, a heavy grey
moustache and eyes without any expression whatever, clad always in a
spotless sleeping suit much be-frogged in front, which left his lean
neck wholly uncovered, and with his bare feet in a pair of straw
slippers, he wandered silently amongst the houses in daylight, almost as
dumb as an animal and apparently much more homeless. I don't know
what he did with himself at night. He must have had a place, a hut,
a palm-leaf shed, some sort of hovel where he kept his razor and his
change of sleeping suits. An air of futile mystery hung over him,
something not exactly dark but obviously ugly. The only definite
statement I could extract from anybody was that it was he who had
"brought the Arabs into the river." That must have happened many years
before. But how did he bring them into the river? He could hardly have
done it in his arms like a lot of kittens. I knew that Almayer founded
the chronology of all his misfortunes on the date of that fateful
advent; and yet the very first time we dined with Almayer there was
Willems sitting at table with us in the manner of the skeleton at the
feast, obviously shunned by everybody, never addressed by any one, and
for all recognition of his existence getting now and then from Almayer
a venomous glance which I observed with great surprise. In the course
of the whole evening he ventured one single remark which I didn't catch
because his articulation was imperfect, as of a man who had forgotten
how to speak. I was the only person who seemed aware of the sound.
Willems subsided. Presently he retired, pointedly unnoticed--into the
forest maybe? Its immensity was there, within three hundred yards of
the verandah, ready to swallow up anything. Almayer conversing with my
captain did not stop talking while he glared angrily at the retreating
back. Didn't that fellow bring the Arabs into the river! Nevertheless
Willems turned up next morning on Almayer's verandah. From the bridge of
the steamer I could see plainly these two, breakfasting together, tete
a tete and, I suppose, in dead silence, one with his air of being no
longer interested in this world and the other raising his eyes now and
then with intense dislike.

It was clear that in those days Willems lived on Almayer's charity. Yet
on returning two months later to Sambir I heard that he had gone on an
expedition up the river in charge of a steam-launch belonging to the
Arabs, to make some discovery or other. On account of the strange
reluctance that everyone manifested to talk about Willems it was
impossible for me to get at the rights of that transaction. Moreover, I
was a newcomer, the youngest of the company, and, I suspect, not judged
quite fit as yet for a full confidence. I was not much concerned about
that exclusion. The faint suggestion of plots and mysteries pertaining
to all matters touching Almayer's affairs amused me vastly. Almayer was
obviously very much affected. I believe he missed Willems immensely. He
wore an air of sinister preoccupation and talked confidentially with
my captain. I could catch only snatches of mumbled sentences. Then one
morning as I came along the deck to take my place at the breakfast table
Almayer checked himself in his low-toned discourse. My captain's face
was perfectly impenetrable. There was a moment of profound silence and
then as if unable to contain himself Almayer burst out in a loud vicious

"One thing's certain; if he finds anything worth having up there they
will poison him like a dog."

Disconnected though it was, that phrase, as food for thought, was
distinctly worth hearing. We left the river three days afterwards and I
never returned to Sambir; but whatever happened to the protagonist of
my Willems nobody can deny that I have recorded for him a less squalid

J. C. 1919.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Independence Day?

June 12 was Independence Day here in the Philippines. I usually pay little attention to foreign holidays, but this year I learned that they were celebrating the 114th year of Philippine independence. I had foolishly assumed that Independence Day was an observance of the day in 1946 when the Philippines finally became an independent state. But that day was on July 4, not June 12.

On June 12, 1898, Filipino nationalists declared their independence from Spain after 377 years of colonial rule, thanks to their defeat in the Spanish-American War. Unfortunately, Spain had already ceded the Philippines to the United States for $20M in the Treaty of Paris. The leaders of the titular First Philippine Republic then declared war on the United States, and the subsequent Philippine-American War resulted in somewhere between 34,000 (the American estimate) to a million casualties.
American adoption of the Philippines, first as an “insular area” and in 1935 as part of an American Commonwealth, inspired one of Rudyard Kipling’s most offensive lyrics:

The White Man's Burden



Take up the White man's burden --
Send forth the best ye breed --
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild --
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

The rest isn’t worthy of being repeated. But America took up the “burden” for the next forty-eight years. Given this sad episode, it is sometimes surprising that any American visitor to the Philippines will notice a marked affection of a majority of Filipinos for Americans. Because of the Japanese invasion in 1941 (the Japanese attacked the Philippines the day after Pearl Harbor), of MacArthur and his “I shall return” promise, which he kept, Americans and Filipinos have a shared history, a shared destiny in Asia.

The Spanish left behind many old churches, the thousands of Spanish words that litter the Filipino language, and the terrible and detrimental macho culture that also afflicts Latin American countries. Spanish colonial rule (via Mexico) left deep cultural traces. But the subsequent years of its insular and commonwealth status left much more significant and important marks on the country. As Stanley Karnow pointed out in his book In Our Image, the Philippines used the example of the United States in the creation of their own Constitution and Bill of Rights, and their own system of government, with the same three branches of Legislative, Executive, and Judicial. Many of their governmental departments have the same or similar names: like the FDA, the NBI (their FBI), and PDEA (Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency).

Whether or not the Filipino nationalists who announced their country’s independence in 1898 had any of this in mind we will never know. What Filipinos celebrate on June 12 is the beginning of their War of Independence. Ours lasted eight years. Their took forty-eight years to finally win.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Eat Pray Love Kvetch

The Julia Roberts movie Eat Pray Love breezed through these islands on its theatrical release more than a year ago without causing much of a stir in the palm trees. The place where I live is an island much like Bali, without all the foreigners looking for their piece of paradise on earth. What my island also lacks, alas, are the Balinese who have turned their demi-paradise into profit.

I had no chance to see the movie in a cinema, since there isn't a single cinema on my island. Nor is there a single public library, so I had no chance to read Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling book on which the movie was based. I don't read best-sellers, even inadvertently, since I'm not interested in what everyone else is reading.

But I caught an airing of the movie recently, and I found it entertaining enough to justify a few comments. Julia Roberts is a movie star whose signature on a contract can guarantee that a movie gets made. While her taste in scripts isn't infallible, she has cultivated her stardom well and isn't afraid to take certain risks. And she can occasionally act.

Roberts plays Elizabeth Gilbert, who has just divorced Steven (Billy Crudup) who still loves her, has a fling with David before the divorce is finalized, and then embarks (thanks to a $200,000 advance from her publisher) on a year-long trip that takes her to Italy (shot in Rome and Naples), India, and Bali. In all three places, rather conveniently, she completes a stage in her development as a complete human being.

The earting part of the story, in Italy of course, is the most stimulating. An old landlady tells Roberts that the only thing she doesn't allow in her pensione is strange men spending the night, because "All you American girls want in Italy is pasta and sausage!"

The praying part of the story is a whopping cliché by now. And it isn't praying, but meditating. But Richard Jenkins contributes a marvelous performance as a fellow American learning how to forgive himself.

The loving part is predictable (this is a "woman's movie").

I have always been struck by the churlishness of celebrities who announce in interviews that they are "taking a year off". Gilbert was already a successful free-lance journalist when she took a year off to gather material for her book. Even if you're OK with this plot, which is reportedly actual events, simply reverse the sexes of the four principle characters and the story could be mistaken for a sequel to Montherlant's The Girls - further adventures of the chauvinist arch-egoist Costals.

Ask yourself if this protagonist deserves your sympathy. Ms. Roberts does alot of crying in the movie, but over what? Over her mistakes? Her foolishness? She passes through her marriage and her love affairs exactly like she passes through Italy, India, and Bali - like a tourist.

She encounters people who have real problems: an Indian woman who is compelled to marry a man she hardly knows, an American who lost his son because of his alcoholism, a Balinese woman who goes broke getting legal custody of her daughter in a country in which women have few rights.

The scenes an Indian ashram are particularly risible, with Westerners flocking there looking for what Gita Mehta called "karma cola", a pre-packaged, junk-food version of Eastern mysticism. It has been a joke ever since the Beatles consulted the Maharishi Mahesh Mashed Potatoes.

But what is most objectionable about this woman is how cavalierly she treats all her chances for happiness. Like most Americans, she suffers from the delusion that she is entitled to be happy, because it says so in the Constitution. Most people in the world are lucky is they're granted one opportunity for happiness. Gilbert/Roberts acts as if there is an unlimited supply of opportunities for her.

On a positive note, the movie does one thing better than 99% of Hollywood movies: it uses music carefully. And what splendid music! I found João and Bebel Gilberto to be particularly, and strangely, apposite to the lush Bali scenes. Incidentally, Robert Richardson, Oliver Stone's and Martin Scorsese's DP of choice, photographed the film, and brought out the beauty of all three places without them looking like they look in the postcards.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Bootless Reboot

Contemporary American movies are so uniformly execrable that they make even the trashiest movies of the past seem splendid. When I learned last year that a remake of the Charles Bronson movie The Mechanic (1972) was in the offing, I was appalled. Having seen it, I can report that it isn't a "remake" at all but what is being called nowadays a "reboot" - a quite drastic and disastrous revision of the original.

In my review of The American last March, I mentioned some examples of a genre that might be called Existentialist Thriller, in which hired assassins undergo midlife crises. The Mechanic was in the same class. Charles Bronson, whose ugliness was offset by a beautiful physique (he walked like a bipedal panther), played Arthur Bishop, whose expertise and discretion (his ability to kill without leaving a trace) has made him much sought-after and conspicuously wealthy. But he has grown weary of murder and announces his intention to retire.

He takes on a clever young apprentice, played by the icy Jan Michael Vincent, whom he soon despises because of his cocky cynicism. In one scene, Vincent sits and watches a girlfriend bleed to death after she opens her veins in front of him. Bronson calculates, based on her weight, how long it will take and what she will feel as death approaches. Finally, Vincent tosses her his car keys when she chickens out and wants to go to a hospital.

What distinguished the original Mechanic was a kind of miasma of despair in which it submerges its protagonist, who can no longer find satisfaction in his expertise. He might have intoned, as Jean Rochefort does in Salut l'Artiste!, "Je n'éprouve plus aucune volupté."

In the new Mechanic, Jason Statham, with his permanent three-day beard, grimaces and sulks and muscles his way from hit to hit. The first one we witness is so ridiculously elaborate (he hides in a grotto pool with SCUBA gear until his target goes for a swim) that the general tone of incredibility is quickly set. He lives in a bungalow on an island near New Orleans that is outfitted with the latest in modern artwork and expensive appliances. For instance, he has one of those German-engineered record players. He has a large record collection, which he handles with loving care, but on the three occasions the contraption is played, we have to listen to the same Schubert Trio that Kubrick used in Barry Lyndon. I was thoroughly unconvinced that Jason Statham ever listened voluntarily to Schubert. Obviously, Statham doesn't suffer from the angst that beset Charles Bronson.

The new movie makes the apprentice mechanic into an ineffectual drifter with no skills other than self-destructive ones. The new movie makes the murder of his father the motive, rather than ambition and professional jealousy, that inspires him to kill the master mechanic. But the new movie's slickness prevents it from even getting the ending right. The Mechanic Reboot replaces the original movie's stylish despair with an the inhuman cynicism of trash entertainment.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Fighting the Facts, Wrestling with the Truth

Occasionally, when American film isn't trying to sell us the same old ticket to Anywhere But Here, it summons up all its civic spirit and its art to concentrate on an Average Joe, a schlemihl just trying to make it in the real world - a world made all the more real by a shoestring budget.

Two fairly recent American films, The Fighter (2010) and The Wrestler (2008), tell remarkably similar stories about men engaged in gladiatorial combat - boxing in the first and, even if it is only make-believe, pro wrestling in the second. Together the films prove that fiction is no stranger than the truth, and that a "true story" can be more fanciful than factual.

The Fighter is something only a confident, talented filmmaker could've made. But two of its primary elements prevent it from being a complete success. David O. Russell, the film's director, was one of the best hopes for American independent film in the 1990s. His films Spanking the Monkey (1994) and Flirting with Disaster (1996) bore the unmistakable stamp of a filmmaker who had something to say but also an integrated talent for saying it. They were personal films, very much against the Hollywood grain. Everyone who cared about serious filmmaking knew these films and anticipated what Russell would do next.

What he did next was both gratifying and frustrating. Three Kings (1999) is a full-blown commercial film with a bonafide movie star (George Clooney). It is one of the few films on the Iraq War (s) that is worth contemplating. But it got messily out of Russell's control shortly after his four (not three) heroes realize what the war was really about. In a sense, Three Kings predicted the 2003 invasion of Iraq - Bush Junior's finishing the job his dad started.

In The Fighter, Russell was stuck with a "true story" about two brothers, Mickey Ward and Dicky Eklund (they had different fathers), that has a shopworn, Rocky-like ring to it. The pride of Lowell, Massachusetts, a working class suburb of Boston, Dicky got a shot at a title in the 80s and knocked down - but failed to defeat - Sugar Ray Leonard. He helped train his brother Mickey, while smoking crack and sinking far enough into a life of crime to wind up doing serious time in prison. Dicky nearly ends Mickey's boxing career when a cop trying to arrest him breaks Mickey's hand. By the time Dicky is released, clean and healthy, Mickey is preparing for a title fight of his own and has promised his girlfriend that Dicky will no longer train him.

Mark Wahlberg certainly looks the part as Mickey. (There must be a clause in his contract about taking off his shirt. His appearance in Date Night made fun of this idea.) The former boy band member has had a surprisingly long career without showing the slightest growth of anything other than muscles. Martin Scorsese made the best of him as a tough, foul-mouthed South Boston cop in The Departed. But acting opposite Leo DiCaprio has gotten easier the harder he tries to play a grown man.

Christian Bale, as Dicky, is magnificent. He demonstrates that acting is essentially about concentration, about being wholly engaged with a character's world. Bale's level of concentration makes Mark Wahlberg almost disappear from the screen.

As usual, the real heroes of this macho "true" story are the women who have to endure all the machismo, two in particular: Alice, Dicky and Mickey's mother, played by Melissa Leo, and Charlene, Mickey's girlfriend, played by Amy Adams. Calling these two women tough is like calling titanium hard. Melissa Leo has enjoyed a renaissance in her career. I remember first encountering her playing damsels in distress in a few otherwise forgettable 80s movies. Like so many actresses, Hollywood didn't know what to do with her once she could no longer play ingenues. Now 51, she has managed to find good roles in some remarkable films. Her best scene in The Fighter comes when she has to fetch Dicky from a crack-house. After banging on the front door, she runs around to the back of the house just as Dicky is jumping into a pile of garbage from a 2nd-story window. Returning to her car, she bursts into tears when Dicky climbs into the passenger seat. To console her, he starts to sing The Bee Gees' song, "I Started a Joke", and Alice joins in as she starts the car and outs it in gear.

Despite taking some evident pains with their authenticity, the fight scenes are the least effective element in The Fighter. Sporting events are impossible to bring off dramatically without making them seem contrived. Since they have to be choreographed like dance, and because sport has nothing to express but itself, the element that gives it life in the ring or on the playing field - spontaneity - is missing.

Russell introduces us to the real Mickey and Dicky in a closing shot. Their story is one of those somewhat typical "uplifting" ones with which America, the land of the Second Chance, seems to abound. Dicky recovers from his addiction to crack only after going cold turkey in a prison cell. (Russell also arouses dismay for the utterly self-serving HBO documentary about Dicky's life as a crack addict.) And Mickey wins the championship fight for his weight class and makes alot of money.

Darren Aronofsky was executive producer for The Fighter. Two years earlier he directed The Wrestler, which proved, among other things, that winning isn't everything. A long time in his book Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson explained that more people were prepared to read the autobiography of Robert E. Lee than that of Ulysses S. Grant because failure, even in an ignoble cause, is believed to be ennobling.

I never much liked the over-the-top theatrics of profession wrestling, primarily because of its gonzo fans, who get so caught up in the scripted mayhem in the ring (or the cage) that they injure themselves and one another acting it out inside the arenas and at home. The Wrestler, however, concentrates so carefully on the wrestlers' themselves, their preparations, their surprising comraderie, and their aches and pains, that I grew to love them simply because the filmmakers had taken some pains to make these larger-than-life people into human beings.

In The Wrestler, a golden-fleeced Mickey Rourke plays Robin Ramzinski, better known to fans as Randy "the Ram" Robinson, a professional wrestler who is getting too old for getting slammed to the canvas. Rourke looks suitably beefy and beaten up to pass for a wrestler past his prime, with so many unhealed injuries he can't even walk straight. His experience as a professional boxer, which required extensive facial reconstruction, certainly didn't hurt his performance here.

In scene after scene, the camera is right behind Rourke wherever he goes. The last time I saw such an intimacy of camera and subject was in the Dardennes Brothers' Rosetta. In that film, the camera had to hurry to keep up with the heroine, who was too busy surviving to examine her life.

I think American film has always been adept at portraying these lovable brutes because there is no use trying to discover an inner life in them that simply isn't there. Unexamined lives may not be worth living, but they are certainly worth watching. We find ourselves pitying characters like Harlan "Mountain" McClintock in Requiem for a Heavyweight and Rocky Balboa, not to mention Fellini's Zampano and the Dardennes' Rosetta just long enough to make us give thanks that we're not like them - or just enough of like ourselves to feel the loss of always losing. But only such losers have anything to teach us.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Must Be Experienced To Be Appreciated

What I find most moving about Kipling's life is the overflowing of emotion that he expresses in recounting his return to India in 1882:

So, at sixteen years and nine months, but looking four or five years older, and adorned with real whiskers which the scandalised Mother abolished within one hour of beholding, I found myself at Bombay where I was born, moving among sights and smells that made me deliver in the vernacular sentences whose meaning I knew not. Other Indian-born boys have told me how the same thing happened to them.

There were yet three or four days’ rail to Lahore, where my people lived. After these, my English years fell away, nor ever, I think, came back in full strength.

Kipling went to work writing for the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, contributing verse and, later, short stories. In 1888 he wrote one of the finest of his stories, "The Man Who Would Be King". It is so much more than a tall tale, which the John Huston film reduces it to - though marvelously. Although mostly the story of Peachey Carnehan and Daniel Dravot, two English loafers who, Peachey claims, managed to find the legendary country Kafiristan and where Dravot becomes its king, there is a long brilliant passage in which the narrator, who doesn't name himself but we may easily guess is Kipling, describes life in an Indian newsroom:

Then I became respectable, and returned
to an Office where there were no Kings and
no incidents except the daily manufacture of
a newspaper. A newspaper office seems to
attract every conceivable sort of person, to
the prejudice of discipline. Zenana-mission
ladies arrive, and beg that the Editor will instantly
abandon all his duties to describe a
Christian prize-giving in a back-slum of a
perfectly inaccessible village; Colonels who
have been overpassed for commands sit
down and sketch the outline of a series of
ten, twelve, or twenty-four leading articles
on Seniority versus Selection; missionaries
wish to know why they have not been permitted
to escape from their regular vehicles
of abuse and swear at a brother-missionary
under special patronage of the editorial We;
stranded theatrical companies troop up to explain
that they cannot pay for their advertisements,
but on their return from New
Zealand or Tahiti will do so with interest;
inventors of patent punkah-pulling machines,
carriage couplings and unbreakable
swords and axle-trees call with specifications
in their pockets and hours at their disposal;
tea-companies enter and elaborate their prospectuses
with the office pens; secretaries of
ball-committees clamor to have the glories
of their last dance more fully expounded;
strange ladies rustle in and say:—“I want a
hundred lady’s cards printed at once, please,”
which is manifestly part of an Editor’s duty;
and every dissolute ruffian that ever tramped
the Grand Trunk Road makes it his business
to ask for employment as a proof-reader.
And, all the time, the telephone-bell is ringing
madly, and Kings are being killed on the
Continent, and Empires are saying, “You’re
another,” and Mister Gladstone is calling
down brimstone upon the British Dominions,
and the little black copy-boys are whining,
“kaa-pi chayha-yeh” (copy wanted) like
tired bees, and most of the paper is as blank
as Modred’s shield.

But that is the amusing part of the year.
There are other six months wherein none
ever come to call, and the thermometer
walks inch by inch up to the top of the glass,
and the office is darkened to just above reading
light, and the press machines are red-hot
of touch, and nobody writes anything but
accounts of amusements in the Hill-stations
or obituary notices. Then the telephone becomes
a tinkling terror, because it tells you
of the sudden deaths of men and women
that you knew intimately, and the prickly-heat
covers you as with a garment, and you
sit down and write:—“A slight increase of
sickness is reported from the Khuda Janta
Khan District. The outbreak is purely sporadic
in its nature, and, thanks to the energetic
efforts of the District authorities, is now
almost at an end. It is, however, with deep
regret we record the death, etc.”

Then the sickness really breaks out, and
the less recording and reporting the better
for the peace of the subscribers. But the
Empires and the Kings continue to divert
themselves as selfishly as before, and the
foreman thinks that a daily paper really
ought to come out once in twenty-four hours,
and all the people at the Hill-stations in the
middle of their amusements say:—“Good
gracious! Why can’t the paper be sparkling?
I’m sure there’s plenty going on up here.”

That is the dark half of the moon, and, as
the advertisements say, “must be experienced
to be appreciated.”

It was in that season, and a remarkably
evil season, that the paper began running
the last issue of the week on Saturday night,
which is to say Sunday morning, after the
custom of a London paper. This was a
great convenience, for immediately after the
paper was put to bed, the dawn would lower
the thermometer from 96° to almost 84° for
almost half an hour, and in that chill—you
have no idea how cold is 84° on the grass
until you begin to pray for it—a very tired
man could set off to sleep ere the heat
roused him.

Only someone who has lived in such a climate year-round can appreciate the difference that twelve degrees Fahrenheit can make.

(1) Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself: For My Friends Known and Unknown, 1937.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Baldness of Evil

Another anniversary has just lapsed that, to my knowledge, got no attention in the press. It was the anniversary of the execution of Adolph Eichmann 50 years ago yesterday in Jerusalem, after a spectacular show trial in which survivors of the Holocaust were able to confront him, albeit inside a bullet-proof glass cage. Hannah Arendt covered the trial for The New Yorker and wrote her now famous line about the "banality of evil".

The timeliness of the anniversary was lost on observers of the trial of Charles Taylor, who was sentenced on May 30 to 50 years in jail for crimes of "utmost gravity and scale of depravity." Not even the presence of newly-elected German President Gauck on a state visit to Israel this week reminded anyone of the occasion of Eichmann's trial and execution.

The evil that Eichmann embodied was of such incalculable proportions that it dwarfed the ordinary terms of justice. Any justice system would be at a loss before such colossal crimes. The charge of "crime against humanity" (coined by the American Republican Party in 1860 characterizing the slave trade) was created to address just this inadequacy, this dearth of proportionate language. If the loss of millions of innocent lives was bad enough, men like Eichmann forced us to redefine the nature of crime and of punishment.

If "punishment" is what the Israeli court had in mind when they sentenced Eichmann to death, how could the manner of his death (by hanging) to any degree match the enormity of his crimes? Hannah Arendt stated it a little too glibly:

Just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations — as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world — we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.

Her argument just as easily supports a life behind bars. Eichmann is the only case in Israel in which capital punishment was invoked. In the unlikely event that a former Nazi might be found and put on trial in Israel, the worst that could happen to him would be spending the rest of his natural life in jail. Eichmann was 56 when he was hanged.

The Nuremburg Trials set a rather odious precedent for war crimes trials. A group of men, including the former commander of the Third Reich's Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, sat throughout the trial crowned with headphones through which the languages spoken during the trial were translated into German. Of the original 25 men accused, 12 were sentenced to death. A U.S. Army hangman (yes, there was such a thing) carried out every execution.. Many of the hangings were botched, i.e., the hanged men's necks weren't broken - and they died, after several minutes, of asphyxiation. One of them, Göring, cheated the hangman by biting down on the cyanide capsule he had somehow procured. He was found in his cell wearing powder blue pajamas.

Othello fearsomely said of Cassio, whom he suspected of cuckolding him with Desdemona, "Had all his hairs been lives, my great revenge had stomach for them all." It was the Israelis who invented the simple definition of justice, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." Balding, Eichmann hadn't nearly enough eyes, nor teeth.