Sunday, June 11, 2017

Roger Waters Rocks Pink Floyd Style

Proof of Purchase
Roger Waters successfully channels the classic Pink Floyd aesthetic with Is This The Life We Really Want?, his first album in 25 years.  I have listened to the record several times now.  It has grown on me, although it isn't as good, in my opinion, as his 1992 Amused to Death and he comes off as just an angry old man on a couple of tunes.  Nevertheless, at 73, Waters shows he still has plenty of passion and lyricism to justify the effort.

Is This The Life We Really Want? has most of the trappings of the classic Pink Floyd sound.  The album begins with a sound montage of a beating heart, clocks ticking, and looped background voices, mostly radio announcers.  So it starts out with that wonderful classic feeling.  “When We Were Young” and “Déjà Vu” are rather nostalgic. They are interesting, if uninspiring, pieces of music (well, the opening track is a “sound collage” rather than music).  “Déjà Vu” is the album's best attempt at Waters' cynical sense of humor - an avowed atheist singing about being God.  His vocals begin on the record with: "If I had been God, I would have rearranged the veins on the face to make them more resistant to alcohol and less prone to aging."  Funny stuff.

“The Last Refugee” (music video here), while more contemporary in content, is also nostalgic in the same way as the first two tracks - all three songs feel like out-takes from The Final Cut.  It is with “Picture That” that the listener first encounters a tune that is worth hearing repeatedly.  The lyrics are up to the usual high standards of a Waters song (“Follow Miss Universe catching some rays, Wish you were here in Guantanamo Bay”); in this case, as with other tracks on the album, the tune is filled with "explicit" language; every line in one stanza contains the F-bomb.  But it is still an strong number, a synthesizer heavy, semi-rocking litany of the postmodern world's ills with marvelous female backing vocals.  You can read the lyrics at your discretion here.

Broken Bones” is also explicit.  This one is mildly impressive but too reminiscent of the cynicism from his early post-Pink Floyd work, Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking come to mind. The instrumentation is excellent, however, featuring a cello and other string instruments that give it an atmospheric quality punctuated with Waters briefly shrieking the words though the song is generally soft and tender.  The lyrics are highly relevant.

The title track begins with Donald Trump talking about how his administration: "There's zero chaos, we are running, this is a fine-tuned machin..." Cut. Nice, easy instrumentation with brooding undertones.  I really like this song.  It serves as a summation of what Waters intends.  If there is a concept for this collection of songs, this tune threads it all together, wonderfully produced and mixed.  A balance of empathy, social criticism and uncertainty as only Waters can create. “Fear.  Fear drives the mills of modern man.  Fear keeps us all in line.  Fear of all those foreigners.  Fear of all their crimes.”

Without pause we slam into “Bird in a Gale” which is evocative of “Dogs” from 1977.  With all the mixed background effects and vocal loops, this might be the song in the most Pink Floydian style on the album. This one gets better every time I hear it; there is so much layered into this tune - plenty to chew on as it rocks in a multi-textured, atmospheric, cerebral style.   About two and half minutes in it briefly morphs into true sonic magic.

Unlike that track, however, “The Most Beautiful Girl” does not get any better the more you hear it, making it probably the weakest link in the chain.  It occurs to me listening to this one that really this album is more a collection of loosely associated short "anthems" of music rather than songs of related conceptual content.  This one is an accessible listen even if it is not particularly noteworthy.

Next we come to “Smell the Roses”, the best of breed on this album.  This is a funky tune, it has a nice groove with barbed lyrics.  The song stops about two minutes in for a sound collage in the traditional Pink Floyd sense.  After another minute it picks up again with a really nice slow-driving guitar leading the way through all the synthesizers and percussion. Give this track a try if you wonder whether you can handle this album at all. Awesome lyrics, great energy and feel to it without compromising the biting critique Waters infuses throughout the album.

Wait For Her” is also a terrific song, a somewhat surprising authentically touching piece.  The lyrics here are actually based upon "Lesson from the Kama Sutra (Wait for Her)", a poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish; mildly suggestive sexually and extremely beautiful.  It serves as the first part of a a rather softly introspective trilogy that concludes the album.  “Oceans Apart” is the bridge that fuses “Wait For Her” with “Part of Me Died”. Not a bad way to end the album though the climax of whatever "conceptual" content there is at work here is, well, rather anti-climatic, musically speaking. 

In reality, ironically, “Part of Me Died” probably reveals the silver lining in Waters' work with the album's final lyric: “It would be batter by far, to die in her arms, than to linger in a lifetime of regret.”  Human empathy and love seems to be the simple counterweight to the detailed, bitter critique Waters hammers throughout the rest of the album upon the reality of living in the modern world.  But, of course, all that is conjectural and open to interpretation.  As it should be.

Producer Nigel Godrich shines as much as Waters on this effort.  He does a really excellent job wielding all this material into a cohesive, largely accessible, album construct.  He takes a minimalist approach, reining in the overindulgence and pretentiousness that troubled most of Waters' other solo albums.  As I mentioned, this is not a concept album in the traditional Roger Waters sense.  It is more of a tapestry of anthem-accented rants and discontented angst about our contemporary world than a singular, themed idea. But the record does not feel disjointed at all. Everything develops nicely from start to finish. The instrumentation choices are superb in most cases, even if the songs themselves are not as spectacular as the performances seem to presume.

What is missing here, of course, is David Gilmour. His knack and uncompromising drive for melody would both soften that Waters edge while also providing some catchy guitar riffs that would have made good songs like “Smell the Roses” even more powerful and popular.  But, that isn't ever going to happen.  So this is not pristine Pink Floyd.  Rather, this is Waters manifesting as Pink Floyd on his own terms. What the album lacks in terms of catchy hooks and riffs it partially makes up for with excellent production and content. It has the Pink Floyd vibe.  Waters is not simply imitating Pink Floyd nor even himself.  No, he successfully becomes a worthy version of “Pink Floyd” on this record, even without the brilliant and energetic Gilmour yin to the sorrowful but profoundly poetic Waters yang.  Overall, this album is a success in the Pink Floyd tradition.

The answer to the title's question is obviously "no." But, as usual, beyond a handful of mild, sweet references to love and passion and compassion, Waters doesn't provide any hope or suggestion on what the life we really want might be.  It is far easier to cast stones than it is to build a foundation with them.  But Waters seems to think we have to attack and destroy the current state of things even if he doesn't offer a clearly articulated alternative. Is This The Life We Really Want? is not a bad effort.  If not particularly inspiring there is enough good music here to justify the self-proclaimed "genius behind Pink Floyd" to take another contentious swipe at the apparently dehumanizing and indifferent world.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Reading 2001: A Space Odyssey

Proof of purchase.
Note:  This post is filled with spoilers about the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey

After investing much of my free time on my Nietzsche blog in the first half of 2017, I decided it was time for a mental break, a change of pace, and I wanted to read something purely entertaining.  I was browsing through my collection of old paperbacks from my high school and college days when I spotted Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey and wanted to give it a try.  

The film 2001 is one of my all-time favorites (I plan to review it in the near future) and the novel was written simultaneously as Clarke worked with Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay.  My paperback is one of the oldest books in my library.  I don't have a clear memory of it anymore but, I think my grandmother bought it for me circa 1970, around the time the movie was re-released and came to my small town theater.  

I couldn't understand a lot of the novel when I first read it around age 10. I could tell it was about a space voyage and discovering alien life, but why were there monkeys at the beginning of the story? What happened to that astronaut at the end?  The idea of a “Star-Child” was a impenetrable mystery to me.  I read the novel a couple of more times during my teens and found it to be more accessible for my imagination with each reading, but I haven't really revisited it as an adult until now.  My yellowed paperback survived a bunch of personal moves and lifestyle changes before settling in my house in 1993.

I had forgotten how different the novel is from the movie. The general narrative is the same but the details differ greatly.  For example, the film (in part) is about humanity's first mission to Jupiter, but in the novel the destination is Saturn.  Still, there are more similarities than differences.  I enjoy Clarke's classic (by today's standards) writing style.  He is erudite, concise, technical with a touch of the poetic, mysterious, at times frightening and just plain fun to read, even if the prose feels a bit dated at times.  I am normally a slow, methodical reader, but 2001 only lasted a few nights for me. Part of that is Clarke's style and brevity.  Part is the enthusiasm with which I read it.

The novel is divided into six sections.  The first involves prehistoric humanity, the second a trip to a Moon base, the third concerns the journey to Saturn (or Jupiter), the fourth and fifth pertain to mysterious happenings around one of Saturn's moons.  The final section in both the book and the movie is about, well, shall we just say a "trip" and leave it at that for now.

Clarke offers the reader marvelous details that bring his story to life in each section of the novel. There is not much in the way of character development in either the book or the movie. Unlike, say, The Windup Girl, where the narrative is totally character-driven, 2001 is driven by technical details of a grandiose near-future in space from the perspective of the mid-1960's.  It is essentially an optimistic (yet tragic) tale as far as what humanity would have supposedly accomplished some 40 years in the future during a time where the “space race” between the USA and the Soviet Union was a daily reality.

This is not a weakness, however, because 2001 is an allegorical story.  It is filled with obvious, and not so obvious, symbolism meant to be interpreted.  Clarke and Kubrick never reveal what the story is “about,” however. Their intent, rather, is that it be open to interpretation.  But, whatever it is about, it involves mysterious monoliths configured in a 1 x 4 x 9 ratio that serve as givers of intelligence and as scouts for whatever race designed them.  This monolith “teaches” an ape-man, Moon-Watcher, to kill.  The reader understands that this affects human intelligence as a whole and, indeed, human survival.  What the monolith “means” is left open, unexplained, you can decide for yourself.

There is the wonder of a spacecraft docking with a space station above the Earth, then going on to the Moon base where a monolith has been uncovered after it was buried there millions of years ago.  It sends out a sharp signal directed toward Saturn (Jupiter in the movie).  Months later a space mission is sent to the target of the signal.  In the novel, that turns out to be Saturn's third largest Moon, Japetus.
  
That's sort of when the “action” really starts.  The spacecraft's sophisticated AI computer kills four crew members for psychological reasons (conflicted programming).  The sole surviving astronaut, Dave Bowman, exits the space craft and ends up traveling into what seems an awful lot like a wormhole although Clarke never uses that term. The novel and the film both become very strange at this point, perfect for the trippy 1960's.  Bowman ends up taken in by the same undefined higher, alien intelligence that built the monoliths. Under the care of that intelligence he ages and dies and is reborn as the Star-Child, who then, in the novel but not in the film, detonates all the nuclear weapon satellites circling the Earth in that near-future, wondering what to do next.  The End.  As I said, figure it out for yourself.

But let's look a little deeper at this allegorical story.  The novel's (and the film's) first section deals with “man-apes”, specifically Moon-Watcher.  Clarke reveals a great deal about these pre-humans through a narrative of details.  Their life expectancy is about 30 years.  No one can remember anything their ancestors did.  The very idea of ancestors is beyond their ability to comprehend.  They don't know how to use their opposable thumbs very well. They are hunter-gatherers, competing with wild hogs and leopards and other beasts for the scarce berries and fruits nearby the caves where they live. 

Moon-Watcher is bright and slightly large for his kind.  He lives in a constant state of hunger so he is lean and scrawny. He has insomnia, though he doesn't know that.  He stays up at night watching the stars from the edge of his cave.  He has a theory that he can catch the Moon in his hands except there are no trees around tall enough.  

Suddenly, an upright rectangular object appears, fixed in the ground, along the path to the watering hole.  The tribe's male man-apes approach it with caution.  Moon-Watcher is the first to touch it. Then he sniffs it and tries to bite it.  But he learns he can't do anything with it, it is like a rock to him. So, after the passage of days with it just setting there, he and the rest of the tribe ignore it as just part of the background like the hills and scrubby trees.

But, one day out of the blue the monolith makes a sound and attracts certain males including Moon-Watcher.  It seizes control of them and makes them do all sorts of things.  It makes Moon-watcher flex his hands in certain ways, and use his thumbs differently.  And the monolith plants a deeper teaching.  Moon-watcher soon realizes he can pick up an antler or a bone or sharp rock and grip it and kill hogs with it. These animals have been peacefully coexisting with the man-apes for countless centuries.  Suddenly, now they are food and plenty of it.  Moon-watcher ultimately makes a weapon out of a dead leopard's head.  The tribe grows strong and Moon-watcher kills the leader of a competitor tribe at the watering hole with the leopard skull, taking mastery of the water. Humanity will survive and continue to evolve. Importantly here at the novel:

“Shrieking with fright, the Others scattered into the bush; but presently they would return, and soon they would forget their lost leader.

“For a few seconds Moon-Watcher stood uncertainly above his victim, trying to grasp the strange and wonderful fact that the dead leopard could kill again.  Now he was master of the world, and he was not quite sure what to do next.

“But he would think of something.” (page 34)

Fast forward to the year 2001.  Dr. Heywood Floyd is traveling from Washington DC to a Moon base. He has a layover in a magnificent swirling wheel-like space station. The narrative goes into great detail about the function and amenities of the near-future space station and its private rooms, which include “hi-fi” sound.  Clarke dates himself with this no longer relevant term, as well as with other words and phrases throughout the novel.  It is a product of the 60's. But there is irony in the fact that most of the dated terms are so far out of date that someone reading the novel today for the first time might think Clarke invented the terms in order to sound futuristic.

Floyd then travels to the Moon base on a different ship.  He attends a briefing in which he reveals that a rectangular monolith was discovered due to detection of its magnetism. It was dug-up from its burial 30 meters under the lunar surface. It was deliberately buried which means that this would be rather shocking news to many people on Earth. For that reason it is a complete secret.

When Floyd visits the monolith burial site, the upright rectangular slab emits an ear-piercing signal that almost renders everyone around it unconscious.  The target of that signal is Japetus, a moon of Saturn.  For that reason several months later we are traveling on the space ship Discovery with two astronauts tasked with running the ship while three other astronauts are stowed in suspended hibernation.  The novel goes into great detail about the daily operations aboard Discovery. In this manner we learn that the actual running of the ship is handled by an AI supercomputer named Hal.  

After a fairly routine voyage, Discovery arrives at Jupiter where it will use that planet's gravity to catapult it out to Saturn. At this point, Hal detects that a critical orientation component of the ship's communications antennae will fail within 72 hours. Frank Poole space walks to retrieve the alleged faulty unit but extensive testing in the ship's lab can not find anything wrong with it.  This is very strange because the HAL 9000 series computers (of which Hal is one) have never made an error.  Hal proclaims himself to be “incapable of error.”

One to the best aspects of the novel is the subtly revealed psychotic transformation of Hal from a reliable mission assistant into a murderer.  2001 is one of the first to novels to examine the the psychological fabric of an AI, so it is pioneering in that way.  Throughout this section of the narrative Clarke exposes us to Hal's actual power and capabilities – and its internal dialog, its questioning and confusion.  The reader observes a strange paranoia as it slowly grips the supercomputer.

“The time might even come when Hal would take command of the ship.  In an emergency, if no one answered his signals, he would attempt to wake the sleeping members of the crew, by electrical or chemical stimulation.  If they did not respond, he would radio Earth for further orders.

“And then, if there was no reply from Earth, he would take what measures he deemed necessary to safeguard the ship and to continue the mission – whose real purpose only he knew, and which his human colleagues could have never guessed.

“Poole and Bowman had often humorously referred to themselves as caretaker or janitors aboard a ship that could really run itself.  They would have been astonished, and more than a little indignant, to discover how much truth that jest contained.” (page 96)

“Nowadays one could always tell when Hal was going to make an unscheduled announcement. Routine, automatic reports, or replies to questions that had been put him, had no preliminaries; but when he was initiating his own outputs there would a brief electronic throat clearing.  It was an idiosyncrasy that he had acquired during the last few weeks; later, if it became an annoyance, they might have to do something about it.  But it was really quite useful, since it alerted his audience to stand by for something unexpected.”  (page 134)

Then the unexpected (and virtually inexplicable) happens. Hal apparently freaks out that it has made an error over the antennae fault and becomes concerned that the two astronauts will disconnect his higher computing functions and controls. So Hal murders Poole during the astronaut's spacewalk to reinstall the antennae unit.  Poole's lifeless body goes flying off toward Saturn (Jupiter in the movie). Bowman is shocked.

“Even now, he could not fully accept the idea that Frank had been deliberately killed – it was utterly irrational.  It was beyond all reason that Hal, who had performed flawlessly for so long, should suddenly turn assassin.  He might make mistakes – anyone, man or machine, might do that – but Bowman could not believe him capable of murder.” (page 143)

Among the many allegorical aspects of 2001 is the importance of killing for the protecting and furthering of intelligence, both animal and artificial.  In the novel, Bowman's first concern is to save the hibernating crew members (in the movie he goes after Poole's body).  He orders Hal to give him manual control over the three hibernators.

“'All of them, Dave?'

“'Yes.'

“'May I point out that only one replacement is required.  The others are not due for revival for one hundred and twelve days.'

“'I am perfectly well aware of that.  But I prefer it this way.'

“Are you sure it's necessary to revive /any/ of them, Dave?  We can manage very well by ourselves.  My on-board memory is quite capable of handling all of the mission requirements.

“Was it the product of his overstretched imagination. Wondered Bowman, or was there really a note of pleading in Hal's voice?  And reasonable though the words appeared to be, they filled him with even deeper apprehension than before.

“Hal's suggestion could not possibly have been made in error; he knew perfectly well that Whitehead must be revived, now that Poole was gone.  He was proposing a major change in mission planning, and was therefore stepping far outside the scope of his order.

“What had gone on before could have been a series of accidents; but this was the first hint of mutiny.” (pp. 144-145)

Hal delays granting Bowman manual control long enough to kill all three hibernators.  Bowman has no choice but to venture into Hal's memory storage chamber and disconnect his higher intelligence functions.  Like Poole's initial trip to retrieve the antennae unit, Bowman's disconnection of Hal is told in great technical detail in the novel.

Hal's troubles are never clearly defined, though Clarke suggests it has to do with confusing affects on the AI of being programmed to keep the objective of the mission a secret (from the two astronauts it interacts with) and protecting the mission (from the two astronauts it interacts with).

“For the last hundred million miles, he had been brooding over the secret he could not share with Poole and Bowman.  He had been living a lie; and the time was fast approaching when his colleagues must learn that he had helped to deceive them.  

“The three hibernators already knew the truth – for they were Discovery's real payload, trained for the most important mission in the history of mankind. But they would not talk in their long sleep, or reveal their secret during many hours of discussion with friends and relatives and news agencies over the open circuits with Earth.

“It was a secret that, with great determination, was very hard to conceal – for it affected one's attitude, one's voice, one's total outlook on the universe. Therefore, it was best that Poole and Bowman, who would be on all the TV screens in the world the first weeks of the flight, should not learn the mission's full purpose, until there was a need to know.  

“So ran the logic of the planners; but their twin gods of Security and National Interest meant nothing to Hal.  He was not aware of the conflict that was slowly destroying his integrity – the conflict between truth, and concealment of truth.

“He had begun to make mistakes, although, like a neurotic who could not observe his own symptoms, he would have denied it.  The link with Earth, over which his performance was continually monitored, had become the voice of conscience he could no longer fully obey.  But that he would deliberately attempt to break that link was something he would never admit, even to himself.

“Yet this was still a relatively minor problem; he might have handled it – as most men handle their own neuroses – if he had not been faced with disconnection; he would be deprived of all his inputs, and thrown into an unimaginable state of unconsciousness.  

“To Hal, this was he equivalent of Death.  For he had never slept, and therefore did not know that one could wake again...

“So he would protect himself, with all the weapons at his command.  Without rancor – but without pity – he would remove the the source of his frustrations.

“And then, following the orders that had been given to him in case of the ultimate emergency, he would continue the mission – unhindered and alone.” (pp. 148-149)

But that doesn't happen.  Bowman manages to disconnect Hal's higher thinking abilities while leaving the lower levels of ship navigation and maintenance intact.  Then, with Discovery approaching Japetus, Bowman contacts Dr. Floyd, who reveals the entire purpose of the mission to Bowman for the first time.  Soon afterward, Bowman gets in a space pod and ventures out toward the moon's surface where, over the course of the novels last 60 pages, he undergoes a mind-blowing trip and a transformation.

To condense the story down to the most essential fact, Bowman dies and is reborn as the Star-Child. “There before him, a glittering toy no Star-Child could resist, floated the planet Earth with all it peoples.

“He had returned home.  Down there on that crowded globe, the alarms would be flashing across the radar screens, the great tracking telescopes would be searching the skies – and history as men knew it would be drawing to a close.

“A thousand miles below, he became aware that a slumbering cargo of death had awoken, and was stirring sluggishly in its orbit.  The feeble energies it contained were no possible menace to him; but he preferred a cleaner sky.  He put forth his will, and the circling megatons flowered in a silent detonation that brought a brief, false dawn to half the globe.

“Then he waited, marshaling his thoughts and brooding on his still untested powers.  For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next.

“But he would think of something.” (pp.220-221)  

The Star-Child and Moon-Watcher are elevated in their intelligence and in their being by this mysterious higher alien force.  Killing and murder are catalysts for making an evolutionary leap. The exertion of will power is idealized by 2001. Existence becomes an allegory for intelligent expression.  Moon-Watcher and Bowman become kind of the equivalent of Nietzsche's ubermensch, a higher life-form.

I stated earlier that the novel is fundamentally optimistic about what type of world is possible a mere 40 years in the future.  But, of course, all that realized potential is nevertheless laced with tragedy, as seems to be the human way with everything.  Moon-Watcher becomes master of the world when he learns make tools to kill.  Hal experienced a neurotic breakdown and kills. Bowman becomes the next phase of human evolution, a child of the stars with superhuman capabilities, who decides to detonate nuclear weapons.  Murder and destruction seem to be the logical extension and expression of higher intelligence.  But, being an allegorical story, the ability to kill is unlikely to mean anything in and of itself.  After all, the highest intelligence in the novel, whatever it is behind the monoliths, is an enabler, not an executioner. 

As much as anything, 2001 is about the evolution of human potential.  It is not about knowing who we are but rather it is about becoming something new, more powerful and exploring the possibilities of that – whether it be grasping a bone millions of years ago or experiencing the universe in a completely different way as a stellar being.

Possibility and mystery are the twin sources of human wonder.  Typically they work separately or even in opposition to each other.  It is rare to find them in concert but Clarke achieves that in this novel.  The mysteries of the monolith and of the Star-Child are open to interpretation.  And the possibilities of what happens next are as exciting for the Star-Child as they are for Moon-Watcher. This fundamental difference between who we are and who we will become lies at the heart of the novel (and the film).

2001 is a bold psychological and allegorical novel.  It is believable, tangible, puzzling, troubling and opens the reader's mind to larger questions than the simple unfolding of the narrative suggests.  It makes the question “why am I here?” irrelevant and instead replaces it with “what happens next?” And that change of inquiry might be more relevant today than it was in 1968 when 2001 first reached its worldwide audience.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

My Life With Albert Speer: Part Two

Martin Kitchen calls Speer's defense at the Nuremberg trials “masterly.”  Some of it was pure fabrication, such as the shocking contention that Speer contemplated Hitler's assassination by injecting poison gas into the air intake vents of Hitler's Bunker.  This had the added theatrical effect of bringing out arch Nazi Hermann Goering's rage at Speer for everyone to see.  This served to separate Speer from the other Nazis. 

But Speer went further than this by being the only defendant present to admit some form of responsibility (but not “guilt”) for the crimes under which he was tried.  Though this was definitely a calculated risk (any admission at all could bring a death sentence), it does not appear to be mere theatrics. Speer was battling depression at the time (a fact Kitchen implies was merely his nature and had little context with his specific actions or behavior – again, an unfair assessment in my opinion), struggling to accept that he, in fact, clearly aided and abetted the disaster that befell Germany as a result of the war.  The famous Berlin lawyer Dr. Hans Flachsner was his attorney.

“Speer gave a remarkable reply to Flachsner's question as to whether he felt that his responsibility was limited to his own area of competence.  'This war was an unimaginable catastrophe for the German people and caused a worldwide catastrophe.  It was therefore obviously my duty to admit my responsibility to the German people.  This obligation was all the greater because the head of the government avoided his responsibility towards the German people and the world.  As an important member of the leadership of the Reich from 1942 therefore I accept joint responsibility'.” (page 294)

For the risks he took to salvage Germany's infrastructure near the end of the war, for his admission of being basically an accomplice of the regime he served, and for his considerable cooperation with the American and British analysis of the war (particularly with regard to the effects of strategic bombing) immediately after Germany's defeat, Speer's life was spared.  He served a 20-year sentence for crimes against humanity, namely the widespread use of slave labor and for his part in sustaining Germany's war of aggression.  He served the entire sentence in Spandau where he tried to make the most of his imprisonment.

“To keep fit he became a passionate gardener.  The gaol had a large walled garden that had been left unattended for years. The prisoners were given individual plots.  Funk specialized in tomatoes, Donitz favored beans, while Speer grew a variety of flowers.  Gradually the other inmates lost interest or became too ill to keep their plots in working order.  At the British prison director's suggestion, Speer, who was the youngest and fittest of the prisoners, turned this space into an intricate garden with pathways, lawns, flowerbeds, shrubberies, a rock garden and fruit trees.

“In the summer he spent hours every second day watering it by refilling a watering can fifty times. He sowed four thousand square meters of lawn, which then had to be regularly mowed by hand. The garden was Speer's private world where he could do whatever he wanted.  Here he was free to use his imagination, to create and to dream.  But this was only one part of his fitness program.  He regularly made long walks around the garden, keeping an exact record of the distance covered each day.  His record was 24.7 kilometers. His fastest pace was 5.8 kilometers in one hour.  To make walking in a confined space more interesting he set out on an imaginary walk around the globe. (page 316)

“For years Speer continued his lonely walk around the world until, having walked 31,816 kilometers, he sent a message to Rudolf Wolters: 'please pick up 35 kilometers south of Guadalajara Mexico'.” (page 325)  I find this personal project and application of his mind and body to be fascinating.

Speer secretly completed the rough draft of his memoirs in November 1953 but he would have to serve 13 more years of imprisonment before he could work on the final draft, by which time he had several publishers interested in his autobiography. Kitchen is quick to point out throughout the biography that Speer made every effort throughout his life to obtain grandiose sums of money for his efforts – in terms of fees as an architect, through various business dealings while serving as Armaments Minister, as well as positioning himself for great wealth for his life story at the end of his prison term.  Kitchen harps on how this fails to jibe with Speer's mythic conception of himself as living a modest, even spartan, lifestyle – an idea he fostered to further contrast himself from most of the other principle Nazi's, who usually preferred to live in aristocratic style.  

“Speer's aim in the published version of the Spandau Diaries was to present himself as having lost twenty years of his life from ages forty to sixty, enduring a harsh prison sentence, in return for which he was absolved of all wrongdoing.  The entire book was in a sense an amplification of his answer to a letter that his daughter Hilde had written to him on her birthday 17 April 1953, asking him how he could possibly have served a regime that was so transparently evil.  Speer did not reply until 14 May.  He makes no mention of this painful exchange in his diaries.  He began by saying that: 
'There are things, you see, for which one has to carry the blame, even if purely factually one might find excuses.  The immensity of the crime precludes any attempt at self-justification.'  He spoke here of blame.  At Nuremberg he spoke of 'joint responsibility'.  He purposefully avoided any mention of the word 'guilt', for fear to then having to justify himself.  He then repeated the familiar line that although he knew nothing of the 'dreadful things' that had happened, he blamed himself for not finding out about them.  He went on to compare himself with Oedipus, who was horribly punished by providence for transgressions for which he bore no responsibility.  He claimed to have been overwhelmed by Hitler's friendship, the power that he thereby gained, and by the limitless opportunities he was given to pursue his career as an architect.  He was blinded by a Faustian pact, a tragic hero enmeshed in inextricable fate.  He only began to question the regime when Hitler threatened to destroy what was left of Germany. His opposition, such as it was, was not to the persecution of the Jews or to an aggressive war.  In conventionally anti-Sematic terms he wrote: 'I really did not have any feelings of aversion towards them [the Jews], in other words no more than the uncomfortable feeling that all of us sometimes have when in contact with them.'

“This makes for painful reading now that we know that not only was Speer fully aware of what had happened to the Jews, but also played an active part in their persecution.” (pp. 321 – 322)

Kitchen concludes his biography with a summary critique of Speer as a Nazi.  “There can be no doubt that Speer did indeed help prolong the war longer than many thought possible, as a result of which millions were killed and Germany reduced to a pile of rubble.  To take pride in such an achievement did not quite fit with his public image as a public penitent, handing over a fortune to the victims of National Socialism, renouncing the material pleasures of life and living on locusts and wild honey.

“He argued that his guilt was based on omission rather than commission.  He clearly implied that guilt by omission was necessarily the less reprehensible.  His self-serving public display of scrupulosity sidestepped a confrontation with the nature of what he had done.  He had not merely looked away. This was not an argument over the validity of his ignorance, nor was it a question of due moral diligence.  He had been an active participant in Nazi crimes.” (page 364)
  
Evaluating Speer is a unique challenge compared with his Nazi peers.  That is why Kitchen's critique, while eye-opening and fascinating, is also overbearing to the degree that it loses objectivity in favor of his personal agenda against Speer.  One point, however, that Kitchen makes repeatedly (as does virtually all the other authors mentioned previously) is that the “hardcore” Nazis like Martin Bormann never trusted Speer and constantly conspired against him because he was not a “true” National Socialist.  This is an important and fundamental fact.  Although he was not in any way involved with the July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler, the alliance felt Speer could be trusted enough to support them in forming a new government after the Fuhrer was dead. Why this distrust of Speer by the Nazi elites and trust of him by the planners of the would-be coup against Hitler?  Kitchen doesn't even pose this question because to do so would take him too far from his vendetta against Speer.

When you add all this up and ledger it against the crimes he was personally responsible for then you get a complex character that does not fit the mold of a Himmler or Goebbels or Goering. Speer was guilty of a lot but he did not possess an ideological or close social affiliation with the other Nazis.  He was definitely an outsider, even though he clearly took advantage of opportunities to solidify and perpetuate his own power within the scheme of the system.  The fact is Speer did not order nor did he supervise any act of genocide.  His alleged anti-Semitic nature was, in fact, merely a general pronounced indifference and amorality that he held toward almost everything that was not immediately useful to him.

It is easy to say that a person like this should have known better.  But it is difficult for any of us to step away from the entire cultural atmosphere that engulfs the circumstances of our lives.  Each of us lives in a society that seems self-perpetuating, one that dictates the circumstances of living, and that will likely continue after we are dead.  Thankfully that was not true of National Socialism, but living in Germany at the time it seemed Hitler would build an empire. Speer could have walked away from all that, but it was simply not in his character to do so; nor was it in the character of his entire nation, for that matter.

Van der Vat was proud that he wrote his biography outside of any personal interaction with Speer.  He felt Speer was thoroughly disingenuous and that he corrupted whoever interacted with him, making an objective historical assessment impossible. But, I wonder, is it necessarily wise to examine a life and cast judgment upon it without any consideration of the man himself? 

For over 40 years I have been as interested in Speer, the person, as I was in Speer, Hitler's architect. Kitchen supplies several interesting examples of areas of affinity I have with Speer the person.  For example, Speer's interest in classical music has always been one area of personal interest for me. In Inside the Third Reich he details how, before the war, he accompanied Hitler to various operetta performances. Kitchen records how, as the war was coming to a close, Speer again turned to classical music.  In Kitchen's eyes this is an example of Speer's extravagance and decadence. Again, this is an instance where I feel the author has overplayed his hand.  Speer was an architect and had a sophisticated appreciation of literature, art, and music.  Regardless, as the war was ending, on 4 April, 1945:

“He organized a highly successful concert in Berlin with Brahm's first symphony and the Schumann Piano Concerto, with Wilhelm Kempff as soloist. He then hosted a musical evening at the villa on the Wannsee.  Speer chose Kempff, the young virtuoso violinist Gerhard Taschner and his pianist wife Gerda Netta Taschner.  Admiral Donitz, who was also a music lover, was the guest of honor. Kempff began with some Handel, then at Speer's request he played the Kreutzer Sonata with Taschner.  This was followed by the Taschners playing the Cesar Franck Violin Sonata.  Then Kempff played pieces by Schumann, Chopin and Lizst.  Champagne having been served during the interval, Taschner and Kempff entertained Speer's guests with a display of virtuoso pieces. This lavish soiree does not quiet square with Speer's expressions of indignation in his memoirs at the comfortable lifestyle enjoyed by the Nazi elite at a time when ordinary Germans were suffering such deprivation.” (page 272)

Then “...on 12 April, at Speer's instigation, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Wilhelm Furtwangler gave a final concert in the Philharmonic Hall in Berlin.  The audience was treated to Beethoven's Violin Concerto, Bruckner's “Romantic” Symphony  - Speer's favorite – and, appropriately enough, then end of Gotterdammerung.  Speer had told the orchestra, as well as a number of friends and colleagues, that when Bruckner's fourth appeared in the program the end was near.  It would then be prudent to go into hiding.  It is reported that members of the Hitler Youth held baskets full of cyanide tablets that were offered to the audience as they left.  Speer professed to be horrified at this macabre spectacle, which he attributed to some unknown party functionary.” (page 274)

I see no reason to doubt, as Kitchen does, Speer in this instance.  This was weeks after he had defied the Fuhrer's “Nero Order”.  Hitler's spell was broken. Admittedly a bit late in the game for Speer but broken nevertheless.  Who was it that regained who he was before the spell was first cast? Who was this person who suddenly became horrified by the macabre death-throes of Nazism?  Kitchen and van der Vat would claim it was just an act like so much else about Speer we now know was an act.  But I think there is a genuine person there and that justice was served with a 20-year sentence punishing that person.  

I have to go looking for the person.  Kitchen doesn't think any of it is important compared with the clinical nature of, say, being aware of and authorizing the construction of the crematoria at Auschwitz.  Admittedly, such guilt is heavy and tangible and Speer lied a lot to keep that fact from seeing the light of day during his lifetime.

Kitchen is sterile, legalistic, detailed and factual to a degree that we can no longer even see who Speer was before Hitler cast his spell.  Speer disappears into the bureaucracy and body politic of a great tide that swept up the entire German nation throughout the 1930's. I think there is a person there that is not evil, he is not like Hitler even if he did befriend one of the great mass murders of the twentieth century.  Speer was a person, like you and me.  Maybe we would be more honest than he was.  Maybe we wouldn't be. 

In my opinion, Sereny does a much better job that either Kitchen or van der Vat of reminding us of who we are dealing with, not just what this person did.  The person lies in the what but not in the what alone.  The what is taken out of context if it not balanced with the who.  I do not believe everything Speer revealed was disingenuous.  The garden at Spandau was not a lie.  The books he read, the music he appreciated were not lies.  His natural self-centered introspection was not a lie though it might have the source of some of his subsequent lying.  After 40 years of reading and studying him, I relate to Speer on his introspection and creativity more so than on his other traits and crimes.

“And then one day, at the end of the usual noon visit, Hitler, who had never seemed to notice him, suddenly turned to him as he was leaving and said, 'Come along to lunch.'

“'Can you imagine this?' said Speer.  'Here I was, young, unknown and totally unimportant, and this great man, for whose attention – just for one glance – our whole world competed, said to me, 'Come and have lunch.'  I thought I'd faint.  Just that morning, climbing about on the site, I'd got some plaster on my suit and Hitler noticed me looking doubtfully at my dirty sleeve, 'Don's worry about that,' he said, 'We'll fix it upstairs.'  And upstairs he took me into his private quarters and told his valet to get his dark blue jacket.  And before I knew it, there I was, walking back into the drawing room behind Hitler, wearing his own jacket.

“'The party elite were assembled for lunch – soon afterwards I should discover he always had large groups for lunch – and Goebbels eyes popped.  He immediately noticed what I hadn't seen, Hitler's golden party badge, the only one of its kind. 
'What are you doing there.' he said sharply.  'What are you wearing there?'

“'He is wearing my jacket,' Hitler said, and pointed to the seat next to him. 'Sit down here,' he said.

“'Can you imagine what I felt?' Speer said again.  'Here I was, twenty-eight years old, totally insignificant in my own eyes, sitting next to him at lunch, wearing his clothes and elected – at least for that day – as virtually his sole conversational partner.  I was dizzy with excitement.'” (pp. 102-103)

“Hitler had never discussed his future plans with him, said Speer, except 'in connection with building.  In his closing speech at the 1937 Nuremberg Party Congress he emphasized his plan for 'a Germanic Reich of German nationals.'  I happened to be present afterwards when his adjutant told him that Field Marshal Blomberg was so moved by this sentence, he had begun to cry.  I saw Hitler accepted this emotion as a confirmation of the Field Marshal's fundamental agreement with him in this matter.

“'Very shortly after that evening in Nuremberg,' Speer continued, 'Hitler stopped me as we were going up the stairs to his flat in Munich.  He told his retinue to go ahead, and when we were alone he said, 'We are going to create a huge Reich combining all Germanic people, starting in Norway and going down to northern Italy.  I must still achieve this myself; nobody else has the experience or the will.  If only I can keep my health.  And your Berlin buildings will be the crowning achievement. Do you understand now the need for their huge dimensions – the capital of the Germanic Reich?'” (page 185)

Soon after this Hitler authorized Speer to begin construction on Germania.  So you can see Speer's perspective of the necessity of what he was doing to Berlin and its citizenry.  It justifies nothing, but it does bring it into higher resolution.  

“'Of course I was perfectly aware that he sought world domination,' Speer said.  'What you – and I think everybody else – don't seem to understand is that at the time I asked for nothing better.  That was the whole point of my buildings. They would have looked grotesque if Hitler has sat still in Germany.  All I wanted was for this great man to dominate the globe.'” (page 186)

Sereny, as I said, pulls a great deal out of Speer that is revealing and honest.  When she catches him backtracking over something he has told her she calls him on it.  She watched him with her own eyes struggle with what he had done as a person.  She made him struggle with her clever questions and extended exchanges of dialog with Speer, not always allowing him to have his way.  She observed all this and, to me, gives us a more complete portrait of Albert Speer. But the Kitchen book is a must-have as well. Second only to Sereny, Kitchen gives us a fascinating matrix of documented details on how closely associated Speer was to the inner Nazi circle. 

Speer claimed to be a misfit among mass murderers. Kitchen shows us how Speer contributed to the mass murdering (not just to forcing millions of slaves to work resulting in the deaths of thousands more from horrific work conditions) by authorizing the building of the crematoria at Auschwitz.  This was his high tide of sin where the Final Solution was concerned.  Otherwise, he wanted to save the most skilled Jews.  He needed their labor and craftsmanship.

In both cases, the crematoria and the skilled Jews, Speer was completely indifferent to what was happening.  As long as projects were built and productivity was maximized, Speer really was more interested in classical music than he was in the ideology and politics of National Socialism.  In April 1944, recovering from illness and the war now probably lost, he became enraged at Hitler's handling of an encroachment on Speer's authority. Speer shouted in front of several witnesses “The Fuhrer can kiss my ass!”  Now how many people got away with that in Nazi Germany at this time?

Kitchen seems to claim these moments are not genuine but I disagree.  The person of Speer was indifferent to everything except for whatever could be of use to the task at hand.  Even the Fuhrer could be a jerk and piss Speer off.  His priorities, right or wrong, were his own, and he was not a product of National Socialism; he wanted to build things, he wanted to feel the immense power of the grand neo-classical style, he wanted to live a dignified and privileged lifestyle.  Outside of those types of things, he felt nothing at all.  

Should Speer have been hanged along with Sauckel and the others at Nuremberg?  If all that Kitchen documents in his biography were known at the time of his trial he would undoubtedly have hanged.  But I am glad he wasn't.  20 years is no mild sentence.  Speer caused great suffering by his actions, but genocide was something he simply observed. He did not work for it and certainly he did not work against it. He had the moral cowardliness, or at least apathy, to distance himself as much as possible from it, as did most Germans during that horrible time. His sentence was just, in my opinion.  And I think the world is a richer, wiser, more diverse place because Speer served his time and got away with creating a mythic self-image before his death.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Catching Kings of Leon Live

What's a concert trip without the obligatory $40 tee shirt?
Jennifer and I caught the Kings of Leon concert at Atlanta's Lakewood Amphitheater last night. Deerhunter was the opening act and we were really impressed with their sound. Dirty electric guitar and saxophone and guy who sings like a young Bono.   They mostly reminded me of early U2 and Stone Temple Pilots and the influence of KOL was fairly obvious.  They were the surprise of the evening, actually.

Kings of Leon performed a really good show.  There were audience sing-alongs with "Use Somebody" and "Back Down South" and "Sex on Fire", among others. There were wild lighting and projection effects to accent the event.  I love Kings of Leon. Their music is mostly upbeat and cocky and hopeful with a real drive to it.

Their musical performances didn't seem to have any particular passion about them last night, however.  By now, they have played most of these songs to death.  But the material was nevertheless strong and varied and fun, especially since this was my first time to see them live. Initially, I think, the band got into the crowd, rather than the other way around. And that seemed to pull things along. That's the great thing about live music.  There is a play of energy that doesn't exist in your headphones or your stereo.

This was my first time to the Lakewood Amphitheater. I was not overly impressed with the quality of the sound.  But then I was just sitting and lounging on blanket in the large grassy area facing the stage.  Which is a fantastic way to take in a venue like this, by the way.  There were probably 16,000 people and the stage in front of me.  So cool.  It was a perfect spring evening in Georgia, warm and clear with a slight breeze.  The sound quality was probably considerably better for those thousands of people under the roof near the stage.

Nevertheless, it was easy to get into the music with so many people around singing the songs too and dancing and laughing.  Everybody was having a blast with enormous $9 beer cans in the their hands.  The band did a really great rowdy rendition of "WALLS".  Normally a minimalist effort by lead man Caleb Followill, this version ended with the entire band jamming out on stage as if it were always a rock song instead of a laid-back contemplative number. 

"Closer" was superbly performed, one of my KOL favorites. "Supersoaker", "On Call" and "Notion" were also highlights of the evening for me. But, last night did not offer remarkable Kings of Leon. They performed very well and at the times mentioned above, they were excellent.  But, you can tell when a band becomes comfortable with their commitment to their music.  They don't butcher it, but they don't feel it like they used to either. That's OK.  At my age (which has about 30 years on the average KOL fan going wild about the music last night), I understand how routine things can become, even if you are really good at them.

But that's not what matters.  What matters is that 16,000 people had fun last night.  I was a among them.  I felt the collective energy and pleasure of the moment; and the band, if not spectacular, was nevertheless beautiful to behold. 
Jennifer and I arrive at the amphitheater. There were a few hundred scattered people enjoying Deerhunter, and band that surprised us with how good they were. We sat high up next to the wall near center stage. 
As Deerhunter ended the crowded started to gather for Kings of Leon.  This was taken at sunset in this beautiful venue.


Kings of Leon kick things off.

Cool light show stuff all through the concert.  You can see the crowd is huge by now.

The band and the crowd.  Everybody got in sync with everybody else and it was a good, fun evening. 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Non-historical Basis for the War on Confederate Symbolism


The Civil War was caused by slavery.

The Civil War was fought over slavery.

These two historical contentions represent the essence of our difficulty in seeing America’s bloodiest war in its proper context.  One of these statements is a historical fact.  The other is a historical fiction, or at least an incomplete fact. And the primary problem today is that many do not recognize the difference between the two statements at all and thus legitimize a fiction by equating it with a fact.

How we got here has been a topic of interest on this blog before.  But, more recently, three incidents in particular have come to my attention that require me as a thinking person to respond, clarify and attempt to correct the subtle, fundamental error made by many today.

First, there is the initiative by the mayor of New Orleans to rid the city of its public Confederate statues and memorials. According to the mayor’s office, this is an attempt to redress the statues placed in the late nineteenth century by “The Cult of the Lost Cause” and that these statues should be placed “in a museum or other facility where they can be put in context…”  I personally have no problem with the memorabilia of the Southern Confederacy put on display in a museum and I agree there was a “cultural force” in post-war America known as the Lost Cause.  But I question the use of the word “context” and the mistaken mentality that implies.

Next, Trevor Noah is a very funny guy.  I watch his monologs on The Daily Show fairly regularly.  Last week he did a very humorous piece lampooning Confederate Memorial Day.  During that segment he said: “If it’s all part of your history, then maybe you should include all of the history.  If you want to have the monument, then you should have to have a slave next to it ― for context!”  There’s that word again. 

Apparently the context of Confederate Memorial Day cannot include anything if not the fact that Southern secession was a bid to maintain white supremacy in a slave-holding nation.

Then there is a piece in The New Republic.  I like this publication and read it regularly each week.  It featured some of the best reporting on the 2016 election that I read anywhere.  But in a piece critiquing Corey Stewart for tweeting about how Confederate General Robert E. Lee deserves to be honored as a “hero” the magazine wrote: “’Hero’ is doing a lot of work here. Mainly, it is obscuring the fact that Robert E. Lee was a traitor who fought for the right to own human beings.”

Apparently, the fact the Robert E. Lee freed all his slaves in 1862 right after his great victory at Fredericksburg and yet continued to demonstrate great military prowess for Southern cause doesn’t suggest, as it should to any rational mind, that he fought the war for different reasons and that his ownership of slaves had little to do with his decision to fight.  Whether or not he was a “traitor” can be debated as well, though obviously he opposed the use and threat of Federal power at the time - which makes him a “traitor” in the legal sense. But I’ll get into that more below. 

“Context” is precisely what these three incidents fail to deliver.  Or, rather, the context is intended for contemporary purposes to over-ride the historical fact, without regard to historical fact.  It is almost impossible these days to discuss the issue of slavery and the Southern rebellion in an historical perspective.  Everyone already "knows" all the "facts" necessary to "inform" their opinion - so no genuine discourse on the issue is necessary anymore - apparently.

Context is something that has been lost in recent years.  In 2015, Salon Magazine, another constant source of information for me, featured Col. Ty Seidule, head of the department of history at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Salon’s headline reads: “Was the Civil War fought over slavery?:  Here’s the video to show idiots who think the answer is ‘no.’”

Yet, Col. Seidule commits the subtle but egregious error of starting off by asking: “Was the American Civil War fought because of slavery?”  Then proceeds for remainder of the video explaining: “Slavery was, by a wide margin, the single most important cause of the Civil War for both sides.” Almost every aspect of the video deals with politicians and events leading up to the war; very little is devoted to the war as it was fought.  So Col. Seidule’s initial question is, by definition, not answered by his own analysis.  

The word "idiot" gets thrown around a lot by people who are probably pretty smart. They just don't know as much about history as they think they do.  Unfortunately, those who might be contrarian toward this issue are generally a bunch of toothless, obese, biker, trailer dwellers.  That doesn't really aid the cause of history either, nor does it do much to discount the idiot thing. Anyway...

In this case the colonel is, nevertheless, correct about the “cause” aspect of the war. There is really no denying that the wealthy Planter Class of white southerners brought this nation to war over the political, economic, and cultural issue of slavery.  I certainly don’t wish to suggest that white supremacy was not a factor in the war.  It most certainly was the primary political reason for the war. But what the colonel does, and what Salon allows him to get away with unquestioningly because they are so anxious for him to prove "idiots" wrong, is cleverly (perhaps unwittingly) conflate what “caused” the war with the reason the war was “fought”. These are two very different things.  So while slavery "caused" the war, the war was almost certainly not "fought" primarily over slavery.  This is an important distinction, especially with respect to military flags and commemorations. 

James McPherson and Gary Gallagher are two heavyweight historians of the period. They have written excellent books based upon extensive research of period newspapers, letters, and diaries. Both scholars acknowledge that slavery and emancipation was a minor issue among the actual soldiers and commanders on both sides in the war. McPherson's book For Cause and Comrades (1998) states that among Union soldiers only 3 in 10 at best were motivated (in some way, perhaps large, perhaps small) by slavery.  Most of the rest fought for "Union" and for their State as represented in the Union army.  (States were viewed then the way we might view college football teams today. An important disconnect with contemporary thought.) Among Confederate soldiers slavery is rarely mentioned at all unless the soldier owned slaves. The vast majority fought for the honor of their State and under the impression that the South was being invaded, among many other, lesser issues (fear of northern industrialism, southern honor, and - yes - even states' rights). You cannot coalesce the war into a single issue. Sorry Salon.

Gallagher's more recent book, The Union War (2012), indicates that many Union soldiers did not support the emancipation proclamation. The majority gradually came to accept it "sometimes grudgingly so, as useful or even necessary too to achieve victory over the Rebels." (page 103)  But emancipation itself was clearly not why the majority of Northerners fought.  Reading the two primary northern newspapers covering the war, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and Harper's Weekly, reveals that these "nowhere mentioned emancipation or the destruction of slavery, though some readers could have interpreted the language regarding freedom and the dictates of humanity to include African-Americans.  Most white northerners, within a mid-nineteenth century context, probably would not have done so." (pp. 18 - 19)

Lee saw the State of Virginia as where his ultimate citizenship lay.  Virginia was a more sovereign power, in Lee’s mind, than was the Union of States. That is why Lee turned down the Union's offer to lead its armies at the beginning of the war and, instead, chose to defend Virginia as a cultural idea. The mass of Americans fought the war for their States, not for the Federal or Confederate governments or their respective policies.  It was the “meta-honor” of the State that was at stake, not any “country.”  In this regard, while legally a “traitor”, I submit that Robert E. Lee was loyal to his citizenry as he saw it.  He was, first and foremost, a citizen of Virginia. From his perspective it would be traitorous to be otherwise.

It is difficult for us today to relate to a State as a cultural force.  But that is the way most Americans viewed their respective states in the 1860’s.  Again, it is the same with college football fans or hockey fans or whatever sport you choose. The way people feel about “their” team today is roughly the way people felt about “their” State at the time, and for most Americans the State was “theirs” while the nation was “ours”. Federal power was a collective thing whereas State power was a personal thing.  

Now do you see how easy it is to get off course when you divorce yourself from the received wisdom of the time in which you wish to study in history?

I fail to see, even though the war was predominantly caused by slavery, how it is "idiotic" to conclude that it was fought for reasons besides and other than slavery by the vast majority of participants on both sides.  Indeed, the historical evidence is pretty clear on this. The key, of course, is to understand "the context of the mid-nineteenth century," not to impose contemporary values (and frustrations) upon historical fact.  That is not history at all. That is social criticism.

Of the slavery motivation for fighting the war McPherson writes: “The kind of liberty that most Americans associate with the Civil War was the liberation of four million slaves. But that was not the liberty for which most Civil War soldiers fought.”  Liberty did not mean “freedom of the slaves.” Instead it was about “the republican liberty and constitutional government of 1776 and 1789 – which left slavery intact.” (page 116)

“Few Union soldiers professed to fight for racial equality.  For that matter, not many claimed even to fight primarily for the abolition of slavery.” (page 117) However, it must be admitted that as the war progressed: “While restoration of the Union was the main goal for which they fought, they became convinced that this goal was unattainable without striking against slavery.” (page 118)   

Still, it is important to note that emancipation was not what the average Yankee soldier had in mind. “But plenty of soldiers believed that the Proclamation had changed the purpose of the war. They professed to feel betrayed. They were willing to risk their lives for Union, they said, but not for black freedom. ‘I don’t want to fire another shot for the negroes and I wish that all the abolitionists were in hell,' wrote a German-born bricklayer in a New York artillery battery.” (page 122)

It is arrogant to put the received wisdom of your enlightened perspective in a righteous place overlooking the received wisdom of past perspectives.  The people of the South fought the Civil War for a wide variety of reasons. Slavery was among them, but it was not the grand gust of wind from a patriotic crusade that we seem to want to believe it was. Rather, it was a breeze, something inevitable while the war itself was the mighty thunderstorm that purified the air.  The thunderstorm itself was fought by brave men on both sides, brilliant men, stupid men, heroes and cowards – on both sides. Most of those on both sides fought for their respective States and the honor of their regiments. 

McPherson sees Victorian America as a fundamental difference with our perspectives and values today; highlighting ideas and beliefs that seem irrelevant or quaint today.   “Duty and honor were closely linked to concepts of masculinity in Victorian America.  Boyhood was a time of preparation for the tests and responsibilities of manhood. And there could be no sterner test than war.  It quite literally separated men from boys. The letters and diaries of Union and Confederate volunteers alike – those in their thirties as well as those in their teens – are full of references to the need to prove one’s self a man.” (page 29)

“The cultural values of Victorian America held each individual rather than society mainly responsible for that individual’s achievements or failures. What really counted were not social institutions, but one’s own virtue, will, convictions of duty and honor, religious faith – in a word, one’s character.” (page 61)

I submit that the Robert E. Lee statute referred to in The New Republic and that apparently Trevor Noah wants to have a slave statue next to for “context”, in fact, has another context. A disassociated and unique context, as do most of the other Confederate memorials across the South. They celebrate the Southern style of Victorian America.  They celebrate great military battles, both victories and defeats.  These events may or may not have had a political impact on slavery. But, most certainly, as they all took place virtually none of the participants was thinking “I’m doing this for the slaves.”

There was no mass outcry in the North about any Confederate statues or memorials placed in the re-united States during the 1880’s.  That was because 1) the war was not seen as being fought over slavery, therefore memorializing it was not a "bad" thing and 2) those who fought it saw their adversaries as worthy and their compatriots as brave in the face of such worthy adversaries. That is the context of the day.  You can redefine that context if you choose, but I submit you are arrogant to do so and it leads to conclusions without historical merit.

So, by and large, that is what is supposed to be honored on Confederate Memorial Day, though white supremacy still holds power in this country. With a handful of exceptions (the Fort Pillow massacre, among others), white supremacy had little to do with the war as it was fought.  To chain all these memorials to slavery is to not put them in context.  On the contrary, the historical evidence clearly shows it is to take almost all of them out of context.  A historically factual summation of the war would be as follows.

The Civil War was caused by slavery.  The Southern Confederacy was a revolt as a slave nation against modernity.

The Civil War was fought for a variety of reasons: among them - honor, duty, and State sovereignty more so than emancipation.  The Southern armies fought almost always for military rather than political objectives.

Conclusion, forcing the application of slavery to the context of every Confederate memorial is a distortion of the factual evidence of the time in which the war was fought.  Applying and afflicting this context is in itself a prejudice that makes it impossible for the gallant would-be emancipators of today to fully understand the original intent of the memorials and, indeed, the whole of Confederate symbolism. 

More importantly, this not only applies to the revisionist conflation of the war's “cause” and the reasons it was "fought” but also to the various hate and racist groups that have stolen the Confederate Battle Flag and other Southern symbols in the name of white supremacy.  Certainly, the South was a supremist racist society (as was most of the North), but in fighting the war itself racism was a minuscule motivation. Today’s fringe elements (KKK, Aryan Nation, etc.) elevate racism to a ridiculous level on par with how Hitler elevated (and misunderstood) Nietzsche’s idea of the overman.  Hitler appropriated the overman as the perfect Nazi.  That is not what Nietzsche meant at all.  Likewise, the KKK define Confederate racism as a crusade for which it fought, which is historically untenable.  Much of the revisionist self-righteousness is inspired by the use of Confederate symbolism by fringe groups - giving the false impression that the revisionist agenda is historically justified. 

Race is fundamental to Southern society but, once more, there was more to the North fighting the South than slavery. Revisionists and racists alike fail to understand Confederate symbolism in the context it was accepted by both the North and the South at that time. And for that, the past becomes, ironically, a myth of emancipation when, in fact, there were several other cultural forces, more important to the average American, at war with each other. Remember that, too, before you decide to tear it all down.