All posts by Daniel Borgström

The Fallacy of Calling McCain or Anyone Else a War Hero

Obit scribblers are calling John McCain a war “hero.” Well, I have to concede that unlike so many warmongering chickenhawks such as Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz, Robert Kagan and most other neocons, McCain did actually serve in the military.  But the same could be said for nearly all top Nazis including Hitler and Goering; they fought in a war and they loved war. They were destructive persons who learned nothing positive from their military experience.

Of course, few of the pundits and politicians who are eulogizing McCain would wish to include Nazis in their hall of fame, nor would most of them care to designate most neocons as anything less than patriots.  So what is it that might qualify someone as a hero, or as a war criminal?  Having been in the military, I sometimes think about that.  These are some thoughts that come to mind.

Heroism is sort of like morality, it’s usually defined by the powers that be.  And a lot of it has to do with being in the right place at the right time.  An example of that would be the five Marines in the famous photo of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima.  What made them more heroic than the many thousands of other GIs who fought on that and other islands in the Pacific, you might ask.  And the answer is: time and place, plus a photographer to take their picture.  So they were in a dramatic photo, and that was at a time when the government needed heroes to sell war bonds.

Military discipline is such that soldiers tend to do as told, even under fire.  It’s a military axiom that soldiers fear their sergeants more then they fear the enemy’s bullets, and I think there’s a huge amount of truth in that.  Even though a sergeant may not be particularly fearsome, there’s a huge power structure behind him.  Individual soldiers become part of the military machine.

My friend Van Dale Todd was in Vietnam and came back with medals.  He didn’t seem to consider himself a “hero.”  What he emphasized was that he’d been through an experience.  “You don’t know what it’s like to see your buddies die!” he often said, and then one night he killed himself in front of me.  That was in San Francisco, in 1972.  In his diary he’d written, “How could killing humans have been fun?  Can God forgive me?”

Many Vietnam veterans suffered from PTSD.  Many died before their time, some shortly after coming home, others years or even decades later, in their 30s or even in their 50s, not necessarily from physical injuries, but often from invisible damage they’d incurred during the war.  I never met any who considered themselves “heroes.”

War criminals?  Van never spoke of himself as being a “war criminal,” but he’d been trained to enjoy killing “the enemy,” and I think it bothered him immensely that he had enjoyed it.  That, I think, was a major factor in his suicide.  Certainly not the only factor.  He took part in antiwar actions, and it shocked him to find nobody representing the power structure (news reporters or judges) would hear what he had to say.  Of  course, the corporate media makes a big show of honoring military personnel and veterans — but only as long as we go along with the bullshit, buy into their narrative and regurgitate propaganda.  During the Vietnam War, media pundits used to tell us that the U.S. was there to defend democracy, and to back it up they’d say, “Ask a GI!” implying that people who’d been in the military believed in the war and would speak in support of it.  Well, you probably know the rest of that story.

I often think of the characters in the Iliad and the Odyssey, wondering how those guys could be considered heroes.  Socrates apparently thought they were; he held Achilles up as an inspiring example of a man who stood by his principles. That strikes me as really strange. In my view, Achilles was the archetypal spoiled brat who just wanted to have his own way.  Then there was Odysseus, a notorious liar, who got tangled up in his own lies, and that’s basically what brought about the loss of his ships and the deaths of his crews on the way back to Ithaca.  The leader of it all was King Agamemnon, a rather poor general, also a poor father who sacrificed his own daughter, and on returning to his home at the end of the war he was killed by his wife, which is about what he deserved.  Those “heroes” were made of rather poor stuff, and a couple of their gods, Zeus and Athena, both of them deceitful schemers, weren’t too great either.  The only person in the Iliad who comes off as genuinely heroic is Hector.  It’s interesting that Homer, presumably a Greek himself, would present their enemy’s champion and other Trojans as being about the only decent persons in the whole story.

Achilles, Odysseus, Agamemnon and all the rest of them.  Those were the men who fought the Trojan War, the elite officer class, that is.  Homer called them heroes and sang their praises, but tongue in cheek, while carefully letting us know who those guys really were.

The Legacy of two Gurus: Billy Graham and Charles Manson

One belonged to the establishment; the other hung out on the fringes. One preached to presidents; the other led a tiny cult. Both left their mark on the 20th century and lived on into the 21st. Rev. Billy Graham died in February at the age of 99, and Charles Manson passed away last November in his 80s. Thus ended the lives of two prominent gurus of the 20th century; both of them had been named by the Smithsonian Magazine as among “the 100 Most Significant Americans of all time.”

“The GREAT Billy Graham is dead,” tweeted President Donald Trump, “There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man.” Vice-President Mike Pence also lauded him, as did ex-presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Bush hailed him as “America’s Pastor.”

Praise for Graham was almost obligatory; most politicians, power figures and pundits did as expected. An exception was Washington Post columnist George F. Will, who wrote an obituary saying Billy Graham was no prophet. “Prophets take adversarial stances toward their times. . . Graham did not. Partly for that reason, his country showered him with honors.”

So it seems that even inside the establishment, not everyone loved and admired Billy Graham. The famously outspoken President Harry S Truman once said of Graham, “Well, I hadn’t ought to say this, but he’s one of those counterfeits I was telling you about.” Nevertheless, counterfeit or whatever, most politicians and pundits said politically correct things about Graham, worshipfully remembering him with appellations such as “the White House Chaplain” and “God’s ambassador.”

Nobody, on the other hand, felt obliged to eulogize Charles Manson when he passed away last year. An obituary in the New York Times read: “Charles Manson Dies at 83; Wild-Eyed Leader of a Murderous Crew.” Although not exactly a eulogy, that article was published in the New York Times, and it wasn’t just a brief notice either, it was a lengthy 2,200 words long. In addition, there were two more substantially long Manson articles in the same issue. One of them, titled “Unhinged Pop Culture Figure,” recalled that Manson “has loomed large in American culture ever since” his brutal killing spree in the summer of 1969. “It has inspired . . . pop songs, an opera, films, a host of internet fan sites, T-shirts, children’s wear” and a lot more.

Such articles weren’t only to be found in the NY Times. Manson obituaries were in the Washington Post, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, the New Yorker, the Guardian UK, the Economist, and more, too many to name. Here in the U.S. and abroad, they all had something to say about Charles Manson. Manson did not die in obscurity.

The gory Tate-LaBianca murders landed Charles Manson in prison for the remaining 47 years of his life, but it made him a household name, a “dark celebrity.” At least forty books have been written about him, and more keep coming out. Nearly all depict him as a twisted, evil, mass murderer and have colorful but haunting titles such as: Death Trip, The Unholy Trail, Member of the Family, The Shadow Over Santa Susana, Music Mayhem Murder, Helter Skelter, The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten, and Surfin’ with Satan. No, they don’t flatter him, but they do focus attention on him, adding to his aura. Charles Manson may have as much as or even more name recognition than Billy Graham.

Both Graham and Manson had a talent for drawing attention to themselves, they were expert showmen, and both cultivated their public image, though in very different ways. The two would seem like polar opposites. Graham lived a conventional, scandal-free life, so totally different from that of Manson. Manson’s style was an absolute, total caricature of just about everything conventional. He and his disciples –he called them his “family” — engaged in group sex and dropped acid. They also dedicated time to Bible study. Yes, Bible study was among their activities, and Manson’s favorite verses were to be found in Revelations. Verses such as:

“behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” . . . “And the four angels were loosed, that had been prepared for the hour and day and month and year, that they should kill the third part of men.”

Using Revelations as a guide and LSD for added enlightenment, Charles Manson attempted to delve into the hidden meanings of the Beatles’ music.

Revelations is truly a strange book, and not everyone has been as taken with it as Charles Manson was. It’s been controversial since ancient times, and its place in the New Testament canon was hotly disputed during the 16th century Reformation. Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli did not consider it apostolic, and John Calvin reportedly said, “The study of Revelation either finds a man mad, or leaves him that way.”

Nevertheless, Revelations remained in the canon, where Manson eventually found it. Billy Graham also took an interest in it. Approaching Hoofbeats: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is the title of a book Graham authored, and it’s quite as nutty as Manson’s eschatology, the difference being that Billy Graham’s version is conventional nuttiness, nothing original. Graham assures us that although there will be “nuclear conflagrations, biological holocausts and chemical apocalypses rolling over the earth,” we need not worry because when things get really out of hand, Jesus will show up, deus ex machina, to fix everything.

Fundamentalists are not alone in their fixation on Revelations. Many generations of poets, novelists and movie-makers have found inspiration in its pages, and who can deny that those verses are colorful and dramatic? The bizarre imagery seems to grab hold of our imagination, perhaps in somewhat the same strange way that Manson’s apocalyptic escapades and eerie personality do.

Everyone who knew Manson has described him as extremely charismatic. Indeed he must’ve been. Many normal, rational, level-headed people were attracted to him and in varying degrees fell under his spell. They included Hollywood celebrities, mostly people in the music world. Manson was perhaps the best connected mass murderer in U.S. history. The Beach Boys let the Manson family stay rent free at one of their houses for some months. The owner of a movie location, the Spahn Ranch, made the place available to the Manson family.

He was an aspiring rock musician, no doubt substantially more weird than most, but many rock musicians did tend to be eccentric. Manson was part of that milieu; he wrote songs and through his various contacts he hoped to get his music produced commercially. Here are a couple of stanza from his lyrics:

People say I’m no good
But never, never do they say
Why their world is so mixed up
Or how it got that way

They all look at me and they frown
Do I really look so strange
If they really dug themselves
I know they’d want to change

Charles Manson had his creative side and his sensitive side, even spiritual and idealistic sides. He gathered his flock together and taught them to love one another (literally) and he loved all of them (literally), and they loved him (literally) and came to worship him as their messiah; they obeyed him unquestioningly. He was their guru. Nevertheless, Manson did not call himself a guru. The term was perhaps too esoteric for him, coming from an Eastern tradition as it did; he seems to have been basically, at the bottom of it all, a Bible-Belt fundamentalist, though his interpretations and practices would’ve been considered heretical in the extreme.

Along with being the spiritual leader of his group and an outrageous heretic, he was also a guy who simply could not stay out of trouble. When he needed a car, he’d steal one, things like that. And he was always getting caught. Even much of his childhood was spent in and out of reform schools, and throughout his life he took routes that landed him in prison, time after time and finally for life. He seems to have been wired wrong, even more wrongly wired than most of us.

A childhood spent in brutal reform schools didn’t help much, nor did the prisons in which he spent years of younger adult life. He was released in 1967, and the end product was truly a monster, fiendishly manipulative and absolutely indifferent to the damage he caused, even to his followers who trusted him. He was a patriarch in the very worst sense of the word, a sociopath who used and abused people, especially women.

On the evening of August 8, 1969 he sent a team of his disciples to 10050 Cielo Drive in the Beverly Hills, where they butchered Sharon Tate and four others. Manson didn’t go with them to supervise. He just sent them out with instructions to “totally destroy everyone, as gruesome as you can.” And they did.

The next evening they went out and killed two more people, the LaBianca murders. On that occasion Manson accompanied his disciples, but left before the killing was actually done. There were also other killing sprees attributed to the Manson family; they were eventually convicted of nine murders. There’s some debate over how many they actually did kill; seven, eight, nine, a dozen, or maybe more. Nevertheless, it appears that Charles Manson never killed anyone himself. He just gave the orders and provided the inspiration.

“It was a collective idea,” Manson told a Rolling Stone journalist years later. “It was an episode. A psychotic episode, and you want to blame me for that?”

The Manson family’s “psychotic episode” took place in 1969, the same year that news of the My Lai Massacre came out. Several hundred unarmed Vietnamese civilians had been slaughtered by U.S. troops, and many Americans were horrified to learn that our soldiers did such things. A low ranking army officer, Lt. William Calley, was eventually prosecuted and served three and a half years under house arrest. The trials of both the Manson family and Lt. Calley took place in 1970 and continued on into 1971.

Although Lt. Calley had participated in the killing at My Lai, it was higher ranking officers, not the lieutenant, who’d given the orders. Those orders, one soldier later testified, were: “Kill anything that breathed.”

“We have all had our Mylais in one way or another,” wrote Billy Graham in an article for the New York Times, “perhaps not with guns, but we have hurt others with a thoughtless word, an arrogant act or a selfish deed.” In the same article, published April 7, 1971, Graham also wrote, “Sherman was right, ‘War is hell.’ I have never heard of a war where innocent people were not killed.”

Billy Graham was not a pacifist. But could there have been some part of him that truly hated war and felt empathy and compassion for the soldiers who were sent to kill? That letter seems to come from a person who’s so full of love and understanding that he would even forgive mass murder, comparing it to harm done by a “thoughtless word.” Or was Billy Graham a cynical propagandist, trivializing the slaughter of 500 people, doing damage control for Nixon and cloaking it in expressions of Christian love for humanity?

My guess is that it was some of both, that Graham did have genuine feelings of love and kindness, and that at the same time he truly loved being called “God’s Ambassador” and was mesmerized by power, that is, having the ear of presidents. Graham spent more time as a guest at the White House than any other person, and has been called “the spiritual adviser to twelve U. S. Presidents,” which to varying degrees he was, but most of all to President Richard Nixon, with whom he had an especially close relationship. The two spent countless hours together, discussing the war in Vietnam. According to a thesis by Daniel Alexander Hays, “America’s most famous preacher was an active participant in promoting and even planning the war.” Graham urged Nixon to bomb the dikes in North Vietnam, even though an estimated one million people could’ve died as a result. That was farther than even Nixon was willing to go. The dikes were not bombed.

The Nuremberg Tribunal had sentenced Nazi official Seyss-Inquart to death for destroying dikes in Holland during World War II. Despite that ruling, the U.S. bombed dams in North Korea in 1953. For advising to do likewise in Vietnam, Rev. Graham is sometimes called “an aspiring war criminal.” That suggestion was just one incident in the seven-decade long ministry of Rev. Billy Graham. Graham met with every U.S. president, promoting wars, preaching death and destruction in the name of Jesus.

Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as in the Gospel of Thomas, does not look at all like a warmonger. And yet, here was this preacher, often referred to in the corporate media as “God’s Ambassador,” being part of the war effort, sending young Americans, many of them only 17 or 18 years old, to Vietnam where they’d kill or be killed. And huge numbers were killed. An estimated three million Vietnamese died; 58,000 American GIs also died in Vietnam, and a lot more died after returning to the U.S. They even died in front of us, right here at home in stateside USA, literally before our very eyes. So many people died before their time.

And while Rev. Billy Graham was preaching his sermons, Charles Manson was getting out of prison, recruiting disciples, reading the scriptures with them and leading them through the dark passages of Revelations, instructing them in eschatology, and finally sending them forth as angels of the apocalypse. It was quite as though Manson were attempting to act out the bizarre verses he’d been reading together with his disciples, verses such as: “the four angels were loosed, that had been prepared for the hour and day and month and year, that they should kill . . .”

It was bad enough that Manson would kill all those people; it was even worse that he would involve others in the killing, thus screwing up their lives as well; several of his followers who believed in him and gave him their trust spent the rest of their years in prison. Thinking of this, I sometimes wonder how many of the GIs who lost their lives in Vietnam had been persuaded by the preaching of Rev. Billy Graham that fighting the war was their duty to God and Country.

Manson recruited young people, mostly women, many of them teenagers, about the same age as the GIs who went to Vietnam. He was, in some very deep sense, the domestic face of the brutality of that era of war, and he seemed to recognize that himself. “I am just a reflection of every one of you,” he said at his trial.

The Tate-LaBianca murders were uniquely bizarre, but they weren’t the only killings going on here in stateside USA. That was also the era of the Kent State shootings (1970), the assassinations of JFK (1963) and of Malcolm X (1965), followed by those of RFK (1968), of MLK (1968), and the extra-judicial executions of Black Panthers. There was the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) where millions of people, possibly the entire human race, came close to being wiped out.

And My Lai wasn’t the only U.S. atrocity in Vietnam. There was the CIA’s notorious Phoenix Program, the search and destroy slaughter operation which ended the lives of 50,000 Vietnamese. Manson killed nine people, so do the arithmetic: The Phoenix Program was the equivalent of about five thousand Manson murders. And there was also the air war, the massive U.S. bombing of Vietnam, not to mention the intense bombing of Cambodia and Laos, which killed millions.

While that was going on in Vietnam, President Richard Nixon held a news conference and said, referring to Charles Manson, “here is a man who was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason.” Hearing of that, Manson said, “Here’s a man who is accused of hundreds of thousands of murders, accusing me of eight murders.”

Nixon prolonged the war, but he didn’t start it. Responsibility for that could be shared by a couple of generations of the 0.01 percent and their functionaries. Among the functionaries were the propagandists, the ones who spoke for, promoted and popularized those policies. These would include some editors, journalists and pundits, movie makers, official historians, artists and sports heroes, celebrities, and, of course, religious figures, most prominent of whom was Reverend Billy Graham who did so much to weaponize religion.

Billy Graham was discovered and promoted in 1949 by publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst Sr. (1863 -1951) — that same newspaper owner Hearst, at this time nearing the end of his long life, who had promoted the Spanish-American war back in 1898. Graham preached Hearst’s kind of religion: anticommunism, even anti-liberalism and support for Senator Joseph McCarthy.

And at the end of it all there’d be party-time. Heaven, as envisioned by America’s Pastor, would be a place where he and his followers would “have parties, and the angels will wait on us, and we’ll drive down the golden streets in a yellow Cadillac convertible.”

So we can see right there why Reverend Billy Graham hated Communists and Anarchists — those ornery souls who’d organize those overworked, long suffering, downtrodden angels into a labor union, hold a general strike, and tell Rev. Billy to get his own fuckin’ drinks.

There used to be a bumper sticker reading: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” And that does seem to be the creed of the power elite, including the media moguls who brought Rev. Graham to fame and maintained him in the public eye. The corporate media made Billy Graham famous and named him “God’s Ambassador.” He owed his fame to the corporate media, and the same could be said of many celebrities, including Charles Manson.

There are many dramatic newsworthy stories that get little, if any, coverage and without massive, ongoing coverage by the media, nearly fifty years of it now, the Manson murders would’ve been mostly forgotten. Which is not to deny that it is well worth looking at for what it may tell us about the world we live in. Historians and sociologists need to study the stories of both Billy Graham and Charles Manson. But study them together — they belong on the same page.

• Author’s Note: Steve Gilmartin and Virginia Browning contributed to this essay.

Old Movies and Patriarchy from the Days of HUAC and the Blacklist

Watching old movies is a journey back through time, revisiting the social attitudes of our past.  A lot has changed during the last six or seven decades, much of it for the better. Thank goodness I don’t have to wear a white shirt and necktie just to go downtown nowadays, but back in the 1950s that was the norm, the required male attire. I remember my father somewhat awkwardly putting on his dress-up clothes, struggling with his necktie. Being a former fisherman, Dad was skilled at tying all sorts of complicated knots, but that necktie was one he never quite mastered.

The differences between then and now are many, among the most significant being the gender roles.  Male dominance was the accepted norm; this comes out in most movies of the era, in some more intensely than others.  One that really lays it out thick and heavy is Fritz Lang’s 1952 film Clash by Night, produced nearly two decades before the feminist revolution of the late 1960s.

Clash by Night was filmed on location in Monterey and opens with picturesque shots of the seacoast, the fishing fleet, and Cannery Row, back then the center of a thriving fishing industry. The characters in this movie are fishing folk, the story centering on a love triangle in which Barbara Stanwyck plays a woman having an affair with her husband’s best friend. The lover, played by Robert Ryan, is an angry, cynical fellow, the kind of guy who’d seduce his best friend’s wife. The husband, Paul Douglas, is just the opposite; he’s a trustworthy, amiable guy, good-hearted but rather childlike and simple-minded. Ryan says to Stanwyck, “Your man is the salt of the earth, but he’s not the right seasoning for you.”

While Stanwyck, Douglas and Ryan are an ill-starred threesome who get things wrong, the movie also presents us with a counter-example of a couple who get things right, at least according to the ethos of the time. This couple, played by Marilyn Monroe and Keith Andes, have their conflicts, but they work things out: she accepts him as the boss, the dominant partner. Andes portrays the proper masculine ideal of that era — a guy who knows how to handle his woman and keep her in line.

Andes is Stanwyck’s younger brother; together they own a house, presumably inherited from their parents. He’s a crewman on a fishing vessel — a purse seiner. Douglas is the owner and skipper. We see the two men (Douglas and Andes) on deck, repairing nets, using the traditional wooden net-needles.

Monroe, Andes’ girlfriend, works in one of the sardine canneries along the waterfront.  We first see her and Andes together in a scene where he meets her after work and they stroll down Cannery Row, chatting as they go.  Monroe is telling Andes about a co-worker who showed up that morning with a black eye.  “That fellow she married,” Monroe says, “came down last night. Wanted her to go back upstate and live with him again. So when she wouldn’t, he just beat her up awful.”

“Well, he’s her husband,” Andes says in a matter-of-fact tone.  Here, in four short words, the movie gives us Andes’ philosophy of male entitlement.

A few scenes later they’re at the beach, where Andes playfully puts a towel around Monroe’s neck, as though to strangle her. He’s just kidding, of course, just having fun, his idea of harmless fun.  She seems to be okay with this; he now seems to have her in his grip, and it looks like she’s going to be the underdog in this relationship. (There’s a movie poster using that scene; it’s on the jacket of the DVD and also online.)

Andes strangling Monroe

Weeks and months pass. The couple become engaged, and Monroe proudly shows Stanwyck the ring she has just received from Andes. “We had a fight,” Monroe says, “and were never going to see each other again. At 10 o’clock [he] came to the house and was going to kick the door down. I never thought I’d like a guy who’d push me around.” Stanwyck admires the ring and tells Monroe that she’s made the right decision. “[He] will make you happy. He knows who he is and what he is. Some of us don’t. Always take the man who’ll kick the door down. Advice from Mama.”

Andes can be very sweet, Monroe says, but the movie doesn’t show us much of his sweetness. In scene after scene, he comes across as rigid, righteous, and abusive, a guy who could hardly be a joy to live happily ever after with, though he certainly does possess the manly qualities that were respected and perhaps even idealized in the ’50s. Or at least that’s my impression.  But what did contemporaries say about it? I went to the library.  A lot has been written about both Marilyn Monroe and Director Fritz Lang.  The film Clash by Night is mentioned in quite a few books, articles and reviews, but not much is said about the Monroe/Andes subplot.  What little I could find seemed to express approval of that relationship. A 1969 biographer of Marilyn Monroe described the Keith Andes character as “a stern young man of high ideals.” And in the view of film critic Lotte Eisner, Andes and Monroe “provide a tender comedy.”

Those are fairly old reviews; maybe the film critics, being people of their time, were oblivious to sexism. Attitudes changed radically during the feminist revolution of the 1960s. Nevertheless, Andes’ disposition does seem rather extreme, even by the standards of the early ’50s, when this movie was made, and I must wonder what could’ve motivated Director Fritz Lang to present that character as he did.

There was also Alfred Hayes, who wrote the script. I don’t know what discussions may have gone on between Lang and Hayes, but clearly, both were artists capable of putting negative traits to work in a positive way, bringing characters to life on the screen, and using the story to tell us something about the world we live in.

Relationships, not romance, is the theme of Clash by Night. Patriarchy is the kind of relationship this movie’s about, and it could be seen as intentionally promoting such values. Conversely, the exact opposite interpretation is also possible.  Could it be that Lang and Hayes subtly intended the Monroe/Andes subplot as social criticism? In considering this possibility, let’s remember that filmmakers had only limited freedom in what they could say or show on the screen. The First Amendment did not apply to film making.

Hollywood film studios were then governed by “The Code,” which required that the movie industry be “directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking.” The Code’s notion of “correct thinking” included a bizarre list of dos and don’ts which today we can regard as ridiculous or even disgusting: Prohibitions concerning sex went to weird extremes; even married couples had to be shown sleeping separately, in twin beds. References to homosexuality were banned. Traditional religion could not be questioned. The laws of the land, including Jim Crow laws, were beyond censure.

Interracial romance or marriage was also a big no-no. When MGM made Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth into a movie, the studio considered Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong for the role of wife and mother. The story was about a marriage between two Asians, so an Asian actress would seem a logical choice; however, the husband’s role was played by a Caucasian actor. Even that, in the eyes of the Code, would’ve constituted an interracial romance, so to avoid such objections, actress Wong was rejected in favor of a Caucasian.

For two decades, from 1934 till 1954, the Code was rigidly enforced by Joseph Breen, a right-wing Christian moralist who inserted himself in the movie-making process at every step along the way, from start to finish. When a studio considered a novel for a movie production, it first had to get Breen’s okay. Then Breen would edit the script, censoring this or that. Finally, he’d screen the finished movie, imposing additional censorship, often butchering films, sometimes even rearranging scenes. (Ever wonder why some of those old movies contain non sequiturs, as if something were missing?) The details of Breen’s interventions were kept secret from the public till 1986 when files of censorship comments on about five thousand movies were finally released.1

Joseph Breen’s primary obsession had to do with suppressing sexual content. He was also a notorious anti-Semite.  “[T]hese damn Jews are a dirty, filthy lot,” he wrote to a colleague in 1932. “To attempt to talk ethical values to them is time worse than wasted.”  On the other hand, he was more tolerant of the Nazis, and during the rise of Hitler, managed to prevent the production of It Can’t Happen Here, The Mad Dog of Europe, and several other anti-Nazi films. A variety of right-wing pressure groups as well as the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover loved and approved of what Mr. Breen was doing. Despite such blatantly pro-fascist censoring, his tenure in office survived World War II. The end of the war found him still running the show as Hollywood’s censor-in-chief. The Cold War was beginning; that era became the heyday of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), with the jailing of the “Hollywood Ten,” and the blacklisting of actors, screenwriters and directors — a very repressive and scary time, especially for movie people.

HUAC, J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph Breen intended that Hollywood movies should serve as propaganda instruments for their agenda, and it might seem ironic that a society which touted its freedoms and democracy for all the world to see, admire and emulate would allow such totalitarians to tyrannize our film industry.  Actually, that was not an ironic anomaly; a lot more was happening behind the scenes.  There was “Operation Paperclip,” bringing hundreds of ex-Nazi scientists, engineers and intelligence experts to the U.S.  In 1947 the CIA was founded; it overthrew governments in Iran and Guatemala, created Operation Mockingbird to manipulate the media, and even promoted Modern Art.  All that and a whole lot more went on behind the scenes in our democracy, and speaking of democracy, or lack thereof, for black people there was Jim Crow and segregation.  Perhaps more than at any other time in our history, in the late 1940s and early 1950s we were effectively intimidated by our government.  It’s often called “the McCarthy Era,” though as bad as Senator Joe McCarthy was, his role was relatively minor.

And that’s when Clash by Night was made. The movie was based on an play by Clifford Odets, a former Communist. It was adapted for the cinema by screenwriter Alfred Hayes, also a former supporter of the Communist Party  and the poet who wrote the lyrics of “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night.” Director Fritz Lang was an Austrian whose work had already achieved fame in the German cinema. Though apparently not especially political, Lang detested Hitler and refused to work under Joseph Goebbels. So he came to America, a refugee, where he found himself under the dominion of another Joseph — Joseph Breen, who had to be somehow accommodated.

It would seem that there was not much that Lang and Hayes or anyone else could do about this censorship. Nevertheless, even under that supposedly airtight system, Hollywood filmmakers often found ways to push the envelope and outwit the censors. In the classic noir film Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart) snarls, “Keep that gunsel out of my way!” Mr. Breen apparently assumed “gunsel” meant “gunman” and let it pass. The word is used three times in the script, referring to a young guy who’s the homosexual companion of an older man.

Some movie makers found subtle ways of getting around the censors.  They might make the bad guys sympathetic and lovable while presenting authority figures as distasteful and repulsive and stupid.  Meanwhile, the messages of some movies were quite overt. High Noon is the story of a man (and his wife) who are left to face the bad guys alone; it was written by Carl Foreman as an allegory about members of the Hollywood film community who abandoned their colleagues and failed to stand up to HUAC.  Foreman was summoned by HUAC, even as he was making the movie, and his partner in this production abandoned him.  Several of the actors were also “gray” listed.  Like many blacklisted movie makers, Foreman left the country and moved to England.

Carl Foreman was not the only one to speak out.  Playwright Arthur Miller took up the theme of the Salem Witch trials and wrote The Crucible as an allegory of the HUAC hearings, implying that the honorable congressmen of that committee were a bunch of witch hunters.  Though it wasn’t made into a movie till decades later, it was produced on Broadway in 1953.  The play was popular, but not with HUAC; Miller was blacklisted and denied a passport.

Among my favorite movies of that era is The Underworld Story in which a cynical reporter winds up doing the right things for his own opportunistic reasons, fighting the privileges of corrupt mainstream newspapers.  The movie is a biting exposé of upper-class privilege, racism and the media.  I really wonder how this movie got past Joseph Breen. Well, somehow it did, but HUAC didn’t overlook it.  Director Cy Endfield, actor Howard Da Silva and screenwriter Henry Blankfort, were blacklisted.

While these and some other movie makers inserted subversive messages into their movies, sometimes subtly, occasionally openly, many more went along with the HUAC program, ratted on colleagues, named names of co-workers and friends, and made propaganda movies for the national security state.  So much of Hollywood became part of that huge propaganda machine, along with radio, newspapers and even our schools, extolling the liberties which made this country so unique, constantly telling us how fortunate we were to live in this country we could speak freely without fear of retribution from the authorities.

So, in this situation, what did director Fritz Lang and screenwriter Alfred Hayes do?  I’m suggesting that in creating Clash by Night, they conspired to present a strong social criticism of patriarchy.  And they got away with it.  Of course, it wouldn’t have been wise for them to reveal such a ploy; it could’ve gotten them in serious trouble.  Even as it was, they were both viewed with suspicion by the FBI and HUAC.

Here’s what I think happened: Hayes and Lang knew the tastes of Joseph Breen, that he would find the Monroe/Andes subplot much to his liking, considering it a wonderful example of a relationship that would serve as the proper role model for young people. So what better way to ridicule Breen, that Nazi-loving fascist, than to present his beloved patriarchal values in the form of an abusive relationship? Satire disguised as a morality play.

In scene after scene where Monroe and Andes are together, we see Andes acting out his will to dominate her.  Capping it off towards the end of the movie, there’s a scene which plays like a parody of a HUAC hearing — one of those hearings where many intimidated filmmakers cowered before their inquisitors, trying desperately to present themselves as obedient citizens.

“Listen to me, Blondie!” Andes bursts out.  He rages on, berating her. This is not a gentle, kind and considerate lover asking for a commitment. He’s a patriarchal, authoritarian figure demanding an oath of loyalty. “Now which way is it gonna be?” he barks. Monroe looks at him aghast, then sobbing, throws herself into his arms. We see the expression on her face — sad, terrified, humiliated, perhaps feeling she has no place else to go in a world where every guy who seems worth having buys into those same abusive ideals.

The tragedy in Clash by Night is that we see the Monroe character, a feisty woman who is more than able to defend herself, end up dominated, beaten down, and resigned to her diminished role. It’s an incisive look at a culture where people wind up in dead-end relationships where they’re lonely, unhappy and abused. It’s also an allegory of our society’s mistreatment and subjection of film artists.

I was only nine when this movie was made, and I don’t recall seeing it back then. But I do remember the HUAC hearings, the loyalty oath requirements, and the experience of growing up in an atmosphere where you simply did NOT criticize the government. Fear alone was not what really kept people in line. The victory in World War II, the post-war prosperity, the end of the Great Depression and the automobile, plus the A-bomb, all contributed to an incredible mystique amounting to a moral force that held people in thrall, so much so that the adults around me perceived the powers that be as our benevolent protector, as the ultimate patriarch. People wanted to be in good with them, the way Monroe wanted to be in good with her abusive boyfriend.

  1. For a two hundred-page sampling of Breen’s comments, see The Censorship Papers by Gerald Gardner.

Deliberate Dysfunction? KPFA’s Decade of Financial Mismanagement

The Pacifica Radio Network nearly went into bankruptcy this month.  The immediate cause was a court order to pay the Empire State Building $1,800,000, more cash than Pacifica had.  As bad as that may be, it’s really a symptom of deeper problems in the network.  It goes back a long way.

I attended a KPFA1 Local Station Board (LSB) meeting in 2005 when Max Blanchet (MBA in Finance from UC Berkeley) presented a minority report, warning that KPFA was hiring too many paid staff  The station was living beyond its means, and this couldn’t last.  Max’s report and repeated warnings were ignored by the station’s power clique, who were represented on the board by a slate which later stole the name “Save KPFA,” the SK.

Actually, that was not something new even then; it was the path Pacifica had been on since the 1990s, under the Hijacker Regime.  Events of 1999 did bring about important changes in governance, but the existing power clique remained in place, and they worked to continue KPFA’s extravagant lifestyle.  Not only that, they allied with a New York faction, the JUC (Justice & Unity), whose poor management and equally poor programming were depleting WBAI’s finances and causing a drain on Pacifica. In that unholy alliance, the SK functioned as JUC’s enablers and in turn received support on the Pacifica National Board (PNB) for their own dubious practices. Eventually, when crisis hit and Pacifica could no longer afford the waste, the SK loudly condemned WBAI.  To hear the righteous SK-ers tell it, they themselves were innocent of any wrongdoing.

Since 2005, I’ve attended a huge number of LSB meetings, watching from a ringside seat, as the SK burned through KPFA’s reserves, creating one financial fiasco after another, and generating a tense work environment in which SK friends were rewarded and critics got penalized.  The SK also blocked the hiring of competent and independent General Managers.  What they did wasn’t just damaging to KPFA; working with their allies at other Pacifica stations, they helped put the whole Pacifica network on the road to disaster.

We, the opposition, worked long and hard to effect a change in direction.  Nevertheless, I feel that we have a share in the blame in that we didn’t oppose the SK in a coherent and strategically effective way.  While some activists saw, spoke and wrote about what was going on, our group seemed paralyzed by an unrealistic dream that, despite differences, we could work with the SK.  “We all love KPFA,” seemed to be the illusion — which was true only in the sense that the wolf and the shepherd both love the sheep.

So the SK got away with their shenanigans.  Time after time.

In 2009 the financial mismanagement resulted in a major crisis, and at this very time when cash was most desperately needed, it was discovered that a check for $375,000 had been left in a drawer for thirteen months.  Then GM Lemlem Rijio took the fall for that and was fired.  But that’s as far as the investigation ever went.  Some of us suspected that others of the station’s power clique were also involved, and that it was not an accident.

In a letter published in the SF BayView, Max Blanchet expressed his belief that the mismanagement, including the misplaced check, “were maneuvers to force the station and Pacifica into bankruptcy with two goals in mind, namely to break the Pacifica network, set KPFA ‘free’ and do away with democratic governance.”  Max was not alone in thinking that; there are quite a number of articles from around 2010 expressing similar views.  Everything we’ve seen in the following seven or eight years supports that conjecture, incident after incident.

And now today in 2018, the SK are openly calling for bankruptcy!  What a coincidence!  Who would’ve ever guessed!

KPFA has already lost much of its antiwar voice, but under complete and total SK control the KPFA mission would be to actively promote “humanitarian” intervention and Democratic Party politics to progressives: phony “resistance” to Trump, resistance that does not oppose war.

That’s where the SK would take KPFA, right into the arms of the neoliberal Democratic Party.

Now let’s look at SK tactics, strategy.  I mentioned the September 2005 minority report by Max Blanchet, the warning about excessive spending.  Also in the same month of that same year, an email from Brian Edwards-Tiekert of SK was leaked; in it Brian had written to his group, “How do we make our enemies own the problems that are to come?” and that has been SK strategy all these years.  They’ll screw things up, create chaos, and then foist the blame on their critics.  For over a decade they’ve been accusing us of “infighting.”

Our response to such accusations has been to try to make nice.  “Let’s not fix blame!”  Today, we’re being really nice, and the SK, being the reasonable and flexible people that they are, have shown themselves willing to accept former opponents into their circle — provided, of course, that we give up the principles we’ve stood for and fought for all these years.

• Steve Gilmartin contributed to this article. He is a long time KPFA listener who took part in the 1999 struggle to rescue Pacifica from the Hijacker Regime.

  1. KPFA 94.1 FM is one of five stations of the Pacifica radio network which are located in major cities across the country.  The other stations are WBAI 99.5 in New York, WPFW 89.3 in Washington DC, KPFT 90.1 in Houston, and KPFK 90.7 in Los Angeles.  There are also about two hundred affiliate stations.

The Shithole Countries of Donald Trump

As an American of Norwegian descent, I deeply resent President Trump’s recent statement, calling Haiti a “shithole country” and then in the same breath saying he wants more immigrants from Norway. That is not a compliment to Norwegians; it’s just a disgusting way to talk.

But let’s look at what he said. By “shithole” I assume he means that Haiti is economically poor, and that’s certainly true. Nevertheless, Haitians have an inspiring tradition of fighting for liberty, one that we can all envy. In 1804 they held history’s only successful slave rebellion, freeing themselves from the French plantation owners. Unfortunately, it’s a tradition which the U.S. and other imperial powers have refused to honor, and Haiti has been repeatedly invaded and forced into an ongoing struggle for freedom, not always with success. We need to honor the enduring Haitian spirit.

Another thing, Haiti is poor because it’s been repeatedly robbed of its resources, suppressed and held down by the U.S. which has maintained brutal dictators such as Poppa Doc and Baby Doc, the Duvaliers. Since the fall of the Duvaliers, the U.S. has manipulated elections and engineered a coup, deposing President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. There was also the role of the Clinton Foundation which cashed in on the Haitian earthquake in the guise of providing relief aid — disaster capitalism in action. To call Haiti a “shithole” country is a classic case of blaming the victim.

At the same time, when Trump mentioned Norway, he probably didn’t know that until well into the 20th century, it was about the poorest country in Western Europe. That’s why so many Norwegians, including my family, immigrated to the U.S. Actually, we Norwegians came much later than many. And from the viewpoint of the Native American Indians, we (and all Americans of European origin) are recent immigrants.

An important story that got eclipsed by Trump’s “shithole countries” remark was a U.S. House of Representatives vote to expand the warrantless surveillance of American citizens. Many Democrats as well as Republicans voted for that measure which will further erode our rights and liberties. This comes shortly after the massive tax cuts for the rich, in effect a huge transfer of greater wealth to the wealthy, another milestone along the road towards becoming an impoverished shithole country.

Although that particular tax bill was President Trump’s project, he didn’t do it alone, and the race to the bottom did not start with him, it’s been going on for decades under the leadership of both Republican and Democratic parties. There’s been the neglect of our infrastructure, including railways, public transportation, bridges, as well as our hell-bound educational system. The list is long, very long. I won’t even go into global warming, or the huge massive waste of resources on the military. The wars that go on and on. Add to that the danger of nuclear extinction.

What’s new is that we have a president who speaks, acts, and tweets like a vulgar oaf. No finesse. No façade. What we see is what’s there — Donald Trump is the true undisguised face of the corrupt neoliberal/neocon ruling elite that is turning America into a shithole country.

Impeachment will not resolve our problem. We need to get rid of this whole rotten system and the two parties which represent it.

KPFA’s Antiwar Voice

When people ask me why I joined the Marine Corps (at age 18, back in 1959), I tell them, “Because where I grew up there was no KPFA or Pacifica Radio affiliate.” There was just the constant corporate drumbeat of anti-Communism which took many forms, often pretending to advocate world peace, but always in one way or another campaigning against China and Russia.

I’m told that KPFA bravely exposed Cold War propaganda during the McCarthy era. But in recent years our station has been backsliding, subtly but increasingly echoing the corporate media’s calls for “humanitarian” interventions around the world. Some KPFA hosts feature guests from NGOs aligned with the U.S. State Department, giving them airtime, presenting them as though they were doing good work abroad, and not asking them hard questions or revealing where they get their funding.

Since Trump’s election, KPFA has taken a sharp turn for the worse, presenting itself as a voice of “resistance” — a resistance that does not resist war. While vigorously bashing Trump (who does deserve bashing), the station often functions as a pseudo-progressive voice of the Deep State, echoing the mainstream media and the neoliberals and neocons.

Children and impressionable teenage listeners (potential future military recruits such as I once was) could get the perception from some KPFA programs that America’s proper mission in today’s world should be to sally forth to find and slay monsters.

Once upon a time it was KPFA’s mission to expose such propaganda, and that’s what KPFA needs to get back to doing, to find its soul and once again become an antiwar voice.

Encountering the Berkeley Strangler in a Dark Alley

On the night of June 20th I came home from a Berkeley City Council meeting feeling like I’d met the Berkeley Strangler in a dark alley; later I saw this photo in the SF BayView newspaper:

(Credit:) SF BayView newspaper

You can see three of us holding a banner “Stop Urban Shield.”  To the left of me is a woman named Bridget, on my right (though not shown in the photo) was Russell Bates, a Navy veteran.  The large cop in front of me is Brian Mathis, one of the officers involved in the suffocation death of Kayla Moore.  Mathis and the other cops are yelling “Get back!  Get back!” shoving us with their batons.

The city council meeting took place in an auditorium packed with 400, possibly 500, people who were there to ask the mayor and council to terminate the city’s participation in “Urban Shield,” a DHS police militarization project.  We had reason to believe they would respond positively to our request; Berkeley’s recently elected progressive mayor, Jesse Arreguin, had even made a commitment to end it.  Nevertheless, at the end of a six-hour session, the city renewed the militarization project.

The audience was outraged, feeling betrayed and yelling “Shame on you!”  Several activists stepped up on the stage and unfurled a huge “Stop Urban Shield” banner.  This was a non-violent protest, it could hardly even be called an act of civil disobedience, and would probably have gone on for no more than a few minutes.  However, the police immediately grabbed two of the activists holding the banner, wrenching and twisting their arms.

Council Member Cheryl Davila grabbed a mic and yelled at the police, “You don’t have to break their arms!”  Davila was one of the two council members who’d opposed renewing Urban Shield and was, at this moment, the only council person remaining in the auditorium.  Mayor Jesse Arreguin and rest of the council had disappeared.  They took a powder.

Yes, they took a powder!  It was all quite remarkable:  Someone had unfurled a banner, and with that, the leadership of the City of Berkeley vanished.

Police Chief Andrew Greenwood was also gone.  He was at this meeting, explaining how useful Urban Shield was in training the Berkeley police in things such as “de-escalation” of crisis situations.  However, at this moment Chief Greenwood had disappeared along with the mayor and council.  Maybe he was in some concrete-lined bunker command post.  Or maybe he just went home.

(FYI: I’m told that Chief Greenwood is a very charming, likable person.  I should also say that a majority of the council are progressives, and Mayor Jesse Arreguin was even endorsed by Bernie Sanders in last fall’s election.  None of those people are Republicans; they’re all Democrats.)

The cops disregarded Council member Davila and continued to twist the arms of persons they were arresting, making an on-stage show of gratuitous manhandling in front of several hundred people who were now shouting “Let them go! Let them go!”

Those of us nearest the stage took up the “Stop Urban Shield” banner as it was dropped by the people who were arrested.  That’s how I came to be among those carrying the banner you see in the photo.

A squad of baton-wielding riot police suddenly appeared at the door; as though about to charge into the crowded auditorium.  (Although it was after midnight, most of the audience was still there, probably around 250 or 300.)  Potentially it was a panic situation where people could’ve stampeded and gotten hurt — the proverbial “Fire in a crowded theater.”  But nobody panicked.  The next moment the police withdrew, they didn’t seem to know what they were doing.

Still carrying the banner we’d retrieved, we and the rest of the audience found our way through the hall, down the stairs, and finally to the exit still chanting “Let them go!”  Out on the street we saw a traffic jam of a dozen police vehicles, trying to drive this way and that, all of them in each other’s way, not seeming to know if they were coming or going.  A dozen vehicles wouldn’t seem like enough to jam that street, but they were getting the maximum amount of traffic-jam that those few vehicles could provide.  Beside the vehicles, a row of cops were lined up shoving us back with their batons, yelling “Get back! Get back!”

That was when the photo was taken of me in front of that large cop who was aggressively shoving people with his baton.  For some reason he didn’t actually shove me; he just sort of glared at me and then started shoving Bridget to my left.  Despite the dim light, I was able to read the officer’s name tag, “Mathis.”  That name didn’t mean anything to me at first, but afterwards I learned of his involvement in the death of a transgender person, Kayla Moore, in 2013.  Moore suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and apparently thought the police were going to harm her; as it turned out she suffocated while they were restraining her.  I also heard from a woman whom Officer Mathis had handled abusively at a demonstration some years ago, damaging a ligament in her arm.  So I must wonder why this officer was assigned to duty at a city council meeting where he’d be dealing with people who were there to exercise our First Amendment rights.  He would seem rather unsuited for such an assignment, or in fact, anything dealing with people.

Although the cops were aggressively shoving people, I didn’t see them actually clubbing anyone, but after they finally untangled their vehicles from their traffic jam and were gone, I looked around and I saw an elderly man sitting on the curb, a gash in his head, two or three nurses were attending him.  Later I read that he was a 73-year-old retired school teacher; he’d dropped his glasses, bent over to pick them up and then got hit.  I assume it was an accident, but that’s the sort of thing that happens when a bunch of Urban Shield-trained militarized police come charging in to de-escalate a crisis that wouldn’t have been a crisis without them there to create it.

So now finally the cops were gone.  It was about 1 a.m. The mayor and city council were of course long gone, and it was just us — a couple hundred of us — there on the dark street by the school auditorium.  “MIC CHECK!” We formed a circle and held a short rally with two or three speakers. Council member Cheryl Davila also spoke to us, apologizing that she’d been unable to hold the cops back.  “I don’t have control over those guys,” she said.  But she’d acted courageously and done her best, and she was the only council member who hadn’t skipped out.

Civilian control over military and police is a basic tenet in a democracy, but I wonder how much control the Berkeley mayor and council really do have over these militarized police.  The police do seem to have a lot of power, and that was indicated at the very beginning of that six-hour meeting when Police Chief Greenwood and his assistants were given 15 minutes to present their case for Urban Shield and NCRIC.  They took 40 minutes.  That’s right, Mayor Arreguin allotted them 15 minutes, and the police took 40.  The mayor just sat there and let them do it.

Why?  The police chief and his assistants simply did not need 40 minutes to tell about their de-escalation skills and other items in their training. It looked to me like they were taking that much time in order to show their status and entitlement, that they intend to run the show in this town.  Urban Shield and the rest of the DHS programs enhance their power and status.  (The training itself appears to be not all that great — an auditorium-full of people would probably testify to that.)

Police militarization has very little public support here in Berkeley (only two persons in that large audience spoke in favor of Urban Shield), so who wants it?  Who’s behind it?  Presumably it’s the same entities that are behind military solutions everywhere, pushing for it in every town and city across the country as well as at the national and international level.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that militarism isn’t just something that happens half-way around the globe.  It’s also happening here in Berkeley, California, and most of our elected city officials seem too intimidated to oppose it.