Monday, September 25, 2023

The Runaway Soul by Harold Brodkey

This may be the worst book I’ve ever read.

And the freshness of the air, the near-silence, the amendment of suburban life, the immediacy (the nerves and senses were without porches) so set one’s self up in one’s heaviness and near-motionlessness of grief that, without warning, one’s physical self and temper felt the combat between grief and being suitable for entering the morning as irreconcilable. One grieved or lived. Going into the basement, getting one’s bike … do you know what it is to CHEAT on grief? To double-cross the dead? To refuse old love? The great inner hounds are baying with moodedness. All sorts of inner selfhoods are clutching at stillness. Parts of me are sitting on cushions, are motionless with grief … One moves in heavy and resistant air, in one’s mood, one’s own emanation. One can’t escape and move in ordinary glare-torn, dew-wet air, half grief-stricken. I mean the grief takes its places among the committees of the self, the congress of voting and squabbling selves, dealing and bullying, vetoing, bribing … And it tries to regain the tyranny it lost, to reestablish the monarchy of death (and whatnot) among the committees. And some nodule (or seed or pit) of self-and-will which is allied to light -- in spirit and in actual composition -- the flying knot of identity-in-the-motions, one is now this particle, now this wave -- is presidential; I live, heavily, reluctantly, with a stone in my belly and a certain overwhelming and crippling shadow in my spirit, a lament, and a huge, huge private force of regret, but one isn’t chained, overwhelmed, or entirely crippled. One limpingly flies along. One does not grieve openly for oneself -- parentless twice now, with affections frayed, toyed with, born and torn. I slowly force the observatory to observe the real moment, the present moment with its absence in it; but I am not absent from it. And the silent birds within, the boys, the children, child-selves and school-selves, sport-selves and the like, look, they look and see the alley, the tar-paved aisle that goes past the garages and ashpits -- and the glare, black-and-white, and made of revolving and perceptibly demarcated, powdery rays. The fire of the glare and the unfire of the shadows pick out bits of vines, of flowering shrubs, to make black-and-white flags under a wide gray sky without glare in it; the glare doesn’t penetrate it; it is a glareless roof for the revolving spikes and rods which change as the earth tilts -- which turn into a flood of whitish light beginning to be tinted palely as normal light is, which fatten and revolve and thicken and spread into a flood in the more and more lit alley, the walls and trees and ashpits, which are ignited with a glare and shadow in noiseless confrontation with light--

That’s a fairly typical paragraph, the emdash at the end leading into a subordinate paragraph before returning in the following paragraph to complete that thought. This appears on pages 36-37 of this 835-page “novel,” and it’s recorded here because it was the one that prompted me to scribble in the margin.

Dear god. Is it going to be 800 pages of this? Does he think he’s Proust?

I have this raw theory, quite stupid I know; but everything is a sort of flowering and receding whirlwind of nervous time at the edge of a future; everything, including me, a sort of clumsy calculating machine exploring the nature of event, of time, and of time unoccurred-as-yet, of the future.

Short answer: yes.

A Sort of Clumsy Calculating Machine Exploring

This is not a novel. I think that’s what turns me off the most. One of the “chapters” is about the narrator’s sister, Nonie. It’s 57 pages long and it is all over the map.

Am I saying, then, that Nonie was complex enough to be known differently as a fact or facet of nature and not simply an accident of my adoption -- a family accident -- an aberration?


But then, in the flickering eyeliddedness of thought -- of private judgment -- the answer is no.

I start in innocence, and shallowly … I have been drawn in to saying these things … The shadows deepen around me in this garden … No: not quite, not quite that. In the shadowy afternoon, one says only that Nonie was not complex enough in regard to me: she was bad to me too often …

But then I am swept along in the current of associations, the slant-footed abruptness of simultaneities, or seeming simultaneities in the strange motions of the moments where I am drenched with the conviction that there is no point in lying about what people are … Why make yet more mysteries and lay up a store of future bad actions when there are real mysteries enough whatever we do? Without the false ones of sentimental maundering about what people are and what innocence is (a device, a technique, not an actuality except as a comparative matter)? Why not be sensible about these matters?

Guilt is not simple … Blame, therefore, ought never to be simple … Stories are not simple at all if they contain any truth in them … any truth in them whatsoever …

Fifty-seven pages of this. Nonie is this. Nonie is not this. Nonie is that. Nonie is not that. Dear god, I felt like screaming. Get to some kind of point already! 

But getting to a point is not the point. Wikipedia tells me that Brodkey is a stylistic writer, known for his attempts to render sensation into language, and in this, his first “novel,” he seems far more interested in exploring than in telling a story. He is either simply “working it out” on the page -- in which case there is nothing here worth noting -- or, more generously, he might be celebrating the “working it out” as the moral foundation of fiction -- in which case there may be something worth noting, but not anything that resembles a novel. And, having suffered through all 835 pages, I can tell you which side of that argument I’d put my chips on.

Sex and Masturbation

Brodkey writes about sex. A lot.

It was both lighter and heavier than I had, when young, expected fucking to be. The second time is not passion, or is a different sort of passion. The terror of caring, was of caring too much and going hurtling along, a noble beast, or an ignoble beast caring too much -- for sex, for pleasure, for myself, for her. The wheels of the moments might then stick and one would go headlong into some then-to-be-obsessed-over-forever moment of loss of this rough forgiveness of this past. The fuck was like a board game with different things happening every moment, but the odds had been prepared, had been tampered with. And it was like a board game in that we were not exploring -- and hurtling -- along, with willful blindness and in an agony that it was real. It was like a game in the various ways it was not happening even while it was happening -- emotionally as well as in the way it touched on sexual depths and offered promise of release, of rising to the surface after the weight of the water and the breathlessness. In the act, you’re sort of painting a portrait of yourself, and of her, slapping paint on genital effigies -- no: that metaphor is impossible, since the genital is the brush. The hell with it. It is happening and it doesn’t mean all that much no matter what depths it reaches -- it is special, it is self-conscious and passionate, some, one is oneself, and one is something one has created. It is folly and swindling play and it is as serious as anything even if you think of it as merely biologically general. Some of it, much of it, has a thing, a quality of not meaning anything -- are you brave enough for that? It doesn’t mean there is no meaning anywhere or even that this is mostly no meaning. It means nothing even if you name it meaninglessness; and meaning lurks and recurs even if you say it doesn’t. Craven dust fucks craven dust. But then in the event’s happening comes a flash of its meaning something. Sincerity is coming round again. We aren’t in a story of no meaning. Yes we are. We are too chic to be sincere. But here is the blushing and ecstatic fool, physical and without time or knowledge for thought, the generous-souled harmdoer, the mean-eyed harmdoer. Who knows what all the shit that is in play here is? Rattle, buck, quiver, seesaw, subside -- and variation. What would we do if all this meant something truly? If the realities of being together overwhelm us? Ora, stage-managing, directing, creating us, actress-fucker, playwright-fuckee, said to me -- tacitly, silently -- that I was too fastidious … too careful … Ham it up … Be cruder, crueler, madder -- be without calculation … Don’t keep accounts … Don’t keep track of things so that you can give an account to yourself later … Do you remember a kind of ecstatic beginner’s rhapsodic brutality of romance, changeable, overexcited, unreliable, human? After childhood? In my version of it -- in my dressing myself in it (as in a red union suit) -- what happened, what she spied on, was that I jerked my hips in an ugly rhythm of assertion and of brute, sly-nostrilled pride. The Minotaur-beast is a runaway. The minus tower in her. Me. Dis. Dis dick … disdain … Hey, dis, dese … dem … Me. My dick and my gruntings ripsaw away. In the webbings of muscle of the not-a-goddess, the not-much-of-a-girl: in the beautiful mess -- her term for herself. Except that her will was like the prow of a liner with a huge curving wake of the possibilities of fullness -- in the webbings of muscle. That she loosened. And a slap -- in the slapstick of the moment -- or a threat would tighten her? Is this a peculiar curvature of love? Her reality extended mine -- my feelings in my back and in the back of my shoulders -- can you call those feelings? -- the small of my back, then my butt (as it was then), and the abdomen and thighs, upper and lower, and in my mind and in my eyes and in my feet, which were braced -- my reality continued on in a kind of hammock of responsive, responsively further extents of me and my body, mirrors and contained in her, permitted and impregnated by her with life, by her body and mind, her wriggling feet, her butt, her cleverness. I’m holding her. Oh, what a sea of effects. Of causes. Of things … Oh, what a rapidly flowing river. Of moments … I was violently shocked by the ugliness and her lack of simplicity, the lack of demure sweetness and of devotion -- by her not being in a state of grace -- and I was at home: shocked: scandalized: continuous in a great span of seconds.

Are you exhausted reading that? I was. And that’s one page out of 835. Brodkey is literally masturbating on the page -- here, perhaps, intellectually; but later, fifteen pages later, still in the same “scene,” somewhat pruriently.

“Christ,” I mutter, and pat and lightly slap her haunches until she tentatively, tremblingly tightens -- coerced by curiosity and good sportsmanship as much as by sexual impulse, if you ask me -- and, see, this within the tight cuntal clasp -- and clapping (sexual, and horrible, and final) of her historical abandonment to the truths of what it mean to satisfy the wills and longings of able and wellborn and monied men and boys and now me, and who knows what others as well -- and within the liquidy, deathly sticky sexual rhythms (such as they were) of her flesh and her pleasure (such as it was) is the incalculably cruel thing of the extraordinary trespass in her of my shareable and slightly far-off (in my head, in my balls, in the small of my back) pleasures, taken from her and burning or reflectant (like Christmas tress ornaments in front of a fire) in relation to the extraordinary and abominable pelvic lovelinesses of her, of us, of love, of lovemaking, pelvic loneliness still present -- still we are of different construction, she and I -- the whole thing abominable with sexual smells and secrecy and a sense of maybe having gone too far even if we did stop short and of youth and too much looseness in her and too much playing around in me and a wild, and wildly racking oiliness and the jerk of far-away (loosened) inward motions, the fisherwoman’s jerking net, in which my fatherliness is trapped, and the surface motions -- ah, what a joke: the pelvic loveliness, pelvic loneliness, the not inconsidarable loveliness of the marvelous head and marvelous hands and wonderful shoulders and marvelous voice and wonderful mind and too big but yet admirable butt and the lovely, lovely, miraculous ladyish musculature and the marvelous inventiness toward daily life -- all of it -- rolling downhill -- while I ascend toward orgasm again.

There is just so much. What’s important? What isn’t? I can’t tell. Should I be dogearing every single page? Or throwing the whole volume into the trash? It has to be one or the other, right?

I’m Jewish

And finally, for me at least, this.

“You think that’s so impossible? Who knows. They were a pair of cold fish. They carried on -- Wiley don’t ask me questions -- I can’t talk and answer questions … I’m Jewish …”

There is a lot of Jewishness in this novel -- with Brodkey often using it, as he does above, as I kind of code language. As something that appears to explain but in fact, at least to me, explains nothing.

I felt heroic -- in a way -- and odd-footed, an insect or a cripple -- I had the feeling she felt as something flying around oddly like light inside her skull and absolutely (and Jewishly and mirroring) known by her -- and pathetically in regard to -- what?


The imagery of her touching me through the prick, the prick of the Jew, is scary, the van boy who thinks he is so smart …

The prick of a the Jew? Evidently there is a Jewish way of fucking. But it’s not just Jewish that’s used this way.

Taut and faintly hulking shoulders and tautly backwards-curved spine -- and she bore me along and she bore with me with extraordinary Gentile cruelty-companionship: she-loved-a-fool.

You know, companionship, in that unique and cruelly Gentile kind of way.

Johnno held his body very stiffly -- with a Catholic heaven-and-hell elegance -- not of money, but artful in a private way.

Jew. Gentile. Catholic. They are all used as if they were adjectives whose meaning we all understand. Harold. Your book is cryptic enough. Maybe next time go for the universal?

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, September 18, 2023

The Essential Edward Hopper by Justin Spring

I thought I bought this book at The Art Institute in Chicago, but the tag on the book says Boston, so it must have been there.

Light. Would I have predicted that is what I would have found most interesting about Hopper’s paintings? Or at least what they would have made me observe in a way I never had before? Look at Morning Sun, below.

That’s not light coming in the window. That’s a green square on a brown square. It only looks like light because that’s what our eye is used to seeing. But that’s not what he painted nor what he had to think about in order to paint it. I don’t think I’m ever going to look at a painting the same way again. I mean, I’ve always liked the way light can be made to look in paintings, but there has always been something in my brain which has prevented me from seeing what it really is. It’s only because it’s so obvious in Morning Sun that I’m now able to appreciate other paintings in a whole new way.

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This post appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, September 11, 2023

The New Spirit by Havelock Ellis

There’s a used bookstore in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin. Ellison Bay, if you’re not familiar with it, is a little town of 150 or so souls, near the tip of Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula, the little finger of land that sticks out into Lake Michigan. Door County, in general, gets really busy in the summer, and has a steady tourist trade even through the fall and winter, but most of the visitors stay well south of Ellison Bay -- drawn to the more picturesque towns of Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, and Sister Bay.

The bookstore has an old-fashioned name. The sign above the wooden facade, painted green and white, says:

Wm Caxton Ltd
Bookseller & Publisher

And inside, a visitor will find narrow aisles and wooden bookshelves stuffed floor to ceiling with musty old books.

It is glorious.

On one trip through there, I picked up an old Scott Library edition of The New Spirit by Havelock Ellis. I had no idea who Havelock Ellis was, and had never heard of the title before. But it attracted my eye. It is small, green, and weathered, and when I pulled it off its shelf and flipped it open to its preface, I read this:

From our earliest days we look out into the world with wide-eyed amazement, trying to discover for ourselves what it is like. Instinctively we must spend a great part of our lives in searching and probing into the nature and drift of the things among which, by a volition not our own, we were projected. To-day, when we stand, as it were, at the beginning of a new era, and when we have been celebrating the centenary of the most significant event in modern history, an individual who, for his own guidance, has done his part in this searching and probing, may perhaps be allowed to present some of the results, not claiming to be an expert, not desiring to impose on others any private scheme of the universe. 

A man trying to understand his world, a world he feels is on the precipice of transformation, moving from what was and into what will be.

A large part of one’s investigations into the spirit of one’s time must be made through the medium of literary personalities. I have selected five such typical individuals; it is the intimate thought and secret emotions of such men that become the common property of after generations.

And as his guide, he will select authors; authors whose works have captured the spirit of his time. But Ellis’s study will be deeper, penetrating through the books and into the men themselves.

I want to get at the motive forces at work in the man; to know what his intimate companions thought of him; how he acted in the affairs of every day, and in the great crises of his life; the fashion of his face and form, the tones of his voice. How he desired to appear is of little importance; I can perhaps learn all that it imports me to know from a single involuntary gesture, or one glance into his eyes.

This is the attitude in which I have recorded, as impersonally as may be, these impressions of the world to-day, as revealed in certain significant personalities; by searching and proving all things, to grip the earth with firmer foothold.

It may be hard to see through all the archaic language and phraseology, but Ellis here sets out to do in The New Spirit very much what I have been attempting to do on this blog for years. Take the written word, mine it for the wisdom it contains, and bring into a clearer rendering the hidden truths that define us and our age.

And later, in his introduction, he even hits on the specific value that fiction plays in fulfilling our shared quest.

It is true, indeed, that we have already an art in which for the great mass of people to-day our desires and struggles and ideals are faithfully mirrored. The great art of the century has been fiction. It is common, among some writers, to speak contemptuously of novels, but the mass of contemporary fiction has a value that is little realized, and perhaps is not likely to be realized, for some time to come. There is a very large and wonderful and little-read collection of fiction, the “Acta Sanctorum,” in which the whole life and soul of a remote period are laid bare to us. It is, like our own fiction, a fiction that is more than half reality, and it has often seemed to me that the novels of this century will in the future be found to have precisely the same value as the “Acta Sanctorum.” For the novel is contemporary moral history in a deeper sense than the De Goncourts meant. Many novels of to-day will be found to express the distinctive features of our age as truly as the distinctive features of another age, its whole inner and outer life, are expressed in Gothic architecture.

Ellis published The New Spirit in 1890, so the century that he is talking about is the 19th, as his selection of authors to focus on will reflect. But note what he is saying here. The truth of an age is best reflected in its fiction. Strange then, that among his selected authors, only one can truly be considered a novelist. The authors are Denis Diderot (1713-1784), a French philosopher, Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), a German poet, Walt Whitman (1819-1892), an American poet, Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), A Norwegian playwright, and Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), a Russian novelist.

Only two made a deep impression on me. 


In “Brand” Ibsen produced a poem which for imagination and sombre energy stands alone. It is perhaps the most widely known of all his works; in Germany it has already found four translators, and there is reason to hope that before long a translation will appear in England. “Brand” is the tragedy of will and self-sacrifice in the service of the ideal -- a narrow ideal, but less narrow, Ibsen seems sometimes to hint, than the ideals of most of us. The motto on which Brand acts in all the crises of his life is, “All or nothing;” and with him it means in every case the crushing of some human emotion or relationship for the fulfilment of a religious duty.

One of the things that unifies all of Ellis’s authorial choices is the way each seems to explore more humanist and less monastic themes in the works. And “Brand” appears, from Ellis’s description of it, to explore that shift from the monastic point of view The plot, such as it is, seems grim.

Soon after the commencement of the poem Brand became the pastor of a gloomy little northern valley, between mountains and glaciers, into which the sun seldom penetrates. He is accompanied by his wife Agnes, a pathetic image of love and devotion. A child is born to them, but soon dies in this sun-forsaken valley. There are few passages in literature of more penetrating pathos than the scene in the fourth act in which, one Christmas eve, the first anniversary of the child’s death, Brand persuades Agnes to give her Alf’s clothes -- the last loved relics -- to a beggar-woman who comes to the door with her child during a snowstorm. Soon Agnes also dies. In the end, stoned by his flock, Brand makes his way, bleeding, up into the mountains. Here, amid the wild rocks and his own hallucinations, he is met by a mad girl who mistakes him for the thorn-crowned Christ. This scene, in which, overwhelmed at last by an avalanche, Brand dies amid his broken ideals, attains an imaginative height not elsewhere reached in modern literature, and for the like of which we have to look back to the great scene on the heath in “Lear.”

Brand seems a quixotic character -- patterned perhaps literally on Don Quixote -- but with far less humor, the crash of his ideals against the uncaring universe exposing far more tragedy than devotion. 

Here and elsewhere, however, Ibsen brings in supernatural voices, which scarcely heighten the natural grandeur of the scene, and which seem out of place altogether in a poem so entirely modern. “Brand” brings before us a wealth of figures and of discussions, carries on in brief, clear, musical, though irregular, metrical form, and it would be impossible to analyze so complex a work within moderate compass.

Ibsen seems to be toying with old themes here, casting them in their most unflattering light, on the brink, as Ellis describes, of a new age. Certainly a work to add to my to-read list.


A much more exciting find for me was the story and works of Leo Tolstoy, whom I referred to above as a novelist, but who was, in actuality, just a little bit more. In Ellis’s telling, Russia is culturally-distinct, a place of competing ideologies, and as such, produced in the 19th century a literature of its own, based on the tensions of that milieu. One dramatic influence on Tolstoy specifically was a religious sect known as the Soutaiefftsky, named after its exemplar.

Basil Soutaieff, an uneducated mason, belonging to the centre of Russia, from his early years pondered and dreamed over the misery of the world. To obtain light he visited the priests, and one referred him to the Gospels. His zeal induced him to learn and read, and he studied the New Testament eagerly. One day he carried to the church the body of a young son for burial. The pope asked fifty kopecks for the ceremony; Soutaieff had only thirty, and the pope began to bargain with him over the corpse. Soutaieff indignantly took up the body and buried it in his own garden. From that time dated his criticism of the Church, and side by side grew up also a criticism of the world. He observed in his own trade the tricks of commerce and the perpetual effort to amass money and to deceive the worker. He abandoned his work as a mason and returned from St. Petersburg to the country to cultivate the earth, distributing to the poor the money he had previously earned. But in the country he found, from pope to peasant, the same vices as in the town, and with no wish to found a new sect, he became, by example as well as by precept, the teacher of a religion of universal love and pity.

Soutaieff is one of Tolstoy’s inspirations and, now that I’ve learned about him, he will be one of mine. Someone who has pondered and dreamed over the misery of the world, and who, disillusioned by the false remedies of existing religions, invents a creed all his own.

Soutaieff rejects all ceremonies, including baptism and marriage (for which he substitutes a simple blessing and exhortation to a just life), and all those external manifestations of religion which render men hypocritical. At the same time he rejects all faith in angels or devils, or in the supernatural generally, and is absolutely indifferent to the question of a future life. We have to occupy ourselves with the establishment of happiness and justice on this earth; what happens above, he says, I cannot tell, never having been there; perhaps there is nothing but eternal darkness.

Perhaps there is nothing but eternal darkness. In good Russian fashion, that might sound like nihilism, but don’t forget about the other realization -- that we have to occupy ourselves with the establishment of happiness and justice on this earth. Like the denizens of Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

He recognizes that the moral regeneration of men is closely connected with social and economic questions. Private property is the source of the hatreds, jealousies, and miseries of men. The proprietors must give up the land of which they have arbitrarily gained possession, and work for their living. But this end is to be gained, not by violence, but by persuasion; men will recognize the hypocrisy and injustice of their lives, and those who persist in evil will be shut out from the fraternal community. Soutaieff refused, at one period at all events, to pay taxes. Once he went to St. Petersburg to explain the state of things to the Emperor; great was his indignation when not only was an interview refused, but he was summarily expelled from the city. Soutaieff and his disciples refuse military service, for them men of all nations and religions are brothers: why should they quarrel?

Not sure I’m on board with the elimination of all private property, but it is interesting the way the seeds of communism are baked this way into the bread that Soutaieff is making. He is right when he says that the moral regeneration of men is closely connected with social and economic questions. Men of different social and economic standings have different moral positions, and indeed, have varying levels of freedom. An equality of morality and freedom should be the goal, and where social or economic disparities prevent that, they should be addressed.

This is the substance of Soutaieff’s teaching. Large numbers of persons come to hear him, sometimes out of curiosity, more often as disciples. He leads the life of a simple peasant. One evening, it is said, on going to his barn, he found several men carrying away sacks of flour. Without saying a word, he entered the barn and found a sack that the robbers had not yet carried off. He pursued them, and on catching up with them, he said: “My brothers, you must be in need of bread; take the sack that you have forgotten.” The following day the robbers brought back the flour, and asked Soutaieff’s forgiveness.

A parable, surely. But the point is made.

He had himself summed up his teaching. “What is truth?” a hearer once asked him. “Truth,” answered Soutaieff with conviction, “truth is love, in a common life.”

Tolstoy, too, is a man who has pondered and dreamed over the misery of the world -- perhaps nowhere more famously than in the pages of Anna Karenina.

“Anna Karenina'' is full of biographic material of intense interest. In Vronsky, doubtless much of [Tolstoy’s] earlier experience, and in Levine, [Tolstoy’s] own inner history at that time, are written clearly enough. From this standpoint the book has the vivid interest of a tragedy; we see the man whose efforts to solve the mystery of life we can trace through all that he ever wrote, still groping, but now more restlessly and eagerly, with growing desperation. The nets are drawn tight around him, and when we close the book we see clearly the inevitable fate of which he is still unconscious.

Anna Karenina is the only work of Tolstoy’s that I have some familiarity with, having listened to it on audiobook way back in 2005. My notes indicate that I did not enjoy that experience, but it may now be worth revisiting.

I once lived on the road to the cemetery of a large northern town. All day long, it seemed to me, the hearses were trundling along their dead to the grave, or gallopping gaily back. When I walked out I met men carrying coffins, and if I glanced at them, perhaps I caught the name of the child I saw two days ago in his mother’s lap; or I was greeted by the burly widower of yesterday, pipe in mouth, sauntering along to arrange the burial of the wife who lay, I knew, upstairs at home, thin and haggard and dead. The road became fantastic and horrible at last; even such a straight road to the cemetery, it seemed, was the whole of life, a road full of the noise of the preparation of death. How daintily soever we danced along, each person, laughing so merrily or in such downright earnest, was merely a corpse, screwed down in an invisible coffin, trundled along as rapidly as might be to the grave-edge.

It was at such a point of view, Ellis tells us, that Tolstoy arrived in his fiftieth year.

“When I had ended my book ‘Anna Karenina,’” he wrote in his “Confessions,” “my despair reached such a height that I could do nothing but think, think, of the horrible condition in which I found myself. … Questions never ceased multiplying and pressing for answers, and like lines converging all to one point, so these unanswerable questions pressed to one black spot. I was nearly fifty years old when these unanswerable questions brought me into this terrible and quite unexpected position. I had come to this, that I -- a healthy and happy man -- felt that I could no longer live. … Bodily, I was able to work at mowing hay as well as a peasant. Mentally, I could work for eighteen hours at a time without feeling any ill consequence. And yet I had come to this, that I could no longer live. … I only saw one thing -- Death. Everything else was a lie.”

The deep reflection prompted by this midlife ennui, and the forging of some kind of path forward takes place initially in Anna Karenina -- although there, according to Ellis, we’ll find more of the struggle and less of the solutions -- and continues more successfully in other works, first his Confessions, and then My Religion.

Tolstoi sums up his own doctrine under a very few heads: -- Resist not evil -- Judge not -- Be not angry -- Love one woman. His creed is entirely covered by these four points. “My Religion” is chiefly occupied by the exposition of what they mean, and in his hands they mean much. They mean nothing less than the abolition of the State and the country. He is as uncompromising as Ibsen in dealing with the State. “It is a humbug, this State,” he remarked to Mr. Stead. “What you call a Government is mere phantasmagoria. What is a State? Men I know; peasants and villages, these I see; but governments, nations, states, what are these but fine names invented to conceal the plundering of honest men by dishonest officials?” Law, tribunals, prisons, become impossible with the disappearance of the State; and with the disappearance of the country, and of “that gross imposture called patriotism,” there can be no more war.

Gosh. He sounds like a libertarian, doesn’t he? But wait…

In place of these great and venerable pillars of civilization, what? The first condition of happiness, he tells us, is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken, that he may enjoy the sky above him, and the pure air and the life of the fields. This involves the nationalization of the land, or rather, to avoid centralizing tendencies, its communalization. “I quite agree with George,” he remarked, “that the landlords may be fairly expropriated without compensation, as a matter of principle.”

No, not a libertarian. No State AND no private property? That sounds like something dangerously close to an anarchist. 

But perhaps not. Because Ellis seems to go out of his way to point out that, at the end of the day, Tolstoy is not a demagogue -- a polemist with a hard-coded set of beliefs and understandings of the world -- but rather a flawed and struggling human being, someone with the imagination needed to ask and explore the tough questions of existence -- both for the individual and for the collective -- but finally and fatally without the wisdom to determine the ultimate answers.

“People say to me, ‘Well, Lef Nikolaivitch, as far as preaching goes, you preach; but how about your practice?’ The question is a perfectly natural one; it is always put to me, and it always shuts my mouth. ‘You preach,’ it is said, ‘but how do you live?’ I can only reply that I do not preach -- passionately as I desire to do so. I might preach through my actions, but my actions are bad. That which I say is not preaching; it is only my attempt to find out the meaning and the significance of life. People often say to me, ‘If you think that there is no reasonable life outside the teachings of Christ, and if you love a reasonable life, why do you not fulfil the Christian precepts?’ I am guilty and blameworthy and contemptible because I do not fulfil them; but at the same time I say,  --not in justification, but in explanation, of my inconsistency, --Compare my previous life with the life I am now living, and you will see that I am trying to fulfil. I have not, it is true, fulfilled one eighty-thousandth part, and I am to blame for it; but it is not because I do not wish to fulfil all; but because I am unable. Teach me how to extricate myself from the meshes of temptation in which I am entangled, --help me, --and I will fulfill all. I wish and hope to do it even without help. Condemn me if you choose, --I do that myself, --but condemn me, and not the path which I am following, and which I point out to those who ask me where, in my opinion, the path is. If I know the road home, and if I go along it drunk, and staggering from side to side, does that prove that the road is not the right one? If it is not the right one, show me another. If I stagger and wander, come to my help, and support and guide me in the right path. Do not yourselves confuse and mislead me and then rejoice over it and cry, ‘Look at him! He says he is going home, and he is floundering into the swamp!’ You are not evil spirits from the swamp; you are also human beings, and you also are going home. You know that I am alone, --you know that I cannot wish or intend to go into the swamp, --then help me! My heart is breaking with despair because we have all lost the road; and while I struggle with all my strength to find it and keep in it, you, instead of pitying me when I go astray, cry triumphantly, ‘See! He is in the swamp with us!’”

It is a remarkable insight. Tolstoy, like all of us, is wandering lost in the philosophical forest. Most of us fear to stray from the well-worn paths, pretending we know where they will lead us, but Tolstoy has the courage to stray into the brush and undergrowth, hoping to find something new and useful. We may not like where he goes, but we shouldn’t fault him for the things that he finds. Remember…

A man takes sides with religion, or with science, or with morals; oftener he spends the brief moments of his existence in self-preservation, fighting now on one side, no on the other. But for a little while we are allowed to enter the house of life and to gather around its fire. Why pull each other’s hair and pinch each other’s arms like naughty children? Well would it be to warm ourselves at the fire together, to clasp hands, to gain all the joy that comes of comradeship, before we are called out, each of us, into the dark alone.


I said earlier that I had no idea who Havelock Ellis was. As I prepared for writing this post, I looked him up on Wikipedia.

Henry Havelock Ellis (2 February 1859 – 8 July 1939) was an English physician, eugenicist, writer, progressive intellectual and social reformer who studied human sexuality. He co-wrote the first medical textbook in English on homosexuality in 1897, and also published works on a variety of sexual practices and inclinations, as well as on transgender psychology. He is credited with introducing the notions of narcissism and autoeroticism, later adopted by psychoanalysis.

Ellis was among the pioneering investigators of psychedelic drugs and the author of one of the first written reports to the public about an experience with mescaline, which he conducted on himself in 1896. He supported eugenics and served as one of 16 vice-presidents of the Eugenics Society from 1909 to 1912.

Might be worth finding a few more of his books.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, September 4, 2023

The Gettysburg Nobody Knows, edited by Gabor S. Boritt

This is a collection of essays about Gettysburg, some of which are good, and others are not.

We started with “The Common Soldier’s Gettysburg Campaign” by Joseph T. Glatthaar, which I didn’t think quite lived up to its name. Its point was interesting, building on Lee’s famous comment that generals have, in reality, very little to do with who wins and who loses battles. All generals can do is get their men to the right place at the right time -- it’s up to the men to slug it out. After building that premise, however, the author seems to focus more on the decisions of generals than the actions of the men they command.

Next was “Joshua Chamberlain and the American Dream” by Glenn LaFantasie, which also kind of missed its mark for me. He argues that we remember Chamberlain as the hero of Little Round Top in exactly the way Chamberlain wanted to be remembered, even though there is some evidence to support the idea that Chamberlain didn’t play the exact role history ascribes to him. The author also admits, however, that there is also no evidence to show that Chamberlain lied or exaggerated his role, or reported it as anything separate from what he believed it to be. I’m left with the conclusion that we remember Chamberlain as he wanted to be remembered, and that way is also likely the truth about him. Not too shocking if you ask me.

“Old Jack Is Not Here” by Harry Pfanz got better in his analysis of Ewell’s actions at Gettysburg and whether or not he deserves the scorn usually heaped upon his name for not taking Cemetery Hill. Pfanz argues no, that although he may have made mistakes at Gettysburg, not attacking Cemetery Hill was not one of them. In fact, by not attacking, Ewell may have been following Lee’s orders not to bring on a general engagement until the entire army was up. His command was divided and tired, and the Federals were heavily fortified on that hill, despite what General Trimble might have said in the movie. I have a biography of Ewell on my shelf by Pfanz. It’ll be interesting to get a more complete analysis there.

“The Chances of War: Lee, Longstreet, Sickles and the First Minnesota Volunteers” by Kent Gramm, is the best one in the book. After reading it, I added another book by Gramm, a biography of Sickles, a biography of Hancock, and the regimental history of the First Minnesota to my reading list. The argument that the First Minnesota did more to save the army and the Union than either the 20th Maine or the regiments who repulsed Pickett’s Charge is a persuasive one. Or even Sickles and his Third Corps for that matter. If he hadn’t advanced to the Peach Orchard and clashed with Longstreet, would the Confederates have had the momentum to carry the Union position that day? Interesting question. The fact that Sickles was such a character makes it even more interesting. Here’s a passage that’s worth transcribing. It has nothing to do with Sickles.

We students of war rightly do not like violence, so we try to eliminate it from battles. It is a matter of maps and movements, in our books; it is a matter of ballistics and tactics, failures and brilliance -- but from Marathon to Gettysburg we are shown men and women who fought, who endured and perpetuated chaotic violence, men and women who sweated and stabbed and bled and were shot, who slashed and screamed and shouted, who lived and died like us, contingent and dependent not on plans or anything we can think through, but dependent on the dark, the beyond, we being not gods but mortals subject to accident or intention or chance or absurdity that we cannot see through. This is how we live, for as Martin Luther said on his deathbed, “We are all beggars.”

“Eggs, Aldie, Shepherdstown, and J.E.B. Stuart” by Emory Thomas comes to Stuart’s defense in his actions during Gettysburg. Much maligned for abandoning Lee, Thomas argues that Stuart may have been too tired to do anything else. His ride from Virginia to Pennsylvania was one continuous battle, evidently, and lasted longer than any similar excursion he’d ever been on. Confused orders, rude behavior at dinner, and a fixation on protecting the captured wagons at all costs when he should’ve left the damn things behind and gotten back in touch with Lee -- they all lead Thomas to believe that Stuart might have been sleepwalking through the entire campaign. And that scene from the movie when Lee confronts Stuart -- “I told you there is no time for that.” -- evidently that never really happened.

The rest of the essays weren’t as interesting. One about Pickett’s Charge that says everything we think we know about Pickett’s Charge is wrong. Another about what the town of Gettysburg was like before and after the battle, and how the battle changed it. Another about the overall Confederate military strategy that led to the circumstances that allowed Gettysburg to happen. This one had some interesting insights. Davis was evidently his own Secretary of War, actively ordering generals and armies around, but had no real control over anything except Virginia because of slow communications, slower travel times, vague orders, and arrogant generals. Without Lee, according to the author, the war might have been a ninety-day fight after all.

Finally an essay about the legacy of Gettysburg which, even after having just read it, leaves no lasting impression on me other than we remember Gettysburg as a turning point it really wasn’t, and our memories are framed more by Roosevelt’s words in 1938 rather than Lincoln’s words in 1863. For Roosevelt it was all about peace and coming together. For Lincoln, war and coming apart.

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This post appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, August 28, 2023

American Rule by Jared Yates Sexton

Sexton has called this book an alternate history of America, one which accepts white supremacy and its myths of exceptionalism as its throughline. It’s a compelling read, revealing, as it does, far more connecting dots that your typical reader would be aware of.

The Aryan Mound Builders

To bolster this belief [that the American people were the guardians of Western Civilization, the pinnacle of the Anglo-Saxon race, and, by their ethnic superiority, the inheritors of the world], America became obsessed with pseudo-science that proved its theory of racial superiority, including the quack science of phrenology and a rogue form of history and archaeology that claimed the white race had originally settled the continent of America. This bizarre story had its roots in the myth of the “Mound Builders,” a so-called lost people who left behind strange mounds and structures in parts of the country. The discovery of these works so impressed Americans in the nineteenth century that they refused to believe Native Americans capable of such feats and reasoned that obviously an Aryan people had first settled the continent, only to be overthrown by the “savage” race of Native Americans.

I live not far away from one of these mounds -- now at Aztalan State Park in southeastern Wisconsin -- and regret that I have never actually visited it. I’ve driven past it hundreds of times on I-94, obscured now from that vantage point by a motocross track that bears the same name. But I learned from an early age that Aztalan and mounds like it throughout the upper Midwest were built by the indigenous people that lived there in the early 1000s. To discover that they once bolstered a nineteenth century conspiracy theory -- one of the first Big Lies in American history -- is just one of the surprises that is waiting for readers of this book.

Among the first critics of this baseless, ignorant theory was Thomas Jefferson, who had excavated one of the mounds himself in 1784 and declared it of Native American origin, but the myth of Aryan Mound Builders continued as it was “comforting to conquerors” who wished to see Native Americans as “intruders who had brutally shattered the glorious old … civilization.”

Does that sound familiar? A lie that provides comfort to conquerors? Even then, it seems, you could always identify the authoritarians by their projection of their own sins onto their opponents. We are not the conquerors. They are! To wit:

In Andrew Jackson’s 1830 State of the Union, as he argued for the forcible removal of Native American tribes, he bizarrely cited “the monuments and fortresses of an unknown people, spread over the extensive regions of the West,” who had been “exterminated or had disappeared to make room for the existing savage tribes.” In this alternate reality, the Native American genocide might be excused as repayment for a previous, imagined eradication, this one having been perpetrated against a mythic Caucasian race.

Jackson’s story cast the United States as the executors of redemption, a nation of great people who, like the mythical Jackson, had risen from nothing, armed with only their superior sense of intellect, morality, and historical drive, to create an awe-inspiring society -- people tasked to go forth and conquer the West as a means of redeeming their ancestors who had been so obscenely interrupted.

This myth found its way into the art and literature of the day, perhaps most notably in William Cullen Bryant’s famous poem “The Prairies,” a work of Romanticism documenting the seductive call of the West and the need for Americans to reclaim their destiny after a band of Natives decimated the true Mound Builders. From this ruin, however, Bryant dreamed he could hear the approach of Western civilization to redeem the land, a call echoed by his contemporaries in their poems and works.

I had never heard of this before -- but its seems to provide some essential context to understanding the motivations of Jackson, Bryant, and others who truly felt the obligations of maintaining Western Civilization -- a phrase now eerily resonate in my ears having just recently seeing a video of Roger Stone taking the initiation oath of the Proud Boys:

"Hi, I'm Roger Stone. I'm a Western chauvinist, and I refuse to apologize for the creation of the modern world."

I’m sure Sexton would congratulate me on making that connection, because connections like that are pretty much the point of American Rule. The myths of white supremacy have been with America since its founding, and they have driven far more of American history than many would like to admit.

The 1st Chihuahua Volunteers?

Here’s another one of those connecting dots.

Following the Mexican-American War, the debate over whether to annex parts of Mexican territory or the entirety of the country revealed deep and toxic motivations. Politicians spoke openly and derisively about the Mexican people, as well as which races were capable of self-governance and which were destined to be owned and lorded over. Though Christian charity and the concept of benevolent empire continued to tinge the conversations, the nation had already strayed from its benign principles. Its politicians and citizens, however, excited by military victories and apparent dominance, cheered on the craven expansion.

The remaining debate centered around race and white supremacy as James Buchanan, then President James K. Polk’s secretary of state, prized the racial purity of the United States over the potential for maximal expansion. He advocated only annexing portions of the territory already settled by Americans, asking of Mexico proper, “How should we govern the mongrel race which inhabits it? Could we admit them to seats in our Senate & House of Representatives? Are they capable of Self-Government as States of this Confederacy?”

It’s an interesting choice of words. The Mexican-American War ended in 1848, thirteen years before the creation of the Confederate States of America -- so Buchanan here is clearly using that word to refer to the United States -- but imagine, for a moment, an alternate history in which the United States did annex all of Mexico, and then the states that were made of that territory joined the coming Confederacy and sent troops to fight against the Federals in the American Civil War. One has to wonder if those extra men would have made a difference in the outcome of that war.

But, primarily because of the myths of white supremacy, shared by Northern and Southern Americans alike, that alternate history never really had a chance to be.

Representative Jacob Collamer of Vermont warned that by bringing Mexicans into the Union “we should destroy our own nationality … We shall cease to be the people that we were; we cease to be the Saxon Americanized.” His colleague Edward Cabell of Florida shared his skepticism and asked, “Shall we … by an act of Congress, convert the black, white, red, mongrel, miserable population of Mexico … into free and enlightened American citizens, entitled to all the privileges we enjoy?”

Perhaps the most boisterous and memorable opposition to Mexican annexation came from John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, a two-time vice president who had served under both John Quincey Adams and Andrew Jackson and was one of the most powerful senators at the time. An avowed white supremacist, Calhoun took the floor on January 4, 1848, and declared, “Ours, sir, is a Government of the white race. The greatest misfortunes of Spanish America are to be traced to the fatal error of placing these colored races on an equality with the white race.” Calhoun warned it was a “great mistake … when we suppose that all people are capable of self-government,” maintaining that America’s form of government and freedom were dependent on the rarefied intelligence and capability of its white citizens.

Much of this is baffling to me, raised, as I was, to understand that America’s form of government and freedom were, explicitly, for everyone. That bringing America’s form of government and freedom to the whole planet was the entire point of the American experiment. It has been extremely troubling to me to see so many not only reject that view, but to work so actively against it. But, evidently, that’s nothing new. It is another of the great American contradictions. Freedom for me, but not for you.

An Agreement with Hell

In Sexton’s telling, much of this trouble coheres back to the founding documents of America -- and especially the Constitution.

It had been that covenant with death that had troubled the nation since its authoring in 1787. Whether it was the disgusting Missouri Compromise or the disastrous Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, ill-fated workarounds that irresponsibly kicked the question of slavery down the road, the country had frantically tried one haphazard measure after another to avoid confronting America’s original sin. Nearly a century earlier, James Madison and his Northern colleagues had been so desperate to avoid economic revolution they had indeed forged an agreement with hell. It was destined to fail, but in the meantime it had damned millions of men, women, and children to brutal slavery and had ensured an instability in their republic that would always end in apocalyptic violence.

The American Myth of manifest destiny is told as a triumphant race to the west but was instead a fevered run from the inevitable disaster of that original compromise, the consequences constantly nipping at the nation’s heels.

The compromise in question is, of course, the one over slavery. That a nation, dedicated to freedom, should continue to hold men in chains, explained only and always by the myth that the white man was superior to the black one. When the nation finally tore itself apart over this constitutional contradiction, it was the Southerners who would, unfortunately, have the bulk of constitutional authority on their side.

The Noble Lie of the Confederate States, the new narrative that competed with the American Noble Lie, was that the South recognized an undeniable truth in the inequality of the races and that the North had violated the contract of the Constitution. Confederate president Jefferson Davis maintained that the new nation illustrated “the American idea that governments rest upon the consent of the governed, and that is is the right of the people to alter or abolish governments whenever they become destructive to the ends for which they were established” and that the Confederacy embodied Jefferson’s belief in perpetual revolution and “merely asserted a right which the Declaration of Independence of 1776 had defined to be inalienable.”

They were not completely wrong. Wrong about human freedom, clearly, but right in the sense of what the text of the original Constitution said. And therein lies the essential rub of the conflict. “Defending the Constitution” becomes mixed up with “Preserving White Supremacy,” and if one is not careful, it becomes extremely difficult to rhetorically separate the two.

One of the big ideas here is the idea that -- with the exception of the cases where the Constitution itself has been amended -- this is a contradiction that we still live with today. Those who would prioritize human flourishing over the text of the Constitution can always be accused of trying to subvert the founding document of our nation -- as many have been through the subsequent one hundred and sixty years of Congressional legislation, Executive action, and Judicial decision-making.

But Sexton points out that, even in the case of the Southern Confederacy, those who care so much about the strict language of the Constitution are often an elite minority with ulterior motives.

Though it is often painted as a universal action, and celebrated by Confederate apologists as a regional identity, the rebellion wasn’t unanimous or particularly populist. The planning elite, the center of all power in the nineteenth-century South, spurred the secession of the Southern states, but most Southerners didn’t own slaves. The institution itself was a means by which enslaved labor could be used to keep in place a stark class divide while ensuring continued social harmony. The very existence of slaves meant a class of people existed for poor whites in the South to feel superior to. As Georgia governor Joseph Brown explained, “Among us the poor white laborer … does not belong to the menial class. The negro is in no sense his equal … He belongs to the only true aristocracy, the race of [white men].” Or, as James P. Holcombe, a wealthy slaveholder, so plainly put it, “African slavery reconciles the antagonism of the classes that has elsewhere reduced the highest statesmanship to the verge of despair, and becomes the great Peace-maker of our society.”

The intended hierarchy -- not just rich over poor, but white over black -- therefore has its own sustaining power. Rich can’t rule without some poor on their side, and what better way to recruit the poor to your elite cause than to tell them that they are also part of the ultimate elite?

Corporations Are People Too

I had no idea this stupid argument went back as far as it did.

On behalf of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, former New York Senator Roscoe Conkling stood before the Supreme Court in December 1882 and presented one of the most audacious and consequential claims in American history: that corporations were people and could appeal for “protection against invidious and discriminating state and local taxes.”

1882. This was news to me, thinking that the “corporations are people too” argument was a more modern phenomenon, carted out to justify the Citizens United decision in 2010 and the Hobby Lobby decision in 2014. But evidently not. And perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that its entire justification was based on a lie.

During his time in Congress, Conkling had served on the committees that drafted the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, Reconstruction articles ensuring rights of “all persons born or naturalized” in the United States and prohibiting restriction of voting rights based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Conkling had been a leader among Radical Republicans who fought tooth and nail for African Americans to get a fair shake in the post-Emancipation United States, but in the interest of his corporate employers, he was more than willing to sell that noble mission to the highest bidder.

As the only surviving member of the committee that drafted the Fourteenth Amendment, Conkling perjured himself in front of the court by claiming the intention in the wording of the amendment was to protect not only freed slaves but also corporations, testifying that the law was meant to “embrace artificial persons as well as natural persons.” To strengthen his claim, Conkling produced his never-before-seen journal and a corresponding entry that supposedly detailed the debate within the committee and the choice between using the word ‘citizen’ and the word ‘person’. The latter, he argued, had been chosen to make room for corporations. Years later, examination found that Conkling had misrepresented the contents of the journal and that no such debate had ever occurred.

He lied. But like so much political dogma, the lie was quickly forgotten. Like ‘welfare queens’ and ‘tax cuts create more revenue to the government’ (hat tip to Rick Perlstein, there), the dogma must always be maintained.

Though Conkling’s case was settled out of court, his argument lived on. In the matter of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, the Supreme Court did not decide that corporations had the same rights and privileges as private citizens under the Constitution, but court reporter Bancroft Davis, himself a former railroad executive, misleadingly reported that the court had upheld Conkling’s claim.

Davis’s fabrication reverberated for decades to come. Stephen Field, a Supreme Court justice so tainted by corporate money and influence that he’d personally advised businesses on which counsels to employ for cases and shared with them internal court documents, used Davis’s assertion as a means to enshrine corporate personhood in law. In a ruling on another case, Field dishonestly cited Davis’s misrepresentation of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, laying the foundation for future business-friendly justices and lawmakers to use the idea as precedent moving forward and creating corporate personhood from out of thin air.

What do you call people who intentionally lie in order to create a precedent for what they want to be true? And what do you call people who pick up that precedent and knowingly run with it for their own benefit and aggrandizement? I referenced Roger Stone earlier and I know what his term is for a person that engages in that kind of conduct. It begins with ‘rat’ and ends with ‘fucker’.


But maybe there is a more polite term? There’s a passage in The Gulag Archipelago that I dogeared but failed to report on in my blog post on that book.

But new waves rolled from the collectivized villages: one of them was a wave of agricultural wreckers. Everywhere they began to discover wrecker agronomists who up until that year had worked honestly all their lives but who now purposely sowed weeds in Russian fields (on the instructions, of course, of the Moscow institute, which had now been totally exposed; indeed, there were those same 200,000 unarrested members of the Working Peasants Party, the TKP!). Certain agronomists failed to put into effect the profound instructions of Lysenko -- and in one such wave, in 1931, Lorkh, the so-called “king” of the potato, was sent to Kazakhstan. Others carried out the Lysenko directives too precisely and thus exposed their absurdity. (In 1934 Pskov agronomists sowed flax on the snow -- exactly as Lysenko had ordered. The seeds swelled up, grew moldy, and died. The big fields lay empty for a year. Lysenko could not say that the snow was a kulak or that he himself was an ass. He accused the agronomists of being kulaks and of distorting the technology. And the agronomists went off to Siberia.) Beyond all this, in almost every Machine and Tractor Station wrecking in the repairing of tractors was discovered -- and that is how the failures of the first collective farm years were explained!

Wreckers! That is why our policies are failing! They are sabotaging us! The cry sounds familiar to my modern ears. And in American Rule, I stumbled across something similar.

The targeting of government workers revealed the agenda. Mirroring Soviet political purges, figures like Senator Joseph McCarthy, joined by young and ambitious politicians like Richard Nixon, brandished investigations like modern agents of the Inquisition, claiming falsely that the government had been infiltrated by Soviet agents. These claims were based primarily on rumors and gossip among conservative circles, many of them exemplified in the salacious Beltway book Washington Confidential, written by conservatives Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer, a bestseller that described an infected DC where “sex-starved government gals” were recruiting “colored men” and “meek male clerks” to wreck America from the inside out. It’s important to note that the perpetrators of this proposed conspiracy to bring down the United States on behalf of the USSR were professional, independent women, African-American men, and gay men: individuals who threatened the unbridled dominance of straight, white men.

There is a sarcasm in Solzhenitsyn’s text that is missing from Sexton’s, but the fantastical nature of the relative claims remain equal. Wreckers! That is why our policies are failing! They are sabotaging us! 

The American Christian Mythos

As I’ve already mentioned, this book is chock full of anecdotes that I had never heard before, but which provide essential context to understanding the forces that are shaping our political reality. One of those forces is Christian Nationalism, and it, perhaps more than other forces, seems absolutely dependent on its own mythology of America’s founding.

Bizarre and superstitious ideas shaped Reagan’s worldview and, through him, infected the political discourse and warped shared reality. In his years as an actor, he had been steeped in conspiracy theories and myths, maybe none more conspicuous than his faith that Americans had been preordained by divinity and history as a chosen people. Touting the principles of manifest destiny, Reagan told students at William Woods College in 1952 that he saw America “in the divine scheme of things … as a promised land.” As a proof, he relayed to them “a legend” concerning the Declaration of Independence and how, as the Founding Fathers struggled with their conviction to affix it with their signatures, a stranger appeared in the room and demanded, “Sign that document, sign it if tomorrow your heads roll from the headsman’s axe. Sign that document because tomorrow and the days to come your children and all the children of all the days to come will judge you for what you do this day.” According to this legend, the mysterious speaker was the force that inspired the signing that founded the country, and once the deed was done he simply disappeared, as if he were a ghost.

Bizarre and superstitious ideas, indeed. But where did it come from? Did Reagan invent it? Unfortunately, not.

The story was inspiring, but the legend of divine interference in Philadelphia was completely fabricated and had originated in a book called Washington and His Generals; or, Legends of the Revolution, an 1847 volume of popular myths authored by writer George Lippard. Lippard was a close friend of Edgar Allan Poe and wrote countless tales for a living that featured invented instances of the supernatural during the American Revolution and capitalized on the previous success of Parson Weems’s myths about George Washington and his cherry tree.

It is one of literally hundreds of myths that intertwine divine intervention and providence in the founding of America and the lives of the men who secured it. It is literally a religion, whose adherents believe all this on faith, often in the face of contradictory evidence.

What Would Ayn Rand Say?

This might be my favorite anecdote of all.

Like a record on repeat, the American economy crashed as trusting bankers and corporations to police themselves backfired as it always does. The sad truth was that the loss and the destruction were as predictable as the turning of the seasons, but in two centuries, American leaders had yet to see the pattern and take necessary precautions.

On October 23, 2008, as the economy faltered, the usually steadfast Alan Greenspan appeared before a House committee and admitted he had discovered “a flaw,” saying, “I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by that fact.” Asked if the flaw was his belief that self-regulation worked, Greenspan relented: “Absolutely, precisely.”

Greenspan, of course, was a former Chairman of the Federal Reserve at the time, who had been preaching the gospel of free market capitalism for years. I stumbled across several of his essays in Ayn Rand’s collection: Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, where he was profiled as one of her most astute students.

Two years later, Greenspan presented a report to the Brookings Institution nicknamed “The Crisis Paper.” In this report, Greenspan, a Randian economist who had perpetually cursed regulation of any kind, admitted the economy was inherently unstable, that his decades of belief that the market was self-sufficient and, above all, always right might have been in vain. The infallibility of the market, the defining tenet of the neoliberal order and the new world, had been a myth all its own.

“Unless there is a societal choice to abandon dynamic markets and leverage some form of central planning,” Greenspan said, “I fear that preventing bubbles will in the end turn out to be infeasible. Assuaging their aftermath seems the best we can hope for.”

Central planning! Heavens! What would Ayn Rand say?

What had shaken Greenspan to his core?

A market that had grown so huge and independent of oversight and regulation that it had cannibalized itself as banks sought more and more profit and cast aside even the appearance of good faith. Years of irresponsible lending, of preying on overleveraged consumers who desired homes beyond their means, of selling the illusion of transcending class on the backs of reckless loans, and of creating new concepts like derivatives, a trading chip that even seasoned economists barely understood, had created a house of cards destined to collapse. Even those who worshipped the market as if it were a deity had to admit that the world was tied to an unstable and mercurial system.

One expert called it a “circular Ponzi scheme.”

The market will correct -- of course it will. That’s what markets do and do well. However, markets do that not instantaneously, but over a timescale that allows for destruction and human misery. When it grows, any market will leave people behind. But when it crashes, it drags just about everyone down with it.

Central planning may or may not be a better answer. But the fact that Alan Greenspan thought so is certainly noteworthy.

Barack Hussein Obama

Let’s end on this one.

As the economy melted down, Americans yearned for a new direction. A young senator from Illinois named Barack Obama offered a fresh vision of the American Myth tailored to stabilizing a volatile world. Back in 2004, Obama had captured the national imagination in a speech to the Democratic National Convention in Boston that pushed against the notion that America had divided into two separate nations, saying, “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America.” He leveled his criticism at pundits and partisans who “like to slide-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States,” rejecting the conventional wisdom that politics had to be trench warfare, and exhibition of zero-sum game theory. “We are one people,” he said, promising that with that right imagination and right intentions, America could transcend its differences and unite in the common good.

I remember those heady days. It really was like a breath of fresh wind was blowing. But…

For all of his soaring rhetoric, Obama functioned as a pragmatic politician who straddled the divide between left and right much as Bill Clinton had. In his acceptance of the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2008, he spoke of “individual responsibility and mutual responsibility,” a bridging of liberal and conservative ideology that nodded toward cooperation within the neoliberal system. The united America Obama spoke of was still predicated on a free market that operated the way Ronald Reagan had envisioned.

He was not a revolutionary looking to overthrow the system. He was an orator, who had the ability to bring people together around common rhetoric. He was not a socialist or even a liberal. He was, at worst, a moderate. But…

Despite his advocating traditional policies mixed with uniting rhetoric, Obama was continually harangued by a conservative media that seemed obsessed with the fact that he was an African-Amercan man and, strangely enough, convinced the center-left Obama was somehow a closeted socialist.

Regardless, he won an easy victory in 2008 over Republican John McCain, and in subsequent meetings with congressional Republicans it became very obvious very quickly that Obama had actually meant what he said about wanting to govern the country in a bipartisan, healing fashion. For once, a leader who had crafted an ideal America genuinely tried to bring it to life. He communicated with Republicans, heard their thoughts and concerns, and was willing to compromise.

Instead of accepting his gestures of good faith, Republicans were terrified. While such a president might be good for the United States of America, particularly following the disaster of the Bush presidency, such a unifying Democratic president would be terrible for the Republican Party.

As one Republican staffer remarked after a particularly inspiring meeting with Obama, “If he governs like that, we are all fucked.”

This is so key to understanding our current situation. Obama was a pragmatist who wanted to do what was good for the country. And that meant working with Republicans, and that meant moving to the political right on some issues to make compromises and move things forward. But…

And so, instead of working with Obama to create a better future for the people, Republicans responded as they had with Clinton. They chose to confront a fictional version of Obama the conservative media had built during the 2008 campaign. … Conservative media doubled down on their portrayal of an America divided by race and ethnicity, perpetuating a sense of grievance among the Republicans’ white base. The narrative was that in the post-recession struggle, minorities were being favored by a Democratic Party desperate for votes. They believed Obama was obsessed with redistributing wealth and proof of a dangerous, racial shift in power.

Republicans wouldn’t have it. Stuck in their mythology of two Americas -- the “real” one of the white, Christian cowboy, and the “usurped” one of the brown, socialist bandit -- they felt more loyalty to their brand than to the people that actually made up their nation. And so, as they had done with Bill Clinton, they vilified Obama as the leader of a left-leaning movement bent on destroying America. That movement, largely existing only in people’s fevered imaginations, is what I have come to understand as “The Left” that conservatives today so often decry and demonize.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, August 21, 2023

The Whirlwind of War: Voices of the Storm, 1861-1865 by Stephen B. Oates

I really liked this book. I know, I said that about the last one, but there’s no comparison between that one and this one. I really enjoyed Oates’ first book in this series -- it gave me information and insights into what led up to the war like nothing else has -- and this book set the same standard.

For example, I knew that in the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln only freed the slaves in states or parts of states currently in rebellion against the U.S. where the Confederacy was in control. That I picked up from numerous sources and, even though it never seemed to make sense to me, none of those sources ever explained why Lincoln only did part of the job. Well, thanks to this book I know why Lincoln phrased it that way. If he had freed to slaves everywhere slavery existed, the four Union states where slavery was still legal -- Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri -- would have quit the Union and joined the Confederacy. That would’ve put Washington, DC in the middle of Confederate territory and the northern border of the Confederacy on the Ohio River.

Other unique insights included how desperate the Union situation was when the war first began -- no army to speak of, no armed force in Washington, enemy territory right across the Potomac River, and Marylanders sympathetic to the Southern cause fighting with Northern troops moving through Baltimore -- and the episode in which Sherman was accused of being crazy and drummed out of the service happened before Shiloh. Sherman, in fact, had fought at First Manassas and was temporarily in command of all Union forces in Kentucky. When asked how many men he needed to invade and conquer Tennessee and he said 200,000, he was relieved of command and reassigned to the West, where he eventually wound up as part of Grant’s command, actually in charge of all forces in the opening hours of Shiloh until Grant arrived from Pittsburgh Landing.

The whole episode reminds me of how I want to start following individuals through the war -- to start reading books about the people instead of the battles. The battles are interesting, but I get the impression the real insights came from knowing the people. I don’t think I’ll find too many that are written in the first person like this one is. Oh, I guess there are probably autobiographies and memoirs out there (Grant and Sherman being two obvious examples) but will they be as honest as a historian would be? Guess I’ll have to read them to find out.

Also, Lee was really hobbled at the battles of the Seven Days. I guess I never realized that before. When people talk about the Seven Days they talk about how great Lee was, about how he drove the vastly superior forces of McClellan from the gates of Richmond and clear off the peninsula, about how he took hold of the offensive and never let go, about how he executed one of the greatest turnarounds in the history of military combat. That may all be true, but what more could he have done if his army was organized the way he organized it after the Seven Days? What more could he have done if he had known the ground as well as he did at Second Manassas? What more could he have done if Jackson had only done what he was told? He could’ve bagged McClellan’s entire army instead of just pushing it out of the way.

The organization of Lee’s army fascinates me more than it did before. I knew that after Chancellorsville, after Jackson’s death, when Lee reorganized it into three parts, it was never quite what it had been before. Now I know that before Second Manassas, before Lee had organized it into two parts, it wasn’t yet what it was going to be. The two wings, with Jackson at the head of one and Longstreet at the other, that was the secret, that’s what gave them the successes they had. But why? Why was that so special? Was it the two parts or was it the men who commanded them? Would two other commanders have done the same things, would they have been able to accomplish as much? You probably know what I think about that one. Was Ewell able to take that hill at Gettysburg? There was some kind of bond between those three men -- Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet -- and that’s what enabled them to do what they did. I believe that, and to me, that’s one of the most interesting things about that war.

I wonder if there are any books written about those three men -- not the battles they fought, but them. How they related to each other, what they thought about each other, what they did when in each other’s company and how many times the three of them were actually together. If that book is out there, I want to read it. If not, maybe I’ll write it some day.

And, by the way, I also found another reason why Lincoln restricted the emancipation of slaves only to those states then in rebellion against the United States. It was because the Emancipation Proclamation as Lincoln issued it was an act of the president’s emergency war-time powers. It wasn’t something he could’ve done during peace time because the Executive ordinarily had no power over slavery in the states. But during war time, the Executive was empowered to take whatever actions were necessary to protect and defend the country. Using this as his rationale for issuing the proclamation, Lincoln didn’t think the freeing of the slaves in the states loyal to the Union could be termed an action necessary to protect and defend the country. Another nice explanation that should be included with any discussion of the proclamation.

Something else I wasn’t previously aware of was Jefferson Davis’ reaction to the proclamation, or at least the extent of it. He issued a proclamation of his own which, among other things, said that any freed blacks captured thenceforth by the Armies of the Confederacy would be sent back into slavery in order to help restore the natural condition of the two races. I think that reveals a lot about what men like Davis really thought about blacks. Oh, there might be legal mechanisms by which black men may gain their freedom, and there may be slave owners foolish and misguided enough to employ those mechanisms on behalf of their slaves, but when you come right down to it, the black was the slave and the white was the master -- and that was the way things were supposed to be. That’s the way God intended them to be. I mean, we all knew the southern leaders were racist, but I at least had always been willing to consider that the cause may not have been, that the cause, fought for some other principle besides the continuation of slavery, wouldn’t have been so lost after all, and a lot more people might’ve taken it up. But when I read things like that, it really makes me second guess some of those assumptions about the Confederacy, that maybe it wasn’t as much about states’ rights as I thought, and maybe it was a lot more about keeping the black man down.

Finally, I’ve got to say something about Gettysburg. It was just about the longest chapter in this book, all told from Lee’s viewpoint, and what struck me the most was how clear it was that Lee just wanted the war to be over, that he wanted that battle to be the last one and the war to come to an end. Yes, he overestimated the abilities of his men, we all know that, he thought they were invincible and asked more of them than should be asked of men, but he also wanted that damn war to be over. He was so tired, at least as Oates portrays him. I wonder how he hung on for two more years after Gettysburg and more importantly, why?

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This post appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, August 14, 2023

The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn

A remarkable manuscript, documenting the reality of the Russian gulags and the system that supported them in the years after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. It is full of lessons that transcend time and place -- lessons about the human animal and its political behaviors. And one of them -- perhaps the most essential of all -- goes to the very heart of this monstrous evil.

Just how are we to understand that? As the act of an evildoer? What sort of behavior is it? Do such people really exist?

We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any. It is permissible to portray evildoers in a story for children, so as to keep the picture simple. But when the great world literature of the past -- Shakespeare, Schiller, Dickens -- inflates and inflates images of evildoers of the blackest shades, it seems somewhat farcical and clumsy to our contemporary perception. The trouble lies in the way these classic evildoers are pictured. They recognize themselves as evildoers, and they know their souls are black. And they reason: “I cannot live unless I do evil. So I’ll set my father against my brother! I’ll drink the victim’s sufferings until I’m drunk with them!” Iago very precisely identifies his purposes and his motives as being black and born of hate.

But no; that’s not the way it is! To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his action.

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble -- and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.

Ideology -- that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations.

Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.

When Solzhenitsyn refers to the Archipelago he is referring to the chain of gulags that the ideology of the newly-birthed Soviet state embraced -- strung out across the landscape of mother Russia like a chain of islands in an archipelago. They resulted in the imprisonment and the death of millions, a scale of evil that cannot adequately be explained by a calculating Macbeth or even a scheming Iago. 

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Solzhenitsyn confronts this painful reality in vivid detail as he recounts his own arrest and imprisonment, and he is first introduced to the viciousness that ideology can either create or allow in his fellow men. For a time, he recounts, the political prisoner was held in a different position than the common criminal -- but that was a distinction that quickly evaporated under the ideology that said political prisoners were criminals, and should be treated as such.

This mingling, the first devastating encounter, takes place either in the Black Maria [a police van for transporting prisoners] or in the Stolypin car [a railroad carriage used for the same purpose]. Up to this moment, no matter how they have oppressed, tortured, and tormented you during the interrogation, it has all originated with the bluecaps [members of State Security responsible for the investigations, arrests and interrogations], and you have never confused them with human beings but have seen in them merely an insolent branch of the service. But at the same time, even if your cellmates have been totally different from you in development and experience, and even if you have quarreled with them, and even if they have squealed on you, they have all belonged to that same ordinary, sinful, everyday humanity among which you have spent your whole life.

In other words, there is a line -- a line between you and the State, and that line has somehow protected you, or at least given you some comfort, even as the State abused you.

When you were jammed into a Stolypin compartment, you expected that here, too, you would encounter only colleagues in misfortune. All your enemies and oppressors remained on the other side of the bars, and you certainly did not expect to find them on this side. And suddenly you lift your eyes to the square recess in the middle bunk, to that one and only heaven above you, and up there you see three or four -- oh, no, not faces! They aren’t monkey muzzles either, because monkeys’ muzzles are much, much decenter and more thoughtful! No, and they aren’t simply hideous countenances, since there must be something human even in them. You see cruel, loathsome snouts up there, wearing expressions of greed and mockery. Each of them looks at you like a spider gloating over a fly. Their web is that grating which imprisons you -- and you have been had! They squinch up their lips, as if they intend to bite you from one side. They hiss when they speak, enjoying that hissing more than the vowel and consonant sounds of speech -- and the only thing about their speech that resembles the Russian language is the endings of verbs and nouns. It is gibberish.

But now that line is gone. One has been thrown to the wolves -- the wolves of the State, even if they are fellow prisoners; like you, but also NOT like you.

Those strange gorilloids were usually dressed in sleeveless undershirts. After all, it is stuffy in the Stolypin car. Their sinewy purple necks, their swelling shoulder muscles, their swarthy tattooed chests have never suffered prison emaciation. Who are they? Where do they come from? And suddenly you see a small cross dangling from one of those necks. Yes, a little aluminum cross on a string. You are surprised and slightly relieved. That means there are religious believers among them. How touching! So nothing terrible is going to happen. But immediately this “believer” belies both his cross and his faith by cursing (and they curse partly in Russian), and he jabs two protruding fingers, spread into the “V” of a slingshot, right in your eyes -- not even pausing to threaten you but starting to punch them out then and there. And this gesture of theirs, which says, “I’ll gouge out your eyes, crowbait!” covers their entire philosophy and faith! If they are capable of crushing your eyeballs like worms, what is there on you or belonging to you that they’ll spare? The little cross dangles there and your still unsquashed eyes watch this wildest of masquerades, and your whole system of reckoning goes awry: Which of you is already crazy? And who is about to go insane?

No, they are not you. But they are also not themselves. They are something different. Something you have never really encountered before. And you can’t make any sense of it.

In one moment, all the customs and habits of human intercourse you have lived with all your life have broken down. In your entire previous life, particularly before your arrest but even to some degree afterward, even to some degree during interrogation, too, you spoke words to other people and they answered you in words.  And those words produced actions. One might persuade, or refuse, or come to an agreement. You recall various human relationships -- a request, an order, and expression of gratitude. But what has overtaken you here is beyond all these words and beyond all these relationships. An emissary of the ugly snout descends, most often a vicious boy whose impudence and rudeness are thrice despicable, and this little demon unties your bag and rifles your pockets -- not tentatively, but treating them like his very own. From that moment, nothing that belongs to you is yours any longer. And all you yourself are is a rubber dummy around which superfluous things are wrapped which can easily be taken off. Nor can you explain anything in words, nor deny, nor prohibit, nor plead with that evil little skunk or those foul snouts up above. They are not people. This has become clear to you in one moment. The only thing to be done with them is to beat them, to beat them without wasting any time flapping your tongue. Either that juvenile there or those bigger vermin up above.

They are not people. But you haven’t yet realized that neither are you any more. There are no people here, no individuals. There are only the mechanized parts of a great tragic system, obeying its own commands for its own inscrutable reasons.

You look at your neighbors, your comrades: Let’s either resist or protest! But all your comrades, all your fellow Article 58’s [those suspected of counter-revolutionary activities], who have been plundered one by one even before you got there, sit there submissively, hunched over, and they stare right past you, and it’s even worse when they look at you the way they always do look at you, as though no violence were going on at all, no plundering, as though it were a natural phenomenon, as though it were the grass growing and the rain falling.

There is no hope for the individual here. One either becomes part of the machine, or one perishes. There is no other choice.

This is one of the many lessons a reader will find scattered throughout Solzhenitsyn’s text -- lessons drawn precisely from his lived experiences, but lessons applicable to us all and well worth noting. 

Now, a quarter of a century later, when most of them have perished in camps and those who have survived are living out their lives in the Far North, I would like to issue a reminder, through these pages, that this was a phenomenon totally unheard of in all world history: that several hundred thousand young men, aged twenty to thirty, took up arms against their Fatherland as allies of its most evil enemy. Perhaps there is something to ponder here: Who was more to blame, those youths or the gray Fatherland? One cannot explain this treason biologically. It has to have had a social cause.

Because, as the old proverb says: Well-fed horses don’t rampage.

It is remarkable that, even in our modern world, this is a lesson we have yet come to learn. Feed the people. Give them what they need to have happy and productive lives. If they fall into starvation and desperation they will revolt -- and the revolt will be far worse than the more esoteric concerns associated with giving people things that they have not earned.

After all…

Do not pursue what is illusory -- property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life -- don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes see, and if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart -- and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it might be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted in their memory!

Truly, words to live by.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at