Monday, February 29, 2016

The Pulpit and the Voting Booth

Amy E. Black (editor), Five Views on the Church and Politics

Like it or not, political Christianity is a looming force in American and International politics today. Progressives like Niebuhr and King, and conservatives like Falwell and Huckabee, have drawn inspiration from deeply seated religious beliefs. But many Bible-believing Christians probably don't realize their church traditions have historical political positions. Even fewer probably realize how solemnly take their commitment to larger society.

Wheaton College poli-sci professor Amy E. Black compiles opinions from scholars representing five Christian traditions: Anabaptist, Lutheran, Black Church, Reformed (Calvinist), and Catholic. All five contributors are themselves professors, representing departments of Philosophy, Political Science, and Theology, from schools both religious and secular. All specialise in the highly controversial intersection between private spirituality and public ethics in the political realm. These are serious authors on serious topics.

These authors write for dedicated readers, in somber, exhaustively documented prose. Though not so opaque that only university scholars could read them, these authors do expect literate Christian audiences ready to think deeply and question well: pastors, congregations, activists, and the intellectually ambitious. It has distinct foundational principles (Christian validity, for instance, isn't up for debate), but the ramifications of those foundations get tested from multiple scholarly and spiritual angles.

Each chapter runs approximately forty pages, including the authors' respective arguments, followed by brief responses from the other four authors. This direct debate format gives readers the opportunity to evaluate the different traditions, from insider and outsider perspectives. Because too many Christians are unfamiliar with their own churches' social issues positions, much less any others, this wealth of information let's engaged believers test their beliefs against diverse and conflicting views.

The various opinions about the church's relationship to politics reflect the traditions' historical relationships with power. The Anabaptist and Black Church traditions arose in legal persecution, and distrust power-- though Anabaptists remain committedly apolitical, while the Black Church has a dedicated activist history. Lutheran and Reformed churches originated from political turmoil, and made strategic alliances with kings. And the Catholic chapter bespeaks a strong Counter-Reformation character.

Critical readers will find plenty to agree with, and plenty to dispute, in every chapter. As a long-term Lutheran, I found Robert Benne's "Lutheran" chapter particularly frustrating, because he doesn't acknowledge his own blinders. Writing from a Missouri Synod angle, his positions are, to non-aligned eyes, downright reactionary. He mocks the ELCA position as governed by partisan alliances, but seems unaware how often he recites Reaganite politics as religious interpretation.

But we could level similar charges against almost every chapter. Of the five traditions represented, only one, the Catholic tradition, is organizationally unified. The others represent umbrella categories, and as such must treat in broad generalization. Though dense and scholarly, this book isn't, probably cannot be, truly exhaustive. Individual authors don't offer lists of recommended further reading, but you could make shopping lists of their pretty thorough source notes.

It's particularly noteworthy how no authors much quote their religious traditions' founders. The Anabaptist author, Thomas W. Heilke, shows greatest influence from John Howard Yoder, for instance, and the Calvinist author, James KA Smith, substantially cites Abraham Kuyper. (Lutheran author Robert Bennett, has no preponderant source.) The Catholic and Black Church authors, lacking single founders, show more inclusive influence, though unsurprisingly, Thomas Aquinas looms large in Catholic politics.

I could wish one source played more into the authors' reasoning: none much cites Scripture. I understand that Christians of good will and solemn faith have, throughout history, sometimes twisted Scripture to serve ungodly ends, so highlighting an interpretive lens maybe matters more right here. But if Scripture doesn't form the foundation of Christians' distinct political views, we're no different than the countless noisy voices cluttering modern political debate.

For the most part, the authors seldom take sides in real debates. This book focuses on political thought and justification, not outcomes. Not only are churches forbidden by law to make electoral endorsements, but most mainline churches dislike giving adherents marching orders, at least post-Reformation. (This book pointedly isn't for passive people or Jim Jones-style cults.) Some issues, particularly care for the poor, do recur. Dogma, however, does not.

Late in this book, J. Brian Benestad writes: "What the law could and should achieve in a liberal society will always be a subject for debate, in which Catholics have the right and duty to participate." Substitute "Christians" for "Catholics," and you have our thesis. Disparate viewpoints contribute details: from within or without? Through activism or example? As politicians or the people? The debate is as worthy as any single answer.

Friday, February 26, 2016

David Mamet's Lost Classic, Found

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 68
David Mamet, adapted by Richard Bean, House of Games

Doctor Margaret Ford, a respected university psychologist, has recently published a book on compulsive behavior, making her clinical practice suddenly very valuable. One of her clients, a compulsive gambler named Billy, threatens suicide over an unpayable marker. Dr. Ford follows Billy’s trail into a sweltering den of sin called the House of Games, and accidentally joins a gang of committed grifters, led by the romantically dangerous “Mike.”

The original 1987 film House of Games marked the film directing debut of legendary Chicago theatre auteur David Mamet. It also cemented his reputation as America’s contemporary master of confidence games and baroque conspiracies. The movie’s robust cast and roaming locations probably reflect a director unsure whether he’d ever get a second bite of the apple, but Richard Bean’s 2010 stage adaptation has a small cast and intimate two-set design.

Early scenes mirror Mamet’s original screen images: Dr. Ford in her office, then into the gambling den, where she pierces a penny-ante swindle. But from there, Bean’s adaptation abandons Mamet’s events, while maintaining his “long con” themes. Where Mamet spends many long scenes on Mike giving Ford a walking tour of the underworld, Bean has Mike invite her into his world. Before long, she thinks she’s become one of them.

Bean divides the play into ten scenes—following common British theatre conventions today (this play debuted at London’s Almeida Theatre), act breaks are variable for a particular theatre’s needs. The transition between Margaret’s clean, elevated, sunlit clinic, and Mike’s sordid netherworld, plays up the way she believes she can walk between settings. She could stop events whenever she wants. She’s just become addicted to class tourism.

David Mamet
Mamet, in writing his movie, avoided getting too specific about Dr. Ford’s psychological understandings. Bean prefers to make use of the science. As Margaret discovers the irrational motivators which make long cons possible, motivators which the grifters understand through experience and keen observation, she feels compelled to hang Latinate terminology on it. The need to intellectualize what others just do, illuminates themes Mamet barely, fleetingly acknowledged.

This also goes toward the re-staging of Mamet’s original story. Bean pretty accurately manages to recreate the speech rhythms which made Mamet famous (critics praise Mamet’s fragmentary dialogue as “realistic,” but many theatre conservatories have dedicated courses in acting Mamet, because he’s so difficult). While the grifters speak the disconnected “street English” Margaret’s cultural prejudices demand, she uses complete sentences, unable to digest dangerous ideas apart from grammar.

That makes Margaret’s ultimate resolution of Mike’s betrayal more satisfying than the original movie. If you haven’t seen it, avert your eyes now: in the movie, Margaret uses what Mike taught her to separate him from his companions, shoot him, and get away scot-free. Satisfying, but blunt. Not here. This Margaret leaves Mike alive to face the humiliation of knowing he got out-gamed by what should’ve been a routine mark.

Many David Mamet plays, and more recently his movies, focus on themes of class tourism. This probably reflects internalized guilt: born to middle-class Chicago Jewish comfort, Mamet nevertheless embraced a youthful fondness for risk-taking. He made and lost stacks of cash playing poker, money he could afford to gamble with in ways his fellow players often couldn’t. Stories like this suggest struggles, still unresolved, with petit-bourgeois white contrition.

The greater intimacy inherent in Bean’s adaptation, however, actually changes Mamet’s character interpretations. Margaret’s journey into crime becomes something different, leading to a different payoff: rather than seeking vengeance, she finds ways to turn the tables by revealing hidden truths. By the play’s conclusion, her identity has truly, irrevocably, transformed. Mamet equivocates this point, but Bean wholly declares you can’t linger in the underground without getting some on you.

In Bean’s rendering, this story isn’t about thrill-seeking and guilt. It’s about how humans exist in constant community, taking pieces of our identity from one another. It’s about how we rely upon trust to make even the most basic arrangements, and how even the most inveterate liars need to trust one another, at least sometimes. And it’s about how, when we let others inside our defenses, they never truly leave.

It takes brass to change David Mamet. As one of American theatre’s few artists who actually makes a living writing, Mamet has influence few living craftsmen share. Yet in translating Mamet’s immense, geographically sprawling story to stage confines, Bean picks out psychological implications even Mamet possibly missed. The movie and the play make interesting companion pieces. And Mamet makes audiences question who we think we are.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Are (Were) Christian Schools Racist?

Liberty University, Jerry Falwell's bastion of American conservative intelligentsia
An article circulated furiously on social media this week explaining the roots of the organized Christian Right, which became an influential American voting bloc in the late 1970s. The original article, published on Politico, was entitled “The Real Origins of the Religious Right.” But more readers probably read the “Reader’s Digest version,” published on Slate, entitled “It Wasn’t Abortion That Formed the Religious Right. It Was Support for Segregation.

The Slate title pretty accurately captures the thesis of both articles. But the Politico original is pretty sparsely sourced. Religious conservatives will find the article easy to dismiss, while those who dislike the Religious Right’s cultural influence will celebrate. Therefore we must beg the question: should we take this vituperation seriously? Short answer: Yes. Long answer: How much time do you have? Because the facts require nuance and patience.

Both articles focus on how the IRS rescinded Bob Jones University’s tax-exempt status for maintaining discriminatory admissions policy. BJU didn’t admit black students until 1971, upheld basic tokenism until 1975, and didn’t rescind policies against interracial dating until media outrage in 2000. Even name-checking BJU basically guarantees to polarize discussions, something its administration embraces with pride. But centrist Catholic author Michael Sean Winters suggests a very different source.

Winters, in his book God's Right Hand, barely mentions BJU. Not unfairly, either: outside religious-political discussions, BJU, an unaccredited sectarian school, has no national profile. Much more emphasis falls on Jerry Falwell, Thomas Road Baptist Church, and Liberty University. Falwell managed to build one of America’s first vertically integrated religious empires, with not only a coast-to-coast multimedia presence, but a completely intact educational ladder from pre-K to post-graduate.

Falwell wasn’t himself racist. He even drew some congregational ire, in semi-rural Virginia, by hiring an Indonesian music minister. He openly embraced fellow Christian leaders of various racial and doctrinal backgrounds. This probably reflected his status as an adult Christian convert: not raised amid proto-Evangelical culture, he never internalized the fortress mentality. This probably explains both his lasting influence, and his success building an innovative ministry.

Jerry Falwell
However, Winters identifies a constellation of influences that motivated the previously apolitical Falwell to co-found the Moral Majority, the first monolithic conservative Christian organization. Before Falwell, Christians weren’t statistically likely to favor one political party over another. Remember, a Democrat, Jimmy Carter, moved the terms “Evangelical” and “Born Again” into America’s lexicon. But Christians quickly turned against Carter because he favored law over religion in governance.

The 1970s saw many changes in American governance that angered moral conservatives like Falwell. The first gay rights initiatives got passed. The school integration and mandatory busing demanded by the Brown v. BOE judgement came into maturity. Lopsided poverty protection problems that basically transferred money to minorities in stacks garnered attention, electrified by the trial of Linda Taylor, the original "Welfare Queen." Ideological conservatives had legitimate grievances in that decade.

For Falwell and others, however, the crowning indignity came in 1978. The government floated a regulation targeted specifically at Evangelical Christians. Quoting Winters:
The final straw that broke the back of evangelical isolation was a 1978 proposal from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to require Christian schools that had no black students to prove the segregation was not a result of their conscious efforts.
This passage includes three important nuggets. First, it required Christian organizations to prove a negative. It’s possible to demonstrate somebody is racist. But proving somebody isn’t? How does one accomplish that? Second, the IRS proposal, which was never instituted or enforced, clearly uses regulation to overreach the law. This remains a common conservative grievance; reading Winters, it’s impossible to miss that conservatives essentially keep re-fighting the battles of 1978.

Third, note the buried term: “evangelical isolation.” Evangelical conservatives like Falwell, whose Thomas Road Baptist Church was located in a primarily white area, didn’t necessarily intend to exclude Blacks. Rather, they meant to exclude modernity. Following the PR humiliation of the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” Evangelical conservatives attempted to build their own proprietary society, parallel to the mainstream. Even today, Liberty University remains squishy on teaching evolution, even to future biology teachers.

The organized Christian Right originated not from an attempt to bust racism, but from an attempt to drag Evangelicals, kicking and screaming, into modernity. That included racial issues; and while most Evangelical leaders will disavow Apartheid motivations, dog whistle language still occasionally appears. But it’s a mistake to assume Evangelicals are unilaterally racist. They have a wide range of opinions. They just don’t want any part of your modern world.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Great Lost Pimp Strut of 1986

Iceberg Slim, Shetani's Sister

LAPD vice detective Russell Rucker and Manhattan pimp Master Shetani are almost identical personalities. Addicted to control, both will ignore any rule to maintain their illusions of autonomy. When Master Shetani decides to relocate his stable to sunny Shakey Town, he places two alpha males on an inevitable collision course. California's glamorous street subculture will never be the same.

Iceberg Slim, the often forgotten godfather of hip-hop, originally wrote this manuscript in 1986, then stuck it in a bottom drawer and died with it unpublished. Biographer Justin Gifford, in his introduction, intimates Slim did this to punish his publisher, who failed to pay him royalties. But elsewhere, Gifford credits Slim's first wife as unbilled co-author of his best work, and that marriage ended in 1978. I suggest Slim knew this novel didn't meet the standards of his jive-era classics.

Master Shetani has grown rich enough running girls to own real estate off pre-gentrification Times Square. He controls his stable with judicious applications of heroin and violence. But he's grown hardened, and hates himself, lashing out for superficial offenses. California offers opportunities for change, especially when his bottom woman gets a coke-addled vice cop in her pocket. Shetani sets out to reinvent himself.

Detective Rucker, a fiftyish widower, stopped drinking to appease his sweetheart. But he's clearly on a dry drunk, using shows of force to silence his demons, hiding from consequences behind his badge. When he kills a knife-wielding pimp, he handles his regret by diving into a bottle. Turns out, the late Big Cat was Master Shetani's boyhood friend. Now two strong-willed antiheroes have a debt of honor to pay one another.

Iceberg Slim
This novel has three core problems. First is Slim's rudimentary grammar. Though Slim's classics, published from 1967 to 1978, impressed audiences with their mastery of Black street English (some of which Slim probably invented), this prose feels less "street," more "hasty." His strictly subject-object sentences and scanty vocabulary leave me feeling I'm reading a first draft the author never re-read after writing it in one sitting.

Second, Slim writes about sex in very ham-handed language. In a novel about a pimp, we expect copious raunchy content; but Slim writes with the kind of sloppy, overblown terminology I remember from 8th-grade locker room bull sessions. He sounds like a blustering teenager trying to impress underclassmen with his sexual war stories, not a grown man who actually served in the trenches, as both Slim and his characters putatively are.

Third, and most importantly, he doesn't treat his characters equally. Slim, who served a hitch in Leavenworth for pimping, invests more time, ink, and psychological insight into Master Shetani than Detective Rucker. Even Rucker's right-hand man gets page space, and character development, Rucker never gets, possibly because he's nakedly corrupt scum. A character driven to do right actions for wrong reasons doesn't merit Slim's attention.

Not that Slim glamorizes the pimp lifestyle. Slim spent his later years urging pimps to quit the life (his devotion to the girls was somewhat squishier). Accordingly, he paints Master Shetani as morally destitute, a self-hating monstrosity who humiliates women to silence his own inner monologue. He snags a new girl who reminds him of the beloved sister he lost, and shows glimmers of humanity. So naturally he turns her out.

But Slim just doesn't invest in other characters the same way. Russell Rucker stays mostly a cipher throughout the book, a wonderful example of unrealized potential. Maybe that's because Slim knew pimps better than cops, but serious authors overcome knowledge gaps. He could've contacted cops personally for research purposes (which I say, knowing a convicted Black pimp questioning police in 1986 would've ended up face-down on the linoleum).

Knowing what I know now about addiction, Iceberg Slim's career reads like a lifelong quest to stifle childhood demons. Growing up fatherless and geographically unmoored, he spent adulthood struggling against self-doubt. Several characters in this book recount bitter memories of abusive, judgmental mothers, a useful clue. First by dominating women, then by shaming others for doing likewise, Slim probably tried to exert power he'd lost over his life.

Had he published this book during his lifetime, a seasoned editor could've helped Slim refine it into a mature, dangerous investigation of themes running his own life. But right now it reads like an unedited draft, a seed of raw potential begging an experienced gardener's nurturance. As an idea, this is a great book. But as a published novel, it's mainly a curiosity for Slim's most dedicated fans.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Los Angeles By Firelight

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part Five
Bill Duke (director), Deep Cover

Russell Stevens, a Cincinnati uniformed patrol cop on a dead-end career track, gets conscripted by the feds to bust a powerful drug ring controlling central Los Angeles. Given a new identity as cocaine pusher John Hull, Stevens vanishes into his duty, sleeping rough, building networks, and advancing rapidly. But he quickly discovers himself becoming the monster he promised his junkie father he’d never be. Neither the law nor the criminal underworld will let him leave.

Released under two weeks before the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, this film concisely captures the simmering cauldron of issues that fueled that violence: racial stratification, ham-fisted street policing in the late Reagan-Bush years, drug turf wars which peaked that year, and fears that the government used drugs to control poor blacks. Though critically revered, the movie barely broke even, “too black” for mainstream distributors. Yet its relevance is urgent in today’s “Black Lives Matter” environment.

Laurence Fishburne plays Stevens, in his last role billed under his former child actor moniker of “Larry” Fishburne. In his run up LaLa-Land’s drug culture, he finds a quick ally in David Jason (Jeff Goldblum), a Jewish lawyer whose connections, and eagerness for street cred, make him an easy mark. Jason is the most revolting form of class tourist, sleeping with black women, appropriating black cultural signifiers, then sleeping soundly in his exclusive gated community.

Stevens, as Hull, and Jason find themselves wedged between conflicting forces. From beneath, they’re owned by Colombian kleptocrat Anton Gallegos, who considers his pushers interchangeable cannon fodder. From above, LAPD vice detective Taft (Clarence Williams III, TV’s The Mod Squad) considers Hull a kindred spirit. He quotes the Bible and attempts to save Hull, but finds himself hamstrung by laws, public scrutiny, and his manifestly corrupt partner. Seasoned movie audiences know somebody’s going to die.

The drug lifestyle proves powerfully seductive to Stevens. Starting out his undercover role in cargo pants and a wife-beater, he graduates to button-down shirts, before earning his own hand-tailored suits. But he staunchly resists sampling his own product, and won’t even drink alcohol, for no other reason than that he promised his dying father. Perhaps he should; it would calm his objectless rage and self-loathing. Twelve-step devotees will recognize Stevens as a classic dry drunk.

Jeff Goldblum (left) and "Larry" Fishburne, approaching the film's final confrontation
This movie is redolent of hip-hop culture, which in 1992 was just bursting into the American mainstream. The movie’s soundtrack features Los Angeles hip-hop stalwart Dr. Dre, and one of the first recording credits for Dre’s promising young apprentice, Snoop Doggy Dogg (still billed thusly). Stevens quotes Iceberg Slim while capping a rival dealer in a dance club restroom. The rival wears parachute pants and a high-top fade, signalling the brutal death of Eighties idealism.

Most tellingly, Stevens’ DEA handler Carver (Charles Martin Smith, American Graffiti) encourages this slide into profligacy. Operating a massive sting on shoestring budgets, Carver urges Stevens to push product, live large, and kill. He seems eerily well-informed, calling himself “God,” but lacks money to enforce his divine dictates. At key moments, Carver also proves vulnerable to top-down political pressure, turning against the operative he created in exactly the way Stevens despises from his Colombian contacts.

While Stevens increasingly vanishes into his John Hull role, David Jason follows the opposite track. Starting off nebbishy in his slim-fit courtroom suits, squeamish to watch his pusher superiors enforce street ethics with terminal force, he gradually becomes everything Stevens leaves behind. He starts using guns as tools of street politics, and wears tight t-shirts showcasing his massively hulked-out figure. By the climactic confrontation, he evolves into about the scariest white nerd in film history.

The story unfolds in different directions simultaneously. “John Hull” sells drugs to Shakey Town’s lowest black denizens, trembling human refuse desperate for anything to kill the pain. But the corruption his investigation uncovers reaches the very top, far above DEA machinations or political oversight. Stevens performs an elaborate political pas-de-deux, appeasing two enemies while keeping his conscience clean. He embodies the then-growing African American fear, that the state was using crack to keep Blacks poor.

Into the 1990s, Laurence Fishburne played increasingly sententious Magic Negro roles, culminating in Morpheus, among the most frustratingly Confucian characters ever played onscreen. But here, at the commencement of his mature career, Fishburne plays something altogether different. Rage and desperation battle beneath his tightly controlled exterior, an explosion waiting to happen. Sorta like situations happening today. A quarter century on, this story looks frighteningly familiar. Like all great literature, this movie is ultimately about us.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

That Chameleon Obama

Michael Eric Dyson, The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America

It always bothers me when I essentially agree with a book, but must nevertheless recommend against it. This usually happens, as here, because a book has a solid social conscience, bolstered with well-researched evidence, but essentially lacks a through-line. At no point does the author say anything outright wrong. But the overall product feels like several op-ed articles, written separately and loosely strung together sometime later.

Georgetown University sociologist Michael Eric Dyson has written extensively on Black American culture in conflict with the putative mainstream. In this volume, Dyson addresses what Barack Obama means, both personally and in his office, to America overall, and African Americans in particular. This isn’t easy. As Dyson reveals, President Obama has uncovered some ugly scars lingering beneath a national consensus that would like to move beyond race.

Dyson acknowledges early something his fellow social scientists have recognized for a generation, that “race” is a social status, not a genetic inheritance. But that doesn’t make it any less real. Especially for someone of mixed racial heritage, like President Obama, racial issues can be deeply fraught, as they’re urged to identify, according to situation, with either the higher- or lower-status halves of their heritage.

This creates an important question surrounding the President: is he really “black”? This question may seem meaningless to many white Americans, but Dyson helpfully walks readers through its implications. As son of an African immigrant, and not descendant of slaves, Obama inherits a different history than most African Americans. Perhaps this partly explains his easy admission into competitive schools, from Punahou to Harvard Law, often beyond Black applicants’ reach.

Michael Eric Dyson
Yet even here, Dyson reveals his own blinders. He claims African immigrants are often treated preferentially over African Americans in the US market. Maybe that’s true in large coastal cities where Dyson lives; in flyover country, where I live, African immigrants, primarily Somali and Sudanese refugees, are a despised underclass, shuffled off to work graveyard shifts in meat-packing plants. One suspects Dyson doesn’t acknowledge this simply because he doesn’t know.

Therein lies one of Dyson’s recurrent problems. Some pages are so heavily documented that every sentence ends with a source citation; other pages involve paragraph after paragraph of unsourced generalizations which depend upon avoiding further scrutiny. He lumps entire populations—white and Black, Republican and Democratic, American and international—into sweeping abstractions that might make sense in some settings, but may contradict readers’ experience.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not calling Dyson wrong; rather, his rightness depends on one’s perspective. What’s true in Dyson’s Detroit upbringing or his DC career isn’t necessarily portable everywhere. When Dyson uses broad generalizations, like unsourced descriptions of Obama’s frequent chastisement of Black family structures, reinforced with high-handed terms like “Obama’s moral rampaging,” I wonder, who does Dyson speak for? Or is he editorializing?

Personal experience is a legitimate source of criticism. Dyson’s best chapter, on Obama’s rhetorical usage, derives from Dyson’s personal experience as an academic and sometime Christian minister. President Obama won white support partly by using what white audiences consider “correct” grammar and pronunciation. But Dyson demonstrates Obama also uses distinctly Black rhetorical flourishes, learned from the two places many African Americans feel freest to speak: hip-hop lyrics and the pulpit.

This overlap with Black religious tradition interests me, as I’ve read recently from Black Liberation Theology, particularly Obery M. Hendricks and James H. Cone. Obama’s public rhetoric derives directly from an African American prophetic tradition which white audiences often won’t recognize, because it’s outside the scope of our experience. Dyson demonstrates that this tradition is not only present in Obama’s speeches, it partly explains Black America’s fervent support.

I love this chapter. Dyson melds his personal experience with thorough-going scholarship to demonstrate why Obama’s verbal appeal crosses often-hardened racial boundaries, which politicians like Bernie Sanders have never crossed. I’d read a book-length disquisition on this topic. Yet here, like on so many topics, Dyson basically acknowledges his point, then caroms off again, already eager to address the next question. It feels less like a chapter, more like an orphaned article.

In addressing the entire “Black Presidency,” Dyson has chosen himself a huge topic. Maybe that’s his problem. Maybe this book feels like it lacks a unifying thesis because he’s chosen a massive umbrella topic lacking a unifying message. Perhaps this book could’ve been longer, or perhaps it could’ve been narrower, addressing just the conflicting racial narratives or something. I like Dyson’s idea, but it feels like a laundry list of praise and grievance, lacking unity.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Funeral Mass in the Key of Bowie

1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part 2
David Bowie, Blackstar

It takes four minutes into this album’s title track before the beat drops. Think about that: the first song’s slow, lingering intro outlasts most Top-40 teenybopper singles. Throughout, the syncopated backbeat contrasts with a droning main line, a complete reversal of the usual pop composition structure. This serves two purposes: it presages the entire album’s contemplative, dirge-like structure. And it dares half-committed listeners to trust the artist or piss off.

Not that those four minutes are wasted white noise. Bowie sings, in a manner reminiscent of Gregorian chant, about a strange ritual taking place “In the villa of Orman,” a mythological place where smiling and kneeling go hand-in-hand. The song explains little. But we don’t need much explanation; Bowie sounds clearly like he’s singing somebody’s death knell. No mystery whose. Throughout the album, Bowie is clearly scripting his own upcoming funeral procession.

In the wake of Bowie’s passing, you undoubtedly heard endless repetitions of clips from this album, especially the key images from the video for his track “Lazarus.” You know the one, the images of Bowie lying in a hospital gurney, eyes bandaged, buttons planted like pennies for the boatman. These images, and the sounds accompanying them, are reasonable approximations of this entire album, an exploration of a still-active mind trapped in a slowly failing body.

Like most serious contemporary recording artists, David Bowie often composed recent tracks with one eye oriented toward YouTube. Both advance videos for this album feature that bandaged man. But he exists in different contexts. In “Lazarus,” he’s visibly dying, while ghosts of his past identities, now emaciated and jerky, like withering wind-up men, surround his deathbed. He’s clearly struggling to put his past to rest, and not necessarily succeeding.

The other advance video single, “Blackstar,” features a strange funeral ritual, making explicit what’s only implied in the lyrics (“In the day of execution, only women kneel and smile”). Except the women, who have tails and apparently live under a permanent eclipse, are burying a skeleton in an Apollo astronaut suit. At the far end of his career, Bowie is apparently, at last, giving Major Tom the burial his career-launching single always denied.

Occasional Classic Rock Radio staples like “Space Oddity” or “Changes” notwithstanding, David Bowie’s music, in the main, has never been particularly approachable. He distrusted easy acclaim. Here, too, he buries tracks that could have earned him cheap radio airplay. Tracks like “Girl Loves Me” or “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which could’ve been Modern Rock chart hits, Bowie chose instead to conceal as deep album cuts. Even dying, he didn’t want mere applause.

Despite shifting tones, and complicated lyrical themes, this album sounds like a piece. The lead instruments throughout appear to be saxophone and electric bass, bolstered by strings (probably on synthesizer) and a guitar so understated, it’s almost not there, giving this album overall a jazz-like sound. Maybe that’s the point. Like Miles Davis, this album has in inscrutable, Miles Davis-like texture that prevents listening with only one ear.

Like Miles, Bowie’s musical epiphanies happen between the notes. Sometimes that involves his explosive lyrics, like on tracks like “’Tis Pity She Was a Whore” or “Sue (or In a Season of Crime),” probably the only two songs where it’s possible to say they’re “about” something. Other lyrics—“Dollar Days” springs most immediately to mind, alongside the two singles—have less an object than a theme, which we uncover only by immersing ourselves in Bowie’s journey.

And what a journey. As “Blackstar” involves planning his own burial, “Sue” implies burying somebody else, a loved one who… what? With the references to x-rays and tests, I thought perhaps she was dying, an impression bolstered by references to kissing her face and pushing her beneath the weeds. But what’s this about having a son and atonement? Is Sue feeling guilty about an abortion? Then I realized, don’t read it linearly. It’s probably about a miscarriage.

That’s consistent with this album’s entire arc. Meaning comes incrementally, and I”m sure I haven’t savvied everything implicit in Bowie’s complicated lyrics. He struggles with imminent mortality, with facing a God he hasn’t pinned down. (Like George Harrison, Bowie’s lifelong spiritual struggle is heavily documented.) Bowie’s lyrics cite “heaven,” “the great I Am,” and other references to a God he doesn’t quite believe in.

This isn’t fun-time party music. It absolutely demands commitment to the journey. But listeners willing to participate will find an album that lingers, that changes your brain slowly, like Bowie, always evolving.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

How America Crucified Jesus Again

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 67
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

During America’s so-called “Lynching Era,” from roughly 1865 to 1955, whites murdered over five thousand Black Americans for mostly fictitious offenses. They faced few legal consequences, and often the law connived with this street justice. Most appallingly, these white assassins almost universally used Christian language and Biblical justifications to support their violence. African Americans, domineered by this behavior, supported themselves, remarkably enough, using this same Christian religion.

Union Theological Seminary professor James H. Cone, one of his school’s first Black faculty, grew up under Jim Crow, knowing the fear lynching offered. This isn’t historical escapism for Cone. Knowing directly the ways faith brought solace, he has written extensively on how religion means something unique to oppressed peoples. With this volume, he turns that attention specifically to violence, and how religion binds terrified individuals together into a people.

Lynching meant something almost identical in America that crucifixion meant in Rome: a political maneuver to silence despised peoples by generating paralyzing fear. African Americans literally had no idea who’d die next, in ways both humiliating and public. No wonder, Cone writes, that African American theology emphasizes the cross in ways white Christianity doesn’t, because Black Christians needed a God who shared their experiences of unjust, bigoted suffering and death.

Despite their usual presentation anymore, lynchings were seldom spontaneous; Emmett Till’s attackers plotted his assassination for four days. Though the perpetrators inevitably claimed some legal justification, we now know, these were usually fictitious. Attackers targeted Blacks who got rich, exercised autonomy, or otherwise didn’t accept race-based etiquette. This “frontier justice” was almost inevitably unjust. For many lynched African Americans, their last living sight involved white crowds surrounding flaming crosses.

James H. Cone
This jagged gulf between white and Black Christianity dominates Cone’s largest chapter. How did even liberal-minded and anti-racist theologians fail to notice the parallel between lynchings and Christ’s crucifixion? Cone uses Reinhold Niebuhr as his exemplar. Niebuhr made justice the keystone of his social theology, and addressed injustices against Jews and the poor long before mainstream Christians did. Yet somehow he never connected that theme to American lynchings.

It wasn’t that Niebuhr failed to notice. As Cone demonstrates through Niebuhr’s own publications and papers, when challenged to speak out, Niebuhr demurred. Ensconced in an entirely white Northern university, he saw lynching separately from faith. “This suggests why it is so hard for whites and blacks to talk about white supremacy,” Cone writes: “even among progressive intellectuals like Niebuhr, there is too little empathy regarding black suffering in the white community.”

African Americans did understand, however. Cone dedicates one chapter each to the theologians, artists, and women whose participation fueled the anti-lynching and Civil Rights movements. Cone describes how difficult it is to separate lynching and other racial violence from the efforts to redress injustice: Dr. King’s first pulpit, Emmett Till’s lynching, and Rosa Parks’ refusal to move, happened in very quick succession.

Theologians’ interpretation of crucifixion related directly to lynching, a theology of triumph over fear, not even a metaphorical connection. If the God of the universe shared Black Americans’ suffering, if the God of the Oppressed knew violent, politically motivated death, then what had anyone to fear? “Scholars who criticize blacks for their ‘otherworldly’ religion,” Cone writes, “should look a little deeper into the ways blacks resisted the demonic in their midst.”

Artists used Christian metaphors to not only express individual suffering, but bind African Americans together into a resistence movement. Cone cites a panoply of artists, mostly writers, but also musicians, performers, and others, whose use of crucifixion metaphors meant something special to Black audiences. Even nominally agnostic artists like James Baldwin and WEB DuBois embraced religious symbolism. “Faith and doubt were bound together, with each a check against the other.”

Cone dedicates an entire chapter to women whose works steered Black Christian influences in the struggle. As in other traditions, men might “lead” the church, but women propel it. Influential women like Ida B. Wells, the journalist and pamphleteer, or Fannie Lou Hamer, whose speeches were generously salted with lines from psalms and hymns, provided a guiding voice for Black resistance. Their presence was absolute, and their message electrifying.

Cone has written extensively on the influence of resistance and power dynamics in Black theology. This book explicitly marries spiritual beliefs to lived history, a prime example of faith translating into action. Cone’s historical descriptions of real-life lynchings will horrify readers, especially whites, for whom lynching has retreated from memory. But this isn’t about the past. Cone exhorts us, the living, today.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Classical Music for the Modern Ear

Laura Sullivan, Feast of Joy and Love

Okay, honesty time: I cringed inwardly when I saw this album’s opening track featured a medley of Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” and “Minuet in G,” two of the most over-performed pieces of Baroque music. They’re usually played in bloodless styles completely lacking Bach’s devotion, especially at weddings. But Laura Sullivan immediately plays “Jesu” by mixing her piano and spare orchestration with an Enya-like wordless chorus that pushes an overplayed piece in new directions.

Following her Grammy Award for her 2013 album Love's River, composer/pianist Laura Sullivan has begun vigorously re-releasing her prior independent New Age albums. But calling her music “New Age” feels dismissive, like comparing it to those studiously inoffensive albums of piano and Hammond organ music my parents played every holiday dinner. Sullivan’s music sounds different, more enterprising, like an attempt to create mature, sophisticated pop for grown-up audiences. Her strangely introspective arrangements succeed well.

Sullivan’s careful orchestration resembles current chamber pop stars like Bon Iver or The Decembrists. But she approaches her sound from the opposite direction: rather than creating Top 40-friendly pop that mines the best baroque sounds, she crafts listenable classical music that incorporates pop breeziness. Her music will sound charmingly familiar to anybody versed in pre-Mozart classical sounds. Not that she limits herself, though. Her uncluttered arrangements include hints of Latin, Celtic, and other world musics.

Besides Bach, Sullivan repurposes works by Beethoven, Albinoni, and the anonymous classic “Greensleeves.” This in addition to her original compositions, which don’t necessarily ascend in the strictly classical manner. Her best works, like the Cape Breton-infused “Shalaelah” or the transnational “Café des Artistes,” have a Philip Glass character, based on recognition of patterns rather than development of themes. Her Greensleeves arrangement exemplifies this effect, carrying motifs from piano to voice and back, frequently in near-harmony.

Laura Sullivan
Piano drives these tracks, which makes an interesting change from many single-artist New Age recordings. Though the notes indicate Sullivan uses digital samples to bolster her acoustic instruments, she doesn’t rely upon synth and electronics to create her music—mercifully enough since that usually only sounds good in garage rock. She supports her music by multi-tracking her vocals (and her husband Eric), sometimes incorporating strings and saxophone for increased richness. But she remains committedly acoustic.

This combination of theme-driven arrangements and spare instrumentation permits Sullivan some moments of surprising clarity. In “Pinot Noir,” for instance, Sullivan cedes lead to saxophonist Noel Jewkes, whose steady jazz progressions overlay Sullivan’s piano and barely audible brushes on percussion. (Sullivan uses some percussion, but mainly lets her left hand establish the groove.) This track is the closest Sullivan comes to out-and-out melancholy, yet she makes it feel like a mere breather on the road.

As the title suggests, Sullivan maintains a primarily positive attitude throughout this album, with works mainly in common and waltz time, with easygoing tempos you could slow-dance or stir-fry to. Nothing sufficiently Bolero-like for risqué business, sorry. But for the preliminaries, for holding hands while watching the sunset or cooking dinner on an open fire, Sullivan’s music provides not just a mindless background, but an actual tempo, a useful and pleasurable groove for shared movement.

In some ways, Laura Sullivan represents what’s possible for musicians who embrace modern technology. Not only does she have creative control enough over her music to create a sound she wants, independent distribution through her private label ensures her personal guidance continues over her work. Like the more mainstream Ani DiFranco, Sullivan has a level of artistic autonomy little seen since early recordings displaced traditional troubadours. Perhaps music has now returned to the originating musicians.

Except, if Sullivan hadn’t solicited this review personally, I might never have discovered her sound. My adolescent prejudices against New Age music would’ve kept me from trying this album even if I’d encountered it somewhere. The means of creating music have devolved to individual musicians, but the means of publicizing remain tenaciously owned by the Big Five media conglomerates. How can musicians assert control over their music, if curious listeners like me never hear them?

Laura Sullivan creates a “lite classical” sound nuanced enough that a part-time snob like me can approach her sound without feeling talked down to. But her spare arrangements and vernacular piano invite pop audiences to participate in her journey too. Her sounds, which range from Gregorian austerity to celebratory sophistication, bring committed listeners on a journey, or if you’d rather listen with half an ear, she buoys your mood. Sullivan wants to restore your soul.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Spotting the Bullshit Entrepreneurs

The very first headline on my Facebook feed this past Monday seemed designed to grab my attention. “Drug Kingpin Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman Escapes Mexican Prison Once Again,” it screamed in oversize type, highlighted with an aged file photo of El Chapo looking stereotypically greasy. Given El Chapo’s violent history, and pattern of slipping unnoticed into American territory, I clicked the link.

Immediately, something felt wrong. The ABC News logo appeared distorted. The page took absurdly long to load. (I’m not linking the page here because I suspect it dumps a torrent of tracking cookies.) It misspelled common words in journalism, like “extradite.” And despite giving a detailed timeline of El Chapo’s escape, it cited no named sources. As evidence accumulated, I realized I’d probably gotten Punk’d.

In late 2015, Caitlin Dewey claimed on NPR that she ended her long-running Washington Post column “What Was Fake On The Internet This Week” for one simple reason: one person couldn’t possibly stay abreast of the Internet’s lucrative bullshit industry. Advertising aggregators don’t check the sites that purchase their product. Thus, until clickbait stops attracting social media visits, fake news sites will remain lucrative businesses.

Bullshit is, sadly enough, a growth industry.

Last time I wrote about this problem, my Spidey Sense flipped over an article accusing Senator Ted Cruz of blaming Texas flooding on Native American rain dances. But I made a fundamental mistake: I identified a specific offender. “Naming and shaming” apparently works; eight months later, that specific website has gone away. But the underlying problem has not. Bullshit vendors change their domain names, and persevere undeterred.

Therefore, rather than identify specific fake news websites (smarter critics than I have done it better anyway), let’s consider what red flags clearly identify fake news:

- The URL looks slightly off
This latest time, I got bilked by a website claiming to be ABC News. But I didn’t look closely. The ABC network’s news website is, but I noticed too late that I’d clicked on That particular domain suffix,, is common for news fakery, and “spoof” websites have been established for MSNBC, CNN, NBC News, and other legitimate news and opinion sources.

Similarly, many new fakers purchase domains that look almost plausible. The National Report and World News Daily Report could, conceivably, be legitimate newspaper titles. But generally, the URL contains red flags to avoid taking these sites seriously. So stop reposting “news” from sources like, lest friends think that address describes you.

- They don’t cite sources
This one causes problems. Political reporters will often cite unnamed sources because their insider sources rely upon anonymity to keep their jobs. Likewise, crime reporters frequently won’t name sources, because they can’t blow ongoing operations or undercut a case still awaiting trial.

However, serious journalists will fact-check anonymous sources with named sources. Somebody reporting Oval Office leaks wouldn’t dare reprint accusations without first checking somebody who could be named. If, tomorrow, anonymous sources leaked claims that President Obama was banning tobacco, good journalists would ask spokespeople from the ONDCP, ATF, or at least Press Secretary Josh Earnest. Without that fact-checking, journalism would be mere scandal-mongering.

- The design looks cheap
Fake news sites are generally scripted hastily. They’re backdrops for the advertising, which gets the domain owners paid. If company logos look like they were done in one sitting, using Microsoft Paint, that’s a good sign we’re viewing a phoney site. The logo at looked like a vague approximation of the official ABC News logo, without that boring old dimensionality, contrast, or care.

Top: real
Bottom: FAKE
The same goes for other graphics. Legitimate news-gathering sites try to include new photos where they can; fake news sites’ photos are so vague, they clearly came from a Google image search. (I know mine are no better, but I’m a part-timer, and I don’t even pretend to be anything but a blogger.) Fake news sites generally lack any interactive content, or maybe just a comments list. Anything more requires expensive, time-consuming programming that fakers don’t care about.

Checking the links helps, too. Because the Internet allows instant cross-checking, serious news organizations will include links to prior stories, rather than making readers sit through another reiteration of the background and context. Hovering over the links in the El Chapo story, by contrast, I found over two-thirds of them redirected to Wikipedia. These links were purely for set dressing.

- They have sloppy copy editing
Misspellings and careless grammar aren’t just lackadaisical. They serve important business purposes. Should their stories go viral and cause emotive backlash, content creators can grin, point critics toward their haphazard writing, and say: “Nobody should’ve mistaken this for legitimate news.” Sadly, in free speech countries like America, this defense is legally solid.

- They have very little content
Most clickbait readers don’t follow links beyond the landing page. But sometimes, if a story feels fishy, checking the home page helps frame the debate. Real news is constantly updated, and will have dozens, or more, stories dated today on the front page. Because fake news is essentially creative writing, and because these sites generally have only one employee, they don’t update nearly as often. Most fake sites, like, update less than once per day.

- They verify your existing prejudices
Okay, this one is slippery. Partisan opinion channels like MSNBC and Fox News unambiguously cater to their audiences’ prior expectations. But fake news sources go further.

The El Chapo article that spurred this commentary was larded with comments accusing President Obama of culpability, somehow, for a Mexican criminal escaping a Mexican prison. This tendency was emphasized by linked articles claiming President Obama had signed an executive order limiting private citizens to owning three firearms, and Donald Trump had selected Sheriff Joe Arpaio as his running mate.

So basically, exists to fan conservative flames. The late, unlamented Stately Harold did something similar for liberals. By encouraging readers to cross-post their content on social media (Stately Harold even urged readers to tweet specific hashtags), they don’t just generate traffic. They actively set readers up for partisan mockery.

- They’re just too perfect
The news, like real life, is sloppy. One day, stock market returns and international news seemingly verify left-wing collectivist ideology; the next day, something awful on the police blotter apparently proves conservative authoritarians correct. Interpretations of fact are usually subject to debate, and desperate journalists can only run “he-said, she-said” coverage. Legitimate news is often more confusing than clear, at least to committed readers.

Fake news, by contrast, seldom has loose ends. It fits an inflexible view of the world: El Chapo is Evil, and President Obama is a dictator, but Donald Trump has the authoritarian hand to fix everything. Or, Ted Cruz is so silly, so overwhelmingly racist and anti-science, that he’d obviously rather blame rain on Indians than global warming. Or whatever, take your pick: if you finish reading a “news” article even more secure in your pre-existing beliefs, it’s probably fake.

Real news should make us at least slightly uncomfortable. I don’t mean firing us up with righteous indignation; real news should make us doubt our neat opinions, at least sometimes. Reality isn’t ideological. Smart, informed readers should frequently finish reading news items and struggle to wrap our heads around it. If the only thing we can say is, “See? I was right,” it’s probably fake.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Mean Streets of Faeryland

Bishop O'Connell, The Forgotten: An American Faerie Tale
This review is a follow-up to Once Upon a Time In Olde Boston Towne

Children and teenagers are vanishing nationwide. Poor street kids mostly: the unwanted, the unloved, youth nobody will miss. Only the initiated truly understand the real pattern, though, as half-fae changelings and gifted young wizards vanish off the streets. It falls to the fae’s newly installed Regent of North America, the terse, mononymic Dante, to track the missing and reclaim the dispossessed. But mysterious forces outside Dante’s domain array history’s largest dark magical army against him.

Don’t call Bishop O’Connell’s second American Faerie Tale novel a sequel. The protagonists from O’Connell’s first novel appear as supporting characters, mainly in later chapters. Dante, who previously served mainly as a convenient plot driver, becomes central in a gritty story that’s equal parts Jim Butcher, Dashiell Hammett, and The Boondock Saints. These books form a series, but O’Connell doesn’t comfortably rehash past successes, veering instead into new directions like few genre writers would anymore.

O’Connell tells a two-pronged story reminiscent of Depression-era pulp novels. In his first storyline, Dante pursues clues about missing kids from Boston to Kansas to Seattle, and beyond. He enjoys all fae-kind’s magical resources in his investigation, but all the resources of a tiny, invisible minority has its limitations. This procedure-oriented storyline includes oblique, and not-so-oblique, nods to popular crime serials like Criminal Minds and The X-Files. It’s sleek, muscular, and doesn’t flinch from confrontation.

Bishop O'Connell
The second storyline features the wandering teenage wizard Wraith. (Okay, her name’s really Jane, but in O’Connell’s world, the dispossessed give themselves comic book names.) Rejected by both humanity and fae-kind, Wraith makes alliances with “fifties” and “slingers” (half-bloods and untrained wizards) to stay beneath general notice. But grey-robed child snatchers criss-cross America, seeking unwanted, magically gifted teens like her. They seem to especially want to capture Wraith, for reasons lost inside her swiss-cheese memory.

Veteran reader know these parallel storylines must eventually converge, ideally around the two-thirds point. Our only question becomes: when? And how will Dante’s masculine film noir plot and Wraith’s free-form punk explosion transform one another? As with O’Connell’s prior book, this novel doesn’t wholly break new ground. Rather, O’Connell repurposes narrative standards familiar to most genre readers, creating a story that’s both comfortingly familiar and dangerously frank in addressing our modern society’s deep festering wounds.

Where O’Connell’s first book was basically a conventional quest epic fleshed out with Jungian archetypes, this novel is a modern crime drama made larger by the inclusion of humanity’s legendary fears of the dark. Both share the theme of struggles for power, but they disagree deeply about what power means. Nobody here wants to wrest control of an idealized Celtic afterlife; they’re busy worrying about maintaining control within this world, which often proves much dirtier.

In exercising his newly-won, and precarious, dominion, Dante sometimes uses his inborn magical powers: shapeshifting, crossing great distances through magical forests, ensorcelling mere mortals to keep his secrets. But when confronting a disobedient fae administrator, he also doesn’t mind simply pulling his guns. Sometimes simple hardware still works best. Dante’s make-do ethical structure sometimes leaves us feeling clammy: he’s clearly the hero, but we frequently don’t approve of whatever he does to maintain his authority.

Wraith is frequently a more reliable character, inasmuch as she doesn’t have underlying morals. Her code has only two tenets, staying alive and staying loyal. She occupies a world where Manichaean concepts of good and evil don’t apply. But neither do winning and losing. Wraith’s world has two options: survive, or get captured by grey-robed snatchers. Nobody knows what the snatchers do with the teenagers they capture, but the trail of bodies gives a clue.

These two ethics bespeak a Nietzschean will-to-power motive directly counter to most fantasy. Though O’Connell has previously demonstrated that eternal verities exist in his universe, they don’t matter much. Humans might face everlasting judgement, but O’Connell’s fae characters, the ones who really drive this story, have their destinies written by whichever Court they’re beholden to. This results in a universe driven by one ethical imperative, familiar from the Greek tragedies Nietzsche loved: Winners win. Period.

Thus O’Connell’s characters demonstrate some of the most cold-blooded efficiency in literature since Sam Spade slept with Brigid O’Shaughnessy, then turned her over to the gallows. And oh look, one of O’Connell’s supporting characters is named Brigid. Probably a coincidence. O’Connell creates a world where we judge characters by their actions, not their intentions. Sometimes this is cold to individuals (brutal deaths are painfully common). But O’Connell’s epilogue implies that, in the end, balance obtains.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Man-Eating Banks and the Ghost of Andrew Jackson

Paul Kahan, The Bank War: Andrew Jackson, Nicholas Biddle, and the Fight for American Finance

Popular history remembers President Andrew Jackson for two things: oppressing Indians and hating corporations. Among corporations, he reserved special wrath for banks. When he made undoing the Second Bank of the United States his personal campaign, he turned American finance unprecedentedly partisan. But Bank president Nicholas Biddle didn’t go down quietly. Two gifted, headstrong leaders quickly turned the struggle for financial control into a war for America’s identity.

Historian Paul Kahan declares openly, from his introduction, that this book isn’t about the dead past. Historians have always interpreted the Bank War via current events, and following the catastrophic bank failures of 2007, this reëvaluation becomes even more important. Today’s competitions between Tea Party originalists and progressive activists play out, with eerie similarity, the rhetorical (and sometimes other) conflicts that propelled the Bank War, to general society’s great cost.

America’s first Congress chartered, and George Washington ratified, a Bank of the United States to stabilize America’s economy and print national currency. But Thomas Jefferson, that ardent anti-Federalist, hated such centralization of power. The Jeffersonian Democrats hounded the bank, and when its twenty-year charter expired, they let it die. The economic consequences were grave, and the federal government chartered the Second Bank of the United States at their first opportunity.

Andrew Jackson embodies American ideals of the self-made man. And yes, he came from nothing to achieve personal wealth and political authority. But his “self-made” wealth included a battalion of slaves, besides bounties awarded during the first Creek War. As America’s electoral process became more inclusive, Jackson parlayed these successes into his eventual Presidency. Once elected, he governed through personal bombast, and didn’t mind carrying personal grudges into office.

An anti-administration cartoon
showing President Jackson, who
exercised his veto authority as much as
all prior Presidents combined, as "King
Andrew the First." Click to enlarge.
By contrast, Princeton-educated Nicholas Biddle was Jackson’s polar opposite. Citified, intellectual, born into pre-Revolutionary political connections, Biddle parlayed his inherited privileges into an appointment, first to the Bank’s board, and ultimately into its presidency. Biddle pursued a proficient, national, non-partisan agenda, with remarkable success. He believed the Bank did good. And when Jackson’s personal attacks turned downright irrational, Biddle resolved to save his bank by whatever means possible.

Jackson’s anti-Bank policies, fueled by personal animus, quickly became his defining economic legacy, and not only his, but the Democratic Party’s for nearly a century. Kahan writes: “any history of the conflict between Biddle and Jackson over the bank’s recharter is necessarily a history of Jackson’s administration as a whole.” Considering Jackson’s unprecedentedly harsh actions against Native Americans, this statement smacks of white privilege, but its core remains solid.

Kahan describes the Bank War in language somewhere between a political thriller and a journalistic report of a total catastrophe. What starts as a war of words escalates into a competition of political blackmail, horse-trading loyalties, and utter spite. Jackson led Cabinet purges whenever he suspected disloyalty. Biddle used Bank resources to sabotage Administration policies that jeopardized the Bank. Both men believed their actions completely right and justified.

Before Jackson, the Democratic Party enjoyed near-unopposed rule. The trade-off was that it lacked rigorous policy, and basically installed government officials based on personality. Jackson transformed that: his demands for personal loyalty regarding the Bank gave the party its first-ever binding policy agenda. It also generated the Whig opposition, making American political elections competitive for the first time in two generations. Jackson’s Bank War essentially redrew America’s political allegiances.

One sees mirrors of modern personality-driven politics throughout this story. “Unburdened by self-reflection,” Kahan writes, “Jackson was incapable of viewing opposition to his policies as anything other than evidence of corruption and a personal affront that demanded an aggressive response.” Biddle proves hardly better; Kahan notes that, once committedly non-partisan (and a former Jackson voter), the Bank president eventually became as vindictive and irrationally motivated as Jackson.

History has passed its judgement on both sides. Lacking central authority to stabilize the economy, the post-Bank governments struggled with rapid fluctuations; as Catholic economist John C. Médaille notes, America’s economy between 1850 and 1940 was in recession fully forty percent of the time. Historically speaking, Jackson was wrong. His policies divided the country, undermined the economy, and commenced bitter partisan battles that ultimately culminated with the Civil War.

Yet Americans have largely forgotten Nicholas Biddle, while Andrew Jackson is on the $20 bill—ironically enough, since paper money was one reason he hated banks. Maybe we need to recall the Bank War more thoroughly. Paul Kahan is right; this story matters because it’s our story. And in today’s volatile economic conditions, the Bank War is more present, more relevant, than ever.