Flags, Myths, Telling Stories

Just thinking out loud here: the ACW isn’t my specialist field, but when history makes the news I get to pondering. Here are some quick thoughts on a question asked by reader and old friend Ian:

Right now in the US the Confederate flag has come under fire. Of course some people feel it isn’t about slavery, because the civil war was about liberty. Now at this stage of my life I feel comfortable saying those people have swallowed a manufactured myth. That the civil war was about slavery (I leave the question of moral vs economic as separate issue). But of course for people who have swallowed the fiction, their flying of the flag is not racist because the war wasn’t about slavery.

Ian goes on to ask how the myth that the Civil War was fought for “states’ rights” came about, given that the people who founded the Confederacy were absolutely clear on the fact that the war was about slavery (seriously, it is pretty open and shut).

I think that this particular story is almost as old as the conflict itself. In the article I just linked to, Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests that the idea of “states’ rights” was basically a way for southerners to talk about their cause without alienating the British, since British support was the only way the Confederacy could hope to withstand the Union. The huge British textile industry needed (or at least would be greatly inconvenienced without) imported American cotton, but at the same time, public opinion in the UK was pretty firmly against slavery. “States’ rights” might have helped the British swallow the idea of keeping the Confederacy alive if the South had kept winning — but they didn’t, so in the end it didn’t matter. Still, it’s a nice, more politically-acceptable way of expressing Confederate war aims.

As for the emphasis on “rights” in the decades following the war, the ACW is not really my area but I assume that it was just one of the ways in which, in the aftermath of a conflict, its partisans try to drift their stances away from obviously-doomed positions. So no one who counts is in favour of slavery today, but certainly people are in favour of rights. Everyone likes rights! So claiming that the war was about “states’ rights” — which, after all, it was in a sense, just, y’know, one specific “right” — is more palatable than admitting that it was about wanting the power to hold your fellow humans in durance vile.

It has a psychological element, too, as well as just a political one. Someone (Max Hastings?) once wrote that German soldiers in WWII served “with courage worthy of a better cause,” and I think you can also see the same impulse at work there. Knowledge of “your” own wrongdoing is a painful thing. Given the loss and pain of the war, it’s easy to understand why people want it to have been for something from the Confederate perspective.

O so noble.

Lots of different writers and historians were eager to support this version of events. I’m not an expert on the period but I gather that the historical revision started very quickly after the war, particularly after the death of Robert E. Lee (who died in 1870, leaving the South with an easy saint). There are whole groups that repeat this tale — former Confederate general Jubal Early was a key figure, and organisations like the Daughters of the Confederacy also played an important role. It’s easy to feel better about an important part of your history when you don’t think that Grandpa Whatsisname was fighting for the right to keep that nice Mister Johnson from next door as some rich jerk’s possession. At least, I’d like to think that it is. And that goes for a society as a whole as well as a particular individual.

It wasn’t only Southerners who benefited from accepting the “states’ rights” version of the story, though. Believing — or professing to believe — that the Civil War wasn’t about some abstract concept called “states’ rights” helps with the whole post-war reconciliation thing. In any post-conflict situation, you get the problem of how much of a role you want the losing side to play in your post-war order; you see it with deNazification in Germany, you saw it in Iraq, and of course you see it in the post-war South. After the mid-1870s, they’re bringing back a lot of the old swine, and I imagine that’s easier to tolerate if you just throw the black people under the bus as usual and decided that it was a political squabble and it’s all over and done with.

So I think the idea of “states’ rights” was both psychologically appealing and politically convenient for everyone; it glossed over the unfinished post-war settlement and helped keep things ideologically peaceful, and if it hid a legacy of racism, well … people just didn’t really care about that in those days. A lot of people still don’t.

I often wonder, though — I mean, do you know any older person who should know better who thinks the war was about “states’ rights” who isn’t a racist?* I mean, maybe not like a huge hate-spewing bigot, but at least a little bit of a racist? My experiences on the internet suggest there may not be that many, but you know what the internet is like.

*or a crackpot?

Flags, Myths, Telling Stories

Trip Report: Magna Carta

So, I was in London last week visiting my mother, who was in town, so my wife and I went with her and some family friends to see the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibit at the British Library. I have written about previous trips to the British Library and said that I found them sometimes good, other times less satisfying. But this one is right in the BL’s comfort zone, and it shows.


Magna Carta — it’s reassuring to see that Bill Clinton, in his video for this exhibit, also says the Magna Carta — is one of those documents where the thing itself is not as important as its perception. And both the thing itself and the records of its reception are in the British Library in heaps. So there’s not only the original documents — saved until the end — but lots of legal or other documents to give them context and then a bunch of stuff about people’s reactions to the document. That includes both the work of later legal scholars and the popular response to the document. If I were clever, I’d say that it includes both John Hancock and Tony Hancock:

Again, the interesting thing here is basically that the myth of Magna Carta is so potent that its actual importance is secondary. It’s not a statement of guiding principle like the Declaration of Independence, it’s not a living legal document like the Constitution — and the exhibit acknowledges that, even including videos from legal scholars who point out that the document doesn’t have the importance people ascribe to it. And yet, the hype over the 800th anniversary meant that there was no way the BL was getting away without doing something to mark it.

And, you know, that’s kind of what I like about it. Like, this is a document that emerged from the mess of a particular historical situation. It was never intended to be a national symbol; it just sort of worked out that way. And that, in itself, is a pretty good symbol of British (well, OK, English) constitutional history.

Trip Report: Magna Carta

TV Tuesday: Turn S02 E10, “Gunpowder, Treason and Plot”

OK, so I should probably have waited a little to write my previous post about this show, because I was one episode short.

It’s … an OK episode. I find it hard to explain just what it is that fails to grab me about Turn, or at least about certain of its plots. Like, I do not give a rat’s ass about Benedict Arnold and Peggy. The bit where she’s portrayed as seducing him but really upset about it because she’s genuinely in love with Andre … on paper that’s very moving, but I still thought his ridiculous little braid — a detail so absurd I can only assume it’s authentic — spoiled it somehow.

I kind of hope I'd have the sang-froid to be moved yet unsentimental the night before my execution, but on balance I would prefer not to be hanged.
I kind of hope I’d have the sang-froid to be moved yet unsentimental the night before my execution, but on balance I would prefer not to be hanged.

The battle scene was, unfortunately, another example of the problem that no one has yet solved: big battles take big budgets. This looked like some Sharpe type of fighting, and that is not a good thing.

This series continues to show that I will watch any old toss as long as it has muskets and gadgets in it. Also, it is great that Robert Rogers just straight-up calls the characters a “plucky young band of freedom fighters.”

This is a short post, but then this episode inspired short feelings. Hopefully we can find something a little more gripping for our next Tuesday outing.

TV Tuesday: Turn S02 E10, “Gunpowder, Treason and Plot”

Lovecraft, art, other stuff

Expect sporadic posting for a little while as I travel for the rest of the week. However, while this blog slows down I want to point your attention to something I’ve been working on elsewhere!

Over on Bad Movie Marathon, pal Luke and I are trying to review as many film adaptations of the work of HP Lovecraft as we can between now and his birthday, August 20th. We call it … Summer of Lovecraft.

I made it myself. Shittily.
I made it myself. Shittily.

So if you enjoy Movie Monday on this blog, or any of the previous stuff I’ve written about HPL, why not head over there and see what happens when I stop reading about sights humankind wasn’t meant to see and start actually watching them? I’ll be back next week with a new trip report, some TV Tuesday and maybe a return appearance from that loveable scamp Smith.

Lovecraft, art, other stuff

Movie Monday Double Feature: Only the Brave (2006) and Go For Broke! (1951)

That’s right, this week it’s two, count ’em two, movies, both of them about the same subject. In this case, the subject is the career of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up of Japanese-American soldiers and famously the most decorated unit in the US Army ever. I’m not going to go into the long history of the unit, but you can read about it at the link above, then maybe check out the terrifying list of Medal of Honor citations. It’s one of those stories that can’t help but be both inspiring and depressing at the same time.

Both of these films have plots, but they are really just intended to teach you about the 442nd and the Japanese-American experience of the war. Let’s take them in order.

2006’s Only the Brave is a little independent film that shifts between the battle to rescue the “Lost Battalion” of the 141st Infantry Regiment and the soldiers’ lives back in Hawaii through a series of flashbacks that begin with the main character, played by Lane Nishikawa, takes a head wound. Is he hallucinating, or is he actually somehow having visions? It’s available on UK Amazon, and probably US as well.

Over on Bad Movie Marathon, we get a little nervous when we find out that a film is written by, directed by and starring the same person. Lane Nishikawa didn’t write this, but he did direct, produce and star in it. Bad omen notwithstanding, it’s good. It’s quite stagey, which I take to be a function of its relatively low budget. The battle scenes happen a lot at night, presumably for the same reason. But you’re not really there for the battle scenes — this is primarily a story about the soldiers and their lives before and during the war; the most important scenes are the flashbacks and the ones of the soldiers just hanging out. And it’s pretty good!

really like how this film just has characters speaking a mixture of mainland English and pidgin and does not give a fuck that it might be hard for the viewers to understand. Like, you can work it from context easily enough, and it’s how those soldiers would have talked. So that’s how they talk in the movie.

The implied romance basically doesn’t happen; I wonder if they just put the scene in so they could put some smooching on the poster.

Similar but almost infinitely weirder is 1951’s Go for Broke!, starring Hollywood utility white guy Van Johnson. Looking at that poster you’d be hard-pressed to tell that there was a Japanese-American character in the film. I can’t zoom in clearly enough to see those little black-and-white cartoons on the poster, but I’m guessing they’re about how hi-larious it is that Japanese-Americans are typically shorter than Van Johnson, a recurring theme in the film. The ad makes it seem like a train wreck, but it isn’t really.

In fact, Van Johnson’s role here is to be the dumbass white guy who comes in to command a unit of Japanese-American troops; he’s initially kind of a racist, but eventually they win him over and he realises what a jerk he’s been. Now, there’s a lot not to like about that idea — after all, you shouldn’t have to win over someone who’s prejudiced against you. That puts the burden on the target of discrimination, who has enough problems already. But I guess that’s a narrative that allows white audience members to overcome prejudice without necessarily having to accuse themselves. Its heart is in the right place; when discussing this movie with friends or my wife, I found myself using the words “for 1951” quite a lot.

It didn’t dance around the subject of the detention centres as much as I thought it was going to, although it doesn’t spend a lot of time on them. A white officer seems to be OK with the camps, even while defending his troops against racist meathead Johnson; but then shortly after that there’s a scene of a soldier assembling a care package for his family back in the camp, which is a pointed comment considering it’s traditionally the other way around.

Now, as you might expect, even in a story that’s about portraying Japanese-American soldiers as heroic, there are still some uncomfortable moments. Still, for 1951 this isn’t super racist; it’s basically just yer typical war drama with that subplot. Many war films deal in cornball stereotypes, and this one is no exception, even when it’s trying to spread an anti-racist message. I think its portrayal of military life is probably quite accurate — a lot of marching, grumbling and waiting punctuated by moments of often-bewildering action. This doesn’t surprise me, since one imagines that many of the audience members in 1951 would be veterans.

Not to mention the cast; some of the soldiers in the film are actually veterans of the 442nd, which is weird. Like, Buffalo Bill and the Indians level weird. Apparently no one in the post-war era thought that this particular piece of authenticity was the phoniest thing imaginable, which just goes to show how our understanding of those concepts has changed.

I found it very interesting that both the movie and the poster had to explain that “go for broke” means “shoot the works,” since I think that if you had to explain “shoot the works” to a modern person you’d explain that it means “go for broke.”

Aaaaanyway, the nice thing about this one is that it is actually in the public domain, so you can watch it right here with a clear conscience!

So yeah — worthy, uplifting, you know the kind of thing. I don’t have anything to say about the 442nd that isn’t obvious.

Movie Monday Double Feature: Only the Brave (2006) and Go For Broke! (1951)

Quick reader question: Hellfire clubs

I have nothing in mind today, but ages ago I asked for reader questions and didn’t answer them. Sorry about that!

“I’m curious about Hellfire clubs.”

Almost certainly 100% accurate.
Almost certainly 100% accurate.

Everyone is.

This early modern stuff is not my line, so if you know more about this period than I do, please forgive me, but as far as I know hellfire clubs were not as cool as their legend.

They seem to have been loose organisations of wealthy or wealthyish people, mostly but not universally males, who got together to poke fun at religious authority, get drunk and get laid. The most famous of these, at least in Britain, was probably the one run by Sir Francis Dashwood in a variety of locations including his home at Medmenham Abbey. Cocking the proverbial snook at religion was a sign that you were a real daring character in that age — an increasingly but still not comfortably irreligious one — but the proper rumours of devil-worship don’t really get started until the 19th century, I don’t think. Walpole seemed pretty clear that it was all hookers and wine and dirty engravings. Dashwood’s club wasn’t even called a hellfire club until much later.

My guess would be they probably didn’t even get up to anything that shocking by the standards of a modern night out. You ever meet someone who thought he was all transgressive and weird because he liked the same shit that everyone else liked, but he was just really loud and crude about it? In short: one bunch of rich jerks defies another bunch of rich jerks through the medium of drunken fornication and later readers get all carried away by the mystery. The 18th century version is all “the devil lol” and the 19th-century audience goes “the devil, eh? Interesting.” You ask me, they deserve each other.

Like the song says, “excess ain’t rebellion.”

Perhaps it’s one of those conservation-of-shockingness things. Like, the blasphemy was shocking at the time, but it’s totally non-shocking to us now. But we still remember that it was shocking, so we try to imagine something that would be edgy and controversial about a bunch of drunk toffs having sex with prostitutes. I guess they had sex with prostitutes in lavish and eerie surroundings, which is sort of cool.

Why is no one talking about Sebastian Shaw's thighs? Is it because they're uncomfortably close to his super-weird-looking area?
Why is no one talking about Sebastian Shaw’s thighs? Is it because they’re uncomfortably close to his super-weird-looking area?

Anyway, maybe I’m being uncharitable — it just feels like something that sadly is not as big and spooky a deal as it could be.

Quick reader question: Hellfire clubs

TV Tuesday: Turn, Season Two

OK, so I’m up to the ninth episode of the second season of AMC’s “Turn” — that is, at time of writing, the most recent one to come out on Amazon here in the UK.

Left to right: Tallmadge, Arnold, Brewster, Washington, Strong, Woodhull/Culper, Andre, Woodhull Sr, Hewlett, Rogers, Mrs Woodhull, Simcoe.

I see from the ratings that things are not going amazingly well for this show, which is a shame. I think that in many ways this season has solved a lot of the problems that existed in the first; in particular, a lot more actually happens in this season, including actually seeing the Turtle in action, a bunch of dudes getting shot, more espionage-type excitement and, best of all, Simcoe’s Rangers in their ridiculous uniforms.

From Wikimedia Commons.
From Wikimedia Commons. He looks unhappy. You would be too. 

I had no idea, by the way, that John Graves Simcoe went on to become such an important person in Canadian history — and indeed, they’ve incorporated this into his characterisation in the show. Simcoe is one of the few people who treats Jordan/Akinbode as a human being; this is presumably connected to the fact that the historical Simcoe was a strong opponent of slavery; he was instrumental in getting rid of it in Canada before it was banned in the rest of the empire.

I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a weird murder-bot like he is in this show, but you never know. I can just imagine him charting the road to Canada’s future with glassy eyes and a weird little high-pitched laugh.

So there are lots of great little touches, although some of the scenes continue to be clumsily handled; for instance, the bit in which soldiers try to arrest Woodhull and Mrs Strong is just … ergh. It’s hard to believe these two dolts wound up in what Simcoe is clearly trying to make into an elite unit. Seriously, guys, if you feel like you have to molest your captives, could you:

  • check to see if they have a dagger they can stab you over and over in the dick with, and
  • wait until you get to somewhere that people will notice if an angry publican blows your head off with your own pistol?

Thanks. I mean, I guess you had it coming, but really. Poor counterintelligence work.

Anyway, a lot of good choices in this season — was that a Dick Gaughan version of “Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow”? — but still, somehow the whole thing fails to cohere for me. It seems like they listened to people’s complaints about how basically nothing happened back in the first season, but there’s still something undefinable missing. Maybe it’s just that Woodhull is a completely boring and unsympathetic character — he’s not smart, he’s not good at being a spy, he’s not funny — but there’s a long history of ensemble shows having who-gives-a-shit central figures and me still enjoying them. I definitely enjoy it, but it doesn’t stick in my mind somehow, despite being obviously clever and well-made. Not sure why.

Anyway, on the scale of Bad History TV Shows I Still Enjoy: VikingsTurnBlack Sails.

TV Tuesday: Turn, Season Two

Trip Report: Treasured Possessions

This past weekend we went to see the “Treasured Possessions” exhibit at the Fitzwilliam Museum here in Cambridge. I enjoyed it, although perhaps not as much as I enjoyed “Silent Partners.” That is more about me than about the exhibit, though.

I walk through the porcelain galleries as fast as I can, for fear that the concentrated hideous will kill me before I reach the far end.
I walk through the porcelain galleries as fast as I can, for fear that the concentrated hideous will kill me before I reach the far end.

As trade boomed in the late medieval and Renaissance periods, and particularly in the wake of the rise of long-distance trade in the 16th century, types of display that had previously been reserved for the fantastically wealthy began to appear in more and more homes. And as these types of display — fine china, fancy glassware, etc., etc. — became more common, they also spawned new ways of showing off performing identities. The later part of the period this exhibition covers is when you get the idea of shopping as a leisure activity, for instance. This is the period where brand awareness becomes a thing. Check out the elaborate logos on these trade bills from the mid-late 18th century, for instance:

(Incidentally, the museum’s Youtube channel has some fascinating stuff on there. Noted for later.)

So on the one hand you get to look at a lot of fancy shoes and codpieces and plates (I can never get excited about plates. I’m not a true baller, I guess.) and watches and fans and what have you, but on the other hand it’s within a context of exploring a particular historical theme, so you don’t just feel like you’re indulging in some Jane-Austen-TV-show historical romanticism. (Not a criticism; there are shows I definitely watch for the hats.)

Here in Cambridge, this type of thing is a living tradition.
Here in Cambridge, this type of thing is a living tradition.

I wasn’t entirely sure how this culture of display differed from similar display in the actual middle ages; I agree that when I think about the two periods I feel like there’s a difference, but I couldn’t actually tell you what it is, and I worry that the perceived difference depends on a stereotypical difference between the medieval and Renaissance periods that doesn’t actually exist. Have to think about that one a little longer.

No one's wunderkammer is complete without something that would get you locked up today.
No one’s wunderkammer is complete without something that would get you locked up today.

It also pleased me that the story of how incipient rich jerks collected exotic, imported stuff in the incipient modern world was being told in a museum, one of a class of institutions that basically exists because even richer jerks needed to differentiate themselves from the penny-ante would-be rich jerks who bought all this consumer tat. “Oh, you bought an ivory Japanese knicknack? That’s cute. I bought a hundred of them and then I gave them away, because I’m a man of refinement and you’re a bourgeois striver.”*

Anyway, it’s good, it’s relatively small — not a bad thing; we really ran out of time during “Silent Partners” — and it’s free, so check it out before it ends in September.

(*potential oversimplification)

Trip Report: Treasured Possessions

A note on scheduling and things

Hi all,

For a long time this blog has been a bit patchy — I’ll have a long run of posts, then nothing for a while, then something, and so on. This is partly because of my work schedule, which follows the traditional freelancer’s oscillation between “frantic” and “stagnant.” It’s also due to other demands on my time, from the fun (games, friends) to the stressful (buying a house!).

But it’s also also because of other stuff I write. For instance, long stretches of not much happening on this blog often coincide with heavy posting over at my gaming blog. There are also periodic posts on Bad Movie Marathon — and there will probably be more, as we’re currently planning a big themed event. Watch this space, or ideally that one, for more details.

And then lastly I’m working with an old friend on yet another project which we hope to launch this summer. So even within the time in my life I’ve set aside for non-gaming solitary creative pursuits, it’s a bit divided.

As a result, I’ve decided to structure it a bit more! From now until my motivation runs out, I’m going to try not to update more than one blog a day, but to try to update at least one per day. So if there’s no post on here, that probably means there’s something on one of the other ones, and if there are no posts there, that means there’s probably a post here.

I am pleased to say that I started this rule on Monday, and I have broken it on 100% of days since then, since I posted here yesterday and did a review of Ghost Shark for Bad Movie Marathon. And then, of course, today I did a gaming post and this one. Still, let’s hope that’s the exception.

My attempt to get the blogs organised — ooh, and to write and publish more fiction, did I mention that? Well, you’ll hear more about it when it’s actually successful, but it’s happening — is part of my desire to write more of the kind of thing I want to write and thereby balance out some of the stress of writing stuff for clients.

It would perhaps be tasteless, but I’m gonna do it anyway, to allude at this point to the fact that my Lovecraft-Viking-horror-novella thing The Barest Branch is available on Amazon.co.uk, as well as US Amazon and DriveThru. I mention this merely in passing.

A note on scheduling and things