Monday, June 9th, 2008
So I left work early today, to watch Sylvia auditioning for next year's Overture Strings, and to file away the folders of music I've had in the back of my car since YOEC's spring concert a few weeks ago. Arrived at South Orange Middle School, only to find the school and the rest of town dark -- a fire at a transformer station in West Orange shut down several towns around here.
Well Ellen, Sylvia and I escaped the heat by driving over to Springfield, which still had power and by lucky coincidence, has the only public library around here that's open well into the evening. We chilled out, I read the first chapter of Nixonland and confirmed that I want to read the rest of it. Got back home just as the power came on.
So the site was down for a while this afternoon but it looks like no data was lost. And here we are.
Tuesday, June 10th, 2008
Today I (whose reading material is almost entirely novels) bought two works of non-fiction to occupy myself with in the coming weeks. The first, which I'm reading this evening, is Fethiye Çetin's My Grandmother: A Memoir; when I finish this I will embark on Rick Perlstein's considerably more voluminous Nixonland.
I was attracted to Çetin's memoir (besides by the Maureen Freely association) because I want to learn more about the genocide in Armenia. I have always had a vague notion of it as a historical event but no real sense of how it had happened or what its repercussions had been. It seems to me (though this could just be because I have been paying more attention to Turkey since I got interested in Pamuk) like it is getting more discussion in recent years than it did, say, ten years ago -- Freely's introduction* seems to bear that out.
Freely gives a very concise history of the events in Armenia (which to my surprise, does not refer in this context to the small former SSR by that name, but to a large portion of the modern country of Turkey.) She also speaks briefly about how Çetin came to write this memoir, and about contemporary clashes between Turkish nationalists and people who have attempted to air the story of these events. She does not mention whether Çetin herself has been a target; I hope she has not.
The only historical events I have much of a handle on that seem analogous to the genocide in Armenia, are the genocides committed against the native peoples of America. I wonder if that is a productive avenue of thinking -- maybe I will float it by the Edge of the West folks.
*Something I am curious about -- Freely mentions the author several times in the introduction, and always by her full name, never an honorific plus last name, or last name alone. This sounds kind of awkward to my ears and I'm wondering if it's something to do with Turkish custom. Anybody know?
Saturday, June 14th, 2008
I am being continually surprised, as I read Nixonland, at the extent of the racial violence that occurred in America in the early to mid-60's -- and secondarily surprised at myself for being surprised. I am more ignorant of my country's history than I like to think of myself as being. Take for instance the Watts riots -- I have of course heard of these before and had a notion of their importance; but somehow I had assumed they were a concrete event that took place over a week or something at a particular time and place. Come to find out instead that for a period of at least a few years, a large area of Los Angeles was borrderline anarchic and prone to break out in mass violence. Similarly I had no idea of the frequency with which white mobs assembled in Chicago, and for how long that went on. Thanks for schooling me, Mr. Perlstein.
(And thanks, Edge of the American West bloggers, for giving me inspiration to do some history reading -- I'm finding your this day in history posts fascinating.)
Tuesday, June 17th, 2008
So far (as I begin reading part 2, about the election of '68), Nixonland seems to divide roughly into:
- History of the struggle for racial equality, and how Nixon and his conspirators used the unrest to build their party.
- History of the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, and how Nixon used the war as a wedge against Johnson.
- History of and speculation about the internal workings of Nixon's various campaigns and about Nixon's personal take on his opponents.
I'm pretty familiar with the Vietnam stuff and am skimming it a bit. I have (as noted below) only a passing familiarity with the racial unrest stuff and am finding that the most interesting part of the book so far. I didn't know much at all about the internal workings of Nixon's campaigns, but I'm having pretty mixed reactions to Perlstein's speculation -- some of it seems facile, some obviously true (and unnecessary), occasionally it is insightful and useful.
Saturday, June 21st, 2008
This was kind of weird: as I was reading chapter 13 of Nixonland (about the buildup to the '68 convention in Chicago), toward the end of the chapter as I was reading about how New York City discontinued the use of police call boxes after one was booby-trapped -- I just got this visceral wave of "Stupid fucking hippies, depriving me of the opportunity to live an idyllic Ozzy-and-Harriet life!"
Ahistorical, yes; and about 30 years out-of-date. I have felt many times in my life, a similar sort of nostalgia-by-proxy for the 60's -- but always with the idea that I would have run in Abbie Hoffman's circles.* This was more about a desire to be square and comfortable. Not sure quite where it came from -- it is certainly not Perlstein's agenda to advance this kind of reactionary thinking.
*I don't mean to say this kind of reactionary thinking is better than the other -- just to distinguish it from what I was thinking today. I believe it draws more on romanticism than the longing-for-the-50's I'm writing about here, for whatever that's worth.
Wednesday, June 25th, 2008
Halfway through Nixonland I am liking it less than I was a quarter of the way in. Something seems to have gone wrong with the editing, with the result that the details Perlstein presents are serving to confuse the narrative rather than to focus it.
I want the narrative focus to be on Nixon and his crew, with the news of what's going on in America and the world there to provide context for their story, and to show how their tactics play out. And this is mostly how the first and second parts looked. But toward the end of Part II and in Part III so far, lots of scattered detail is being given about the news events of the day, but it is failing to coalesce -- it is drawing my attention away from the machinations of the administration, rather than pointing them up.
(One possibility is, I was so much less familiar with the news events being described in the early part of the book, that I was able to see Perlstein's narrative structure without getting lost. I'm not sure this would make sense though, indeed it sounds kind of backwards.)
Thursday, June 26th, 2008
Last night's post about Nixonland was not completely fair, maybe. I mean I feel like I'm getting a lot out of the book; I am getting more of a sense of context for the events around the time of my birth that I have always perceived as major cultural markers -- in this evening's reading I am catching up on the pre-Roe v. Wade anti-abortion movement and the anti-sex-education movement (still very active during my own childhood; I haven't heard much from them recently, but maybe they're still out there); the media circus surrounding Chappaquiddick; and Woodstock.
I wish the information were presented with more care though. There are a lot of clunky sentences, awkward constructions; bits of information that are not connected to the information surrounding them; logical leaps that don't make sense. It would be different if Perlstein were doing Gonzo -- and occasionally I get a sense that he's trying to do that, or something like it; but it doesn't fit in with the rest of the book.
Wednesday, July second, 2008
Maybe the most key thing I'm taking away from Nixonland (as of the ¾ mark), is that I've misunderstood the Nixon presidency, which I am too young to have any first-hand memory of, in a pretty fundamental way. My narrative has always been, Nixon was an evil man and wore his evil nature on his sleeve; Reagan was an evil man but was carefully costumed by his media handlers so as to conceal that nature.
Now it's sort of obvious when you think about it, that there's something wrong with my narrative. I didn't analyze it that carefully, it was more just a general sense of things. But Perlstein lays out very clearly how Nixon shaped his public image and how he was helped in this by a new generation of media professionals such as Harry Treleaven and Roger Ailes.
I also have had an unexamined image of Spiro Agnew as a dummy, a loudmouthed buffoon who lived only to vent his hatred of minority groups and student protesters. But Perlstein is giving me a much more nuanced picture of him as a smart (for a while) politician, whose spewed hatred was politically calculated rather than unthinking. (Also: I had no idea what Agnew looked like until I Googled for his photo this morning -- would not have recognized a picture of him. This strikes me as odd when Nixon's image is so familiar to me.)
Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008
Tonight we're watching Independent Lens' Chicago 10, a dramatization of the 1968 Democratic convention and the Chicago 7 trial. It's very well done, I recommend watching it -- Channel 13 is airing it again tomorrow night.
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