The Time Is Out Of Joint

I recently came upon this worrying description of what happens when an economic downturn lingers on and on. People see that “the waste of unemployment, the inequality, injustices and inefficiencies of laissez-faire capitalism… The brazen indifference of an arrogant ruling elite and the incompetence of an inadequate political class all seem to be connected by the utter failure to organize society better.”

This is not a description of the environment of 2016 that brought us an election polarized between populists right and left in the persons of Trump and Sanders, agreed on nothing but the apparently exhausted and impotent political mainstream. But it might as well be.

In fact, it is from Tony Judt’s massive history, “Postwar,” that describes the recovery and evolution of Europe after the devastation of World War II. This passage refers to the situation before the war that made the cataclysm possible — the rise of fascism, Stalinism, militarism, extremism of all sorts. It was a time when the center did not hold and things fell apart, as W. B. Yeats said in the aftermath of World War I.

And it all seems to be happening again. The evidence is on display in 24/7 cable news shows and internet hate sites and in the seats of power where “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

It is clear that society is not organized to deal with the large changes that are taking place due to technological evolution, demographic shifts, an altered climate, and the growing inequities of a Haves vs. Have-nots economic order. The ruling elite is brazenly indifferent and, in fact, contrives to make matters worse. And the political class is either bought and sold, incompetent, or worst of all faithless to the traditions that protect us from extremism and usurpations of power.

Trumpism is a symptom of this larger disease. In the 1930s, that Auden called “a low, dishonest decade, a few outposts of sanity survived and saved the world from the barbarism of a new dark age. Last week the anniversaries of D-Day, 73 years ago, and the creation of the Marshall Plan, 70 years ago, were marked. The first celebrated an event that began to turn the tide in a desperate battle pitting democratic values against various species of tyranny, and the second an enlightened choice to make common cause in order to allow Europe to rise from the ashes rather than risk a new descent into extremism.

But this American president, who knows little history and cares less, essentially ignored these milestones. Presidents have extolled all that D-Day symbolizes annually, many delivering their finest addresses on the occasion. Trump marked his first D-Day as president by tweeting fewer than 140 characters and appending a photo that was not actually from the day of the landing.

That was bad enough, but he said not a syllable about the creation of the Marshall Plan, possibly through ignorance, more likely due to hostility since he has dedicated himself to the dismantling of the postwar architecture of the Marshall Plan, NATO and the other ties that have bound liberal democracies into a coalition that has repreeted a successful counterweight to tyranny. In fact, he seems to admire tyrants more than democrats.

A novel in the 1930s was entitled “It Can’t Happen Here.” This was ironically intended since it described the rise of a homegrown populist, American fascism, proving that it can happen here, if we are careless about protecting our traditions and safeguards. Americans who hope to retain our democracy need to wake up and smell the smoke before we are forced to fight a mighty fire.

The 1930s demonstrated where extremism can lead. The everyday heroes of D-Day, Anzio, the Bulge, Iwo Jima and on and on show how high the cost is for waiting to object until the worst happens. The Marshall Plan shows, by contrast, what can happen when men of good will collaborate to build a decent world order. Instead of going to extremes, it is time for Americans to meet in a moderate middle, learn to compromise again, and begin to solve problems that will only grow worse if we fail to do our duty to preserve, protect and defend what our forebears built.

Monsters From The Id

I’m a child of the 1950s and am plowing my way through Tony Judt’s voluminous history of Europe from 1945 to 1989, titled simply enough “Postwar.” But reading it got me wondering if there was a social or cultural history of America for the same period. The political history is familiar enough and there is David Halberstam’s chatty, “The Fifties,” but it isn’t quite what I was after.

This brought me to a wonderfully oddball volume called “Welcome to Mars: Politics, Pop Culture, and Weird Science in 1950s America” by Ken Hollings. It, too, is not exactly at I as after, is not particularly well written nor anything an academic historian would approve, but it does provide an irresistable mirror image of the usual stereotype of Grey Flannel suited, corporate conformists barbecuing in the suburban backyard.

It is comprised of a chapter a year from 1947 through 1959 that juxtaposes the B movies I loved as a kid — “War of the Worlds,” “It Came From Outer Space,” “Earth vs. The Flying Saucers,” — with the weird science of the era that they provide a running commentary on.

For instance, the intelligence services of America became alarmed that our Cold War rivals in Moscow, Beijing and Korea were perfecting brainwashing techniques using pharmacological secrets rather than brute torture. It is often forgotten that L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics,” the precursor to his Scientology cult, was pitched to the government as a scientific antidote to communist mind control. Soon the CIA was on the hunt for substances that would allow them to practice foolproof interrogation and even mind control.

As early as 1947, a promising candidate marketed under the brand name Delysid came to their attention. It is now known as LSD, and by 1953 the CIA under Allen Dulles had become the biggest customer for the stuff in the world. Soon they were testing it on unwitting soldiers, prisoners and even businessmen. The latter would be enticed by government-funded hookers who would spike the drinks of the suits while CIA monitors watched from behind one-way mirrors to see what happened to the sususecting schnooks. Your tax dollars at work.

Long before Timothy Leary became a household name in the sixtes, word got around elite circles that a mind-expanding miracle drug had been discovered. Soon people like zen advocate Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Cary Grant, Allen Ginsburg, conservative publisher Henry Luce, investment banker Gordon Wasson were experimenting with LSD, magic mushrooms, mescaline and other psychedelics.

In a particularly piquant vignette Hermann Kahn makes a cameo appearance. This was the defense intellectual who was an advocate of the use of thermonuclear weapons. He wrote “Thinking about the Unthinkable” and was one of the models for Dr. Strangelove. We see him lying on the floor of the RAND defense think tank gooned on LSD saying “Wow! over and over again. No wonder Hollywood was offering films like “Dark Mirror,” “The Snake Pit”, “The Three Faces of Eve” and “The Manchurian Candidate.” Crazy was in vogue.

Or take the popularity of movies featuring genetically altered organisms, all attributed to fallout from nuclear tests — giant ants in “Them,” moths, moles, spiders, and people in “I was a Teenage Werewolf” and “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” These were prompted by the dawning realization after Hiroshima that radiation might not be good for the health of living things.

Many are set in the desert southwest which is only right since numerous atmospheric tests took place in Utah, New Mexico and Nevada and irradiated people familiarly known as downwinders. For a while folks in Las Vegas could go watch mushroom clouds rise in the distance. Radioactive leaks from the plutonium plant in Hanford, Washington produced mutant animals on adjacent ranches, and Japanese fishermen were exposed to fallout from a 15-megaton H-bomb blast in the Pacific, an incident that was the origin of the Godzilla mythos.

There may not have been actual flying saucers in the 1950s, but there were plenty of other things to worry about aloft. The final words of “The Thing from Another World” were a ‘50ish warning: “Tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies.” There were jet planes, missile tests, the U2 spy plane, Russia’s Sputnik beeping as it passed. Soon we knew there were nuclear-tipped missiles waiting in prairie silos, and submerged atomic submarines prepared at a moment’s notice to incinerate our enemies and that they had a similar arsenal aimed at us. Watch the skies!

This book reminds us that under its placid exterior, the fifties were rife with wild-eyed paranoia. The McCarthy witch hunts for aliens in our midst were matched by a dread of the conformity imposed by fear of the other, so that the director of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Don Siegel, could say the story appealed to him because he realized one day he was surrounded by pod people. Like the little houses made of ticky tacky, their inhabitants were all the same.

On the flip side was a far-out utopianism which was scary in its own way. People like John von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, Bucky Fuller and Edward Teller predicted a world of robots, atomic terraforming, migration to other planets, computerized brain implants, and machines that thought for us. When a Univac computer predicted an electoral college landslide for Ike over Adlai, CBS didn’t report it because it was too farfetched. When it turned out to be true, that was creepy in another way.

The soon-to-be hippie culture of the 1960s, with its California psychedelia and “Whole Earth Catalog” utopianism was actually fathered by loony Cold Warriors at places like RAND and the CIA. An aside concerning Jack Parsons of Cal Tech and the Jet Propulsion Lab captures the strangeness just below the surface of the era. He was a scientist in his day job, but in his spare time a devotee of satanist Alistair Crowley, His leisure was devoted to trying to establish a temple to the Great Beast of the Apocalypse on Mt. Palomar and to create a Moon Child by magical means in his home in Pasadena.

Fiction Richer, If Not Stranger, Than Reality

Thanks to the bizarre twists and turns of the Trump administration, we are looking forward to a summer of discontent. But there are consolations to be found elsewhere. We are living in a Golden Age of Television, for instance, and I don’t mean Fox News and MSNBC.

Even in Podunk we can see some of the offerings of the National Theatre of Britain broadcast live at a nearby theater, so a week from now I am looking forward to a version of “Twelfth Night,” one of my favorite Shakespeare plays featuring one of his plucky, endearing heroines in Viola, the drunken blowhard Sir Toby Belch, the officious steward Malvolio and a plot filled with disguises that reveal the characters’ true identities.

I stuck with the recently concluded “The Leftovers” for the full three seasons, despite the fear that it would all add up to nothing, and was rewarded with perhaps the most satisfying conclusion of a TV drama ever contrived.

The show began apparently as science-fiction with two percent of the world’s population suddenly vanishing. Or was this a crypto-religious meditation on a partial rapture? As the title ought to have warned us, however, it was really about the people left behind and their reaction to this spooky event. In particular, Kevin and Nora played exquisitely by Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon.

Both were left behind by members of their families and struggle mightily to come to terms with separation, abandonment and lack of closure, suffering something like survivor’s guilt. Much of the series detailed the grotesque ways the survivors reacted to their situation, running the gamut from cults of gaudy penitents or militant denial, to consoling cons and the creation of a new gospel.

But by the end, it became clear, in the story of Kevin and Nora, that the show was really about grief and loss and the necessity, in its face of it, to dare to succumb to love again. It was daring to devote three years of a TV drama to such a theme, and the quiet, soulful conclusion rewarded viewers who stuck with it.

Coon is a Chicago theater star with an illustrious resume, but has been little seen on TV or film– notably stealing every scene she was a part of in “Gone, Girl” as Ben Affleck’s sister. She is a wonder and ought to become ubiquitous after this remarkable performance filled with raw emotion and quiet power.

She is now also appearing in the third season of “Fargo” as yet another female Minnesota cop underestimated and patronized by her idiot superiors but smarter than all of them put together. Ewan McGregor, almost unrecognizable and actually acting for a change, is also fine as is Mary Elizabeth Winstead of the late, lamented “Braindead,” which now looks like reality TV since it concerned a Washington establishment taken over by brain eating aliens. And almost no one notices the difference.

And speaking of a Golden Age for TV actors, this weekend brings the final season of “Orphan Black” in which the astounding Tatiana Maslany plays a dozen identical twins who prove nature may be important but nurture sure can make dodeca-clones turn out very differently. So we have Maslany as a street smart conniver, assassin, soccer mom, scientist and so on, each individual and fully imagined, a tour de force. Has there ever been a sci-fi series that combined suspense and humor, humanity and creepy dystopia so cleverly? If the creators can end it as magically as it has unspooled for the four previous seasons, it will be a triumph.

And then there’s the return of “Game of Thrones” in July, filled with medieval real-politick, naked women, bloodshed and dragons. But realistically, the only reason to keep tuning in is to see what becomes of Peter Dinklage as Tyrian Lannister, the scorned dwarf who is the canniest chap in all of Westeros. He was relatively absent in the last season, and whenever he’s missing for long the show slackens and degenerates into one more sex, swords and sorcerers potboiler.

Which brings us full circle to our awful daily reality. Charlie Savage, a Pulitzer-winning national security reporter, recently said the Trump melodrama left citizens trying to decide whether they were watching a real-life version of the corrupt dynastic politics of “Game of Thrones” or a years-long episode of “Veep,” in which vanity and incompetence vie for supremacy.

However, there’s a third choice. Perhaps Trump has forced us all to occupy a version of “Billions” in which a crooked, money manipulator tries to stay one jump ahead of the law. But at least the Damien Lewis character has the good sense to simply bribe, corrupt and bamboozle the system from the outside rather than trying to become a powerful office holder himself. If only it were so.