The Lincoln Project Strikes Back

The Lincoln Project — named for a Republican president from the 19th century, back when Republicans were the liberal party — is making great little anti-Republican advertisements. Their two latest:

You can follow the The Lincoln Project on YouTube. You can help spread the word by sharing their videos. You can also give them some of your hard-earned money.

Desecration in Washington

An art and architecture critic, Phillip Kennicott of The Washington Post, examines yesterday’s disturbing image of troops at the Lincoln Memorial:

Who in the Pentagon, or the leadership of the National Guard of the District of Columbia, thought this was a good look? Who thought what America needs now is a viral image of the American military in camouflage and body armor occupying a memorial that symbolizes the hope of reconciliation, that has drawn to its steps Marian Anderson to sing for a mixed-race crowd during a time of segregation and Martin Luther King to proclaim “I have a dream,” and millions of nameless souls, of all races, who believe there is some meaning in words like “the better angels of our nature”?

A photograph of members of the District’s National Guard on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial began racing around Twitter and other social media Tuesday, as the country was still digesting a violent assault by Secret Service, police and guard troops on peaceful protesters outside the White House on Monday. The photo showed troops standing resolutely, perhaps provocatively, on the memorial’s wide and inviting steps, as if they owned it. To many, it symbolized the militarization of Washington, of our government and country, and the terrifying dissolution of old boundaries between partisan politics and the independent, professional military….

Anyone who has photographed the Lincoln Memorial knows that it is hard to find a spot sufficiently distant to include the whole thing in the frame. That, in part, may explain some of the of ominous power of one of the images that circulated widely Wednesday, taken by Getty Images photographer Win McNamee.

Untitled

That picture was taken from the side of the steps, such that the cornice and frieze of the memorial, emblazoned with the names of the states that Lincoln helped stitch back to political unity, plunge precipitously at an angle to the lower left of the frame. A soldier looms large in the foreground, his face covered by a mask, his eyes hidden by sunglasses, his thoughts and his humanity obscured by a carapace of military resolve and inscrutability.

Throughout the crisis of the past week, there have been images, scattered but reassuring, of National Guard troops and some law enforcement officers joining in expressions of common purpose with protesters, speaking respectfully, even taking a knee with people who have flocked to the streets…

The image of troops arrayed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial only added to the sense of crisis and civil disintegration. No matter their intent and purpose, the D.C. Guard looked not like protecting sentinels, but possessive custodians. Ultimately, their orders came from the president, and so it is inevitable that many people will see their presence there not as protective, but aggressive, as if they are facing off with the city and its residents, whom they are meant to serve.

The District, which is not a state, has long been at the mercy of the federal government and opportunistic politicians, despite having no voting representatives in Congress. The guards, who were local troops, looked like outsiders, like a colonial force.

Given the volatility of the current moment, images like this suggest that a worrying trend — of the military being co-opted into partisan politics — is accelerating, from the president signing Make America Great Again hats on an Army base in Iraq, to last summer’s display of military hardware during a traditionally nonpartisan Fourth of July celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, to new concerns about Trump’s plans for another display of the military during a pandemic, this coming Independence Day.

The decision of Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to march with the president across Lafayette Square, which had been violently purged of peaceful demonstrators, and the participation of Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper in a religious-themed photo op at St. John’s Episcopal Church, is yet more worrisome.

The power of the image is also directly connected to the fraught power of the Lincoln Memorial, which is architecturally one of the most beautiful in the country….

The bulk of the memorial’s substance and content is about who goes there, the history of who has stood on its steps, facing the Capitol in the distance, and the obelisk devoted to George Washington, simultaneously the founder of the country, the American Cincinnatus and a slaveholder. The memorial is about the concerts and speeches and protests that have transpired there, about the continuing impulse of ordinary Americans to make it a pilgrimage site.

But one dark truth of the memorial, accidentally amplified by this image of soldiers on its steps, is: For many white Americans, it symbolizes a fantasy of society made whole by Lincoln, of a country that skipped from the trauma of civil war straight to the reconciliation and healing that was adumbrated but not achieved by him, nor any of his successors…

Now we have an image that suggests that raw, naked power — old-guard, old-style, patriarchal military power — has taken possession of something that is already a fragile cultural symbol. To many people looking at this photograph, it seemed to say, “they own it,” not us, not we, not the people.

And that raises an even deeper fear, one that recalls memories of the National Guard at Kent State and atrocities committed by U.S. troops in its wars overseas…. It exacerbates a fear that Washingtonians feel keenly, as more troops pour in, military hardware rattles through the streets, helicopters shatter the calm of night, and as the president’s bellicose rhetoric continues to spew like a fire hose. It’s a simple fear, and a question every soldier, no matter his or her rank, must answer: If the president tells you to shoot us, will you do it?

“Watchmen” by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins

I used to update another blog every time I finished a book. I’d summarize the book and offer an opinion or two. An Ingenious Device For Avoiding Thought is still out there, but I’m going to discuss the books here now.

Watchmen is a 1980s comic book/graphic novel that deals with a bunch of caped crusaders, similar to Batman, in an alternate timeline in which America won the war in Viet Nam and President Nixon never resigned. There is one character with actual superpowers, the result of a horrendous accident. Watchmen has a terrific reputation:

“A work of ruthless psychological realism, it’s a landmark in the graphic novel medium.”—Time Magazine

“WATCHMEN is peerless.”—Rolling Stone

“Remarkable … the would-be heroes of WATCHMEN have staggeringly complex psychological profiles.”—New York Times Book Review

“Groundbreaking.”—USA Today

It was adapted for a movie in 2009 and an HBO series last year. I saw the movie and some of the TV series and was interested enough to get a copy of 2013’s deluxe, hardcover edition. I would finally see what all the excitement has been about.

I’m sure Watchmen would have been more interesting if I’d read the original twelve comic books when they came out in the 80s. Its “costumed adventurers” or “masked vigilantes” and their violent exploits would have been more novel back then.

Reading it in 2020, I was disappointed. It was good enough to keep reading, but overall it was repetitious and sometimes boring. There are two interesting characters (the dangerous, extremely intense Rorschach and the naked blue superhero with godlike powers, Dr. Manhattan) but too much of it has the feeling of a soap opera. The artwork is decent but the only reason I finished it (aside from a bit of Puritan work ethic) was that I wanted to see what one of the characters — said to be the smartest man in the world — eventually does to New York City. Recurring characters who hang out at a newsstand, an extended parallel story involving 17th century pirates and a troubled mother-daughter relationship were especially tedious.

So, that’s Watchmen, an entry in Time‘s list of the 100 best novels written since 1923 and, according to someone at the BBC, “the moment comic books grew up”. I guess you had to be there.

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A Few Words from Albert Camus

From The Plague (thanks to L. for sharing):

In fact, like our fellow citizens. Rieux [the main character, a doctor] was caught off guard. and we should understand his hesitations in the light of this fact; and similarly understand how he was torn between conflicting fears and confidence. When a war breaks out, people say, “It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.” But though a war may well be “too stupid,” that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.

In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions. Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague. which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free as long as there are pestilences.

Unquote.

Humanists do take precautions, however. It’s knuckleheads who don’t.

Selections from A Journal of the Plague Year

From the opening pages of Daniel Defoe’s novel (the plague struck London in 1665; the book was published in 1722):

We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things, … as I have lived to see practised since. But such things as these were gathered from the letters of merchants and others who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed about by word of mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now.

This last bill [count of burials] was really frightful, being a higher number than had been known to have been buried in one week since the preceding visitation of 1656.

We continued in these hopes for a few days, but it was but for a few, for the people were no more to be deceived thus; they searched the houses and found that the plague was really spread every way, and that many died of it every day.

… all that could conceal their distempers did it, to prevent their neighbours shunning and refusing to converse with them, and also to prevent authority shutting up their houses; which, though it was not yet practised, yet was threatened, and people were extremely terrified at the thoughts of it.

… the richer sort of people, especially the nobility and gentry from the west part of the city, thronged out of town with their families and servants in an unusual manner…. it filled me with very serious thoughts of the misery that was coming upon the city, and the unhappy condition of those that would be left in it.

… there was no getting at the Lord Mayor’s door without exceeding difficulty; there were such pressing and crowding there to get passes and certificates of health for such as travelled abroad, for without these there was no being admitted to pass through the towns upon the road, or to lodge in any inn.

I had two important things before me: the one was the carrying on my business and shop, which was considerable, and in which was embarked all my effects in the world; and the other was the preservation of my life in so dismal a calamity as I saw apparently was coming upon the whole city.

It was a very ill time to be sick in, for if any one complained, it was immediately said he had the plague.

… we perceived the infection kept chiefly in the out-parishes, which being very populous, and fuller also of poor, the distemper found more to prey upon than in the city…

... it was a most surprising thing to see those streets which were usually so thronged now grown desolate…

[In Holborrn,] the street was full of people, but they walked in the middle of the great street, neither on one side or other, because, as I suppose, they would not mingle with anybody that came out of houses…