Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Learning from Remarkable Lives

Twelve Books about group dynamics, American originals, French attractions, Italian masters, and other innovators and artists who changed the world

Group Dynamics

The True FlagTheodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire. Whether praised as "the large policy" or condemned as imperialism, America's expansionist military and economic moves beginning in 1898 transformed the country into an emerging empire. Driving the process was a combination of arrogance, opportunism and conflicting ambitions. In The True Flag, Stephen Kinzer sheds fresh light on the Spanish-American War, US occupation of Cuba and annexation of the Philippines, and especially the crucial roles played by war-lover Teddy Roosevelt, anti-imperialist Mark Twain and the equivocating presidential hopeful, William Jennings Bryan.

Romantic OutlawsThe Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley. This masterpiece of dual biography is filled with revelations and insights that reverberate through the centuries since Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminist breakthroughs and her daughter Mary Shelley’s literary masterpiece, Frankenstein. The complex lives, loves, politics, struggles, and defiant brillance of these two literary giants are brought vividly to life. For anyone concerned about sexual politics and human liberation, this is essential reading.

Young RadicalsIn the War for American Ideals. This vivid look at five political trail-blazers who ran headlong into the disaster of world war and repression a century ago vibrates with contemporary resonance. A great story-teller, Jeremy McCarter follows and illuminates the intersecting lives and struggles of John Reed, Max Eastman, Alice Paul, Walter Lippmann and Randolph Bourne. Both cautionary and inspiring, Young Radicals is a reminder that, even in ominous times, the battle for ideals isn't over and the vision of a Beloved Community survives.

At the Existentialist CafeFreedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. This evocative, masterful study brings the history and key figures of existentialism into vivid focus. Sarah Bakewell's writing, rich with vignettes, biographical sketches, and lyrical passages, reveals the inspirations, missteps, and impacts that made the philosophy so influential. Warmly revisiting the intersecting lives of leading voices like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and Martin Heidegger — along with their flaws — Bakewell recreates an era while illuminating its still-relevant struggles.

French Attractions

The Mistress of Paris: Catherine Hewitt’s brightly written biography is both engaging and full of myth-busting revelations. Focussing on the one of most extraordinary women of 19th century France, popularly known as Comtesse Valtesse, she has revealed a brilliant, complex figure who rose from poverty to the summit of society by the 1870s. 

Known as a courtesan, and proud of that status, she was also much more — the author of a popular veiled autobiography before she reached 30, the subject of paintings by Manet and other prominent artists, the heroine of an Emile Zola novel, and the owner of marvelous homes and art financed by her many lovers. But beyond that, she was also a self-taught intellectual force who influenced culture, fashion, even the course of international politics. 

The Mistress of Paris is the amazing story — one very well told —  of a superstar celebrity who began at the bottom, and successfully recreated and liberated herself during the belle epoque. Until recently, the life of Valtesse has been veiled in mysteries. Some of them still remain. But Hewitt has taken a major step toward placing the great V back where she belongs — at the center of attention.

The Great NadarThe Man Behind the Camera. A stylish and captivating portrait of a major cultural innovator, one whose talent, imagination and prescient ideas had a profound impact on photography, publishing and flight. Long overlooked, Felix Nadar was an irrepressible spirit at the center of French life for decades, and Adam Begley’s approach is appropriately vivid and irreverent, sprinkled liberally with excellent illustrations that showcase Nadar’s diverse skills, famous associates, and thrilling adventures.

American Originals

Henry AlsbergThe Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project. This revelatory biography eloquently celebrates the life and legacy of a citizen diplomat and arts pioneer, a real life Don Quixote who championed cultural pluralism, prisoner rights and artistic freedom in tumultuous times. Susan Rubenstein DeMasi combines infectious enthusiasm with thorough research and great storytelling, along the way illuminating Henry Alberg's road from WWI era journalist, human rights advocate and "intellectual anarchist" to founder/ director of the Federal Writers Project, a New Deal program that transformed America's literary landscape. DeMasi's book is a vital, long-overdue addition to American literary history.

The Kindness of Strangers: A smart, engaging autobiography by Salka Viertel, screenwriter, actress, and close friend of literary and popular icons during the first half of the 20th century. Viertel’s “incorrigible heart” comes alive in a vividly told story — from her early life and theater career in Poland, Germany and Austria before and after World War I, work with Berthold Brecht and others artists, and tumultuous personal life, to her emergence in the 30s and 40s as a key figure in Hollywood’s emigre community. A close friend and collaborator of Greta Garbo, Viertel helped to create some of Garbo’s indelible film roles, and in her memoir also offers a revealing look at how films were made (and sometimes not made) in Hollywood’s “golden age.”

Orson Welles, Volume 3One Man Band. This is Orson Welles in all his complexity, from filming his landmark Othello and MacBeth through his European exile, the making of Touch of Evil, The Trial and Chimes at Midnight, and struggles as an actor, director and celebrity. Resuming his multi-volume bio after the Hollywood years, Simon Callow is honest enough to show the flaws (and there were many), but never loses sight of Welles' originality and genius.  Must-read film history.

Eyes on the Street: An engaging exploration of Jane Jacobs, the inspired writer who changed how we look at cities, economics and ourselves. Robert Kanigel's approach is intimate and sympathic, following Jane Jacobs from childhood through WWII "propaganda" writing and her groundbreaking early work on architecture to the combination of activism and bold thinking that redefined the city and defeated New York "master builder" Robert Moses. Moving to Canada in 1968, Jacobs continued to explore new ideas, influenced Toronto's development approach, and successfully managed to balance "celebrity" status with the dogged pursuit of a human-scaled, family-centered life.

Italian Masters

Leonardo Da Vinci: Walter Isaacson’s book is a revelatory exploration of renaissance art and culture, the nature of genius and the complex relationship between art and science, experiment and experience. Of course, it is also the story of how and why Leonardo da Vinci created some of the world’s great artworks, as well as his insatiable curiosity, complex personal life, remarkable imagination, and enduring influence on our world. A truly magnificant achievement.

Dante in Love: This sprawling examination of Dante’s life, writing and times revisits his doomed political career, radical philosophy, religious and sexual obsessions, and crucial role in creating the Italian identity. It also suggests that, especially in The Divine Comedy, he may have anticipated the cultural schisms, disillusionment and democratic threats currently on display. 

As author A.N. Wilson explains, “The old political systems, like the old religions, assumed that we all spoke the same language about our shared inner life. That is no longer the case....Human beings were never in history so alone as they are today, never less certain that they possessed anything in common. Dante, poet of dislocation and exile, poet of a new language, has immediate things to say to us which he has not perhaps said in history before.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Exposing State Secrets: From Treason to Whistleblowing

For decades federal agencies in the US conducted secret operations, questionable experiments and selective assassinations that had little to do with the public platitudes of political leaders. But now Tonio Wolfe knew, for example, that DARPA, the agency supposedly launched in response to Russia’s Sputnik, was really an R & D wing of the military industrial complex. 

And its publicly-acknowledged projects represented only a fraction of what the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had been doing for the last half century.

From Dons of Time, Chapter 7: Secrets


The conversation was bland until coffee and dessert. Against his better judgment Tonio accepted an invitation to attend dinner with the family over the holidays. But the latest stories about kids, vacations and home improvements were followed by inevitable arguments.

As a child he’d enjoyed family rituals, despite the disputes of the era — Carter energy prices, the hostage crisis and Reagan, the meltdown at Three Mile Island and the nuke plant in East Shoreham near Long Island Sound. They would gathered in Bayside at the palatial home where Shelley, Giancarlo and their three siblings grew up. Among Tonio’s earliest childhood memories was Roman Wolfe presiding at a bountiful table in the formal dining room. 

Tonio didn’t remember much about two of his uncles — Alek and Georgie — both dead when he was around two. But he was close with Gianni and appreciated the sunny disposition of his aunt Vivian. After dinner they would spend hours opening presents, one by one, enjoying each reaction and anticipating the next surprise.

But this was Wood-Ridge and not Bayside, and Shelley was not the man his father was, a war-hardened Croatian immigrant who left Yugoslavia in the fifties with little but knowledge of construction, the phone number of a family associate in New Jersey, and a flexible attitude toward the use of illegal means and violence to achieve the American Dream. By the time Tonio was born, Roman Lupinjak, who changed his name to Wolfe, was the owner of Wolfe Enterprises, a construction business that concealed involvement in pornography, prostitution, money laundering and murder.

To Tonio he was Grandpa, the benign family patriarch who distributed candy and provided unconditional love.

Even then, however, death was no stranger to the family. In 1974 uncles Al and George perished in a plane crash during their return flight from a Florida construction site. Inconsolable, Roman deteriorated and suffered a fatal stroke in 1977. Tonio was only five years old at the time. Five years later uncle Gianni died. He never accepted the official explanation of that, a sudden heart attack at forty-two while on his regular jogging route.

Over coffee Tania, one of Vivian’s kids, brought up Wikileaks, the whistleblower group that had released a slew of State Department documents shortly after Thanksgiving. “All their dirty little secrets are out,” she chirped, “all in one big, stinking dump.”

“Tanny, that’s disgusting.”

“That’s what they call it, mom, a document dump. They released over 250,000 cables. Now we know the truth.”

“Oh really,” Shelley sniffed. “What truth is that, honey?”

He was asking for trouble. Tania, a college junior majoring in political science, was prepared to defend her position.

“The truth? Our embassies around the world are involved in spying, that’s one. Also, we’ve bribed countries into accepting detainees in exchange for aid, and then let them be tortured. Or how about this? Did you know we support the Kurdish Workers Party in Turkey? The Turks and the US say it’s a terrorist group. I mean, total hypocrisy.”

“And oh, in 2003 the CIA kidnapped a German citizen, and then took him to a secret prison in Afghanistan, and they tortured him and held him there for months. And when they were done they just dropped him off on a hillside in Albania. Afterward, they pressured the Germans not to prosecute the agents who did it.”

She was just getting started but Shelley’s hand wave said enough. “Where are you getting this?” It came off as an accusation.

“Newspapers, Julian Assange. Where have you been, gramps?”

“Oh that one, he should be in prison, that one. It’s treason, what he did.”

A few years earlier Tonio would have said nothing. More accurately, he would have had nothing much to add. But what he had learned since taking on the first serious work of his life made it more difficult to accept Shelley’s knee-jerk blustering. Tania was being provocative but she was on the right track. Tonio was no longer so willing to swallow his feelings or conceal his contempt.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he said, “that’s what G used to say. And he worked for the State Department.” He glared at Shelley. “It was State, right? I agree with Tanny. We need whistleblowers. We wouldn’t know about the secret prisons without them. And the body armor — we had troops in battle without decent armor until someone said something. Some things need to be secret, no argument. But the reason some of it stays secret is because it’s embarrassing, or against the law.”

Shelley wasn’t happy. “It’s a free country so we can have a civil discussion here,” he offered, trying to sound flexible while simultaneously playing Alpha dog and family patriarch. “But I say he has blood on his hands, Assange. I like Steve King’s idea — treat him like an enemy combatant, get him and take him to a military tribunal.”

Tonio hit back. “So, you’d rather not know what the government is doing?”

“In our name,” Tania added supportively.

“Don’t be naive,” Shelley snapped. “Things need to be done, in business, in government, in private. Not everything belongs on the Internet. Gianni knew that, by the way. He was a patriot. And he would have been the first to go after an anarchist like that albino. He worked on important projects.

“It’s always better to surprise your enemy than to be the one who gets surprised,” he finished. “G appreciated that.”

It was accurate, as far as it went. But working with Danny and Angel had introduced Tonio to a more complex and cynical view. For decades, he’d learned, various federal agencies conducted secret operations, questionable experiments and selective assassinations that had little to do with the public platitudes of political leaders.

He now knew, for example, that DARPA, the agency supposedly launched in response to Russia’s Sputnik, was really an R & D wing of the military industrial complex, engaged in everything from hypersonic research to lightweight satellites. In recent years it had been working on high-energy lasers, advanced aircraft, automatic target recognition, submicrometer electronic technology, electron devices, the Strategic Defense Initiative — also known as Star Wars — and a congressionally-mandated particle beam program directly related to Tesla’s original research. But Danny said the publicly-acknowledged projects represented only a fraction of what the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had been doing for the last half century.

One example among the many was the suspected use of children in a series of top-secret experiments known as Project Pegasus. The name had triggered the memory of a trip with Gianni to Nutley, and standing in another cavernous room with a gang of kids to see what was described to them as the latest innovation in 3D filmmaking.

Shelley had mentioned his brother’s “important” work. “What projects?” Tonio asked, “do you know?” He had been waiting to pose the question for months. In hindsight, the likelihood that his uncle worked for the State Department looked slim. He wasn’t the type for purely diplomatic missions. More like a field operative, a guy you sent in with a team to rescue hostages or conduct sabotage.

“He couldn’t talk about it,” barked Shelley. “And he didn’t. Like I said, he was a patriot. He followed orders. Loyalty, duty — that used to make a difference.”

“Did he ever talk about DARPA?”

Shelley flinched but tried to conceal his reaction with a joke. “Yeah, I remember him dating somebody with that name.”

“It’s a government agency,” Tania injected.

Now Tonio knew Shelley was holding back. One of his own companies was a subcontractor involved in building the agency’s new headquarters in Arlington, just a few miles from the Pentagon. Shelley’s clumsy evasion added to the growing suspicion that his uncle never completely left the military, and instead went into a defense project like DARPA. It was even possible that the official version of his death was a cover up.

Read Excerpt - Enemy of the State, Part Onehttps://muckraker-gg.blogspot.com/2013/10/enemy-of-state-dons-of-time-preview.html

Part Twohttp://muckraker-gg.blogspot.com/2013/10/enemy-of-state-2-dons-of-time-preview.html

Read Excerpt - Human Traffic: https://gregguma.blogspot.com/2015/03/human-traffic-in-queen-city-dons-of.html

Read Excerpt - Bloody Sunday and the Matchgirl Strike:


Follow Dons of Time on Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/GregGumaMedia/

To read chapter one or buy the book: Dons of Time

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Rendezvous with Fascism: Assessing the Damage

Twelve authors and books that illuminate the darkness: The Anatomy of Fascism, Mussolini’s Italy, Trump/Russia, Insane Clown President, The Road to Unfreedom, Dark Star Rising, The Death of Truth, Fire and Fury, Fear, Dictator, It Can’t Happen Here, and The Golden House.

Unprecedented. We’ve heard the word so often during the last four years that it has become a cliche. But is it completely true? Or have we seen some of this before? And if that’s so, are we experiencing a temporary authoritarian surge or something deeper and longer-lasting? It’s hard to be certain, about that or much else. But here are twelve authors and books that illuminate the current darkness, and explore what came before.

In The Anatomy of Fascism, for example, Robert O. Paxton illustrates the differences between two isms, fascism and authoritarianism, and shows how our modern anxieties — from immigration and economic insecurity to so-called urban "decadence" and national decline — create conditions for mass-based, populist nationalist movements. Written before the recent surge of propaganda, hate crimes and "strongman" regimes in places like Turkey, Hungary, the Philippines and now the US, Paxton's study outlines how fascists gain and exercise power. He also identifies the obvious warning signs: political deadlock in the face of domestic crisis, threatened conservatives desperate for tough allies and ready to abandon the rule of law, and charismatic leaders ready to "mobilize passions" through race-tinged demagoguery. Check, check, and check.

On the other hand, Paxton also advises that most real capitalists, even if they see democracy as a nuisance, would prefer an authoritarian to a fascist leader. Why? The former usually want a passive, disengaged public, he argues. But fascists, who have such contempt for both people and reason that they don't even bother to justify their excesses, tend to get more people excited and engaged. Double check.

Traces and Echoes

Reading Mussolini’s Italy, a rich and revealing history of life under fascist rule, it was hard not to be reminded of Donald Trump. As Richard Bosworth shows, Mussolini's brand of fascism was powered more by charisma than policies, and drew from a widespread sense of victimhood that fueled aggression, authoritarian quick fixes, and a desperate yearning to recapture a glorious, yet mythical past. While World War II ended the Duce's tyranny, it certainly did not excise fascism's totalitarian approach and mindset. Unfortunately, traces and strong echoes can be seen today in most democracies.

Like a necessary prequel, Trump/Russia: A Definitive History provides the little-known backstory for our predicament — a sordid tale of organized crime, shape-shifting oligarchs and money laundering. As Seth Hettena shows, one of Trump’s biggest lies was his protest about having nothing to do with Russia. It’s precisely the opposite. Russia was his piggy bank and object of desire for decades. And his election was a perfect storm, fueled by the combined force of his narcissism and greed and Putin’s thirst for respect and revenge.

Insane Clown President, a snappy chronicle of the 2016 race, follows the campaign that may have ended democracy "as we know it."  One of the unintended take aways, however, is that it’s possible to be both smart and wrong — sometimes in the same sentence. I’m talking about author Matt Taibbi. Like many journalists, he was both fascinated and repulsed by the rise of Trump, yet repeatedly predicted that his victory simply couldn't happen. 

This type of campaign "diary" could be depressing and redundant. But Taibbi’s sense of the absurd, combined with an earnest passion that might have embarrassed Hunter Thompson, keep the pages turning right up to the "unbelievable" climax.

Hostile Takeover

The Road to Unfreedom should come with a warning: Abandon your illusions, since they aren’t likely to survive. Building on ideas introduced in a previously released pocket guide to surviving tyranny, Timothy Snyder describes the last six years as a period of shattering change that has led Russia, America and parts of Europe into what he calls schizofascism, or, in Trump’s case, possibly “sado-populism.” It’s an engaging, and deeply disturbing, tour of the political landscape. 

A core concept for Snyder is the shift — with strategic nudges by the Putin gang — from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity. Inevitability politicians argue that specifics of the past are ultimately irrelevant, merely grist for progress; Eternity politicians see endless cycles of threat, victimhood, and restoration, and have a penchant for supressing facts, dismissing reality, and creating political fiction.

“Americans were vulnerable to the politics of eternity,” Snyder explains, “because their own experiences had already weakened inevitability. Trump’s proposal to ‘make America great again’ resonated with people who believed, along with him, that the American dream was dead. Russia had reached the politics of eternity first, and so Russians knew the techniques that would push Americans in the same direction.”

Concise, pithy, inspiring and pocket-sized, Snyder’s other contribution, On Tyranny, is a guide to survival (with some dignity) in the Trump era, one that hits all the right notes and historical moments. Arranging observations and advice as a To-Do list, he doesn’t sugar-coated the situation. "Our time is certainly out of joint," Snyder writes, echoing Hamlet, because "we have forgotten history." And now we face a rough passage from confused democracy to a "cynical sort of fascist oligarchy." Still, the young can make new and better history, he predicts, if they know enough about it. We are beginning to see signs of that transformation.

Looking back, however, it certainly wasn’t raw intelligence that catapulted an infamous celebrity / mob boss into the White House. In Dark Star Rising, Gary Lachman makes the case for something deeper and darker than a corrupt campaign, succeeding with the aid of Russian info-war and “active measures.” If half what he reports is true, we’re in bigger trouble than we think. 

Call it chaos magic, positive thinking or New Thought, hidden forces may well have helped reshape the global “narrative” and primed mass conscousness for a postmodern authoritarian wave. At the center of this hostile takeover, claims Lachman, is Alexander Dugin, Putin’s Rasputin, a professional conspiracy theorist who brought his fascinations together in a “mosaic of ideologies” that centers on the rise of Eurasia. Dugin’s aim, which fit well with the tactics and goals of the alt-right, was apparently to “break the reality barrier” and “make things happen.” This short, unsettling book suggests that he and others did just that.

Whatever the truth, for those who continue to doubt that we’re in the midst of a radical global realignment — destruction of the so-called “world order” created after World War II and emergence of a “post-truth” authoriarian alliance — The Death of Truth provides a concise, potent overview that should settle the issue. Using a literary and historical lense, Michiko Kakutani describes how it was done, largely by Russia but beginning long before Trump’s hostile takeover, and also why there’s no guarantee that truth will make a comeback anytime soon.

Inside Stories

Like the reality TV presidency it chronicles, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury is basically a showcase for the crass motives and strange doings of its quirky subjects. It’s a pleasantly voyeuristic ride through the early Trump White House, as long as you don’t expect too much. 

Starting with some convincing evidence that neither Donald Trump nor his minions actually wanted to win, Wolff’s book tracks the power dynamics pulling at our accidental president, mainly from the perspective of another Rasputin-like figure, Steve Bannon. The other main factions included “establishment” Republicans like Reince Preibus — doomed to humiliation — and Trump’s family and friends, the so-called “moderates” labeled Jarvanka. Covering the first nine months of Trump’s misrule, the book’s pace is brisk, sprinkled generously with deadly barbs and Trump’s own tantrums and word salad — some of Wolff’s best evidence that we are trapped in a comic book nightmare.

Even if you have paid attention Bob Woodward’s latest expose, Fear, adds some fresh insights. The title refers to Trump’s core belief that fear is the source of “real power.” Focusing largely on how key policies have been handled, specifically trade, North Korea and the Middle East, Woodward serves up key incidents and stunning dialogues that showcase the President’s resistance to any facts or information that conflict with his instincts and often bizarre assumptions. 

To be completely frank, some of Trump’s half-formed ideas are worth considering, for example that the US military should withdraw from Afghanistan and South Korea. But his motives and behavior are so shocking that they undermine even those reasonable goals. Woodward ends with a riveting meeting between Robert Mueller and Trump’s legal team. That encounter shows why even getting him to testify under oath would be pointless.

Imagining the Worst

So, how does a republic fall? And are we there yet? As retold by Cicero's scribe in Dictator, the final installment of Robert Harris’ remarkable ancient Rome trilogy, it can begin with ambition, hubris and endemic corruption. All three sound familiar. Harris doesn’t downplay Cicero's fatal weaknesses, but also dramatizes some of his greatest triumphs as he struggles to protect Rome, first from Julius Ceasar, and later from Marc Antony and his rival, Ceasar's adopted son Octavian. The writing is vivid and the dialogue surprisingly contemporary. But it's the central story that makes the novel compelling — Rome's slow descent into violence and repression.

In another work of essential fiction, It Can’t Happen Here, the protagonist is a more modest figure. Doremus Jessup is a cranky Vermont newspaper editor who sees a day coming when freedom, constitutional rights and truth itself are lost in the United States. In Sinclair Lewis' prescient 1936 novel, Jessup and his friends in Fort Beulah, Vermont watch aghast as a racist, flag-waving demagogue wins the presidential election and establishes a repressive regime much like Nazi Germany. Soon the most liberal members of the Supreme Court resign, replaced by unknown lawyers who call President Buzz Windrip by his first name. And that's just the first act in an epic political drama about repression and resistance.

Popular as novel in the late 1930s, It Can’t Happen Here was adapted for stage and had a highly successful run as part of the Federal Writers' Project. But the cautious pre-war climate in Hollywood derailed a film project, and the story line remained too-hot-to-handle for decades. It later became the inspiration for a TV series, V, but there the Fascists were replaced by aliens. It eventually also inspired the sci fi film V for Vendetta.

At the time too few people heeded Lewis' satirical warning. Appeasement, collaboration and indecision continued as Mussolini took control of Albania, Ethiopia and Eritrea, and as Hitler repudiated the Versailles treaty and set up pacts with the other two Axis powers. Nevertheless, Lewis’ analysis of mass psychology remains highly relevant. The tyranny he imagined did not emerge in the US before or during World War II. But Lewis’s book remains highly resonant, despite a dated rural setting and some clunky dialogue. 

A more subtle form of fascism, what philosopher Bertram Gross named "friendly fascism," has been developing ever since. We've seen clear manifestations in the militaristic, media-fueled reign of Donald Trump, a brutal nationalist approach to politics and governance anticipated in Lewis' dystopian vision. After more than 80 years, his classic novel retains its punch and is rapidly becoming required reading again.

And finally, in The Golden HouseSalman Rushdie creates a vivid new American nightmare that rings too true for comfort, one peppered with chilling reflections like this: 

“The Internet was still full of lies and the business of the truth was broken. The best had lost all conviction and the worst were filled with passionate intensity and the weakness of the just was revealed by the wrath of the unjust. But the Republic remained more or less intact. Let me just set that down because it was a statement often made to comfort those of us who were not easily to be comforted. It’s a fiction in a way, but I repeat it. 

“I know that after the storm, another storm, and then another. I know that stormy weather is the forecast forever and happy days aren’t here again and intolerance is the new black and the system really is rigged not only in the way the evil clown has tried to make us believe. Sometimes the bad guys win and what does one do when the world one believes in turns out to be a paper moon and a dark planet rises and says, No, I am the world. 

“How does one live amongst one’s fellow countrymen and countrywomen when you don’t know which of them is numbered among the sixty-million-plus who brought the horror to power, when you can’t tell who should be counted among the ninety-million-plus who shrugged and stayed home, or when your fellow Americans tell you that knowing things is elitist and they hate elites, and all you have ever had is your mind and you were brought up to believe in the loveliness of knowledge, not that knowledge-is-power nonsense but knowledge is beauty, and then all of that, education, art, music, film, becomes a reason for being loathed, and the creature out of Spiritus Mundi rises up and slouches toward Washington, D.C., to be born.”

The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert O. Paxton
Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, Richard J.B. Bosworth
Trump/Russia: A Definitive History, Seth Hettena 
Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus, Matt Taibbi
The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, Timothy Snyder
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder
The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, Michiko Kakutani
Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Michael Wolff
Fear: Trump in the White House, Bob Woodward
Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump, Gary Lachman
Dictator, Robert Harris
It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis
The Golden House, Salman Rushdie

Other Reading

Radio: Imagining America under Trump  (2015)

Journalism in the Era of Fake News  (2018)

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Seeking Truth and Finding Oil

In a new political detective story, set in the Middle East, Charlotte Dennett combines oil pipeline politics, 
relentless journalism and revealing family 
biography to unravel the Great Game

By Greg Guma

All families have unsolved mysteries, stories lost or rarely told. But few if any have a storyteller as prepared or as dogged as Vermont lawyer and journalist Charlotte Dennett — or a family saga so entwined with the politics of oil and pipelines in the Middle East. 

In a new book, The Crash of Flight 3804, Dennett melds two narratives, the personal and the geopolitical. The subtitle suggests its scope: A Lost Spy, a Daughter’s Quest, and the Deadly Politics of the Great Game for Oil. It’s an epic yet intimate voyage full of dark discoveries, suspenseful, brave, ambitious and detailed.

The Great Game before 911
Let’s look at those four qualities, beginning with a bit of the suspense. In 1943, Charlotte’s father, Daniel Dennett, went from a life of teaching and scholarship to wartime espionage. A Harvard-educated Mideast specialist who spoke Arabic, French and German, he taught English in the 1930s at the American University in Beirut. That made him a good catch for either the State Department or the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), precursor of the CIA. 

But as the Agency proudly points out on its website — now that it has finally recognized Dennett as its “forgotten first star” — he chose intelligence over diplomacy.  

In 1944, Dennett became the OSS chief of counterintelligence in Beirut, re-assigned to the Strategic Services Unit (SSU) once the war ended. By 1946, at age 36, he was running Beirut intelligence operations, just as the Central Intelligence Group (CIG) was morphing into the CIA. Dennett’s CIG code name was Carat. His cover was cultural attache, but he felt engaged in cultural warfare, and not only with the Russians but also with some allies, notably the British and French. Financier Bernard Baruch had just named the unfolding struggle: “We are in the midst of a Cold War.”

On March 19, 1947, Dennett boarded Flight 3804, a C-47 army transport plane, bound from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia. At this point one part of his job was helping to negotiate the route of a new, US-controlled Trans-Arabian oil pipeline that would run across Arabia to either Lebanon or Palestine. Where it would end was becoming a key sticking point. In his last correspondence, Dennett talked about US oilmen arguing over a final terminal on the Mediterranean, and Syrians balking over transit rights.

The stated mission was to deliver top secret communications equipment, take and deliver aerial photos, and meet with Sinclair Oil officials. On board, along with Dennett and the flight crew, were Donald Sullivan, a US petroleum attache inspecting holdings and projects, and John Creech, the intelligence agency technician responsible for the equipment. The plane never landed, instead slamming into a mountain north of the capital. 

The first person to reach the crash site was an unnamed British officer. The official explanation was a weather-related accident. 

Charlotte Dennett, less than two months old when her father died, has spent much of her life searching for the truth about what happened, and the bigger picture surrounding that personal loss. Among the more revealing documents she found along the way was Daniel Dennett’s 1944 “analysis of work” for the OSS, in which he acknowledged that Saudi Arabia’s oil deposits were so enormous “that we must control them at all costs.” That phrase, “at all costs,” resurfaces frequently, and headlines the last chapter. 

An Evil Power: Oil & Empire in the Middle East (3 minutes)
“Oil is an evil power,” wrote Upton Sinclair, “luring nations to destruction by visions of unearned wealth, and the opportunity to enslave and exploit labor.” 
Iran history, with animation from ARGO, and commentary 
by Groucho Marx and Orson Welles. 

The book opens with a brief foreward by another Dennett, Charlotte’s older brother, also named Daniel. He is known as one of the “the four horsemen,” thought leaders of the new atheist movement. The others are Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. If the four horsemen were a rock band, Dennett would be the quiet one.

“The Great Game for Oil is one of civilization’s dirty secrets,” he explains, one perhaps understood best by persistent journalists like his sister and master spies like his dad. And he introduces Kim Philby, who played a crucial role in post-war intelligence, a high-level British double agent who ultimately defected to the Soviet Union. Both Daniel and Charlotte Dennett see motives for Philby and British involvement in their father’s untimely death. As head of UK counterintelligence for the Middle East, Philby certainly had the opportunity and was linked to other sabotage. 

But would the British make such a move? And why? Like many questions posed throughout the book, these can’t be definitively answered. But Dennett often presents a persuasive case, or admits to speculating when a trail runs dry. At one point, she bravely asks whether her father was tolerant and humane as a spy. Whose interest did he serve? Did he know or care, she wonders, “about what was happening to the Jews of Europe when he strove to make Lebanon safe for the Trans-Arabian Pipeline?” This is impossible to determine, but the question itself is laden with meaning. Sometimes she sees him as a victim of the Great Game, sometimes as a player and master spy.

In any case, if Daniel Dennett’s death wasn’t an accident, were the British directly implicated, or did Philby point the Soviets (or some other group) toward his activities in the region? That’s one type of question. The title of Chapter Five poses another: Is the Syrian War a pipeline war? As you might suspect, her answer to this one is yes. And although recent conflict has delayed projects involving that country, she predicts, “covert pipeline wars between the west (seeking to bypass Russia) and Russia (seeking to consolidate its hold over pipeline routes to Europe) will no doubt resume.”

At times The Crash of Flight 3804 reminds me of Fate is the Hunter, a 1964 aviation disaster film. The main storyline concerns the crash of a commercial airliner. Investigators initially point to pilot error (Dennett’s crash was blamed on uncertain weather.) But Glenn Ford, playing the airline’s Director of Flight Operations, won’t accept conventional wisdom and eventually discovers the real reason — a complex chain of coincidences. In the process, the film explores the lives of passengers and crew, the technical operations of aircraft, the process of investigation, and the pressures of relentless news media and industry politics.

Dennett employs a similar approach. After introducing her father and briefly describing the crash, she uses various chapters to chronicle oil politics in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Israel, along the way introducing journalists and others who have provided inspiration or uncovered key facts, while exploring her family’s connections to various events and places. The structure is ambitious but can prove frustrating at times, offering up recent history with only a tangential connection to the main narrative. But unlike the film, Dennett rarely equivocates. Rejecting fate or coincidence, for instance, she says British interests were the most likely outside factor in Daniel Dennett’s death, probably involving sabotage with Ethiopian participation, and possibly orchestrated by Kim Philby. 

A British hand makes sense. In March 1938 the Standard Oil Company of California (renamed Aramco in 1944) had discovered vast oil deposits in Saudi Arabia. Britain still dominated the region, but was feeling the pressure. King Abdul Aziz Al Saud, known as Ibn Saud, thought his future might be with America and considered his 1945 meeting with Franklin Roosevelt “the high point of my entire life.” By 1947, the US had replaced Britain as Saudi Arabia’s favored trading partner. Winston Churchill was furious about the loss of influence. 

In his last letter home, Dennett expressed concern about British colonialism and the adoption of similar policies by Aramco. In addition, however, he was heading to a meeting with Sinclair Oil, which often broke step with the industry. According to Harvey O’Connor, who wrote a 1955 precursor to Dennett’s book called The Empire of Oil, Sinclair’s founder, Harry Sinclair, was the only oil magnate to sign an agreement with the Oil Workers International Union. “Repeatedly, he delighted in breaking the Standard of New Jersey wage program by giving advantageous terms to the union,” O’Connor wrote. Standard of New Jersey meant Rockefeller power. 

After decades of research on the region, however, there are matters beyond her father’s case on Dennett’s mind. “Telling the truth had been drummed into me in childhood by my mother (despite the fact that my father was a spy who by profession, was taught how to lie!),” she writes. Nevertheless, she has often found herself “seeking truth and finding oil.” Looking back at seven decades, as well as recent violence in Syria, Iraq, Gaza and Yemen, she forcefully argues that “the timeworn quest for oil — to be pursued and protected ‘at all costs’ — lies at the heart of many of these tragedies.” 

Dennett acknowledges that some may consider this conclusion an oversimplification, and allows room for other arguments. Some wars and violence in the Middle East do appear to have multiple causes. Despite the evidence she assembles, that looks like the case in Syria and Yemen. On the other hand, there is little doubt that oil was a decisive factor in the Iraq War of 2003, and it has been a driving force elsewhere. There is important, fresh information and insight in Dennett’s reading of recent Middle East events. But the granular details of pipeline schemes can become a distraction, diverting focus from the central storyline.

“Everywhere it has been hunted as a wild animal, and the law of the jungle has entered into the heart and sinew of the industry. The sordid and bloody story has been told in local and world wars, in revolutions and corruption, in continuing world turmoil.” - Harvey O’Connor,
The Empire of Oil

As someone who has known Charlotte Dennett for more than 30 years, I’m familiar with her political views, and have read both her 2010 book, The People V. Bush: One Lawyer's Campaign to Bring the President to Justice and the National Grassroots Movement She Encounters along the Way, and her previous work with husband Gerard Colby. As she explains in the new book, for years “we followed the trail of US evangelical missionaries and spies from Latin America to Southeast Asia and Africa and inevitably found oil and fundamentalism as common denominators of conquest.” The result was a massive book with an equally big title, Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil.

What intrigued me more and kept me reading this time were the twists and turns of her personal journey, as well as her family’s deep and complex connections with the Middle East. They go back much farther than 1975, when Charlotte dodged gunfire in Beirut as a young reporter; or 1947, when she was born there and her father’s plane went down; or even 1931, when 21-year-old Daniel Dennett arrived in Beirut to teach. Her grandmother, Elizabeth Redfern, spent three years in Turkey as a missionary educator from 1900 to 1903, teaching biology at the American College for Girls. 

And it was no accident. Redfern’s father, a Massachusetts lumber merchant, thought that was an excellent idea. In fact, he needed her “to be his eyes and ears in Turkey as the United States entered the Great Game.” The race was on to build railroads, and white pine from Maine made good railroad ties. “My grandmother was there to see it all, whether or not she understood its ramifications,” Dennett writes. 

Apparently, Elizabeth Redfern wasn’t the only amateur spy at the school. With daily horseback rides other missionary teachers “did their part in informally gathering and passing on intelligence to the school’s wealthy trustees.” It was all there: missionaries, spies, commercial scheming over transportation and oil in the Middle East. 

Despite its connection to her husband’s death, Charlotte’s mother loved Beirut, and managed to return as a librarian in 1963. Charlotte finished high school there, two years that changed her life, introducing her to “an interpretation of the Middle East that was entirely different from anything I’d seen in the United States.” In the 1970s, she came back as a reporter, writing sunnily about developments in rapidly changing societies. In Abu Dhabi, for example, she reported that petroleum “has launched a small, poverty-stricken country into space age modernity and affluence.” 

But some stories couldn’t be published, material that ended up in a file called “What Charlotte couldn’t write.” Things like tyrannical rule in Iran under the US-backed Shah, men in dark suits and sunglasses surveilling street corners for any disturbances, universities plied with drugs to keep the students pacified, and the Shah’s sister trafficking opium. Once she teamed up with Colby, however, to investigate the connections between Rockefeller, missionaries, CIA operatives and genocide in the Amazon, self-censorship was no longer an issue.

That makes the last chapter of the book a bit surprising, although a fitting climax for her quest. It begins with two CIA men visiting their home for a chat in April 2019, and culminates in May with handshakes, promises and speeches at CIA headquarters as Dennett wonders whether Big Oil can be restrained or the agency can change its ways. “Are we on the cusp of something new? Or the same old story...”

In 2007, after repeated rejection of requests for documents on her father’s death, Dennett sued the CIA. This attracted some press, including coverage by the Village Voice and New York Times. The court backed the agency’s typical national security argument and her case was dismissed on appeal. But the spooks took notice and apparently had another move.

When Mark Schwendler, a CIA historian, and David Marlowe, assistant director of the Near East Mission, showed up in Burlington last year it was all smiles and jokes. Colby and Dennett were skeptical: “We figured that they surely must have researched us ahead of time and discovered that I was writing a book about my father.” Apparently, Schwendler was conducting related research, following up on a 2008 think tank recommendation that Dennett be added to the CIA’s memorial wall. It still sounded suspicious.

Schwendler then provided crash documents that pointed to weight, weather and pilot problems. But Dennett had seen reports that contradicted those theories. By the end, it was obvious that the writers knew more than the CIA men. The visit concluded with a promised tour of the agency’s spy museum and some creepy final words: “Welcome to the family. We are all family.”

On May 21, 2019 Dennett and Colby got their tour and more. In a Langely, Virginia conference room, renamed for the two fallen heroes, they saw tributes and heard warm remarks by Marlowe. They visited Dennett’s star, newly engraved on the CIA wall, and took part in an emotional ceremony. There was even a private meeting with CIA Director Gina Haspel, who called her father a role model and agreed to consider releasing more documents. The agency delivered on that in January 2020, removing some redactions and releasing more Information about the elder Dennett’s last months.

The real surprise was Charlotte’s take away from the charm offensive: “Apparently my wanting to do justice to my father won them over to our patriotism and the sincerity of our work, despite some understandable misgivings about our previous books.” Really? Despite knowing well that spies routinely dissemble, she considered the respect and sensitivity shown at the CIA that day to be genuine. Well, possibly. But it might also be strategic, keeping potential threats as close as possible.

“These Americans (being part of an oath-taking secretive organization) do not get the same public accolades as our armed forces on Memorial Day,” Dennett also notes. “Intelligence agencies are needed... members of the CIA may not always feel comfortable in what they are ordered to do, but they strongly believe in the overall mission: that ultimately, they are protecting democracy itself.”

That argument seems out of place, a soft defense of an intelligence community that has often backed repressive regimes, created massive chaos, and helped private interests protect oil and pipeline routes “at all costs.” Then again, most spies probably do believe that protecting democracy and American interests are closely linked, if not the same thing. And her father clearly had some misgivings, at least about the “imperial drift” of oil companies like Aramco. On the final page, Dennett does balance her qualified support with mention of a recent questionable CIA operation, running local militias in Afghanistan that commit serious human rights abuses. 

Her last thoughts also suggest that we live in unsusual times, when members of the intelligence community can be whistleblowing fighters against a corrupt federal regime, and patriots can be liberals who love their country while criticizing its shortcomings and mistakes. This is intriguing. Yet she provides no details and offers no advice on how to avoid the next showdowns over oil, beyond responsible individual acton and insistence on the right to be fully informed.

Instead, Dennett asks more questions: Have we turned a page? Will the truth about Americans trying to grab Ukrainian natural gas be exposed? Can a powerhouse like Saudi Aramco, the personification of big oil in league with big banks, “be restrained by the heartfelt pleas of millions of young climate activists?” We need frank, intelligent investigations and discussions about such issues. But she doesn’t pretend to offer all the answers. Rather, Dennett’s combination of oil pipeline politics, relentless journalism, and revealing family biography makes for an absorbing political detective story, one likely to leave you with new questions of your own.

Prologue: When Ida Met HDL (Exposing the Godfather of Big Oil)

For more, read Blind Ambitions: Iran, the Shah and his Friends