I'm not 100% sure if I agree with her characterizations (her Taft seems almost too likable). And her take on the Taft-Roosevelt split left a little toI'm not 100% sure if I agree with her characterizations (her Taft seems almost too likable). And her take on the Taft-Roosevelt split left a little to be desired. Sure, Roosevelt's need to be the dominant personality and his tendency to classify people who slightly disagreed with him as his mortal enemies played a large part in it. But both Taft and Roosevelt were in different positions in 1912 than they were in 1908. Taft wasn't totally without agency in his shift to the right.
However, these are minor quibbles. DKG is such a grade A storyteller that this reader was more than willing to put up with whatever concessions to simplification that goes with an epic work of popular narrative history. Incorporating the biographies of several prominent muckrakers, like Sam McClure, Ida Tarbell, Ray Baker and Lincoln Steffens was an inspired decision that turned what could have been a semi-tired retelling of a political yarn into something a lot more interesting. ...more
Since the summer 2005, when I read the previous three volumes of Caro's majestic Years of Lyndon Johnson series, I have periodically checked the interSince the summer 2005, when I read the previous three volumes of Caro's majestic Years of Lyndon Johnson series, I have periodically checked the internet for updates on the final volume's release. When I saw that it was available for pre-order on Amazon I loudly whooped. I kinda hope that bookstores do a midnight release so I can dress up like Sam Rayburn and stay up reading all night. I may be crazy, but doesn't that cover look pretty sexy? Yes, my name is A.J., and I'm am fully aware that I'm a dork....more
The first time I read Christopher Hitchens I thought he was completely full of shit. I don't remember the exact specifics, but I have a decent enoughThe first time I read Christopher Hitchens I thought he was completely full of shit. I don't remember the exact specifics, but I have a decent enough recall of the circumstances. My metaphorical cherry was popped by his "Fighting Words" column on Slate, and I can all but guarantee that that the topic was Iraq. This must have been at some point in the months immediately following the invasion, after the initial toppling-of-statues glow of liberation was beginning to wain. Since I had never read Hitchens before, I didn't know his backstory,* in fact, I assumed that he was a Republican ideologue. Actually, since the tone of his Iraq articles displayed such a venom to the anti-war left, which I considered myself a member of, a rather ardent Republican ideologue.
Of course, as I continued to read his weekly article, I would eventually learn the whole story**. But let me stop there to point out what was (and is) so remarkable about Hitchens writing. I loathed every sentiment he expressed in my initial encounter, but I felt compelled to come back each Monday for my weekly appointment. When he wrote about Iraq, I felt like I was doing spar work with a great boxer. My thoughts and opinions became more precise and well-worked, and eventually, much more nuanced. And there was always at least one wicked putdown or a witty aside that never failed to produce a snicker, if not a full belly laugh. I was hooked.
Depending on what I'm doing and what state of mind I'm in, my inner monologue can probably be described as a pale imitation of some varying combination of the writings of Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, and Christopher Hitchens. In the past ten years, I've probably read more words written by Hitchens than any other writer. I believe one of the reasons Hitchens attracted so many devotees was his writing at its best simulates the kind of conversations we would like to have more often. He seemed to know more than a little about every topic under the sun, and he would always have an appropriate anecdote or personal remembrance to add to the discussion. The effect, after years of reading, allowed fans to feel as if Hitchens was an old friend. I think that feeling was behind a lot of the reaction to his death last month. It seemed more than just the usual 15 seconds of requiem for a public figure these days. It seemed like there were more than a few people who were genuinely affected. Speaking for myself, the last "celebrity" death that left me in such a state of melancholy was in 2001 when George Harrison died.
I was somewhat reluctant Hitchens' memoirs so soon after his death. Sure, I had bought a copy the day it came out (I had pre-ordered it, then forgot about it) and was planning on reading it in the very near future. But doing so then somewhat reeked of a kind of gross sentimentality that I find a little silly and that Hitchens would have probably loathed. Nevertheless, I took the risk of being made to look like one of those MJ fans who still tear up when the "She's Out of My Life" comes on, and plunged in and I'm glad I did.
I very much enjoyed god Is Not Great, but this book is probably the quintessential work expressing Hitchens' work and beliefs. First, a quick aside. I think some people may be turned off by Hitchens' reputation as the militant atheist who never passed up a chance to ridicule organized religion and went on Hannity and Colmes to say he was glad Jerry Falwell is dead. While this was definitely an important part of Hitchens work, it was far from his only trick. Hitch-22 truly exhibits that Hitchens was a multi-tool writer. My personal favorite Hitchens writings are when he writes about authors and literature.
I don't have a lot to say about the book itself. It starts as a fairly conventional memoir, giving an account of his boyhood up to his Oxford years. After that, it becomes more episodic, which each chapter being devoted to a particular topic or range of topics. Of course with Hitchens you never stay focused on one topic for too long. The man could pull off an aside written in another aside written in a book recommendation*** written in an amusing anecdote featuring Martin Amis. Hitchens seems to have read everything, travelled everywhere, pissed all the wrong (or right) people off, and been friends with exclusively fascinating people. Hitch-22 is, without a doubt, the best tribute to his life, and maybe more importantly, the body of work he leaves behind.
*Hitchens is one of those writers where knowing a little bit of context greatly enhances the reading experience. It would almost be worthwhile preambling each essay with a short italicized blurb, something like "Previously in Hitchen..." Of course this context is absolutely nonessential to enjoying the original material, but one of the great things about this memoir is that it makes me look forward to revisiting past favorite articles with somewhat fresh eyes.
**His chapter here on his late rightward turn is one of the highlights of the book, as well as one of the more thoughtful pieces on the decision to invade Iraq I have encountered.
*** You might want to keep a tap opened to Amazon while reading this. My non-fiction wish list grew by a few pages over the last week. ...more
The great historical tragedy surrounding the legacy of Che Guevara is that man who was nothing but completely and utterly sincere has become a symbol
The great historical tragedy surrounding the legacy of Che Guevara is that man who was nothing but completely and utterly sincere has become a symbol of insincerity. I'm not sure if this was always the case, but at least when I see people of my generation wearing a Che shirt or displaying a Che poster, I no longer see the famous Korda photograph of Guevara, I see the words "I am a giant poser" tattooed in bold relief on that persons face. There may be people who are sincere in their admiration, but usually a Che shirt symbolizes that the wearer listens to Rage Against the Machine in their car stereos on the way to the mall to spend their parents money at the most convenient Hot Topic. As others have noted, the person who would be most revolted by this misappropriation of identity would be Che himself.
The cult of Che continues to make some sense, even after the end of the Cold War. Guevara was brilliant, curious, compassioniate, and utterly committed to his principal beliefs. Among the communist leaders of the 20th century, Guevara emerges as the one most faithfully committed to his principles. It's hard to imagine Che compromising Marxist principles for the sake of economic expediency, like Lenin, or for the accumulation of personal power, like Stalin. Che was willing to die for his beliefs, indeed he arguably actively sought his own eventual martyrdom.
Additionally, Che's legacy, like Kurt Cobain's or Jim Morrison's, greatly benefited from the relative brevity of his life. Che died soon enough that his entire life in still basked in the warm glow of revolution. Perhaps one of the reasons he appears so steadfast is that he didn't live long enough to compromise his legacy. There's the added benefit that Che was a pretty handsome guy, so we remember him as a dashing guerilla type. There is no footage of Che as a doddering 80 year old man still wearing army fatigues, rambling incoherencies.
In many ways, Che was an archetype for the baby boomer generation. Born into a middle class Argentinian family, Che spent his early years searching for a sense of meaning. He eventually found it in a sympathy with the poor and exploited peasants of Latin America. This further exacerbated an already present sense of anti-Americanism, that lasted throughout his lifetime. Contrary to U.S. Cold Warrior theory, it was antipathy to Americans that eventually led him to Marxism. To be fair, such feelings weren't exactly unjustified. Wherever there was a South or Central American corrupt dictator exploiting his people there was usually the government of the United States standing behind them. Communism was initially just the bugaboo used to justify intervention. The real reason the United States intervened in South America during the Eisenhower years was to protect the interests of United Fruit, Coca-Cola and other American companies. Guevara's sympathies for the downtrodden of Latin America eventually drove him to armed resistance. In Guatemala, he fought against the U.S. backed coup against a democratically elected president. The failure of this struggle taught Guevara many lessons, and was probably the last push that led to him becoming a full-fledged Communist.
After the coup in Guatemala, Che continued to Mexico City, which was at the time the exile capital of Americas. Here he connected with a group of Cuban exiles through whom he eventually met a young lawyer who had recently been let out of prison for a failed attack on a barracks, Fidel Castro. Here Guevara finally found the purpose that would consume the rest of his life. The rest, as they say, is history.
Che's life is a story of a young man's search for fulfillment, eventual satisfaction, and an attempt to, for lack of better words, "chase that feeling." The success of Castro's revolution is truly a remarkable story. A group of several dozen rebels led by Castro landed in Cuba in December, 1956. WIthin weeks their numbers had been reduced to less than twenty. Yet just a little two years after their disastrous landing, Batista's dictatorship had collapsed and the rebels were marching into Havana. I'm not sure what sure of this ultimate success can be apportioned to the leadership of Castro, Guevara, and others, but obviously a tremendous deal of luck was involved.
Che spent the remainder of his life with the ambition to duplicate the Cuban revolution in his birthplace. Here's where Che's many faults came into play. Guevara had all of the arrogance and hardheadedness that came with being a steadfast ideologue. Just because something had been done once, Che believed that it could be duplicated in different situations by following a set of principles. This belief led to nothing but disasters of an increasingly hubristic nature. Che failed that his earlier success in Cuba made a repeat of that success near impossible. Now, Latin American governments and their U.S. supporters would not tolerate small bands of guerillas operating in the mountains, allowing them to build up their resources. Instead, they would be smashed quickly and brutally.
After seeing several of his sponsored guerilla groups destroyed, as a result of what he perceived as a failure to follow his instructions, Che decided to reenter the field himself. Ironically, these expeditions on a smaller scale resembled the situation the United States was concurrently experiencing in Vietnam. Che went into the Congo convinced that his leadership and Cuban support could inspire the disparate rebel groups there. Instead, the rebellion had been smashed within months and the path was set the stage for the 30 year Mobutu dictatorship.
Che's final venture in Bolivia was a complete and utter fiasco. The farce didn't even deserve the term revolution, it was more of a Cuban intervention in a sovereign country. Castro and Guevara decided that Bolivia was the appropriate launching spot for what they hoped would be a continent-wide uprising and they strong armed elements in Bolivia to provide the reluctant and feeble native backing. The struggle was essentially Cuban led, and mostly Cuban fought with an element of Bolivian support. Not surprisingly, it was a disaster from the start, and Che didn't follow his own rule book. Events culminated in Guevara's eventual surrender and execution.
Like I mentioned, Che had all of the strengths and weaknesses of an intellectual who lives in sole service of an idea. He was a moral man without hypocrisy, who could be charismatic, funny, and brilliant. But he served his idea to a faul. As much as he railed against the untoward influence of the U.S. over Latin America, his beliefs put Cuba into a much more subservient position toward the U.S.S.R. Even before his death, he left his children fatherless to serve the revolution. He was also uncompromising to a fault. He was willing to look favorably upon nuclear armageddon as long as it served his cause. In the romantic accounts of Guevara's life and death, it is not mentioned that he died in an attempt to spark World War III. His aspirations were that his uprising in Bolivia would lead to a continent wide uprising that would create a second Vietnam in the Americas. He hoped this would inspire China and the Soviet Union to set aside their sectarian differences to unite in a general struggle against the United States. He foresaw a more socialistic humanity emerging from the ashes of a nuclear conflict. He was willing to see the death of millions as long as it served his ideological beliefs. No matter his good qualities, this lessens the sense of tragedy surrounding his execution, for me at least.
Whatever the case may be, the life and death of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara is an epic tale, and Jon Lee Anderson does an admirable job in relating it. The investigative journalistic work that Anderson did oozes out of the work. Anderson spent years on this project, and lived for years in Cuba. In addition to reading almost everything written about or by Che, Anderson has interviewed scores of Guevara's contemporaries, in Cuba and Argentina, including childhood friends, Cuban officials, and fellow guerillas. What emerges is a balanced biography that is rare for such a polarizing subject. My review perhaps does not exhibit this quality, but this is more of a result of the conclusions I drew from the book and not a reflection on any inherent biases Anderson might have. Anderson does not seek to beatify or demonize, he seeks to report. Doing so, he actually was able to break news. It was his research in the course of writing this book that led to the discovery of Guevara's long lost remains near a airstrip in Bolivia in 1997. Anderson chips off the tarnish of mythology to prevent an evenhanded and reliable account of life of one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century.
Nancy Isenberg has a valid argument that Aaron Burr has been grossly misjudged by history. However, her restoration is tainted by her devotion to theNancy Isenberg has a valid argument that Aaron Burr has been grossly misjudged by history. However, her restoration is tainted by her devotion to the man. Isenberg's Burr is a brilliant, progressive, selfless hero who deserves a spot on the pantheon of America's founders. His enemies were small, vainglorious, hypocrites who only served their own interest. She attacks other writers, such as Ron Chernow, for upholding the standard story. Isenberg may have a point, but I think the truth lies somewhere between Chernow's version and her own version of history.
At some point, I realized that I no longer trusted the credibility of Isenberg's version of the facts. This started when she described the Jay Treaty. The Jay Treaty was widely criticized at the time but the majority of recent scholars have recognized the pragmatism behind it. The young republic had to make certain tough concessions to Great Britain but it was worth it in the end. Eventually, a large segment of the contemporary American populace recognized the benefits of the treaty, and the Jeffersonians were actually hurt by their continued denunciation of it. Isenberg does not attempt to delve into any sort of nuance whatsoever. Instead, she accepts Jeffersonian propoganda for what it is, using it to highlight Burr as a hero of the masses, and his opponents as craven elites. This type of sloppy history persists throughout the book. Isenberg's Federalists are villains, except when they are supporting Burr. Whenever Burr dirties his hands he is being a rational, whenever his opponents do they are playing dirty politics.
Fallen Founder seems at times to be more devoted to restoring Burr's reputation than being solid history. For example, Burr went from being a consensus Republican vice presidential candidate in 1800 to being blacklisted completely and humiliated in the New York Governor's race in 1804. There must be more to this than Isenberg's attribution of scheming of Dewitt Clinton and Thomas Jefferson. She also whitewashes Burr's activities in the western frontier that led to his treason trial. While his actions may not have justified the government's prosecution, he was definitely up to something not completely legal and legitimate. Isenberg paints Burr as a great progressive, years ahead of his time in woman's rights, but she only glosses over the fact that he was a slave-owner for the majority of his life. Sure, many of the founders owned slaves but their modern biographers don't attempt to make them out to be modern defenders of liberty.
Isenberg also never really proved that Burr belongs with Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton and others in any supposed pantheon. Burr served with decent distinction in the Revolutionary War but played no part in the debate over the Constitution. Burr seems to be no more or less principled than any other politician in that era. Like most politicians, he seemed to let his principles fluctuate with the times. His greatest accomplishments, other than his treason acquittal and his duel with Hamilton, seem to be his coalition building efforts, which invite comparisons with Martin Van Buren. The argument could be made that, if anything, Burr was a politician ahead of his time and a less successful Van Buren.
There are some joys in the book. If condition yourself to look past some of Isenberg's apparent biases, there is some interesting stuff, particularly about 1790s New York politics. But Isenberg lets her affinity for her subject get in the way of solid history. It really is a shame, because Burr's story at least deserves a balanced, objective telling. ...more