yet another blog…but mine!

Lies and Cover-up in “Soldier’s Home”

Untruths abound in Ernest Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home,” a short story that glimpses into a soldier’s re-acclimation to American life following World War I.  At center is an individual, profoundly changed by experience, and his struggle to reintegrate into a seemingly unaffected society. Lies, at once both corrosive and comforting (for the individual and community respectively) serve to bridge the disconnect between the two. Published in 1925, six years later than its setting, “Soldier’s Home” is both a sobering reflection on the war’s effects and an indictment of the nation’s collective response in the years that followed.

Written at the height of the Roaring Twenties, a time by which those privileged enough were able to replace thoughts of war with whiskey (of the bootlegged variety), Hemingway’s narrative is aimed squarely at his contemporary reader. This was a reader who, in Hemingway’s estimates, could not have sooner opted for the escapes of a “mass-produced and consumed” culture over a serious contemplation of the century’s most cataclysmic event.[1] The disinterested small town populace in “Soldier’s Home” acts as Hemingway’s stand-in for the American public at large: easily bored, hungry for something “new,” with an “attention [that] always wandered.”[2]

While such charges are levied against a 1919 crowd in the story, they are more typical of the “Lost Generation’s” criticisms of the “shallow, anti-intellectual, and materialistic” tendencies they saw arise during the twenties.[3] Those tendencies, aided in large part by the increased prevalence of radio and film, resulted in a progressively homogenous and commercial American culture. This culture, much to the ire of the generation’s writers, Hemingway included, seemed to preach to the indulging of one’s “pleasure principle” (to borrow from Sigmund Freud, another of the era’s contemporaries), perhaps to excess. Keep Reading

We Can’t Trust Facebook to Regulate Itself (Totally, yes! A response.)

Note: This piece considers this 2017 op-ed printed in the New York Times. It was written shortly thereafter and has not been updated to reflect the myriad of new complaints one can now levey against the company.

Though Facebook has now long enjoyed a seemingly immovable place in the American public consciousness, when conversation swirled earlier this fall about the social media giant’s entanglement with the Russians in the 2016 elections, company executives surely hoped for slightly less attention. One opinion piece—of many—written during that time comes courtesy of Sandy Parakilas, a former operations manager at the company. His article contends less with Facebook’s role in election meddling, however, than its inability to generally keep itself in check despite repeated assurances to the contrary. The result is an unforgiving op-ed piece that justifies its mistrust in Facebook by turning to the company’s extensive past failings on issues concerning user privacy.

That Parakilas chiefly uses the issue of privacy to cast doubt on the company’s ability to self-regulate itself in other areas is undeniable. However, rather than slip into an exploitation of the topic, Parakilas instead offers a reminder of the unprecedented and worrisome nature of Facebook’s data collection and use policies. In a short space, he alludes to no less than a half dozen of Daniel Solove’s enumerated “privacy problems,” most notably emphasizing startling instances of information dissemination to third party developers. These problems are made even more troubling by their legality and the unwitting complicity of Facebook users who “often authorize access to sensitive information without realizing it,” essentially greenlighting its eventual misuse.[1] Keep Reading

Primary Source Analysis: Brecht/Mussolini

Note: The following short analysis was originally submitted to HIST 795 at Queens College in the Fall 2016 semester.

By the time German writer Bertolt Brecht penned “The Legend of the Dead Soldier” towards the end of World War I, the horrors of the war were fresh in the minds of many of its participants and observers. Brecht’s poem, a scathing rebuke of the attitudes of German leadership towards the war, satirically mocks the Kaiser’s inability to let a soldier die but one death for his country. The sentiments offered by Brecht, a witness himself to the effects of the fighting, differed resoundingly from others at the time who viewed the war as glorious and productive endeavor. Among this latter group was Italian Benito Mussolini who in 1914 authored an article for Il Popolo d’Italia (‘The War as a Revolutionary Event’) arguing in favor of the glories and gains attainable from a continental fight. When read together, Brecht and Mussolini’s pieces provide obviously contrasting feelings towards the war itself but they also combine to offer a stark view/critique of a few of the attitudes that would come to embody fascism in subsequent years.

While Brecht’s poem is not a direct response to Mussolini, it helps to first consider the latter in order to understand the mindset of those that Brecht aimed his ballad towards, even if Mussolini’s Italy was not aligned with Brecht’s Germany during the war. Printed in the first issue of his personally founded newspaper, Mussolini’s article argues for Italian interventionism in effort to seize charge of the nation’s “destiny.” In doing so, he employs a number of strategies and appeals common to future fascist rhetoric not least of which is the establishment of an “us vs. them” mentality from the article’s onset. Labeling “anti-war propaganda [as] the propaganda of cowardice,” Mussolini divides the nation between an elite opposed to war for selfish reasons (e.g. Jesuits, bourgeois, royalists) and the exploited class of the rest of the nation on whom those groups propose to force “shame…and universal derision.”[1] Keep Reading

“The Blockbuster,” a Primary Source Analysis

Note: The following short essay looks at Robert Lindsey’s “All Hollywood Loves a Blockbuster­—And Chips Off the Old Blockbuster,” an article published in the New York Times in May 1976. The analysis was originally submitted for course credit at Queens College in October 2016. I later covered the topic in greater detail here.

It has long been the hallmark of the cineaste to survey Hollywood’s latest offerings and remark, with particular unrestraint, on the alarming state of the American film world. Such criticisms inevitably turn towards the proliferation of blockbusters: films with outsized budgets, superstar casts, and a shared indescribable quality that seems to connect them all. Despite their recurring presence throughout the entirety of the 20th century, the “blockbuster era” to which we presently belong is typically traced only to the 1970s, specifically June 1975 with the release of Jaws. The purpose of this paper is not to explore the significance of the trend but rather to briefly examine how contemporary audiences, particularly critics, understood and reacted to the shift underway in Hollywood at the time.

In May 1976, the New York Times published just one of several articles that would detail the increasing prevalence of the blockbuster. Complete with a large cartoon featuring a shark-infested, money-hungry Hollywood landscape, L.A. correspondent Robert Lindsey’s article, “All Hollywood Loves a Blockbuster—And Chips Off the Old Blockbuster” is replete with interviews of industry executives on both sides of the debate. While his article intended to make sense of the growing trend of “super budgets, super salaries and a superabundance of sequels,” it also did not refrain from passing judgment.[1] Less than a year later, William Paul would provide a far more extensive and scathing critique of the industry in an article for the March/April 1977 issue of Film Comment entitled “Hollywood Harakiri.” While the latter word, Japanese for ritual suicide by disembowelment, may have been unclear, the article’s subtitle “On the Decline of an Industry and an Art” left little doubt to Paul’s intent. Withering in its criticism, his eleven-page rebuke reads not unlike many alarmist articles from recent years. However, for having been written at the cusp of Hollywood’s evolution, it remarkably possesses both reflective and prescient qualities that enable the author to trace both the trend’s causes and its future potential. Keep Reading

‘Play It Again, Sam’: Re-selling and Re-watching Hollywood’s Classics, 1946-49.

For most of the studio era in Hollywood, movies were defined by a particular sense of impermanence. Produced in a matter of weeks and circulated only until they failed to earn more than the potential of the new film on deck, the life of most motion pictures in the thirties and forties was decidedly short-lived. In 1931, one moviegoer’s magazine put it simply: “like life itself, the nature of the film play is essentially ephemeral. The vivid spectacle that enchants the world today is tomorrow but a memory.”[1] Significant, then, is how so many films from the 1930s and 1940s overcame their fundamentally fleeting natures to endure as “classics.”

Prior to the proliferation of film on television in the mid-1950s, and perhaps more consequently, the advent of home media in the late-1970s, for most moviegoers, the only opportunity to reflect on Hollywood’s older movies was when studios chose to “reissue” films from years’ past back to theatres. Before the 1940s, this practice remained consistently inconsistent in its employ from the mid-1910s, where perhaps a small handful of old pictures might have made their returns to general cinemas each year. However, by the late-1940s, film reissues inundated American cinemas. Facing unprecedented economic turmoil­—caused by dropping attendance figures and rising production costs—Hollywood studios returned to their archives, pouring hundreds of hits (and flops) from the prior decades back into theatres from late-1946 to 1949. In selling these films the second or third time around, Hollywood often took the opportunity to reframe their past pictures in effort to ascribe a certain significance, warranted or not, for attracting audiences then able to re-watch and re-evaluate movies from the prior two decades; a process, which in turn, allowed for certain films to gain actual enduring significance. Keep Reading

William Faulkner: “On Privacy”

In the mid-19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson helped define a uniquely American brand of individualism and personal liberty when he wrote “Self-Reliance”, an ode—in essay form—to the man who “in the midst of the crowd” was able to maintain his unique sense of self. Just over a century later, William Faulkner, in his 1955 essay entitled “On Privacy,” would all but declare that man swallowed whole by the masses around him. His essay, part elegy, part indictment, is a full rendering of the rapidly decaying state of privacy in mid-twentieth century America, and it is through this that Faulkner traces and attributes the decline of the “individual” and her ability to embrace the freedoms once laid at the bedrock of the “American dream.”

That Faulkner’s essay so closely interweaves notions of privacy and freedom, as Alan Westin does in his book entitled just that, is not surprising. Astutely, he recognizes privacy not only as its own freedom, but as a prerequisite for all others. If privacy did not make the man, for Faulkner, it certainly creates the sacred individual, allowing opportunity for a person to grow distinct from the rest of society in a way of their own choosing. It is this self-definition that Faulkner holds in such high esteem and he places it at the center of a quintessentially American possibility: in a country rid of “old arbitrary hierarchies,” self-invention was and remains an integral component of the American dream.[1] He goes on to describe an inviolable “individuality” in every man whose existence is both contingent on individual privacy (“lacking which [man] cannot be an individual”) and necessary for any life worth living in the first place.[2] Most simply, for Faulkner then, privacy comprises the conditions necessary for man to reach and maintain his fullest potential. Yet, as he argues in his essay, those conditions were scarcely apparent in mid-century America.

Faulkner’s first argument to this effect cites a years-long personal anecdote in which he is politely hounded to grant permission for the writing of a magazine profile on himself. Steadfastly resistant to divulging any part of his private life for public consumption, Faulkner here mirrors Westin’s info-centric view that defined privacy as the “claim of individuals […] to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others.”[3]  Not only does he declare it his right to decline but the duty of the public respect his wishes—“since one man’s liberty must stop at exactly the point where the next one’s begins.”[4] This attitude calls to mind Daniel Solove’s discussion of the view of privacy as a “constitutive element of a civil society,” an argument Faulkner undoubtedly would have agreed with.[5] For when the next magazine finally refused to obey his wishes, Faulkner does not consider himself alone the victim, but also the publisher and writer, all suffering from the same “mores of the hour” that had seen “bad taste […] converted into a marketable and therefore taxable and therefore lobbyable commodity.”[6] Harshly critical of a Freedom of the Press gone amok, Faulkner identifies an internecine industry struggle that satisfied both reader and publisher temporarily but eroded at the core elements of humanity in both.
Through this lens then, it is far more difficult to minimize Faulkner’s concerns over a seemingly insignificant magazine profile—from a friendly acquaintance no less—given the fact that he was already a renowned literary figure known the world over. He recognized, just as Solove does, that disclosure fundamentally undermines “democratic self-governance,” and its normalization in modern society left all parties victim to its consequences.[7] For an American society that so prized the individual—or at least claimed to—Faulkner highlights the vital function of the self-ownership necessary for making such claims anything more than mere platitudes.

Faulkner, of course, does not limit his examination of privacy to his own experiences, and in expanding his to view to consider the plight of a grieving Charles Lindbergh or a beleaguered J. Robert Oppenheimer, he exhibits a cannier understanding of the topic than merely one concerned with the transfer of information. On the former, Faulkner is especially piercing, describing a nation more eager to violate a man’s privacy than protect it, one “which assumed an inalienable right to abrogate to itself the glory of his renown yet which had neither the power to protect his children nor the responsibility to shield his grief.”[8] Here, he recognizes what Solove defines as exposure in the form of the needless amplification of a man’s personal anguish. Lindbergh was denied not only the dignity to grieve in private but the ability to properly do so at all. Westin describes the “protective function” of the “emotional release” afforded by privacy in such trying times, a benefit conspicuously stripped from Lindbergh until he fled to Europe.[9]

Faulkner’s consideration of Oppenheimer and the Anti-Communist hunt during the 1950s speaks to other privacy problems, including: surveillance, interrogation, and identification. But it also, perhaps more significantly, speaks to the general attitudes of the American populace at the time and the blanket immunity granted to any action “provided merely that the act be performed beneath the aegis of the empty mouth-sound of freedom.”[10] The irony, of course, as Faulkner points out, is that the very privacy stripped of Oppenheimer—“by the means of such catch-phrases as ‘Freedom’ and ‘Salvation’ and ‘Security’ and ‘Democracy’”—is the same privacy, the untampered space to think and explore and examine, that enabled his and all other scientific and artistic contributions in the first place.[11]

Faulkner’s criticisms and arguments are ultimately all the more compelling because they are rooted in a distinctly American brand of individualism that understands the essential link between freedom and privacy, and the existential risks of separating the two. While he reiterates many of the same concepts discussed by Solove and Westin, Faulkner’s main concern is ultimately the continued existence of the individual…the man who could exist within the crowd without being reduced to an “identityless integer in that identityless anonymous unprivacied mass” he feared the nation was hurdling towards.[12] Regardless of whether our nation has worsened in this regard since the essay’s publication, Faulkner’s worries remain equally troubling in what remains an individualistic society that continues to face many of the same privacy problems today.

[1] William Faulkner, “On Privacy: the American dream / what happened to it?,” Harper’s Magazine, July 1955, 33.

[2] Faulkner, 36.

[3] Alan Westin, Privacy and Freedom (New York: Atheneum, 1967), 7.

[4] Faulkner, 34.­

[5] Daniel Solove, “A Taxonomy of Privacy,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 154 (2006): 488.

[6] Faulkner, 35-6.

[7] Solove, 530.

[8] Faulkner, 36.

[9] Solove, 36.

[10] Faulkner, 36.

[11] Faulkner, 37.

[12] Faulkner, 36.

Ladies’ Home Journal & The End of World War II

“War,” began Dorothy Thompson in her August 1943 column in Ladies’ Home Journal, “has a curious way of speeding up all historical processes and pushing people and their societies much more rapidly into the future.” Few might have debated her point having witnessed the United States’ technological advancements and the economic boom of its massive manufacturing efforts. Yet, what most interested Thompson was not the future of the nation’s technology or economy, but of its women. Her article, appropriately entitled then “Women and the Coming World,” sought to anticipate what a postwar America might look like for the magazine’s readers, many of whom entered the workforce and society in areas previously unknown for their sex. In her piece, Thompson boldly imagined a society where men and women would work side by side in what would “cease to be a ‘man’s world’.” A world where “father won’t come home at night dead-tired to find mother all dressed up.” A world that centered around the family but did so for once with complete understanding between husband and wife.[1] For Thompson and others, the war offered the nation the chance to revisit and revise much of what had become expected in prior years.

That the egalitarian society she envisioned failed to materialize in the immediate postwar period is hardly surprising for several reasons, not least the public’s “general desire for the ‘normalcy’ denied by depression and war.”[2] Nevertheless, such writing provides particularly interesting, easily overlooked, insight into a hope declared but not quite realized. Thompson, of course, was not alone in attempting to predict what the war’s end meant for the state of the American woman and family. Across the Journal’s issues from the period, one is apt to find the discussion and debate over what peacetime might mean for its readers. The magazine, however, never offered a single, coherent vision to its audience. Instead, as the war waned and concluded, the Journal presented competing, often contradictory, ideas for the future. Though a woman’s duty to the home was rarely questioned, for instance, the possibilities for her outside of it became increasingly acknowledged.

The aim of this paper then is to explore how the Ladies’ Home Journal’s coverage of the final stages of World War II in 1944 and ‘45—particularly its depictions of womanhood, work, and home—informed its anticipations of the postwar period. The intent behind this is not necessarily to grapple with the history of a publication but rather to understand how popular media presented the changes underway in American life, and how many responded to them.

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Christopher Browning’s “Ordinary Men” & The Dynamics of Mass Murder

When one considers the full effects of the Nazis’ Final Solution, it is easy to assume a uniformly efficient and orderly method to their ideologically driven madness. Yet, in Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, we instead see a side of the Holocaust marked by fits of doubt, tears, vomit, and drunken stupor. That this perspective lacks the utterly depersonalized and mechanized nature of murder seen elsewhere in Nazi bureaucracy is not to suggest its outcome was any different, only that the perpetrator was often not afforded any distance between his actions and their consequences. Accordingly, Browning’s book, which focuses on the Reserve Police Battalion 101, offers a thorough examination of the dynamics of genocide on an individual, actively participatory level. Further, it seeks to explore how ordinary men not only assented to participation in such travesties but could transform so radically into murderers capable of killing innocent men, women and children alike.

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Advertisements from 5/14/1917 (New York Tribune)

Here’s a selection of four ads pulled from the New York Tribune exactly 100 years ago today. They’re a fairly NYC-centric bunch. I’m especially partial to the pitch to invest in Bronx real estate on account of the expanding 6 train line. Though I must say I’m not sure how I feel about its shameless use of the ongoing war as a marketing trick.

The other ads include one for a introduced ferry service up the Hudson River from NYC to Albany; a tourism invitation from the Canada Pacific Railway; and a sell on the suburban life from the LIRR. All these and more can be found here at the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America project (my favorite offering of theirs).

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