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November 2018

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 (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

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