1782: Edward Gibbon describes the Germans and reveals himself

Edward Gibbon’s famous history may be reliable at some points, highly dubious at others. It does, however, provide a reliable portrait of its author. We see his wide learning and erudition. We feel his supreme self-confidence as he makes one bold assertion after another. We see the influence of his social class, his era, and his nationality in his unexamined assumptions about “civilization,” “savages,” and “barbarians.” (The same terms were often used by Europeans to describe the indigenous peoples of the Americas.) We see his respect for Christianity and corresponding disdain for pre-Christian, polytheistic religions. We see his disapproval of gambling, drunkenness, and infidelity, and his patriarchal attitude toward women. These oft-quoted passages about the Germanic tribes during the Roman Empire may or may not be reliable when it comes to the Germans, but they provide a clear portrait of their author. Writing reveals the writer.

From Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1, Chapter IX (1782):

The Germans, in the age of Tacitus [ca. 56-120 A.C.E.], were unacquainted with the use of letters; and the use of letters is the principal circumstance that distinguishes a civilized people from a herd of savages incapable of knowledge or reflection. Without that artificial help, the human memory soon dissipates or corrupts the ideas intrusted to her charge; and the nobler faculties of the mind, no longer supplied with models or with materials, gradually forget their powers; the judgment becomes feeble and lethargic, the imagination languid or irregular. Fully to apprehend this important truth, let us attempt, in an improved society, to calculate the immense distance between the man of learning and the illiterate peasant. The former, by reading and reflection, multiplies his own experience, and lives in distant ages and remote countries; whilst the latter, rooted to a single spot, and confined to a few years of existence, surpasses but very little his fellow-labourer, the ox, in the exercise of his mental faculties. The same, and even a greater, difference will be found between nations than between individuals; and we may safely pronounce, that without some species of writing, no people has ever preserved the faithful annals of their history, ever made any considerable progress in the abstract sciences, or ever possessed, in any tolerable degree of perfection, the useful and agreeable arts of life.

Of these arts, the ancient Germans were wretchedly destitute. They passed their lives in a state of ignorance and poverty, which it has pleased some declaimers to dignify with the appellation of virtuous simplicity. . . . The value of money has been settled by general consent to express our wants and our property, as letters were invented to express our ideas; and both these institutions, by giving a more active energy to the powers and passions of human nature, have contributed to multiply the objects they were designed to represent. . . . Money, in a word, is the most universal incitement, iron the most powerful instrument, of human industry; and it is very difficult to conceive by what means a people, neither actuated by the one, nor seconded by the other, could emerge from the grossest barbarism.

In the dull intervals of peace, these barbarians were immoderately addicted to deep gaming and excessive drinking; both of which, by different means, the one by inflaming their passions, the other by extinguishing their reason, alike relieved them from the pain of thinking. They gloried in passing whole days and nights at table; and the blood of friends and relations often stained their numerous and drunken assemblies. . . .

Strong beer, a liquor extracted with very little art from wheat or barley, and corrupted (as it is strongly expressed by Tacitus) into a certain semblance of wine, was sufficient for the gross purposes of German debauchery. . . .

A warlike nation like the Germans, without either cities, letters, arts, or money, found some compensation for this savage state in the enjoyment of liberty. Their poverty secured their freedom, since our desires and our possessions are the strongest fetters of despotism. . . . A people thus jealous of their persons, and careless of their possessions, must have been totally destitute of industry and the arts, but animated with a high sense of honour and independence. . . .

“In the days of chivalry, or more properly of romance, all the men were brave and all the women were chaste;” and notwithstanding the latter of these virtues is acquired and preserved with much more difficulty than the former, it is ascribed, almost without exception, to the wives of the ancient Germans. Polygamy was not in use, except among the princes, and among them only for the sake of multiplying their alliances. Divorces were prohibited by manners rather than by laws. Adulteries were punished as rare and inexpiable crimes; nor was seduction justified by example and fashion. We may easily discover that Tacitus indulges an honest pleasure in the contrast of barbarian virtue with the dissolute conduct of the Roman ladies; yet there are some striking circumstances that give an air of truth, or at least probability, to the conjugal faith and chastity of the Germans. . . .

Although the progress of civilization has undoubtedly contributed to assuage the fiercer passions of human nature, it seems to have been less favourable to the virtue of chastity, whose most dangerous enemy is the softness of the mind. The refinements of life corrupt while they polish the intercourse of the sexes. The gross appetite of love becomes most dangerous when it is elevated, or rather, indeed, disguised by sentimental passion. The elegance of dress, of motion, and of manners, gives a lustre to beauty, and inflames the senses through the imagination. Luxurious entertainments, midnight dances, and licentious spectacles, present at once temptation and opportunity to female frailty. From such dangers the unpolished wives of the barbarians were secured by poverty, solitude, and the painful cares of a domestic life. The German huts, open, on every side, to the eye of indiscretion or jealousy, were a better safeguard of conjugal fidelity than the walls, the bolts, and the eunuchs of a Persian harem. To this reason another may be added of a more honourable nature. The Germans treated their women with esteem and confidence, consulted them on every occasion of importance, and fondly believed, that in their breasts resided a sanctity and wisdom more than human. . . . In their great invasions, the camps of the barbarians were filled with a multitude of women, who remained firm and undaunted amidst the sound of arms, the various forms of destruction, and the honourable wounds of their sons and husbands. . . . The sentiments and conduct of these high-spirited matrons may, at once, be considered as a cause, as an effect, and as a proof of the general character of the nation. . . .

The religious system of the Germans (if the wild opinions of savages can deserve that name) was dictated by their wants, their fears, and their ignorance. They adored the great visible objects and agents of nature, the Sun and the Moon, the Fire and the Earth; together with those imaginary deities, who were supposed to preside over the most important occupations of human life. They were persuaded, that, by some ridiculous arts of divination, they could discover the will of the superior beings, and that human sacrifices were the most precious and acceptable offering to their altars. Some applause has been hastily bestowed on the sublime notion, entertained by that people, of the Deity, whom they neither confined within the walls of the temple, nor represented by any human figure; but when we recollect, that the Germans were unskilled in architecture, and totally unacquainted with the art of sculpture, we shall readily assign the true reason of a scruple, which arose not so much from a superiority of reason, as from a want of ingenuity. The only temples in Germany were dark and ancient groves, consecrated by the reverence of succeeding generations. Their secret gloom, the imagined residence of an invisible power, by presenting no distinct object of fear or worship, impressed the mind with a still deeper sense of religious horror; and the priests, rude and illiterate as they were, had been taught by experience the use of every artifice that could preserve and fortify impressions so well suited to their own interest.

. . . A solemn procession was occasionally celebrated in the present countries of Mecklenburgh and Pomerania. The unknown symbol of the Earth, covered with a thick veil, was placed on a carriage drawn by cows; and in this manner the goddess, whose common residence was in the Isles of Rugen, visited several adjacent tribes of her worshippers. During her progress the sound of war was hushed, quarrels were suspended, arms laid aside, and the restless Germans had an opportunity of tasting the blessings of peace and harmony. . . .

Such was the situation, and such were the manners of the ancient Germans. Their climate, their want of learning, of arts, and of laws, their notions of honour, of gallantry, and of religion, their sense of freedom, impatience of peace, and thirst of enterprise, all contributed to form a people of military heroes. . . .

1527: The Sack of Rome

Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” broadcast about the sack of Rome in 1527 inspired me to do a little digging in the History of Atrocities department.

From Will and Ariel Durant, The Story of Civilization:

Charles [V, King of Spain and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire], still remaining in Spain, and moving his pawns with magic remote control, commissioned his agents to raise a new army. They approached the Tirolese condottiere, Georg von Frundsberg, already famous for the exploits of the Landsknechte—German mercenaries—who fought under his lead. Charles could offer little money, but his agents promised rich plunder in Italy. Frundsberg was still nominally a Catholic, but he strongly sympathized with Luther, and hated [Pope] Clement as a traitor to the Empire. He pawned his castle, his other possessions, even the adornments of his wife; with the 38,000 gulden so obtained he collected some 10,000 men eager for adventure and pillage and not averse to breaking a lance over a papal head; some of them, it was said, carried a noose to hang the Pope. . . . 

In Milan the imperial commander was now Charles, Duke of Bourbon; created constable of France for bravery at Marignano, he had turned against Francis when the King’s mother, as he felt, had cheated him of his proper lands; he went over to the Emperor, shared in defeating Francis at Pavia, and was made Duke of Milan. Now, to raise and pay another army for Charles, he taxed the Milanese literally to death. He wrote to the Emperor that he had drained the city of its blood. His soldiers, quartered upon the inhabitants, so abused them with theft, brutality, and rape that many Milanese hanged themselves, or threw themselves from high places into the streets. Early in February, 1527, Bourbon led his army out of Milan, and united it with Frundsberg’s near Piacenza. The conglomerate horde, now numbering nearly 22,000 men, moved east along the Via Emilia, avoiding the fortified cities, but pillaging as it went, and leaving the countryside empty behind it. . . .

On May 6 . . . the swarm entered from a confusing variety of directions; some were hidden by the fog; others so mingled with fugitives that the Castle cannon could not strike them without killing the demoralized populace. Soon the invaders had the city at their mercy.

As they rushed on through the streets they killed indiscriminately any man, woman, or child that crossed their path. Their bloodthirst aroused, they entered the hospital and orphanage of Santo Spirito, and slaughtered nearly all the patients. They marched into St. Peter’s and slew the people who had sought sanctuary there. They pillaged every church and monastery they could find, and turned some into stables; hundreds of priests, monks, bishops, and archbishops were killed. . . . Every dwelling in Rome was plundered, and many were burned, with two exceptions: the Cancelleria, occupied by Cardinal Colonna, and the Palazzo Colonna, in which Isabella d’ Este and some rich merchants had sought asylum; these paid 50,000 ducats to leaders of the mob for freedom from attack, and then took two thousand refugees within their walls. Every palace paid ransoms for protection, only to face later attacks from other packs, and pay ransom again. In most houses all the occupants were required to ransom their lives at a stated price; if they did not pay they were tortured; thousands were killed; children were flung from high windows to pry parental savings from secrecy; some streets were littered with dead. The millionaire Domenico Massimi saw his sons slain, his daughter raped, his house burned, and then was himself murdered. “In the whole city,” says one account, “there was not a soul above three years of age who had not to purchase his safety.”

Of the victorious mob half were German [Lutheran]s, of whom most had been convinced that the popes and cardinals were thieves, and that the wealth of the Church in Rome was a theft from the nations, and a scandal to the world. To reduce this scandal they seized all movable ecclesiastical valuables, including sacred vessels and works of art, and carried them off for melting or ransom or sale; relics, however, they left scattered on the floor. One soldier dressed himself as a pope; others put on cardinals’ hats and kissed his feet; a crowd at the Vatican proclaimed Luther pope. The Lutherans among the invaders took especial delight in robbing cardinals, exacting high ransoms from them as the price of their lives, and teaching them new rituals. Some cardinals, says Guicciardini, “were set upon scrubby beasts, riding with their faces backward, in the habits and ensigns of their dignity, and were led about all Rome with the greatest derision and contempt. Some, unable to raise all the ransom demanded, were so tortured that they died there and then, or within a few days.” One cardinal was lowered into a grave and was told that he would be buried alive unless ransom were brought within a stated time; it came at the last moment. Spanish and German cardinals, who thought themselves safe from their own countrymen, were treated like the rest. Nuns and respectable women were violated in situ, or were carried off to promiscuous brutality in the various shelters of the horde. Women were assaulted before the eyes of their husbands or fathers. Many young women, despondent after being raped, drowned themselves in the Tiber.

The number of deaths cannot be calculated. Two thousand corpses were thrown into the Tiber from the Vatican side of Rome; 9800 dead were buried; there were unquestionably many more fatalities. . . .

Plague had visited Rome in 1522, and had reduced its population to 55,000; murder, suicide, and flight must have reduced it below 40,000 in 1527; now, in July of that year, plague came back in the full heat of summer, and joined with famine and the continued presence of the ravaging horde to make Rome a city of horror, terror, and desolation. Churches and streets were littered anew with corpses; many of these were left to rot in the sun; the stench was so strong that the jailers and prisoners fled from the castle parapets to their rooms; even there many died of the infection, among them some servants of the Pope. The impartial plague struck the invaders too; 2500 Germans in Rome died by July 22, 1527; and malaria, syphilis, and malnutrition cut the horde in half. . . .

On December 7, after seven months of confinement, Clement left Sant’ Angelo, and, disguised as a servant, made his way humbly out of Rome to Orvieto, apparently a broken man. . . .

Losing all hope of aid from the League, Clement offered his full surrender to Charles; and on October 6 he was allowed to re-enter Rome. Four fifths of the houses had been abandoned, thousands of buildings were in ruins; men were amazed to see what nine months of invasion had done to the capital of Christendom. . . .

The story of civilization, indeed.

Tolkien’s childlike world

The Tolkien books are “restful,” as A. S. Byatt is said to have remarked,* because they are free of sex, and of money. In this respect they are childlike. The people in the stories are seen in the ways that children—privileged children, at any rate—see people. Money exists, but without much regard for where it comes from or how it is earned. Travellers are welcomed into comfortable homes where abundant food appears on the table and soft beds await them when the evening meal has finished. Everyone seems to be independently wealthy, or on summer holiday, without any hint of a servant underclass. The hobbits seem to be farmers, mostly, but we never see them working. Butterbur runs his inn, but who prepares the food, and who washes the dishes or cleans the rooms or launders the linens? Like young children, we readers rarely or never consider such matters: we unthinkingly accept the delicious food and comfortable lodgings. We are grateful and happy, but we do not inquire into the sources of all these comforts.

The people in Tolkien’s stories fall into the categories used by children to classify grown-ups. Old people are either gruff and grumpy, or kindly and wise; some of them start out appearing to be gruff but are revealed in time to be kindly. Men are sorted by their jobs: farmer, gardener, innkeeper, soldier, etc. Unmarried women are young and beautiful; married women are nurturing and motherly; old women are wise and caring, with an occasional witchy character like Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. Many modern readers and critics have pointed out that these roles and stereotypes belong to an era and a culture and a social class that can be traced to Tolkien’s own life as a middle-class Catholic and an Oxford don nearly a century ago..

Children today, no doubt, see adults rather differently. But there remains that period of life before adolescence when one sees the world without thinking about sex or money. That innocence, much regretted once one crosses the threshold into the adult world, naturally appeals to us when we have had some experience of the stress, anxiety, and heartache that follow inevitably from becoming a sexual creature who must earn a living and pay for everything. Tolkien’s world offers a respite from such concerns. We imagine the delight of being welcomed as guests and never needing to think about who pays for it all or who cleans the toilets (another item completely absent from Tolkien’s world). We take a holiday from lust, jealousy, and sexual envy. It is, as Byatt says, restful.

And then, the kings and queens. Fathers and mothers. Aged, in the child’s eyes, and yet ageless. All-wise, all-powerful, always protecting their children, their people. Sometimes we have stories recounting the child’s nightmarish fears, stories of evil kings, evil queens, reassuring stories that always end with the overthrow of the wicked and the establishment of a new order under new, benign monarchs. The true king is restored. All is well. The child in us does not long for democracy, but for the benign rule of a father-king and mother-queen. This longing explains much of what we read in the news. We long to be ruled by the true king.

*Byatt is quoted in this Wikipedia article, but the source is not clearly indicated.

Joe Biden is the best President of my lifetime

By “best” I mean, from a progressive point of view.

I was born in 1952, so the candidates are Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, Trump, and Biden.

We can eliminate the Republicans right away, so that leaves Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Obama, and Biden. Kennedy’s relations with the civil rights movement were awkward, at best. His speeches indicating a shift away from Cold War hostilities were promising, but those promises came to nothing when he was murdered. Johnson would be at the top of my list for his domestic policies, especially the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but his Vietnam catastrophe takes him off the table. Clinton was far too dodgy and neoliberal for my taste. That leaves Carter, Obama, and Biden.

Jimmy Carter did a lot of good things. Most notably, he got Israel and Egypt to sign a peace accord, but he also gave amnesty to Vietnam War draft dodgers, promoted solar energy, etc. He had the bad luck to inherit a lousy economy; he was blamed for taking the tough measures that handed his successor, Reagan, a much better economy. He also had the bad luck of being in office during the Iran hostage crisis which, along with traitorous back-channels deals with the Ayatollah by Reagan’s team, lost him his re-election bid. But he also did not understand how Congress works and—early in his term, especially—created a lot of unnecessary problems for himself.

Obama, for all his resonant speeches and charming smiles, was essentially an Eisenhower Republican in his policies, both domestic and international (except that Ike didn’t have drones). His greatest achievement was the Affordable Care Act. But he bailed out the fat cats while leaving ordinary folks to take all the pain of the 2008 financial crisis, with repercussions we are still suffering from. He had to be pushed on gay marriage by his VP, Joe Biden. He didn’t have the guts to get out of Iraq or Afghanistan, and his policies were ineffective, at best, in Syria and Libya. Apart from health care and some inspiring speeches . . . he didn’t accomplish much.

Joe Biden inherited a rotten situation in Afghanistan, and it was ugly. But unlike all his predecessors (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford in Vietnam; Bush II and Obama in Afghanistan) he had the cojones to get out, knowing it would be ugly. He also inherited the 80-year-old insoluble Israeli-Palestinian mess and had it blow up last fall when Hamas attacked over the border, committed atrocities, and took hostages back into Gaza. Could he take a harder line against Israel? Sure. But the consequences, both political and geo-political, are rarely considered by his critics on the Left. Short answer: the situation is a horrific mess, has been for some 80 years, and is likely to remain so. The blowback from any significant change in U.S. policy toward Israel would make the blowback after the Afghanistan pull-out look like a D.A.R. tea party. But I trust Biden and his team to make the best choices available to them, and I cannot think of anyone else who would do better in Biden’s place.

Beyond these two foreign policy crises, Biden has been as outstanding as I can imagine an American president being. His deep understanding of Congress has allowed him to pass significant progressive legislation despite unrelenting obstruction by Republicans, including the infrastructure bill, and the “Inflation Reduction Act”—which do more to address climate change and move toward a green energy economy than anything any other president has done. He managed the recovery from the COVID recession by putting money into the pockets of ordinary folks, resulting in the strongest economy in the world, by far. He is the most pro-labour president since Harry Truman or FDR. He is a skilled negotiator, as seen in his budget deal with Kevin McCarthy. Where the Republicans and the courts have blocked him, he has found ways to make progress anyway, as in his cancellation of student loan debt for millions of people. He is a wily politician, as when he got obstreperous Republicans to promise publicly not to touch Medicare and Social Security during one of his State of the Union addresses; or when he gave them almost everything they had ever asked for in a border reform bill, whereupon they nixed the deal—effectively killing the “crisis at the border” issue as a Republican talking point. His only equal on the domestic front is LBJ, and on the international front . . . would you prefer Johnson to Biden? Not me, thanks.

Is he good on TV? Nope. So what? That’s not the job.

How to be successful, respected, and well-liked

Ask any professional musician, “Who gets hired?” and they will all give the same answer. It isn’t the most talented player; it’s not the one who can play more notes, or play faster than anyone else. It’s the one who shows up on time; the one who plays what is needed for the music; the one who is reliable; the one who is pleasant and friendly and gets along with others.

You don’t need to be a super-talented musician. You don’t need to be a star athlete, or a top student.

To be respected and well-liked, to feel good about yourself, you need only do what every one of us can do:

  • Be a good friend; a good classmate; a good teammate.
  • Be reliable. Show up on time, and whatever the work is, give it your best effort.
  • Think of others, not just yourself, and help out when you can.

Doing these simple things will earn the respect of all who know you, and the self-respect that will make you feel good about who you are. That’s a pretty good description of genuine success.

Time for a new business model

  • For landlords, high rental costs are good for business; maintenance costs are bad for business.
  • For employers, low wages are good for business; unions are bad for business.
  • For manufacturers, cheap raw materials are good for business; for manufacturers, developers, mining companies, and energy companies, concern for the environment is bad for business.
  • For gun companies, gun sales are good for business; restrictions on guns are bad for business.
  • For social media companies, hate speech and propaganda are good for business; regulation is bad for business.
  • For journalism, Donald Trump is great for business; Joe Biden is bad for business.

Time for a new business model.

How to choose a President, 2024 version

Qualities I am looking for in a candidate for President:

  1. Youth
  2. Good looks
  3. Great hair
  4. Excellent bone structure
  5. Entertaining. This could mean . . .
    1. Funny
    2. Inspiring speaker
    3. Crazy mo-fo, don’t know what s/he will say or do next
  6. No smarter or better informed than I am, because that makes me nervous
  7. Promises cheap gas and groceries

‘K bye, gotta get back to my TV program.

Leviticus, progressive humanitarian

Leviticus 24:17-20 reads as follows:

Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. . . .If anyone injures his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.

Man, that Old Testament sense of justice was tough, eh? Let’s see.

On October 7th, according to Israeli data, 1,139 Israelis were killed.

Since then, news reports estimate 27,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza.

That means that almost 24 Palestinians have been killed for every Israeli killed on October 7th.

If we round that number down to 20, we can revise Leviticus as follows:

Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death, along with 19 of his friends, neighbours, and family members. . . . If anyone injures his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, 20 fractures for every fracture, 20 eyes for every eye, 20 teeth for every tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him, 20 times over.

Makes you glad you weren’t born into that primitive Old Testament world, don’t it?

An age of pessimism?

It would sometimes seem as if this period had been particularly unhappy, as if it had left behind only the memory of violence, of covetousness, and mortal hatred—as if it had known no other enjoyment but that of intemperance, of pride, and of cruelty. Now, in the records of all periods misfortune has left more traces than happiness. Great evils form the groundwork of history. We are perhaps inclined to assume, without much evidence that, roughly speaking, and notwithstanding all calamities, the sum of happiness can have hardly changed from one period to another. But in the 15th century, as in the epoch of Romanticism it was, so to say, bad form to praise the world and life openly. It was fashionable to see only its suffering and misery; to discover everywhere signs of decadence and of a near end—in short, to condemn the times, or to despise them.

—Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages

Plato and Marcus Aurelius seem to agree, in the end

Edward Gibbon contemplates the sad tale of the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, whose virtue and wisdom failed to produce either wisdom or virtue in his son and successor, Commodus:

The monstrous vices of the son have cast a shade on the purity of the father’s virtues. It has been objected to Marcus, that he sacrificed the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy; and that he chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic. Nothing however, was neglected by the anxious father, and by the men of virtue and learning whom he summoned to his assistance, to expand the narrow mind of young Commodus, to correct his growing vices, and to render him worthy of the throne for which he was designed. But the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous. —History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter IV

Marcus had perhaps not read, or simply did not heed, the words of Socrates in Plato’s Meno: “If through all this discussion our queries and statements have been correct, virtue is found to be neither natural nor taught, but is imparted to us as a divine gift without understanding in those who receive it” (tr. W. R. M. Lamb).

 

Support for Netanyahu ≠ support for Israel

Supporting Bibi Netanyahu’s right-wing government undermines the State of Israel and jeopardizes its future. 

A genuinely pro-Israel policy would seek peace and reconciliation with Palestinians, would support the establishment of a Palestinian state, and would negotiate a fair division of land and resources, including areas of shared sovereignty where access and rights are guaranteed to both peoples. Such policies would ensure a future of peace and prosperity for Israel.

Netanyahu’s policies of land theft, apartheid, and genocide lead only to perpetual war and to the eventual destruction of the State of Israel.

President Biden: support Israel’s true interests by opposing Netanyahu’s murderous and self-defeating actions.

The task was to make Germany great again

From Hitler and the Collapse of Weimar Germany, by Martin Broszat (1984):

In the depressed situation following the German defeat [in World War I, Hitler] could generalise and politicise his feelings of personal bitterness and hatred which were rooted in his own failure and his rejection of the unpleasant realities of life and which had led him, already as an adolescent, to develop fantastic plans for the future and to evade regular employment. . . . The task was to . . . make Germany great again.

The themes of speeches which he was making in 1920 in Munich beer halls by their dozens were the same: the ‘shame of the Versailles Treaty’, the enemies within who had stabbed the nation in the back, . . . and, invariably, the ‘Jewish Question’. . . .

Early verdicts on his style were: a ‘born popular orator’, ‘masterly’ or ‘extremely skilful’. . . . He knew how to stimulate his audiences . . . by resorting to biting sarcasm. He ridiculed his opponents as ‘liars’ or spoke of the ‘miserable weaklings’ in the government and in other political parties. Police reports almost always noted that there was ‘lively applause’, ‘tempestuous applause’ or ‘long-lasting applause’ at the end of his appearances. . . . The anti-Nazi press . . . dubbed him an ‘extremely cunning demagogue’ or ‘leader of an anti-Semitic’ party. . . . He knew how to wrap his constant call to fight the ‘parasites’ and ‘enemies of the people’ in a solemn appeal to show national pride and to believe in Germany’s strength . . . . He could talk of the rebirth of the nation in a tone of religious conviction . . . .

. . . To be successful and to gain power was synonymous . . . with drawing attention to oneself and with attracting the masses. . . . New propaganda methods which had been developed first and foremost by Hitler assumed great significance. . . .

Hitler’s messianic power and dynamism also drove wealthy supporters and patrons into his arms . . . .

Provocative brutalities, especially if directed against the ‘Socialists’, . . . were also designed to command the respect of the middle classes . . . . His antics gained the respect of sympathetic circles in Munich’s high society . . . . His reputation was that of a political enfant terrible who succeeded in arousing an almost morbid interest in himself . . . .

The notion that actual fighting was required rather than passive resistance prepared the ground for the formation of a block of radical paramilitary groups . . . .

. . . On 15 November 1930 . . . every tenth person . . . was without a job. . . . The worst hit were the 14 to 18-year-olds who had just left school.

The first reaction of the high-brow bourgeois-liberal press of Berlin to the Nazi success was one of stunned horror. The leader writer of the Berliner Tageblatt (16 September 1930) found it impossible to take in the ‘monstrous fact’ that ‘six million and four hundred thousand voters in this highly civilised country had given their vote to the commonest, hollowest and crudest charlatanism’.

. . . Professor Hans von Eckart . . . [wrote that] “the Nazis . . . are, above all, people who . . . have simply seized a first opportunity of participating and who have hitherto not yet been able to be politically active.”

. . . This was also the soil in which Goebbels’s propaganda ideas began to flourish. . . . [in Der Angriff, the Nazi newspaper]. Police and courts were constantly ridiculed. The paper published anti-Semitic cartoons of people in authority. . . .

. . . Goebbels . . . publicly bragg[ed] about the dozens of prosecutions which had been started against him. . . . At subsequent mass rallies, Goebbels [was] cocky, arrogant and provocative as ever . . . . [He] was fined 1,600 marks for making defamatory statements . . . .

. . . Hitler . . . in a trial against three officers who had joined the Nazi Party . . . declared: ‘Here I stand swearing an oath before God, the Almighty. I say to you that, once I shall have come to power by legal means . . . a few heads will roll in the sand . . . ‘.

. . . The basic aim was the further erosion of the Republic’s stability . . . .

The bourgeois-conservative parties . . . were in principle prepared to bring the Nazis into the government. They hoped that giving them political responsibility would neutralise their demagogy. . . .

. . . The Nazis were intent on using violence in order to prove . . . that law and order had broken down . . . .

. . . National Socialism . . . had barely anything in common with the ‘old’ school of culture and rigorous intellectual discourse which still informed the major political thought systems . . . . Nazi ideology was almost totally a product of mass culture and political semi-literacy . . . , unsophisticated sloganeering which drew on the ‘scrapheap of ideas current in this period’ . . . , [and] popularised snippets of ideas and dogmas . . . combined with a political-emotional attachment . . . . used for the deliberate simplification of political world-views and . . . the creation of a political myth for the masses.

. . . [The] essential elements of the late Nazi ideology were . . . a virulent anti-Semitism, a blood-and-soil ideology, the notion of a master race, the idea of territorial acquisition and settlement in the East. These ideas were . . . anti-modernist, anti-humanist, and pseudo-religious.

. . . Criticism of bourgeois security and rationality had become vehement and widespread. This criticism also expressed itself in various life-reform movements and avant-garde artistic trends, in the pedagogical reform movement and, above all, in the Youth Movement . . . .

. . . The First World War was to cause the decisive seismic shift in the country’s political culture. This was the soil in which Nazism was to grow. . . . Young peasants and land labourers returned with changed personalities, after the war had torn them from the slow-moving pace of provincial life and had thrown them into the ‘wide world’ and onto the stage of fateful national developments. . . . [Their] largely unpolitical life-styles far removed from the centre of national affairs had become politicised primarily via the nationalist experience of the war. . . . Both the central government and the national political parties had traditionally neglected the provinces . . . . Rural protesters who had been shaped by the war experience provided massive recruitment grounds for the incipient fascist movements.

Climbing down

Theodor Herzl’s Zionist project for a Jewish state in Palestine, which seems in many respects to have been such a great success, has failed. Like so many other groups who have responded to unjust attacks, the Zionists have doomed themselves by adopting many of the worst traits and tactics of their persecutors: fierce nationalism, denial of civil rights, forced deportations, seizure of land and property, etc. The Israelis have become the oppressors they were trying to escape. The Israeli state has generated so much hatred and resentment among Palestinians that all hope of reconciliation has evaporated. Israelis and Palestinians are locked in a struggle to the death whose outcome seems certain to mean destruction for both sides. And the State of Israel, ironically, is now a major generator of anti-Jewish sentiment around the world.

The United States, too, finds itself in an untenable position it cannot escape. Its commitment to support Israel has acquired a sacred quality; no political party and few if any politicians would dare to question it. As part of this commitment, the U.S. seeks support and alliances with surrounding Arab governments: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan. All of these governments oppress their own people, and to secure their friendship the U.S. becomes complicit in that oppression, and thus becomes the adversary of every resistance group seeking justice in their own country and justice for the Palestinians. Just as opposition to the Soviet Union during the Cold War put the U.S. in opposition to liberation movements in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, so its support of Israel puts it in opposition to liberation movements all over the Middle East. The lack of reform in Arab countries drives their reformist movements into more and more radical positions. The only people working seriously for liberation during the Cold War were communists. Today the only people working seriously for liberation in the Middle East are radical Islamists. The U.S., facing a choice between friendly autocrats and angry Islamists, sides with el-Sisi, MBS, and the King of Jordan, just as it sided with dictators rather than communists in the Cold War years. 

Perhaps the Islamists will be defeated in the Middle East just as Soviet rule collapsed in Russia and Eastern Europe, and perhaps then there will be genuine reform in the autocratic states of the Middle East, just as democracy has spread, albeit unevenly, in the post-colonial nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. More likely, it seems to me, is some version of what happened in Vietnam in 1975  and Iran in 1979 and Afghanistan in 2021: the local, radicalized insurgents will drive out the foreigners and overthrow their corrupt autocratic governments. 

As for Israel, they have no solution but endless suppression of the Palestinians. How long can they sustain that, even with U.S. support? And if  they were to have a change of heart and seek reconciliation . . . who among the Palestinians would be their partners? There are no Palestinian Mandelas, as far as I know.

Climbing down is much, much harder than climbing up.

Heroic butchery

There was never anything so gallant, so spruce, so brilliant, and so well disposed as the two armies. Trumpets, fifes, oboes, drums, and cannon made music such as Hell itself had never heard. The cannons, first of all, laid flat about six thousand men on each side. Then the muskets swept away from this best of worlds nine or ten thousand ruffians who had infested its surface. The bayonet was also a “sufficient reason” for the death of several more thousands. The total dead might amount to thirty thousand souls. Candide, who trembled like a philosopher, hid himself as well as he could during this heroic butchery.

At length, while the two kings were causing “We praise Thee, O God” to be sung each in his own camp, Candide resolved to go and reason elsewhere on effects and causes. He passed over heaps of dead and dying, and first reached a neighbouring village that was smoldering; it was an Abare village that the Bulgars had burnt according to the laws of war. Here, old men covered with wounds beheld their wives hugging their sons, who had been massacred before their faces, to their bloody breasts. They saw some of their daughters disembowelled and breathing their last after having satisfied the natural wants of Bulgarian heroes; while others, half burnt in the flames, begged to be finished off. The earth was strewed with brains, arms, and legs.

Candide fled quickly to another village. It belonged to the Bulgars, and the Abarian heroes had treated it in the same way. . . .

—From Voltaire’s Candide, Or Optimism (1759), Chapter III

Well-educated, intelligent, and primitive

Recent events recall this passage from Sinclair McKay’s book about the fire-bombing of Dresden in February 1945. In the years following the war, those who had been involved in the operation wondered about the necessity and the morality of what they had done.

The young scientist Freeman Dyson, who had worked in Bomber Command and who had come to feel a revulsion especially for the raids carried out towards the end of the war, found himself discussing the Dresden bombing raids with a ‘well-educated and intelligent’ wife of a senior air force officer. Dyson asked her if it was right that the Allies should be killing large numbers of German women and babies. She told him: ‘Oh yes. It is good to kill the babies especially. I am not thinking of this war but of the next one, twenty years from now. The next time the Germans start a war and we have to fight them, those babies will be the soldiers.’ There was something quite extraordinarily primitive about this exterminating impulse that stayed with Dyson for decades.

—from Dresden: The Fire and the Darkness, by Sinclair McKay, p. 294

“Pigeon Tunnel,” by John Le Carré

John Le Carré’s memoir, Pigeon Tunnel (or is it David Cornwell’s memoir?) teems with con-men, fraudsters, spies, criminals, assassins, political subversives, and a gaggle of celebrities and one-percenters with whom they rub elbows at cocktail parties. I have never met any of the above, to my knowledge. Le Carré a.k.a. Cornwell’s elegantly-recounted anecdotes fascinated me, but the fascination gradually wore down to a residue of annoyance. Are there no ordinary people in Le Carré’s world? No loving mothers and fathers who do honest work, raise their kids as best they can, follow the rules, abide by the laws, and try to be the best people they can be? No. Such people do not make for exciting novels, which is why they are largely absent from Le Carré’s spy thrillers. Weirdly, though, they seem to have been equally absent from David Cornwell’s life. 

Immediately upon finishing Pigeon Tunnel, however, I listened to the most recent episode of Rob Reiner’s podcast series, Who Killed JFK?, and there they were again: spies, assassins, criminals, political subversives. Then I recalled reading somewhere that the three most valuable commodities in world trade were petroleum, weapons, and illegal drugs—all of which required the services of often-crooked lawyers and international bankers—and the world began to look again more like David Cornwell’s world. And I remembered one of my favourite Chinese phrases, 他们都是流氓: they are all gangsters. I am reminded, too, of Harry Lime in The Third Man, when he meets Holly Martins in Vienna’s Prater and looks down from the top of the Riesenrad at the tiny figures below. “Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax – the only way you can save money nowadays.”

So, are we deluded and naïve, we ordinary people who go to school and go to work and read books and listen to music and watch movies—do we live in willful ignorance on the fringes of a world fueled by greed and criminality? Or are the drug dealers and arms dealers and crooked bankers the deluded ones, fatuously believing that diamonds and caviar make life worth living?

Who are the suckers? Discuss.

Portrait of a Nazi

Hans Globke (1898-1973), enthusiastic Nazi and persecutor of Jews who served first in Hitler’s government and then, from 1953 to 1963, as chief of staff to the West German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer.

In this undated photo he looks like a Hollywood parody of what he actually was: a Nazi bureaucrat. In his memoir, “Pigeon Tunnel,” John Le Carré refers to Globke and quotes Adenauer saying, “You don’t throw out dirty water when you have no clean water.”

Hans Globe

Photo description for the visually impaired: Undated black-and-white image of a puffy-faced man in late middle age dressed in a dark suit and tie, sitting at a desk with a folder of papers open before him. His graying hair is slicked back from his receding hairline. He has deep bags underneath his eyes, arched eyebrows descending to the bridge of a large nose, and a grim mouth with just the hint of a smirk. He is staring directly into the camera through almost invisible rimless eyeglasses with thin cable temples, as if he has just looked up from his papers, the whites of his eyes showing underneath his pupils.

More about Globke: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Globke

Hold my beer, Lord

The Jews have been persecuted for as long as we have knowledge of their existence. Persecuted for their monotheism, by their polytheistic neighbours. Persecuted for their literacy, by the largely illiterate peoples they lived amongst after their dispersal around the Roman Empire. Persecuted for their language, used and understood only by themselves. Persecuted for their refusal to convert to Christianity and, later, to Islam. Persecuted for their clannishness and refusal to assimilate. Persecuted just for being Jews, even after they have assimilated and stopped practicing their religion.

How ironic, then, that after this long history of being victims, the Jews in Israel should persecute their non-Jewish neighbours. In the name of reclaiming their historic rights in Palestine; refusing to be victims any longer; standing up to defend themselves—in the name of refusing to be persecuted any longer, the Israelis have systematically deprived Palestinians of their rights and refused to negotiate in good faith; have driven Palestinians off their land and herded them into restricted areas that are in effect giant ghettos; have committed unspeakable crimes in response to unspeakable crimes committed by the extreme factions who have come to power among Palestinians in the face of Israeli oppression. 

Yes, the full history is much more complicated than this, but here is the result:

The persecuted have become persecutors in the name of refusing to be persecuted ever again. The worst among them, consumed by hatred and desire for revenge, refusing negotiation or compromise, have gained control of the Israeli state just as their mirror-image counterparts among Palestinians have gained control in Gaza and the West Bank.

“Vengeance is mine,” says Jehovah in Deuteronomy. “Hold my beer, Lord,” say the humans.

1853, 2023, same as it ever was

1853: Memo from Professor of history Mikhail Pogodin to Czar Nicholas I of Russia:

France takes Algeria from Turkey, and almost every year England annexes another Indian principality: none of this disturbs the balance of power; but when Russia occupies Moldavia and Wallachia, albeit only temporarily, that disturbs the balance of power. France occupies Rome and stays there several years during peacetime: that is nothing; but Russia only thinks of occupying Constantinople, and the peace of Europe is threatened. The English declare war on the Chinese, who have, it seems, offended them: no one has the right to intervene; but Russia is obliged to ask Europe for permission if it quarrels with its neighbour. England threatens Greece to support the false claims of a miserable Jew and burns its fleet: that is a lawful action; but Russia demands a treaty to protect millions of Christians, and that is deemed to strengthen its position in the East at the expense of the balance of power. We can expect nothing from the West but blind hatred and malice . . . .

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crimean_War#Eastern_Question

Earl Palmer remembers . . .

Excerpts from Backbeat: Earl Palmer’s Story, by Tony Scherman—long out of print, but wonderful. Earl Palmer was a first-call session drummer in Los Angeles from the late 50s into the 80s, but got his start in New Orleans (where he began as a boy tap-dancer) making records with Fats Domino and Little Richard. He is credited with inventing the straight-eighths beat on the hi-hat or cymbal that is characteristic of rock ‘n roll, and says that he got the idea from Little Richard’s straight eighth-note pounding on the piano. He is the drummer on hundreds of hit songs from the 1960s and 1970s, but also recorded film scores, TV jingles, etc., in almost every musical genre. He could sight-read almost anything, and also did a bit of arranging and composing.

Three of us in that group were the best jazz players in New Orleans at the time: Edward Frank , Red , and me. Sam Mooney never became well known but he was a good guitar player. Ellis Marsalis used to sub for Frank and sometimes for Tyler; sometimes he’d even play Earl’s bass. We welcomed that, because Earl couldn’t play. We used to cheer every time he hit a note that was actually in the chord. The people thought we were crazy. Earl had never gone near a bass, he just didn’t want to hire a bass player.

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[Racism in New Orleans]: White musicians who were in town at the Roosevelt came down . It wasn’t their fault they couldn’t take you downtown; you knew they couldn’t do a damn thing about it. 

I saw a white guy get thrown off a city bus once for sitting in the black section. “Can’t sit there, it’s the black section.”

“I can sit anywhere I want.”

“Not with niggers you can’t.” Threw him off the bus. One time Mike Sherpas, a white trumpet player we called Cheese, painted himself green. Got on the bus and said, “Where do you want me to sit, I’m green!” Threw him off, too.

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Me and Rene Hall and Plas Johnson always talked about how we could make some money and not leave the studio. One day I said, “Let’s do a rock version of ‘In the Mood.’”

“‘In the Mood’?”

Bought my house on it. 

You see, back in New Orleans millions of old white guys always said, “By God, do you boys know ‘In the Mood’?” If they liked it so much, why wouldn’t their kids, if we put a rock-and-roll beat to it? Rene and Plas said, “Okay, write an arrangement,” so I did. We put it under Ernie Fields, an old bandleader wasn’t doing nothing. It was a big, big hit. It went to number 4—that’s pop, not no R&B chart. We never did another thing, but it worked once. I’m telling you, “In the Mood.”

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When it really dawned on me that I could do this was when I had to play cartoon music, the hardest music I ever had to play. . . . Tom and Jerry fucking cartoons. . . . That music looked like fly shit, notes all over. 

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Rene Hall arranged everyone’s records. His stuff wasn’t my favorite but I admired one thing, the simplicity of it. “You Send Me,” that’s a perfect example of simplicity, I can’t think of any arrangement that could have been better for that tune. . . . 

I remember the stop-time in the bridge made me think of tap dancing. You know, that may have been my idea. I sort of remember suggesting that. 

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There was an engineer out there, I won’t call his name; somebody must have asked him what he thought once, and from then on he had to assert himself. Come a time he picked the wrongest thing in the world to say to the wrongest person and boy, when he said it the studio got to where you could hear a mouse piss on cotton. Because Red Callender was very, very particular about tuning his bass. Red was known to have great pitch, he was known to hit the note. So this engineer, sounding very authoritative, says to Red one day, “By the way, Red, I think you’re a little out of tune.”

Everybody say, “Oh shit.”

“Out of tune, you say?”

“Yeah, Red, a little bit.”

Red looks at the cat like he’s staring at an ant.

“And how in the fuck would you know?”

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Curt Wolf had the thickest German accent you could ever hear. I used to say, “Curt, man, when you going to speak English?” He’d say, “I em spicking Engglish, Airl!” 

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During a coffee break the subject came up about Orval Faubus, the segregationist in Arkansas. This same guy’s opinion was, “Segregation is a terrible thing, but those people,” meaning us, “have to be patient. Things like that don’t change overnight.”

He turned to me and said, “Do you or don’t you agree with me?”

I said, “Man, that’s a rough question.” I kept scratching my head. He didn’t notice I was stepping on his toe, harder and harder.

“Hey, you’re hurting my toe!” he finally yells. 

“Have a little patience, man. I’ll get off in a minute.”

He got my point. We became good friends.

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[Phil] Spector wasn’t an arranger of notes; I don’t know if he could write no notes at all. He was an arranger of ideas, of the elements that make a hit record. If there is any genius in him, that’s where it was. He had his finger on what other producers would die for: he knew what the kids wanted to hear. But you ain’t getting me to accept him as no musician.

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Sarah Vaughan was a chick that liked to hang. She was the Hang Out Queen, outhang anybody, drinking and getting high, day and night, talking and laughing and joking. . . . She had a mouth, too. Guys got furious at her but they took a swing at you. Anytime you was with her, you ran the risk of getting punched.

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The first time I met Ike [Turner] he’d just come in town. He wanted to pay everybody cash. I said I didn’t work for no cash. He starts to cuss me out and opens a briefcase with stacks of cash and a gun. That’s about what I expected. I’d heard he was a thug.

“Who the hell are you?” he says.

“I’m Palmer, and I don’t work no cash dates. I’m a union musician.”

“What I’m supposed to do, make out a contract just for you?”

You going to have to do something like that, because I don’t want no cash money. When I get fined fifteen hundred dollars by the union, are you gonna pay?” He wound up filing a contract for me alone.

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[Bobby Darin]: He was head above shoulders more professional than most of the little singers I was doing around then: Paul Anka, Fabian, Bobby Rydell. Wayne Newton was a long-legged short-torso kid but Darin struck me as professional right off the bat.

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Paul Revere & the Raiders . . . was Hal [Blaine]’s client. . . .  

Teddy Reig asked me to do Manufacturers of Soul,  Basie’s album with Jackie Wilson. Harold Jones, Basie’s drummer at the time, didn’t play rock, which is part of why Teddy hired me. At the session he asked me, “What can we do to make these charts a little more commercial?”

“One thing, we could try using a tambourine.”

“Who can we get to play tambourine? Larry Bunker?” That made no sense—a top-notch percussionist, just to play tambourine?

“Man, let Harold play tambourine,” I said. 

“Can he?”

“All niggers play tambourine, Teddy.” Harold Jones played tambourine and got paid for it. I still have a medallion he gave me for that.

Teddy once tried to hire me to join Basie. “There was a time I would have paid to join this band,” I told him, “but I can’t afford to now.” Teddy said he understood. I said, “Man, I’m probably go home and get drunk after this.”

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They made a movie called Zachariah, a real hokey satire on cowboy days. Elvin Jones played a gunslinger. In his big scene, instead of saying, “Draw,” he says, “Gimme them drumsticks” and plays a big solo. . . .

Anyway, somehow or other the sound got messed up. The drum solo had to be played all over again. Jimmy [Haskell] told the producers, “Oh yeah, we can do that.”

I said, “Wait a minute. I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to fucking do this, man.”

Haskell said, “Why not?”

“Do you know who this is? I can’t match Elvin, nobody can. The man is a genius.” Finally I said, “All right. Give me two hours.” I took my lunch and a Moviola machine and some music paper, went across the alley into a little room, and transcribed Elvin’s whole solo. Took me two-and-a-half hours to  write out a five-minute solo.  Then I played it. I not only got paid overtime, I got a bonus when they realized how hard that was and how near it came to being perfect.

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NUMEROUS DATES, 1970-74 — BAKED POTATO, SWEETS EDISON. Sundary nights, always a Sunday night. Never paid much, twenty bucks, but we drank for free and got a lot of coke. Don Randi, who owned the place, asked me about getting a group in there. I said, “Why don’t you get Sweets? He’s going to bring all the pimps and hookers in. Every musician that comes in town going to come by and see Sweets.” Sure enough, the Basie band came through and they all sat in. Ellington band, same thing. Red Foxx came in to work out his nightclub routine; he’d get up there and stay an hour or more. The band was me, Sweets, Plas Johnson, Dolo Coker on piano, Larry Gales on bass. That’s some of the best jazz I played here. Sweets is a stylist, a great stylist: the minute you hear him you know him. . . .

JANUARY 18, 1973 —  INAUGURATION, $1,500.00. Don Costa, Sinatra’s man, was musical director of the thing. Sinatra was emcee. . . . As it turned out, everybody brought their own band, so I wound up only playing with Roger Miller. All I had to do was walk around tasting hors d’oeuvres here and there. Since I was with Sinatra’s man, they gave me a Secret Service button that let me go in any room I wanted. All the guests are wondering, Who is he? They didn’t have many black Republicans then to speak of, so they all figure this is somebody they should know and don’t. It dawns on me: they’re worried. They don’t know who this nigger Republican is that’s big enough to be in this particular room. Who is this nigger? That’s exactly what they thinking. Who is this nigger? For him to be in here, must be somebody we supposed to know! I’m reading their minds. Who is this nigger? Must be an important nigger, an important nigger Republican AND WE DON’T KNOW HIM! Jesus, let’s don’t fuck up. Somebody find out who he is!

Nobody knew, except Mrs. Pat Boone. She saw me and came running over.

“Earl, what are you doing here?”

“Well, hi, Shirley. How’s Pat?”

“Wait, I’ll get him!” And she went and gets Pat and we’re shaking hands and hugging because I did a lot of work with him at Dot Records, and little Debbie’s hugging me and Shirley’s hugging me . . . . And the guests must have all breathed a great sigh of relief. Now we can find out who this nigger is. Everybody came swarming around Pat, who gave them the story.

“Oh! He’s an entertainment nigger! One of those kind, by God!

So now they all come up to me. “Oh, Mr. Palmer, are you having a nice time?” Mrs. Nixon, for one, very sweet lady.

“Yes, Mrs. President, I am, thank you very much.” I was feeling pretty good—I’d just smoked some weed with Pete Fountain’s band and Al Hirt. 

I met them all, I’m telling you, everyone but Nixon. John Dean was the only one asked me anything about what I did.

“Who are you going to be playing with?”

“Well, I don’t know yet. That’s why Mr. Costa had me come along.”

“You mean you’d be able to play with any of them?”

“Sure, that’s what we do all the time, play with anybody we have to.”

“Must be quite an experience.” . . . 

I was shocked when Sinatra exploded. They got their signals crossed and he introduced somebody, I can’t remember who, but Joey Heatherton came on. Wrong act. Sinatra hit the roof. I was in his dressing room with Costa and he storms in. “These cocksuckers don’t know what the fuck they’re doing!” I hadn’t realized until then what a rough guy this was. “Wait till my man gets in there, he’ll straighten this shit out.” I’m wondering, “What does he mean, his man? Nixon’s in.” You know what he was talking about? Agnew. He didn’t like Nixon worth a shit. That was his man, old Spiro.

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SEPTEMBER 25, 1973 — Midnight Special, . . . She came up the hall at NBC whe I was getting my shoes shined. I said, “Hello there.” Nothing wrong with saying hello.

She turned and said hi. Slowed down.

I said, “How are you? My, you look awful good.”

She said, “Thank you.” I got down off the shoeshine stand and talked to her. She was pretty, and very shapely. Had an Afro, not too big. One feature I liked about her, she had a little space between her teeth. That do something to you, too? She said she was there to be on some kind of talk show. 

I said, “What’s your name?”

“Angela,” she said. She never mentioned Davis. 

I suggested we meet for lunch. She said, “Yeah, that would be nice.” She didn’t turn a cartwheel, but she responded. I wouldn’t have imagined her to be receptive, and this is why I didn’t grasp who she was till long after. 

We met at the Carriage House, . . . I told her what I did and how busy I was. She wanted to know, “Do you have any control over what you do, over your work situation?”

“Control? Yeah, I take the job or I don’t.”

“Well, you’re rather prominent as a musician. You should be doing this and this and this,” and suddenly she’s talking all kind of politics. 

I said, “Wait a minute—why?”

She said, “Because there’s the exploiters and the exploited.”

I said, “Honey, nobody’s exploiting me, I’m just working.” I got a little indignant right there. She don’t know me from Adam and she’s already made a decision as to I’m being exploited and I don’t know what’s what in my job. I didn’t tell her she didn’t know what she was doing in whatever she did. What made her think because I flirted with her and hit on her that I was automatically an idiot? This had turned into something that had nothing to do with two people meeting and flirting, it was a real confrontation. 

She said, “Well, I can see there’s no way of reaching you. You’re just not prepared to hear what I have to say.”

“You’re damn right,” I said, and got up and walked away.

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It didn’t hit me right in the face. Maybe it should have. Ain’t like I wasn’t affected—I felt it in my pocket. Producers started letting groups record their own music, instead of session men doing it. . . . 

And then it finally hit me straight on, where you say, “Oh! This is why it’s happened and why it’s going to get worse.” If you remember, there was a movie called Chariots of Fire and one man, this Vangelis, did the whole score. Had electric drums, electric piano, had all this stuff. One man. And he got a Oscar. I said, “There you go. There’s the end of it right there.”

War is the wrong response to terrorists

War is the appropriate response when one nation is invaded or attacked by another. The most recent obvious example, in Ukraine, illustrates the case: Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in 2022 set off a war between the two nations that continues today. Ukraine is completely justified in defending itself by going to war against Russia.

War is the wrong response, however, to terrorist attacks. George W. Bush made this mistake when he responded to Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks in 2001 by sending armies to Afghanistan and Iraq. The result? Two decades of war, thousands and thousands of deaths, two countries devastated, and trillions of dollars expended—with no discernible reduction in terrorist activity by Al-Qaeda, Isis, Iran, Hezbollah, etc. Going to war against terrorism leads only to bloodshed, destruction, and hatred.

Now Israel is making the same mistake—not for the first time—in Gaza and the West Bank, with the same results.

So what is the appropriate response to terrorism?

Criminal investigation, arrests, and prosecution.

Terrorist acts are criminal acts. Send investigators. Offer rewards. Make arrests. Put suspects on trial. Then make damned sure that your system of justice is truly just, and is not actually a system of injustice that promotes . . . terrorism.

Nations that go to war against criminals commit criminal acts: they become criminals.

 

Recipe: Israeli-Palestinian Soup

Ingredients

  • Three major religions all descended from the same patriarch (Abraham / Ibrahim).
  • A small piece of land.
  • Limited fresh water supply.
  • A history of genocide going back thousands of years.
  • An equally long history of anti-Jewish hatred in historically Christian countries.
  • A shorter but still long history of Islamophobia in historically Christian countries.
  • A history of conquest and colonization going back hundreds of years.
  • Neighbouring nation-states all governed by one flavour or another of authoritarian leaders, and mostly populated by overwhelming numbers of oppressed poor people.
  • Islamist terrorism and anti-Semitism as a reaction against both authoritarian governments and the imposition of modern Western values.
  • Nearly a century of Palestinians being dispossessed and oppressed by Israeli colonization.
  • An impotent United Nations.
  • Big-power rivals taking sides as they continue their rivalry by proxy and jockey for access to the region’s petroleum.
  • Weapons manufacturers and arms dealers, making money.

Directions

  1. Stir until all ingredients are hopelessly mixed.
  2. Once set in motion (long ago), the mixture will continue to ferment and to spontaneously combust at irregular intervals.
  3. No further intervention is needed to continue the process. We are all in the soup.

Help for marking essays and giving feedback to students

My “Marking Key” is available for purchase here along with a free download of the Marking Key Error Log. The Marking Key is a digital-only PDF that can be shared with students. The Error Log can be printed.

The Marking Key began to take shape years ago when I was faced with large numbers of essays to mark. Tired of writing the same comments repeatedly in the margins, I began with a simple one-page handout with the most common errors and marginal comments numbered. Instead of writing out the comments, I simply put the corresponding numbers in the margins. Students could then refer to the handout to see what the numbers meant.

Gradually, the Marking Key expanded into a hyperlinked document that, including all the explanations and appendices, runs over fifty pages. Although I keep thinking it must finally be complete, I continue to make additions and corrections from time to time.

For teachers faced with stacks of essays, it can be a great time-saver.

Students can use the hyperlinked elements of the Marking Key to read further explanations that will help them to avoid making the same errors in future work. The errors are grouped into three sections: Essay Technique, Style & Expression, and Mechanics: Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation, Etc. The 50+ pages of explanations and examples represent several decades’ worth of handouts covering the full range of issues that students face as they work to become fluent and competent essayists.

I usually ask students to complete the “Marking Key Error Log” when they receive their marked essays; this helps to ensure that they actually use the Marking Key and benefit from it. When deciding which errors should be given priority, students should correct the errors that are in bold face first.

The Marking Key and the Error Log are the most effective tools for teaching composition that I have discovered in more than forty years of teaching. Have a look at it here—

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Eric-Macknight

—share with any English teachers you know, and let me know what you think.

The empire was attacked

The empire was attacked.

Babies cried, or lay lifeless

Mothers sprawled awkwardly

Young men, old men, old women, girls and boys

Body parts and fluids everywhere.

Only whimpers, or dazed silence as the sun shone indifferently.

 

It struck back.

Babies cried, or lay lifeless

Mothers sprawled awkwardly

Young men, old men, old women, girls and boys

Body parts and fluids everywhere.

Only whimpers, or dazed silence as the sun shone indifferently.

 

Somewhere, crowds cheered in triumph.

Somewhere, crowds screamed in rage.

—6 May 2011

 

Trees, baby! Trees.

Bits and bobs from The Overstory, by Richard Powers:

“You’re a psychologist,” Mimi says to the recruit. “How do we convince people that we’re right?”

The newest Cascadian takes the bait. “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

. . . which reminds me of e. e. cummings:

plato told

him:he couldn’t

believe it(jesus

told him;he

wouldn’t believe

it)lao

tsze

certainly told

him,and general

(yes

mam)

sherman;

and even

(believe it

or

not)you

told him:i told

him;we told him

(he didn’t believe it,no

sir)it took

a nipponized bit of

the old sixth

avenue

el;in the top of his head:to tell

him

Another debatable claim—

The world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.

—seems increasingly dubious as this long, sprawling novel continues. Powers moves us most when showing us how much we have been missing in our understanding of nature—

“We scientists are taught never to look for ourselves in other species. So we make sure nothing looks like us! Until a short while ago, we didn’t even let chimpanzees have consciousness, let alone dogs or dolphins. Only man, you see: only man could know enough to want things. But believe me: trees want something from us, just as we’ve always wanted things from them. This isn’t mystical. The ‘environment’ is alive—a fluid, changing web of purposeful lives dependent on each other. . . . Flowers shape bees as much as bees shape flowers. Berries may compete to be eaten more than animals compete to eat them. A thorn acacia makes sugary protein treats to feed and enslave the ants who guard it. Fruit-bearing plants trick us into distributing their seeds, and ripening fruit led to color vision. In teaching us how to find their bait, trees taught us to see that the sky is blue. Our brains evolved to solve the forest. We’ve shaped and been shaped by forests for longer than we’ve been Homo sapiens.”

—and by the end it is this overwhelming vision that sticks. The human dramas, which may have initially drawn us in to the story, have lost their power. We want to go into the woods, sit at the base of a tree, and just listen.

UC Santa Cruz, sort of

From The Overstory, by Richard Powers, p. 257:

He’s admitted to the new social psychology graduate program down at Santa Cruz. The campus is an enchanted garden perched on a mountainside overlooking Monterey Bay. It’s the worst place he can imagine for finishing a doctorate—or doing any real work whatsoever. On the other hand, it’s perfect for making interspecies contact with sea lions down by the pier, climbing the Sunset Tree naked and stoned at night, and lying on his back in the Great Meadow, searching for a thesis topic in the mad cloud of stars.

This parody, like all parodies, is founded on truth, in part. In my day (1969-72) we called Santa Cruz (the town, not just the university) Hippie Heaven. Plenty of flakiness—so much that when I moved to Oregon a few years later I had an immediate aversion to that state’s Santa Cruz simulacrum, Eugene, and happily continued north to the state capital, Salem, which was as much like a boring midwestern town as anything west of the Rockies. What a relief! When I was at UCSC two highly-touted professors recruited to the school left after just one year for East Coast schools where students were serious about their studies. Plenty of UCSC students and teachers were serious about their studies—I was one of them—but the tone of the place was definitely set by the “middle-class white-boy”* faux hippies and their silliness. I had a few great teachers; I learned a lot; but I was happy to drop out in the middle of my third year when they demanded that I declare a major, and I have never had the least desire to go back.

*”Middle Class White Boy” is one of Mose Allison’s inimitable classics.

The blackness behind us and before us

In W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995), this prescient and evocative passage seems to speak directly to us in the summer of 2023:

Our spread over the earth was fuelled by reducing the higher species of vegetation to charcoal, by incessantly burning whatever would burn. From the first smouldering taper to the elegant lanterns whose light reverberated around eighteenth-century courtyards and from the mild radiance of these lanterns to the unearthly glow of the sodium lamps that line the Belgian motorways, it has all been combustion. Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create. The making of a fish hook, manufacture of a china cup, or production of a television programme, all depend on the same process of combustion. Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away. For the time being, our cities still shine through the night, and the fires still spread. In Italy, France and Spain, in Hungary, Poland and Lithuania, in Canada and California, summer fires consume whole forests, not to mention the great conflagration in the tropics that is never extinguished. A few years ago, on a Greek island that was wooded as recently as 1900, I observed the speed with which a blaze runs through dry vegetation. A short distance from the harbour town where I was staying, I stood by the roadside with a group of agitated men, the blackness behind us and before us, far below at the bottom of a gorge, the fire, whipped up by the wind, racing, leaping, and already climbing the steep slopes. And I shall never forget the junipers, dark against the glow, going up in flames one after the other as if they were tinder the moment the first tongues of fire licked at them, with a dull thudding sound like an explosion, and then promptly collapsing in a silent shower of sparks.

Has any phrase ever conveyed the human condition more succinctly than the blackness behind us and before us?

Phil Freshman, my good friend

Phil Freshman, who I met in 1970, died yesterday.

There are so many good memories, and so many stories I could tell.

I first saw his name in a by-line on an article in the UC Santa Cruz student newspaper in the fall of 1969. The article was about freshman orientation; I thought the by-line was a pseudonym. A few months later this guy stuck his hand out and said, “I’m Phil Freshman.” I started laughing.

In 1981 I was living in Oregon when my little brother got married in our home town in San Diego. Wanting to surprise him, I told him I wouldn’t be able to make it, then got into my car and started driving south. In L.A. I stopped to pick up Phil, who was at home with his parents in Reseda. We arrived in time for the wedding, and Phil spent the entire afternoon talking with everyone at the reception. He had a way of meeting people I had known for years and finding out more about them in ten minutes than I ever knew. As the sun was setting and we started back north, I said, “So . . . what do you think?” There was a pause, then a sigh; then he shook his head. “I thought people in L.A. were superficial,” he said.

His original idea of a career in journalism turned instead into a career as a copy-editor who specialized in catalogues and other publications by art museums. Meticulous and stubborn (and almost always right), he was invariably embroiled in disagreements. In 1982, while working at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), two of his colleagues wanted to dispense with the hyphen in the name of their department. His memo to the boss on this topic is reproduced here for posterity. (“I was just trying to make people laugh, convince them via humor,” he said later. The hyphen in “Twentieth-Century Art” was retained, but no one seems to have laughed.)

To: Earl A. Powell III
From: Phil Freshman
Subject: Twentieth-Century Hyphens

As you know, a storm has lately been rattling teacups in the upstairs offices over what would seem to be an innocuous grammatical point. Maurice Tuchman and Stephanie Barron evidently abhor the presence of a hyphen when it is used to hook up the words Twentieth and Century when they appear adjectivally prior to the word Art. More specifically, the curators, formerly of the Department of Modern Art (formerly the Modern and Contemporary Art Department) are adamantly opposed to having their newly renamed department publicly known as the Department of Twentieth hyphen Century Art. I’m told they see the hyphen, in this location at least, as a blemish, an excrescence.

I confess that when I first heard of their assault on our language’s unsung little intelligibility-maker, my professional instinct was to rush unquestioningly to its defense. After all, wouldn’t our bearings be more difficult to find if we didn’t have the adjectivally employed hyphen to tell us we were about to see “sixty-odd works of art” rather than “sixty odd ones”? And how embarrassed we might feel if we were left, hyphenless, to divine the best way to approach an “ill favored woman”.

More angrily, and pointedly, I could have arisen, stuck an index finger down onto any properly punctuated book, newspaper, or magazine page where the subject of 15th-century poetry, 19th-century sculpture, or 20th-century anarchy was treated and then, folding my arms, let my case rest.

However, being a student who knows the language has a way of changing, sometimes radically, before our very eyes, and being an employee of an American museum in a time when more and more of those institutions’ modern art departments are adopting this century’s name for their very own, I decided to do a bit of digging. I called four major museums, each of which had, according to the 1981 Official Museum Directory, “20th Century Art” departments. Instead of phoning these museums’ editorial departments and collecting a pile of confirmations for my view, I spoke with members of the departments in question; if they felt as Maurice and Stephanie do, and had gotten their museums to condone the breaking of grammatical code, I wanted to hear from them how they had justified it.

The four museums I called were the Metropolitan in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Philadelphia Art Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

At the Metropolitan, a Mrs. Rubin, the assistant to one of the associate curators of Twentieth no hyphen Century Art, told me the department had had the name since the ’60s and that no one, certainly no editors, had to her knowledge ever questioned the usage. She said the department refers to itself in all public places hyphenlessly. “But now that you mention it,” she added, “yes, I guess you’re right. I wonder why no one has ever said anything?”

Next I called Boston. “Don’t mention that hyphen!” cried Debbie Emerson, the departmental secretary. “We all think it’s ugly, unsightly.” But does the Museum of Fine Arts use it? “Yes,” she admitted. “Our editors make us. On business cards, in the annual reports, everywhere. But around the office we avoid it like the plague.”

Then it was Philadelphia, where I talked with the curator herself, Ann d’Harnoncourt. “You tell Maurice and Stephanie I’m on their side,” she said. “I just can’t stand that hyphen, and I never use it in any of my letters.” But what about the museum’s official usage? “Well of course it’s correct and the museum includes it in the calendar of events, the annual report, you name it. But God, it’s so unaesthetic!”

Finally, Chicago. Susan Frio, the department’s secretary, was just as hot on the subject as her co-religionists in Boston and Philadelphia. “We despise that hyphen, but what are we going to do? We co-publish the University of Chicago Manual of Style [LACMA’s style bible], and so it would look pretty dumb if we deviated from that. So we make it Department of Twentieth hyphen Century Art consistently.”

What are we to conclude from all this? Seemingly, the law-abiding adjectival hyphen, just trying to do his job in the strife-torn world of modern language, is undergoing a death-dealing hail of abuse by other twentieth-century art departments than our own. However, he has, in most places, managed to survive. I want him to survive here. And so I recommend, consistent with both grammatical practice and the policies of reputable (though embattled) museums, that this museum recognize the legitimacy and necessity of linking Twentieth and Century with a hyphen whenever those two words publicly precede Art.

Naturally, I wouldn’t presume to suggest extending this rule to the private correspondence and paperwork of the Twentieth-Century Art curators, or anybody else. That would indeed be a less-than-reasonable, over-regimented, far-fetched, and even un-American policy.

In 2015 he came to visit me in Suzhou, China, where I had been living and working for a decade. Although we hadn’t seen each other for years, we picked up right where we left off, and Phil was the same curious, gregarious omnivore of new experiences that he had always been. I am so blessed to have known him, and I will miss him, as the saying goes, like salt.

Gibbon, massacres of Christians, and dying moths

From Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, Chapter XV:

Here Rachel came up from the lower garden with a book in her hand.

“What’s that book?” said Ridley, when she had shaken hands.

“It’s Gibbon,” said Rachel as she sat down.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire?” said Mrs. Thornbury. “A very wonderful book, I know. My dear father was always quoting it at us, with the result that we resolved never to read a line.”

“Gibbon the historian?” enquired Mrs. Flushing. “I connect him with some of the happiest hours of my life. We used to lie in bed and read Gibbon—about the massacres of the Christians, I remember—when we were supposed to be asleep. It’s no joke, I can tell you, readin’ a great big book, in double columns, by a night-light, and the light that comes through a chink in the door. Then there were the moths—tiger moths, yellow moths, and horrid cockchafers. Louisa, my sister, would have the window open. I wanted it shut. We fought every night of our lives over that window. Have you ever seen a moth dyin’ in a night-light?” she enquired.

The passage continues:

Hewet picked up the book that lay on the ground.

“You like this?” he asked in an undertone.

“No, I don’t like it,” she replied. She had indeed been trying all the afternoon to read it, and for some reason the glory which she had perceived at first had faded, and, read as she would, she could not grasp the meaning with her mind.

“It goes round, round, round, like a roll of oil-cloth,” she hazarded. Evidently she meant Hewet alone to hear her words, but Hirst demanded, “What d’you mean?”
She was instantly ashamed of her figure of speech, for she could not explain it in words of sober criticism.

“Surely it’s the most perfect style, so far as style goes, that’s ever been invented,” he continued. “Every sentence is practically perfect, and the wit—”

“Ugly in body, repulsive in mind,” she thought, instead of thinking about Gibbon’s style. “Yes, but strong, searching, unyielding in mind.” She looked at his big head, a disproportionate part of which was occupied by the forehead, and at the direct, severe eyes.

“I give you up in despair,” he said. He meant it lightly, but she took it seriously, and believed that her value as a human being was lessened because she did not happen to admire the style of Gibbon. The others were talking now in a group about the native villages which Mrs. Flushing ought to visit.

“I despair too,” she said impetuously. “How are you going to judge people merely by their minds?”

“You agree with my spinster Aunt, I expect,” said St. John in his jaunty manner, which was always irritating because it made the person he talked to appear unduly clumsy and in earnest. “‘Be good, sweet maid’—I thought Mr. Kingsley and my Aunt were now obsolete.”

“One can be very nice without having read a book,” she asserted. Very silly and simple her words sounded, and laid her open to derision.

“Did I ever deny it?” Hirst enquired, raising his eyebrows.

Oradour-sur-Glane

In the summer of 1987 Mike Radow and I were driving the back roads of France in my crappy Renault 5 and stumbled on Oradour-sur-Glane, the site of a notorious massacre carried out by Nazi SS troops. The village has been preserved as the Nazis left it, as a memorial. We stopped and walked through the burned-out main street: hulks of old cars, houses missing roofs and fronts, a chimney here, a sewing machine there.

We came on a tour group. The speaker was an older man who was one of about thirty people who escaped the slaughter. His audience had tears running down their faces as he told the story.

The men had been gathered in several barns; the women and children in the church. The Nazis machine-gunned their victims, often just in the legs. They threw grenades into the church. They piled straw and other combustibles on top of the wounded, then set fire to the church and to the barns. They pillaged the houses of food and valuables, setting each house afire once it was looted, and finally burned the whole village. People found hiding in their homes during this pillaging were killed. Most of the victims died by being burned alive.

The old man saw me standing at the back in my Moroccan black leather jacket, looking very Aryan. “D’ou venez-vous?” he asked. Where are you from?

It was one of the few times in my life that I was completely happy to say, “Je suis Americain.” The whole group sighed in relief.

The massacre took place on my birthday, June 10th, in 1944, eight years before I was born. It was apparently a reprisal for some Résistance attack in the days following the Normandy landings on June 6th—an attack that had nothing to do with Oradour-sur-Glane or any of its residents. The total number of people killed was 642, but only 52 of the bodies could be identified. The rest were beyond recognition.

In the spring of 1992 I was living in Vienna, Austria. One day I found, in the International Herald-Tribune, this brief article:

Austrian SS Veterans Honor Butcher of Oradour-sur-Glane - Intl Herald-Tribune Apr:May 1992.png

I had no words to express my disgust and outrage then, and thirty years later that has not changed, even though the account given of the massacre on the French version of Wikipedia (see below) describes Stadler as a colonel, not the regiment commander.

Almost none of the perpetrators were prosecuted; most of those that were imprisoned served less than five years before being released. One SS Sergeant was sentenced to life in prison in 1981. In 1997 he was released on humanitarian grounds. He died in 2007, age 86.

Here is an English-language account of the massacre, and a more detailed account in French.

Robert Hébras in 2008.

The man telling the story of the massacre in 1987 might have been Robert Hébras, who was wounded by machine-gun fire in his leg, abdomen, and wrist, but played dead. He and four others remained hidden underneath the corpses of their friends and neighbours even after the fire was set, waiting until the last possible moment to make their escape. He died this past February 11th, 2023, 97 years old. May he rest in peace.

One of the families of the village, eight months before the massacre. None of them survived.