Friday, February 21, 2014

Treason ("The Burglary" by Betty Medsger)

Forty-three years ago, Washington Post journalist Betty Medsger received a package in the mail. While this in itself was not unnatural--in the era before computers and emails, journalists existed through their telephones and mailboxes--what she found inside the package was: photocopies of sensitive FBI documents, all stolen from an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania; and a letter explaining not only where the documents had come from but why they were being distributed to journalists. Other packages would follow, the letter said, though it gave few clues as to what those future correspondences might actually reveal. Similarly, it kept the identity of anyone involved in the robbery hidden--an understandable decision from any point of view. After all, the documents revealed something activists had long suspected but never been able to prove--that the FBI, under the direction of its decades-long leader J. Edgar Hoover, had used its power and resources to monitor, harass, and frame those who spoke out against the government--and the burglars feared what might happen to them if the FBI suddenly found itself backed into a corner.

Now, forty-three years later, Medsger has finally published a comprehensive history of the entire burglary, from its planning to the eventual political blowback, and she's done so through interviews with most of the burglary's participants, who provide fascinating personal insights into why they chose to participate in something that would have undoubtedly landed them in prison for the rest of their lives had they not succeeded. They came from diverse backgrounds, and most were not the full-time activists we now associated with counter-cultural movements of that era, but each of them acted out of concern for their country--a belief that it was falling victim to its own government, which not only encouraged Hoover's crime-fighting public persona through ever-increasing budgets and unchecked power, but also took lessons in deception and corruption from the very same agency. (In one instance, a respected member of Congress from a safe district--reelected with over 70% of the vote--chose to speak out against the FBI and found himself run out office thanks to the Bureau's vengeful rumor-mongering.) Every member of the burglary team save one--a nameless man who drops out of the operation and even threatens to expose it--acted to preserve the rights and freedoms that were being dismantled by the very men and women entrusted to protect them.

A project literally decades in the making, Medsger's book has been released at a moment in our history when we find ourselves glancing down a rabbit-hole that seems all too familiar, only now the actors have changed:  the NSA has taken the FBI's place as the all-intrusive boogeyman, and instead of a team of burglars we have Edward Snowden, a twenty-something contractor who stole, then distributed, millions of sensitive files he managed to access thanks to the American government's surprisingly liberal clearance policies. And while the surface similarities continue from there--journalists who publish the information against the government's wishes, a manhunt for those involved, a call for reform from those very same politicians who have exploited the program for their own benefit--the full convergence of both events is halted by a rather large roadblock known as "the American people." For even though there has been outrage over the idea of a government agency monitoring our every move--phone calls, text messages, emails, social-media updates--and the advances in technology we've seen over the last 40 years have allowed the NSA to collect mountains of evidence in mere seconds--at the click of a button--where the FBI would collect only the occasional mole-hill after weeks of field work, the one large troubling difference between the Media burglary and the Snowden affair is that, rather than outrage, the vast majority of Americans have responded with a shrug. And the reason for this disparity is simple:  September 11, 2001.

For years, Americans were complacent in their attitudes about their own safety; while other countries faced down terrorism in all its forms, America--the world's largest military power, keeper of the greatest stockpile of nuclear weapons, the most influential democracy on Earth--looked out with a mix of pity and confidence. September 11 left the vast majority of Americans shaken and afraid, and in the ensuing years, politicians on both sides exploited this newfound vulnerability to gain more power for themselves while disregarding the very same Constitution they were elected to protect. One after another, they declared publicly that the terrorists hated us "for our freedom" while abandoning the very foundation of the freedom so despised by the terrorists who attacked us. Search warrants became optional, torture became legal, due process was dismissed as irrelevant, free speech was corralled into so-called "zones"...and if those changes weren't enough, they exported our legal systems out to foreign ground, where the Constitution had no jurisdiction, and branded anyone who disagreed as coddlers of terrorism, as unpatriotic, as wishing ill on our soldiers. Fear became the norm, and in its shadow the laws of our land wilted like saplings, unwatered by those tasked with tending to their care.

When we discuss Edward Snowden and the NSA leak, what we're really talking about is our own privacy--namely, how much of ourselves we are willing to give up for guarantees of safety. When Hoover was using the FBI to track, intimidate, and even frame those who spoke out against the government, secrecy was easy; unless someone bugged a phone or followed your daily routine, your life was as closed off to the world as you wanted it to be. Conversely, privacy is Sisyphean feat in modern times; even without our permission, most of our personal information--court records, addresses, civic activities, even photographs--finds its way online anyway, and those with an active online presence are leaving behind volumes of autobiographical information on an almost yearly basis, whether they realize it or not. Fighting back against Hoover's FBI was easy--it required no sacrifice on the part of everyday citizens. Today, citizens who want to fight back against the NSA have to abandon everything that makes our lives easy and connects us to one another: email, smart phones, online shopping and bank accounts, social media, the internet, and so on. We'd have to return to a life that better reflects that of forty years ago and live virtually off the grid...something most Americans flatly refuse to do, regardless of how intrusive the alternative may be. We've been told in the years following 9/11 that everything we do is now monitored, just as we've been told that our world is populated by those who would wish to do us harm, and in order to address the latter we must accept the former...a choice that is by no means legitimate but one that allows us to feel a small sliver of how we felt on the days before we lost our sense of safety. Most Americans, it seems, are fine with this resolution.

The problem is that, as we learned all those years ago, the people we often entrust with our safety have little interest in protecting anything other than their own power. Hoover was the head of the FBI for decades, and by the time the Media office was burglarized, he had ruled over his fiefdom--a personality cult, an empire of concentrated power--longer than any one man had been president, only with much greater influence and little if any oversight. Today, only a minuscule amount of Snowden's leaked data has been released by the journalists to whom it was given; there is much more to come, and by the journalists' own admissions, these future revelations are just as damaging. We can draw comparisons between Edward Snowden and the Media burglars all we want--both are traitors, according to those whose secrets were revealed, just as both are patriots in the minds of those fighting to preserve Constitutional freedoms--but none of it matters if the information footnotes history instead of changing it.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Reconciliation ("Our One Common Country" by James B. Conroy)

Any modern book about Abraham Lincoln is published in the shadow of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, and rightfully so:  her massive, thousand-page history of not only the president--as a boy, a young Illinois lawyer and legislator, the commander in chief--but also his cabinet and closest advisers is a monumental testament to the powers of research and historical narrative, with each paragraph like a condensed chapter unto itself. One imagines that, had Goodwin had another lifetime to labor over the book, she could've expanded into volumes and still found herself lacking for time, with more and more research left untouched, the archives of even more libraries and collections left unexplored. History, after all, is rich with stories to tell--every moment from ages past its own subject worthy of careful study, every person a president unto themselves--and to say a book on any one of them is conclusive is to misunderstand the dark and winding cave that is our past.

Case in point. Even Goodwin, for all her skills as a writer and researcher,  barely explores one of the pivotal moments of Lincoln's presidency:  the Hampton Roads Conference, an attempt by Union and Confederate leaders to bring about an end to the Civil War at a time when the South's failure was all but inevitable. Organized in a bureaucratic void where objectives had to be couched in indistinctions and assurances of anything except a man's presence were toxic, the conference did something almost unthinkable in today's age:  brought together Confederate secessors--defenders of slavery, treasonists against the Constitution--with the very same American president whose election ignited their bloody disunion. That the commander-in-chief, already so thoroughly absorbed by the gruesome bloodbath that was the Civil War, would himself meet with the opposition--rather than, say, a representative from his cabinet, as is often the custom today--is a demonstration of not just how much American diplomacy has changed, even from one American politician to another, but how the role of the presidency has changed, as well.

In writing about the conference, James B. Conroy examines both sides--Lincoln and his cabinet, reticent to hold any sort of meeting that would weaken their otherwise strong position, and the government of the Confederacy under Jefferson Davis, whose refusal to discuss any sort of surrender frustrated the weary peace-seekers beneath him and now frames the former senator as downright apocalyptic. It's in this vast chasm between both men, not to mention their governments, that we are offered the strongest insight into why the Civil War proceeded the way it did, with the North battered yet able to produce materials while the South's soldiers were left without food, clothes, or ammunition. Lincoln operated the war through careful delegation, making the ultimate decisions himself but always willing to hand over control to other professionals. Davis, on the other hand, was an unprepared narcissist whose management style seems today to have been built on a foundation of delusional paranoia; the conference between Lincoln and Confederate representatives was planned not so much because of Davis but in spite of him, and it's his stubbornness that led to its ultimate failure.*

Which begs the question:  if the conference ultimately failed to achieve its goals, despite the good will of all men involved, why write a book about it? (Perhaps Goodwin was right to gloss over this portion of history if, after all, no resounding peace was struck between Lincoln and the Confederates?) The answer is simultaneously simple and complicated. As a moment in history, the Hamptons Road Conference allows us to understand how the mechanisms of war and politics operated all those many years ago, and regardless of the outcome, it should be studied just as we might study other, more successful gatherings of men. But it's also a look at how those we entrust with power--over us, our family, our country--can so easily use that power against us. Had the Hamptons Road Conference succeeded in ending the war, thousands of lives would have been spared from purposeless bloodshed and destruction; instead, the leader of the Confederacy chose to stake out a position that was self-destructive, if for no other reason than to prove a point to himself and render himself a hero upon an altar of corpses. Had Lincoln not been elected--or re-elected--president, the course of American history would've changed dramatically, and the war may have been conducted by men less able to separate their own egos from the cause at hand. A lesser man than Lincoln may have compromised for peace, left the slavery issue unresolved--in one instance, there is discussion of delaying the end of slavery by years, all to sooth the South's transition towards total emancipation--thereby ensured more war, more division, more death. Lincoln stood firm in his resolve to end the war on his terms, while Davis stood firm only in his backless confidence, and it's this disparity that is the true reason why this one failed meeting is important so many years later.

The title of Conroy's study of this event is Our One Common Country. That phrase comes from Lincoln's belief that no discussion of peace could begin until the Confederacy acknowledged its lack of sovereignty--that it was not a free nation, as its people had exclaimed, but a rebellious collection of states that still belonged, burned and blood-soaked, to the United States, and their president was and continued to be Abraham Lincoln. Until then, Lincoln said, there could be no conference, and there would never be peace. This one simple demand demonstrates everything there is to understand about why Abraham Lincoln continues to be such a revered American figure, so often proclaimed the best president we've ever had. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln--tired, distracted, only weeks away from death--spoke of reconciliation, of joining the divided country together again, not in vengeance but peace, with "malice toward none, with charity for all." After so many years of carnage--hundreds of thousands killed, even more wounded physically and mentally, entire states scorched, homes wiped from the earth--Lincoln looked to the coming years not as opportunity for punishment but as a chance to heal. Lincoln knew that the wounds of the Civil War scarred one body, not two--the body of men united, not men divided--and only the hands of all men could heal it.

*There are other sides to this, as well--Congress, which was itself divided over how to approach a potential peace with Southern delegates; the military, which either refused to intercede in government affairs out of a deference to politics (Robert E. Lee) or interceded so directly that it changed the entire course of the war (Ulysses S. Grant)--but it's Lincoln and Davis' governments that offer the best historical contrasts.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Visitors ("Starting Over" by Elizabeth Spencer)

With the exception of "Christmas Longings," the shortest story featured in Mary Spencer's newest collection--her first in over a decade--all of Spencer's fiction features a visit of some sort. Most of these are unplanned, though this is not where the tension is derived. Instead, the conflicts--quiet, subtle, like disturbances beneath the calm surface of a lake--arrive after the fact, as those on the outskirts of the events must come to terms with the aftermath. There is the mother whose son from another marriage arrives and is promptly victimized by his half-brothers and grandfather, all of whom threaten him and destroy his possessions; kept far from the aftermath--in one scene, she is literally shut out of the room where her new husband interrogates his children--she must decide whether to stay or go. There is the wife whose dinner-party neighbors become virtual shut-ins, their poor son left to wander up and down the street, until they vanish for reasons left unexplained; the end of the story finds her peering into the neighbors' old window, knowing she'll find nothing but looking anyway, her expectations unclear. And there is the father who, curious about his daughter's newfound interest in religion, follows her to singing practice at church and sits, noticed but unidentified, in the pews, where he can weep to himself…about what, we're never told, but the pains on him--as a visitor to this place, to the beauty of this music--are clear.

In each case, Spencer's characters seem to exist on their own--lonely, distracted, their minds racing to keep up with events unfolding around them, unfolding without them--to the point where some of them become near pitiable. The wife who worries over her withdrawn neighbors is told by her husband to leave them be; even after she spies on the neighbor's fire-and-brimstone church, where she witnesses what might be the abuse of children, her husband admonishes her, and she is left admitting that maybe she imagined the whole thing. The mother of the bullied son decides to stay with her husband and their children, even after it becomes clear what they have done to their step-brother, because she thinks of her husband as honest and good--a moral compromise struck less for love, it seems, than for the safety of what she knows in the face of the great unknown beyond her front door. And the father, weeping in the back of the church, is unable to talk with his daughter about why her new interests move him so, even as his wife dismisses everything religious as unworthy of their attention.

There are homes in Spencer's stories--large, warm places where people eat and make love and grow--but they are places where these characters live like ghosts, unable to find a well-lit corner to claim as their own. They do not understand their roles, the decisions they have made, what they have become; they move up and down their streets like visitors themselves rather than as men and women who belong, who are stakeholders in the community, who know the streets and fence-lines like the veins in their own hands. Each searches for some purpose other than the ones to which they have been assigned by fate:  a housewife looks toward the end of her driveway and wonders; another peers into the window of an empty house and imagines; a third listens to his daughter's choir sings and becomes a man unlike himself, ready to change but unsure how. These people--Spencer's people--are us in every sense of creation, and in reading about them we read about ourselves:  visitors to our own lonely souls.

All of which is what Elizabeth Spencer has been doing for the last 60-odd years:  dusting off the shelves of our houses and showing us where we set ourselves before walking away and forgetting.

Southern by birth, Spencer comes from a literary tradition that is all but gone today. Her prose is sparse and waves off any need for unnecessary details, and in her hands the English language is moldable like a tongue made of clay. Words and phrases grow from the page like strange backwoods flowers, so effervescent and yet so ungainly, and the characters who haunt her stories exist similarly. We stumble upon them as though Spencer's passages were not pages in a book but a series of 200 windows, each of them set before us without comment. We are not voyeurs, but bystanders:  visitors to an art gallery, spectators at a clubhouse game, the neighbors down the block. There is no room for us to comment here, only to observe, and we do so diligently, eyes open and ears waiting the next unsettling rumble from beneath the waters.

At age 92, with almost 70 years of published work behind her, Spencer is one of the last great Southern writers--not just a writer from the South, mind you, but a writer whose work embodies the very attitudes, personalities, and paradoxes of what it's like to live in a place where the time of people moves much slower than the time kept by the world around them. Think Eudora Welty, who died the same year Spencer released her last collection, and at the same age Spencer is now. Think William Gay, another writer stuck in time who suddenly a few years ago, his wonderful but thin output a series of windows all their own--shattered, dirty, mask-like. Think William Faulkner, the granddaddy of them all, dead for decades but swimming in every ink-stain of Southern prose like one of his own characters shuttled down the river of literature. The men and women of Spencer's world are stuck--of their own making, by forces beyond their control--and into this limbo stumble those who live beyond these very pleasures and confinements. Sometimes they are better for their separate lives, sometimes they are worse, but it is not for anyone to know or judge. For in judging them we would be judging ourselves, and the 200 windows into which we peer would suddenly become mirrors staring back at us.