Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Past ("Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" by Haruki Murakami; Philip Gabriel, trans.)

2014 marked ten years since I graduated from high school--a small, some would say meaningless milestone that is typically accompanied by a reunion of some sort. In my case, the invitation arrived a few weeks into August, after some dedicated outreach on the part of a former classmate. She organized a modest get-together in a community park less than a mile from our old high school, nothing too demanding, and attending would have been easy--after all, I only live 90 minutes away and have weekends free. Nevertheless, I didn't go, and I don't plan on attending any reunions in the future, either. This decision had nothing to do with the quality of my high school, which I enjoyed overall, nor an attitude about my former classmates; instead, my decision has everything to do with the person I used to be and how that version of myself doesn't exist anymore.

Yes, we all change after high school, but most people change linearly:  they become the person they were already becoming, moving every further down a straight line while leaving behind those aspects of themselves that they outgrow. There are those rare few, however, who change in substance rather than style or amplitude. (To be more metaphorical about it, most of us change the hues of their self-portrait, deepening some colors and lightening others, while a few simply paint over the entire canvass with something completely new. I would fall into this latter category.) The high-school version of myself was a different creature altogether, a character constructed Frankenstein-like to mask--or personify, I've never been sure which--the toxic punch of sadness, self-loathing, anger, confusion, and desperate clawing jealousy that fueled my teenage years. Not that I was miserable by any stretch of the imagination, or that the tempestuous emotions raging inside of me were any worse than those experienced by my classmates, but the relationships I built were always shallow and one-sided, and to this day I'm only in regular contact with two or three people from that time in my life. This was not an instance of people "drifting apart," as the cliche goes; this was an example of people leaving the theatre after a four-year performance unaware that one of the actors had joined them in the streets, having been too consumed by himself to care about anyone sitting in the audience beyond their occasional applause.

While every teenager is different, I was different in more than just the usual ways--permanently, undeniably different--and it would take me another few years to fully understand and accept those differences...and only then, in my early 20s, could I actually begin to work on myself in the same way most of my classmates had years before. They'd had guides to help them, people who had been through many of the same experiences and could lend their wisdom or point my classmates in the right directions. And while I was blessed with fantastic parents and excellent teachers, none of them could offer me a guiding hand because none of them had faced down the long stretch of asphalt that had been steamrolled out in front of me. And I was too afraid--too ashamed, too mistrusting--to ask for a pair of shoes before setting my feet on the boiling tar and beginning my walk. Looking back, and knowing what I know now, it's easy to blame myself for being fearful of something that was terrifying only because I decided that it was, because I didn't think I was strong enough or mature enough to handle it. In the moment, however, life's obstacles can seem insurmountable.

And so, to hide the fact that I was different--an appalling possibility in such a small, conservative, rural town--I both embraced and denied my otherness in the same breath, transforming me into a walking Jekyll forever caught in mid-transformation. It was a strange identity to embrace, one I still don't fully understand, but the distance I gained after graduation--from my small town, my peers, the public image I'd manufactured for myself--allowed me to step away and become a better, more self-aware person. It also allowed me to see just how vacuous and unappealing my former self had been; even though I can claim to have been liked, it was for the wrong reasons. My friendships only existed for my own benefit, and when they couldn't offer me anything else, the friendships faded into nonexistence. Other friendships were nurtured on negativity and gossip, which was less about friendship and more about making ourselves feel better by criticizing others. And the sarcastic sense of humor I developed early on was deployed to defuse any serious situation or push away those who might disrupt the character I'd made for myself. To meet up again with anyone who knew me back then would have forced me to resurrect that character in memory, if only briefly, which would mean having to reconcile the two all over again--an activity I have no interest in repeating, even to explain away my past or the person I now am. I'm more comfortable letting that past identity continue fading into history, kept alive by little more than yearbook notes to my classmates that, ten years later, mean very little out of context.

At the same time I was sending contact information to the president of my graduating class, all for an invitation I had no intention of opening, Haruki Murakami's awkwardly-named Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage found its way into my hands. I read the entire book in two days, devouring a story that seemed destined for intrigue and suspense--an unexplained death from the past, former friends who suddenly abandoned the protagonist and, years later, are just as shadowy and evasive as before--but ended somewhere nuanced and profound, far from the choking cityscapes of Murakami's native Japan and his penchant for unique and bizarre situations. The novel's closing chapter, where our protagonist finally gets a sense of closure over his past, is tender and moving, filled with supporting characters who defy every cliche you expect Murakami to throw our way. Compared to the novel's opening pages, which are clunky and seem to embody the author's need for professional direction--an awkwardness that seems to embody what it's like to be actually be a teenager--the closing moments leave you with a sense of understanding, something you very rarely have when you look back on your past in search of clarity.

All of the cliches associated with reunions--with meeting people you knew in your younger and more vulnerable years, as Nick says in the opening lines of The Great Gatsby--assert that we'll revert at once to our past selves. The sarcastic outcast will still be the sarcastic outcast, the star athlete and his girlfriend will have gotten married, the bookworm will be making six figures in an impressive start-up company, and past relationships will be awkwardly rekindled over tasteless drinks and food. That is the nature of cliches, after all. But the reality is different. We come back as changed people, though the degree of our personal transformations are varied, and often we come back because there's something left unanswered, like in Murakami's novel. But rarely does the past hold a key to helping us understand ourselves. We have to find the answers to those questions ourselves, even if it means walking away--and maybe even staying away--from the places where we came from.

Books Read in 2014
  1. Marie Antoinette's Head:  The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution (Will Bashor) [review]
  2. We Learn Nothing (Tim Kreider)
  3. The Best American Travel Writing 2011 (Sloane Crosley and Jason Wilson, ed.; eBook)
  4. Dog Songs (Mary Oliver) [review]
  5. Rising from the Plains (John McPhee)
  6. Clockwork Angel (Cassandra Clare)
  7. The Optimist's Daughter (Eudora Welty)
  8. A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk (Valerie Steele, et al, ed.) [review]
  9. The Old Gringo (Carlos Fuentes; Margaret Sayers Peden, trans.)
  10. American Lion:  Andrew Jackson in the White House (Jon Meacham)
  11. Ramayana: Divine Loophole (Sanjay Patel)
  12. Andrew's Brain (E.L. Doctorow) [review]
  13. Train Dreams (Denis Johnson)
  14. The Impossible Knife of Memory (Laurie Halse Anderson)
  15. The Burglary:  The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI (Betty Medsger) [review]
  16. Incarnadine (Mary Szybist)
  17. Our One Common Country:  Abraham Lincoln and the Hampton Road Peace Conference of 1865 (James B. Conroy) [review]
  18. Starting Over (Elizabeth Spencer) [review]
  19. The Race Underground:  Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America's First Subway (Doug Most)
  20. The Mad Sculptor:  The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation (Harold Schechter)
  21. The Rings of Saturn (W.G. Sebald; Michael Hulse, trans.)
  22. Unbroken:  A WWII Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (Laura Hillenbrand)
  23. Going Clear:  Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (Lawrence Wright)
  24. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Nathan Englander)
  25. Tomorrow-Land:  The 1964-65 World's Fair and the Transformation of America (Joseph Tirella) [review]
  26. Monster (Walter Dean Myers)
  27. The Wherewithal: A Novel in Verse (Philip Schultz) [review]
  28. Notes from the Internet Apocalypse (Wayne Gladstone) [review]
  29. Dog Whistle Politics:  How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Ian Haney Lopez) [review]
  30. The Wives of Los Alamos (Tarashae Nesbit) [review]
  31. The Splendid Things We Planned:  A Family Portrait (Blake Bailey) [review]
  32. Bark: Stories (Lorrie Moore) [review]
  33. *To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
  34. Grandma Gatewood's Walk:  The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail (Ben Montgomery) [review]
  35. Encyclopedia of Early Earth (Isabel Greenberg)
  36. Blood Royal:  A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris (Eric Jager)
  37. The Consolations of the Forest:  Alone in a Cabin of the Siberian Taiga (Sylvain Tesson; Linda Coverdale, trans.)
  38. *Eating the Dinosaur (Chuck Klosterman)
  39. 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative (Paul Kengor) [review]
  40. An Idea Whose Time Has Come:  Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Todd S. Purdum) [review]
  41. High Crime Area (Joyce Carol Oates) [review]
  42. A Window on Eternity:  A Biologist's Walk Through Gorongosa National Park (E.O. Wilson and Piotr Naskrecki)
  43. 50 Children:  One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany (Steven Pressman)
  44. You Are Not Special:...And Other Encouragements (David McCullough, Jr.)
  45. Six Amendments:  How and Why We Should Change the Constitution (John Paul Stevens) [review]
  46. The Fight for the Four Freedoms:  What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Harvey Kaye) [review]
  47. Beyond Magenta:  Transgender Teens Speak Out (Susan Kuklin) [review]
  48. What It Takes:  The Way to the White House (Richard Ben Cramer)
  49. The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons:  The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery (Sam Kean) [review]
  50. Birdmen:  The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies (Lawrence Goldstone) [review]
  51. The Eternal Nazi:  From Mauthausen to Cairo, the Relentless Pursuit of SS Doctor Aribert Heim (Nicholas Kulish and Souad Mekhennet)
  52. The Oldest Living Things in the World (Rachel Sussman) [review]
  53. The Last Kind Words Saloon (Larry McMurtry) [review]
  54. The Cruelest Miles:  The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic (Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury)
  55. I'm a Stranger Here Myself:  Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away (Bill Bryson)
  56. 63, Dream Palace (James Purdy)
  57. Congratulations, By the Way:  Some Thoughts on Kindness (George Saunders)
  58. Out of Sheer Rage:  Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence (Geoff Dyer)
  59. The Autumn of the Patriarch (Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Gregory Rabassa, trans.)
  60. The Map Thief:  The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps (Michael Blanding)
  61. This is How You Lose Her (Junot Diaz)
  62. Crabwalk (Gunter Grass; Krishna Winston, trans.)
  63. Tenth of December (George Saunders)
  64. *Things You Should Know (A.M. Homes)
  65. Taking on the Trust:  How Ida Tarbell Brought Down John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil (Steve Weinberg) [review]
  66. Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri)
  67. Geek Love (Katherine Dunn)
  68. Carsick:  John Waters Hitchhikes Across America (John Waters) [review]
  69. Galapagos (Kurt Vonnegut)
  70. The Most Dangerous Book:  The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses (Kevin Birmingham) [review]
  71. The Zhivago Affair:  The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book (Peter Finn) [review]
  72. Ecstatic Cahoots:  Fifty Short Stories (Stuart Dybek)
  73. Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness:  Four Short Novels (Kenzaburo Oe)
  74. The Skeleton Crew:  How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America's Coldest Cases (Deborah Halber)
  75. Fierce Patriot:  The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman (Robert L. O'Connell) [review]
  76. *The Commitment:  Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family (Dan Savage)
  77. The Journal of Christopher Columbus (During His First Voyage, 1492-93): And Documents Relating to the Voyages of John Cabot and Gaspar Corte Real (Clements Robert Markham, ed.)
  78. Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies (Alastair Bonnett)
  79. Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection (Deborah Blum)
  80. The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China (David Eimer) [review]
  81. The Northmen: Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503 (Julius Olson and Edward Gaylord Bourne, editors)
  82. Last Stories and Other Stories (William T. Vollmann) [review]
  83. The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl:  How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis (Arthur Allen) [review]
  84. Twelfth Night (William Shakespeare)
  85. Shocked:  Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead (David Casarett) [review]
  86. The Scorpion's Sting:  Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War (James Oakes) [review]
  87. Explaining Hitler:  The Search for the Origins of His Evil, Updated Edition (Ron Rosenbaum)
  88. Gruesome Spectacles:  Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty (Austin Sarat) [review]
  89. The Americans (Robert Frank)
  90. *Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire:  The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 (Rafe Esquith)
  91. *There Are No Shortcuts (Rafe Esquith)
  92. The Outlaw Album: Stories (Daniel Woodrell)
  93. Eleven Years (Jen Davis) [review]
  94. The Explorers:  A Story of Fearless Outcasts, Blundering Geniuses, and Impossible Success (Martin Dugard) [review]
  95. We Were Liars (E. Lockart)
  96. Fun Home:  A Family Tragocomic (Alison Bechdel)
  97. What If?:  Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (Randall Munroe) [review]
  98. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (Haruki Murukami; Philip Gabriel, trans.)
  99. When Paris Went Dark:  The City of Lights Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 (Ronald C. Rosbottom)
  100. Dr. Mutter's Marvels:  A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine (Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz) [review]
  101. The Young Man and the Sea (Rodman Philbrick)
  102. Through the Woods (Emily Carroll)
  103. Thoreau at Walden (Henry David Thoreau; John Porcellino, editor and illustrator)
  104. The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell) [review]
  105. How We Got to Now:  The History and Power of Great Ideas (Steve Johnson)
  106. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes:  And Other Lessons from the Crematory (Caitlin Doughty)
  107. Leaving the Bench:  Supreme Court Justices at the End (David N. Atkinson)
  108. Belzhar (Meg Wolitzer)
  109. Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer)
  110. Beautiful Darkness (Fabien Vehlmann; Kerascoett, illus.) [review]
  111. Snowpiercer, Volume 1:  The Escape (Jacques Lob; Jean-Marc Rochette, illus.; Virginie Selavy, trans.)
  112. A Chance Meeting:  Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967 (Rachel Cohen)
  113. Chasing the Falconers (Gordon Korman)
  114. The American Vice Presidency:  From Irrelevance to Power (Jules Witcover) [review]
  115. Shoah:  An Oral History of the Holocaust (Claude Lanzmann)
  116. The Sixth Extinction:  An Unnatural History (Elizabeth Kolbert)
  117. The Best American Infographics 2014 (Gareth Cook, ed.)
  118. America 1844:  Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation (John Bricknell)
  119. The Resistance:  the French Fight Against the Nazis (Matthew Cobb)
  120. Unreasonable Men:  Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics (Michael Wolraich) [review]
  121. Dance of the Reptiles:  Rampaging Tourists, Marauding Pythons, Larcenous Legislators, Crazed Celebrities, and Tar-Balled Beaches:  Selected Columns (Carl Hiaasen; ebook)
  122. Hiroshima Nagasaki:  The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermaths (Paul Ham) [review]
  123. After Lincoln:  How the North Won the Civil War and Lost the Peace (A.J. Langguth) [review]
  124. The City of Ember: the Graphic Novel (Jeanne DuPrau; Dallas Middaugh and Niklas Asker, illus.)
  125. True Grit (Charles Portis)
  126. Among the Hidden (Margaret Peterson Haddix)
  127. Resistance:  France 1940-1945 (Blake Ehrlich)
  128. Hand to Mouth:  Living in Bootstrap America (Linda Tirado) [review]
  129. The Strange Library (Haruki Murakami)
  130. Eleven Days in August:  The Liberation of Paris in 1944 (Matthew Cobb)
  131. Dogfight at the Pentagon:  Sergeant Dogs, Grumpy Cats, Wallflower Wingmen, and Other Lunacy from the Wall Street Journal's A-Hed Column (The Wall Street Journal)
  132. Leni:  The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl (Steven Bach)

*A re-reading.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Empathy ("Hand to Mouth" by Linda Tirado)

Over the last two years, there has been a steady but not entirely unprecedented rise in public attacks on Americans who are poor, unemployed, and underprivileged. This is in part due to the 2012 presidential election, in which supporters of Mitt Romney were forced to defend his opinions on the "47% of Americans" who receive government assistance--those on Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, and so on, all of whom Romney's supporters derided as "takers"--but was in retrospect little more than another example of conservative politicians deriding those who they saw as lazy, selfish, and transitively inferior. In fact, ever since Lyndon Johnson proposed and signed legislation intended to foster a Great Society, there has been an undercurrent of resentment where the poor and impoverished are concerned, especially when it comes to government programs. This resentment is often underscored by offensive stereotypes, scapegoating, and a belief that those who aren't on these programs are ethically and morally superior to those who are.* Unfortunately, those who advance these beliefs have the power and influence to diminish such important programs, and they advocate for such changes with abandon.

In writing Hand to Mouth, which builds off a Gawker post published last year, Linda Tirado is attempting to give voice to those who are so frequently maligned, including herself and her family. Much of her book is an explanation of just what those who are poor or live in poverty have to endure on a daily basis as they struggle to work part-time and at-will jobs, both of which are loosely overseen by the federal government, while also dealing with addiction, sending children to school, negligent landlords and abusive bosses, and paying bills on time. In doing she, she explains how the system is structured to work against those who work so hard to make so little:  the inefficiency of raising the minimum wage, the difficulties of moving from one job to another, the winless choices inherent in insurance policies, and so on. In outlining this for unfamiliar readers, she also demonstrates why neither political party is in any way equipped to correct these issues--meaning, unfortunately, that they will continue into the distant future.

She also uses her own life as a way to explain some of the stereotypes associated with those who are poor or impoverished. For instance, after a horrible car accident, Tirado was left with missing and damaged teeth, which made her instantly less employable. In order to fix her dental problems, she would've needed strong insurance--which she did not have--and the ability to pay for an upgrade in dentures years later, which she also did not have. Over time, as her original pair of dentures broke apart, eating became painful, which affected not only her health but also her ability to communicate with friends, family, and even customers. At the same time, in order to stay awake and on her feet through two or three part-time shifts, she took to smoking--a cheap way to get an instant hit of dopamine--which did little to help her overall health and probably scarred her already stained teeth even more. But, as she points out, when a paycheck is on the line, suddenly the Surgeon General's warning on the side of a cigarette pack becomes less of a deterrent.

The reason a book like Tirado's is so important is because, throughout much of the country--at least among the 250 million or so Americans who are not poor or living in poverty--there is a lack of understanding about just what being impoverished means. We talk of the United States as the Land of Opportunity, and yet we've created a system in which that opportunity is becoming less and less available to more and more people. And while some national figures attempt to build grassroots progressive movements to address the growing disparity between rich and poor--movements that, they hope, will also carry them into higher office--there is very little that can be truly done at this place in time, and it's for one simple reason:  a lack of empathy.

When we speak about the plight of those who are struggling, unemployed, or living below the poverty line, we talk in such a way as to convey our sympathy for their struggles--how we understand what they're going through and how unfortunate it is that there isn't more we can do. This is an easy way for those who aren't poor to avoid the discomforts that come with realizing they are part of the problem. This is the unspoken issue with "being sympathetic"--it is a way for those who aren't suffering to make themselves feel better without actually helping those who are suffering. Instead of proffering meaningless sympathies and advocating for self-serving political movements, we need to become a more empathetic society--a society that strives to legitimize the feelings and experiences of others over our own by recognizing their struggles and actually working towards a goal of some kind. Even Tirado admits that it wouldn't take much on our part to correct some of these injustices, but we can't do that until we admit that those who are poor, living in poverty, unemployed, or underprivileged live in a completely different society than we do, not because they've chosen to or are too lazy to find their way out, but because we've allowed our system to become an inhumane machine that chews up those who work so hard to keep it functioning.

*This attitude is typified by recent legislation meant to force those on welfare to undergo random drug screenings, even though men and women on welfare are statistically less likely to take illegal drugs than those who are not on welfare.

After ("Hiroshima Nagasaki" by Paul Ham)

Determining the thesis of Paul Ham's Hiroshima Nagasaki can be accomplished with ease by simply looking at the table of contents--specifically, chapter six, which is entitled "Japan Defeated." This would seem to imply an end to Ham's investigation of the titular events; after all, the surrender of Japan is what history tells us was the ultimate goal--and accomplishment--of the atomic bombings of Japan. And yet, beginning as it does on page 166, chapter six does not even mark the halfway point:  when the chapter ends, there are still 300 pages remaining, almost all of them devastating in their critique of not only the American government but the Japanese one, as well. The story of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Ham believes, is not at all what we think it is.

For the longest time, we have told ourselves--in anecdotes, on television programs, in textbooks--that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified, that Hirohito's empire was so thoroughly invested in complete victory that it was willing to fight until the last man, woman, and child had shed their blood. Defeat, we have been repeatedly told, was not part of the Japanese vocabulary, and to force their hands, we had to demonstrate the utter destructive abilities of our own military--a clear and unequivocal sign that Japan would not survive if it continued to resist surrender. Part of the reason this story has survived as long as it has is because of our national hubris--a belief that, because of our victory and the speed with which we developed such destructive weapons, we were the deciding factor--and part of the reason is because we, as victors, were in the position to write the history ourselves. (As the saying goes, history isn't written by the losers.) But the overriding reason is that, for decades after the actual bombings, most of the pertinent information related to the decision and its aftermath was classified or unpublished by the U.S. government, including communications between members of the Japanese government that was intercepted and decoded by the MAGIC program.

Even today, those intercepted communications--which should be readily available on websites and in government publications--can only be accessed in bits and pieces across the internet, if at all. (The diplomatic cables between members of the Japanese government, which Ham uses to great effect throughout much of his book, are available in full only on 15 reels of microfilm that exist in a handful of college libraries across the country.) The reasons for this odd hesitancy to publicize more about our own history has never been explained, though theories might abound. What matters, however, is that the lack of awareness over what these documents reveal distorts our own understanding of history--our knowledge of what was done in our names and with our tacit permission, if not our unchallenged approval--and keeps us from making sure the tragedies of the past don't become tragedies of the future.

For example, the belief that Japan's government was unified behind its last-man-standing mentality is easily disproven by the MAGIC intercepts, in which many of the top men in Hirohito's government pushed vociferously for their country's surrender to the Allies, only to be refuted by more ardent and nationalistic colleagues. Perhaps the most vocal of these figures is Naotake Sato, a diplomat whose awareness of the situation transformed him into one of the few honest men in all of Japan's government, and he spoke his mind with careless abandon--a decision that could easily have cost him both his position and his life. The bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki play a minimal role in the back-and-forth between those voices advocating for continued hostilities against the Allied forces and those demanding a quick but honorable surrender; in fact, when notified of the bombing of Nagasaki during an hours-long meeting meant to plan out the terms of their surrender, the top Japanese officials are recorded as demonstrating little reaction or concern, a fact that our own country has steadfastly refused to acknowledge.*

The main reason the Japanese government was unmoved by the dropping of not one but two atomic bombs on their own people is that their empire was already suffering immensely at the hands of the Allies. Their country was prevented from importing any food or necessary supplies by an Allied navy blockade, and their closest neighbors--China, the Soviet Union--were also against them, removing any chance for humanitarian aid. Towards the end of the war, they hoped the latter of these nations, under the leadership of Josef Stalin, would at least serve as the arbitrator in negotiations with the Allied Powers; when the Soviet Union instead declared war on them, it marked the disappearance of the last possible hope of the Japanese government and its people. Millions were starving and homeless due to Allied air-raids and fire-bombings, and hundreds of thousands were dead; had the Allies simply kept the blockade intact and continued pushing towards the Japanese mainland, it's safe to assume--and General Eisenhower himself agreed after the war--that Japan would have been forced to declare surrender before the year's end anyway.

Likewise, the American government's decision to drop both bombs is called into question by Ham's research. Much like Japan, the American government experienced its own tumultuous split over how. when, and where to use the atomic bombs. Truman seemed determined to utilize the weapon as soon as possible, refusing to proffer a warning to the Japanese government about what would happen to their cities. (There were some in the government who said a warning would persuade the Japanese to surrender before the bomb was even used, an idea that is difficult to prove.) And, much like Japan, there were those who attempted to secure a peaceful resolution, or at least a resolution that did not involve the use of cataclysmic weapons. Included among these voices was Joseph Grew, the former ambassador to Japan who understood, after a decade of firsthand experience, that demanding Japan give up its emperor as part of an "unconditional surrender" would force the country to continue hostilities, even when all hope seemed lost. Grew, who had been interned by the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, was soundly ignored.

In the end, Ham argues that it wasn't the atomic bombs that forced Japan to finally surrender, nor was it the naval blockade--which, he argues, had a much greater effect on the Japanese government's decision than the actual bombs--but the Soviet Union's refusal to act as an intermediate and its subsequent declaration of war against Japan. Only then, according to the correspondences of those in power, did the government of Japan finally give in to what the rest of the world had seen as inevitable for some time. What followed was an ocean surrender and, as Ham writes, an occupation by the Allies that was shameful, with the American government steadfastly denying the true legacy of the atomic bombs:  radiation poisoning, illness, and death, all spread across generations. Journalists who gained access to Hiroshima and Nagasaki wrote about and photographed the aftermath; much of this evidence was soon confiscated or censored by the American military. Not until John Hersey's Hiroshima, published in 1946, did the American public come to understand the true extent of the devastation.

And yet history continued to tell us that, had it not been for these two bombs, the war would have become even bloodier, lasted even longer, cost even more American lives. The atomic bombs, we are told, actually helped save lives and end the war. This postulation isn't entirely false--an invasion of the Japanese mainland would have certainly resulted in the deaths of Allied soldiers, as the mainland forces were surprisingly strong--but to offer those options as the only two we could have taken demonstrates a remarkable unwillingness to reexamine ourselves and our own war-time decisions, especially today. Yes, we didn't know then what we know now, so past generations should not be denounced with retrospective guilt--they were simply embracing what they were told by the very same government that had led them through the largest war in world history, and against some of the most vile dictators we would ever experience, including an empire that attacked us on our own soil. But to look back with so many previously classified and unpublished documents now available--albeit limitedly--for our consumption, and retain the same theory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is ignorant, if not downright dangerous. It allows us to see cataclysmic weapons as a viable--and paradoxically lifesaving--solution, one that values the civilian lives of one nation over the civilian lives of another, without understanding all of the implications and nuances inherent in such a momentous decision.

Yes, the people of Japan held onto their emperor, even as their emperor ignored them, and they had been brainwashed--or threatened--into believing their crusade against the Allied Powers was a noble one. But to use this as an excuse to dismiss hundreds of thousands of lives as justifiably expendable, simply because they were civilians under the other side's government, sets a dangerous precedent where foreign policy and war is concerned. By waving aside these numbers and statistics, and by ignoring the photographs of sick and deformed Japanese civilians--men, women, and children who were guilty of nothing more than being born in a country that warred against our own--we are casting ourselves as something less than the scions of liberty and freedom we so vocally aspire to be.

People will debate the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for decades to come, and there will never be a consensus over the efficacy--or even necessity--of Fat Man and Little Boy. Even Ham, for all the positive aspects of his book, leaves much to be desired in terms of writing a comprehensive and accurate history. But there can never be one, at least not yet:  we exist beyond a time and place where one could be written, and our minds are too frequently clouded by ideology, propaganda, and patriotism to see what needs to be seen. Instead, we need to take the bombing of Japan for what it can still teach us, and that requires having all the information available to us, without restrictions or concessions. Unfortunately, as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki grow ever more distant, and those who continue to push a simplistic, winner-take-all history fade into that very same timeline, we will see its legacy spread tendrils and grow. The truly sad part is that, without more books like this one, regardless of its successes or failures, we won't even realize that it is happening until the cycle repeats itself and we're back where we started, having learned nothing.

*There are those who point to Hirohito's 1945 radio broadcast, in which he stated that "the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives," as proof of the opposite. But what a government tells itself and what a government tells its people are often completely different.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Shame ("After Lincoln" by A.J. Langguth)

Of the 20 chapters in A.J. Langguth's After Lincoln, a history of the United States' failed attempts at reunification and peace following the Civil War, nineteen of them are concerned with the events of just over two decades:  1865-1887. These eventful twenty-two years saw the assassination of Abraham Lincoln--the moment that serves as this book's opening scene and, by intimation, the catalyst for what comes later--the elevation of Andrew Johnson to the presidency, the elections of Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes, as well as the first black politicians in the nation's history, insurrection in every Southern state, the disenfranchisement of black voters, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, revolts, mobs, and the widespread murder of former slaves, their supporters and defenders, and their descendants. In the process, Langguth also offers us a wealth of backstories and foreshadowings that break through the timeline's constraints, but overall this is the story of a generation in which the opportunity to correct centuries of oppression and genocide was squandered in a single generation, thereby enshrining such horrors for centuries to come.

Only by the twentieth chapter--the final chapter--does Langguth take everything he's presented and connect it to our modern world...or at least as close to our modern world as he feels necessary. In this case, that means ending his history of Reconstruction with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a monumental piece of legislation that Langguth seems to imply marks the end of the tortured history of America's shameful, post-war racial history. Which is the problem with After Lincoln, the fourth and final volume in the author's series. Langguth, who himself covered the Civil Rights Movement as a reporter, seems to bestow the Civil Rights Bill with the qualities that Lyndon Johnson himself emphasized in advocating for its passage:  "Let us close the spring of racial poison," Johnson said and Langguth quotes, continuing, "Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts. Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our nation whole." These words were and continue to remain noble words, unquestionably, and Johnson pushed these ideals and their enforcement more than any other president since Lincoln, even though his own history on issues related to civil rights were often questionable.*

And yet, exactly fifty years later, we know with certainty that our nation did not come together and become one again. In many respects, we remain a country divided--millions of people standing on separate shores looking for unity in the opposing reflections but finding strangers. It's easy to point to events from this year and claim that we have not come as far as we should have or thought we had--since 1865, 1887, 1964--a claim that is hard to quantify, no matter who you are. It's also easy to see the events from this year and say, with misplaced confidence, that at least it's not as bad as it once was:  no more lynchings, no more laws against interracial marriage, no violent protests over the integration of schools. However, by making these statements, we are looking to excuse ourselves from responsibility. According to the former, we are only aware of our lack of progress when tragic events force us to reexamine how we treat one another and approach issues of race; unarmed black men and children are shot and killed, protests erupt, and only then are we able to assess the level of progress we've made. On any other day, when the news is not dominated by similar stories, we can dismiss our responsibility as people and citizens to consider such possibilities. The latter implies that any sort of progress, regardless of its breadth or depth, excuses whatever problems remain to be solved. But lesser violence is still violence, and lesser hatred is still hatred. We see what crimes are no longer committed rather than which crimes remain, and we refuse to believe that what we've consigned to the dust-bins of history have any relation to what occurs in the broad sunlight of our own backyards, even when it's clear that one is our inheritance from the other.

In reading a book like After Lincoln, it's easy to choose a particular person or group of people and lay the blame for our current problems at their footsteps. Andrew Johnson is perhaps the best example of this inclination. He was an undeniable racist and an unabashed drunkard who based much of his decisions on satisfying his own sense of inferiority and need for acceptance and validation, and his decisions undoubtedly allowed for much of the atrocities that followed. But in focusing on Johnson--or Ulysses Grant, or John Wilkes Booth, or Gideon Welles--we absolve the millions of people who came before us, experienced racism and racial violence--as perpetrators, apologists, bystanders, armchair advocates, what have you--and did nothing to fight back. In fact, Langguth's book is full of those who can be seen as accomplices to the crimes and missteps of Reconstruction, but there are comparatively few men and women--Amos Akerman and Benjamin Bristow at the federal level, thousands of unnamed women who taught in black schools at the local level--who we can look to as genuine heroes. Unfortunately, in the history of the United States after the Civil War, it's the perpetrators who dominate its pages, as their fingerprints are all over the problems we face today, alongside the fingerprints of previous generations whose poisoned ideologies remain with us, haunting us in different forms but with the same goal. And regardless of the form, the severity, the excuse, hatred is hatred, and its history is far from over. Its final volume has yet to be written.

*A.J. Langguth passed away on September 1 of this year, just over two weeks before After Lincoln was published, and in his "Acknowledgements" he mentions being in hospital and then restricted to home. It's possible--and I'd like to believe this--that this final book of Langguth's was rushed, and that, had there been more time, he would have written a stronger closing chapter.