Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Atlanta’s most unexpected Civil War memorial and a farewell to Reconstruction

Monument to Union General James B. McPherson in East Atlanta
Without a doubt, the “Death of McPherson” monument in East Atlanta has to be the most unexpected Civil War memorial to be found in the entire city.

First, it's not located in a large public space or on a notable battlefield, although, truth be told, all of Atlanta was a battlefield when Sherman's Union forces encountered the city's Confederate defenders in the summer of 1864.

Instead, the monument occupies a small enclosure at the intersection of McPherson Monument Avenues, nestled in an unassuming neighborhood shorn decades ago from the rest of the city on its northern side by the unforgiving concrete knife of Interstate 20.

What is also surprising is that, unlike the myriad of other plaques and statues which commemorate famous battles or once-revered Confederate leaders in this region, this one memorializes the death of James B. McPherson, a Union general who was killed only a few blocks from the site while attempting to escape capture by rebel "skirmishers."

McPherson was the second highest ranking Union officer to die in combat in the Civil War. His young age at the time of his death, 35 years, is a reminder that wars fought at the level of ferocity of the American Civil War quickly become pitiless, but efficient, meritocracies.

But how is it that a Yankee general came to have a monument erected in his memory so deep in the heart of Dixie?

It is utterly inconceivable that a memorial like this one would have been undertaken by the citizens of Atlanta at any point in time during the hundred years or so following the conflict which some Southerns called the War of Northern Aggression.

It turns out that the authors of “Death of McPherson” were none other than U.S. Army engineers. They erected the monument in 1877, shortly before all Federal troops were withdrawn from the South as part of the deal struck by the incoming Rutherford B. Hayes administration to bring an end to the fraught period in this country's history known as Reconstruction.

Although little discussed today, Reconstruction was a failed attempt to bring about genuine political transformation in the vanquished states of the Confederacy. Equal protection under the law and universal enfranchisement (of men), promises of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, went unfulfilled. And that “special institution,” slavery, abolished in name by the Thirteenth, was soon exchanged for the apartheid regime that came to be known as Jim Crow.

A dozen years after the end of hostilities, little about the political facts on the ground had changed. As late as the the election of 1876, hundreds of black men were being massacred while trying to exercise their right to vote as members of the Republican Party. It is a sad irony of history that it is this same Party of Lincoln now pursues the suppression of the African-American vote in the states of the former Confederacy with the imposition of unjustifiable voter identification laws.

So, in a premonition of the futility of military occupations to come, the U.S. government gave up on its plans for “regime change” in the South. Instead, in order to extricate itself from an open-ended, bloody mess, the Hayes administration declared Reconstruction over based upon the scant facts that slavery had been eliminated and the Union restored.

But what also makes the monument to McPherson unexpected is its design: a bare cannon barrel elevated skyward, with its short trunnions projecting to either side suggesting, perhaps, a meager cross, but a very meager one, if that. That it is a brazenly phallic goes without saying.

Maybe there is some subtle war memorial iconography at work here, but I doubt it. With the dispiriting circumstances of Reconstruction in mind, it's hard not to imagine “Death of McPherson” wasn't intended to be a defiant farewell by departing officers of the U.S. Army to Atlanta and the South, a profane gesture marking the end of a hopeful project to transform the world that ended only in more spilled blood and profound disillusionment.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

A modest proposal for the future of the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial Carving

I think I’ve come up with a compromise that may put an end to the controversy that surrounds the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial Carving.

For those unfamiliar with the situation, the Memorial Carving, the largest bas-relief sculpture in the world, adorns the broad side of Stone Mountain, a granite-like monadnock located on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia. It depicts three heroes of the Confederacy, its president, Jefferson Davis, and two of its most celebrated generals, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

The idea for such a sculpture was hatched by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1912 when Stone Mountain was pretty much a private reserve of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. It was cross-burning central.

After several attempts to get the project off the ground, the effort was abandoned in 1928. It would have remained little more than a partially completed sculpture of Lee’s head, had it not been for the Georgia General Assembly’s decision in 1960 to revive the endeavor.

I’m not quite sure how much this was an act of segregationist defiance by a yet another southern state reluctant to give up on Jim Crow or how much it was a bizarre tourist industry vision to transform the mountain and the surrounding area into an ante-bellum theme park. The line between out-and-out racism and gross racial insensitivity is a thin one sometimes.

In any event, a dedication ceremony for the Confederate Memorial Carving was held in May of 1970, which makes the monument a relatively recent addition to our cultural heritage, if you can call it that.

Not surprisingly, in the wake of the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church massacre in Charleston last month, there have been calls, most notably by the NAACP, to have the carving removed from the side of the mountain.

Opposition to expunging the sculpture have been widespread, too. Some of it, no doubt, emanates from racist quarters or a misguided pride in the cause of the Confederacy that turns a blind eye to the fact that it was, at its core, a struggle to preserve the “special” institution of slavery.

Some of the opposition, though, has to do with not wanting to endorse a program of historical revision that comes across a lot of like the feeding of the “memory hole” described by George Orwell in his novel 1984. I can grok that.

But when it comes to a compromise for the Confederate Memorial Carving, it is memory itself that may come to the rescue.

It is a little remembered fact that Jefferson Davis decided to “hastily put on one of his wife’s dresses” in order to try to escape capture by Union forces in May of 1865. That he was still dressed this way when he was taken into custody was the source of an abundant amount of public ridicule at the time.

So, I say, instead of jettisoning Jeff from the side of Stone Mountain, dress him up in a nice period bonnet. This could be done with an installation using a frame anchored (non-destructively) in the sculpture itself, decked out with durable, brightly colored fabric.

It would serve as a visible reminder that, while these three men were heroes of the Confederacy, they were not victorious ones.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The movie "Self/less" or "Oblivion Can Wait"

This essay on the movie Self/less contains spoilers.

As the movie Self/less opens, we meet Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley), a master of the business universe, if there ever was one. Damian takes no time in demonstrating that he is not about to be fooled or out maneuvered. Losing is not an option for him.

But we soon learn that it looks like this never-say-die competitor, may have finally met his match. Death is knocking on Damian’s door, and it isn’t inclined to take “no” for an answer. Might there be a way for Damian to use his smarts and enormous wealth to win again this time around?

It turns out that, thanks to an entrepreneur-inventor named Albright (Matthew Goode), “life’s a bitch and then you die,” is a restriction that now applies only to the undeserving 99.99%. Albright has developed a technology that allows extraordinarily rich guys like Damian to “shed” their old, faltering bodies and have their consciousnesses transferred into young, robust ones.

After a bit of reflection and a ham-handed attempt to make amends with his estranged daughter, Damian decides to pay his money and take his chances. When Albright’s spinning MRI scanners come to a stop, Damian’s consciousness winds up inside the body of someone who looks a lot like Ryan Reynolds (Ryan Reynolds). Damian, it would appear, has hit the lab-grown body jackpot.

At first the consciousness transfer seems to have come off without a hitch. There is a lengthy montage, reminiscent of a Rocky movie, that shows post-transfer Damian training hard to master the challenges that come with controlling his exquisite, new body. But, fighter that he is, Damian is more than up to the rehabilitation tasks. Vivid flashbacks, though, intrude on Damian’s experience and remind us that all is not right in his brave, new Reynoldsian world.

Sadly, the procedure has not gone well at all when it comes to acting. It ends up feeling like someone forgot to hook up the “personality” cable that connected Damian’s old body with his new one for the consciousness transfer.

The old Damian may have been a crusty old son of a bitch, but in the short period of time that he has on screen, Kingsley somehow lets us know that he is also a complex man who has known ample amounts of both pride and regret during the course of his life.

As portrayed by Reynolds, the young Damian never seems to emerge fully from the confused state of mind that immediately follows the consciousness transfer. Sure, over the course of the movie he winds up showing that he is still a smart adversary and a relentless competitor, but none of the texture of the character handed off to him by Kingsley survives.

The film itself has been promoted as a thought-provoking science fiction thriller that allows us to contemplate the possibility that technology may soon provide a way for us to live forever, while forcing us to consider the moral price that we might pay in doing so. Yet, as with most science fiction, the new-fangled science is only incidental to the retelling of an older, venerated story.

In this case of Self/less, this storyline is a deal with the devil. Here Damian takes on the role of an essentially noble but arrogant Faust and Albright his obsequious and beguiling Mephistopheles. The movie reminds us yet again that striking a bargain to sell one’s soul is never without unanticipated consequences.

It’s also interesting to consider is how Self/less borrows from other genres.

As it turns out, Damian’s consciousness has not just landed in a buff, young body, but it’s the buff, young body of an superbly trained U.S. Army Special Forces soldier. Although the soldier’s still resident conscious awareness is suppressed by medication, his killing instincts kick in reflexively whenever they are needed, and they are needed a lot in the movie.

In this regard the film feels a little like a variation of the action-thriller The Bourne Identity — may be it could be called The Reborn Identity? — in which the hero, a superbly trained C.I.A. killing machine, has lost all conscious memory of his former life as a spy, but is able to draw reflexively on his martial arts skills and detailed knowledge of spycraft to save the day, in spite of his otherwise complete amnesia.

But at its heart, Self/less harkens back to the genre of “second-chance” stories, such as It’s a Wonderful Life, in which death is held at bay, at least briefly, so that the protagonist can return to the world to set things right.

A classic example of this genre is Warren Beatty’s 1978 Heaven Can Wait. In that movie, Beatty’s nice-guy quarterback hero, Joe Pendleton, is snatched up to heaven before his time, and, as a result, must be parked in the body of a no-good tycoon, Leo Farnsworth, until a more suitable one can be found. This celestial mix-up creates an opportunity for Joe to right some of Leo’s corporate wrongs, fall in love with a beautiful woman played by Julie Christie, and win the Superbowl. Not bad at all as far as second chances go.

Given how religious sensibilities have changed in the last forty years, with Self/less it is oblivion, not heaven, that must wait. And Damian’s unfinished work is not all that glorious: it’s simply to rediscover the importance of family and to repair his relationship with his daughter as best he can from beyond the grave. Undoing the nefarious body-snatching enterprise that Albright has set in motion would complete his redemption.

Young Damian does succeed in his second-chance mission. My biggest regret is that old Damian, as portrayed by Ben Kingsley, was not along for the ride.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Playing the "playing God" card

A few weeks back I made plans to attend the keynote address for the GYRE Symposium on plastic pollution in the ocean that was being held at the Centers for Disease Control. As it turned out, I was running early - not unusual for me - and the conference was running late - not unusual for conferences - so I arrived just in time to catch the end of an earlier presentation.

In some respects it was good timing. The speaker, whose name remains unknown to me, was describing a very successful urban gardening project. His optimism about providing quality nutrition for African-Americans and others living in the inner city who lack ready access to sources fresh fruits and vegetables was inspiring.

What was also inspiring was his way of speaking. His cadences and phrasing were characteristic of those of black preachers from the Baptist pulpit, whose voices were notably raised in support of civil rights and social justice in the middle of the last century. There is little doubt in my mind that when the world looks back on the American contribution to public speaking 500 years from now, Martin Luther King, Jr., along with Abraham Lincoln, will stand at the top of the list of orators this country has produced. King's "I have a Dream" speech surely belongs to the ages.

But there is an element of this rhetorical style which I find problematic. And that is the use of a memorable and amusing quip that reduces a complex issue to a catchphrase.

Johnny Cochran's masterful, "if it doesn't fit, you must acquit," is a good example of how this kind of soundbite can be wielded in the courtroom. He used it to good effect in the defense of his client O.J. Simpson during Simpson's 1995 murder trial. I don't fault the late Mr. Cochran for exploiting this technique; his job as defense attorney was to further the interests of his client, not to lay out to the jury out a thorough analysis of the pros and cons of voting for or against a conviction. But the impact of his words in this context illustrates how an argument in favor a position for a complicated situation can be reduced to a very simple slogan.

A more notorious example arose from the pulpit in the 1990's. It emerged at a time when the battle for gay rights was gaining traction in mainstream America and the movement dared to say the name "civil rights" in describing itself. Much of the African American religious community took this comparison as an insult to their own hard-fought struggle for civil rights. And their response was undisguised disdain. The slogan, "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve," became a mainstay of sermons as a result.

Sadly, instead of addressing the controversy surrounding homosexuality with arguments of substance, these black ministers, backed by scripture, chose to play the "God card." In their minds - and in the minds of many in their congregants - the invocation of this simple catchphrase marked both the begining and end of any discussion gay rights: homosexuality is ungodly; God said it; I believe it; and that settles it.

So it was with some consternation that I listened as the speaker at the GYRE Symposium chose to play the God card, too. During a comment on GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), he paused, lowered his voice, and confided conspiratorially with the audience, "you know what the plant scientists and the soil scientists think GMO stands for? They think it stands for God Move Over."

As the audience laughed and applauded, my dismay only grew. Many people in the auditorium reached for pen and notebook or smartphone or tablet to take down the speaker's exact words so that they could use it later on in their own advocacy. This was apparently a slogan with legs.

Now there are many dimensions to the controversy that surrounds genetically-modified crops, ranging from concerns about food safety to the possibilities of unintended environmental consequences. Some see GMOs as the way agricultural giants like Monsanto will continue to tighten their grip on agricultural markets which they already dominate, much to the disadvantage of both farmers and consumers. Others see GMOs as our best hope for feeding a growing global population, forecast to reach 11 billion people by the end of this century, and to do so while simultaneously reducing the use of pesticides, conserving water, and retaining valuable topsoil.

But whatever one's opposition to genetically-engineered food is, any argument should be rooted in the scientific evidence and commonly-held secular values and not be based on an arbitrary notion of what God would or wouldn't want.

Playing the God card has never helped in resolving any real-world problem. It maligns those with opposing points of view, casting them as blasphemers. (This can be a death sentence in some cultures.) In the case of "God Move Over," plant scientists and soil scientists are derided for having the arrogance to usurp God's authority, to play God, as it were. This may come as a surprise to some of them who no doubt believe they are doing God's work by striving to devise ways for future generations to be able to enjoy good nutrition while minimizing the harm to the environment required by large-scale expansion of agriculture.

We should always look beyond amusing slogans that oversimplify complex problems. Sometimes both God and the Devil reside in the details. It's time to place the God card back into the deck and leave it there where it belongs.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"Two Days, One Night" - Norma Rae in retreat

Imagine you're in the open ocean drowning and the only thing you can do to get your head above water is to grab ahold of the feet of the companions a few feet above you who are kicking as hard as they can to draw a breath of air. They may be able to rescue you if they work together, but it's possible, even if they try, that they will be pulled under. What can you ask of them? What sacrifice are they obligated to make to help save your life?

This scene captures much of Sandra's (Marion Cotillard) situation at the opening of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's film Two Days, One Night. About to return from disability leave from her job at a small solar panel manufacturing plant in Belgium, Sandra learns that the manager of the factory, M. Dumont, has offered her sixteen co-workers a Faustian bargain of sorts: they can vote to allow Sandra to return to work as before, or they can vote to have her laid off and, as a consequence, each reap a €1,000 bonus.

A vote, taken on the Friday before Sandra is scheduled to return, goes 15-1 against her. But she learns from her one faithful supporter, Julliette, that it has been tainted by the meddling of the plant's foreman. Devastated by the bad news and still beaten down by the depression that has led to her absence from work, it is all Sandra can do to do to get out of bed and to go with Juliette to the plant and plead with Dumont for a makeover vote.

Backing his car out of the parking lot, eager to head home for the weekend, M. Dumont relents and agrees to a second vote on Monday. And thus begins Sandra's two days and one night, the time she has to convince her co-workers to vote to give up their bonus pay so that she can keep her job.

The movie then unfolds as series of tense encounters, as Sandra locates each of them to make her case to stay employed. These typically begin with a knock on the door in a working class neighborhood and a puzzled, but polite, welcome by the co-worker himself or a wife or a child. Each of her pleas becomes an affecting drama in its own right. And Cotillard uses these dramatic moments to display her impressive power as an actor.

But what is most remarkable about Two Days is its unelaborated upon backstory. Globalization and its impact on advanced, once worker-oriented economies of Western Europe is the elephant in the room. Sandra's company, faced with stiff competition from a Chinese solar competitor, is fighting for its financial life and is determined to do so on the backs of its employees.

The unsettling premise of the film is that, when faced with obvious manipulation by management designed to extract concessions from employees and sow dissension in their ranks, workers roll over without complaint. No demands are made for sacrifices from M. Dumont, his higher-ups, or, God forbid, the shareholders of the company. Sandra and her co-workers accept these indignities matter of factly and then proceed to fight among themselves over scraps from the master's table.

In another age, Marion Cotillard, certainly more than beautiful enough, would have played a latter-day Marianne, leading the charge of the economically dispossessed to the barricades to turn back corporate greed, or a Belgian Norma Rae, rallying workers to unite in pursuit of their common economic cause. Instead Sandra's struggle, as compelling as it is as portrayed by Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, is directed solely at her inward demons and not at those roaming unchecked in the outside world.