Book Review: Spying on the South by Tony Horwitz


Author: Tony Horwitz
Title: Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide
Narrator: Mark Deakins
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2019)
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

A few months ago when author Tony Horwitz died, I learned that he’d recently released this new book of his unique blend of history, travel, cultural exploration, and literary journalism.  When I saw that his final work was based on following in the footsteps of one of my favorite historical figures, Frederick Law Olmsted, it seemed as if it was targeted at me.

Olmsted is best known for innovating the field of landscape architecture and designing some of America’s most notable city parks and park systems, college campuses, hospital grounds, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition Midway Plaisance, and the grounds of the US Capitol.  Prior to his career in designing parks, Olmsted worked as a journalist, and much like Tony Horwitz, he traveled to places and wrote about his experiences. From 1852 to 1857, he traveled through the American South submitting his dispatches to the New York Times.  In 1861, just before the outbreak of the American Civil War, his writings were compiled in the book Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom, which remains a significant first-hand document of antebellum Southern society.

Olmsted was anti-slavery, a moderate position at the time compared with abolitionists who wanted to immediately free all enslaved people, and in some cases extend the full rights of citizenship to the freed African Americans.  Anti-slavery advocates, which included Abraham Lincoln and other early Republicans, sought to prevent the expansion of slave-holding to new territories and carry out gradual manumission.  Olmsted believed that practice of slavery was inefficient and had a deleterious effect not just on the enslaved people, but on the white society as well.  A goal of his travels was to meet with Southerners, civilly exchange views, and convince them of the error of their ways.  Olmsted would be disappointed, finding Southerners entrenched in their beliefs and uninterested in civil discourse on the matter of slavery.

Tracing Olmsted’s route through the South in 2015-2016, against the background of the contentious presidential election leading to Donald Trump’s victory, Tony Horwitz would also find a deeply divided America.  Some of his encounters with Southerners who supported Trumpist ideology and believed in all manner of conspiracy theory are deeply disturbing.  More disturbing still is that many of these same people treated Horwitz warmly and were happy to speak with him, as long as he hid his own political views.

The travelogue is interesting as Horwitz first journeys down the Ohio River through West Virginia on a ship towing a coal barge, offering insight into a tedious but dangerous job that some “country boys” have found as a source of income in an economically depressed region.  His next river journey is on board a luxurious replica paddle wheeler with stops at historic plantations where the tour guides tend to ignore the enslaved people who made them possible.

In Louisiana, Horwitz is joined by a friend from Australia who is literally nearly killed by the artery-hardening Southern cuisine.  They also enjoy the bizarre Mud Fest, where monster truck drivers come together to drink and drive their modified vehicles through a giant mud bog for a week. Nearby, they visit the site of the Colfax Massacre of 1873, where 150+ black men were murdered by a white militia organized to reverse the reforms of Reconstruction.  To this day an historic marker on the site only recognizes the deaths of three of the white aggressors.   Continuing on his own across Texas, Horwitz tries and fails to debunk a conspiracy theory about a compound of Islamic extremists and participates in the Battle of the Alamo reenactment, oddly set against the background San Antonio’s tourist trap attractions.

Perhaps one of the more interesting parts of the book is the Texas hill country where German immigrants settled before the war, and Olmsted found a community he thought could serve as an example of Free Soilers in the South.  150 years later, the German community persists – albeit in some cheezy ways – and Horwitz describes a part of Texas that doesn’t fit my preconceived notions of the state.  Horwitz travels by mule, a humbling experience, in the west of the Texas.  He concludes his narrative along the border with Mexico where he interacts with both the border patrol and the mixed American and Mexican communities.

In many ways, Spying on the South is a sequel to Horwitz’s best book Confederates in the Attic.  It’s also more somber and unsettling.  20 years ago one could chuckle at Confederate devotees as a dwindling number of hobbyists devoted to living in the past.  Today that same energy has been channeled into a dangerous movement that has reached its political ascendancy.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending September 7


More or Less :: Amazon Forest Fires

Statistics cited regarding the Amazon forest fires are not accurate, but the true story is more alarming.

Hit Parade :: We Are Stardust, We Are Gold-Certified

Counting down the artists and bands that got a boost (and those that didn’t) after their performances at the Woodstock festival.

BackStory :: Labor Day Special: A History of Work and Labor Relations in the U.S.

Overlooked history of women, children, and Mexican-Americans in the American labor pool.

Radiolab / Memory Palace :: Memory Palace

I’ve been listening to podcasts for close to 15 years now, and Memory Palace and Radiolab have been longtime favorites.  This special episode of Radiolab features highlights from classic Memory Palace episodes and a new story about scrub bulls.

Hub History :: Mayor Curley’s Plan to Ban the Klan 

Back in the 1920s, white supremacists hoped to expand their operations into Boston, but faced fierce opposition from Boston mayor James Michael Curley.  If only Boston’s mayor in 2019 was not a coward who appeases white supremacists.

Throughline :: The Litter Myth

The history of the successful campaign in the 1960s and 1970s to shift responsibility for environmental destruction from big corporations to individuals, with the help of a fake Native American.


Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Podcasts of the Week Ending August 31


Hub History :: The Dread Pirate Rachel

The story of the last woman executed in Massachusetts is shrouded in a myth of her being a seductive pirate, but her real story is even more interesting.

Throughline :: Strange Fruit

The true history of Billie Holiday, a Civil Rights anthem, and the origins of the War on Drugs.

 

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Book Review: One Giant Leap by Charles Fishman


Author:Charles Fishman
Title: One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon
Narrator: Fred Sanders
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2019)
Summary/Review:

50 years after the United States first landed people on the moon and returned them safely to Earth, the story of the Apollo program in the popular imagination is compressed.  The general story is that three courageous men flew into space and two walked on the moon and planted a flag. There have been moments in popular culture that offered glimpses into the bigger story – the movie Apollo 13 which showed the nerds at Mission Control as the real heroes rather than the jocks in space, and more recently the book and movie Hidden Figures that brought greater awareness to Black women performing calculations by hand for the early space program.

The goal of One Giant Leap is to broaden the understanding of the Apollo Program, getting a better sense of the tens of thousands of people who worked millions of hours over 11 years to get those two men to the moon (and then repeat if five more times). NASA had people working on the project in all 50 states, a sign of both the scale of the project and the need to divide up government spending to gain wide support.  Fishman also asks the question of whether flying men to the moon was worth the cost and effort, and provides some interesting answers.

Going to the moon was never popular, as it polled poorly throughout the 1960s.  People, now and then, asked whether that money and effort would be better spent solving a problem on Earth. Fishman wisely notes that budgets generally don’t work in a way where funding for Apollo could’ve been easily redirected to, say, ending poverty, but also that a discrete project with an defined end goal is actually easier to pull off than more dynamic problems such as ending poverty, racism, and war, and they need not be mutually exclusive.  Fishman also notes that despite the high cost of the Apollo Program, it did achieve its goal within the stated time, unlike other government programs that do not receive similar criticism. The Vietnam War, which occurred roughly contemporaneously with the Apollo Program, cost six times as much, lead to hundreds of thousands dead, and destroyed much of the country it was supposed to save.

One person surprisingly not that much interested in exploring space was John F. Kennedy.  His famous “we go to the Moon” speech (analysed in depth in this book) came in the context of the embarrassment felt at the USSR beating the US to every key space exploration milestone and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Within in two years, Kennedy was looking to cut NASA funding and set a more leisurely timeline toward landing on the Moon as long as it looked like the Soviets weren’t going to get there first (and perhaps a bit selfishly, since NASA original promise of landing on the Moon by 1967 was pushed back, JFK saw no need to push a big program that wouldn’t even come to fruition until after his potential second term was over).  Kennedy’s assassination ironically saved the Apollo Program as it made a true believer in the space program, Lyndon Johnson, the President, and Kennedy’s “we go to the Moon” speech became an impetus to complete the mission in his honor.

Looking back on Apollo, people wonder what it’s legacy is since no humans have ever returned to the Moon and it did not usher in a Space Age.  Fishman offers that the true legacy of Apollo is not the Space Age, but the Digital Age.  In order to navigate the lunar module to the Moon and then rendezvous with the command module, the Apollo Program needed innovations in interactive computing and integrated circuitry. These advances sped up the development of computers that have revolutionized all aspects of society over the past 50 years.  Apollo also stood as a model of innovative project management. Even the more mundane nature of later space programs like the Space Shuttle and the International Space Program is a sign of the success of Apollo as it has made space exploration routine.

If there’s one critique of the book is that the narrative doesn’t flow as the author jumps around from topic to topic and could’ve spent more time diving into particular issues.  Nevertheless, the topics and anecdotes he shares are interesting, and include:

  • the key role of Bill Tindall, an aerospace engineer with the ability focus in on minute details, and who’s memos – called Tindallgrams – became must-read material within NASA
  • NASA almost forgot to pack a flag on Apollo 11, and a great analysis of the cultural importance of the flag planting ceremony on the Moon
  • how the lunar rover aided greater exploration of the Moon on later missions

Recommended books:

  • A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin
  • Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon by Alan Shepard
  • Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending August 3


On the Media :: Repairing Justice: The Prosecutor

Prosecutors wield enormous power in the criminal justice system, contributing to racial inequality.  Can progressive prosecutors help with criminal justice reform?

Throughline :: Milliken v. Bradley

The effort to end school segregation by way of busing lead to this Supreme Court case decision that still affects our schools and communities to this day.

Throughline :: Huey Long vs. The Media

Louisiana’s most famous politician was loved and hated in equal measure. A populist who favored social programs, he also ruled in a dictatorial manner and carried out a long war against the free press.  Long seems to be an odd combination of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and a fascinating figure in American history.

Tiny Desk Concert :: Lizzo

An electrifying performance at a tiny-ass desk by the great Lizzo.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: 808

The story of the drum machine that changed popular music.

 

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Podcasts of the Week Ending July 27


BackStory :: Moon, Man, and Myths

The History Guys commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing with an interview with flight director Gene Kranz, among other things.

Code Switch :: Chicago’s Red Summer

Another anniversary, of a grim sort, of the race riots 100 years ago in Chicago and other American cities that targeted African American soldiers returning from the World War among others.

Fresh Air :: 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing

This podcast includes interviews with astronauts Michael Collins and Alan Shepherd as well as test pilot Chuck Yeager.

Hub History  :: The Cessna Strafer

A bizarre incident in 1989 when a man who’d just murdered his wife took to the air in a small airplane and fired an assault rifle at people on the ground in Boston.  This seems like a very serious crime, and yet I only learned about it a few years ago, even though I was alive and living in an adjacent state at the time.

99% Invisible :: Invisible Women

An interview with Caroline Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, on how women are ignored in the design of just about everything, and the dangerous effects of this bias.

On the Media :: What, Me Worry?

Mad Magazine, the satire magazine enjoyed by decades of children going back to the 1950s, is going out of print.  Journalist Jeet Heer talks about the magazines importance and influence.

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Book Review: The Gay Revolution by Lillian Faderman


Author: Lillian Faderman
Title: The Gay Revolution: The Story Of The Struggle
Narrator: Donna Postel
Publication Info: Tantor Media, Inc, 2015
Summary/Review:

This book provides a historical overview of the gay rights movement in the United States from the post-World War II era to the present.  This sprawling account covers numerous groups, individuals, movements, protests, and legal cases that changed the status for LGBTQ people.  If one thing is clear, there is no one “great person” who lead the struggle, but it was a multi-generational effort of groups of people who stood up for equality.

The book starts in the 1950s when gays & lesbians were not only in danger of arrests, beatings, robbery, and sexual assault at the hands of the local police “Morals Squad,” but a “Lavender Scare” saw the exposure and firing of numerous gay & lesbian people working for the US government.  This occurred at the same time as the more famous “Red Scare,” but may have had an even more widespread and devastating effect.  In 1950, the Mattachine Society organized in Los Angeles as the first activist group to advocate for the rights of gay American citizens, with chapters in other cities established soon afterward.  The Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian civil rights group, was founded in San Francisco in 1956.  Early activism focused on court cases to defend gay people from losing employment, with some success.

The Stonewall Uprising of 1969 was a turning point, where the patrons of the Greenwich Village gay bar – inspired by the Civil Rights and anti-war movements – decided to stand their ground against a police raid.  The multi-day riots kicked off a decade of mass movement protests and pride parades.  The 1970s also saw gay activists take on the American Psychiatric Association to stop having homosexuality classified as a mental disorder.  Communities began to include gays and lesbians in their antidiscrimination codes, which prompted a backlash from conservative Christians.  Most famously, entertainer Anita Bryant lead an anti-gay movement in Florida.  Faderman credits Bryant as an accidental advocate for gay civil rights by bringing attention to their discrimination.

The 1980s is defined by the AIDS crisis and the deaths that devastated a generation of gay people. Faderman notes that AIDS had the effect of strengthening gay rights activism, with the shadow of death making previous infighting seem irrelevant, and prompting people to be greater radicalism. ACT UP, founded in New York in 1987, staged direct action events at government buildings, the New York Stock Exchanged, and churches to bring attention to the lack of action to treat people with AIDS and seek a cure.  (Oddly enough, I had a run in with an angry conservative woman in the early 90s who said that gay men spit out communion at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which I’d always thought to be bigoted hyperbole, but it turns out it actually happened, although it makes more sense in the context of the protest).

I found the final chapters of the book that cover the 1990s and 2000s less interesting than the rest of the book, perhaps because it covered events that I remember living through.  The focus here shifts from activist people and groups, to government action and becomes more a litany of court cases and presidential campaigns that affected gay civil rights, than the work of the people behind it.  Still, this book is overall a good resource to get the big picture of struggle for LGBTQ equality.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: When They See Us (2019)


Title: When They See Us
Release Date: May 31, 2019
Director: Ava DuVernay
Production Company: Harpo Films | Tribeca Productions | ARRAY | Participant Media
Summary/Review:

This Netflix miniseries dramatizes the stories of five teenage boys from Harlem who were accused and convicted of brutally raping a woman jogging through Central Park, but would be exonerated for the crime over a decade later.  The film covers the same as the Ken Burns’ documentary Central Park Five but with a greater emphasis on the emotional impact on the boys and their families.  When they see is directed by Ava DuVernay, who is also responsible for the biopic Selma, the documentary 13th, and fantasy/adventure A Wrinkle in Time (which is quite a varied portfolio).  While the four parts tell a complete story, each part also works as a stand-alone film.

The first part focuses on the night of the incident.  The media portrayed them as part of a “wolf pack” of “superpredators” who went out “wilding,” commiting crimes for fun. The truth is that the 5 boys and others were caught up in spontaneous gathering of about 30 teenagers who mostly didn’t know one another and went to Central Park to horse around.  And yes, some of them did participate in assault, robbery, and vandalism, but by and large that was a small portion of the larger group.  Oddly, one of the most beautiful scenes in this movie is an overhead shot of the boys running into the park.  The five – Raymond, Kevin, Korey, Yusef, and Antron – were among those rounded up by the police. When the unconcious jogger is found, the police held them overnight without food or sleep, interogate them without parents present, and coerce them to confess to a crime they knew nothing about. The NYC District Attorney Sex Crimes Unit leader Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) works up a narrative from the skimpy evidence to place the boys at the scene of the crime.

The second part focuses on the trial.  The film only dramatizes one of the two trials.  We see the boys support one another as they resolutely refuse a plea bargain or anything but their full innocence.  There’s support among the families too, but also a lot of tension as what course of action to take and distrust of the other families’ children. Archival footage of Donald Trump condeming the Five is shown with a mother commenting that his fifteen minutes are almost up, perhaps too big of a wink for this movie.  Their lawyers are not up to snuff to take on the city’s prosecuter Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga) despite the only evidence being coerced confessions that contradict one another. The five are all found guilty.

Part three focuses on the four younger members of the group – Antron, Raymond, Yusef, and Kevin – each of whom serve around 6-7 years in juvenile detention.  The film shows their transition from boys to adults through phone calls and visits with their families.  Then each is released and tries to return to their lives.  There are tensions with family members as they adjust to changes that happened during their imprisonment.  Worse, the law regarding what convicted felons and sex offenders can do leaves them very little opportunity to find work and housing, and require frequent check-ins.  One of them turns to crime to make ends meet and ends up back in prison.

The younger four are played by different actors as a child and as an adult – Kevin Richardson (Asante Black and Justin Cunningham), Antron McCray (Caleel Harris and Jovan Adepo), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse and Chris Chalk), and Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez and Freddy Miyares).  They all put in an excellent performance portraying their characters, but the major star of the miniseries is Jharrel Jerome who plays Korey Wise both as a teenager and an adult.  Wise was 16 at the time of the case and thus tried as an adult.  He was sent to prisons where the other prisoners and guards targeted him for severe abuse.  Wise requested transfers to other prisons farther from NYC and spent lots of time in solitary for his own safety.  In one prison, there’s even a white guard who is sympathetic to wise and treats him humanely.  Many of the most intense scenes of the film focus on Wise enduring long periods of time in solitude and having memories and daydreams. Flashbacks show his close relationship with his transgender older sister until their mother throws her out of the house.  One of the most beautiful sequences shows Wise imaging that instead of going to Central Park with the other boys that he took his girlfriend to Coney Island.

In 2001, Wise meets another prisoner named Matias Reyes (one he’d actually had a fight with in prison several years earlier).  Reyes admits that he had raped the Centeral Park jogger on his own.  His description of the attack and DNA evidence verifies his claim, and this leads to vacating the convictions of Richardson, McCray, Salaam, Santana, and Wise.

This movie is beautifully directed  and yet a brutal depection of a grave injustice. It is an important film to watch to get an understanding of the discriminatory nature of the criminal justice system against black and brown people.

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending June 8


BackStory :: Songs of Ourselves?

Walt Whitman and the American Imagination on the 200th anniversary of his birth.

The Moth :: Mets, McDonalds, and a White House Secret

The story of the author of “Go the F**k to Sleep” ends up at a fundraiser with Dr. Ferber and a family finds a way to get to see the Mets first World Series championship.

Code Switch :: The Original ‘Welfare Queen’

The story of a con artist, child abductor, and possible murderer whose crimes were used to justify to slash welfare safety nets by the Reagan and Clinton administrations.

99% Invisible :: The Automat

When I was a kid, I loved going to the last surviving Automat in New York City, a surviving relic of Old New York.  This podcasts details the 100 year history of the innovative Horn & Hardart restaurants in Philadelphia and New York that became a cultural touchstone.


Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Podcasts of the Week Ending June 1


Futility Closet :: The General Slocum

The grim history of the worst maritime disaster in New York City.

Best of the Left :: Our built environment shapes society and vice versa

The issues of increasing urban density, building social housing, and deprioritizing the automobile in cities are near and dear in my heart. And yet, even Leftists tend to fall into the pro-car/pro-sprawl trap, so it’s good to hear these arguments for a more livable urbanism.

Hub History  ::  Love is Love: John Adams and Marriage Equality 

It seems like yesterday, but 15 years have passed since Massachusetts became the first state to perform legal same-sex marriages.  Here’s the history of how that came to be.

Sound Opinions  ::  De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising

I have a lot of nostalgia for De La Soul’s debut album which came out when I was a nerdy high school student.  The Sound Opinions crew explore how the album was created and explain why it’s so hard to find the album today.

Hit Parade :: The Invisible Miracle Sledgehammer Edition

If you turned on the radio in the mid-1980s, you were likely to hear music by members of Genesis (Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, and Mike and the Mechanics) while the band Genesis continued to make hits.  Chris Molanphy explains this unusual situation in pop music history.

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances: