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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS 1815 (Revised 2018)

Daniel Walker Howe’s volume in the series called the Oxford History of the United States, is titled, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.”

It begins with a chapter about the Battle of New Orleans, fought in January 1815. Ironically, the battle, which made Andrew Jackson a folk hero and is celebrated in pop songs and movies (Charlton Heston played Jackson on screen), was fought weeks after the Treaty of Ghent had ended the War of 1812. (Of course, neither party knew of this due to lack of instagram.) Because the Americans won a great victory, the footnote was ignored by the folk who craved a hero and a tale to go with him.

Jackson’s fame led to his presidency, which is credited with expanding the idea of democracy to include a broader electorate than the wealthy landowners who dominated the first fifty years of politics in this country.

Like most myths, Jackson’s distorts the truth. First, his military prowess:  most military historians, while giving credit to Jackson’s courage and leadership, ascribe the victory to luck and British mistakes.

More importantly, Jackson’s democratic fervor didn’t extend to other than white men.   

In the battle that made him a folk hero, his army largely consisted of native Americans, Creoles, freed blacks, and slaves, all of whom fought with conspicuous courage. The New Orleans he fought for spoke more French and Spanish than English; its citizens included Irish Catholics, Creoles, French speaking Acadians (Cajuns), Chocktaw, and mulattos.

As Howe writes, there were “two battalions of black men, one made up of African Americans and the other of Haitian immigrants. Some of the black soldiers were slaves on loan from their masters to the army, but most of them were free men. Jackson addressed the blacks as ‘brave fellow citizens’ and had promised them pay and respect the equal of whites’.

“With the battle over, Jackson ignored his promise to secure equal rewards for the black men who had stood with him at the barricade. Besides twenty-four dollars cash, each soldier was supposed to receive 160 acres of public land, but forty years later, the black veterans were still trying to get their land claims honored.”

And, more egregiously:

“The slaves among them had been returned to their owners, who were not bound by any promises made.

“On the other hand, Jackson showed solicitude for those masters whose slaves had escaped and taken refuge with the enemy. He repeatedly demanded that the departing British army return them. General Lambert, to his credit, refused and took some two hundred self-emancipated people off to lives of poverty but freedom in Bermuda.”

That is not the only ironic fact related to this incident. The battle mythology from the start and continuing until today involves pride in the American frontier militiaman whose courage and ability with a rifle supposedly defeated the professional British soldiers who were famous in Europe as opponents of Napoleon. (The British army under Wellington’s command would defeat Napoleon at Waterloo later that same year.)

The fable is that Tennesseans and Kentuckians came to aid of Luisianians to rout the redcoats – again, as they had during the Revolution thirty years earlier. The story is taught as proof of the Jeffersonian / Jacksonian ideal of the independent rural yeoman farmer as the backbone of American democracy. The contrary image, the Hamiltonian vision of a central government / industrial cities as the engine of American power, is claimed to be a foreign model, not suited to the American character.

Howe notes, “A popular song of the 1820s, ‘The Hunters of Kentucky,’ extolled the performance of the Kentucky militia at New Orleans despite the fact that Jackson himself had criticized the Kentuckians harshly and never retracted his condemnation. Exploited for political purposes, the song perpetuated the misperception of what had happened.

“The Battle of New Orleans came to be regarded by Jackson’s many admirers as a victory of self-reliant individualists under charismatic leadership. It seemed a triumph of citizen-soldiers over professionals, of the common man over hierarchy, of willpower over rules.”

Howe points out that the facts contradict the legend in this important aspect. In the battle, the Kentucky militiamen failed to affect the outcome. Most in fact arrived late and without any arms at all. “Jackson joked in disgust that it was the first time he’d ever seen a Kentuckian ‘without a gun, a pack of cards, and a jug of whiskey.’”

Howe writes, “The poorly armed Kentuckians had only just reached the position they were expected to defend, and they behaved the way American militia units often behaved in the War of 1812: They ran away. Jackson made plain his fury at them in his official report to Secretary of War James Monroe. ‘The Kentucky reinforcement, in whom so much reliance had been placed, ingloriously fled.’”

Yet, the persistent myth is at least partly responsible for our love of weaponry and the insistence that everyone, at least every white male, is entitled to and ought to be encouraged to own and freely use a gun.

The Second Amendment of the US Constitution, ratified along with nine others, reads:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

I wonder if Mitch McConnell, the senior senator from Kentucky / majority leader / spokesman for the NRA, tells this story to his constituents.

(Tennessee musketeers behaved better in the battle, but the myth of their superior marksmanship doesn’t stand up to the facts. Their muskets were loaded with buckshot, and in a sharpshooting contest between Tennessee militiamen and New Orleans citizenry, the “Volunteers” finished second.)

In reality, the Battle of New Orleans turned, not on the musket-toting militiamen, but on the artillery that Jackson was able to bring to bear. “A single noteworthy discharge from a thirty-two-pound naval gun crammed with musket balls ‘served to sweep the centre of the attacking force into eternity,’ in the words of a British officer.”

Nonetheless, the public of 1815 was just as gullible and willing to swallow a romantic story as it is today.

“They seldom rejoiced in the multiracial, multiethnic nature of the winning army. Neither did they celebrate the technological know-how that enabled their artillery to perform so well. Instead the public seized upon the notion that western riflemen, untrained but sharp-eyed, had defeated the arrogant British. In fact, primary responsibility for the American victory lay with the artillery, not with the frontier marksmen of legend.


Howe writes: “The reluctance to credit the artillery with the victory partly
 reflected a reluctance to credit the professional servicemen, ethnic-minority city-dwellers, and pirates who manned the guns rather than the all-American frontiersmen.

“It also manifested a failure to foresee how much the future of the United States would owe to mechanization and government-sponsored enterprises like the federal armories that made cannons.

“Jackson’s admirers liked to believe theirs was a country where untutored vigor could prevail; to point out that technical expertise mattered seemed undemocratic. Their interpretation of the battle was compatible with Jefferson’s vision of ‘an empire for liberty’ stretching to the west, a belief that the nation’s destiny lay in the multiplication of family farms and the extension of American power across continental space.”

. . .


“But where did America’s future lie? With the individualistic, expansionist values exemplified by frontier marksmen? Or with the industrial-technological values exemplified by the artillery? Which would better serve American security and prosperity: the extension of agriculture across the continent or the intensive improvement and diversification of the economy and its infrastructure?”

Sunday, July 16, 2017

BASTILLE DAY COONEY MEMORIAL LUNCHEON


      
      Friday I rode downtown with the Adelsons to a restaurant on Sunset and Alvarado for the annual luncheon held to honor the memory of Jim Cooney, a criminal lawyer who died about 30 years ago. For years I had ignored the invitations for the affair. Never much for drinking lunch and then plunging into the Friday afternoon freeway tangle. Never much for sitting around listening to war stories I know by heart.

            But this time I gave in. Adelson said he would drive, and since I retired I haven’t seen some of these faces in a while. So to the Hollywood Freeway; for forty years my stream of unconsciousness, the same stultifying route into the sun in the morning and back home into the sun at night. The first years I lived on the west side and the trickling stream was the 10, but of course into the sun morning and night. Always west to east. (Maybe it would have been better to live in Pasadena or somewhere else on the east end to have the sun behind, but that never happened to me.)

            I have avoided going downtown, even to visit my sister and nephew in their high rise pieds-a-terre. As a passenger now, I had time to peruse the side of the freeway, appalled at the detritus that has accumulated since I last made the trip. When I first moved from NY to LA in the mid 1960’s, I was amazed at the bright cleanliness of the streets and highways. My streets had always been grey, dirty, cracked, made more so by the lead gray light. But now the litter overwhelms any effort to clean up. Graffiti is the best of it; the trash dumped from cars, from apartment windows, over chain link fences, all testify to a city that has copped a plea and accepted defeat.  

            The worst is the human detritus, the blue homeless tarps and shopping carts that litter every shadowed space, under overpasses. Sunset itself is a shabby avenue of tired facades, signs of surrender to age and loss. Shuttered shops, rehab centers, bare lawns and peeling paint.

            I recall my first morning drive to the CCB after returning from our trip around the world. A year had past. I felt so different, but everything seemed the same, as if I had been on some Einstein time warp voyage. But there was a difference. On Broadway, near Temple, a man slept in a cardboard crate, an absurd table lamp near his head, as if he had turned out the light before retiring on the sidewalk. I had never seen that before in LA, but had seen it in Calcutta.

            Adelson insisted on being early because he hoped to meet with someone he could cajole into signing a letter to help a wrongfully convicted prisoner. The first to arrive was Chris Chaney and we chatted for quite a while before the place began to fill up. Chaney is one of the best people in any gathering, a decent, kind man who takes troubled foster kids into his family. He also defends murderers for a living.

            Herb Barish showed up, wearing the same three-piece suit he has worn for forty years. Herb was one of the PD lunchroom group back in the dim Pleistocene epoch. His cynicism challenged my own for bitterness honors. Once we argued over who was sexier, Linda Carter or Bella Abzug. Like Chaney, Herb is still practicing, although he never has accepted a capital case. Maybe that is why he hasn’t changed in all this time.

            The room filled with faces that were familiar, though now lined and weathered. Paul Horgan who was in my law school class after starting as UCLA’s fullback the year before. Perlo and Cobb and Horn and Rucker who were already PD’s when I came to the Hall of Justice to sit in Horton’s office. There was “Handsome Harry,” who used to have a Cary Grant tan; now has a Danny DeVito stoop. Harry reminded me that I had refused to vote for Humphrey in 1968 because he refused to oppose the war. I admitted that was a mistake that I didn’t repeat last year. Brad Brunon told Mike Crain about the case we tried together in which Mandel, the schmuck, tried to help the DA by screwing our clients. (I last saw Brad when he was on Spector and I was trying my last capital case across the hall.)

            The affair is hosted by the fellows that some call the Irish Mafia, fitting because Jim Cooney was the epitome of Irish wit; a craggy face, ragged white eyebrows, an ever present cigar and whiskey wit that croaked out gems of wisdom that kept you smiling. He was the stuff of legend and his cigar is kept aflame by his acolytes. Most are the sons of the auld sod: Tynan, Horgan, Enright, Shannon, Murphy, Rucker. John Yzurdiaga, (nicknamed “John Xyz”) is one of the hosts although he is a Basque. (The Basques can challenge the Irish drink for drink and for a love of freedom and tall tales.)

            They told the old war stories starring Cooney. Like: In a multi-defendant trial, Cooney stopped a young defense lawyer from asking too many questions (starting with one to a cop beginning with the forbidden “Why . . .?”and messing up the case by grabbing the youngster by the tie and croaking a loud whisper: “Shut the fuck up!”
    
            Bob Savitt, a retired DA, told about a case in which he opposed Cooney and after hearing Cooney’s final argument that exposed the fatal flaw in the prosecution, Savitt asked his second chair to take the verdict, which he knew would be not guilty.

            Rick and Louise Santweir and Mike and Chris Shannon were there. Louise reminded me about an evening the six of us spent in San Francisco many years ago. “I’ll never forget how sweet and wonderful Bea was that night,” Louise said. “It’s stayed with me ever since.”

            It was good to recall times of laughter and camaraderie. Maybe it is a bit like old warriors reliving their youthful adventures after surviving it all. I was surprised to learn how many are still at it so many years after signing up for Medicare. Sure, they kvetch about pains . . . and how it isn’t the way it used to be . . . but travel and grandkids and hobbies can’t sub in for the courtroom.  


We were the best and brightest for a long time. Some of us were like Willie stumbling around the outfield for the Mets, so we pulled the plug. But others are still hanging in there. Still pretty damn good.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

GENIUS VS ILLNESS - GREATNESS VS GOODNESS

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Plato, quoting Socrates at his trial.

A few years ago while I was trying a capital case in the Los Angeles, I spent lunchtimes in the 13th floor attorney lounge. A visitor there was Phil Spector, the legendary pop music producer who happened to be on trial for murder.  He was a strange looking elderly man, coiffed and dressed as if the 60’s were still in style, shoulder length brown hair (a wig?), frock coat, flared trousers, high-heeled boots. I knew that Spector was considered by many to be a “genius” who had revolutionized rock and roll by his imaginative recording innovations called “The Wall of Sound.” He had worked with many artists, including The Beatles and Frank Sinatra, who admired his talents and puzzled at his eccentricities.

Spector had been described as suffering from severe mood swings, impulsivity, bouts of rage, misogyny, feelings of inferiority. He was eventually convicted of murdering a woman who he had invited to his house. 

During the trial the most emotion he showed to me was when he told me that he was annoyed that the prosecutor had described him as a has-been. Spector asked me rhetorically, “Were Einstein or Mozart has-beens just because their most recognized success came when they were young?”

At the time I took it as a residue of his sturdy ego that he compared himself to those geniuses, but in his field, Spector was often dubbed with that overused title.

The Great vs The Good

Greatness and goodness often seem to be mutually exclusive qualities. Two recent dramas, both coincidentally titled “Genius” confirm the idea. The film with that title released in 2016, starred Jude Law as the novelist, Thomas Wolfe, and Colin Firth as master editor Maxwell Perkins. The movie is based on A. Scott Berg’s biography of Perkins, called “Editor of Genius.” (This is a double entendre, meaning Perkins was a genius of an editor and and editor of geniuses.) Featured characters in the movie are Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose lives also prove the point. Perkins is depicted as an exception to the rule: brilliant, intuitive as well as kind, gentle, loyal and selfless.

The other “Genius” is the currently airing (on the National Geographic Channel) ten-part biography of Albert Einstein, directed by Ron Howard. The drama focuses more on Einstein’s failings as a student, employee, professor, son, and especially as lover, husband, and father, than the intellectual products of his mind that revolutionized science. This yields soapy operatic episodes that expose the misery of his first wife, Mileva Maric, sure to be attractive to a wider audience than dry complex science can attract.  

Howard’s style is old-fashioned in its use of transparent devices. He is fond of teasing by foreshadowing, such as ending an episode when a colleague is shown a piece of paper by a pleased Einstein, and gasps, in admiration. The viewer is shown the famous formula (as if merely seeing the equation would be shocking). 

To underscore his theme of Einstein’s misogyny, he compares the minimizing of his wife’s contributions with Pierre Curie’s insistence that his wife, Marie, be given equal credit. In other scenes, the inspirations for Einstein’s discoveries are shown to be his infant son, a spider, a casual remark by a friend, a ride in an elevator. 

These scenes are overly simplified variations on anecdotes relating to Einstein’s “thought experiments” that he described in his writings but they come across as almost comical. It reminds me of  the old joke about Beethoven’s mother saying, “I inspire you? Don’t make me laugh! Ha-Ha-Ha Haaa!

Howard is used to “biographical drama,” and “based on true events” filmmaking that takes license with facts. In both “Cinderella Man” and “A Beautiful Mind,” the director omitted serious character flaws and actions of his heroes that would have detracted from their heroism. 

At least, “Genius,” is consistent with the book that was his source material in its focus on the prurient and perverse, rather than the dull science that shook the world.       

This series is based on Walter Isaacson’s book, “Einstein His Life And Universe.” Isaacson is no physicist and according to book reviews, it shows in his biography, which is light on the science and heavy on the cultural impact, politics, philosophy, and especially on his domestic life (i.e., sex life) with his wives and mistresses.

The historian benefits from the recent discovery of a cache of Einstein’s love letters. They expose his sentimental and romantic side (Einstein’s poetry skills show a lack of genius in that art). The letters also reveal a rather creepy side to his seduction techniques, exclaiming love and making extravagant promises and in the next breath (or letter) making demands for obedience and loyalty, detailing tasks she is to perform in order to satisfy him.

 Isaacson joins recent biographers to correct the perception that Mileva was not more than the great man’s sex partner, housekeeper, and nursemaid to his children. She was a brilliant physics student in her own right, who helped her husband to write his early papers. How much she contributed has been a matter of debate, but it was certainly more than Einstein himself was willing to admit. The correction of this record in a popular history is a worthy goal, even if it does pander to our modern sensibility in a blatant attempt to attract a female audience.  

The defect in the drama results from the self-conscious pandering to the target audience that the script and acting pound home with repetitive annoyance. In scene after scene, Albert takes advantage of Mileva’s trust – deflecting her nagging for r-e-s-p-e-c-t by disingenuous patronizing hugs and ardent assurances, after which he goes on to his singular quest for fame by solving the complex puzzles of nature.

The notion that a genius may comprehend the mysteries of the universe but lack any understanding of other people is not revolutionary – in biography or drama. In fact, it seems to be so common that it may be one of the essential ingredients of understanding genius.

The mind of the artist

Another observation may be related to this phenomenon. There seems to be a correlation between some forms of “mental problems” and artistic creativity. I put quotation marks around the phrase to underscore its admitted vagueness. Researchers agree that mental illness is neither necessary nor sufficient for creativity. However, there is research to suggest a link between mental illness and creativity.

While people suffering in the throes of serious mental illness are usually dysfunctional; i.e., unable to coherently create, other forms of mental distress seem to stimulate creativity.

An area of the brain called the precuneus affects personal memory and self-consciousness. Researchers find that it is more active in creative people even while they are performing other concentration intensive tasks. The inability to suppress the seemingly unnecessary cognitive activity aids the creative process by linking ideas that reside in disparate neural networks. The increased activity found in the precuneus also is seen in those with schizotypal personalities.

Schizotypy is not schizophrenia, a debilitating psychosis. It is a state that contains a constellation of symptoms, most of which exist in everyone in some degree. These include “unusual perceptual experiences, thin mental boundaries between self and other, impulsive nonconformity, and magical beliefs.” Negative schizotypal traits include “cognitive disorganization and physical and social anhedonia.” Such people may be introverted, emotionally flat, asocial. 

I can imagine a common sense reason for this. Creativity demands self-awareness.; ditto mental and emotional turmoil. Poets like Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell have spent enormous energy analyzing their emotions, their perceptions, their relationships.

Of course, Ezra Pound,  T. S. Eliot’s friend [see below] who is also considered one of the greatest poets of the 20th Century, was a vocal anti-Semite, even making propaganda broadcasts from fascist Italy during World War II. Pound was clinically mentally ill, paranoid and eventually hospitalized, but whether his paranoia led him to the “Jewish conspiracy” or was a co-incidental presence in his mind along with his artistic talent is in doubt.

Risky Behavior

On the other end of the spectrum from schizotypy is the “Type T personality.” Originally described by Jung, these are risk takers. They tend to be extroverted and creative, crave new experiences and excitement. Sociopaths have some of these traits. So do some intellectuals, including Einstein and Galileo, as well as extreme athletes. Ernest Hemingway, self-described as bipolar, combined features of this type. Drawn to danger in war, sports and violent entertainments, his masculine self-image demanded risk while his creative mind wove imaginative novels.

The Rare Great AND Good:

Admittedly, the notion of "goodness" is subjective. I mean it in the moral sense and that is a slippery concept. 

“If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms.” Dorothy Day, Catholic social activist (1897-1980)   

It was not just as a mother that Dorothy Day exercised her faith. After living a self described selfish existence as a young liberated woman in the 1920’s, including affairs and an abortion, Day sought meaning to life and found it in Catholicism and radical activism during the Depression. 

Day was a sinner who found a cause in the Catholic Workers Movement, doing good works and writing about her faith. She was a prolific do-gooder who actually did a lot of good. She was a prolific writer, speaker, and organizer. As one who converted to her faith through ardent and serious reflection and then seriously tried to live up to its ideals, she influenced many Catholics and others by her example and her activism.

By that measure, Dorothy Day qualifies as “great” as well as “good.” (Within the Church that she often resented for its conservatism, she is now being considered for sainthood, along with another modern good and great woman, Mother Teresa.) 

But in general, it seems that most of those who strive to be great must sacrifice something that ordinary people enjoy, such as  . . .  a family.

Recently I have been reading Deborah Lipstadt’s book about the trial that formed the basis of the movie, “Denial”. Her lawyer (solicitor in British parlance) was Anthony Julius, who, in addition to being a terrific lawyer, also held a Ph.D. in history. His Ph.D. thesis had become a controversial best seller. 

It examined how T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism was expressed in some of his poems. Julius’s thesis conceded that Eliot was an exceptional poet, although he held a despicable personal view toward Jews, which he was not reluctant to reveal in his art.

So there it is, again. In my view, anti-Semites cannot be called “good” in any sense of the term; it is a disqualifying character flaw. I feel the same way about racists and sexists, as well as other forms of bigotry, although I do concede that there may be gradations of defects, and also acknowledge that some leeway is owed to the culture in which the person acted.  Wagner was a great composer of music, but a world-class hater of Jews.

This last point is sticky, because it should not be used to excuse one who adopts the view of his society when others in the same position shout against the notion. An example for me would be Edgar Degas, who spent much of his time with ballet dancers but took pains to urge the guilt of Dreyfus and blamed all French Jews.

I don’t mean to imply that anti-Semitism is the only character trait that detracts from goodness among great artists. In the fore-mentioned movie, “Genius”, Thomas Wolfe is shown to be a self-centered user and abuser of those who helped him, including his mistress as well as his editor. He discards both after he achieves fame. But Wolfe was not an anti-Semite. In fact, he spent enough time in Nazi Germany in 1936 to see what they were doing, and returned to write about the despicable treatment of Jews there.


Steve Jobs is another example of the high achiever, creative and imaginative innovator, who was driven to excellence to the detriment of his relationships with friends, co-workers, lovers, children. His example does not seem to be unique in the record. Great? Certainly. Good, not so much. Genius? By many definitions, yes. Mentally ill? Obsessive, neurotic? Well, he has been diagnosed by observers as cyclothymic.