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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 2, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Overthrow, Alchemist, Carbon, and 2 Mysteries

Most Americans like to think that, as a nation, we're the good guys. Other Americans like to think that we're the bad guys all the time, but especially when Republicans are President.

In his book Overthrow, Steven Kinzer is clearly in the second group, but he's also a thorough enough historian that you can draw your own much more accurate conclusions on a vital topic.

Kinzer takes us through the sordid history of American "regime change" interventions. Repeatedly, we watch as various operatives, freebooters, mercenaries, or committed imperialists seize power in countries that mostly want to be left alone.

Hawaii, Nicaragua, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, Iran, South Vietnam, Chile, Afghanistan, Iraq -- it's quite a roster. He tends to leave out a certain class of interventions -- Haiti, for instance, gets a complete pass (perhaps because Bill Clinton did it), though it has not turned out particularly well; and not much is said about the times we "sent in the Marines" but left without causing permanent damage.

And sometimes he is deliberately deceptive, as when he makes superficial comparisons that don't stand up to any kind of analysis.

Afghanistan was harboring and supporting the group that had launched the 9/11 attack against the United States, an act of war; to demonstrate that we missed opportunities and made mistakes does not make it the equivalent of regime change attacks where we had no legitimate casus belli.

And while there were plenty of mistakes in the Iraq War, it was a nation with which we were already in a state of war, with a monstrous dictator, and where no rational person can look at our actions and claim we had any commercial purpose or intention of depriving the local citizens of self-government.

Kinzer's obvious and ham-handed false comparisons might cause many readers to discredit the whole book. Please don't do that. He's clumsy enough in his propaganda that it's easy to identify and ignore.

Meanwhile, his research on earlier events is excellent, and it behooves educated Americans to make sure their education includes the information carried by the bulk of his book.

The seizure of Hawaii, the messes we made all over Latin America, our role as the evil empire in the Philippines -- if we don't know that these things were done by our government and in the name of our nation, we can't possibly understand why America is regarded as harshly it is in many countries.

At the same time, it is important that in most cases, our government felt the need to lie to the American people about what we were doing, because they knew that we as a people would not knowingly stand for what was being done in our name. And when the evil actions of "our side" became known, there was indeed a strong public outcry in America.

In other words, the lies are a very slight bandaid for our consciences -- we usually meant well. Small comfort, of course, for the victims of our government's worst actions.

I always thought of the Mexican War as the most evil war we ever fought, but I think after reading Overthrow, I must put the Spanish-American War -- and especially the Philippine war that grew out of it -- in that place.

Our interventions in Iran, Chile, Nicaragua, and even Hawaii were stupid and wrong, as was the overthrow of Diem in South Vietnam.

But Afghanistan, Iraq, and Grenada do not belong on the list of evil wars or illegitimate actions, and Kinzer as much as confesses this by the mountain of evidence he has to leave out or distort in order to try to make his case that they do.

Kinzer has an equivalency problem -- his tone suggests that he thinks all the actions he writes about were equally bad.

Kinzer has a very hard time twisting the invasion of Grenada into the same kind of illegitimate action that was carried out in other countries; he completely ignores the trove of documents seized there which absolutely proved the Grenadan government's intention to be a source of Communist meddling in the affairs of other countries.

And the worst he can say about our invasion of Panama is that we blew the chance to replace Noriega with a much better, more honorable strong man. The strategic purpose of not merely removing Noriega but dismantling the apparatus that supported him is a completely defensible one, though Kinzer does not present that point of view.

Look, just because America-hating leftists want to persuade us that we're always wrong does not mean that we must take the opposite tack and join the blind patriots who claim we're always right, and vice-versa.

Ignorance of history and a relentlessly biased reading of history both lead us to make bad mistakes in the present and the future.

We live in a world partly of our making, and just because our ancestors did not know what was being done in our name does not mean that these crimes and blunders were not made, or that we do not still have to bear the consequences.

In other words, even where, as a people, we are not culpable, we are still responsible.

You may not mean to knock over the bottle, but you still have a duty to clean up the broken glass and replace what was lost, if you can.

Once you have read Overthrow, you and I might amuse ourselves by listing all the hypocrisies, misrepresentations, and deceptions that Kinzer indulges in. But they are relatively minor compared to the importance of understanding the things that he does not distort.

Know thyself, America: If we do not include in our calculations the cases where we, as a nation, behaved very badly, we will not understand how easily such things can be brought about; nor will we understand why so many people in other countries hate us.

Yet even the deceptions are not always bad. What Kinzer does not touch on is World War II, a serious regime-change effort indeed. We were as ready as we were in 1941, and Britain was still alive to lead the fight, only because Roosevelt systematically lied to Congress and to the people, and seriously bent the law and the rules of neutrality, until the idea of openly entering the war became popular.

It's all very complicated. Finding the right course is hard. When we judge the actions of national leaders, we must always put them in the context of their times. What were other nations doing? How does our government compare to other governments?

At the same time, Kinzer is right to hold us to a higher standard. And he demonstrates that, as a people, we do expect America to be different from all other countries -- that's why leaders grimly determined to be just as bad as other nations have to lie to us to bring it off.

Somebody needs to write a better, more honest version of this book. Until they do, however, it's still essential reading -- especially for anyone entering office as President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, or head of the CIA. I think we need to have a signed affidavit from anyone being considered for these offices swearing that they have read Overthrow and, while they're at it, Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner, another book distorted by political correctness but essential to understanding our recent history.

*

If you're a fan of animé, I recommend Full Metal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos, currently playing at the Carousel Grande. There have already been some Full Metal Alchemist feature films.

There is an assumption that viewers already know the basic story of the main characters, a pair of brothers who tried to use their knowledge of "alchemy" to bring their mother back from the dead and paid a terrible price for the attempt. One of them lost his arm, but the other lost his entire body; his soul is now attached to a mechanical man.

But they are powerful wizards now working for the government of one nation, and in this movie -- really more of an extended empire -- they are plunged into a confusing international struggle involving ancient magic, current political ambitions, and so many colorful characters that it's hard to sort out who, if anyone, is a good guy.

My wife and I knew the basic situation, and our 17-year-old had seen even more of the TV series, but we were all quite confused at many points in this movie.

The interesting thing is that we didn't actually care. The animation was so well done and the events were so cool and the dialogue was so much fun that we watched with pleasure, and if at the end we weren't entirely sure just what had been accomplished, we understood most of it and considered it time well spent.

If you don't know the Japanese animated film tradition, however, this might not be the place to start. Or if you do start here, then make sure you see a Miyazaki film like Spirited Away or Kiki's Delivery Service or Castle in the Sky or Howl's Moving Castle soon after, or watch the American anime series The Last Airbender (not the Shyamalan feature based on it) so you get a better idea of the anime tradition.

*

I've taken a lot of abuse over the past decade or so because I kept pointing out that shoddy misuse of science -- and the outright deception -- involved in claims of human-caused global warming.

Over and over, I said that if global warming is happening, it is almost certainly a part of natural cycles that have repeated again and again; that in recorded history global climate has been warmer than the present; that global warming coincides with worldwide prosperity and population growth; and that even if global warming were caused by human activity and even if it were not a good thing, there's nothing we can do to change it.

Now and then a scientist would speak up and say the same thing, only to be slapped down and punished by the Global Warming mafia.

But finally, the release of emails showing the deceptions of the Global Warming alarmists and the gradual accumulation of contrary evidence have made it obvious to all but the most diehard observers that the world has no global warming problem.

Here is a link to a Wall Street Journal essay signed by sixteen scientists that lays it on the line. Please understand that I cannot resist the temptation to gloat and say I told you so.

Can we please reenter the rational universe and admit that all the carbon being released today was once atmospheric carbon; that our carbon dioxide releases are actually a worldwide fertilizer helping to feed the world; that cutting carbon emissions is completely harmful and confers no benefits; and that we should try in future to prevent political activists from kidnapping science for their own purposes?

And can we also just entertain the possibility that when somebody like me questions the received wisdom of an intellectual clique, it is at least worth considering that I'm neither stupid nor evil, and that it might be worth examining the questions that I raise?

I'm not actually expecting any of the people who said truly hateful things about me because of my stance on global warming to apologize -- no doubt they'll just attach to other issues where I'm also right, and continue to misrepresent my actual statements in order to demonize me.

Hey, that's the price of making public statements on controversial topics -- or, even more importantly, on topics that are not controversial but darn well should be, because the received opinion is flat wrong.

Inconvenient as the consequences sometimes are, I really can't stop myself from telling the truth as best I understand it, because if I don't offer a correction to this or that piece of public idiocy, then it's partly my fault when the consequences roll around.

And sometimes we wake up from our collective delusion in time to prevent the worst consequences. Which is what seems to have happened with the global warming hoax.

*

This morning I recalled that recently someone had asked just how many books I had written, and I didn't know the total.

So I lay in bed trying to count them all. There are some iffy ones -- my long story collection Maps in a Mirror, for instance, was also published as four different paperbacks, while some of the stories in it had already appeared in a couple of earlier collections. So was that one book, or seven?

And what about very short books? They aren't really novels, yet they had covers and separate ISBNs.

Anyway, I finally came up with a total of more than fifty books, mostly fiction, and amounting, by a conservative estimate, to about five million words.

Then, because I started writing columns for the Rhino Times just over ten years ago, I estimated that at about ten thousand words per month, on average (again, a very low estimate), I had written well over a million words in these pages.

If you've read every column of mine, every week for all ten years, you and I have been down a long, long road together! I admire your stamina and thank you for your patience.

The price I pay for all this essay-writing is that I have absolutely nothing to say when I dine or party with friends who read the column. They already know absolutely every opinion I have.

In fact, by now my regular readers probably think of me as that guy at parties who just won't shut up, but who sometimes says something interesting so you might as well listen until someone more interesting comes along.

And I have to admit -- I'm content to be that guy. As long as I don't actually have to be at the party in person; it's just too painful to watch other people's eyes glaze over.

*

A quick look at two books I recently enjoyed.

The Lock Artist, by Steve Hamilton, is the first-person story of a young man who picks locks and breaks into safes. He also does not speak.

Normally I resent books where key information is withheld from us until late in the story. But in this case, Hamilton's choice of a first-person narrator is absolutely right, and makes the whole thing work. Because the lock artist, Mike Smith, is telling this story for his own purposes, as a message to a particular person, and so the order of telling makes perfect sense.

The result is a gripping, emotional story that I loved from beginning to end. I'm glad I listened to McLeod Andrews's excellent reading of the book from Audible.com, because not only does he do a superb job of narration, the fact that it was an audiobook prevented me from skipping to the end and reading out of order.

For once, this is a book that should be experienced exactly as the writer intended. It's a bit of a masterpiece, I must say, and I recommend it highly, both in written and audible form.

Walking the Perfect Square is the first of the Moe Prager novels by Reed Farrel Coleman. Moe Prager is an ex-cop, who left the job on disability -- because he wrecked his knee when he slipped on a piece of carbon paper in the office.

Not a glamorous injury, and in Walking the Perfect Square, he is glad to be asked by a friend on the force to look into the disappearance of a young college student named Patrick Mahoney. Along the way, Prager comes to detest Patrick's father, while falling in love with Patrick's sister.

Like The Lock Artist, Walking the Perfect Square is told out of time order by a first-person narrator who has his reasons for framing the story as he does. In this case, Prager-in-the-present has been called to the deathbed of a man he never met, because the man has a key piece of information about the disappearance of Patrick Mahoney.

What that information turns out to be I will not tell you; what I will say is that not only is this an excellent mystery novel, it's also an excellent novel, period. We come to care very much about Prager, and even though there are later Moe Prager novels, this first one is a complete tale, fully satisfying.

I'm going to be reading more books by both Steve Hamilton and Reed Farrel Coleman. But I doubt I'd have picked them up in the bookstore.

I only found these because they were being promoted by Audible.com and, since I get 25 books a year with my platinum membership, I figured, what the heck, let's give 'em a try.

Sometimes that approach gets me into books that I end up despising -- but that's OK. With a platinum membership my per-book price is low enough I can afford a few losers.

Especially because it gives me the freedom to take a chance on books I know absolutely nothing about, except whatever blurb there is on Audible.com.

These were two of the recent winners. They made me want to exercise or run errands or just sit at the computer playing games while the book unwound in my earphones. Neither one is brand new -- but every book is new to those who haven't read it before. I urge you to pick them up and give them a try.

I also urge you to give Audible.com a chance to bring you narrated stories that you can listen to while you do other things.

Imagine how many books you could read if your commuting or errand-running or exercising time was also reading time. My brother-in-law Mike Black first steered me to the combination of iPod Shuffle and Audible.com. Now I use a Nano, but otherwise nothing is changed: I listen to upwards of fifty books a year, most of them somewhere between good enough and superb.

These are books I would never have had a chance to read in print form. (I have a separate list of printed books, which work their way through stacks beside my bed.) If you don't have time to read all that you want to read, I urge you to try the Audible.com alternative.


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