Archive for April, 2016

Caveat: this review is based on viewing only half uhposterof the DVD version of Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, which also exists as a book and audio book. It’s also available on the Showtime cable channel, as downloadable media, and in excerpts on YouTube (and probably elsewhere). Stone put his name above the title, but I will refer to the documentary as simply Untold History.

Disclaimer: Stone has a long personal history of retelling political history through a cinematic lens, which by necessity introduces distortions to condense and reshape events and characters for storytelling. Untold History purports to be documentary and (alert: intentional fallacy at work) shares with Howard Zinn’s somewhat earlier A People’s History of the United States an aim to correct the record from official accounts,¬†accepted narratives, and propagandist¬†mythologies misinterpretations. I’ve always been suspicious of Stone’s dramatic license in his movies, just as with Steven Spielberg. However, I wanted to see Untold History from first learning about it and am just now getting to it (via a borrowed library copy). Without indulging in conspiratorial fantasies about Stone’s arguments, I find myself pretty well convinced (or an easy mark).

Whereas Zinn begins People’s History with the discovery of North America in 1492, Stone commences Untold History with World War Two. Thus, there is little or no discussion of Americans’ pacifism and isolationism prior to entry into WWII. There is also little direct cultural and social history to which I typically grant the greater part of my attention. Rather, Untold History is presented from military and political perspectives. Economic history is mixed in with all these, and the recognition that a wartime economy rescued the U.S. from the grip of the Great Depression (leading to nearly permanent war) is acknowledged but not dwelt upon heavily.

Based on the first half that I have viewed (WWII through the Eisenhower administrations and the early decades of the Cold War), it was clear that the U.S. experienced rapid and thoroughgoing transformation from a lesser power and economy into the preeminent political, military, and industrial power on the globe. Thus, activities of the U.S. government from roughly 1940 forward became absorbed in geopolitics to a greater degree than ever before — just at a time when the U.S. acquired immense power of production and destruction. Untold History never quite says it, but it appears many became more than a little drunk with power and lacked the composure and long historical view of leaders whose countries had more extended experience as principal actors on the world’s stage.

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According to Jean-Paul Sartre, the act of negation (a/k/a nihilation) is a necessary step in distinguishing foreground objects from background. A plethora of definitions and formal logic ensure that his philosophical formulations are of only academic interest to us nowadays, since philosophy in general has dropped out of currency in the public sphere and below awareness or concern even among most educated adults. With that in mind, I thought perhaps I should reinforce the idea of negation in my own modest (albeit insignificant) way. Negation, resistance, and dissent have familial relations, but they are undoubtedly distinct in some ways, too. However, I have no interest in offering formal treatments of terminology and so will gloss over the point and decline to offer definitions. Lump ’em all in together, I say. However, I will make a distinction between passive and active negation, which is the point of this blog post.

Although the information environment and the corporations that provide electronic access through hardware and connectivity would have us all jacked into the so-called Information Superhighway unceasingly, and many people do just that with enormous relish, I am of a different mind. I recognize that electronic media are especially potent in commanding attention and providing distraction. Stowed away or smuggled in with most messaging is a great deal of perception and opinion shaping that is worse than just unsavory, it’s damaging. So I go beyond passively not wanting handheld (thus nonstop) access to actively wanting not to be connected. Whereas others share excitement about the latest smartphone or tablet and the speed, cost, and capacity of the service provider for the data line on their devices, I don’t demur but insist instead “keep that nonsense away from me.” I must negate those prerogatives, refuse their claims on my attention, and be undisturbed in my private thoughts while away from the computer, the Internet, and the constant flow of information aimed indiscriminately at me and everyone.

Of course, I win no converts with such refusals. When I was shopping for a new phone recently, the default assumption by the sales clerk was that I wanted bells and whistles. She simply could not conceive of my desire to have a phone that is merely a phone, and the store didn’t sell one anyway. Even worse, since all phones are now by default smart phones, I had a data block put on my account to avoid inadvertently connecting to anything that would require a data line. That just blew her mind, like I was forgoing oxygen. But I’m quite clear that any vulnerability to information either tempting me or forced on me is worth avoiding and that time away from the computer and its analogues is absolutely necessary.

Personal anecdote: I was shopping at an appliance retailer (went to look at refrigerators) recently that had an embedded Apple store. At the counter with three models of the iPhone 6, the latest designations, were three kids roughly 8-11 in age (I estimate). They were unattended by parents, who must have believed that if the kids were not causing problems, they were a-okay. The kids themselves were absolutely transfixed — enthralled, really — by the screens, standing silent and motionless (very unlike most kids) with either a fierce concentration or utterly empty heads as they examined the gadgets. They were so zoomed in they took no notice at all of passersby. Parents of earlier generations used the TV as a pacifier or baby sitter the same way, but these kids seemed even more hollow than typical, dull-eyed TV viewers. Only a few days later, at a concert I attended, I watched a child who apparently could not pry his eyes away from the tablet he was carrying — even as he struggled to climb the stairs to his seat. The blue glare of the screen was all over his face.

Both scenes were unspeakably sad, though I might be hard-pressed to convince anyone of that assessment had I intervened. These scenes play out again and again, demonstrating that the youngest among us are the most vulnerable and least able to judge when to turn away, to disconnect. Adults fare no better. Schools and device makers alike have succeeded in selling electronics as “educational devices,” but the reality is that instead of exploring the world around us, people get sucked into a virtual world and the glossy fictions displayed on screens. They ultimately become slaves to their own devices. I mourn for their corrupted mindscapes, distorted and ruined by parents and teachers who ought to be wiser but who themselves have been coopted and hollowed out by mass media.