Chad Comello

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William Clarke Quantrill

Part of the Cool Civil War Names series.

If someone made a movie about William Quantrill, he’d be sorta like Lt. Aldo Raines from Inglourious Basterds but a Confederate instead of U.S. Army and probably not as funny and killing civilians instead of Nazis. (Tarantino film coming in 3…2…) Originally a schoolteacher in Ohio, Quantrill toiled for a bit in low-paying jobs, his family saddled with debt after his father died. As a teenager he took up gambling in Salt Lake City and got handy with a knife and rifle before returning to Kansas where he quickly turned to the life of a brigand, earning money through noble affairs like capturing runaway slaves cattle raiding. It was during this time when his erstwhile anti-slavery views soured quickly toward Confederate sympathy.

At the war’s start in 1861, Quantrill joined up with Joel B. Mayes, a Cherokee chief and Confederate major who taught Quantrill the Native American-inspired guerrilla warfare techniques he’d later employ to a deadly degree. He fought for awhile, but soon spun off his own guerrilla band of bushwhackers later known as the Missouri Partisan Rangers, aka “Quantrill’s Raiders.” The group made its infamous name in Lawrence, Kansas, hotspot of Union activity, when it raided the town to avenge the deaths of some the Raiders’ kin in a Union prison. They executed 183 men and boys from age 14 to 90, looting the town bank and making off to Texas, where the group split off into smaller companies.

Quantrill’s last stand came in Kentucky in 1865 when he and a few remaining Raiders were killed in a raid, meeting at ignominious end at the age of 27. But his legacy lived on through one of his ex-Rangers named Jesse James, who used Quantrill’s hit-and-run tactics in bank robberies to great “success.” There also was established the William Clarke Quantrill Society, which is dedicated to “the study of the Border War and the War of Northern Aggression on the Missouri-Kansas border with an emphasis on the lives of Quantrill, his men, his supporters, his adversaries, and the resulting historical record.” In the South, the Civil War is known as the War of Northern Aggression; this may be my Yankeeness talking, but in Quantrill’s case the aggression was all his.

Up next in CCWN, the riled-up Robert Barnwell Rhett.

(sources: 1, 2, 3) (image)

Courage Under Fire Hoses

EYESONTHEPRIZE

I just finished reading Hampton Sides’ Hellhound On His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr., a recounting of the assassination of the famous civil rights leader through the perspectives of the people involved in the run-up to and aftermath of King’s slaying. I highly recommend this book for its extensive background on King’s assassin – the hermetic convict James Earl Ray – and its fast-moving report of the events in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

Meanwhile, I have been watching the 1987 miniseries Eyes On The Prize, which chronicles the Civil Rights movement from Brown vs. Board of Education to the Selma-Montgomery marches. It tells a gripping narrative of key events in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly in the South, through news footage and first-hand accounts by marchers, activists, politicians, and other figures involved in the struggle for freedom, for better or worse. It’s interesting learning about the development of the Civil Rights movement while reading about the MLK assassination, which in retrospect became the nadir of the movement and end of a transformational yet tumultuous chapter in civil rights history.

Watching the progression of the movement up close, via the documentary-style footage in Eyes On The Prize, has been fascinating and a bit distressing. The violence and unmitigated bigotry of the white communities that black citizens had to face every single step along the way never fails to bewilder me. Maybe it’s my modern bias speaking here, but only one generation in the past, fire hoses and attack dogs and police brutality and miscarriages of justice met anyone — mostly black freedom fighters but also sympathetic white activists — who sought equal protection under the law. That troubles me greatly.

Those freedom fighters needed a hefty load of courage to face that persecution and risk of death for the sake of the Cause. Men and women like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Minnijean Brown, Medgar Evers, James Farmer, Stokely Carmichael, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, James Earl Chaney, and countless others risked life and limb (and often lost them) in an uphill battle for rights we take for granted today.

It makes me wonder what I as a white middle-class male would have believed or done if I were transported to 1960s Mississippi. Would I have linked arms in an anti-segregation march, or would I have been one of the townsfolk lining the street cursing out the marchers for upsetting the peace? More likely, I probably would have been in the middle — sympathizing with the pursuit of basic civil rights but not outwardly acting on or against that pursuit’s behalf. Moderation is key, the saying goes, but in this case it wouldn’t be enough. The people featured in Eyes On The Prize decided to fight for their lives and the lives of others but without resorting to violence, facing an opposition that was armed and very invested in keeping the status quo. Those men and women chose liberty over life. How many of us could make that choice?

I ask these questions because I’m trying to sort through them myself. I’ve written before about how the orthodoxies we have today may be considered antiquated or even pernicious to future generations looking back. With this in mind, I think it’s important not to judge previous times too harshly without fully understanding the context and realities within which they lived. Since what I know of the Civil Rights movement generally consists of the remnants of a few years of history courses, I hope I will continue to learn about it in order to better understand the struggle of the people it involved.

Favorite Music Of 2012

lord_huron1

To me, music is blood. It runs through me, providing life and warmth in even the coldest and loneliest times. Here are a few albums from the last year, with a song from each, that gave me life and color in 2012.

Lord Huron, Lonesome Dreams (Song: “Ends of the Earth”)
First Aid Kit, Lion’s Roar (Song: “Emmylou”)
Good Old War, Come Back As Rain (Song: “Amazing Eyes”)
Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball (Song: “We Take Care Of Our Own”)
Michael Kiwanuka, Home Again (Song: “Always Waiting”)
Eric Whitacre, Water Night (Song: “Alleluia”)
Mumford & Sons, Babel (Song: “I Will Wait”)

(Image: Lord Huron)

Favorite Films Of 2012

avengers

With a fortnight now between us and 2012, I’ve had time to consider which films I liked in what I think was overall a weaker year for films than previous ones. Keeping in mind I’ve yet to see a few key films, here (in alphabetical order) are seven movies from last year that grabbed hold of me in some way:

The Avengers. How fun was this one? Sure, there was nearly too much going on and the villain was sub par, but this band-of-misfits story was popcorn fare at its most alchemic and thrilling. And though it’s a clear money-grabbing ploy, Marvel’s inter- and multi-film thread between the Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and Avengers movies thrills me to no end.

Les Misérables. I hear and understand all of your protestations, Les Mis Haters, but I still don’t care. This being my first experience with the show, I was thoroughly impressed by the simultaneous scope and intimacy in this hugely emotive (if occasionally uneven) epic. Seeing the stage version might change my mind, but right now I’m immensely satisfied with Hugh “The Dancing Wolverine” Jackman and his crooning compatriots.

Lincoln. Ever since this project was originally announced—way back when Liam Neeson was set to play Lincoln—I’ve followed every rumor and development, attempting along the way to telepathically convince Spielberg to stop wasting his time on dumb movies (Tintin and Indiana Jones 4 anyone?) and get to the good stuff. It finally worked, and once Daniel Day-Lewis signed on I knew it would be gold. Seeing those pre-release images of Day-Lewis in half and full Lincoln regalia brought on history-laced tears. My only complaint is that this wasn’t a miniseries; if John Adams can get the 8-hour treatment, why can’t the most documented and revered American figure ever?

Looper. Complaint up front: this seemed like two movies, with the first act feeling like a gritty, sci-fi noir with a great concept, and the second part morphing into a child-centered domestic drama. Despite this uneasy bifurcation, writer/director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) deserves much adulation for crafting such a creative and emotional story, and for boosting Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s already burgeoning career.

The Master. Like other P.T. Anderson films, this was a confounding and compelling narrative that was won by its performances yet greatly supported by a rich production design and savory soundtrack. Casting either Philip Seymour Hoffman or Joaquin Phoenix will give any film a heavy dose of tortured gravitas, so having both of these men together, working at a high level, makes for an intense ride. Though rightly labeled as an enigma, it’s one of those movies that requires multiple viewings for a worthy commentary.

Oslo, August 31st. A Norwegian cinéma vérité-style film, this is an engaging portrait of a man in quiet despair who tries valiantly to get out of it. Roger Ebert said this film was “quietly, profoundly, one of the most observant and sympathetic films” he’s seen, one that spotlights a life of what must be constant brinksmanship and inner turmoil for the recovering drug addict main character. The choices he makes, or doesn’t make, are the same ones we all make in our own lives—if not about drugs, then about the other things that keep us captive.

Zero Dark Thirty. I consider this a “clinical” thriller, because it trimmed all superfluous frills and subplots for the sake of a clean and concise story (despite being 160 minutes). I second Jessica Chastain’s comments at the Golden Globes, which lauded her character as a strong, capable, independent woman who stands on her own—an unfortunate rarity in Hollywood. The debate surrounding the film is a good one to have; meanwhile, I enjoyed this second recent high-wire thriller from director Kathryn Bigelow.

A few of my other favorites: ArgoEnd of Watch, Flight, Frankenweenie, Moonrise Kingdom, Queen of Versailles, 21 Jump Street.

Winter’s Harsh Beauty

“Wisdom comes with winters.” –Oscar Wilde

I’ve always taken for granted my ability to walk on ice.

Growing up in the Wisconsin winters, I had many opportunities to work and play on the ice, whether it be to shovel the sidewalk or play a pickup game of broomball. You learn pretty quickly how to adjust your walking motion when traversing a patch of ice; you can’t just amble through as usual, unless you want to repeatedly assail your tailbone.

Winter teaches hard lessons like this one. If you don’t learn how to walk, you’ll earn a quick trip to the icy pavement. If you don’t learn how to maneuver your car, a snowbank will find its way to your bumper on the quick. Winters in the north can be harsh, and they ought to be. Many people disagree with this, but they miss something good when they pine only for tropical temperatures. As Charles Simic writes, “The cold concentrates the mind. The moment we step outdoors, we do what we have to do with uncommon intelligence and dispatch, unlike those folks who can afford to sit in the shade on some Mediterranean or Caribbean island. … History, E.M. Cioran said, is the product of people who stand up and get busy. Can one be a dreamer or a dolt on the North Pole?”

When I take a walk or bike ride in the winter cold, my mind is razor-sharp. With the wind biting at my face and slowly numbing my less-layered limbs, the silly inconveniences of life I could care about only on a balmy 72-degree day evaporate with each cold breath. I expel so much energy bracing my body against the chill that re-entering a heated building feels purifying, like the cold is melting off me. I crave that feeling all year round.

The giddiness I display on a cold day or at the first sign of snow bewilders many. “How can you like the cold? You’re crazy.” I am. I’m a winter addict. I find my high in a walk through a snowy wood. In a soundtracked, nighttime snowfall. In the smell of the crisp winter air accented by a nearby bonfire. In a hot cup of tea thawing my frozen hands.

There is real beauty in the things we must struggle through. I love winter, to paraphrase a former president, not because it is easy but because it is hard. Some wish they could leap over winter into spring, escaping the blustery winds and slippery sidewalks for a more tepid time. But I say we need it. The deeper the winter, the more beautiful the spring. With their 75-and-sunny weather every day, Los Angelenos don’t know what they’re missing.

I’ll be able to appreciate all the more that first blooming flower in April not because it signifies winter’s end, but because I struggled through a season without flowers.

Living In Dystopia

I kind of have a thing for the end of the world.

That tweet from Lexicon Valley (one of my favorite podcasts, by the way) merely validated a feeling I’ve had for a while: that I’m a sucker for dystopian films.

I’m still not sure exactly what draws me to this kind of story. Maybe it’s because of the infinite re-viewings of the Back to the Future trilogy, specifically Part II, which focused on people seeing hellish versions of their past or future and fighting to fix them. Perhaps it’s because dystopian films often confirm the fatalism I occasionally feel about our country, culture, and world. In Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning Children of Men, for example, the abject dreariness and totalitarianism that permeate the Great Britain police state of the future appear not only possible but increasingly inevitable given the seemingly hopeless state of political and economic current affairs.

Similarly, in the film adaptation of the graphic novel V for Vendetta, Great Britain (poor old England can’t catch a democratic break) has been taken over by draconian despotism à la Orwell’s Oceania in the preeminent dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Or, if robotic uprisings are your thing, the film version of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot tells the tale of formerly subservient anthropomorphic robots who become self-aware and start killing humans.

But the flip side to all this bleakness is the other key component to many dystopian films, the factor that draws me in: what happens at their end. Theo, the protagonist in Children of Men, fights his apathy and regains his spirit enough to save the last hope on Earth. In V for Vendetta, the formerly timid Evey conquers her fears and helps V complete his rebellious (if terroristic) acts in order to expose the regime’s villainy and inspire the oppressed proletariat to rise up against the corrupt government. I, Robot has Will Smith saving the day (as he is wont to do) by conquering the supercomputer VIKI with the help of a specially programmed, friendly robot.

In all of these dystopian worlds the worst things may happen, but these things are not unconquerable. In stories as it ultimately is in real life, freedom conquers slavery; good triumphs over evil; the will to live outlasts the will to suppress. These may be old-fashioned tropes, but they keep bringing me back even to the darkest of tales if only to see how the light arrives again.

Some dystopian films I’d recommend: Minority Report, Children of Men, V for Vendetta, I Robot, WALL-E, District 9, Looper, Dark City. Wikipedia also has a more extensive list.

Thurlow Weed

Part of the Cool Civil War Names series.

This guy, for better or worse, was like the Karl Rove of his time. The sources differ on the details about his life, but we know that before he turned into the Turd Blossom of the mid-19th century Weed apprenticed as a printer and editor of various New York newspapers during the 1820s, which got him interested in politics. No fan of Andrew Jackson, Weed supported John Quincy Adams in 1824 and even won himself a seat in the New York State Assembly, where he met future bigwig William Seward.

It’s then when Weed latched on to the Anti-Masonic movement (largely due to Jackson being a Mason). The movement dissipated in the ’30s, but was eventually folded into the more mainstream Whig Party, which was bolstered by Weed’s Albany Evening Journal throughout the ’30s and ’40s. Between his journalistic and political endeavors, Weed made a lot of friends and a lot deals – so much so that his adversaries nicknamed him the “Lucifer of the Lobby” (a pretty killer nickname).

As the Whigs dissolved into the nascent Republican Party, so did Weed. When the 1860 election came around, Weed’s old buddy Seward was the frontrunner but may have been screwed by his relationship with Weed, who some Republican delegates that were former Democrats were in hate with. Of course, that scraggly, rangy lawyer from Springfield then swooped in, got the nod, became president, etc.

Being the pragmatic man he was, Weed jumped on the Abe Bandwagon and even served as a European envoy during the war – after which he returned to newspapering before slowly fading from the public view and dying in 1882.

Up next on CCWN, the querulous WILLIAM CLARKE QUANTRILL.

(sources: 1, 2) (image)

Colbert And The Constitution

I want to highlight this recent interview the real Stephen Colbert did with NPR’s Fresh Air, because he shows yet again how intelligent, empathetic, and savvy is the man behing the blowhard.

You should listen to the entire thing, but one part that stuck out to me was his take on churches who wish to abolish the law that prohibits religious institutions with a tax-exemption from endorsing or opposing political candidates from the pulpit. The real Colbert believes preachers should be allowed to talk politics, but also sees the problem with it:

I think they should be able to do it, but I also think that it’s a very dangerous thing to do — not just for our politics, but it’s also dangerous for the faith of people who are exercising that right. Because they seem to think that it’s a one-way membrane — that they’ll get religion into our politics. But they’re ignoring the fact that politics will come right back through that gate onto our religion…

…And if you actually have a political party that is this religion, or a political party that is that religion, I think that’s a short road to the kind of religious civil war — whether or not it’s actually an armed war — but religious civil war that we fled in Europe. America has avoided that. And I think our politics are so horrible these days. … Why anyone would want that horrible tar on something as fragile as faith is beyond me.”

It’s a common trope among Christian fundamentalists that religion ought to be inserted into their politics out of an obligation to “fight the good fight” or what have you. As someone with a faith background, I understand the impulse but find it completely wrong-headed and even portentous.

To illustrate: You show me a fundamentalist Christian who believes his religious dogma ought to purposefully influence his country’s political policies, and I’ll show you a radical Muslim who believes the same thing. I’ll bet you $1 million from Colbert’s SuperPAC that that Christian would likely have a problem with that. (Though most conservative Christians these days don’t seem to have a problem with Mormons.)

That Christians or any other faith-group would want to see the faith they profess to love so much dragged through the festering mud-swamp that is the American political process in order to prove a point is dismaying and downright depressing. It’s not just your faith you’re messing with; it’s mine and many others’ – the shared property of people who see the Constitutionally-sanctioned separation of church and state as protecting the church, not holding it back.

So by all means, vote as you please based on your religion, values, favorite color, whatever. But don’t come knocking at the gate wanting your religion to be let in, because I don’t want to know what could be on the other side.

Wild Strawberries And A Poem

I recently watched Ingmar Bergman’s achingly doleful Wild Strawberries, and one particular part stood out: the poem read by Isak Borg, the lonely old professor, when asked to resolve a lunchtime debate over the existence of God. After some Internet research, I learned the poem is an 1819 Swedish hymn by Josef Olaf Wallin called “Where is the friend I seek everywhere?” – which a helpful blogger translated.

The full hymn is eight stanzas, but here is one English translation of four of them that captures the plaintive yet uplifting tone of the film:

Where is that friend, whom everywhere I seek?
When the day dawns, my longing only grows;
When the day flees, I still cannot find Him
Though my heart burns.

I see his traces, wherever power moves,
a flower blooms, or a leaf bends.
In the breath I draw, the air I breathe
His love is mixed.

I hear his voice, where summer winds whisper,
where groves sing and where rivers roar
I hear it best in my heart speaking,
and me keeping.

O! When so much beauty in every vein
of Creation and life fail,
How beautiful must the source be,
The eternally True!

This poem can’t resolve the debate over God’s existence, but it certainly favors one side. The film focuses on Borg’s struggle to grasp his life’s meaning and the consequences of his callousness more than questions of faith. But with this hymn on his mind, how can the remorseful professor, at the end of his life, not think about What It All Means?

Introverts Are Not Misanthropes

At least, they don’t have to be.

I read this slice from a John Heilemann interview in which he equates Obama’s introversion with a dislike of people in general. Compared to Bill Clinton (who I’m pretty sure can eschew food and water to survive on attention alone), he says, Obama doesn’t thrive off the glad-handing or schmoozing a “successful” politician must do. Instead, he leaves the legislative arm-twisting to more interested surrogates and stays within a small, close-knit group of advisors.

Here’s the key exchange:

JH: Obama is an unusual politician. There are very few people in American politics who achieve something — not to mention the Presidency — in which the following two conditions are true: one, they don’t like people. And two, they don’t like politics.

KC: Obama doesn’t like people?

JH: I don’t think he doesn’t like people. I know he doesn’t like people. He’s not an extrovert; he’s an introvert.

With respect to Heilemann, I disagree. Not with the notion that Obama probably doesn’t “like” people, but with his contention that his alleged misanthropy is intrinsically connected with his introversion. I’ve written before about my own journey of understanding introversion and how we’re a woefully misunderstood bunch; this newest bit about Obama simply reinforces the central fallacy about introversion, that we don’t like people.

I am an introvert and I love people—in small doses. There’s a huge difference between not liking people and merely wanting to be around groups of people in regulated exposures. Contrary to the popular yet wrong belief, introverts are not defined by their opinion of other people but by where they get their energy. Just because I need alone time does not mean I hate being around people; it means I need to “recharge my batteries” after a long day of being around (usually) higher-energy people.

The Bill Clintons of the world don’t get exhausted by socializing; they thrive on it, and probably can’t stand being alone. But Obama, like me, no doubt cherishes any time alone with his thoughts he can muster in his hyper-active and socialized job as chief executive of an entire nation.

I do, however, agree with Kevin Drum’s take at Mother Jones on Obama’s introversion in one regard: that Obama’s introversion is probably why I like the guy so much. I like that he’s more concerned with policy and getting stuff done than forcing a faux-folksy persona to get a few votes. “I get that schmoozing is part of the job,” Drum writes, “and I also get that most politicians are insufferable egotists who get bent out of shape whenever someone doesn’t pay sufficient attention to them.”

Introverts are not automatically misanthropes, just as extroverts are not automatically insufferable egotists. Since introverts don’t run the world (usually—in that way Obama is definitely a change I can believe in), we need an extra dose of understanding from our extroverted brethren.

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