Monday, June 30, 2014

A book review, more or less

I just finished reading Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain. It's one of those books that gets mentioned fairly often as one of the most influential works of the 20th century so I decided what the heck, everyone should read the autobiography of a Trappist monk at least once in their lives.

Or perhaps not. Maybe I missed something by not being a Catholic, but what I got out of the book wasn't some lost soul's journey towards spiritual enlightenment. It was more like Merton yammering on and on about how special he was and waiting for God to tap him on the shoulder in confirmation of his narcissism. But then a lot of religious teaching and prayer strikes me that way: "I'm so special I'm being singled out for special grace." Which, come to think of it, is a basic tenet in Calvinism: there are the chosen elect who are going to glory no matter what crappy thing they do on earth and then there are the rest of us, the poor schmucks who are going to fry no matter how much time we spend in church or on our knees. "Jesus loves me, but he can't stand you." But back to Merton.

For those not familiar with Merton, he was the older son of two artists, Owen Merton and Ruth Jenkins. Merton was born in France during World War I and shuttled between France, the United States, and England as a child and young man. Both of his parents died young; Merton was barely six years old when his mother succumbed to cancer and was a college student when a brain tumor killed his father. Raised as a nominal Protestant but not particularly religious, while he was in college he began drifting towards Catholicism. No doubt a Freudian analyst could have a field day with the motherless Merton's growing fascination with a religion that at times seems to emphasize the Mother of God more than God himself. Merton certainly provides a ton of material with his lengthy meditations on the Holy Mother and various female saints.

Eventually, in his early twenties, Merton takes instruction in the Catholic faith, is baptized, and takes communion. He becomes a fervent Catholic, sometimes attending mass multiple times in one day, and begins going on religious retreats, including one to the Trappist monastery in Kentucky where he later decides to apply for admission to as a novice. A naturally gifted writer, Merton had once harbored ambitions to be a poet and novelist. It is his intention when he enters the monastery to give up writing and become a simple cloistered religious: a monk who spends his time either in the hard physical labor needed to keep the monastery functioning or in contemplation and prayer. The Trappists (more accurately,the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance) are considered the most ascetic of the religious orders; the monks observe a rule of silence in the monastery, they are limited in their personal possessions, and they have little contact with the outside world. I get the distinct impression that not only was Merton seeking something his life had lacked -- a place where he could feel like he belonged, complete with some nice rigid structure -- he was hoping to turn off his brain. He'd just sink into the monastic life, let the rules of the Order guide him, and he'd never have to think again.

Unfortunately for Merton, upper management at the monastery had different ideas. Merton was well-educated, literate in several languages, and had taught English and composition at the college level. The Cistercians weren't going to waste his talents by having him spend all his time as a field hand cutting hay or picking beans. He did his share of physical labor as a novice, but found himself assigned to the scriptorium pretty quickly. He translated religious materials from French, he wrote pamphlets, and eventually he began his autobiography. At the time it was published, he'd been a monk for 7 years.

In looking at reviews of The Seven Storey Mountain, it appears the book caught a lot of people by surprise. It became a best seller, has gone through multiple editions, and continues to sell reasonably well today, almost 70 years after its original publication. I can see why -- Merton does a lot of self-flagellation over his misspent youth and his avoidance of God, but eventually does find salvation. It helps that Merton can write. I may have been skeptical while reading The Seven Storey Mountain, but I wasn't bored.

On the other hand. . . I am definitely skeptical when it comes to Merton's motivations. Call me a cynic if you will, but there's just something a little too coincidental about Merton having a crisis of conscience and impulsively heading for the cloistered life when it's 1941, World War II is raging in Europe, and he's just gotten a notice to report for a second military draft physical. The military rejected him the first time he reported because he was missing too many teeth, but as war drew closer, they got less picky. He's a healthy single male, he's appalled by the thought of fighting in a war, and even the notion of serving as a medic was losing its charm -- the monastery must have looked really good. Did he consciously draft dodge? I doubt it, but you never know. The speed with which he got himself behind the monastery walls when he got the notice for a second physical was rather dazzling.

That said, whatever Merton's original motives may have been or how much his choices were influenced by his traumatic and unhappy childhood, once he decided he had a religious vocation, he didn't waver much from it, although I've no doubt his other writings include a lot of musings on remaining strong in the faith. In addition to his autobiography, he cranked out a zillion (okay, a couple dozen or so) books on spirituality, philosophy, and religion. Are any of them worth reading? I don't have a clue. I do know that Merton quotes show up in Facebook memes fairly often, so apparently there are some decent aphorisms lurking in his prose. Will I ever read any other books by Thomas Merton? Probably not. One dip in the pool of egoistic religiosity was enough; I've no desire to read anymore.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Van Riper State Park, Champion (or is it Michigamme?), Michigan

The Guppy finally left the safety of our driveway a few days ago. After completing various minor fixes (a leaking fuel line, a stuck valve on the hot water line, and a few other irritants), the S.O. announced we were finally ready to roll. So where did we go? What type of marathon adventure did we embark upon? If the numbers are right on Google Maps, we drove a whopping 41 miles to Van Riper State Park.
On the positive side, we did get out of the county. 

Van Riper is the park I always think of as "Champion Beach." Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was a little barracuda, Champion Beach was the place my family would head to for swimming and a picnic.
The park is on the east end of Lake Michigamme and has a nice sand beach -- this pontoon boat is anchored a few hundred feet south of the swimming area. The lake is a little under six miles long from east to west; my Old Man always liked to do some reminiscing about how back in his misspent youth he once swam from one end of it to the other, although I can never remember if it was from the Michigamme end toward Champion or vice versa. I do know he liked to swim, which is why it's kind of a mystery that none of his kids ever learned how. But I digress. 
Van Riper has a huge parking area for day use visitors. On the days we were there, though, I don't believe I ever saw a car parked there -- it was a mystery. Beautiful beach, nice lake, air temperatures in the 50s -- that's pretty balmy for the U.P. so I'm not sure why no one was interested in swimming. 
I had reserved a camping site through the Michigan DNR state parks website, which (to my mild amazement) is a really good site. When you make a reservation, you get to pick the options you want (e.g., electrical service or rustic). The campground map shows you the sites that are available for the days you want to be there and has photographs. You don't have to take the computer's word for it that the site is level and shaded; you can see it in the on-line photo. You also get told the site's size (so many feet wide, so many feet deep), what all it includes (usually just picnic table and fire ring), how many feet, more or less, it is to the nearest latrine, and where the water faucets are. The only drawback to the site I picked was the pine pollen. I did not realize the red pine were blooming; after two days my car looked like it was back in Atlanta in April.  
Van Riper has a lot of camp sites; about two-thirds have electricity, including a few with 50 amp service. None have water or sewer, although there is a dump station. (We saw one dude towing a honey wagon over to the dump station -- I sincerely hope we never end up having to invest in one of those suckers. If the holding tank starts to get so full it needs to be dumped, I'll take that as a sign that it's time to hit the road again.) For people who'd like to camp but don't own an RV and aren't willing to tent camp, the park has several rustic cabins available for rent. 
I deliberately picked a camp site that was tucked back in the pines (also known as "as far from the playground as humanly possible while remaining within the park"), but there is a lot of green space at the park if a family's traveling with little barracudas that need room to run around without having to worry about tripping over tree roots. The S.O. did mention that if we decide to camp at Van Riper again, we'd pick one of the sites that we now know has more grass on it. Anyway, the pavilion in the above photo has been there as long as I can remember; the S.O. was speculating that it might be WPA work, but neither of us knows enough about the park's history to be sure. 
The interior certainly looks right for a possible 1930's construction date. 

Although I tend to think of Van Riper almost strictly in terms of the beach, the lake itself is a favorite of fishermen -- there were a fair number of campers who had towed boats to the park and seemed pretty serious about getting out on the water at the crack of dawn. The park also has some decent hiking trails -- varied terrain, not short, and with interesting stuff to see in addition to the usual trees and squirrels. 
One trail is labeled "Old Wagon Road" and appears to run pretty straight on the map. Another one, the "Main Trail," includes a section that is pretty clearly old rail bed, either for a railroad or a mining tram. My guess is that it's a section of the old Iron Range & Huron Bay Railroad, especially as it goes right through an area where there are the remnants of iron mining. 
A short loop off the Main Trail is the Mining Loop. We did spot some possible mining ruins, what looked like old shafts, but did not get far before deciding to retreat. The S.O. and I had planned to hike longer, but discovered the Deep Woods Off was wearing off fast -- either that, or the mosquitoes were immune. When it's so close to home, one of these days we'll bathe in DEET and go try again. I would like to do the entire mining loop, not just a short section of it. 
The park also includes a tribute to the 1980s moose drop. There's an information kiosk that does side-by-side comparisons of deer and moose, right down to the size of the droppings and how much is produced in one "movement," and there's a memorial rock.
The Guppy didn't do anything surprising, everything functioned more or less the way it was supposed to, and even the cat survived camping. We did figure out we need to block off a few places the feline is currently able to get into, but fortunately she didn't do anything disgusting while exploring. We now have a better idea of what we need to add to the basic supplies and what we can live without. Next time we'll venture farther, and maybe by the time cold weather gets here I'll have convinced the S.O. we'd really like to go explore some of the Southern states for awhile. 
Cleo chilling out while camping. Like most cats, her motto is "Life is hard. Nap often."
Trivia note: Van Riper State Park is named after a Dr. Van Riper; he practiced medicine in the Champion-Michigamme area in the early twentieth century. One of the cabins at the park is the Cully Gage Cabin and was named in honor of Van Riper's son, Dr. Charles "Cully" Gage Van Riper, a noted speech pathologist and author. I'm blanking on the first name of the first Dr. Van Riper and am too lazy to Google it. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Is your stuff worth your life?

I was over on Facebook this morning and read a post about a canine hero. The dog, a pit bull, sprang into action after his owner refused to hand over his truck keys to two armed robbers. One of the robbers shot at the guy (a bullet grazed his forehead), and the dog responded by going after the gunmen. One guy ran; the other one got mangled pretty good by the dog. The dog himself was shot several times but is recovering nicely now.

You know, it is great that the dog protected his owner. It's something every dog owner hopes his or her own dog would do, spring into action and become a fur-covered avenger when the chips are down. At the same time, though, I'm thinking, in essence, just how unbelievably stupid does a person have to be to refuse to cooperate with two armed robbers?? Not just one punk with a gun, mind you, but TWO?! Dude, just how tricked out is your ride if you think it's worth more than your life? Trucks can be replaced. It's just stuff. If it's new enough to have comprehensive insurance, you could even end up with a nicer truck in the end -- I've noticed some car insurance companies advertise that they'll pay for a replacement vehicle one model year newer than whatever it is you have now if your vehicle is totaled or stolen. Just what did the guy think was going to happen when he said no, that they'd respond with, "well, okay then, we'll just amble off and steal someone else's car," doff their caps politely, and leave?

For as long as I can remember, the standard advice from law enforcement officers and self defense experts is that when someone with a weapon tries to rob you, cooperate. Just give them what they want and odds are that no one ends up injured or dead. Your life isn't worth your car or your purse or your jewelry.

My big fear, incidentally, when it comes to potential armed robberies, is that in the extremely unlikely event I was ever a victim, I'd end up pistol-whipped or dead because I so rarely have much cash on me and have nothing else worth stealing. Robbers would beat the snot out of me because they were pissed that I'd wasted their time. Then again, when I'm driving a Focus and have the fashion sense of a bag lady, I doubt if I'm much of a target to begin with.  

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Sonja Henie's tutu

I put in a few hours at the museum yesterday orienting one of our new members to the inventorying and cataloging process. Thoroughly confused her by doing a quick walk-through of PastPerfect, explained the hard copy inventory form we're using and what determines the Object Number for each item, did a fast tour of the storage building, took a quick look at the attic, and then -- because luckily she hadn't cut and run yet -- opened one box that had come down from the attic to show her how you never know just what you're going to find in those unlabeled cartons.

It was a small box, a medium size USPS Priority Mail box, and felt heavy so I figured we'd find a few books in it. And we did. We also found a stiff with dirt pair of men's basketball shorts from some unknown team (if they went with the matching jersey, the team was called The Bombers), a slightly moth-eaten felt patch from the Pelkie Agricultural School, a thick stack of flight instruction books, and . . . (dramatic pause). . . Sonja Henie's tutu.

Well, not quite. Towards the bottom of the box there were several programs from ice skating revues held in the Detroit area in the 1940s, including a close to pristine program from a Sonja Henie ice show. Wow. Sonja Henie, the woman who for several generations made every little girl in the world want to learn to figure skate. As a recent article in Vanity Fair notes:
There are now three generations that have never heard of her. Say her name to anyone under 40, and they won’t know that she was the first teen phenom of modern times—that in 1928, months before Shirley Temple was even born, this dimpled imp of 15 was already a child star on the world’s stage. She was called “the Nasturtium of the North,” “the Ice Queen of Norway,” “the White Swan,” . . . When she died, in 1969, her holdings were estimated at more than $47 million. Indeed, the word that really fit this bundle of cutting-edge charisma would not be coined until the 1960s, when Andy Warhol packed star wattage and have-it-all hunger into three syllables: “superstar.” Sonja Henie was the first.
I'm young enough that I never saw any of her movies as first-run features in a theater. Back in the 1950s, though, the local television station aired them repeatedly. It doesn't take many repeated viewings of Sonja Henie movies to make a person want to skate. In fact, all it took now was just holding that program and I found myself wanting to dig out the figure skates and start wearing them around the house -- which isn't quite as stupid as it sounds. You put on skate guards, wear the skates around the house, and you're strengthening the muscles in your lower legs and working on your balance without doing any special exercises. Plus, if you're short, you're suddenly several inches taller and able to see the dust on top of the refrigerator. But I digress.

Sonja Henie. The woman was an amazing athlete. The ice shows were glamorous, the movies decent entertainment (although, to be honest, she wasn't a particularly good actress), but what really makes her worth remembering is her career in competitive skating. She won 10 consecutive World Figure Skating championships and three consecutive Olympic gold medals. By today's standards, her skating seems rather mild -- we've gotten used to seeing women routinely perform triple Axels and other dramatic jumps -- but until Henie came along and changed the sport, even single Axels were unheard of for women. She shortened the skirts, changed the skates from black to white, and cemented figure skating's place as an Olympic sport.

So, wow, Sonja Henie's tutu. . .

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Why does the CIA still exist?

On a regular basis, politicians of all stripes will bloviate about the need to trim the federal budget, eliminate waste, and generally have government do a better job for the taxpayers. Well, here's a suggestion, something that would plug a giant black hole that's sucking dollars into some bizarre netherworld, the government should get rid of the Central Intelligence Agency. It was created following World War II in response to the Cold War. Communism with a Capital C posed such an existential threat that various policy-makers decided it would be a good idea for the U.S. to have a permanent intelligence service that functioned independently of every other agency.

From what I can tell, those people, from President Truman on down the government chain of command, were pretty much totally wrong. Based on everything I've seen and read about the CIA's performance over the past 7 decades, everything they touch turns to crap. They work really, really hard and still manage to be dead wrong over and over and over. Either that, on those rare occasions when they've got it right and they really do know what's going on, they don't bother to tell anyone what they know.

I know. I know. I've ranted on this subject before. So what inspired this latest rant? I just finished reading The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. By the time I was done with it, I was starting to feel like strapping on a C-4 vest myself and heading for Langley wouldn't be a bad idea. There's nothing quite like learning that the guys in the CIA thought it was more important to keep hoarding data than it was to bother telling anyone in the FBI's counter-terrorism unit that several known terrorists were in the U.S. and taking flying lessons. The fact that Al Qaeda and other groups had been talking for many years about (a) taking a second shot at the World Trade Center and (b) flying airplanes into buildings was apparently irrelevant. After all, alerting the FBI would have let Al Qaeda know that U.S. intelligence was tracking them. Words fail me. I'd love to know what the point of gathering intelligence is if you don't plan to ever use it. If you're not going to use it, then that intelligence gathering is as pointless as hoarding used matchbooks or Hummel figurines.

Bottom line. The Central Intelligence Agency knew what Al Qaeda was up to, they knew it was just a matter of time, and they did absolutely nothing to prevent it. Tell them to go into another country and figure out a way to overthrow its government and they're right there, setting up coups and doing the happy dance. Suggest to them that maybe they do something proactive to help their own country and what's the response? A stone wall, silence, and active efforts to prevent U.S. law enforcement from finding out just what the CIA does know. I'd suggest that the next time around the terrorists go after CIA headquarters, but why would they? Based on all the evidence, the one building in the country that's never going to be a terrorist target is that structure in Langley, Virginia.

National Security Agency buildings and operatives should be pretty safe, too. They're another agency that has a pack rat mentality: they also hoard data apparently solely for the sake of hoarding data. Neither agency is much of a threat to any potential terrorists; CIA and NSA are voyeurs, not actors. They like to watch, but they're never going to do anything useful. If they do act, they'll manage to get it wrong or create a situation that leads to major headaches down the road -- the CIA isn't real good at thinking about long term consequences. If they were, they'd never have cooperated with the Pakistani intelligence service in supporting the taliban.

Of course, when it comes to anti-terrorism efforts and our bungling government, the CIA isn't exactly alone in its stupidity. One of the more depressing sections of the book describes the FBI's attempts to investigate the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. The American ambassador to Yemen apparently created more problems for the investigative team than any of the Yemeni officials did. According to multiple sources, Barbara Bodine was more concerned with preserving the illusion of good relations with the Yemeni government than she was in helping find out exactly who was responsible for the deaths of American sailors. When the FBI's lead investigator returned to New York, Bodine refused to allow him to re-enter the country, which effectively knee-capped the investigation. At the time (and continuing to this day, for that matter) Yemen was teeming with operatives and cells of various jihadist groups, a fact that was well-known in the intelligence community but Bodine apparently preferred to ignore. In a just world, Bodine would now be rotting in some obscure hellhole, demoted to file clerk status or teaching at a cash-strapped community college, but no such luck -- she's a regular lecturer at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Political and International Affairs.

I say "illusion of good relations" because another thing that's become abundantly clear through the various books I've read on the subject is that the U.S. in general can be truly stupid in figuring out what's going on in the minds of our "allies." Maybe it's an American fault, but over and over we get lied to, sometimes in truly outrageous no-one-in-their-right-mind-would-believe-this-crap fashion, but the politicians keep right on taking people solely at face value. The Saudis repeatedly told the Americans, yes, we'll help you get Osama while at the same time they were steering money into the terrorists' treasuries. Al Qaeda would never have succeeded without the active, albeit covert, support of multiple Arab governments. Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt. . . none of them worried about Al Qaeda and similar groups as long as those groups stayed in Afghanistan.

I'm not quite sure just what the takeaway is for me from this latest excursion into the incompetent cesspool that is American government. I already knew bureaucracies tend to be incredibly inefficient, and the more money that gets poured into them without any accountability, the more inefficient and incompetent they become. The CIA is a black hole: what are they spending money on? Who knows -- it's all classified, but Charlie Wilson's War with its descriptions of million dollar payrolls for Afghan warlords did a nice job of illustrating how easy it is for them to waste money. Further, all bureaucracies tend to end up focusing more on preserving their personal turf than on the reason they were created in the first place. And of course I knew that there are always desk monkeys who over-interpret the rules and create roadblocks where none should exist. You run into those people everywhere, from the power-tripping jerk at the DMV who doesn't want to accept your out of state birth certificate as legitimate because it's not exactly the same format as the one his state uses to the Human Resources clerks who insist on remarkably narrow definitions for job qualifications. I guess I just hadn't realized just how bad it was in the parts of the government we all hope are actually trying to help us, and for sure you don't expect to see pretty vindictiveness and personal power tripping on the ambassadorial level.

It is definitely time for me to stop reading recent American history -- I need to immerse myself in some upbeat, cheery fiction for awhile, something that will look good compared to the morass that is the current "war on terror." It's definitely time to re-read Game of Thrones. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Thursday, June 5, 2014

One man's weed

I spent yesterday trolling for wood ticks. Okay, I wasn't deliberately trolling for them, but I might as well have been. I was crawling around in the grass trying to take pictures of violets. At this time of the year we're blessed with a plethora of violets. Little tiny white violets, several different sizes of purple violets, and yellow violets. I wasn't particularly successful -- the camera kept wanting to focus on blades of grass instead of the flowers -- but it wasn't a bad way to spend a sunny afternoon.
The yellow violets are in the old orchard. The purple violets (the violet violets?) are scattered around the property, and I tend to see the tiny white ones close to the house.
When it comes to wildflowers, the violets are among my favorites. They bloom in the spring, they're a sure sign that winter is over, and in general they're a pretty inoffensive flower. I have a hunch the S.O. may like violets, too. As long as they're blooming, he knows he's not allowed to mow. 
Which brings me to my question of the day: Why on earth are violets included on the list of noxious weeds that Round-up will kill? What type of sick fuck soulless jerk would consider violets a problem?
Probably the same type of person who would consider the dandelions a problem. Personally, I like dandelions. They're cheerful, they're another sign Winter is definitely over, the young leaves make good salad greens, and I've heard the flowers can be made into an interesting wine. I've never tried it, but one of these years I may take a shot at it. 

As for the trolling for ticks, I wasn't particularly successful. I did find a dog tick on my foot yesterday, but it was many hours after crawling through the violets so doubt that's where I picked it up. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Broken vows

Over the years I've made a number of promises to myself, usually about reading choices. Authors who insist on writing in dialect generally annoy the heck out of me, so I keep saying I won't read books that contain a lot of dialect or attempts at mimicking a regional accent. Authors who turn pets into characters or (even worse) have the pets serve as narrators also annoy me. I've spent many years avoiding books where you get to see what the cat or the dog or some other critter is thinking. The whole concept of seeing anything through the dog's eyes struck me as being way too twee for my taste.

As for dialect, in my many years of reading, I can think of exactly one book where the author did such a smooth job with writing dialect that it felt natural rather than affected -- Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin. In every other example I can recall, attempts at the local dialect come across as stilted, unbelievable, condescending, distracting, or all of the above. Thus, one of my other promises to myself as a reader is that once I've seen that an author has a weakness for writing in dialect I'll avoid that author's work in the future.

In the past two weeks I managed to break both of those promises to myself. First, I made the mistake of reading a second Joseph Heywood book: Running Dark. My only excuse is that I knew Heywood sets his mysteries in the Upper Peninsula (his protagonist, Grady Service, is a Department of Natural Resources conservation officer). I had read one book in the series already (Blue Wolf in Green Fire) so decided to try another to see if it was any better. It's pretty common for the first few books by an author to be a tad awkward, but then the writer improves with time (or acquires a better copy editor). Heywood did not improve. If anything, the amount of what Heywood apparently thinks is Yooperese increased. Even worse, when Heywood starts salting in the Yooperese, it's generally to signal that the character speaking with a local accent is the Upper Michigan equivalent of a dumb yokel, a redneck, or a hick. Service himself supposedly grew up in the U.P. -- he's second generation DNR; his father was a game warden in the same district Service now covers -- so why doesn't Grady himself have a regional accent?

 In any case, there are other flaws in Heywood's books. Despite his claims of having spent a lot of time talking with conservation officers and doing research in the U.P., I kept getting the feeling that the research consisted of looking at a Rand McNally and reading state park brochures. It's like the fact the U.P. is huge just doesn't register with Heywood. He has Grady living near Bark River but dropping in to the DNR office in Newberry for morning coffee and makes it sound like the two towns are a few minutes apart when they're actually separated by about 125 miles. A run up to Marquette wouldn't be quite as bad (it's only about 80 miles) but it's still not right next door. I know cops can get places faster than we mere mortals who lack sirens and flashing red and blue lights on our cars, but so far as I know even cops can't teleport.

Okay, having screwed up by selecting a book to read that I knew in advance was likely to feature an annoying amount of dialect, what did I do?

I checked out a book -- Dog On It -- that warned me up front it was going to look at the world through a dog's eyes. Why? I don't know. Maybe because it was a dog and not a cat. There are a lot of mystery writers out there who love using cats as plot devices but not many that use dogs. I was curious.

The good news? The author, Spencer Quinn, can actually write. It made the annoyance of seeing everything through the dog's eyes a little less annoying. The book was remarkably readable. Will I read any other books in what appears to be a series (all narrated by the dog)? No. Because they're narrated by the dog.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

If there's a Hell, I hope the Dulles brothers are in it

I just finished reading yet another depressing book about American foreign policy stupidity. This particular narrative describes the first (but definitely not the last) attempt by Allen Dulles and John Foster Dulles to mold the world to fit their ethnocentric and elitist view of the way things should be. The great colonial powers -- Britain and France -- were losing their grip on the regions they once controlled so the Dulles siblings decided it was appropriate that the United States "take up the white man's burden," all in the name of fighting Communism.

Every so often when discussions of Iran's relationship with the United States come up, there'll be a reference to U.S. interference in Iranian politics in the 1950s. The fact the CIA engineered the overthrow of a popularly elected Prime Minister and helped strengthen an autocratic monarchy will get mentioned, but often the details are vague or the rationale obscure, e.g., "Iran was going to raise oil prices." That always had me wondering why we'd bother to overthrow a government over oil in the 1950s when we weren't as dependent on foreign oil then as we would be a few years later -- and so far as I know we didn't try to overthrow any governments  in the 1970s when OPEC jacked up oil prices. Now I know the real story -- it wasn't oil that the U.S. worried about; it was Stalin.

All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by journalist Stephen Kinzer lays it all out: Iranian history beginning with the rise of the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great, the importance of Shi'a branch of Islam, the role of the British in the Middle East, and the decision by the Dulles brothers to get the U.S. involved in suppressing nationalism and thus sow the seeds for generations of terrorism to follow. The years following World War II were troublesome ones for the European countries that had established colonies and "protectorates" around the world; more and more colonies decided they preferred governing themselves instead of putting up with exploitation by the British, French, Dutch, and other Europeans. Iran was never an actual colony, but generations of a corrupt monarchy had acquiesced in selling off the nation's resources to foreign interests. In the early 1900s, a British company obtained a concession giving that company exclusive rights to oil exploration and development in a region in southern Iran. On May 26, 1908, they struck liquid gold in what Kinzer describes as the greatest oil field ever found. Later that year, a group of investors formed the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Within a few years, they had drilled hundreds of wells, laid many miles of pipeline, and built what was for many years the world's largest oil refinery on the island of Abadan in the Persian Gulf.

Under the terms of the concession, the British had complete control of Anglo-Persian. The Iranian government received royalties every year, but no Iranians were involved in managing the company or even working at professional positions such as engineer. The only Iranians employed were persons working at the lowest level jobs (i.e., manual laborers), those Iranians were paid subsistence wages, and the only housing available was a slum with no sewers, running water, or paved streets. In contrast, the British workers lived in a company town that was what Kinzer calls a "typical colonial enclave." These were conditions that anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together would recognize as a status that could not continue indefinitely, but the British chose to remain willfully ignorant.

It was not until after World War II, though, that Iranian unhappiness about the oil concession finally reached the point of no return. Over time, Iranians had become more and more unhappy about the many ways the British were screwing the country over: among other things, the oil company management refused to allow any representatives of the Iranian government to audit the books so there was a strong suspicion that the amount being paid in royalties was much smaller than the actual amount owed. The situation got worse when U.S. oil companies negotiated a deal with Saudi Arabia to form the Arab-American Oil Company and agreed to a 50/50 split on the oil revenues. The British flat out refused to agree to such an arrangement. In fact, according to Kinzer, no matter what proposal the Iranians put on the table, the British simply responded with a flat no. As far as the Brits were concerned, there was no negotiating points. From their perspective, everything was fine and they didn't intend to change a thing.

Then the Iranians elected Mohammad Mosaddegh as prime minister. Mosaddegh decided Iran had been getting cheated by the British long enough; he gave them an ultimatum: negotiate or Iran will nationalize its oil. Once again, the Brits said no, apparently assuming that Mosaddegh was bluffing. He wasn't.

Even before Mosaddegh followed through on the threat to nationalize Iran's oil, the British had begun plotting to overthrow the Iranian government. They had a well-established network of spies and covert operators in Iran; the British Secret Service had no qualms about sabotaging a democratically elected government if that government was threatening Britain's interests. Unlike the Americans who would take over the plotting when the British were expelled from the country, the British were motivated almost solely by greed. British investors didn't want to lose any of the money they'd been getting from the Anglo-Persian Oil company. While the Americans fretted about Communism creeping over the border into Iran from the Soviet Union, the British knew it was an unlikely prospect. Their decades of experience in the country meant they actually had a pretty good idea of what was a real threat and what wasn't. In 1952, as far as the British government was concerned, the real threat was financial and not ideological.

At the same time, the British knew that the U.S. would never agree to help with the Iranian problem if they realized the real issue was monetary rather than ideological. So they started pushing the threat of a Communist incursion, doing their best to make it sound like Mossaddegh and his political allies were one step away from inviting Stalin in to replace the Shah. That ploy didn't work on the Truman administration, but as soon as Truman was gone and Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, things changed. British officials had begun talking with John Foster Dulles and Allan Dulles as soon as Eisenhower was elected. Both men were obsessed with combating the threat of Communism to the point of being unable to accept any other explanation for world events. Rather than seeing the rise of nationalism in former colonies as the natural desire of exploited peoples to be able to govern themselves, they were convinced every revolution was begun by agents funded by Moscow.

In December 1952 Winston Churchill himself insisted to Eisenhower that Mossaddegh had strong Communist leanings, a line Eisenhower apparently swallowed. Mossadegh, in fact, was strongly anti-Communist and was disdainful of even moderate socialism. In March 1953 John Foster Dulles, who was serving as Secretary of State for Eisenhower, directed the CIA (headed by his brother Allan Dulles) to spent $1 million to stage a coup to overthrow Mosaddegh. Kermit Roosevelt (grandson of Theodore Roosevelt) was sent to Iran to manage events in person. By the end of August, the CIA's coup d' etat had succeeded, the Shah was firmly on the Peacock Throne, Mosaddegh was in prison, and the British were back in charge of the oil. 

Having placed the Shah firmly back on the throne, the U.S. began funneling massive amounts of foreign aid to Iran to keep the Shah in power. As we all know now, the Shah become increasingly autocratic, the Iranian secret police terrorized the population, and opposition to the Shah and hatred of the U.S. government (the Great Satan) grew exponentially. Following the Islamic Revolution, the U.S. managed to cement its image as the Great Satan even more by welcoming the exiled Shah with open arms. It's no surprise that the Iranian government under the ayatollahs provided funding and guidance to various Islamic radical terrorist groups, such as Hamas. We're still paying today for the arrogance of the Dulles brothers and the British. They gave a good-sized chunk of the world valid reasons to hate us.

As for the Dulles brothers, having succeeded in overthrowing one government, they apparently decided that it would be fun to do it again. The CIA's second coup was in Guatemala, where once again the U.S. helped topple a democratically elected government in order to install a dictatorship. Hundreds of thousands of people died, and the country is still recovering from decades of civil war and unrest. Their obsession with Communism is why we wound up in Vietnam, and it also gave us the Bay of Pigs. They set a pattern for the CIA that probably continues to this day. They may not have been as openly evil as Hitler or Stalin, but they set in motion events that over time may have killed just as many people. The more I learn about the Dulles brothers, the more I find myself hoping that there really is a Hell. If there was ever anyone who deserved to be roasted over a slow fire, they qualify.