• “The Dark Side” is a book that President Obama should read. The author, Jane Mayer, pens a scathing indictment of the Bush administration while urging the recovery of America’s soul.
Count one: “For the first time in its history, the United States sanctioned government officials to physically and psychologically torment U.S.-held captives … torture is abhorrent to American laws and values.”
Count two: “Rather than seeing the American legal system as the country’s greatest strength, it was regarded as a burden.”
Count three: It rarely discussed “the legal, moral, ethical and rightness” of its policies.
Count four: It “nonchalantly dismissed international law, suggesting that the president could abide by it or not.”
Count five: It outsourced torture and condoned CIA torture of prisoners using sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, temperature extremes and stress positions.
Count six: It endorsed Abu Ghraib “with its American soldiers taunting naked, hooded prisoners.”
Count seven: Its “nightmarish secret underworld of America’s war on terror.”
Count eight: Guantánamo. Yet “another plunge into the dark side” with its further erosion of U.S. moral standing, its gulag of detainees, its Nazi-like “experiments.”
The Bush administration ignored the order of General Washington to his troops “to treat British soldiers with humanity and let them have no reason to complain of us copying the brutal manner of the British army … we should be very cautious of violating the rights to conscience in others.”
Mayer doesn’t say this expicitly but count nine could be an indictment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney as war criminals. Bush started two unnecessary wars and Cheney was the Vice President of Torture.
• “The Ordeal of Mark Twain” is an interpretive biography by Van Wyck Brooks first published in 1920 then updated. It is still worth reading because its portrait of a giant of American literature is devastating. That view: Twain as immature, infantile, childish, irresponsible, henpecked and with arrested development.
Money was always more important to Twain than a literary career. He yielded to the conventional for fear of losing popularity. And, worst of all, he allowed his books to be censored by his wife and himself.
Twain was afraid to publish his bitter “What is Man?” because it would destroy his image as a funny man and cause sales of his books to plummet. He suppressed the book for seven years despite a nagging conscience. Twain finally published it — anonymously.
Twain became a rich bourgeoise. As Brooks writes: “Success, prestige and wealth had become his gods.”
The great American satirist, the Voltaire, the Swift of the Gilded Age, Twain sold out.
• “The Age of American Unreason” by Susan Jacoby denounces the know-nothingism of boobus Americanus. Her litany is extensive:
“Ignorance, anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism … widespread American credulity regarding the supernatural (ghosts, angels, demons and miracles) … Nearly two-thirds of Americans want creationism and evolution taught … a significant portion of Christians harbor a deep suspicion of any learning … the restless American tendency to found new churches with the manifestation of any new vision in the woods.”
American ignorance of simple political matters is enormous: “42 percent think that the Constitution explicitly states that ‘the first language of the United States is English.’ ” Or, “25 percent believe that Christianity was established by the Constitution as the official government religion.”
Jacoby approvingly quotes the title of the Arthur Schlesinger essay, “History and National Stupidity.” Excerpt: “The stupidity of our leadership, the stupidty of our culture and our ‘national stupidity’ of repeatedly fighting unwinnable wars,” in first Vietnam and now in Iraq and Afghanistan.
• “Filthy Shakespeare” by Pauline Kiernan describes the sexual allusions and puns abounding in Shakespeare. She boldly prints the sexual gallery of words: dildos, boobs, balls, fucking, wanking, cock, prick, cunt, cunnilingus, fellatio and buggery.
No wonder Thomas Bowdler came out in 1818 with a 10-volume edition of Shakespeare in which those words and expressions were omitted that “cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.”
Many of the allusions escape modern readers but the Elizabethans knew what the Bard meant. For Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, life boiled down to tumescence and detumescence.
But Shakespeare was writing ever so much more than “dirty” plays and sonnets.
As Kiernan writes: “His towering greatness resides in his matchless understanding of the human condition, his profound insights into the … psychology, philosophy and politics and the greed, fear, jealousy, hatred, friendship, sex and love in all its many hues.”
Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.