March 2014
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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Dirty Wars (2013), directed by Rick Rowley, is a bravura one man show by radical journalist Jeremy Scahill, detailing his discovery of the existence of a shadowy special forces group, Joint Special Operations Command, reporting directly to the president. These were the people responsible for a mistaken raid in the town of Gardes, Afghanistan, in which a local pro-American police commander and several other innocent victims, including some women, were killed. This beautifully filmed documentary, in which the charismatic Scahill is on screen asking questions and talking to the camera nearly all the time, then segues from JSOC to Anwar Al Allaki, and the extraordinary question of whether the president can order the killing of an American citizen abroad, purely for his offensive speech against his country. I was very impressed by Scahill and a little envious. He is living proof that someone can decide to be a war correspondent and go do it, without first serving as marriage correspondent at the Times for ten years waiting for a promotion. Scahill started out as an unpaid intern at Democracy Now and writes for The Nation.

The Gnostic Gospels (1979) by Elaine Pagels presents what almost feels like an alternate history science fiction version of Christianity, in which the names of the players are all familiar but the personalities and philosophies wildly alien. The Gnostics believed that the search for truth was completely internal, in a kind of Buddhist contemplation of silence, and had nothing to do with Catholic outward show, ritual or hierarchy. As a result, they were declared heretics by the latter with their more simplified military organization, and driven underground. A chance find of a jarful of 1600-year old manuscripts near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in the 1940’s restored to the world a lot of Gnostic books which had been lost through Catholic censorship, including gospels of Mary Magdalene and Thomas the Doubter and a uniquely strange monolog of a female God entitled Thunder, Perfect Mind. Pagels analyzes these works for their political, philosophical and feminist import, clearly and cleanly.

An older woman with a friendly but patrician Park Avenue manner asked me what I was reading on the subway--exactly what I always want to inquire but am too shy. I am happy to report that the book that I showed her was Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism (1977). This is an anthropological/sociological series of interviews with ex-Communists and meditations about them and Gornick's own childhood in a New York Jewish-Communist environment. Its got some good history in it, going back to the Wobblies and the Depression, then the blacklist of course, and even some reminiscences of Alexander Meiklejohn’s experimental liberal arts college in Wisconsin (though she calls him Micklejohn). Its an elegiac account of the reasons why almost anyone with a heart in Brooklyn or the Bronx in 1935 would have joined the party (though a large minority of the interviewees are WASPS and Catholics from other places, demonstrating that the left once appealed to everybody). Gornick is unsparing and objective in her analysis of the Dread Certainty, the casual emotional brutality to loved ones, the fact that while the party offered upward mobility to talented women greater than that in other spheres, “ordinary” wives were more grossly treated as domestic servants than in other American marriages. All of the interviewees are apparently given fictional names, and I was troubled by the fact that several used disturbingly similar phrases and metaphors. I did a Google search on Gornick and found that she has since, with regard to other books and magazine writing, acknowledged using some composite and fictionalized figures in her non-fiction. Though her interpretations and insights regarding the formation and behavior of American Communists remain sound, I couldn’t completely trust this as a work of reportage.

Nebraska (2013), directed by Alexander Payne, is a quiet, rather static, droll movie in a Jim Jarmusch kind of vein, about a possibly addled older man who gets one of those Publishers Clearing House letters and decides to walk to Nebraska to collect his million dollars. Bruce Dern, with wild hair and a five days’ beard, plays him in what is not even visibly a performance (I mean that as a compliment). Along the way are crazy family members, greedy old friends, and a bar or two. Its a sentimental, father-son, dysfunctional family comedy in a genre I really don’t like, but I enjoyed this one, due to the lovely black and white cinematography, the unself-conscious performances, and the timing, all of which ensured that the sweetness did not become unbearable.

Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons (2006) is an updating of a 1993 work. Since I hadn’t read any of his earlier books, it came across as a bit of a patchwork, including some essays co-authored with other people, but sufficient to communicate the outlines of his transformative theory that we each share in a number of different overlapping intelligences. Discovering his work was personally very important to me because my entire childhood I simultaneously knew I was smart, yet didn’t know how this could be when I was terrible at math and chess; the only intelligence we recognized then was the mathematical and scientific one. Gardner confirms that I have a linguistic and possibly an existential intelligence (he is not wholly sure the latter, which is a philosophical Big Picture intelligence, exists). Among the other intelligences he describes are the “naturalist”, Charles Darwin’s ability to grind through huge amounts of data and reach a synthesis--interesting because Darwin himself in his autobiography acknowledges that, aside from his ability to do this, he finds no other talent in himself. Gardner rejects certain other candidates for intelligences, including religious and moral.