A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 210

A 1937 gathering of ex-slaves in North Carolina. Photo: Library of Congress

Thursday, April 29

By accident, I am reading two history books at once. And although they concern places that are vast distances from each other and developments separated in time by a century, there is a similarity: Each volume looks at the disintegration of a system of near total political control.

I’ve long meant to read Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 but have been put off by its 700-page girth and by the fact that its subject seemed so irrelevant to our current-day experience. But the latter objection faded in the face of the recent presidential election, with its resonance to the Compromise of 1877, which placed a losing candidate in the White House.

So I picked up the book while we were in the city getting vaccinations during March.

Meanwhile, our viewing of Hulu’s Deutschland 83 made me want to know more about East Germany, its secret police, and its deformed socialism. I read an e-book version of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, which contains some reminiscences of the German Democratic Republic, and I endeavored to get an e-book history of East Germany from the library. But until recently, I was unable to acquire a copy of Anna Funder’s Stasiland.

So lacking any other book, I began reading Foner—and it turns out to be fascinating. I keep reading snippets of it out loud to Emily: Listen to this!

Then, 70-odd pages into Foner, the library informed me that Stasiland was available. I was afraid that if I turned it away, I’d not get another opportunity. So I got it—and it’s pretty fascinating, too. 

I had first thought I would only read Foner’s account of the hard-to-imagine, corrupt deal that in 1877 placed the losing Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, in the White House and sent winning Democrat Samuel J. Tilden home—in exchange for withdrawing federal troops from the once-traitorous, southern states. 

“Huh?” any sane person might say. “How’s that? Come again?”

What does the movement of federal troops have to do with a national election? Well, back then the South’s white voters were a key component of the Democratic Party’s constituency. The presence of occupying federal troops kept whites from terrorizing blacks—which was particularly important once the 1870 15th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed black males the right to vote. But if the two parties could agree—in a backroom deal—to let southern whites retake political control of their states…well, then, just who would occupy the White House seemed a minor matter. Right this way, Mr. Hayes.

(It’s probably unnecessary to point this out, but the two parties have switched ideals and constituencies. The GOP is now the party of white supremacy and voter suppression, and the Democrats are the party with the large African-American constituency. And we wonder why Europeans are mystified by our political history.)

By the turn of the 20th century, virtually all blacks were disenfranchised by the legislatures of every southern state. Back then, southerners used devices such as literacy tests and poll taxes to deny ballots to African Americans; today, they’re using gerrymandering, shorter voting hours, withdrawal of absentee balloting, and more to lock out black voters. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here are some of the “listen to this” revelations of the first 100-odd pages of Foner’s Reconstruction.

Although the war’s end was two years away, the institution of slavery had begun to disintegrate by 1863. Reports of “insubordinate” slave behavior multiplied across the south. Lincoln’s “emancipation proclamation” declared slaves to be free—but only those still inhabiting the Confederate territory. Nevertheless, thousands of blacks began enlisting in the Union Army, and that alone gave them new status: In army courts blacks could testify against whites and by 1864, they received equal pay with white soldiers. Many learned to read and write, and they debated the future society amongst themselves. When William T. Sherman’s army overwhelmed Atlanta and marched to the sea, thousands of former slaves marched behind it.

Former slaveholders admitted that they had never really known their slaves at all: Why were the slaves deserting, one planter wondered, if they had been “content, happy, and attached to their masters” as he had believed?

So what exactly would the former slaves do now? Various ideas contended: In Louisiana, sugar-plantation owners hastened to reaffirm their loyalty to the union—and federal authorities required their former slaves to continue laboring amid the sugar cane as wage workers. On Georgia’s Sea Islands and rice coast, on the other hand, Sherman issued a “field order” that transformed former slaves into small landholders. Each slave family was granted 40 acres of land and possibly the use of an army mule.

Louisiana’s always surprising demographics played a formative role in shaping reconstruction. New Orleans possessed a large, wealthy, and educated community of free blacks. Many spoke only French and educated their children at private schools in New Orleans or Paris.  But in spite of their elevated rank, these people allied with the former slaves and agitated for the vote and other rights.

And as Richmond fell and the war came to a close, the former slaves paraded through southern city streets celebrating. Four thousand blacks paraded through Charleston behind a banner reading “We Know No Master but Ourselves.” In Richmond, blacks mobbed the streets, dancing, praying, and singing. Abraham Lincoln himself walked about the former Confederate capital accompanied only by a dozen sailors. Even today, it’s hard to imagine such spectacles.

In coming posts I will provide some equally startling details of life in East Germany.

Dinner: more artichoke chicken, American picnic potato salad, and a green salad

Entertainment: episodes of the German drama The Typist.

Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 209

John Lennon with Frank Zappa.

Tuesday, April 27

Paranoia strikes deep.

Last night I dreamed that I was at the bank, making fumble-fingered mistakes at an ATM machine, which then froze up. I spoke to a clerk who then went to get a higher authority to help fix things. Out came a tallish, mustachioed guy wearing a gray plaid suit who told me that, yes, I have screwed up and my account has been frozen and will remain so for a long while.

I think I just have many worries about personal affairs. Why these anxieties should center on the bank—who knows?

Did that mustachioed guy resemble Frank Zappa? 

The Frank Zappa movie on Hulu is shoddy and snooze-inducing. It features Frank himself, members of his band, and various hangers on who appear as talking heads. At great length, his wife and a couple of musicians spout a lot of pretentious gibberish—there seems to have been almost no editing in the movie. And more significantly, there’s almost no music—yet we’re told over and over just how tremendously avant-garde and visionary Zappa’s music was. One band member tells how Zappa never had a hit record—but he could have, easily…he just chose not to.

After a while, I realized what all this jabber reminded me of: the vacuous rambling of the Dennis Hopper character as he praises Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.  “The man’s enlarged my mind…I mean sometimes he’ll, uh, well, you’ll say hello to him, right, and he’ll walk right by you…I’m a little man, but he’s a great man.” And so on. 

Why did other musicians, ranging from Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger to John and Yoko, visit Zappa and pay homage to him? Such moments make one embarrassed to have been part of the empty and always posturing 1960s. You need to free your mind, man.

Our culture has hardly outgrown such stuff, as all the high-flown rhetoric about various rappers and Taylor Swift shows. But I, for one, don’t take any of this seriously anymore. Either I have grown up or just grown very old.

Dinner: wine-braised chicken with artichokes and American picnic potato salad (recipe from The Silver Palate Cookbook).

Entertainment: We’re truly running short of quality stuff to watch, as the pandemic’s toll on film production is more and more evident. We’ve viewed a number of wacky, deeply disappointing flicks, from Cold Case Hammarskjold to Zappa. So what now? Perhaps Mhz’ German police drama The Typist or the Finnish thriller Man in Room 301.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 207

Fixing a hole.

Thursday, April 15

Amid the pandemic lockdown, my household to-do list is slowly getting winnowed down.

On Tuesday, the gardening guys came, performed their spring clean-up of removing the winter branches and leaves debris, then spreading mulch around the various shrubs.

Wednesday saw the arrival of the Quackenbush cesspool service. (I didn’t really think they’d look like Groucho Marx from A Day At the Races…but maybe!) These guys first looked for and found the location of the septic tank, then dug a three-foot deep hole and removed the manhole-like cover. Then another guy came with a big tanker truck and pumped out the gunk that had gathered there over the past twenty years. Astonishingly, it only took 15 minutes to do this. And after all that bathroom-going!

Today, I was half expecting some guys to come and lay down a new layer of pebbles on the increasingly bare driveway. Maybe tomorrow or the day after.

Each of these tasks costs a bundle, taking a chunk out of our stimulus money. But that’s what it’s there for—to prime the economic pump, no?

Priming the pump by pumping out the septic tank. Must be a Beatles song there somewhere.

We also spent a bundle on having the plants fertilized. Soon, the same folks will come to spray away the ticks and turn on the sprinkler system.

And then comes a real expense: fixing another leak in the roof that’s behind a drip in the bathroom ceiling. Recent rains haven’t let me forget that the problem exists.

The Democrats would be proud at how we’re frittering away their stimulus dough—and none of it went to those exploiters at Amazon!

Dinner: chicken salad with apples, walnuts, and mini peppers; corn muffins; and tomato-red pepper soup.

Entertainment: more episodes of the end-of-the-cold-war thriller Deutschland 89.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 206

Tulipmania in our living room.

Sunday, April 11

The ongoing COVID-19 restrictions arouse a desire for travel. I’ve been meeting that urge via various virtual outlets: Hulu’s German espionage series Deutschland 86, for instance, has its peripatetic hero attempting to make his way back to East Germany via South Africa, Angola, Libya, and Paris, offering TV viewers spectacular glimpses of Cape Town and the northeastern Sahara with no risk of infection or luggage loss. A very different escape series, My Octopus Teacher, looks at an exotic underwater landscape in a South African kelp forest. Similarly Netflix’ Magical Andes and Guatemala: Heart of the Mayan World dispense otherworldly views of these mountainous lands that make them seem almost uninhabited by humans.

Then there’s the escape to the past, also provided via Deutschland 86 with its reminders of such all-but-forgotten figures as Yuri Andropov (once termed a “sinister KGB biggie” in a New York Post headline), P.W. Botha, Muammar Gaddafi, Olof Palme, and Willy Brandt. The past wasn’t so great, we’re reminded with scenes of Gaddafi’s nihilistic terror campaign that in 1986 targeted a West Berlin nightclub and, later, an airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. There’s also The United States vs. Billie Holiday, in which federal agents persecute the extraordinary jazz vocalist, seemingly because she won’t stop singing a song about lynchings in the South.

Like travel shows, cooking shows can offer exotic escape and fall into two categories. Some chefs resemble the guides who go to places you will never go, concocting elaborate desserts or entrees you will never attempt. Others, the food world equivalent of Rick Steves, prepare foods you actually could make (pulled pork, strawberry shortcake) if only you wanted. Of course there’s always the excuse that your kitchen equipment isn’t quite so cool. 

That could be an idea for a show: Rather than showing Julia Collin Davison make a layer cake using a KitchenAid Artisan Series stand mixer, they could have some dork faffing around with an antiquated device like the 1960’s Hamilton Beach mixer you inherited from your mom. He could even come to your retro, Formica-laden kitchen to make it.

But then, that wouldn’t be escape, would it?

Travel books can also substitute for the real thing. I’ve been giving a second read to Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, blurbed on the cover as “exciting, boisterous, and bizarre.” It’s all of those things, as well as being inscrutable at some points.

There’s lots of detail about the South American adventures of U.S. outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Sometimes, Chatwin strives to tell us what really became of these two. At other points, he shows how their lives have been mythologized, as aging locals recount things the duo are alleged to have done. 

Chatwin describes making his way around Patagonia, from Bahia Blanca to Tierra del Fuego. He often walks for long distances (better him than me). He gets people to let him sleep somewhere on their property. But that doesn’t always pan out—once he makes do with sleeping behind a bush. He meets a range of peculiar folks: expat Scots and Germans, Fuegian Indians, oil engineers and kosher butchers, truck drivers who cultivate the Che Guevara look, even a Russian doctor. He describes stuff that he has read about the area—from Edgar Allen Poe to Charles Darwin to Primaleon of Greece, a book that may have influenced both Magellan and Shakespeare. He tells stories of anarchist uprisings and of the weird practices of a sect of male witches, the Brujeria.

He searches for evidence of dinosaurs like the brontosaurus, a patch of whose skin resided at his grandmother’s house. That, he comes to believe, was actually skin from a giant sloth, or Mylodon, unique to South America. Near the end of the book, Chatwin visits a cave where the Mylodon long ago dwelt.

“The inside was dry as the desert. The ceiling was shaggy with white stalactites and the sides glittered with salt encrustation. Animal tongues had licked the back wall smooth….poking out of a section, I saw some strands of the coarse reddish hair I knew so well.”

Dinner: barbecued pork chops, southern corn pudding, and an avocado and lettuce salad.

Entertainment: more episodes of Deutschland 86 and two episodes of British policier DCI Banks.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 205

Sir, there’s a bridge I’d like to sell you.

Monday, April 5

The Trump campaign fund-raising shenanigans underscore just who the MAGA crowd are: swindlers of the gullible, easy-pickings Americans who are also preyed upon by the reverse-mortgage pushers, automated-phone-call “health care specialists,” and auto-warranty fixers.

Today’s headlines: In the final days before the election, the Trump fund-raising machine ensnared thousands of small-money donors into making automatic, recurring donations, using mailers with pre-checked boxes reading “let’s make this a monthly recurring donation.” A second pre-checked box—the “money bomb”—prompted them to make recurring donations on a weekly basis. Some contributors were unwittingly making as many as half a dozen donations in 30 days.

Many donors didn’t realize they’d been hoodwinked until they received their bank statements or credit card bills.

The Sergeant Bilko tactic has led to an avalanche of fraud complaints—and $122.7 million in compelled refunds. Overall, the Trump fundraising machine was made to refund 10.7 percent of the money it raised via the WinRed digital operation in 2020.

Even money that had to be refunded worked in the campaign’s favor, amounting to an interest-free loan from unwitting supporters at the most important juncture of the 2020 race.

Moreover, the shady fund-raising tactics continued well after the election as part of Trump’s “stop the steal” racket.

Not all of the dough went to Trump. WinRed, it turns out, is a for-profit operation that keeps 30 cents of every donation, plus 3.8 percent of the amount given. It even made money off of donations that were refunded, keeping the 30-cent donation fees.

Fund-raising in general is a snake pit. We receive call after telephone call from police outfits hoping that you’ll be intimidated into giving to their law-and-order cause. They’ll even come right out and ask you to donate to their union!

Nor are the Trump tactics unique: One digital-marketing expert told The New York Times that the techniques were a classic of the “deceptive design” genre. If they are “classic,” that means that other fund-raisers, including those for “charities” or Democrats, have also used the pre-checked box gambit.

There’s a sucker born every minute. 

P.T. Barnum didn’t actually say that—maybe it was Harold Hill of The Music Man.  Anyhow, Trump’s right, at least in part: what a bunch of losers. Millions want to be conned. Not only do they give away their votes to Mr. Flim-Flam, they’ll give him their pension money, too.

Dinner: avgolemono soup and an avocado and orange salad.

Entertainment: It seems only appropriate that we should watch the Netflix drama I Care A Lot, in which a swindler of the elderly gets her comeuppance, at least for a while.