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You can't unsee the hallucinations
The other night I watched “The Untouchables” with my family. My wife and oldest son had never seen it. There’s this scene where reporters catch Capone, played by Robert De Niro, and ask about the tax evasion indictments. I’ve seen it umpteen times. The body language, and the words. remind me of someone who used to be President of the United States.
I’ll tell you something: someone messes with me, I’m going to mess with him.
Someone steals from me, I’m going to say “you stole,” not talk to him for “spitting on the sidewalk.” Do you understand?
In August, Trump posted on his Truth Social in all caps, “IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I’M COMING AFTER YOU!” Trump’s speech and gestures, down to the exaggerated enunciation, leave the line between reality and acting blurred to the point of hallucination. I wonder if De Niro was at all influenced by the 1980s celebrity real estate developer. “The Art of the Deal” was published the same year “The Untouchables” hit theaters (1987). Writer Bob Gale admitted that the character “Biff” was inspired by Trump in “Back to the Future Part II” (1989) so it’s not impossible that Trump’s mannerisms oozed into a portrayal of Capone. What seems undeniable is that Trump adopted the Capone image from the movie. Trump performed Capone, performed by De Niro, who may have been channeling Trump. Christopher Nolan could not have scripted it better.
Only tiny pieces of the “Untouchables” movie were historical truth, more like inspiration than history; for example, the movie accountant is Oscar Wallace, and he’s killed, while the real accountant, Frank J. Wilson, became head of the Secret Service. Wallace worked for Ness in the movie; in reality Ness and Wilson were rivals, with Wilson winning the case, but Ness winning the legend. There are no monuments to Eliot Ness (other than his own gravestone) that I know of, but Robert Stack played him on television before Kevin Costner on the silver screen. Nobody memorialized Frank J. Wilson (perhaps there’s a portrait of him at the Treasury Department, but I can’t find it).
“Winning the legend” is definitely more important than winning in real history, because that’s where our hallucinations come from. If you think I’m wrong, I need only direct you to the whole weird news cycle about men thinking about the Roman Empire. I mean ancient Rome dominated the Mediterranean, the Levant, and all the way to Scotland at its height. Its government ranged from republic to empire, ruled by Caesar. Our modern legal system, government system, and even architecture is derived in large degree from ancient Rome. But the history of Rome is barbaric, racist, pagan, and ultimately, marked by collapse. Rome lost in history but still enjoys an amazing revival.
(All you pedants don’t talk to me about Constantine and Christianity. History, to me, exposes that faith is better served when Christians don’t count on government as a substitute for God, even when government purports to favor Christianity. In any case, Christianity was not good for Rome, outside the Vatican.)
In the U.S., it’s the same story of hallucination with the South, and I mean “South” with a capital “S” as in the former states that called themselves the “Confederate States of America.” Ask any southerner “who was a worse person” and 99 out of 100 will choose William Tecumseh Sherman over Robert E. Lee. It’s true that Sherman wouldn’t pass the entrance exam at any decent gentleman’s club. But history and hallucination paint wildly different pictures.
There was in fact no such thing as the Confederate States of America. No government on earth recognized, de jure, or de facto, the CSA. The U.S. government’s position was, is, and always has been that those states which voted to secede had no legal footing to do so, and therefore they did not constitute a government separate from the United States government. There was no “war between the states,” only a bloody rebellion—a Civil War. Virginia was no more at war with Pennsylvania than Rhode Island was at war with Massachusetts.
I’m nearly through with Col. Ty Seidule’s book “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause.” The book was recommended to me by a reader, when I suggested that Lee made “an unfortunate choice” but not necessarily worthy of being expunged from memorials. To say that Seidule is a crusader for scrubbing Confederates from our memorials is like saying a four-pack a day ex-smoker is a crusader against Big Tobacco. In the book, however, I was shocked by the sheer number and honor of Confederates, especially Lee, peppering the nation, and not just Stars & Bars flying from the beds of pickup trucks in rural Georgia. It’s endemic to our culture, and the pushback against renaming military bases and removing statues is palpable and even sometimes intense.
The largest bas-relief carving in the world is on the granite face at Stone Mountain Park, 25 miles east as the crow flies from the Martin Luther King National Historical Park in Atlanta. Stone Mountain Park’s address: 1000 Robert E Lee Boulevard. Depicted on the carving are Jefferson Davis, Robert. E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, on horseback, resplendent in their rebel uniforms, who all fought to preserve chattel slavery in a new nation conceived for that purpose, and who preferred war, with a combined toll of over 600,000 Americans, to accepting the results of a legally decided election.
Stone Mountain Park was formerly owned by the white supremacist Venable family, who loaned the summit of the giant iron pluton to the KKK for cross burnings, then sold it to the State of Georgia in 1958 with instructions, memorialized in Georgia law, that the site would be used to “maintain an appropriate and suitable memorial for the Confederacy.” In later years, the law would be softened but still reveres the “Lost Cause” mythology that the CSA fought with honor and its leaders were more noble than traitors to their broken oaths to the U.S. Army.
I am not totally decided how much we should care today about every memorial to dead Confederate soldiers. But I have the locally unpopular opinion that Stone Mountain is a particularly egregious example of honoring people who are undeserving of public praise. Seidule correctly posits that the South lost the “War of the Rebellion,” but won the legend. The South has risen again, portraying what was a bloody, horrific period of war and destruction over a horrific practice of chattel slavery, based on a horrific belief that one race was inferior to another by dint of skin color, as some honorable fight against “northern aggression,” where General W.T. Sherman marched without mercy to the sea with a conquering army in a Northern invasion of sovereign Georgia territory.
Many of the same people who fly Stars & Bars flags from their pickup trucks also support the guy who acts like the movie version of Al Capone (the Venn diagram of the two sets would overlap nearly completely.) The real Capone tried to fake sickness to get out of testifying before a Chicago grand jury. The real Capone got himself arrested and sent to prison on a gun charge in Pennsylvania to avoid being tried for bigger crimes (it didn’t work). The real Capone retired to Miami after serving 11 years in federal prison, suffering from syphillis and dementia, to live at his Palm Island mansion, about 70 miles south of a different mansion in Palm Beach.
But I don’t want to limit myself to picking on hallucinating Trumpists. So let me grab another third rail issue.
History clearly shows that there’s no real history of a state of “Palestine.” A remarkable thread by Lyman Stone on X/Twitter cites compelling evidence. The people who lived in the areas now inhabited by Palestinians have no government or permanent historical link to the land beyond the last 130 or so years, and mostly in the last 80 years. Prior to World War I, the land was a hodgepodge of too-small-to-be-called-a-province divisions in the giant Ottoman Empire. After World War I, the defeated Ottomans had their land divided up willy-nilly by the Western Allies. “Palestine” went to England.
The Brits called it “Palestine” based on the Byzantine name for “Syria Palaestina.” The Byzantines had that name from various Mediterranean conquerors calling dwellers of the entire coastal area “ Philistine” or “Peleset.” This in turn came from the Romans calling the area “Palestine” after calling it Judea (beginning under Herod) for over 100 years. It was only after the Romans crushed the Jews in the Bar Kokhba revolt in 132 AD, that the province was renamed, “as an F-U to the Jews.” The last ancient civilization that encountered actual Philistines were the Babylonians. The term “Palestinian” is a modern one; Jews have inhabited the land “between the river and the sea” since before the reign of King David.
In 1948, the Palestinians in the land proclaimed as the “State of Israel” and de facto recognized 15 minutes later by the United States, and soon after that by the Soviet Union, were at war with Israel. They were instructed to leave by Arabs while five Arab armies destroyed the Jews, and then they’d be given all the land—they were promised. Eighty years later, they remain refugees from a land they left voluntarily, while Arabs who remained are now citizens of Israel, with full voting rights, and no legal limitations on their speech or activity beyond any other Israeli citizen.
That being said, I am not claiming there are no significant cultural and systemic fences for Israeli Arabs versus Israeli Jews. But comparing those challenges to the ones endured by Palestinians, whose leaders have chosen to be intractable in pursuit of a Jew-free land that they alone rule, and who have diverted billions of dollars from the public trust into their own pockets, is like comparing the plight of today’s Black Americans fighting for equal justice in all areas to the victims of Jim Crow in the early 20th century (never mind the plight of chattel slaves in the Antebellum South).
The myth of the Lost Cause in the Confederate South is very similar to the myth of the Palestinian who claims his land was stolen by Israeli colonists. In the same way the North didn’t “colonize” the South, but instead put down a rebellion using the military force of the only recognized and valid government of the United States, the Palestinians live a myth where they once had a nation, but never actually did.
Like the South, Palestinians have lost every war they’ve fought, but have won the legend.
History is not what the legends and hallucinations say it is. It’s not even what the victors say it is. In the race to use the particular aphorism “history is written by the victors,” Herman Göring, according to the record, said it first at his Nuremberg trial, before Churchill made his joking reference in the House of Commons in 1948. “For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself.” Then again, Churchill did write it. As much as we want to believe the legends, they are not the truth.
This past Saturday, while I watched De Niro play the killer Capone in a movie where Eliot Ness was the hero he never really was, the guy who affects the movie Capone’s mannerisms (that might have been based on himself), praised Mao Zedong from a stage in Claremont, NH. “China, many years ago, was being taken over by much smaller countries bc they were all drugged out on the poppy fields. The poppy. The drugs. Heroin. The nation was drugged out. And then along came a very powerful leader, you know who that is, and he said, ‘no more.’” The Mao of history was responsible for between 40 to 80 million (depending on what version, but most agree it was at least 35 million) in the period between 1958 and 1961, which was called by the Communist Party in a triumph of Orwellian penmanship, the “Great Leap Forward.” I suppose those who died from starvation or a bullet to the head can’t be addicted to heroin.
People who ignore real genocide to focus on myths, who ignore real racism and history or who ignore real criminals to believe the mythical version of someone who isn’t who they think he is, need to go watch De Niro play Capone and tell me if you can unsee it, and if you can see past the hallucinations too many of us swallow as truth.