Salon, Facebook Live, …

… and Autumn of the Black Snake. Discussion with Salon’s Matthew Rosza.


“Autumn of the Black Snake” in The Nation

Today, just posted: Richard Kreitner of The Nation and I discuss Empire, Conquest, and the War America Forgot.

Tomorrow, Tuesday 5/16, publication day, I’ll discuss the book with Matt Rosza of Salon; interview to stream on Salon’s Facebook Live page starting at 10:00 A.M.

Tomorrow evening: Book-launch event at Greenlight Bookstore’s Flatbush Avenue branch. Drinks and milling about to start at 7:00; talk to begin around 7:30. Signing, maybe singing, etc. All are welcome.

Former Presidents and Speaking Fees

I’m going to try wrangling some ideas that came up in a recent Twitter discussion/debate with the leading Jefferson scholar Annette Gordon-Reed, in hopes of arriving at greater clarity than the 140-character back-and-forth allowed, or allowed me, anyway. I’d been watching social-media reaction to President Obama’s accepting a big speaking fee backed by a well-known Wall Street firm and considering my reactions, going back to the end of the 1980’s, to what has become accepted practice for former presidents: embarking on new careers that involve making significant income for having served the office. Since Gerald Ford pioneered that practice — until the other day, I’d always thought it was Ronald Reagan — every former president with the exception of Jimmy Carter has engaged in it. I’d taken Reagan to be the first because his $2M for two speeches was memorable at the time. And yet with Reagan it seemed unhappily characteristic of the man and the nature of his presidency, so I recall also being (naively) startled when learning of Bill Clinton’s speaking fees.

It’s thus not, to me, Obama who personally errs here. Yes, we have the Carter example, but what I call wrong with the practice has to do with what I think is a fundamentally ill effect on the body politic. That nowadays such fees will most often come from some segment now shorthanded as “Wall Street” underscores the issue, in this time of scarifying inequality between the richest and poorest, and of the pervasive, now militant public opinion that government is rigged on behalf of the richest and most powerful. It’s an opinion that, while it often seems fully justified, is having a frighteningly destructive effect on our politics and public discourse.

I posted this on Twitter: “It’s never been OK that former presidents make that kind of $ giving talks to people who can pay that kind of $ to hear those talks.”  And “That presidents spend their terms knowing such affirmation and inclusion await makes the office itself a bad joke.” And “Everyone compromises for money, but there are limits. No serious person would want this kind of inclusion unless it spoke to something deep.”

Crudely put, those are my longstanding reactions to the practice of parlaying having been president into a high-income career making personal appearances.

Annette Gordon-Reed responded with this question: “How much should they make?” Continue reading

What “Autumn of the Black Snake” is About

We’re about six weeks away from the publication date of May 17 May 16! — and the launch event, at 7:00 PM that same day, at the new Greenlight branch on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn (all are welcome) — so I’m thinking aloud here about what my forthcoming book might be about.

You’d think I’d already know what it’s about. But I find I don’t know what I’m doing until I’m done, and this story is now truly finished, written and edited and copyedited and ready to appear. So until I decide that I think otherwise, here is the first-draft attempt at a full-blown, nonnegotiable manifesto for Autumn of the Black Snake.

The book will, I think, engage the history buff. But that’s not all I think it does.

Here goes:

In Autumn of the Black Snake, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, I tell the startling story of the formation of the U.S. Army, from absolute scratch, and against fervent political opposition, in response to the worst military defeat the U.S. would ever suffer at the hands of indigenous North Americans — or, to look at it another way, the greatest victory that indigenous North Americans have ever enjoyed against U.S. expansion. This is a war that nobody talks about, or even has a good name for, despite its being the most important war the United States has ever fought — no, I mean because it’s the most important war the United States has ever fought.

When I tell people about it, they say “Oh, like Tecumseh?” (Well, some do.) No. Tecumseh never won a battle against the United States. Yet we’ve heard of Tecumseh. We’ve heard of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and that was nothing, in scale, in historical importance, in sheer drama, to what I’m talking about here. Why is that?

We don’t deal with this one. Because it’s amazing.

Without this first war of expansionist conquest, nothing. Establishing not only the first regular U.S. military force, which would go on to became the most powerful military entity on earth, but also U.S. possession of what would become, astonishingly quickly, the booming, stinking industrial heartland that made America the most productive nation on earth (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, now largely boarded up and shut down), this is the war where American dreams of commercial and military empire, which had been resisted so well and so long by the nations that actually lived there, were first made real.

The rest is history. And because, in 2017, we have urgent need to consider where our troubled history of national greatness may now be turning, I want to bring back to life the weird and painful things we’ve forgotten when it comes to how that history actually began. It happened in a country totally other than the one we have in our minds.

The book frames those origins in a multifacted dramatic action — “character-driven,” as they say. This all happened between 1791 and 1795. So, yes, rest assured your pal Alexander will make an appearance; so of course will Washington and Jefferson. So will all-important people who, I’ll say politely, are just a bit less well-known: the enigmatic Miami war leader Little Turtle, in tense partnership with the flamboyant Shawnee war leader Blue Jacket; the high British official Alexander McKee, also Shawnee; John Simcoe, the Governor of Upper Canada, eager to redress British defeat by the colonies; James Wilkinson, a double agent, at once a Spanish spy and second-in-command of the U.S. Army; and the dogged, irascible commander, General Anthony Wayne. Nobody talks much about Mad Anthony these days. Without him, no Grant and Lee, no Patton. The global power that the United States would go on to become — militarily, industrially, commercially — started not in 1776 with independence, not in 1789 with nationhood, and not in 1900 with expansion beyond the continent, but in the turbulent events that I’m relating in this book. It was a startup that required conquest.

Jefferson's West

Jefferson’s West — too bad other nations already held it.

Autumn of the Black Snake thus questions the tendency of books like Rachel Maddow’s Drift, which casts the rise of the national-security state as a departure from founding American values. It questions preconceptions of Steven Kinzer’s recent The True Flag, which casts U.S. imperialism — and dissent from imperialist policies — as a turn-of-the-20th-century phenomenon. It questions trenchant critiques by foreign-policy thinkers — Chris Hedges, Andrew Bacevich — who suggest that like Rome, the U.S. lost touch with its republican precepts when it became imperialist and expansionist. The action I’m relating makes it impossible to imagine an American republic without expansionism. The drive to “open” what was then the American West to real-estate investment and development served as an explicit cause of the Revolution and an explicit cause of forming a constitutional nation; both Hamilton and Jefferson used the term “empire” for their differing visions of the West. Any effort to criticize U.S. aggression would have to begin with criticizing founding values themselves. We can’t do that, because we’ve decided to not know what happened.

Well, now it’s 2017. Donald Trump is in the presidency, and all that that entails when it comes to Americans’ revivalist ideas about nationalism, white and male supremacy, wealth, resources, power, strength. On the flipside, students and others are struggling against the prevalence of racist/imperialist statues and demanding changing renaming buildings named for racist/imperialists. I’m eager to usher readers into the wild world and the harsh action that really formed us — us, the terribly divided people we so clearly are. I think this story truly is as gripping as the early trade reviews have said (despite the fact that standard flap copy calls a lot of stuff “gripping” that just isn’t!); I know it challenges historical preconceptions, all along our bitterly segmented political spectrum. What I wish is that it would spark some public dialogue, not only about the past but also about the future, and not only about the American past and future but also, in this perilous moment, about the past and future of humanity.