Vermont’s superpower

The following commentary in VTDigger by Susan Clark on 2/05/2021 is excellent:

Vermont’s superpower, revealed: The ability to practice local democracy

Susan’s thesis is that: a) civic skills acquired by actively practicing local democracy, especially in Vermont’s town meetings, are a kind of superpower:

[C]enturies of Town Meeting Day deliberations may have imbued our democratic DNA with powers worthy of Marvel action heroes.

And: b) our country desperately needs this superpower today.

But this year, as Susan notes, many in-person town meetings are being replaced by voting at the ballot box due to the pandemic lockdown. (See this article in VTDigger on 2/09/2021: Most 2021 Vermont town meetings will give way to ballot votes.) Voting by Australian ballot, as we call it here in Vermont, is poisonous to our superpower.

Voting by ballot is easier and quicker than attending a meeting. Susan goes on:

Some towns will even ask, why not make the switch permanent? Watching the rest of the nation struggle in 2020 demonstrates the answer: Because forgoing regular, empowered community deliberation is Kryptonite to a healthy democracy.

This is the same theme as Erica Heilman’s podcast in my previous post: Rumble Strip: Town Meeting. I encourage you to read Susan Clark’s commentary and listen to Erica Heilman’s podcast.

(I have known Susan Clark for years. I’ve mentioned her several times on this blog.)

Few places in the world hold town meetings like Vermont. They are held elsewhere in New England and in Switzerland. But it is a Vermont town meeting that is depicted in Norman Rockwell’s famous Freedom of Speech painting, shown above. The story of that iconic painting and the town meeting that inspired it is told here.

Posted in General | Tagged | Leave a comment

Rumble Strip: Town Meeting

The Rumble Strip podcast by Erica Heilman on 2/05/2021 titled “Town Meeting” is excellent! It is well worth 30 minutes of your time.

[Town meeting] is the most civilized and surprising social gathering of the year, every year. [Erica at 1:50]

Town Meeting Day in Vermont is the first Tuesday in March. It will be different this year because of the pandemic lockdown. Many towns, including Cambridge, will not be gathering in person. In this podcast Erica interviews several town meeting moderators about why town meeting is important, and what we will be missing this year. Following are selected comments, to entice you to listen to the whole thing.

Starting at about 24:00, Susan Clark of Middlesex talks about “town meeting culture”:

We have expectations in Vermont of civility. We have expectations of inclusion. We expect to be asked about things before decisions come down. We have democratic expectations in Vermont that other places might not have, that I think many other places do not have, because of a town meeting culture that we have created over centuries.

At 8:50 Paul Doton of Barnard talks about how town meeting works:

One of the things I point out is that everybody addresses their comments to the moderator, and the moderator will ask the questions, so there aren’t two people that are arguing across the room – which can be, and has been sometimes a problem because emotions get in the way, and I try to make sure that emotions are set aside.

(I have known Susan Clark and Paul Doton for years. I’ve mentioned Susan several times on this blog.)

Susan and Paul and the other moderators interviewed by Erica are talking about deciding issues in a meeting after discussion. They are not talking about deciding issues by merely casting a ballot, or Australian ballot as we call it in Vermont. Voting by pre-printed ballot does not build the “town meeting culture” mentioned above. It destroys it.

Australian balloting ought to be outlawed, as far as I’m concerned. [State Senator Bobby Starr of Troy at 18:35]

In addition to interviewing town meeting moderators, Erica also plays clips from several town meetings from various towns and years. The following speaker at 19:35 is not identified, but residents of Cambridge who regularly attend town meeting will immediately recognize the voice and know exactly what he is talking about:

You know right now, the house, the old Meigs house right there by Tobin’s old garage, every time it floods, that fills the basement with water. I talked to Pat Mayo, where Pat Mayo grew up [nearby]. He said, that was nothing, he says our house was always full of water. I said, you know, we turn around and build that road up now, you think about it, somebody else is going to pay for it.

That is Dana Sweet speaking at the 2018 Cambridge town meeting. Video here. Commentary here. He is speaking at 4:41:40 under Article 11 – Discussion of other nonbinding business.

Dana is talking about a problem that bedeviled Cambridge for years: how to deal with periodic flooding of the Lamoille River across Route 15 and Pumpkin Harbor Road that cut off access to Bartlett Hill Road.  There was no perfect solution, and various residents had strong and incompatible opinions about the matter. After years of discussions, the town finally implemented a solution in 2019. It did involve building up “that road” (Pumpkin Harbor Road) which Dana spoke about in his comments, but that seemed to be the best solution for the most people.

No sooner was the project completed than it was tested by the “Halloween Flood” of 2019. The project was a success. The town wrote about that flood, including access to Bartlett Hill Road during the flood, in the 2019 town report. See the cover, the inside front cover, the message from Emergency Management Director Dan St. Cyr on page 1, and the Selectboard Report on page 12.

Further to Dana’s comments above, in the summer of 2020, with federal funds and at the request of the owner, the town purchased and demolished “the old Meigs house” at 57 Pumpkin Harbor Road. As a condition of the federal grant, that flood-prone lot will never be developed again.

That is a good example of the kinds of issues that citizens grapple with at town meeting in Vermont, solving real problems that affect our communities.

And that is a good example of a local official who knows the town and its people. See Dana Sweet Wins Marvin Award. Dana has been on the Cambridge selectboard since 1989, and I have been proud to serve with him since 2017. (I’m just a newbie.)

Again, here is the link for this excellent Rumble Strip podcast by Erica Heilman:

For more about town meeting, see posts on this blog with the “Town Meeting” tag.

UPDATE 2/15/2021: See also the next post Vermont’s superpower. It is about Susan Clark’s commentary in VTDigger on 2/05/2021: “Vermont’s superpower, revealed: The ability to practice local democracy.” The theme is similar.

Posted in General | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Movie Recommendation

This is a good time of year for watching movies. My movie recommendation for 2020 is Hamilton: An American Musical.

What a year this has been! Impeachment, covid, lockdowns, George Floyd riots, the 2020 election. Hamilton is an important story about the past, a source of perspective on the present, and a wellspring of wisdom for the future.

How about that 1800 election? That was a wild one! Is America racist? How should we govern ourselves? Hamilton speaks to all of these questions and much, much more.

Hamilton was wildly popular on stage from its debut in 2015 until the pandemic struck earlier this year. Disney Plus released the movie on its streaming platform in July so that people could enjoy this masterpiece in their homes during the lockdowns. I watched it at the time and blogged about it: Hamilton: An American Musical. I recently re-watched it, and tweaked my July post. Even more now than last summer, I believe that Hamilton has lessons for our time.

Plus it’s great entertainment!

Posted in General | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Town Agents in Cambridge

This post is part of a series of posts on “Learning about town government” in my town of Cambridge, Vermont. Please see the link for context, a disclaimer, and a list of posts in this series.

The 2019 annual report for the Town of Cambridge lists two elected agents of the town (page 19): Agent to Convey Real Estate and Agent to Prosecute & Defend.

What are these positions in town government?

Well, the reason for writing this post is that the Legislature has eliminated both positions. Act 84 of 2020 removed all references to these positions in state law effective July 1, 2020.

OK, what were these positions in town government?

The Vermont Secretary of State provides a handy list of Local Office Descriptions, and it has not yet been updated for Act 84. Here is what it says:

Agent to Convey Real Estate. Executes deeds on behalf of the town. 24 V.S.A. § 1061

Town Agent. The town agent used to prosecute and defend suits. The selectboard now has that authority. Thus, the town agent’s duty consists merely of assisting when litigation is in progress, at the request of the selectboard. (Generally not a very active position.) 17 V.S.A. § 2646(11)

Regarding the conveyance of real estate, Act 84 provides that the selectboard shall designate an agent for that purpose when needed, and record such designation in the land records. Typically such an agent will be a member of the selectboard. As a practical matter, it is not often that the town needs such an agent, because it is not often that the town conveys real estate.

Regarding the town agent to prosecute and defend suits, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns wrote the following in their 2011 Handbook for Vermont Selectboards, page 43:

The town agent plays a limited role in town government. Although statute provides that an agent to prosecute and defend suits must be elected, no statute provides the agent with any independent authority to act. In fact, case law makes it clear that the town agent has no authority to originate suits in favor of the town or to settle or compromise suits in which the town has an interest, but that the agent’s duty consists merely of assisting when litigation is in progress. Cabot v. Britt, 36 Vt. 349 (1863); Clay v. Wright, 44 Vt. 538 (1872). In addition, the fact that a town agent is elected does not remove the authority of the selectboard to hire an attorney to represent the town, to conduct litigation and to settle suits on behalf of the town. Accordingly, many towns do not have active town agents, and those that do often limit the agent’s activities to picking an attorney for the town or acting as a liaison between the selectboard and the town attorney in particular matters.

It is amusing to note that it took the Legislature more more than 150 years to clean up an issue in state law that the courts first identified in 1863 and again in 1872.

Act 84 of 2020 is a welcome improvement. It simplifies town government in a good way. Kudos to the Legislature.

Click here to go to the initial post in this series: “Learning about town government.”

Posted in General | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Day After the Election

It’s the day after the election. Ballots are still being counted in some states. Where are we?

There are 538 electoral votes in the election for president. It takes 270 votes to win. As of about 4 PM ET today, the Washington Post (WaPo) reports:

With 237 electoral votes for Biden and 214 for Trump, that leaves 87 votes that are too close to call. WaPo lists five undecided “battleground states” with 78 electoral votes, and shows Biden leading in two states with 27 electoral votes and Trump leading in three states with 51 electoral votes:

The remaining 9 electoral votes are:

Alaska 3 – Trump leading
Nevada 6 – Biden leading

If each candidate wins every state in which they are currently leading, Biden will win the election 270 to 268. That’s a close election.

Link to WaPo’s election page:

Biden won my state of Vermont with 65.5% of the vote. My town of Cambridge voted 68.6% for Biden. (source) Vermont does not allow mailed ballots received after election day to be counted. All ballots have been counted in Vermont, except some cities and towns may still be counting write-in votes.

Posted in General | Leave a comment

Media: Crossfire Hurricane

An occasional theme of this blog is: can we trust the media to tell us about the world in an accurate and balanced way? The example in this post involves presidential elections.

All news sources have biases. The takeaway from this example is that perhaps we should get our news from a variety of sources.

Crossfire Hurricane was the name of the investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) into possible improper links between the 2016 Trump campaign, and later the Trump administration, and Russia. The investigation was opened on July 31, 2016 and continued until May 17, 2017 when it was taken over by the Mueller investigation.

On Tuesday, October 6, 2020 the Trump administration declassified two documents related to Crossfire Hurricane, both involving the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA):

  • Handwritten notes by then-CIA Director John Brennan in late July 2016 about a briefing that he gave to President Obama and other senior officials about “alleged approval by Hillary Clinton on 26 July of a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisors to villify (sic) Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by the Russian security services.” (link)
  • A memo from the CIA to the director of the FBI dated September 7, 2016 about “US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s approval of a plan concerning US presidential candidate Donald Trump and Russian hackers hampering US elections as a means of distracting the public from her use of a private email server.” (link)

Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University. On October 7 he wrote on his blog about this news and he made the following points:

  • Whether true or not, this is big news. If true, it would indicate that the highest levels of the Obama administration knew well before the 2016 election about efforts to invent Russian scandals implicating the Trump campaign. If false, “it would show a breathtaking effort [by the Trump administration] to lie to the voters before the [2020] election.”
  • Yet according to Professor Turley there is an “utter blackout on the story” by major news outlets.

Let’s do a survey. I subscribe to four national newspapers. Did they cover this story?

Three of the national newspapers to which I subscribe are well known: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. The fourth newspaper is not well known: the Epoch Times. I wrote about the Epoch Times in April (here) where I noted that they dislike Communist China and are “more supportive of President Trump than my other newspapers, so I will read their reporting skeptically.”

With that background in mind, following are comments about the reporting in these four newspapers of the declassification of the two documents discussed above. I searched for “Brennan” on and after October 6. Below I note the first article that I found in each newspaper. My comments are ranked (in my view) from worst coverage (#4) to best (#1):

#4. New York Times, October 9: John Ratcliffe Pledged to Stay Apolitical. Then He Began Serving Trump’s Political Agenda. Professor Turley was right – the NYT completely ignored the declassified documents. This is several days after the declassification. There is no mention of  the declassified documents. This article is an attempt to generally discredit Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe, who declassified the documents.

#3. Washington Post, October 8: DNI Ratcliffe has broken his promise to keep politics out of intelligence, intelligence veterans say. This article is one day earlier than the NYT article, so it is more timely. This article has the same major theme as the NYT article, an attempt to generally discredit Mr. Ratcliffe, but the two declassified documents identified above are briefly mentioned beginning in the 7th paragraph.

#2. Wall Street Journal, October 7: Trump’s Intelligence Chief Releases More Than 1,000 Pages of Documents. This article is one day earlier than the WaPo article, so it is even more timely. But this article covers two different news stories. On October 6, DNI Ratcliffe released to the public the two documents identified above. On October 7, he announced that he had released to the Department of Justice nearly 1,000 pages of other documents; he did not release those documents to the public. This WSJ article is primarily about the second release. The first release is briefly mentioned beginning in the 10th paragraph.

While the Wall Street Journal news pages did not do a great job covering this story, there was better discussion in the editorial pages. See James Comey Can’t Recall on October 7.

#1. Epoch Times, October 7: Former CIA Director Says Trump Admin Declassified Agency Records for Political Gain. This is by far the best coverage of these four newspapers. It is timely. It is specifically about the two declassified documents identified above, especially Mr. Brennan’s handwritten notes. The article gives Mr. Brennan’s side of the story. And it links to the actual documents that were released. The two documents are linked above, so you can see them for yourself. I got the documents from this Epoch Times article.

The Epoch Times covered the release of 1,000 pages of documents to the Department of Justice (not the public) in a separate article: DNI Releases 1,000 Pages of Material to Durham Investigators. Both articles in the Epoch Times were by the same reporter (Ivan Pentchoukov) on the same day (October 7). But unlike the WSJ, the Epoch Times didn’t bury the disclosure of the two documents identified above in an article primarily about a different disclosure.

Further, the Epoch Times had a good editorial on October 8 that put the disclosure of the two documents identified above in perspective: The American Public Deserves to Know. This editorial makes the point that the documents that were declassified were heavily redacted, so we are unable to truly assess their significance – and that this is a matter of considerable importance to our country:

The American people deserve to have full transparency and accountability for the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation of a presidential campaign, which in turn will be a key remedy to restore the broken trust tens of millions have in the system.

By “the system” the Epoch Times means institutions of government such as the FBI and CIA. There is also a need “to restore the broken trust” in the media. That was part of the message of Professor Turley’s column. In the present example, I was disappointed in the subpar reporting by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the news pages of the Wall Street Journal. The Epoch Times is not a perfect news source either, as noted above, but in this instance they had the best reporting. Perhaps we should all get our news from a variety of sources.

Here is the link again to Professor Turley’s column: “A Means Of Distracting The Public”: Brennan Briefed Obama On Clinton “Plan” To Tie Trump To Russia.

Posted in General | Tagged | Leave a comment

Memorial to Secoriea Turner

Secoriea Turner

This post is a memorial to Secoriea Turner. It is my personal Black Lives Matter protest. Secoriea’s life mattered.

Secoriea Turner was eight years old when she was shot in Atlanta, Georgia, on July 4. She was riding in a car with her mother and another adult. The driver pulled into a parking area near what used to be a Wendy’s restaurant, trying to turn around and leave. That Wendy’s restaurant had been burned and destroyed in a riot following the killing of Rayshard Brooks at that location on June 12, 2020.

Mr. Brooks had been shot by police because he was resisting arrest, had fought with the two officers trying to arrest him, had grabbed a Taser away from one of the officers, and had fired it at the officers. Subsequent to the burning of the Wendy’s, the location had been controlled by the rioters. At the direction of city government, police made no attempt to control the area. When that car pulled into the area on the evening of July 4, the rioters fired several shots into it, killing Secoriea.

On July 5, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant held an emotional news conference. CBS46 in Atlanta has posted most of that news conference online (APD means Atlanta Police Department):

APD holds presser on fatal shooting of 8-year-old near burned-out Wendy’s

It is well worth watching the entire 40 minutes posted at that link. The participation of Secoriea’s parents starting at about 8:20 is heartbreaking.

The Washington Post reported on these events at 3:50 AM on July 6: ‘You shot and killed a baby’: Atlanta mayor demands an end to violence after 8-year-old slain near where Rayshard Brooks died.

The New York Times published a brief news item about these events early on July 6, and then published this longer article later in the day: ‘It’s Got to Stop’: Atlanta’s Mayor Decries a Surge of Violence as a Girl Is Killed.

The photo above was featured in a poster by the Atlanta Police Department seeking information about the killing of Secoriea Turner. That poster was headed:

** $10,000.00 Reward **

I cannot find that poster online, but it is in the following article in the Epoch Times dated July 6: Father of 8-Year-Old Killed in Atlanta: ‘They Say Black Lives Matter—You Killed Your Own’. The photo above is from this article.

On September 3 the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported: 2 months later, police still searching for who killed 8-year-old Secoriea Turner.

Can we learn from this tragic event? Can we honor the lives of Secoriea Turner and other children like her, as well as adults, who have been killed in the riots that followed the death of George Floyd?

Can “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain”? (source)

All of the following people are black: Secoriea Turner, her parents, Rayshard Brooks, Keisha Lance Bottoms, Rodney Bryant, George Floyd. Yet there are lessons here for all of us, of all races, even here in mostly white Vermont where we never heard of George Floyd or Rayshard Brooks or Secoriea Turner until their tragic deaths made the news.

In future posts I will write about some of the lessons that I believe we can learn. Lessons about protesting vs. violence, about policing, about leadership, about how we should think about each other to get past our history of racism. I will refer back to some of the links in this post, especially the video of the news conference.

I cannot find a Wikipedia entry for Secoriea Turner. The following comments about Secoriea are from her parents in the news conference, starting at about 8:20:

[Mother:] She would have been on TikTok dancing. And [on] her phone. Just got finished eating. … My baby didn’t mean no harm. … [Father:] She just wanted to get home to see her cousins. That’s all she wanted to do. She just wanted to get home.

Posted in General | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Unmasking the cult of Stalin

Mr. Jones is a “must see” movie, as I wrote in Why you should watch “Mr. Jones”. A comment on that post led me to this article at Ukraine Today about a panel discussion with the writer and director of Mr. Jones. This post is about that panel discussion, which has deepened my understanding of, and appreciation for, the movie. The image above is a screenshot from that panel discussion, which was held via Zoom and is at this link:

Mr. Jones: Unmasking the cult of Stalin

The moderator (upper left) is Anne Applebaum: “an American journalist and historian. She has written extensively about Marxism-Leninism and the development of civil society in Central and Eastern Europe.” She wrote the 2017 book Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, so she is a subject matter expert on the Holodomor, the focus of Mr. Jones.

The woman at the upper right is Andrea Chalupa, the scriptwriter of Mr. Jones. The woman at the bottom of the screen is Agnieszka Holland, the Polish director of the film.

The discussion was hosted by the Atlantic Council, a Washington, DC-based think tank. The discussion was held on June 22, 2020, about the time that Mr. Jones, which debuted overseas in 2019, was made available on Amazon Prime Video. The discussion was introduced by John Herbst, director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

Following are three take-aways for me from this captivating panel discussion.

The genesis of Mr. Jones

I had assumed that the movie was inspired by Agnieszka Holland. She is an eminent Polish filmmaker, known for several movies about the Holocaust, and she was frequently mentioned in reviews. But I was wrong. Mr. Jones was the brainchild of Andrea Chalupa.

Ms. Chalupa explained that her grandfather had lived in eastern Ukraine and survived the Holodomor. He told stories about it when she was growing up in northern California. When she was in college at the University of California at Davis, studying Russian history, she became interested in the memoir that he had written before he died.

At first she did not know about Gareth Jones. She did know from an early age about Walter Duranty, and she was fascinated by the question of how he could betray his profession. Later she learned about Gareth Jones, and Ms. Chalupa wrote the script to highlight the contrast between the older, established, and cynical Mr. Duranty and the younger, intrepid, and idealistic Mr. Jones. Even so, she said that Walter Duranty was an even sorrier excuse for a man than is depicted in the movie:

The real, historical Duranty was a monster.

(quoting Ms. Chalupa at 33:50)

Ms. Holland had to be persuaded to make the movie. At first she did not want to do another film about the emotionally draining topic of genocide, but she came to believe that Stalin needed to be “unmasked” and held to account for his crimes against humanity fully as much as Hitler:

There is something incredibly unjust in the fact that Stalin’s crimes and Communist crimes altogether didn’t enter the global conscience as much as the Nazi crimes are part of the memory of humanity. Communist crimes vanished somehow. Even with such great books like Solzhenitsyn, and your Gulag, and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, and others. It was like forgotten and forgiven. And I find it very unjust and also dangerous.

(quoting Ms. Holland at 16:30)

It was inspiring to see the synergistic partnership between Ms. Holland, with her long and distinguished career, and the younger Ms. Chalupa. Mr. Jones is her first screenplay.

Why is George Orwell in the movie?

Several reviews of Mr. Jones have criticized the inclusion in the movie of scenes of George Orwell writing Animal Farm. The critique is that these scenes detract from the main theme of the film, which is about the reporting (or lack of reporting) of the Holodomor.

I had assumed that the reason for including these scenes was because Chapter VII in Animal Farm eerily parallels the Ukrainian famine, including the propaganda campaign to keep bad news hidden from the outside world. But there was no mention of this in the panel discussion.

I had also assumed that George Orwell and Gareth Jones knew each other, as depicted in the film. They were nearly the same age (two years difference), and the two men moved in similar circles in the British literary world. But, while it is entirely plausible that they might have met, it was noted in the panel discussion that there is no hard evidence that they personally knew each other.

The panel addresses the inclusion of Orwell starting at 34:45, and comes back to this question again at 52:45. A significant reason for the inclusion of Orwell is because he himself had difficulty publishing Animal Farm in 1945. From the 1930s through World War II, the Soviet Union was an ally, and there was extreme reluctance in Britain to publish anything critical of Stalin, whether it be Jones’ news articles about the Holodomor or Orwell’s satirical book Animal Farm where Stalin is represented by the pig Napoleon.

Orwell was bluntly critical of this self-censorship, and he wrote about his concerns in a proposed preface to Animal Farm titled “The Freedom of the Press.” Orwell did eventually find a publisher, but his essay was not included:

“The Freedom of the Press” … was not allowed to be the preface for Animal Farm because his publisher thought it might be controversial.

(quoting Ms. Chalupa at 53:10)

It was not until 1972, long after Orwell’s death in 1950, that this essay was discovered and published in the Times Literary Supplement. It is online here:

The Freedom of the Press

Should Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize be revoked?

Anne Applebaum is herself a 2004 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Gulag: A History, and she addresses this question starting at about 39:50 in the panel discussion. She explained that some years ago the Pulitzer Committee did consider revoking Duranty’s prize, and she was asked to submit material to the committee as an expert. She added:

They decided not to take it away, partly because they went back and looked at who else had won the Pulitzer Prize over the hundred or so years that it’s been given out, and there were so many other awful people that they thought, you know, if we start here we’ll never stop.

Both Ms. Chalupa and Ms. Holland smiled at that, and I suppose it is amusing in a way, but it also perfectly illustrates the point: We cannot blindly trust the news to give us an accurate and balanced view of the world, even if it is published in the New York Times and the writer won a Pulitzer Prize.

This is one of three posts about Mr. Jones:
1. The Holodomor
2. Why you should watch “Mr. Jones”
3. Unmasking the cult of Stalin (this post)

Posted in General | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Why you should watch “Mr. Jones”

By Source, Fair use, Link

I recommend the movie Mr. Jones, which has generated considerable buzz on the Internet this summer. At the end of this post I list 13 online commentaries about it that I have noticed. This 2019 movie became available on Amazon Prime Video in June.

As I wrote in my previous post The Holodomor, Mr. Jones is about an event that few people know much about, that occurred in a country far away (Ukraine), a long time ago (1932-1933). The person responsible for that terrible famine, Joseph Stalin, has been dead for 67 years.

Furthermore, Mr. Jones is not a U.S. movie. It is a Polish movie directed by Agnieszka Holland. So why is this haunting movie relevant to us here in the U.S. today?

I think one reason this movie resonates with us is because it speaks to our concerns about the quality of the news available to us. I’ve written about this topic before on this blog: on 2/09/2017 and 4/01/2020. One of the themes of Mr. Jones is: Be a skeptical reader of the news. Don’t necessarily trust the media to give you an accurate and balanced view of the world. Even if the medium is the New York Times and the writer won a Pulitzer Prize.

Is the movie Mr. Jones a reliable source of information? Is it good history? The movie is about the Holodomor and the news reporting of that catastrophe, but it is not itself a news report or a history book. Mr. Jones is art. We expect (hope?) that news reports and history books will be factual; that they will not be art. But we do not have the same expectations of complete historical accuracy when it comes to art. Consider Shakespeare’s history plays and Hamilton: An American Musical. They are art, and while they are not completely faithful to history, they are true enough for their purpose.

Nevertheless, from my reading, I think Mr. Jones is pretty good history. A helpful discussion of the history in the movie is here: Liars Go to Hell.

Is Mr. Jones good art? It is a difficult movie to watch because it is so heart-rending, but I found it to be both moving and memorable. From Liars Go to Hell:

The words “must see” are grotesquely overused in movie reviews, but in this case, they are apt. From a compelling James Norton in the title role, to the superb period atmosphere created by Andrea Chalupa (writer) and Agnieszka Holland (director), to a brilliant, understated performance by Peter Sarsgaard as Duranty, Mr. Jones is a riveting experience.

More reviews are listed at the end of this post.

Some reviews are critical of Mr. Jones for the inclusion, as being distracting, of a quasi-love story between Gareth Jones and Walter Duranty’s assistant. But I think the romantic element helps balance the horror of the famine, and makes the story more human.

Vanessa Kirby (pictured) plays the role of Duranty’s assistant. (She also plays Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of the Netflix series The Crown.) Photo: By MTV International – YouTube at 0:20, CC BY 3.0, Link

Some reviews are critical for the inclusion, also as being distracting, of scenes involving George Orwell writing Animal Farm. But I think these reviews miss something. Chapter VII in Animal Farm is about a bitter winter in which the animals starve because their leader (the pig Napoleon, representing Stalin) sold grain and other farm products to finance construction of a windmill. This episode in Animal Farm eerily parallels the famine of the Holodomor, which was caused by Stalin selling grain from Ukraine, the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, to finance massive industrialization projects. Animal Farm even discusses the news reporting about the starvation on the farm. From page 85 in my daughter’s paperback edition (pictured):

It was vitally necessary to conceal this fact [the starvation] from the outside world.

George Orwell (1903-1950) and Gareth Jones (1905-1935) may have known each other. And the farmer in Animal Farm is named Mr. Jones. It is quite likely that the life and reporting of Gareth Jones influenced the writing of Animal Farm.

I re-read Animal Farm as a result of watching Mr. Jones. I had not read it since high school or perhaps earlier. It is a very different experience reading this book as an adult, and I recommend it to everyone. Although published in 1945 at the close of World War II, its warnings about communism and totalitarianism are timeless.

Gareth Jones was murdered in China in 1935, one day before his 30th birthday, and ten years before Animal Farm was published. See Gareth Jones in Wikipedia for what is known about his murder. It is fitting and proper that his memory has been brought to our attention in an extraordinary work of art, which you can find on Amazon Prime Video at this link: Mr. Jones.

This is one of three posts about Mr. Jones:
1. The Holodomor
2. Why you should watch “Mr. Jones” (this post)
3. Unmasking the cult of Stalin

As noted above, Mr. Jones has generated considerable buzz on the Internet this summer. Following are online commentaries about it that I have found:

Continue reading

Posted in General | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Holodomor

The Holodomor was a catastrophic man-made famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933. At the time, Ukraine was part of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. Millions of people died in what Ukraine and several other countries now consider a genocide.

Not widely known then or now, the Holodomor is the subject of a haunting 2019 movie that became available this summer on Amazon Video: Mr. Jones.

Gareth Jones was a young Welsh journalist (in his 20s) who had achieved a measure of renown for interviewing Adolph Hitler in February 1933. The following month Mr. Jones traveled to Russia seeking to interview Joseph Stalin and to find the answer to a question that few were asking: how could the Soviet Union, in the midst of the worldwide Great Depression, afford its vast program of industrialization?

Mr. Jones did not get an interview with Stalin, but he found the answer to his question. It was an answer that no one wanted to hear: Stalin was exporting grain from Ukraine, the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, and elsewhere, that should have been used to feed its people. Mr. Jones includes heartbreaking scenes of starvation.

Why didn’t anyone listen to Gareth Jones, and a few other newspaper reporters who also knew the truth about the famine and its cause? A large part of the reason was the power of the New York Times and its “Man in Moscow” – Walter Duranty, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his favorable reports about the Soviet Union, especially their first Five Year Plan. Duranty directly contradicted Jones’ reports.

From a review of Mr. Jones in the Washington Post, July 31, 2020, ‘Mr. Jones’ and the deadly consequences of shoddy journalism:

“Mr. Jones” is, in many ways, a film about Duranty … Duranty comes in for a beating — justifiably portrayed as a hack and an apparatchik for a loathsome regime; shown living in a literal den of iniquity, hosting drug-addled orgies to gather blackmail material for his friend Stalin[.]

Mr. Jones is a reminder of a troubling past. From a review in the New York Times, June 18, 2020, ‘Mr. Jones’ Review: Bearing Witness to Stalin’s Evil:

More than anything, “Mr. Jones” is an argument for witnessing and remembrance. … No one came to Ukraine’s rescue, despite the attempts of those, like Jones, who tried to expose the facts about the Soviet Union. In the early 1930s — with the West eyeing a potential ally in the nearing war — the truth was something few wanted to hear.

The 1932-1933 Holodomor did not stand in the way of the United States establishing diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. President Woodrow Wilson had severed relations with Russia in 1917 when Stalin’s party seized power in the early days of the Russian Revolution. Four presidents later, Franklin Roosevelt was influenced by Duranty’s glowing reports from Moscow, and established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in the fall of 1933.

One of the intriguing aspects of Mr. Jones is that the movie is punctuated with scenes of George Orwell writing Animal Farm, a fable about the Soviet Union from the Russian Revolution into the Stalinist era. Animal Farm was published in 1945 at the close of World War II, ten years after the death of Gareth Jones, but it is likely that his life and reporting influenced the book. George Orwell (1903-1950) and Gareth Jones (1905-1935) may have known each other. One of the themes of the book is the famine on Animal Farm and starvation among the animals after their leader, the pig Napoleon (intended to represent Stalin), sold grain and other products from the farm to raise money for an industrialization project (construction of a windmill). And the farmer in Animal Farm is named Mr. Jones.

I recommend Mr. Jones. And Animal Farm. Both contain timely lessons for today. Indeed, timeless lessons about evil, power, and truth.

Related earlier posts on this blog: The Holocaust, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

This is one of three posts about Mr. Jones:
1. The Holodomor (this post)
2. Why you should watch “Mr. Jones”
3. Unmasking the cult of Stalin

Posted in General | Tagged , | 3 Comments