The Week in Forgetfulness: Books by Crooks, the Cold War and a Writer to Remember

My kind editor, The Mexican, offered to reimburse me for purchase of the ex-governor of California's memoirs. I considered reading and reviewing the provocatively titled Total Recall:  My Unbelievably True Life Story
but I felt so uncomfortable at even the thought of walking into a bookstore to purchase one that I stayed at home and read the first chapter for free online, got so inspired and pumped that I had to do fifty push-ups, have sex with the housekeeper and then forgot to mention any of it to my wife! 

Such is the effect of muscular prose in the 


life of a shy

Orange County

alternative weekly book reviewer, the easy accommodation of persona, the lapse into the fictional as needed, the confusion and delight and joy of the vicarious in response to so much of somebody else's 


 at attacking the nurses' union. Perhaps it explains why these two famous memoirists are yukking it up, enjoying the joke of selling their life stories--in the case of



Yorba Linda, CA

over and over and over. Or only that they so famously hated each other. "No man is rich enough to buy back his past," said

Oscar Wilde

.  Apparently you can make shit up and sell it though.

So, yes, too easy, finally, to send up the Schwarzenneger autobio (written by a Fortune mag ghoster named Peter Petre), however fun and masochistic. And, besides, since nobody remembers anything or just chooses to retell history depending on how they'd like to have imagined it, soon enough we'll have forgotten the actual total recall of "Bengal tiger" Governor Gray Davis, a campaign paid for by Darrel Issa (recently named "Most Corrupt" by the non-partisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington), and fomented in part by a couple of racist right-wing AM radio knuckleheads, the Terminator's attack on 

the CNA and, I predict, be faced with either a reality TV show about Arnold's dating life, a "school" at the University of Southern California paid for and named after him or his teenage love-child hosting a celebrity golf tourney.  

Holy Hun, Batman!  One of those is already a reality, and not a reality show.  Thanks for that, Trojans. The USC Schwarzenneger Institute for State and Global Policy, funded with a cool $20 million by Der Man himself.  And why? Dig this quote from the Los Angeles Times, which somehow reported it with a straight face:  "When you think back of everything (sic) I've done--body building. training people, writing about diet and food supplements and promoting movies and entertainment--I've always been interested in making sure other people can benefit from my experience. And it's the same with this. It would be a shame to think what I learned from my governorship over seven years - ways of solving problems - will now be left behind and no one will benefit." My, that would be a shame indeed!

(By the way, does anybody know why SC named its football team after a popular brand of prophylactics? Fight on!  But, yes, safely.)

Happily, historian, writer, teacher and community radio host Jon Wiener's new book just

 arrived, in time to stop me from further discussion about why you shouldn't buy books by crooks.  How We Forgot the Cold War:  A Historical Journey Across America offers perhaps more irony (intentional here) than Governor Dumbell's phony autobiography but also the chance for optimism and even hope as regards the creation of popular sentiment and the official story. Indeed, the title suggests a sly homage to Walter Rodney's classic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and the book's subtitle is so provocative as to perhaps frighten. Historical journey? Imagine such a thing. And all, yes, unbelievably true.  

As scholarship, the book is of course chock-full of believable truth, with all kinds of citation and context. As popular reading, it's got the humor and wit of Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation and James Loewen's Sundown Towns and DJ Waldie's Holy Land.  By which I mean it's witty and kinda mean, and exhilarating bad fun. The premise:  Traveling the nation to examine efforts to enforce the party line about the Cold War as a big victory for the US of A, Wiener argues that the effort has failed, that Americans have ignored, forgotten, and even rejected the national pro-war mythology. It's possible that he is even asking us to acknowledge in this rejection the possibility of something less than only boredom or passivity, more than a collective yawn - and something building to outright resistance to the dozens of public and private museums, memorials, historical landmarks, busts and official tours created to tell us it was all worth it, or that we "won."  All fail, says Wiener, to convince anybody through a clumsy campaign of  "conservative Cold War commemoration."  And in examining the dishonesty of a dishonest history, Wiener critiques the history makers themselves and, of course, reminds us of what really happened. This is not so much a helpful "I told you so," but a "we told ourselves," with esteem for the power of public non-participation --- ignored statues, empty rooms, missing landmarks and hilarious charades --- speaking loud to the farce of official power, which itself can't even seem to keep a straight face.

Of course, you'd expect no less from Wiener, the warm, funny host of The Four O'Clock Report Wednesdays on KPFK:  "Radio for the smart, the fearless and the fun-loving."  Wiener, who hails from St. Paul, went to Princeton and teaches at UC Irvine when he is not researching and writing, and suing the FBI over its covert and totally illegal spying and harassment of the late John Lennon, or interviewing Harold Meyerson, Katha Pollit (with whom Mr. Bib is deeply in love), Greil Marcus, Ry Cooder or the always-amazing John Nichols, just to name, as they say, a few of the political writers, musicians, poets or fellow Nation magazine contributors who, like The Bibliofella, seem to like Wiener a whole lot.

Unbelievably true: I swear you can hear Jon Wiener smiling on the radio. And for sure see him smiling through the romp and roll that is this book touting "popular skepticism to official


Here's what we're talking about: "Hippie Day" at the Reagan Library. A missing commemorative plaque at the Whittaker Chambers "pumpkin patch" National Historic Landmark.  Interpretive centers at the Nevada Nuclear Weapons Test Site (where the Bibliofella once protested with writer Rebecca Solnit and her activist brother David) and Weldon Spring, Missouri's Nuclear Waste Mounds.  Yup, you can climb up on top of a pile of radioactive waste! Professor Wiener, a guy who likes a good time, visits these dubious locales so, well, you don't have to.  And more.  Twenty-one sites where history, memory and the Cold War all come up way short. It's pretty funny, if you go in for this kind of thing. He visits nearby Lakewood, California where they commemorate the Korean War in front of a junked jet fighter but never seem to mention why. And, no, it turns out you can't actually visit the actual CIA Museum. There is, of course, a "virtual tour" online.  He takes it.

A helpful map identifies the sites on this weird trip through feeble if often expensive efforts at memorializing without saying anything or, even better, reinterpreting at the official interpretive center - perhaps better called obscuring centers -  as if you could tell the stories of Hanford

the Test Site, Rocky Flats, a 1950s fallout shelter display, and not mention fifty-plus years of purposeful waste, aggression, organized deception all for nothing. And why would you even try? According to Wiener, Americans are skeptical to begin with. And don't buy it. Personally, I think they are ashamed of it all. The two seem very much connected. Sure, the yahoos and innocents, know-nothings and patriots need something to have their photo taken in front of. They get that, but it doesn't really make any sense. It can't. Here's one of the more bizarre scenes: 

When the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California, announced it would hold a "hippie contest" one Saturday, I wondered what it would take to win. Dress in tie-dye and refuse to get a job? Put on bell-bottoms, take LSD, and jump out the window? Grow long hair and give the finger to your country, while decent kids were risking their lives defending freedom thousands of miles away? 
The hippie contest was part of a daylong "fun-in" (their term) to celebrate the opening of an exhibit titled "Back to the 60s." As visitors went through the library gates that morning into the beautiful tree-lined courtyard, we were greeted by a kindly woman give out free samples of Ding Dongs (a Twinkie-like confection). Frisbees were also being handed out, bearing the motto "Back to the 60s, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library." Is that really what it was like in the sixties - free frisbees and Ding Dongs for everyone? Handed out by Reagan's people? 

Reminds me of the old Richard Nixon Museum which, before it was revamped, featured an entirely optional (!) walk-through exhibit on the US War Against the People of Southeast Asia called, sickly, "The War at Home," as if, of course, to reinforce that sad idea that prissy liberal or weak Americans were responsible for that "loss." 

From Strategic Air Command to Joe McCarthy to Berlin Wall, Wiener knocks down the Big Lie, with stories and snapshots, often of himself, standing in front of something big and silly, or on a bus being a pretend tourist, or sharing an artifact displayed behind glass. I remember being so bored, bored, bored by those endless family vacation slide shows of my youth, trying to understand the passivity of so many moments of cruelty and hilarity captured on film, of people standing in front of something everybody else had already stood in front of. I remember trying not to laugh or scream. It seems some people, however, were having a good time. Okay, mostly the photographer. By way of the Cold War and nostalgia for it, the people having a very good time were of course Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, corporate Cold War hawks who, well you know, brought us the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. When the lights came on, lots of people were asleep and my mom, also bored, asked who wanted coffee. 

Finally, a heads up: Michelle Latiolais (Widow, A Proper Knowledge) of UC Irvine's MFA Creative Writing Program, has organized a tribute to the late Don Heiney, teacher for many years in that esteemed literary workshop, mentor to many. You'll know him better as MacDonald Harris, award-winning novelist, author of more than a dozen books including Hemingway's Suitcase, The Balloonist and a soon-to-be published novel, Carp Castle. More on this November 16 on-campus celebration of his life and work as the event approaches.

How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America, Jon Wiener, University of California Press, 376 pps., $34.95 

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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