Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Book Review: “The King Whisperers” by Kerwin Swint (2011)

A book that reveals a lot of unpopularized historical truths, including tidbits about  Lawrence of Arabia’s sexual misadventures, Joey Stalin’s straight-up gangsta’ upbringing and the incredibly anticlimactic origins of how Ernesto Guevara got the nickname “Che.” Seriously, you will not believe just how anticlimactic it is.


A few years back, this guy at Kennesaw State University in Georgia (the one with Ted Turner and Martin Luther King, not the one that gave us young thuggin’ Joey Stalin -- more on that later) named Kerwin Swint published a book, titled “The King Whisperers.” Recently, I found it just laying on the aisle at America’s number one retailer of surplus and overstocked wares, and decided, “what the hey?” Back in college, history was my favorite subject, and I can’t turn down the offer to expand my knowledge of historical antecedents…especially when it’s being hoisted upon me for just uno dollar-o.

Swint’s book is basically a bunch of essays about history’s greatest and most notorious “backstage characters” -- i.e., the men and women behind the men and women that are responsible for shaping and changing modern politics and world affairs. He begins the book by addressing the great Machiavellian schemers throughout history, beginning with something of an apologist take on old Niccolo himself.

While the name “Machiavelli” today connotes the most mendacious and duplicitous aspects of politics, Swint argues that his ideal-eschewing, hyper-jingoistic, state-security-before-ethical-concerns political philosophy has more or less become the very bedrock of contemporary geopolitics. In that, Swint’s take is that Machiavelli wasn’t so much a nihilistic warmonger as he was the first completely honest political philosopher in history, whose emphasis on state aggression and international interventions for the sake of domestic welfare have become more or less the strategic defaults for the world’s heaviest geopolitical hitters.

Now, if you want a political philosopher with a true streak of de Sade etched down his backbone, Swint says you ought to turn to this one Indian fellow named Kautilya, whom served as Emperor Chandragupta’s right hand man during the heyday of the Mauryan Empire (around the 300 to 200 B.C.E. timeframe, roughly.) Also referred to as Chanakya, he allegedly penned a treatise called “The Arhtasastra,” which made “The Prince” sound like a “Chicken Soup for the Soul” offering; whereas Machiavelli was a pragmatist whose worst crime was more or less stating the obvious, Kautilya/Chanakya was a proponent of extremely stringent “loyalty tests” to the court -- in short, killing the hell out of anyone that even looked like they were going to dissent, even friends and family -- while lugging about the “Conan the Barbarian”-quality personal motto “if one can win, one should fight.”

Interestingly, Swint also lumps two U.S. political figures -- Alexander Hamilton and Dick Cheney -- alongside the individuals he considers the greatest Machiavellian-thinkers in history. Swint argues that Hamilton -- a man whose dual hatred of bluebloods and John Adams may have stemmed from being a literal bastard from the West Indies -- was really the man most responsible for the expansion of federalist power in the early years of the U.S., having been instrumental in both the Whiskey Act of 1791 and the Alien & Sedition Act  of 1798. Meanwhile, Swint describes Cheney as quite possibly the most powerful vice president in American history, stating that he fostered a very Machiavellian taste for secretive, results-focused endeavors, such as the Patriot Act and pretty much the entire War on Terror in general. He also informs the reader that, after college, Cheney spent several years working as a lineman in Wyoming -- so the next time you drive by some dude working on a telephone pole, just remember that there’s a historical basis to believe that he very well could be the man that sends your grandson off to die in some everlasting struggle against an unkillable ideology in about 40 years.

Here’s a brief rundown of some of the book’s other interesting tidbits and factoids:

- The Knights Templar was probably couldn’t have survived without the aide of a St. Bernard.

Not only did Charles Martel save Europe from Moor conquerors, he managed to do so in the most gloriously pastel way possible. 

- Ibrahim Pasha rose from being a slave to being vizier to Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century. How did Pasha go about achieving such a remarkable feat? Well, it’s probably because he was most likely Suleiman’s long-term boy toy, as well. And thanks to Ottoman Empire law -- which allowed a slave owner to legally kill a servant, anytime, just because -- that’s precisely what Suleiman did once he got bored with Pasha, despite his very, very high standing in the emperor’s court.

- Otto von Bismarck, more or less the father of modern Germany, was a bad motherfucker who started the Franco-Prussian War via telegram.

- A guy from the Netherlands  named Jan Pieterszoon Coen absolutely dominated the global spice trade in the 17th century. He accomplished this by doing some extraordinarily shady shit, including torching Jakarta to the ground and rebuilding it as fortress city to ward off would-be mercantilists from abroad.

- Despite some claims that T.E. Lawrence was Victorian prude, other historical evidence suggests that he was a big fan of spankings. He also admitted to once being sodomized by Turkish guards (allegedly), in a scene that probably wound up on the cutting room floor when “Lawrence of Arabia” was going through final edits.

- Speaking of Lawrence Arabia, Wilhelm Wassmuss was more or less his German palette swap, having been tasked with wreaking havoc in India and goading the Iranians into overthrowing their British occupiers. He had a rather unfortunate tendency to lose codebooks, however, and once found himself locked up by a local chieftain who knew he was totally full of shit.

- Had it not been for the almost-ignored advice of Omar Suleiman, Hosni Mubarak would’ve been blown to smithereens by Islamofascists in 1995. Needless to say, history could’ve turned out very, very differently had Mubarak not taken the advice of his General Intelligence Director that fateful afternoon…

Viva  La Revolucion! (but in a way that's most appealing to fashion-obsessed douches, of course.)

- Theodora of Byzantium was one of the first major political leaders to effectively implement sweeping, pro-women public policy in an empire. During her reign, she was  also responsible for the cultural renovation of Constantinople, including the construction of the Hagia Sophia. Not bad for a former hooker, no?

 - Leon Trotsky, as we all know, was highly influential in the spread of Communism throughout the 20th century. His ultimate demise, however, remains less discussed; he was axed to death, Jason Voorhees-style, in Mexico in 1940.

- Charles Martel was the military leader that lead the Franks to victory over the Moors in the Battle of Tours in 732 -- a defeat that more or less prevented Muslims crusaders from taking over the entire continent of Europe. In addition to having the MMA-worthy nickname “The Hammer,” Martel also happened to be an illegitimate child sired by Pippin the II.

- Sala ad-Din Yusuf iba Ayyub -- better known as Saladin -- is pretty much the greatest Muslim military leader in history, having united forces in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Iraq and conquering Jerusalem in 1187. He was much revered, even by his enemies, who called him both “a chivalrous knight” and a “virtuous pagan soul.” Even so, he had nasty habit of murdering conquered peoples -- including the genesis of his career as a general, where he routinely butchered hundreds upon hundreds of Fatimid slaves in Egypt and abroad.

- For most of his life, Oliver Cromwell was just your dime-a-dozen depressed drunk. Then he found God in his 40s, and decided to stick it to Charles I  by overthrowing the monarchy and conquering the entire pre-United Kingdom. Cromwell was so hated that after he died, his corpse was dug-up so it could be “re-executed” -- according to legend, his severed head (which has its own Wikipedia page, in case you were wondering) was placed on a pike outside Westminster Hall for more than 20 years.

- Sakamoto Ryoma is more or less responsible for Japan abandoning its shogunate system in the 1860s, which in turn kicked off the nation’s economic liberalization as well as the birth of its incredibly powerful naval fleet. The Meiji Restoration, as it is often called, was instigated because Ryoma accidentally managed to convince high-ranking official Katsu Kaishu to join his side. By the way, Ryoma was on an assassination assignment at the time…to kill Katsu Kaishu.

- Giuseppe Garibaldi was an instrumental figure in the formation of an official Italian state in the 1800s. He was also the Italian version of that dude from “The Hurt Locker,” it seems, having gone on mercenary assignments in the U.S. Civil War, the Austo-Prussian War and the Franco-Prussian War after his business in Italia wrapped up.

"There goes that crazy Mao again, enacting another wacky public policy that'll only kill about ten or twenty million people this week..."

- The voice of reason behind Mao’s madcap communist antics in China was a dude named Zhou Enlai. And thanks in no small part to a conveniently-timed ping-pong world championship tournament, he was more or less the diplomat responsible for China kinda’ embracing a capitalistic system.

- A few things you probably didn’t know about Ernesto Guevara: he was a trained physician that grew up in wealthy home, he was technically Irish, his widely celebrated economic policies failed pretty much everywhere they were attempted and his nickname “Che” is derived from an Argentinean “conversation filler” -- similar to the terms “you know” or “man” in U.S. English -- that all of his Cuban comrades thought sounded funny.

- The man mostly responsible for the Spanish Inquisition was financed by the same couple that gave Christopher Columbus the A-OK to sail to the new world. He was also a quarter-Jewish, which makes many of the anti-Semitic practices of the Inquisition…uh, kinda’ ironic, I guess.

- As a youth, Georgian Joeseph Djugashvili was known to rob banks in these highly elaborate, multi-man knock-off jobs that more or less resembled acts of terror perpetrated by The Joker. Raised by a set of abusive alcoholic parents and living in a village where drinking and fighting were daily rituals -- in tandem with an almost impossible to conceive classical education -- the Jew-hating Djugashivili later went on to become Vladimir Lenin’s number one terrorist-gangster buddy. He changed his name to literally mean “Man of Steel,” and the rest is history.

- A lot his been written about Hitler’s psychological quirks, but his administrators may have been even more imbalanced than he was. Herman Goering, for example, was a morphine-addicted binge eater, who, as a side note, made his fortune off BMW sales.

- Political campaign revolutionaries Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter once goaded a motion picture company into producing a film solely for the sake of derailing Upton Sinclair’s gubernatorial campaign in California.Yes, that Upton Sinclair.

- The man that was more or less responsible for the success of JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign later went on to serve as the commissioner of the National Basketball Association.

-- Among the finer moments of Karl Rove’s illustrious campaign history? Stealing his opponent’s stationary in 1970 and mailing out party invites to wreck his headquarters, falsely claiming that a political rival bugged his office in 1986 and saying all sorts of slanderous shit about John McCain back in the 2000 primaries.

- Julia Agrippina’s life story is an absolutely amazing cocktail of political intrigue, poison mushrooms and incest. The brother of Caligula (so you know she’s got wackiness in her DNA already), she had the philosopher Seneca killed,  and then executed her own son, Brittanicus. As a follow-up, she tried to seduce her other son, Nero, for political gain and ultimately found herself gutted by an assassin…who was hired by her own flesh and blood, no less.

The Justin Bieber of his day.

- Edward II was an incompetent leader that launched several wars just to appease the family and benefactors of his boyfriend. Eventually, Edward II’s wife Isabella came back to England with Roger Mortimer and took control of the throne…that is, until Edward III took back the kingdom and had Mortimer executed. Also, you know that stuff in “Braveheart” about William Wallace taking Isabella to the sack? All bullshit Mel Gibson made up.

- And lastly; despite popular urban legends, Rasputin wasn’t a super-hard-to-kill dude that the Russian nobility had to keep “re-executing.” What there is historical evidence for, however, is the possibility that Rasputin was offed by members of MI-6, as the Brits really, really wanted them Ruskies flanking the eastern side instead of going through all of the Revolutionary shit during World War I.

As for the book itself, it’s all right I suppose, although it’s more of a beginner’s compendium than it is a full-fledged analysis of backstage political figures. Additionally, I can’t say I’m too big a fan of Swint’s writing style, nor his sometimes obtuse means of addressing historical figures -- for example, he spends half of Che Guevara’s entry talking about the history of that one picture of Che instead of the figure himself, and the heavy-handed comparisons he makes between Cromwell and Bush the Second are incredibly clumsy and distracting. That said, there are plenty of neat little info nuggets throughout the tome, and if nothing else, it’s a really good starting place to being your own research on some of history’s most captivating rogues, schemers and scoundrels. In all, I probably wouldn’t recommend dropping 13 bucks to read it on Amazon, but if you just see it hanging out at the Dollar Tree? It’s probably worth a Washington or two.

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