Notes from 2017 – The dreams of our ancestors

"The Sower" by Jean-Francois Millet, 1866-67, Public Domain

“The Sower” by Jean-Francois Millet, 1866-67, Public Domain

My paternal great great grandfather Gustav, a farmer, was born in the Alsace-Lorraine, a region on the French/German border that had been fought over since the time of Louis XIV. As a young man, grandfather Gustav, his two brothers, and their families emigrated to America in 1870 to avoid conscription into the armies of Napolean III during the Franco-Prussian war.

As one historian noted, the ancestors of most Americans of European descent came here as paupers, petty criminals, war refugees, draft dodgers, or religious fanatics. I certainly come from such stock. I’m alive today, in part because 150 years ago, the US was not afraid to admit refugees from conflict zones. As Bill Murray put it in Stripes, “We’re Americans! That means we’re mutts – the most lovable kind of dog there is!” Mixed breeds are often the healthiest too.

A century later, our open borders policy helped spark the technology-driven economic boom of the late 20th century. Andy Grove, one of the founders of Intel, was a Hungarian Jewish refugee who survived the Nazis and then the Russian takeover before before coming to America in 1960. Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian refugee. If you’re reading this post on a laptop or smart phone, you can thank these two pioneers, as well as the space race in the 60’s, which thrived upon a universal respect for science and affordable education which drew the world’s best and brightest to our shores. Microelectronics and the connected world were among the results.
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Notes from 2017 – The Hollow Crown

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III in PBS series, "The Hollow Crown."

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III in PBS series, “The Hollow Crown.”

I invite everyone to look at the magnificent productions of three of Shakespeare’s histories on PBS, on a series entitled, The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses.

I’ll have more of to say on this in days ahead, for it bears directly on the stuff of our current and recent headlines – people who desperately quest for temporal power, but that can wait, because right now, and only for a while, you can watch the full movies online!

Watch these – they are great productions with star-studded casts!.

Henry VI, Part 1 – expires Jan 3, 2017.

Henry VI, Part 2 – expires Jan 10, 2017

Richard III – expires Jan 17, 2017

Enjoy, and make a contribution to PBS if you do!

Notes from 2017 – The war on what???

Intruder Alert! St. Nicholas, by Thomas Nast

Intruder Alert! St. Nicholas, by Thomas Nast

Piety and commercialism, two unlovely attributes, are rampant at this time of year, so it’s time for my annual Christmas history post. If you search on “Christmas” here, you’ll find some interesting info on things like the Ghostly Christmas tree ship (Christmas Tree Facts and Legends), my grinchly rant on “Holiday music,” and most poignantly, the Christmas Truce, when to the chagrin of the generals, peace broke out on the western front on Dec. 25, 1914.

One thing you won’t find are notes on a “war on Christmas,” since there isn’t one. No one out here in the world cares whether you say “Merry Christmas,” or “Happy Holidays.” But if you look back in history, you’ll find a number of instances of Christians waging war on Christmas. Consider that:

–Early Christians did not celebrate Christmas. Origen of Alexandria, a third century theologian, wrote that “only sinners like Herod and Pharaoh celebrate their birthdays.”

–Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas until the ninth century reign of Charlemagne.

–During the middle ages, the Feast of Epiphany was more important than Christmas, which didn’t really emerge as a feast until 1377, when Richard II held a months long blowout with his nobles. Twenty-eight oxen and 300 sheep were slaughtered for the event, which according to chroniclers, featured “drunkenness, promiscuity, and gambling.” Early Christmas carols were sung, but they were bawdy.

–In 1645, Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas in England, and the Mayflower pilgrims outlawed it in Boston from 1658-1681.

–The New York City Police Department was formed after a Christmas riot in 1828. We read on History.com that “The early 19th century was a period of class conflict and turmoil. During this time, unemployment was high and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often occurred during the Christmas season.”

–The “one percent” of the day responded with a campaign to transform a holiday long known for outlandish behavior into a commercial, family centered time, drafting the work of Thomas Nast, Charles Dickens, Washington Irving and others for the task.

–Victorian sensibilities focused on family and children, and it was only then, in 1870 that Christmas become a legal holiday in America. We’ve been led to believe we celebrate this day as it has been done for centuries, but that simply isn’t so (Humbug Revisited: A Brief History of Christmas).

I have no complaints about Christmas as a spiritual holiday, and it’s a great time to remember family and friends, but I do my best to ignore the cultural trappings. I boycott stores that force employees to work on Thanksgiving. I celebrate “Buy Nothing Day,” instead of Black Friday.

I will end with an observation I once heard an Art History professor share on the iconography of Santa Claus.

Glance at the Thomas Nast illustration at the start of this post. If you saw this guy in your living room, you’d either unlock your gun safe or call 911. He’s looking for your liquor cabinet and fridge, as he carries a sack of loot boosted from the neighbors!

Now look at the “Jolly Old Elf” in this modern representation below – white hair and beard but a child’s nose! This is an infantilized Santa Claus! It may help to get parents of very young children out to Toys R Us, but I don’t think it does much good for the maturity level of the culture…

Happy Solstice everyone!

Santa with puppies, kittens, and the facial features of a child.

Santa with puppies, kittens, and the facial features of a child.

Lest We Forget: Eugene V. Debs and American Socialism

“The issue is Socialism versus Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough. Money constitutes no proper basis of civilization. The time has come to regenerate society— we are on the eve of a universal change.” -Eugene Debs

This is great reminder of the life of of a man, almost a hundred years ago, who put his life on the line for the cause of working people. He was jailed by Woodrow Wilson for criticizing America’s entry into the first world war, but nominated for president even while in prison. However halting it may be, it’s good sometimes to look back and see that we have made progress!

Dr. Rinaldi's Horror Cabinet

eugene-v-debs-emerges-from-prison-1

 “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

—Mother Jones

Most young people don’t even know who Eugene V. Debs (Socialist Populist, Founder of the IWW) is, much less that he was sent to prison for 10 years for criticising a sitting President (Woodrow Wilson, Progressive) for going to War (WW I):

Nearly a million Americans, in fact, voted for federal prisoner number 9653 in 1920, and many of them were odd comrades like my Republican grandfather: people who didn’t necessarily agree with Debs’ politics but who admired his devotion to the cause of labor and his courage in speaking out against the carnage of the First World War. According to my mother, my grandfather had once heard Debs speak from the caboose of his famous “Red Special,” the train that carried him across the Midwest during the election of 1908, and was appalled that” America’s conscience”…

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Timely quotes from Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr,By Source, Fair use, Link

Reinhold Niebuhr,By Source, Fair use, Link

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was an American theologian, ethicist, commentator on politics, and professor at Union Theological Seminary for 30 years. Among his most acclaimed books are, Moral Man and Immoral Society, and The Nature and Destiny of Man, which Modern Library named as one of the 20 best nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Neibuhr’s  best known work, however, is the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

In the wake of this year’s election cycle, his musings on history and politics have a special poignancy and relevance:

“The tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan value and ends is the source of all religious fanaticism.”

“Frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are unsure that we are doubly sure. ”

“Religion, declares the modern man, is consciousness of our highest social values. Nothing could be further from the truth. True religion is a profound uneasiness about our highest social values.”

“Religion is so frequently a source of confusion in political life, and so frequently dangerous to democracy, precisely because it introduces absolutes into the realm of relative values.”

Neibuhr’s most haunting observation to me is this, which implies that not a single one of the countless empires that have risen and fallen before ours made much of their greatness until it was gone:

“One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun.”

Harbor Scene with Roman Ruins, Leonardo Coccorante (1680-1750), public domain

Harbor Scene with Roman Ruins, Leonardo Coccorante (1680-1750), public domain

Of cutting trees and the truths we cannot handle

George Washington and the cherry tree

George Washington and the cherry tree

The story goes that George Washington received a hatchet for his sixth birthday. With it, he damaged a cherry tree. When his father confronted him, young George said, “I cannot tell a lie. I cut it with my hatchet.” His father embraced him and said, “Your honesty is worth a thousand trees.” 

Ironically, this paean to honesty was the fabrication of Mason Weems, an itinerant preacher and one of Washington’s first biographers (the cherry tree myth). Politically expedient falsehood has been with us from the dawn of our Republic.

Readers of theFirstGates and movie buffs will recognize the other part of this post’s title as a partial paraphrase of the Jack Nicholson line, “You can’t handle the truth,”  in A Few Good Men, 1992, which I referenced through a link on August 8.

It came to mind last night as I watched Nixon, the third PBS documentary on American presidents I’ve seen this week. It’s a fascinating series for those interested in history, and especially during this disheartening election year. The truth I find hardest to handle is that even the pretense of truth has become optional during elections.

After his discharge from the navy after WWII, Richard Nixon ran for congress against five-term Democratic representative, Jerry Voorhis. Nixon won 60% of the vote, after, among other things, spreading the word, via anonymous telephone calls, that Voorhis was a communist.

“Of course I knew Jerry Voorhis wasn’t a communist,” Nixon later confided to a Voorhis aide.  “But I had to win. The important thing is to win.”  I was actually happy to learn that the lies that permeate this campaign are not a new aberration, but more a case of deja vu all over again. The only difference is that in earlier times, people caught in blatant lies were certain to lose – the appearance of honesty was a matter of style and decorum.

Political lies cross party lines, of course. Feeling compelled to be as “tough on communism” as Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, Lyndon Johnson engineered the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” – a supposed torpedo attack on a US destroyer by North Vietnamese ships.  We now know the event never happened, but the lie won Johnson almost unlimited power to escalate the war in Vietnam, with tragic consequences for millions of people. It also set the precedent for fighting undeclared wars that remains a national disaster 50 years later.

*****

I remember a hatchet incident when I was a kid in upstate New York. A boy who lived nearby chopped down a neighbor’s dogwood sapling with a hatchet. This was an especially serious act of vandalism, since dogwood trees were protected by law.

Not the brightest kid on the block, he did so while the lady of the house was home; she heard the chopping, looked out the window, and recognized him.  When confronted, however, the boy’s mother said, “It couldn’t have been my son. He told me he didn’t do it, and he doesn’t lie.” 

I’ve often wondered if that kid is in politics now.  He’d be a natural…

Presidents acting presidential

George Washington, 1797. Public Domain

George Washington, 1797. Public Domain

Our Public Broadcasting System is re-running a series on recent American presidents, first aired in 2013. I missed it then, but caught the second episode of “Kennedy” last night (you can watch the entire program here).

The show was excellent. It outlined several glaring failures of the Kennedy administration: the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion; JFK’s failure to back the emerging civil rights movement; starting us down the slippery slope in Vietnam through mistaking a nationalist revolution for a global communist conspiracy.

Successes included staring down Khrushchev in the high-stakes Cuban missile crisis, and motivating the nation to put a man on the moon, which led directly to the high tech boom, and the laptop or smartphone on which you are reading this post.

Successes and failures aside, the most striking thing I noticed in watching “Kennedy” was that he looked and acted presidential in a way that current presidents do not!  Somewhere along the way, the stature and dignity of the office has been diminished.

It’s not that the presidents of my youth were exemplary human beings: Kennedy and Johnson were notorious philanderers, and Nixon was an angry alcoholic, who sometimes gave orders to “bomb the shit” out of countries that annoyed him (see Drinking in America).  It’s silly to imagine that those who aspire to the office have changed that much in 50 years. It’s rather that the regard we hold for office has diminished.

True, some people exude charisma, or in Johnson’s case, power. It’s also true that an aura often aura celebrities who die young – Kennedy, Marylin, Elvis, Princess Di, and Prince.

I’m tempted to quote what mythologists like Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly have said about the deflation of the archetypes of king and queen, but I think the answer is far simpler, staring us in the face, in our voracious need to pull presidents down to our level, and their willingness to cooperate.

At the start of the primary season, this year’s crop of contenders gathered in mass for the Iowa State Fair, and one reporter detailed which candidates were truly “just folks,” as opposed to wannabe’s, based on whether or not they knew  how to eat ribs.

The cover story on the August 1 issue of Time was, “In Search of Hillary?” What exactly are we searching for?  “Likes poetry, puppies and moonlight walks on the beach?”

I remember Cokie Roberts describing a meeting where Lyndon Johnson got angry and chewed someone out. “It took five years off my life,” she said, while noting that recent presidents, wielding the same power, do not command anywhere near that respect. It’s hard to imagine LBJ on Saturday Night Live or with Stephen Colbert, and during this election year especially, I’m not sure that trade of respect for laughter and buddy vibes has been a good deal for anyone.

Whether the loss of respect moves top-down, or bottom-up, or both, when presidential debates begin to look like the Jerry Springer show, and the rest of us behave accordingly, we’re in a world of trouble!

War reporter, Sebastian Junger, author of, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, outlined one consequence for us in a PBS interview.

A war reporter, Junger was with troops during “hellish deployments,” but noted that some of the soldiers did not want to go home. Junger says that for most of our history, we humans have lived and thrived most in tribes or clans and, “The real an ancient meaning of tribe is the community that you live in that you share resources with that you would risk your life to defend.”

Only at war did many of the young men that Junger met experience this kind of connection. The lack of it, in our culture, is deadly in his opinion. Looking at our current election season, Junger says we look like opposing tribes, that hold each other in contempt.

“No soldier in a trench in a platoon in combat would have contempt for their trench mate. They might not like them. They disagree with them, but you don’t have contempt for someone that your life depends on. And that’s what we’re falling into in the political dialogue in this country. And in my opinion, that is more dangerous to this country than ISIS is, I mean literally like more of a threat to our nation.”

“I wish I had a tribe,” Junger says, “But we don’t. We just don’t. That’s the problem. That’s why our depression rate, our suicide rate, all that stuff is through the roof. That’s the tragedy of modern society.”

I remember watching Kennedy on TV as a kid. I remember walking to grade school in 1962, past a neighbor who was digging a bomb shelter. I remember “duck and cover” hydrogen bomb drills, which we all knew were ludicrous even then. But through all the fear, what I really remember, was growing up in a neighborhood, in “one nation” as we said during the pledge of allegiance.

I don’t know anyone who lives in a neighborhood or one nation anymore. Perhaps that realization is what makes this election so sad – an election like this couldn’t happen if values like “community,” and “nation,” to say nothing of “tribe,” weren’t so completely fractured.

I have some notions of what happened, but that is for another post. And as they say, we cannot even begin to imagine solutions for a problem until we admit that it exists and what it costs.