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 – Remember moral courage?

On New Year’s day, Wall Street Journal editor, Gerard Baker sparked a social media storm after saying on Meet the Press that he has instructed his paper’s journalists not to report Donald Trump’s lies as lies, but as “questionable,” or “challengeable” statements (1) (2).

The word “lie,” he said, implies a moral judgement, and opens the Journal to claims of bias. He cited Mr. Trump’s claim that “thousands” of Muslims celebrated 9/11 on New Jersey rooftops. To call that a “lie,” Baker claimed, would imply an intent to deceive, so the Journal reported instead that there was “no evidence” to support the allegations.

There are many obvious problems with this approach. No one with a pulse believes that Trump made an inadvertent mistake – his intent with this lie was to win the support of xenophobes, in one of the classic moves of would-be tyrants. Trump learned in his earlier “birther” rants that if you repeat a lie often enough, those who want to believe you will, and will rally to support your cause.

I our midterm election in 2018, we’ll have new voters who were a year old on 9/11, with no clear memory of the event. “No evidence” is too weak a rebuttal to our would-be dictator-in-chief, who unfortunately, is an expert on manipulating the news, and in a classic strategy tyrants before him continues his efforts to discredit legitimate news outlets (3) (4) (5).

The journalists had gathered on Meet the Press to discuss Mr. Trump’s attempts to discredit news he doesn’t approve of. You can read a full transcript of the session here (6) Not being sufficiently versed in history, Mr. Baker doesn’t realize that capitulation will not save him or his paper if Trump can manage to gain the power over news outlets, like “stronger libel laws,” that he craves.

Therefore, I’m awarding Gerard Baker of the Wall Street Journal, my first Wormtongue Award of 2017. This is the first, but I’m sure not the last, such award I’ll hand out…

The First Gates "Wormtongue Award" goes to Gerard Baker, of the "Wall Street Journal"

The First Gates “Wormtongue Award” goes to Gerard Baker, of the “Wall Street Journal”

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.

Notes from 2017, part 1

Petroglyphs, Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Petroglyphs, Saguaro National Park, Arizona

This morning, at 2:44 am local time, the still point of the turning world became even more still. Like the gap between the end of an outbreath and the next inbreath, the earth paused.  From the depth of our longest night, her axis tilted back toward summer.

Darkness is metaphorical as well as physical. By many measures, our nation is in its darkest hour since the civil war. The inspiration for what will become a series of posts through the coming year was an article by Summer Brennan, called Notes From the Resistance: A Column on Language and Power. Ms Brennan begins by saying:

“In George Orwell’s 1984, the first act of rebellion undertaken by Winston, the protagonist, is to acquire a blank book and begin to write down his thoughts and memories.”

As Big Brother watches, Winston begins to reclaim words and celebrate truth. Big Brother is not yet as pervasive here, although security experts warn I should put a piece of tape over the camera on my laptop – just in case. In my estimation, I’m hiding in plain sight, betting that no one much cares about pics of an unshaven man in his 60’s, sitting in his bathrobe before dawn, swilling coffee and searching for words.

Although if Ken Bones could go viral…

But I digress. A minority of those Americans who voted chose a petty tyrant and reality TV star to become the most powerful man on earth. Lies are his currency. I will not repeat the lies here, but rather, use these posts to document my reality, and as much as I can sense it, the national reality, over the coming year.

Rather adding my saliva to the spitting contest between supporters and detractors, I will use this space, through the coming year, to ask the Dr. Phil question: “How’s this working for you?”

Here we will celebrate truth and truth-tellers.

Here I begin by celebrating Pope Francis, who so follows so beautifully in the footsteps of the apostle of peace for whom he is named. Yesterday, he declared that evolution and the Big Bang theory are correct. That God is not a magician who pulled the universe out of a hat 5000 years ago. That science can be a mode of truly appreciating the handiwork of the Creator.

Happy Solstice to all!

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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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…