Command or Control – Choose One

I’ve been re-reading Ron Rosenbaum’s The Secret Parts of Fortune. This is at least the third time that I’ve read it. It’s a collection of his essays from the 1970s to the 1990s, so they are understandably dated, but even so they are still a fascinating read.

The essay that I’m currently on now concerns our nuclear command and control system. This is a pretty scary subject. Podcast fans might remember, I think it was This American Life (or Radiolab, I can never tell them apart) had a piece on it. Eric Schlosser wrote an entire book on this subject (Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety). Some time ago, I read Raven Rock, by Garrett Graff, which is more about the infrastructure of keeping the government going in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

The concerns boil down to the phrase command and control. On the one hand, we want to make sure that if that horrible time comes when we must launch a full nuclear war, that the command will be carried out. On the other hand, we want to make absolutely sure that the launch order is never made accidentally or inappropriately (that is, there is control over the order).

Those two requirements make absolute sense and should be the bedrock of nuclear policy. The problem is that those two requirements are paradoxical.

Take a look at each requirements. Let’s start with command.

Back in the 1950s there was kind of a weird power struggle over who should have control over the nuclear weapons. The armed forces, thinking that this was just another weapon, fought to have launch authority. After all, a general doesn’t go to a president if, in a battle, he needs to use a tank. If I recollect correctly, I believe that it was actually Eisenhower, the only US president in our time that exuded an authority that the military respected, that ended that question once and for all in favor of the president having that authority.

Of course, the enemy would know that and would target the president in the case of a surprise attack. What if the president died? Then, it devolves to the vice president. And so on. At the end of the day, if the Strategic Air Command can’t get hold of anyone in the case of an emergency, then the SAC commander has the authority.

So, by making sure that the nuclear launches will be carried out even if the command structure is removed, we are, to a large extent, sacrificing control.

How about the other hard requirement? We certainly want to make sure that we don’t accidentally launch the missiles. We’ve invested billions of dollars in monitoring / tracking equipment to try to detect foreign missile strikes so that we can respond appropriately.

And yet…

In 1960, a moonrise over Norway was misinterpreted as a USSR mass attack.

At the height of Watergate when Nixon was at maximum stress and regularly drunk, he once told a group of congressmen that “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead”. It was so concerning that calls were made to the Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, who quietly instituted a policy that all launch orders go through him or Kissinger (wow, that does not make me feel much safer).

In 1979, a training scenario was incorrectly loaded onto the production computer and it falsely reported that 2,200 missiles were in the air coming from USSR. The National Security Adviser at the time, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was woken up in the middle of the night and told that the president had three to seven minutes to decide upon a retaliatory attack. Brzezinski, thinking that the world was coming to an end, did not wake his wife because he wanted her to not be aware of her imminent death.

In 2010, the military lost monitoring control over 50 ICBMs for nearly 45 minutes. They had no idea if they had been hacked and/or taken over by rogue elements.

On the other side, in 1995, Boris Yeltsin actually activated the Russian nuclear briefcase over a Norwegian research rocket. Norway had informed the Russian authorities of the planned launch but that had never been passed on to the nuclear authorities. Yes, Boris Yeltsin was contemplating launching a nuclear retaliation. This is the same Boris Yeltsin, also in the same year of 1995, who was making a state visit and was caught in the middle of the night, drunk out of his mind, in his underwear, outside on Pennsylvania Avenue, trying to hail a cab so that he could get a pizza. The secret service agents escorted him back to the White House.

If you think that with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War that this question is moot, keep in mind that we still have about 6800 nuclear weapons in various stages of operation and that Russia has about 7000.

And the world leaders with their proverbial fingers on the button? Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Sweet dreams everyone.


Why Hitler?

I’ve been re-reading parts of Ron Rosenbaum’s The Secret Parts of Fortune. It’s a dated collection, but it’s a re-print of long form articles that he did over a 30 year period on topics as diverse as the rise of the original hackers (that hacked into the phone system using, among other things, a Cap’n Crunch whistle), his obsession with the play Hamlet, the strange deaths of twin gynecologists (the basis for a movie starring Jeremy Irons), a mysterious death involving Burt Reynolds, and the apparent suicide of Danny Casoloro (who was investigating / reporting on a wide ranging government conspiracy he called the Octopus).

Even though this collection was published in 2001, so it includes articles that he wrote way back in the 70s, it still makes for compelling reading. It’s clear that he himself is a somewhat obsessive person, so reading of him diving deep into his fellow obsessives makes for entertaining reading.

One of his articles later itself became a full length book. It was called Explaining Hitler.

It tries to answer the fundamental question, how did Hitler become Hitler? How does an apparently normal person once so unsuccessful that he was a penniless painter nearly homeless in Austria ultimately end up not only rising Germany up from the ashes of its defeat but then nearly conquer all of Western Europe and kill six million Jewish people?

Various historians and psychoanalysts have come up with a number of theories over the years.

Some theories fixate that there must have been something in Hitler’s background that made him hate Jewish people. One theory is that his beloved mother that painfully died of cancer was treated by a Jewish doctor that could not cure her. Another theory is that Hitler’s father was himself fathered by a Jewish person and Hitler was tormented by the fact that he was ‘tainted’ with Jewish blood. Yet another theory is that, when he was a starving artist in Vienna, he picked up a venereal disease from a Jewish prostitute.

I’m not making this up. These are theories that have been put forward in published books by respected authors. There’s something dismal in all of these theories. They all, in one form or another, no matter how subtle, somehow shift the blame onto some lone Jewish person and makes him / her somehow the root cause of the Holocaust.

Another theory is that Hitler’s father beat him mercilessly and somehow that triggered something. There is very little evidence for this and other theories emphasize the gentleness of his father, so this seems shaky as well.

Another theory is around hypnotherapy. After Germany’s loss in WWI, Hitler was so traumatized that he experienced hysterical blindness. He was apparently cured by hypnosis. Specifically, the hypnotist told Hitler (while he was hypnotized) that it was his destiny to lead Germany to greatness and therefore he must regain his sight so he that could assume his rightful place. The theory here is that the idea implanted so deeply that it made him a monster.

And then, of course, there’s the ‘one ball’ theory. There apparently was a German soldier serving in WWII that knew Hitler from his childhood and would tell a story (until he was arrested and sentenced to death) of when Hitler was a child, on a dare, he tried to urinate into a billy goat’s mouth and the goat reached up and tore one of his testicles off. So, apparently, the Holocaust and the untold misery in the Soviet Union was the result of overcompensation?

Even going beyond the root cause, there is even now serious disagreements regarding what Hitler’s motives were. Some historians believe that Hitler was sincere in his actions. They believe that he thought it was his moral mission to remove Jewish people (and Poles and Slovaks and …) for the betterment of the world.

Other historians equally fervently believe that he was basically an actor. He was an ambitious opportunist that did whatever necessary to gain the reigns of power and then basically responded to the will of the people.

Yet another group of historians believe that he started off as an actor but ultimately there reached a point where he began to believe his lines. After acting as an opportunist in the early stages of the war, specifically after he achieved such massive success in the initial stages of the Soviet Union invasion, he became convinced that his will was destiny; this delusion became his downfall.

There’s another whole school of thought that Hitler should never try to be understood. He is beyond humanity. To try to understand Hitler is to try to explain Hitler. It’s a short path from explaining Hitler to excusing Hitler. To venture even a little down this path of trying to understand evil is itself an immoral action.

Why does this seem so important now? It seems to me, not just in the US but in the world, the inevitable advance that democracy had been marching upon over the last several decades has seemed to reach a pause. There are now parties arising in many countries that seem to be hearkening back to a more dangerous time.

Obviously not all such parties are going to lead the world to global conflagration. There’s a very good chance that none of them will. It’s just that now might be a good time to look back into history and see if there’s anything that we can learn to make sure that we recognize the next Hitler, if such a one ever tries to emerge again.

Two Firemen Are In A Smoked Filled Room

Many years ago (I think it was probably in the late 1980s), I went to see a comedian named John Fox. He was the headliner. He came out, and the first words out of his mouth were, “Two firemen are in a smoked filled room butt fucking”. This led rapidly to the punchline. For his entire set, he did a rapid-fire set of unrelated jokes. The jokes were so quick and risque that he had the crowd in stitches.

About ten years later, I just happened to see that he was touring and was stopping off in Seattle. Remembering how much I enjoyed him, I decide to see him again. He walks out onto the stage and the first words out of his mouth were, “Two firemen are in a smoked filled room butt fucking”. It was ten years later and his act was, word for word, identical.

Going to see Anthony Jeselnik this week got me thinking a bit. As I previously wrote, he is, despite his extremely dark humor, actually a conventional joke teller. His act is not personal. I learned nothing about Jeselnik by listening to his act. For all I know, he could have a staff of crack writers that grind out the jokes that he delivers.

This is counter to the current trend of comedy. Comedians today generally are much more personal. They delve into their psyche and their personal lives and use what they discover there as the subject matter of their humor. I listen to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast pretty regularly. He is definitely one of the reigning senior spokesmen for the current state of comedy. He’ll talk to fellow comedians and he’ll occasionally reference some other comedian and say that he/she tells jokes. Although he tries to be impartial, it’s pretty clear that he kind of holds them in some disdain. Such comedians that simply tell jokes are, in his eyes, children of a lesser comedic god.

The deeply personal comedic perspective is a tradition that goes back 50 or more years. Before that, comedians told jokes. In fact that was their job. It was to tell jokes. It was not  their job to write jokes. There’s a famous book named the Joe Miller joke book. Joe Miller was an 18th century British actor. Shortly after his death, a joke book was published in his name. It consisted of 247 jokes.  Over the years the book was revised and new jokes were added.

By the time that vaudeville and then later the Catskills Borscht Belt were going on, there were comedians still making use of those same jokes from the Miller book. There were comedians who were successful for decades and never changed their act. In fact, I might have my facts screwed up here, but I believe that one of the great vaudeville comedians, Eddie Cantor, was in real life pretty much incapable of natural humor.

Clearly, the reason why they were able to do it was because there was extremely limited recording taking place then. Most people would only occasionally go to comedy shows, so the fact that large numbers of comedians were using essentially the same material was not a big deal. Comedians regularly stole successful bits from each other. It was known and just accepted.

Things started to change in the age of television and radio. Suddenly, a comedian could reach millions of people with one show. A comedian could go on the Ed Sullivan show and do some piece of his act. Well, when he went out on the road again, many people in his audience would have seen his act and wouldn’t want to see it again. Unlike singing, comedy does not improve with repetition. People who had been touring for decades were effectively driven out of the business, unable to come up with new material.

Desperate for new material, joke stealing became a real issue. Someone could go on a national show with stolen material and would ruin that material not only for him/herself but also for the comedian that originated it. Milton Berle, Mr Television himself, was an infamous joke thief.

Some famous comedians hired a team of writers to generate new content constantly. However, it was a losing battle. Every new joke that came out could be instantly stolen.

Some comedians started trying a different approach. Led by so-called coffee house comedians like Mort Sahl and yes, Lenny Bruce, instead of just telling jokes, they began to tell stories. These weren’t generic let me tell you about my wife kind of stories. These were deeply personal experiences that were clearly unique to them.

By telling such personal stories, they were inoculating themselves from thieves. The stories just wouldn’t make sense to be told by other comedians with obviously different life experiences. Not only that, but the personal nature also changed the delivery of the act. Instead of a rapid fire set of gags, the comedy act became more thoughtful. This more thoughtful style was so foreign to the more typical joke thief that even if they tried to steal it, they’d just look silly trying to imitate it.

Lo and behold, the audience grew to appreciate this kind of humor. It effectively made a tighter emotional bond between the comedian and the audience. It created a depth to the comedy that was previously missing. From the coffee house, it expanded outward and eventually became the de facto technique for most future comedians.

However, think now of the stress that is placed on modern comedians. Many comedians have Netflix deals. Some comedians have a contract to release a new special every year or so. This places tremendous pressure upon them. Every year, the comedian has to delve deeply into his/her past or psyche and come up with another hour of comedy. I can’t even imagine the difficulty that goes into doing that.

Tig Notaro’s show about her fight with cancer and Patton Oswalt’s show about the death of his wife are now rightly considered landmark comedy. Today, if you look back on youTube at the giants of comedy from the vaudeville or early radio/TV days, you’ll find yourself amazed at the difference in sophistication between the comedy of today and comedy then. It has quite literally morphed into a different form of art.

And to think that to a large extent that this transpired because someone was trying to keep fellow comedians from stealing their jokes.

The Problem Of Tarantino

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

For those of you not familiar, that is Mark Twain’s explanatory note for Huckleberry Finn.

I was put in mind of this as I was reading IQ, a novel by Joe Ide. As a novel, I didn’t actually hate it. The basic conceit is that Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are re-imagined living in South Central Los Angeles. Both are African American. Isaiah Quintabe (known as IQ) has genius level intelligence and has developed a near photographic memory. However, his idolized older brother dies and it leaves him antisocial and remote from his neighborhood. IQ takes in a roommate named Dodson (suspiciously close to Watson), who is a low level drug dealer and all around hustler. Dodson, as you can imagine, is much more worldly and practical than IQ.

IQ and Dodson are hired to find the person who is trying to kill a famous rapper named Black the Knife, real name Calvin Wright.

As happens in such novels, IQ has brilliant insights that allow him to jump to conclusions. Dodson is his comic foil that is always bedazzled by his insights but occasionally contributes in his own way as well.

All of this is fairly benign and harmless. It’s not brilliant literature, but in its way, it’s suitably clever, the relationship between IQ and Dodson is humorous,  and the plot smoothly moves to its completely predictable finale.

So, what inspired the Mark Twain quote? Well, as I read it, I couldn’t but help to think about cultural appropriation.

Nearly all of the characters are African American. The characters are all stereotypical. Picture in your mind what a low level drug dealer would look and sound like, and you pretty much get Dodson. Picture a rich and spoiled up from the streets rapper, and you pretty much get Black the Knife. One of Cal’s bodyguards is the stereotypical large but not very bright man. The relatively few female characters are highly, overtly sexualized. They all (with the exception of the determinedly otherworldly IQ) speak in slang, sprinkling the “N-word” liberally throughout.

Joe Ide is Japanese American. Now he is from South Central Los Angeles, so maybe he knows exactly what he is speaking of as he writes it. I don’t know. I’m not from that area myself.

However, it’s disquieting. Black culture has been appropriated for hundreds of years. Non black people have been speaking for black people for nearly that long. Seriously, the phrase Jim Crow comes from an 1830’s minstrel show. The Amos ‘n’ Andy radio show was performed by white actors. Pat Boone got rich singing Little Richard songs. Quentin Tarantino has apparently decided that since his movies so often have black characters that he’s become some kind of honorary black person (leading to some really painful interviews where he’s trying to act black; check out the Cracked YouTube video for a fine example).

This got me to thinking about Mark Twain. He clearly thought that he’d nailed the character of the escaped slave Jim. In his explanatory note, he calls out that the dialect was carefully researched and constructed. He is clearly proud of his work. However, in the novel, Jim’s lack of education and ignorance is regularly made a target for humor.

I know that authors want total creative freedom and I’d like to respect that. Given the history of subjugation and appropriation of black culture, if you’re not a black writer and you’re writing a novel in which nearly all characters are black, and not only that, but are stereotypically black and are regularly using racial epithets that would be considered obscenely vile if uttered by a non black person, perhaps you should really think about treading carefully?

The Madness of Kings

This is the second blog post that I’ve written titled The Madness of Kings. The first was about The Winter’s Tale, a Shakespearean play that I watched in Ashland. This has nothing do with that. So sue me.

This is literally about the madness of kings. What do you do when your king, the literal embodiment of the state, is mad?

I first started thinking about this while reading Tuchman’s book, A Distant Mirror, a fantastic history of the 14th century.

One of the key figures in it is the French king, Charles VI. After he took over from his corrupt uncles, he instituted reforms that led him to be known as Charles the Beloved. Later he came to be known as Charles the Mad.

At one point, during an expedition, he fell into a fit of madness, grabbed his lance, and started wildly swinging. This started off a mad scramble as his courtiers tried to calm him down but not actually touch him (since touching a king was a death sentence). Finally, he was effectively tackled and restrained, but not before killing four knights.

It didn’t help his madness later when he was at a costume party, attired in linen soaked in wax and someone (actually his brother, I believe) lit his costume on fire with a torch.

For the rest of his reign (and yes, he ruled for over 40 years), he had intermittent fits of madness. This came during a time when the Turks invaded Europe. It was decided that all of the European Christian states needed to get together to fight off this menace. Charles VI, as the King of France, was a key leader in this alliance because France was considered the military arm of Christianity.  Wenceslas IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, was considered the temporal head of Christianity.

Together, they gathered to discuss how to meet this existential threat to the Christian states. Wenceslas was alcoholic, so unfortunately, during the rare moments when Charles was sane, Wenceslas was drunk, and during the rare moments when Wenceslas was sober, Charles was mad, so the Christian states were not able to mount an organized opposition to the Turks, so they continued their attacks on Europe.

There was also the madness of King George III, of England. He started his reign in 1760. He reigned for 60 years. For the last ten years, he was completely mad and a regency was created so that his son could rule in his stead.

Long lives seem to be a problem for kings. How do you depose a beloved, successful king that has gone mad in his final years? Another case in point is Edward III, another king of England. He led the most victorious part (at least from an English point of view) of the Hundred Years’ War and was actually crowned King of France.

Ultimately, he reigned for fifty years. The last couple of years, he was senile and incontinent, apparently going around in a diaper. His son, the Black Prince, had died by this time, so next in line was his ten year grandchild. England was rudderless during this time and lost many of its gains from the war.

I could go on. How about Ivan the Terrible, who in a fit of insane rage killed his son? How about Eric XIV of Sweden, who in his paranoia ordered a family murdered, was later deposed, imprisoned, and poisoned in his jail cell?

All of this brings up interesting thoughts in my mind. When your leader is mad, what impact does that actually have on the people? Kings have a lot of power and are representative of their state. However, kings are surrounded by courtiers and the bureaucracy of state. Does this bureaucracy insulate the people from the madness? Can the state survive the madness of its king? How much does a state suffer from it? Does it, like an organic body, protect itself by enclosing the madness in some defensive bureaucratic membrane?

If you’re wondering why I’m thinking of this, of course this has been inspired by recent thoughts on Donald Trump. I read a fairly chilling article regarding Rex Tillerson and the actual growing prospect of nuclear war with North Korea. I read about John Kelly, trying to set up a protective cordon around President Trump to limit those he comes into contact with. I read about apparent conversations that have been conducted involving Defense Secretary James Mattis regarding what should be done if President Trump actually in fact orders a nuclear attack (apparently James Schlesinger, Secretary of Defense during Nixon’s final days, issued orders to military commanders not to launch any attacks without his prior approval). I read about briefings prepared for him that regularly include his name throughout to trick him into reading it. I think about the last minute cancellation of President Trump in a potential hostile 60 Minutes interview because of concerns that he’s ‘lost a step’.

Finally, I’m thinking about the recent spate of articles regarding the 25th amendment and the byzantine process it takes to involuntarily removing a president. It involves basically a revolt of half of the cabinet and two thirds of both the House and the Senate.

If Trump is truly incapacitated, can we as a nation (let alone the world) actually be protected by people that serve solely at his convenience? If he appears to becoming truly unstable, is it feasible that his hand picked cabinet and a Republican controlled House and Senate actually agree to vote him out? Remember that for those of us who see a potentially dangerously unstable man, he still has a 75 percent approval rating among the Republican party faithful. At what point will politicians place country over party? In today’s hyper partisan environment, is that even a possibility? How bad will it have to get?

These are increasingly scary days.

Cabinet of Racist Curiosities

Last week, I completed Stamped From The Beginning, by Ibram X. Kendi. I’ve previously written down my thoughts on it. However, as I was reading it, I was somewhat furiously taking notes because it was so information dense.

So here is just a random list of things from the book that I found interesting. They’re in no particular order. I just wanted to get them down because, if I didn’t, then as I continue through my march of books, these interesting factoids will become lost to me.

Thomas Jefferson’s last visitor before he died was Robert E. Lee’s half brother. I keep forgetting how young our country is. To think that there is this weird connection between two key figures of both the Revolutionary War and of the Civil War is mind-boggling to me. This is similar to the fact that John Tyler, the 10th US President, born in 1790 (during the Washington administration) still has grandchildren alive today (well at least in 2016, the last article that I saw that references this).

The use of the word Negro actually became popularized during the early colonization efforts (pre Civil War attempt to address the problem of slavery/free blacks by shipping black people back to Africa). Free black people that were born here understandably did not particularly desire to be sent to Africa. Therefore, they started calling themselves Negroes in a futile attempt to get white people to stop thinking of them as being African. The use and rise of the term colored was also popularized by free black people for the same reason.

Linnaeus, the botanist, developed the system of hierarchical classification still in use today. Not so well known is that he also applied this system to humans. Shockingly enough, the European branch came out smelling like a rose (eg gentle, acute, inventive; covered with close vestments; and governed by laws) while the African branch, not so much (eg crafty, sly, lazy, cunning, lustful, careless; and governed by caprice). Like the title of the book says…Stamped From The Beginning.

Kendi discusses at length uplift suasion. This is the idea that if black people worked really hard to better themselves and also educated white people that black people can be just as good as white people, that racism will just die away. It seems totally logical, but the inevitable result of the effort wound up being the hardening of racism. If a racist white person actually encountered an educated, successful black person, the white person would start thinking, well, if this one black man/woman can do it, why can’t they all? See! I told you that they’re all good for nothing, lazy bums! Uplift suasion has been tried (and yes, is still being tried even now, what do you think The Cosby Show was all about?) for over 150 years. It will not effect the change that is required.

In many ways, Harry Truman was a pioneer in civil rights. For instance, he led the drive to end discrimination in the federal government. Was he guided by a moral compass or by the bravery of the black soldiers in WWII? Not exactly. Almost immediately after WWII, the Cold War between the US and the USSR commenced. Since it was a Cold War (albeit pretty damn hot in some places), much of it was waged through propaganda. At the time of the late 1940s, African nations, previously treated as European colonies, began their struggle for independence. USSR, in their propaganda to the Africans, could point to the segregated, overtly racist policies of the US and say to them, do you really want to be on that side? It reached a point where the State Department briefed Harry Truman that our racist policies was having a significant effect upon our foreign policy. Truman’s civil rights policies were an attempt to cast the US global image in a better light. So, yes, the USSR had a measurable impact upon the treatment of black people in the US.

The original Planet of the Apes movies, coming out from the late 1960s to the early 1970s were almost a direct response to the demands for black equality. Notice how in the future, it’s the black animals that now lord themselves over the white slaves. At the end of the original, the Charlton Heston character discovers the now destroyed Statue of Liberty, symbolizing the destruction of white liberty.

Contrast that to the Tarzan series. The first film appeared in 1918, got its steam in the 1930s and lasted into the 1960s. Here is the lost white boy that is raised by apes. Using his own innate superiority, he teaches himself to read, naturally leans towards a civilized life, and becomes the natural leader over the apes. Is there a better way to inculcate native white superiority?

The basic cycle of criminality boils down to where ever this is more police, inevitably there will be more arrests. Where ever there are more arrests there will inevitably be a perception that there is more crime. Where ever there is more crime, there inevitably will be more police. Rinse and repeat. This cycle, which Michele Alexander brilliantly discusses in The New Jim Crow is a pattern that can be tracked back to pre Civil War times.

That’s all for now. That’s enough. Stamped From Beginning is just chock full of facts that will make you change the way that you look at the world.


Where Are Today’s Scalawags?

One thing that I admire about the nineteenth century political system was their creativity in naming their factions. Consider the following:

Fire-Eaters: These were Southern politicians from the 1850’s. They were the hard core pro-slavery advocates. They were the ones that were advocating early for succession. They were even proponents of reinstating the slave trade, outlawed in 1808.

Doughfaces: Southerners weren’t the only ones to come up with creative names. There was a collection of Northerners who favored appeasing the Southern slavery demands. These were Northerners who supported the fugitive slave law and opposed the Wilmot Proviso. They were considered by their fellow Northerners to be weak, half-baked men.

Know Nothings: This was a new party in the 1850’s. You’d think that with the country being torn apart on the issue of slavery during this time, that most people would kind of have their hands full deciding where they stand on that issue. Was slavery tearing our country apart or a essential component of the country’s fabric? But no, there was a subset of people that thought that pretty clearly the obvious issue was too many Irish and German immigrants. You think that banning immigration on religious grounds was a new thing for our country? You think that Muslims are tearing the fabric of our society? Welcome to the nineteenth century, where the Catholics were the radical sect du jour. These new immigrants refused to adjust to the American way of living, lived off the public dole, caused violent crime rates to soar, and blindly followed their religious leader (ie The Pope). Sound familiar to anyone?

Copperheads: These were the Democrats during the Civil War that violently opposed the Civil War and tried to make peace with the South. First used as an insult but later the term was embraced, they actively accused abolitionists of starting the war and advocated for peace at any cost. For decades after the Civil War, being labeled a Copperhead Democrat was pretty much a kiss of death.

Scalawags: After the Civil War, there were Southern politicians who clung to power by making peace and working with reconstruction Republicans and even (gasp) black freedmen. One of the most famous is James Longstreet, probably the most strategic and capable of the Confederacy generals (with all due apologies to Bobby Lee). In working with Republicans after the war, he was never forgiven by the Lost Cause Southerners.

Black-and-Tans vs Lily-Whites: You have to hand it to the Republican party. Sometimes they really do boil down the complex issues of America to very simple terms. The post Civil War Lily-White faction of the Republican party was composed of all white politicians and the Black-and-Tan faction of the Republican party was bi-racial. It’s pretty simple, right? The two sides fought it out at conventions and, spoiler alert!, the lily-whites ended up taking the title.

Stalwarts: At last we’ve now put the Civil War and Reconstruction behind us, but the Republican party (and let’s face it, they came out of the Civil War completely in power and the Democrats were in ruins, every single presidential election between 1860 and 1880 was won by Republicans) was starting to splinter. The Stalwarts were old school machine politicians that loved how you could reward your supporters through the patronage system of spoils.

Half-Breeds: Opposing the Stalwarts were the Half-Breeds. They were what passed for reformers in the late nineteenth century. Understanding the patronage system was unfair and inefficient, they pressed to reform it. They ultimately prevailed, setting up a civil service based upon merit and removed political tests as an application requirement. Interestingly enough, James Garfield was elected president, who was a compromise choice favored by the Half-Breeds. His vice president, Chester Arthur, was on the ticket for balance and was a strong Stalwart (he himself was a product of the patronage/spoils system). After Garfield was assassinated, it was the Stalwart Arthur who signed into law the reform act, shocking his fellow Stalwarts.

Mugwumps (my favorite and what inspired me to write this post!): In 1884, James G Blaine, a dedicated Half-Breed who was the force behind the patronage reform act, was running for president on the Republican ticket. The problem with Blaine was that he was pretty deeply involved in a financial scandal (check out the Credit Mobilier scandal). In disgust, a number of Republicans bolted the party and chose to support the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland (conveniently ignoring the fact that Cleveland fathered a child out of wedlock by date raping a woman, paying her off to put the baby in an orphanage, and committing her to an asylum when she came back for her child, ain’t politics grand?). The mugwumps might have made a significant enough difference in enough key states to have swung the election to Cleveland, the first Democrat elected since James Buchanan in 1856.

That’s a pretty awesome list of names and I feel that our current era of politicians need to up their game. Sure there’s the Tea Party on the Republican side. Not that long ago amongst Democrats there were yellow dogs and blue dogs, but with the death of the party in the South, there is not that many of them left. Now it’s all boring names like the Freedom Caucus, the Tuesday Group, and the Congressional Black Caucus.

Come on guys (and yes, you’re nearly all guys). You need to up your naming creativity!


I’ve Lived In Interesting Presidential Times

When you look back over all of the United States presidents, you see a lot of boring looking white dudes.

However, I posit that, during my lifetime, we’ve had a selection of presidents that defy that normalcy (as one of the more extreme nonentity presidents, Warren Harding, might say).

Let me go through the list:

John Kennedy: Sure, I was only five months old when he died (I was nowhere near Dallas, I swear). He was the last president to be assassinated. That’s pretty big. And oh yeah, he hid the fact that he had a very serious disease, was regularly getting amphetamine injections by a physician that literally went by the name Dr Feelgood, among many other drugs, and for decades took corticosteroids, which among other side effects, leaves you randy as a goat (which of course, he apparently did nothing to fight).

Lyndon Johnson: He almost certainly won his first senatorial bid through overt fraud. He was so proud of his, um…johnson… that he’d regularly whip it out for effect. As president, he once personally called his suit maker (don’t presidents have handlers for that?) to make sure that the next suit would have adequate space for his ‘bung hole’.

Richard Nixon: Where to begin? Well, first of all he’s a conservative Republican that actually created the EPA and for a time was thinking of supporting a basic income plan (where all citizens are guaranteed an income). He was a lifelong red-baiter that went to China and negotiated arms deals with the Soviets. Apparently when he was drunk, he’d order nuclear strikes that were somewhat conveniently ignored. And, oh yeah, he would have been impeached and probably convicted but instead chose to be the first president to resign the office.

Gerald Ford: He was the first president to assume the office without ever actually receiving an electoral college vote (vice presidents are also elected via electoral college; since he followed the resigned vice president Spiro Agnew, and then the resigned president Richard Nixon, he never actually was voted on in any way by the people). Also, Gerald Ford was not his birth name.  His name was Leslie King, but almost immediately his mom separated from his father because he was abusive. A couple of years later, she met and married Gerald Ford, who gave the young boy his name.

Jimmy Carter: First of all, Jimmy? Seriously? Not a presidential name. A United States President that is attacked by a killer rabbit? What is this, Monty Python? Or a born again Christian thinking that it’s a good idea to give an interview to Playboy magazine, admitting that he has many times lusted in his heart for other women? More seriously, he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and is generally considered something approaching a secular saint, but he authored the Carter Doctrine, which basically said that the Middle East is a vital US interest, thus involving us in forty years of war, thousands of US soldiers dead, hundreds of thousands of civilians dead, and trillions of dollars of military spending gone to waste.

Ronald Reagan: An actor? I mean seriously, at least vote for a movie star, not a second class mediocrity (Bedtime for Bonzo, anyone?). We have the arch social conservative who was the first president to be divorced and only went to church when there was a good photo op to be had. He was the first president since Woodrow Wilson who was obviously incapacitated by the time he left office. He was the only president in my life time that actually probably did deserve to be impeached (Iran Contra, read about it here).

George H.W. Bush: This is the first of two parts. He is the father part of the second father/son combination of presidents that have been elected. Considering the fact that the first father/son were the Adams’, it can be safely said that American leadership has not been evolving in a positive direction (although fair to say, despite their gifts, the two Adams’ actually weren’t stellar presidents either).

Bill Clinton: The second president ever to be impeached. Like the first, Andrew Johnson, he was acquitted by the Senate (although Clinton’s outcome, unlike Johnson’s, was never in doubt). He was another one that just couldn’t keep it in his pants. Unlike JFK, Clinton lived in a time of media ubiquity. Therefore, although reporters during JFK’s time hushed up his indiscretions, with Clinton we all got to enjoy tales of oral sex, semen on dresses, and improper use of cigars.

George W. Bush: This is the second of two parts. He is the son part of the above mentioned father/son combination. Isn’t it great that we live in a country where anyone can be elected president? That we live in a meritocracy? Oh yeah, he’s also the fourth person (first one in over 100 years) that lost the popular vote but won the electoral college. And the first one since Rutherford (aka Rutherfraud) Hayes to probably have won through electoral chicanery (Florida is one fucked up state if you’re black and you want to vote).

Barack Obama: Oh yeah, we elected a black guy. How weird is it that when I first wrote this list, I almost forgot him? Just in case anyone thought that the United States is some kind of post-racial nirvana, we got to enjoy eight years of people calling him a Kenyan Muslim socialist atheist. Oh yeah, he was also the third sitting US president to win the Nobel Peace Prize (before people get angry at me, I know that four presidents have actually won it, but Jimmy Carter won it in 2002, way after his presidency). Teddy Roosevelt was the first, which is kind of hilarious considering his basic bellicosity and Woodrow Wilson won for his work setting up the League of Nations, which is further proof that history has a sense of humor when considering that the US never joined it and the League was singularly ineffectual in stopping fascism and the second world war. It’s not clear exactly why the Nobel prize committee gave Obama the prize in the first year of his term unless it quite literally was a thumb in the eye of George W. Bush.  Regardless, considering that by the end of his second term, he was regularly raining hellfire down upon citizens in neutral countries from unmanned drones, the peacemakers in Stockholm might be wishing for a do-over.

And of course, this bring us to Donald Trump. Fuck, why not give the narcissistic reality television star a shot at it? He wants to run it like his businesses, which I’m really hoping is a campaign promise that he has no intention of holding to since he regularly runs his companies into bankruptcy. Oh yeah, he’s now the fifth person that has lost the popular vote but won the electoral college (at least this time, it wasn’t done fraudulently). For those keeping score at home, the Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven elections but have only served four terms and are now currently going through some existential identity crisis.  Isn’t American style presidential elections fair and fun?

So, there you go…the rogues’ gallery of presidents that have served in my lifetime. You can say a lot of things, but it certainly hasn’t been boring.

Sometimes They Really Are Out To Get You

When I was younger, I was prone to conspiracy theories. For a while, it must have been in my mid-twenties, I did some fair amount of research into the various Kennedy assassination  theories. Was it the Cubans angry about the Bay of Pigs invasion? Was it the Soviets sending in their Manchurian candidate sleeper agent? Was it the Mafia, killing John to send a message to Bobby to get off their back? Or, was it (Oliver Stone’s favorite) LBJ and the military industrial complex knocking him off so that they could drop some Agent Orange on those pesky Viet Cong?

As you read, you get deeper and deeper into the theory and you start getting caught up in the labyrinth of interlocking, contradictory theories that insiders debate endlessly. What’s up with the Magic Bullet? Who’s buried in Oswald’s grave? Who’s the Babushka Lady? The three tramps? The Umbrella man?

At some point, if you’re a reasonable person, you hit a point of no return. In my case, it could very well have been the Coca-Cola theory. IIRC, this is that Oswald was so addicted to refined sugar that he suffered severe impairment, which somehow caused him to assassinate JFK and then not remembering the act.

You emerge, blinking uncertainly back into the bright light of reality, slightly abashed and ashamed that you just dedicated some not insignificant amount of  brain cells to this endeavor.

The fact is, IMHO, there are seldom conspiracies.  I work for a very large company (>150,000 employees) and large entities like that just don’t lend themselves well to conspiracies. I’ve seen multiple things at work that, from the outside, could very well look like some nefarious plot of evil genius, but when exposed to the sunlight, they are the usual acts of unqualified people feebly trying to figure something out that is unimaginably complex to them.

So, my policy, for many years, is to never assume evil any act that can be explained by stupidity. I’ve taken off my tin foil hat and have placed it up in the high reaches of my closet shelf.

But every now and then…

Way back in the 1980’s, there was serious concern about the antics of the Reagan administration. I’m no fan of Reagan. Various wild eye conspiracy theories surrounded his terms, specifically in his relationships to minorities, who he pretty clearly had very little sympathy for and in fact, as Governor of California, used his strong arm stance against the ‘inner city hoodlums’ as a platform to national prominence.

However, there were rumors that the CIA invented AIDS to kill the black population. There were wild claims that the CIA funded/supported the crack epidemic, again target primarily against black people.

The CIA involved with the drug scourge of the 1980’s and 1990’s? That has to be crazy, right?

Well, let’s step back into the way back machine and talk about this.

The Reagan administration had a couple of problems. One problem was that there was a group called Hezbollah that was kidnapping Americans and holding them for hostages, sometimes for years. This was completely unacceptable to the macho posturing of Reagan; what’s up with this little collection of ragtag terrorists having the gall to hold American hostages?

The problem was that the hostages were being kept separately deep in the heart of Beirut. No westerners knew where they were. The American had no contacts within Hezbollah, so they were stymied.

However, the Hezbollah unofficial sponsor was Iran. Maybe America could somehow use Iran to assert some leverage upon their client and get the hostages freed? Unfortunately, America and Iran had no diplomatic relationship, so it was not obvious how do to this.

That’s problem number one. Problem number two was that Nicaragua was being ruled by the Sandinistas. They were a left wing government with some ties to Castro. Therefore, there was a commie government at our proverbial back door! This could not stand!

Luckily, there was another group in Honduras, called the Contras, who wanted to overthrow the Sandinistas. The Reagan administration desperately wanted to provide them money and weaponry so that the scourge of the Sandinistas could be destroyed and the Americas could be free from the threat of communism.

However, politics were murky in Central America. For the same reason as supporting the Contras, America also supported El Salvador, which was known for such lovely things as death squads and raping / murdering American nuns.

Congress, disgusted at acts such as these, passed the Boland Amendment. This Amendment explicitly disallowed spending any funds at all towards the Contras.

How to resolve these two big problems? Wouldn’t it be cool if there was some way we could solve both at the same time?

And away we go…

Iran was in the middle of an intense war with Iraq. They desperately needed military equipment. Since America had actually essentially built the Shah’s military force before he had fallen, the Iranians specifically had a need for American military equipment.

Through insanely deep back channels, America made contact with Iran. Would they be willing to purchase American military spares, and also, as a price for allowing the purchase, would they also be willing to put pressure upon Hezbollah to release hostages?

Remember, during all of this time, Reagan was boasting that he would never negotiate with kidnappers and that America had put Iran on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.

Well, the Iranians, as a matter of fact, were interested.  America sold some of its military spares (apparently it was considered pretty low quality stuff) to the Iranians for a huge sum of money. Apparently, at least in the beginning, in case this wasn’t crazy enough, Israel served as the middle man in this arrangement. Yes, the Israelis helped to close an arms deal with a country sworn to destroy them.

The Reagan administration then used the excess funds from this deal to fund the Contras. The fig leaf of legality here is that since this deal was run from the National Security Council (?!), that somehow the Boland Amendment did not apply. Few constitutional scholars agree.

Eventually, some hostages were freed. As more hostages were freed, additional arm sales proceeded.

So, to sum up, to free up a couple American hostages, America sold military supplies to a state sponsor of terrorism so that it could provide additional money and arms to a rebel force that it explicitly was prohibited to aid.

But wait, there’s more.

Those wonderful freedom fighters, the Contras, were part of a cocaine distribution network.

Ever in need of money, the Contras looked to establish a network in California. The CIA leaned upon the DEA to grant amnesty to Contra figures so that the network could be set up. A shadowy operative named Blandon set up a network with Freeway Rick Ross. They took the pure cocaine, converted it to the much cheaper crack, and an epidemic was born.

A journalist named Gary Webb exposed all of this. For his work, he was hounded out of his job. In fact, instead of supporting a fellow journalist, the LA Times literally hired a team of reporters, not to get to the root of all of this, but to discredit Gary Webb (and no, I’m not making this up; eventually the LA Times apologized publicly for this action).

Ultimately, Gary Webb committed suicide.

There’s some controversy in what I’ve just written, but honestly, not a lot.

A very real argument can be made that the administration of Ronald Reagan, the president that still today has a significant percentage of Americans wanting to make him the fucking fifth face on Mt Rushmore, had a huge role in causing the crack epidemic that wreaked untold havoc on an entire generation of Black Americans.

Still, I stand by my statement that most conspiracies are usually the act of stupid people blindly trying to discover a way through an unimaginably complex problem.

But Jesus Fucking Christ, don’t be throwing out that tin foil hat quite yet.


My Shakespearean Kicks Your Shakespearean’s Ass

This is actually a tragic tale, but regardless, I find it amusing.

In the early to mid 19th century, American theater was dominated by British actors. Especially in the 1840’s, which was a period of American / British conflict, this did not sit well.

The leading Shakespearean actor of the time was a Brit named William Charles Macready. He was known for his sensitive, finely crafted roles. In America, this was much appreciated by the finer sort, otherwise known as the Upper ten thousand.

On the American side was Edwin Forrest. He was a large, brawny man who gave overwrought performances full of physicality. At one point, Forrest toured England by following Macready around performing the same roles to prove he was the superior actor. At one show, while Macready was performing Hamlet, Forrest stood and hissed him.

It probably goes without saying that the mudsills and greasy mechanics of America preferred Forrest.

So, there you have it, the sensitive, effeminate British actor competing against the uncouth, virile American actor. I guess that stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason.

Macready tours America. He gives a performance of Macbeth, at Astor Place, a theater located dangerously close to the border between the New York gentility and the New York unwashed masses (close to the Bowery). Some of the unwashed managed to sneak in and pelt him with fruit, rotten eggs, and if reports are true, half of a sheep carcass, amid catcalls and cries of “down with the codfish aristocracy”! Macready finished the play performing pantomime since he could not be heard over the shouting.

He is convinced to give it another try. Ten thousand people surround the theater.  Again he is pelted down, shouted down, and has to finish in pantomime. He sneaks out of the theater in disguise.

Outside, the city militia has gathered. The crowd jostles the militia. Do you see where this is headed? The militia threatens the crowd. The militia fires into the air. When that fails, the militia fires point blank into the crowd. Ultimately, around 25 people are killed and over 100 people are injured.

Now, there are obviously deeper issues here. This was a time of deep divide between “the classes and the masses”. New York City was divided by class, and Astor Place was provocatively located near the masses. This also was a time of intense anti-British resentment.

But still…can you imagine a violent, deadly riot today caused by dueling Shakespearean actors? This makes the whole East Coast – West Coast Hip Hop rivalry seem almost quaint.