America The Beautiful

Like I did last year, I attended the Naturalization ceremony at the open air Fisher Pavilion at Seattle Center. It was very similar to last year. If interested, you can read about last year’s festivities here.

Like last year, it was a beautiful day. A gospel choir sang. Native Americans did a song / dance / story. Among the 500 people, some 83 countries were represented. Among the largest contingents were people from Mexico, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines. It was, just like last year, an uplifting and cheerful day that left me feeling inspired.

Even though it left me with such feelings, it just so happens that at the same time that I attended this ceremony, I was in the midst of re-reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Reading this at the same time as attending the ceremony left me with what best could be described as mixed emotions.

For those not aware of it, Zinn’s history was written close to 40 years ago (with new chapters added until he passed away some years ago). At the time that he wrote it, he was concerned that most American histories were written in a very one-sided, traditional and nationalist perspective. He wrote a history that was focused on the voices that history never records: those of the oppressed, powerless, and disenfranchised.

Re-reading this book at the same time as attending the naturalization ceremony brought new light to it. At the ceremony speaking were people of power. The Governor was there. One of the US Senators was there. The King County Executive was there. All of this gave the ceremony the trappings of state power.

On that day, under the auspices of this state power, the Native Americans did their dance. The US history of Native American treatment is sordid. There was literally not a single treaty that was signed with a tribe that was to last “As long as grass grows and water runs” that was not broken by the US government. Native Americans were hunted and herded nearly to their deaths.

Likewise, as the gospel choir sang, I thought of our nation’s treatment of Blacks. Black slaves were brought to America in 1619 to Jamestown, barely 10 years after it was founded. Our country truly was stamped with slavery from its beginning. From that sad start, our country has had 250 years of slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow, and some 50 years (and counting) of mass incarceration.

A large number of the new citizens were from Mexico. Think back to 1846, when America was hankering to fulfill its manifest destiny and bestride the entire continent. The only problem was that there was another nation in its way. After encouraging Texas to fight for its independence, James Polk later sent the American army down to Texas. There it knowingly made camp and built forts in what was Mexican territory. When the Mexican military engaged the US army in a minor skirmish on its own territory, the US government immediately claimed that it was under attack and that it must defend itself. In the resulting lopsided war, the US army nearly entered Mexico City. There were talks that maybe the US should just take all of Mexico. Instead it took only half. It paid a pittance for Arizona, California, New Mexico, and part of Colorado. Manifest destiny was ours.

Similarly, a large number of citizens were from the Philippines. Think back to the Spanish American War. Under what was at best murky circumstances and with a large assist from the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (“Remember the Maine!”), the US declared war on Spain. In the ensuing war, the US gained more territory, including the Philippines. This was, however, news to the Filipinos, who thought that they were fighting for their independence. After careful reflection, William McKinley decided that the Filipino people just were not prepared to take on the challenge of self rule and that it was the US’ responsibility to help lead them (Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden). Considering the fact that the Filipinos had a declaration of independence, a president, a constitution, and a congress, that’s ridiculous. In the ensuing war (called the Philippine-American War in the US and the War of Independence by the Philippines), Americans were accused of mass atrocities. Full independence was finally granted in 1946.

Finally, there was the large number of new Vietnamese and Cambodian citizens. I scarcely have to talk much about that. The Tonkin Incident, used to gain military authorization for the escalation of the Vietnam war, was later proven to have nothing to do with North Vietnamese forces. During the war, there were over one million Vietnamese deaths. Atrocities were committed. There was mass, indiscriminate bombing. Neutral countries were bombed (hello Cambodia).

It was interesting to me that one short ceremony managed to have a touch point to so many dark chapters in American history. This is especially so because it was such an overwhelmingly positive, reinforcing ceremony celebrating America and its diversity in one of the most progressive cities in the country.

Obviously, the gospel choir and the Native Americans chose to be there. Even more so, the immigrants from nations that America has such a checkered history with have voluntarily, enthusiastically, and with great effort become citizens of America.

It’s interesting to me why that is so. Is it that, even given the history of America, the promise of America still holds? The American ideal? The idea that it’s the land of opportunity? That if you work hard you can achieve your dream? Do so few other countries offer even the dream of such a thing?

Or is it the power of being #1 and everyone wanting to be on the winning team? Even today, the US is the only hegemon on the planet. Its military, economy, and culture dominate the world as no other country ever has. Everyone wants to be on the winning team.

Advertisements

The White House Asylum

If the stories about how Donald Trump spends his nights at the White House are true, then it’s pretty sad and pathetic. The rumor is that he wanders around in a bathrobe watching hours and hours of news television, calling some small circle of friends willing to tell him what he wants to hear, and, sigh, yes, tweets.

That would seem to be possibly the nadir of White House activities. However, that might not be true. It turns out that some pretty freaky things happen there.

Here’s a partial list:

Let’s start with a certain intern masturbating herself with a cigar in the Oval Office while Bill Clinton was watching and pleasuring himself. Oh, by the way, Yassir Arafat was in the Rose Garden waiting to meet Clinton while this was going on.

Lyndon Johnson would regularly decide, during meetings with aides, that he needed to drop a deuce. While continuing the discussion, he would take the aides into the bathroom, drop his drawers, and take a dump, all the while still talking. I have to admit that I’ve never had a boss try that with me. In case you think that this misuse of bodily functions was a one-off for LBJ, once at his ranch while he was out with his secret service agent, he whipped out his…um…Johnson and proceeded to urinate on the agent’s shoes. When the agent cursed, Johnson claimed that doing so was his prerogative.

Herbert Hoover seems like a decent enough fellow. After all, he did keep Europe from starving to death in the aftermath of WWI, even if didn’t do so well during the Depression. Apparently his thing at the White House was that employees at the White House were never to be seen. Therefore, if one of the employees saw or heard Hoover coming, they would throw themselves into broom closets or behind furniture or something like that so he wouldn’t have to lay eyes upon the help.  This actually continued through FDR. It was Truman who saw someone leap out of his sight as he approached and he was like, WTF? Once he learned, he immediately put a stop to it.

Clinton wasn’t the only president who got his freak on in the White House. Warren Harding had a long running love affair with Nan Britton. It started when she was 18 and he was about 50. Harding’s wife did not approve, so they had to sneak around. Apparently, they used to hook up in a tiny coat closet. Stay classy, prez.

Andrew Jackson was the first true ‘man of the people’. All of the previous presidents were either Virginia landed gentry or had the last name Adams. Jackson was from the wild west of Tennessee. When he was elected, he was truly thought of as the people’s president. Therefore, the people thought that they owed themselves a celebration at his inauguration. This celebration involved a throng of people getting very drunk, invading the White House, destroying furniture and china, and nearly trampling Jackson himself.

Let’s not forget about Richard Nixon. Imagine Nixon, sitting there in the Oval Office with his consiglieres Ehrlichman and Haldeman, plotting to pay off criminals, knowingly incriminating himself on tape. Possibly even worse, he had a special hatred for a famous investigative journalist named Jack Anderson. He allegedly plotted to have him killed. Nothing came of it, but think about that one a bit.

Sometimes, it’s not just US presidents behaving badly. One time, when Boris Yeltsin was making a state visit, apparently he had maybe a little too much to drink. He was discovered, late at night, on Pennsylvania Avenue, in his underwear, trying to hail a cab so that he could get a pizza.

Probably the most famous oddity is the King, Elvis Presley. Pretty much on a whim, Elvis decided that he wanted to meet Nixon, and not only that, but Elvis wanted to be given a federal narcotics badge because he thought that it gave him free reign to carry guns and drugs. Makes perfect sense. Elvis hand writes a letter to Nixon and drops it off. Somehow it gets to Nixon and Nixon decides to take the meeting. Elvis knows that you can’t just show up to the White House empty handed, so he carefully chooses a gift to give to the president. It was a gun. Elvis thought it would be a good idea to bring a gun to a meeting with the president. The Secret Service intervenes and confiscates it. When the two men met, they posed for the famous picture that in some way sums up America in 1970.

I could go on, but I’ll let you that sit with that final image. Next time you think of Donald Trump vacantly staring at Fox News or railing against the fake news of CNN, just keep in mind that, as a nation, we’ve survived weirder.

Land Of The Free

A week or so ago, I wrote about a book that I read named The Half Has Never Been Told. It makes the argument that slavery was a key engine in the growth of the industrial age and that, without the Civil War, there’s a very good chance that slavery as an institution was not going to naturally die out.

As is typical with such histories, there was so much more interesting / tragic items in it that I found interesting that I had to leave out for length.

So, just to get it out of my system, here’s some of the things that I learned while reading that I previously had no clue about:

Texas independence is conventionally taught as a movement of plucky settlers rebelling against the repressive remote central Mexican government. Conveniently enough, President Santa Anna was painted as the cartoonish prototype of a third world despot.

As courageous as all of that sounds, slavery could very well have been at the heart of the rebellion. Always in search of new land to grow cotton and leave stripped bare of nutrients, Southern slaveholders ventured into the Mexican territory of Texas. There, naturally enough, they recreated what they previously had by creating plantations worked by slaves.

Mexico had outlawed slavery some time back. They tolerated the settlers for a while, but realizing that they were losing control of their territory, they tried to actually enforce their anti-slavery laws. This caused the settlers to get all up in arms about federal interference (remember, from the government whose territory they voluntarily immigrated to). This outrage was one of the sparks that led the movement for Texas independence.

Despite all of the historical talk about the moral Northerners and their general disgust with the horrors of slavery in the South, in fact the Northern states benefited greatly from slavery and actually enabled it.

The Bank of the United States funded the slave trade. It was Northern banks that led to the growth of securitization of slaves. By putting a value on slaves and then allowing the slaves themselves to be used as collateral, this allowed the Southern plantation owners to greatly increase their credit, resulting in ever more land and slaves.

Cotton that was picked in the South was sent North to such textile towns such as Lowell, Massachusetts. There the cotton was spun into fabrics. Such fabrics included the rough cloth that was worn by slaves, thus completing the economic cycle.

Considering the plantation farming itself, the financial securitization of the slaves, and the textile manufacturing from cotton, it was estimated that close to half of all economic activity occurring in the United States had slave labor at its core.

In 1850, there were 3.2 million slaves in the United States. They had a market value of 1.3 billion dollars. That value by itself represented 20 percent of the country’s wealth.

Is there any wonder that the South felt that it had the North by the balls and that there was nothing that anyone could do about it?

From that perspective, you can see what an almost incomprehensible blunder the Civil War was for the South. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was in no way advocating the freeing of slaves. His campaign was just to stop the spread. It can be argued that (and some Southerners certainly believed) stopping the spread was equivalent to the beginning of the end to slavery, but the fact remains that his platform did not advocate the abolition.

It was the South’s strong belief that cotton was indeed king and that the North (not to mention England) could not live without it that led it to its fatal calculation that led in turn to the Civil War.

And what was the result of this miscalculation?

In 1860, the wealthiest nations in the United States were: South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, and Alabama.

Those states are now (in the same order as listed above): 43, 50, 44, 32, and 47.

Remember that this is 150 years after the Civil War. Some mistakes reverberate for generations.

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!