Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Temptress in the Tea Pot

It is safe to say that The Harding Affair won't generate as much interest as the latest book on Hemingway's romances, Hotel Florida, but the "steamy" love letters between Warren Harding and Carrie Phillips will go on display at the Library of Congress after having been sealed for the past 50 years.

Harding and Phillips were both married at the time, which would have made the letters much better news fodder back in the late teens that they are now.  Harding ran successfully for President in 1920.  He wanted a "return to normalcy" after WWI and what had been seen as the much too "liberal" Wilson administration.  Such a torrid love affair would not have fit with the staid image he cultivated of himself, but seem to be the only thing worth noting from his conservative life.  

There were other affairs too, including one with Nan Britton, whose daughter she claimed was his.  The GOP did its best to keep these juicy stories under wraps in the 1920 election.  Nan was certainly the most fetching of the two, and 31 years younger than the Republican presidential nominee.

His administration was probably best known for the Teapot Dome Scandal, which ushered in oil influence peddling in the 1920s.   However, his tenure was cut short by a stroke of apoplexy on August 2, 1923, just two-and-a-half years into his first term.  He was succeeded by the equally staid Calvin Coolidge, presiding over probably the least memorable period in U.S. Presidents, 1920-1932, with the election of Herbert Hoover in 1928.  Big Business reigned supreme, with virtually nothing to regulate their interests, resulting in the worst stock market crash in history.

James D. Robenalt has certainly added a lot of intrigue to the romance.  He claims that Phillips and her daughter became German spies during WWI, and may have conspired with Harding to keep him out of the Presidential race in 1916, as it was in Germany's interest to keep the US out of the war.  Robenalt would like us to think that "counterfactual arguments abound" in the over 800 pages of correspondence between the two, but it strikes me as just a hook to read his book.

Monday, July 28, 2014

In Search of the Perfect Wave

50 years ago, Bruce Brown kicked off his epic surfing trip around the world, filming Robert August and Mike Hynson as they checked out one magical beach after another, many of them for the first time.  There was a wonderful scene in Ghana, where the two world-class surfers taught a local village to ride waves on their long boards.

The idea of The Endless Summer was to literally spend a year, January 1964 to January 1965, surfing around the globe, never losing the spirit of summer.  Pretty easy to do in the sub-tropics and tropics, where much of the film was shot.  They seemed to find their perfect wave at Cape St. Francis in the Natal Province of South Africa, a virtually endless wave befitting the theme of the movie.

Funny enough, the first recorded notes of surfing were by the crew of the HMS Endeavor, who witnessed surfing in Hawaii in 1796.  Captain James Cook really got around.  It was called he'enalu.  Naturally, the chief of the village had the best board, made from the best tree, and no doubt it weighed a ton.  The ruling classes picked out the best spots, and may have offered lessons to the crew, since they would have initially been regarded as honored guests.

The sport has grown around the world thanks in large part to the popularity of surfing in the 60s.  It was featured on Wide World of Sports, with the sport quickly spreading to South Africa, Australia and other places around the world, although these countries had a surfing history of their own, which the boys encountered.

It was an immensely popular film and still widely regarded as the best of the genre, even if surfing has reached incredible new heights as witnessed in this epic wave by big wave master, Laird Hamilton, who was born in 1964.  Movies have tried to capture the experience, but Riding Giants is probably the best "big wave" film as what you see is real.

Bruce Brown did a follow up to his film in 1994, repeating the excursion in large part with new surfers, but also stopping off at new points like Kodiak Island, Alaska, which looked like a cold and dangerous experience.  It was nice to see Bruce still had his trademark humor.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Israel: The 51st State

Truman with David Ben Gurion and Abba Eban, 1949

Back in 1945, Zionist lobbyists began pressing Harry Truman to recognize Israeli statehood.  Apparently, Truman held out for a joint-Palestinian-Israeli solution but as the pressure grew Truman gave into the lobbyists and recognized the State of Israel in 1948.  In a new book, Genesis, John Judis explores the roots of the pro-Israel lobby in United States and its ever-increasing influence over American politics.

Since 1948, each president has had to wrestle with the hostilities and wars that came with that decision.  US Foreign Aid has poured into Israel each year, starting with $100 million in 1949, roughly $1 billion when adjusted for inflation.  Today we pay out a little over $3 billion in military aid per annum, plus we have an extensive free trade agreement that imports roughly $20 billion in Israeli goods each year, while exporting approximately $10 billion.  A surplus that clearly works in Israel's favor.

Israel isn't exactly a ward of the United States, but it benefits heavily from American support, especially in the UN, where the US consistently overrules any international measure leveled against Israel with its veto power on the Security Council.  Efforts to make Israel abide by UN resolutions regarding the Palestinian territories have ended miserably.

In 2002, Israel began constructing a barrier wall, following a Palestinian Intifada in the wake of another round of failed Peace Talks.   The wall has grown to over 300 miles along the West Bank border.  It carves out parts of the 1967 Palestinian border for Israeli settlements, and in many cases closes off parts of Palestine from each other.  The wall has been universally condemned but no matter.

Gaza is similarly closed off from Israel, yet as we have seen in this latest round of air strikes, Palestinians have bored under the wall to get to the other side, as their economic livelihood depends almost entirely on Israel.  Some of these tunnels date back to antiquity and are only now being discovered by Israeli defense forces in this latest effort to destroy Hamas once and for all.

As Jimmy Carter wrote in his 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, Israel has segregated Palestinians much in the same way South Africa once did blacks and other ethnic groups, using them essentially as a cheap labor pool, while not providing any of the benefits of living in the State, except for those fortunate few who stayed in Israel proper following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.  Carter had been the only president to strike a peace agreement between Israel and the Arab world with the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979, but attempts to build on this historic accord have largely gone for naught.

Bethlehem, located in the West Bank

It seems most Americans have accepted Israel's belligerent position regarding Palestinians since 2002. Israel is seen as an extension of ourselves.  We readily identify with the way Israel has built itself up from the desert over the last 66 years and regard them as protector of the Holy Lands, even though most of the significant Christian religious sites are in the West Bank, with many Palestinians regarding themselves as Christian.  Even in Gaza, there are approximately 1000 Palestinian Christians attending a Greek Orthodox Church that dates back to the 12th century.  Yet, the conservative fundamentalism that drives the Republican Party today has little or no sympathy for these Christians who find themselves under bombardment by the IDF.

Like Tea Party politics, it is easier to view these conflicts in terms of black and white.  American Evangelical Christians have thrown their full support behind Israel for whatever reasons of their own.  Israel has actively courted these religious conservative groups over the years as Timothy Weber illustrates in his book, On the Road to Armageddon.  Hard to believe given the virulent anti-Semitism that once ran trough these groups and still runs through many of them.

In many ways, Israel is our 51st state with a very powerful political lobby that not only influences the Republican Party, but the Democratic Party as well.  I don't think Harry Truman had any idea what he set in motion all those years ago.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Plagiarism in Politics

Acting U.S. Senator John Walsh is the latest victim of "oppo-research," a new level in research into political candidates and opponents that digs into virtually every aspect of a person's life, including his academic records.  As it turns out, Walsh plagiarized large sections of his 2007 Master's thesis and now finds himself in trouble, not just politically but with the university.

Last year, it didn't take Rachel Maddow very long to root out the source of Paul Rand's comments on eugenics, catching him quoting from a wiki page on the movie, Gattaca, adding the word "liberal."  This turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg, as Rand often doesn't attribute his sources.  He claims he was just being "sloppy."

There was also a big brouhaha over where Obama's 2008 campaign slogan, "Yes we can" came from.  Many conservative sources attributed it to Bob the Builder, but it has been used so many times that one would consider it in the public domain.  Cesar Chavez used the Spanish form, "Si se puede" as the motto for the United Farm Workers back in the 70s, and one could probably find even earlier examples.

Plagiarism charges are nothing new.  Even Cicero was accused of cribbing Demosthenes, among others, for his rhetorical style and content.  That could be said of most politicians, who usually rely on historical models, whether they choose to reference them or not.

However, Walsh failed to properly attribute quotes in an academic paper, which is a serious no-no.  It got Joe Biden into a whole lot of trouble back in 1988, when it was revealed during his Presidential campaign that he had failed a 1965 introductory law course due to plagiarism.  The supersleuth now as then was the New York Times.  But, even the NYTimes editorial staff has been accused of plagiarism, notably Paul Krugman.  It seems no one is immune from such accusations.

In the end, one wonders if it really matters except maybe in the court of law, where family members of Randy California tried to block the re-issue of Led Zeppelin IV because they claimed Jimmy Page stole his famous riff in Stairway to Heaven from Randy's intro to Taurus.  The case was thrown out.

That should be the case with many of these political plagiarism charges, but it seems that politicians will use anything to get a leg up on their rivals, especially in hotly contested Senate races where the Republicans hope to regain the majority in the U.S. Senate.  Fortunately for Walsh these charges came early enough where he has a chance to rebound from them, provided he doesn't stick his foot any deeper into his mouth.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Raising Arizona

I remember my first trip across America when I was no more than 6 years old, stopping off at Old Tucson to watch one of their famous staged gunfights.  The studio dates back to 1939 and is still used today, although its glory days when Gene Autry, Glenn Ford and Jimmy Stewart rode into town are long since over.  Tombstone was the last movie of any significance to be shot at the studio in 1993.

Still, that spirit lives on, moreso than some persons would like it to, as Arizona has placed itself prominently in the news with its border clashes and its virtually non-existent gun laws.  You can purchase almost any type of gun today and carry it openly, just like in the days of the Old West.

Much of Arizona came in with the Western territories in 1848, the spoils of the Mexican War.  The Gadsden Purchase completed the deal in 1853, forming what is now the border with Mexico.  In 1862, Arizona was given its own territorial government apart from New Mexico, and immediately threw its sympathies behind the Confederate States.  In a bold move, Jefferson Davis actually trade to establish a trade route to California, but this ambitious quest was thwarted at Glorieta Pass.  Arizona has been fighting a "border war" with Mexico ever since.

President Taft approving Arizona statehood
There were several attempts to gain statehood, the most contentious of which was an omnibus statehood bill in 1903 that would have given statehood to Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona but it too was blocked.  Arizona would simply have to wait its tour, coming into the Union of February 14, 1912, a month after New Mexico and four-and-a-half years after Oklahoma.

The state has had a colorful history and a lot of contentious moments.  Probably its most contentious moment was when Barry Goldwater chose to defy the conventional wisdom of the Republican Party and vote against the landmark Civil Rights legislation of 1964.  Turns out he was just a little ahead of his times, as eventually the GOP would use this same tainted well of emotions to lure the Dixiecrats to its party and sweep the South in the 1972 election.

Goldwater was known as "Mr. Conservative."  He had previously rejected the New Deal and anything else that smelled of big government.  He was born in Phoenix when it was nothing more than a territorial governor's seat.  His brand of politics was popular among the Libertarian Republicans, who strongly believed in a small federal government and the balance of power resting in the states.  To Goldwater's credit, he didn't see a place for religion in politics, which would put him outside mainstream conservatism today.

Arizona struggled with the legacy of Civil Rights.  It refused to acknowledge Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which even the Southern states had begrudgingly accepted.  Governor Bruce Babbitt had tried to invoke the holiday by executive order, but it was similarly revoked by the succeeding governor Evan Mecham.  Finally in late 1992 the holiday was approved by referendum after the NFL threatened to pull the Super Bowl from Sun Devil Stadium the following year.

It is also one of only two states not to recognize Daylight Savings Time, although the Navajo Reservation, which engulfs a large northern section of the state does, making it kind of cumbersome crossing borders within the state.

Probably the most enduring image of the state remains Monument Valley as shot both by Edward Sheriff Curtis and John Ford.  I'm sure Curtis' sepia prints inspired Ford, who would use the iconic buttes in several of his films, notably The Searchers, which was filmed on location in 1956.  He was one of the first directors at the time to include native Americans in his films and had a particular affinity for the Navajo.  He airlifted food into their reservation when they experienced one of their worst winters in December, 1948, and the Navajo never forgot Ford's generosity.

Edward Sheriff Curtis, Monument Valley, ca. 1900

I had the opportunity to work one summer at Canyon de Chelly in 1988, which is part of the Navajo reservation.  The beautiful canyon hosts some of the most extant cliff dwellings of the Anasazi, dating back to the 10th century.  The nearby Hopi mesas also date to the same time with Walpi the oldest continuous settlement in North America, dating to approximately 900 CE.  The Navajos, or Dine as they call themselves, were immigrants who arrived in the Colorado Plateau sometime around the 14th century, long after the pueblo builders.   And, of course there is the Grand Canyon which John Wesley Powell explored in 1869 during his geographic expedition of 1869.  This canyon has long been home to the Havasupai, whom Powell encountered along the way.

It is odd that a state which embraces its rich cultural legacy took so long to accept MLK Day, but I guess this is part of its independent nature.  This would help explain some of the recent decisions in state legislature, openly defying the federal government, especially in regard to immigration.

The state has literally tried to take the law into its own hands, infamously represented by Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, who used racial profiling to track down perceived illegal immigrants, resulting in numerous lawsuits brought against his sheriff's department, and eventually the US. Department of Justice stepped in to investigate the matter.  Arpaio also actively challenged President Obama's birth certificate.  All this made him a folk hero among the conservative right wing, and has earned six consecutive terms as sheriff.  His antics, however, have made him "the most expensive sheriff in America."

Sprawling Phoenix
More than a century after its statehood, Arizona very much remains an enigma.  It has attracted persons from far and wide, yet remains staunchly conservative in its views.  This spirit was probably best captured in the Coen Brothers movie, Raising Arizona.  Since 1912, its population has risen exponentially from 204,000 to well over 6 million inhabitants, with the vast majority of that population centered in Maricopa County.  This is the Phoenix metropolitan area. Tucson is further to the South in Pima County.  Together these counties account for nearly 80% of the population.

The sizable Hispanic population doesn't seem to have much sway in state politics, largely because they have been conveniently isolated as a result of the gerrymandering that followed the pivotal 2010 midterms.  Since then the state has been battling with federal courts over the shape of the districts.

Somehow this state has managed to defy its limits, but one wonders how much longer in can do that, as this is a state (at least the southern part) literally running out of water, with much of its fresh water supply coming from the Colorado River Basin, which is drying up.  John Wesley Powell had foreseen these problems, but unfortunately the state chose to ignore his comprehensive water management plans and now has to rely more and more on water treatment plants.

At some point Arizona's conservative intransigence has to give way to more pragmatic concerns.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Speak up, I can't hear you

In 1878, Thomas Edison augmented the megaphone so that hard-of-hearing persons could pick up vibrations and possibly hear what is being said around them.  He came up with this unusual device, which quickly garnered attention around the world, including New Zealand, where this article stems from.  It sure would be nice to hear from all those looking in ; )

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Neverending Debate

The "debate" lives on 89 years later.  It is worth looking at the comments to this anniversary note, just to get a cross section of opinion, as the theory of evolution remains a deeply divisive issue in America.  More striking is that Americans are less accepting of evolution than any country in Europe except for Turkey.  So, it seems we have allowed this "debate" to rage on, while other developed countries have long since moved on.

Trying to find the reasons why are complex, but it seems that it largely suits the conservative political establishment to use evolution as one of its whipping posts, as it continues to promote a staunchly conservative religious view of society.  Roughly 3 in 10 Americans take the Bible literally, with conservatives actively promoting their view of "creationism" in one form or another.

Interestingly, Creationists are accepting dinosaurs even though there is no specific mention of such beasts in the Bible.  Recently, Michael Peroutka donated a complete skeleton of an Allosaurus to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which "religious archaeologists" date at 5000 years.  Apparently, dinosaurs weren't invited on Noah's Ark.

There is an entire industry devoted to "proving" the events in the Bible, with such archaeologists roaming the earth in search of tell tale signs.  There is also a specific field of "flood geology" devoted to proving the Biblical flood took place.

All this pseudo-scientific research helps give credence to Biblical events, reinforcing long-held beliefs.  There is even a separate group that promotes "intelligent design," which is willing to accept an older Earth but still insists on God's hand in shaping events over the eras, kind of like that obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Randy Olson had fun with some of these theorists in Flock of Dodos, but he also notes that scientists are often their own worst enemies by adopting a belligerent attitude when challenged.

The number of Americans who do take the Bible literally has dropped considerably since 1925, although that number plateaued around 1992, thanks to religious groups like the Moral Majority and the enormous tele-evangelism network, which continue to promote Creationism.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

There is a house in New Orleans ...

Recently I read that Dave Von Ronk was given credit for the definitive version of the song, which Dylan swiped from him before he had a chance to record it.  Then came the Animals classic version in 1964, which Alan Price claimed was from a 16th century English folk song about a Soho brothel,but in the song the band specifically referenced New Orleans.   You have to figure Alan heard Dylan sing it, as it was on his 1962 debut album.

As it turns out, the song does have deep roots but is generally perceived to be an American folk song first recorded by an Appalachian duo in 1934, and soon after by Alan Lomax in 1937, also in the Appalachian region. Both refer to a house in New Orleans.  It was known as The Rising Sun Blues.  Along the way, Woodie Guthrie, Josh White, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger all covered the song.  Even Andy Griffith sampled it in 1959.  Von Ronk says it was the Lomax recording that inspired him, but you figure he heard these other versions too.  I have to say I like the Josh White version the best.

Ted Anthony charts the long journey in Chasing the Rising Sun, illustrating how a folk song like this drifts through time and becomes part of the great American folk treasury and in turn adopted abroad.  Gregory Issacs did a Reggae version of the song in 1992.

One of my favorite versions is The Blind Boys of Alabama using the music behind the lyrics of Amazing Grace, turning it into a spiritual.  Most see the House of the Rising Son as referring to a brothel, but I suppose you can find salvation in the lowliest of places.

There may or may not have been a brothel like that described in the song.  I haven't read Anthony's book to find out.   It doesn't really matter.  It is one of those songs that evokes so many images, like those of E.J. Bellocq.

Share your favorite versions!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

On the road again

The Johnny Appleseed exhibit is going on the road, like the man himself, to inform new generations of the man behind the legend.  John Chapman was a late 18th and early 19th century nurseryman who did introduce apple trees to the Midwest, but he also was part of the Awakening of the time, spreading the Swedenborgian Church through religious pamphlets.  So, those apples came at a price.

One of the earliest national accounts of Chapman was in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1871, which was essentially a biography of the man replete with engravings.    The image of him in a tin pot hat stuck.  Chapman was known for living a spartan life, but he often charged for his seeds so it wasn't like he took an oath of poverty.

Over the years, a virtual treasure trove of memorabilia has been collected, and his image has been illustrated countless times, including the most memorable one of him on The Saturday Evening Post.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A flight over troubled air space

It didn't take John McCain very long to point the finger at Russia in the apparent rocket attack of Malaysian Airlines MH-17.  Those are pretty bold words considering 23 Americans were initially noted on board, thereby making the bombing an act of war.  Since then only one American has been officially named, a Dutch-American Quinn Lucas, who was traveling as a Dutch citizen.  You would think that Mackie, who was shot down himself over Vietnam and spent 6 years in a prison camp, would be a little more cautious in his statements, but he just let his words fly, venting all his rage on Putin before any investigation is carried out to determine who was responsible for this malicious attack.

Initial evidence does indeed point to the separatists in the Donetsk region.  It appears they are working with sympathetic factions inside Russia (not necessarily the Kremlin) and neighboring territories, who are supplying them with powerful munitions like the Buk rocket launcher, which was apparently used to bring this plane down.  If this source is to be trusted, there is voice confirmation of separatist leaders admitting to the attack.  They apparently thought it was a disguised Ukrainian army transit plane.  There were other reports posted on Youtube, but they were taken down soon afterward when it became known it was a civilian airline carrying nearly 300 passengers.

I guess no one figured the rockets could reach 10,000 meters, as the no-fly zone was set at 7000 meters, but they did and now the separatists are forced to explain themselves.  Already, Russia has provided cover with Foreign Affairs Minister Lavrov condemning the Ukrainian government's claim that it was a terrorist attack and calling for a non-biased investigation.  That would be fine if the site wasn't already compromised by rebel forces with at least one black box apparently sent off to Moscow, although Lavrov went onto say that Russia would turn over the flight recording boxes to relevant international authorities.

Ever since this crisis broke early in the year, Russia has been trying to create as much distance as it can from the separatists, but this insurgency wouldn't have happened had it not been for the annexation of Crimea, which has inspired many ethnic Russians living in Ukraine to sue for similar annexation.  A "vote" for secession was engineered in Donetsk in May, but Russia has not accepted that vote.  This leaves these separatists essentially stranded, an island onto themselves, and they apparently feel they have the right to control their air space under threat of attack.

In such a volatile situation it is not only best to avoid such troubled air space all together, but also to avoid hyperbolic comments that inflame the tensions.  The insurgents essentially hold Donetsk hostage, much the way ISIS is controlling regions of Iraq.  To go into the region with any major force would be to put many civilians into the line of fire.  Yet, persons like McCain fail to understand this and try to turn a horrible tragedy into an act of war.

One can only hope clearer heads will prevail.  The White House released its official statement in more precise terms than the fiery senator.  Now we will see if Russia and the United States can bring the separatist movement in Donetsk to heel, as the two countries should have done long before.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

A recent PPP survey showed that 37 per cent of Mississippi Republicans said they would back a Confederates States of America if a new Civil War broke out, compared to just 9 per cent among Democrats.  It gives you a pretty good indication where the Dixiecrats went after the landmark 1964 Civil Rights legislation and shows that Dixie is far from dead in a lot of people's minds.

The open feud between Thad Cochran and Chris McDaniel over the Republican Senate primary appears to have opened up deep wounds, but such pro-Confederate feelings aren't confined to Mississippi.  The Klu Klux Klan has mounted recruiting drives in several states, notably South Carolina and Georgia where they indiscriminately left "goodie bags" on door steps with the hope of luring persons who are upset about the ongoing immigration "crisis."

Yet, anytime someone brings up race the radical right seems to cringe as if we live in a post-racial society.  Eric Holder once again came under fire for making racially-charged statements in a recent interview with ABC News.  Conservative pundits were quick to jump on these comments, claiming he was race-bating.

Of course there was no such race-bating in Mississippi when Chris McDaniel's camp called for election monitors in the run-off, afraid Black Democrats would vote twice in the cross-over primaries?  No such proof was ever presented, yet McDaniel has yet to admit defeat.  He's gotten support from Ted Cruz and other conservative Congressional leaders in another run-off.

Then you have all these conservative blogs scouring local media for any form of reverse racism, like this incident where an Iowa kid was apparently considered "racist" for wearing all white and waving a "W" sign during school spirit week.  I guess we can't say The Daily Caller is race-bating either.  These stories pop up on Yahoo! news, as lead stories seem to be based on the number of hits on their search engine.

Part of the problem resides in the South's inability to let go of the Civil War.  Wherever you go you find memorials to the battles, to the soldiers lost, to the generals who led the battles.  The biggest is Stone Mountain with its massive engraved image of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.  Re-enactments of the battles can stretch out for days and have become big tourist draws.  Southerners are quick to point out all these reminders are a matter of pride not racism, but for such a short-lived Confederacy, it seems to live deep in the heart 150 years later.

The Lost Cause comes back again and again and again.  It is repeatedly evoked in music.  Even The Band, which hails from Canada, paid tribute to the Old South in "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."  Robbie Robertson called it a "beautiful sadness" when he heard Southerners evoke Old Dixie.  A little naive considering this was the late 60s.  Ralph Gleason, in a Rolling Stone review, likened the song to Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage.  Many persons have since covered the song, oddly enough even Richie Havens, although I imagine he saw something else in the song that others didn't.

It is a beautiful song, like the softly sung Dixie, but the ugly truth remains that the Old South was institutionalized racism and that this racism continues to persist.  Evoking Dixie doesn't do anything to heal those wounds.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ballad of Easy Rider

It was 45 years ago this month that Easy Rider hit the screens and took in $40 million by the end of the year.  Not bad for a counterculture movie financed largely out of Bert Schneider's and Peter Fonda's pockets and shot on the road with plenty of drugs along the way.

This visceral feel struck home with viewers and is why the film continues to make capture audiences.  Fonda had always loved motorbikes.  He had teamed up with Bruce Dern and Nancy Sinatra in The Wild Angels and experimented with LSD in The Trip, but he wanted something more than just an acid trip in Easy Rider.  He approached Dennis Hopper saying he had a vision of two bikers riding across John Ford's West like in The Searchers.  They recruited Jack Nicholson to join the ride, who to this point had been little more than a Hollywood screenwriter.

Kalem Aftab caught up to Fonda at a BFI retrospective of Dennis Hopper.  Sad to read that the two had a falling out over the writing credits for the movie and were never able to repair their friendship.  Fonda was expressly barred from attending Hopper's funeral in 2010.  Odd that Hopper should take such offense, especially since he was given top billing as director, but who knows what animus lay at the heart of this dispute.

The film launched Nicholson's acting career.  Fonda and Hopper had initially approached Rip Torn to play the third part, but he had taken offense to the way Hopper sized up the South and the part was given to Nicholson.  Jack would go on to star in classic 70s films like Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge and Chinatown over the next five years.  Not bad for a guy who had a relatively minor role in the film as an ACLU lawyer and local drunk.  He helped spring Wyatt and Billy from jail.  He joined the ride to New Orleans but meets his end by a campfire on the way, savagely beaten by local thugs.

The Mardi Gras scene is probably the most memorable, as the two meet up with Karen Black and Toni Basil, enjoying an acid trip in a local cemetery that allowed Hopper to experiment a bit with the film, which Fonda jokingly referred to as "an endless parade of shit."  But, somehow it worked.

Fonda and Hopper treat the South as a place still rooted in Jim Crow hatred toward outsiders, in sharp contrast to the hippie commune they had visited earlier in New Mexico.  There was no room for hippies in the Deep South and the film comes to an abrupt and violent end in Florida where the two hoped to retire with their drug money.

When watching this film today it seems like a whole other era, yet strangely intimate.  The Soundtrack doesn't hurt either.  Supposedly, the characters of Wyatt and Billy were loosely based on Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, but you get the sense they pretty much played themselves.  McGuinn and Dylan did team up to write Ballad of Easy Rider for the movie.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Apes with guns

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is headed for a big box office weekend, an estimated $70 million.  Not surprising given its post-apocalyptic theme where apes gain ascendancy over man, reminiscent of the original series.  It also fits with the current obsession with man in a survivalist mode, replacing zombies with apes.

Chimpanzees are not to be messed with and can grow to the size of a human.  Just ask Charla Nash who was mauled by her boss's 200 lb. chimp named Travis and had to undergo a facial transplant.  She is now a major advocate of more strict regulations on exotic pets.

Chimps have long been treated as lovable semi-human beings which you can dress up.  They even starred in television series like Lancelot Link in the early 70s.  After all, they only differ from humans by one chromosome.  Anthropologists estimate that humans branched off from chimpanzees about 6 million years ago, evolving into a new species.  We still share many of the same traits, which is why drug companies have long used chimpanzees as human surrogates.

Needless to say, Jane Goodall didn't serve as a consultant in this film.  Dawn picks up where Rise of the Planet of the Apes left off with the Apes now controlling the Northern California redwoods, and humans trying to find a way to revive a battle-scarred San Francisco.  There is a feeble attempt at forging peace, but man being man just can't recognize ape as his equal, so the inevitable conflict ensues.

It is pretty far away from the original movie franchise. which was based on a book by Pierre Boulle, a French novelist, who apparently meant the novel as a Swiftian satire, with numerous allusions and metaphors, notably in the names he chose to give his major Simian characters, and even his human protagonist, Ulysse Merou,  who like his Greek namesake returns home after a long voyage, only to find it much changed.  Ulysse was renamed George Taylor in the 1968 movie, starring Charleston Heston, to suit American sensibilities I guess.  The movie traded satire for irony, especially in the ending when the protagonist discovered what planet he is on.

There was a certain appeal to man as primitive being and ape as overlord.  Humans had lost their power of speech and so the Simian leaders were bemused to find one that speaks like them.  The film was so popular that it spawned a series of films that circled back to the first.    They could be viewed by the end of the 70s in "Dusk to Dawn" showings at the local drive-in, what few still remained.

Tim Burton tried to revive the series in 2001, but his costume drama fell flat and it took the studio ten years to build up enough courage to try again.  Surprisingly, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a hit.  At least it had some kind of social message, greatly dramatizing the potential consequences of using great apes in laboratory experiments, which Jane Goodall has long spoken out against.  It seems the drug companies are finally taking heed.  But, somehow we still can't get past exploiting apes in film.  You might call these apesploitation films, even if the apes are largely the result of CGI effects, and no real apes are used in the films.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Killing Patton

Bill O'Reilly is not the first to explore General George S. Patton's untimely death.  Robert Wilcox dug into the long dormant case back in the 1990s and came out with a book in 2008, Target Patton, in which he puts forward the conspiracy theory that there were those who wanted the flamboyant general out of the picture.

Much of the theory rests on interviews between the author and Douglas Bazata.  Wilcox reported that Bazata said the Soviets were called in to finish the job after Patton apparently recovered from a car crash in Manheim, Germany.  This after Bazata supposedly was ordered by General "Wild Bill" Donovan to drive a truck into Patton's car.  Donovan was head of the OSS at the time.  Wilcox claimed that Bazata confessed all this to him in a 1999 interview, and found diary entries after Bazata's death to back up these assertions.

Douglas DeWitt Bazata was a highly decorated war veteran, who enjoyed a colorful life that had him brushing shoulders with everyone from Salvador Dali to Princess Grace of Monaco.  Who knows what kind of stories Bazata told in social circles, but it led British art critic, Michael Webber, to remark that Bazata had "a life eventful for a dozen novels."  He gave up painting and wine-making and settled in Maryland in the 1970s.  Ronald Reagan's Navy Secretary John Lehman thought well enough of Bazata to ask him to serve as his special assistant.

It's always fun to delve into conspiracy theories decades later and imagine the what-ifs, which Wilcox does by suggesting Dwight D. Eisenhower might never had become President if Patton had lived.  Patton apparently thought there was a deliberate attempt by Eisenhower to thwart his drive on Berlin.  Old Blood and Guts desperately wanted to get to the German capital before the Soviets, so that the US would get a more favorable slice of the pie.  Patton apparently held enough secrets of the war that he could have ruined careers if they had ever came to light, assuming of course the old warhorse would ever had divulged such secrets.

These seem to be more Wilcox's musings than anything else.  Hard to believe Bazata carried this startling revelation with him all those years and then admitted it to Wilcox on his "death bed."  Turns out Wilcox is part of the new Right Wing history industry that revels in such conspiracy theories.  When you search for Douglas Bazata, the various sites all seem a little too quick to point out that he was a Lebanese Jew.  There is a strong anti-Semitic note that seems to underlie these nefarious charges, reminiscent of the Dreyfus Affair.

Bazata wasn't even involved in the crash.  The truck in question was driven by Technical Sergeant Robert L. Thompson, who apparently made a left turn in front of the general's car, and the driver was unable to avoid a collision.  General Patton died of pulmonary edema and congestive heart failure 12 days later.   Complications which arose from the damage to his neck and spinal chord that had left him paralyzed from the neck down.

One can only imagine what Baba O'Reilly will do with the story.  Once again he calls on his historical sidekick, Martin Dugard, to help research the case, but why do we even need to persist in such conspiracy theories?  Killing Patton is due out September 23, and will no doubt vault to the top of the bestseller lists.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Sound and fury, signifying nothing

Attempts to impeach Obama date back to 2010 when Darrell Issa considered the presumed pressure by the White House on Joe Sestak to drop out of the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate Primary an impeachable offense, as the WH was actively supporting turncoat Allen Spector, who had switched parties to support the ACA.  After that effort failed to get any momentum, Michael Burgess suggested a "preemptive impeachment," citing no specific reason other than to stop the President from "pushing his agenda."

Of course, there was the ongoing row over his birth certificate as well, which many conservatives felt disqualified him from being in office in the first place, arguing that Obama wasn't a natural born citizen of the United States.  This "drive" actually began in the 2008 primaries when upset Hillary supporters attempted to derail Obama's momentum by suggesting his Hawaiian short form certificate was fake.  This story was picked up by conservative websites and swelled into a movement led by Orly Taitz that got major media attention.  The issue finally appeared to be settled in 2011, when Obama released the official Hawai'i long form certificate, after being dogged by Donald Trump among others.  But, "Birthers" still weren't satisfied, and it remained an "issue" throughout the 2012 election.

The matter of "legitimacy" still wasn't settled that November either.  Everyone remembers Karl Rove's infamous meltdown on Fox, when he insisted there were still enough unaccounted districts in Ohio to turn the vote for Romney.  Not that it really mattered since Obama had more than enough states to claim electoral victory with or without Ohio.  Many leading conservatives felt that the White House had cooked unemployment numbers, among other impeachable offenses, to gain a last minute edge over their nominee.

Efforts to make the September 11 attack in Benghazi into that year's "October Surprise" had failed, largely because Romney had greatly overstepped by being the first to rail against the President the very next morning for not declaring it a "terrorist attack" soon enough.  Ever since, the Republicans have been trying to make this into a scandal, calling one hearing after another, claiming there was a cover-up of "facts" surrounding the attack, but never once holding themselves to blame for denying additional security funding for embassies and consulates earlier that year.

In 2013, a book appeared, entitled simply Impeachable Offenses, which outlined a host of reasons why Obama should be removed from office.  One assumes Sarah Palin read the book (or at least someone prepared a punch list for her) as she claims to have 25 reasons to impeach the President, first and foremost the immigration crisis currently unfolding along the Texas border, which has Obama visiting The Lone Star state, much to Governor Perry's chagrin.

Sarah, like the growing cackle of conservative magpies, feels that the President has greatly overstepped his authority on everything from immigration to the Affordable Care Act, which is what has compelled House Speaker John Boehner to threaten a law suit against the President, while Republicans wait to see how the midterms shake out.  I suppose they imagine they can gain enough of a groundswell among dissatisfied voters to overturn the Senate this Fall, but it would take an enormous swing to get the number of Senators needed to uphold an impeachment vote by the House, as the Constitution requires a two-thirds Senate majority to confirm such a decision.  Republicans would have to win every single Senate seat up for election, and even then they would fall one vote short of a two-thirds majority.

It appears to be enough to create the air of impeachment in the midterms to try to make this election once again about Obama, rather than the incompetence displayed by Republicans these past six years, as they really have no grounds for impeachment.  Even Ted Cruz seems to realize this.  However, a simple majority would be enough for Republicans in the Senate to exercise the "nuclear option" on bills put forward by the Republican House, such as one repealing "Obamacare," which remains their favorite pet cause.

They figure if they get enough people incensed over the ongoing border crisis, they might just turn out enough Democratic senators to gain the majority.  One would like to think that Americans are inured to this type of politics, but you never can tell.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Last Frontier

Most persons think of Alaska and Hawaii coming into the Union together in 1959, but "The Last Frontier" actually had its statehood approved the year before and was proclaimed a state  on January 3, 1959, seven months before Hawaii.  For an ever so brief moment there was actually a 49-star flag, which was officially unfurled on July 4th of that year with this first day issue of the stamp.

The statehood drive had begun decades before.  Frustrated at being ignored, the territory actually picked two shadow senators and a representative to go to Congress on its behalf in 1956.  While they weren't accepted into the fold, they did successfully lobby for statehood and on July 7, 1958, President Eisenhower signed the statehood bill into law.

Alaska no longer wanted administration without representation, much like its far flung neighbor Hawaii.  It was only fitting that Alaska came in first, since it was annexed as a territory in 1867, thirty years before the Aloha State.  The purchase was dubbed "Seward's Folly," as there were plenty of folks who saw no value in adding such a remote territory, especially for what was seen as a gargantuan sum of $7.2 million in its day.  It turned out to be a worthwhile investment, as the United States reaped huge dividends with the Klondike Gold Rush, immortalized in this film.

It was about the time of the gold rush that my grandmother was born in Ketchikan.  There were apparently no birth certificates issued.  Salmon was the initial draw of the town, but soon mining and logging would become the dominant activities in this coastal town located at the bottom tip of the "Inside Passage."  It would have looked something like this,

Robert Service and Jack London would draw others to the state with their poems, short stories and novels.  My favorite remains The Cremation of Sam McGee.  The state continues to be seen as a place where you go to prove yourself, whether it is The Deadliest Catch or to climb Mt. McKinley, known locally as Denali.  Others take the Inside Passage on cruise ships, stopping off at Ketchikan and other places along the way.  

You can also take the armchair approach and read Jonathan Raban's wonderful Passage to Juneau.  Raban finds a way to connect the indigenous culture with Homeric musings, weaving into his narrative the long history of the state as he sails between the islands in his 35-foot ketch.

Alaska is also refuge, as wonderfully depicted in Northern Exposure, a television serial that ran between 1990-1995.  But, my favorite account is that of Dick Proenneke, who retired to the state in 1967 and built a cabin by the shores of Twin Lakes, which he captured in the documentary, Alone in the Wilderness.

It's this wilderness that people value most, yet it is in constant danger of encroachment, especially with our insatiable appetite for oil and timber.  One of the worst nightmares was the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 with its ongoing recovery 25 years later.  This is one of the many reasons environmentalists don't want to open the Tongass National Forest to logging and oil drilling, fighting plans like this one proposed by the Bush administration and supported by Sarah Palin when she was governor of Alaska.  Now that the Arctic ice cap is melting, Alaska could once again serve as a major portal to deep-water oil exploration, which the Obama administration approved.  

Our government just doesn't seem to get it.  In 2013, nearly 2 million persons visited Alaska, which is almost three times the population of the state.  Tourism accounts for one in eight Alaskan jobs.  Of course, this takes a physical toll on the state as well, but nothing like the Valdez disaster.

It was Teddy Roosevelt who created the Tongass and Chugach forest reserves so that these pristine lands would be preserved for future generations and continue to inspire persons the way this great wilderness has inspired so many others before.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Altered States: The Legacy of Elbridge Gerry

When you look at the breakdown of red and blue states in this country, it is staggering to me that Republicans control 30 state legislatures and 29 governor mansions.  Particularly disconcerting is that traditionally Democratic labor states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are firmly in the hands of Republicans.

Despite the 2011 protests that rocked Madison for several weeks and the recall elections which followed, Republicans managed to hold onto the state senate and governor's mansion, and subsequently gain seats in the 2012 election.  Walker and the Republicans were also able to get their anti-collective bargaining legislation through the state legislature, and continue to enforce these laws even though state courts had deemed the laws unconstitutional.

So why do union states continue to vote Republican, when it is clear that Republican leaders are anti-labor?  Looking at the demographics, it seems the main reason is the Republican ability to turn the vote in rural and suburban areas.  Pro-Labor appears to be largely concentrated in urban areas, and Republican state legislatures have gone out of their way to gerrymander voting districts so that rural and suburban districts carry an inordinate amount of representation.  Republicans hold a huge edge in the Wisconsin state house (60-30) and a significant edge in the state senate (18-15) despite Democrat candidates having won more votes overall than Republicans in the 2012 state elections.

This is a pattern that repeats itself across the country, making it very difficult for Democrats to retake states that they continue to win in national elections.  You take Michigan, which has two Democratic U.S. Senators, yet Republicans have 9 as opposed to 5 Democratic U.S. Representatives, and control both chambers of the state legislature, once again thanks to gerrymandering.

Unfortunately, this method of drawing up voting districts is perfectly legal and dates back to Elbridge Gerry, who as governor of Massachusetts in 1812 signed legislation that redistricted the state to favor the Democratic-Republican Party.  Thanks to the success of this initial effort the name stuck, and some voting districts can carry more weight than others, regardless of the number of voters.

Urban areas have suffered the most through gerrymandering, as their votes count less than rural and suburban votes in many state elections.  This was true throughout the Midwest.  Democratic US Representative candidates won the majority of the Pennsylvania vote in 2012 but thanks to the breakdown of districts, the Republicans retained 13 out of 18 seats in the House of Representatives.  Pennsylvania Republicans similarly retained controlled of the state legislature, allowing them to perpetuate this voting imbalance.

Even in Southern states like North Carolina, Democrats suffered a similar fate.  This despite notorious voter ID laws and other measures specifically aimed at disenfranchising a significant portion of the voters.  Nevertheless, Republicans retained commanding control of the state legislature, and maintained their edge 9-5 over Democrats in the US House of Representatives.

Astonishingly, all this redistricting took place in the span of one election cycle.  Republicans rode to a sweeping electoral victory in 2010 and immediately set to insure they would hold the majority in these Midwest states and maintain control of the South indefinitely.  Texas Republican Blake Farenthold barely won the 27th district over longtime representative Solomon Ortiz in 2010, but after the district was remapped Farenthold easily won re-election in 2012.

One had hoped that the Madison protests would inspire similar shows of resistance across the country, but alas it seems many folks just simply accepted defeat.  Lacking a clear message, Democrats have been unable to inspire voters to the polls.  Primaries have had historic low voter turn out in some states, and there seems little to indicate the November elections will be any better.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Re-inventing Nixon

I see Pat Buchanan is busy plugging his new book, calling Nixon's "Southern Strategy" a "Liberal Big Lie."  Pat was a close adviser to Tricky Dick, kind of a "Karl Rove" of his day telling Nixon to steer away from particulars and speak from his gut, wooing dissatisfied Democrats by appealing to their base instincts.  At least this is how The Greatest Comeback is reviewed in The Economist.

Pat himself feels that the Democrats have promoted this shameful lie for decades, when in fact Nixon better read the American voter than they did.  He points to the Dixiecrats, whom he sees as a canker in the Democratic Party, noting how FDR tried to appease them to keep them in the party.  He recalls the many grave injustices, and notes how Nixon "blasted Dixiecrats."

It is true that Nixon let Wallace do the dirty work for him the first time around.  Wallace ran as an independent candidate in 1968, siphoning off Democratic votes throughout the South, taking five states that definitely made a big difference in the electoral count.  As Kevin Philips wrote in his 1969 book,  The Emerging Republican Majority, the strategy that year was to isolate the liberal Northeast in the elections, taking advantage of the general dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party among the rest of the nation.

Nixon would later capitalize on this unrest in his sweeping electoral victory in 1972, promoting himself as the "law and order" president in the wake of the civil rights protests and race riots that rocked the nation.  Hunter S. Thompson had great fun with this election in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, but he struck a sad note in the wake of election night, which left the Democratic Party in complete disarray.  It was the end of "Liberalism" as we knew it, although Northern Democrats were loathe to admit it at the time.

It doesn't seem that Pat deals with nuances in his book.  His aim is to restore the image of Nixon, which has long been a Republican black eye in the wake of Watergate.  Maybe Pat should have stolen a refrain from Lynyrd Skynyrd,

Now Watergate does not bother me, does your conscience bother you? Tell the truth.

The truth is Nixon played both sides of the same coin, which Philips unabashedly wrote after that deeply divisive campaign.  He was able to eek out a victory thanks to Wallace driving a wedge (or should I say stake) into the Democrats.

Nixon with Wallace in 1971
Nixon would later sign off on Affirmative Action during his administration.  But, let's not forget that these were all Democratic Congressional initiatives that served to alienate the Southern white wing of the party, which came over to the Republican Party in droves following the sweeping electoral victory of Reagan in 1980.  Even before this watershed moment, former Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond and Thad Cochran actively campaigned for Goldwater in 64 and Nixon in 68.  Nixon warmly embraced these segregationists and helped promote Cochran when he first ran for Congress in 1972, as well as made amends with Wallace as you can see in the picture above.

It is hard to see how any of this differs significantly from the Democrats attempt to placate the Southern wing of the party in the 40s and 50s.  One of his Secretaries of Treasury was John Connally, former Governor of Texas and conservative Democrat.  Winton Blount, his Postmaster General, hailed from Alabama, and like Connally had formerly served in Johnson's administration.  So, it was clear Nixon made concessions to the South.

Tricky Dick tried to have it both ways, as so many politicians do, but eventually it caught up to him.  He found himself with very few friends in Congress in 1974 when an impeachment vote loomed over his cover-up of the Watergate affair.  Even Spiro Agnew, who Pat extols, had been forced to resign the year before due to charges of political corruption and income tax invasion.  There was nothing for Nixon to do except slither out of office and hope that the newly confirmed President Gerald Ford would pardon his many transgressions, which he did.