Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

Not surprisingly, the GOP'ers have seized on the end of the incandescent light bulb, which will be phased out completely at the start of 2014, with the last factories already closed for the holidays.  An NBC writer tries to evoke nostalgia for the old Edison bulb in this article, failing to point out that most halogen, LED and CFL packages offer the equivalent of lumens in watts so that persons won't get confused with their replacement bulbs.  But, the general view seems to be that incandescent bulbs were the only bulbs still made in America, although this industry had been farmed out to China long ago.

It is too easy to draw allusions here.  We already had Michelle Bachmann make her last stand against the moratorium in 2011, when she introduced her Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act to repeal a law signed by George Bush in 2007 which would phase out the wasteful lights by 2012.  As it is, the 60 and 40 watt bulbs were allowed to be continued through this year.  But, of course, all this was President Obama's fault.

Some of you might recall the brouhaha generated over fluorescent lights because they contain trace amounts of radiation, as though we would be exposing children to harmful radiation poisoning.  Of course, these persons didn't stop to think that schools and factories and most office buildings had long ago switched to fluorescent lighting to save energy.  Apparently, the only persons adversely affected by fluorescent lighting are those with some exceedingly rare forms of Lupus.  This was enough to mobilize the Edison Bulb vanguard.

Yep, the GOP still seems to be fighting lost causes, while the Democrats still try to keep the nation moving forward, if ever so slowly.  Phil Robertson tried to take us back to the days before the Civil Rights Movement in his fond childhood memories of growing up in Louisiana.  Rev. Jackson declared the Duck Commander's comments more offensive than the order the bus driver gave Rosa Parks to move to the back of the bus.  Jackson probably should have alluded to the Lousianans who tried to keep Ruby Bridges from attending a public elementary school.  It is sad to see we are still fighting the same old battles, but it seems the GOP, or at least the Tea Party, thinks it can capitalize on these hot button issues in next year's midterm elections.

Funny thing is, Obama is the most admired person in the world for the sixth straight year, according to a Gallup survey, but apparently his numbers fell off sharply from last year.  Kind of surprising he hung on to the top spot given all the headlines Pope Francis generated since his inauguration in March, challenging not only the religious orthodoxy but the economic orthodoxy as well.

Meanwhile, the Do-Nothing Congress is at rock bottom, scoring its lowest approval and job ratings ever, but according to Ted Cruz that's not their fault, at least not the Republicans' fault, blaming it on Obama.  However, Congressional Republicans seem to be drawing back from their harsh rhetoric of Obamacare with December proving to be a particularly fruitful month for the Affordable Care Act, pushing the total number of new enrollees to over one million since its roll out on October 1. 

Making matters worse for the Republicans is that economic indicators appear to all be pointing toward a very prosperous New Year, but of course this is not stopping the GOP from ending the year on its usual doom and gloom note, with its motley bunch of pundits offering much more dire predictions.

This has befuddled me.  Normally, the GOP would be claiming that the market is righting itself and that this has nothing to do with the current Democratic administration.  This had been the mantra during past economic recoveries, but it seems the Teabaggers established this narrative of a failed Obama administration and can't allow persons to accept anything short of failure over the past five years, even as the Dow pushes toward the 17,000 mark.

Maybe the GOP is trying to follow Edison's maxim "discontent is the first step of progress," without realizing it was the need for innovation that inspired America's most famous inventor.  I would imagine Edison would be rather appalled to find us still using incandescent light bulbs when there are so many better light bulbs on the market, including ones made in America.  

As Eric Idle would sing, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Fort Ross and the Russia-American Company

I want to say thank you for all this interest from Russia in our blog.  As a tip of the hat, I couldn't resist posting a little bit about Fort Ross in Northern California. This was apparently the most eastward expansion of the Russian-American Company, chartered by Tsar Paul I in the late 18th century.  The Spanish apparently got very worried and Father Junipero Serra established missions as far north as present-day San Franciso in an effort to stake out the domain of the Spanish empire.

This was just a few short years before Lewis and Clark's "Journey of Discovery," so apparently the fledgling United States was a bit worried too, although the extent of its landholdings at the time only extended as far as Montana with the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.  But, the US already considered the West Coast a part of its Manifest Destiny and it would be only a matter of decades before California and the Oregon Territory were acquired in the wake of the Mexican War.

I often wonder what it would have been like if the European powers had been able to maintain a foothold in the American continent.  But, wars split Europe and made it relatively easy for the growing United States to conquer these far-flung territories.  Alex de Toqueville recognized both the growing power of the United States and that of Russia in the early 19th century.  The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, completing it's present day territorial size.

For the most part the relationship between the United States and Russia generally was good, but the negotiations to end the Russo-Japanese War created some bitter feelings, largely over the disputed Sakhalin Island.  Hard to say how much of a role Teddy Roosevelt actually played in these negotiations other than to initially broker them, at Japan's request, but he was the first American president to win the Nobel Peace Prize as a result of the settlement.

Tsarist Russia was beginning to unravel at the time, and it wouldn't be long until the country was in deep turmoil.  The collapse of Russia and the creation of the Soviet Union led to competing political theories on foreign diplomacy between Wilson and Lenin, which Arno Mayer provided the first extensive history in 1959.

Open to suggestions for other books that have dealt with Russian-American relations over the years.  Please feel free to contribute.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Water is Wide

I found myself searching through the new titles at amazon for something interesting to read in the way of history and fell across this title, By the Rivers of Water, which tells the story of a Southern missionary couple who chose to go to West Africa in the 1830s to spread the message.  This would have been at the dawn of the Second Great Awakening.

The twist is that the couple apparently viewed the Africans as equals and made every effort to learn their language and culture, while still struggling with their own family legacy at home.  They owned slaves by inheritance and couldn't quite bring themselves to free them, feeling that the freed slaves would be cast adrift and unable to fend for themselves.

Erskine Clark probes this moral dilemma and others in a book that seems to have garnered surprisingly little attention, especially since Clark had previously won the prestigious Bancroft Prize for Dwelling Place, a meticulous study of antebellum Georgian plantation life.    Clark moves back and forth across the Atlantic, following the Wilsons as tensions reach a boiling point in the United States.

Hard to say whether their missionary work was a success or not based on the review, but John Wilson apparently was an active speaker and continued to help raise money for foreign missions all the way up to 1884 when he and his wife became too infirmed to travel.  Looks like it would be a very interesting read.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Time to take the gloves off

Boxing Day never took hold in the States.  This traditional British holiday was a day off for the servants who obviously had to put in a full day on Christmas.  They were given gifts on this day in the form of a "Christmas box."  It seemed to evolve from Saturnalia, where slave owners and slaves would switch roles for one day  It later became a banking holiday throughout the Commonwealth nations.

For Americans the day after Christmas is the big day for returns.  The shops have to deal with exchanges for all those Christmas sweaters and other items Americans politely said thank you for but set aside to be redeemed for something else, assuming receipts were included.

It seems much of our holiday season is driven by consumption, and it seems this was a banner year for the retail and food industry as signs seem to be pointing up as far as the economy goes, although Conservatives would be loathe to admit it.  2014 is predicted to be a good year economically, which doesn't bode well for the Republicans, given all the doom and gloom they have been promoting the past five years, although Business Insider claims the bad rollout of "Obamacare" resulted in a 13-point swing in voter confidence, with Republicans now ahead 49-44 per cent in generic Congressional races.  Of course you can take these early polls with a grain of salt.

CNN sounded a hopeful note with their annual presentation of "Hero" awards for community and other non-profit workers around the world.  It's an interactive affair where you can nominate and vote for your favorite "hero."  This year, Chad Pregracke walked away with the top honor, but I was struck by Robin Emmons, who has been championing wholesome foods for poor communities in North Carolina.

However, I have to question the idea of "Heroes."   This seems to be a word too much bandied about these days, especially when I don't think any of these persons regard themselves as heroes.  Nevertheless, it is a refreshing change from the "heroes" the Right Wing has been promoting these days.

For me, Boxing Day is a good day for reflection.  A time to pull my thoughts together and sound a hopeful note for the New Year.  I try to avoid stores, avoid fights and avoid slippery patches on my run.  I hope everyone is having a chance to relax and look forward to resuming our Reading Group in the New Year.

Best Wishes!  Jim

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Anno Domini

One of the many things I found fascinating in John Barry's book on Roger Williams is that the Puritans in America suppressed the celebration of Christmas, considering it too closely associated with paganism and idolatory.  I think anti-Catholic bias figured in as well.  It wasn't until the 19th century that New England states began to relax these laws.  Christmas became a federal holiday in 1870, largely for commercial reasons, not religious ones.  Yet, we see all this anxiety over Christmas being marginalized in today's society.

There is no scriptural record of Jesus' birth.  Dates varied but the Romans decided to link his birth to December 25 in 336 AD.  Apparently, there was no surviving birth record even though the Romans kept birth records for tax purposes.  Most scholars feel that by linking Jesus' birth to the winter solstice, missionaries would have an easier time converting pagans, who already honored this day in ceremonies throughout Europe.

With the breakaway Lutherans and other Christian sects, many conservative Christians chose not to celebrate Christmas, and this attitude came to America with the Puritans.  These new Protestant religions read the Bible explicitly.  Easter was seen as the date of prime importance, although this date is hard to fix as well and came to fall conveniently near Vernal Equinox, also long celebrated by pagans.

Still, most Biblical scholars search for astronomical phenomena in December to explain the guiding light that led the wise men to Bethlehem.  History Channel was offering some cosmological insight into the matter the other night.  The arrival of the "Three Kings" is celebrated on January 6, with the ceremonial number of 12 days being the length of their journey, although it probably took them much longer given the arduous terrain and presumed distance of their journey.

It seems that are new found sense of Christmas is a product of the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival that took place in the mid-19th century, out of which sprung Mormonism and a wide variety of other evangelical religions that have come to dominate the Protestant movement in America.  If Joseph Smith could imagine talking to Jesus in upstate New York, why couldn't anyone else?   The itinerant preacher was born, spreading the word from town to town, and gathering converts along the way.

I think the plight of the Mormons and other evangelical religions helps explain this sense of "victimhood" many Evangelicals and Fundamentalists feel.  Their nascent religions were seen as being on the fringe and often in defiance to the more orthodox forms of Christianity.  They had to seek out new lands and new pastures to build their "heavens" on earth.  I suppose in this way they felt they were a lot like Jesus trying to gather a following around him, so his life became every bit as important as his death in their minds.

But, what has always struck me as odd is how these very strict interpretations of the Bible so often dwell on Old Testament themes, especially the idea of an angry and vengeful God that will smite anyone who defies his will.  Again, I think this has a lot to do with the persecution many of these Evangelicals felt and that there had to be some form of retribution for those who would diminish their faith.

As a result, many Evangelicals and Fundamentalists appear to have a pretty big chip on their shoulders, and get quite agitated around Christmastime.  They insist on their nativity scenes and their "Christmas trees" even though they would have found themselves breaking the laws of early Puritan America.  Ironic, especially when you think how many times John Winthrop's "shining city upon a hill," has been evoked.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The World and the Heavens According to Phil

I suppose if you are sitting at the Boar's Nest bar having a few drinks and overhearing this kind of conversation, it doesn't really much matter, but finding it in GQ magazine is a little disconcerting.  Do we really need to give guys like Phil Robertson an international audience? Isn't it enough to let them just have their page on facebook or some other social network and garner "likes" like the rest of us.

This infatuation with "White Trash" is really something.  It seems like the cable networks are constantly tripping over themselves to find the next local bigot or racist to make into an overnight celebrity.  With All In the Family and Sanford and Son it was satire, but this new wave of cable reality show programming is all too real and Duck Dynasty has been a huge hit for A&E network.

I remember when A&E was about cultural programming, something sorely lacking on the major cable channels.  Now it has fallen into the same trap, or should I say duck blind, with Discovery, Food Network and TLC, serving up white trash on a silver platter.  Don't they have cable networks like CMT for folks like this?

You could just dismiss Robertson's religious conservative views as idle bar room chatter if it wasn't for his many supporters.  In his GQ interview, Phil equated gays with drunks and terrorists.  He also stated that blacks were "singing and happy" picking cotton, based on his own experiences working side by side in the fields.    Sadly, his views are all too emblematic of a wide cross section of this country, which stretches far beyond the Mason-Dixie line.

Robertson is the proud patriarch of a clan of duck hunters that has overtaken Deadliest Catch and other fishing and hunting reality programs, which have become the staple of cable television.  The show was launched just last year and Robertson was apparently negotiating an extension of his contract with A&E when he decided to broadcast his uncensored views. He and his family currently collect $200,000 per episode.  One can imagine the directors of this program had to do a lot of editing from week to week and had told him to be careful when giving interviews, but Phil is unrepentant.  He makes no apologies for his bigoted and racist views, knowing that he has God on his side.

What is disconcerting about all this is that it seems a direct reflection of how many people think.  Support has streamed in on facebook and other social network sites.  He has also garnered the support of Sarah Palin and Fox News.  His insidious remark about "singing and happy" cotton pickers fits right in with the Koch corporate view that persons are content just to have jobs.  Who needs living wages, health care benefits and pension plans?  You just hoe a straight row and that's a reward in itself.

Cable television has become complicit by making persons like Phil Robertson and Paula Deen overnight celebrities.  As you might recall Paula not only used racially demeaning language but apparently stole recipes from her black employees.  I'm sure Phil had a different view of cotton picking when he was working along side blacks in the field, assuming he ever did.

He hasn't always been a Bible-thumper.  Apparently, he was into all that psychedelic shit before he found God, and the rest as they say is history.  Now, he feels he should promote God and country every chance he gets and A&E graciously provides a platform.

Yea, I know these families are so damn likable, as Drew Magary notes, especially when they invite you into their homes and share a big repast and regal you in backwoods anecdotes and obscure Southern recipes, but that doesn't excuse their views.  Unfortunately, the viewing public seems to be drawn to these dubious celebrities, thinking they are watching the "real thing."

It seems like we are not even one step removed from those halcyon days in the Land of Cotton, as these persons continue to represent religious conservative interests when they should know better.   In the interview, Phil fomented on everything from the 2012 election to Obamacare, sounding like a politically paid spokesman for the Tea Party.  I suppose he can always get a job at Fox News.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

What if ...

Each year 25 films are added to the National Film Registry.  Most of them you've heard of like this year's selection Mary Poppins. long overdue.  Other headliners include Pulp Fiction and Roger & Me, which gave us two of Hollywood's favorite bad boys Quentin Tarantino and Michael Moore.  Some you are surprised aren't already in the registry like Gilda and The Quiet Man.  But one film you probably never heard of is the animated short film The Hole.

I watched it for the first time today and was mesmerized by the clever animation and the wonderful dialog between characters voiced by Dizzy Gillespie and George Matthews.  The film dates to 1962, highlighting not only Cold War fears but race relations as well, as we see a black and white construction worker having what seems to be an easy rapport between each other in a hole of a New York construction site.  The film is as apt today as it was then.

The Hole won an Oscar back in '62, which makes it surprising that it took so long to be recognized, but this project was only begun in 1989 so I guess they have a lot of catching up to do, especially if only inducting 25 films per year.  What makes the list compelling is that you can nominate films yourself.  You don't have to be an academy member or film critic.  Your choice has to be at least 10 years old and have cultural, historic or aesthetic value.  If you can't think of one off the top of your head, here is a long list of films the NFR considers worthy of suggestion.

A Writer in Waiting

I've long been interested in George Packer, not exactly in a positive way, but not negative either.  That was the way I felt about his first book The Village in Waiting, which my sister sent me to try to spur me to write about my own experiences in Lesotho.  His were about another small African country, Togo, at the opposite end of the continent.

He seemed to feel disillusioned after his Peace Corps experience, and it seems that feeling has carried with him in his writing.  For him America appears in decay, like the international programs it continues to sponsor.  Of course, I could have written about all those rusting hulks of farm machinery USAID had supplied to Lesotho, that didn't work in the mountainous terrain, where terrace farming was practiced.  Many of these old tractors had been stripped down and parts used for other machinery.  But, I wasn't able to find the words at the time and still struggle to find the right words.

Apparently, not George Packer, who has written what this NY Times critics is hailing as "something close to a masterpiece."  Mr. Packer has written about The Unwinding of America, a country literally coming apart like one of those jalopies from a Laurel and Hardy sketch.   The only problem, it seems, is that he finds no humor in it, which is what I found odd about his book on Togo as well.  Surely, we can have a little fun with this theme, not take it so darkly serious.  After all, he was writing about a leader, not much unlike Reagan, who seemed to be impervious to harm.  Literally, in the case of strongman Eyadema, who as Packer described, even survived a helicopter crash.

Packer also seems to have a thing for machinery.  I suppose it is a useful metaphor given the industrial giant we once were and still are in terms of military.  But, we no longer seem quite like the Titan we were back in the 50s.  The author takes 1960 (the year he was born) as the turning point. For those who have grown up after 1960 our image of America is largely one of decay, from collapsed barns to rusting metal truss bridges to pockmarked roads to auto graveyards spread throughout the country.  I guess being a Generation X'er means being born with a sense of disillusionment, especially after that fatal shot in Dallas 50 years ago.

It should make for an interesting book.  I'm game.  Packer not only looks to the past but at the current situation and the disillusionment he feels with Obama and his limp handshake.  He seems to hold out some hope in Congressional leaders like Elizabeth Warren, but his view appears to be mostly a dispirited one.  We failed to have our "Black Kennedy."

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Festivus for the rest of us

In keeping with the spirit of the Holiday season, or Festivus as some would call it, Fox news has begun its annual cries of victimhood, most notably in Megyn Kelly setting the record straight on Santa.  We can't have kids think that Santa is anything other than White, otherwise it wouldn't be a White Christmas.  But, Megyn wasn't content to leave it there, she also wanted everyone to know that Jesus is White too, just for the record.

Megyn was singling out an article in Slate magazine where Aisha Harris questioned the idea of a White Santa and the possible harm it does children of color.  Her argument was that an animal might be the better way to personify Santa and suggested a penguin, although I don't think penguins live in the North Pole.

Gretchen Carlson went one step further, by expressing her moral outrage over an atheist who was successfully able to display at "Festivus pole" made from beer cans in the Florida state capitol, mostly in protest to the nativity scene that was allowed to be displayed.  The idea apparently came from a Seinfeld episode (3:20 mark), so she took Seinfeld writers to task as well on her "faith panel."

Jon Stewart took both Megyn and Gretchen to task on their assertions and complaints in this amusing episode, and "White Santa" has become the brunt of jokes everywhere  Poor Megyn has been forced to answer critics for her comments, conveniently claiming it was all in jest. This leads one to ask, has Fox News become a parody of itself?

Perhaps the funniest part of the actual news segment was when one of her panelists tried to make the link between Santa Claus and the real St. Nicholas, a 4th century Greek saint who was known as a "wonderworker," as if to give Santa an air of authenticity.  Well, the real St. Nicholas was most likely a dusky Mediterranean hue, not the "white" we generally associate with present day St. Nick.  The same could be said for Jesus, but I guess "White" in this case is anything West of the Caucuses and north of the Tropic of Cancer.  How St. Nicholas migrated to the North Pole to live among penguins and find immortality is anyone's guess?

The Santa that we so often see is actually a product of Coca-Cola advertisements from the 1920s.  Earlier images of St. Nick were often depicted in furs or brightly colored garments of green or blue, with wreaths on his head or more sensible winter caps.  It was Haddon Sundblom who dressed the jolly old elf up in red and white, probably inspired by a cover he saw on Puck magazine from a few years earlier.  Only Santa looks like he had too much egg nog.

Fact and fiction find amazing overlaps and there have been many attempts to make Santa feel more real so that we can prolong that wonderful age of innocence at least until the early teens.  For the rest of us there is Festivus to help us absorb all those disappointments.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Motor City Blues

In many ways, Jim Jarmusch's recent film, Only Lovers Left Alive, is an ode to Lost Detroit, shot at night as his vampires cruise around the faded Motor City in a white Jaguar XJS to the plaintive chords of Adam's presumed musical score.  I suppose the Jaguar was a touch of irony in a faded world of great cars like the Packard, as Adam points out the towering old plant to his ageless lover Eve.  They pause to take in the once majestic Michigan Theater that now serves as a car park, before returning to Adam's dilapidated brick Victorian, where he generates electricity from a Tesla coil, and Eve spins an old 45 of Denise Lasalle's Trapped in This Thing Called Love.

It's the kind of movie you can only really enjoy if you have a nostalgia for such things.  Not that I am a native of Detroit, but it is sad just the same to see this once thriving city now viewed as Gothic ruins.  However, the vampires, having been around at least since Christopher Marlowe's time, put the faded city into perspective, according it the beauty of a Piranesi etching.

Charlie LeDuff takes a decidedly different tone in his autopsy of his home city, picking through it as one would a victim on a medical examiner's stainless steel table.  For him it is no longer frightening.  The city has become forlorn and pathetic, giving off a stench that you can't seem to get rid of after you leave the coroner's room.

However, another native son, Mark Binelli, prefers to look at Detroit as a city re-emerging from the ashes and being reborn in a post-industrial age in his book Detroit City Is the Place to Be.  Binelli looks at what is currently happening in the Motor City rather than what has happened.  This makes for a much more positive book that gives readers hope that a city can be reborn.  It is fast becoming the world's largest urban farm.

It really isn't that much of a stretch when you think about it.  Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are Midwestern cities that have all managed to resurrect themselves.  Once Detroit gets past its current financial woes one can easily imagine a transformation taking place.  It just takes a little forward thinking to get moving again.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Handshake

Some are calling it a Mandela-like gesture, others are calling it nauseating, but whatever your opinion it is more than just a handshake, which apparently is the way the White House is spinning it.

In the run up to last year's election, Obama was making overtures to Cuba, which suggested a thaw in relations that were greeted warmly by most of the Cuban-American community in Florida.  From a pragmatic point of view, it probably helped him carry the state in the election, but Obama seems to be looking beyond the polls and didn't miss the opportunity to make contact with Raul Castro on the way to the podium to make a speech commemorating Nelson Mandela.

Back in 1990 when Mandela visited the United States, many Republican and a few Democratic lawmakers insisted that he renounce his support of Cuba, among other pariah nations.  Mandela politely refused.  This earned him the enmity of Jesse Helms, who turned his back on Mandela when he addressed a joint session of Congress.

Cuba has long been seen as a thorn in US relations with Latin America.  American presidents have accused Castro of spreading communism throughout the region and have doggedly insisted on sanctions that for the most part have failed.  Just about everyone else in the world trades freely with Cuba, including Canada.

There have been moments when reconciliation seemed on the event horizon, most notably in 2000 when Clinton eased restrictions on Cuban travel and remittances.  This was the result of Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Havana.  Unfortunately, the election of George W. Bush ended any potential thaw, and saw most of the restrictions put firmly back in place.

One of the most frustrating things about the Obama administration is that it hasn't done more to improve relations with Latin America.  Of course, his foreign policy has been dominated by the wars George Bush bequeathed him, but Obama has pretty much left Latin America on the back burner, much to the chagrin of Central and South Americans.   Maybe this handshake will rekindle trade talks and open the door to a new era in Cuban-American relations.

What direction do we take?

The forum is open to suggestions for the next reading group.  Quite a few books came out this past fall in the way of history and politics.  Some of the best reviewed books are:

The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin;

Collision 2012 by Dan Balz;

The Unwinding by George Packer;

Wilson by Scott Berg;

Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff.

feel free to add your own suggestions.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Yes, Virginia, it's still called a Christmas Tree

It seems that every year we go through the same debate as to whether it is a holiday tree or Christmas tree. Rhode Island was apparently "outraged" that Gov. Lincoln Chaffee had the temerity to call it a "holiday tree," but this is just the tip of the iceberg.  A Ben Stein meme is finding its way around facebook (not the first year) in which he reportedly said the White House is calling the Christmas tree a Holiday tree for the first time.

As you can see, the Obamas still refer to it as the National Christmas Tree with Michelle reading the Christmas classic, The Night Before Christmas, to the audience.  Of course, the White House also pays respect to Ramadan and Hanukkah as well, as well as makes a tribute to Kwanzaa each year.

So why all the fuss?  It's not like the Christmas tree is an inherent part of Christianity.  The idea of worshiping trees is traditionally pagan and this time of year would have been in conjunction with the Festival of Light, still celebrated in many parts of the world.  The first recorded public "Christmas" tree was in the 16th century in the town square of Ryga.  Such celebrations didn't come to America until the 19th century and the first Christmas tree was presented in the White House by Benjamin Harrison in 1889.

In fact, there have been several years without a Christmas tree in the White House.  Teddy Roosevelt apparently being the biggest humbug, not putting up a tree three times.  He reportedly chalked it up to procrastination. Since 1922 it has been an annual affair, growing in stature each year to the point it has become tantamount with Christmas itself.

Of course, many Conservatives refuse to accept the Obamas as Christian, despite their dutiful attendance of church for many years, and the poignancy they give to Christmas in the White House each year.  The only mishap this time around was when a little girl was knocked over by the Obama's new dog, Sunny, at an earlier White House ceremony for military families. Of course, this was quickly picked up on the Internet and became subject to all sorts of speculation.

It seems the meme comes in part from Ben Stein's Confessions for the Holidays, which first appeared in 2005, and the bit about the "Holiday Tree" began to appear in 2009, with no link between the two.   Too bad so many persons accept these stories without looking at the White House page to see the real story.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Unexpected

The Mustang turns 50 next year, April 17 to be exact, but I wasn't giving it much thought until I heard the introduction of the 2015 model a few days ago.  This is probably the most iconic American automobile and is apparently popular enough in Europe that Ford plans to distribute new models abroad for the first time.   Ironic, given that European styling was what make the Mustang unique in the American market at the time.  I see a few of these little "ponies" running around Vilnius, but to me it is hard to beat the early models.  Clean and crisp with enough horsepower to satisfy me.  But, as my son pointed out to me, still doesn't have independent suspension which is standard over here.

Above is the 1965 model as shown at the 1964 World's Fair in New York.  Here is the press kit that came with it.  It didn't take much to get people to notice.  The sports car exceeded all expectations.  Over 550,000 models were sold with a basic sticker price of $2,320 (about $16,700 adjusted for inflation), which made it affordable to a large segment of the middle class.

The car bred a whole new line of "pony class" cars including the Chevy Camaro, AMC Javelin and Plymouth Barracuda.  All had a "muscle car" version with extra horsepower and other modifications for the racing aficionado.  But, it has been the Mustang that has lasted the longest and made the most indelible mark on the automobile industry.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

God and Money

The Pope hasn't been very kind on supply-side economics, which has ruffled a few feathers on Wall St.  Not that they really care what goes on in the Vatican, although I'm sure they are bemused by how the Holy See can tolerate  a Pope who seems to be lashing out against the Vatican's own enormous wealth.  But, it appears for the time being the Pope has become detached from the Vatican, floating on his own cloud as he reaches out to people the world over with simple messages taken directly from the New Testatment, such as,

No man can serve two masters for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other.  Ye cannot serve God and mammon -- Matthew 6:24

Words that are not exactly music to everyone's ears, especially the pundits at Fox "News" who have been trying to piece them out without being disrespectful to the Pope.  Jon Stewart had a field day with the financial pundits, calling out Stuart Varney and Larry Kudlow on The Daily Show, especially in regard to the ongoing battle over raising the minimum wage.

It would seem that many on Wall St. already view the minimum wage as a yoke around big business' neck.  Add Obamacare and you have a weight few businesses feel they can bear, as if their sumptuous lives have come under attack.  The odd part is that so many businesses offer well above the minimum wage for entry level employees, including large retailers like Costco and fast food syndicates like In-N-Out Burgers.  Not only that but they provide health insurance as well.  How can this be?

These successful businesses are glossed over as we hear the financial woes of many other businesses like Darden Restaurants, which owns the popular Olive Garden among many others.  McDonalds pays $15 an hour to Australian employees, as well as a full range of benefits, but can't bring itself to pay $11 an hour to US employees unless mandated at the municipal level, as in San Francisco.

McDonalds became the object of protests nationwide recently, and not surprisingly conservatives have launched their attacks on these rebellious picketers, feeling that someone "flipping burgers" is lucky to get the current minimum wage, as if only high school kids work at Mickie D's.  As it turns out, only 16 per cent of fast food jobs are held by teens.  Over 40 per cent of the workforce have college education, and many are supporting families.  Yet, a lot of these persons find themselves stuck at the low rung of the corporate ladder.

Of course, this recent recession impacted a great number of persons, forcing them to downsize both their standards of living and their expectations, but this doesn't compare to the 1.4 billion persons worldwide who are forced to live on one dollar per day.

The Pope is trying to call attention to the abject state so many persons live in around the world, who have little or no hope.  One can argue the sincerity of a church that has bathed itself in luxury at the expense of others, but to the Pope's credit he is addressing this issue as well.  Whether it will signify a change in the Holy See's role in easing suffering around the world remains to be seen, but the Pope's challenge to global capitalism seems to have been heard.

Friday, December 6, 2013

So long, Nelson Mandela

On June 26, 1990, Nelson Mandela addressed a joint session of Congress.  The speech begins at the 13:30 minute mark in the C-Span clip.  It was one of many historic events that shook the world in the short period between 1989 and 1991, creating a huge shift in the balance of power.  To George H.W. Bush's credit, he chose to recognize these changes, not ignore them as many within his own Republican Party would have preferred.

The Republicans had fought hard against the Anti-Apartheid Act that passed Congress in 1986.  Jesse Helms staged a filibuster against the final vote, supported by several of his vituperative Southern colleagues.  Ronald Reagan vetoed the legislation, but his veto was overridden.  Sometimes, the tide of history is simply too strong to be overcome.

George H.W. Bush wasn't going to make the same mistake, welcoming Nelson Mandela to the White House before the historic joint session.  He like so many Americans embraced Mandela because the ANC leader represented the ideals of the Civil Rights Movement that had been ongoing in the United States and South Africa for decades.

Martin Luther King Jr. had expressly stated Gandhi and Albert Luthuli as his role models, both were born in South Africa.  Gandhi would move to India.  Luthuli would head the African National Congress, and eventually win the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to break down the walls of racism and injustice. These were figures both King and Mandela embraced.  Few Americans seemed to understand this link, but many felt it when Nelson Mandela addressed the nation.

Having been in South Africa in 1990 when Mandela was released from Robben Island and having watched the events as they unfolded rapidly, I was greatly pleased to see the US finally renounce all its ties to the past regime and embrace the future of South Africa.  There were no accompanying photographs because for years it was expressly forbidden to publish any photographs of Nelson Mandela.  All people had was little more than a police composite sketch, which made him look old and haggard.

I would have liked to have seen a stronger political and economic union in the wake of Mandela's rise to the Presidency, but events in America took an unfortunate turn, and the message Mandela gave seemed lost on the new faces of the Republican Party, who took over Congress in 1994.

Mandela became President of South Africa in 1994, winning on this historic ballot (partial image).  He held the nation together through a very difficult transition phase which still continues.   The world has lost a moral compass.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Incomparable Nina Simone

Nina Simone's beauty came from within.  She sang from the depth of her heart, with many of her songs and interpretations of classic songs, like Pirate Jenny from Kurt Weill's Three-Penny Opera, becoming iconic of the Civil Rights Movement.  It really is hard to imagine anyone playing her in film, but I see the beautiful young Zoe Saldana has been cast in the role of an upcoming biopic.

Needless to say this has caused quite a stir. Mary J. Blige was first cast in the role, which also ruffled a few feathers.  My suggestion would be anyone of these four women because there is absolutely no question anyone of them can sing Simone's signature songs, and if beauty is what you are looking for there are few women more beautiful than Lizz Wright.  Instead, we most likely will get another film along the lines of Ray that meticulously chronicles the life of the legendary artist, who left America to make a better life for herself in France.

Probably her greatest performance was recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1964.  It centered on the Civil Rights Movement, offering stirring interpretations of I Loves You Porgy, Plain Gold Ring and Pirate Jenny, as well as her own great songs Old Jim Crow, Go Limp and the show-stopping Mississippi Goddam.

One can appreciate the effort to make Nina Simone accessible to a new generation, but her songs have already been remixed and re-imagined into House music, and made popular in night clubs.  The movie will no doubt attempt to put her in proper perspective, but seems to capture her more as a sexy chanteuse than the powerful voice that she was.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Superman at 80

It was nice to see Jerry Siegel and Joe Scuster credited in the latest adaptation of Superman.  The director indulged greatly in the origins of the super hero, spending an inordinate amount of time on Krypton, telling us all about the uprising and Zod's sentence to eternal darkness; as well as young Clark's boyhood years in Smallville, Kansas, with Kevin Costner playing his exceedingly earnest father.  Halfway into this epic tale we finally get to the action, which played out pretty much like Superman II only without Lex Luther around to stir the pot.

Superman was originally created in 1933 by two high school kids searching for something that would lift their spirits during the Great Depression.  The Reign of the Superman appeared in Fanzine science fiction in 1933.  Superman underwent a major metamorphosis from super villain to super hero before appearing in Action Comics  in 1938.  

Siegel and Shuster worked out a deal with DC Comics, which succeeded Action Comics.  This greatly increased the visibility of Superman, showcasing him at the New York World's Fair Comics.  This would eventually lead to Superman's television debut in 1952 and the rest as they say is history.  Initially, Superman battled the nation's many prejudices and seemed the standard bearer of FDR's New Deal, but television producers toned down the social message considerably, wanting him to appeal to everyone.  No indication that Siegel and Shuster were ever thinking of Nietzsche's Superman.

The Man of Steel seemed on the edge of oblivion until revitalized in 1978 by Richard Donner, who cast Christopher Reeve as Superman.  Marlon Brando played Kal-el's Krypton father and Terrence Stamp the notorious Zod in the second cinematic installment.  Gene Hackman was the memorable Lex Luthor.  There was a wonderful campy feeling to this Superman with a lot of humor that I would think even Siegel and Shuster enjoyed. Mario Puzo wrote the screenplay.

Frank Miller recast Superman as a corporate tool in his deeply cynical Dark Knight Returns, a graphic novel in which he reinvented Batman, who first appeared in Detective Comics in 1939.  Miller pitted the two against each other in a Battle Royale where the Dark Knight dons a high-tech exoframe to match Superman's extraordinary strength.   The Man of Steel had become hot property: the subject of a new television series, Lois & Clark, and a slough of new graphic novels, including one in which he dies.  All this seemed too much for Siegel and Shuster, who mounted a law suit to reclaim their super hero.

Superman has been rebooted so many times it is impossible to keep count, but the latest reboot falls flat.  Henry Cavill bears an uncanny resemblance to Christopher Reeve and holds his own, but the movie was much too brooding and long-winded with virtually no humor.  If the writers were so interested in exploring Superman's roots, they might have looked back ant Siegel's and Shuster's early conception, having him defend "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrators against the rampages of the corporate state, rather than resurrecting Smallville and Superman II .  Donald Trump would make the perfect Lex Luthor.

You can explore the 75 Years of DC Comics in this huge Taschen book, which was released in 2010.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Year of Bushehr

A little over a year ago Benjamin Netanyahu made this memorable display in front of the UN assembly and ever since has been pushing hard and heavy for the Obama administration to drop the bomb on Iran.  So, imagine Bibi's surprise when the US brokered a historic peace agreement that would curb Iran's nuclear weapon development and bring Iran back into the international fold.

Republicans don't know quite how to react to the deal, which is still being worked out.  What began as shuttle diplomacy evolved into face-to-face talks between American and Iranian foreign representatives for the first time in over 30 years.  It seems the specter of the infamous 1980 hostage crisis may have been finally lifted.

This isn't the first time Iran has approached the US and vice-versa.  Back in 1998, the US and Iran had a friendly soccer match and Presidents Clinton and Khatami seemed to be reaching out to each other before the Monica Lewinsky dominated the headlines and led the House Republicans to impeach Clinton.  While Clinton managed to survive this political shit storm, any attempt to normalize relations with Iran was lost and the development of the Iranian nuclear program was restarted after having been put on hold for many years.  Ironically, the Iranian nuclear program was initiated by the United States back in the 1950s as part of the Atoms for Peace program commemorated in this stamp.

Even more ironic, the Ayatollah Khomeini considered such weapons an affront to Muslim ethics and jurisprudence and signed international treaties repudiating such weapons, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  It wasn't until the 1990s that Iran approached Russia to help complete the reactor begun during the Shah's regime.  Work began in 1995, moving forward in fits and jerks, before the reactor was finally completed in 2010, which was officially declared the Year of Bushehr, much to the chagrin of the international community which had made every effort to stop the project, fearing Iran would have the ability to enrich uranium for military purposes.

It seems we need our bogeymen, and certainly former President Ahmadinejad fit the bill.  Since the election of the more moderate Rouhani as President, the world appears to be looking at Iran in a better light, but of course Israel still views Iran as international enemy no. 1.