Saturday, April 27, 2013

Bush Library is No Joke

I love the headline from the India Times, as it offers a short description of the events surrounding the dedication of the newest presidential library, which brought five living presidents together.  Congress allocates a substantial amount of money for these libraries, but still the majority of the funding comes from private donations, and it seems George W. Bush had no problem coming up with the $500 million state of the art facility at Southern Methodist University.

As with every venture Bush takes on, it is not without controversy.  In 43's case it is over donations, many of which are undisclosed, despite the Donation Reform Act passed this year, that states that any donation over $200 must be disclosed.  But, what can you expect from a man whose entire life seems to be built on lies and deceit.

Yet, everyone did their best to create a warm, fuzzy feeling to the event, including Obama himself who posted on his facebook site a picture of himself making a "V" sign behind Dubya's head in a presidential group photo, which appears to have been pulled from his page.  Pere Bush was sporting some bright red socks for the event.  His son poked fun at himself during the dedication speech, grinning from ear to ear.

One has to wonder about these libraries.  According to a Salon article, these libraries are rarely a boon for the universities which sponsor them.  Visitation as well as donations drop off pretty quickly, hardly justifying the tremendous cost of these "shrines," as they have little or no educational value.  You see pretty much what the curators of these presidential libraries want you to see.

By comparison, the well visited FDR library, which ushered in the Presidential Library Act in 1955, only cost $376,000 to build (roughly $6.2 million adjusted for inflation) and has provided an invaluable resource for scholars studying the Great Depression, The New Deal and World War II.  What can one really expect to find in the George W. Bush Presidential Library where you are welcomed by two bronze Scottish terriers.

Thursday, April 25, 2013


A couple of films from the late 60s come to mind, If ... and Zabriskie Point.  One was set in an English boarding school and the other in the deserts of California and Arizona.  Both dealt with upper middle class disaffected kids looking to stir up some action, mostly out of boredom, as no core set of beliefs was set in either film.

Interesting that Lindsay Anderson, who directed If..., was a big fan of John Ford, although one would be pretty hard pressed to find any parallels here.  You never quite know whether Mick (impeccably played by Malcolm McDowell) is imagining the whole thing or if it is real.  Ultimately you lose yourself in the action as it shifts from black and white to color, underscored by the repeated use of "Sanctus" from the Missa Luba album by the Kenyan National Choir.

Zabriskie Point is even more surrealistic as Michelangelo Antonioni appears to be having a peyote dream grown out of his vision of misplaced American youth and their urge to rebel against the small town order as personified by a developer, played by Rod Taylor.  Much of the action takes place in the desert, Antonioni being a big fan of barren landscapes.  Watching it again, it really does seem to play on classic Western themes, as the lead character Mark finds himself a fugitive after shooting a cop during a student riot in LA.  He escapes to the desert, bringing a young woman, Daria, along with him.

Restlessness is the subtext in both films, and that is what I feel today, especially in the youth yearning for something to break the monotony of our increasingly homogeneous lives.  Travel is usually a better recourse than riots and plotting terrorist activities, but if you want to make a point in America, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, it seems violence has become the favorite form of recourse.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A New Radical Left?

One could argue that the Tsarnaev brothers' act of terror was a form of "blowback," although it is too early to tell. Authorities seem to think this is a singular act of terror, much like the school and mall shootings  we have seen in recent years.  But, apparently neither was a social misfit, and both seemed quite active in their community, leaving those who knew them stunned.

This leads me to wonder if young Dzhokhar may have become radicalized in college, reading about the unremitting War on Terror and the devastating impact it has had on those in Central Asia, where American drone strikes take place with impunity.  His brother, Tamerlan, no doubt came back with some first hand accounts, after his trip to Dagestan in 2011, that probably made his blood boil, as they most likely had family and friends affected by these military sorties.

Of course, nothing excuses the actions taken by the Tsarnaev brothers, but do they represent a new form of radicalism emerging in America?   I can't help but see parallels to the 60s and early 70s that saw a number of young middle and upper class Americans join radical groups rooted in third world causes like the Symbionese Liberation Army, made notorious by Patty Hearst's involvement.

The television series, Homeland, took a stab at this in its first season as one of the characters was a young American woman who had become radicalized while her father worked on an oil development project in Saudi Arabia.  The new aim of some of the militant Islamic movements seems to be to recruit vulnerable Americans who are more difficult to profile, thereby allowing them to infiltrate the United States.

Homeland plays a bit too heavily on this theme, as I imagine there are plenty of college students and young adults who have grown sick and tired of  what essentially has been three decades of intellectual and social torpor that has seen this country make little gains in terms of social equality, much less better economic conditions.  We failed to learn our lessons about "supply-side economics."  We remain engaged in a long-running "War on Terror" that has morphed into a massive Drone War that leaves many innocent civilians dead throughout Central Asia in our perpetual hunt for terrorist ring leaders.  These kids seem ready to lash out at a society they apparently see as culturally indifferent.

But, we rarely examine ourselves during times like these.  The media has gone out of its way to search for heros in the wake of the tragedy, while the Republicans on Capitol Hill want to try Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as an "enemy combatant" in a military tribunal.  The Obama administration has more wisely chosen to treat the case  as a criminal one, although one would be pretty hard pressed to make a case for a home-made pressure cooker bomb as a "weapon of mass destruction," but it carries with it the death penalty.  Sadly, it seems, this has become America's favorite form of justice.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Tyranny of the Minority

Once again the Republicans have proven they can rule from a minority position by blocking what was a relatively innocuous "gun bill" that only called for better background checks and registration of firearms so that persons couldn't freely sell and trade guns at gun shows or on the Internet, where an increasing number of firearms are sold to avoid detection.

Now it seems the Republicans are circling their wagons against the proposed "bipartisan" immigration bill, as Grassley has already hinted he doesn't see enough "security measures" in the bill, alluding to the violence in Boston.  I guess it doesn't click that these two kids apparently had quite an arsenal to keep the Boston cops at bay for over an hour, resulting in the death of one police officer, with the youngest one able to elude the enormous search party for another day.

If you remember, it was Tom Coburn who threw a wet blanket on the gun bill when he questioned the ability to enforce such legislation shortly after Mackie had taken freshman senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz to task for threatening to filibuster the gun bill.  Meanwhile, their wily Republican minority leader, Mitch McConnell, quietly assembled the 40+ votes needed to block the bill, including 4 Blue Dog Democrats.  As Lyndon Johnson said, count the votes first before making bold assertions.  Seems Chuck Schumer should be more cautious before falling into another trap set by Mitch, the grand master of the filibuster.

It seems most Americans were appalled by how easily the Republicans were able to block a "gun bill" that the vast majority of the country was in favor of.  Gabby Giffords summed it up simply, "I'm Furious!"

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Great Agnostic

It seems "Fighting Bob" Ingersoll is enjoying a bit of a resurgence.  As  I noted before, I was first drawn to Ingersoll in newspaper clippings that my Great Grandfather had kept.  Apparently he was a great fan of "Fighting Bob."  Seems Susan Jacoby is too, as she has written a short biography on The Great Agnostic, whose favorite target was religion.

Jennifer Michael Hecht noted in her review of the book that Ingersoll was most noted for his quips, which have survived down the years.  Apparently, it was this wry sense of humor that endeared him to so many followers during his time.  He also had his fair share  of detractors, past and present.  I noticed that David Barton took a swipe at Ingersoll in his book on Jefferson.

Jacoby tries to figure out what it was that made "Fighting Bob" an American original, and also why his voice of reason hasn't fared as well as others over time.  Mark Twain is a household name.  Robert Ingersoll is the  kind of guy who pops up in trivia games.

It seems you had to hear him speak to feel the full weight of his arguments, and sadly no voice recordings have survived.  We can only imagine what his printed speeches might have been like from anecdotes like the one Hecht provides of Eugene Debs buying a train ticket from Terre Haute to Cincinnati just so he could stay with Ingersoll a little while longer after having heard one of his famous speeches.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Sad Day in Boston

The Boston Marathon is a great event, and it so sad to see it marred like this.  The images are frightening, tragically driving home the point that we are never safe.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Rand's Folly

Mr. Paul has been the man about town, recently giving an address at Howard University, apparently aimed at trying to lure young African-American voters into the Republican Party.  Mr. Paul seems to think the major shift in black voting from Republican to Democrat occurred when Franklin Roosevelt ushered in “The Age of Handouts,” even if he says, Republicans had remained loyal to their roots as the Party of Lincoln.  But, it seems the Howard students weren’t buying it.

It’s not like Mr. Paul’s address was really aimed at them anyway.  The Republicans have become very good at staging events where one of their gladiators goes into a “lion’s den” (so to speak) to offer interesting historical interpretations that immediately go viral on the Internet and our lapped up by their constituency.  You might recall, Mr. Romney approached the NAACP with a similar message during his campaign last year.  It didn’t work for Mr. Romney, and it probably won’t work for Mr. Paul either in broadening the base of their political party. 

Radical Republicans today are a far cry from those of the 1860s, who didn’t necessarily identify themselves with Lincoln.  They were more in the mold of William Seward, pushing for abolition legislation and radical reconstruction efforts that would lift not only Blacks, but Whites as well, in the depressed Southern states during and after the Civil War. 

Eric Foner and Leon Litwack evoked W.E.B. Dubois’ classic work on Reconstruction in describing an era of massive public projects, including the introduction of public education and health care on an unprecedented level.  The Reconstruction era didn’t last long, thanks in large part to the Radicals being sold out by their own party in compromises made by U.S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes, which allowed for the “redemption” of the Southern states and the end of Reconstruction in 1876. 

Romare Bearden

Some of the effects of Reconstruction lingered until the end of the 19th century, but with the introduction of Jim Crow laws in the South, Blacks once again found themselves subjugated by a White political majority.  As a result, a major demographic shift toward Northern and Midwestern cities occurred in the early decades of the 20th century.  The Harlem Renaissance was largely born out of this migration, where black artists were free to explore new ground, which was barred to them in the South.

Except for a few high profile figures, many Blacks voted Democratic by 1912, as it offered more hope to them than the Republican Party, despite their misgivings with Wilson.  Granted, there was an upswing during FDR’s years, given the massive work programs he inaugurated, but let’s not forget that FDR refused to sign the anti-lynching bill put forward by Congress out of fear of losing white Democratic voters in the South.  No major civil rights legislation was passed during his time.  The dream of true universal suffrage remained deferred, with poll taxes and other forms of black voter repression still firmly in place, mostly because of Democratic leaders in the South. 

The irony is that the state which Rand Paul comes from, along with all the Southern states, were traditionally Democratic states, but have become Republican in the wake of the so-called Reagan Revolution, who himself switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party in 1962.  These states did so largely in response to the affect of the Civil Rights legislation passed in the 1960s.  It was Reagan who chose to carry the mantel of Goldwater, who notoriously opposed Civil Rights legislation.  As a result, the former Dixiecrats now form the rump of the Republican Party.  Yet, Mr. Paul believes the GOP hasn’t changed.

What are they afraid of?

On the surface, it would seem the Old Mackie is back in town, questioning the young guns in his party on their proposed filibuster of the Senate bill to bolster background checks and other measures that would allow state and federal law enforcement agencies to have a better record of the gun trafficking in this country.  As it is, you can buy handguns at gun shows and avoid the five-day waiting period mandated by the Brady Bill.  There are any number of other ways to avoid registration of guns.  Yet, Rand Paul has threatened to launch another filibuster, and has the support of 12 fellow Republican senators, leading Sen. McCain to ask, "what are they afraid of?"

The intent of the bill has the backing of 90% of the American public, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, including 74% of NRA members.  McCain was part of a bipartisan Senate committee that forged the bill, after Dianne Feinstein's attempt to introduce a new federal assault weapon ban ground to a halt.  The new Senate bill would have no ban, not even on high capacity clips like those used in the Newtown massacre, which Connecticut has banned.  It is about as innocuous a gun bill as a gun advocate could ask for, while still offering some substance.

For years police have been asking for better background checks and registration that would allow them to track down firearms used in the over 8500 homicides recorded by the FBI in 2011.  Handguns are the weapon of choice, resulting in over 6200 deaths.  Assault rifles are the prime weapons used in multiple shootings.

But, the bill does not really address the nearly 1000 accidental shooting deaths each year, including this recent one in Tennessee.  It also doesn't address the 19,000 suicides carried out each year with firearms, including this recent one where a military recruiting officer apparently chose to end his affair with a 17 year old recruit.

It seems incidents like these have little or no impact on Sen. Rand Paul, who not so long ago went on for 13 long hours on how drones were killing innocent persons all over the world, and could be used on American soil.  Instead, he looks to bathe in the political limelight again, along with fellow young guns Ted Cruz and  Mike Lee, who want to join him in his filibuster, no doubt because of all the attention Paul got last time around.  I'm glad to see Mackie call them out.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Good bye, Maggie

The Baroness is the second in the great conservative triumvirate of the 80s to go.  She had been preceded by Reagan in 2004, and is survived by Helmut Kohl (now 83).  Together, they represented the peak of conservative politics in the “free world," ushering in a new era of supply-side economics, which surprisingly did very little to stimulate American or European economies during their reigns, yet undermined the social welfare state in all three countries.  The US saw its worst “misery index” three years into Reagan’s first term with unemployment peaking at 10.3% in 1983.  Thatcherism resulted in 11.3% unemployment in the UK a year later (half way through her tenure) with staggering interest rates and a sharp fall in production to boot.  Unemployment in Germany peaked at 9.4% the same year. Yet, each is remembered as a champion of the unbridled free market and great prosperity.

It was refreshing to see The Guardian present Thatcherism by the numbers, when most other news outlets have been heaping praise on Thatcher right and left.  She is now fondly remembered as the “Iron Lady,” a term coined by the Soviet press, which she wore like a proud moniker.  Yet, her only real battle was over the Falkland Islands, when British naval forces repelled an Argentine fleet bent on retaking the remote colonial outcrop.  Hardly the stuff of legend, much like Reagan’s great battle in Grenada.  The media lost interest pretty quickly.  Instead, She and Ronnie are remembered for bringing an end to the Cold War by embracing Gorbacev as an agent of change in the Soviet Union.

The fact of the matter is that they didn’t even see the end coming.  They did their best to prop up Gorbacev’s failing regime, while protests rocked Eastern Europe, leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  Of course, Thatcher, Reagan and Kohl all took credit for it, claiming their bellicose words precipitated the fall.  Rather, it was movements like Solidarity in Poland that were the real agents of change.  Thatcher was quick to dump Gorby in favor of Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, who became the new faces of the East.  Lonely Mikhail was left to grapple with a disintegrating Soviet Union that crumbled apart two years later.

History has a way of becoming a fog.  We remember Margaret Thatcher more for her indomitable personality than her deeds, much the same way Ronald Reagan and to a lesser extent Helmut Kohl are remembered.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt having Meryl Streep give old Maggie a kinder, gentler face in a recent biopic.  This is how most persons would like to remember her, even the good folks of BBC, which have been running tributes continually since her death at 87.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Way West

I remember seeing The Searchers as part of a Western film exhibit at the East Wing of the National Gallery many years ago.   This trailer greatly simplifies the theme of the movie, as it is perhaps the greatest Western film ever made, not just because of its stunning cinematography but the sense of cultural ambiguity John Ford creates in his big screen adaptation of Alan Le May's novel from a few years before.

As J. Hoberman points out in his review for the New York Times, Le May's story was based on an 1836 account of a 9-year-old girl, Cynthia Ann Parker, who was abducted by Comanches in an ongoing range war with Texas settlers.  Young Cynthia was forced to watch her parents killed, and was subsequently raised in the Comanche tribe, as personified by "Scar" in the movie.  It was one of John Wayne's few enigmatic roles, a former Southern Civil War soldier bent on revenge for the deaths of his cousins, and seeming to have no sympathy for the grown-up girl, now known by her Comanche name.

Glenn Frankel has sought out the history of the film, not just in its making but in the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, the range wars taking place in the West, and the genre of Western writing that had grown up in the 1830s, most notably in the writings of John Fenimore Cooper, in which abductions figured heavily into his novels.

Sounds like a great read.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


With the Shroud of Turin once again in the news, I couldn't resist looking into the ongoing Biblical Archeological efforts that have consumed some of the most devout Christians for years.  Ever on the search of proof of the events depicted in the Bible, these sleuths have tried to leave no stone unturned in their efforts to expose everything from Noah's ark to Jesus's tomb.  Sometimes these journeys bring peril with them, as was the case for this filmmaker, but usually these stories fade as quickly as they pop up on the news, as they either turn out to be false leads or simply hoaxes.

I have been reading Rowan William's book on Dostoevsky and faith, and he points out quite early in his narrative that if you are looking for quantifiable "truth," don't look in the Bible.  He noted that Dostoevsky once said that if he was to choose between faith and truth, he would choose faith despite many reading his novels as that of a "Doubting Thomas," or in his case Fyodor.

The more you search for proof the more doubts arise.  This was certainly the case with Mormon efforts to discover the lost city of Nephi.  Hampton Sides offers an amusing essay in This is Not the Place.  It ultimately led one Bibilical archeologist to question his faith after being unable to find anything to bolster Joseph Smith's world view in the Book of Mormon.  But, it seems this elusive truth is simply too hard to resist, because Mormon efforts continue to this day to find something in the highlands of Chiapas.

Holbein's dead Christ

What is it about Christians that lead them to continually search for proof to the Biblical stories?  Is it  not enough to view these stories as allegories and accept God as a matter of faith, as Dostoevsky apparently did.  But, it seems humans are all too mortal and need to find some piece of evidence to bolster their faith, just as to achieve sainthood in the church it has to be proven that a person performed some kind of miracle, verified by eyewitnesses.  Dostoevsky had great fun with this in The Brothers Karamazov.  It seems like society itself, religion has become all too literal.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Not So Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Eric Hobsbawm seems to be writing from beyond the grave in what appears to be his last testament, Fractured Times, but I'm sure more unpublished manuscripts will follow.  Hobsbawm proudly went down with a sinking ship in the Soviet Union, refusing to acknowledge the death of Socialism, at least in its grandest form, and remained ever on the attack of the corporate state.  Nick Cohen describes Hobsbawm in his book review for the Guardian as one of those rarest of critics, the Conservative Communist, seemingly able to live comfortably in the British society he wrote so harshly about, even receiving the Order of the Companions of Honour from Queen Elizabeth herself.  As usual, Hobsbawm's scope extends far beyond the British Isles as he once again charts the vicissitudes of the 20th century, including a chapter on "The American Cowboy, an International Myth?"