Friday, February 28, 2014

Happy Birthday!

While it is impossible to date the Grand Canyon definitively, the national park turned 95 a couple days ago. President Wilson signed the park into being on February 26, 1919.  Teddy Roosevelt had visited the park in 1903 and declared it one of the greatest natural wonders of the world.

Hard to argue when you see this incredible site, as I did a few years back with my family.  Hiking down to its base takes some planning as there is a waiting list, but you can circumnavigate the rim by car, camping along the edges and taking short walks down some defined trails.  Not so long ago, a skywalk was created for those who want to look down between their feet into the canyon.

The canyon was first called to Americans' attention by John Wesley Powell in 1869, when he led a geographic expedition down the Colorado River.  He was a prime advocate of water management in the West, but unfortunately no one paid much attention to him, otherwise we might not have seen the many problems that exist today.  His book, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons is a must read.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Bayou detectives

HBO's latest offering, True Detective has been getting a lot of attention, and soaring in the number of viewers each week for what is supposed to be a conclusive 8-part series.  Judging by the reviews, the series offers a a number of tantalizing metaphysical and existential trappings, with quotes from Nietzsche and a subtext lifted from the pages of Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow.  But, judging from trailers and clips this is a very stylish buddy cop movie with Woody Harrelson as your quintessential Southern good ol' boy and Matthew McConaughey as an existential cowboy.

The story is set in the bayous of Louisiana with industrial plants looming on the horizon, not much unlike Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Darkness blurs the edges, as if on the eve of destruction, so no surprise that religious motifs abound, but they have become perverted much like the Yellow King himself.

Emily Nussbaum wasn't as glowing in her New Yorker review as others have been.  Despite all its trappings, the story basically comes down to two guys with the female characters little more than eye candy.  In this sense, it seems to take more from pulp magazines of the past, from which it appears to have taken its title.  Nussbaum said it would be much better if the show didn't take itself so damn seriously. There doesn't seem to be even a touch of irony.  But, this hasn't stopped others from gushing over it.  This review from The Daily Beast is pretty typical.

What I find fascinating is the transformation of McConaughey.  This past year saw him take on a number of projects in which he has literally reconfigured himself.  From the previews, it doesn't seem as though he put on much weight since the making of Dallas Buyers Club, looking gaunt and utterly vacant in expression.  He had played a cop (albeit a dirty cop) once before in Lone Star, but his character was fleeting.  Yet, there is the same two-tier time element in this serial, much like John Sayles employed in Lone Star.

I'm always leary of "revolutionary" new shows because they are rarely that revolutionary, but True Detective looks like it would be fun to watch just the same.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Paine v. Burke

When you look at the quality (or lack thereof) of political debate today it seems a bit of a stretch to link it to Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, but that's what conservative journalist Yuval Levin has done in his recent study of The Great Debate.  I can understand the desire to root the rhetorical differences in what passes for political debates, but come on now, how many Americans even know who Edmund Burke is?  As for Paine, he has been co-opted by right wing pundits like Glenn Beck, who see him as an early Libertarian maverick.

This doesn't stop Levin from cobbling together a "debate" of political differences, using their opposing thoughts on the French Revolution as a springboard.  One can understand why old guard conservatives would prefer Burke to Paine, as the British statesman espoused a "prudent conservatism" in keeping with the tone of the National Review, which Levin most often pens for.  But, Paine is more at heart an American than Burke, who criticized the emerging American republic as much he did the French republic, especially when Jefferson and other American statesmen sided with the French.

However, Levin is looking more for an ideological divide than he is a historic one, finding comfort in Burke's sense of stability, much the way Adams did, who cribbed from Burke when putting together his own Thoughts on Government.  So why not go with a homegrown Burke?

In fact, why not go to the heart of the American political divide, federal government vs. states rights, which has been the running debate since the US Constitution was first introduced?  I suppose this would put Levin at odds with Burke, who would have sided with the Federalists, and we can't have that.  No, by stripping down Burke's arguments to their raw core, he can keep this on a purely ideological plane.

Whatever the case, you have to marvel at what these conservative think tanks  ponder over these days.  However, this isn't the type of stuff that translates well to the rank and file conservative.  Much easier to turn Thomas Paine quotes into memes, like the one above in support of gun rights.  This is the nature of the political debate today.  Whether he actually said it is another matter ; )

Monday, February 24, 2014

You Are Who You Embrace

The Man who mistook the President for a chair
The GOP has had a bit of a "celebrity" problem over the years.  Clint Eastwood seemed like a sure bet at the Republican National Convention, but when he decided to carry on a conservation with a chair which he mistook for Obama this became a running gag on the late night television circuit.  Then came this motley selection of musicians to sing America the Beautiful with Mitt Romney on the campaign trail, which didn't come off very well either.

However, none can compare with Ted Nugent, who seems to be everywhere on the campaign trail these days, spouting off whatever comes to the top of his head and damn the consequences.  His latest act was calling the President a "subhuman mongrel," while stumping for Texas gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott.  This led to rebukes from Rand Paul and Rick Perry, who are definitely no friends of Obama.  The Nuge was forced to apologize, "but on behalf of much better men than myself," which one assumes is Paul and Perry, as he seemed to leave Obama out of this rather vague act of contrition.

The Nuge and Wheels (aka Greg Abbott) at a gun shop
This led many to ponder why the GOP would even embrace a guy like Nugent, who is not exactly a pillar of conservative values.  All he seems to share with radical Republicans is a love for guns and a hatred for Obama.  The most recent Nuge revelation came from Courtney Love who claimed she gave Ted a blow job when she was 12 years old.  While such accusations would bring most politicians down, this only seems to add to the aura that surrounds Ted Nugent, an unrepentant hard rocker and Libertarian who appears to serve as the GOP stand-in for Hunter S. Thompson.

The major difference is that Democrats tended to shy away from Dr. Gonzo, especially in his latter years when his hard living caught up with him.  By contrast, the Republicans went so far as to invite the Nuge, along with Willie Robertson of the Duck Dynasty (pictured below with Paul Ryan), to the President's State of the Union address.  It would seem that despite the concerns, the GOP is willing to embrace such persons and take advantage of their "celebrity" status on the campaign trail.

Of Ducks and Men
Now, I imagine this works just fine in East Texas and the bayous of Louisiana, but one has to ask do you want these guys around for the next national convention?  One would think the GOP learned from Clint Eastwood's little talk with a chair that these celebrities can't always be counted upon at national events.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

March Against Fear

James Meredith generally doesn't get much attention beyond being the first black man admitted to the University of Mississippi in October, 1962.  This didn't come without a lot of grandstanding on Governor Barnett's part, denying him admission a month earlier.  But, the state was forced to drop its objections, and Meredith was begrudgingly accepted into the university.  As you can see, Ole Miss still hasn't exercised its demons.

A young Meredith had much to fear, but he seemed little afraid, having previously defied state laws by registering to vote.  In June 6, he organized a March Against Fear in rural Mississippi, encouraging blacks to register to vote.  Meredith was met with a shotgun blast just South of Hernando, Mississippi, and the march temporarily came to an end.  With reports of the shooting quickly circulating in the press, members of CORE and SNCC mobilized persons and resumed the march.

Stokley Charmichael, who led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, wasn't afraid of confrontation, and issued a bold new call for "Black Power" which had a jarring impact on the American public.  Not surprisingly, this led to more violent and ugly confrontations along the route, while also giving the Civil Rights movement a new voice in Charmichael.

Aram Goudsouzian tells the story from its point of origin, to the fatal shooting in Memphis that left Martin Luther King, Jr. dead, and beyond, in his well-received new book, Down to the Crossroads.  He had the opportunity to interview James Meredith and many others, piecing together what is essentially a first-person narrative of events, which remains vivid in many persons' minds.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Call Me Ishmael

I've been reading Iain Sinclair's American Smoke and enjoying his anecdotes while on the trail of the Beats.  His favorite is Charles Olson, the unofficial bard of Gloucester, MA, whose major work was The Maximus Poems, published posthumously in 1983.  But, what attracted me was his study of Melville's Moby-Dick, simply titled Call Me Ishmael, first published in 1947.

Olson was apparently the first to recognize there were two books, the pre-Shakespeare and the post-Shakespeare  Moby-Dick.  In the first telling Ahab had a mostly incidental role, but upon reading King Lear Melville recast his Ahab as a latter-day Lear, obsessed with vengeance at the cost of everything else around him.  Other scholars have since bolstered this idea, noting the profound influence Shakepseare had on Melville.

The essay had first appeared  as Lear and Moby-Dick in 1938, but Olson worked on it continuously over a 10 year span, incorporating his ideas on "Empire," which he felt Melville strongly alluded to in his novel.  This allowed Olson to parallel Moby-Dick with the Cold War, which had begun shortly after WWII.

Charles Olson at work
American Smoke is well worth reading, especially as Sinclair delves into persons who were outside our usual understanding of the Beats, yet had a powerful influence on literature.  As Sinclair tells it, Kerouac met up with Olson once but was apparently too drunk to really engage with him.  One of those lost opportunities.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

My President the Car

Apparently, there is nothing like Presidents Day for a car sale.  This is peak time for the automotive industry, offering sales across the country, with red, white and blue bunting stretched across showroom floors and between lamp posts on dealers' lots.  The "holiday" still officially honors Big George but has become all-inclusive.

Abraham Lincoln (33%) edged out George Washington (30%) in a recent poll sponsored by Constitution Daily.  Ronald Reagan wasn't on the ballot.  It seems you had to be on Mt. Rushmore or have been a relative of one of the stony faces to qualify.  Historians generally tend to put Lincoln ahead of Washington as well.

Lincoln is also the only President to have an automotive company named after him, although Gerald Ford shares his name with one car company.  Henry Leland, who founded Lincoln Motor Company, was actually old enough to vote in 1864 and cast his ballot for Lincoln, his favorite president.  I suppose if you were to compare Presidents with cars,  Warren G. Harding would be an Edsel, as he most consistently ranks at the bottom (43).  George W. Bush isn't very far behind with an aggregate score of 34.  I guess that would make him an AMC Gremlin.

Jimmy Carter is probably most closely associated with the K-car, having negotiated the bailout of Chrysler in the late 70s.  He even switched the White House fleet to K-cars and offered Lee Iacocca a number of perks to keep the company going in the face of bankruptcy.  The deal was vilified at the time, with many conservative critics blaming Carter for the collapse of the automotive industry by increasing fuel efficiency standards.  These critics failed to note that the 1973 oil embargo precipitated these events.  Sadly, not even this convertible woody could save the K-Car, which completed its run in 1984.

History has a tendency to repeat itself and there was Chrysler on the edge of bankruptcy again in 2008, along with Ford and GM.  Ford managed to find private sources to bail it out, but GM and Chrysler fell under the management of the federal government, with Obama insisting the car companies modernize their production lines to include more fuel efficient and electric cars, so GM dutifully trotted out the Chevrolet Volt, which has had little success.  Its $40,000 price tag is part of the problem.  Naturally, it was dubbed the Obamamobile.  Of course, conservative critics have failed to note that Tesla also benefited from the bailouts.

But, heh this is Presidents Day, albeit one day late, so rush down to your local car lot and take advantage of the deals!

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Politics of Science

Bill Nye finds himself in another debate, this time with Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn over climate change.  It seems Marsha took a few pointers from Ken Ham, finding a handful of "scientists" who reject climate change, but David Gregory wasn't a passive moderator in this debate, often challenging Blackburn himself.  Mercifully, this debate clocks in about 13 minutes, as opposed to the two-and-a-half hour snoozefest that was the Creation Debate.

I think Bill has learned by now that science is not really at issue here, but rather politics.  For whatever damn fool reason the Republicans have lined themselves up on the opposing side of just about every issue confronting this country.  They don't so much approach these issues in a scientific spirit but rather a litigious one, pulling up a few specious claims and statistics that cast what they consider to be "reasonable doubt."

As David Gregory noted, most Republican leaders accept climate change is occurring, they just question the economic cost in doing something about it.  However, Marsha takes the maximalist position denying that there is any climate change at all, and that what we are experiencing are just fluctuating weather patterns.  She also notes that the massive increase in cost from recent natural disasters is mostly due to population growth and redistribution.  She cited a few detailed figures to make it look like she actually researched the topic, but one doesn't sense much confidence in her voice.  These lines were obviously fed to her, and this time around Bill Nye had little problem picking them apart.

Nye singles out the most obvious culprit, Big Oil, who drops a lot of money in Republican political campaigns, and obviously it is not in its economic interest to see the country move away from carbon-based energy sources.  Although tracking the sources of these contributions has become increasingly difficult, with the rise of so-called dark money.

As you can see from Blackburn's latest fundraising efforts, automotive, oil and gas industries figure prominently in her campaign contributions, but many of her other contributions are probably masked through third-party groups.  However, this doesn't explain why so many persons buy into these conterfactual opinions.  What is it about the make-up of the conservative electorate that refuses to accept scientific research?

In a recent Pew Research Poll, nearly 60% of Republicans refuse to accept Darwin's theory of natural selection, whereas nearly 70% of Democrats do consider Darwin's theory legitimate.  Less than five years ago, the numbers were relatively equal, indicating a major shift since the rise of the Tea Party in conservative politics, which has been actively promoting Creationism and climate change denial.

This seems to bolster a long standing argument that conservative industries are using the Tea Party as an ideological strong arm to bully Republicans into a narrowly-defined vision of society.  Creationism and climate change denial have become part and parcel of a new ideological-centered political party that caters to an overwhelming religious conservative voter base.  Faith and reason can no longer be seen in parallel, but rather in opposition to each other, especially scientific reason.

I suppose at the base of this seemingly anti-intellectual movement is a strong desire for the moral certainty of the Bible as opposed to the moral ambiguity of science, especially when it comes to matters such as stem-cell research.  The religious right wing is steadfastly opposed to the use of embryonic stem cells, and for all of George W. Bush's administration such research was basically put on hold in America, allowing other countries, such as Japan, to make major breakthroughs in this research.

When it comes to climate change, the only type religious conservatives appear to feel comfortable wtih are divine acts such as the Great Flood.  They may look for signs of an approaching apocalypse, but certainly not form scientists, who they seem to regard with the same contempt as they hold for liberal academics, who have been vilified in the conservative media.

So, much like the Creationism debate, Bill Nye found himself engaged in a couple weeks ago, he is mostly preaching to the choir when it comes to climate change.  However, in this case Bill Nye is right.  Our unwillingness to accept climate change and respond accordingly is holding our society back.  The US has long stood at the forefront of technological innovations, and here is a golden opportunity to redefine the way we produce energy, yet we have allowed ourselves to be held hostage by oil companies, much the same way the whaling industry controlled sperm oil in the 19th century before the country eventually switched to kerosene.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Everyone a Speculator

The anti-Gatsby
To watch Martin Scorsese's unbridled Bacchanalia, The Wolf of Wall Street, the 80s and 90s were just one big fuckfest for stockbrokers in New York.  He follows the life of Jordan Belfort, a real life figure through the eyes of Leonardo DiCaprio, as a kind of anti-Gatsby.  It wasn't power or even prestige Jordan was after, but rather the pursuit of money and all the pleasures it provides.  Daisy in this case was a former Miller Light girl who now had her own lingerie line.

The narrative is filled with many memorable lines, probably taken from the book, and destined to be aped, much like Gordon Gekko's quotes from Oliver Stone's 1987 Wall Street, which prophetically took place the same year the stock market crashed.  This is where this new movie begins, so some might see it as a sequel of sorts, showing how young stockbrockers picked up the pieces, in this case penny stocks, and moved on.

The world is my oyster
Belfort apparently made quite a name for himself but this was the first time I heard of him.  I thought Scorsese had come up with his own interpretation of the life and times of Michael Milken, the fastest any man had come to amassing his first billion (four years) before the cybertech age.  Jordan was apparently encouraged by Tommy Chong to pen his memoirs while in prison, and his story previously served as the inspiration for Boiler Room, a much less glamorous movie led by Ben Affleck.

It reminded me a lot of Glengarry Glen Ross, especially when DiCaprio's Jordan is exhorting his traders to push the Steve Madden IPO, but Scorsese pumps up the volume and turns this one into a wild ride much like De Palma's classic Scarface, as his Belfort snorts his way to the top of Wall Street, not much unlike Tony Montana.   A success story in hyper drive.

The most amusing aspect of this film is the evangelical quality.  Jordan becomes a kind of latter day saint in the eyes of his disciples, a group of 20 he literally picks off the street, who become loyal to him as he lets them in on his trading secrets.  He moves from taking advantage of the average joe to fleecing the rich on penny stocks which were virtually unregulated at the time.  He pumps up his crew like a motivational speaker, creating a excessively crude environment in his office where virtually anything goes.  He had to ban sex in he bathrooms because it had gotten out of control.  Ultimately, Donnie Azoff, as played by Jonah Hill, proves to be his Judas Iscariot.

Scorsese talking sex
Drugs and sex figure prominently in this film.  Not only are there copious acts of sex, but "fuck" was apparently uttered a record 500 times, earning the film an NC-17 rating.  It seemed like it was just one big orgy with these young fat cats walking around with rolls of Ben Franklins in their pockets, pushing penny stocks on an unsuspecting public which was desperate for any bit of change during the malingering recession.  This turned into a wild period of speculation in the 90s, fueling a hi-tech boom that hit its bubble around 1998, when it eventually all caught up to Belfort, and he was indicted for securities fraud and money laundering.

You figure the real Jordan was much more prosaic.  DiCaprio appears to roll in the billions with a yacht that makes him look like a James Bond villain, whereas the real Belfort apparently was only able to strip about $200 million off his clients, and forced to pay back half in restitution.  Apparently, he never got much beyond $10 million before his probation was over and is now fighting attempts to take the profits from his books and movie rights.

It's not like this film sheds any light on the period.  Instead, Scorsese revels in the conspicuous display of wealth much like he did in Casino.  I guess Kyle Chandler offers some kind of moral center as FBI agent Patrick Denham, but he plays his role with the deadpan quality of a 40s private dick.  Scorsese has these first-person narratives down pat and stings you along for nearly 3 hours on Jordan Belfort's wild ride.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Black History Month: What Have We Learned?

I do wonder who Black History Month is for?  Certainly, black Americans don't need to be reminded of their history.  They continue to have to put up with racial stereotypes and profiling today, often with tragic results like last year's Trayvon Martin case. But, someone needs to be reminded of this history, especially before suggesting such events as a George Zimmerman-DMX celebrity boxing match.  The promoter had the audacity of suggesting proceeds go to the Trayvon Martin Foundation.  I can't even begin to imagine what Trayvon's parents must have felt hearing about this horribly crass event.

In today's reality show environment anyone can become a celebrity.  A far cry from the Civil Rights Movement, which Black History Month was intended to keep fresh in people's minds.  Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks continue to get their due, but the struggle itself has been pretty much reduced to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington, conveniently summed up in these clips on History channel.

This has led writers like Theodore R. Johnson to ponder if Black History Month has any relevance today.  It pretty much went underneath all the right wing pundits' radar screens this year, who typically rant why there isn't a White History Month, taking little or no heed of what should be a month of reflection on our tarnished history.

It seems most Americans believe that what is past is past and that they are not accountable for former misdeeds, even when they continue to commit them, such as rallying behind George Zimmerman in the infamous trail, where Zimmerman claimed he was defending himself against a young Trayvon, which the media essentially presented as a typical black hoodlum.

The notorious Florida Stand Your Ground law clearly came into play in this case, and that law is now enforced in many other states throughout the country. You can blame Zimmerman's acquittal on overzealous prosecutors who wanted to pin him with a second-degree murder charge, but evidence seemed to suggest Zimmerman was fully aware of his actions, and probably knew he was within his "rights" according to the law.

It is cases like these that show how little we have moved forward since the Civil Rights era.  We hear claims of "victimization" from all sides to the point that you have faux debates over which is worse, "nigger" or "cracker," as Martin apparently called Zimmerman a "creepy-assed cracker."  If only Zimmerman had filed charges against Martin for assault, but I guess his "manhood" had been called into question.

Maybe if some enterprising American cable network did something like BBC One's Turn Back Time: The Family, which introduced a black Jamaican immigrant family (7:50 mark) in the 1960s, persons might get a better awareness of what it was like growing up in America over the decades, instead of the hackneyed reality shows we are subjected to like "celebrity" boxing matches.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Benito Cerreño

This is one of the stories Greg Grandin interweaves in his new book about the slave trade, Empire of Necessity.  Melville had written the short novel in the 1850s, modelling it on a slave revolt that took place fifty years before aboard the Spanish ship Tryal.  The mutinous Africans demanded the ship's captain sail them back to their home continent, but a New England merchant seaman interceded, forming the basis of Melville's novella.

Grandin's book takes the long view on the slave trade, showing how integral it had become in the fortunes of the European and American powers.  Grandin provides the backstory behind the novella, but takes the reader beyond the story as well, with an epilogue on Herman Melville's America that you can read in the preview of the book at amazon.  There is also this piece on the revolt, which Grandin wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Benito Cereno was made into a film in 1969 by Serge Roullet.

This could make for a very interesting companion read.  Both books are more manageable than our last effort with Henry James.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Lone Star Blues

Seems the Republicans are losing their grip on the Lone Star state.  This once Democratic bastion (albeit conservatively Democratic) has been "red" for the past 20 years ever since Boy George knocked the Grand Dame of Texas off her throne in one of the biggest upsets of the 1994 midterm elections.  After 6 years of Bush and 14 years of Rick Perry, Texans seem to be a little GOP weary.  So, Rand Paul rode into Texas on his Libertarian white horse to try to urge state Republicans to be more friendly, seeming to evoke Dubya's "compassionate conservatism" from a generation before so that the Hispanic vote won't make the Lone Star State Blue.

Like so many states, the demographics seem to be turning against the Republicans.  An estimated 40 per cent of the Texas electorate is now Hispanic, and most of them tend to vote Democratic.  They might vote for one of their homeboys like Ted Cruz but run a guy like Greg Abbott and all bets are off.

Texas Republicans haven't been very kind to women either.  The recent draconian abortion bill they railroaded through the state legislature left many women feeling there is no longer any room in the Republican Party for them.  The general tone of the GOP seems to be women should stay at home, raise kids and have a hot meal on the table when the husband comes home.  You don't hear at all from Kay Bailey Hutchison these days, who for years was the most prominent Republican woman in Texas.  She was replaced by Ted Cruz.

Now, there's Wendy Davis making waves.  It remains to be seen whether she can generate the Democratic groundswell to unseat the Republicans in Austin, but her candidacy is a refreshing change.  There are also the Castro brothers in San Antonio.  You might remember Julian from the Democratic National Convention in 2012.  Both are young dynamic leaders in step with the changing demographics of the state.

You would think the GOP could have found a more charismatic front man than Greg Abbott to run for governor, which seems to imply a certain laziness in the Texas Republican Party.  It's kind of the like the waning days of the Soviet Union when you had moribund leaders like Brezhnev and Andropov at the helm.  Whatever "revolution" that was inspired back in 1994 seems to have been long forgotten, replaced by a decaying oligarchy.

Texas has been central to recent Republican presidential bids, which explains why Rand Paul was stumping in his boyhood state.  He says he is all for immigration reform and wants to reframe the GOP's position on key health issues that affect women voters.  The Tea Party darling now wants to put a little distance between himself and the Rabid Right, hoping to expand the GOP tent a little.

The Old Switcheroo

I guess it depends which side of the political aisle you are on as to whether Charlie Crist's new book is good or bad.  Few like a turncoat, unless of course he is Ronald Reagan, so it is no surprise the Republicans have come to hate Crist with a passion almost as much as their hatred toward Obama.  Not surprisingly, this is the subject Crist tackles in his book, The Party's Over, noting how the GOP has degenerated to the point it no longer holds any respect for the Commander-in-Chief if he comes from the other party.

Crist describes a situation where Obama addressed the National Governors Association after his historic election victory.  Like most GOP governors, Crist was doubtful of the new President, but became very upset with the tone of some of his fellow GOP governors who took the opportunity to "lecture" the President, not offering him a shred of respect. Crist chose to scold these governors, noting their hypocrisy in taking stimulus money only to decry it in public.

The former Florida governor also describes the infamous hug that made him persona-non-grata in the GOP.  For Crist it was just a matter of respect, but for the new GOP it was embracing the enemy, the equivalent of Nixon hugging Brezhnev or shaking hands with Mao.  Crist charts the road toward this rhetorically-charged party that he no longer could square himself with, forced to run as an independent in the Florida Senate race, after having been teabagged in the 2010 primaries.

Now Crist runs for governor as a Democrat, having only served one term before.  He currently holds a 7-point lead in the polls, as Scott is one of the most unpopular governors in Florida history.  He no longer worries about his relationship with Obama, although he remains skeptical of the ACA.  He has embraced the expansion of Medicaid though, and has made that one of his campaign issues.

You get the sense Crist is a reluctant Democrat.  He is a man who wants to remain in politics and the only way to do so is to embrace a party.  Obviously, the Republican Party will have nothing to do with him, and I imagine a lot of Democrats don't feel entirely comfortable with Crist.  His switch is seen more as a repudiation of the Republican Party than it is an embrace of Democratic values.  However, it is hard to define what those values are these days other than an acceptance of mainstream opinion, and in that sense Crist is much like Obama.

Here is an excerpt from the book.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Black Reconstruction in the South

This is black history month, and it only seems fitting that Douglas Egerton's new book, The Wars of Reconstruction is now available.  I wasn't quite sure what to think of it with all the praise being heaped on it by the Wall Street Journal, but Eric Foner gives this book a big thumb up, so that seals the deal for me.

Egerton focuses mostly at the state and local level in the South, illustrating the gains that were made during Reconstruction.  He contrasts this with the violent reactionary elements such as the Ku Klux Klan, ultimately showing that Reconstruction was not a failure, but rather was violently overthrown.

This of course was not the long held view, which Foner focused on his excellent book on Reconstruction.  He, along with Leon Litwack rescued Reconstruction from the dust bin of history, by drawing from the seminal work of W.E.B. DuBois and other prime sources to counter the long prevailing Dunning school of thought on the subject, which rendered Reconstruction a failure.

Still, it seems many see Reconstruction as an unwanted and unneeded imposition on the South, with many Southerners still idolizing figures like Nathan Bedford Forrest, who became a Klan leader after the war.  The battle over civil rights has yet to be completed, especially judging by the disproportionate number of black Americans behind bars, which was the subject of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow.

I think The Wars of Reconstruction would make a great reading group selection.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Science Smackdown

An all too serious Science Guy
Sad to say, but it looks like Bill Nye took a hard one on the chin in the Debate of the Decade the other night.  I watched a little bit of it on youtube.  It was like watching paint dry.  Gone, was Bill Nye's trademark humor.  Instead, he seemed to take the topic seriously, and tried to argue that the acceptance of Creationism by so many Americans has held the country back technologically.  Ken Ham was ready for that one, as he cited leading technological innovators who accepted the Creation myth.  Nye never recovered.

Science will probably never trump faith.  Even Dostoevsky said if he had to choose, he would take faith over reason.  Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, noted in his wonderful book on Dostoevsky that faith and reason can coexist, but they shouldn't be put at odds with each other.  He believes that since the Age of Enlightenment, we also shouldn't view the Bible as a literal text.

Ham apparently believes dinosaurs weren't invited on the Ark
In fact, this is the general Catholic and Anglican view, but many Evangelicals and Fundamentalists believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, which means taking the Creation myth, the Flood and other supernatural events described in the Old Testament at face value.  Nye tried to point out scientifically that if there had been an epic flood that covered the entire earth for a year we would have seen fossil records of it.  But, what is a geological record in the face of hardened beliefs?  He should have mentioned the recent decoding of this Mesopotamian cuneiform, which casts new light on the Flood myth.

Bill Nye was forced to learn the hard way in front of muted audience, which politely applauded at the end of his little lectures, but wasn't in the least swayed by his arguments.  So, Nye desperately pleaded, if not for yourselves then for your children keep Creationism out of science!  Come on, Bill, you can do better than this.

The Trial of Galileo
It probably would have helped if the Science Guy had taken the time to read Genesis and note the many holes in the Biblical "unification theory."  For one, the Creation myth clearly places the Earth at the center of the Universe, which Copernicus and Galileo later corrected, much to the chagrin of the Holy Roman Church, but the church came to accept these findings, and even pardoned Galileo some 400 years later.

Another, is that it seems that the plants and animals that initially covered and roamed the earth were pretty much the same as we see today.  There was no mention of mastodons, saber-toothed tigers, much less dinosaurs.  However, this has stopped Ken Ham from including them in his playful dioramas at the Creation Museum.

However, dinosaurs seemed to be pets at one time
At the very least, Bill should have shown some sense of humor like Randy Olson did in his documentary Flock of Dodos.  These guys aren't stupid, just locked into a very simple view of the origins of the universe, probably because they don't give much thought to it, like Bill Nye does.

Unfortunately, the Science Guy became overly obsessed with geological layers and animal sexual habits, losing whatever sympathetic ears he had in the audience.  It really was painful to listen to, especially when you consider that Nye made the ultimate mistake of giving Ken Ham credibility by choosing to participate in this mock debate and taking his claim that Creationism is a viable model seriously.  Even if only 900 persons tuned in for the live stream,  100s of 1000s more are picking up the recaps on a variety of media outlets, ranging from Huff Post to National Geographic.  For Ken Ham this is a major coup.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Monuments Men

Clooney and friends
It is nice to draw attention to the Monuments Men, who helped save valuable historic landmarks and priceless treasures during WWII, but you have to wonder at the casting.  This was an organization initially set up by the British government and eventually came to include American art experts, but this cast seems to be mostly a Hollywood crew, and a largely fictionalized account.

Judging from the trailer, the intent appears to be largely the same, only with a little more bang for your buck, as George Clooney and Matt Damon lead a "Dirty Dozen" across battle lines in an attempt to keep Europe's valuable treasures out of Nazi hands, as well as caution Allied military leaders on what to target.  These actions didn't save Dresden, but that was in enemy territory, so I guess it was open season.

The real Monuments Men
Here, the focus is mostly on Italy, where the most valuable European treasures resided, as Allied Monuments Officers worked with the Italian soprintendenti to identify and save key monuments and art treasures.  This auxiliary team became known as the "Venus fixers."

The idea of saving Europe may have been unprecedented in modern warfare, but Napoleon similarly had a team of archeologists, art experts and the like brought along on the Egyptian front, documenting and taking many a fine treasure back to Paris, which would keep the Louvre well stocked for decades.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Ham on Nye

Tonight is the Big Night for what is being billed as the "Debate of the Decade."  However, it sounds more like The Scopes Monkey Trial, Part Deux, as the "Science Guy" Bill Nye takes on the "The Creationist" Ken Ham in a 2 1/2 hour debate on Is Creation a Viable Model of Origins?  CNN correspondent Tom Foreman will moderate the debate and "70 credentialed media" will be in attendance to help make it feel just like the real thing.

Ken plans to soak as much money as possible off this one, with everyone from WCPO in Cincinnati to Christian Today offering a live feed, starting at 7 pm.  Even Piers Morgan will offer a post-debate analysis.  All proceeds will go to his Answers in Genesis, which is sponsoring the event.

You have to admire Ken Ham's audacity if nothing else.  This guy doesn't buy into "intelligent design."  He is a straight Creationist.  The world is no more than 7000 years old and Dinosaurs and other extinct species were products of "divine upheavals."  But, I'll leave it up to the Evangelist to make his case and hope Bill Nye has some good zingers to deflate the big boy's Biblical arguments.  However, Catholic Online is having none of it.  Somehow, I don't think there will be much voice of reason in this one.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Pardon me while I gloat ...

Apparently, I'm not the only one suffering a hangover from the big game yesterday.  There are calls for a Super Bowl Monday, a national holiday so that the legion of fans can rest after all those Super Bowl parties.  However, my problem is that the game didn't end until 5 am Eastern European time and I only got about 2 hours of sleep.

The game was originally an afternoon game, but slowly crept into the early hours of the evening to make room for all the pre-game hype and what now appears to be the traditional Presidential interview.  This year Fox News had the honors and Baba O'Reilly got to sit down with the president for 10 minutes, dredging up one right-wing conspiracy theory after another, with the President gamely responding to each faux question in turn, and dropping a few football metaphors along the way.  When asked to predict the outcome of the game, all he would state was the score 24-21.

He was pretty close on the number of points, but unfortunately for Manning and Bronco fans, Seattle scored nearly all of them.  What was being billed as one of the greatest match-ups in Super Bowl history turned out to be a laugher from the first play when Manny Rameriz snapped the ball right by Peyton's head as he tried to call an audible, resulting in a safety for Seattle.  It was the quickest score in Super Bowl history.

The "halftime air was sweet perfume" for Seattle fans, but for others the only thing left of interest were the lavish commercials.  The halftime show was entertaining, but this being New Jersey you have to fask why they didn't call the Boss to deliver a rousing extended version of Born in the USA, instead of a waif-like Bruno Mars who probably no one other than young teenagers had ever heard of before.

In the chatter box, speculation focused on what Peyton Manning had to do to get his Broncos back into the game.  However, the Seahawks had other thoughts, like unveiling a "counter right" that unleashed the long dormant Percy Harvin for an 87-yard kickoff return.  This apparently justified his 6-year, 67 million dollar contract, which critics had declared a bust as Harvin sat on most of the season recovering from hip surgery.  The number pales in comparison to Manning's 5-year 96 million dollar deal.  Yep, this is a big money sport.

Like Obama, Manning was forced to have to answer for his poor performance after the game.  This was supposed to be his show.  The beloved veteran quarterback had been the NFL most valuable player during the year (a record fifth time), but he hardly lived up to expectations.  He was dogged by a Seattle defense the entire night, which to conservative Bronco fans must have looked like a replay of Benghazi.  Manning bristled when asked if he was humiliated by the outcome.  It's tough being the chosen one.

Instead, a relatively unknown quarterback, Russell Wilson, stole the show, making Manning look like an old man.  The second-year quarterback had nothing but praise for his team and everyone associated with the game, even God above.  It seems football and religion go hand in hand even without Tim Tebow (who figured prominently in the commercials).  He rankled so many sports commentators and critics a couple years back with his kneeling prayers after his touchdowns.

I was a little disappointed there was no reference to this being the first Marijuana bowl, as Washington and Colorado are the only states where the cultivation and recreational use of pot is legal.  You figure there were many Seattle and Denver fans lighting up at local bars.  I thought the appeals that smoking marijuana was safer than drinking alcohol during the game very amusing.

I didn't stick around for all the post game chatter.  I wanted to get a little sleep before the workday ahead, but the buzz of excitement still played in my head.  It had been over 30 years since Seattle had a men's professional champion.  To this point, Seattle had only the Storm to cheer about.   The city had spent a lavish amount of money on new sports stadiums for their baseball and football teams, while the Storm won in the WNBA championship twice in the lowly Key Arena, which the Sonics abandoned in favor of Oklahoma City.  Finally, there was some return on investment.  This lovable "city of losers," as Rainn Wilson describes, had embraced the Seahawks as their defiant alter ego and could now bathe in one of the most lopsided games in Super Bowl history, welcoming their team back to the Emerald City.

Of course, my wife didn't understand how I could stay up for a game like this.  After a shower I felt refreshed and ready for the day.  I was tempted to wear my Seahawks hoodie to work, but figured no one would get it.  Football is a strange game and inspires an equally strange fascination, kind of like Australian Rules Football.  But, finally Seattle answered the question, "Why can't it be us?"

It is Us!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The 12th Man in Vilnius

Seattle is more known for its rain than it is football, but when Paul Allen bought the Seahawks in the late 1990s, he vowed he would make every effort to make the team a contender, and the city plunked huge money on a new stadium to keep the franchise, which had been in danger of being moved to Los Angeles.  The city of Angels had long been aching for a football team ever since losing its Rams.

American football is a funny thing, especially when viewed from abroad.  Most of my Lithuanian friends have a hard time figuring it out.  What does any of this have to do with football, they ask?  Yes, it is more like rugby than any other sport, only these guys are dressed like gladiators for the kill.

There have been attempts to export the game with mixed results.  The World Football League was a big failure back in the 70s.  A new European Football League was started in mid 80s and has managed to grow in teams over the years, with a Eurobowl played each year.  Needless to say, it doesn't draw as many fans as the Euro Cup, the real football as far as Europeans are concerned.

The Super Bowl is another matter.  This game started out as a way to bring the rival National Football and American Football Leagues together and has grown into one of the biggest sporting events in the world, televised in nearly every country around the globe.  Super Bowl parties are a big part of the day, with commercial sponsors lavishing big money on advertising.

This will be the first time the Super Bowl has coincided with Groundhog Day, but apparently Punxsutawney Phil has no interest in the game.  However, it is the Year of the Horse, which started on January 31, so maybe this favors the Broncos, who are making their 7th appearance in the game.

The game has been featured in various films, but probably the most memorable was Black Sunday (1977), in which American and Israeli intelligence officers team up to stop a Palestinian terrorist attack.  It was relatively timely, as the PLO had staged a terrorist attack on the Munich Olympic games in 1972, and security levels had increased dramatically for all international sporting events.

Fortunately, the Super Bowl survived.  The only real dramatic moment was in 1991 when there was some suggestion that the game be delayed in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, but the game went on, with a rousing national anthem sung by Whitney Houston, and one of the better played Super Bowls in history.  The game is all too often a rout.

I suppose football can best be compared to warfare, as the teams line up like opposing battle regiments from the 19th century and wage brief scrimmages, which indeed would seem quite confusing to anyone unfamiliar with the game, but then I still haven't figured out what constitutes off sides in European football.

Football was a big part of my teen years, and I still haven't gotten that adolescent fascination out of my system, even though I find it appalling how much money is spent on the game and the way professional teams essentially hold cities hostage, demanding ever more lavish stadiums for the right to host these clubs.  Green Bay is the only municipal owned team.  I couldn't understand why more cities didn't buy their teams, but then the NFL has essentially become a cabal of owners protecting their product and the huge dividends they now make off this game.

More than once Monday Night Football has superceded world events on television, the most egregious example being a Nightline interview with Gorbacev and Yeltsin that was delayed due to overtime. This was at the height of the break up of the Soviet Union, and needless to see the rival leaders weren't there when Ted Koppel tried to resume the interview.

However, American politicians have learned to use the Super Bowl to their advantage.  Notably Bill Clinton, whose 60 Minutes interview before the game in 1992, allowed him access to a huge nationwide audience that his Democratic candidates didn't get, even if it was ostensibly set up to discuss his extra-marital affairs. As they say, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

For better and for worse, the Super Bowl has become a signature event in America.  I'm pulling for my Seahawks as the 12th Man abroad.  Unfortunately, the game doesn't come on until 1:25 Monday morning, but I wouldn't get much sleep thinking about it anyway ; )