The Crimea crisis may feel like a throwback to the Cold War, but it’s actually reflective of 21st century democracy.
Democracy is defined as “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” Despotism is “the exercise of absolute power, especially in a cruel and oppressive way.”
A child denied any access to sweeties, despite abject pleas to the contrary, is experiencing despotism. A child offered a choice of two sweeties, but not one of the fifty they actually wanted, is experiencing democracy.
Do you remember where you were on April 1, 1994? I do. I was sitting at a computer in an apartment at the corner of Colorado and Foothills in Boulder, launching this really new thing called a “Web site.” Today there are over 932 million of them (and counting) in the world, but at that point there were maybe 2,000.
It was pretty primitive stuff back then: plain text on a white background with some hyperlinks, and if you wanted to do one you had to know html and a bit of UNIX.
“I am an Anti-Christ/I am an Anarchist…” – John Lydon
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (image courtesy Wikimedia)
Joseph J. Ellis’s excellent study of the character of perhaps the most beloved and certainly the most enigmatic member of that group that we think of as the Founding Fathers, is called, aptly, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. Ellis’s work is not a biography of Jefferson (he readily admits that there are thorough multi-volume treatments of Jefferson’s life that are, for all intents and purposes, definitive). Ellis tries – and in large part succeeds – in pursing another, certainly elusive, goal: an explication of Jefferson’s character.
Like any human, Jefferson was a person of contradictions and inconsistencies – as Ellis illuminates in this work. What originally attracted Ellis to this project, it seems, was not the desire to point out Jefferson’s flaws but instead a sincere desire to understand how, in spite those inconsistencies and contradictions, Jefferson has long been and remains (with the possible exception of Lincoln) the most popular icon of American political thought.
An evil man has departed the Earth, but not before inadvertently making it a better place.
Without Contraries is no progression. – Blake
Fred Phelps, founder of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church, is dead.
Over the past several years Phelps distinguished himself as one of the most vile people in America, which is no small feat given the high profiles our society has accorded Hall of Fame hatemongers like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.
As he has lingered on his deathbed in recent days, we’ve had a chance to ponder this moment and discuss what the proper response might be. My own pot shot – “may his funeral be well attended” – paled compared to some of the (justified, it must be admitted) rage against the man’s legacy. At the same time, we saw altogether more noble comments from people like Facebook’s First Citizen, George Takei, who reminded us that hate is conquered not by more hate, but by love. Continue reading →
A historical romance that offers typical historical accuracy – and atypical romantic complications…
Jim Stephens’ Fields of Gold is a long book – of course, it covers more than three decades in the central character’s life, so there’sthat. This historical romance (as the author terms it) is also a saga of sorts. The interesting (and perhaps problematic) thing about that is that the bulk of this 466 page opus covers only six years. Now granted, they’re six of the most extraordinary years in the history of Western culture – 1939-1945, the years covering World War II. But the fact is that the author’s treatment of these six years comprises more than half the novel. That accounts for pretty much all of the “history” part of the book. The “romance” part spans the entire book and offers a complicated love triangle involving the main character, one Mathew Weldon, scion of an American banking family, an English brewer’s daughter who teaches him about true love, Joanna Barton, and an American torch singer who finally wins his heart (sort of – that’s one of the novel’s cruxes), Suzanne Swift.
Weldon is a typical spoiled rich boy. He also has no respect for women. Continue reading →
America’s permanent war policy is a reflection of WWII movies, which offered an unrealistic vision of war’s motivations, consequences
My Depression-born parents raised me in a rural idyll during the Eisenhower years. As a child, I snuck into the Garden Theater to watch war movies. They enthralled me: Battle Cry, To Hell and Back, Away All Boats, D-Day the Sixth of June, The Wings of Eagles, Battle of the Coral Sea, and my favorites, the submarine movies: Run Silent Run Deep, The Enemy Below, and Up Periscope. I revered Steve McQueen in The Great Escape and John Wayne in Operation Pacific and The Flying Leathernecks. Later, I learned mediated definitions of traitorous betrayal in Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare. Continue reading →
Maybe feminism isn’t all that recent as a social movement – or, “we built this city on women’s roles…”
The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (image courtesy Goodreads)
One of the tendencies of modern scholarship has been to “re-interpret” texts from other historical eras in light of modern (or postmodern – or post-postmodern) sensibilities. My most recent completed work from the 2014 reading list (I’m a little behind now due to some family matters) is by 14th/15th century author Christine de Pizan. The Book of the City of Ladies is typically medieval. Its author uses much material from “other sources” – which is medieval-speak for “borrowing” freely from both classical and contemporary sources – and the work is itself allegorical – the “city” of the title is actually de Pizan’s book.
The premise of the book is, however, anything but medieval. Christine de Pizan explains that she is “building the city” at the behest of three virtues (all represented in feminine form, of course): Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. These virtues – which are cardinal virtues of women, Pizan is subtly arguing – have appeared to Pizan in a dream in order to help her defend the intelligence, honor, and integrity of women. Women’s intelligence, honor, and integrity have been maligned, primarily, Pizan explains, at the hands of two groups of men – theologians and courtly romance writers. Theologians, despite their elevation of the Virgin Mary to a status nearly equal to that of Christ, primarily depict women as the source of mankind’s trouble dating back to the original troublemaker Eve. Courtly romance writers such as Jean de Meun in Roman de la Rose portray women primarily as sexual objects – creatures to be used for male pleasure and amusement with little or no thought given to their sense or feelings. Continue reading →
Photographers everywhere can identify with William Anders and the crew of Apollo 8.
Our friend Frank Dilatush forwarded a YouTube link this morning commemorating the 45th anniversary of what many consider to be the most famous photograph in history: Earthrise, taken December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders.
Do something smart in America and we’ll never put you on a piece of money…
The Stranger and the Statesman by Nina Burleigh (image courtesy Goodreads)
The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America’s Greatest Museum is likely to cause many a thoughtful American to spend some time wondering what in the hell America has ever been about, besides money and politics. This concise and highly readable book about the founding of the Smithsonian Institution takes on a puzzling and remarkable little piece of American history: why did the illegitimate son of an English duke who never married and whose career was spent as a “gentleman scientist” exploring obscure mineralogical questions, decide to donate his entire fortune (some $50 million in current money) to “the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men.”
The truth is, he didn’t, exactly. Smithson’s bequest came to America because of “a series of unfortunate events” that included the unexpected and premature death of his sole heir, a nephew who was the illegitimate son of his brother, another illegitimate son of that same English duke and both James Smithson’s and his brother Henry Dickinson’s mother, one of the duke’s mistresses. Continue reading →
The conflict between Jesus and Mammon is as All-American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and…well, Jamestown….
The Jamestown Adventure, ed. Ed Southern (image courtesy Goodreads)
Ed Southern’s compilationThe Jamestown Adventure: Accounts of the Virginia Colony 1605-1614 gathers generally brief excerpts from a number of accounts of the Jamestown colony’s proposal, founding, early struggles, and ultimate success as the first successful English colony in the New World. The list of contemporary 17th century authors that editor Southern includes in this anthology is impressive if familiar to those acquainted with writings on travel and the colonization of British America: John Smith, George Percy, Edward Maria Wingfield, Robert Johnson, William Strachey, Ralph Hamor and John Rolfe. Of these, Wingfield, Smith and Percy offer the most engrossing accounts (political intrigue, adventure, and the horror of the “starving time” of 1609-10) while Strachey and Hamor offer business/administrative/governmental accounts that probably can be deemed more factual if less imaginative. Johnson and Rolfe do something else – the former cold bloodedly, the latter warm heartedly. Johnson, a 17th century PR hack, offers a glowing portrait of life in the new colony in his Nova Britannia composed almost entirely of promotional ideas from the Virginia Company, half truths from writers like Smith, and rhetorical flourishes designed to sucker Londoners (and others) into signing up to go to Jamestown. Continue reading →
Much of what we think of as Christmas comes from Dickens
Charles Dickens in 1868 (image courtesy Wikimedia)
The next to last review of the year looks at a seminal work in the creation of “Christmas as we have known it” for the last 190 years or so years (I think Clement Moore has to get a nod for “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” for giving us our initial envisioning of Santa Claus). Charles Dickens’ Christmas “story” (really a novella) A Christmas Carol is responsible for many of the rest of our conceptions of how Christmas should be celebrated: holly, carolers, roast goose, snow, merriment, the indulgence of children, and charity acts towards our neighbors.
The story, characters, and message are so familiar that recounting them seems pointless. One could, instead, write a fascinating book about the liberties, variations and perversions that have been committed upon the elements of Dickens’ classic. A recent version includes mice as prominent supporting characters and portrays Scrooge’s rehabilitation/redemption as a childish act of avoiding punishment rather than as a recognition of his error in choosing greed as guiding principle for his life and a sincere attempt to reconnect with humanity that is the thematic heart of Dickens’ work. Continue reading →
Nelson Mandela emerging from Victor Verster Prison, 11 February 1990, Reuters
Sunday afternoon in 1990. 11 February in Port Elizabeth. The height of summer, just after schools have returned for the start of the year. The wind howls as the air tears down South Africa’s long coast.
That day was calm. The country held its breath.
Thousands gathered at Victor Verster Prison in Paarl, about an hour outside Cape Town. They were waiting for the unhoped-for release of one man: Nelson Mandela.
I, 16 years old, poised in front of the television with my camera on a tripod. I knew it was probably futile trying to catch an image, but I wanted somehow to hang on to this moment. Continue reading →
The Chilcot Inquiry into the lessons to be drawn from Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War (or invasion, to be more accurate), gripped the nation for a while there. It actually appeared as if there was a good faith effort to determine how Britain ended up going to war with a country that had not attacked it, based on, well, what, exactly? Daily testimony to a group of apparent wise men (and one woman) drew strong attention, even television ratings, especially when that old poseur TonyBlair gave his excruciating and self-justifying testimony. So for a while there it looked as if there might actually be some answers to some issues that had long remained obscure—especially the behavior of Blair and some of his ministers prior to the invasion, particularly whether the military had been advised in sufficient time to actually prepare for one (apparently not.) This was a hot topic. Continue reading →
I’m not going to call you Jack, since we don’t know each other very well. But, in a way, I guess I know you better than I want to. You’ve hovered over my life for the past 50 years, and, you know, I’m tired of it. I want you to go away. You’ve taken up too much of my time, and my generation’s time, and you’ve been a bad influence. It’s time to move on.
I know this is hard on you. You’ve been loyal, I’ll say that. That aura you projected that so many people responded to in your lifetime has become transcendent. But that’s not a good thing. It’s been a garden path. Yes, you were transformative, I’ll give you that. You looked presidential as hell, even though you often didn’t act it. You inspired a generation, so I’m told. Many people went into public service of one form or another, inspired by you, I’m told. That Peace Corps thing was great, I admit. It’s still around, doing good work. Continue reading →
A progressive utopia, World War 3 or something in between?
Sensitivity to initial conditions means that each point in such a system is arbitrarily closely approximated by other points with significantly different future trajectories. Thus, an arbitrarily small perturbation of the current trajectory may lead to significantly different future behaviour. – Wikipedia
Today marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination – which I’m guessing you already knew. Just about everyone with Internet access is weighing in with a take, and I’m not sure I’ve seen any that get to the ultimate cultural importance of the event like the two pieces we have here, penned by Drs. Denny and Booth. Please, make a few minutes to read those posts and perhaps share them with your friends. Continue reading →
John F. Kennedy in the Dallas motorcade moments before his assassination (image courtesy Wikimedia)
I’ll start by quoting myself – a typically Boomer act of self-absorbed self-reference. First, from an email discussion among S&R writers about whether or not we should write about the 50th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination:
JFK is the story of the Boomers – so many advantages, so much potential, so little realized. That we ended as we did may be a psychological reaction to seeing a guy seemingly about to do big things get his brains blown out. And never, ever getting an explanation that didn’t have logic holes, political meddling, and scary implications about the lie we want most fervently to believe about life – that we can know anything for sure. Continue reading →
Fellow Scrogue Russ Wellen called our attention to an article in the New York Times, “A Cold War Fought by Women,” about research by Dr. Sarah Hrdy that quantifies female competition and aggression. Not surprisingly, Dr. Hrdy and her colleagues conclude that it exists and, importantly from a scientific standpoint, it can be measured through experiments that can be replicated. Continue reading →