Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Memorial Day Isn't Really Over.

Loss and grief go on. One of my very best friends died in Viet Nam. Doug Cain, July 14, 1968. He was in Nam about two weeks. He let his college deferment go. I never knew why. He was a poet and on the way to becoming perhaps a German scholar.

That is the context of what I have to say. This past weekend I heard many times about how we must thank veterans for winning the freedom I enjoy. No. Even many in the military now acknowledge that the wars they fight are mostly ill conceived and have nothing to do with our freedom. This means that a lot of soldiers have died or have been physically and emotionally wounded for bad politics.

The most patriotic thing we can do is criticize our government when we think it is wrong. That is a fundamental of democracies. We are responsible for what our country does or doesn’t do for its citizens and to other people around the world. Love of flag won’t substitute for that responsibility.

In 2006 I read in a newspaper “Young Marines in Iraq voice their frustrations over war.” One marine who joined after 9/11 said: “To be honest, I just wanted to take revenge.” He was honest. This is the reason we invaded Iraq. Revenge for 9/11 even though Saddam had nothing to do with it.

It is interesting that the first war in Afghanistan would have been tit for tat, for more than 3,000 Taliban and Al Quada were killed in that war from 2001 through 2003. That matches the nearly 3,000 who died on 9/11. [This says nothing about the possible 100,000-132,000 citizens of Iraq who died in our bombing and invasion. Here is what Wikileaks revealed about that. Here is more background.]

Walter Wink, the New Testament scholar who died recently, suggested in The Powers That Be that most Christians don’t believe the gospel taught by Jesus, but rather in “the myth of redemptive violence.” This is the idea that we can be redeemed, that everything can be set right, not by dying for others, but by killing others. In this dark and inverted gospel one achieves greatest glory by dying while killing others.

Any who were in Viet Nam will recognize these words, that were commonly engraved by soldiers, mostly draftees, on zippo lighters and scrawled on helmets:
We are the unwilling 
Led by the unqualified 
Doing the unnecessary 
For the ungrateful.
I suspect that these words have their origin in earlier wars.

Shortly after we invaded Iraq, I heard Walter Cronkite explain something that had long puzzled me:
‘Two forces drive war: National pride and human loss.  
The first starts wars.  The second sustains them.  
The first casualty creates an investment in blood 
that retreat would seem to dishonor.”

So as soon as there are casualties in a war, the soldiers and their families conclude that the war must be right because loved ones have died in it. After Doug’s death, his family would not speak to me or to his other friends who did not go. I think that we were to blame in their minds. The war had to have been right because Doug died there. We all should have gone and put ourselves in the danger that took him. When someone dies in war, it is difficult to accept that the fallen has died for stupid policies and decisions by politicians who spoke of domino theories, and by generals who were afraid that they would retire without having seen combat.

I have observed that the Viet Nam war still divides our nation after the 44 years since ‘68. It is like a scab that bleeds if we scratch it. Some still believe that it was a necessary war; we just didn’t have the will to win it. This must be so because we are incapable of losing a war. So we don’t talk about it, we just create new wars and defy others to deny their necessity and rightness. Worse, certain Republican candidates for President and past Presidents and Vice Presidents who dodged the draft (but didn’t oppose it) are excused because they support current and future use of military power to maintain American Empire. They are the official and phony patriots.

To all of this we must speak the truth and find ways to witness to it. Not to worry about future losses. From now on we will be using drones.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Not Healthy, Caring, nor a System

I just heard a great interview with Douglas Brinkley on his new book on Walter Cronkite. This reminded me of Cronkite's quip about our health care system: "It is neither healthy, caring, nor a system." Because this non-health care system must be reformed, I am alert to all of the local conservative media publishers who put down "Obamacare."

This week the Adirondack Journal included a "Viewpoint" by the publisher, Dan Alexander, who says the plan "runs counter to the basic principles of our free society." He is against any sort of government provided health care. He echoes the Chamber of Commerce, which is a fine organization as long as it promotes local business and stays out of ideological politics. So here is the letter I wrote:

To Dan Alexander
RE: Viewpoint May 26, 2012

I was disappointed in your viewpoint “Is Health Care Moving in the Right Direction?” You say that you would like to see affordable health care for all, but you question and criticize the only attempt to move towards this goal. I went to and pretended to be a business in Lake George with 55 employees. I found more than 40 choices, some of which looked quite workable. I admit that it would take some work to analyze and compare these insurance plans.

In response to your concern about employer penalties, I found this National Council of State Legislators website that details the penalty scenarios. (I researched the NCSL and found that it is quite a respectable non-partisan lobby group. They don't accept money from corporations and alternate Democratic and Republican presidents.)

There is uncertainty for businesses and for individuals about AHCA because it is complex and doesn’t take full effect until 2014. Some parts have been implemented, some parts have already been changed, and I suspect there will be more changes before then. Why not give the Affordable Health Care Act of 2010 a chance?
We all need to be more informed about this issue. I highly recommend Fareed Zakaria’s CNN report,  "Health Insurance Is for Everyone,"and a related book, The Healing of America by T.R. Reid. These studies will change your mind about government provided health care and show a private based system like AHCA which has been operating for some years in Switzerland. My own view is that it is wrong to tie health insurance to employment since there will always be many people unemployed for many reasons. They need to be covered, too.

End of letter. Wish I could write better ones. Two more points: One, why do conservatives think so highly of the non-system that we currently have? It is objectively one of the worst in the world. Two, why is health care insurance so different from auto insurance? We are mandated to have it, and there is much competition, which should keep prices down and quality up. 

But it doesn't work that way because my insurance company (State Farm - and others) give money to ALEC (the very partisan American Legislative Exchange Council) which works behind closed doors in every state to lower the required insurance coverage for drivers. Their recommendations reduce it so much that in some states now it is not enough coverage! ALEC writes proposed legislation and gives it to state legislators to save them the work of governing. When you see states considering or passing crazy laws on immigration or abortion, it is the work of ALEC.

All of the competition for our auto insurance dollars must cost a lot in advertising. Finding out which auto insurer is better or best is very difficult. (Consumer Reports helps.) I am currently researching insurance companies so that I can dump State Farm, which hasn't responded to my emails or phone calls about their ties to ALEC. Here is the article in the Atlantic that exposed ALEC.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Humbert Humbert, or – the Origins of Hateful Conspiracy Theories

My Humbert is Umberto Eco. My older daughter is the devotee of Nabakov. My Humbert connection is valid because we cannot trust the narrator in Lolita. Eco is all about the untrustworthiness of narratives.

I admit that I often write about things I don’t understand, but it is possible that none of us fully understands what we say most of the time. Gibberish? No, semiotics. Umberto Eco is an Italian scholar of semiotics and gifted novelist. Semiotics is about signs and metaphors and ultimately, meaning. (That is a simple definition that probably shows my lack of understanding of the subject.) It isn't just that we create meaning, but we create history, too, both backwards and forwards.

In the U.S. we learned of Eco in 1980 with the book and film, The Name of the Rose. In this work we learned that understanding and indeed, the meaning of things, is illusory. Only the idea of the rose is lasting; the rose is ephemeral. My favorite moment in the book and film is the dispute between the Franciscan monks and the representatives of the Vatican about whether or not Jesus was poor. If he was poor, the Franciscans are his loyal followers and the Pope is faithless. If Jesus was rich, the wealth of the Vatican is justified and the Franciscans are fools. No wonder that the argument which takes place in a refectory ends in a food fight worthy of Animal House. This is much more fun than Richard Dawkins.

I think that Foucault’s Pendulum (1989) was very likely the inspiration for Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. Claims about the Knights Templar are fed into a computer and generate narratives that may be all too real. This book has been described as delightful albeit esoteric “brain candy.”

Finally, I have finished The Prague Cemetery. This is the last word on racism, ethnic hatred, and conspiracy theories. Here we have a narrator and the diary of a 19th century Italian lawyer who has a hidden second personna. We have his ruminations, too. Simonini, the lawyer, learns to hate Jews and Germans from his grandfather. Perhaps this is the origin of all such hatreds. One of the things we learn right away is that such hatred suffers great inconsistencies and contradictions. On one page the Jews are all sneaky, dirty petty thieves of the ghetto. On the next page they are rich and powerful and about to own the world. Henry Ford, Hitler, and Osama bin Laden believed all this. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and assorted nazis and skin heads still do.

Simonini learns early a low craft related to the law: he is a forger of documents. He can help you prove that something happened which others thought had not. Like a marriage or a business contract. He helps Garibaldi’s Italian revolution but quickly finds more money is to be made by working for the secret service. Lies and betrayals become his way of life. He needs to leave Italy and becomes a Parisian snitch for the police and the secret services of France, Germany, and Russia. Only he (and his other who can tell him what he chooses not to remember, like murders) can balance the needs of a triple agent and forge the writings that each country needs.

Simonini is the creation of Eco, but everything else is true. (I.e., the characters were real people and they did or said many of the things reported.) Eco has created the person who wrote The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (first published in Russia in 1905, and re-printed over and over again and again). This is the book that catapulted hatred of the Jews from the Dreyfus affair to Hitler and the Holocaust to contemporary Iran. It was created from a vast library of diverse writings from the 19th century which were plagiarized, copied, translated, altered, and re-written to prove that the Jews planned to take over the world. Along the way conspiracies involving Jesuits, Masonic orders, Marxists, spiritualists, anarchists, French and Italian royalists explain the French Revolution, the rise of Germany, and every major event and social disruption of that century and before. And all of it must be true because it comports with what we have heard or suspected before!

Eco introduced the last graphic novel by Will Eisner called The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. An equally serious but great way to get the origins of the Big Lie into the hands of young people and those who won’t likely read Eco. Eisner details how information hidden in Soviet files until the last decade explains the origin of the Protocols. By the way, the Jewish cemetery in Prague apparently was quite large, and someone imagined Jewish leaders meeting at night in the middle of the cemetery to plot their machinations. One version had Jesuits plotting there.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"Joe couldn't find a prayer in the Bible."

It was a dark night and I was thinking some deep thoughts on religion and politics when I got caught up in an old film, Out of the Past. The description on TCM said that Robert Mitchum was fooled by a “no good dame,” so I had to find out what a “no good dame” was like. It was one of those black and white films of the ‘40's with lots of shadows and men wearing hats with large brims and trench coats. It was a style I knew and I was hooked again. The “no good dame” was Jane Greer, who betrayed everyone for money.

You see, one of my favorite segments of Prairie Home Companion has always been Guy Noir, the detective in St. Paul who ponders life’s persistent questions. Everything about the show is right. I looked up the theme music and discovered a key to these dream-like intrigues about ambivalent situations and confused characters who would never be thought of as heros. The opening chord is a minor triad with a major seventh. Try it and you will see what I mean. (Bernard Herrman used it in Psycho, so some call it “the Hitchcock chord.)

So I got this book, A Panorama of American Film Noir 1941-1953, by two French film freaks, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton. They introduced me to film criticism that makes me feel at home. You know, the contradictions, the incoherence of life, being not particularly handsome, not being in control, the unpredictable fate that we should have seen coming. I learned to use the word “oneiric” (dreamlike) and insolite (strange, Kafkaesque, drole, bizarre, singular, “anormal” = mentally defective). Yeah, the French have a word for it. Film Noir is also erotic, ambivalent, and cruel. It is a style that reflects the malaise and tension that the viewers experience from “the disappearance of their psychological bearings.”  It's about not understanding what is going on until it has gone on. I identify with this.

Did Film Noir end in ‘53? Or with Touch of Evil in ‘58? But it still goes on – Chinatown, Basic Instinct, The Usual Suspects, LA Confidential, Shutter Island. Does it have to be black and white? I subtract most gangster films, cause the best noir is about regular people, little people, in difficult situations, of which, mostly, they can’t get out. Sometimes they are Westerns; sometimes they are Asian (Thai detective films on Netflix are great!)

Last week I saw Public Eye with Joe Peschi as the real photo journalist who published his pics in The Naked City, and whose book then inspired movies and TV shows. Check out and Google “film noir.” And my library system has more than 20 more books on the subject.

I could go on about surrealism, German expressionism, Eastern European film directors in Hollywood, and what was going on in American culture in the ‘30's and ‘40's. I remember reading Raymond Chandler’s Red Harvest, which didn’t make it into film, and James M. Cain’s works, which did.

One film crit says “Film noir was a manifestation of the fear, despair and loneliness at the core of American life apparent well before the first shot was fired in WWII.... Noir was about the other, the “dark self” and the alienation in the modern American city manifested in psychosis, criminality, and paranoia. It was also born of an existential despair which had more to do with the desperate loneliness of urban life in the aftermath of the Depression...; painter Edwards Hopper’s study of the long lonely night in Nighthawks was painted in 1942.” I don't think we have a very good grasp of our past yet. Or ever. And it keeps catching up with us.

This week I saw Detour (low budget and little known but much underrated!) and Mildred Pierce (always chilling). It’s raining and dreary. Think I’ll watch Fear in the Night or The Woman in the Window.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Ten Steps of Evolution to Gay Marriage

President Obama has now says he approves gay marriage. Before he said that his views on Gay marriage were “evolving.” I understand that. 20 years ago I thought that the word “marriage” should be reserved for heterosexual couples, for whom at least the possibility existed for bringing children into the world. I no longer think that. Many people are "evolving." Here is what I think happens in this “evolution.”

1. Awareness that some people engage in sexual acts with persons of the same sex. Before the Stonewall riots in 1969, it was possible to live in a bubble where there were no gays.

2. Awareness that some people are naturally inclined toward persons of the same sex.

3. Awareness that there have always been such persons with homosexual orientation. They hid “in the closet” and were kept there by society. I made it through the first 3 steps in 1957, when I wrote a paper in Junior High on Tchaikovsky. What could be wrong with someone who wrote such beautiful music?

4. Awareness of family members, friends, family members of friends, or co-workers who are gay or lesbian.

5. Acceptance of the existence of gays and lesbians, because you know some.

6. Awareness that many gays and lesbians live together in committed relationships. I realized after the fact that one of my aunt’s friends in Omaha, who lived with another woman, were probably a lesbian couple.

7. Awareness that gays and lesbians are discriminated against, unfairly.

8. Acceptance of the need for gays and lesbians to have civil rights equal to heterosexuals.

9. Acceptance of the need for legal civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. In 1986 I had gay co-worker friends. Within a few years some of them married. A few years after that they were dead from AIDS.

10. Acceptance of the need for legal marriage and adoption to be extended to gay and lesbian couples. I reached this step by 2000.

For members of Christian churches, there is another step, probably tied with #8 above, that allows for gays and lesbians to be ordained as ministers. This was never a problem for me.

Attitudes towards trans-sexual persons probably fall along the same ten step program.

I have not included bi-sexuals because I don’t know what I think about that yet. I am still “evolving.” The reason I think that I am evolving is that I understand hetero-homo-sexual orientation is a continuum for all of us. Some of us may be 95% heterosexual, but occasionally entertaining homosexual fantasies. Or some other percentage. I have no doubt that there are people who are 50% straight and 50% gay, but I don’t know how society can normalize this. It threatens the idea of commitment, which most gays claim in their unions and marriages.

I think this “evolution” can take a lifetime. Maybe never for someone born and raised in an environment of hatred towards gays and lesbians.

I was heartened when the supreme court of Iowa declared gay marriage legal. I was shocked when the population of my home state voted these judges out of office. I was glad earlier this week when the Kennedys awarded them the “Profiles in Courage” award.

I am disappointed that North Carolina voted Tuesday to make constitutional prohibition even of civil unions for gays. However, I heard one of the best sermons on any topic ever preached this past Sunday:
Watch and listen here. (Sorry about the commercial, and sorry that I can't post it for live feed here.) This is The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and president of the NC NAACP.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

My Best Mothers' Day Sermon

A survey a few years ago revealed that Mothers most admired Marge Simpson as the ideal Mother. Why? I don't know. We spend about $10 billion spent on Mothers’ Day. Why?  Because we love our mothers.
But Mothers’ Day was intended to be something different than it is today.
Until the internet it was somewhat difficult to find the true origins of Mothers’ Day. Almost as difficult as it was to delve into the origins of Christianity.

If you search the first thing you are likely to find is the story of Anna Jarvis.
Anna Jarvis was a woman from W. Virginia,
whose Mother died in 1905. Two years later she held a memorial service for her Mother.
She was so moved by the event that she launched a campaign
to adopt a formal holiday honoring mothers.
W. Virginia became the first state to recognize Mothers’ Day,
and in1914, President Woodrow Wilson officially proclaimed
Mother’s Day a national holiday on the second Sunday in May.

Here is what Anna Jarvis said Mothers day was about:
 ...To revive the dormant filial love and gratitude we owe to those who gave us birth.
To be a home tie for the absent.
To obliterate family estrangement.
To create a bond of brotherhood through the wearing of a floral badge.
To make us better children by getting us closer to the hearts of our good mothers.
To brighten the lives of good mothers.
To have them know we appreciate them, though we do not show it as often as we ought...

That is the first layer of learning about Anna Jarvis.
Mothers day is sometimes criticized for being too sentimental and we can see the roots of this.
But Anna wanted a serious remembrance and honoring of our mothers.
She encouraged women and men to wear carnations:
Red, or white if your mother was no longer living.
But within a few years after it became a national holiday,
the greeting card industry and other businesses did what they could to exploit the day.
Anna was incensed.  She said:
A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy 
to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. 
And candy! You take a box to Mother — 
and then eat most of it yourself.  A pretty sentiment.

Those who promote Mothers Day today do not tell us this.
And they do not tell how Anna complained, and organized demonstrations,
and how she was arrested for protesting the sale of carnations at a war mothers’ convention.
That is the second level of learning about Mothers day.

To dig deeper, we need to know about Anna’s Mother, Ann.
Before the Civil War, in West Virginia, Ann, a school teacher,
organized people for improved sanitation in her town
and created Mothers Work Days for this purpose.
During the Civil War, she extended the purpose of Mothers' Work Days
to work for better sanitary conditions for both sides in the conflict.
She organized a series of Mothers' Day Work Clubs in W Virginia
to raise money for medicine, hired women to work for families
in which the mothers suffered from tuberculosis,
and inspected bottled milk and food.

She declared the Mothers' Day Work Clubs to be neutral in the Civil War
and provided relief to both Union and Confederate soldiers.
The clubs treated the wounded and fed and clothed soldiers stationed in the area.
Ann Jarvis managed to preserve an element of peace in a community
being torn apart by political differences.
During the war, she worked tirelessly despite the personal tragedy
of losing four of her children to disease.
After the Civil War, she worked for reconciliation between people
who had supported the two sides in the war.
She organized a Mothers' Friendship Day at the courthouse
to bring together soldiers and neighbors of all political beliefs.
The event was a great success despite the fear of many
that it would erupt in violence.
Mothers' Friendship Day was an annual event for several years.

This is the third level of learning about Mothers Day.
The fourth level is to know that Ann Jarvis wasn’t alone in working for peace.
Julia Ward Howe, author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic
promoted a Mothers Day after the Civil War.
In 1870 she issued a proclamation...
Arise then...women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
"We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
From the bosom of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace...
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God -
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace. 

I remember in the 60s and 70s an organization called Mothers for Peace.
It was a direct descendent of Ann Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe’s efforts.

The idea for Mothers day was not first of all a remembrance of our mothers,
but a concern for the millions of mothers who had lost sons in war.
And further, Mothers day was not about remembrance of our mothers,
but the concern of mothers for an end to wars which took their sons.
What good is it for a son to honor his mother
and then go to war and torture and kill another mother’s son?

And so all of this original meaning of mothers’ day
should have hit home these past 7 years.
Somehow we have come to accept revelations of American troops
(and contractors) torturing and killing Iraqi prisoners,
and lawyers and politicians justifying actions directly
against the will of the military, the cia, and the constitution.
Julia Ward Howe and Ann and Anna Jarvis wanted us
to understand one thing about war:
War is the killing and maiming of men and women
who are the sons and daughters of mothers.

Here is my Mom. I'm the baby. Neither I nor my brother went to war. My Mother was grateful.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Retirement Again

I think my Father-in-law retired four times. I feel as if I have retired a second time, but not from a paying job. Today I completed a two year course in music theory at SUNY Adirondack Community College. I can't believe it. I now have the tools for analyzing and composing music. On my shelves now are a bunch of books on arranging and transcribing that I want to work on next (maybe next winter).

More important, I need to play my saxes more and actually learn how to play piano and guitar. (I plunk and pick at each.) It is easier to read and think about music than to perform it.

Yesterday, I was humbled about my understanding and performing ability. Here is a Youtube video that makes me feel quite unaccomplished.

Happy birthday this past week to Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. Interesting how music can be both ephemeral and immortal.