Saying Los Angeles

There are, as far as I can tell, two ways of saying Los Angeles in L.A. anymore. The English pronunciation, with a soft G (that is, a J) and ending like an ess (and the stress on the first syllable of Angeles). Los ANjeless. And the Spanish pronunciation, with the aspirated G (sort of like a breathy H in English, or like someone cleaning their eyeglasses) and ending like ess (with the stress, though not as strong as in the English, on the second syllable of Angeles.) But if you watch old movies, the tough black and white film noirs shot on the backstreets of downtown in the 40’s and 50’s, you hear it called Los Angeles, with a hard G, a very hard G in fact, like in angle. It sounds bizarre now, though ironically it’s actually closer to the original Spanish pronunciation than our current Angeles like in angel. And then there’s the ending, Los Angeleez. As in coming into Los Angeles, bringing in a couple of keys. When Arlo Guthrie wrote that, the eze pronunciation was still prevalent enough to make the song rhyme. Now it reads like free verse. I remember when I first moved here back in 1980 we’d still call it Los Angeleez almost like a pet name, kind of coy, kind of cute. But we’d taken to spelling it like that, Los Angeleez, because otherwise people read it as Los Angeles pronounced as it is now. I see that a lot in things I wrote back then that are now tucked away crumbling and wrinkled in a box in my closet. I don’t think anyone under fifty has ever called it Los Angeleez. And then, even weirder to the modern Angeleno ear, is the pronunciation with both the hard G and the eez, though I am not sure when that was used, and if it was a transition from one way of saying Los Angeles to another, or just sat side by side with the hard G with the ess ending. I don’t even know if many people in LA pronounced it that way or not. Not that it mattered, this city filled up so fast with people from all over the country that what they called LA in New York or Texas or New Orleans or Chicago or what was then called Frisco was what a lot of people called it here too. There were far more immigrants in LA than native born Angelenos (so rare, then, they were always marveled at–you were born here?) and as they poured in they probably pulled the pronunciation of the city this way and that. Eventually the hard G pronouncers all died, and the baby boomers probably wouldn’t be caught dead saying Angeles like Angle-less instead of Angel-less. But I’m just guessing here, I really don’t know. You don’t see a lot of things written about it, or even anything written about it, though the change from the hard to the soft G and from eez to ess must be one of the more dramatic changes in pronunciation of a big city name you’ll find in American history. It’s like they are two completely different words. As English evolves, hard G’s just don’t soften into soft G’s, instead they turn into unvoiced H’s, much like the G in the Spanish pronunciation of Los Angeles. So it was not a gradual, natural transition, but was a deliberate change in how to say the name. The parents said Los Angeles with the hard G, their no good kids said it with a soft G. The eez lasted longer and just sort of fell away on its own as long vowels and voiced sibilants (a Z) tend to. That is, eez fades to ess (and then iss, though it’s not Los Anjeliss yet, give it another generation). It’s that sudden seismic consonantal shift from G to J in how we pronounce Los Angeles that is so striking and so forgotten. The old ways of saying things just fade away with the actuarial tables, I guess, and soon no one but old movie buffs has any idea that the name of this city once rang with hard G’s and eez’s.

La Marseillaise

One of these days I’ll get to Paris for Bastille Day. Not too likely this year. The closest I’ll get again will be this clip from Casablanca. It’s the best La Marseillaise I’ve ever seen on film, helped along no doubt by the fervor of the extras who were all refugees from Paris, escaping the Nazis. You can feel the genuine emotion in the explosion of Vive la France! at their anthem’s rousing finish.

You have to admit it’s a helluva song, La Marsellaise, an 18th century march, a popular form of the time, and written by some creaky old brigadier to fire up the hearts of the ragamuffin citizen soldiers being sent out to face the combined armies of all the kings of Europe. It worked, and the citizen armies made quick work of the walking muskets (Napoleon’s term) facing them. War was changed forever, it seemed, with massed drafts of citizens fighting in simpler formations (that needed less drill) and driven more by elan than the automaton discipline. War became vaster, more overwhelming, more dangerous. It took atomic bombs to finally slow it down, and there is no song for dropping atomic bombs, except maybe We’ll Meet Again. But then we’re being ironic, and there was nothing ironic about La Marseillaise. Irony went out with the Ancien Régime. Revolutions are like that.

I think when we Americans hear anything sung in French we think La Vie En Rose. Romantic, sad, wistful. When we actually see the lyrics of Le Marseillaise it’s kind of shocking. We forget it was written in the 1780’s to spur on citizens to take up arms against foreign armies intending to crush their revolution. So when we hear this:

Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L’étendard sanglant est levé, (repeat)
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats?
Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras
Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes!

Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons,
Marchons, marchons!
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!

We still think of Maurice Chevalier loving Paris in the winter when it drizzles. We don’t know it says this:

Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny’s
Bloody banner is raised, (repeat)
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!

To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Soak our fields!

And that is the nice verse. It goes on for half a dozen more.

A little riffing on Le Pen and fascism and French history

The landslide defeat of Le Pen today is historically a big thing for France as Le Pen as it is perhaps the most decisive defeat of that peculiarly French form of the far right has suffered since World War 2. The electorate, presented with the movement’s most presentable package ever, utterly rejected it. Doesn’t mean it is going away. It never has gone away. Yet it was only actually in power once, during the Vichy years, 1940-44. Nowhere was the Nazi conquest easier than in France, where perhaps a third of the populace were pre-disposed to a fascist government already and where the Nazi occupiers found no shortage of talented civil servants to operate the French government and bureaucracy for them. The French took care of collecting victims of the Holocaust for the Germans, the French collected and shipped their own citizens off to work in German factories, the French even had their own Gestapo. It was as if there had been a fascist infrastructure sitting there in France awaiting a fascist takeover. Whether that takeover came from inside or outside (i.e., from Germany) was no matter to the French right. When France’s greatest living military hero, Philippe Petain, who’d saved the French Army from mutiny and collapse in 1917 and eventually led them in victory through Berlin a year later, agreed to lead France under Nazi domination it just signalled how profoundly fascist the nation had become. Perhaps half the county felt it their patriotic duty to follow Petain. Perhaps more. A little know factoid from the war is that most of the French soldiers rescued at Dunkirk as the Blitzkrieg closed in demanded to be returned after the French surrender to France to finish their service in the Vichy army. That Vichy was a fascist puppet state did not bother them. France was now allied with Nazi Germany and Germany was at war with England. Serving in the Free French forces under De Gaulle was seen by many and perhaps most French soldiers in 1940 as being unpatriotic. That changed as Nazi repression grew worse and Nazi demands for French manpower increased and as Nazi armies were defeated on battlefields. But in 1940 it was obvious that fascism had dug deep roots in the French national psyche. No other state the Nazis conquered rolled over as did France. No other subject people collaborated so. Reading the histories of those days is surreal. France had been enemies to the death with Germany in World War One. They died in unbelievable numbers defending France. Not now. The spirit of fascism had transformed the land in the years between the wars. Not everyone was a fascist, of course, but enough were to make it very uncomfortable for those who were not.

Apparently that spirit remains. It just wasn’t quite sure how widespread it is. We now know. About a third of the French electorate has fascist tendencies. Some of that third are powerfully fascist, some just ornery nationalist. Which is about what it was in the 1930’s. Things haven’t fundamentally changed at all. Perhaps the left’s retribution after liberation in 1944 had not been ferocious enough. Perhaps they should have hanged Petain, and shot tens of thousands more. Perhaps they should have thrown a million collaborators in re-education camps. Perhaps there should have been a purge worthy of the darkest days of the French Revolution. But they were a democracy. And democracies don’t do that sort of thing. Besides, that is what Vichy had been doing. They were the ones killing and torturing and exacting brutal revenge on political enemies for four long years. No one wanted to go through that again.

Which might be what doomed Le Pen’s party to defeat. No one wanted to go through life under a far right government again. The French right had power only once, from 1940-44, and only because an anti-democratic foreign regime forced itself upon it. Without Nazi Germany there never would have been a fascist government in France. And now in lieu of Hitler it was Putin trying to put the French hard right in charge. A lot of bad memories came rushing back, you could see it in the French press. A lot of talk about Vichy, and Petain, and how the French Right had once sold out the French people for the sake of its brutal ideology. And then all the talk of an aggressive foreign dictator–Putin–interfering in French domestic politics, again, just like the 1930’s, when German Nazis and French fascists were very close. Not that Le Pen and her platform were anything even close to Naziism, but it sure smelled funny. And familiar. Like those odd smells that suddenly bring back the past in powerful deja vu. It was all too much, and today the French voters kicked the French right to the curb. The threat is over for now.

Not that the French far right’s struggle is over. It is never over. In France the next Revolution is always just around the bend (there have been five Republics since the Revolution, and perhaps twice that many regime changes). You can dream big dreams in France, because politically just about anything seems within the realm of possibility. Le Pen’s party will retreat and reform, as there is always fertile ground in France for this fierce Francophile nationalism (remember how it once conquered Europe), and at the same time elements of the far right might well grow more radical, getting violent and militant and perhaps even paramilitary. None of this is new. It was a powerful far right/fascist coalition that did so much to weaken the French Third Republic as Nazi Germany grew into a mortal threat in the 1930’s. Of course back then the French Far Left, with some elements following orders from Stalin, was the right’s foil, and Left and Right battled in the streets even as both undermined the center. During the Vichy regime those street battles took on a much more vicious nature as the left formed the core of the French Resistance (the Maquis) and the right became the parts of the Gestapo’s police state (the Milice). Now that French hard Left and even its softer Left is pretty much spent (for now, anyway) as a political force, only anti-semitic fascism remains as a mass movement, deeply rooted radical ideology in France. That is what made Le Pen’s campaign so unsettling, that unlike Trump she did not come out of nowhere but was the leader of a generations old political party that represented at least a century and a half of French ideological history. German fascism had shallower roots in 1933, yet swept the country after a couple electoral victories. Were we seeing a repeat of that success in France?

Nope. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, more or less, came though.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-H25217,_Henry_Philippe_Petain_und_Adolf_Hitler

Maréchal Pétain meets Adolf Hitler in October 1940. As low a point as there ever was in French history, it is also the high water mark of the French far right’s political power. You’d be hard pressed to find an entire political movement that ever betrayed its own country in such abject humiliation as did French conservatives after the French surrender in 1940. Not even Lenin turned his entire country over to the Germans in 1918 in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Hitler left the French with no pride whatsoever, and the French Right had no problem with the set up at all. Thus Marine Le Pen licking Putin’s jackboots was nothing new to those aware of the history of French fascism.

The Corpses of the DeWitt Brothers

There’s a meme making the rounds about how the Dutch lynched and ate their prime minister back in 1672 which is, alas, true. It also resulted in what has to be the creepiest Flemish Golden Age painting ever, “The Corpses of the DeWitt Brothers” by, it’s assumed, Jan De Baen, who had painted both DeWitts in life. You can see where steaks had been sliced from the shoulders and thighs, and how they’d been gutted and disemboweled in the process of getting at the liver. For some reason the liver is almost universally the gourmand’s organ of choice for humiliation by eating, whether by warring tribes in the New Guinea mountains or in the streets of Amsterdam in the Age of Rembrandt or by elite Japanese officers selectively devouring their prisoners in the Second World War. Devouring the heart ripped from a living man’s rib cage was certainly more dramatic but much less gastronomic. But that is probably a newer tradition, indeed one meaningless without the concept of a soul, which is what you are eating when you eat a man’s heart. A man’s soul, his spirit, his immortality. But eating a man’s liver requires only knowledge of  what’s edible, indeed delectable, inside freshly killed prey. There is nothing so dehumanizing as reducing a human to a collection of food stuffs. It originated not as an act of humiliation but ordinary hunting. We once ate each other regularly. In times of stress we still might, though we did so more in ages past. It’s a tradition so universal that it might go back hundreds of thousands of years. It might even have a niche deep in our human DNA. Civilization’s aversion to cannibalism has been slowly built up over thousands of years and reinforced with layers of religion and law and tradition and mores. Otherwise we might be eating people the way we eat cattle. Perhaps our overwhelming success as social animals has something to do with the fact that we stopped hunting each other for food. We still hunt and kill other humans, but almost never for meat. Civilization does not work if we eat people regularly. There is not one civilization that did so. Not even when human sacrifice reached vast proportions, like among the Aztec during their holier months, was eating parts of people more than a priestly ritual.

We have such an enforced aversion to cannibalism that we do not even eat our dead, but rather let all those perfectly good steaks and sweetmeats rot away. It makes no sense, protein wise. Some very hungry people will think it makes no sense during times of intense famine when cannibalism crops up, though when discovered the cannibals typically are dispatched summarily, like rabid dogs. Undetected surviving cannibals do not continue eating human flesh once the famine is over. Or usually they don’t. History is full of disturbing exceptions. Perhaps the desire to eat human meat lies deep within us. And there does seem to be a latent desire to eat a person’s liver. It is good for the digestion, a Japanese general explained after eating a freshly slaughtered American pilot’s liver in 1945. It was fresh (the garrison’s surgeon did the cutting), cooked to perfection and served on a bed of rice with vegetables and a fine sake. Apparently there is something special, indeed healthy, about eating a humiliated man’s liver. The transcripts of the war crimes trial–the general’s digestion may have improved, but he hanged for it later–reveal nothing behind his notion that eating a man’s liver was good for the digestion. A bit of folk wisdom, perhaps. Maybe some ancient magic.

In the case of Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelius (both anti-monarchist republicans and supporters of religious tolerance), the two were cold bloodedly murdered one midsummer night by monarchist militia men and their bodies left to the reactionary Calvinist mob in the square. The scene quickly degenerated into an orgiastic mob, but one very orderly and Dutch. The bodies were not ripped to pieces, a not uncommon fate of Byzantine emperors and Roman martyrs (a tradition that nearly caught up with Benito Mussolini in 1945, who was spared the ultimate indignity when soldiers came upon the scene and kept his battered corpse intact ). Rather they were quickly hung up on a nearby gibbet in order to slice them up to get at their livers. From the painting it appears that professionals were called in, the local Calvinist butcher perhaps. It’s not clear how the livers were partaken. Served up fresh and raw and passed among the crowd who took a chomp before passing it along? Or divided into delicate slices and distributed for home cooking? History does not tell. No one else died, though, nothing was burned, and by nightfall the streets were empty and the corpses of the brothers hung, naked and mutilated and ghostly white by the light of the moon. It must have been an irresistible scene to a painter, though you can tell, by the clumsier details–the cat, or those hands a little too large on the man holding the torch–that he hurried to get the image down on canvas, like this was no place for an artist, not with the smell of the mob’s work still fresh in the air, sweet, like rotting meat.

Johan De Witt was an accomplished mathematician, by the way. But there was an anti-intellectual mood in Holland that year, and being a mathematician probably only helped to doom him.

The Corpses of the Brothers De Witt

Timothy McVeigh

(November 21, 2015)

In the sturm and drang over the Syrian refugees, I keep seeing Timothy McVeigh come up which is not surprising being that he was such a scary dangerous mass murdering terrorist creep and an All American white boy at that. However, Timothy McVeigh was not a Christian. I’ve seen this meme I don’t know how many times these past couple days, but bad news for us secular humanists….Timothy McVeigh was an atheist. An ardent one, at that. Science, he proclaimed, was his religion. He’d been raised a good Catholic kid, but as an adult he was a committed atheist. It happens. Being a committed atheist myself (and raised Catholic at that) I am not completely surprised, as we’ve had our share of mass murderers, including two of the big three (Stalin and Mao–Hitler was a believer of some kind of religion, apparently.) As the end drew nigh McVeigh hedged his epistemological bets somewhat and described himself as agnostic, and finally, just to be safe, he had Last Rites with his last meal. But as a working terrorist he was absolutely not a Christian. Now there is a lot of wordy delusional nonsense by micro-offended atheists trying to show McVeigh wasn’t an atheist (or that any bad guys ever were atheists, being that we are intellectually incapable of being anything but pure as the driven snow), but that is a load of philosophical crap. McVeigh was an atheist. And I can only imagine just how offended he’d be if he knew he would one day become the poster child for white Christian domestic terrorists. After all, it took a rationalist, if psychopathically ideological mind to devise such an extraordinarily powerful bomb from items you could find in a barn (well, several barns). Obviously Tim paid attention in science class. And it really was some bomb. 168 dead (and hundreds more wounded) is quite an achievement in the annals of terrorism. In fact despite the endless litany of car and truck bombs that have numbed us almost to the point of not caring (there were several in the past couple days, in fact), Timothy McVeigh’s Ryder truck full of fertilizer ranks as eighth deadliest motor vehicle bomb ever. That’s right, of all the car and truck bombs ever–many of which involve several vehicles and drivers who blew up with them–McVeigh’s remains one of the very worst ever. Indeed, it ties for thirtieth (with the Chechens) in the deadliest terrorist attacks of all time. Which is quite an achievement, you have to admit. Of course Osama’s 9/11 is still the most horrific act of terrorism ever, by far, thus giving Republican politicians their initial excuse to wallow in nativist religious bigotry and paranoia. Not that paranoia itself is entirely a bad thing in an age of terrorism, and certainly we on the left have our own cherished paranoias. But it was Timothy McVeigh, the All American Atheist, who committed the second worst terrorist act in American history. Indeed, one that even beats out most jihadis, even the recently martyred crew in Paris. Which shows that despite of the memes, and in spite of the incessant ghastly attacks by fanatical jihadists (the vast majority of them upon Muslims, actually) you don’t need to be religious to be a truly inventive dangerous person. You don’t need to be a Muslim, you don’t need God or gods at all. You don’t even need ideology. All you need is your thinking cap. Which is why there should be a government registry of atheists. Has Ben Carson proposed this yet? I know I’d sign up.

Timothy McVeigh

Alas, he was a white American atheist. Bull is bull.

ISIS and the coming end of days all over again.

(2016)

Not sure if any of you have ever looked at Dabiq, the ISIS online magazine. It is gorgeous, as beautiful a lay out as you will see. It’s very impressive. And it is scary nuts. Fanatical stuff. Murderous. Anyway, this is how ISIS gets its message across to lone wolf terrorists as well as its remote terrorist cells like those in Paris. There is really no need to have any contact with ISIS in any way, all you need to is keep reading Dabiq. That is the beauty of the ISIS business model, that they can create mass murderers like the killer in Orlando without having to spend a moment on the guy. Dabiq is like a jihadi correspondence course. Unless you have actually thumbed through its digital pages, you can’t quite see its power. It is an impressive looking journal. It gives a sense of seriousness and truth to the ISIS ideology that those hand held Al Qaeda videos never could. You have to already be in a jihadist mindset to believe those Al Qaeda videos. But you could be some messed up self hating racist fuckup with a mean streak in Florida and become an ISIS jihadi after reading an issue of Dabiq. Much like Mein Kampf did with Germans in its time, Dabiq can take believing if not especially religious Moslems and turn them into cold blooded spree killers. That happens very rarely (at its most ISIS has had maybe thirty thousand members out of a billion Moslems worldwide, while at its peak the Nazi party had eight million members out of maybe eighty million German Aryans worldwide*), but unlike Al Qaeda, which seeks to create a global Caliphate (by the year 2020, they are behind schedule), the goals of ISIS require much less to achieve much more.

ISIS is an Islamic organization, yes, but it is millenarian, a millenarian cult. All of this, all the war and slaughter, is part of the coming end of days. There was a terrific and surreal article in The Atlantic last year, What ISIS Really Wants, subtitled “The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.” Apparently few read it which is a damn shame because the article points out with ample quotes how ISIS has stated its goals and belief system and ideology in every single issue of Dabiq…there is absolutely nothing secret about ISIS. Surprisingly, the death of Christians is not important in itself. We are killed only as a means of sparking the rest of Christianity (aka Rum, as they call us, as in the Roman Empire) to go into all out war against ISIS which will lead to an enormous battle on the Plain of Dabiq (a battlefield ISIS made pains to seize, actually). ISIS will lose that battle, it is written. Eventually the last battle will be fought at Rum itself (actually Istanbul, which at the time of the original prophecies was Constantinople and capital of the Roman Empire, hence Rum). That ISIS will win, just barely, and at last the Day of Judgment will be at hand. And that is pretty much it in a nutshell. That is what ISIS is trying to do. That is what this whole mess is all about. Trying to bring about the Day of Judgment and resulting Paradise. You can read all about it in Dabiq.

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Occupations

(January, 2016)

In the zero sum world of Facebook, where everything is either all right or all wrong, the crazy armed militia occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon is all wrong. It’s treason, it’s an act of war, it’s something that deserves to be bombed by the air force (sorry birds), or attacked by the army (sorry again, birds). Any surviving occupiers deserve immediate arrest and long term prison sentences. Some  want them hanged. Progressives can be just as ugly as Tea Partiers when they get riled up.

And while I am not in support of the Militia occupiers at all, the very first thing I thought of when I heard about it was the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969. It too was over grievances about land rights. A radicalized offshoot of the American Indian Movement calling themselves Indians of All Tribes (IOAT) got the idea to seize Alcatraz Island. It began with fourteen activists but as there was barely any attempt to stop them soon there were over 400 people, including children, on the island. John Trudell made daily radio broadcasts. This went on for nearly two years. Property was damaged, the place abused. Several buildings were burned down. The electricity and telephone service to the island was eventually cut. The occupiers began to leave. The final dozen or so were driven off by a large force of federal police that landed on June 11, 1971. There was no real opposition. I believe only one person died during the occupation, a young girl who tumbled to her death off a cliff in the fog. Very sad.

Strident demands by angry conservatives that the island be bombed or shelled or assaulted by US Marines with shoot to kill orders were ignored. The occupation had ended peaceably, with minimal force used.  There were no arrests. Damage to the island’s facilities by the occupiers came was in the millions of dollars. The graffiti is still visible.

Though perhaps largely forgotten, the occupation is considered a landmark event in New Left politics, and certainly one of the key steps in the growth of the American Indian Movement. It is part of the Progressive folklore, and as much a part of the Civil Rights era as the March on Selma. And while it achieved virtually none of its stated goals, President Nixon did stop the long running Indian Termination Policy, which had been an existential threat to Indian sovereignty. The federal government no longer terminates tribal recognition by decree. In fact, the current nation within a nation status that American Indian tribes have, with their own laws (and casinos….) can be traced back in many ways to the occupation of Alcatraz Island. The Indians raising hell on Alcatraz Island had a profound impact on the survival of the First Nations as independent tribes in the United States.

You may differ on the justifications with the forces of anarchy stomping around the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge looking (to us) like heavily armed fools, but when you decry occupation itself as a violent act of treason and demand Obama send in the air force to bomb the hell out of the place, you have far more in common with the hard right of the 1960’s than the New Left. The occupation in Oregon is pretty much a mirror image of the occupation of Alcatraz. But Facebook doesn’t do mirrors well.

alcatraz1