Scraps

Scraps of a photo album with no one left to tell who these people are or why their pictures were pasted into a scrapbook. Like this photo. Maybe I have an uncle in there. Maybe my Dad. I can only assume it’s a bunch of immigrant’s kids in Flint, Michigan from about the Great Depression. Maybe a little before. Poor people from all over Europe, a polyglot of casts offs shook loose from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Who knows how many languages were spoken at home. The Slovenian German my dad’s family spoke was gibberish to Germans from Germany. My grandfather forbad it and from then on it was only proper German if he was within earshot. And don’t be caught speaking English in the house.

Carl

One of the more disconcerting things about old photo albums is the tiny x’s above some of the people pictured. It means that the person had died. Well, they’re all dead now, I think, so I could put the little x’s above each and every person in each and every photo, but I won’t. It’s not done anymore. I suspect the x was actually a stylized cross—x’s usually were, if not used as the actual letter—and the slightly morbid tradition probably goes back centuries. You still see it in lists of names of military men, meaning killed in action. And you see it on old photos. The young man pictured here, a lanky teen named Carl, was my dad’s eldest brother, a terribly gifted piano player, who began with the German romantics but was caught up in ragtime and jazz. He learned those chops in speakeasies in Flint MI while still in high school, then headed for the jazz bars and swinging dancehalls in Detroit, playing for money and drink. Soon a lot more for drink than money. His father, Carl senior, loathed jazz and blamed it for his namesake’s downfall, and ordered him out of the house over and over. His mother always let him back in. He’d get picked up stinking drunk and pitched into the drunk tank. Mom would plead to bail him out. They would and the cycle repeated. Finally the old man put his foot down and said next time his son could rot in jail. Which he did, soon enough. There’s a recording he made, supposedly while in jail. It’s a Duke Ellington number, Sophisticated Lady, I think—it’s been years since I’ve heard it—and it’s a baroque swing, lush with ornamentation, a display of desperate virtuosity, sad and melancholy and unrealized. He died not much later, of DTs and pneumonia in a frigid jail cell in the depths of a Michigan winter. It was 1949, nearly a decade before I was born, and he was thirty two. The old man followed two years later, of dropsy, heartbreak, failure and his own terrible shattered dreams. The two Carls lie side by side in a forgotten cemetery outside Flint, and someone penciled a tiny x over their heads in this old photo album.

Gettysburg Address

As 19th century oratory, the Gettysburg Address was a failure. Lincoln himself said so as the weak and scattered applause subsided. But when printed on the front page of papers all across the North, it was a gem. Perfect. Poetic. Memorized and recited by everyone from politicians to preachers to schoolchildren to soldiers. It still is.

Lincoln read scores, perhaps even hundreds, of telegrams everyday. Indeed, his campaign in 1860 was the first American presidential campaign essentially run by wire, and the Civil War he found himself leading was the first war run by telegrams too. Lincoln composed wires all day long that were sent to military and administrative and political leaders across the span of the continent. A telegram’s prose, compared with handwritten letters, was spare and urgent, the rhythms terse and staccato, the words in the dozens, a couple hundred at most. Points were made succinctly, a series of quick images and at their best they squeezed ten thousand words into a hundred. Lincoln experimented with these new composition ideas as the presidential train rolled towards Gettysburg, you can see it in the drafts. He’s trying to say as much as possible in as little as possible. When he took the podium it was a couple months after the battle, the smell of death still emanating from the thousands of graves. Four score and seven years ago, he began, ending it 272 words later with shall not perish from the earth. It was short, to the point, and disappointing to most of those in attendance. Stem winding speeches were an afternoon’s entertainment in that era. But to those who were not in the audience and would read and not hear his words, Lincoln had changed American literature forever. Maybe no one realized it then. But in England the kids memorized Shakespeare, but here they memorized the Gettysburg Address.

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.

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.

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

Not Fade Away

(2015)

Back in 1952 it was obvious that after twenty years the Democrats would at last lose the White House. The public wanted a change, and there were no Democratic candidates with the stature (“presidential timber” was the phrase of the time) of any of the Republicans like Thomas Dewey or Robert Taft, or Dwight Eisenhower or Douglas MacArthur. Dewey and Taft were arch-enemies. Dewey was an internationalist and Taft was more an isolationist. He wanted us out of Europe. As things went, Taft began edge past Dewey in the standings. As nominations were still primarily backroom arrangements–primaries were just beginning–such standings were difficult to glean, but the press and politicos seemed to think that things were leaning in Taft’s direction. There was a draft-Eisenhower movement in the works–he was, after all, the big American hero of WW2, the architect of victory–but he would rather not be president. He’d done his bit and wanted to retire. But he was worried about Taft’s isolationist tendencies…Ike was worried that it was basically handing over Europe to Stalin. Stalin gave him the creeps. So he told Taft that if Taft stated that he would continue the current American policies in Europe–NATO, the Marshall Plan, etc.–that he, Eisenhower, would make a Shermanesque declaration of his lack of presidential ambitions (“I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”) Taft refused. Ike jumped in. It looked neck and neck heading into the convention. So Taft decided to jump the gun on normal procedure and announced his choice of running mate before the convention. He chose Douglas MacArthur. Continue reading