Category Archives: History

Someone tell Tyler Durden: Marketers have appropriated ‘Fight Club’


Back when I was in college, I read James Michener’s book Kent State: What Happened and Why, which came out the year after four students were shot and killed there by the Ohio National Guard. This was a time when memories of the event were still pretty raw. That one semester I attended USC before transferring to Memphis State, I used to wear a T-shirt (I forget where I got it) with a big target on the back under the word “Student.” It was less a political statement than me just being edgy, ironic and immature.

Michener’s book went into a lot more than what happened that day in May 1970. It painted a portrait of student life at that time and in that place. At one point, he interviewed a campus radical who was complaining about how the dominant white culture kept appropriating and mainstreaming, and thereby disarming, countercultural memes, particularly those that arose from African-American culture. (I would say he was making some point vaguely related to Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance,” but I’ve always tended to understand Marcuse as meaning something other than what he meant. By the way, my version makes sense; Marcuse’s didn’t.)

Anyway, to make the point that there was no limit to the dominant culture’s ability to absorb culture from the edge, he said, ”I’ll bet that within two years Buick will come out with full-page ads claiming that the 1972 Buick is a real motherf____r.”

Well, that still hasn’t quite happened. But I saw something today that comes close. I got an email from the travel site Orbitz with the headline:

The first rule of Flight Club is – Columbia deals from $200 RT

Wow. Think about it. “Fight Club” was all about characters who were utterly, savagely rejecting mainstream consumer culture and everything that went with it. But now the best-known line from the film is being appropriated to sell airline flights. Are you digging the irony here?

It doesn’t even make sense, since the first rule of Fight Club is that you do NOT talk about Fight Club. Presumably, Orbitz would like us to talk about this deal.

But the line got me to look — and that was the point.

I can’t wait to see how next year’s Buicks are marketed.

My life, seen as a paranoid conspiracy theory

Actual untouched photograph taken in the Des Moines airport in January 1980. Why am I meeting with then-Senator, later White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker? And why am I in disguise?

Actual unretouched photograph taken in the Des Moines airport in January 1980. Why am I meeting with then-Senator, later White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker? And why am I in disguise? Who is the man in the background, watching us?

On a previous post, Doug mentioned Oliver Stone’s paranoid masterpiece “JFK.”

Which reminded me of when I lived in New Orleans — during Jim Garrison’s investigation.

Which got me to thinking further…

You know, Oliver Stone could probably weave a good paranoid conspiracy around my life. All of the following is true:

  1. I was in Washington during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  2. Shortly thereafter, I moved to Latin America, not to be seen in this country for two-and-a-half years.
  3. That means I was conveniently out of the country when Kennedy was killed.
  4. There was a military coup while I was in Ecuador. It was planned (in part at least) in the very same house in which I lived, while I was there.
  5. My guitar teacher in Ecuador was an agent of U.S. Naval Intelligence.
  6. The pastor of the nondenominational church we attended was an agent of the CIA.
  7. Within months of returning to this country, I moved to New Orleans, where Jim Garrison was about to get rolling with his allegations.
  8. In 1970, I had a run-in with Admiral John McCain, then Commander-In-Chief, Pacific Command — and the father of the John McCain who was at the time a prisoner of the North Vietnamese.
  9. In 1978, I met George H.W. Bush, former head of the CIA who at the time was a director of the Council on Foreign Relations.
  10. I was in Iowa two years later, just before Bush beat Ronald Reagan in the caucuses there.
  11. Several weeks later, I was present during the Arkansas caucuses when delegates of Reagan and Howard Baker conspired to squeeze Bush out, thereby bumping him out of contention. I had been traveling with Baker in Iowa. I had a brief face-to-face contact with Bush that day.
  12. During the 80s, I had numerous face-to-face meetings with Al Gore.
  13. In subsequent years, I would have closed-door meetings at my office with John McCain (on multiple occasions), George W. Bush, Barack ObamaJoe Biden, Ralph Nader, Jesse Jackson, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, John Edwards, Howard Dean, and, completing the circle to the Kennedy administration, Ted Sorensen.

Forget Oliver Stone. I’m starting to have suspicions about myself

Think about it — how would your life look in the eyes of a conspiracy theorist who believes there’s no such thing as coincidence?

Skyping, as envisioned in 1910


So, I was checking The Guardian for news, and saw this image, and, being a fan of Sargent and Whistler, et al., I clicked on it. That led me to this story about an exhibit showcasing Paris in 1900, which mentioned La Belle Époque, which caused me to wonder whether 1900 was properly considered part of that period, which caused me to go to Wikipedia. And then go find the English version of the page.

Where, for whatever reason, I found the above image of a French card (postcard? I don’t know; it just said “card”) from 1910, imagining telephony (or “correspondance cinema”) in the year 2000.

Skype wasn’t founded until 2003, but there had been for some time such a thing as videoconferencing by 2000. The drawing, of a gentleman talking to an elegant lady who’s waving to him, suggests a social call, though, and that suggests Skype to me, or FaceTime. So the card was three years off.

I love that they assumed there would have to be a tech guy operating a bunch of complex equipment to make such a call. I suppose the artist imagined that we would have personal tech assistants in the future, serving alongside our butlers, maids and valets.

They just couldn’t quite conceive of silicon chips and miniaturization, and why should they have? That we’re able to do this, plus thousands of other things, in a slim device that easily fits into a shirt pocket would have been the wildest thing of all about the future, to the people of 1910.

No, wait — I just thought of something wilder and harder to predict than that. Who could have predicted that in an age when we carry such marvelous devices in our pockets, we would increasingly choose not to talk by two-way TV, or even to engage in voice calls — but would increasingly rely on texting? Which is a throwback to the telegram, which was already your granddad’s mode of communication by 1910.

The other day, I heard a colleague dictating a text to Siri, which involved saying the punctuation out loud, just like dictating to the Western Union guy in 1910 (“HAVE ARRIVED IN OMAHA STOP CONTACT MADE STOP AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS STOP”).

Which goes to show that reality is weirder than science fiction…

Graham says we should bar Iranian emissary to the U.N.

This came in earlier today:

Graham Opposes Granting Visa for Iranian Emissary to the United Nations

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) today made this statement on Hamid Aboutalebi who was selected to serve as Iran’s emissary to the United Nations in New York.


Graham opposes granting Aboutalebi a visa which would allow him to travel to the United States.

Graham said:

“This is a slap in the face to the 52 Americans held hostage in Iran for 444 days and an affront to all Americans.

“The very idea Iran would appoint someone to represent them at the United Nations in New York — who was connected in such a direct way to the American Embassy takeover in 1979 — says a lot about the regime and the so-called moderation of President Rouhani.

“Iran has been involved in worldwide terrorism plots and designated as a state sponsor of terrorism.  Iran provided equipment used to kill American soldiers in Iraq.  Iran supports Hamas and Hezbolloah, two terrorist organizations. And finally, Iran continues its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, not a peaceful nuclear power plant.

“I’m hopeful the Senate will soon send a strong signal to Iranians that we will not accept this individual or allow him to represent Iran on American soil.”


Art imitating life imitating art imitating life imitating…

USS Nimitz

USS Nimitz

Hollywood makes a movie, a year or so ago, about the Iran hostage crisis. It tells the true story of how the CIA pretended to be making a movie in Iran in order to sneak a handful of the American hostages out of the country.

The real movie about the fake movie that hoaxed the Iranians wins the Best Picture Oscar, which Iran could not have failed to notice.

So… now we see that Iran is building a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier — or rather, a vessel that looks like a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. They do it in plain sight, so we can’t fail to notice. Our intel guys watch it being built ever since last summer, and we finally get to the point that we can’t stand it anymore, and have to say something.

Then, when the United States raises questions as to what in the world Iran is up to, they respond, Uhhh… it’s for a movie! Yeah, that’s the ticket… we’re making a movie… ya know, like ‘Argo.’

Which makes us wonder what they’re really up to. What could be the actual purpose for which making a movie is the transparent cover?

Whatever it is, when they spring it on us, I half expect the Iranians to say, “Argo ___ yourself!”

"I'm, uhhh... making a movie! Yeah, that's the ticket..."

“I’m, uhhh… making a movie! Yeah, that’s the ticket…”

Can anyone identify this aircraft?


I’ve already asked Burl, our resident expert on aviation history, via email. Of course, his main area of specialization is military (I think), and this really looks civilian to me. But he probably knows, and I’m awaiting a reply.

Anyway, Lanier Jones of ADCO had this framed picture (sorry about the reflection of me in the image; the picture doesn’t have non-reflective glass), and was curious as to what sort of aircraft it was. (I’d have taken it out and scanned it, but I think he just had if framed.)

I told him it looked like an early airliner. I can think of no other reason for the windows. General shape is like a DC-3 (the civilian version of the C-47), but it seems much too small to be one of those.



Slate is doing its best to keep Confederate flag flying in SC

Josh Voorhees posted this at Slate this morning, under a picture of the Confederate flag flying in front of our State House:

March Madness kicks into full swing today with games in Buffalo, Milwaukee, Orlando, and Spokane. Another four cities—Raleigh, San Antonio, San Diego, and St. Louis—will see men’s action on Friday. The women’s tournament then tips off on Saturday with weekend games spread out over 16 other cities. By the time the NCAA crowns a men’s and women’s champion in Arlington and Nashville, respectively, more than 30 cities will have hosted tournament games. None of those games, however, will be in South Carolina or Mississippi. The reason: The Confederate battle flags that still fly over the state capitol grounds in Columbia and Jackson.

In 2001, the NCAA imposed a ban on either state hosting post-season sporting events at predetermined sites (an important caveat I’ll get to in a second) as long as the flags continued to fly, and neither it nor the states have budged since. That is set to change somewhat next year when a format tweak will allow for a key exception for the women’s tournament. But that change won’t be in place in time to help the Lady Gamecocks, who are currently bearing the brunt of the NCAA post-season boycott of the Palmetto State…

As you and anyone else who’s ever read my stuff knows, I take a backseat to no one in my ardent desire to get that flag down. In fact, starting with my first editorial on the subject in 1994, I almost certainly hold the world record for number of words written with that aim in mind.

But as you probably also know, I think one of the most powerful factors keeping the flag there is the NAACP boycott. It causes a defiant backlash effect among the majority in the Legislature. History, and in our case personal experience, teaches us that the surest way to get a white South Carolinian to do something is to get someone from other parts of the country to try to make him stop doing it. (OK, technically, the NAACP boycott is driven by the South Carolina chapter, which had a lot of pull in the national organization at the time the boycott started — which is why SC is singled out while states like Georgia, which at one point during the life of the boycott even incorporated the symbol into its state flag, escape this censure. But the boycott is under the authority of the national organization, and in SC minds qualifies as out-of-staters trying to tell us what to do.)

And Slate smugly moralizing on the subject — the Tweet promoting this post said, “The (excellent) reason South Carolina and Mississippi don’t get to host March Madness” – only increases the effect. So, way to go there, Josh. Sheesh.

SC Democrats keep having to import talent from outside

Or at least, they keep doing it, whether they need to or not.

First, a bit of news you may have already heard about someone we know — Amanda Alpert Loveday, who was the executive director of the state party, but who sent out contact info today for her new gig:

I am writing you today to say hello from the office of Congressman Jim Clyburn.  As most of you know, I have made the transition to the Congressman’s office but wanted to send you all my new contact information. …

I look forward to hitting the ground running for Congressman Clyburn and if you need anything from the office or the Congressman, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

In light of what I posted earlier today, it sounds like Amanda’s making a good move, in terms of job longevity. So we are happy for her.

I’m somewhat bemused that her replacement is from out of state — a Floridian, name of Conor Hurley.

Nothing against Mr. Hurley personally; I’m sure he’ll be a fine addition to South Carolina. But the fact that he is from out of state is another illustration of a phenomenon I’ve been seeing in Democratic Party lately — the pros who get hired to run campaigns, or to run the party, tend not to be home-grown.

I’ve been concerned lately that the current Vincent Sheheen campaign has a generic, national-Democrat sort of feel to it. One of Sen. Sheheen’s greatest strengths is that his political roots in the state are about as deep as you’re likely to find among currently active Democrats, and his understanding of problems that are peculiarly South Carolinians is exemplary. In 2010, that showed, and I think it had something to do with why he did so well against Nikki Haley, in spite of that being the Year of the Tea Party, and Nikki being their chosen darling.

This time, so far, I’m seeing a campaign that feels more generic, and national. And for a Democrat in South Carolina, the modifier “national” is the kiss of death.

I don’t want to lay this entirely at the feet of his out-of-stater campaign manager, Andrew Whalen. After all, the 2010 campaign manager was brought in from out of state as well. But there’s something that has kept this campaign from feeling like it’s about South Carolina. (And you’re not going to get that homegrown feel from the incumbent, whose idea of the way to run against any Democrat is to say, “Obama! Obama! Obama!”)

Once, a job like party executive director was a nice stepping stone for a young South Carolinian coming up in the party. It still is that over in the GOP, which has hordes of young up-and-comers competing to enter politics like the Three Stooges all trying to crowd through a narrow doorway at the same time.

I was reminded of this just the other day. I was in Aiken for an event at which the SC Center for Fathers and Families was introducing itself to the community (it’s opening a new program there), and a guy I hadn’t seen in a long time came up and reintroduced himself: “Chris Verenes.” It took a moment or so for my brain’s software to locate him in the archives, but I came up with the right answer: Chris was E.D. of the Democratic Party back when I started as Governmental Affairs Editor of The State, in 1987.

Now, he’s president of Security Federal Bank in Aiken.

I was recently reminded of another young Democrat from those days — the one who ran Mike Dukakis’ campaign here in SC. His name was Det Bowers. He’s now running for the U.S. Senate — as a Republican.

I don’t know where the next generation of Democrats is coming from in SC, if there’s going to be one. But when it comes to Democrats willing to turn pro and run campaigns… well, they’re already pretty thin on the ground, it seems.

They got old Guarnere this time


Joe Toye: “You got a smoke?”
Donald Malarkey: “Yeah.”
Toye: “Jesus. What’s a guy gotta do to get killed around here?”
Medic Eugene Roe: “Bill, you’re going first.”
Bill Guarnere: “Whatever you say, Doc. Whatever you say.”
Roe: “Over here! Take this man.”
Guarnere: “Hey, Lip, they got old Guarnere this time.”
Stretcher bearer: “We got you, soldier. Just lie back.”
Guarnere: “Hey, Joe, I told you I’d beat you back to the States.”

– Band of Brothers

That light-hearted scrap of badinage occurred on January 3, 1945, between two soldiers of Easy Company, 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment, Joe Toye and Bill Guarnere. Just seconds before, each had lost his right leg to German artillery, and they lay bleeding profusely into the snow among the trees of the Ardennes. Toye was hit first, and despite the barrage Guarnere rushed out to try to pull him to safety, and was doing so when his own leg was blown off.

The dialogue, which I’ve taken from the TV series “Band of Brothers,” may seem like typical Hollywood B.S. — guys lying around cracking wise and bumming cigarettes after receiving horrific wounds. But it follows fairly closely the account in Stephen Ambrose’s book, based on interviews with men who were there. Joe Toye and Bill Guarnere were a couple of tough monkeys.

Both had been wounded before. Toye had been knocked about by two hand grenades within minutes of each other that should have killed him on D-Day, but walked away unmarked. That same day, his buddy “Gonorrhea” earned the sobriquet “Wild Bill” for the ferocity with which he attacked the Germans — he had just learned, hours before jumping into Normandy, that his elder brother had been killed at Monte Cassino.

A native of South Philly, Guarnere was sort of the guy in Easy (or one of them) who filled the role of the stereotypical brash, streetwise Italian city boy from war movies.The kind of guy who alleges that his commanding officer who chews him out for killing Germans before being given the word to fire is some kinda Quaker or something, elaborating that without a doubt “He ain’t Catholic… he don’t even drink!”

Bill may have beat Joe back to the States, but Joe was the first to leave on life’s final evacuation, passing away in 1995.

Over the weekend, just a month shy of his 91st birthday, Bill Guarnere followed him.

There are only 18 members of Easy Company left alive.


I am guilty of the unforgivable crime of walking on the gym floor in street shoes

sock hop

On a couple of occasions recently, in the line of duty for ADCO, I have found myself out on the court at USC basketball games. A nonprofit client of ours has been blessed with donations that it has received in the form of oversized checks presented in front of the fans at Colonial Life Arena. (The client is the SC Center for Fathers and Families; the generous donors are TD Bank and Colonial Life.) I was there to help publicize the donations.

There are a lot of things a person might think as he steps out in front of a crowd like that, some relevant, some not: Do I have a good angle for the picture? Is my focus good enough to read the check? Cheerleaders are cute, but they wear a lot of makeup. Is it hard to smile that much? They’re also smaller than they look from the stands. The players are not. Am I standing in anyone’s way? Is my fly zipped? Who that I know is seeing me down here and wonders what I’m doing?

But the one predominant thought I had on both occasions was, I’m standing on the gym floor in my street shoes! This made me very self-conscious. I felt guilty, furtive, a scofflaw who was going to get yelled at by coach any second. (And in my day, coaches yelled what they pleased at us with impunity.)

Young people, and even some not-so-young-anymore people, are wondering what on Earth I’m on about. But when I was a student at Karr Junior High School in the suburbs of New Orleans in the mid-60s, it was deeply impressed on us that you never, ever walked on the shiny gym floor with street shoes on.

Perhaps I should explain what “street shoes” are. They are dress shoes, made of hard, polished leather. Like what your Daddy wore to work at the office, if your Daddy was old enough to go to the office back when men wore suits and hats. If he wasn’t, then your granddaddy.

We did not wear sneakers, athletic shoes, or whatever you want to call them to school. Or zoris, either (on the Mainland, y’all call them “flip-flops”). Nor did we wear jeans, or shorts, or T-shirts. We dressed in a manner that today is called “business casual,” only less casual than a lot of business people today.

Except in gym. In gym, we wore gym shoes. And shorts, and T-shirts. That’s how you knew you were in P.E. — you wore things that would be strictly verboten in English class. To participate in P.E. was to “dress out.” If you were sick and had a note from the doctor, you didn’t have to “dress out.” The rest of the time, you did.

And you wore those special shoes in P.E. shoes because you never, ever, for even one step, touched the gym floor with street shoes. Because gym floors were extremely delicate, and taxpayers shelled out gazillions of dollars to keep them perfectly shiny, and your parents couldn’t possibly make enough money to pay for the damage that street shoes could cause. It would be like mixing matter with antimatter, or crossing the streams (Egon!).

Stepping on the gym floor in street shoes was, in 1965, the civilian, junior-high equivalent of being a Marine and calling your rifle a “gun.”

We had dances in the gym in our street clothes on Friday nights, but it wasn’t a problem, because we were all completely conditioned to remove our shoes before stepping onto the gym floor. I have somewhere a Polaroid picture I took once of the pile of shoes under the bleachers. If I can find it, I’ll post it. Today, the kids would just wear casual shoes and clothes. But for social occasions that involved girls, you dressed up.

We spent the rest of the evening in our socks. We did the Jerk, and the Monkey, and the Boogaloo in our socks. We engaged in the delicious mystery of slow-dancing in our socks (we waited and waited for the band to do “House of the Rising Sun,” which was the only slow song they knew). If we were total rebels, with no respect for decency and societal mores, and no teachers were in sight (a rare occurrence), we did the Alligator in our socks.

It was what used to be called a “sock hop,” although I don’t recall our actually calling it that. It’s just that when you danced in the gym, you did so in your socks.

Anyway, that’s what I was thinking about while standing in front of all those basketball fans at Colonial Life Arena. I have no idea who is going to pay for the irreparable damage that my Johnston and Murphys surely did to that floor.

No wonder coach was yelling.

Burl’s take on ‘Monuments Men’


John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban and Bill Murray.

We had a conversation about movies a couple of days back, and “Monuments Men” came up. Since interest has been expressed, I thought I’d share a link to our own Burl Burlingame’s review of the film.


Hitler and the Nazis were bad dudes. They set the bar on being bad dudes. They not only were intent on dominating the world (to them, Europe WAS the world), the Nazi mission statement involved wiping out entire cultures and races. Not just killing them, but erasing them from history. The focus of “Monuments Men” is the rescue of priceless art seized by the Nazis, either as booty or to be destroyed.

Actually, “priceless” is too weak a word. Maybe irreplaceable….

The “Monuments Men” were a group of older artists, architects, historians and other scholars drafted by the army to save artwork and architecture from Nazi nihilism. They came under fire, just like other soldiers, but their mission was to save the best works yet produced by humanity….

In order to sell the film to disinterested modern audiences, Clooney adopts a wisecracking, ironic tone that is surface-level entertaining. But this creates a distance between characters and situation, and “Monuments Men” never quite catches fire. This stand-offishness also undercuts the true horror of the Nazi menace and makes them cartoons and buffoons. It’s very “Hogan’s Heroes.”…

That doesn’t mean it’s not an entertaining couple of hours, and if folks learn a thing or two about this historical niche, that’s swell. I liked “Monuments Men,” but nobody is going to love it.

Oh, just go read the whole thing. As usual with Burl, it’s well-written…

South Ossetia stands as reminder of Western helplessness

As we huff and puff at Russia over Crimea and the rest of Ukraine, NPR urges us to remember this:

Russian troops enter a former Soviet republic claiming they must protect ethnic Russians who have strong ties to the motherland. The U.S. and other Western nations threaten sanctions, but do little. Russia effectively gets its way.

We’re talking, of course, about Russia’s 2008 decision to send troops into South Ossetia, a breakaway Georgian region with a large Russian population.

More than five years later, a similar crisis exists today. This time, Russian forces are in control of Ukraine’s Crimea region. Again, Moscow says the reason is to protect ethnic Russians. The West has expressed strong opposition, but now, as in Georgia, the options appear limited….

And how did all of that come out? I confess that, as interested as I was in that five years ago, I had to check Wikipedia to find out. South Ossetia is still occupied by the Russians.

Here’s hoping we can find a way to be somewhat more effective this time…

Video: Sheheen explaining his restructuring bill in 2008

I was looking for a picture of Vincent Sheheen to go with the last post, and ran across this video clip that I had forgotten.

It’s from the meeting on January 29, 2008, when he unveiled his restructuring plan to Cindi Scoppe and me, in the editorial board room at The State.

It’s short — the camera I used then would only shoot video for three minutes at a time — and there are several other clips from after this one that I did not upload.

But I share this one because in it, he shows how well he understood the actual power situation in South Carolina.

When talking about South Carolina’s unique situation as the “Legislative State” (even back in 1949, when some other Southern states had some similar such arrangements, political scientist V. O. Key called South Carolina that in his classic. Southern Politics in State and Nation), we tend to use a lazy shorthand. We say that SC lawmakers don’t want to surrender power to the governor.

That glosses over an important truth, one that we elaborated on in the Power Failure series back in 1991, but which I don’t stop often enough to explain any more: It’s that the Legislature, too, lacks the power to exert any effective control over state government. This leads to a government in which no one is in charge, and no one can be held accountable.

There was a time, long ago — pre-WWII, roughly, and maybe for awhile between then and the 1960s, which saw expansions of government programs on a number of levels — when lawmakers actually could run executive agencies, at least in a loose, informal way. On the state level, agencies answered to boards and commissions whose members were appointed by lawmakers. On the local level, they ran things more directly, calling all the shots. This was before county councils were empowered (more or less) in the mid-70s.

But as state agencies grew, they became more autonomous. Oh, they kept their heads down and didn’t anger powerful lawmakers, especially at budget time, but there was generally no effective way for legislators to affect their day-to-day operations. And while lawmakers appointed the members of boards and commissions, they lacked the power to remove them if they did something to attract legislative ire.

And on the local level, the advent of single-member districts broke up county delegations as coherent local powers. Yes, we have vestiges of that now — the Richland County elections mess is an illustration of this old system, as is the Richland recreation district and other special purpose districts, all legislative creations — but largely, they’re out of the business of running counties.

Increasingly in recent decades, the main power wielded by the Legislature has been a negative power — the ability to block things from happening, rather than initiate sweeping changes. And that’s what the General Assembly is best at — blocking change, for good or ill. That’s why the passage of this Department of Administration bill is such a milestone.

Anyway, while he doesn’t say all that stuff I just said, in this clip, Sheheen shows that he understands that no one is actually in charge, and that someone needs to be, so that someone can be held accountable. Or at least, that’s the way I hear it.

You may wonder why I think it remarkable that a state senator would exhibit such understanding of the system. Well… that’s just rarer than you may think.

The passing of Ariel Sharon, who inspired the UnParty

Well, he sorta, kinda inspired it.

It was his decision, in 2005, to leave the Likud behind and form another, more centrist party that started my mind on the way toward dreaming up the UnParty, as I disclosed in the original column announcing the formation of the UnParty.

So one day, when the UnParty dominates American politics, and the planets are aligned, and the lion lies down with the lamb, our party’s flame-keepers will honor the warrior known alternately as “the Bulldozer” and “the Lion of God” for his unintentional role in our formation.

For now, President Obama has offered his condolences to the Sharon family and Israel for “the loss of a leader who dedicated his life to the state of Israel and reaffirmed “our unshakable commitment to Israel’s security and our appreciation for the enduring friendship between our two countries and our two peoples.”

Lindsey Graham said, “With the passing of Ariel Sharon, America has lost one of her best friends and the Israeli people have lost one of their greatest champions.  He was a fierce fighter for the State of Israel who boldly embraced peace.  His life’s work has made him an Israeli icon.  May he rest in peace.”

Meanwhile, Palestinians celebrated. Which isn’t cool, but you know how things are over there.



How Americans and Brits came to sound so different

As a New Year’s present, my old high school friend Burl (and Ha’ole Makahiki Hou to you, too, Burl!) passes on a couple of links that he knew would interest me.

Here’s one, and here’s the other. The first one, headlined “When Did Americans Lose Their British Accents?,” is the more informative.

The main idea communicated by both is that General American (the way they talk in Nebraska) is in important ways closer to the way Brits spoke before 1776. For instance, their speech patterns were rhotic, meaning they pronounced their Rs back then. Sometime in Jane Austen’s (and Jack Aubrey‘s, had he existed) youth, upper-class Brits started dropping their Rs.

The coolest thing in the article is the way it explains why some Americans also went non-rhotic after that:

Around the turn of the 18th-19th century, not long after the revolution, non-rhotic speech took off in southern England, especially among the upper and upper-middle classes. It was a signifier of class and status. This posh accent was standardized as Received Pronunciation and taught widely by pronunciation tutors to people who wanted to learn to speak fashionably. Because the Received Pronunciation accent was regionally “neutral” and easy to understand, it spread across England and the empire through the armed forces, the civil service and, later, the BBC.

Across the pond, many former colonists also adopted and imitated Received Pronunciation to show off their status. This happened especially in the port cities that still had close trading ties with England — Boston, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah. From the Southeastern coast, the RP sound spread through much of the South along with plantation culture and wealth.

After industrialization and the Civil War and well into the 20th century, political and economic power largely passed from the port cities and cotton regions to the manufacturing hubs of the Mid Atlantic and Midwest — New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, etc. The British elite had much less cultural and linguistic influence in these places, which were mostly populated by the Scots-Irish and other settlers from Northern Britain, and rhotic English was still spoken there. As industrialists in these cities became the self-made economic and political elites of the Industrial Era, Received Pronunciation lost its status and fizzled out in the U.S. The prevalent accent in the Rust Belt, though, got dubbed General American and spread across the states just as RP had in Britain…

So, assuming this is all correct, that’s why many Charlestonians and denizens of South Boston don’t pronounce Rs today — because of the affectations of their ancestors.

There’s a lot more to the differences between General American and Received Pronunciation, starting with vowel sounds, but I liked the way the rhotacism thing was explained.

Burl, by the way, has a fairly typical military brat’s speech pattern — which most Americans would regard as accentless. But he and I both, in our youths, enjoyed tinkering around with other people’s ways of speaking. We loved accents, the more outrageous the better.

Much of that plasticity is gone from my tongue today, but with practice I can get it back. If I warm up the proper mouth muscles on Sunday morning (I do this by reading the passage aloud over and over before Mass), I can do a Scripture reading in Spanish in an accent that gets me about 80 percent of the way (to my ear) to sounding like a native speaker, of some vague nationality. And during rehearsals for “Pride and Prejudice,” our diction coach asked me where I was from, and complimented me on my use of Received Pronunciation. But I’d been practicing for weeks by that time. If you ask me to do it at the drop of a hat, I’ll probably fall flat.

Over the past 25 years, I’ve gradually started sounding a bit more Southern than I once did — taking on the coloration of my surroundings.

But my speech is still rhotic.

@ViewingHistory: Images we may have missed at the time


Just started following a brand-new Twitter feed, @ViewingHistory. It’s less than a day old, and only has seven Tweets so far. But I like what I see.

The above picture is captioned, “Soviet paratrooper over Leningrad (Date Unknown).” It seems appropriate that this photo be accompanied by the Soviet national anthem, which I always thought was quite stirring (I got chills when the crew on the sub sang it in “Hunt for Red October”).

Then, for view at another old adversary, I was really intrigued by the below image, captioned, “German soldier applying a dressing to wounded Russian civilian, 1941.”

Gee. I didn’t know Germans ever treated Russians like that during that war. Of course, it stands to reason — people are people, and decency will be found in the unlikeliest places. Perhaps you will find the image comforting, in that it renews some faith in people…



Don’t get your history from Donovan: The problem of errors perpetuated in the pop music record

"Donovan in Concert" -- the album cover.

“Donovan in Concert” — the album cover.

There are some things that just have to be corrected — but never will be, because they were recorded as they are, and will be replayed as they are, as long as there are devices capable of playing them.

“Donovan in Concert” is a long-time favorite of mine. The singer-songwriter recorded it at the Anaheim Convention Center on September 23, 1967. It was released the following year, and some months after that, a teacher of mine — I want to say it was a social studies teacher, although is seems more like something an English teacher would do — wanted us to sit quietly and write creatively for an hour. Or maybe it was study for an hour. I don’t know. In any case, he wanted us to be in a contemplative state, and he played this album. I found it so conducive to the state of thoughtful attention that I ran out and bought it on vinyl.

A few years back, one of my daughters gave me an extended version on CD, and I transferred the sound files to my computer — and thenceforth my phone and tablet.

So I was listening to it today, and was once again really bothered by this spoken intro to the song “Widow with a Shawl (A Portrait).” If you want to go listen to it, it’s technically at the end of the preceding track, “Guinevere:”

This next song, you must imagine, takes place in the 18th century, in England somewhere. This song tells the story of a young lady who is lamenting her lover who has gone to sea. This is in the days of the sailing ships, and when they went to sea, they went away for a long time — 25 years, maybe 30 years. Well, this is a widow — she supposes she’s a widow — and she’s walking along the beach. And this is her song.

Now, I don’t know in which universe English sailing ships went away for 25-30 years, but it wasn’t this one. There was nowhere to go that took that long, even with lengthy stops to refurbish and repair the ship. The survivors of the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe, two centuries earlier, returned after three years. Yes, whalers sometimes deliberately stayed out for years, but by “years,” I mean two or three or four. And occasionally, exceptionally unlucky sailors would be on their way home after a couple of years out, and get pressed into a Royal Navy ship and go out for another year or two.

I suppose there would be cases of a ship that returned to its former port after 25 or 30 years — but it would have been captured by hostile forces, renamed, lived a whole separate life or two or three, been recaptured, and returned as an entirely different ship (having been refurbished multiple times in everything but the bare hull, and much of that repaired), with a different crew, having been through many other crews in the intervening years.

This widow is indeed a widow, and if she expects to have children, much less grandchildren, to comfort her in her old age, she need apply to the authorities to have her man declared dead, and start over. Her man reminds me of something the fictional Jack Aubrey said of Ulysses — he utterly dismissed his excuses for taking 10 years to get home from Troy to Ithaca. Men turned to swine, indeed — it was nothing more than malingering in port, and poor seamanship.

Now that that’s settled, there’s another error that’s been bothering me, although not as long.

In the double disc of live music by The Beatles on the BBC (the first one, not the one just released), a BBC host introduces a song by saying:

The Beatles… with Paul McCartney paying tribute to the Everlys with ‘Lucille.’

It is followed, of course, by Paul doing his best to impersonate Little Richard.

Why the Beatles didn’t stop right there to correct the guy, I don’t know. Why the people who packaged this album used that bit of introduction, I don’t know. But it really, really bugs me that every time someone plays the track, the guy will say that, and will stand uncorrected.

Yes, the Everly Brothers also covered “Lucille,” but it sounded like this — nothing at all like the original. It’s somnolent, morose-sounding by comparison.

Paul McCartney is most definitely, most assuredly, not paying tribute to the Everlys.

OK, now I’ve done my bit to set those things straight. Makes be feel slightly better.

I find errors such as these inexcusable. Yes, I’m well acquainted with errors, and have made a few in my day, with some of them appearing in print. But that was in daily journalism, when there was barely time to write something in stream of consciousness, and no one had more than a very few minutes to check behind you. I am less patient with errors in monthly magazines, and not at all forgiving of them in books.

After 46 years, of course, the Donovan error is an artifact, and to change it would be to change who he was. One can accept it as valid evidence of the dizzy romanticism of Flower Power, which means it does communicate something that was true.

But I’m still glad I set it straight.

My obligatory ‘Where were you when you heard about JFK?’ story

Alliance for Progress: John F. Kennedy and Rómulo Betancourt at La Morita, Venezuela, during an official meeting. (Dec 16th, 1961)

Alliance for Progress: John F. Kennedy and Rómulo Betancourt at La Morita, Venezuela, during an official meeting. (Dec 16th, 1961)

Everybody has one, unless they’re just unfashionably young. (Sorry, young people: At our age, all we Boomers have left is our collective snobbishness about being the cool generation.)

Here’s mine…

I was living in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where my Dad was doing quasi-diplomatic duty working with the Ecuadorean Navy. I attended Colegio Americano, which was out of town, on the opposite side of the city from our home. I rode to and from school each day on an ancient bus — very fat and rounded, looking like it could have dated to the 1930s. The bus was named “Don Enrique.” Buses had personalities there and then, and were all painted differently. Don Enrique was tan with brown trim. When it wasn’t taking us to school and home again, it worked as a public colectivo, carrying regular fares all around town. Don Enrique had no doors. It had two doorways — in the front and back, on the right-hand side — but they were always open. Young men were expected to jump on and off as the bus moved. It would stop for women, children and old men.

Perhaps I’m overdescribing. In any case, it took an hour to get home every day. I was one of the first picked up in the morning and the last left off, and there were a lot of stops.

My best friend, Tony Wessler, a fellow gringo whose father was a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, lived about six blocks away from me. Tony and I had an awesome time living in Ecuador while we were in the 5th and 6th grades. It was a Huck Finn sort of existence. With one station, and that only broadcasting from about 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., there was nothing worth watching on TV — we kept ours stored down in the garage our whole time there, and never turned it on. We were always outdoors, roving, having adventures improvised from the landscape, architecture and materials at hand. We used to have titanic king-of-the-hill battles around construction sites, using scraps of bamboo (which was lashed together for scaffolding) as swords. We climbed up on the walls that ran between all houses there, running along them as though they were sidewalks, leapt from the walls to the iron bars covering windows (usually no more than a couple of feet, most houses having no yards), climbed the bars to the flat roofs, and darted across the roofs. It wasn’t faster to cross blocks rather than go around them, but it was more fun.

On November 22, 1963, Tony obviously took the faster route of running through the streets.

Don Enrique had dropped him off at home as usual, then slowly wound around among the intervening six blocks, dropping off other kids. Then, I got off at the corner of Maracaibo y Seis de Mayo.

We lived in the top floor of a huge house. Our apartment had four bedrooms plus a servants’ wing (really, just a hallway leading to tiny room for the live-in maid, and the laundry room). The landlord, who lived downstairs, was a captain in the Ecuadorean Navy. A few months before, he had played a key role in a military junta’s takeover of the government, and now was a big shot in the administration — I want to say minister of agriculture or something. The coup had been planned, in part, in our apartment. The landlord asked my folks if he could borrow the apartment for a meeting. They went out and left me and my brother with the capitan‘s kids downstairs. The junta would take over the next day. The man he met with would be the head of the junta.

I keep digressing.

As I say, we lived upstairs. The only access to our apartment was a set of enclosed stairs at the side of the house, adjacent to the garage. It was sealed off with a sidewalk-level security door with an anchor design in wrought iron. The door was always locked, but could be opened by someone pressing a button upstairs. As usually, I pressed the buzzer, and the door at the top of the stairs opened at the same time that the security door unlocked.

Up the stairs, I saw my mother and — to my shock — Tony. His chest was heaving. I couldn’t understand how he was there ahead of me. What’s going on? I asked.

“The president’s been shot!” said Tony.

It hadn’t hit me yet. “The president of what?” I asked. After all, we had just had a coup. I figured it was some other local upheaval, or maybe something in a neighboring country.

“The president of the United States,” said my mother. And by this time, it was known that he was dead.

It’s kind of hard to explain the depth of shock that we felt. It was a little like taking a spacewalk and suddenly becoming untethered. We were in this faraway country on behalf of the U.S. government. Ultimately, up the chain of command, the president was the guy who had sent us there. We particularly had a sense of that because we saw the evidence of JFK initiatives all around us. Programs such as the Alianza para el Progreso testified to the effect that Kennedy was the last president I can remember who gave a damn about Latin America. We had a sense of being in a place that our country cared about; we didn’t feel so isolated.

And now, the president was dead.

By this time, I had become an admirer of Kennedy. Three years before, I had wanted Nixon to win. I had wanted him to win so badly that I hid behind a chair in our living room and sulked while my mother was watching coverage of Kennedy’s inauguration. I hadn’t liked his tough talk toward the Soviets during the debates. He sounded to me like a guy who would send my Dad to war. (And as it happens, years later, my Dad would be serving in the VC-infested Rung Sat Special Zone during the Tet Offensive — so, in an indirect sense, I wasn’t wrong.)

But by now, I had become enchanted by the Kennedy aura. I particularly loved the PT-109 story, and it seemed like I had to wait forever for the movie to get down to Guayaquil. I had a comic book about it and everything.

And now, the president who had survived that was dead.

The war story was probably enough for a kid my age. But I think I also had a sense of him as an upbeat, optimistic kind of guy who believed that, as a country, together, we could get things done. With great vigah.

And now what? Here we were, so far away, with no prospect of returning home to God knew what anytime soon. (We returned to the States in April 1965.) I had seen, up close and personal, how fragile a system of government could be. Was the United States falling apart in our absence?

The interest in Latin America that JFK manifested was returned. Everyone seemed shocked and saddened by his death. There was a sense of kinship (to the best of my ability to tell at that age) that seemed rooted in his special status as the only Catholic U.S. president ever, but probably also fed on the glamor of Jack and Jackie, and the sympathy for their two little children.

The first time I remember hearing the word “martyr,” it was in relation to Kennedy. I still don’t know exactly what cause he was supposed to be martyred to, but there was that aura about his death. In any case, the reverence toward his memory that I sensed in the people around me had that tinge about it.

When my school yearbook came out a short time later, there was a memorial page dedicated to the president. It consisted mostly of a large photo of the Kennedys emerging from a church after Mass, looking young and healthy and happy, with Jackie wearing a veil…

JFK would be appalled at lack of fitness among today’s youth

I find it highly ironic that this story comes out of Dallas this week:

DALLAS — Today’s kids can’t keep up with their parents. An analysis of studies on millions of children around the world finds they don’t run as fast or as far as their parents did when they were young.ShapeofThingstoComejpg

On average, it takes children 90 seconds longer to run a mile than their parents did 30 years ago. Heart-related fitness has declined 5 percent per decade since 1975 for children ages 9 to 17.

The American Heart Association, whose conference featured the research on Tuesday, says it’s the first to show that children’s fitness has declined worldwide over the last three decades….

“Ironic” because I identify concern over the fitness of American youth with John F. Kennedy. He’s the one who made such a big deal about it in my own youth:

John F. Kennedy showed his commitment to improving the nation’s fitness even before he took the oath of office. After the election, he published “The Soft American” in Sports Illustrated. The article established four points as the basis of his proposed program, including a “White House Committee on Health and Fitness”; direct oversight by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; an annual Youth Fitness Congress to be attended by state governors; and the assertion that physical fitness was very much the business of the federal government…

We heard a lot about the President’s Council on Physical Fitness back in JFK’s day, and even years after his death. I always had a vague belief that JFK, for good or ill, was the reason I was dressing out every day for P.E. in school. I was doing my bit for a national strategic priority.Programfrontcoverjpg

I’ve also, my entire life, associated the word “vigor” with Kennedy — possibly because I first heard it used (or at least, first heard it used frequently) in reference to him, and to his ambitions for the country.

It’s not a word we associate with American youth today. Or with the rest of us, for that matter. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t worked out in weeks. And I’m the worse for it…