We’re also waiting for confirmation that not only Donald Trump, but Mitch McConnell, will soon be out of power.
I wish you joy, Joe Biden!
Of course, it’s not certain. Life contains surprises. For instance, I was sure that today was Epiphany, but when I got my daily email of today’s readings from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, it said, “Wednesday after Epiphany.” Well, yeah, I know we celebrated it on Sunday, and sang “We Three Kings” and all, but I thought today was the actual day.
Nobody tells us converts anything.
Anyway, Christmas is over, especially for Donald Trump and, we hope, the aforementioned Mitch McConnell. I wasn’t sure how much I cared about what was going to happen in Georgia (I just wanted it to be over so I didn’t have to hear about it anymore), but the idea of saying “buh-bye” to Mitch is rather charming, I find.
Anyway, I post this as a place for y’all to comment on the many things happening around us at the moment…
But I liked “The Little Drummer GIRL.” I get points for that, right?
I wrote about this before, didn’t I? But I can’t find it, so…
I happened to run across Alexandra Petri’s piece from two years ago, “A ranking of 100 — yes, 100 — Christmas songs,” and I nodded approvingly once again, and so I thought I’d share it. Even if it means I’m doing so, you know, once again…
One nice thing about this year is that I haven’t been to the mall even once, and I don’t think I’ve been in a single store where such drivel was being pumped at me, so that’s a point in favor of 2020. There’s that, and Joe Biden getting elected. Yay, 2020.
100. “Little Drummer Boy.” My hatred for this song is well-documented. I think it is because the song takes approximately 18 years to sing and does not rhyme. The concept of the song is bad. The execution of the song is bad. There is not even an actual drum in the dang song, there is just someone saying PA-RUM-PA-PUM-PUM, which, frankly, is not a good onomatopoeia and probably is an insult to those fluent in Drum. I cannot stand it. Nothing will fix it, even the application of David Bowie to it. Every year I say, “I hate this song,” and every year people say, “Have you heard David Bowie’s version?” Yes. Yes, I have. It is still an abomination.
Quite right. Although as I said the other day in my piece on the passing of John le Carré (another bad point about 2020 was losing him and a bunch of other cool people), I really like “The Little Drummer Girl,” so maybe my feminist friends will give me some points for that. Which would be a rare treat…
Since we’re now in the “War on Christmas” season, when we are subjected to all sorts of odd assertions — here’s an example — I thought I’d share this change of pace.
I’m on Stan Dubinsky‘s email list, and he emails all sorts of interesting things. Sometimes about politics, sometimes about Israel, sometimes about linguistics. Today, Stan was ticked about a piece in the NYT, about which he said:
The NY Times, making sure to remind us, in this holiday season, what a vile bunch of people write for it and how much they hate Jews (even as some of them are Jews – or more accurately JINOs). – SD
That’s Stan’s opinion, not mine. In my view, all sorts of people write for the NYT. Some I really like, some I really don’t, some in-between, but I seldom encounter anyone I would call “vile.”
I do believe if I had read the piece he was referring to, I might have considered the writer… tiresome. One does weary of people trying so hard, like Netflix, to be “modern” — folks who seem to have no other reason for writing beyond communicating that about themselves. Like a password to a club or something.
Anyway, Stan passed on this piece about the NYT piece, with his implied approval. I only share it in case you’re looking for something a little different from the “War on Christmas” thing (although the piece contains a bit of that as well). It’s headlined, “‘Goodbye to Hannukah,’ Says a Headline in the Post-Judaism New York Times.” Anyway, here’s an excerpt:
by Ira Stoll
The New York Times is greeting the holiday of Chanukah with an article by a woman explaining why she won’t transmit to her children her family’s tradition of celebrating the holiday.
“Saying Goodbye to Hannukah” is the headline over the Times article, which is subheadlined “I lit the menorah as a child, but my kids are growing up in a different type of household.”
The author, Sarah Prager, explains that she celebrated Chanukah as a child because her father was Jewish. “Each of those eight nights we’d recite the Hebrew prayer about God while lighting the menorah. We memorized the syllables and repeated them, but they had no meaning to us and my parents didn’t expect, or want, us to believe what we were reciting.”
The Times article goes on “I married a woman who was raised Catholic but who, like my parents, had left her family religion as an adult. She and I are part of America’s ever-growing ‘nones’ with no religious affiliation at all. Before we had kids, we imagined we’d choose a religion to raise them in, maybe Unitarian Universalism or even Reform Judaism. But when our first child was born four years ago, we realized that going to any house of worship and following a religion just for our children to feel a connection to something wouldn’t be authentic. We couldn’t teach them to believe in anything we didn’t believe in ourselves.”…
We need to again be a country that can celebrate these guy’s contributions to the American idea, and at the same time be fully outraged at what happened to George Floyd, which grossly violated that idea. In that space where those reactions coexist lies our hope as a nation.
We could celebrate what I have always thought, without question, was the whole idea about America.
It’s not about the majesty of purple mountains or the amber color of grain. And most of all, it’s not about a people — people this color or that color or speaking this or that language.
It’s about the ideas, and their growth toward perfection over time. It’s a majestic story. And it starts not with freedom, not exactly. It starts with liberality. With tolerance, with plurality, with openness to each other, and a fierce sense of fairness toward everyone, particularly those who don’t look or talk or even think the way we do.
And that is in profound trouble in this country.
The most dramatic example of that is embodied by Donald Trump, although he is not the cause of the problem. The problem is that there were enough people who would vote for such a person — a person who deliberately appealed to the very worst, illiberal impulses — for him to win an Electoral College victory.
The problem is, if the left in this country were clearly articulating the liberal alternative, as it has done within living memory, it would have pulled along enough people from the center to utterly repudiate Trumpism in 2016. But that’s not the case. Unfortunately, there is a good deal of illiberality on the left, and that prevents us from having a clear, American liberal alternative.
The news on this front isn’t all bad, of course. The best thing that has happened in our politics in recent years was the Democratic Party’s decision to nominate Joe Biden for president. Joe is the perfect representative — and about the only one who sought the office this year — of the kind of liberal values that have been the glory of this country from the start. If he wins the election — better yet, if he utterly crushes Trumpism in November — it make be the first step in saving this country from recent trends. And that would be wonderful — for America, for the rest of the world, and for the ideas that are the only positive way forward, and the only things worth celebrating on this holiday.
If you read this blog regularly, y’all know that I gravitate toward the opinions of “Never Trump” conservatives. They come closer to expressing what is really wrong with Trumpism, from my point of view. So I was motivated to write this piece when I saw a column today from Bret Stephens at the NYT, headlined “Reading Orwell for the Fourth of July.” After dismissing Trump as an “instinctual fascist” who is fortunately really bad at it, he writes:
The more serious problem today comes from the left: from liberal elites who, when tested, lack the courage of their liberal convictions; from so-called progressives whose core convictions were never liberal to begin with; from administrative types at nonprofits and corporations who, with only vague convictions of their own, don’t want to be on the wrong side of a P.R. headache.
This has been the great cultural story of the last few years. It is typified by incidents such as The New Yorker’s David Remnick thinking it would be a good idea to interview Steve Bannon for the magazine’s annual festival — until a Twitter mob and some members of his own staff decided otherwise. Or by The Washington Post devoting 3,000 words to destroying the life of a private person of no particular note because in 2018 she wore blackface, with ironic intent, at a Halloween party. Or by big corporations pulling ads from Facebook while demanding the company do more to censor forms of speech they deem impermissible.
These stories matter because an idea is at risk. That’s the idea that people who cannot speak freely will not be able to think clearly, and that no society can long flourish when contrarians are treated as heretics.
Frankly, I disagree with Stephens that the illiberal impulse on the left is worse than the one on the right. (Having a wannabe fascist as president of the United States is a national emergency, no matter how incompetent he is.) But I agree that it’s bad, because it distracts the left from the ideas that would save our country.
We are doomed if the largely maskless crowd who applauded Trump’s speech at Mount Rushmore last night have their way. We are also doomed if the people who have tried to pull down, damage or deface statues of all four men depicted on the mountain have their way.
Trump, of course, wants people to think that you have to choose one or the other — his way, or that of the statue-destroyers (the less-discriminating sort, that can’t tell the difference between a statue of Washington and one of Nathan Bedford Forrest).
But we don’t have to choose between those extremes. In fact, if America and the hope it offers to the world are to survive, we must not.
We have to be able to applaud people who find what happened to George Floyd an outrage, a violation of all we believe in, while at the same time condemning people who would attack a statue of Abraham Lincoln dedicated with the help of Frederick Douglass.
If we can’t do that, we’re sunk, and the Fourth of July is nothing more but an opportunity to sell hot dogs.
The problem, of course, is greater than overexcited demonstrators who go off-course. When the NYT itself recasts American history itself as being about nothing but slavery and oppression — as being about 1619 rather than 1776 — we’ve got a problem. When a crowd of indignant people from the newsroom — you know, people who are not supposed to have opinions — can topple the paper’s editorial page editor for running a piece with which they (and the editor) disagree, we are losing one of the great institutions that has stood for liberal values.
Another of those anti-Trump conservatives at the NYT (and when the paper stops running such people, the institution really will be dead) had a piece that offered an examination of similar concerns. With reference to the coronavirus, David Brooks wrote:
I had hopes that the crisis would bring us together, but it’s made everything harder and worse. And now I worry less about populism or radical wokeness than about a pervasive loss of national faith.
What’s lurking, I hope, somewhere deep down inside is our shared ferocious love for our common country and a vision for the role America could play as the great pluralist beacon of the 21st century…
I hope so. And that hope is what I’m embracing on this holiday. We’ve got to stop thinking people have to choose between Trumpian populism or popular “wokeness,” and get behind a way of thinking that respects an honest and open interchange of ideas.
The night before, we had gone to Mass at the cathedral that was right around the corner from our hotel, where we experienced a great blessing. The priest showed us — you’re not going to believe this — an actual relic of St. Patrick himself, on loan from Rome! As a convert, I usually go in for that old-Catholic sort of stuff, but I was excited as anyone. And no, I didn’t ask what part of the good saint we were venerating; I just enjoyed our good luck to be there at the time.
I shot this pic of Blarney Castle on March 17, 2019, before my unfortunate ascent to the top.
The next morning, we got on the bus and headed to Blarney, where I climbed to the top of castle, got hit in my bad ear by a huge gust of wind, and immediately suffered one of the worst bouts of vertigo I’ve ever experienced. No, I did not kiss the stone. I just wanted to get back down alive. When I finally got down to the ground — for a bit there, I thought I never would — I kissed a stone at the very base of the tower, when no one was looking. I was that glad to be back on terra firma.
We got to Killarney precisely as the parade was beginning, and it was awesome. Small and quaint and homey and real. We then got a late lunch at a Thai place, of course.
Toward the evening we went about checking out the pubs, mostly guarded by tough-looking locals standing at the entrances smoking and saying, “not in this pub, tourist” with their eyes. At one point we passed one victim of spontaneous celtic enthusiasm sitting in the street bleeding. We went back to the hotel to have our pint there. I mean, you know, I had the wife with me.
There was this one young man with our group, not long out of college, who met an Irish lass who insisted that a pub full of locals admit him to their revels, and he was in no condition to sight-see the next day. But I think he got his money’s worth.
I think we all did. And may we all have such fine St. Paddy’s days in the future. Just not this year…
Even Uncle Sam was there! And taller than I thought. We ran into these guys after the parade.
Y’all, I’ve been too busy to post today, but as you know this was a busy day in Columbia for presidential candidates.
Of course, it was a lot more than that. It was MLK Day, which for me has generally been a rather busy holiday. It all started 20 years ago today, when the Columbia Urban League, under the leadership of J.T. McLawhorn and Dr. David Swinton, decided to do something BIG to show how much folks wanted the Confederate flag off the State House dome.
With the help of a coalition of like-minded groups, they succeeded. J.T. and I went on Cynthia Hardy’s show (Cynthia, by the way, was J.T.’s right-hand person at the Urban League at the time) on WACH over the weekend to talk about that event. Why have us old guys on TV to reminiscent about something so long ago? Because it was amazing. There’s been nothing like it before or since. Here’s a picture. The crowd was estimated at 60,000.
In the years since, the march at rally at the State House has become branded as more of an NAACP production (it was one of the organizations that helped with the first one), while the CUL has put its energies into a huge breakfast event at the Brookland Baptist convention facility. Both are magnets for Democrats with national ambitions. I was at the Urban League event this morning, with friends:
It was great to see and hear Joe, of course — and to a lesser extent Pete and Tom and Deval.
I didn’t get a chance to speak with Joe — and was jealous that my friend Samuel Tenenbaum got to sit next to Joe. For my part, I sat at one of the tables dedicated to the Biden contingent, and got to visit with Joe’s state political director and fellow Smith campaign alumnus Scott Harriford.
While I didn’t speak with Joe, I did shake hands with Pete. I didn’t set out to, but we sort of bumped into each other while trying to squeeze through the crowd back to our seats. So I did the civil, and stuck out my hand and said, “How’s it going, Mayor?” And he took it and nodded and moved on. (Yeah, I know. I just didn’t have anything pertinent in mind to say.)
I was going to post some quick quotes from columns I read this morning, one of them quite frivolous, but then I remembered what today is. The Fourth Day of Christmas, when we remember the slaughter of the innocents.
And yes, it’s still Christmas. We’re only a third of the way through. You can’t tell from the secular signs. There’s not a carol to be found on the radio. They played them all back during Advent, the heathens.
When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, Out of Egypt I called my son.When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi,
he became furious.
He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity
two years old and under,
in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.
See the way I tied the holiday to the funny video I wanted to share that actually had nothing to do with Thanksgiving. Old newspaperman’s trick.
Back in the day, when newspapers had some heft to them, today’s was always the biggest paper of the year. We saved up copy for weeks to fill that sucker. In fact, when I started my first newspaper job out of college in the fall of 1975, my managing editor gave me a special assignment, and acted like he was showing me favor by handing me such a great responsibility.
He put me in charge of the Turkey Box. It was a cardboard box that I was to fill with evergreen stories that would hold for the big day. So I crammed it with AP copy of a non-urgent nature.
I didn’t let it swell my head, which is to my credit.
Anyway, I thought this video was great. I would say hilarious, except for the serious point it makes. I particularly like the bit about the first-round draft pick who is instantly a millionaire, a great rise from his unassuming beginnings: “His father lived paycheck to paycheck as a humble pro football player.”
Yes, it would be great if top teachers were lured away to a new school by $80 million over six years, etc.
Of course, I don’t know if it’s healthy for a society to get this excited about anybody. But if we’re going to do that, it might as well be about teachers or someone else who actually contributes something of value to society.
The controversy over Columbus Day got me to thinking of history-based holidays we could have, if only we thought a little harder. They’re not in order of preference, but in calendar order:
Rubicon Day — OK, so this didn’t happen in America. But Julius Caesar’s decision to cross that creek with his troops had a huge effect on something that matters to Americans. It ended the last republic we would see for 1,000 years. But I’m also thinking we could have some fun with it. We could have toga parties each Jan. 10, and go around saying “iacta alea est” to each other. Maybe not your idea of a good time, but maybe we could make a drinking game out of it.
British Invasion Day — No, it’s not about 1814. It’s about 1964, and this holiday would be pure fun. We’d celebrate it on February 9, the day the Beatles first appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” We’d all play music by the Beatles, the Stones, Herman’s Hermits, the Animals, Freddie and the Dreamers, Peter and Gordon, and so forth. We’d have theme parties in which we’d all dress like the invaders, and go around saying “gear” and “fab.” And if you said bad things about the holiday, we’d all say you were “dead grotty.”
Lincoln’s Birthday, Feb. 12 — Yes, bring it back, and repeal this “President’s Day” nonsense, in order to drive home the fact that he was our greatest president, and is largely responsible for America being America, having thrown off its original sin via that war that we fight on until the slave states’ unconditional surrender — and making sure it didn’t end until the 13th Amendment was passed, so that all that bloodshed served a purpose. Sorry about the run-on sentence…
Smallpox Day — This is sort of related to the idea of “Indigenous People’s Day,” but I actually have three reasons to mark the day. First, it seems to me that the most horrific public health disaster in human history (way bigger than the Black Death) was back in the 16th century when 95 percent of the native population was wiped out by European diseases for which they had no resistance — usually before the victims had even encountered the Europeans. Something so awful should be remembered. My second reason is celebratory — celebrating the fact that we’ve been so successful at wiping out the disease that a rite of passage of my childhood, the “vaccination” (that’s what we called it; we didn’t know what it was for), is unknown to today’s children. Third, as a warning — that it could come back some day, and we need to fully prepared to wipe it out again if it does. This would be on May 17, the birthday of Edward Jenner.
Independence Day, July 2 — So that we’d be celebrating the actual day that Congress voted to declare independence, not the day that the document’s final edits were approved. This is personal, because John Adams is my fave Founder, and this was day that HE thought should be celebrated, after his weeks of hard work arguing the Congress into taking this momentous step — debate during which Thomas Jefferson, who gets the glory, sat there like a bump on a log. Harrumph…
Look, people… If it makes you happy, Columbus was wrong, the Bugs Bunny version notwithstanding.
Yeah, the Earth was round, as every educated person of his day knew. Only low-information types thought otherwise. But the scholars of the day also knew how big the Earth was, and why Columbus’ idea of sailing west to get to the East Indies was a pipe dream.
But because he was dumb enough to insist on proving his point, he accidentally discovered the New World — and almost no other development in human history has had such wide-reaching consequences, for good or ill.
Consequently, I consider efforts to downplay his “discovery” of the New World a bit on the silly side. Such as this reference in an interesting piece by the NYT’s Brent Staples:
It also tied Italian-Americans closely to the paternalistic assertion, still heard today, that Columbus “discovered” a continent that was already inhabited by Native Americans….
Allow me to make a “paternalistic assertion.” Yep, he did discover America. And everything that has happened since arises from that fact.
Right now, I’m reading the book Guns, Germs and Steel, and it’s fascinating. Basically, it attempts to determine the underlying factors that caused certain parts of the world to be “discovered,” and ultimately dominated by, people from other parts of the world.
The whole book aims to answer a question posed to the author by a New Guinean politician named Yali back in the ’70s. When Europeans “discovered” New Guinea a couple of centuries back, the people there were technologically still in the Stone Age. The local people were blown away by the physical artifacts of a modern society — ranging from steel axes to soft drinks — which they referred to collectively as “cargo.” Yali asked the author:
“Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”
Jared Diamond’s attempts to answer the question are deeply fascinating.
The book spends considerable time on one incident in particular, back in 1532. You may know the story of how Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro took the Incan emperor prisoner, accepted a ransom from the Incas of a vast amount of gold, and then killed the emperor anyway. Aside from dwelling on some “woke” aspect of this encounter, such as the obvious fact that these Spaniards were a__holes, Diamond asked why it happened this way. In other words, why didn’t Incan emperor Atahuallpa go to Spain, take King Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, prisoner and hold him for ransom? A variation of Yali’s question.
And no, the answer isn’t that Atahuallpa was a nicer guy, or for that matter that American Indians were on the whole nicer than white guys (although again, Pizarro and crew didn’t exactly create a great first impression for the rest of us white guys).
Nor is Diamond satisfied with, the Spaniards had guns and steel swords and horses. The book aims to understand why people from Europe had guns and steel swords and horses. For that, he goes back to when homo sapiens first spread out over the Earth, and in certain places gave up hunting and gathering for farming, and different kinds of farming in different places, and the effects that had on the development of technology an complex political structures, and so on.
I highly recommend the book.
But my point is that, whether you personally see it as a good thing or a bad thing, Columbus’ discovery of America was definitely a thing, and one of the most consequential pivot points of history. If you want to explore just how consequential, I recommend another book, which I’ve recommended before: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann.
What happened on Oct. 12, 1492, was monumental, and certainly worth marking with a special observance. It changed the world as almost nothing else that has ever happened did. Where people get all bollixed up is when they try to assign moral value to the event.
I don’t know why people do that. Discovering America doesn’t make Columbus a good guy. It doesn’t really make him a bad guy, either. Some other stuff he did after he got here makes him look pretty bad — especially to someone with a 2019 worldview. But like him or hate him, the thing he did, what he stumbled onto, has enormous global significance. He did something amazing, but it doesn’t make him a hero. Or the devil.
The arrival of Europeans, with their relative immunity to certain diseases like smallpox, had horrific consequences for the native population of this hemisphere. What happened was so horrible that it staggers the imagination: 95 percent of the population died out.
But just as discovering America doesn’t make Columbus a hero (to me at least he was not), he can’t really be blamed for everything that happened to the people who lived here, however badly he may have treated the natives he encountered. (Which was pretty damned badly.) He didn’t say, “Hey, let’s go to China (where he thought he was headed) and infect the local people so they all die out.” In fact, most of the people of this hemisphere died over the next few decades long before they came into contact with whites — the germs spread across these continents much faster than people did. People of European descent didn’t even realize on what scale this happened until quite recently (and to learn more about that, read Mann’s prequel, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.)
Of course, people can play games with the word “discovered.” They can say, those Asian people who crossed the land bridge 15,000 years ago “discovered” America, or even say the first Europeans to discover America were actually the Vikings. Or St. Brendan the Navigator. But none of those events opened this side of the world to the other side, mainly because the world wasn’t technologically prepared to bring that about.
So, as a historic event with repercussions for the entire planet, the moment that America got discovered — in the sense of the planet learning of its existence and being affected by it — well, that happened 527 years ago this week.
Feel about it any way you like, but that’s the way things unfolded….
I always remember it, and not the other Beatles’ birthdays, not merely because it comes six days after my own. It’s because of Nueve de Octubre, and that looms large because when I was a schoolboy in Ecuador, we always got a whole week off for it — while only getting a day and a half for Christmas.
At the time, I thought that it was Ecuadorean Independence Day. I mean, it would have to be at least that, right — who would take off a whole week for anything less?
But it turns out that it’s only when the province of Guayas, which contained the city of Guayaquil — where I lived — declared its independence from Spain. Not the whole country.
Bonus fact ripped from today’s headlines: Guayaquil is now effectively the capital of Ecuador, since unrest in Quito caused el presidente to have to relocate the seat of government.
I urge you to go to Yesterday’s and buy one, have a pint and remember me to Duncan and my other friends there.
However, I won’t be joining you on the day of. I’ll be in Ireland.
See how I just reeled that off so casually, as though going to Ireland is a small thing that I do all the time? Well, it isn’t. I’ve never been before. But my colleen and I will be boarding a plane for Dublin a week from today, and we’re kind of excited about it. We’ll spend a couple of days there, and on St. Paddy’s Day we’ll be in Waterford, which is my wife’s ancestral home. She’s a Phelan, which is to say she’s an Ó Faoláin.
We have tacitly agreed that while in Waterford, I won’t mention my descent from the guy the hard cider is named after. Although while in Dublin I plan to quietly go to the National Gallery and see his wedding picture, which depicts his taking Irish Princess Aoife Ní Diarmait as his bride. (And if anyone asks me, I’ll stress that I’m just as much descended from her as I am from the Norman. Ahem. So don’t blame me.)
Having the two Phelans with me should give me all the cred I need among the Irish. Or so I hope.
Anyway, I’m really looking forward to it. So much so that I started reading Ulysses a few weeks back, to get into the mood. But a couple of “chapters” in, I decided that was unnecessary, and that having read Dubliners is more than enough preparation….
On Ash Wednesday, I usually wait until the Mass at night to go get my ashes. Of course, I do that with any holy day that comes in the week, such as… well, I guess Ash Wednesday is the main one… because it’s convenient: Get through the working day, go to Mass, go home.
But I know that a small part of the equation is that I don’t want to go around all day with the ashes on. And this is evidence of being a bad Catholic, I think. I mean, the whole point is to spend the day wearing an outward sign of penitence, right? Show everyone you’re sorry for your sins. I think.
It’s not that I’m embarrassed to show my faith. I do that all the time. In fact, I disobey Jesus’ admonition not to pray in public, by briefly saying grace wherever I sit down to eat. If there are people who are inclined to say, “Look at the crazy Christian,” they have ample opportunity. (Which is worse — praying in public, or failing to be grateful for one’s daily bread?)
But the ashes… They call for explanation. My mind goes back to a time shortly after I first became Catholic. It was Ash Wednesday, and I went into a Chinese restaurant with my ashes on. The proprietor helpfully told me in broken English that I had something on my forehead. I told him it was supposed to be there. This perplexed him, and I started trying to explain, but there was enough of a language barrier to make that impossible. Eventually, apparently deciding that the crazy foreign devil was making fun, he laughed. I gave up.
That was 30 something years ago, and I’m pretty sure that on some level I’m still trying to avoid having that conversation again. Partly because living in the South, many Christians don’t know about Ash Wednesday, much less other folk. So you have this situation where people are looking at you, and you figure they’re wondering about the ashes, and you can’t decide whether you should assume that and offer an explanation (evangelicals certainly would, if they followed this practice), or just let them wonder.
So I go at night, which minimizes interaction with the uninitiated.
And I feel a little bad about that.
I feel especially bad on this Ash Wednesday, because at breakfast I saw the guy above on a TV set, standing in front of the world with his ashes on. The sound was off, so I don’t know if he offered an explanation of his ashes or not.
Well, good for him. I applaud him. Among other things, he’s showing the world that journalists are not all a bunch of godless barbarians. And this one is on MSNBC, no less! Take that, all you alleged Christians who voted for Trump!
Anyway, I just looked at the schedule, and while I don’t think I’m going to make it to the noon Mass, I see there’s one at 5:30! I could go to that, instead of the 7:30!
“I say humbug to you, sir! We haven’t even had Thanksgiving yet!”
… ‘Cause I am.
I am not a Scrooge. I have been fully conditioned to say that, by a lifetime of seeing Scrooge — before the ghosts — as a bad guy, who was redeemed by getting into the Christmas Spirit.
But you’ll note, if you go back and read the story, that he got into the Christmas Spirit on Christmas Day — that is, on the first of the 12 days of actual Christmas.
If Scrooge had gone into Walmart on the day after Halloween, hoping to pick up some Brach’s Mellowcreme Pumpkins on sale, only to find all the Halloween stuff replaced by Christmas-themed merchandise — which actually happened to yours truly — I’d have called him a hero for crying “Humbug!”
And that’s what he’d have been: A hero. A man fighting a lonely fight against the cheapening and dilution of what was once a perfectly lovely holiday. Not the holiest day in the liturgical calendar, but a nice one nonetheless.
What put me in this Scroogesque mood? I made the mistake of listening to commercial radio for a few minutes this morning, and every ad I heard was Christmas-themed. And this is 13 days before the start of Advent, which is the whole season that occurs BEFORE Christmas arrives.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — Frank Capra really gets America. Or at least, he got the America of his day, and that means he got it the way I get it. (It feels like I was right there, in a previous life.)
“Young Mr. Lincoln” — If you don’t do anything else today, watch the clip above. You only have to watch the first minute and 18 seconds. It’s amazing, the best thing Henry Fonda ever did. I thought about Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which is magnificent and of course has superior, modern production values. But I had another Spielberg flick below, and besides, this one’s awesome.
“John Adams” — Yeah, this one’s a TV show, which is why I added the parenthetical in the headline. I can’t think of anything better on how America became America. And as I keep saying, Adams is my fave Founder. He’s the one who rammed independence through the Congress. Jefferson just wrote it out — because Adams picked him to do it.
“Saving Private Ryan” — Yeah, I know — Bud and maybe others will say, “This isn’t Veteran’s Day, nor yet Memorial Day!” Yeah, well, freedom isn’t free. And this is the best film evocation of that ever made. I get chills, and misty eyes, during the cemetery scenes at the start and end. July Fourth message to us all: Earn this!
“All the President’s Men” — Because America. Because First Amendment. Because scrappy newspapermen taking down a corrupt administration. Best part — the scenes in which Woodward and Bernstein interview people who do not want to talk to them. They are wonderfully ragged and awkward, which is what it’s like in real life. I really appreciate the director leaving them that way and not trying to slick them up, Hollywood-style.
I thought about posting this on Memorial Day itself, but decided to wait.
For me — a guy who’s all about some patriotism and support for the military (and if there’s a spectator sport I love, it’s baseball) — there’s something off-putting about those special uniforms MLB players donned over the holiday weekend.
It’s not just that it’s so contrived, such a cheesy, sterile form of tribute to men who died in the blood and noise and fury and filth and noise of battle. They did not wear clean, white uniforms with camouflage numbers. They did not wear caps that look as much like what a deer hunter would wear as anything you’d see on a soldier.
But there’s also something… decadent, something last-days-of-Rome about it.
Of course, I’m guilty of romanticizing baseball. I think of it in very anachronistic terms as a humble, pastoral game played by plain men who did it for the love of the sport, guys who maybe had one uniform to their names, and that uniform made of wool that caused them to roast in the summer sun. (And they liked it, as Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man would say.)
I just can’t help thinking of all the money spent on these uniforms that these players will probably wear only once. Which makes me think about how much — way too much — money there is in professional sports today, so much that vast sums can be thrown away on PR gestures that, as I said above, seem inadequate to the kind of tribute our war dead deserve.
I’m not blaming MLB here. This occurs in a context in which the fans, the entire society, seem to have lost all sense of materialistic restraint.
No doubt some will cite this as evidence that my Ménière’s has reached the point at which I need a hearing aid.
But in my defense, my wife was out in the hallway when she said this, and I was in the bathroom with the exhaust fan running — although the door, I admit, was open.
Anyway, she had come upstairs to tell me that her youngest brother was on his way to the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Memphis (my wife’s family, the Phelans, are real Irish Catholics, not pretenders like me), and that he had told her something alarming about that parade.
She said the people on the floats throw catechisms to the crowd.
At least, I thought that’s what she said. I considered it a bit odd — most such parades aren’t that, shall we say, holy — but nevertheless arguably appropriate, since St. Patrick converted the heathen Irish to Christianity.
Then my wife said something odder. She said she thought that sounded “dangerous.” I reflected that maybe so, if they were hardbacks. But they could throw paperbacks, and maybe there are some abridged, pocket-sized versions…
Then she said other things that made me wonder. I asked her to repeat the first thing she’d said.
This time, I thought she said they were throwing “catechists,” and that did sound dangerous. If you go throwing people, religious education teachers, off of floats, someone could get hurt.
But something about this version sounded even more suspicious, so I finally asked her directly whether she had indeed said they were throwing catechisms or catechists.
She roared with laughter at this point (which frankly I don’t think is the kindest way to deal with my affliction). She had been saying, “cabbages.” They were throwing cabbages from the floats.
Yeah, OK. That could be dangerous.
You can stop laughing now…
Look out! What’s that they’re throwing? The St. Patrick’s Day parade on Beale Street.
In that survey, of course, Donald Trump comes in dead last. There’s no other place to put him. He has rescued Buchanan from holding that spot permanently. Even among Republicans, he’s in the bottom five. That’s the thing about being a scholar — whatever your inclinations, you know certain things.
But other than that, there’s plenty of room for debate — although everybody has the same top three that I have.
Here’s my list:
Lincoln — There’s just no contest. We wouldn’t have or country today if not for Abe. He was such a perfect match for what the nation had to have at that moment that it’s the strongest suggestion in our history that God has a special place in His heart for America. Whether from divine cause or not, his appearance at that time was miraculous. His unmatched wisdom, his stunning eloquence, his almost superhuman political skills — even his sense of humor — all combined not only to keep the country together, but to address head-on the central political problem of our history. For four score and nine years (I’m counting to the 13th Amendment), the best minds in the country had been unable to deal with slavery. Lincoln got it done, decisively.
Roosevelt — For some of the same reasons Lincoln is No. 1 — he came along at just the right time, with just the right skills. His brilliance, his courage, his confidence, his ebullience, his ability as a patrician to connect with and inspire the poor and downcast, got us through not only the Depression but the worst, most destructive war in human history. A few months ago, I visited Warm Springs, and to think the way the man kept the nation’s spirits up while every day was such a physical struggle for him fills me with awe.
Washington — His time as president isn’t necessarily what impresses us most — his own particular talents may have been more clearly on display as a general. In the political sphere, Madison and Hamilton were proving moving and shaking things more. But given what we have today, the dignity he brought to the office, the bearing, is truly something to be appreciated. And he quit rather than run again after his second term, he relinquished power rather than become the monarch he might have been. We owe a lot to the American Cincinnatus.
Johnson — Here’s where I break with the experts. Even the Democrats among the scholars place him no higher than 8th. But considering how little the federal government has done since then, I remain amazed at the things he pushed through in 1964-65, the sweeping civil rights legislation, the significant steps in the direction of single-payer health care (alas, the last big steps we took.) Yep, everybody blames him for how he handled Vietnam — but he didn’t set out to do that; he just badly mishandled what he had inherited. He wanted to concentrate on his domestic programs. And we’d probably all be better off today if he had manage to do that.
Truman — OK, this was kind of a tossup among several people. I wanted to name my favorite Founder, John Adams — but he wasn’t all that distinguished as president, and there was the matter of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Teddy Roosevelt looms large, and he did a lot — in his own ways, he was as energetic a leader as his kinsman Franklin and LBJ. But I don’t want to get into a big argument defending the imperialism (and here we’re talking real imperialism, instead of the imaginary kind people have fantasized about in modern times). So let’s go with the unassuming guy whom everyone underestimated, but who got us through the end of the war that FDR had almost won, then won the peace, shaping America’s leadership role in building the postwar world order. And don’t forget the way he integrated the military, one of the first big steps toward desegregation. We could really use a man like him again.
My lonely Volvo on Assembly Street at mid-morning.
When I parked on Assembly Street this morning, I had an entire block of spaces to choose from. When I came back an hour later, my old Volvo was still alone, except for one car at the very end of the block that you can’t see in the picture above.
Were you off today? If so, fie on you.
Personally, I have never had a job in which this was a holiday.
That’s me interviewing Obama on MLK Day 2008 — taking notes with my right hand, shooting video with my left. With my Initech mug: “Is This Good for the COMPANY?”
I retweeted this today…
Dr. King was 26 when the Montgomery bus boycott began. He started small, rallying others who believed their efforts mattered, pressing on through challenges and doubts to change our world for the better. A permanent inspiration for the rest of us to keep pushing towards justice.
I passed it on not because it was particularly profound or unique or even one of our former president’s better Tweets, but because it reminded me of a better time for our country.
As it happens, I met Barack Obama 10 years ago, on MLK Day.
That was such a better time for our country.
McCain in the same seat, not long before.
A week before, we had endorsed John McCain in the SC Republican Primary, and he had won. We knew, when Barack Obama came in, that we liked him for the Democratic Primary in a few days. But this interview, at 8 a.m. on that holiday, cinched it. We were all very impressed. And since Hillary Clinton declined even to come in for an endorsement interview (I would learn why sometime later) and Joe Biden had dropped out much earlier, that was pretty much it.
As a result, I’ve never felt better about a presidential election than I did about that one — my last in newspaper journalism, although I didn’t know it at the time.
From the time McCain and Obama won their respective nominations, I referred to it as the win-win election. Whichever one won, I felt good about our countries future.
We endorsed McCain in the fall — I’d wanted him to be president since long before I’d heard of Barack Obama, and I was concerned about the Democrat’s lack of experience. But it was OK by me when the latter won. It was the win-win election.
Fast-forward eight years, and we find the Democrat we rejected then running against the worst candidate ever to capture a major-party nomination in our nation’s history — and as if that weren’t bad enough, the worst man won. And we are reminded of that daily, as he goes from outrage to outrage.
So it’s good, if only for a day, to look back and remember a time, not so long ago, when all our prospects seemed good.