Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

The recent brouhaha over this summer's New York City Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar begs the question: can people really be that stupid?

OK I know things have been touchy, especially since Republican congressman Steve Scalise was shot by a Bernie Sanders supporter last week. The Trumpers are taking full advantage of the unfortunate incident to promote their world view that Democrats, liberals, progressives, Trump detractors, in other words, all the people who are destroying this country, are entirely responsible for the acrimony that is currently dividing the land. Then comes this Fox News report: New York is staging a play where an actor dressed as Donald Trump is assassinated at the end of the play. Given that limited information, even I would be appalled. Much as I can't stand Trump and all he stands for, I cringe at any suggestion that the president of the United States could or should be assassinated.

But let's get real, this is William Shakespeare. His Julius Caesar is a 400 year old play that everyone in this country with a high school education should at least be tacitly familiar with. For starters, there has been a long standing tradition of producers taking liberties with the staging and timelines of Shakespeare's plays. Then there's the work itself; the title character, no matter who he is dressed up to look like, doesn't get assassinated at the end of the play, but smack dab in the middle. The rest of  Julius Caesar deals with the consequences of the assassination. Things don't work out so well for the the conspirators, for Rome, or whatever government the producers wish to evoke, or in fact, for democracy. The play is after all, a tragedy, at least if you're paying attention.

The moral of the story, expressed in Cliffs Notes fashion that one would think, everyone should be able to understand is this: "be careful what you wish for."

Given that, the genius of producing the play with Caesar dressed as Trump, sends a not too subtle message to Trump detractors, myself included, that perhaps our single-minded obsession with the premature termination of this presidency by any means, needs to be re-examined.

That point was lost on many Fox viewers, (aka Trump supporters), who saw the on-stage murder of a character who looked like Trump, as a credible call to assassinate the president. At least two major corporate sponsors pulled the plug on their support of The Public Theater, the producers of the play. Even Shakespeare himself is taking a hit. Taking a cue from the president, who is himself chronologically challenged, repertory theaters around the country have been receiving threats from right wing nut jobs, because they too produce plays by that no good leftist snowflake known as "the Bard".

The nonsense started to calm down a bit after conservative media star Laura Ingraham tweeted: "How many would storm the stage if Obama was stabbed?" As many were quick to point out, in 2012, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis staged a production of Julius Caesar where the title character was indeed dressed up to look like Barack Obama. Hardly anyone complained. It turns out that Delta Airlines, one of the sponsors who pulled the plug on their contributions to The Public Theater, continues to support the Guthrie, despite its alleged affront to the former president.

After it became clear that the hysterics were unjustified, with egg on their face, many of the play's detractors wisely dropped the subject.

But there are still folks out there who just don't, or won't get it. Here is a New Yorker article about a pair of right wing activists who disrupted the New York play during the murder scene. Not surprising, right wing commentators including Ingraham, and Donald Trump's personal lap dog, Fox's Sean Hannity, support the hecklers, proclaiming their removal from the theater, and subsequent arrest for trespassing and disorderly conduct, is a violation of the pair's "freedom of speech."

It just so happens that the other day was the anniversary of the Watergate break-in. I watched a TV documentary made by Robert Redford commemorating the event. It got me thinking about Richard Nixon and his fall from grace. Those of us who remember him tend to think of Nixon in broad generalities, his arms raised above his head while both hands give the "V" for victory salute, his head shake, his scowl, and his unfortunate, most famous quote, "I am not a crook." But Nixon was a very complicated man who accomplished a great deal of good, along with the bad, during his presidency. His fall was indeed as they say, "Shakespearian". I'm no expert on the Bard but I'm certain that you can find comparisons in many of his characters, King Richard II perhaps, or one of the King Henrys, to Richard Nixon.

Trump is not complicated in the least and is anything but Shakespearian. He's more like a cartoon villain. The one that comes immediately to mind is Snidley Wiplash, the mustachioed archenemy of the aptly named Royal Canadian Mountie, Dudley Do-Right from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. OK I'm dating myself, another one that comes to mind is Mr. Burns, the ancient robber-barron owner of the local nuclear power plant on The Simpsons. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Trump views the greedy, narcissistic Mr. Burns as a role model.

On the other hand, Shakespeare has Caesar say this shortly before he is murdered:
I could be well moved, if I were as you.
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me.
But I am constant as the Northern Star,
Of whose true fixed and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks;
They are all fire and every one doth shine.
But there's but one in all doth hold his place.
So in the world: 'tis furnished well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive.
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion; and that I am he
Let me a little show it, even in this:
That I was constant Cimber should be banished,
And constant do remain to keep him so.
Come to think of it, didn't the Donald say something very similar, in not so many words, at the Republican convention in Cleveland last summer?
I alone can fix it.
Maybe there is something to this Trump/Caesar comparison after all.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Catastrophe and Catharsis

During WWII, my father was a forced laborer from Czechoslovakia, working and living in Berlin. Late in his life I talked to him in depth about what certainly had to be a harrowing experience, enduring not only the loss of his freedom, forced exile in the country that brutally occupied his own, and life under a tyrannical dictatorship, but also living in a city under constant bombardment courtesy of the Americans by day, and the British by night. "Oh it wasn't so bad..." he told me with a wry smile, "...I was a young man living in a city where all its male citizens were off at war." He didn't have to fill in the details.

Talk about making the best of a bad situation.

I thought of this the other day as I was doing some reading about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Through all the tremendous devastation and loss of life*, the city not only recovered, but it prospered. Only the hiccup of a nation-wide panic and brief depression in 1873 and 1874, prevented the city from being rebuilt in half a decade. By 1880 there was barely a trace of the fire at all.

"Chicago in Flames" The Great Fire of 1871
Hand colored Lithograph based upon a sketch by John R. Chapin
published by  Currier & Ives
That's not to say there was not great suffering for the survivors, many of whom with little or no resources found their lives would be never return to normal. Many Chicago Fire survivors left the city never to return. But far more came than left. Like my father who saw an opportunity and seized upon it in Berlin, people saw the tremendous opportunity of being part of rebuilding the devastated Chicago. Between the years 1870 and 1880, the population of the city nearly doubled to half a million residents. Ten years later, over one million people called Chicago home.

I've often thought about what Chicago would be like today had it not been for the fire. Mark Twain had the same thought 134 years ago:
New Orleans, I believe, has had the good luck--and in a sense the bad luck-- to have had no great fire in late years. It must be so. If the opposite had been the case, I think one would be able to tell the 'burnt district' by the radical improvement in its architecture over the old forms. One can do this in Boston and Chicago. 
In 1891, a writer for the journal Industrial Chicago put it more succinctly:
Those fires were fortunate events for the Garden City as a whole, and none profited directly from them, so much as art and architects,  for the flames swept away forever the greater number of monstrous libels on artistic house-building, while only destroying the few noble buildings of which Old Chicago could boast.
Would Chicago really be a much different place today without the Fire? After all, the die was cast for the contemporary city well before October of 1871. By then, all rail lines in the Midwest led to Chicago. At the same time, the Illinois/Michigan Canal was still operating, the only water transportation conduit between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. The grain elevators and the commodities exchanges, both invented here, that would forever change the way farmers got their product to market, were well established by the 1870s and would be back up and running in a nick of time. Chicago as the transportation hub of the midwest, was already a major center of manufacturing, and much of that was untouched by the Fire.

By 1871, much of the physical layout of Chicago had already been established. The massive undertaking of raising the street grade was well underway. Chicago's property lots and rigorous street grid had been conceived, if not already established throughout town, and the boulevard greenway system and parks that would ring what were at the time Chicago's city limits had begun to take shape. Thanks to Potter Palmer and his speculative investments, State Street became the main commercial street of Chicago, taking the place of Lake Street, and with that, the major axis of the city turned ninety degrees from east/west to north/south, following the lakefront.

The major obstacle to the practical construction of tall buildings was overcome in 1864 as the first steam driven elevator was installed in Chicago in the Charles B. Farwell Store in Wabash Avenue. That alone did not solve the second obstacle, making elevators safe enough for people to want to ride in them. Great steps were made in that direction in 1870 when the first hydraulic elevator was initialed in the Burley and Company Warehouse on West Lake Street. We know that those contraptions became accepted, albeit hesitantly by the general public from the accounts of people being rescued from stalled lifts in Chicago's posh hotels during the Fire.

Chicago is known around the world for its innovative architecture, especially in regards to the construction of tall, commercial buildings. As the Mark Twain and Industrial Chicago quotes sited above suggest, we have the Great Fire to thank for that. But is that true?

Once the elevator became commonplace, the urge to cram as much rentable space into a single lot became inevitable, especially in the highly valuable property of the central business district. The race to build taller buildings was well underway before that famous blaze began near Mrs. O'Leary's barn after that long hot, dry summer of 1871.

On top of that, most of the architects who would create the new architecture that became known as the Commercial Style or the Chicago School of Architecture, including Dankmar AdlerWilliam HolabirdMartin Roche, and Daniel Burnham already lived in Chicago as young men at the time of the Great Fire. With the exception of Adler, all of these future shapers of Chicago's built environment came through in one capacity or other, the office of William LeBaron Jenney, who before the Fire was responsible for among other things, the original design of the three great West Side parks, Humboldt, Central (later named Garfield) and Douglas, and the boulevards that connected them.

The earlier generation of architects responsible for many of the buildings of the pre-fire city, most notably John van Osdel and William Boyington were still active and quite busy after the Fire. The tallest buildings in Chicago until 1895, were the works of those two architects. In fact Chicago, the Second City which sprung up almost as soon as the ruins from the fire to began cool down, didn't look all that different from the First City. You can see for yourself as a number of 1870s post-fire buildings still exist, many of them concentrated just north of the River on Clark and Wells Streets. There you can still find in tact, buildings graced by Italianate facades that were the fashion of the day, before and after the fire.

So as we've seen, the groundwork for the Chicago we know today was clearly laid well before the Chicago Fire. Would it then be reasonable to say that the Fire was a mere setback, delaying what would have been the inevitable development of the current city?

Author Ross Miller in his book The Great Chicago Fire, argues no, the conflagration was in fact Chicago's seminal moment, a catharsis that allowed the city to wash away all its past mistakes, and start from scratch, enabling Chicago to become much greater city.

Barely four decades old at the  time of the fire, Chicago was already developing bad habits. The insatiable lust for instant profit meant little attention was given toward the future.

The children of the the pioneers who settled this city, the folks whose names you see streets named after, as so often is the case, became used to a comfortable life with little sense of obligation:
Seen from a  distance, pioneers like Butler and Ogden became models of respectability, combining Eastern education with the demands of Western settlement, They became the Chicago establishment. Set up in fine houses and rich enough for philanthropy, Chicago's first generation had time for pieties and church-going. Fortunes already in hand, they looked for ways to spend their money and perpetuate their newly minted good reputations. Their sons and daughters, with the pressure of making money removed, lacked any direction. ... Playboys and dilettantes, especially before the fire, appeared to be Chicago's legacy. 
The fire was a truly democratic catastrophe, it wiped out the homes of the rich and the poor alike. Of course with greater resources at their disposal, the rich had a far easier time to get back on their feet, but the fire created a bond between people living in Chicago in October 1871, those who lived anyway. They had all been tested by fire, and survived. Consequently, the term "Chicagoan" gained currency throughout the world. Quoting from the introduction to Robert Cromie's book of the same title, Miller throws in this tidbit:
You could tell a Chicagoan in any city of the world, for he would not talk a minute, scarcely until he would let you know he was from Chicago.
Before the Fire, outrageous land speculation led to tremendous fortunes won but mostly lost. Shoddy construction, haphazard building techniques, and simple lack of attention to detail, led to a city that was an eight square mile tinderbox, a disaster waiting to happen.
On a strictly economic and political basis, Chicago in the months and years after the fire could be shown to have made a startling correction for four decades of nearly random, unplanned development, ...Real estate speculators who had suffered severe losses might in the future be less reckless; their buildings would be made of better materials. The fire because it "checked the too rapid rebuilding of the city in all directions", would lead to a rebuilding of the city's central business district. In addition, by getting rid of failing or marginal businesses, the fire could be seen as a purifying act.
A fitting metaphor could be the fires that periodically sweep through the Midwestern prairies, ridding the land of dead plants and providing nutrients to the soil to insure strong and healthy new growth. Chicago of course, is built upon those very prairies.

Just as the fire's tremendous devastation was made possible by a great storm of concurrent unfortunate events, the recovery of the city was made possible because it came precisely at the crossroads of 19th century technological innovation and creativity.
Out of necessity, the city was compelled to welcome experimentation. Chicago was burned out of an earlier and relatively primitive form of industrialization into the most modern. In this environment, techniques that might have remained dormant under normal conditions of urban growth were perfected and them rigorously tested. 
Finally, it there is any doubt that the fire inexorably altered the direction of the course of this city, take a good look at the list of Chicago architects who lived in Chicago at the time of the Great Fire. They represent an honor roll of builders who shaped the look of the city in the last half of the 19th Century and beyond. But there are two prominent names missing from that list, both of whom came to Chicago because of the Fire.

They are Louis Sullivan and John Wellborn Root.

I'll deal with them in my next post in my series on the tall buildings of Chicago.

* Until fairly recent times, city-destroying conflagrations were not uncommon. What is something of a mystery is the very unpredictable death rate caused by such calamities. I've always assumed that the 300 or so who died in the Great Chicago Fire was a remarkably low number, given the ferociousness of the fire and the enormity of damage it left in its wake. That is until I discovered that during the Great London Fire of 1666, all of six people perished. On the other hand, during the earthquake and resulting fires in San Francisco in 1906, nearly 3,000 people died.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Whatever Ailes You

Late Thursday evening two weeks ago, my wife awoke me from a deep sleep to tell me that some really serious stuff was about to go down in Washington. From her reading of news articles posted by her friends on social media, the following day would be a Black Friday, not only for the Trump administration, but also for the Republican leadership in Congress. From the stories she was reading, damning proof would be released the next day of collusion with the Russians in their hacking of the last US presidential election that went beyond the president, to the Vice President and the Speaker of the House. Black Friday would be the beginning of the end not only for President Trump, but also Vice President Pence and Speaker Ryan. Following the line of succession, the new president would be the current president pro tempore of the United States Senate, Orrin Hatch.

I have to admit that in my drowsy state, I bought into the news reports, and was downright giddy. Some of Gerald Ford's first words as President after Richard Nixon's resignation came to mind:
Our long national nightmare is over: Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.
I put myself to sleep that evening figuring out ways to explain to my Trump supporting friends that no, this was not a tragedy for the country, but rather a glorious day that proved once and for all that our government ruled by law prevailed over a would be despot who had his sights on undermining our constitution and thereby dismantling our democratic republic.

Needless to say, the tide did not turn the next day. There would be no Black Friday, or Black Saturday or Sunday for that matter. The glorious victory for the constitution and our rule of law would have to be postponed for another day, if ever.

And with that realization, I came back to my senses. It goes both ways of course, There are means in place to remove a president and other political leaders in the case of malfeasance. But for very good reasons, it is not a simple process. Our rule of law demands that even a mischievous president deserves due process. Our government needs to be protected from a capricious citizenry as well as a capricious president.

In that sense, my Trump supporting friends have a point. Perhaps we Trump detractors have a far too myopic focus on the impeachment of this president. The crux of their argument is unassailable. Donald Trump was elected president within the rules of our electioral system, and those of us who did not support him are angry because of the unusual way he won.

First of all, he didn't win the popular vote, but won enough electoral votes to put him over the top. The day after the election, a Trump supporting friend likened the Electoral College to a playoff series in sports, where the ultimate winner is not determined by the total number of points (i.e.: votes) scored over the duration of the series, but the number of games (i.e.: state contests) won. That sounded reasonable to me. I may not have liked it, but that's how the game is played.

Immediately, the 1960 World Series came to mind. In the seven games of that series, the New York Yankees scored 55 runs while their opponents, the Pittsburgh Pirates scored only 27. But as every person from the Steel City can tell you, a ball hit off the bat of Pirate second baseman Bill Mazeroski sailed over the head of Yankee left fielder Yogi Berra, then the fence of old Forbes Field and into Schenley Park, Pittsburgh at 3:36 PM on October 13th to break a 9-9 tie in the 10th inning of game seven.

Now anyone who knows anything about baseball will tell you on paper anyway, that Yankees team who was in the midst of their greatest streak of championships in their storied history, was by far the better team. But look it up and you will find that the champion of the 1960 season was indeed the Pittsburgh Pirates. Yes friends, Donald Trump in a sense, is the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates of politics, only not as likable.

We're also upset because the Russians, who from all evidence, strongly preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton, hacked the election. Once again the Trump supporters have a point; despite the hacking, there is no evidence, yet anyway, that Russian mischief had any impact on the outcome of the election.

Finally there was that little matter of (now former) FBI director James Comey publicly announcing the week before the election, that he was re-opening the bureau's investigation of Clinton's use of a private e-mail server, over which she sent classified information. Despite Comey's later announcement that the FBI came up with no new information about Clinton, the seeds of suspicion were planted in the minds of undecided voters, and the damage was done. No one will ever know the extent to which Comey's unorthodox statements coming when they did, affected the outcome of the election, but one would hope that Donald Trump sent Comey a very nice Christmas present after he was elected president in November, that is, before he unceremoniously fired him three weeks ago.

Irritating as the Comey affair was to Trump detractors, it's unlikely that Comey was intentionally working on Trump's behalf when he made his statement, after all, he was working at the time under the administration of Barack Obama, who appointed him to the job in 2013.

So Trump supporters are absolutely correct when they say that his opponents are angry that he won. Beyond that however, their argument gets shall we say, a little goofy.

So incredulous that Hillary Clinton lost, say the Trump supporters, that Clinton and Barack Obama have taken it upon themselves to launch a massive resistance movement, all of which is bankrolled by the hedge fund billionaire, liberal gadfly, and darling of right-wing conspiracy theorists, George Soros. It is impossible according to them, that millions of people could be acting on their own in opposition to the new president, therefore someone must be paying them.

My first question to that accusation is this: "Hey George, where's my check?" My second question to that is: "no, seriously, where's the money?"

What Trump supporters fail to accept, or more likely admit, are the unbelievable number of missteps, screwups, lapses of judgement, and all out chicanery of the Trump administration, misdeeds so numerous said comedian Bill Maher, that he could not name them all without having to stop at some point to shave.

If you ask Trump supporters today what they think of the man for whom they voted for president in November, most of the time their response will not mention Trump at all. Instead you are likely to hear disparaging remarks about "Obummer", "Killary", the "libtard snowflakes" (translation: liberals so sensitive they need to retreat into the "safe zone" of like minded people), or "fake news" presented to gullible liberals by "The Lying Media". If they do mention Trump, they will lament how liberals, under the influence of the Svengali-like, agenda-driven main stream media, are so unfair to Donald Trump. Then without a trace of irony, Trump supporters say they are incredulous at the amount of hatred those people have against their man. After all they say, "we put up with eight years of Obama, why can't they put up with eight years of Trump?"

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, titled If Liberals Hate Him, Then Trump Must be Doing Something Right, conservative radio host, (but no Trump supporter), Charlie Sykes argues that ad hominum attacks of the Left, rather than critical thinking or rational discourse on policy, have become the hallmark of the rhetoric of pro-Trump ideology:
While there are those like Sean Hannity who are reliable cheerleaders for all things President Trump, much of the conservative news media is now less pro-Trump than it is anti-anti-Trump. The distinction is important, because anti-anti-Trumpism has become the new safe space for the right....
For the anti-anti-Trump pundit, whatever the allegation against Mr. Trump, whatever his blunders or foibles, the other side is always worse.
A friend of mine put it more succinctly the other day. He said the reason Trump supporters don't defend Trump is because you cannot defend the indefensible.

As there is no reasonable justification for Donald Trump and his performance up to this point, the only talking points left for his supporters is to harp on Obama, Clinton, and all those nasty 'liberals", the name Trump supporters give to people who do not support their man, regardless of their political leanings. In other words, in his opposition to Trump, the Republican Charlie Sykes much to his chagrin I'm sure, in Trump supporter's minds is no different from Al Sharpton. As a result, our country becomes more bitter, divided, and clueless each day.

I've written before of the cavernous gap that is dividing this country, but didn't have a concrete idea as to where it all came from until last week with the death of Roger Ailes. Quite honestly, I had never heard of Ailes until he was booted out as the boss of Fox News last year. As I've caught up with his life posthumously, I've concluded that Ailes has to be considered a maverick, one of the most influential and powerful men in this country in the past 40 years or so, largely responsible for the elections of every Republican president since Richard M. Nixon.

The story goes something like this. In 1967, the Republican candidate for president, Dick Nixon, was about to appear on the Mike Douglas variety show. The young Roger Ailes, at the time a producer of the show, took the future president aside and commented to him that the candidate needed TV because "television is not a gimmick." It's a little hard for me to believe that Nixon needed any convincing of that as he lost the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy, largely because he came off bad in the famous TV debates, compared to the suave, better prepared, and make up wearing JFK. Regardless, Ailes made enough of an impression on Nixon and top aide, H.R. Haldeman, that the latter suggested his boss hire Ailes to be his television advisor in 1970. According to a New York Times article published last week after Ailes' death: significant as what Mr. Ailes taught Nixon is what Nixon taught Mr. Ailes: the political power of popular resentment against a liberal cultural elite.
In his career, Ailes took those lessons to heart. His greatest contribution to the American scene went far beyond his role as kingmaker. In 1996, Ailes created, Fox News. The seeds of Fox were planted in two commercials made for George H.W. Bush, while Ailes worked his magic on his campaign in 1988. The first was a swipe at the proposals of Bush's opponent, Michael J. Dukakis, in regards to military spending which concludes with a humiliating shot of Dukakis playing soldier, looking like a small child while riding aboard a tank. Then there was the infamous Willie Horton ad which played on the fears and righteous indignation of Middle America.

Much has been written in the subsequent years about how the Horton ad either did or did not affect the outcome of that election. But there can be little doubt that the idea of a criminal in jail on a life sentence, being let out of prison for the weekends thereby enabling him to rape and murder innocent people, certainly ignited the fury of a good many people. That Horton, an African American male, looked particularly scary and threatening in the photograph of him used in the commercial, certainly drove the message home.

According to the Times piece, Ailes:
... transmogrified (Dukakis) from an immigrant success story and consummate technocrat into a namby-pamby liberal who opposed the Pledge of Allegiance and succored criminals like the murderer and rapist William Horton.
By now the origins of Fox News are well known, Ailes, for years derided the main stream media and its (in his view) liberal agenda. He would create an alternative network that spoke to the political leanings of right-wing middle America. At the core of that mission would be the same messages found in those two commercials: this country is going to hell in a hand basket because of those damn namby-pamby liberals who have no respect for this nation's traditional values. The demographic for Fox was, and continues to be overwhelmingly white and old, the average age of a Fox viewer is close to 70 years of age. Fox plays upon its viewers fears, fear of crime, fear of foreigners, fear of minorities, fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of whatever. Fox has mastered the art of igniting the righteous indignation of its viewers with it's incessant attacks on "liberal" values such as universal health care, equal opportunity, open borders, and the ever popular, "political correctness." You will find very little substance as far as political philosophy or policy matters on Fox, hardly any meaningful dialog between people of opposing views, and certainly no reflection or self-criticism. If there is someone on Fox who supports an opposing view of the network, that person most likely will be shouted down by three or four other pundits with their own "correct" opinions,  that is to say, those of the management.What you will find is plenty of condemnation of the other side, usually in the form of humiliation, much like the kind found in the Dukakis tank ad. Frequent targets of those attacks are the usual suspects, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, along with liberal politicians and celebrities who suffer from frequent bouts of foot-in-mouth disease such as Maxine Waters and Katy Perry.

More than anyone besides Roger Ailes, Fox News owes its success to Bill Clinton. In 1998, Fox was put on the map in the words of a New Yorker article, by its "gleefully censorious coverage of Bill Clinton’s sex scandals". Its salacious coverage of Clinton's numerous escapades put Fox at the top of the charts of cable news networks, where it has remained until very recently. Fox's recent slip in ratings corresponded to the downfall of Ailes, whose own penchant for the sexual abuse of his employees was revealed, as well as that of their biggest star, Bill O'Reilly.

Clinton was impeached because of his scandals which Fox relentlessly exploited, but he managed to stay on his feet and served out the remainder of his term. But lives were irrevocably damaged if not destroyed as a result of Fox's shameless coverage of the event. At the center of the storm, was a 22 year old intern named Monica Lewinsky, Now because of her mistakes, Lewinsky as a consenting adult must bear part of the burden for the negative feelings directed at her by the public. But in large part thanks to Ailes and Fox, Lewinsky became a pariah, a national laughing stock, exploited mercilessly by the media and the public alike. Even feminists refused to rally around her. Few Americans in recent memory have been as universally scorned, least of all Bill Clinton, her partner in the tryst. Needless to say, Fox and other networks' coverage of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair was driven by ratings. We the public drank it up like a glass of cold water in the middle of the Mojave Desert. In our rush to judge Ms. Lewinsky, as a nation we hit rock bottom as far as compassion, empathy and moral rectitude are concerned. Consequently, we as a nation got exactly what we deserved, Fox.

But Monica Lewinsky got the last laugh. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times,  published shortly after Ailes's death, she exposed the bold-faced hypocrisy of Roger Ailes and his media outlet:
Our world — of cyberbullying and chyrons, trolls and tweets — was forged in 1998. It is, as the historian Nicolaus Mills has put it, a “culture of humiliation,” in which those who prey on the vulnerable in the service of clicks and ratings are handsomely rewarded...

...On Fox, it seemed, no rumor was too unsubstantiated, no innuendo too vile and no accusation too abhorrent... 
...As the past year has revealed, thanks to brave women like Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly, it is clear that at Fox, this culture of exploitation wasn’t limited to the screen. The irony of Mr. Ailes’s career at Fox — that he harnessed a sex scandal to build a cable juggernaut and then was brought down by his own — was not lost on anyone who has been paying attention.
As Newton's third law of motion states, "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." That law works for cable news networks just as well as for objects in motion. Thanks to Fox, biased, boutique news outlets are no longer exclusively the purview of the right. Today whatever your political ideology may be, you can find a news source that will give you all the news you want to hear. A left-of-center version of Fox, MSNBC, now leads the ratings for cable news networks. While their journalistic street cred is higher than Fox's, that network makes no bones about promoting a staunchly liberal agenda. Tuning into MSNBC today you are as likely to hear unrelenting reports about new evidence of impeachable offenses in the Trump administration (at the expense of all other news),  as you are to tune into Fox and hear BREAKING NEWS about something Hillary Clinton did back in 2014, or more breaking news that new evidence has emerged that proves once and for all that Barack Obama's birth certificate was forged.

Ironically, liberal news commentators at MSNBC such as Lawrence O'Donnell, Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow, owe their current celebrity to Roger Ailes, as MSNBC would not exist, at least as it does today, without Fox.

And so it goes, the left has its own news sources, the right has its own, and never the twain shall meet. For better or worse, the days of everyone tuning into the same news source are long gone. Thanks to cable TV and the internet, the variety of published expressed opinions and ideas has never been more available to the general public, which by and large is a good thing.  But perhaps the consequence of all that is the fact that fewer opinion outlets (as genuine news outlets are becoming harder and harder to find), are willing to exchange in meaningful debate or self-reflection, but rather incessantly pound their message into the heads of their subscribers, as if the failure to do so, would mean losing ground in the battle, not just for ratings, but for political supremacy as well. Genuine discourse, critical thinking, and respect for a plurality of opinions, are sadly becoming things of the past.

We have Roger Ailes to thank for that. He was a true visionary and innovator. And we are all the poorer for it because of him.

Decoration Day

The bookends of summer in the United States are two very important holidays, Memorial Day and Labor Day. They are especially important because they both commemorate people whose contributions and sacrifices to this country have enabled all of us to live in relative freedom and prosperity, blessings that most of us take for granted today. A good example of that is how many of us confuse the two holidays. Just the other day before the long weekend, more than one person wished me a happy Labor Day.

Like everything these days it seems, Memorial Day has been politicised. It has now become de-rigeur in some circles to chastise folks who wish each other a "Happy Memorial Day." No, this is not a happy day of  frivolity they say, it is a day of solemn remembrance of our servicemen and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice for this country. Well it certainly is that, but it does seem to be rather heavy handed to insist that it cannot be both a day of remembrance, and a day to celebrate. After all the men and women who served AND died in their service, did not die so that we would forever be in their debt (that part goes without saying), they died so that we could be free.

Memorial Day has its roots in ancient customs of special days devoted to visiting cemeteries and decorating the graves dead loved ones. The most famous of these events, one that is very much alive and well to this day, is Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which is celebrated in Mexico between October 31st and November 2nd. The holiday is anything but a solemn day of mourning, but a a day of celebration and festivities, designed to re-connect those of us in the land of the living, with our loved ones who have gone to their eternal reward.

Foreign as these festivities may seem today to those of us who do not share that particular culture, most cultures had similar festivities involving gathering at cemeteries to honor the dead and to maintain the graves of loved ones. These days were called Decoration Days. In the days before cemeteries that insured the perpetual maintenance of gravesites, these events not only helped bond the living with the dead, but also provided a means to maintain their graves, preventing them from being swallowed up by nature.

The established American practice of a Decoration Day to honor the war dead, probably began in the South during the Civil War where the tradition of setting aside a day to lay flowers at the graves of fallen soldiers took place, The practice was picked up sporadically in the North as well. No American war was as costly as our Civil War where over 600,000 lives were lost. So profound was the loss that national cemeteries were founded just to house the remains of dead soldiers. The most famous consecration of such a place of honor, took place on November 19, 1863 in the town of Gettysburg, PA, four months after the battle that took place outside of town that claimed about 51,000 lives on both sides.

Monument to General John A. Logan, Grant Park, Chicago
The idea of setting aside an official national Decoration Day to honor the Civil War dead, came after the war and was initiated by John A. Logan, a Union Civil War general and Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic. The first observance of Decoration Day in the United States was May 30, 1868. The date was chosen because it was not an anniversary of any significant battle of the war and because it was an ideal day for flowers to be in bloom.

Gradually, Decoration Day began to be observed on May 30th on a state by state basis in the north, while each southern state had its own day of remembrance for the Confederate dead, which many still observe to this day. It wasn't until World War I, where the day would become a remembrance for the fallen soldiers of all wars, not just the Civil War. The term "Memorial Day" was coined in the 1880s but never took hold until the 1970s, when the holiday was officially recognized in all fifty states.

Memorial Day has become a patriotic day of parades, picnics, and a celebration as the first official day of summer. Critics say much of the significance of the day has been lost since observation of the holiday was moved from May 30, to the last Monday of May, creating a three day weekend for most working people. Perhaps this is true. But I see no harm in celebrating this day. After all, we as a nation owe a great deal of debt to the men and women of the armed services who have fought and sometimes died in order to keep us free. Now that, is something to celebrate.

We owe it to them to remember them, but more importantly to remember that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Wrapping ourselves in the flag or making empty patriotic gestures on this or any other day means nothing. We must keep in mind that threats to the values of this nation not only come from abroad, but from within. Our own hubris, greed, sloth, hatred of those not like ourselves, self-serving attitudes, unrelenting lust for power, and perhaps most importantly, our lack of concern for the lives of other people, are as much a threat to our democratic principles, as threats from any outside power. We owe it to our servicemen and women, especially those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, to take part in our democracy, to vote, and when we see fit, to use our voices against oppression, injustice, and intolerance, and most of all, to care about our nation and our world. If we fail, then their sacrifice will have been in vain.

On this Memorial Day, I give thanks to all of you who have devoted yourself in service to this country. Your sacrifice and devotion will never be forgotten. And to all I wish you without reservation, a happy Memorial Day.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Monumental Headaches

When I was in high school, I read Boss, Mike Royko's muckraking portrait of Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley. Despite being dismayed at the appalling abuse of power by Daley, who inherited the Cook County Democratic Organization from his predecessors and fine tuned it, well, like a machine, there was always something fascinating to me about the man who ran the city of Chicago from the fifties to the seventies. I regularly attended City Council meetings and sat transfixed, especially when the old man went into one of his famous rants. When Richard J. Daley died, late in 1976, I experienced a profound sense of loss, as I'm sure most lifelong Chicagoans did, who felt the same way about the only mayor many of them ever knew. Admiration for Daley was for me, a kind of guilty pleasure.

I had a similar feeling during my all too infrequent visits down south, upon visiting monuments to Confederate heroes that you find in virtually every city below the Mason Dixon Line. Being a Yankee through and through, I had contempt for the Rebels and especially for their cause. Yet I've always had a fascination with the Civil War and a hesitant admiration for the players on both sides of that tragic conflagration. It was indeed a guilty pleasure for me to see monuments that needless to say, would be quite out of place back home in the Land of Lincoln.

I remember Monument Avenue in Richmond, the most beautiful street in town, lined with grand old trees, post-bellum mansions and churches. Sprinkled in between are the eponymous monuments of famous sons of the South, most of whom came to prominence during the "War of Northern Aggression" as they still call it down there. For good measure, there's also a monument to tennis star, AIDS activist, Richmond native, and all around good guy, Arthur Ashe.

Looking down St. Charles Avenue toward the Robert E. Lee Monument
New Orleans, 1990
Then there was the memorial to Robert E. Lee which prominently stood at the point where St. Charles Avenue enters Downtown New Orleans. That statue was installed on top of a sixty foot column in 1884. General Lee stood at that location, looking north (toward his enemy), until last week. The Lee memorial would be the last of four Confederate monuments to be removed from the Crescent City this year.

It should come as a surprise to no one that the removal of these statues has been controversial. Borrowing a strategy out of the playbook of Richard J. Daley's son Ritchie, workers removed three of the four monuments in the dead of night, wearing masks no less so as not to reveal their identities. Small wonder, tensions ran incredibly high. The contractor originally hired to perform the work backed out after his Lamborghini sports car was torched, and a member of the Mississippi State Legislator, Karl Oliver, made the insightful statement that politicians who supported the removal of the monuments "should be lynched." Oliver  later retracted and apologized for the comment.

As someone who is particularly interested in historic preservation, it pains me to see the removal of landmarks that have been around for nearly a century and a half. On the other hand, I am not African American, someone for whom the men memorialized by those statues, represent the enslavement of my people. 

OK I understand there was more to the Civil War than slavery; we could carry on a conversation all night explaining the causes of the costliest war in our nation's history. But no matter how you slice it, it all comes down to slavery. The fact is, human misery, injustice and morality trump all other matters. Just as you can't have a meaningful conversation about the German government during World War II without bringing up the Final Solution and the Holocaust, you can't address the motivations of the Confederate States to secede from the United States without bringing up the issue of slavery. To some white southerners, the Confederate politicians and generals, and the events of the Civil War represent, honor, gallantry, and the hopes and dreams of a long lost and to them, better world. To black southerners, those men and events represent bigotry, oppression and slavery. So something's gotta give.

The justifications for saving the monuments center around avoiding the obfuscation of history and the slippery slope of removing landmarks some people find offensive. The tone of their discourse ranges from thoughtful and reasonable arguments, to incoherent diatribes about "whining offended liberal crybabies" that we have heard ad nauseam in our current political climate. In fact, opposition to the removal of the statues has become a cause celebre for the self-imposed haters of the left, in both the north and the south.  

Essentially, the defenders of keeping the monuments in place say that their removal represents the white-washing of history at the hands of people who are motivated by political correctness, rather than concern for culture, history and the truth. 

Not so said Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, who delivered last week a most eloquent argument in favor of the removal of the monuments from their current locations. 

In his brilliant, passionate and courageous address to his city, Landrieu claimed that the construction of the monuments in the 1880s was in itself, a whitewashing of history, a deliberate attempt by members of a group who labeled themselves as "the cult of the lost cause" to promote their own agenda regarding the ideals of antebellum culture.

Mayor Landrieu painted a far different picture of the men honored by those statues than the one promoted by their supporters:
It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.
From an article published in the Winter 1975 issue of Tennessee Historical Quarterly titled The Cult of the "Lost Cause" author John A. Simpson described the means by which members of this cult achieved their goals:
More than anything else, their strategy utilized a mystique of chivalric Southern soldiers and the noble Confederate leadership embodied in Jefferson Davis to achieve their ends. This aspect of Southern myth-making is vitally important to understanding Confederate vindication, for it fused basic truths with nostalgic emotions to revise the picture of Confederate history.
Mayor Landrieu sites theses myths, in refuting the vestiges of the cult of the lost cause as a re-writing of history, which to him negates any claim that removing those vestiges is tantamount to an obfuscation of history:
These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.
But Mayor Landrieu goes far beyond that:
After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.
To the mayor, the monuments are themselves direct links to the period of terror toward black people that existed in the South well into the 1960s and beyond.

The most powerful moment in that speech, to me anyway, was when the mayor asked the members of his audience to put themselves in the shoes of African American parents who must explain to their children why their community commemorates in places of honor, men who fought for the denial of their ancestors' basic rights as human beings. The mayor then pointed directly at a couple members of his audience and asked them bluntly, "could you do it, could you?"

Powerful as Mayor Landireu's sentiments are, this is by no means a slam dunk issue. There are hundreds of these monuments scattered throughout the South that inevitably every community will need to address at some point. At the same time, each community is different. Unlike the New Orleans monuments, Richmond's Monument Avenue is a focal point of that city, a national historic site, and one of that city's most important tourist attractions. Levar Stoney, the mayor of the capital city of Virginia, himself African American, made a campaign pledge not to remove the monuments, but to include other plaques and  monuments on the avenue to put the Civil War monuments "in their proper context." Mayor Stoney didn't elaborate on exactly what that meant, but rest assured, any attempt to remove the likenesses of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stewart and Robert E. Lee from their perches overlooking the City of Richmond, will be met by fierce opposition that will make the current battle in New Orleans look like the battle of the three little pigs.

Then there is the issue of precedent, Will the removal of the New Orleans monuments inspire as some believe, a movement to remove every monument that anyone finds offensive? We all know that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as well other Founding Fathers of this country, owned slaves. Will people at some point demand that their likenesses be removed from places of honor? How about Christopher Columbus, whose "discovery of America" brought with it, death and destruction to the people who inhabited this land before the Europeans?  I'd be willing to bet that there is not a single monument in America to a person, place or thing, that does not offend someone. Can an argument then be made to eliminate all monuments from all public squares and parks around the country to avoid offending anyone?

I don't think so.

Public monuments serve as symbols of the values of the community in which they reside. As such, I truly believe there should be no broad national mandate over what kind of public memorials should and should not be built or maintained. Rather, that choice should be made at the local level as those are the people that have to live with the monuments and answer for them. That said, it is essential for any local government to reflect the will of the people by democratic means, just as they ideally decide all matters of local governance. The people of New Orleans decided, through their representative government, to remove their Confederate monuments, and the people of Richmond elected a man who pledged to do something quite different. Obviously, no matter what decision is ultimately made, not everyone will be happy.

But such is life. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Greatest Show on Earth

I was taken aback but hardly surprised when my favorite restaurant in the world, Karl Ratszch's in Milwaukee, closed its doors for good last month. This month marked the end of an age old Chicago institution, Shallers Pump in Bridgeport, founded 136 years ago making it the longest continuously operating bar in town. I was saddened when I heard the news, but not shocked. In fact, part of me was amazed that both institutions survived as long as they did. It took lots of love and commitment to keep these moribund business on life support, as the average age of their patrons increased by one year, every time the calendar turned.

However I was blown away when I heard the news of the impending demise of the Greatest Show on Earth. By the time you read this, the flood lights of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, will have been extinguished for good. I guess I just took the circus for granted; the thought never occurred to me that an institution founded the same year as the first professional baseball league, 1871, and one just as intimately connected to this country, would close its doors for good.

Truth be told, to the best of my knowledge, I've never been to a Ringling Brothers show. I've been to other circuses; my parents took me as a small child to the Shrine Circus at the former Medinah Temple in Chicago. I've been to a couple honest to goodness three ring circuses held as they were in the old days, in a tent. I was lucky enough to have attended a taping of Bozo's Circus, the iconic daily TV show intimately known by every person who spent time in Chicago as a child in the sixties and seventies  Most recently, when our children were younger, my wife and I regularly patronized Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin, on the site of the former summer home of the Ringling Bros. Circus, and the wonderful one ring Circus Zoppe, which bills itself as "A European family tradition since 1842."

Needless to say, The Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus was the big time, the major leagues as far as circuses were concerned. They became even more big time in 1957 when they gave up traveling with their portable tents, and performed all their shows in permanent venues such as theaters and sports arenas. Until someone pointed it out, it hadn't occurred to Chicago Bulls star Joakim Noah that his team's annual "Circus Tour", where the Bulls and their stadium-mates, the Chicago Blackhawks had an extended road trip every November, was necessary literally because the circus came to town, performing at their home venue, the United Center, and before that, the Chicago Stadium.

You didn't have to buy a ticket to participate in the circus as the traveling show, animals and all, would disembark from their train in the railyards in the west Loop and march down Washington Street to the United Center.

The stars of the circus as well as that parade, if you could call it that, were the elephants. Dozens of them, or at least so it seems in my recollection, marched single file down the street, at normal elephant gate, which is to say about twice the speed of a normal human gate. One of the death knells of the RBB&B Circus was the decision to retire the elephants in the light of concerns for their welfare in an era of growing concern for animal rights. From what I understand, the animals of the RBB&B Circus were well cared for, at least as far as it is possible to care for domesticated animals. I believe that the concern for the animals is more philosophical than humanitarian, questioning the ethics of putting animals to work, especially in the frivolous world of the entertainment industry. Personally I don't have a problem with circus animals but that could be a reflection of the values of my generation. When I mentioned the closing of the circus to a co-worker, thirty years my junior, she had an emphatic one word response: "Good!"

I suppose the Ringling Brothers Circus without elephants is a little like big league baseball without the home run; the game is still exciting, but something special is missing. You can only go so far with stupid human tricks alone, unless you're the Cirque du Soleil who seem to have cornered the market in them.

Then there are the clowns. Clowns have always existed on the fringes of society, according to Professor Andrew Stott of the University of Buffalo. Here is a quote and commentary, published in a 2015 article in Time Magazine:
"Clowns got a boost from the popularity of the traveling big-top circus during the "golden age of the railroad," which linked successful clowns to the perception of 20th century America at the height of its industrial strength. But, as traveling circuses lost their pride of place as a form of entertainment, many clowns lost their platforms. That created an image of "clowns being associated with exhaustion or faded glory," says Stott, who points to Krusty on The Simpsons as an example of a clown "past his prime" and "morally, financially bankrupt.
Incidentally, that character of Krusty the Clown was supposedly inspired by Chicago's own Bozo the Clown, as portrayed by the late Bob Bell. The image of clowns certainly wasn't helped when it was revealed that serial killer John Wayne Gacy spent much of his free time, when he wasn't molesting then killing young men that is, as a clown. Sinister clowns have over the past generation, made appearances in many works of fiction, most notably horror films, and recently a number of well publicized but dubious "sightings" of people dressed as clowns have allegedly taken place, luring children into the woods.

Sadly, many people today think that clowns are scary; this is just not a good time to be a good clown.

Given the aversion to clowns and performing animals, not to mention the vast array of  entertainment options made available through technology, it seems logical that the demise of the great American institution of The Greatest Show on Earth was inevitable.

 It's a sad day.