Monday, August 31, 2015

66 Years and Counting


In a day and age where people change jobs about as frequently as their underwear, it's refreshing to hear about a man who has been doing what he's been doing for 66 years, and plans on doing it for at least one more year. That man is Vin Scully who has been the on-air voice of a major league baseball team known as the Dodgers since 1950. I didn't call them the Los Angeles Dodgers because for the first eight years of his career, Scully worked for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Those Dodgers are one of the most storied and beloved teams in the history of the game. Jackie Robinson played for that team as did fellow Hall of Famers Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Don Newcombe and Duke Snyder,

Scully was on hand, but not on the air during one of the most famous moments in baseball history when New York Giant Bobby Thompson hit his playoff "walk-off" home run against Ralph Branca and the Dodgers. That blast into the short left field porch of the old Polo Grounds, capped off one of the most thrilling, or most disheartening depending upon your point of view, come-from-behind victories in the game. Four years later, Scully was on the air when New York Yankee catcher Elston Howard hit a ground ball to short off a Johnny Podres change up. Pee Wee Reese fielded the easy grounder and tossed the ball to Gil Hodges to end the game and the 1955 season. After that final out, Vin Scully typically downplaying the histrionics, told his listeners simply this: "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Brooklyn Dodgers are the champions of the world." It would be the last thing he'd say on the air that day and the first and last time anyone could ever truthfully utter those words.

Two years later the Dodgers played their last game in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and with their fellow New York team the Giants, moved westward to California. From the intimacy of Ebbets Field the Dodgers found themselves in the mammoth LA Coliseum. As the story goes, that stadium was so unsuited for baseball that fans of the new LA club brought their transistor radios to the games so they could listen to Vin Scully describe the action on the field that they were unable to see for themselves. That tradition carried on even after the baseball friendly Dodger Stadium opened in 1962.

Scully was a national figure as well, broadcasting football, golf and other sporting events on NBC and later CBS. But baseball was the game for which he was best suited. He broadcasting style is conversational and genial, so much so, you almost get the feeling that he's speaking directly to you,  His less-is-more approach to broadcasting, tends to skip the technical details in favor of simply describing the game for the benefit of those who weren't able to make it to the ballpark. He has a remarkable capacity to bring significance to games, even meaningless ones. Unlike so many of his peers, Scully doesn't resort to cliches or trademark catch phrases drawing attention to himself. Never reverting to mindless babble to fill dead air, Scully uses his intellect and almost unheard of experience to bring in everything from obscure sports facts to literary references to sustain the flow of his broadcasts.

He was at the mic for some of the greatest moments of sport in his era, but if you look up those calls online, you won't find anything remarkable in his description of the big event. That's by design as he knows exactly when to talk and when to let what's going on on the field speak for itself.

Perhaps the most thrilling moment that Scully had the opportunity to call took place in Dodger Stadium on October 15, 1988. This clip is from the last half inning of game one of the '88 World Series. In the clip, Scully is doing play-by-play while Joe Garagiola (making his second appearance in this blog in less than one week) does color. Note what Scully has to say following the climactic event:




Did you catch that? Right after he said, "she is gone", Scully kept his mouth shut for well over a minute as the partisan crowd went wild while Kirk Gibson circled the bases and was greeted at home plate by his teammates. That pause was something he didn't learn in broadcasting school.

When Vin Scully finally did say something, it was absolutely perfect. It always is.

Why not, he's the best in the business.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Coolest Place on Earth


I have a recurring dream where I find myself in a city that is at once familiar and completely foreign. The city is an industrial metropolis set in post-industrial time, well past its prime (not unlike my own city of Chicago), while artifacts of a bygone era, magnificent commercial and industrial buildings proudly adorned with terracotta ornament, and equally magnificent but long-obsolete machinery sit idle, waiting patiently for someone to come along and make them come back to life. In another dream, I find myself inside a theater which is a building with many rooms. Inside each room is performed a different, interactive play. In this theater, the visitor is encouraged to wander from one room to the next at will, so no two experiences of the theater is exactly the same.

It seems likely that St. Louis artist Bob Cassilly must have had similar dreams at some point in his life. But Cassilly was not first and foremost a dreamer. A man of vision and boundless energy, Cassilly the doer, was able to not only realize those dreams, but take the dream a step farther and bring those artifacts of the city's past back to a glorious new life.

The dream became realized in what has become one of St. Louis's most popular attractions, The City Museum. City Museum is part art installation, part amusement park, and yes in a small way, part museum. Wandering through Cassilly's creation is a little like wandering through an Escher painting. Tubes made of Rebar lead to who knows where, it's entirely up to the visitor to climb into them to discover for himself. That point is made clear as one buys a ticket and learns that there are (intentionally) no maps to be found in or of the joint.

Perhaps the most memorable feature of City Museum is the massive sculpture on the exterior of the ten story former shoe factory that Cassilly purchased in 1983. It's called Monstro and it is constructed out of building materials, machine parts, and abandoned vehicles including an old fire engine and two jet airplanes. All of it is connected by the ubiquitous tubes and slides that visitors are encouraged to climb through or slide down, sometimes at heart stopping heights. Oh yes then there's the school bus placed precariously over the edge of the roof that you can see at the top left edge of the photograph below. In case you're wondering, yes of course you can climb into the bus and sit behind the wheel suspended ten stories above the ground.


The man pictured above did exactly what I did, crawling head-first on all fours while looking straight down the shaky tube to the ground five stories below. What you don't see in the photograph is where the wire tube is leading. Just beyond the left frame of the picture, the tube takes a sudden bend straight down meaning the visitor has to turn himself completely around, lest he be forced to crawl spider-like, upside-down to the end of the tube. Given the diameter of the tube was only about three feet, turning one's self around to go feet first, especially for an adult who is anything but a contortionist, was no easy task. But I did it, as did this guy, making us both the better for it.

There were several things I told myself I wasn't going to do like ride the ferris wheel mounted on the building's roof, or ride down the "ten story slide" which was originally built as a chute to send boxes of shoes quickly from the building's upper stories to the warehouses down below. Well with a little encouragement from my wife, I did both those things and lived to tell about it. Incidentally, that slide lets you off in the guts of the building where Cassilly and his staff built a recreation of a cave complete with stalactites and stalagmites. One nifty addition to the cave is a working theater pipe-organ with an automatic player-console which plays intermittently throughout the day, its baffles, bellows, pipes, cymbals, drums and horns only feet from you. Imagine "Lady of Spain" reverberating through the closed space at sound levels approaching that of a rock concert or jet airplane at takeoff, and you kind of get the idea.

The museum part of City Museum includes a working shoe lace factory and salvaged bits and pieces of lost cities, St. Louis of course but also Chicago and others. Didactic info is kept to a minimum. Instead, unlike a typical museum, the visitor is encouraged to touch and interact with the objects, just as one would of, had the objects been in their original settings. In Bob Cassilly's words found on City Museum's web site:
The point is not to learn every fact, but to say, "Wow, that's wonderful." And if it's wonderful, it's worth preserving.

One exception to objects that could be interacted with in their natural settings are the massive safe doors on display, whose original owners certainly would not have encouraged interaction with the public. These things were intended to been seen but not touched, silent guardians of the fortunes enclosed within the vaults behind them. The mere sight of these doors instilled security in the minds of bank customers who figured their life's savings were safe behind these magnificent objects. Their magnificence is not diminished one bit by being able to examine the workings of these safe doors whose multiple locks and dials are activated by hundreds of tiny gears on the inside of the door. These objects are perfect symbols of our long lost industrial age where workmanship and attention to detail speak of a time when craftsmen and artisans truly took pride in their work. City Museum is filled with many such objects.

When I first visited City Museum with my family ten years ago, I assumed that something like this could never have been built in Chicago because of liability issues in a litigious city, however I now realize it goes much deeper than that. Putting it simply, something like this could not have been built here because we don't have a Bob Cassilly. Sadly, Cassilly died in an accident in 2011 as he was behind the controls of a bulldozer which toppled over while he was working on an even more ambitions project. It was to be called Cementland, a massive earthworks piece built on the site of a former cement plant across the river form St. Louis. That quixotic,  half-finished project seemed to die along with Bob Cassilly.

Here is an in depth portrait of Cassilly from St. Louis Magazine, published shortly after his death.

Reading the article I could not help be reminded of a kindred spirit of sorts who lived and died a similar death in pursuit of his passion. His name was Richard Nickel and you can read about him herehere and here.

Nickel's passion was saving the legacy of the architect Louis Sullivan, much of whose work vanished right before Nickel's eyes. A great artist in his own right, Nickel had the opportunity to photograph much of the architect's work before it vanished. He also salvaged many bits and pieces of Sullivan buildings, the pursuit of which cost him his life as the walls of Sullivan's masterpiece, The Chicago Stock Exchange Building while under demolition, collapsed on top of him in 1971.

Nickel's ultimate goal was to publish an exhaustive study of the complete works of Sullivan which was nowhere near completion at the time of his death. It took his friend, colleague and protege, the architect John Vinci to painstakingly complete Nickel's project a few short years ago.

As Cassilly has many proteges who continue his vision by building and working at City Museum, perhaps Cementland will be blessed with a similar fate.

One can only hope.

Here are some more pictures of the coolest place on earth:


Adults and children are inexorably drawn to the ladders and chutes of MonstroCity, the centerpiece of the City Museum.

MonstroCity from ground level

Tile floors exemplify Bob Cassilly's playful artistic style.

Terracotta architectural artifacts justify the museum part of City Museum

Bits and pieces of our industrial past ornament City Museum.

Boy about to enter a slide, destination unknown.

The chutes and ladders of City Museum, St. Louis

St. Louis

We've been spending our late summer vacations in Wisconsin for so long it surprised me when the three other members of my family decided they wanted to go someplace else this year. The choice of destination surprised me too, St. Louis. I must admit having been a little disappointed as I was looking forward to getting out of this city for some well deserved R&R, perhaps look at some birds and maybe even some stars. Mostly I thought the change of scenery would do me good. Going to another big city I thought would just not fit the bill.

Ten years ago, when there were only two other members of my family, we drove down to the Mound City for a little three day vacation with our then four year old son who was just about to enter school for the first time. Flash forward ten years and the boy is about to enter high school. I suppose there was symmetry in going back, which we did last week.

Being creatures of habit, we set out to do many of the same things we did on our first trip. Top on our list was the zoo. The St. Louis Zoo's reputation as being one of the best around is well deserved. While my eight year old daughter doesn't exactly share her brother's early passion for animals, (he has since lost that passion in a big way), she loves them enough that we spent a solid six hours there, closing the place down. Another highlight from our previous trip was a visit to the fabulous City Museum, but more on that later.

One thing we did differently this time thanks to the ingenuity of my wife, was stay in a condominium rather than a hotel, living more like locals than tourists. The neighborhood we resided in for three days was Shaw, a sleepy residential community in the vicinity of St. Louis University, and the beautiful Missouri Botanic Garden. The neighborhood was named after the Garden's founder, Henry Shaw who made his fortune as a merchant in the quickly growing river city in the early 19th century.

The neighborhood of Shaw, or "Historic Shaw" as the tourist web sites prefer to call it, sits adjacent to The Hill, or "Dago Hill" as the neighborhood was called in less politically correct days, due to its predominantly Italian population. On our visit ten years ago, we stopped at a place that doubled as a restaurant and bocce court. It's still there but on this visit, it was filled with a younger, hipper crowd as opposed to the locals we experienced ten years before. It could have been that we visited on a Friday night this time rather than mid-week or it could be that many of the folks there during our last visit have passed on. It's been ten years, things change after all,

One of the landmarks of The Hill is Elizabeth Street, one block of which has been dubbed "Hall of Fame Place" in honor of two ball players who grew up directly across the street from each other. Not only did both become major leaguers, but both were catchers. That led Joe Garagiola to quip that not only was he not the best catcher in the majors, he was not even the best catcher on his own block. His neighbor, life long friend, and fellow major league catcher was a guy by the name of Yogi Berra.

The home town Cardinals passed on Berra in favor Garagiola, which probably was the worst mistake made in that town since they passed on building the first bridge across the Mississippi River in the mid 1800s. That bridge was built a couple hundred miles upstream in Rock Island, Illinois, and the first intercontinental trains that crossed it ended up in Chicago, making that city the rail hub of the United States, rather than St. Louis.

But don't say we didn't give anything back. At the end of the nineteenth century, Chicago reversed the flow of its river, sending its waters, along with the sewage they carried in the direction of you guessed it, St. Louis. This is truly the stuff of which great rivalries are made. That rivalry today is expressed mostly through the two cities' National League baseball teams, the Cubs and the Cardinals.

The good folks in St. Louis take their baseball very seriously. Why not, their Cardinals are second in the major leagues only to the New York Yankees in the number of pennants and World Series Championships won. As for the Cubs well...

The scorecard I bought at the Cardinals/Giants game my son and I attended, included an example score sheet which featured star players from Cardinal history which sent shivers up my spine. The position players consisted of Lou Brock, Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, Johnny Mize, Enos Slaughter, Ken Boyer, Ted Simmons, and Ozzie Smith, with Yadier Molina (whom we saw hit his 100th career home run) as a pinch hitter. With Bob Gibson as their starting pitcher, I'm guessing they saw no need for a reliever.

The ballpark in which we saw that game, which the Cardinals not surprisingly won, was under construction ten years ago. At that time, the home of the Cardinals was Busch Stadium II, one of the first multi-purpose stadiums built for baseball and football. That building was designed in Modern style, with niches carved out of the top of the stadium that reflected the iconic Gateway Arch a couple blocks away. The older stadium still looked new while the new stadium and its retro style design made it appear that it was the building about to disappear. I never was inside Busch Stadium II, but through photographs of it and my preferences of how a ballpark should function, I would say that Busch III is a vast improvement.


As you can see, Busch III provides a spectacular view of the Downtown St. Louis skyline including the Arch and the 1864 Old Courthouse Building, its dome seen in the center of the photograph. Unfortunately beside those two structures, the rest of the skyline is rather ho-hum in my opinion. Like many cities in this country, St. Louis in the sixties, and seventies was obsessed with the idea of "urban renewal", destroying thousands of high quality buildings in order to make way for massive public works projects, including Busch Stadium II, miles upon miles of freeways, and many of the buildings you see in this photograph, (The land for the Arch and its environs was cleared much earlier, back in the 1930s.) Consequently, St. Louis is now stuck with hundreds of second rate buildings from an era not known as a high point in architectural history.

The mother of all urban renewal projects:
90 plus acres of the heart of historic St. Louis cleared in the 1930s
 to make way for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial
 which would not be realized for another 30 years.
The Old Cathedral can be seen in the center of the cleared area.

That's not to say that St. Louis no longer has any great buildings left. Downtown St. Louis boasts one of Louis Sullivan's best skyscrapers, the Wainright Building, as well as many other fine commercial buildings of that era. The city did not have to import all its architects, Theodore Link was perhaps the preeminent St. Louis architect of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His Romanesque Revival Union Station, which opened in 1892, is without question the greatest 19th Century train station built in this country, Passenger train service has unfortunately been relegated to platforms outside Union Station, but the building has been lovingly preserved and is now a hotel, the main waiting room now serves as the lobby of the hotel and in my opinion is one of the most beautiful public spaces I've ever experienced. Slightly less successful, but a happy compromise just the same, is the conversion of the station's massive train shed into a shopping mall.

St. Louis boasts not one but two Roman Catholic cathedrals. The old one, rechristened the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France, dates back to 1770, shortly after the establishment of the settlement  St. Louis. The current Greek Revival building was completed in 1834. It stands near the river, in the shadow of the Arch, an anomaly as it was the only building left standing during the construction of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the site of the Arch. In 1914, the austere Old Cathedral was supplanted by the highly ornate and eclectic Byzantine/Romanesque Revival Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis on the city's west side.  That building is known primarily for its remarkable mosaic ornament which covers virtually every inch of the interior of the cathedral. Sadly due to time constraints, we were unable to visit either building on this trip.

They did finally build a bridge that spanned the Mississippi and what a bridge it is. The Eads Bridge was a tremendous engineering and aesthetic success when it opened in 1874. It was the steamboat companies that lobbied against the construction of bridges across the great river as ostensibly they posed a threat to successful navigation of the river. In reality they were the last link to allowing railroads to become the primary means of transportation in the United States. The St. Louis steamboat lobby was particularly strong and despite the handwriting of the steamboat's demise being on the wall, the captains of that industry stipulated that the bridge's clearances be unrealistically high. The bridge's designers lead by James B. Eads for whom the bridge was named, called their bluff and responded with what would be the largest arch bridge to date. The great bridge was so distinctive that it served as the de facto symbol of its city until the mid sixties when another engineering marvel took its place.

That of course would be the Gateway Arch. Its deceptive simplicity is a sight to behold as the experience of the structure changes when seen from different viewpoints and at different times of the day, What the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, Big Ben is to London, Eero Saarinen's Arch is to St. Louis, the defining symbol of the city. As such it defies criticism.



The same cannot be said about the Arch's immediate environs which as you can see, are cut off from the rest of the city by a highway and its flanking streets, limiting access and discouraging potential visitors with limited time, us included, from strolling around the Arch and the banks of the river.

These concerns are currently being addressed by a major re-design of the Jefferson Memorial which if all goes as planned, will extend across the river into Illinois. Here is a web site from the architects who came up with the winning bid, describing their work.

I could go on and on about St. Louis but it's late and I need to go to bed; besides our four day, three night vacation simply doesn't warrant it.

My immediate plan is to definitely not wait another ten years to visit the great city on banks of the Mississippi.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

And So It Goes...


Nearly six years ago, on September 3rd, 2009, I wrote this post observing the 70th anniversary of the declaration of war against Germany by France and Great Britain, marking the beginning of the greatest human-initiated calamity in history. In what seems to be the blink of an eye, we are now about to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, which officially took place on September 2, 1945 when officials of the Imperial Government of Japan signed the documents of surrender to Allied officials aboard the battleship USS Missouri.

The defeat of Germany in April of that year meant the eventual defeat of Japan seemed inevitable by the summer of '45. Just how eventual was anybody's guess at the time. On August 6th and August 9th of that year, the United States dropped two atomic bombs, one over the city of Hiroshima, the other over Nagasaki. Nobody knows for sure but most likely around 130,000 human beings perished either as a direct result of the blasts, or because of disease caused by nuclear fallout, something that was not completely understood at the time. Facing the prospect of the annihilation of their country, the Japanese government, still with their Emperor at the helm, agreed to the Allied terms of surrender.

The only thought more horrible than the devastation resulting from those two weapons of mass destruction, is the contemplation of what most likely would have happened had the bombs not been dropped. In the works was a massive invasion of Japan by Allied forces who freed from the conflict in Europe, could now concentrate their efforts in the Pacific. By August of 1945, the list of Allied nations ready and willing to participate in the invasion included the Soviet Union who had just reneged on their non-aggression pact with Japan. Conservative military assessments of the operation, anticipated the loss of one to two hundred thousand Allied personnel in the invasion. Less optimistic planners put the number closer to one million. For the defense of their island home from an attack they knew was coming, the Japanese were in the process of assembling a civilian militia to augment their military which had been severely depleted in the war. Estimates of civilian losses by the Japanese government in the event of an invasion, were in the neighborhood of twenty million.

Given the carnage in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it may seem trite, even cruel to suggest that those two attacks actually saved lives, but the numbers are difficult to ignore. In the years that followed the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world became fixated on the horrific fate of the victims of the nuclear attacks. While it is entirely appropriate to remember the appalling destruction of the two Japanese cities and their people, those attacks must be looked at within the broader context of the war. Many cities in Japan and Germany had already been bombed with Allied incendiary devices which set off massive, horrifying fire storms. Literally hell on earth, those fire storms consumed everything in their path, including people seeking shelter in air raid shelters, burning them alive. In Tokyo alone, 100,000 people perished in these attacks. Had the United States not developed the atomic bomb, and perhaps more significantly, displayed the will to use it, death by incineration would have been the fate of several more Japanese cities and millions of their inhabitants.

There are many alternate scenarios that critics of the bombings believe might have ended the war without reverting to the use of the deadliest, most indiscriminate weapon to date. Some argue that the entry of the Soviet Union into the war would have been enough of an incentive for the Japanese to surrender. Some suggest that deploying the bomb over a non-populated area would have been enough to convince the Japanese to throw in the towel. Others say that while the first attack on Hiroshima may have been justified, the second on Nagaski was entirely unnecessary and amounted to nothing more than premeditated, cold blooded, mass murder. These are all justifiable arguments based upon speculation, but little evidence.

After the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan remained resolute in dictating the terms of its own surrender. These included no foreign occupation of Japan, Korea or Formosa, and Japanese control of their own disarmament, demobilization, and prosecution of war criminals. Not surprisingly, the terms were not accepted by the Allies.

We can speculate until kingdom come but by the beginning of August, 1945, it was obvious to everyone that the cost of ending the war, whatever it would be, was going to be appalling. What everyone does agree upon is that after the United States dropped the bomb, the world was never the same. We may have won the war in the most efficient way possible in terms of loss of life, but it may have come at the cost of our moral credibility. The United States remains the only nation that has used an atomic weapon against human beings.

In the years following the war, weapons became more deadly and indiscriminate. Soon the richest nations of the world, at least those on the winning side of WWII, all developed their own nuclear weapons. Former allies became enemies, each equipped with the means to destroy the other. Some felt, erroneously of course, that this nuclear stalemate would mean the end to all war as the threat of mutual annihilation would encourage negotiation at all costs over hostility. In reality all it meant is that the superpowers neutralized each other while smaller nations, breakaway republics or even renegade groups of radicals without a nation, learned how to subvert traditional rules of warfare, undermining the big powers who were understandably loathe to use their most lethal weapons. This happened to the United States in Vietnam, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and to the United States again in Iraq.

Unfortunately, with our sophisticated technology we still haven't been able to make war obsolete. Ironically, the more sophisticated the weapons became, the less effective they were. As we have seen recently, our most effective and terrifying adversaries are people whose weapons could have been found in the Middle Ages or earlier. They are people who are willing to violate all sense of human decency, are wholeheartedly devoted to their cause, are not afraid to die.

And all of our superior technology and firepower is powerless to stop them.

So what  have we learned from the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Not much I'm afraid.

Monday, August 10, 2015

He Gone

In going through a weekend's worth of spam in my inbox, I just found a message asking me to sign a farewell card thanking Jon Stewart for finding "humor amid all the madness" during his sixteen year run as the host of The Daily Show on the cable network Comedy Central. The name of the network should be a tip off that The Daily Show was a comedy show; but Stewart, those involved with his show, and his fans had pretensions that it was something much more.

I'm probably not a good judge as I could count on my fingers the number of times I actually sat down and watched Jon Stewart's show, and still have enough fingers left to play a sonata for one hand on the piano. But I've sat through countless discussions about him and seen bits and pieces of his show on the Web so often that I have a pretty good idea of the man and his work.

A large segment of the population of the United States, including several friends and colleagues, tuned in to Stewart every night and boastfully claimed that the Daily Show was their main source of news. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the same group who asked me to sign the card for Stewart also asked me to sign a card wishing President Obama a happy birthday. In the same vein, it's also not very difficult to predict the political leanings of a Stewart fan.

I once in this space referred to Stewart as "the Walter Cronkite of the left" and I don't think that's much of an exaggeration. Back in the day, the avuncular anchorman was considered "the most trusted man in America". When Cronkite in 1968 announced on the air his own disapproval of our involvement in the Vietnam War, President Lyndon B. Johnson knew it was time to not seek reelection, because he knew that with Cronkite gone, so was his core constituency.

Jon Stewart holds the same sway over his own core group, the vast majority of whom are white, college educated, upper-middle class liberals who vote almost exclusively Democrat. One huge difference between Cronkite and Stewart is that Cronkite managed to keep his personal agenda to himself, so much so that his public critique of the war and the Johnson administration came as a tremendous shock, and was all the more powerful because of it.

No one one the other hand would ever question Stewart's political leanings as he wears them on his sleeve. Stewart proclaiming support of any issue favored by the left is just as predictable as Rush Limbaugh expressing his condemnation of anything President Obama does. The truth is that both men do most of their preaching to the choir, so none of their work has much real impact other than as a rubber stamp, emboldening their followers to proclaim the rightness of their cause.

That Stewart is a funny, bright guy goes without saying. Part of his appeal is his ability to come up with a pithy comeback, or the cheeky quip after a selectively edited video clip of a Republican saying something foolish. His humor speaks to a cynical generation (mine) raised on iconoclastic, irreverent TV shows like Monty Python's Flying Circus and Saturday Night Live. Those shows operated on the principal that nothing was sacred, they lambasted everything, By contrast, Stewart's comedy (and wrath), is focused on a particular group and ideology whom he and his audience feel are beneath them. The contemporary social critic Camile Paglia described Stewart's tone as "smug, snarky and superior."

Personally, Stewart's smugness always made me cringe, regardless of weather or not I agreed with him, which I often did. Paglia, in a recent interview with Salon, hit the nail directly on the head with the following:
(Jon Stewart is) certainly a highly successful T.V. personality, but I think he has debased political discourse. I find nothing incisive in his work. As for his influence, if he helped produce the hackneyed polarization of moral liberals versus evil conservatives, then he’s partly at fault for the political stalemate in the United States.
If this is to be believed, and I think it is, then Stewart's influence was indeed profound, just not in a very good way.

In case you're wondering, no I didn't sign his card.

Friday, July 31, 2015

What's Your Opinion?


"Everyone has a right to his or her own opinion." So says my eight year old daughter whenever she is asked to arbitrate a dispute between two people. My wife calls her the ACLU of the family. So strong and sincere is her conviction,  I don't have the heart to pose the question, "but what if that opinion is wrong?" The question at the center of all contemporary discourse I'm afraid will have to wait until she gets a little older and her judgement, more critical. By then she will come to realize on her own the hard truth that believing something, doesn't necessarily make it right.

Every fifth grader, (my daughter still has two years to go thank God) is taught there is a distinction between a fact and an opinion. It goes something like this:

A fact is something that can be proven.
An opinion is something that does not require proof.

Saying that Abraham Lincoln was the tallest US president is a fact. Saying that Abraham Lincoln was the most eloquent of all the US presidents, is an opinion.

Are you with me so far? OK how about this opinion: 

George W. Bush was not the most eloquent president.

Not to single out our 43rd president, you can correct me if I'm wrong, but facility with language was not one of Dubya's strong points, so according to most definitions of the word, he could not be considered the most eloquent president. Therefore by any reasonable standard, that opinion would also be a fact. Furthermore the opposite opinion, that Bush II was the most eloquent president, would be a falsehood.

Please note the operative words, "reasonable standard." This is certainly not a case of proof beyond doubt. One could make the argument that President Bush, despite his penchant for spouting off malapropisms like fireworks on the Fourth of July, was better at communicating what was on his mind than the current president, who may use the right words but also has a tendency of talking in circles and sometimes fails to get his point across. Since communication is the heart of writing and speaking, Bush may have been a more effective communicator than Obama, perhaps even eloquent in his own (to some) charming, unique way. It may not be a compelling argument but it's a valid point just the same.

So maybe it's not as simple as our grade school teacher would have us think; there is not a clear dichotomy between facts and opinions. Taking the point further, could there be truths that cannot be universally proven? I believe the answer is yes. They are our moral and ethical principles, the guideposts of our culture. This is a hotly debated topic, there are those who believe that morality is completely subjective, as moral and ethical principles vary from culture to culture. Truth on the other hand is purely objective, therefore as this line of reasoning goes, there can be no such thing as a moral truth.

This concept of moral relativism has been around for a long time, but gained steam since the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th century, the so called "Age of Reason", when the traditional doctrines of church and state were brought under close philosophical scrutiny. Moral relativism essentially states there are no universal rights and wrongs, as those things are determined by the culture in which you find yourself. Some go so far as to claim that moral principals have no more universal relevance than local customs such as whether to address your uncle in the familiar or how much to tip a waiter.

Living as we do in a pluralistic society, we need to give some credence to moral relativism as I touched upon in my post on gay marriage. But can we honestly say that all right and wrong is purely subjective?

Here's a test; is the following statement fact or opinion?

Slavery is wrong.

If you believe that morality is purely subjective, you would be forced to admit that the statement "slavery is wrong", is merely an opinion as there are cultures that exist to this day who still accept and practice human bondage.

Furthermore, one cannot make a definitive argument against slavery without using established moral principles, which the moral relativists would have us believe, are not universally agreed upon. One of these principles, a cornerstone of our society, is the idea that all people are created equal.

Like moral relativism, this idea has been around since antiquity, but came to fruition during the Enlightenment, and was spelled out by Thomas Jefferson in the American Declaration of Independence. As we all know, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and his words explicitly left out women and implicitly excluded all but white men who could own property. Those very words however were used as a springboard for subsequent generations to be inclusive enough to include all people regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, or creed.

Interestingly enough, Jefferson did not preface his most memorable words by saying: "We hold these opinions to be self evident..."

Those "inalienable" rights  that Jefferson enumerates, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", constitute what some philosophers would argue are universally recognizable rights inherent in human nature. This "Natural Law" as it has been dubbed, should not be confused with the law of nature, which does not concern itself in the least with values or individual rights, has no distinction between right and wrong, or reserves any place for the concepts of justice or ethics. Nature simply adapts. As inhabitants of nature, we are subject to its laws; we all need air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat and shelter from the elements. We all die. These are facts, universal to all life. But we humans also live in communities where we pool our resources, divide our labor and look out for one another. In order for this to work, we are also subject to the laws of the community. Morals and ethics are human constructs designed to enable human societies to survive; as such they are built around a very simple idea, that you should treat other people as you would want to be treated yourself. This idea, often erroneously attributed to Jesus, has been around for as long as humans gave up being exclusively hunter gatherers. The foundations of every legal system, be it religious or secular, are based upon this "Golden Rule", which comes as close to being a universal value system as any we have.

I would argue that by any reasonable standard, the basic moral standards and responsibilities we (hopefully) hold ourselves to as defined by the Golden Rule, are universal and must be regarded as moral truths. Anything less I'm afraid would result in the collapse of civilization as we know it.

But just as we need to understand the limits of moral relativism, we need to guard against absolutism of any color. We all know about the religious zealots, be they bible thumpers or jihadists, whose slogan might just as well be "my way or the highway." Political ideology has stepped in and now gives religion a run for its money as one of the most significant propagators of intolerance in our society.

A case in point is this article that has been making the rounds on social media. Its author makes some valid points about the problem of hiding behind falsehoods wrapped in the guise of opinions. In the end however, the tone of the article suggests its real motive is to present a forum for the author to air out his own ideological agenda. It's title leaves little doubt about the author's feelings about anyone who may disagree with him: "No, It's Not Your Opinion, You're Just Wrong."

Given the reaction to this article, I'm afraid the piece will only contribute to the demise of intelligent discourse between un-like-minded folks, emboldening them to preach the "correctness" of their own points of view while further encouraging intolerance for the points of view of others.

The glory of modern technology is that it has opened up the world and given us exposure to cultures and ideas literally at our fingertips. Ironically, or perhaps because of that, we seem to have become more entrenched in our own intellectual ghettos, distancing ourselves from any thought or opinion that might challenge or offend us.

Intellectual discourse involving as many points of view as possible is the means by which we progress as a society. It is not something to shy away from but something to welcome and embrace. We may not always like what we're hearing, but to put it tritely, no pain, no gain.

It's true that we have no business hiding behind opinions that support falsehoods, but at the same time we must allow others the room to err, and hopefully they will do the same for us.

In the end, the best we can hope for is that reasonable judgement will sort out it all out.

After all that stewing, I can't help but believe that my daughter's belief in allowing everyone his or her opinion is pretty spot on. Ah the pure wisdom of an eight year old; perhaps they should be the ones running the show.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Excellent teachers


A powerful image emerged last week from a day of protests outside the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia. The protests all centered around the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds. On one side of the barriers set up by law enforcement officers, marched an assortment of white supremacist groups including representatives of the KKK and The National Socialist Movement, on the other side an assortment of people protesting the protesters.

A photograph snapped from a smartphone showed an African American state trooper helping an elderly white supremacist protester who was on the verge of collapsing due to heat exhaustion. It turned out the officer was no rank and file trooper, he was Leroy Smith, the director of the South Carolina Department of Public Safety. He put himself in uniform and on duty that day, as is his custom, because he likes to show his employees that he "has their backs."

Smith's attention was directed to the ailing protester by the fire chief of Columbia, who also happens to be black. Smith grabbed the man, (who was wearing a Nazi-style swastika emblazoned on his tee shirt), by the arm and led him up the steps and into the air conditioned statehouse. The two were followed by a woman also wearing a swastika, who kept asking Smith if the man was going to be alright.

I can't speak for Mr. Smith, I can only assume what was going through his head at the time was that he was simply doing his job by helping out a fellow human being who was in trouble. I can say he was amazed at the overwhelming positive response the photograph received worldwide, When asked about what he felt generated that response, his answer was simple: "love."

Like the families of the victims of the Emanuel AME Church massacre who forgave their loved ones' killer, I believe that Mr. Smith's actions, and even more so his response, is not sending out a signal of acceptance, submission or weakness, far from it. His is a powerful message of strength by looking directly into the face of hatred and saying no, you have no power to make me hate you back. 

One look at the photograph of the powerful Smith helping the pathetic marcher, and you cannot help be overwhelmed by the feeling that love wins.

We all have much to learn from these magnificent people.