Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Blowing my own horn

I feel terrible about Sears Holdings' announcement today that they plan to close 100 to 120 Sears and KMart stores across the United States and Canada. My heart goes out to all the workers who will be losing their jobs as well as the suppliers and all the other assorted businesses whose success depends on those stores.

But I question the judgement of the State of Illinois who bent over backwards earlier this month to lure Sears into keeping their corporate headquarters in Illinois by giving them unprecedented tax breaks and other incentives. Hard to believe but could it be possible that Governor Quinn and the State Legislature were unaware about the fiscal health of Sears Holdings?

Now my finger is hardly on the pulse of the economy, but I learned about the sad state of affairs over at Sears and KMart last month when I accidentally stumbled across this article in Esquire Magazine. The article inspired me to write this post, which compared the business giants who founded the two retailers, with the current management who seems intent to destroy two American institutions in order to profit off their vast real estate holdings. The very name of the corporation that owns the two retail giants alone should have given that fact away. I found dozens of articles that backed up the Esquire piece.

I'm pretty sure that the governor had good, solid reasons for his actions and that he's convinced all will end up rosy for Sears and KMart. But just in case he didn't, may I suggest to avoid looking foolish in the future, the next time he takes draconian measures to keep a business in this state, he have his people do a little research first.

Maybe they can start by reading my blog!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A man for all seasons

War heros play a huge role in a nation's lore. Their images grace currency, stories are written and movies are made about them, pigeon covered monuments dedicated to them adorn parks and public squares. Be they great military leaders or regular grunts who perform heroic deeds, placing the lives of others above their own, they inspire us to greatness and serve as symbols of their country:
  • The Americans have George Washington, Audi Murphy and Chicago's own Milton Olive.
  • The Russians have Aleksandr Nevskii, Gyorgi Zhukov, and Ekaterina Mikhailovna-Demina
  • The Poles have Tadeusz Kościuszko, Casimir Pulaski and Wojtek the Soldier Bear.
  • The Czechs have Josef Švejk.
In case that last name is not familiar to you, don't search through accounts of Czech military history. The Good Soldier Švejk is the eponymous character of a series of satyrical novels written by Jaroslav Hašek, set during World War I. Not your typical war hero, this Josef was an incompetent ne'er-do-well of sorts, on the surface not all that different from the bumbling Marine, Gomer Pyle of the TV series of the same name. Unlike Gomer Pyle, Švejk was a subversive; crazy like a fox, his incompetence, whether intentional or not, served to undermine the military system and the society to which he belonged.

Much has been made of Soldier Švejk's being a symbol of the Czech people. The Czechs and their on again off again brethren, the Moravians and the Slovaks, are goegraphically sandwiched between major powers on the world stage. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany and Russia, all occupied their small country at one time or other over the last several hundred years. The Czech character is built some would say, out of the years of subjugation under oppressive foreign regimes. Much the same can be said for their Slavic cousins the Poles, yet the temperaments of the two nations could not be more different. The Poles by and large are hot blooded, patriotic, and devoutly Catholic. As for the Czechs, well not so much. The Czechs combine irreverence with a strong sense of self-preservation, mixed with a hint of cynicism. The legendary but far outnumbered Polish Army valiantly fought against the Germans in the first days of September, 1939. The Polish Underground was a formidable force in World War II and as a result, their country was devastated by the War. By contrast, the Czechs understood the futility of standing up to the German war machine. Where the Poles were defiant, the Czechs like Soldier Švejk, were subversive in their resistance.

That's not to say that the Czech people did not suffer under Nazi occupation. In May of 1942, the Nazi administrator for Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich was assassinated by Czechoslovak Resistance paratroopers in Prague. To avenge his death, Hitler ordered the annihilation of a town just outside of Prague whose inhabitants were suspected of anti-Reich sentiments and for aiding Heydrich's assassins. On June 9th, 1942, German troops rounded up all 173 men and several women of Lidice, and shot them. The children of the town who were acceptable racial specimens were taken away from their mothers and sent off for adoption to German families. The rest of the women and children were sent to concentration camps where most of them perished. Their town was burned to the ground.

All around the world, you will find streets and towns named Lidice in memory of that tragic city.

Save for a few blocks which were blown up by the Nazis in retaliation for various acts of resistance against them, the city of Prague was not physically damaged during the war. The same cannot be said for its populace. Tens of thousands of citizens of Prague, mostly Jews, were deported to Theresenstadt, the concentration camp that was created by Heydrich.

This was the world of Václav Havel's childhood. My father and Havel (who shared first names), were born in Czechoslovakia during a brief moment in history (between the two world wars) when their country was free and independent. The young Havel would know that independence for all of two years.

With the Munich Agreement of 1938, England and France handed over the western part of Czechoslovakia (the Sudatenland) to Hitler on a silver platter, and by March of the following year, the much weakened country became a protectorate of Germany. In 1940, a Czechoslovak government in exile was formed in London. That government led by President Edvard Beneš, was recognized by the Allied Powers and in 1943, signed a far reaching treaty with the Soviet Union which resulted in the agreement to nationalize heavy industry and create local people's committees in the country at the end of the war.

The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, the KSČ, which was loyal to Moscow, had been in existence since 1921. The Soviet liberation of most of Czechoslovakia from the Nazis, combined with lingering resentment toward the West since the Munich Agreement, resulted in the KSČ gaining considerable support in the 1946 elections, during the brief existence of the Czechoslovak Third Republic after the War. For the three years the tenuous Republic existed, Czechoslovakia was the only neighbor of the Soviet Union that had a democratically elected government. Soon, under pressure from Joseph Stalin and the influence of the Red Army knocking at the door, President Beneš capitulated in February of 1948 (the month and year of my half sister's Eva's birth), and formed a new government with the KSČ squarely in control. By the time the elections rolled around in May of that year, there was only one party on the ballot, the National Front. The National Front would be the only political organization allowed in the country for the next 41 years.

In 1948, Vacláv Havel was twelve years old. As we read in his obituaries last week, he came from an influential upper middle class family in Prague. By the time he came of age in the 1950s, his pedigree did not prove favorable in the new worker's paradise of Communist Czechoslovakia, and his opportunities proved limited. College was not an option for him, so he left school at 15 and before his compulsory military service he worked in various positions in the national service primarily as a laboratory assistant. After the military service ended he enrolled in a correspondence course in drama which led to his next career as a playwright.

The fifties were a difficult time in Czechoslovakia. Havel wrote about the conflicting currents that defined life in those years. The revolution brought with it for some, excitement and hope for the future:
Building sites were swarming with tens of thousands of young enthusiasts of the new faith singing songs of socialist construction.
While at the same time:
In fifties there were enormous concentration camps in Czechoslovakia filled with tens of thousands of innocent people... There were tortures and executions, dramatic flights across borders.
In 1955, my father's departure from his country took place during one of those dramatic flights.

Havel wrote about the harassment Czech citizens endured at the hands of the Secret Police. Any number of excuses sufficed for this treatment but one of the biggest causes for concern were people with relatives living in the West. As we traveled from Paris to České Budějovice in Southern Bohemia in 1993 to meet her mother (my father's first wife), my half sister Eva described to me in great deal what the two of them endured after my father left for greener pastures. For ten years, Eva and her mother were harassed, usually with knocks on the door in the middle of the night by the police trying to glean information about my old man, but mostly to send a message. Even though our father and her mother were divorced and no longer in contact, the two women lived in constant fear as the continuous harassment lasted until her mother remarried. Eva and her mother paid dearly for my father's actions and benefitted nothing. This was a story that would be retold countless times for generations of Czechosloavaks.

As bad as all that was, Havel wrote that at the time, there was at least some sort of meaning to all the madness:
The songs of idealists and fanatics, political criminals on the rampage, the suffering of heroes-these have always been part of history. The fifties were a bad time in Czechoslovakia, but there have been many such times in human history. It still shared something, or at least bore comparison with those other periods; it still resembled history. No one could have said that nothing was happening, or that the age did not have its stories.
An idealist could argue that the atrocities against the people were merely the growing pains of a nascent  society. They were after all driven by a powerful ideology, trying (in vain) to build an ideal society, one where there would no longer be poverty and everyone (theoretically) would be equal. The end justifies the means after all, at least in the mind of an ideologue.

That idealism still existed in the late sixties and came to fruition during the Prague Spring, a brief, wonderful period in 1968. Prague Spring was not at first a grass roots movement but a realization that the economic model set into motion from on high (i.e.; the USSR) did not work as a one size fits all solution. It particularly didn't work in a highly educated and industrially sophisticated Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubček, a Slovak, was appointed president in early 1968 and immediately set into motion a series of reforms including the lifting of restrictions on speech and the press. He suggested the possibility of a multiple party system, and to bolster the stagnant economy, hinted at a limited free market. This was not meant to be a rejection of Communism. The goal in Dubček's words was:
...to build an advanced socialist society on sound economic foundations ... a socialism that corresponds to the historical democratic traditions of Czechoslovakia, in accordance with the experience of other communist parties.
In other words, again in Dubček's words: "Communism with a human face."

For one brief, shining moment, it was a tremendously liberating experience, as if a veil had been lifted over the eyes of the entire country. The works of many Czech dissident writers including Havel, previously banned, became publicly known in their own country. Dubček's reforms opened up the flood gates for everyone in society with a bone to pick about the government, especially the influence of the Soviet Union, whose leaders were all ears. On the pretext of its right to intervene if a Warsaw Pact nation were to embark on a path toward capitalism, troops from other Warsaw Pact nations, Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary and the Soviet Union, invaded Czechoslovakia on August 20, 1968. Here is a link to a gallery of pictures of the invasion made by the great Czech photographer, Josef Koudelka.

The creation of Prague Spring may not have been a grass roots movement, but the opposition to its fall certainly was. As you can see from the photographs, young people took to the streets in a defiant, if quixotic stance in opposition to the invasion. In some cases, busses were overturned in the streets to prevent the tanks from advancing, other tanks were set ablaze. More creative tactics included the Švejkian removal of all street signs except the ones that pointed the way back to Moscow. 72 Czechoslovaks were killed in the invasion.

After the invasion, life did not exactly return to pre-Spring days. Here is Havel in 1987, contrasting the totalitarianism backed with an ideology of the fifties, with a totalitarianism whose only purpose was self-preservation of the post-Prague Spring:
... the powers that be really did learn a lesson from the Prague Spring. They discovered how far things can go when the door to a plurality of opinions and interests is opened: the totalitarian system itself is jeopardized. Having learned this lesson, political power set itself a single aim: self-preservation. In a process with its own, mindless dynamic, all the mechanisms of direct and indirect manipulation of life began to expand and assume unprecedented forms. Henceforth nothing could be left to chance.
The past twenty years in Czechoslovakia can almost serve as a textbook illustration of how an advanced or late totalitarian system works. Revolutionary ethos and terror have been replaced by dull inertia, pretex-ridden caution, bureaucratic anonymity, and mindless, stereotypical behavior, all of which aim exclusively at becoming more and more what they already are.
The songs of zealots and the cries of the tortured are no longer heard; lawlessness has put on kid gloves and moved from the torture chambers into the upholstered offices of faceless bureaucrats. If the President of the Republic is seen in the street at all, he is behind the bulletproof glass of his limousine as it roars off to the airport, surrounded by a police escort, to meet Colonel Qaddafi.
The twenty one year period between the crush of the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution provided most of the fodder for Václav Havel's diatribes against the Czechoslovak totalitarian state. Havel said that during those years. it was if time stood still.

Havel was no Soldier Švejk. He was as defiant as any Polish Cavalry soldier. The only difference was his choice of weapon was not a gun, but the written word. His plays and essays spelled out in no uncertain terms that the socialist government of Czechoslovakia was an absurd travesty. In an open letter to then President Gustáv Husák in 1973, Havel wrote that although the outward signs of prosperity were evident, the totalitarian system that Husák presided over, undermined general well being and human dignity:
The basic question one must ask is this: Why are people in fact behaving in the way they do? Why do they do all these things that, taken together, form the impressive image of a totally united society giving total support to its government? For any unprejudiced observer, the answer is, I think, selfevident: They are driven to it by fear.
For fear of losing his job, the schoolteacher teaches things he does not believe; fearing for his future, the pupil repeats them after him; for fear of not being allowed to continue his studies, the young man joins the Youth League and participates in whatever of its activities are necessary; fear that, under the monstrous system of political credits, his son or daughter will not acquire the necessary total of points for enrollment at a school leads the father to take on all manner of responsibilities and "voluntarily" to do everything required. Fear of the consequences of refusal leads people to take part in elections, to vote for the proposed candidates, and to pretend that they regard such ceremonies as genuine elections; out of fear for their livelihood, position, or prospects, they go to meetings, vote for every resolution they have to, or at least keep silent: it is fear that carries them through humiliating acts of self-criticism and penance and the dishonest filling out of a mass of degrading questionnaires; fear that someone might inform against them prevents them from giving public, and often even private, expression to their true opinions. It is the fear of suffering financial reverses and the effort to better themselves and ingratiate themselves with the authorities that in most cases makes working men put their names to "work commitments"; indeed, the same motives often lie behind the establishment of Socialist Labor Brigades, in the clear realization that their chief function is to be mentioned in the appropriate reports to higher levels. Fear causes people to attend all those official celebrations, demonstrations, and marches: Fear of being prevented from continuing their work leads many scientists and artists to give allegiance to ideas they do not in fact accept, to write things they do not agree with or khow to be false, to join official organizations or to take part in work of whose value they have the lowest opinion, or to distort and mutilate their own works. In the effort to save themselves, many even report others for doing to them what they themselves have been doing to the people they report.
Life in Czechoslovakia was in fact a lie, according to Havel.

And if the life of the dissident/playwright turned president could be summed up in one word, that word would be, truth.

Václav Havel paid dearly for speaking the truth. He was put in prison on numerous occasions and forced to work in menial jobs to support himself. Havel's work was banned in his own country and he was known to his own people mostly through the government's condemnation of him.

Havel gained international attention in 1977 when he and a group of similar minded political activists wrote and signed Charter 77.  A Bill of Rights of sorts, Charter 77 was a petition, and later a movement that took the petition's name, to "call attention to the systematic violation of human rights and democratic freedoms" that had been already agreed upon during the Helsinki Accords of 1975 (and signed by the Czechoslovak government), the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and the Czechoslovak constitution.

The primary concern of the petition was the failure to afford its citizens the right to freedom of expression, and the fear of official retribution for expressing personal opinions. Citizens expressing points of view not in accordance with the government's, the charter claims, were routinely denied the right to education, the right to be gainfully employed in one's chosen occupation, and were ostracized from society.

Other rights enumerated by Charter 77 guaranteed in the Czechoslovak constitution but not in reality were:
  • freedom of information
  • freedom of religion
  • the right to legal recourse
  • freedom from unreasonable search
  • freedom of movement
Although Havel in his own writing made no bones about the fact that he did not suscribe to the tenets of Socialism, Charter 77 was not in any way a radical document and it took pains to point out that it did not quarrel with the basic premises of Socialism or advocate political change or social reform.

Still the government came down with a vengeance on the petition's creators and signers. The document proved to be prophetic. As if on cue, the government's reaction was spelled out in detail by the document itself. The creators and those with the courage to sign it were publicly vilified, lost their jobs, they and their children were deprived of educational opportunities, some were forced into exile, others were coerced into becoming secret service informants, and others including Havel, were sent to prison. His five year sentence was reduced by six months because of poor health.

Here is another quote from Charter 77:
In prisons, persons thus sentenced (for political crimes) are treated in a manner violating human dignity, their health is endangered and attempts are made to destroy them morally.
In Havel's case, all of that was true, but the attempts to morally destroy him were unmitigated failures. Nor did the government succeed in silencing him. Despite the perpetual threat of retribution hanging over him, Havel continued to write and speak out against the evils of totalitarianism, right up until the fall of the government and his ascendence to the presidency in 1989.

More words of his would prove prophetic when in 1989, once again in prison, he wrote an essay that was to be delivered at the award ceremony of the German Booksellers Association where he was to be presented with that group's Peace Prize. Appropriately enough, the essay was titled: "A Word about Words."

Havel said in the essay:
Yes, I do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions...
Just as Havel accepted the award in absentia in October of 1989, Havel's and others' words began the revolution that would be resolved in a little over a month, without one shot being fired. Months after being released from prison, Havel became the President of Czechoslovakia.

1989 was a watershed year in the history of the world as it marked the fall of Communism in Europe. None of the dramatic changes that took place in the old Soviet Bloc could have happened without the vision and courage of Mikhail Gorbachev who understood that the price of militarization due to the Cold War came at the cost of feeding its people. The General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union introduced a new openness (glasnost) and economic restructuring (perestroika), all to encourage a dialogue with, and encourage support from the West. Ironically it was the workers in Poland who brought an end to their "workers' paradise."The Solidarity Labor Union and Movement in Poland and its charismatic leader Lech Wałęsa, with the support of the influential Catholic Church of that country, became so powerful that it forced the government to negotiate with it.  In 1989, Gorbachev discarded the Brezhnev Doctrine where the USSR reserved the right to intervene if any of the Warsaw Pact nations got out of line, just as they did in Hungary in 1956 and of course Czechoslovakia in 1968. Poland quickly fell and soon thereafter, Hungary did the same. However the governments of Bulgaria, East Germany, Rumania, and Czechoslovakia remained intent on staying the course.

The government that Husák and his cronies tried so desperately to save, crumbled overnight as there was nothing left to hold it up, its foundation built on a flawed ideology that eventually rotted to the core. In the end it only took a little push from the opposition led in part by Havel and it all came tumbling down on Novermber 28, 1989. Not a drop of blood was spilled, hence the term, Velvet Revolution.

In the following June the first democratic elections were held since 1946. Alexander Dubček was elected speaker of the Federal Parliament and Václav Havel was elected president.

Václav Havel
Photograph by Martin Kozák
With impeccable credentials as a man of truth, Václav Havel was the moral compass for his country. Successful politicians need to determine which battles to fight, they need to understand the art of compromise, and they need to tell people what they want to hear.  Havel was no politician. As president, he knew it was time to turn the attention inward and look at the Czech people themselves. Years of oppression had created what he called "totalitarian nihilism", the systematic dissolution of the public's ability to think, to dream, and to believe. It created a nation of complacent, indifferent cynics, and Havel would have none of that. He insisted that his fellow citizens take a stand and take ownership of their country. He also controversially rejected the movement to prosecute ordinary citizens who snitched on their neighbors to the police. Havel understood that no one should be punished for not acting heroically.

Havel saw his presidency as an obligation rather than a reward. During the Dissolution of Czechoslovakia when Slovakia split from the Republic to form its own government, Havel stepped down from office so as not to preside over the breaking up of his country. He was reinstated shortly thereafter and became the first president of the newly formed Czech Republic, where he remained until 2003.

In the press, Václav Havel was often the neglected stepbrother to his fellow leaders in the freedom movements of the late eighties, and early nineties namely, Wałęsa, Gorbachev, and Nelson Mandela of South Africa. All but Havel received Nobel Peace Prizes, and named in numerous lists as the most important people of the last century.

Even his death was overshadowed by the death on the same day (well, the official announcement of it anyway) of North Korean dictator Kim Jung Il. Death indeed makes for strange bedfellows. My guess is that never before had the two men ever been mentioned together in the same sentence, no two leaders could have been more diametrically opposed. It seemed to me at first that the ultimate indignity to Havel was being upstaged on the day of his death by the death of a tyrant.

Then came the images from their respective countries and it occurred to me that Havel got the last laugh. In Prague's Wenseslaus Square, (appropriately named after Havel's namesake, the famous good king and patron saint of the Czechs), and in cities all over the former Czechoslovakia, there were images of spontaneous gatherings of people who assembled to celebrate the life of the man who helped set the course for the future of their country. Tens of thousands showed up for his funeral in Prague.

In Pyongyang came the images of a clearly not spontaneous gathering of hundreds of North Koreans, beating their chests, some on their hands and knees, appearing like a casting call for the latest telenovela, all in hysterics over the death of their "beloved leader."

The contrast of the two images was stunning. The genuine show of love and respect for Václav Havel versus the absurd theater (which Havel the artist would certainly have appreciated) of a totalitarian regime propagating obvious falsehoods illustrated for me anyway, the victory of truth, morality and humanity over the false promises of ideology. That was exactly what Havel fought for throughout his struggles and his successes.

Now and perhaps for the ages, Václav Havel has replaced Soldier Švejk as the enduring symbol of the resiliency of the Czech people. He fought a heroic battle, defiantly taking on a formidable opponent and winning in no uncertain terms. He stood by his principles without flinching, even if it meant jail or even worse, disfavor from his own people.

He was a bright shining light in a time of great darkness, truly a man for all seasons.

Post script:

Today, Christmas Day, December 25, 2011, marks the twentieth anniversary of Mikhail Gorbachev stepping down from power thereby declaring the official dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The battle over Christmas

At work we eagerly await our annual Winter Holiday Party which will shortly be followed by a much needed Winter Break. Contrary to what that might suggest, we will not be hibernating through the coldest months of the year, just taking two days off work surrounding December 25th, the day we used to call Christmas. I've kind of become famous around the office for insisting on greeting people this time of year with a hearty "Merry Christmas", instead of an insipid (to my ears), "Happy Holidays." I imagine my adherence to the old fashioned term is more amusing than annoying to the people who know me, at least I hope so, as mentioning Christmas in public has become in some circles, politically incorrect.

As I get older, I'm becoming a little less strident and have taken on more of a live and let live attitude about the subject of Christmas. After all, people who don't believe in Christ, God, or anything for that matter, needn't be inundated by the belief systems of others, and Christmas is first and foremost a religious holiday right?

Well yes and no.

It may come as a surprise to some that in Christian tradition, Christmas isn't as big a deal as one might think. It is not the most important holiday in Christianity, that honor unquestionably belongs to Easter. The story of the birth of Jesus is sketchy at best in the Bible, most of it is to be found in only one of the four Gospels. It didn't even occur to early Christians to celebrate the birthday of Jesus, the first celebration of Christmas didn't take place until the late fourth century.

No one knows the year, let alone the exact date of the birth of Jesus. The only certainty, if we are to believe the biblical account, is that he could not have been born in late December. One theory for the choice of December 25th centers around the tradition that Jesus' crucifixion took place on the anniversary of his conception. Add nine months to that date, which is explicitly stated in the Gospels, and you get December 25th. Another theory is that the date was chosen, after Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire, to coincide with the ancient Pagan celebration of Winter Solstice, when the sun reverses its slow daily descent in the sky. There is a poetic synchronicity here as the figurative re-birth of the sun coincides with the literal birth of the Son.  Many of the traditions that we associate with Christmas, gift giving, the Christmas tree, the yule log, holly and mistletoe, all-round merriment, and even Santa Claus, originate from Pagan rituals. These traditions are precisely the reason why many extreme Christian groups throughout history have downplayed and even banned the celebration of Christmas.

Of course today in mainstream Christianity, Christmas is a big deal. Throughout the world, the faithful are scrambling to take the holiday back from what they see as over commercialization and secularization. Hearing complaints about too much emphasis on consumerism, and not enough about the "real meaning of Christmas" is as predictable as hearing the song; "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas" played at the local KMart the day after Halloween. "Put Christ back into Christmas" is the rallying cry of regular church goers who are appalled by the merry-makers and the folks who only show up at church on Christmas Day and take their precious seats and parking spaces.

It's pretty much the same folks who complain that there is a "war on Christmas" going on, waged by non-believers who would remove all traces of religious symbolism from public spaces.

But we Christians can't have it both ways. If we want to take back Christmas and keep it solely as a religious holiday, we can't expect people of other beliefs to embrace it as a public holiday. Imagine the outcry among most Christian groups if there were to be a national observance of the month of Ramadan.

My feeling as a Christian, is simply let everybody celebrate Christmas in whatever way they wish. Who could possibly argue with the secular traditions of giving unselfishly, of spreading joy to others and letting others' joy spread to you. I don't have any problem with a little frivolity, of decorating homes and businesses with lights and ornaments, and the sounds of Christmas songs (most of whom written by Jewish songwriters) played on sound systems in department stores. Christmas is the time of year when life seems the most worth living, when people put their everyday troubles behind them, and simply celebrate life.

Familiar secular works such as Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Frank Capra's film It's a Wonderful Life, How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss (who was also Jewish), and my all time favorite Christmas story by O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi, speak to the true meaning of Christmas at least as well as the chapter that St. Luke devotes to the birth of Jesus in his Gospel. Even the inescapable "jolly old elf" profoundly addresses the spirit of Christmas which is actually very simple, even in purely theological terms; generosity and above all, love.

You can call it Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, or even the ho hum Winter Holiday, and the spirit is the same, on earth, peace and goodwill to all. Still in my heart of hearts I think it's a shame that we are fighting over calling it Christmas.

On the other hand, perhaps this is for the best. Back when everyone simply wished each other "Merry Christmas", it was more or less a perfunctory holiday greeting. Now, forced to give great thought to my choice of words, when I wish someone a "Merry Christmas" I'm saying: "I wish you peace, joy, and love, for now, and always." When I say: "Happy Holidays" I'm saying: "Enjoy your day off and don't drink too much egg nog."

As a subversive term, "Merry Christmas" actually means something. With that in mind please allow me to wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and a joyous New Year.

And may God bless us, every one.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Occupying Utopia?

Over lunch the other day, a friend and I were discussing the Occupy Movement and its primary concern, the equitable distribution of wealth. I wondered aloud which communities throughout history have successfully spread the wealth around instead of limiting its control to a privileged few. My friend immediately brought up the early Christian community. As a persecuted minority their very survival depended upon the cohesiveness of the group. That cohesiveness in no small part can be attributed to Jesus' words to the rich young man who wanted to know the key to eternal life. He told the man to sell all that he had and give the money to the poor.

Christ's early followers did just that, they pooled their resources, and gladly gave to those who had not, just as Jesus had suggested.

Collective communities have existed throughout history, generally as small groups of people with shared beliefs who by and large separated themselves from the body politic.

In his blog Life's Private Book, the author, David T. describes the most successful collective communities in history, monasteries. His post; The Occupy Movement, Sin and the Monastery, asks the question: "Why do attempts at creating progressive utopias always fail?" His answer is basically that human nature always gets in the way. We simply don't accept the idea that life is not fair. Instead of grasping justice the author suggests monks "embrace injustice", not for others but for themselves:

Rather than fairness, the monastery demands obedience, piety, chastity and humility. The modern world, of course, sees in this nothing but the purest form of oppression. It pursues fairness through the assertion of rights and demands, the louder and more uncompromising the better. The active embrace of meekness and submission can only be understood by it as an invitation to slavery.

Well, for those of us who are not cut out to be monks, this seems like a pretty grim prospect indeed. For hundreds of years, the values of our Western society, with a few exceptions have evolved in the direction of personal freedom and individual rights. We vehemently reject slavery and oppression of any kind. Yet the essential requirement of the collective is that the rights of the community usurp the rights of the individual. Clearly, in order for a collective to work, everyone in the group must be in accordance with the plan and agree to subordinate themselves to the community.

That's difficult enough in a small group. In the case of a typical family, there is at least one parental unit keeping things in line, who is more equal than the rest. In a small group, any member not willing to play by the rules either gets punished, or leaves, willingly or not. The larger the group, the more complicated the egalitarian goal. Extended over an entire nation, a collective society must impose rigid rules, usually handed down from a central (more equal) authority, to insure that everyone stays on track. The most dramatic example was East Germany who was forced to build a fortified wall around Berlin to keep its people from leaving to the West.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is the indelible symbol of the failure of Communism.

So are the occupiers really seeking to turn our society into a utopian collective? Well the Movement is made up of a diverse lot and I'm sure a small minority sincerely believe in bringing a form of Communism to this country. Much fuss has been made since the movement began a few months ago about the 1 percent of the richest Americans controlling roughly 50 percent of the wealth in this country. But let's face it, how many would really care about that if the economy were robust and everyone was working? I think the 1% vs. 99% argument is merely a rhetorical bullet-point intended to rally people to the cause. Beyond that, there are plenty of meaningful issues that the movement has going for it.

For starters, our current economic situation is largely the result of wildly uncontrolled, unregulated markets. The Libertarian point of view to which I subscribe up to a point, suggests that markets should be self-regulating since their very success depends on control and restraint. Where the argument falls apart is the assumption that the players in the market are driven by long term success rather than mercenary short term greed.

Another issue is the trend in this country toward outrageous compensation for corporate executives combined with little if any accountability for mismanagement or malfeasance.

In government we have the partisan stalemate that has prevented Congress from taking any real steps to get this country moving in a positive direction. Then there is the regrettable Supreme Court decision that removed limits to campaign donations from corporations, citing them as a violation of free speech. From hereon it appears, those with the most money will have the most freedom of speech, at least as far as governmental representation goes.

The issue that we will be hearing about ad nauseum in the months leading up to the presidential election next year, will be taxes. No one likes to pay taxes, that is certain, Yet all of us reap the benefits of government in some way, even those who express disdain for it.. The money to pay for government has to come from somewhere and President Obama wants to raise the tax rate of people who make over one million dollars a year. One could argue that the people in the highest income tax bracket pay an unreasonably large chunk of the money they earn (35 percent) to the government. Well they used to pay a lot more. Couple that with the smorgasbord of tax breaks available to them and the fact that capital gains, which typically represent a significant proportion of income for the wealthy, are taxed at a lower rate than earned income, means that rich folks are often taxed at a lower rate than the middle class. The Republicans in Congress, not surprisingly are against raising the tax rate for the rich. The president would also like to extend the Bush era tax breaks for the middle class. Guess what? The Republicans are against that too.

One has to remember that no fortune, great or small, comes out of thin air, it is society that provides the means by which fortunes are made. Philanthropists believe it is their duty to give back at least part of their treasure to the society that made it all possible. For them, great wealth means great responsibility. Andrew Carnagie stated that a man who dies with his fortune intact, dies disgraced. For the great Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, it went deeper. Unlike Carnagie, Rosenwald was an active philanthropist for most of his working life, not just during his retirement. For him, giving his wealth back to the community was a moral imperative.

Since the opposition of taxing the rich has been taken on by many groups who claim to espouse Christian values, I think it's perfectly justifiable to bring up morality in the context of public policy. Christian “Fundamentalists" have a penchant for using biblical quotes to support their agenda opposed to big government, taxes, rights for gays and immigrants, universal health care, and the rest of the litany of right wing values.

Yet you seldom hear right wing Christianists quote the pasage I alluded to about selling everything and giving the proceeds to the poor. Nor do you hear what follows in that story found in the Gospel of Matthew. After the rich young man dejectedly leaves, Jesus tells his followers that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven.

Listening to the Christian Right, you'd think that Jesus was a gun-toting, white bread, all-American capitalist. Now I'm not in any position to tell anyone what they should believe, in my faith I'm taught not to judge others, lest I be judged. But it seems to me that the Christian faith is about community ("For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them"), more than it is about individualism. It was Christ afterall who said:“Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.” To the best of my knowldge he never said: "Show me the money."

Julius Rosenwald who was not a Christian, got it. So does Warren Buffet who is leading the call to raise the taxes on the very rich, himself included.

Higher taxes for the rich certainly won't solve all our economic woes. But I think that a willingness to contribute more to the public pot, along with a spirited movement of new philanthropy from the well off, would go a long way to help bring this country back together and move in the right direction.

Like I said, the Occupy Movement is a diverse group with many different agendas, some of them silly and irrelevant, others with tremendous merit. By and large they see this country, and the world as headed in the wrong direction and they are simply trying to right the ship. In that vein I liken their movement to mariners guided not by GPS, but a rusty old sextant on a cloudy evening. However as the movement grows, more and more people are there grabbing at the ship's tiller, slowly coaxing the old boat on a new course.

You won't see me camped outside the NYSE or the Chicago Board of Trade anytime soon. I'm a little like Groucho Marx who would never join a club who would have someone like me as a member.

But I'll be there on the sidelines cheering them on just the same.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A day of infamy

Yesterday, December 7, 2011,was the seventieth anniversary of what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called seventy years ago today, “a date that will live in infamy.” This particular anniversary of the Japanese attacks on the United States Pacific fleet in Hawaii and elsewhere brings to mind many things.

First I think about my friend’s father who was aboard a U.S. destroyer docked at Pearl Harbor that day. His family knew little more than that until very late in his life when he finally began to speak of the horrors of the experience. I also think about my uncle who enlisted seventy years ago today, and my recently widowed grandmother who was suddenly forced to raise my ten year old mother alone.

More than two thousand American servicemen and women died on that day. 400,000 plus would follow them in the coming four years in places like Guadalcanal, Normandy, Iwo Jima, Ardennes, and Corregidor. But that number was paled by the number of people from other countries who perished. Russia alone lost over 23 million, almost 14 percent of its population.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened had there been no Japanese attack. I think about the terrible injustice that took place in this country after the attacks as Japanese American citizens were rounded up and forced into concentration camps. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton more than forty years later addressed the issue with official apologies. The United States’ presence in WWII tipped the balance of power and ultimately turned the tide in the war. Had we not entered when we did, it’s difficult to say what the world would look like today. One could say that the events of that day changed the course of human history as much if not more than any other day in history. Perhaps the most significant direct result of the attacks was that it lead to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the dawn of the nuclear age.

But mostly on this anniversary, I think about the passage of time. When I first became aware of World War II, I learned about it first hand from people who lived through it. Those folks were for the most part the age I am today. Yesterday at the anniversary ceremony at the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, there were about 120 veterans who survived the attacks. Doing the math you realize that all of them are now around 90 years old, if not more. Sooner than I care to think about, there will be no one left in that austere group.

Twenty years ago yesterday, on the fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor, we celebrated my Aunt Gertrude's 91st birthday. Driving to dinner, the subject of the anniversary came up and Gert said: "Fifty years ago, gosh it seems like yesterday." We all laughed. But twenty years later, that moment seems like yesterday and now I'm beginning to understand what she meant.

Which reminds me of this from the poet Henry Austin Dobson:
Time goes, you say? Ah no! 
Alas, Time stays, we go.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A day of reckoning

Today is the day that former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich gets his comeuppance. He is about to learn what if any time he will be serving in prison for the corruption charges for which he was convicted earlier this year. As a lifelong Illinois resident, I take absolutely no joy in that. Yet I will take a 180 degree turn from my comments in a previous post and say that Blgojevich should go to prison for a good amount of time. This is not out of spite or personal vendetta. What the former governor did by soliciting bribes and kickbacks for everything from appointing a new senator to helping out a children's hospital, was a tremendous violation of the public trust. It set the cause of good government, (yes Virginia, there is such a thing), back at least fifty years, and only exacerbated the terrible movement of negativity and cynicism that plagues our society.

For his part, the former governor did not show a bit of contrition or admission of guilt, at least until very recently as his date with the jailer approached. His behavior during his two corruption trials turned the proceedings into a circus side show. Letting Blagojevich off with a slap on the wrist will send a clear message to the entire political establishment that there is no accountability whatsoever when it comes to malfeasance in office.

But there's little chance he'll get off. Just a couple of weeks ago, his former confidant and fundraiser Tony Rezko got ten years for corruption under the Blgojevich administration, so it's likely that Blago will get even more time behind bars.

The smart money says 15 years. Sad to say, I don't think that's unreasonable.

Post Script: Rod Blagojevich got 14 years.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A little landmark

On a jaunt down to Hyde Park last month, I grabbed this cellphone photo of the oldest extant L station in Chicago, built in 1892. From the Landmark plaque visible at the left of the building:

Built as part of Chicago's original elevated line connecting downtown with the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park, this is one of the oldest surviving mass transit stations in the United States and is the last surviving example of the City's original "bow-fronted," Arts-and-Crafts-styled street-level stationhouses. The station and its accompanying ornamental street overpass spanning Garfield Boulevard also represent a rare example of graceful transit design intended to relate to the City's famed park boulevard system.

As you can see from the quite ungraceful roller doors on both sides of the canopy, this station has served a very different purpose from what it was intended for a number of years. Those hideous doors and numerous coats of paint can't disguise the care of the design that was common in the day when public transit was privately owned and had to compete with other conveyances for riders. Back in the early days of the L, the trains were pulled by noisy, soot belching, steam locomotives and it's not hard to imagine that it took some convincing to get riders to climb aboard those trains some twenty feet up in the sky. For those early riders it must have been an exhilarating, if not harrowing experience.

The station was designed by Myron Church, and was designated a city landmark in 2001, the same year that it was replaced by the new station across Garfield Boulevard. Here is Chicago-L.org's take on the station.

From the morning commute

This homemade shrine was placed at the stretch of lakefront just south of Oak Street Beach this past summer, while Police and Fire Department divers searched for a man who was lost after diving into the lake from Navy Pier. It was a sobering sight, bicyclists, sunbathers and swimmers taking advantage of some of the most beautiful days of summer, sharing the lake with the divers and the family of the man who kept vigil.

After a week his body was recovered and the shrine, a humbling reminder that our beautiful lake gives life and takes it away, quietly disappeared.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving, Chicago, 1858

Courtesy of the Chicago Magazine blog, this Thanksgiving article was published in the Chicago Tribune on November 25, 1858.

It's quite the historical document, not only does it provide a window into what was on the minds of Chicagoans at the time, but it is also a manifesto of the values the newspaper; Protestant, anti-immigrant (especially Irish Catholic), pro-temperance, and staunchly Republican, the latter of which it remains to this day.

Also of note is the image included on the post which depicts the raising of a block of buildings and the sidewalk of Lake Street between Clark and LaSalle in 1860. George Pullman (later of sleeping car fame), was one of the chief engineers responsible for devising the system of raising the buildings of Chicago, made necessary by the terrible drainage of the natural city. In the case of this particular block, it took six hundred men synchronously turning six thousand jackscrews to do the job. It took five days to raise the entire block four feet eight inches. Business was not disrupted in any way as the work progressed.

Imagine a major public works project today which could boast that.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Maggie Daley

I had a sinking feeling in my heart last year, the moment Richard M. Daley announced he would not seek re-election for an unprecedented seventh term as mayor of Chicago. Some speculated that he lost interest in the job after the failed Olympic bid. Others thought at 68, he had enough of the pressure of the job, which intensified logarithmically during his last term. Still others believed he just wanted to serve long enough to break his father's record of days served in office, which he did on December 26th of last year.

I didn't buy any of that. Rich Daley loved being mayor and I think he would have gladly gone to his grave, dying with his boots on while still in office, just as his father did, if he could have. No my sinking feeling was that Mayor Daley was leaving office because he knew his wife was dying. Sadly last night, Thanksgiving night, Maggie Daley passed away at 68, after a long battle with cancer.

Here is the Tribune's obituary of Mrs. Daley, poignantly written by Rick Kogan.
Here are some comments and remembrances from Chicago Magazine.

Maggie and Rich Daley, Columbus Day Parade, c. 1990

She left behind her husband, three surviving children, and the City of Chicago, which she helped make a better place. Every one of us in this city owes Mrs. Daley a tremendous debt of gratitude. May she rest in peace.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

In Dallas, Texas...

That's how the most famous television news bulletin of all time began 48 years ago yesterday.

Great cities inspire impressions, mental images of themselves, the greater the city, the more diverse the impressions. For Dallas that image could be the neon sign of Pegasus, the symbol of Mobil Oil on top the Magnolia Petroleum Building. Or it might be the neighborhood of Deep Ellum, a cross between Harlem, Algiers and Bourbon Street. It could be the conspicuous consumption that was personified by the TV series named after the city, or Neiman Marcus whose flagship department store is on Elm Street in Downtown Dallas. It might be the quintessential American image of the cowboy, or the football team named for them, or more likely still, their cheerleaders. Or it could be the braggadocio that defines Dallas, a city whose aggressive pride of place makes Chicago look downright timid.

For me, Dallas will always be personified by the three words at the top of this post, and a place in the city that will forever be etched in the memory of anyone who was alive at the time, Dealey Plaza.

A few years ago, I read an article from a Look magazine my father saved that commemorated President Kennedy’s assassination. In the article, the author wondered how that event would affect the children around the country who witnessed it first hand on TV.

I am one of those children.

I was in kindergarten, not quite five years old that late November day in 1963. We had a TV in our classroom and it happened to be on at the time the reports started coming in from Dallas. There are indelible images from that morning, I remember my teacher frantically changing the channel to get more information, and the news becoming grimmer with each successive bulletin.

I don't remember the bulletin that finally announced the president was dead, maybe I've seen that clip of Walter Cronkite breaking down on camera so many times that I can't distinguish what I saw and when.

My grandmother met me at the school bus later that afternoon. I asked her who would be the next president. Like the rest of the country, our TV set was on non-stop for the rest of the weekend. I was transfixed. One particular image struck me, a man removing, as if ritually, the presidential seal from a podium. I learned many years later that this was the dais the president was headed to in Dallas to deliver the speech he would never give.

I visited Dallas my first and only time about fifteen years ago. It was during the midst of a cross country drive, bringing my parents home to Chicago from Phoenix. Since it was the middle of winter, it was certain that we would take the southern route, but I lobbied for an even more southern route, one that would take us within spitting distance of Mexico. Even though it would add several hundred miles to our trip, it would take us through some pretty interesting places. Mostly, I wanted to go to Dallas.

It was an amazing drive through southern New Mexico and Texas. We passed through the rough and tumble border city of El Paso, alongside rugged Big Bend National Park, then through some desolate landscape as we approached the oil fields near Odessa. Unlike many of my friends who are turned off by its conservative politics and religion, I've always been drawn to Texas and its people. Perhaps it was the folks in Beaumont who welcomed me so warmly into their homes when I photographed them as part of a documentary project. Or driving through the Panhandle with its wide open, wind swept landscape that seems to go on forever. Or maybe it was the girl who charmed my socks off thirty years ago in Houston. In any case, that drive which was completely tedious for my parents, was exhilarating for me.

Eventually we got to Dallas. I had no guidebook but it didn't matter, I recognized the place from the freeway. It looked just as I had remembered from the photographs, only much more intimate. It was raining and my parents humored me as I got out of the car to check it out. There it all was, the Book Depository, the pergola where Zapruder shot his famous film, the grassy knoll, the stockade fence, and the triple underpass.

I was alone, at least thought I was until I saw a solitary figure near the stockade fence. I turned my head away, then turned back and the figure was gone. To this day I have no better explanation other than I saw Lee Harvey Oswald's ghost. Well that's my story anyway and I'm sticking to it.

We all went up to the sixth floor of the Depository which is now a museum devoted to Kennedy and the assassination. You can look out the window from where the shots were fired. There are two x's on Elm street that mark the spots where Kennedy was hit. They are clearly visible from that window. I'm not a marksman but in my uneducated opinion, it didn't look like a terribly difficult shot, especially for a former Marine.

Afterwards my parents and I had lunch at a nearby steakhouse then went to check out Neiman Marcus for my mother. After that we went on our way. We had accomplished what we set out to do in Dallas.

To some it might seem creepy to seek out the site of a person's murder. Perhaps it is. I don't know why I was drawn to Dealey Plaza any more than why I'm drawn to John Kennedy and his assassination. All I know is the event that took place so long ago was a major milestone in my life, my transformation from babyhood to childhood.

On the morning of November 22nd, 1963, I knew what a president was, and who the president was, but in life, President Kennedy meant nothing to me. All would change that afternoon. It was not the first time I experienced death, but it was my first experience with sudden, violent death. John Fitzgerald Kennedy would from that day on become a revered figure in our household and of course for a while, all over America.

On that fateful day, the whole terrifying world opened up to me. Even though I didn't understand it at the time, the things that happened outside the boundaries of my own little world, all of a sudden mattered. Looking at my daughter who is the same age I was when JFK died, I realize how awfully young that is to bear the weight of the world on your shoulders.

No one knows what this country, or the world for that matter would be like had Kennedy lived. But I suspect that all of us died a little with him that day. 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Funny money

My contrarian nature makes me suspicious of movements, grass roots and otherwise. The current Occupy Wall Street movement is no exception, my feeling is this; throughout history, the few that are rich have always controlled most of the wealth, our time is no different. As the wise Mr. Bernstein said in Citizen Kane: "It's not a trick to make a lot of money if all you want, is to make a lot of money." Since I haven't devoted my life to the pursuit of personal fortune, I don't have a problem with other people having more money than I do.

On the other hand, there's always been a part of me that believes that people who have more money than they know what to do with, ("stupid money" as a friend calls it), could do a little better sharing it with those who have little or none. I also make a distinction between people who earn a lot of money, justly being compensated for building, creating and doing things that benefit society, (including those who invest responsibly), from those who make a great deal of money in any way they see fit, regardless of the consequences. It's an age old battle, but the following is just one case where the hard work and struggle of generations of Americans, rich and otherwise is being undermined by a few who may be about to bring down a couple of national institutions, along with thousands of livelihoods.

An article in the October issue of Esquire explores the sorry state of retail giants Sears and Kmart. The sub title of the piece;  The End, Old Friendby investment writer Ken Kurson spells it out:

The only value left at Sears and Kmart is the bet against them.

Sears played an integral role in Chicago's history. Richard Sears moved his watch business to Chicago where he met his future partner Alvah C. Roebuck who would help diversify the operation. Together they created the mail order business that would bring a whole new world to Americans, especially rural Americans, via the catalog. Sears was a man with vision but little practical sense. It was his penchant for example, to advertise impossibly attractive deals in his catalog regardless of whether or not he was able to deliver them. He had to rely on his suppliers several times to save his skin. The stress of the business made Roebuck resign in 1895.

Sears needed an infusion of capital to keep the business going and he got it from one of those suppliers who came to his rescue. Julius Rosenwald from the discount clothing trade, as was his nature, seized upon a good opportunity and bought into the company in 1895. As vice president, Rosenwald organized and further diversified the business, turning a successful operation into a national icon. Rosenwald was instrumental in taking Sears Roebuck public in 1906, which resulted in a windfall for both him and the company. He assumed the presidency of the company in 1908 upon Richard Sears' retirement.

Julius Rosenwald was a remarkable man who today is more remembered for his philanthropic work than his formidable business acumen. Feeling personally uncomfortable with the inequity of his immense wealth compared to those who were in his employ, Mr. Rosenwald sought and received ethical direction from the teachings of Judaism. He was deeply moved by these words of a rabbi from a Yom Kippur address:

As long as the weakest in humanity has not his own, civilization is only a sham and a pretender, and as long as civilization is a pretender, Judaism must stand alone as a historic protest against injustice. 

Rosenwald took those words to heart and put his business skill, progressive ideals, much of his personal treasure, and most important of all, his time, to support initiatives that helped disadvantaged people learn the skills that would enable them to help themselves. He became associated with Booker T. Washington and his Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, as well as many efforts to establish schools for African American children in the South. He became a staunch supporter of racial justice and was equally swayed by Washington's ideological adversary, W.E.B. DuBois, who eulogized Rosenwald this way:

He was a great man. But he was no mere philanthropist. He was, rather, the subtle stinging critic of our racial democracy.

Rosenwald disliked perpetual foundations, seeing them as an attempt for their benefactors to achieve a kind of immortality. Instead he believed in giving his money away while he was alive. The foundation that bore his name was established in 1917 and lasted until its funds were purposely exhausted in 1948. In the words of Mr. Rosenwald:

I am opposed to the principle of storing up large sums of money for philanthropic uses centuries hence…. The generation which has contributed to the making of a millionaire should also be the one to profit by his generosity. 

Not only is his foundation a memory, but you won't find Rosenwald's name on the company he helped build, or many of the institutions he founded such as the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, simply because he wanted it that way. 

Kmart is another American institution whose company's origins date back almost as far as Sears'. Sebastian S. Kresge developed his business philosophy of hard work, thrift, and a disdain for credit, early in his career. As a clerk in a hardware store in Scranton, PA. he noticed that the store was falling behind on its bills because the customers were falling behind on their credit payments. He was diligent in keeping the place tidy, choosing to clean and polish up the store during his idle moments rather than just stand around. This attitude did not go unnoticed and his employer promoted him to the position of traveling salesman, where he remained for several years. One of his customers was Frank Woolworth of dime store fame. With $8,000 that he saved up while in that position, Kresge with a partner opened up his own five and ten cent store, first in Memphis, then another, later in Detroit. All transactions were cash only. In 1899 Kresge bought out his partner and by 1912, Kresge owned 85 dime stores under his name across the U.S. He took a close personal interest in his stores that extended to knowing all his managers by name, and hanging a picture of his mother in each store.

Kresge was notoriously stingy in providing for himself and his family. Despite being a millionaire many times over, he wore threadbare suits and refused to play golf because he lost too many balls. The penny-pinching did not however extend to his employees who were some of the first in his industry to receive paid sick leave and holidays, profit-sharing bonuses, and pensions. Nor did his parsimoniousness extend to charity. In 1924, Kresge with an initial gift of 1.6 million, established the Kresge Foundation; “to help  human progress through benefactions of whatever name or nature.” Unlike Julius Rosenwald's foundation, the Kresge Foundation is alive and well today. It ranks as the 28th richest charitable organization in the world with an endowment of 3.3 billion dollars. Kresge lived to see much of the work of his charity as he died in 1966 at the ripe old age of 99.

The Kresge Foundation casts a wide net to provide grant money to a wide variety of causes, but one specific area that is near and dear to the heart of the Foundation is the city of Detroit which was the home of the Kresge Corporation and continues to be the home of the Foundation. From its mission statement:

We aspire to change the city of Detroit’s trajectory to one of long-term economic opportunity that advances social equity, promotes cultural expression, and re-establishes our hometown as the center of a vibrant region.

The corporation no longer resides in the Motor City but Kresge's name continues to be prominently displayed in Downtown Detroit at the top of the building that was at one time its corporate headquarters. Built in 1914 the Kales Building was designed by Detroit's preeminent architect Albert Kahn. Like Cass Gilbert's Woolworth Building in New York City, the Kales Building continues to be one of the most prominent buildings in its city's distinguished skyline. To think, both magnificent buildings were built out of nickels and dimes, lots and lots of them.

Times changed and nickels and dimes didn't go as far as they once did. Dime stores eventually became known as "variety stores" and they would hang around urban commercial districts for most of the twentieth century. It was not uncommon for Woolworth and Kresge stores to coexist next to one another in downtowns throughout much of America. By mid-century the Kresge company began to change direction recognizing that the future of retail meant following the customers and their automobiles, to the suburbs. The old fashioned urban Kresge variety stores became suburban Kmart discount centers. Kmart may not have been the first "big box" store but it was the quintessential one that set the tone for what was to follow. It was the paradigm for competitors such as Shopper's World, Community, Zayre, Venture, Walmart and Target. It survived all but the last two.

Here is a blog devoted entirely to Kmart.

Unlike K(resge)mart, Sears transformed itself many times over in the twentieth century. In 1906, the year the company went public, Richard Sears wrote: "We do comparatively very little business in cities, and we assume the cities are not at all our field - maybe they are not - but I think it is our duty to prove they are not ." Shortly after that, retail stores began to open up in small towns all over the country, cutting into the mail order business and the company knew it had to adapt. In 1925, Sears opened up its first retail store located on the campus of its enormous headquarters on the west side of Chicago. Their "brick and mortar" stores quickly became successful, during one period in the twenties, a new Sears store opened somewhere in America on an average of one every other day. New stores kept opening despite the Depression and only the outbreak of World War II could stop the growth, temporarily. Sears pioneered the concept of one stop shopping, you could drive to Sears, get your car serviced, have your eyes checked, purchase insurance, get some investment advice, and put your house on the market, while your family browsed through the store which sold pretty much anything they needed. Sears also was the first company to feature in house brands such as Kenmore appliances, Die Hard car batteries, and Craftsman tools, all of whom were renowned for their quality and reliability.

Sears came the closest of any retailer in the United States to being all things to all people. In small towns they had catalog stores, limited retail establishments where you could order what they couldn't stock. In the suburbs, Sears stores were the anchors of shopping malls, and in urban centers, they coexisted comfortably along with their competitors, the other great department stores. For half of my life, the Sears department store on State Street between Congress and Van Buren was the largest and most comprehensive of all the great stores on that street.

Then there was the catalog which itself was an institution. Quoting myself; at one time all across America the arrival of the Sears catalog was anticipated with as much gusto as birthdays and Christmas. For many years the company's slogan was; "Where America shops." That was not hyperbole, Sears was so strong and powerful in the early seventies, it built as its corporate headquarters what would be at the time, and for many years to come, the world's tallest building. If any other retailer could legitimately claim to be the icon of Middle America, I certainly can't think if it.

Things began to change in the late seventies and that old bugaboo reared its ugly head, Sears and especially Kmart, didn't go along with the times. Kmart during the last part of the last century was pleagued with extremely incompetent management. The company found itself caught in between its two chief rivals. On one side was Walmart with its efficient technologically driven distribution system, and its aggressively low overhead, high discount strategy. On the other side was Target which emphasized design while maintaining low prices. Kmart did not stray from its original template and as a result, could not compete with Walmart's prices, or Target's sense of style. Consequently it became irrelevant. 

Sears also was beginning to show its age as well, its image as the store your parents and grandparents shopped at probably didn't help. The company let its stores become tired looking and run down. Here is a picture of the great Sears store at the Six Corners shopping district of Chicago as it looks today:

Sears department store at Cicero and Irving Park Avenues, Chicago, 2011

The building was built during the Great Depression at a cost of one million dollars. 100,000 people attended its opening in 1938. From the photo above you can just barely detect hints of the building's beautiful Art Deco facade. Compare it the photograph below of the same building from around the time of its opening. Amazingly, they covered up the building's most distinctive feature, its great display window, the largest in Chicago. Long ago they removed the stunning neon sign, replacing it with pedestrian illuminated plastic signs featuring the corporate logo du jour.

Same Sears store, c. 1938

Of course the last forty years have been challenging for all retailers, many of whom have closed up shop entirely. In a way it's a small miracle that Sears and Kmart exist at all today. In 2002, Kmart filed for bankruptcy protection.

Enter hedge fund manager Edward Lampert. Lampert's strategy is to buy up old school, struggling retailers, shake up the management, then use their cash flow to buy up other retailers. In 2003, Lampert bought Kmart along with all its debt. Struggling as it was, Kmart was still taking in $30 billion per year in sales. In addition, Kmart also had plenty of real estate. Lampert closed several stores and sold off the property, further improving his cash flow.

In what seemed to the general public a case of the blind leading the blind, the Kmart Corporation under Lampert, bought Sears Roebuck. From an investors' standpoint, it was a brilliant move as Sears was even more real estate rich than Kmart, and as long as they could keep selling off property, the price of the stock kept going up. Lampert's group promised to revitalize both Sears and Kmart and did make a few token moves attempting to improve sales at Sears and Kmart, but little of the money earned from the sale of assets was reinvested into either store. Sales remained flat while stock in the combined companies gained in value. Given this it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that the corporation that controls Sears and Kmart today is known as "Sears Holdings."

All was well with this arrangement, at least as far as stock value went, until the collapse of the real estate market six years ago. According to Ken Kurson's Esquire piece, since then the income of the company has decreased 84 percent. Sears for the first time has dropped to the tenth largest retailer and unlike every other retailer in its class, its profits have dropped consistently in that time. Kmart has dropped to a very distant fourth place among its big box competitors, Walmart, Target and Costco. Yet for the past six years, the price of the stock of Sears Holdings has remained fairly constant, quite an accomplishment for the current climate.

That is until now.

Kurson closes his Esquire piece with this: "The smart money didn't care if the retailers recovered. They liked the real estate."

This is not in any way illegal, it's business as usual in corporate America. But I think a good argument could be made about the lack of ethics in Lampert's actions.  He acquired two companies, pledging in good faith to the employees, the general public and the shareholders to do everything in his power to return them to profitability. It's clear I think to everyone like me who has visited a Sears or Kmart lately to find two businesses that appear to only be going through the motions. 

Then there's the issue of morality. Lampert's chief responsibility in his mind is to his clients, the stockholders, whose interest is the bottom line. As for Sears and Kmart, and the people who work there, well they're expendable in the eyes of the "smart money." Lampert's clients, who probably don't shop at Sears Holdings stores and definitely don't work in them, will just move on to other investment opportunities. Moving on will not be so easy for the folks whose livelihood depends on the stores.

One of the options to investors, as Kurson suggests, would be to short sell Sears Holdings stock, thereby profiting off the company's collapse. 

Eddie Lampert may not be a bad guy. In the end he may like his mentor Warren Buffet, decide to donate all of his billions to charity upon his death. He's still a relatively young man so it's not at all fair to compare his legacy in terms of charity and good works to that of Kresge's or Rosenwald's.

But he does have a substantial track record in business, so I do think it's fair to compare Lampert's business legacy up to this point, with the men who created Kmart and Sears. Richard Sears, Alvah Roebuck, Sebastian Kresge and Julius Rosenwald, at great financial risk to themselves, built companies out of nothing but their own hard work and inspiration. Their companies which have been around for well over 100 years, have provided gainful employment to countless people over that time and both Kresge and Rosenwald at least, expressed deep concern for the well being of their workers. The companies in their own right served as engines that helped drive the U.S. economy for many years, as well as provided a very good return to their investors. 

By buying and selling off the assets of Kmart and Sears, Lampert may very well have sealed the fate of the companies built by Sears, Roebuck, Kresge and Rosenwald. If that happens, he will be responsible for tens of thousands of workers losing their jobs, the loss of two American institutions, and the vacuum in the economy that their loss would entail. On the upside, he made himself and his clients richer.

As far as legacy goes, you can judge for yourself but in my book, it's not much of a contest. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

George Eastman

In my post about Steve Jobs and all the innovators, inventors and creative geniuses he is in company with, I forgot about poor old George Eastman.

Here is an article by Bob Greene that draws some interesting comparisons between Google and the company Eastman founded, Kodak.

Like Jobs, it was Eastman who brought his product, in his case cameras and photography, to everyday people. In the process he not only changed photography, which already had been around for a half century, but the world.

Today, photography like so many other fields of endeavor, is being transformed by the digital age. Greene makes an interesting point using traditional silver (film) based photography versus its digital based counterpart as a metaphor for our current society. In the old film era, (boy I'm really starting to feel old), you would have to wait to shoot an entire role of film, take it to the lab, then wait a few days more for the film to be processed. There was a sense of glorious anticipation in that time, wondering how the pictures would turn out. Opening that envelope with the prints, or a box with slides, would be akin to opening up a birthday present as, hoping for the best, you'd never know exactly what you'd get. All that's been lost with digital photography and its instant feedback, and gratification.

Unfortunately Kodak has not been very good at the instant gratification business. As everyone in the photography world, and the city of Rochester knows, the company has been floundering for quite some time, and may not survive. That would be a terrible shame.

Ironically, Google, the company that all but invented instant gratification, is no longer instant enough. Competition from Twitter, Facebook and others have forced Google to improve its search algorithm to make it even faster. *

Another lesson to all of us in changing times, either go with the flow or get off the boat.

* Which reminds me of an old Groucho Marx bit. While in a passionate embrace with a woman, she asks him to come closer to which he replies: "If I were any closer I'd be behind you."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

In those days , they had time for everything...

...could be a comment heard today about life before the age of e-mail, the internet, and multitasking, back when people weren't teathered to their electronic devices and required to be accessible 24/7.

Isn't it ironic that the more time saving devices we have at our fingertips, the less time we seem to have at our disposal?

That sentiment is actually from a novel and later a classic movie, set at the turn of the last century. Its inspiration was not related to the computer obviously but the electric streetcar which replaced the horse drawn streetcar. Life it seems was a trifle slower in the pre-trolley days when the car pulled up to a house:
A lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once, and wait for her while she shut the window, put on her hat and coat, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the "girl" what to have for dinner and came forth from the house. The previous passengers made little objection to such gallantry on the part of the car: they were wont to expect as much for themselves on like occasion. 
In good weather the mule pulled the car a mile in a little less than twenty minutes, unless the stops were too long; but when the trolley-car came, doing its mile in five minutes and better, it would wait for nobody. Nor could its passengers have endured such a thing, because the faster they were carried, the less time they had to spare!
People have been grumbling about the "good old days" probably since the invention of the wheel, if not before.

The "good old days." Chicago Loop c.1900

The words are taken from the novel The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington. It was written in 1918 and chroicles the life of once the most prominent family of an unnamed Midwestern town.* It was the story that Orson Wells chose to be the setting for his second feature film. Like Wells' first film Citizen Kane, the chief protagonist of The Magnificent Ambersons, George Amberson Minafer is a flawed individual, arrogant with a supreme sense of entitlement, who is perfectly unwilling to change along with the world around him. His stubborn attitude that, for a person of his status it was more worthwhile - to be rather than to do, made him ill suited for life in a time when his prestigious family name had lost its relevance.

George's nemesis, Eugene Morgan, was the father of George's on again off again girlfriend Lucy, but also an admirer of his widowed mother Isabel. George eventually learns what we already know, not only was the admiration mutual, but it was in fact older than George himself, and were it not for a youthful indiscretion, Eugene may very well have ended up George's father, and Lucy... well you can figure out the rest. The stuff for great melodrama to be sure but the story takes place during the period of the most radical change in the history of this country, and that turbulent era serves as the story behind the story.

Although the film and novel center around George and the self centered existence that leads to his eventual "come-upance", the most compelling character is Eugene. He is a member of the new breed of do'ers rather than be'ers, an inventor and early advocate of the automobile. While he is a lifelong friend of the Ambersons, his world and theirs collide as the progress he is in part responsible for, crushes the old way of life that sustained the family and their significance. Yet George is the only Amberson who is threatened by Eugene; by his ambition, his newfangled horseless carriage, his self-made success, and mostly by his intrusion into George's family. One evening at dinner at the Ambersons', George's grandfather and uncle engage Eugene in conversation about the growth due to all the new roads and how it has been negatively effecting property values in their part of town. Eugene assures them that it will only get worse, that roads will soon be built all the way to the edge of town and the roads already in town will be widened to accommodate the automobile. At that point, George blurts out:
Automobiles are a useless nuisance. They'll never amount to anything but a nuisance. They had no business to be invented.
George's grandfather in the book, his uncle in the movie , admonishes him for his impertinence. Seemingly unfazed, Eugene in a remarkably insightful monologue says this:
I'm not sure he's wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization - that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men's souls. I am not sure, But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us suspect. They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace. I think men's minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of the automobiles; just how, though, I could hardly guess. But you can't have the immense outward changes that they will cause without some inward ones, and it may be that George is right, and that spiritual alteration will be bad for us. Perhaps, ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn't be able to defend the gasoline engine, but would have to agree with him that automobiles had no business to be invented.
Pretty glum words indeed, especially coming from one of the inventors of that infernal contraption.

Later in the story, George leaves for an extended trip to Europe. Upon his return five years later, he found that the familiar world he left behind, was gone forever. This is how Booth Tarkington describes George's town that had become a city upon his return:
He walked homeward slowly through what appeared to be the strange streets of a strange city... the streets were thunderous; a vast energy heaved under the universal coating of dinginess...All the people were soiled by the smoke-mist through which they hurried, under the heavy sky that hung close upon the new skyscrapers; and nearly all seemed harried by something impending.
That dinginess and harried nature of life in this new world that Tarkington describes, is associated by the new people in town, with well being and prosperity. As long as the factories and mills were belching out smoke, people were making money and all was well.

Perhaps this is the "spiritual alteration" that Eugene so prophetically alluded to in his words.

It's funny, if we were to take Eugene's cautionary statement and substitute the word computer for automobile, and digital age for gasoline engine, his comments would ring true in our day.

Being in the middle of the digital revolution, we still may not begin to understand the inward change it causes in our souls. One thing is certain, computers are here to stay and they have inexorably changed our lives.

For better and for worse.

After all, as Eugene said in the movie:
There aren't any old times. When times are gone, they're not old, they're dead. There aren't any times but new times.

* It is said that Booth Tarkington based the unnamed Midwestern town that is the setting for The Magnificent Ambersons on his home town, Woodruff Place, Indiana, which today is a neighborhood of Indianapolis. For his part, Wells may have been influenced by the town of his birth, Kenosha, Wisconsin. In reality though, the town could be Anywhere, USA.