Tuesday, June 5, 2018

RFK

On this, the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, below is an interesting two hour PBS documentary on his life. It is not a hagiographic portrait of the man. It doesn't hesitate to discuss some of Kennedy's less than admirable accomplishments:, his affiliation with Senator Joseph McCarthy, his involvement as part of his brother's administration, in the plot to remove by all means necessary, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and his initial reluctance to support the American Civil Rights Movement, to name just three.

RFK was a man of great contrasts, a devout family man, who was nothing short of ruthless when anything or anyone got in his way.

Yet the most remarkable trait of Bobby Kennedy was his capacity to grow and to change. That is the main theme of this film. As a virulent anti-communist hawk, evidenced by his work with McCarthy in the fifties, a staunch early supporter of the Vietnam War, and a man of privilege with little understanding of the suffering of others, the tide began to turn for Kennedy after three momentous events that occurred within a short time of each other in 1962 and 1963.

The first of these was the Cuban Missle Crisis of 1962. As part of John F. Kennedy's Cabinet in the role of Attorney General, Robert Kennedy was also his brother the president's closest advisor. At the beginning of the crisis, Robert Kennedy adamantly advocated for military retailiation against the USSR's decision to install missles with nuclear warheads in Cuba, just ninety miles from American soil. But after several days of rigorous debate and soul searching, RFK came to the conclusion that the moral solution, was to negotiate a deal with Moscow that would involve, unbeknownst to the American public at the time, the tit-for-tat removal of US milles pointed at the Soviet Union, that had been in Trukey. That change of heart of Kennedy's could very well have prevented a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Another moment that profoundly changed Robery Kennedy's view of the world took place in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, There, the reaction of local authorities to civil rights protests resulted in images broadcast all over the world of firefighters turning hoses on, and police brutally beating and turning dogs on demonstrators, many of whom were children. It was Robert Kennedy, at least according to this film, who convinced a still complacent John Kennedy, that acting on befalf of civil rights in this country was not a political, but a moral obligation. As a result, the president addressed the nation on June 11, 1963, with the speech that would prove to be his finest moment, announcing the legislation that would lead to the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The event that most profoundly changed Robert Kennedy's life, was his brother's assassination in November of 1963. Out of the depths of despair from which  it took Bobby Kennedy years to recover, came an entirely different man, one of profound empathy for the suffering of his fellow human beings.

During his time of despair over JFK's death, it is said that his brother's widow Jacqueline Kennedy suggested that Robert read the works of the ancient Greeks to help provide him solace. Bobby Kennedy put these words of Aeschylus to good use during the time he had left in this world:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.
Kennedy was once asked why his ideas about civil rights and the Vietnam War had changed so drastically in such a short period of time. It's hard to imagine another American politician, especially one in our own era respond the way Kennedy did. He said, "Becasue I hadn't yet read Aeschylus."

Kennedy used those words to console an audience of African American people in Indianapoilis on the night Martin Luther King was musdered. The six minute speech he delivered that night was arguably his finest moment.

Those are the words of RFK's epitaph, inscribed on his headstone at Arlington National Cemetery.

And they are the words that inspired the title of the second half, and the closing words of the following film in the American Experience Series:


 

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Taboos and Double Standards

In our on-going culture wars, the gripe du-jour among white Trump supporters this week is that there is a double standard in the media regarding the treatment of performers who cross one line or other in regards to race and politics. It began, as so many issues these days, with a tweet.

Celebrity Roseanne Barr, who made a comeback with her eponymous sit-com about a working class family with conflicting political opinions, sort of a 2010's version of All in the Family, got into hot water this week when she tweeted that former Obama advisor, Valerie Jarrett, who hapens to be African American. looked like a cross between the "Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes." Now why she chose to pick on Ms. Jarrett who has been out of the spotlight for a while I have no idea, but that's just what she did. After being roundly criticized from a wide swath of the American public, Barr apolgized to Jarrett for the tweet, but the damage was done. Later in the day ABC, the network who broadcasts her highly rated show, cancelled it.

While Barr's tweet was criticized by virtually everyone, her firing was slammed by many for being an overreaction to what was simply meant to be a joke, albeit a tasteless one with racial overtoves. Barr took back the remark and immediately apologized for it, that should have been enough, critics of ABC said. The argument went on that other celebrities make crude and vugar references about public figures all the time and get away with it scott free. Bill Maher for example compared President Trump to an orangutan, and Samantha Bee just this week referred to Ivanka Trump as a "feckless cunt." Bee also apologized for that remark. But unlike Barr, Maher and Bee got to keep their jobs despite doing essentially what Barr did.

Cries of unfiar, and accusations of double standards went up all over the ultra-right airwaves which claimed that Barr was fired and the others were spared for one and only one reason, because Barr is a vocal supporter of Donald Trump. Not surprizingly, the president also got into the act with his own tweet. He openly whined about Disney, the parent company of ABC. If they saw fit to fire Barr for her comments about Jarrett, and then apologize to the American people for those remarks, why didn't they apologize to him for all the mean things celebrities under their employ said about him?

Putting aside the petty and pathetic nature of the President of the United States making the firing of a celebrity over an offensive comment, all about himself, does Donald Trump have a point? After all, Bill Maher compared him to an ape, just like Barr compared Jarrett, and Bee crossed a line when she used the "C" word to describe his daughter. Fair is fair isn't it?

If there were a creature from outer space who arrived to earth just in time for this story to break, he, she, they, it or whatever the correct pronoun for a creature from outer space is, would certainly see a double standard here, Barr was fired and Maher and Bee were not, for doing essentially the same thing. But in our society, you'd have to be a creature from outer space to not understand the difference, and no, it does not have anythigng to do with the poitics of the people involved.

The issue is race, pure and simple. A couple months ago. I dealt with the issue of reverse racism, trying to find eqinamity beween the way white and black people in the United States relate to each other. My conclusion was that it is simply not possible. In other words, reverse racism does not exist. You can read that post here.

Now you might read that and say wow, this guy is just swayed by the scourge of political correctness. Well several years ago I dealt with that subject as well. You can read that here.

The jist of the matter is this, every society has its own taboos. In Turkey for example, it is considered taboo to show the bottom of your feet in public,, with or without shoes. In Cambodia, it is wrong to take a photograph with three people. Every society, including our own, has its own cultural taboos that are bewildering to people of other cultures.

There were far more taboos when I was growing up in this country than there are now. For example, one would never ask a woman her age. Then of course there were George Carlin's famous "Seven words you can't say on TV." Well you still can't say those words on broadcast TV but they are used so frequently these days in common speech that they go all but unnoticed. As a result, they have all but lost their power to evoke or provoke as the case may be.

But never fear, there are two words that have supplanted them, words  so vile and taboo in our society, that even the slightest mention of them in polite company, with rare exception, marks the utterer of them, the basest of individuals. That's because the two words refer not to bodily functions but are the most derogatory descriptions of specific groups of people, one of them, African Americans, the other, women. And the two greatest taboos in our society today are number one, being a racist, and number two, being a sexist. For all its shortcomings, political correctness is a means to enforce these taboos that deserve to remain as such.

If you believe that reverse racism and for that matter, reverse sexism exists, consider this:, no matter how hard you try to find one, there is no white equivalent for the "N" word, and no male equivalent for the "C" word. Granted there are derogatory words, insulting words, obnoxious words to describe white males, but nothing that comes close to the vile intent conveyed by those two specific words. And for good reason, black people and women have experienced centurites of repression, suppression, and oppresion in our society, white men have not. All the while, white men have called the shots, and for that matter, by and large, still do.

There has been a double standard reagrding race and regarding gender in this country since the beginning. So now the pendulum has swung the other direction and yes indeed, today there is a double standard in regard to the words you can legitimately use to describe another race or gender. As a result there are lines that exist in regards to the words we can use to describe oppressed groups of people, including women, that don't exist in the other direction.

And with that the ultra right cries foul. "Not being able to use words? Why that violates our free speech as guaranteed in the First Amendment!"

Well not so fast. The First Amendment of the American Constitution guarantees that Congress shall not create a law "abridging freedom of speech" (among other things). So yes there is no law against spewing the most vile, racist, sexist or hateful words, as the constitution protects against it. In other words, the police cannot come and arrest you for speaking your mind. What the constitution does not protect you from, are the consequences that may arise from that speech, including losing your job. You are free to say whatever you like without fear of arrest, but your employer doesn't have to ruin its reputation by having to associate with you. And a private company such as Facebook or Twitter is not required to publish your vile words. They are perfectly free to delete what you say, if it does not fall within their well established guidelines, or outright ban you at their discression. So say whatever you like, but remember, you are on your own, at least according to the constitution.

Roseanne Barr a white woman, crossed a definite line when she likened Valerie Jarrett, a black woman, to an ape. She was not arrested, therefore her constitutional rights were not violated. ABC, a company with a reputation to withhold, decided it no longer wanted to be affiliated with her. That decision, right or wrong, is their right, and they acted upon it.

On the other hand, there is no line against making fun of the president or his family, in fact, there is a long, distinguished history of it in this country. Personally I find Bill Maher obnoxious and at times despicable. But he, a white man, did not cross any line by calling Trump, another white man, an orangutan. In fact if anything, I think his remark was more offensive to orangutans than to Trump but maybe that's just me. Samantha Bee calling the first daughter the "C" word, if not crossing a line, came pretty close. I suppose she gets cut some slack because she is a woman calling another woman that word. Frankly it wouldn't bother me if either Maher or Bee lost their job for of their vulgar comments, because that decision is the discretion of their their employer. I may not like it, but it's not my network.

The fact is, if we are dismayed when a TV network chooses to hire or fire somebody, or not hire or not fire somebody, there is something we can do about it. Change the channel. If enough of us do that, believe me, the network will get the message.

On the other hand if a black man cannot walk down the street without being suspected of being a criminal simply because of the color of his skin, he cannot change the color of his skin.

Or if a woman cannot go to work with the full expectation tha she will be treated fairly, justly and with respect at all times, simply because she is a woman, she cannot change her gender.

Nobody ever said life was fair.

Given that, if you're whining this week because you think it's unfair that a network cancelled your favorite TV show because of a racist remark made by its star, I have two words for you.

Tough shit.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Photographs of the Month

Homage to Franz Klein/Aaron Siskind, Art Insitute of Chicago, May 2

Before the Storm, West Ridge, May 2

Going Out of Business, Linconwoon, IL, May 4

Rogers Park, May 18


Wet Plate Collodion Portrait Session, Art Institute of Chicago, May 30



Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Empower

Tomorrow night, Thursday May 31st, there will be a one time performance, (for now at least) of a one act opera composed by Damien Sneed. Sneed created the work titled Empower, with the help of several high school students from the South Side of Chicago, many of whom are members of the cast. 

Ensemble with chorus in background
Drawing from their experiences growing up on the South Side, the story revolves around a group of high school kids who resolve to tell their own story about their lives and neighborhood in light of all the negative PR, as personified by a news reporter intent on creating a grisly picture of filth, crime, and all-round yuckiness.

The performance will be the fruition of a school year's worth of collaboration and rehearsals for the students and their professional partners. In addition to Mr. Sneed, the participating adults in the production are librettist Ike Holter, director Jess McLeod, Choreographer Tanji Harper, Visual Artist Ruben Aguirre, and Music Supervisor Kedrick Armstrong who directs an ensemble of ten musicians. Also appearing on stage will be Lyric Opera veterans, soprano Angela Brown and baritone Will Liverman. Tony Santiago and Melissa Foster from the company, were acting and vocal coaches respectively.

The opera is the collaboration between the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Urban League, the first of what hopefully will be a long term relationship. The Urban League has served the African American community of Chicago since 1916, during the time of The Great Migration. Since then, the organization has done great works, serving as an advocacy group emphasizing employment, entrepreneurship, fair housing and education.

Will Liverman with members of the ensemble
My role in the production was to photograph members of a Senn High School choral group at the final dress rehearsal last night. The Senn kids were enlisted to play the role of a traditional Greek chorus, commenting on the action and giving support to the protagonists. In this production, the chorus is ensconced inside the frame of a building behind translucent screens at stage left. Depending on the lighting, the chorus could either be revealed or hidden behind the screen. 

Angela Brown, left, with a cast member who plays the snooty reporter
It all works to great effect. The occasional lack of polish of the ensemble members, they are after all, non-professionals performing in one of Chicago's premier music/drama venues, is more than made up by their enthusiasm and the fact that they are telling their own story. And what a story it is. Behind the artifice of stereotypes and assumptions, life goes on on the South Side of Chicago. This is as real as it gets; you're never going to find anything this close to authentic life on the stage of a grand opera house than this.

Here is the link to the Lyric Opera of Chicago web site featuring Empower. Tickets are still available, the proceeds of which will be returned into future programs such as this. 

Check it out if you can. It's a win win for all. 

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Carlos Kleiber

Here is another bit of information unintentionally gleaned while perusing the internet. My interest in orchestral music began long ago, probably back in elementary school when I first played clarinet in the school band and orchestra. It became an on and off passion after I put down the licorice stick after high school and began playing the piano in college. Since that time I've attended many concerts in Chicago and elsewhere, and was privileged to have seen in person a number of the great conductors of the 20th and 21st centuries. Those I haven't seen live, I've been made aware of, watching numerous performances on TV, and listening to the local radio station, WFMT, one of the few remaining broadcast stations in the country devoted to classical music. But one major conductor eluded me all those years, until now.

It wasn't that I was unaware of the name Carlos Kleiber, or never heard recordings of his performances. It's just that those recordings were so rare, and the discussion of his work so sparse, that I never bothered to give him a second thought.

The other day I was on YouTube, searching for performances of Beethoven symphonies. Say what you will about YouTube, but the fact remains that you can find on that site, along with every last bit of detritus the world has to offer, some of the most edifying, magnificent, elevating, and life affirming videos as well, despite the annoying commercial breaks inserted at the most inopportune times. This is what I found:



I may have heard Kleiber conduct but until last week I had never seen him at work. It's obvious from this film made in Amsterdam, I'm guessing in the eighties, that the folks in the "cheap seats" behind the orchestra had the best seats in the house. No they couldn't hear the "proper" balance of sound intended for the folks in the auditorium, but they got to see the maestro in all his glory, not just his backside.

No conductor, it has been said, had a firmer grasp or understanding of the music he directed than Kleiber. Many consider his recordings of the Brahms and Beethoven symphonies (especially the odd numbered ones in the case of the latter), and selected operas of Wagner to be the quintessential performances of those works. His tempi and dynamic range to some may be a bit excessive, but to my ears anyway, at least in the pieces I'm familiar with, his pulling out all the stops brings out the power, passion and the emotion of the music without being just for show, as it might have in lesser hands.

It's one thing to close your eyes and listen to the music, it is another to watch the maestro as he conducts. Kleiber had to be one of the most idiosyncratic conductors of his time. In contrast to the rigid sytle of his father, Erich Kleiber, a notable mid-century conductor, Carlos used his impossibly long arms to great expressive effect, sometimes in long, fluid motions, at other times generating tremendous velocity while conducting at his signature breakneck speed. And sometimes he barely moved his arms at all as he does at the beginning of the major theme of the first movement of the Beethoven Seventh, preferring to keep time with his hips, dancing along with the music, inspired by Scottish folk tunes. At times, the younger Kleiber while conducting looks as if carrying on a conversation with his players with his left hand on his hip or even his pocket while the right hand with the baton continues to keep time.

But the most distinctive part of Carlos Kleiber when he conducted was his face.

Many classical musicians, especially in their performances of the early and mid-nineteeth century Romantic repertoire, are given to excessively contorted facial expressions as if to convey the enormous profundity of the task at hand. Not so with Kleiber; his face conveys pure joy, It could be a knowing grin at one of the players as is they were sharing a secret, a bawdy laugh as if he were having a beer with several of his closest friends, or a broad smile of deep satisfaction, almost to the point of ecstasy as if he were, well I think you get the idea. In all my years of watching conductors, I've never seen a more honestly expressive face. Clearly the performance of music for Kleiber was not purely an academic endeavor, although it was that to be sure, but an exercise examining every emotion that life has to offer from the depths of the deepest sorrow to the soaring peaks of triumphal exultation. He wholeheartedly embraces the music he directs and if we are paying the slightest bit of attention, we embrace it along with him.

Here is a rare video of a Kleiber rehearsal:



It is said that few conductors set such high standards for their work and rehearsed their orchestras more thoroughly. But if Klieber was indeed a taskmaster as his reputation suggests, he did so with kindness and humor rather than what was customary for the era, authoritative detachment. As you'll see, pure joy comes through in the rehearsal as well as in the performance.

Yet few conductors worked as sporadically as Kleiber. Despite being one of the most sought after conductors of his time, Kleiber over the course of his career averaged only about two or three symphonic performances and ten operas per annum, a pittance compared to his peers . Turning down prestigious directorships, and gigs with the most celebrated orchestras and opera companies in the world, Kleiber liked to joke that he only conducted when his freezer became empty. He never accepted students or gave interviews.

He was an enigma to say the least.

There were at least two film documentaries made of his life. One was called "I Am Lost to the World" (the title of which alludes to a song by Mahler), and the other, "Traces to Nowhere" the beginning of which can be seen here:



Both films were made after the conductor's death in 2004 at 74, an age when many conductors are still in the prime of their careers.

We'll never know why Klieber who profoundly loved what he did, was so reticent to perform. Some speculate that his perfectionism got the better of him and that he could never achieve the music on stage that he heard in his head. Others claim that he was plagued with debilitating self-doubt while others said he just became bored with the whole thing. I find the last one hard to believe at least by watching his performances even late in life. His is not the expression of a man filled with that "ol' ennui" as Cole Porter once put it.

In a 2011 BBC Music Magazine poll of contemporary conductors asking them to list their greatest influences. Carlos Kleiber came in first with Leonard Bernstein coming in a distant second. There seems to be nearly unanimous agreement as to where Kleiber stands in the pantheon of great conductors of all time.

But he does have his detractors. In this article, published shortly after the conductor's death, the author, Norman Lebrecht waxes poetically about Kleiber's work at first, in marked contrast to the provocative title of the piece, Carlos Kleiber: Not a Great Conductor(!), (punctuation mark, mine), but in the end takes pains to burst the Kleiber myth, not altogether convincing in my opinion. 

The comments on the first YouTube video I posted are particularly enlightening. Reacting to the slew of hagiographic tributes, one comment on the video of the Amsterdam performance of the Beethoven symphonies, a woman named Svetlana writes:
Beautiful, charming, but moribund Europe. Yes, it is a decadence. Do you want God to give Carlos back to you, sirs? No, Carlos Kleber (sic) will never come back from Heaven. He was too tired here....
Perhaps that's true. We should just be thankful that God gave us Carlos Kleiber, albeit in small doses. And that we have YouTube to remember him.

CODA

One more video I just discovered of a Kleiber rehearsal including a rousing performance of a very familiar song. Enjoy:

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Things I Learned En Route to Looking Up Other Things...

...was the title of a regular feature written by the newspaper columnist Sydney J. Harris. I suppose were he alive today, Harris might alter the title to better reflect the era in which we live, perhaps something like: "Information Unintentionally Gleaned while Perusing the Internet." A less thoughtful writer might call a similar column: "Useless Shit I Found Out While Surfing the Web".

I don't know if any knowledge can really be considered useless, as one never knows where that knowledge might lead. My daughter and I are currently reading a book together called The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt which is about a creative young woman named Penelope, around my daughter's age, whose sense of wonder at the world is all but crushed by her controlling mother who insists that every waking moment of the child's life be put to "good use." No foolish, or unproductive activity like daydreaming or even writing down her thoughts in her journal was tolerated.

Of course her mother had good intentions as Penelope's dad kept reminding her, she only wanted the best for her child. What that meant was doing everything she could to insist that her daughter prepare herself for success in a very competitive world. So far, we're only a few chapters into the book but I can see where it's going, my guess is that eventually the mother will come to her senses, lighten up, and recognize that there is indeed something to be said for letting the mind wander at times. After all, some of the greatest ideas in history came to people when they least expected it.

Anyway, if you've read the book, please don't spoil it for me.

In the past month I've let my mind wander to a place it's been before. Despite working on a number of projects that deserve my full attention, including this blog, I've been obsessed  lately with computer programming. If you don't know me, that may seem like hardly a pointless obsession, after all, computer programming is a useful and well-compensated profession. However at this stage in my life, I'm hardly a candidate for employment in that industry, having absolutely no working experience in the field, and having to compete with kids nearly a third my age, just a little older than my son.

It was in fact my boy's enrolling in a computer programming class in high school that inspired me to brush off my old computer books, well the ones that I didn't weed out of my admittedly overstocked collection of volumes on the subject. For me, computer programming has been an avocation, an obsession that has kept me up at night so often that I truly understand why they chose to name not one but two of the most popular programming environments around after the substance most frequently used by programmers to keep them from falling asleep at their keyboards, Java.

Since programming for me is something I pick up sporadically, often years after I put it aside, I have to re-learn the basics, but even at my advanced age it comes back fast enough. This iteration (to borrow a well used programming term) of my obsession was inspired by the need to help my son get out of his class with an acceptable grade, since he has not inherited this passion of mine, at least not yet. Despite that I completely understand his predicament. His frustrations remind me of my own many many years ago when a small section on programming was included in a math class in high school. That was back in the days before personal computers, when all we had at school were terminals into which we would type our code, in the BASIC language if my memory serves, which would then be output onto punched paper tape. The tape then had to be mailed to a local university, in our case Northwestern, where it would be fed the school's mainframe computer, the kind that in those days would take up a good sized room. The result would be returned to us printed out on a sheet of paper which more often than not, instead of producing say, a nice list of all the prime numbers between one and one thousand, informed us that our program contained an error, or dozen, and would be terminated. The process from typing in the code to being informed of our failure took one week. Then we would repeat the process until we got a successful result. (borrowing some common BASIC  key words). Sometimes our efforts would result in an endless loop. Clearly this process did not put the computer in its best light, and no explanation by the teacher that we were unlocking the vast potential of the power of computers could make up for the fact that we could go through every number between one and one thousand, do the arithmetic by hand using long division, and still come up with all the primes to one thousand far quicker than we could with this "new and improved" system.

It's much the same in my son's class. Cutting out the middleman makes the feedback much quicker, but that doesn't lessen the sting of being told by a dumb machine that you screwed up over and over and over again. Not to mention the fact that kids today spend untold hours in front of a computer screen, creating with a minimum amount of effort or skill, a whole world, or at least a virtual representation of it, before their eyes. I feel for the teachers who have to convince their young students that there is much value to be had in learning to write several lines of code just to make a simple message like "hello world" display on the screen.

Anyway, I think it takes a special type of person to cut through all the tedium and initial failure, in order to be able to write successful code. Those people, and I'm including myself only to a small degree as I'll never fully measure up to the really serious ones, are derisvely called geeks, a term they, (we), have proudly adopted. What other person would spend countless sleepless nights just to figure out things like how to make a dot move from one end to the screen, to the other on its own? I've been there and done that.

For the last month, while it would have behooved me to concentrate on other things, I've been contemplaing algorithms that sort numbers, have struggled to write my own, and beat my head against a tree trying to wrap it around the subject of just how recursion works. I think I finally got it. And much like making a successful golf shot, the excitement. bordering on ecstasy, of finally getting an algorithm to work the way you want it to, keeps you coming back despite the inevitable frustrations of the process.

If you know anything about programming, from what I just told you, you know that I'm still at a pretty basic level. Armed with that knowledge however, I remain undaunted, convinced that at the very least, the mental exercise is helping keep the few brain cells I have left, alive and well.

Last week I asked my son what they were doing in programming class. He said they were learning about double arrays and that the teacher mentioned that these curious things were useful in several applications including writing the code for a tic-tac-toe game. Then I asked him if tic-tac-toe would be their next project. I thought it would be a great exercize to teach computer logic if not being a particularly challenging game in its own right. (Writing a program to play chess would be much too achallenging for a beginner class).

He told me there was no tic-tac-toe program in his future, so I decided to work on the problem myself. Without going into details, the gist of writing a tic-tac-toe program where the computer makes strategic moves to try to win, is have the computer figure out every conceivable sequence of moves. rate them, then choose the sequence that has the highest chance of winning. In order to do that you have to first write a sub-program that will calculate all the possible combinations for a series of numbers starting with nine, the number of spaces in a tic-tac-toe game, then reduce that number by one after each space is taken up by an X or an O.

It's easy to figure how many possible combinations, or permutations (if not the program to actually generate them), that you can make out a sequence of a given number objects. You take the number of objects (n), and multiply it by (n-1). Then you multiply that product by (n-2)  then (n-3) and so on, reducing the number subtrated by one until you reach 2. That operation is called a factorial and the symbol for the operation is the exclamation point (!) following the number. So 4! = 4 x 3 x 2, which equals 24. That means there are 24 different ways or permutations in which you can display 4 objects.

According to that formula, 5! = 120 and 6! = 6000. The word exponential is used as a metaphor for a rapid increase of something. But as you can see, factorials get really big, really really fast, in fact exponentially faster than exponents. For example, the factorial of nine,  or 9!, the number of possible moves in a game of tic-tac-toe, is 362,880!

I first understood this years ago in high school after I spent what was for me a small fortune on a scientific calculator. I was well versed in trigonometry at the time but didn't know what the x! button meant. So I tried it out and discovered that most of the numbers I applied it to resulted in the error message. The reason as you can probably guess is that very soon, the result of the calculation was greater than the number of digits available on the calculator. The factorial of 13 is 6 billion something, requiring 10 digits. If the calculator only had 10 digits available to it, 13! was the highest factorial the calculator could handle, as scientific calculators in the day, or at least mine, ironically did not provide scientific notation.

With that in mind I tried to conceive yesterday on the walk home from the train, what the factorial of 52 is, the number of playing cards in a standard deck of cards. In that vein I wondered what the probability was of shuffling a deck of cards and having them come out in the same order they were when the new pack was first opened. I asked my daughter what she thought the number would be. A couple thousand she said. My son guessed something in the millions. At that point I didn't know the answer but I assured them that the number of possibilities was far greater. However at the time, I had no clue how inconceivably large that number is.

This morning on the way to work, I remembered the question then googled "factorial of 52." The word astronomical doesn't even begin to describe how large the number is. In the words of the writer of this site specifically on how large 52! is:
most numbers that we already consider to be astronomically large are mere infinitesmal fractions of this number.
According to the scientific calculator found on the web, 52! = 8.0658175e+67

In layman's terms, how big is that number?

From that same website, the number is:

80,658,175,170,943,878,571,660,636,856,403,766,975,289,505,440,883,277,824,000,000,000,000

All those zeros at the end just mean that the number is so large, you'd have to write special code to calculate the number to complete precision. In other words, the number of possible arrangements of playing cards in a 52 card deck is the number above, give or take about 500 billion, which compared to the actual number, is a mere drop in the bucket.

So how big exactly is 8.0658175 times ten to the 67th power?

Again from the site:
Start a timer that will count down the number of seconds from 52! to 0. We're going to see how much fun we can have before the timer counts down all the way.
Start by picking your favorite spot on the equator. You're going to walk around the world along the equator, but take a very leisurely pace of one step every billion years. The equatorial circumference of the Earth is 40,075,017 meters. Make sure to pack a deck of playing cards, so you can get in a few trillion hands of solitaire between steps. After you complete your round the world trip, remove one drop of water from the Pacific Ocean. Now do the same thing again: walk around the world at one billion years per step, removing one drop of water from the Pacific Ocean each time you circle the globe.The Pacific Ocean contains 707.6 million cubic kilometers of water. Continue until the ocean is empty. When it is, take one sheet of paper and place it flat on the ground. Now, fill the ocean back up and start the entire process all over again, adding a sheet of paper to the stack each time you’ve emptied the ocean. 
Do this until the stack of paper reaches from the Earth to the Sun. Take a glance at the timer, you will see that the three left-most digits haven’t even changed. You still have 8.063e67 more seconds to go. 1 Astronomical Unit, the distance from the Earth to the Sun, is defined as 149,597,870.691 kilometers.So, take the stack of papers down and do it all over again. One thousand times more. Unfortunately, that still won’t do it. There are still more than 5.385e67 seconds remaining. You’re just about a third of the way done.
Unfortuantely I don't have that much time on my hands. Less than five steps into our journey as described above, the sun having nearly consumed its fuel source, will begin expanding into a red giant, eventually extending beyond the earth's orbit and consuming our beautiful planet. The one question I do have is this, will Trump still be president then?

Certainly by that time human beings, if  inded there indeed is still such a thing, will have figured out a way to leave the planet and the solar system but there is another bigger threat only four steps into our journey. At that time it is expected, and astronomers have gotten pretty good at predicting such things, that the galaxy in which we reside, we call it the Milky Way, will collide with the Andromeda galaxy, currently about 2.5 million light years or if you prefer. 1.47 times 10 to the 19th power or 14,700,000,000,000,000,000 miles away, That may seem like an awfully big number but you'd have to multiphy that number by 5.4869507 times ten to the 47th power to equal the number of variations you can make out of a simple deck of cards.

Now imagine the smallest thing you can imagine, atoms (ok there are components of atoms that are obviously smaller than atoms but play along with me here), and the largest thing you can imagine, the universe.

It is estimated that there are between 1 x 10 to the 78th power and 1 x 10 to the 82nd power atoms in the known universe. Now take the factorial of the number 60. It is 8.321 times ten to the 81st power, about equal to the number of atoms in the universe..That means if you had a deck of 61 cards, (not sure what kind of game you'd play with 61 cards), you could arrange them in more ways than there are atoms in the universe.

What all this means I have no idea. All I know is that I had better not try to plug the number 52 into my version of  Heap's permutation algorithm, which generates all the possible combinations of the number you give it. At a billion calculations per second (an extremely generous estimation of my computer's performance) the program would take approximately, hummm let's see:

22,405,049,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 hours to complete.

That's give or take way more than a few trillion hours which is about the amount of time physicists predict, when time itself will cease to exist.

Talk about losing track of time.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Gambling in Sports? I'm Shocked!

If you paid only a passing interest in the recent decision in the case known officially as Murphy, Governor of New Jersey, et al, v. National Collegiate Athletic Assn. et al, you might assume that the Supreme Court of the United States in its 7-2 ruling this week against the NCAA has just opened the door to all legalized sports betting in the United States. Well perhaps yes and perhaps no.

It was one of those rulings that could produce the comment, the law makes for strange bed fellows. What was being disputed here was a 1992 Federal law called the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which prohibited states, with the exception of Nevada, from authorizing betting on sports. The law's sponsor was then New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, a former NBA star and noted Senate liberal. Bradley's primary motive in his support of the measure was to "safeguard the integrity of sports."

Even in retirement, Bradley remains adamant that the law he sponsored over a quarter century ago was good and just. He's still convinced that the expansion of legal gambling will destroy sports, especially at the collegiate level, because of the temptations for athletes who do not receive menetary compensation for their efforts, to cheat by intentionally playing to lose games. Now unless Bradley was as shocked as I was when I learned that illegal sports gambling exists, ok not really, it's hard to understand why he thinks that legal gambling would contribute any more to players cheating than illegal gambling. After all, the most famous scandal involving athletes paid by gamblers to intentionally lose were my own team. the Chicago White Sox, back in 1919. Those gamblers involved in the Black Sox affair were hardly on the up and up with the law.

Gambling on sports has been around at least since Ben Hur rode that chariot around the Roman Circus in Judea, c. 30AD, and probably a lot longer. Spectator sports we know and love like baseball owe their very existence to gambling, as in the early days they had to compete with sports like dog fighting and rat baiting for the public's attention. Baseball didn't win out over those activities because working men (fans were mostly men in those days) valued spending their hard earned money and their one day off just to watch other grown men play a slow moving children's game.

There are all sorts of arguments pro and con for legalized betting, and quite frankly I'm on the fence on the issue. On the one hand, gambling like drugs can become a serious addicition that can destroy lives. On the other hand also like drugs, people are going to gamble, regardless of whether it's legal or not, so we miight as well sanction, control and tax the hell out of it.

However the Supreme Court this week was not ruling on gambling per se, but on an act of Congress that even from my own very limited understanding of the law, seems unconsitutional. To be specific, Congress cannot dictate to state legislatures how to enforce laws. So says the tenth amendment of the Constitution:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
In other words, in this case, Congress, in the words of Justice Samuel Alito in his majority opinion,
...can regulate sports gambling directly (and for that matter, take on the responsibility of enoforcing that regulation) , but if it elects not to do so, each state is free to act on its own,
So the answer to the question above on whether sports gambling will run rampant across this nation, is not exactly, it's up to each state.

This might be considered the classic conservative/liberal argument over states' rights versus federal jurisdiction, but the tenth amendment is unequivocal, so along with the dependable four conservative votes on the court plus William Kennedy's swing vote, two justices considered left of center also voted with the majority.

Like most Supreme Court decisions, this one has ramifications that go well beyond the issues that inspired the original case.

Despite the unanimous ruling from the Right side of the court, it turns out that the Trump administration greatly opposed this ruling. Why? Because it runs afoul of the administration's plan to punish so-called sanctuary states and cities by witholding Federal funds from jurisdictions who refuse to enforce federal immigration laws. By stating that the federal government cannot impose laws within the jurisdiction of the state, it would logically follow that the feds can't, at least according to the Supreme Court's interpretation of the tenth amendment, require local police to enforce federal statutes such as immigration laws.

Too bad for Donald Trump that he can't fire the Supreme Court. For the rest of us, it's nice to know that we are a nation goverened by the rule of law, and there is precious little the president can do to stop it.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Pictures of the Month

April 3 

April 3

April 20


April 25

Requiem for a Department Store

I had to immediately reconsider something I wrote back in 2011 after reading a comment to one of my posts. My statement was that because the old Carson Pirie Scott store on State Street was a poor step child to Marshall Fields just up the street, more than likely no one missed it when it closed back in 2007. The reader's comment was this:
I found it strange that with all the fuss over Fields changing to Macy's, you barely heard a peep when Carsons closed. Carsons has always been just as much a part of the fabric of the city as Fields (with both also suffering from the indifference of their out-of-town owners) but for some reason Carsons never gained the iconic status that Fields enjoyed.
He was right. While the lives and names Samuel Carson, John Pirie and John Edwin Scott are not as well known nor intrinsically tied to Chicago history as the name Marshall Field and the progeny that bore his name, their mighty flagship store on Chicago's most important street will forever be tied to the building in which it inhabited. Designed by Louis Sullivan, the building, now named the Sullivan Center in his honor, is the architect's masterpiece, and if I may be allowed to dabble in a bit of hyperbole, arguably Chicago's greatest artistic contribution to the world.

I won't go into justifying that claim here, you can either take or leave it.

In early 2006, lovers of Chicago architecture were thrilled when Carsons announced it would begin a significant restoration of the building, including the re-creation of the original cornice which was removed in the 1940s. But that enthusiasm was short lived when later that year, the company announced that despite the restoration, it could no longer justify keeping its flagship store, which would close after the Christmas season of that year. That announcement came right on the heels of the announcement that Chicago's venerable restaurant The Berghoff, at least the old joint as we knew it, would also close. The announcements were a big blow not only to the city and to the Loop Chamber of Commerce, but also to the city's architectural community who was about to see its most important asset unoccupied and facing an uncertain future.  Fortunately the new owners, Joseph Freed & Associates , and the City of Chicago continued the restoration.

As I pointed out in the above mentioned post written in response to the announcement of Target opening up a store on the first two levels, the restoration made the building look as good if not better than it ever did. And seven years after it opened, the addition of the Target store, has brought new life to the great building. No, it's not a grand old department store, that era has passed us by and is very unlikely to ever come back.

Sadly we've been reminded of that fact twice this month after the announcement that the last Sears store in Chicago, the city that company called home for over a century, would close shortly, as would the last of the Carson Pirie Scott stores, which were scattered in shopping malls throughout the Midwest.

Given that mid-level brick and mortar retail businesses like Carsons and Sears have been supplanted by online shopping, plus the fact that neither business seemed to keep up at all with the times, it's a minor miracle that they held on for so long.

While we bemoan their loss, all of us who buy stuff online carry a share of the burden for their demise. There is definitely a price to pay for new technology, for all its wonder and marvels, it giveth and it taketh away.

It's been that way for hundreds of years and shows no signs of letting up. In other words, good luck bringing back all those coal jobs Mr. President. Maybe you can add department store jobs to your long list of jobs in moribund industries to bring back, along with telephone operator, blacksmith and steam train engineer

Still it's a sad day when two long standing Chicago institutions bite the dust. We will mourn their loss and hope for better times ahead for the people whose livelihoods depended on them, hopefully in industres with a future.

Are you lietening Mr. President?

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Dead Icons

April is the month where we recognize two significant events in the history of the American Civil Rights movement, one positive, the other devastating:

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson made his first appearance with the Brooklyn Dodgers, marking the end of the enforced segregation in major league baseball.

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated.

I noticed something interesting on both April 4th and April 15th this month. Not surprisingly, on those two days, many folks took to social media to honor the two American icons. Among those posts were comments that considering their source, seemed a trifle ironic.

On the morning of April 4th, President Trump tweeted the following:
Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Earlier this year I spoke about Dr. King’s legacy of justice and peace, and his impact on uniting Americans. Proclamation: 
Accompanying the tweet is a brief video of Trump espousing King's contributions to this country, summarizing the words of his official proclamation recognizing the anniversary of King's assassination as a day to "honor Dr. King's legacy" (whatever that means). In the words of the proclamation, Trump speaks of the injustice of racial inequality and division:
We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters lest we perish together as fools... As a united people, we must see Dr. King’s life mission through and denounce racism, inhumanity, and all those things that seek to divide us.
If not original, those words are all well and good, they're hard to argue with, yet they seem to run counter to just about everything Donald Trump has said and done as president. Say what you will about whether the man is a bigot or not, but it's no secret that a good number of his supporters are dyed-in-the-wool racists, and proud of it. It's also no secret that Donald Trump will bend over backwards to avoid offending that reliable, but less than admirable base.

Despite that, Trump has had numerous opportunities as president to bring this country together in terms of race, When the issue of removing Confederate monuments in the South came up, the president could have made a very reasonable argument that while he was not particularly in favor of removing monuments that have stood in place for over a century, he undertood the concerns African American people have about their communities memorializing the people who led the battle to enslave their ancestors. Trump then could and should have urged both sides to get together and compromise. Instead, he took a rigid stance against the removal of the statues while completely failing to even acknowledge the argument of the other side.

When Nazis. Klansmen and other white supremacist groups descended upon Charlottesville to protest the removal of one of those monuments, and incited the violence that led to the death of a young woman, the president could have done what any reasonable leader would have done and what the Governor of Virginia did do, denounce in no uncertain terms those hate groups, Instead Trump punted, insisting that "both sides" were wrong for what took place in Thomas Jefferson's home town.

Then just last week, a white mass murderer walked into a Nashville retaurant and killed four African American people, before being subdued by an un-armed man who saved countless lives. Despite going out of his way to publicly display sympathy for the victims of a truck attack in Toronto that happened the following day, the President of the United States remained silent about the tragic loss of four of his fellow countrymen, and the indesputable heroism of another.

One could argue these are sins of omission, in no way displaying any real intent to divide the country along racial lines or express any animous to African American people. To that I would bring up Trump's famous stance against African American football players who chose to kneel during the national anthem out of protest for numerous police killings of African American men in this country. Again, like the issue of the Confederate statues, Trump could have easily formed a nuanced response saying that while he didn't apporve of players not standing for the anthem, he understood their concerns and would work to help address the issue they were protesting against. Or he could have simply left the issue alone as at the time only a small handful of athletes participated in the protest and were it not for him, the issue would have been all but forgotten.
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Instead, at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama in front of a bunch of hootin' and hollerin' supporters, Trump of his own free will chose to say this: "fire those sonsofbitches!"

All of that makes Donald Trump's words in praise of Dr. King. and his bemoaning of the division of this country, sound quite hollow.

Trump wasn't alone among Americans not particularly known for their concern about civil rights, to pay lip service to Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson this month. I read numerous posts from folks who are openly hostile toward current day activist groups and leaders, particularly the Black lives Matter movement and the kneeling NFL players, who couldn't say enough good things about Robinson and Dr. King. When pressed about the seeming contradiction of prasing those two dead icons while condemning living people fighting exactly the same battles today, these folks insist that King and Robinson would not approve of today's crop of activists. One commentator, responding to the question what would  MLK think of the current president's zealous concern about protecting our borders at the expense of human rights, said this: "Dr. King fought for the rights of American citizens, not for those who were here illegally."

Interesting.

As for Jackie Robinson, I read countless posts speculating about how horrified Robinson, himself a WWII veteran, would feel about football players kneeling during the anthem. Well in fact, Robinson told us exactly how he'd feel in his autobiography:
There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first World Series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.
I have a very strong feeling that if  Dr. King and Jackie Robinson were still alive, many of the people who wrote so eloquently about them this month would despise them today, much as they and their ancestors did when they were alive. One could say that it is the height of hypocrisy to praise dead icons while condemning the living who follow in their footsteps. Then again, one could say it is human nature that compels us to do so. After all, April is also the month that we recognize a momentous event in the life of another controversial figure who was despised in life and revered in death far more than King and Robinson combined.

Like King and Robinson, his followers today, make him in their own image so to speak, as an advocate for what they believe to be right, all the while forgetting his life was devoted to challenging their beliefs, and especially their self-righteousness. When Jesus of Nazareth told a wealthy young man who was interested in follwoing him to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor., the man walked away dejected. This led to the comment, "it's harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle." The funny thing is, you seldom hear well-off white, evangelical Christians relate that story, just as you won't find many liberal, pacifist, Beatitude reciting Christians relating this quote:
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
When Jesus turned over the tables of the merchants in the Temple in Jerusalem, even his own people truned against him. In much the same way, during their own lives. Jackie Robinson as I wrote here, and Martin Luther King, as I wrote here, were also rejected by members of their own community.

The fact is, trouble makers like Jesus, Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King, are seldom appreciated in life when they constantly remind us of our own shortcomings.

Once they're killed off and can no longer threaten us, they become convenient symbols of our self righteousness and vanity. In the case of Martin Luther King, lavishing praise upon him without truly understanding what he stood for, is a convenient way of saying hey, I'm ok, I'm not a racist. It's the modern day equivalent of the statement: "some of my best friends are Negros."

Michael Harriot wrote this scathing article called "What to Say When 'WYPIPO' (White young people of influence, privledge and opportunity) Bring Up MLK." His contention is that we white folks:
have managed to whitewash (King's) legacy and transform him from a revolutionary willing to bleed and die for what he believed in, to a meek, milquetoast orator who fits their narrative of the sweet, submissive hero who begged them for a seat at the table.
The truth is, the real Martin Luther King was so radical in his beliefs and his actions, that by comparison, today's leaders of the civil rights movement look like Reagan Republicans. 

Unless we're willing to to stand up and support groups like Black Lives Matter, and take a knee during the anthem in protest of police violence, if we white folks really want to honor Dr. King's legacy, perhaps the best thing we can do is not mention his name at all.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

His Finest Moment

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.
-Aeschylus

It was a cold early April evening as hundreds of people gathered to hear a political stump speech to be held in an open space at 17th and Broadway, in the heart of the African American community of Indianapolis. The site for the speech was approved by John Lewis who had been working on the candidate's campaign. Many of the folks in the crowd had been waiting for hours, just to get close to the speaker's platform. Unfortunately for them, as these things usually go, the scheduled day's worth of events backed up, and the candidate was running late.

I suspect many in the crowd figured they were about to witness history of some sort, but little did they know how much they themselves would be a part of that history. If you've been paying attention to the news this past week, you probably know where I'm going with this.

As he was about to board a plane in Muncie, Indiana that would take him to his next scheduled stop, the candidate, Robert Kennedy learned that Martin Luther King had been shot. Not many details were provided but Kennedy feared the worst, which was confirmed when his plane landed in Indianapolis. Meanwhile the crowd where the speech was scheduled had swollen to a couple thousand, and many of those who arrived later and stood around the periphery, already knew about Dr. King.

There were some waiting for the candidate who were not intimidated to be among a handful of white folks within a crowd that was predominantly black, in a predominantly black neighborhood where not even the white mayor and some members of the police would dare set foot. The white folks there later reported that the welcoming climate of the crowd when they first arrived at the site of the speech, changed precipitously after the news of Dr. King's death began to circulate. One woman was heard to say: "Dr. King is dead and a white man did it, why does he (Kennedy) have to come here?" It was less than an hour after Dr. King's death, and some people in the crowd already began to call for vengeance.

The mayor and the chief of police told Kennedy that they could not guarantee his safety. Most of the people in  Kennedy's entourage, including his wife Ethel, strongly objected to him going ahead with the speech. John Lewis disagreed; he believed Kennedy would have a calming influence on the crowd.

None of that mattered, there was no question in Robert Kennedy's mind that he would go ahead with the appearance, without the presence of the police no less. Rejecting a hastily written speech put together by his staff, Kennedy spent his time riding from the airport to 17th and Broadway figuring out what to say.

He arrived at the site greeted by taunts, jeers and catcalls asking him what the hell he was doing there. Some of the black folks present feared for his life. Undaunted, Kennedy, clutching his notes and wearing one of his late brother's overcoats, climbed up to the speaker's platform, the back of a flat bed truck. In recordings of the event you can hear him asking the event organizers if the crowd already knew about Dr. King. "No, we're saving that for you" was the response.

Kennedy began his remarks by asking his supporters to put down their signs with his name on them, because he had very sad news to tell them. It's clear from the collective screams and gasps that many in the crowd still had not heard the dreadful news until Robert Kennedy broke it to them.

Without once referring to his notes, Kennedy spoke extemporaneously for about six minutes.

After some laudatory words eulogizing Dr. King, Kennedy cut to the chase:
For those of you who are black--considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible--you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization--black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another. 
Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.
One could dismiss these words as an attempt by a powerful, rich white guy telling poor black people to keep calm and carry on, and above all to remember their place and not make too much mischief.

But then Robert Kennedy reminded the crowd that he actually had some skin in the game:
For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.
It would mark the only time Robert Kennedy would ever publicly speak of the death of his brother the president.

Now it must be mentioned that there were few white people in America at that time who could have pulled off any kind of speech to black people at that moment. President Kennedy, although not a passionate supporter of civil rights during his life, did confront racist governors who prevented black students form attending state universities, a fact that African Americans never forgot. It was not uncommon to find JFK's portrait hanging in black households after his assassination in 1963. Bobby Kennedy who himself didn't have a stellar civil rights record until late in his life, and was not at all close with Dr. King, was able to ride on his late brother's coattails before he convinced the African American community of his own sincerity on the issues of human rights, equality, and the eradication of poverty in this nation.

Unlike his brother the president, Bobby Kennedy was a man of relatively small frame and stature. Also unlike JFK and certainly Dr. King, while a good public speaker, he was not a powerful orator. Standing on the back of that truck, dwarfed inside his borther's oversized coat, clearly shaken by the news and speaking from the heart in an unsteady voice, he humbled himself in front of a shocked and potentially hostile audience.

And he won them over.

Kennedy next quoted Aeschylus, whose words from the play Agamemon (found at the top of this post), served him well during his period of profound grief over his brother's death.

Today in our  "enlightened" era, one whose academia downplays the significance of "dead white males", quoting a white guy who'd been dead for 25 centuries at a tribute to a recently martyred hero of color, murdered by a white man no less, would certanly raise a few eyebrows.

One commentator, going the other direction, backhandedly justified the use of the quote, suggesting that while most of those present likely had no clue who Aeschylus was, they certainly could pick out words in the quote that would speak to them like "pain", "despair", "wisdom" and "grace".

The comment I found on Kennedy's use of the quote that sums up my own feelings about it was written by Joe Sommerlad in the Independent:
The reference was inspired. In the wrong hands, citing antiquity might have appeared pretentious or vainglorious but Kennedy respected his audience's intelligence and handed down the gift of a noble thought that had brought him much comfort in his own time of trial.
After the quote Kennedy went on:
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.
They say one of the most important ingredients of making a successful speech is knowing your audience. We'll never know how much Bobby Kennedy truly understood his audience that night save for one thing, the common bonds that connect all human beings. He knew suffering as they did. He understood compassion and love, and he counted on his audience to understand those things as well.  It was the core vaules all of us of good will share, that enabled Kennedy to touch the hearts and souls of the people gathered together in Indianapolis that terrible night. He went on:
... the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.
In his comments that night, Kennedy laid it out pure and simple, we human beings have more things in common, than things that would separate us. He kept asking rhetorically, what kind of nation do we want to live in, and the people of that community responded.

Much has been written about Indianapolis being one of the few major American cities that did not experience violence after the death of Martin Luther King. One might be skeptical that Bobby Kennedy's speech alone had anything to do with that, but the fact is this: prresent at  his speech that night were members of a street gang known as the Ten Percenters, cans filled with gasoline in hand, openly recruiting members of the audience to join them in violence. Years later, one man from the group would say: “After he spoke we couldn’t get nowhere,”

Indianapolis may have been one of the few, but it wasn't the only city in the country with a significant African American population that did not erupt in violence, The Black Panther organization in Oakland helped prevent the burning of that city. And while the west side of Chicago was decimated by riots, the south side neighborhood of Woodlawn was spared the same fate, largely due to the intervention of the Blackstone Rangers, a group who had ties to Martin Luther King, It was the intervention of groups such as the Watoto Wa Simba, College Room, the Black Radical Action Project, the Black Panthers and yes the Ten Percenters, all of whom were represented at Kennedy's speech, that made sure cooler heads prevailed and kept Indianapolis from burning. Virtually everyone from those groups attributes their actions to the speech.

Robert Kennedy's speech made the late night news that evening, among dozens of other stories about King's assassination. It came too late to make the deadline for the morning papers and it may very well have been forgotten had fate not stepped in. My first memories of hearing the speech are from seeing it two months later, re-broadcast after Kennedy's own assassination. Even as a nine year old child, I couldn't help being moved by the poignance of a man who called for love, compassion, and an end to violence, to swept up in that same violence such a short time later. It's ironic that were it not for his own tragic death, Robert Kennedy's finest moment may have been as one writer described it, merely a footnote in history. As it stands today that speech is considered one of this country's most important.

Michael Rosenwald's Washington Post's article last week on the speech mentions a 2006 book called Politics Lost by Joe Klein. Klein begins his book with the story of that speech:
Kennedy’s words stand as a sublime example of the substance and music of politics in its grandest form, for its highest purpose — to heal, to educate, to lead.
They say that talk is cheap, but not that night. Kennedy's words and actions on the night of Martin Luther King's assasination, and the results from it, proved that we're a much better and stronger nation when we set aside our fears, our prejudices, our hatred and division, heal old wounds, and work together toward the greater good. He stood before an angry crowd, not as their guardian angel sent from above to lead them down the path righteousness, but simply as himself, speaking form the heart as a fellow human being. 

Fifty years late Kennedy's words and actions that night still heal, educate, and if we choose to take them to heart, might help lead us to a better world.

If only.


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

What If?

Martin Luther King was assassinated fifty years ago today. In a year that saw many tumultuous events, perhaps none in 1968, at least here in the United States, was as devastating, as gut wrenching, and had as many far reaching consequences, as the murder of Dr. King in Memphis.

Five years ago on the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Preident Kennedy, I wrote this piece that raised the question: what would have happened had JFK not been assassinated? Contemplating that question, I had little trouble coming to the conclusion that most of the earth-shattering events that took place in the sixties after his assassination, would have taken place with or without a President Kennedy. For example I disagree with many historians who claim that had Kennedy lived, the Vietnam War would not have escalated to the extent it did. Because of that, and my firm belief that Kennedy had little impact on the Civil Rights movement, his death I reckoned, while a great tragedy to this country, was not as earth-shattering and life-altering as many folks make it out to be.

The impact of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, two months after Dr. King's, is a little more difficult to assess. Had Bobby Kennedy not been shot in Los Angeles, he might have (and it's a big might) become president. For the sake of argument, this piece in Newsweek from ten years ago asks the question, how would the theoretical presidency of Robert F. Kennedy been different from that of the man who won the 1968 election, Richard M. Nixon. On the most contentious issue of the day, the author is on the fence about Kennedy potentially being more successful in extricating the Untied States from Vietnam than Nixon. Of course, Nixon had Watergate, whose ramifications in every aspect, not the least of which being the general public's cynicism toward government, exists to this day. The Kennedys were no strangers to ignominious behavior, so one could argue there might have been a Watergate-like scandal in the RFK administration as well, but that would be only wild speculation.

Unlike the Kennedys, it would also be wild speculation to answer the question of what would have happened had Martin Luther King not been assassinated, as there are just too many what ifs on the table.

Because of his tragic demise, Martin Luther King will always be grouped together with the Kennedy brothers as one of the trio of tragic American heroes of the 1960s. If anyone had the gumption to re-create Mt. Rushmore in the likenesses of the most revered Americans of the second half of the twentieth century, I'm sure those three would be on the short list of subjects.

It's also true that the stock value of all three men soared after their assassinations. John and Robert Kennedy had detractors on both sides of the political spectrum during their lifetimes. President Kennedy was ambivalent about the issue of civil rights, something he was taken to task for by Martin Luther King. He took concrete action only after the reprehensible treatment of black protesters in Birmingham in 1963 and the refusal of southern governors including George Wallace to allow black students to enter state universities.

Robert Kennedy had a chameleon-like career, having first worked for the communist-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy in the fifties. As attorney general in his brother's administration, and the president's closest advisor, RFK had a mixed record on civil rights, being at first openly critical of the actions of Freedom Riders who attempted to ride integrated busses from Washington DC to New Orleans in 1961. The younger Kennedy was at one time a hawk who supported this country's early involvement in Vietnam. After his brother's death, RFK had an epiphany of sorts, joining forces with Martin Luther King in the struggle for human rights, justice and equality in this country, and also in his opposition to our involvement in Vietnam. Between his new found left wing politics as well as for literally letting his hair grow out (by mid-sixties standards), Bobby Kennedy became the guy dyed-in-the-wool American conservatives loved to hate.

However you could combine the Kennedy brothers' detractors (even counting those who disliked both brothers twice), and you still wouldn't come close to the number of Dr. King's detractors. In a poll taken in 1966, King had an approval rating of about one out of every three Americans. It's not hard to understand those Trumpian numbers when you consider the state of race relations in America at the time. Despite that, in the sixties, blacks constituted only about ten percent of the population, so given those numbers, it stands to reason that a good number of whites supported Dr. King. That was my experience as a child. I'm proud to say that both my parents, not always the most tolerant people when it came to race relations, were admirers of Dr. King while he was still alive.

It would also be a mistake to assume that all blacks were squarely behind him. The truth is, in the last few years of his life, Martin Luther King began to lose his luster and became irrelevant in the eyes of many African Americans who were unconvinced that his philosophy of non-violence as a means to impact change in this country, was any longer effective. King's criticism of the behavior of black youths in the urban riots that took place in the mid-sixties, made some African Americans see him as haughty and self-righteous. Part of Dr. King's fading standing in the African American community may also come from the fact that Dr. King was not only acceptable to, but deeply admired by many whites, where other leaders in the movement, especially those who espoused the term "black power", were not.

As for the reasons why so many white folks hated him, well, you name it. To Southern whites he was an uppity negro (not the word they would have used), who didn't know his place. To northern whites, he was a trouble maker for marching through their neighborhoods demanding that they open their communities to black folks. To other whites, his advocacy of the drastic re-distribution of wealth in this country, made him virtually a communist in their eyes. Finally to the government, run by whites, King's vocal opposition to the war, long before it became a popular stand, was unacceptable. The ancient, but still powerful FBI Tzar, J. Edgar Hoover, compiled a vast dossier on King, chronicling his sexual indiscretions among other things, which was ready at a moment's notice to be sprung upon the public if need be.

There were so many people out for Martin Luther King's hide, that thinking back upon it, in a decade that not only saw the assassinations of the tragic trio, but also those of many other civil rights leaders including Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Fred Hampton, it's almost inconceivable that Dr. King could have escaped the sixties alive. That point wasn't lost on King himself who on the night of April 3, 1968, delivered this bone-chillingly prophetic speech in Memphis:




If Dr. King had become irrelevant to some black people by that night, he would no longer be irrelevant the following evening, around 6PM Memphis time.

It was a Thursday and as was our custom, my mother, grandmother and I were returning home after eating out, as that was the day of the week my father kept his paint shop open late. The news came over the car radio that Dr. King had been shot. As I mentioned so often in this space, I had been through public figures being shot before and sadly this would not be the last time. We got home and turned on the TV for further developments.

Dr. King was pronounced dead about one hour after he had been shot.

The next day, much of my city was in flames.

Chicago played an important part in the legacy of Martin Luther King. He and his family moved into an apartment 1550 S. Hamlin in the city's blighted North Lawndale neighborhood as a part of his "campaign to end slums." Protesting for fair housing and integration in this city, King led marches in the all white suburb of Cicero (where my father's shop was), and the neighborhood of Marquette Park where he got hit in the head with a brick. He famously said of that experience:
I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I've seen here today.
The day after Martin Luther King died, conflicts sprung up in African American neighborhoods all over the city. It is said that street gangs like the Blackstone Rangers who operated out of the Woodlawn neighborhood, managed to keep tensioins to a minimum on the south side. The same cannot be said about the more recently transitioining communities on the west side, where in the afternoon of April 5th, groups of angry teenagers began began throwing rocks into the windows of white owned businesses. The violence escalated rapidly as adults joined in what became a free-for-all including the torching of businesses and residences, shooting, looting, rock throwing at firemen trying to put out the fires, the calling in of the National Guard, and orders from the mayor to them to shoot to kill all arsonists. The chaos lasted about 48 hours and destroyed hundreds of homes, businesses and institutions over a large swath of the west side.

Here are two posts, one from the Chicago Tribune, the other from Chicago's National Public Radio station, WBEZ, that chronicle the events that took place in Chicago after the assassination of Martin Luther King, including many first hand accounts.

The riots, or rebellions if you prefer, following the assassination of Martin Luther King in Chicago did not set into motion the phenomenon known as "white flight" in Chicago, but greatly exacerbated it. Tensions between white and black people may have very well reached their all time high in the years following Dr. King's death.

There were white people who found it ironic that black people would choose to commit acts of violence in protest of the death of a man who spent his life preaching against violence.

Then there were black people who found it ironic that a white man killed the one black leader who was respected by black and white people alike. If there was no hope for Martin Luther King, how could there be hope for anybody else?

In the first post I wrote on Dr. King, a few years ago, I finally understood that it was that sense of hopelessness that fueled the rage that follwed his death, and came to the conclusion that regretfully, the violence that ensued, well at least some of it, was justified. Unfortunately, most of the neighborhoods that were destroyed by the violence following Dr. King's death never recovered. Vacant lots continue to mark the spots of the buildings that were destroyed fifty years ago. As bad as the conditions of the west side were when King and his family, in many respects, the people who live there are worse off today.

From the WBEZ article I posted above, there is a fascinating conversation between two residents of North Lawndale. Both have a connection to Marshall High School in that community. Rev. Donald McFadden was a student at Marshall when Dr. King was killed. He recalls his participation in the violence after King's death, including walking out of Marshall during school and taking part in the commandeering of a couple of CTA busses which were driven by kids, chauffeuring a bunch of fellow students to Austin High School, for the sole purpose of starting a "rumble" with the white students at that school. The other member of the conversation is a current student at Marshall, Damontae Warren, who lost his twin brother in a shooting last year, and participated in that school's recent walkout in reaction to gun violence.In the interview, young Mr. Warren expresses shock at the brazen actions of Rev. McFadden, who is now a minister in the neighborhood, and his fellow students. In response, Rev. McFadden looked back at the devastating consequences of their actions fifty years ago, which are still very visible in the community, expressing some regret that they "tossed out the window" the non-violent teachings of Martin Luther King, and expresses admiration to the young students' commitment to King's teachings. Here is their entire recorded conversation:

 

One could rush to judgement that had Martin Luther King not been killed, at least the riots in Chicago and many other American cities would not have taken place. However, riots had occurred in many other cities in previous years, so there is no reason to believe that Chicago would not have had its turn. If Dr. King had lived, we have to ask would he have continued to lose standing in the African American community in his message of non-violence, or would the pendulum have eventually swung back in his favor. If that were the case, would the moral authority and respectability of a living Dr. King, (rather than a revered dead icon) helped serve as a role model for young people in this country. There is simply no way of knowing. His death certainly left a huge void in the movement for equal rights and opportunity in this country, one that has never been filled. Would his real presense and influence have made a difference in the economic struggles of poor people in this country? Once again, we'll never know.

Dr. King spoke the truth when he said in his final speech that he was only fighting so that all Americans might experience the fulfillment of the the promises made in this country's original mission statement, our constitution. Quoting myself:
For that noble cause he went to jail in Birmingham. For that bricks were thrown at him in Chicago. For that he was killed in Memphis.
Martin Luther King was fond of saying: "Only light can extinguish the darkness, you cannot extinguish it with more darkness." Dr. King himself was the light, and today we recognize the half century mark of that light being extinguished.

It is impossible to imagine what would have become of our country and our world had Martin Luther King been granted a few more years, or even the gift of longevity. We've come a long way since his death, and in so many ways the memory of his life has served as a beacon. But as our difficult times keep reminding us, clearly we still have a long way to go.

Maybe we'll see a flicker of that light rekindling in our young who have shown quite recently that they will not stand by and watch helplessly and hopelessly as those in power try to reap the seeds of hatred, anger, distrust and division they have so eagerly planted among us. 

And maybe just maybe our next generation who are about to become voting age, will help pave for us the path to the promised land that Dr. King viewed with his own eyes, but was not allowed to experience himself.

That flicker of light is all we have right now. It should be incumbent upon those of us of good will to keep it burning.