Monday, October 8, 2018

Sons and Daughters

An article published on a right wing web site the other day began with this:
I have two sons. One is in his 20s, well on his way into adulthood. The other is 16 and, given the way the Brett Kavanaugh nomination process is headed, walking a tight rope between college preparation and jail. 
As President Donald Trump noted in recent comments about the runaway train called Supreme Court Nomination, it’s “a very scary time for young men in America.” 
Yes, it is. This is no joke. The sons of America are facing some dire straits.
Having a 17 year old son of my own, I know a little about parental concern for a young man about to become an adult. We've been blessed with a son who has a good sense of self-preservation and an understanding of the difference between right and wrong. We'd like to think the latter at least is partly a result of good parenting but perhaps we're giving ourselves too much credit. Suffice it to say, his good character is a blessing.

While I don't feel he's walking a tight rope between college preparation and jail, I still worry. I worry about his future. Of course I want him to be successful in whatever endeavor he chooses to pursue, but I also want him to develop meaningful relationships and to lead a happy life. On top of all that, my desire for him is to be a good person, empathetic, trustworthy and generous, the sort of person people admire for his integrity at least as much as for his professional acumen.

My boy is a pretty good student but has inherited his parents' tendency for day-dreaming which at times proves to be a challenge in school. Hopefully he'll be going off to college next year and I worry about things like how we'll pay for it, how he'll handle being away from home for the first time, how we'll handle him being gone, and how he'll do in school without his parents being around to give him that little push every now and then.

I worry about his safety. We live in a neighborhood where there is occasional gang violence. Every day I walk past a cross making the spot where a month ago, a young man who had just come to this city to study at Northwestern University was caught in the middle of gang crossfire and was killed.  Last week a masked man roaming around an adjacent neighborhood shot and killed two people for no apparent reason. At this writing he is still at large.

Like every parent who has ever cared about his or her kids from time immemorial, I worry constantly about my boy.

Given all that, I have to chuckle about the comment in the quote above about American teenage boys today facing dire straights because of the chance that someone in their future might concoct a cockamamie accusation that might harm them. I laugh because from every indication, the woman who wrote the article quoted above is white. I know this to be true because no black parent without a profound sense of irony would ever write that. The truth is that black people understand the real possibility that their sons might be falsely accused of committing a crime, often with dire consequences, as has been the case in this country for centuries. But typically for a white parent in this same country, that concern is a little like worrying that one day your son will be struck by lighting, possible, yes, but highly unlikely.

Unlikely that is unless your boy is the type of person given to tempting fate. If you walk around a golf course during a thunderstorm wearing metal spikes and swinging a metal golf club as the heart of the storm is directly overhead, you stand a much greater chance of being transformed into a pile of carbon dust, than if you don't. Likewise if you are a male high school or college student who blindly follows a hedonistic crowd who openly partakes in drunken debauchery and cares not a trace about decency, right and wrong, respect for women, or other people who are outside of their little clique, then years later claim you were just doing what everybody else did back in the day, you might stand a chance of finding yourself in the same position that Brett Kavanaugh found himself in last week.

Easy for me to say as I was something of an outsider during high school and college and avoided much of that collegial decadence. That's not to say in my life I never drank myself into a state of unconsciousness, or did things that I should never have done while in an altered state. That is precisely why I don't believe Kavanaugh's testimony during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings regarding his drinking, He said point blank under oath that while at times he drank to excess during his wild years, he was never beligerent, or ever drank so much that he passed out, two things several of his classmates at Yale and at Georgetown Prep vigorously deny.

As for his accuser, I can say that like her, I too have experienced traumatic acts as a victim of violent crime, and can recall certain details perfectly while forgetting trivial matters such as dates or how I got home. In other words, her testimony made perfect sense to me.

Does that mean I believe that Kavanaugh attempted to rape Christine Blasey Ford back when the two were in high school? Well let me just say this: only two people in the world know the truth about what happened that long ago night, (perhaps only one of the two since Kavanaugh may have been too drunk to remember), so all we have to go on is her word against his. In my book, her testimony was credible, while his had holes in it the size of the state of Texas.

That in itself does not mean he is guilty. Sexual assault cases, especially after a long period of time, seldom have corroborating evidence; typically they amount to one person’s word against another's. But it bears repeating over and over that Brett Kavanaugh was not on trial, he was interviewing for a job. A no vote on his confirmation was not a guilty verdict, it was simply expressing the belief held by perhaps one hundred million Americans, thousands of lawyers who make up the American Bar Association, forty eight senators, and one former Supreme Court Justice who happens to be a life long Republican, that Brett Kavanaugh’s sense of entitlement, his tantrums, his display of raw fury,  his disrespect for the confirmation process, his bending of the truth under oath, and above all, the political partisanship he displayed at his hearing, proved beyond a reasonable doubt in all those minds that guilty or innocent, his temperament makes him unqualified to sit on the Supreme Court.

Yet to listen to the Republicans who supported Kavanaigh's confirmation, you'd have thought he was the victim of a terrible injustice comparable to the Spanish Inquisition. Last night during a ceremonial swearing in ceremony at the White House, President Trump apologized to Kavanaugh for all the bumps in the road he faced during what turned out to be his successful confirmation:
Those who step forward to serve our country deserve a fair and dignified evaluation, not a campaign of political and personal destruction based on lies and deception,.. 
What happened to the Kavanaugh family violates every notion of fairness, decency and due process,..

(Everyone in this country) must always be presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty...
You, sir (speaking to Kavanaugh), under historic scrutiny, were proven innocent,
Those are all fine sentiments indeed, until you stop and think about them.

I suppose one could forgive the president for his obvious ignorance of the rules of evidence, due process, and the presumption of innocence outside of a court of law, because he is not a lawyer. On the other hand, the man standing right behind Trump’s right shoulder, Brett Kavanaugh, newly appointed into the Valhala of this country’s most esteemed lawyers, could have reminded the president for example that in no way did his hearings and the flaccid FBI investigation the president ordered, prove Kavanaugh's innocence. Maybe he just forgot to remind him.

As far as "fairness, decency and due process" are concerned, this is entirely new ground for Donald Trump. Just ask the Central Park Five.

Far more appalling than the president's pathetic lack of understanding of the rule of law is his claim that the accusations against  Kavanaugh were based upon "lies and deception."

He may not know squat about the law but Donald Trump does knows more than a little something about being accused of wrongdoing. Over twenty women of all political stripes have come forward to accuse him of sexual abuse. On top of that he is on tape not only admitting, but bragging about sexually assaulting women. Yet he vehemently denies any wrongdoing. He has publicly stated that every one of his women accusers is a liar, so it shouldn't come as a suprise that he is now calling Christine Blasey Ford a liar as well.

In Trump's world view, it is men who are the victims of feckless women, not the other way around. Here are his comments from above in their full context:
It's a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of. This is a very difficult time.
After he said that, Trump was confronted by a reporter who asked him if it is a difficult time for women as well. No, he said, "women are doing great."

Well Mr. President I have a little news for you. I also have a daughter. Because of that I can assure you that women in this country are not doing great. I have the same hopes and dreams for my daughter that I have for my son. I also have all the same worries and a few more. For starters, I worry that my daughter will be subject to the same kind of treatment that people like you have inflicted upon women. Believe me, it's a sad situation when I wouldn't allow the President of the United States to come within one hundred yards of my daughter any more than I would let any other self-proclaimed, unrepentant sexual predator. It really saddens me that my daughter sees the president of my beloved country and his Republican lackies caring so much about winning at any cost that they would not take the time to properly vet a candidate for the most important job in the nation, (yes even more important than yours Mr. President), who has had a very credible charge of a serious crime brought against him. And it sickens me to think that the biggest lesson my daughter has learned from you is that if a young woman like her dares to speak out about sexual abuse, she too could be publicly slandered, ridiculed, humiliated and laughed at by the President of the United States and the sorry people who blindly follow him.

But Mr. President there is cause for hope. You and all your white male Republican senators who couldn't contain their glee after winning this battle, are old and won't be around for long. There is a new generation of people who will take your place who don't necessarily believe that men have the privilege to treat women like cattle. Many of the new generation's leaders in fact are women. They and the fifty plus percent of the population who are also women will not forget your disrespectful and disgusting actions in regard to them over the past few weeks. Remember the march on Washington, the one with all the pink pussy hats that drew at least twice as many people as your inauguration? Believe me that's going to look like a walk in the park compared to what's coming.

True, Brett Kavanaugh is relatively young and could be on the Supreme Court for a long time. Of course one never knows how a justice will rule once he is on the bench. If he was sincere last night about not being as much of a partisan hack that he seemed to be during his confirmation hearings, maybe, just maybe he will contribute to rulings that will truly benefit the people of this country, not just the powers that be. Regardless, he will forever be under a microscope and as long as he sits on the bench, every vote of his will be closely scrutinized. If he upsets enough people, especially women by voting to take away rights they have held for decades, another, less friendly administration to him, probably one headed by a woman, could re-open his attempted rape case. Supreme Court justices can be impeached too you know.

Whatever happens with Kavanaugh, the tide is turning. For the past year, my daughter has proudly worn a tee shirt that proclaims "The Future is Female." It clerarly pisses off friends of ours who happen to support you. They don't say anything because I have the distinct feeling that deep down, they too begrudgingly believe it's true.     

Perhaps you're right about these being scary times for men. Everything that you and your cronies hate is about to come true. Maybe not in November, perhaps not even in 2020, but one day, thanks to you, old white men like us will become irrelevant in this country. You and your actions have emboldened the revolution. Remember the bit about hell having no fury like something or other? It's coming Mr. President; you've briefly put off the empowerment of women and minorities that you and your supporters are so fearful of, but it will rebound with a vengeance and there will be nothing you or your friends can do to stop it.

From the lion's share of women I know, my wife and all her friends, my daughter and her friends, my mother and her friends, from all my female colleagues, most of my friends, family, and female acquaintances, from just about every woman I have ever known in my life, I have a message they wish to convey to you Mr. President. That message is this:


You have left quite a mark, or perhaps more accurately, a stain on this country, one that thanks in large part to your noble efforts, will be washed out with the rest of the dirty laundry sooner than you can imagine.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Photographs of the Month

Blue Whale Skeleton, Natural History Museum, London, September 25

Natural History Museum, London, September 26

Paddington Station, London, September 27

Natural history Museum, Oxford, September 27

Facadectomy, London, September 28

London Calling--

I answered.

Platform 9 3/4, King's Cross Station, London

The Realm of Possibilities

I understand the legitimate concern over a person's reputation being destroyed by an unverifiable, scurrilous accusation. Furthermore it is not out of the realm of possibility that an individual with an axe to grind, might fabricate such an accusation, or convince someone else to do so. I can think of few worse injustices than to be destroyed by an intentionally false accusation.

Then there is the problem of diametrically conflicting stories. In jurisprudnece there is a well known phenominon referred to as the "Rashomon effect", named after the Akira Kurasowa film based upon the contradicting testimonies of multiple people who witnessed the same crime. However in the Rashoman effect, there is at least one point of agreement in the conflicting testimonies, the event itself.  What happens when there is not even an agreement that the event in question actually took place? Still more problematic is when there are only two witnesses, an alleged victim, and an alleged perpetrator.

Oh yes, what happens when the alleged event in question took place decades ago, meaning any kind of physical evidence of the alleged crime has long since vanished?

Such is the case in the latest episode of the ongoing saga of the current administration, known as the Kavanaugh affair.

In case you're reading this hot off the press, you probably don't need any further explanation and can skip the following five paragraphs. However if you've come here after digging around this blog's archive a few years after the fact, you might need a little reminding.

For years the swing vote on the US Supreme Court was Justice William Kennedy who sometimes voted with the four predominantly liberal justices and sometimes voted with the predominantly conservative justices As such the Court was seen as for the most part, ideologically balanced. Upon Kennedy's retirement a few months ago, the task of submitting a candidate to the Senate to confirm his replacement as it always does, fell upon the shoulders of the president. The president selected Brett Kavanaugh, a solidly (some would say excessively) conservative judge currently serving on the Federal bench. Clearly with Kavanaugh's record, the balance of the SCOTUS would shift dramatically to the right should his nomination go through. This is especially troubling to many as a solid conservative Court could potentially review and overturn previous SCOTUS rulings, thereby revoking rights that people have held for decades, most notably Roe vs. Wade which guarantees every American woman's right to obtain an abortion with no questions asked.

This particularly contentious issue is probabaly the single biggest reason why Donald Trump won the support of tens of millions of conservative religious voters who collectively held their noses as they overlooked his many obvious moral transgressions, simply because he promised to appoint judges who would vote to overturn Roe v Wade.

With a majority Republican Senate, the president's pick is almost a certainty to be appointed justice, a job for life. Not surprisingly, Democrats are doing everything in their power to stall the nomination of this particular judge, in anticipation of the next general election a little over a month from now, where the Democrats have an outside chance of winning back the majority in the Senate. This may sound like obstructionist politics at its worst, but Democrats are simply following the precedent of the Republicans who during the waning months of the Obama administraton, refused to even consider the nomination of Merrick Garland, President Obama's candidate to fill the seat of the late Antonin Scalia. As Scalia was solidly in the conservative camp, Garland had he been approved, would have shifted the balance of the Court to the left. 

The hearings to confirm Kavanaugh were going along swimmingly for him until near the end when it was revealed that a woman had come forward to accuse the potential new justice of sexually assaulting her in the early eighties when both of them were still in high school. Kavanaugh's accuser eventually agreed to make to her name public and testify before the Senate committee in charge of the appointment hearings, This past Thursday, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave a stirring account of her accusation that thirty years ago Brett Kavanaugh tried to rape her but could not, because he was too drunk to figure out how to remove the one piece bathing suit she wore underneath her outer garments. She then respnded to questions from the ten Democratic senators on the committee. Rather than question her themselves, the eleven Republican senators on the panel yielded their time to Rachel Mitchell, a Republican prosecutor from Arizona, who grilled Dr. Ford on the stand as if she were the accused in a criminal proceeding. The second half of the day was devoted to Judge Kavanaugh who gave an impassioned defense of himself, then responded to questions from the Deomocrats as well as the Republicans who used their time to heap praise upon the judge and condemnation upon the Democrats, accusing them of deplorable actions all in the attempt to discredit a fine judge.

The following day it was decided (I won't go into why, that's a blog post and a half all to itself) that the FBI would conduct a week long investigation into the matter before it goes to a vote before the full senate.

I also won't go into guilt or innocence, or the long list of social issues brought about by this case for the simple reason that these issues have been dealt with significantly elsewhere for the past two weeks.

Rather what I would like to address, is what amounts to the nitty gritty of this case, namely this: is Brett Kavannnaugh qualified to be a Supreme Court justice? As has been pointed out correctly by numerous folks, the  whole confirmation process amounts to nothing more than a job interview. Granted the job of replacing the swing vote on the Supreme Court, a tenure that could last forty years or more, is perhaps the single most important job in this country. But the hearings are a job interview nonetheless.

What they are not, is a criminal proceeding. This past week, we've heard the term "due process" bandied about over and over by Kavanaugh supporters who insist that he is innocent until proven guilty and that the burden of proof of his guilt, lies with his accusers. This is nonsense. Kavanaigh is not on trial, he doesn't stand to lose his liberty as a result of these hearings. He only stands to lose his chance, at least during this go-around, to be a Supreme Court justice. Consequently these hearings which will provide guidance to the entire Senate, are not a means to determine whether or not Brett Kavanaugh  tried to rape Christine Ford thirty five years ago, but rather to look at all the evidence presented, and determine if there is a credible reason there to reject his nomination for a seat on the bench of the highest court in the land.

With that in mind, I think it would be helpful to break the testimony down to all the possible conclusions that can be drawn from it. As the testimonies of these two individuals are diametrically opposed, to me there are three conceivable scenarios which themselves can be broken up further.

  • The first conclusion that can be drawn is that Brett Kavanaugh tried to rape Christine Ford in the early eighties.
  • The second is somewhere in the middle; there was physical contact between the two individuals, but the intents of the victim and the perpetrator at the time are in dispute. 
  • The third possibility is that Kavanaugh is innocent of the accisation.
I have a strong opinion which of the three is the most likely, but frankly my opinion on the matter is irrelevant. What is significant is to examine each scenario to determine if any or all of them are worthy enough to disqaulify Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court.

Let's examine each of them one by one:

Case one: Dr. Ford's accusation is true; Brett Kavanaugh while in a drunken stupor tried to rape her. If you take her testimony to be true, there are two possibilities. either Judge Kavanaugh was so drunk at the time that he cannot remember what he did that night, or he is simply lying. Is the latter case a justification for dismissing Kavanaugh's nomination? Hell yes, without question, both for the original crime committed and for committing perjury in the Senate hearings. What about the former? Again, without question. A person is accountable for his actions whether drunk or sober. If someone charged with vehicular homicide tries to use the defense that he was so drunk at the time that he didn't know what he was doing, he would suddenly find himself charged with two very serious crimes. Before the Senate committee, Kavanaugh admitted to serious drinking in high school and college but refused to admit that he had a drinking problem. He claimed to never having drunk himself unconscious. Several of his classmates at Yale beg to differ, saying he was less than forthcoming about his drinking, which was according to them, prodigious. If this is true, Kavanaugh obviously has deeper problems than not being our next Supreme Court justice.

Case two: Physical contact between the two took place, but it was not a serious as Dr. Ford's allegations claim. Since neither Dr. Ford nor Judge Kavanaugh claim having had a consensual relationship, the scenario is unlikely. However the possibility has been brought up by defenders of the judge, namely Fox News who imply that their contact was indeed consensual,  so it may be worth examining for a moment. There is a recent precedent for a public figure accepting charges of sexual assault brought against him. That public figure was US Senator Al Franken who admitted inappropriate conduct with his accuser, just not the extent to which she claimed. Frankin openly called for an investigation into the matter, something his accuser, for reasons known only to her, claimed was not necessary. Faced with increasing pressure from his own party, Franken resigned from the Senate. Kavanaugh missed the boat with this possible excuse as in his sworn testimony, he unequivocally denied having had any physical contact with Dr. Ford. Should he bring up a consensual relationship with Ms. Ford up at a later date, he would be admitting that he lied under oath, which of course would be immediate grounds for his dismissal. Kavanaugh also is suspect because during the hearings he avoided the question of whether he supported an FBI investigation of the matter in order to clear his name, while Dr. Ford openly supported an investigation.

Case three: Brett Kavanaugh is innocent. If you believe him, there are a few possibilities. One is that Christine Ford was sexually assaulted as stated in her testimony, but is mistaken about the identity of her attacker. The other possibility is that she is making the whole thing up. At this point for fairness sake, it must be pointed out that fraudulent reports of rape are rare, but not unheard of. Again there is a precedent for a public figure to have been falsely accused of sexual abuse, in his case of a minor. The name of the falsely accused individual is Joseph Cardinal Bernadin, a former archbishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago. The pain that Bernadin suffered during the period after the accusation was well publicized, as was the grace of the Cardinal in his forgiveness of his accuser after he admitted that he lied. As a fellow Catholic, Brett Kavanaugh should have been intimately familiar with Bernadin's grace during this particularly painful period of his life, and used his example as a model of how to react during a time of adversity. Unfortunately he did not. It is said that none other than Donald Trump coached him on how to behave at the hearing. He told the judge to get mad. Turns out Kavanaugh was a good study, in his opening statement before the Senate subcommitttee on Thursday, Kavanaugh ranted, raved, scowled whined and pouted, throwing temper tantrums accusing the Democrats of character assassination, and conducting a "calculated and orchestrated political hit" on him. What made his mentor the proudest was no dout Kavanaugh's mention of Bill and Hillary Clinton. His remarks were filled with self-pity and indignance in the fact that a man of his stature, should be subject to such treatment. It has been a cliche of late to use this term but for lack of a better description, white male privilege oozed out of every pour of Brett Kavanaugh last Thursday, and it was ugly.

Giving the judge all the benefit of doubt, and assuming that he is innocent of the accusations against him, Brett Kavanaugh did not act like a judge the other day let alone a Supreme Court justice, During the most important job interview of his life, he acted like a spoiled rich kid. Kavanaugh responded to reasonable questions with spite, bitterness, disgust, and above all in his claim that Dr. Ford's accusations were nothing more than a Democratic conspiracy to discredit him, he displayed an unacceptable political bias for a potential justice. What more reason does one need to reject an applicant for a job? Typically when someone blows a job interview, he does not get the job. My suggestion to the members of the Senate who are in a position to hire the next Supreme Court Justice is this, look for someone else.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

In the Year 2019

We watched Blade Runner the other night, the classic 1982 sci-fi thriller set in a future Los Angeles. The plot of the movie revolves around a police detective reluctantly coming out of the shadows to "retire" four replicants, genetically engineered humanoids, who had recently escaped from forced labor on a colozined planet and returned to earth, intent on causing mayhem while in search of their creator. The movie directed by Ridley Scott, was a loose adaptation of the 1969 novel by Phillip K. Dick called, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The film is visually stunning, combining old school film-noir with pre-digital special effects which hold up amazingly well 36 years after its release.

But for me the most compelling part of the film and especially the book are the moral and ethical questions raised about the implications regarding unchecked technology, and its impact on both the environment and ourselves.

That said, there was one nagging part I simply could not wrap my head around. The dystopian future portrayed in the film, takes place in the year 2019, (2021 in the book), which happens to be at this writing, next year. Now depending upon your point of view, we may indeed be living in a dystopian world at the moment, but not exactly the world of Blade Runner.

I understand artistic license and can easily see why P.K. Dick and later Ridley Scott would choose to set their stories in the not too distant future. Assuming that many of the people who would have seen the movie when it first came out would still be alive in 2019, the story has a far greater sense of urgency than were it set say, 200 years in the future. The same could be said for classic works set in a dystopian future such as George Orwell's 1984 (published in 1949) As it is, these works have kind of a Dickensian poignance, harkening to Scrooge's question to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come:
Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be only?
Experiencing Blade Runner today as well as other works of fiction whose future setting is now the distant past, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief, realizing that these visions of the future did not come true, at least not exactly, not yet. We still have a chance if we heed the warnings. It goes without saying that's a big if.

The interesting thing about stories set in the future is what they tell us about the time in which they were created. Fifty years before Phillip K. Dick's novel was published, biplanes were all the rage and no one had yet dared to fly an airplane across the Atlantic. In 1969, a commercial supersonic jet made its maiden test flight. The Concorde which went into service in the early seventiescould fly between New York and London in about three hours, less than half the time it took a conventional jet liner. 1969 was also the year we first landed on the moon. Given the advances in aviation in those fifty years, there was no reason to believe that the advances in the next fifty would not be equally dizzying. But here we are fifty years later and commercial supersonic travel has been scrubbed. A human being hasn't left earth's orbit since 1972. Today it takes as long to fly from New York to London as it did in 1968, before Concorde. And if an American astronaut needs to travel to the International Space Station, he or she needs to hitch a ride aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket.

Nor do we have flying cars. No vision of the future would be complete without flying cars and Blade Runner is no exception. As with aviation, automotive technology grew by leaps and bounds during the fifty year period before the publication of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Ford Model Ts dominated the roads in 1919 and would still be in production for another eight years. In the fifties, the United States built its Interstate system of highways which would forever alter the landscape of America. The automobile and the infrastructure that supported it, changed the way we lived, how we built our communities, and allowed our great centers of humanity and culture, our cities, to crumble.

For most of the Twentieth Century, The Western world was in love with technology. There was great promise in the freedom that the Machine brought to mankind, the automobile being only one example. That reverence for the Machine could be found everywhere in the twenties and early thirties from fine art to film, music, industrial design and especially architecture. Art Deco masterpieces, such as the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings in New York are perhaps humankind's greatest monuments to the Machine Age, and the hope for a brighter future, all made possible through the wonders of technology.

But there were also detractors in the arts who were willing to burst the technology bubble during the heart of the Machine Age. One of the most popular bubble-bursters was Charles Chaplin and his 1936 film, Modern Times. The film must have seemed hopelessly reactionary to audiences of that era, not just because it was a silent film made eight years after the debut of "talking pictures." *, but also for its denouncement of technology's contribution to the de-humanization of human beings.

Here is the most famous scene from that movie:

It turned out that rather being a reactionary, Chaplin was far ahead of his time. Five years later, Europe was at war and Chaplin, still working in the United States, made his most important (if not his most beloved) film, The Great Dictator. As life would never be the same again after that war, it is appropriate that The Great Dictator marked the final appearance of Chaplin's beloved signature character, The Little Tramp. Equally telling is that for his last appearance, The Tramp finally spoke, in this case as the humble doppelganger of a brutal dictator, Adenoid Hynkel, also played by Chaplin, who himself bore a likeness, (at least in his character's facial hair), to a real-life dictator. Or was it the other way around?  Anyway at the end of the film, Chaplin, who could just as well have been playing himself, gives a poignant, impassioned, gut-wrenching speech renouncing not only cruel immoral, dictators, but the abject failure of society to succeed in using technology for the betterment of humankind:

Charlie Chaplin saw before most, how technology, along with the better living it promised, might also bring us untold misery. The future would prove him right as World War Two gave us mechanized suffering and killing the likes of which the world had never seen, culminating with the droppping of nuclear bombs over two heavily populated cities in Japan, the dawn of the nuclear age. It wouldn't be long before people came to the realization that human beings would one day have the power to destroy all life on this planet.

Yet we clung to our blind devotion to technology and the promise that if we believed in it, life would only get better. World War Two was so horrible that when it was over, people fell hook line and sinker for any scheme to create a new and better world. Over the years in this space I have explored two such utopian schemes devised by world reknowned architects. Both the Swiss Le Courbousier, and the American Frank Lloyd Wright proposed we toss everything we knew about building places to work and live in the garbage and start with a clean slate. Each architect came up with a utopian scheme diametrically opposed to the other in many ways, but both relying heavily on on modern techology to bring about their ideals. Le Courbousier's uptopia, Radiant City was a densly packed urban environment where each function of the community would be distinctly separate, and everyone would live in apartment buildings reaching to the sky.

By contrast, Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City was a horizontal rather than vertical plan where agrairian life would be integrated into everyday life, where each family would be given an acre of land of their own. In 1945, FLW wrote:
To look at the plan of a great City is to look at something like the cross-section of a fibrous tumor.
To him, cities as they had been built for centuries, was rendered obsolete by new technologies such mechanized production (which would one day presumably do away with the dehumanizing assembly line that we saw in the first Chaplin clip), electronic communication such as the telephone, telegraph and radio, and of course the automobile. Beacuse of these technological advances, the centralized city would, or should be a thing of the past, replaced by sprawling communities connected by highways where people would have the freedom to travel as they wished in their personal transportation devices, which Wright envisioned one day, be able to fly, as we can see here in this rendering from his 1959 book, The Living City:

The city of the future according to Frank Lloyd Wright, complete with flying cars
Le Courbousier's and Wright's vision of the future never materialized exactly as their creators envisioned, yet many of their concepts took hold and we continue to live with them today in the form of massive urban housing projects which were directly inspired by the Radiant City, and suburban sprawl, which owes its existence in no small part to the vision of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Needless to say, more than half a century later, neither housing projects nor suburban sprawl turned out to be answers to all our problems, in fact in many cases, just the opposite. For the past thirty plus years or so, we have been undoing both the Courbousian and Wrightian utopias as fast as possible, in some cases with dynamite:

I was around in the sixties when the dream to build faster cars and rocket ships able to take humans to places where "no man had ever gone before" was still the was still the most potent vision of the future. After July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong uttered the words "Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed", nothing seemed impossible. Yet for all its glory, the significance of our mission to the moon could best be summed up by the words of the last man to climb aboard the lunar module to blast off the surface of that dead planet. Eugene Cernan said after he returned to earth: "We went to explore the moon and in fact discovered the earth."

It's no accident that the environmental movement got a big push after the first photographs of Earth from outer space were made public. For the first time ever, we saw our planet as it really is, a small refuge of beauty and life cast adrift in a vast sea of emptiness. Above all for the first time ever we were unequivocally reminded that Earth and all its bounties, are finite. We were also reminded that the moon was not a good option. Those photographs showed to us in a very tangible way how much we needed to rethink the stewardship of the only home we have.

Needless to say, we won't be colonizing other planets anytime soon. While the subject was not directly addressed in Blade Runner, in the P.K. Dick novel that inspired it, there was a particular urgency to relocate earthlings to Mars as the story takes place after WWT (World War Terminal), which redered Earth practically unihabitable. A recurrent theme in the book are television "weather" forcasts which predict motion of nuclear fallout clouds rather than rain clouds.

Thankfully we have thus far avoided nuclear armageddon, however there is a less dramatic, but just as dire threat to the health of our planet. The conservation of our planet by curtailing pollution and conserving its resources became a rallying cry during the seventies. The conservation part really hit home after the supply of fuel was curtailed by the oil producing nations of the Middle East causing world-wide gasoline shortages, resulting in staggering price increases. Those who were not moved by the philosophical arguments of the environmental activists, were certainly moved by the hit to their pocket books. For the first time since World War II when gasoline was rationed for the war effort, Americans understood that conservation of resources actually worked to the benefit o hte nation. In that effort, nationwide speed limits were reduced in order to conserve fuel which led to another fringe benefit, reduced highway deaths. Consequently, automotive and aviation technology since then have moved away from speed and in the direction of efficiency and safety.

Obviously, technology has not stopped advancing in the past half century, it just shifted direction. Rather than transportation, the earth-shattering technological achievements of our time involve medicine and the computer among others. As we look with hope to the future with the help of these technoligal advances, there is a caveat. We must always remember that every technological innovation is a double-edged sword. Every tool we make no matter how wonderful it may seem, can be used to benefit mankind, or to harm it. With every new technological innovation, new ethical issues arise and we must be ever vigilent to use technology wisely.

Blade Runner's vision of 2019 did not become true, at least not yet, in part because of the work of visionaries like Charlie Chaplin and Phillip K. Dick who warned us of not being blind to the moral consequences of absolute faith in the wonders of technology and progress, and to not be afraid to learn from the lessons of history.

We still have a lot to learn if we hope to prevent life from imitating art. Interestingly enough, Blade Runner 2049 came out last year. I only saw dribs and drabs of it on a recent plane flight but from what I could tell, it's even more bleak than the original. I'll be 90 in 2049, and if I'm still around, I might just have a look at it to see how much came true. If that happens, I'll be sure to keep you posted.

* Modern Times like its predecessor, Chaplin's 1932 film City Lights, has a soundtrack. But with the exception of a musical number sung by Chaplin, and the occasional mumbled commands of the all-knowing and seeing boss of the factory projected on a future-like television screen, all the dialog is conveyed through title cards as in true silent movies.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Here We Go Again...

You can set your clock by it: the kids back in school, the days getting noticably shorter, and Aaron Rodgers having his way with the Chicago Bears' defense can only mean one thing. It's that time of year again when our president gets to fire up his base by knocking the National Football League.

It's been a particularly bad stretch for this presidency, and that's really saying something. In the past month, both the former attorney and now the former campaign manager of the current president plead guilty to crimes in exchange for cooperating with the special counsel to lessen their time in the pokey. It is widely believed that both have incriminating evidence against the president and the people around him. During that same period, this president's lack of fitness for his job has been brought to the public's attention by two major publications. And at this writing, as a major hurricane is bearing down upon the Carolinas, the president is being pilloried for claiming his response to two devastating hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico last year was an "unsung success", denying credible estimations of the death toll from the natural disasters by saying those people would have died anyway.

Given all that, Donald Trump right now must be thanking his lucky stars for the return of football, and especially that a handful of NFL players continue to kneel for the national anthem. And what must seem like manna from heaven to him, the athletic apparel company Nike, has chosen none other than Colin Kaepernick, the first NFL player to take a knee in protest over racial injustice in this country, as their spokesperson.

You didn't need to be clairvoyant last week to predict the reaction of some Americans after the first Nike/Kaepernick commercials were released. The skies were lit up all over this great nation of ours by bonfires fueled by Nike products, burned by consumers who were offended that a major company would dare to support a man who expressed an opinion they did not like.

Cries of "how could a company like that be so foolish" and "boycott Nike", could be heard all across the country from ultra-right-wing individuals to the president himself who believed that Nike was making a perilous gamble by taking sides against them.

Here's what the tweeter-in-chief had to say via his favorite medium of expression:
Just like the NFL, whose ratings have gone WAY DOWN (sic), Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way? As far as the NFL is concerned, I just find it hard to watch, and always will, until they stand for the FLAG!
In Donald Trump's world, his war against the NFL serves at least two purposes. First as I mentioned, it is a convenient distraction from his current problems. But perhaps the main purpose is a personal vendetta, as the president has had a long adversarial relationship with the league. In the eighties he desperately wanted to own an NFL team, but was thwarted every step of the way by team owners and then commissioner Pete Roselle. So he aligned himself with the fledgling United States Football League, by purchasing the USFL New Jersey Generals. After a year and over much trepedation from other team owners, Trump convinced the league to compete head-to-head with the premier football league by playing their games in the fall as the NFL did. Needless to say, that didn't work out too well for the up-and-coming league as they could not get a network contract to televise their games at the same time as NFL games. Never fear said Trump to the league, we will sue the NFL and the networks for violating federal anti-trust laws.

It turns out that the USFL had a very good case, so much so, they convinced a New York jury that the NFL was indeed a monopoly in violation of the law. But according to Jeff Pearlman, author of the book Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL, the plaintiff's main witness was Trump, whose atrocious behavior in the courtroom, from his pompous self-aggrandizing testimony to his bullying and intimidating the jury and other witnesses, didn't go over so well with the jury. In the end they ruled in favor of the USFL, but instead of the 1.7 billion dollars in damages the plaintiffs asked for, the jury awarded the USFL one dollar. As the verdict was read and the settlement announced, the owner of the NFL New York Giants pulled a dollar bill out of his wallet and handed it to a stunned Trump.

After the verdict was delivered, the USFL who depended upon the settlement money to stay afloat, would never play another game. Many placed the blame for the devastating results of the trial which led to the demise of the league, directly on the shoulders of one Donald J. Trump. 

Ah but that's all in the past, and I'm sure Trump has put it all behind him, (wink wink, nudge nudge). What's in the present is Trump's convenient manipulation of an obsessive concern of some, with a handful of athletes not standing for the national anthem. It's an issue at all because some people feel the act is disrespectful to our nation and the men and women who serve in the armed forces. It is a perfectly valid opinion I suppose, as no opinion can either be right or wrong. But it is a flawed opinion nonetheless, as the players themselves have emphatically denied that they have any intent of disrespecting the nation and those in its service. There is simply no good reason not to take their word for it. The players are backed up by a number of service men and women who believe that they risked their own lives in service to defend democracy and freedom, including freedom of expression, not the will of a some president to decide what is patriotic and what is not.

In case you're thinking I'm some no-good-pinko-libtard-snowflake who doesn't respect God, country and mom's apple pie because I don't have a problem with professional athletes making a political statement by not standing for the Star Spangled Banner, let me share something with you. My father was an immigrant who loved this country more than words could articulate. He was not a religious man, but he considered the solemnity of the national anthem of any country to be as sacred as anything could me. During the thousands of sporting events we shared together, back in the days before television sold the air time devoted to the anthem to advertisers, I distinctly remember him critiquing athletes' anthem demeanor.  He singled out every athlete who did not stand perfectly still with his eyes focused like a laser upon the flag during the anthem. If an athlete no matter the team, did so much as chew a piece of gum during the song, he was forever on my dad's shit list. He was just as critical of the fans in the stands if he felt they did not give the playing of the anthem the gravitas it deserved.

As I grew older, I became weary of my father's unrelenting devotion to this country. Despite our many intense argruments over this country not being perfect however, I never lost respect for the playing of the anthem(s) as it was ingrained in me from a very early age.

I'll never forget the last Chicago Blackhawks hockey game my father and I attended together. By that time in the early eighties, neither of us had been to a game for several years. Much to my chagrin, a handful of drunk, rowdy fans began cheering and yelling obscenities at the visiting team during the playing of the anthem. Finally my dad and I could find something to agree upon, those "hockey fans" were unequivocally guilty of disrespecting the game, the anthem and the flag.

Well it so happened that the vulgar chants of a handful of drunken louts during the anthem caught on with a critical mass and eventually the sound of every fan screaming his or her head off during the national anthem became a cherished tradition at Chicago Blackhawks home games. The team even promotes the response to the anthem in its ads as an essential part of the Blackhawk experience. Whatever you think of the fans' reaction to the anthem at the "Madhouse on Madison", clearly this tradition is all about rooting for a team and has nothing to do with what the presenting of the colors and the playing of the anthem is all about. Granted there are folks, generally fans of the visiting team, who object to this clear violation of anthem and flag etiquette, but those people are generally dismissed as fuddy-duddy stuffed-shirted St. Louis Blues fans with a serious case of sour grapes. 

But if the president were really concerned about people not giving the anthem the respect it deserves, he could make a serious case for directing his ire at Blackhawk fans and the team who supports and even encourages their behavior.

Instead he focuses on a handful of athletes who quietly and respectfully kneel instead of stand during the anthem in support of what they believe is a serious and worthwhile cause.

Why the disconnect?

Could it be that virtually every fan screaming his or her lungs out at Blackhawks games is white and virtually every athlete taking a knee at NFL games is black? You can believe anything you want but to me the answer is pretty clear.

What about the president's other assertion that "Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts"? Well it turns out that he's dead wrong on that. While Nike stock took a slight dip right after the announcement of their new spokesperson, sales of Nike products have gone through the roof since then. As for Nike stock today, well let me just say the title of this article from yesterday says it all:
Nike stock price reaches all-time high after Colin Kaepernick ad.
This should come as a surprise to no one, especially Donald Trump who won the presidency betting on this one simple assumption: "there is no such thing as bad publicity."

Nike did not become a fabulously successful corporation (far more lucrative than the NFL for example), by making unsound business decisions. They no doubt had their marketing research people work overtime on this one, weighing the pros and cons of taking such a stance. It may have been a gamble, but it turns out it was a safe one.

They produced an inspiring epic commercial (which you can see if you follow the link above) featuring Kaepernick's voice-over describing several against-the-odds real life success stories, concluding with the former football player uttering the line: "Believe in something, even if it means losing everything."

Critics on the right have mocked Kaepernick's "sacrifice", i.e.: his willingness to give up his football career by making a stand for a cause he believes in, saying that sacrifice pales in comparison to the sacrifice of our military personnel. Perhaps that's true but then again, ANY sacrifice pales in comparison to that one. My question in return is this, how many individuals would willingly give up something they hold dear, dreamed about since childhood, and worked hard their entire lives to achieve, in order to help benefit the lives of others?

Yes, Kaepernick did sacrifice a great deal, including donating millions of his own dollars to causes for social justice. I understand why folks might disagree with his methods, but for the life of me can't understand why anyone would question Colin Kaepernick's sincerity or his character.

That said, I'm not going to run out and buy Nike gear anytime soon. While I personally agree with the cause, I also believe that the bottom line for the company aligning themselves with Kaepernick is to sell shoes. Not that I have a problem with that, but Nike has its own issues with human rights in its use of sweatshops in third world countries that manufacture its products, but that's a complicated story for another day.

What I do find encouraging in Nike's choice of Kaepernick is that it is a positive bellwether for the future of this country. By choosing to support the cause of racial justice, Nike's highly paid market research team has determined that by supporting decency and tolerance, there is no credible future for hatred and racism in this country. After all, Nike's consumers are overwhelmingly young people, in other words, the future. Despite all the grumblings of Donald Trump and his base that Nike was making a huge mistake by alienating them, sales of shoes and record stock prices have proven otherwise.

Nike's thorough reasearch tells us that the future of America is diversity, not the Make America Great Again through white hegemony that Trump's base so longs for. 

As far as the future goes, Nike, putting their money where their mouth is, is telling us that Trump and his base are irrelevant.

So maybe it's possible that Donald Trump won't destroy this country after all, like he destroyed the USFL.

To that all I can say is Thank God.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Photographs of the Month

Bird Lady, Galesburg, IL, August 3

Classic Storefront, Galesburg, IL, August 4

West Town, August 8 

Classic Storefront, Pilsen, August 19

Rogers Park, August 24

North harbor Drive, August 25

Doves on a wire, Rogers Park, August 29

Rhyming History II: The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Earlier this month I told you about a visit we made with our son to a school in northwest Illinois (Knox College) that happened to be the site of the fifth in the series of seven debates between  Steven Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. The year was 1858, and the two men were running against each other for the United States Senate seat at the time occupied by Douglas. Two years later both would run against each other again, along with two other candidates for president  The Lincoln-Douglas debates have been regarded as a watershed moment in the history of American rhetoric, as both men confronted each other with arguments that helped define the struggle that tore this country apart and ultimately resulted in the Civil War.

The building known as Old Main on the campus of Konx College in Galesburg, IL
It was the site of the fifth Lincoln-Douglas debate.

Douglas was already a well established figure in American politics, but the debates, the contents of which were published in newspapers all over the country, brought Lincoln national attention which helped him win the 1860 presidential attention. That noteriety which included Lincoln's neagtive views of slavery, did not go unnoticed in the South. As a result, seven states, (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) seceeded from the Union just before the March 4th, 1861 innauguration of the 16th president. After Rebel forces attacked the federal garrison, Fort Sumter in Charleston, SC on April 12th of that year, four more southern states, (Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia), joined the Confederacy.

Many have put forward the notion that the primary cause for the secessession of eleven states from the Union and the war that ensued, was not slavery at all, but rather a plethora of gripes with the federal government and each state's right to confront those gripes head on, even if it meant leaving the Union if it chose. But any honest study of the history of the conflict, shows that argument to be fallacious. Judging by the Lincoln-Douglas campaign alone, so profound was the struggle over slavery, that even in a local election in a free state, hardly any other issue was addressed.

Aside from the slave owners themselves who were in it for the money, essentially there were four schools of thought regarding slavery in the United States before the Civil War. On one extreme were the people who believed that slavery was part of the natural order; i.e.; they believed that certain races were naturally superior to others and had the divine right to master over their inferiors. At the other extreme were the Abolitioinists who believed that slavery was an unequivocal wrong that should be put to an end without hesitation. The Abolitionists were radicals, the Antifa of their day. Steven Douglas and Abraham Lincoln represented the two groups in the middle, as well as the opinions of the vast majority of Americans at the time.

The concept that Douglas put his heart and soul into was "the sacred right of self-government", or the term he coined, Popular Sovereignty, the idea that it was the natural right of the people to choose their own destiny. Of course by "the people", Douglas was referring to US citizens, a distinction which in his time excluded women and except for a very few exceptions, people of color. For Douglas and like minded people, slavery was not a significant issue, other than it caused a great deal of friction in the body politic of mid-nineteenth century America. For Douglas it was the division over slavery, which he correctly envisioned would lead to Civil War, not slavery itself that was the problem. It was his firm (and erroneous) belief that the only way to eliminate the bitter struggle was to let people on a state by state basis rather than the federal government, determine which states were to allow slavery and which would not.

The last school of thought about slavery in the United States was represented by Abraham Lincoln and the new Republicans, who were an offshoot of the old, fractured Whig Party. Like the Abolitionists, Lincoln believed that slavery was ethically and morally unacceptable. Yet being a prgmatist, he understood that outright abolition would cause great upheaval and grind the economy of the American South to a halt. Instead of abolishing slavery, Lincoln favored limiting the institution to where it already existed, while steadfastly opposing expanding slavery into territories that would eventually becaome US states. That way slavery would be allowed to die out on its own, as Lincoln believed was the intention of the forefathers.

The subject of the expansion of slavery into the territories was the heart and soul of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Naturally Douglas argued that the people in the terrirories had the right to decide for themselves in which direction their territories would go. For him it was of no consequence what the decision would be.

Unlike Douglas however, the expansion of slavery in the new territories meant a great deal to many of his fellow Democrats, especially those in the southern states, who were reasonably from their point of view, quite apprehensive of slave states losing ground to free states in terms of representation in Congress.

Douglas was instrumental in the passage of the act which would open the settlement of the land west of Iowa and Missouri, There was great concern down south over the status of these new territories as according to the terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery there would have been prohibited. One provision of the Douglas sponsored Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, was to repeal the part of the Missouri Compromise that banned slavery north of the 36th parallel. The white, male inhabitants of both territories would then be responsible for deciding whether to permit slavery or not. Rather than settling the issue, popular sovereignty resulted in the Kansas territory being flooded by a barrage of settlers from all ends of the ideological spectrum, all with the specific intent of trying to influence the vote. This resulting chaos led to murder and mayhem during the period known as Bloody Kansas.

In 1857, a group of pro-slavery legislators met in the territorial capital Lecompton, to draft a pro-slavery state constitution which would contradict an earlier anti-slavry draft written in Topeka, two years earlier. The later draft gained favor with then president James Buchanan, a northerner with strong sympathies to the South. As the Lecompton Constitution was fraught with serious voting irregularrrities and outright fraud before leaving Kansas for Washington, it was strongly denounced by Douglas as he felt, correctly, that it did not reflect the majority opinion of the people of the state. This put Douglas at odds with the president and his fellow Deomcrats from the South. Meanwhile his bill's repeal of the Missouri Compromise's slavery ban, was tremendously unpopular in the north, especially in his home state of Illinois. This created a tremendous opportunity for the realatively unknown Lincoln in his effort to unseat the powerful senator. 

While claiming the institution of slavery always rubbed him the wrong way, Lincoln readily admitted that prior to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, it had not been a particularly important issue for him, assuming that it would be permanently restricted to the Deep South. With the repeal of the Missouri Compromise opening up the potential of expanding slavery to new territories,  Lincoln now understood that the wretched institution could be extended indefinitely, even into free states. That notion was confirmed by the notorious 1857 Supreme Court ruling in the case Dred Scott vs. Sandford. In a nutshell, Dred Scott, a slave, was taken by his owner into the free territory of Wisconsin whereupon Scott sued for his freedom. The case dragged on for 10 years and finally reached the nation's highest court which ruled that it had no jurisdiction over the rights of slaves as "Negroes, whether slaves or free, that is, men of the African race, are not citizens of the United States by the Constitution.”

In his acceptance speech in the state capital of Springfield upon his nomination for the Republican candidacy to unseat Steven Douglas, Abraham Lincoln gave one of the most important and controversial speeches of his career. In that speech Lincoln conflated the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott ruling and the Lecompton Constitution as all being part of a massive government conspiracy to expand slavery in the United States. He lambasted Douglas's supposed indifference to the subject of slavery, suggesting it was a disingenuous attempt to lull the American public into tacitly accepting a practice that was inherently wrong. In doing so, whether justly or not, Lincon tied Douglas to the vast Democratic "dynasty" as part and parcel with the conspiracy. Thanks to that unholy trinity of government actions, Lincoln warned that free states like Illinois were one Supreme Court ruling away from becoming slave states:
In what cases the power of the states is so restrained by the U.S. Constitution, is left an open question, precisely as the same question, as to the restraint on the power of the territories was left open in the Nebraska act. Put that and that together, and we have another nice little niche, which we may, ere long, see filled with another Supreme Court decision, declaring that the Constitution of the United States does not permit a state to exclude slavery from its limits. 
And this may especially be expected if the doctrine of “care not whether slavery be voted down or voted up,” shall gain upon the public mind sufficiently to give promise that such a decision can be maintained when made. 
Such a decision is all that slavery now lacks of being alike lawful in all the States.
Welcome or unwelcome, such decision is probably coming, and will soon be upon us, unless the power of the present political dynasty shall be met and overthrown.
We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free; and we shall awake to the reality, instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State.
That bleak possibility drove Lincoln to declare at the beginning of his speech that rather than mollify the tensions regarding slavery, those actions of the government acting in the best interests of the slave owners, only exacerbated the tension. Quoting scripture he said:
A house divided against itself cannot stand.
I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. 
I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. 
It will become all one thing, or all the other. 
Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new – North as well as South.
Lincon's advisors were dead set against him delivering the speech as written, especially the parts about not enduring permanently half slave and half free  and overthrowing the dynasty, which seemed to indicate that their man  was one of them damned, dirty Abolitionists. Lincoln insisted that the rapacious actions of the government to push the agenda of expanding slavery in the territories, necessitated his harsh words.

The "House Divided Speech" would remain intact.

Douglas and Lincoln waged a tireless campaign, traveling from city to city bringing their case directly to the people. Typically the incumbent would show up in a town and his challenger would appear on the same dais a day or two later. The idea of the debates came from among others, Horace Greely, the publisher of the New York Tribune. Greely no doubt savored the idea of paper sales as thanks to the invention of the telegraph, the words of the debates featuring the well known maverick senator and his curious challenger could be wired directly to the east coast and appear in his paper almost immediately (by mid-nineteenth century standards) after they were uttered. One could say the debates marked the beginning of mass media coverage of American political campaigns. Lincoln's camp jumped at the idea of the debates as interest in a head-to-head dialog between the two candidates would bring their man national attention never dreamed of before. As for Douglas, he knew he had little to gain and everything to lose from such a confrontation. No one knows exatly why he agreed, but historian Allen G. Guelzo, the author of the book, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Changed America, suggests that "The Little Giant" Douglas's nickname, was a natural gambler with an enormous ego, who never shied away from attention or a challenge.

That said, as the reluctant party, Douglas insisted on calling the shots. He set the locations, the dates, the number and the format of the debates. He would start off the first debate with one hour to state his case. That would be followed by Lincoln speaking for one and one half hour. The debate would conclude with a one half hour response from Douglas. That format would remain set throughout the seven debates with the exception of the candidates reversing the order of speakers each debate. 

The first meeting of the two candidates took place in the city of Ottawa, about 80 miles southwest of Chicago. As predicted by Lincoln's advisors, Douglas came out swinging, using the House Divided speech as evidence to portray Lincoln as a radical Abolitionist intent on wiping out slavery no matter the cost:
Mr. Lincoln, following the example and lead of all the little Abolition orators, who go around and lecture in the basements of schools and churches, reads from the Declaration of Independence, that all men were created equal, and then asks, how can you deprive a negro of that equality which God and the Declaration of Independence awards to him? ... Now, I hold that Illinois had a right to abolish and prohibit slavery as she did, and I hold that Kentucky has the same right to continue and protect slavery that Illinois had to abolish it. I hold that New York had as much right to abolish slavery as Virginia has to continue it, and that each and every State of this Union is a sovereign power, with the right to do as it pleases upon this question of slavery, and upon all its domestic institutions. ... And why can we not adhere to the great principle of self-government, upon which our institutions were originally based. I believe that this new doctrine preached by Mr. Lincoln and his party will dissolve the Union if it succeeds. They are trying to array all the Northern States in one body against the South, to excite a sectional war between the free States and the slave States, in order that the one or the other may be driven to the wall.
Taking his point further, Douglas goes on to, (in current parlance), play the race card.
Playing upon their fears, Douglas directly addressed the crowd (whose comments are in parenthesis) in what we would call today, a populist rant:
I ask you, are you in favor of conferring upon the negro the rights and privileges of citizenship? ("No, no.") Do you desire to strike out of our State Constitution that clause which keeps slaves and free negroes out of the State, and allow the free negroes to flow in, ("never,") and cover your prairies with black settlements? Do you desire to turn this beautiful State into a free negro colony, ("no, no,") in order that when Missouri abolishes slavery she can send one hundred thousand emancipated slaves into Illinois, to become citizens and voters, on an equality with yourselves? ("Never," "no.") If you desire negro citizenship, if you desire to allow them to come into the State and settle with the white man, if you desire them to vote on an equality with yourselves, and to make them eligible to office, to serve on juries, and to adjudge your rights, then support Mr. Lincoln and the Black Republican party, who are in favor of the citizenship of the negro. ("Never, never.") For one, I am opposed to negro citizenship in any and every form. (Cheers.) I believe this Government was made on the white basis. ("Good.") I believe it was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity for ever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon negroes, Indians, and other inferior races. ("Good for you." "Douglas forever.")
Being put on the defensive from the outset of the debate, Abraham Lincoln equivocated:
...this is the true complexion of all I have ever said in regard to the institution of slavery and the black race. This is the whole of it, and anything that argues me into his idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro, is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse. (Laughter.) I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. 
I have never said anything to the contrary...
Needless to say you will not find those words inscribed on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial.
But he continues:
...I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Loud cheers.) I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects-certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.(Great applause.)
Throughout the debates, Lincoln took pains to make a distinction between civil rights, (such as the right to vote), which may come and go, and natural rights such as those defined by the Declaration of Independence. Douglas time and again countered with the fact that the man who wrote the words, "all men are created equal', Thomas Jefferson, himself owned slaves. Therefore in Douglas's estimation, Jefferson, a rational being if there ever was one, certainly must not have included black people in his equation.

Not so said Lincoln, the founding fathers while having inherited the institution of slavery if not actual slaves themselves, understood the terrible wrong of human bondage, and did everything in their power to limit and quarantine it so that one day it would die a natural death, not be perpetuated indefinitely as Douglas and the Democrats proposed.

Relief plaques of Lincoln, left and Douglas, right mark the spot where the two men squared off in an open-air debate on  Octobr 7, 1858. The debate was originally planned for the town square a few blocks away, but gale force winds forced the organizers to move the event to the campus of Knox College which was more protected from the elements. The hastily prepared speakers platform was about five feet high and partially covered the front door of the building forcing the debators to enter it by climbing through the windows, This led the self-educated Lincoln to remark "This marks the first time I've actually gone thrugh college." 

No matter how much the issue of self government or constitutional law played into it, there was one over-riding principle that was in Lincoln's mind, the bottom line as far as determining the fate of slavery. Lincoln unequivocally hammered that point home throughout the debates, first in Ottawa:
This declared indifference, but, as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest. 
In Galesburg:
I suppose that the real difference between Judge Douglas and his friends, and the Republicans on the contrary, is that the Judge is not in favor of making any difference between slavery and liberty...and consequently every sentiment he utters discards the idea that there is any wrong in slavery,... Judge Douglas declares that if any community wants slavery, they have a right to have it. He can say that, logically, if he says that there is no wrong in slavery; but if you admit that there is a wrong in it, he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do wrong.”
And finally in Alton:
That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles -- right and wrong -- throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, "You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it." No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle. 
In our own day of rancor and division, it is emboldening to read these words and look for parallels between the time in question, and our own. There are plenty of them, both big and small.

Here are two amusing coincidences between the 1858 Illinois Senate race and the 2016 presidential race. In both cases, the winning candidates received a last minute gift in the form of a revalation released to the public in the eleventh hour, that turned the tide of the election. We all remmeber FBI Director James Comey's last minute re-opening of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email issues right?. In the case of the 1858 senate race, a letter written by John Crittenden, a very influential Whig, endorsing Douglas was made public just weeks before the election. Crittenden had a very tangential personal relationship with Lincoln, he was the best man at Mary Todd Lincoln's father's second wedding. (Doesn't get much more tangential than that does it?).  Anyway in the letter Crittenden proclaimed in no uncertain terms his support for Douglas, singing high praise for The Little Giant and numerous misgivings about Lincoln, mostly related to him being a damned Abolitionist, the House Divided Speech coming back to bite its author no doubt.

Lincoln attributed his loss in the campaign at least in part to the release of the letter.

The other coincidence is that Lincoln won the popular vote of the state but managed to lose the election. Until the 17th amendment was ratified in 1913, US Senators were not elected directly by the people but rather by state representatives, much like the Electoral College is still the body that actually elects the president. Because of the particular apportionment of Illinois state representatives at the time, Douglas won the election by receiving more votes of representatives, while Lincoln received more votes of the people. Sound familiar?

There are far less trivial issues linking then and now, the following are a small helping of them.


That word hadn't been coined in the nineteenth century, probably because the idea that certain races were superior to others was almost universally accepted. As a means of calling out individuals, calling your typical nineteenth century person a racist probably makes as much sense as calling him an "air breather." Still as we've seen, there were degrees of racism back then. Abraham Lincoln's stated opinion that black people were not the intellectual or moral equals to white people, today would place him well in step with most of today's white supremacists. But his opinion that blacks were just as entitled to the natural rights of life, liberty and the persuit of happiness, led contrmporaries like Stephen Douglas to label him a Negro lover, (not the exact term he used). For Lincoln's day, he was viewed by many as a dangerous, progressive radical. Clearly we have come a long way since then. And as we've seen in the past two years, we still have a long way to go.

Was Abraham Lincoln a Radical Progressive, 150 years ahead of his time?


Some Americans of late have become shocked, shocked, that the sources where people derive their news could be biased and therefore not to be trusted. One current politician who shall remain nameless, has himself planted seeds of mistrust. This politician has reaped what he sowed, by taking advantage of that mistrust to convince his supporters that all news reports that portray him in a bad light are "fake news."

But he truth is, news reporting has always been biased. Here is an account from historian Allen Guelzo about the newspaper reporting of the Ottawa LinconDouglas debate:
At moments partisanship galloped so far ahead of reporting that it hardly seemed as though the papers were describing the same event. The (Republican) Tribune had Douglas "livid with passion and excitement" in his reply to Lincoln, his face "distorted with rage" and "a maniac in language and argument. " The (Democratic) Chicago Times had Lincoln so close to nervous collapse under Douglas's hammering that he could no longer stand up and had to be carried off the platform by his disheartened rescuers. 
As I mentioned above, technology was a boon to the news media in the middle nineteenth century. New technologies in the printing process made publishing available to people who a generation before could never have dreamed of owning their own newspaper, much like the internet today has given people the opportunity to broadcast their opinions to an audience never before thought imaginable. The main difference as Guelzo points out in his book is that only about five percent of American newspapers at the time of the Lincoln-Doulas debates were NOT affiliated with a political party.

Then as now, if an indiviual was truly interested in the complete picture of what was going on, he or she would have to be willing to get the news from multile sources with different points of view. My guess is that back then as now, most people were quite happy with only the news they wanted to hear.


We see division in this country running deeper than any time since the Civil War. There are differences to be sure between now and then, when two geographic regions of the country had a powerful, intractable, and seemingly uncompromisable gap over one controversial issue. The curious thing to me is why were so many Southerners,  the vast majority of whom did not own slaves, willing to risk everything in order to preserve an institution that everyone deep down in their hearts had to know was wrong.

My theory is that Abraham Lincoln was right when he described a conspiracy among the president, certain members of the Supreme Court including its Chief Justice, Roger Taney, and the interests of the slave owners, to expand slavery as far and wide as they possibly could. Preserving "the Southern way of Life" and its institutions (such as slavery), for these people was not a matter of principle as is so often depicted, it was all about the money. The institution of human bondage made slave owners incredibly rich. They understood that if slavery were limited  to the Deep South states, eventually their votes and interests would be vastly outnumbered in Congress by the new free states, and their way of life (in other words theur fortunes), would be doomed.

They also understood that creating division among the masses, people who didn't really have that many differences to begin with, could help their cause. In other words, if they could get the average folks of the South (who didn't own slaves), to distrust and hate their brethren up north, (most of whom ddn't care much for black folks), heck, maybe they could get some of those poor fools to fight and die for their ignoble cause if it came to that. It just so happened that they won that battle but lost the war.

Today we don't have one towering issue that divids us, we have many. We always have had our differences yet never have we been so divided. Could there be some outside force that might benefit from our divisions?

I have my suspicions but I'll just wait for the report to come out before I comment on that.


Finally we get to the nitty gritty, the sine qua non of determining factors to settle the issues that would divide us. Some would argue that ethics and morality are all relative. They say that every culture has its own set of values and ideas about what is wrong, therefore there cannot be a universal standard of right and wrong. There's certainly a germ of truth to that but taken to its logical extreme, nothing could ever be wrong, not slavery, not rape, not even murder. Obviously the argument of moral relativity is flawed.

There certanly is a universal standard of ethical behavior that almost all of humanity can agree upon. We Christians call it the Golden Rule but truth be told, a version of the idea that you should not do anything to others that is displeasing to you, can be found in virtaully every human culture on the planet. Simply put, from an evolutionary standpoint, that is how human beings became the dominant species of life on this planet, this over-riding principle of being able to put ourselves into someone else's shoes, that enables us to form communities, work together and put aside our self-interest for the greater good. It hasn't always worked out perfectly, but it's the best we've got.

The slavery issue is an easy problem to solve as far as ethical problems go. If we subscribe to the Golden Rule or whatever you want to call it, it's not hard at all to argue that slavery is wrong because no, I would not choose to be a slave, neither would you, and neither would practically anybody else in the world. Therefore if we wouldn't want to be slaves ourselves, we should not make other people be slaves. What's more, slavery is wrong unconditionally. There are no excpetions.

Were all moral problem so easy. We grapple with many issues where there is more than one right answer, or two or more sides with conflicting "rights", such as the right of a sovereign nation to protect its borders versus the human rights of immigrants who are trying to flee oppression or are simply looking for a better life for their families. Or the rights of people to have affordable health care versus the rights of people to not have to pay for other people's health care. Or the rights of an unborn child to live versus the rights of its mother to do as she sees fit with her own body. Or the rights of a company to make a profit without the burden of unnecessary governmental regulations versus the rights of its employees to make a living wage and work in a safe environment, or the rights of the community as a whole to demand that companies do not pollute our air and our water.

Some of these issues for me are relatively easy problems, while others are heart breakingly difficult ethical dilemmas. For you, different issues may be easy or difficult. But ideally we come to solutions to these issues not out of malice, but out of  respect for one another as members of a community, and as citizens of this country and the world. As our Declaration of Independence states, there are indeed truths that are self-evident, ones that all people of good will should all be able to agree upon.

I think it is entirely approprite here to give the last word to Senator John McCain whom we lost this week. I often thought of him as a modern day Steven Douglas without the racist baggage. McCain was a fiery, passionate, cantankerous politician who like Douglas was a maverick, someone who was not afriad to challenge his party and especially its leadership when he felt it appropriate.

But earlier this year, when he realized his time on earth was short, he sat down and wrote his memoir and in the end, sounded much more like Abraham Lincoln.

Godspeed John McCain:
I'd like to see our politics begin to return to the purposes and practices that distinguish our history from the history of other nations. I'd like to see us recover our sense that we're more alike than different. We're citizens of a republic made of shared ideals, forged in a new world to replace the tribal enmities that tormented the old one. Even in times of political turmoil such as these, we share that awesome heritage and the responsibility to embrace it. Whether we think each other right or wrong in our views on the issues of the day, we owe each other our respect, as so long as our character merits respect and as long as we share for all our differences for all the rancorous debates that enliven and sometimes demean our politics, a mutual devotion to the ideals our nation was conceived to uphold, that all are created equal and liberty and equal justice are the natural rights of all. Those rights inhabit the human heart. And from there though they may be assailed, they can never be wrenched. I want to urge Americans for as long as I can to remember that this shared devotion to human rights is our truest heritage and our most important loyalty.