Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Have We Learned Our Lesson Yet?

 So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly......
....and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how....

...it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!"
Donald J. Trump

There in one fell swoop, or more accurately, in three fell tweets, the president threw down the gauntlet, tossed away the dog whistle, and made a clarion call out to his constituents, the 60 million or so Americans who voted for and continue to support him. While it was only in my imagination, I could hear the response of many of them clear as a bell: "right on Mr. President, you tell those bitches to either love this country and tow the line or get the hell out!"

There are many Trump supporters who are deeply hurt by the accusation that everyone who supports this president is a racist. They respond just like their man who tweeted the other day: "I don't have a racist bone in my body."


In my book, if it quacks like a duck, if it waddles like a duck, if it craps like a duck, it must be a duck.

Despite denials from both the man himself and his legion of sycophantic, anatine followers, President Donald Duck Trump in those tweets from last Sunday showed his true colors. Heck some, not a lot, but some Republicans in Congress even had to admit, those were outright racist comments.

In case you've been asleep this week the targets of his latest tantrum are four freshmen members of Congress, all women of color, all with ethnic heritages that have been dissed by the president, and all very much at odds with him. Obviously they're also all American citizens because you don't get to serve in Congress if you're not. With the exception of Representative Ilhan Omar whom the president would like to send back to her native Somalia, it is unclear where the president would like to send the other three representatives. Rashida Tlahib was born in Detroit, U.S.A., Alexandria Ocasio Cortez comes from the same place as Trump, New York City, U.S.A. and Ayanna Pressley originally hails from right here in Chicago, U.S.A. As a person of African American descent, one can assume that her ancestors were in this country, albeit many of them against their will, far longer than the president’s. And it turns out that Ilhan Omar has been in this country longer than the First Lady.

When confronted about the tweets the following day, the president doubled down saying that people who hate America as the four duly elected officials apparently do according to him, are perfectly free to leave.

I haven't heard the slogan "America, love it or leave it" in a long time. It was popular back when I was a child during the years of the Vietnam War, directed at folks who were opposed to the war and the men who did whatever they could to avoid serving in it. Ironically the most celebrated Vietnam War draft dodger we have in this country right now is none other than Donald Trump.

Of course this country has a long, proud history of people fighting for what they believe is right, even if it runs counter to the official policy of the government. In this piece I refused to criticize Trump for his actions during the war because given my feelings both at the time and now about that war, I might have done the same. I did however say that if you chose to avoid service, you’d be wise to keep a low profile when it comes to commenting on other people’s service. The funny thing about Trump is that his supporters are so enthralled with him they believe HE is the true patriot while someone like one of Trump's harshest critics, the late senator John McCain who served with distinction in Vietnam and was a POW for many years, was a traitor.

That is why I have by and large given up on trying to discuss the president with his supporters because verifiable facts, logic and common sense play no role in their thought process, at least regarding this subject. In other words they are going to believe whatever they want to believe, such as more people showed up to Trump's inauguration than any other, Barack Obama put little children in cages on the US/Mexico border, Climate Change is a hoax, John McCain was a traitor, Robert Mueller is a Democrat, Donald Trump is not a racist, and the sky was yellow and the sun was blue, if they also happen to be Grateful Dead fans.

As far as I'm concerned, it's still a free country and by golly people have the right to believe whatever they want, even if it is nonsense. It says so right in the First Amendment. And in a democracy, the people have the right to vote for whomever they choose, from members of the local school council to president. That is their prerogative.

We on the other side can point our fingers until they fall off at Trump supporters, Fox News, the DNC giving Bernie Sanders a raw deal back in 2016, the lack of credible choices of candidates on election day, Russian interference in the election, the Electoral College, or a whole number of other issues. But the truth is this: Donald Trump is president today for one and only one reason, not enough people voted for Hillary Clinton on November 8, 2016.

Granted, Clinton was not a universally popular candidate. She and her husband, the former president have a lot of baggage between them. Because of that she was never able to shake off the constant barrage of bogus attacks from Republicans, some of which stuck even with Democratic voters. The final nail in the coffin of her candidacy was FBI director James Comey's eleventh hour announcement that he was re-opening the case concerning her use of an unapproved email server to do government business. Comey immediately backtracked saying there really wasn't much proof of malfeasance after all, but the damage was done. Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands Americans who would never in a million years have voted for Donald Trump, decided they couldn't in right conscience vote for Hillary Clinton either. So rather than choosing "the lesser of two evils", they either sat out the election or voted for a third party candidate.

Trump supporters on the other hand, didn't have the same ethical compunctions about their man. I don't believe there has ever been a presidential candidate with more of a documented history than the current president. He had been a public figure for at least forty years before he ran for president. From dozens of allegations of criminal sexual assault, to his associations with organized crime, to his multiple business failures and bankruptcies, to his stiffing of contractors, to his role in perpetuating the birther myth, you name it, Donald Trump's life is an open book, and not a pretty one. His campaign suffered an eleventh hour blow as well when the infamous tape of his bragging about molesting women surfaced. Even that wasn't able to sway his supporters, especially women and Evangelical Christians who simply averted their eyes from his endless moral lapses. "We knew who he was..." they continue to say to this day, "...we just wanted someone who would clean the swamp." Whatever cleaning the swamp means, today those people are perfectly happy with the job Trump has been doing, which this week now includes making openly racist remarks which have in turn been mimicked by many of his supporters. No one should be the least surprised by this, he based much of his campaign on white Americans' fear of the other, whether they be immigrants or long standing citizens who happen to not be white.

We on the other side hope for a miracle, a deus ex machina that will come down and sweep away this president and his administration. Every time I'm at my mom's place and turn on Rachel Maddow (her favorite talking head), she presents some kind of horrible revelation that makes me think:  "OK, now they're really gonna get him." However we are delusional if we think that one day soon, some bombshell of damning evidence will come out that will once and for all destroy this presidency. It won't matter (as many have already alluded) if Trump was one of Jeffrey Epstein's clients in the nineties and had sex with young teenagers, or if Robert Muller rides into Congress next week on a white steed and proclaims that yes Trump is guilty of collusion with the Russians and obstruction of justice, or even if it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the president did indeed shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

Forget about it, even if those things are revealed, it won't matter in the slightest. Tucker Carlson, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and the lion’s share of Republicans in Congress will all find a way to spin any allegations against Trump, and as sure as it rains in Indianapolis in the summertime, you'll be hearing your Trump supporting friends parroting their words the next morning on Facebook.

As I see it, there are only two ways that Trump won't be re-elected a year from November. One is that we slip into a deep recession and self-interest will shake at least some of the less devoted members of his base.  Hopefully that won't happen. Much less painful and far more pragmatic would be if those of us who do not like this president make a concerted effort to get out and vote for the Democratic candidate, whomever that should be. Like it or not folks, that's the way it works. It may make us feel morally justified to not cast a vote for a candidate we don't feel meets all our expectations, but in the end, that only enables the victory of a potentially far worse candidate. I know this very well because in November of 2000, I voted for Ralph Nader, and I am perfectly willing to admit today, that was a dreadful mistake.

At this writing there are 25 candidates running to represent the Democratic Party in the 2020 presidential election. Some of them I admire, many of them I am indifferent to, and a handful I cannot stand. What they have in common is that all of them have at least one issue, position, act committed in their past, or character flaw that will prevent scores of people from voting for them. On the other hand, in the upcoming election, there is one issue that stands above all others worth considering, Donald Trump.

So here’s the deal: the person taking the oath of office on January 20, 2022 will either be Donald Trump. (assuming he will be his party’s nominee), or one of the 25 Democratic candidates vying for the top spot on the ticket. Therefore any non-vote, or vote for anyone other than the Democratic nominee, will help enable the re-election of Donald Trump. 

In other words, if you cannot in good conscience vote for Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders because one is too conservative, the other too liberal, and both are too old, how will your conscience handle your enabling the continuation of the humanitarian crisis taking place right now at the US/Mexico border? If you cannot in good conscience support Kamala Harris because you favor strict gun control and she is the proud holder of a conceal-carry permit, how will your conscience deal with enabling four more years of the current president appointing judges who will do everything in their power to do away with every resonable gun restriction? If your conscience won't allow you to support Amy Klobouchar for her regretful treatment of her staff, how will it deal with enabling a president who has openly bragged about committing unspeakable acts against women? If your conscience won't permit you supporting Pete Buttigieg because he hasn’t been able to resolve his city’s conflict between the police and the African American Community, or Elizabeth Warren because of her exaggeration of Native American ancestry to get a job at Harvard, how will it handle enabling four more years of this president's making racism fashionable again? 

You get the idea, none of these candidates are perfect, candidates never are. True, the Democratic Party  has work to do in order to convince the public that this time, the selection process of their standard bearer is on the up and up. I don't see a problem as many have suggested, with the candidates waging trench warfare against each other in their campaign for nomination, after all as they say, the strongest steel is forged out of the hottest fire. If the last election is any indication, the next one is going to be a no-holds-barred winner-take-all street fight and the standard bearer and his or her running mate are going to have to be warriors able to withstand tremendous punishment. After the convention however, the Democrats will need to make sure that everyone, from the most conservative to the most liberal member of the party is on the same page as far as supporting their ticket.

But the party can only do so much, the rest is up to us, the voting public. Politics is about coalition and compromise, not my way or the highway. If we pack up our toys and go home because we don't get the candidate of our dreams as so many Democrats did in 2016, we can expect another four years of Donald Trump, pure and simple.

The election is in our hands. Let's not blow it this time.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

It Could Happen...

They say that here in the United States, soccer is the game of the future, and it always will be. I can attest to that as I've heard all my life optimistic soccer (or football if you prefer)  fans say, usually during and immediately following a World Cup that this is the year their game will finally climb up the ranks to equal or even supplant some of the major sports in this country in terms of popularity.

Clearly that hasn't happened. Today, decades after my childhood, most Americans are as indifferent to the "beautiful game" as ever. Case in point: last Sunday, the final game of a major international tournament took place. One of the teams in that championship match was the U.S. National team. The final game was played right here at Soldier Field in Chicago. Despite this major event taking place right under my nose, I didn't know about the game until two days before kickoff, when I read about it in a Spanish language newspaper. They did fill up the 61,500 seat stadium demanding top dollar for a ticket. One might think the U.S. team would have enjoyed home field advantage for that game but it was estimated that eighty percent of the fans in attendance in Chicago, U.S.A. were rooting for the visiting team,  Mexico. In typical soccer fashion, the final score was one-nil, El Tri (Mexico).

Earlier that day in Lyon, France, the final game of another major soccer tournament took place, the Women's World Cup. Unlike the CONCACAF Copa Oro whose final in Chicago determined the men's soccer championship of North America, the woman's tournament was promoted up the wazoo in this country seemingly for months.

If you Google the following: "why isn't soccer popular in the U.S." you'll find among the ten or so reasons that keep coming up the fact that we suck at the game. To be clear, U.S. men suck at soccer at least at the international level, while the U.S. women are the class of the world. Sadly much of the reason for that is because in countries where men's soccer is popular, there is usually little interest in the women's game and in some countries, women are discouraged from playing at all. Not so here in the U.S. where young girls and boys often learn to play the game together in organized leagues, and much effort has been put forward in recent years to ensure that high school and collegiate women's sports programs are adequately supported and funded. Clearly there is still work to do to level the playing field between the sexes, but at least in this one respect, our country is ahead of most others when it comes to women's sports.

During and after the brilliant run of the U.S. footballers which led to their championship win against the Netherlands in a fantastic match last Sunday, demands have been made that women players be paid the same as men. Fair is fair after all and I think we all can at least theoretically get behind the notion of equal pay for equal work. On the other hand, the issue is complicated by the fact that compensation for workers in all fields (at least in our capitalist economy) is market driven, and the sad truth is that what we are paid for the work we do, depends in large part not upon any intrinsic value it might have, but upon what someone else is willing to pay us. This is especially true in fields that concern themselves with selling a product.

For example. let's say we have two authors working on books. One author, a biologist, is compiling a life's work into a book on the life cycle of an obscure rain forest insect. It is a magnificent study, beautifully researched, exquisitely written, and the book becomes the definitive source on its subject. About one thousand copies are sold, far exceeding the author's wildest dreams. The other author is a journalist who writes a scurrilous book on the comings and goings in the White House. The writing in that book is sophomoric and the information presented between the covers is dubious at best, yet the book becomes an instant best seller. Millions of copies are sold and the book's success leads to the publication of a sequel. Despite the amount of work put into each book, it should come as no surprise which author earns more money, the fairness of it all simply never enters into the equation.

As far as compensation for U.S. women soccer players goes, there are two conflicting forces. One bone of contention is the discrepancy in the amount of prize money awarded to championship men's and women's teams by FIFA, the international governing body of the game of soccer. Now FIFA happens to be one of the most intransigent, corrupt, good ol' boy networks imaginable and believe me, I have no love lost for them. However, the popularity of and revenue generated by men's soccer around the world is exponentially higher than that generated by women's soccer. Therefore it should not come as a surprise that the monetary compensation for winning the game's most cherished award should reflect that difference.

On the other hand, judging by the public response in this country to the two championship games played last Sunday each featuring the U.S. national team, there can be no question that it is our women who have a far greater impact on promoting and generating interest in the game of soccer in the United States than the men. One might argue that the comparison isn't fair because the men arguably work just as hard as the women and they face much greater competition. But again, the market is about the bottom line, not about fairness. Therefore to me it makes perfect sense that the governing body of soccer in the United States, the USSF, should ensure that members of the  U.S. Women's soccer team are compensated at the national level the same as the men, if not more, reflecting the contribution they make as ambassadors for the game of soccer in this country.

Of course the proof in the pudding will be what happens to the game not once every four years during the World Cup, but the time in between. Now's the time for the USSF to strike while the coals are hot to promote the game of women's soccer in this country, especially going all out to support women's professional leagues and collegiate soccer.  Personally I don't see why this cannot be a successful venture, maybe not to the point of competing with the top four spectator sports in the country, but to at least be able to hold its own if not soar in a very competitive market.

The truth is that women's soccer is a different game from the game played by the men, and by that I mean better. If you look at those lists that say why the game isn't popular in this country, one thing that always comes up, is that there's not enough scoring in soccer. Truth be told, scoring in women's games is not significantly higher than in the men's but there is a difference. Like many high level professional sports, soccer has been subject to intense analytical research that helps determine winning strategies. While these strategies prove to be successful in what they attempt to accomplish, a consequence is they make games a lot less fun to watch. In the case of soccer, research has determined that a more conservative approach to the game leads to more wins. As a result, much of the men's game today is played at midfield where teams control the ball and wait for their opponent to make a mistake. By contrast, the women, at least from what I've seen, tend to take a much more north-south approach, moving the ball up the field to create scoring chances rather than wait for opportunities to present themselves. This makes for a much more exciting game.

This is especially true after one team scores a goal. Typically men's teams who are ahead tend to use stalling techniques to eat up the clock to prevent the other team from even touching the ball. Not so in the women's game. In the World Cup final, the U.S. scored their first goal off a penalty kick. As a one goal deficit is often insurmountable in soccer, the U.S. could have simply played keep-away from the Dutch, however they kept pressing forward. Only a couple of minutes after scoring their first goal, U.S. midfielder, Rose Lavelle, made a brilliant one-person charge up field, then split two defenders at the top of the box to bury an off-balance left-footed shot past the Dutch goal-keeper for the clincher. Even for the beautiful game this was a thing of particular beauty. Here is an article in the Guardian that favorably compares Lavelle's goal with some of the greatest goals in World Cup history, both men's and women's. Despite that two goal lead, U.S. didn't let up pressure until the final whistle.

I don't claim to be an expert on women's soccer in the least but another difference from my limited experience, is that the refs seem much more likely to keep their whistles in their pockets and let the players play the game. In a game where one score often decides the game, it's not unusual that a game can be decided by a referee's call, another oft-mentioned reason why soccer is so unpopular in the U.S.

This leads to what in my opinion is the single biggest complaint I and most Americans have with the men's game. the preponderance of players "flopping", or feigning injury in order to draw a foul. Granted, a certain amount of gamesmanship, in other words, cheating, happens in all sports, but nowhere is it as blatant or done with such impunity as in men's soccer. As I pointed out in an earlier post.
...shameless flopping, effective as it may be, is simply unacceptable to American sports fans who value stoic machismo, players who can play through any adversity without as much as a grimace. 
From my limited watching of the women's game, I haven't once seen a player take a dive to draw a foul, in fact just the opposite. I saw several big-time collisions between opponents where both players ended up legitimately sprawled on the ground. In one case, blood was pouring from the forehead of a player who had to be forced off the field to receive medical attention. Ice hockey style, she was taped up and back on the pitch within a minute. Soccer, supposedly a non-contact sport is anything but, and the women play every bit as physically as the men, and then some. The only difference it they don't whine about it.

But the biggest thing women's soccer has going for it today are the athletes themselves who have appeared on the scene just at the right time. The most visible member of the U.S. team, co-captain Megan Rapinoe is a lightning rod of a public figure, people either love or hate her. She didn't exactly endear herself to Donald Trump's base when she told a reporter before the tournament: "I'm not going to the fucking White House" in response to an equally inappropriate question about what she would do IF she were invited to the White House IF her team won the championship.

Here's the opening paragraph of a recent New York Post article about her:
Arrogant, abrasive, sanctimonious, whiny, humorless, unpatriotic, self-important and immensely boring, Megan Rapinoe has made the least of her sudden ascent to fame as the captain of the World Cup-winning US women’s soccer team. With unprecedented alacrity, she has become America’s anti-sweetheart.
The article goes on to express exactly what (whatever the current president's approval rating is at the moment) percent of Americans think of her.

It compares Rapinoe unfavorably to those two paragons of virtue, Peyton Manning and Michael Jordan, practitioners of the art of, in the author's words: "performative humility", the essential ingredient of being an "athlete endorser."

Well it goes without saying that Rapinoe is not like either of those two guys. Proving he knew which side his bread was buttered on, when he refused to make an endorsement in a North Carolina election that pitted the notorious racist senator Jesse Helms against an African American Democratic challenger, the famously apolitical Air Jordan reportedly said: "Republicans buy sneakers too", referring to his lucrative contract with Nike.*

The Post author then falls into the trap as so many do, of comparing modern day controversial, outspoken athletes unfavorably to controversial athletes of the past like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali who apparently did it right in the author's estimation. Displaying a remarkable case of historical amnesia, the author of the piece, Kyle Smith either ignores, forgets or simply doesn't understand that Robinson and Ali were both hands down the most despised athletes of their day, especially by folks who believed like Smith that athletes should just play the game and keep their opinions to themselves.

Megan Rapinoe must be doing something right to have incurred such wrath from the right-wing Post. Most of what Smith says in his article is rubbish. Save for perhaps being a touch abrasive, none of the adjectives he uses in that first paragraph are at all accurate descriptions of Rapinoe, least of all, boring.

But his Robinson and Ali comparisons are unwittingly apt. As Smith's favorite president certainly knows, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Rapinoe, like Ali before her, has a genius for getting attention. Like Robinson and Ali, she represents a marginalized group, they the African American Community, she the LGBTQ community, and of course, women athletes. Like Ali through his membership in the Nation of Islam, Rapinoe not only acknowledges who she is, but actively celebrates it, greatly adding to the consternation of Kyle Smith and people who think like him. And like Robinson and Ali before her, Rapinoe is fast becoming a role model for a generation of young people on the fringes of mainstream society who are not asking to be treated like everyone else, but expect it. Naturally that is off-putting to folks like Smith who prefer the status-quo.

Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali were both tremendous instruments for change in this country and people hated them for it. The same might be said for Megan Rapinoe. As such, she and her teammates who to a member actively stood behind her after her White House comment, are perfect role models for a new generation of Americans who refuse to judge others by their race, gender, ethnicity, sexual identity, or whom they chose to love. As we have seen in this country over and over again, for all its faults and there are many, sport does have the capacity to change the world for the better. It is incumbent on those of us who are like-minded to both celebrate and support these magnificent athletes and their fellow footballers around the country by going out and watching them play. Let's ensure that the future of women's soccer in the U.S. is now.

I'm not usually jingoistic when it comes to cheering for my country at sporting events. but for the first time in a long time, I'm proud to chant out loud, USA! USA!

Congratulations Team USA on a job well done.

*It should be noted that Michael Jordan denies making that comment which has hung around his neck like the proverbial albatross for many years. He has recently spoken out publicly about social justice, especially the rash of police killings of un-armed black men, and has donated a considerable amount of money to the cause of justice for victims of police violence.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Defiling a Sacred Space

I managed to restrain myself by briefly maintaining a self-imposed exile on making social media political posts (excluding in this space) for as long as I could. I agree that the constant haranguing of the current administration can be self-defeating as much of it has become tedious and self serving. Plus, it only manages to fuel the fire of the other side who buys into the lie propagated by the administration, Fox News and others, that any criticism of the president surfaces for no substantive reason other than out of an unjustified hatred of the man. Despite that I admit that many of the digs at Donald Trump are petty, bark up the wrong tree, and do little to advance the cause of meaningful dialog.

On the other hand, this president is a loose cannon with a resume of many controversial (to put it mildly) actions under his belt, any one of which would have would have cast a deep shadow upon another administration. Yet with Donald Trump, every breach of protocol, diplomacy, morality or basic human decency is looked upon as just another day at the office.

Case in point: recently a very credible accusation of a rape that allegedly took place twenty years ago was leveled against the president. He denied it (of course) and in a few weeks time the issue has been all but forgotten. I guess if the accusation had been unique, we'd be taking it a little more seriously but as this was merely one of dozens of similar accusations, all of them denied by the president, the public has become desensitized to the issue. Detractors will go on believing the president is a sexual molester while supporters will go on insisting that all his accusers (including Trump himself who admitted to on tape being a sexual predator), are lying.

Which begs the question, was Donald Trump right when he said during the 2016 campaign that his followers were so loyal they would continue to support him even if he shot somebody for no reason? After over two years in office and a litany of verifiable lies, transgressions, moral lapses, and outright chicanery, the answer is clear: you betcha they would.     

Since there apparently is nothing this president could do to sway his base, or for that matter his detractors, perhaps there is little point to publicly criticize him anymore, or so the theory goes. Maybe we should just go on with our lives, ignore the whole thing and pray that everything will work out for the best, after all it always does right?

On the other hand, I deeply care about this country and believe in, despite its faults, failures and atrocities committed in its name, the ideals of this nation, stated most exquisitely in President Lincoln's words: "a government of the people, by the people and for the people."

Yet strangely enough, those very words evoked by Donald Trump the other day while he was standing in front of the famous likeness of the sixteenth president, had a hollowness to them.

Perhaps it was because Trump went against a tradition that has existed from time immemorial that presidents for good reason have stepped back from the Fourth of July, letting Americans celebrate the holiday on their own. without an official blessing from the head of state. The holiday does after all celebrate the right to self-determination by declaring our independence from a king. Since the time of George Washington, presidents, admittedly some more than others,  have gone to great lengths to distance themselves and their job, from that of autocratic rulers. Not this president who seems to relish the company he keeps with autocratic rulers and time and again has made no bones about sharing his frustration with the laws of this country which help ensure that he can't be more like them.

Perhaps is was the tanks that flanked the monument, their gun turrets pointing directly at the crowd. Calling themselves "conservatives" Trump supporters like to express their disdain for government oppression of the common folk. But what could be more a symbol of government oppression than having to look at down the barrel of a gun as your president speaks at you.

Fortunately for most in the crowd, they weren't able to get close enough so see those guns as all the "good" seats were reserved for big money donors to the Republican National Committee. The devoted "common" folk, who constitute the vast majority of Trump's base, had to make due with standing wherever they could in the rain to catch a view on the Jumbotron of their dear leader standing behind a massive rain soaked sheet of bullet-proof glass.

Or perhaps it was the setting itself, as I have said in this space before, unquestionably our country's most sacred space. The act of holding what amounted to a display of military force, albeit a laughably pathetic one if you listen to Russian media, in front of the  Lincoln Memorial is what rankled me enough to violate my pledge to avoid political commentary on social media. One of my friends, definitely not a Trump supporter, made a tongue-in-cheek comment on one of my posts to the effect that a military parade might as well be held in Washington as Stalin did the same thing in a similar place. That inspired the following reaction from me:
For the record I know where you’re coming from but let me just play along with you. I was in Moscow and Washington has no equivalent to Red Square. On one side of Red Square behind an enormous wall is the Kremlin and all that entails. In front of that is the tomb of Lenin whom I hear has to be removed, bathed and re-stuffed on a regular basis so his nearly 100 year old corpse doesn’t become rancid. On the other side is an enormous department store which at least when I was there, had nothing in it worth buying. In between is the enormous brick paved square itself, which you'd think was built just for massive displays of national military might.
Our National Mall on the other hand, between the Lincoln and Washington Memorials is comprised of an enormous reflecting pond flanked by public park space. The very moving Vietnam Memorial sits on one side the park, and the almost as moving Korean War Memorial sits on the other. Neither monument glorifies war or the military in the least. The Lincoln Memorial is so well known it’s hardly worth mentioning except for the words inscribed both inside and out. Inside on one side of the iconic Daniel Chester French sculpture of the seated Lincoln are the words of the Second Inaugural Address and on the other, the Gettysburg Address, two of the most inspiring, heart rending works of American rhetoric. On the steps leading up to the monument you will find inscribed the words “I have a dream”, marking the spot where Martin Luther King delivered his most famous speech. Then behind the Lincoln Memorial you have Memorial Bridge, both literally and figuratively re-connecting this country, North and South, as it connects the District of Columbia, the capital of the Nation, with the Commonwealth of Virginia, whose main city Richmond, was the capital of the Confederacy. On the other side of the bridge is Arlington National Cemetery and of course all that entails. 
This magnificent assemblage of monuments, memorials, public space and infrastructure, something every American must visit at least once, is a devotion to honor, service, democracy, sacrifice, justice, liberty, reflection, and above all, to healing and unity, none of which are things the current president has any tolerance for or understanding of. 
Red Square on the other hand I have no doubt, is a place he would get completely, despite the language barrier.
As public architecture and urban planning reflect the society they represent, I can't think of any space in this country that resembles Red Square. Perhaps that's why Trump's appearance in front of the Lincoln Memorial was so ludicrous, he simply needed a setting that was more hospitable to a foolish yet dangerous dictator wannabie, spewing nonsense to a doting crowd.

Red Square would have been much more what the doctor ordered.

Maybe as a token of appreciation to our dear leader, we should contribute to an all expense paid ticket for the president and members of his administration to Moscow.

One way of course.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Here We Go Again...

Another chapter in the let's remove art for the public good saga is taking shape, this time in San Francisco. This op-ed article by Bari Weiss in the New York Times describes a plan to not only remove a work by an important 20th Century artist, but to destroy it.

The work in question is a thirteen panel mural inside George Washington High School by the Russian-American artist, Victor Arnautoff, depicting the school's namesake in rather unconventional ways. In the panel illustrated in the op-ed piece, Washington is standing at a desk with other "Founding Fathers", his right hand pointing to a map resting on a table while his left points off into the distance where a group of American settlers impassively walk past the body of a dead Native American man. Other panels in the work depict African American slaves toiling away on Washington's plantation.

A detail of Victor Arnautoff's mural "City Life"
in the lobby of Coit Tower, San Francisco.
The conspicuous absence of the conservative
San Francisco Chronicle
on the newsstand is a clear indication of the artist's
political convictions, 
In her piece, Weiss quotes Arnautoff stating his no-holds-barred philosophy of art:
Art for art’s sake’ or art as perfume have never appealed to me... The artist is a critic of society.
Arnautoff, an avowed Communist who assisted the like-minded Diego Rivera in Mexico, was according to Weiss, one of the Bay Area's most prominent Depression era artists.

Clearly the panels in the school, as is the case for all his work as well as that of his mentor Rivera are radical, provocative and subversive. From this piece I wrote back in 2013, you can read about the controversey sparked by Rivera's "Detroit Industry" which right wing groups demanded be removed during the anti-communist McCarthy era of the fifties, and the response from the Detroit Institute of the Arts, the institution that houses the murals.

An Arnautoff work I am intimately familiar with, "City Life", painted in the Social Realist style popular in the day, graces the interior of Coit Tower which stands on the top of Telegraph Hill overlooking San Francisco Bay. Created during a time of upheaval in the labor movement of the city, "City Life" and other murals inside the tower were themselves considered subversive and protests against them forced the delay of the opening of the Tower, a monument to local firefighters, for several months.

Given today's highly charged political climate, you might assume that the controverey around Arnautoff's high school piece was triggered by conservative groups who are offended by the less than flattering portrayal of the "Father of our Country." But in fact, the move to remove and destroy the artwork comes from the San Francisco School Board. Schools they feel, need to be safe spaces for students and believe that the depiction of dead Indians and black slaves in the school halls, no matter the context, historical accuracy and significance of the art, is a clear violation of what it means to be a safe space.

Weiss in her piece claims that the Board has been swayed by a group called "Reflection and Action Working Group", in her words, "a committee of activists, students, artists and others put together last year by the district." According to the group, Arnautoff 's work:
glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, (and) oppression... The art does not reflect social justice... (and it) is not student-centered if it’s focused on the legacy of artists, rather than the experience of the students.

Clearly the point of Arnautoff 's work is completely lost on this group. The only ratioinale I can see in this statement is summed up by that last phrase which implies that the "legacy" of the artist, (who happens to be a dead white guy), and in fact, history itself, is not as valid as the "experience"of the students, who presumably are racially and ethnically diverse. Never mind that the vast majority of the school's students are themselves opposed to the removal of the artwork.

What's even more disturbing is the insistence of the board that the work be painted over and effectively destroyed rather than being merely covered up, lest someone in the future decide to uncover them, in defiance of the infinite wisdom of the Board's decree which, if I'm reading it correctly, should be law for the ages, so shall it be written, so shall it be done.

Even beyond that nonsense is the fact that the people objecting to the destruction of these murals, are being labeled as racists by the would-be whitewashers of art and history.

This stuff of course is not new. Thirty years ago a WPA mural was removed from a school that neighbored my elementary school in Oak Park, Illinois. In the lobby of that school was a mural depicting a map of the world containing images of people who inhabited each of the continents. The people depicted in much of the painting were wearing contemporary (for the time) clothing, while in the Africa portion, the people were depicted wearing loin cloths and other accessories many felt enforced stereotypes of the "savage native". Then just this year, two more WPA paintings were removed from schools in the same community because detractors felt they did not reflect the current diversity of the schools.

While I'm not in agreement with the all-out removal of these works, I do get it. However I believe that dated as they are, these works of art, when put into their the proper context, (just like the Confederate monuments that have been in the news recently), serve as useful windows to the past. Simply taking down and mothballing them to obfuscate the less admirable features of our history in order to avoid offending people, serves no worthwhile purpose at all, in my opinion.

But the Arnautoff work is different. That artist clearly had a "progressive" agenda and the idea that his work glorified slavery, genocide, colonization, and everything else that is bad in the world, simply could not be more wrong. A school's job is first and foremost to educate its students. It is important that students know, not only history and the evils of the past, but that even during a bygone era such as the1930s, there were many people including artists, who went against the grain and did not buy into slavery, genocide, colonialism and other evils that were very much alive in their day and continue into our own.

Erasing a work of art because we don't agree with the message it conveys is bad enough, but erasing a work of art because we don't bother to understand the message is beyond explanation. It is misguided, stupid and above all an affront to education, knowledge, and understanding.

I just wrote about the importance of learning from history and the trouble that arises when we are ignorant of it. It seems at least in this case, the San Francisco School Board is fast becoming the champion of ignorance.

This one simply boggles the mind.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

When Cultures Collide

There was a fascinating story that aired on NPR's This American Life Series last week. The piece was about an incident that took place in 1994, when a group of high school students were removed from a movie theater for behaving badly during a screening of the film Schindler's List. The incident made national news. Here is a report from the time in the New York Times.

Schindler's List in case you don't know, is a Steven Spielberg film revolving around the true story of a German industrialist who managed in a small way to circumvent Hitler's "Final Solution" by saving the lives of roughly 1,500 persons whom he claimed were under his employ in a company deemed essential to the German war effort.

Apparently the straw that broke the camel's back at the screening came during a scene in which a young woman engineer wearing a yellow arm band with a Star of David, is shot for the offense of warning the Nazis building a concentration camp that their construction techniques were faulty. The scene induced a mixture of commentary and laughter from many of the students. This led a group of movie-goers to walk out of the theater to demand the students be removed, which they were.

It's not difficult to imagine the reaction of the audience to laughing and cracking jokes during a film about the Holocaust. If we didn't know otherwise, we would assume the offenders must have been virulent racists with ties to the American Nazi Party, or any number of related hate groups.

But this was not the case, the students in question came from Castlemont High School, located in a predominantly African American and Latino neighborhood in one of the poorest communities of Oakland, California.

Public reaction to the incident was swift and relentless.

The NPR piece is told from one side, that of the students. Twenty five years later, the former students now in their early to mid forties, make no attempt to deny or obfuscate their actions, every one of them understands what they did that day was inappropriate, hurtful and disprespectful to the rest of the audience and to the greater Jewish community. There is no Roshomon effect here, the students don't paint a different picture than the "official" account. But their account is nuanced and after hearing it, to be honest, it's not difficult to understand what took place that afternoon.

For starters, they were kids. If you've ever spent time with a bunch of high school students on a field trip as I have recently, you know what I mean.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, a school outing on an official holiday, Martin Luther King Day. The field trip combined a movie which would be followed by a trip to the ice skating rink. On top of that, the movie would teach the students a valuable history lesson, one which the students admitted years later they had little if any knowledge of at the time.

According to one of the former students in the NPR piece, the problem began from the first frame of the film. For starters, it was in black and white. As someone with children of his own, I am sadly aware of the aversion the younger generation has to films shot in glorious black and white. What can I say, at least for my kids, black and white reminds them of all the dusty old cinematic classics their parents forced them to watch when they were younger. For kids who never had that experience, a film shot in black and white must seem as foreign and inaccessible as a tablet written in Hittite..

On top of that, the film opens with a Jewish prayer sung in Hebrew, a language most of the students had never heard of, let alone understood. Would the whole movie, all three hours of it, be in a strange language with no subtitles AND in black and white? Many of the kids grew antsy and some of them snuck out of the screening into theaters showing less taxing movies such as Grumpy Old Men and House Party III.

I saw Schindler's List when it came out and have no memory of the nude scenes at the beginning of the film, but they certainly made an impression on the former students, many of them at the time (at least claim) to had never before seen sex depicted on the silver screen.

It's not difficult to imagine that totally unprepared for the film they were about to experience, many in the group of students who remained in the room showing Schindler's List, became rowdy and obnoxious. Naturally the four hundred or so other patrons in the auditorium that day were not pleased. Their attempts to sush the kids were answered with volleys of popcorn thrown at them.

Then came the infamous summary execution scene about twenty minutes into the movie. If there is a scene in film that more chillingly depicts the banailty of evil, I'm not aware of it. The sociopathic commandant in charge of building a concentration camp, played by Ralph Fiennes, becomes perturbed when a young Jewish woman prisoner supervising the construction, clearly with more education than he, demands that the barracks being built be torn down and rebuilt as its foundation is insufficient. He listens to the woman, then tells his second-in-command to shoot her. The woman protests that she is just doing her job to which he replies, "so am I." The second in command gladly carries out the order despite another German pointing out that she is the foreman of construction . As the Fiennes character walks away from the scene he finishes his cup of coffee, then commands the barracks be torn down and rebuilt just as the woman suggested.

There has been much debate in the twenty five years since the screning of SL in Oakland, about the students' reaction to that scene. What is not in dispute is that it created a particular ruckus from the group. Defenders of the kids have claimed that many of them witnessed brutal violence in their lives and became desensitised to it, exemplified by their not giving the film the silent reverence it deserved. One of the students who laughed during the execution scene claimed she was responding not to the situation but to the histrionics of the actor who portrayed the woman, as she fell to the ground in what the student felt was an unrealistic manner. On the other hand. accounts of what was actually said by many of the students, seem to contradict the theory of indifference. There was a build up of chatter after the command to shoot the woman was heard. Comments such as "he's not really goonna shoot her is he?" indicated that the students were as shocked and incredulous as anybody in the house by the scene that afternoon. After the woman was shot, one student could be heard saying: "man that was cold." which produced more chuckles, and other seemingly inappropriate reactions.

Here, while it may rankle some readers, I think it's worth menntioning that at least some of the conflict between the students and the other people watching Schindler's List that afternoon stems from cutural differences, namely the differences between the way African and European American audiences react at movies. In this article from the Houston Press, its author Jessica Goldman reacts favorably to a sassy article on proper theater etiquitte on all points except one, that audiences "shut the fuck up."

STFU in the theater and the movies has been the ideal, if not always followed, for white folks for at least as long as I've been around and probably a lot longer, but not so much for black folks. Goldman draws a parallel between theater etiquitte and the way we worship at church. Here she quotes Eileen J. Morris, Artistic Director of the Ensemble Theatre of Houston:
In the African American tradition, we come from a call and respond community. That’s why church is such an important part of what we do in our community. The preacher preaches and stirs emotions that we, the people of African descent, go Amen, and want to respond.
According to Morris, it's the same with the theater and presumably by extension, the movies:
When people come to Ensemble and see that people are doing a “mmm-huh” underneath their breath or “Girl, I don’t know why you’re doing that”, or talking back or saying “Stop”, I can only say that it’s because human beings have been touched in such a way by what is happening on stage that they can’t help but emote and react. And from our culture, we react by not holding it in, we let it go.
To the white folks in the house that day most of whom are likely accustomed to maintaining silence in their houses of worship and theaters, the running commentary, especially during a serious film such as Schindler's List, must have seemed the height of disrespect. To them the comment "man that's cold" must have seemed like a cynical use of extreme understatement to belittle the tragedy of the event depicted. But to the student who uttered those words, he was simply stating the obvious.

After the brouhaha of press coverage after the incident. some Castlemont students took it upon themselves to apologize for their and their classmates' behavior. But that didn't seem to calm the storm.

Eventually the students became fed up and bitter with the way they had been publicly treated. Despite that before the incident, few of the kids made any distinction between Jewish people and other white people, the kids were now accused of being anti-semetic. Out of frustration with that accusation, some of them bought into the false theory espoused by Louis Farakkan and later picked up by David Duke of KKK fame, that Jews owned all the ships that brought slaves to this country and were as a group disproportionately involved with and profited from in the slave trade. In other words, Jews were particular enemies of black people.

A few months after the incident, Steven Spielberg made a well publicised trip to the school. His visit was greeted with protestors from the Nation of Islam who chanted "How can a Zionist Jew..." (Spielberg) "teach us about racism?"

Undaunted, Spielberg quickly gained the students' trust when he refused to blame them for their actions. Labelling it "the privelege of youth" he admitted to having been kicked out of a theater himself during a screening of Ben Hur for talking too much. But he did himself one better, returning to Castlemont, this time without the press or a cadre of school officials and politicians, to have an  informal one on one chat with the kids to talk about the Holocaust, injustice and a slew of other issues. One of the kids asked him if he ever made a film about the slave trade. He said no, but he should. Turns out a few years later he did just that. In an interview after his film Amastad was released, Spielberg told the interviewer that his inspiration for making that film came from that student's question.

So what can we learn from all of this? Well I'd say that lesson number one is that we, parents and teachers alike, need to do a better job of teaching our children history. To me its scandalous that kids no matter what neighborhood they live in can get into high school without knowing what the Holocaust was. But knowing history is not enough, we need to understand that hatred, intolerance and injustice directed at any group, is an assault upon all of humanity. Some of the students reported that people in the audience applauded when they were escorted out of the theater and were taunted by chants of "go back to Africa." by some in the crowd.

It does go both ways.

Lastly and most important, we all need to embrace the fact that we come from different perspectives and need to learn how to view the world from a perspective that is not our own. Are we any better doing that today than we were twenty five years ago?

Hardly. We've got a long way to go.

Monday, May 27, 2019

A Cautionary Tale...

I just learned that a terrific ballplayer, Bill Buckner has died. In his 21 year MLB career, Buckner racked up some impressive, if not Hall of Fame stats. But in a twist of fate, he will forever be remembered for one unfortunate play. Many people including me remember exactly where they were when they witnessed the event live on October 25, 1986. The following cautionary tale whose motto, be careful what you wish for, was written in his honor a few years ago:

Bill Buckner 1949-2019

On October 26, 1986 I heard the following joke:
First Person: Someone told me that Bill Buckner attempted suicide last night.
Second Person: Really? That´s terrible.
First Person: Yeah, but he let the train roll through his legs.
So you want to be a big league baseball player? Well first you have to be good. Then you have to have parents or some kind of mentor willing to support your dream who will go the extra mile to play catch with you every day, teach you how to hit and throw the ball, pay for little league, then the traveling team, and be willing to get you to all the games, even if they´re two or three states over.

Maybe if you´re lucky, you´ll make the high school team and if you´re good enough, you could be the star of the team. If you´re exceptional, you might be able to get a scholarship to go to college and play ball, or if you´re phenomenal, you might even get noticed by a professional scout who just might sign you up for a tryout. 

Beware though, there are lots of ballplayers out there who´d love to be in your position and make one slip up, they will be in your position. But you´re really good, have a terrific attitude and luck´s been on your side up until now. You´ve worked your butt off for years, suffering through some real asshole coaches and you´ve finally made it into the minor leagues. Slowly you work your way up through the ranks, schlepping yourself and your gear onto buses for endless rides to podunk towns. 

Eventually you´re lucky enough and good enough to get your chance at the Big Show. It certainly doesn´t get any easier up there, the only exception being someone else gets to carry your gear and you travel from town to town by plane. And oh yes, there´s the money. Now, not only are lots of people hungry for your job, there are lots of others who are after your scratch as well. Somehow, by hook or by crook, despite the numerous injuries and the nagging pain you´ve been playing through for years, you built yourself a respectable career at the highest level attainable in your profession. Before you know it, you have more games behind you than in front of you and the twilight of your career is fast approaching. 

But you end up on a team with a shot at the Series and this might be your last chance to get a ring, the dream of every kid who ever picks up a bat and a ball. That ring is so close you can almost taste it, you´re two runs up, only three outs away. Then things start to unravel; they tie it up but no problem, you have plenty of time to get back into the game. Next thing you know, the ball is hit to you, an easy roller to first, all you have to do is move a little to your left, pick up the ball and make an easy toss to the pitcher covering the bag, inning over. It hurts like hell but your gimpy legs get you there OK, you bend down and get into proper fielding position, glove square on the ground. Somehow the ball just seems to skip past the glove, you don´t know, it all happened so fast. The ball goes between your legs and into right field, runner scores, game over.

Never mind that your pitchers gave up two runs after two men were out in the inning. Never mind the wild pitch allowing the tying run to score that your catcher could have but didn´t stop. Never mind that the batter was running so hard down the line you might not have had a chance to get him anyway. Never mind the team you were playing didn´t win 108 games that year for nothing. Never mind that your team had the chance to pick you up in the next game but didn´t. Never mind that your team probably wouldn´t have gotten there in the first place without you. It doesn´t matter, you will go down in history as the guy who lost the game and the World Series for your team.

In the end, despite having had a terrific career, you will go to your grave being remembered as the guy who let the ball go through his legs in the sixth game of the ´86 Series.

Remember son, for every one Bill Mazeroski or Joe Carter, there are dozens and dozens of Bill Buckners.


"How Republics Die"

This is the title of a very distressing article I just read written by Thom Hartmann for  the online magazine Salon. 

Hartmann suggests that the beginning of the end of our own republic might very well have been the horrendous 2010 Supreme Court decision known as "Citizens United" which eliminated the cap on the amount of money individuals and corporations can contribute to political campaigns. It doesn't take a genius to realize this opens the door to undue influence into the workings of our government. In other words: any hope of calling our system of government a democratic republic is dashed; Citizens United has enabled it to become a plutocracy, a government for sale to the highest bidder.

The truly depressing part is that according to Hartmann, as effective as it has been for over two hundred years, the US Constitution is not equipped to deal with this threat to its very existence. Hartmann says:

Our Constitution, in many very real ways, is rather weak when faced with parties or persons who flaunt its norms, or won’t use the tools it provides to ensure accountability.

Quicker can you say Jack Robinson, we are now faced with a president who is more than happy to be a norm flaunter, that's in part what made him so attractive to the people who voted for him. The other is the fact that he wasn't Hillary Clinton.

Hartmann gives us a laundry list of just a few of the ways this president has flaunted the norms that have served this nation fairly well for over two centuries:
  • Calling the press “the enemy of the people.”
  • Refusing to interact with Congress as the Constitution dictates.
  • Packing the courts with demonstrably unqualified ideologues.
  • Lying to the people on a daily basis.
  • Embracing autocrats while trashing traditional allies.
  • Breaking the law and flaunting a Nixon-era “guideline” from the DOJ saying that the president can’t be prosecuted, while he runs out the clock on the statute of limitations.
  • Bragging that he’s making money on the presidency and daring anybody to stop him.
  • Putting lobbyists in charge of public lands, our banking system, and our environment.
  • Embracing violent and hateful people and movements, both at home and abroad.
Hartmann calls these acts "symptoms of a republic in crisis."

Adding to the danger of it all, we have a political party who when given the choice between defending the principles of this nation as defined by our consitution, or kowtowing to their very wealthy benefactors, in every case chooses the latter. Even more dangerous are supporters of this administration who are bombarded with questionable (at best) information spoon fed to them by news sources which are funded by the same people who fund the politicians.

In my opinion, by far the most egregious threat to our nation is that this administration is doing its best to divide the country between his supporters and the rest, who has been deemed "the enemy." This weekend, undermining a statement from his own Director of National Security, the president tweeted that he wasn't the least bit concerend about North Korea conducting tests of ballistic missles, in clear violation of International Law. It seems the president is pleased with Kim Jun Un because Kim made some derrogatory remarks about Joe Biden, as we speak, Trump's most formidable oponent in the upcoming 2020 election. In other words, Trump is backing one of this country's fiercest adversaries, a ruthless, murderous dictator to boot, over a former vice president of the United States.

It's clear whom Kim supports in the upcoming election, And Donald Trump in one fell tweet has made it crystal clear where his loyalties lie, who his friends are, as well as his enemies.

Because of the above laundry list of dangerous and/or criminal actions this president has taken, not the least of which his unwavering support of Kim and North Korea, it should be clear to any reasonable person who values our democratic republic that this man needs to stop being president as soon as possible.

But here lies the rub. The strategy of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and many high ranking Democrats in Congress is that regardless of the many impeachable actions as spelled out by the Mueller Report and by his own words and deeds, actions directed toward the impeachment of this president might be self-defeating. As there is an intransegent Republican majority in the Senate, there is no chance of an impreachment resulting in his removal from office and in addition, Pelosi and others reason that impeachment and a subsequent acquittal by the Senate would only embolden and furthur empower Trump, helping to ensure his re-election in 2020.

On the other hand, by not taking forceful action to curb this president, Congress is weakening itself in its role as a crucial check to balance the power of any president now or in the future, not to mention one with tyrannical visions for himself who thumbs his nose at any challenge to his power every chance he gets.

The words "constitutional crisis" have been bandied about quite liberally these days to the point where they seem rather trite, like the proverbial words of the boy who cried wolf. On the other hand there are several "cracies" that can be applied to the current administration, plutocracy, kleptocracy, and idiocracy are just three that come immediately to mind. Unfortunately democracy is not on the list and neither for that matter is republic.

For those of us who value the "d" word and the "r" word, I think the time to act is now to enure that Trump (who won election in the 2016 election with a substantial minority of the popular vote), not only is not president for much longer, but that the damage that he and his ilk have inflicted upon the country will not be long lasting. How to do that is the qustion of the hour.

So how do you spell constitutional crisis?

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Our Lady of Paris

"The Virgin of Paris" Early 14th Century,
a masterpiece of late Gothic art,
in the transcept of Notre-Dame de Paris
Ever since the day I first walked from Manhattan to Brooklyn across its pedestrian walkway in 1979, I've had a love affair with the Brooklyn Bridge. A work of tremendous beauty, that magnificent 19th century structure is the perfect blending of structural engineering, architecture, and history, especially the heartrending  story of the contibutions of the thousands of individuals who built it, not a few of whom who gave their lives (including its chief designer John Roebling), during its construction. That, combined with ts loaction in the heart of New York City makes the walk across it over the East River between the two boroughs in my opinion, the single greatest example of the urban experience.

One day about twenty five years ago, I found myself on the Brooklyn side of the bridge. It was a difficult time in my life, filled with loss and the confusion that follows. As I gazed upon that magnificent creation, I took comfort in the thought that despite the painful loss I was going through at the time, the Brooklyn Bridge, and all it had meant to me over the years, would always be there.

Some years later, the unthinkable happened. Two hijacked commercial jets, one coming from the north, the other from the south, deliberately slammed into the two towers of the World Trade Center, just a stone's throw from the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge. Back in Chicago, 780 miles away, I watched on TV in horror with my wife and infant son as the South Tower then the North Tower collapsed taking with them the lives of nearly 3,000 innocent people.

Weeks after the initial shock and mourning for the lives lost that day, for their families and for the City of New York, I recalled that moment at the bridge and realized how foolish I had been. Perhaps it was because I had lived a sheltered life in a world that for a good part of my existance had been relatively peaceful, at least on my side of the globe. Violence and destruction of that magnitude in a place I loved and was intimately connected to was inconceivable. If the mighty Twin Towers could flatten like pancakes thanks to the diabolical efforts of a handful of men, nothing, not even that beloved bridge was safe. After 9/11, my new mantra became, "take nothing for granted."

The cathedral as seen from the Left Bank in January, 2005.
This week's fire destroyed the entire roofline and
the 19th Century spire at the transcept.
Here at the outset,  I must I point out there is absolutely no parallel between the September 11 attacks and what happened last week in Paris. The fire that destroyed much of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in that city was an accident, of that I am certain. Not one life was lost (at least as far as we know at this moment) and there were few serious injuries, none of them life threatening. For that we should be eternally grateful. 

The comparison is a personal and purely superficial one. Once again I was caught off-guard. You see, if there is any work of human hands in the world that means as much to me as the Brooklyn Bridge, it would be the Cathedral of Paris. Long before I set foot inside, an obsession with Medieval Gothic architecture drove me to study Notre-Dame de Paris inside and out from front to back, every nook and crannie of it. For many years to me it was without question the greatest building on earth, the perfect combination of heart breaking beauty, magnificent craftsmanship, brilliant structural engineerng, the moving story of the fierce devotion of the community of believers who built it, its role as the symbolic heart and soul of the nation of France and its people, and of course by any standard, a great work of art. Words cannot describe how I felt as I learned the news on Monday that the cathedral was in flames. In denial, I assumed when I saw the early images of the fire on my computer at work, just as I did when I first saw smoke coming out of the hole in the World Trade Center punctured by a plane, that the emergency responders on the scene would soon have everything under control.

Then I saw a photograph of the great 19th Century spire above the transcept consumed in flames. At that moment a colleague at work, himself from France and well aware of the situation, came back from lunch and told me the spire had already collapsed into the church. I was broken hearted. Something I dearly loved, a place that gave me great joy during my formative years, a sense of peace in troubled times, (I visited it for the first time the same year as my Brooklyn Bridge epiphany), and a place I visited so often that it became a dear friend, would soon be no more...

The West facade of  of Notre-Dame  de Paris

...or so I thought.

The fire worked its way to the north tower (the one on the left in the photograph above) where firefighters worked valiently to halt its spread. Had they failed and the tower's structure become sufficiently weakened, the massive bells in the tower's bellfry would have broken free and collapsed to the ground. With them, all hope for saving the building would have been lost.

Catastrophic as the damge to the building was, thanks to the quick thinking and hard work of the firefighters, the tower and its bells remained intact.. Expecting the worst when I woke up Tuesday morning, the news was encouraging. Allthough the spire and timber roof where the fire began were destroyed, the stone vaulting directly underneath the roof survived nearly intact. Early morning photographs showed the interior covered with debris, a little worse for the wear, but still intact. The most remakable news of all was that most of the stained glass including the two magnificent rose windows pictured below, one on either side of the transcept also survived.

The North Transept Rose Window
The South Transept Rose Window

The fire brought out the most remarkable display in people, a veritable rainbow of hues, luminances, and saturations of human nature, in all its glory and well, not so much. The night of the fire, thousands of Parisians lined the quais on the Left Bank of the Seine to watch in disbelief as their cathedral burned, mournfully singing hymns as the flames illuminated the towers of the church and the surrounding neighborhood in an eerily beautiful light. 

The following day, President Emmanuel Marcon declared the church would be completely restored, practically good as new in five years, presumably in time for 2024 when Paris is to host the Summer Olympic Games. Even before the French president opened his mouth, tens of millions of Euros were already pledged by weathly individuals and corporations to rebuild Notre-Dame. By Thursday morning, two days after the fire was officially declared extinguished, over one billion Euros had been pledged, yes indeedy some of it believe it or not, coming with strings attached, mostly in the form of demands for extreme tax breaks in return for the contributions. 

St. Joan of Arc, 19th Century sculpture
by Charles Desvergnes
That display of spontaneous philanthropy turned heads and triggered significant consternation from all corners, ranging from historical preservation groups who questioned the irony of why raising funds for the necessary restoration of the cathedral before the building was nearly lost was almost as difficult as trying to draw blood from a stone, to advocates for practically every charity on the face of the earth who threw up their hands in disgust at the record amount of money raised in the blink of an eye for an effort they deemed so much less worthy than their own. 

It didn't take long for conspiracy theorists to come up with the idea that the cathedral was torched, conceiving of plots to destroy the church carried out by folks whom those theorists do not like, more often than not, Muslim extermists. And people of faith got into the act by proclaiming it was nothing less than an act of God which spared the church  from total destruction. Unfortuantely for those fine theories, facts, physics and common logic explain how the fire started unintentionally, and how despite the serious nature of the blaze, most of the church managed to survive intact, even without the direct intervention of the almighty.   

Portal of the Virgin, West Front of the Cathedral.
Originally installed between 1210 and 1220,
many of these stone figures were behaded during the
French Revolution and retored during the mid-19th Century.  
All evidence points to the source of the fire as being the result of restoration work carried out in the transcept of the cathedral. Ironic as they are, devastating fires such as these, resulting from the heat producing tools necessary for restoration work, in close proximity to the highly inflammable materials the buildings are constructed of, are painfully common. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three such fires here in Chicago in recent years, two of which left only the walls of historic churches standing, and the third in our own Roman Catholic cathedral which was saved only through a little luck (that the fire was caught in time), and the remarkable efforts of firefighters.

That Notre-Dame didn't suffer more damage is due to the fact that the firefighters there managed to contain the blaze to the wooden roof which can be considered a separate structure from the main body of the building. Beneath that roof as I mentioned earlier, is the stone vaulting which one sees from inside the church, the majority of which withstood the flames and the heat of the fire. The great weight of that vault is transferred to the enormous flying buttresses, one of the building's most distinct features, which flank the outside of the cathedral. Had the vault been severely compromised, the delicate balance between the downward force of the vault counterbalancing the lateral force of the flying buttresses might have dramatically shifted, causing the buttresses to crush the outer walls of the cathedral. That this did not happen is a testament to the brilliance of the Medieval builders of Notre-Dame, and to the wise approach that was taken to combat the fire.

However there is one thing about this event than cannot be explained away so easily: its timing. The April 15, 2019 Notre-Dame de Paris fire took place during the midst of the biggest existential crisis in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, in one of that institution's most recognizable symbols (perhaps second only to St. Peter's Bascilica in Rome), AND during Holy Week no less, the single most important week of the year in the calendar of the Church.

The nave of the Cathedral
In this photograph you can see part of the
stone vaulting and the magnificent organ
which itself dates from the 19th Century
but contains components which date
back much earler.
A non-believer can easily dismiss all this as pure coincidence. But to someone who takes his or her faith seriously, especially a Catholic for whom symbols mean a great deal, the timing of this devastating fire certainly has to give one pause to think.

As a Catholic myself, it pains me to say that the institution I love is rotten to the core, at least the administration of it. If there is a God who takes a personal interest in the goings on of this planet, He, She (or They if you prefer), must be supremely pissed at the Church who claims to be His, Her, or Their representative on earth. For even naive Catholics who once assumed that the sexual abuse of children at the hands of priests, dreadful as it is, was only a rare and isolated occurrance, it has now become terribly obvious that the scourge is pandemic in the Church. Much as I like and respect the current Pope Francis, he has done very little to instill the faith in his flock that the Church will unequivocally do everything in its power to end that unspeakable and despicable crime, as well as many other abuses of power in the Church. Culpability, knowledge and most damning, the failure to act upon this cancer in the Church goes all the way to the top to the point where it is impossible to give anyone in any position of power in the Roman Catholic Church a pass.

Clearly the Church needs a radical reboot in order to survive and what better time for this message to come to us than the week before Easter?

The Gospels describe an event that took place in Jerusalem the week before Jesus's crucifixion, where he turned over the tables of the profaners of the Temple, evicting them from the sacred place and telling the perplexed authorities: "destroy this Temple and I will raise it again three days." Can anyone honestly say that at this point in its history, the Roman Catholic Church doesn't need God to come down and do the same thing?  You might think I'm crazy to say this (and I'd be the first to agree with you), but maybe, just maybe that is exactly what happened last Monday.

Christians recognize the Friday before Easter as the holy day when we commemorate the day Jesus died, yet we call it "Good Friday", Those who are perplexeed by that name, forget the fact that without Jesus's death, there could be no Resurrection hence, without Good Friday, there would be no Easter, the central tenet of the faith.

Shrine devoted to Our Lade of Guadalupe from 1949,
the only such shirne in Eurpoe 
Believers or not. I think we can all agree that good things have come out of the horrible fire at Notre-Dame de Paris last week. Because of it, people have come out of their slumber about our sites of cultural heritage, those places around the world that define who we are as a people and as a civilization. The point has been hit home that once they're gone, they can never be replaced. Perhaps we'll all learn not to take any of them for granted.

For an ever so brief a moment, in fact it's probably over by now, the fire brought much of the world together, Catholic or not, in universal sorrow for the potential loss of such a treasure. Not that I ever want to test this out, but one could only hope that were such a catastrophe to befall a cultural heritage site that is not a Christian church, for example the mosque known as the The Dome on the Rock in Jeruslaem, the Hindu/Budhist Temple Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or the Taj Mahal in India, that we of the Christian faith will respond in kind.

Perhaps the most appropriate and heart warming thing that happened last week was that three modest but historic African American churches in Louisiana that were torched by a white supremacist young man in the past month, all reported significant spikes in contributions to their own re-building programs, presumably in response to the fire in Paris.

Clearly, the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris was catastrophic, but it was in no sense at all tragic. All the good that has and will certainly come as a result of it without the loss of a single life is truly a miracle. Despite President Macron's overly optimistic timeline, the cathedral will be restored, that is for certain. As far as I'm concerrned,  I may never set foot inside my old friend again, and that is perfectly OK with me. As long as my children and God-willing their children, and theirs and hopefully the dozens of generations of children to follow will have the opportunity to set foot inside the magnificent cathedral that truly belongs to the enitre world, something which at this moment looks very likely, wherever I am, I will be pleased.

Our Lady of Paris is very much alive.
Joyeuses Pâques, Happy Easter!

POST SCRIPT: I'm very happy to report that unless otherwise noted, everything shown in the photographs in this post has survived the fire.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

In the Footsteps of Kings

Author's Note: Several years ago a  friend asked me to write this for a project that never took off and it has never seen the light of day until now, which is as good a time as any I suppose.

On a recent trip to Melbourne, the first thing I did after checking into the hotel was something that has become a ritual upon arriving in a new city, I went for a long walk. There's no better way to get one's bearing in a new place then losing oneself in it on foot, letting impulse be the guide.

Skyscrapers beckoned me to the heart of Melbourne officially known as the Central Business District. The CBD of Australia's second city is best known for its system of passageways and arcades, the grandest of which, The Block, dating from the 1890s was inspired by the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan. In recent years, new passageways were created from old alleys into whose graffiti covered walls were carved coffee houses, galleries and shops, some chic, some anything but. Stylistically, the new passageways could not be more different from the grand old arcades, yet they flow together effortlessly. The mixture of the tony and the tawdry gives Melbourne's CBD its distinct charm and vitality.

I had a revelation of sorts ten years ago while walking down Grand Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles. Finishing touches to Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall were being made while steps away, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the work of Spanish architect Rafael Moneo had just opened. Down the block was the Museum of Contemporary Art designed by Arata Izosaki. All were impressive, designed by significant architects. Even so I couldn't help but think how those structures sitting there like ducks in a row, reminded me of paintings hung on the wall of a museum rather than buildings woven into the fabric of a city. It dawned on me what I find frustrating with much of contemporary architecture. Buildings today are first and foremost built to be works of art. Form no longer follows function, it's now the other way around.

Being in the camp of urbanologist Jane Jacobs, to me the essence of a great city is a vibrant street life. It's not surprising why much of contemporary Los Angeles lacks that asset as hardly anyone there walks anymore. The buildings mentioned above reflect that fact; there is little attempt to interact with the surroundings, even the simple act of gaining access is confusing as most folks enter underground, through subterranean parking lots. These buildings exist on a higher plain, removed from life on the street as if they were preserved in amber.

Just blocks away along Broadway, built before the automobile revolution is the heart of old Downtown LA. Despite, or perhaps because of being long past its heyday, that neighborhood still ebbs and flows with life in marked contrast to its more upscale cousin. Small wonder, it's one of the few places in town where one does not feel out of place on foot.

There is a famous walking tour in Prague known as the Royal Route. It follows the traditional path Czech monarchs took to their coronation, from the old city gates to the Cathedral of St. Vitus. Along the route, one walks through not only a glorious city, but eleven centuries worth of history and architecture. Like Melbourne, Prague's architecture is an unapologetic clash of styles. Certainly Prague is one of the most enchanting places imaginable with its fairy tale vistas featuring Medieval towers and bridges spanning the Vltava, the river that plays such an important role in Czech culture. Yet its physical beauty barely scratches the surface of the experience. Prague is the perfect walking city, as each few steps lead to a new discovery. You walk not only in the footsteps of kings, but also the likes of Kepler, Mozart, and Kafka. That's not to say its history is set in stone; like any vibrant place, its story is written daily by the people who walk its streets, from saints to sinners, and everyone in between.

Great cities are about life, past, present and future. Any city that invites people to explore by walking around its streets and alleys, discovering secrets hidden in its underbelly, is a treasure to behold. After all, the art of the city resides not in its buildings, monuments or civic plans, but in the way people interact with them. Take people away from the equation, and all that's left is a beautiful architectural rendering, or a dead city.