Tuesday, March 24, 2020

And Yet, Some Things Never Change

In my last post I commented on how the world changing in unimaginable ways since I last put fingers to the keyboard in this blog last month, made much of what I wrote utter nonsense. And yet...

I didn't get quite everything wrong in the last two posts of February, 2020.

For example in this post, I wrote about the importance of the African American vote. Lo and behold, Joe Biden who was all but left for dead when I wrote the post, won the South Carolina primary by a landslide against Bernie Sanders, largely thanks to the African American voters who turned out for him. In the same fashion, he won every other primary held in southern states as well as Michigan and Illinois. I also wrote that if African Americans turn out for the Democratic presidential candidate in the swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania anywhere close to the way they did for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, the Democrat will win the election.

Therefore the turnout in the African American community in the primaries must be positive news for the Democrats, except apparently Bernie Sanders supporters.

I wrote last month that many supporters of Bernie Sanders don't seem to be interested in voting for the Democratic candidate, if it is not Bernie Sanders. I said that does not bode well for the Democrats in November. Nearly a month later, with their candidate squarely against the ropes, little seems to have changed. I'm reading more Biden bashing from Bernie supporters than from Trump supporters.

The irony is that when Sanders was winning states and delegates early on in the Democratic primaries, both Sanders and his supporters demanded that the winner of the nomination be the candidate who ended up with the most primary votes, not the candidate hand picked by the Democratic National Committee. Now that Biden has a plurality of the vote, clearly a bona fide mandate, steadfast Bernieites are claiming there is still a conspiracy among Democrats which resulted in all the other serious candidates suspending their campaigns and throwing their support to Biden. But they fail to mention that even Sanders' most reliable base, young people, have all but abandoned him at the polls, even without the one candidate in the race who had a chance to siphon votes away from Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, who has not as yet offered an endorsement.

It's anybody's guess if the possible resurgence of the African American vote will offset the number of Bernie supporters taking their toys and going home by sitting out the election, but chances are they will because many Sanders' supporters did just that four years ago.

I'm adamant about this because the most important issue of our day by a long shot, the Coronavirus pandemic, has only emphasized the gross incompetence of the current president. Once again, given a golden opportunity to step up to the plate and prove his meddle as a leader, Donald Trump has struck out with two outs and the bases loaded.

Let me say at the outset, Trump is NOT responsible for the pandemic. That much is obvious. Less obvious is that he is not responsible for the current collapse of the stock market, although it would only seem fair that since he took so much credit for the good economy he inherited from his predecessor, he should take the blame for its downward swing under his watch. Don't hold your breath for that one folks.

But no, the pandemic is responsible for the current fall of the stock market, not Donald Trump.

That said, I do believe he hasn't helped at all either, and has probably exacerbated both.

First of all, two years ago his administration disbanded the National Security Council's entire global health security unit, the office set up by his predecessor after the Ebola outbreak. Had it been in place, it would have been an essential resource to coordinate government efforts in recognizing the problem early, and taking adequate measure to insure necessary items such as test kits medical masks and other personal protection equipment essential to keep the people on the front lines, health workers safe, would be readily available at a moment's notice. Well its turns out that we are behind the eight ball at the moment, as there is a critical shortage of all those items. Of course hindsight is always twenty-twenty and I'm sure there were valid arguments at the time to close or re-arrange duties in an office that may have become top-heavy. But when asked about the disbanding of the office at a press conference, Trump said that was a nasty question, and that he didn't even know the office had been disbanded. Naturally videos emerged from a couple years ago showing Trump announcing the closing of the office.

Much more serious is that evidence points to the fact that Trump understood the severity of the pandemic as early as January, yet he publicly denied that Coronavirus was any more serious than yearly strains of influenza, until two months later. One could argue that the president didn't want to cause panic among the American people. On the other hand as has become obvious, by not acting sooner, by not influencing the public to avoid large public gatherings from the outset, the virus has indeed gained a foothold in this country that it wouldn't have had we acted sooner.

Here is a timeline of Trump's public comments since the time the severity of virus became known to him:

Granted this is a biased video benefiting from the magic of selective editing. But these are all public comments, he said little or nothing else to claim that COVID-19 was more than just a walk in the park until very recently. You can also find clips of Fox News celebrities mirroring Trump's comments, calling the virus a hoax designed to undermine the president, until Trump finally admitted on March 11 that yes folks, we have a problem here. Not until Trump's address to the nation from the Oval Office that day did his official propaganda wing at Fox change their tune.

This Friday I witnessed two events that clearly demonstrate the difference between real leadership, and the clown show the administration in Washington has always been. At Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker's announcement  that his state was to enforce a stay-at-home policy, one of the speakers at that press conference was the chief epidemiologist at the University of Chicago, Dr. Emily Landon, As the Governor and the Mayor of Chicago stood at a respectable distance and listened attentively. Dr. Landon gave a blunt, impassioned, and brilliant address about what we could be in for if we don't act now. She relayed an anecdote from the 1918 influenza pandemic which killed millions around the world. It turns out that while the city of St. Louis enacted a stay-in-place order to stem the spread of the deadly virus, the city of Philadelphia hosted a large parade to send off soldiers headed off to WWI. One week later, Philadelphia hospitals were overrun and thousands died, far more than in St. Louis.

As we are seeing today in New Orleans who allowed their celebration of Mardi Gras to take place a couple weeks ago, that city is now seeing a greater increase of new cases of COVID-19 than other cities around the country.

On the same afternoon as Governor Pritzker's draconian announcement that he was forced to choose between "people's lives and their livelihoods". the president of the United States held a similar conference at the White House. At the dais, going against all pleas for social distancing, was a slew of people huddled together as if they were in a rugby scrum. The president, still trying to paint a pretty picture of a pandemic, touted his enthusiasm about an anti-malaria drug that might have positive results against the "Chinese virus" as he referred to it. He was challenged by an NBC reporter who asked if his over-optimism about the drug was doing a disservice to the American people who deserve to know facts, not just the president's hunches. (my words not his). "I'm a smart guy, I feel good about it" was the president's response. After a back and forth between the reporter and the president, the reporter asked, "with nearly 200 dead and 14,000 sick, what do you say to the American people watching you right now who are scared?" The president's response was: "I'd say that you are a terrible reporter. I think it's a nasty question and a very bad signal that you're putting out to the American people." He accused the reporter of "sensationalism" and then went on a brief tirade about the news organizations of NBC and COMCAST.

Now to be fair, watching the unedited version of the exchange instead of just the soundbites that made their way across all platforms, the reporter was goading the president on for several minutes before the outburst. That said, annoying as the reporter may have been to him, there is no room for childish outbursts from the supposed leader of the free world in response to a pandemic. To add insult to injury, one of the reporters asked if Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who was standing behind Trump at the press conference would comment on the drug. Politely, trying to speak the truth yet not wanting to directly contradict the president, Dr. Fauci said that while not discounting the possibility that this vaccine may prove helpful, any evidence to that effect was purely anecdotal, that testing was still underway, and that a "cure" as the president claims is still several months if not a year away. Incidentally since that day, Dr. Fauci has not been heard from at one of Trump's daily press briefings.

Today, two days later, the president still doesn't get it, or simply doesn't care. Despite unanimous consensus from scientists and health care professionals all over the world who assure us that the pandemic will get much worse before it gets better, and that the only way to reduce the amount of carnage, is for all of us to avoid social contact and stay home for two or three months at the very least, today the president told his nation that he expects that everyone will be back at work in two weeks.

Meanwhile his premature announcement about the anti-malaria drug, chloroquine , has caused a massive run on the medication, causing shortages and an astronomical increase in price, leaving people who take it for other illnesses, such as lupus, left without a medication they depend upon. Others have died taking the drug (which has serious side effects) without a doctor's supervision, assuming it would cure them of COVID-19.

For three years, Donald Trump's malfeasance, gross negligence and incompetence have done a great deal of harm to our country, to its credibility its democratic institutions, and perhaps most significantly, to its unity. Up until two months ago, most reasonable Americans could breathe a sigh of relief that at the very least he was not at the helm during a real crisis. Well he his now and people are dying because of his initial inaction, his indifference to the severity of the situation, and his insistence on lying to cover up the true nature of the pandemic.

The sad thing is that during times of crisis, the people turn to a president to provide leadership, comfort, and above all, the truth. During such times, a president's approval rating usually goes through the roof. Not so with Donald Trump. A good sixty percent of Americans believe he is not to be believed or trusted. The good news is those sixty percent at least, will not be taking anything this president says seriously, and despite his rants about how "the cure can't be worse than the disease", will work to protect themselves and the rest of us. The ones who do take him seriously well all I can say to them is, good luck to you, just don't go anywhere close to me or my loved ones.

God willing Trump will not be president come next January, but since we're stuck with him at least until then, the least he can do is provide some useful information to the people of this country to help get us through this crisis.

Short of that, maybe he could just shut the fuck up and let the adults in the room do the talking.   

, Governor of Illinois, and a very small group of certain other Governors, together with Fake News
& Concast (MSDNC), shouldn’t be blaming the Federal Government for their own shortcomings. We are there to back you up should you fail, and always will be!

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Difference a Few Weeks Make

Never in all my years on this planet, have I experienced such drastic change as we have in the past month. I look back at the time when I wrote my two last posts, just about three weeks ago, with a certain blissful nostalgia. Yet how could I have been so wrong and naive?

The wrong part came in the first post where I wrote that the president's "perfect phone call" with Vladimir Zelensky, while leading to his impeachment, also...
...all but killed Joe Biden's life-long dream of being the principal occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Thank goodness I added the "all but" because as of today. Biden is the presumptive nominee of the Democratic party in the upcoming election. What I didn't see coming was the effect Biden's landslide victory over Bernie Sanders in the South Carolina primary would have in subsequent states. Up to that point, the primaries had been held in non-diverse states with largely white populations, with the exception of Nevada which has a significant Latinx presence. Sanders won all but one of those states with Biden coming in a distant third or fourth. It appeared that Sanders' momentum could very well carry him on to becoming the party's standard bearer, with the only real challenges coming from Pete Butigieg or possibly Mike Bloomberg. It seemed as if the only person in the world who believed Biden had a chance was Biden himself, who alone understood the critical importance of the African American vote, which carried him over the top in South Carolina, all of the southern states that have held primaries, and Illinois and Michigan. Sanders won the biggest state of them all, California, but as of this moment, it's Biden's contest to lose.

However as we've seen in the past month, who knows what the future brings?

Needless to say, the election is peanuts compared to the global crisis of COVID-19 and Coronavirus .

In my final post of last month, while I recognized the seriousness of the virus, I was still in denial about the impact it would have on the world. After all, we've been through countless epidemics,  SARS in 2003, H1N1 in 2009, and Ebola from 2014 to 2016, just to name a few. Yes thousands of people perished all over the world from those deadly viruses, but those of us who didn't, the vast majority of people on the planet, got through those crisis without experiencing much disruption of our lives.

Previously I thought about what we are about to face over the next several months as a being terrible inconvenience. I became irritated when I heard folks likening this experience to the Depression and WWII. That is until I heard my elders, people who actually lived though the Great Depression and the great war, make that very comparison.

The truth is, none of us knows what this virus may bring nor how many of our loved ones, or even ourselves will survive. Our very survival depends on tremendous sacrifice from all of us, giving up many of the things that back in those wonderful days of the first two months of 2020, we took for granted.

The Governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, declared that his state, the state in which I live, will be on shut down until further notice. Only people whose jobs are deemed essential to maintain health, safety, and provide the basic necessities for living, will be allowed to go to work. People have been instructed in no uncertain terms that with only very limited exceptions, we are to stay at home . He told the people of his state that he was in the very unenviable position of having to choose between "people's lives, and people's livelihoods."

It was an ominous message, but one that needed to be heard, and a truly courageous move on his part.

Many people will die as a result of this virus. Those of us who survive will suffer hardships, some of them terrible. While (the collective) we will certainly survive this in the long run, our immediate future is very cloudy indeed.

The American Vice President made a particularly un-helpful comment the other day. He said that during this time of crisis we should all spend more time on our knees rather than on social media. Including the inevitable vulgar responses that comment will inspire, the truth is that while prayer may be a comfort to many, we need social media now more than ever. As we're holed up in our homes trying our best to not kill our immediate loved ones, (don't lie, you all know that thought will cross all your head sometime in the coming weeks and months), social media will enable us to reach out to our loved ones afar, our friends, colleagues, acquaintances and perfect strangers all over the world, all of whom will let us know we're not alone in our time of trial.

Despite the cliche, we're all in this together, and seeing folks in at least five continents outside of our own experiencing what we are, that is fighting a common enemy, may, just may help to in the long run help make the world a smaller place and bring us all a little closer together.

One can only hope in silver linings.

Much love from Chicago. Stay safe and well.

Friday, February 28, 2020

The More Things Change...

Coronavirus which is dominating the news cycle at the moment is a big deal. I've been poo pooing it for a few weeks now but have been informed in no uncertain terms that's wrong. There's nothing funny about the nearly 3,000 people who have died so far at this writing and the eighty plus thousand individuals around the world we know of who have contracted the disease. That's a lot of people, true a small percentage of all the people in the world, but that percentage surely will go up as so far there are no vaccines to stem the spread of the disease. By all indications it is a tremendously infectious virus whose end is nowhere in sight.

So by all means take every reasonable precaution. As a public service, here is a link to the site of the World Health Organization with some tips on what to do and also what not to help keep yourself and others safe.

Listening to the radio this morning I heard an epidemiologist with some dire warnings sharing much of the same advice you'll find on the WHO website. But he added another important bit of advice.

Don't panic.

It would appear that lots of people are not heeding that advice and are letting fear and ignorance get in the way of rational decision making. A while ago before the outbreak of the disease was made public, I saw a brilliant cartoon that describes much of the current state of the world. In the cartoon, a laboratory beaker with a substance labeled as "ignorance" is heated by a burner labeled as "fear". The resulting condensation of the vapor collected in an adjacent test tube was labelled "hate".

A couple days ago in my own city of Chicago, there was a group of good people who put together a public outing to patronize the restaurants of this city's Chinatown, as despite there not being one report of an infection here, those business saw a dramatic drop in business since news of the outbreak which began in China reached these shores.

I reiterate, Coronavirus is nothing to, pardon the pun, sneeze at. But that reaction in Chicago and elsewhere harkens back to a story my mother was told by the nuns when she was a child in Catholic school in the early forties. The story went something like this:

There was a high school couple who were ice skating on the frozen lagoon in Humboldt Park in Chicago, back in the day before climate change made that impossible. The girl fell on the ice and cut her lip. The boy used his handkerchief to help stop the bleeding. Shortly thereafter the girl contracted syphilis. As these were two good Catholic kids, they certainly could not have been up to any monkey business right? Certainly not. Fortunately for the reputation of the two, it turns out that the handkerchief had recently been laundered at a local Chinese laundry, most certainly the source of the dreaded disease which at the time, was still a few years away from a cure.

Mystery solved.

As absurd as that story is, it left an indelible mark on my mother and her classmates about Chinese people. Remember this was the time when we were sending American citizens of a particular ethnicity to concentration camps because we were at war with their ancestral relatives. And for no reason other than physical resemblance, some Americans had to assure their fellow countrymen that they were of Chinese ancestry not Japanese.

German Americans whose ancestral relatives were also at war us, and folks who merely resembled them did not have the same unfortunate experience.

Clearly there is a long history of bigotry in this nation and recent events have shown that not much has changed.

Now you might say I'm over-reaching, as the two stories are completely un-related. Coronavirus is highly contagious, transmitted through moisture droplets suspended in the air. In other words, you can get it through very casual contact with people while syphilis is only transmitted sexually. Coronavirus originated in China and that is where the majority of its victims live. You might say it only makes sense that limiting one's exposure to Chinese people is simply a matter of sensible risk management.

Fair enough.

But let me add that as of this writing, the country with the third highest total of Coronavirus infections is Italy.

I wonder if pizza restaurants are taking a hit.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Milwaukee Way

The most memorable scene from an otherwise forgettable movie was shot inside of one of Chicago's most spectacular interiors, the sanctuary of Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica on the West Side. The sacred space provides a brilliant contrast to the conversation that takes place. It's from Brian DePalma's 1987 The Untochables, and features Sean Connery as grizzled Chicago police officer Jim Malone, explaining to a still green FBI agent Elliot Ness, played by Kevin Costiner how things work in this city:.

"You wanna get Capone..." Malone says, "...here's how you get 'em. He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.

"That's, the Chicago Way."

I'm reminded of this by last week's train wreck of a debate in Nevada between six of the hopeful nominees for the Democratic candidate for president. With the exception of about 60 million Americans, the majority of people in this country would prefer to see another person taking the oath of office on the steps of the Capitol Building come January 20th of next year. Despite that, it's looking increasingly clear that's not going to happen.

And if things turn out as I fear, the Democrats, and everyone else who would like to see a change in the White House will have nobody to blame but themselves. Perhaps we should ask ourselves, like Mallone asks of Ness, "what are we willing to do to win this election?" It appears at least at this moment, not enough.

The real problem I fear is that the Democrats are doing everything in their power to lose the election, just as they did four years ago. For starters, there are the supporters of Bernie Sanders. As you may recall, in 2016 the current leader in the race for nomination lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton. So incensed by their man losing the nomination, many of his supporters chose to rather than vote for Clinton, sit out the election, or vote for a third party candidate. One might think that everyone would have learned the lesson that enough of them doing just that won the election for the current president. One would think wrong, I'm hearing much of the same uncompromising rhetoric from the Sanders camp that I heard during the last election. I'm convinced that a very significant number of Sanders supporters have no intention of voting for the Democratic candidate if it is anyone but Bernie.

Then there's the candidate himself. One of his rivals for the nomination, former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg said that win or lose the nomination, he will contribute a large portion of his fortune to the Democratic candidate in order to defeat the current president. Bernie Sanders has made it clear that if offered to him, he will turn down that money.

Well isn't that special.

If Sanders does win the nomination, his Republican opponent will have no such qualms about where his money is coming from. The sad fact is that money, and lots of it, is essential in winning an election in this country. The Supreme Court in its highly controversial 2010 ruling Citizen's United vs. FEC has guaranteed that.

Bloomberg who had not until last week participated in any debates and still has not run in any primary, has saturated social media and the air waves with commercials and memes promoting himself as the only candidate who can defeat the president. In the process he has already spent a fortune and his incredibly deep pockets as the eighth richest man in the world ensure he will have plenty more in reserve. Without having done the hard, nose to the grindstone work that his current rivals have, Bloomberg has still succeeded in developing a significant growing base of supporters. If Bloomberg is sincere about his pledge to donate money to the Democratic candidate win or lose, Sanders would be a fool to turn that offer down because if he is the nominee, he'll need all the help he can get.

I'll go on record here and say of the six people who stood upon that stage in Las Vegas last week, Bernie Sanders probably has the least chance of beating Donald Trump. "But look at the polls..." his supports insist, "... most of them have Sanders beating the president." Again we apparently haven't learned much of a lesson. Four years ago, by looking at the polls, the idea of Donald Trump being elected president was unimaginable.

There's good reason why this president has been relatively and uncharacteristically silent on the subject of Bernie Sanders. There's also a good reason why the man who probably knows this country, its politics, our habits and our foibles more than anyone else, Vladimir Putin, has chosen to root for Sanders to run against Trump.

The fact is that Sanders is the president's (and Putin's) dream opponent in the upcoming election, as Trump will have a field day if the 78 year old senior senator from Vermont gets the nod from the Democrats. Yes there will be all the rhetoric about Socialism and Communism, but never mind all that. What will really sink Sanders in the general election is his real if not well advertised plan to significantly raise taxes on the middle class and of course the rich. His justification is that the savings from his proposed one payer, universal health care and free college tuition plans will more than make up for the money lost to income tax. Well it might for some people but there are an awful lot of folks in this country who are satisfied with their current health insurance plans from work and/or don't have college age children. It's going to be a hard sell to convince all but the most altruistic of these people to vote for a candidate who promises to significantly raise their taxes while offering them little or nothing in return. Like it or not, self-interest plays a more significant role in determining whom to support in a presidential election than altruism.

Should Bernie win the nomination, you can count on the Republicans running ads featuring the likes of Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Nicholas Maduro, and scores of other Communist leaders past and present chanting slogans like "Death to Capitalism", "Death to Free Enterprise", and "Death to America", inter-cut between clips of Bernie advocating for Socialism, for the "Redistribution of Wealth" in this country, and having nice things to say about Fidel Castro. And for good measure, the ads will remind voters that Sanders plans to raise the income tax rate to ninety percent for every man, woman and child in the country.

It will all be bullshit of course, but very effective. Like a spectator hollering "He's Guilty!!" in the middle of a criminal trial, no matter how much a judge instructs the jury to disregard the comment, the damage will have been done. Those ads will piss off and scare the bejesus out of a great deal of folks who would otherwise vote for anyone but Trump.

I said above that Sanders is perhaps the least likely candidate of the six (I'm not counting Tulsi Gabbard and Tom Steyer who are technically still in the race but are extreme longshots) who could win in November. But frankly as things stand now, I don't see much hope in any of them bringing enough people together to beat Trump. I bemoaned that to a friend who works as a political strategist for the Democratic Party. Yes he told me, trying to find a silver lining, but that is only an indication of how diverse the Democrats are as a party. I suppose he's right, so long as by November 3rd, that diverse crowd is able to come together and at least during that one day, come to an agreement as to whom should be our next president or at the very least, who should not.

On the other hand, I looked at the six candidates standing together on that stage in Vegas. Yes there was some diversity there, and the election of any of them would be precedent setting. Two are women, we've never had a woman president, two are Jewish, we've never had a Jewish president, one is openly gay and we've never had an openly gay president. If elected, Pete Buttigieg  also would be by five years, the youngest president elected. At the other end of the spectrum, four of the six if elected would be the oldest president ever elected to a first term, and two of those, Sanders and Bloomberg will have beaten that record by a whopping eight years!

Yet something is obviously missing from that group and herein lies the biggest missed opportunity, there no candidate of color. For a party that claims diversity to match the diversity of this nation, that is utmost unthinkable. Yes indeed the road to the presidency is a long and arduous one, and political parties no longer deem from on high, well at least not entirely, who gets to be their standard bearer.

But as it stands, it will be nearly impossible for a Democrat to win the upcoming presidential election without a great deal of support from people of color. That's not to say a white candidate cannot attract the support and bring out the vote of minority communities. Up until a few months ago. it looked as if Joe Biden would be the president's most formidable opponent based largely upon his support in the African American community.  Then came that "perfect phone call" and the subsequent impeachment that in an alternate universe would have doomed the president. Instead it only bolstered his support and all but killed Joe Biden's life-long dream of being the principal occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Formidable as the odds of Trump winning a second term are, he's not a shoe in, not yet. It's true that he did win the electoral college by a landslide against Hillary Clinton in 2016 (while losing the popular vote by three millions votes), but in reality, turning around a few key states by a relatively few number of votes could very well turn the election around. Those states, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all have metropolitan centers with large minority populations. Black voters in cities such as Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Milwaukee came out to vote for Barack Obama in both of his successful elections. Foolishly Hillary Clinton chose to overlook this essential demographic in 2016.

Here is a recent article from the New Yorker speculating on how the African American population in the city of Milwaukee could play a pivotal role in the upcoming election. Despite living in desperate poverty in what is considered to be one of the worst places in America to be black, the article suggests that the current situation puts that population in a place of considerable political power, if everyone plays their cards right that is.

We can complain until the cows come home that the Electoral College is an unfair, undemocratic institution that was invented to appease slave holders and has no place in contemporary politics. However as long as one party feels it benefits them, there is no chance it will be gone anytime soon.

As much as we'd like the political process to be above board and pure, it is anything but. How wonderful it would be to simply debate issues and select the candidate we feel best represents our values and ideals. But when the opposition will stop at nothing, and I mean NOTHING to gain an advantage, the other side has to modify its ways and focus on winning above anything else. That's the only way it will happen.

It would be impossible to out-cheat or to go lower than the Republicans have of late. But given the vagaries of the Electoral College, there is a razor thin difference between winning and losing if you look in the right places. That Trump base we've heard so much about is formidable because they vote, but it's also static. Trump and the Republicans have made no efforts to expand it. Likewise the Democrats have a strong base who will not be moved. Most of them including myself would vote for a roll of paper towels before they'd vote for Donald Trump. In reality, there are probably very few Americans who are on the fence in the November election, the difference is getting the vast majority of of them who do not support this president out to vote for the only viable alternative, the Democratic candidate. Whomever that may be HAS to appeal to as diverse a population as possible, and for God's sake, will not forget places like the north side of Milwaukee.

Will the Democratic Party and opponents of this administration heed that advice?

If they don't it's going to be a very long and dangerous four more years for anyone who cares about this country and our democratic republic.

Let's not screw it up this time.

Friday, January 31, 2020

75 Years Ago

This week we observed a solemn event, the 75th anniversary of the Russian Army's liberation of Auschwitz, in present day Poland. As in my previous post, there is nothing of relevance I can add to this, other than my commitment to the only two words that matter in the context of the indelible symbol of the greatest atrocity anyone can remember.

Never again.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

A Difficult Legacy

The story of the Indigenous People of North America is tragic and complicated.  I wouldn't be doing it any justice by trying to sort out 500 years of deception, degradation, and genocide in one blog post, so I won't.

I bring this up after having been asked to photograph a handful of the several public monuments in Chicago with a Native American theme. Some of the monuments represent the Native American as a threat, others as useful contributors to Manifest Destiny. Some objectify their subjects as mythological icons, symbols of a noble, but lost culture. And a few represent Native Americans as actual people.

What these monuments all have in common, is they represent the vision of benefactors and artists of  European descent, not Native American.

They say that history is written by the victors, and there is probably no better example than the story of the Native American people. Until very recently, that story has been told almost exclusively by the white man. A tiny part of that is told on one of Chicago's most beloved landmarks, the bridge that takes Michigan Avenue over the Chicago River.

On each of the four towers from where bridge tenders controlled the raising and lowering of the massive double deck bascule bridge, are huge relief sculptures that commemorate important events in the history of this city. The first scene in chronological order (not pictured here)  is depicted on the northeast tower. The work of sculptor James Earle Fraser shows the French explorers Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, accompanied by a group of Native Americans who were guiding the two through the Chicago Portage, the shortest distance between the Chicago and Des Plaines River. This important patch of land into which would be dug canals that would ultimately connect the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River, is the reason the city of Chicago exists. Marquette and Joliet are so important to this region that second only to Abraham Lincoln, they are represented on more monuments in this town than anyone else. And they are always represented along with the Native Americans who guided them through their journeys. But that is a topic for another post.

"Defense", Henry Hering, 1928

Across the river and on the opposite side of the street is a relief called "Defense" by the noted sculptor Henry Herring, dedicated to one of the most horrific events in Chicago history, the Battle of Fort Dearborn, otherwise known as the Fort Dearborn Massacre. During the opening days of the War of 1812, after being ordered to evacuate the fort on the south bank of the river where the bridge currently stands, a small group of US soldiers and civilians headed south along the shore of  Lake Michigan en route to the nearest US garrison in Fort Wayne, Indiana. About two miles into their journey, the group encountered about 500 Potawatomi warriors, who were at the time allied with the British. The rest they say is history, the vastly outnumbered group retreating from the fort which included women and children, were all but wiped out. Culpability for the blood shed by innocent people depends upon who is telling the story. Interestingly, the description of this particular work in The Chicago Public Art Guide, an online publication of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events of the City of Chicago attempts to avoid controversy:
Fearing a British attack, the Fort's inhabitants are shown being led to safety by a Native American scout.
But if you look at the image above, this is clearly a wildly inaccurate description of the work.

Obviously this is a touchy subject illustrating the complexity of the relationship between Native Americans and the descendants of European immigrants who supplanted them. Another monument which portrays the event in far more graphic detail was removed from public view and indefinitely mothballed. I won't go into details because back in 2017, I wrote about the tragic event and the earlier monument by the sculptor Carl Rohl-Smith in detail. You can find it in the middle of this post, also on Chicago monuments.  

The other two bridge  towers depict the rebuilding of Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871, and Chicago's first white settler, John Kinzie. Emphasizing who was telling the story when the bridge was built, is the fact that the north landing of bridge sits exactly on the site where the first, (non-native) settler in Chicago set up his homestead, yet makes no mention of him nor his significance. That settler was Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a black man from Haiti. The city has recently made amends, re-naming the bridge after DuSable, and placing a bust of the Haitian fur trader in Pioneer Court, named in honer of both him and Kinzie.   

"A Signal of Peace": Cyrus Edwin Dallin, 1889
One can imagine that Cyrus Edwin Dallin's "A Signal of Peace", was at least in part an attempt to dissuade feelings of ambivalence many white people still had about Indigenous Americans at the time it was created. Dallin, living the dream of an American artist en la belle époque de Paris at the end of the nineteenth century, is said to have used Native Americans traveling with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in Europe as models for his archetypal portrait of a Sioux warrior appearing before one can assume representatives of the US Army. I think it's fair to say that the reaction to this work today would be different from when it was presented for display at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, at least in the fact that today we might consider the word "submission" as more appropriate than the word "peace" in the title. Still the situation of Native Americans was not lost at the time, at least not to Judge Lambert Tree, the man who acquired and donated the work to the City of Chicago. Upon presenting the sculpture to the Lincon Park Commissioiners, Tree indicated that he wanted a momument to "these simple un-tutored children of nature" because "it is evident there is no future for them except as they may exist as a memory in the sculptor's bronze and the painter's canvas."

In stark contrast is Ivan Mestrovic's dynamic duo of "The Bowman" and "The Spearman" that flank the two sides of Congress Avenue as it enters Grant Park.  

"The Spearman", left, and "The Bowman", right, Ivan Mestrovic, 1928

By the time these iconic monuments were created in the twenties, American society was already several decades removed from the bygone days where conflicts between white settlers and hostile Native Americans were part and parcel of settler life on the prairie. Decades earlier, depictions such as these would have sent shivers up the spines of white Americans who would have viewed these two as wild savages, (perhaps in our contemporary jargon, terrorists). rather than the noble, freedom-fighters defending their people and way of life that Mestrovic intended. Then as today, it all depends upon one's perspective. 

Playing upon the mythology of the American West that he certainly was made aware of through American Cowboy and Indian novels and movies exported to his homeland, these works by the Croatian artist famous for his monumental sculptures, portray their subjects as heroic warriors to be admired for their selfless, uncompromising valor, values we place upon them much in the way we give our sports teams names inspired by Native American culture.

The earliest of the works presented here, in fact one of the earliest public monuments in Chicago, is this portrayal of a Native American family and their dog originally titled "An Indian Family" but later re-named "The Alarm." The work was commissioned by one of Chicago's early elite, Martin Ryerson who in his youth allegedly made close bonds with members of the Ottawa Nation to whom this work is dedicated. On its base are inscribed in Ryerson's words:
To the Ottawa Nation of Indians, my early friends.

"The Alarm", John J. Boyle, 1884
The work's creator, Philadelphia born and Ecole des Beaux Arts educated, John J. Boyle, made a career of creating naturalistic portrayals of Native American people without Dullin's sentiment or Mestrovic's bombast. Also notable in Boyle's work is his depiction of Native American women which is indeed quite rare in monuments such as these.

The work many consider to be Boyle's masterpiece, is a sculpture in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park. That work portrays a standing Native American woman, baby at her breast, and another at her ankle. In her right hand she holds a hatchet, truly not a person to be messed around with. The treatment of its subject could almost fit within contemporary sensibilities were it not for its unfortunate title, "Stone Age in America."                                          

The respect these artists gave their subjects and the sincerity of the benefactors notwithstanding, from our 21st century viewpoint there is indeed something problematic with these works of art. Today it would be almost  inconceivable for a white artist to receive a major commission to create a monument devoted to Native Americans or other prominent minorities. Furthermore, it is nothing less than cringe-worthy to think of works of art devoted to preserve the memory of a race of people who are vanishing at the hands of the very people commissioning and making the art. 

Therefore it's not inconceivable that one day, a future generation may debate whether these works of art are appropriate for public display, just as we are debating the appropriateness of other public monuments today. Personally I would not support the removal of these works as they have become themselves parts of our city's history themselves, as well as powerful works of art to varying degrees.

That said,  I would welcome the debate as it will if handled properly, help serve to put these works of art from another era into their proper context, and help us all appreciate them for what they are, and for what they aren't.