Friday, August 31, 2018

Photographs of the Month

Bird Lady, Galesburg, IL, August 3

Classic Storefront, Galesburg, IL, August 4

West Town, August 8 

Classic Storefront, Pilsen, August 19

Rogers Park, August 24

North harbor Drive, August 25

Doves on a wire, Rogers Park, August 29

Rhyming History II: The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The "House Divided Speech" would remain intact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 20, 2018

50 Years Ago Today...

Prague August 21, 1968, Photograph by Josef Koudelka

I'll never forget the look on my father's face the evening of August 20, 1968, as the news of the Soviet invasion of his homeland, Czechoslovakia, started trickling over the radio. What had begun early that year as an experiement in social and economic reform, or as the leader of the country Alexander Dubček referred to it, "Socialism with a human face", ended in late summer as you see above, with Soviet tanks rumbling through the streets of Prague.

Soldiers from the USSR as well as Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria, entered the Czechoslovak capital the following day, no doubt under the impression that they were on a noble mission to liberate their fellow Warsaw Pact brethren from the evil grips of capitalism whose false promises of  bourgois prosperity had blinded their government into taking a stand against the workers' paradise that the glorious revolution had created.

One can only imagine the soldiers' amazement when ordinary citizens came out in full force onto the streets of Prague to challenge them. Soldiers of course, train to fight other soldiers on the battlefield, not civilians, including old people armed with nothing other than words, their fists, and their rage. In his remarkable series of photographs, one of the few visual documents we have of the event, Josef Koudelka captured not only dramatic moments like the one above of a young man defiantly waiving the Czechoslovak flag while standing on top of a Soviet tank, but also banality as portrayed in the faces of Warsaw Pact troops, most of them just beyond puberty, bewildered by the absurdity of the situation in which they found themselves. A gallery of Josef's photographs on the invasion can be found here.

Absurdity is a central theme of the work of writer and dramatist. Vaclav Havel, whose work became known to much of the Czechoslovak people during the brief period of openness in 1968, popularly referred to as Prague Spring.

After the invasion, Havel at great risk to his safety not to mention his personal freedom, became a dissident who wrote extensively about totalitarianism in Czechoslovakia. Here I've borrowed a couple sections from my tribute to Havel written shortly after his death in 2011. Havel's words are in italics:
The fifties were a difficult time in Czechoslovakia. Havel wrote about the conflicting currents that defined life in those years. The revolution brought with it for some, excitement and hope for the future: 
Building sites were swarming with tens of thousands of young enthusiasts of the new faith singing songs of socialist construction. 
While at the same time: 
In the fifties there were enormous concentration camps in Czechoslovakia filled with tens of thousands of innocent people... There were tortures and executions, dramatic flights across borders.
As bad as all that was, Havel wrote that at the time, there was at least some sort of meaning to all the madness: 
The songs of idealists and fanatics, political criminals on the rampage, the suffering of heroes-these have always been part of history. The fifties were a bad time in Czechoslovakia, but there have been many such times in human history. It still shared something, or at least bore comparison with those other periods; it still resembled history. No one could have said that nothing was happening, or that the age did not have its stories.
After the invasion, life did not exactly return to pre-Spring days. Here is Havel in 1987, contrasting the totalitarianism backed with an ideology of the fifties, with a totalitarianism whose only purpose was self-preservation of the post-Prague Spring:
... the powers that be really did learn a lesson from the Prague Spring. They discovered how far things can go when the door to a plurality of opinions and interests is opened: the totalitarian system itself is jeopardized. Having learned this lesson, political power set itself a single aim: self-preservation. In a process with its own, mindless dynamic, all the mechanisms of direct and indirect manipulation of life began to expand and assume unprecedented forms. Henceforth nothing could be left to chance.
After the invasion of 1968, Czechoslovkia was swept up into a period of inertia (the official term for it was normalization), that lasted until November 28, 1989 when it was discovered the walls holding up the regime were made of glass, with nothing inside left to support them. The fall of the Czwchoslovak Communisr regime was called the Velvet Revolution, as not a drop of blood was spilled, and the Czechoslovak people elected none other than Vaclav Havel to be their new president. 

It would be nice to say that is all behind us and everyone lived happily ever after, but that is simply not the fate of the human condition. Soon after the Velvet Revolution, Czechoslovakia was no more, as Slovakia in the east, split from the Czech Republic in 1993. The Soviet Union is no more either but rumblings coming from Moscow over the past deecade or so seem to indicate that there is considerable nostalgia for the good ol' days of Russian hegemony over the countries who used to be behind what was once ominously referred to as the "Iron Curtain."

Most recently the unthinkable has happened. The current president of the United States has openly declared his admiration for the dictator of Russia. The jury is still out on exactly how much this president likes that dictator, exactly where that admiration comes from, and even more unthinkable, whether or not the dictator of Russia might have some dirt on the President of the United States, enabling him to exert considerable influence over him. Regardless of the verdict, there is a palpable and justifiable fear in Western and Central Eurpoe, especially among the countries formerly under the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, that the United States no longer has their backs.

On top of all that speculation, what is crystal clear is that the POTUS has openly declared the free press, well at least the part of it who does not show its unfailing loyalty to him, the "enemy of the people."

There is certainly an ominous precedent for that; I don't have to enumerate it in all its ugly iterations. Interestingly enough, it has been stated that perhaps the greatest threat to the Soviet Union posed by the reforms of Prague Spring which led to the invasion, was the relaxation of governmental censorship of the press.

We have no further to look than Josef Koudelka, whose photographs of the people of Prague resisting Soviet tanks, as I said one of the few visual documents we have of the invasion, were not released to the public for several months after the event. Koudelka processed the film and printed the negatives in hiding, and had the finished work smuggled out of the country to be published as the work of P.P. (Prague Photographer). Shortly thereafter he left his country and lived in exile for twenty years. It was only after returning home after the Velvet Revolution that Koudelka claimed responsibility for his pictures.

Here is a film published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in 2008, that tells the story from the viewpoint of individuals who were on both sides of the tanks during the invasion, inside and out. The film describes the importance to both sides of the Prague offices of Czchoslovak Radio, the last "source of uncensored news":

It would do us well on this anniversary, to remember our own country's long and imperfect history of justice, liberty, democracy, and a free press.

We take these things for granted, which is a terrible mistake.

Listening to the words of people like Vaclav Havel and seeing the images of Josef Koudelka can only remind us of how much we have to lose.

Above all, take heed of a memory of the Czech woman in the film, Ivana Dolezalova, whose thoughts on the urgency of protecting the offices of Czechoslovak Radio bear repeating:
Once they get hold of the media, the country (will) pretty much be lost.
Because hard as it may be to conceive, something like this could in fact happen here, if we as a people don't care enough to prevent it.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Aretha Franklin

They called her "The Queen of Soul", an apt title to be sure. But at the same time it's woefully inadequate, kind of like calling the land formation in northern Arizona, The Grand Canyon. It is a canyon to be sure, and it's grand, there's no denying that, but it's so much more.

Consider this: in 1965 Otis Redding, the man called "The King of Soul" by many, wrote and recorded a song called Respect. In his hands it was a straight-ahead playful little number about a man asking his woman for a little respect when he comes home after a hard day's work, He didn't care what she did during the day, heck, she could even "do him wrong", as long as she gave him his due when he got home. The hook in Redding's version is his cheerful "hey hey hey" playing off a nine note riff from the horn section in the refrain. Granted it's not Redding's best work, for him it's almost a throw-away song, although it did become a hit.

When Aretha Franklin got her hands on the song a couple years later, she turned it on its head. She didn't ask her partner for respect, she demanded it.

The new hook was the call and and respnse between the lead and the backup vocals provided by Franklin's sisters Carolyn and Erma. All my years in the darkroom listening to oldies music provided me the opportunity to learn the backup vocals (I'd never dare sing the lead) to a point where I was convinced that I could have filled in for Carolyn or Erma should the need have ever arisen during one of Aretha's tours.

If you'll just indulge me for a moment:
Aretha: all I'm askin' is for a little respect when you get home
Carolyn, Erma & me:  just a little bit 
Aretha: Hey Baby,
Carolyn, Erma & me:  just a little bit,
Aretha: when you get home 
Carolyn, Erma and me:  just a little bit,
Aretha: Mister 
Carolyn, Erma and me:  just a little bit, 
Of course the poor schmo the song is addressed to doesn't get the point so Franklin, her sisters and I have to spell it out for him:
Aretha: R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.R-E-S-P-E-C-T,take care, TCB, oh
Carolyn, Erma and me: sock-it-to-me sock-it-to-me sock-it-to-me sock-it-to-me sock-it-to-me 
Aretha: A little respect 
Carolyn, Erma and me: sock-it-to-me sock-it-to-me sock-it-to-me sock-it-to-me sock-it-to-me  
Aretha: Whoa, babe 
Carolyn, Erma and me:  just a little bit, 
Aretha: A little respect 
Carolyn, Erma and me:  just a little bit,
Aretha: And I ain't lyin' 
Carolyn, Erma and me:  just a little bit, 
Carolyn, Erma and me: Re, re, re, re 
Aretha: Start when you come home 
Carolyn, Erma and me: Re, re, re, respect 
Aretha:  Or you might walk in 
Carolyn, Erma and me:  just a little bit,
Aretha:  And find out I'm gone  
Carolyn, Erma and me:  just a little bit, 

Like every song Aretha Franklin ever performed, she made this one entirely her own. In interviews she insisted Respect was nothing more than one half of a dialog between a woman and her man, but her fans knew better. In her hands, Respect instantly became an anthem both for the women's movement as well as the Civil Rights movment.

I'm not aware if Aretha Franklin ever sang an overtly political song, (although she did cover Sam Cooke's great lament A Change is Gonna Come). She didn't have to. Just like Respect, people got the message when she repeatedly cried out the word "Freedom" in a song she wrote titled simply, Think.

As we've been celebrating her life that we lost this week, listening to songs she recorded during her amazing career, so many of them bring back memories and could easily be considered my essential Aretha Franklin song. It was hard to pick out one to feature on this post but I came up with a song that turned out to be her breakout number from 1967. Hard to believe but by that time, still only 25, Franklin had already recorded nine albums for Columbia Records, none of them commercially successful. The impressrio at that label, John Hammond, who was largely responsible for making the careers of folks like Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Bob Dylan to name a few, just couldn't quite get it right with Franklin, perhaps trying and failing to make her fit into a mold that worked so well for him before. When Franklin's Columbia contract expired, she signed with Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records who made the wise decision of letting her be herself and exploit the solid Gospel music background that formed the backbone of her prodidgious talent.

She brought this song, written by Ronnie Shannon to her first session at Atlantic which took place at the storied FAME recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The story goes that Franklin sat down at the grand piano and the session pianist Spooner Oldham was so taken by her playing that he moved over to the electric keyboard. You can hear him in the opening bars of the tune. Among the other session players who played with Franklin on her first album for Atlantic (also named I Never Loved a Man the Way that I Love You) was the great King Curtis on tenor sax.

Like any great performer of popular music no matter what the genre, Franklin is able to directly touch the heart of her listener. This song in particular, she lays bare just about every conceivable emotion from pain, agner and sadness, to joy and exultation. Anybody who has ever been in love with someone in a difficult relationship (and aren't they all?) can instanntly relate. There are other versions of this song but I have no interest in hearing them as I can't imagine anyone bringing more to it than Aretha Franklin did.

My first memory of Aretha Franklin was alomst fifty years ago to the day, August 26, 1968 to be exact. My family was in the process of moving and during one of our numerous trips between Humboldt Park in the city to our new digs in the suburb of Oak Park, her voice came over the radio as she sang the Star Spangled Banner to officially open the Chicago Democratic National Convention, yes that one. Like every song she ever sang, she made it her own, much to the consternation of several in the hall and elsewhere who were not used to a soulful rendition of that song, including my dad who was mildly appalled. Strangely enough, as we were so engrossed in our move, it is my only direct memory of that turbulent time in my city's history.

By that time, still only 26, Aretha Franklin had already been proclaimed the Queen of Soul, and that performance, admittedly not her best as she flubbed some of the lyrics, didn't slow down her career one bit. In fact her status as American royalty, or as close to it as you can get, meant that she was asked to perform the national anthem dozens of times for significant occasions during her illustirous career. The last time was on November 24, 2016 in her hometown, during the tradional Detroit Lions  nationally televised Thanksgiving Day football game. Despite being advanced in age and already diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Franklin's voice was hardly diminished as she performed perhaps the longest and most soulful rendition of that song ever. Again she had her detractors but I think the general mood of the country by that time was that Aretha Franklin represented this country and what it stands for better than the first verse of an an overwrought ballad with racist tones set to an English drinking song.

Taking a very basic survey asking two people, one of a generation older, my mother, and the other, a generation younger, a colleague at work, I came to the conclusion that Aretha Franklin's is not a timeless voice in the way that say Ella Fitzgerald is or perhaps the Beatles are. Hers is the voice of a particular time and place. Picking a song to represent her may have been a challenge, but it's no challenge to pick the essential voice of my generation. In an era filled with notable candidates, a pantheon of performing artists whose work could easily be chosen to fill the role as the voice of a generation, and will gladly tell you so themselves, one voice stands above the rest. Aretha Franklin's powerful, unrelenting voice was the heart, the soul and the consciousness of  my generation who came of age during the sixties and early seventies.

No mere pantheon of music's greatest stars could ever contain Aretha Franklin, she was that good.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Stars and Bars

We live in a bubble up here in Chicago. All the more so for me as I work in the art world, where the vast majority of people I come in contact with on a daily basis are a pretty homogenous group, politically speaking that is.

The last time our family took a road trip out of town was two summers ago, during the 2016 election. Taveling through rural Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, I expected to see scores of bumper stickers and posters supporting Donald Trump for president. Even though the people in the areas we passed through voted overwhelmingly for the current president, much to my surprise during the hundreds of miles we covered on that trip, I could have counted on one hand the number of folks who publicly displayed their pro-Trump sentiments, and still had a finger or two to spare.

This past weekend we took a short trip downstate, to visit a college with our son. The city, Galesburg, IL. and the school, Knox College were founded concurrently by the same man, George Washington Gale, a Presbyterian abolitionist. The first anti-slavery society in Illinois was founded in Galesburg and the city was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Galesburg wears its Lincoln heritage on its sleeve. It was there in front of the building known as Old Main on the Knox campus, where the fifth of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln and Steven Douglas took place on October 7, 1858. (More on that in a subsequent post). Throughout the town and especially on campus, there are likenesses of the 16th president practically everywhere you turn, so much so that I asked our student tour-guide if she ever became a little weary of all the Lincoln hagiography. She diplomatically kept her cards close to her vest.

If that weren't enough, Galesburg was also the birthplace of the poet and author Carl Sandburg who wrote the most exhaustive biography of Lincoln ever: two volumes alone devoted to "The Prairie Years", and four, count 'em, four to "The War Years."

Clearly Galesburg has serious historical street-cred when it comes to the cause of American progressive politics.

Despite that, I wasn't surprised to find Trump posters and bumper stickers scattered here and there around town. I get it, Galesburg, like just about every other municipality in this part of the country has seen better days. The Maytag refrigerator plant moved out of town in 2004, about a decade after the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, and took with it about 5,000 well paying jobs, representing one sixth of the population of the city. The company re-located its plant just across the Rio Grande from Hidalgo, Texas to the city of Reynosa, in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico. There, factory workers who now build Maytag refrigerators earn on average, $1.50 per hour, about one tenth of what their counterparts made in Galesburg.

Donald Trump campaigned hard on the issue of NAFTA and the disastrous effects it had on American blue collar jobs, while Hillary Clinton all but ignored the struggling blue collar workers of this country. It's not hard to see how Trump's slogan "make America great again", played in a city that could be the poster child for all that is wrong with free trade. And it's not at all difficult to understand why Donald Trump won more votes than Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election in countless places like Galesburg.

What is a little hard to understand is why, underneath the Stars and Stripes on the flagpole in front of a business platestered with Trump posters, as well as a few other locations around town, a Confederate flag flapped in the breeze.

The flag, specifically the Confederate battle flag, has been a point of contention for a long time, but the issue came to a head after a white supremacist slaughtered nine members of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. in 2015 after the victims warmly welcomed the killer into their church. After his arrest, authorities gained access to his website which included photographs of the murderer posing with symbols of white supremacy, including a Confederate battle flag. That incident sparked the movement to remove that flag from display from all government property in the south. It was time many people felt, to put the hurtful symbol of oppression for so many people, to rest.

Not surprisingly, that movement ignited a controversy among those who believe that flag is an enduring symbol of Southern pride and culture, both the good and the bad of it. Again, I get, well sort of, why white Southerners feel strongly about that symbol of their complicated history. My question is this: what does it mean when Northerners, especially deep in the heart of Lincoln country fly that flag, especially in tandem with a Trump sign?

I can hear all my liberal friends answer that question with a resounding "well duh." It is in fact quite hard for me to come up with any explanation other than the obvious one: it's because they're racists.

Giving them the benefit of the doubt however, I'll throw out a few other possibilities:
  • Could be the people flying the flags are transplanted Southerners, homesick for the feel of soft southern winds in the live oak trees, good ol' boys like Thomas Wolfe and those Williams boys, Hank and Tennessee. (With sincerest apologies to the memory of the great Don Williams) 
  • Perhaps the Confederate flag flyers are staunch anti-Federalists, who buy into the myth that the Civil War was not about slavery at all, but about denfending states' rights to determine their own destiny against the tyranny of the federal government. 
  • Or it could be simply this: flying the Confederate battle flag is nothing more than one big "fuck you" to us left wing snowflakes who refuse to accept the fact that Donald Trump is our president. Personally I think this is the most credible explanation outside of the obvious one. 
The problem with these explanatonns is that no matter how hard you try, you simply can't explain away the underlying scourges to humanity that flag represents, namely intolerance, oppression, racism, and of course, human bondage. Hillary Clinton made a huge gaffe when she declared a large swath of Trump supporters to be "deplorables." That move backfired as a great many Trumpers picked up that devisive term as a badge of honor for themselves, much as religious groups adopted names like Quaker, Methodist and Lutheran, which were originally unflattering pejorative terms used against them by critics. The difference is that the Trump supporters Clinton was describing, namely KKK members, Neo-Nazis, and other white supremacists, by any reasonable standard, are truly deplorable. By proudly referring to themselves as "the deplorables" Trump supporters are unwittingly or not, either equating themselves with these groups or expressing solidarity with them.

One of the big lies that the Trump camp keeps propagating in an attempt to refute the idea that they may be racist, is to equate themselves with the Republican Party of the past, the party of Lincoln the Great Emancipator. Conversely the Deomcrats are the party of slavery and Jim Crow. Gullible people who have absolutly no understanding of US history over the past 150 years, fall for that nonsense, hook, line and sinker. While the roles of the two American political parties had shifted 180 degrees a century after the Civil War, the coup de grace came on July 2, 1964, when a Democratic President from Texas,  Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law what he hoped would be his enduring legacy, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 which put an end, at least on paper, to discrimination in this country on the basis of race, religion, sex or nation of origin. That evening, a somber Johnson confided to his then staffer,  journalist Bill Moyers:
I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come,
Never have words coming out of a president's mouth been so prophetic.

Then there are the words coming out of the current president's mouth. Time and again during his presidency he has had the opportunity to bring people of different races and nationalities together, and time and again he has chosen to do exactly the opposite.

His latest episode was an imbecilic tweet reacting to a TV interview of basketball star LeBron James, conducted by CNN journalist, Don Lemon. In the interview about James's charitable work in opening up a school for underprivileged kids, both men who happen to be African American, expressed exasperation with Trump, to which the President of the United States responded:
Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do.
Add Lemon and James to a long and growing list of African American individuals whose intelligence has been publicly questioned by this president. In a measured response, Lemon said this:
Referring to African Americans as dumb is one of the oldest canards of America's racist past.
A long time ago, President Johnson, again speaking with Bill Moyers, de-constructed America racism in a slightly more colorful way:
If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you.
As far as Galesburg is concerned, no, the town didn't shrivel up and die as some predicted it would after Maytag moved out. Businesses that benefited from free trade, such as the railroads which were always a major player in town, and distribution centers, began to fill the void left by the loss of the manufacturing jobs. That's not to say that things have returned to where they were before Maytag pulled the plug, not by a long shot, but things are looking up. Barack Obama visited Galesburg several times before and during his presidency. Looking toward the future, he advocated for the expansion and development of industries with a future such as solar and wind based energy. On our drive to Galesburg, we passed several flat bed trucks, each carrying a single enormous wind turbine blade, supplying the numerous wind farms we passed along the way.

Meanwhile President Obama's successor is advocating for the revival of moribund industries like coal, and instituting tariffs that are little more than a detriment to many up and coming new industries. He has also, time and again, aligned himself with the same types of individuals who sold out the city of Galesburg by putting the wants of stockholders ahead of the needs of their fellow Americans, people whose labor made them rich in the first place. Free trade may have created a conduit for greedy individuals and corporations looking for the big payday, to easily pull up stakes and leave communities high and dry, but it certainly did not necessitate the move as the current president would suggest.

Regardless of how you feel about the current president, if to you, the sentiment of making America great means a country where anyone can earn a living wage without necessarily going into years and years of college debt, as well as a country where there is truly liberty and justice for all, then I'm with you one hundred percent.

If on the other hand that slogan to you means taking America back to a time when women and people of color knew their place, say, back before the stars and bars flew over Dixie, well that's where we part company. You sir are a part of the problem, not the solution.

If you truly feel that way then you could not care less what I have to say, but it may behoove you to heed those words of President Johnson's.

Above all, don't forget to check your pockets.