1000 Words: Unforgivable

Big Mike’s Note: This might appear, at first glance, to be a sports story. It’s much more than that.

The two most villainous players to don National Football League uniforms this century have both been black men.

The two men are quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Michael Vick. In 2007, the latter pleaded guilty in criminal court of hosting a dog fighting ring on his property. He spent 21 months in federal prison, missing two years in the prime of his career. After his release, he signed on with the Philadelphia Eagles, won Comeback Player of the Year and was named to the Pro Bowl. He continued throwing passes and rushing for yardage until his career ended after the 2015 season. It’s a safe bet many football fans today don’t even remember that he’s a convicted felon and helped run a brutal, cruel enterprise.

The former has not played football since 2016. A scant three years before that he’d led the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl. He was a competent passer and might have expected to have a long career extending ten more years. Many quarterbacks like him have played until they were 39 or 40. Kaepernick last threw an NFL pass when he was 29 years old.

Problem was, he’d committed an unforgivable sin.

Kaepernick’s crime was far more horrifying than Michael Vicks’s, at least in the eyes of the NFL’s decision makers. See, he’d had the evil within him to kneel while the national anthem was played before his team’s games during the 2016 season. He’d hoped to bring attention to the rash of police shootings of unarmed black men and to raise awareness of police brutality and of racial injustice and oppression in the United States.

To make matters worse, Kaepernick sported a magnificent Afro, surely dredging up memories within the rich, old white men who run the NFL of dangerous, uncontrollable black men from the 1960s and ’70s. Think of the Black Panthers in 1967 or an angry Bobby Seale, bound and gagged during the 1970 Chicago Eight trial.

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Towering, in-your-face Afros for more than 50 years have been symbols of pride for Black people and of terror for most whites.

By the way, that rash of police officers killing unarmed black men has continued unabated to this day. And systemic, institutionalized racism and oppression similarly have continued uninterrupted.

Vick and Kaepernick have not been the only NFL players to be suspended or otherwise disciplined by the league for their criminal or anti-social actions. Since the turn of this century, the number of pro football players who’ve been caught on camera, accused of, charged with, and/or convicted of battering women is astounding. The number of NFL players who’ve been found to grab, squeeze, fondle or otherwise sexually assault women is equally astounding.

Many of the players found to commit these acts were welcomed back with open arms after they’d served grudging punishments.

In fact, one fellow, quarterback Deshaun Watson, in the last two years has been sued by some two dozen women for sexual harassment and sexual assault. He has agreed to financial settlements in 20 of those cases. Nevertheless, This past offseason, he was traded to the Cleveland Browns and signed to a five-year contract for $230 million, one of the most lucrative deals in NFL history.

As soon as Watson completes an 11-game suspension and pays a $5 million fine, he will be free to return to the playing field. Meanwhile, fans in Cleveland eagerly await his first game in the team’s uniform. A number of fans, before and during Browns games this season, have worn shirts, displayed placards, and even set up displays of mannequins with erections in support of Watson.

It’s a good bet he’ll play in the NFL until he’s nearly 40 years old.

This year, Colin Kaepernick is 34 years old, meaning he might have had another six years to ply his trade as a quarterback, had he not committed his unforgivable sin.

Quarterback Brett Favre played in the NFL until he was 41 years old. During his last year in the NFL, Favre was accused of sending sexually suggestive texts and photos of his genitals to a female employee of one of the teams he played for. The NFL investigated the charges and Favre not only refused to cooperate in certain aspects of it but actually lied to investigators. The league fined him $50,000 for lying but claimed to find no evidence that he’d engaged in inappropriate workplace behavior.

I can’t imagine too many football fans remembering that stretch of Favre’s career.

In any case, Favre was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Now an elder statesman of the game, Favre finds himself in hot water. In 2020, the FBI began investigating a series of misallocations of federal funds intended to benefit the poor in Favre’s home state of Mississippi. The state’s former governor, Phil Bryant, has been implicated in the scandal. As has Brett Favre. Thus far, investigators have uncovered millions of dollars in payouts to Favre for speaking engagements he didn’t show up at, financing for a business he’d invested in, and the building of a gymnasium for a school Favre’s daughter attended, all from those federal welfare funds, and none of which, allegedly, were legal.

The state has sued Favre for his part in orchestrating this scam. One piece of evidence turned up by investigators was a text message sent by Favre to his friend, the former governor. It read: “If you were to pay me is there anyway the media can find out where it came from and how much?” (sic)

The scandal has received a fraction of the attention Kaepernick’s did in 2016. Favre continues to enjoy his status as an elder statesman of the game.

Favre (L) and Donald Trump, whom he endorsed for President in 2020.

Here’s what we now know: The crimes and misdemeanors of watching dogs kill each other for sport, for physically abusing women, for sexually molesting women, for sending unwelcome sexually suggestive texts to co-workers, and for stealing money from the poor to pay for vanity projects and personal investments are all excusable.

Kneeling during the national anthem is not.

1000 Words: Useless

Loyal Pencillistas are well aware that I am the last human being on this planet who does not own a smartphone. I am the proud possessor of a flip phone. Not terribly long ago, I went into the Verizon store to report my phone wasn’t taking a charge well anymore. When I whipped out my flip phone the clerk recoiled, ever so slightly, as if I’d pulled a tarantula out of my pocket.

Certain tribespeople from the deep Amazon rainforest, members of isolated societies that have had scarce contact with the modern world, would snicker upon being told I own and use this thing:

I’ve already run the laundry list of reasons I don’t want to get re-reeled into the smartphone opium den but, for those not in the know, here they are again:

  • I have no desire to be tethered to the internet 24 hours a day
  • I am neither a neurosurgeon, US Air Force nuclear wing commander, nor 911 emergency call answerer so there’s no need for me to be in constant communication with anyone
  • I do not need or want a news feed that reminds me incessantly what an insufferable pack of idiots we humans are
  • I struggle with certain addictions already and do not need another
  • I won’t have my brain wiring altered

That enough for you? Oh wait, here’s one more: I’m not an obedient, easily malleable consumer.

There. That oughtta be enough of an argument for anyone who thinks my eschewing of the device is idiosyncratic. Well, it is idiosyncratic, but in a healthy, rebellious way, not in a Jeez, is that guy psychotic or what? way.

People might say that if I had kids I’d long ago have jumped on the device bandwagon but I’d like to think I’d be even more anti-smartphone. Trust me, all these generations of kids with smartphones who are shackled to their parents’ smartphones are in line for years of expensive shrink sessions trying to understand why they can’t individuate yet at the age of 42. Either that or they’ll have long been dead because they’d been smushed by a car when crossing the street while staring obliviously into their screens for the latest Harry Styles news.

Styles

And see? I don’t have a smartphone and I know who Harry Styles is. I know, bizarre, right?

Now let me explain that “re-reeled” reference five grafs above. I owned a smartphone for a short period of time five or six years ago. That fact that I felt a constant impulse to go to it during conversations, while driving, while evacuating my bowels, when waking up in the middle of the night, while eating — you know better than I do, you smartphones users — scared the crap out of me. I felt as though I was losing touch with time and place. There was, in fact, no more here and now for me; everything was there and then.

Not only that, I cracked the screen within the first year of owning the thing. Replacement phones ranged from a few hundred dollars for a cheap knock-off to well over a grand for the real thing. Like I said, I’m no obedient consumer. I’d rather spend that kind of dough on pizza and a certain botanical.

In any case, I got to thinking about this mania we have for technology and devices when our new range was installed. The manual for it runs to nearly a hundred pages. I wanted to boil a kettle of water for my morning coffee and had to stop because — swear to god — you need to program the stovetop. Not only that, the thing has remote capability.

I thought, For pity’s sake, people are too lazy to haul their huge butts off the sofa to turn the burner on or off?! And, believe me, my butt is as wide as it can get and I can barely walk thanks to hip arthritis and several other obstacle-ish maladies but I get up off my titanic derriere to turn the burner on or off.

See? Technology. Just because something’s possible doesn’t mean it’s needed. It’s like self-driving cars. I read all these articles about how it’s possible and it’s coming and I say, Why?

Take self-service check-out at the grocery store. I never recall anyone saying, My god, I can’t bear standing there while the clerk scans my tomatoes! If only I could do it myself. Nevertheless, Kroger and Publix and Meijer and Target and all the rest sank gobs of dough into the technology — not because they were wringing their hands over our convenience and comfort, but because they wanted to reduce labor costs. For that, read: cut jobs.

There are always unintended consequences from emerging technologies. Do you think Lenoir and Otto mused, when they were inventing their internal combustion engines, Hmm. I wonder if this machine may one day alter the planet’s climate to the extent that it threatens the existence of millions of species?

The parking meters in my fair adopted town of Bloomington, Indiana more and more are becoming programmable, meaning they won’t take coins or bills or credit cards but will only work with smartphones. The world is turning into a device-industrial complex. Even if an idiosyncratic nudge like me wants to thumb my nose at smartphone technology, I’ll still have to join up if I want to park my car somewhere.

To this date, if you have any mental capacity whatsoever, you keep a small pile of coins in your car so you can feed the meter. That’s not too onerous a practice. Again, it’s not as if the multitudes have been shaking their fists and shrieking for remote technologies to free them from the ordeal of carrying currency.

And here’s the kicker: the company that runs Bloomington’s smartphone-activated meters says you can use the meters even if you don’t have a smartphone. Simply use its “automated phone system.” Only you’ll have to determine the correct local phone number by consulting its website, pre-register online, and complete the process by using the company’s app. In other words, you need a goddamned smartphone!

Somebody’s benefitting from all this and it ain’t necessarily me.

1000 Words: Just Say No

Robert Reich was the Secretary of Labor Under President Bill Clinton back in the 1990s. Clinton was the grand marshall of the neo-liberal, conservative-leaning Democrat parade that has swept the nation in the last few decades.

Oh sure, you might argue that Jimmy Carter was the first Democratic president to take the Oath wearing an erstwhile Republican tuxedo. But Carter was a piker compared to Clinton. And Clinton turned out to be an elementary schooler compared to the people who steer the Dems these days.

As a reminder of the shift in our country from something resembling centrism to a distinct Rightist nation, here are some of the planks in the Republican national platform, approved at the 1956 GOP national convention:

  • The federal government must continue to provide economic assistance to low-income communities
  • The United States should provide asylum for refugees from other countries
  • The minimum wage should be protected in the future and raised right now
  • Unemployment assistance should cover more people
  • There should be tougher laws ensuring more people can join labor unions
  • Women should receive equal pay for equal work

For pity’s sake, some of these planks are too far to the Left even for certain Democrats these days!

Robert Reich

Back to Reich. He was the most Left-leaning of all the people Clinton brought to the White House with him in 1993. Clinton was the Right’s worst nightmare: a charismatic, Southern, pro-business, free-marketer who’d drain votes from the more reasonable edge of the Republican Party. Which he did. In the 1980s, the possibility that a Democrat like Bill Clinton might one day emerge so terrified the plutocracy that certain high-rollers actually strategized and bankrolled a smear campaign against whomever that bete noir might turn out to be. Lo and behold, Clinton popped up in the very early 1990s. That campaign was swung into immediate action, as elucidated by journalists Joe Conason and Gene Lyons in their 2001 book, The Hunting of the President.

Clinton was my last choice among the nine contenders and pretenders for the Dem nomination in ’92. At the time, I reasoned if I wanted a Republican president, I’d vote for a Republican. The GOP tuxedo fit Clinton extremely well throughout his eight-year run as the Leader of the Free World and America’s chief horn dog.

Reich, though, alone among the Clinton Cabinet and other contemporary Dem standard-bearers, steadfastly kept the liberal, even Leftist, flame alive. As time went by during Clinton’s term, the Prez became less and less patient with the labor sec’y’s Leftness. In 1997, after Clinton was inaugurated for a second term, Reich handed in his resignation saying he wanted to Spend More Time with His Family, traditional code for I was gonna be fired but the boss let me quit first.

After leaving the Clinton Cabinet, Reich found work in academia, first as a professors at Brandeis University, then at the University of California-Berkeley. He’d already served as an instructor, back in the ’80s, at Harvard University, where he gained his national rep. as a super liberal. In fact Reich as a kid had been bullied because he was so short (he’s 4’11”, a symptom of multiple epiphyseal dysplasia). He was protected by an older kid named Michael Schwermer, who’d go on to international fame as one of the three northern civil rights workers murdered by Ku Klux Klan members in Mississippi in 1964. The care Schwermer offered him inspired Reich. He devoted himself to, in his words, “fight the bullies, to protect the powerless, to make sure that the people without a voice have a voice.”

There hasn’t been a white guy with such chops in a presidential administration since Reich handed in his resignation.

Reich wrote a book about his time in the Clinton Administration, entitled Locked in the Cabinet. In it, he characterized the Democratic Party as being “owned” by Big Business. Not much later he even repudiate his own work in pushing for congressional passage of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) that’d been opposed by organized labor. I’ve always liked people who can change their minds and admit they’ve been wrong.

Anyway, Reich puts out an eponymous Substack blog. Today he writes about being invited to appear on a Dr. Phil episode. You may recall Dr. Phil. He was one of the many self-described experts pushed into the national consciousness by Oprah Winfrey. Most of them either turned out to be, or were from the get-go, as tethered to reality as palm readers or faith healers. Think Rhonda Byrne or Dr. Oz.

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One of the producers of Dr. Phil’s show contacted Reich and asked him to guest on an upcoming program dealing with some kind of perceived edge being given, these days, to people of color in the workplace, in schools, and in every corner of America. The producer, naturally, assumed Reich’d be skeptical of such a conceit. Surely there’d be fireworks if Reich appeared on the show.

TV producers and their sisteren and brethren, professional click-baiters, love fireworks. As many researchers into the effects of social media have found of late, strife, disagreement, grievance, and rage not only are great for business, they are actually changing the wiring of our minds.

To Reich’s credit, he has turned the Dr. Phil offer down. He writes:

I’m sending my regrets.

My bigger regret is that the national conversation is in the hands of producers chasing ratings and advertising dollars, with no regard for how they’re distorting the public’s understanding of what’s important or the core choices lying ahead.

Imagine that! Someone is actually refusing to go on national television to explain to millions of people how smart he is, how right he is about some chosen topic, and how people who disagree with him are destroying America.

Robert Reich simply doesn’t want to do those things. The poor man. He might be a decorated university professor, but he doesn’t understand that revenue is far more important than either mental health or civility.

 

1000 Words: The American Art Form

One of the recurring themes of this global communications colossus is my dearly held opinion that we humans, by and large, are full of shit.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m as full of shit as anyone else. With exceptions, of course. There are, after all, people whose full-of-shitness borders on the awe-inspiring. Need I mention, for instance, a certain former Commander-in-Chief?

Speaking of former C-in-Cs, I was thumbing through a biography of John F. Kennedy the other AM. It’s called JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century and it’s the first of a two volume set. The second hasn’t been released yet. Interestingly, the author, a fellow named Fredrik Logevall, in his introduction, claims that despite the fact that the 35th President of the United States has been analyzed and gossiped about as much as any other Oval Officer, there really haven’t been any in-depth, comprehensive biographies penned about him. Logevall, ergo, decided to be the guy to right that perceived wrong.

Now then, as for we humans who are so naturally full of shit. Logevall revealed a startling factoid in his intro to JFK. In his words:

By the middle of 1963, close to 60 percent of Americans claimed that they had voted for Kennedy in 1960, although only 49.7 percent had actually done so. After his death, his landslide grew to 65 percent.

Kennedy’s oft-disputed victory over Richard M. Nixon in the ’60 presidential election was one of the very tightest presidential contests in our holy land’s history. Acc’d’g to Britannica, a scant 120,000 votes separated the two after all the ballot boxes, stuffed or not, had been emptied. That’s out of a total of 68.8 million votes cast that autumn. As I scroll down the list of tight races throughout our glorious history, Kennedy’s squeaker over Nixon appears to be the closest of all, in relative terms.

For our purposes here, it doesn’t matter if Kennedy won by 120 thou or 120 mill. The thing is, as his presidency progressed, the populace became more and more enamored of him to the point when pollsters rang up people to ask who they’d voted for in ’60, thousands of them flat out lied and said they did.

Perhaps they answered in a more creative, imaginative way than the act of simply telling the truth would have demanded. Perhaps they reasoned, Hey, I like the guy. He forced those dirty Russkies to back down over Cuber*. So if I got a second crack at it, I woulda voted for him. That counts, right?

( * Sorry, occasionally I lapse into JFK’s Boston accent when I think about him.)

No, it doesn’t count. The pollsters asked, Who did you vote for in 1960? And after Kennedy was snuffed at Dealey Plaza, an overwhelming majority of Americans either tried to convince the pollsters they’d voted for him or had somehow convinced themselves they had.

Either way, they were full of shit.

Like I said.

Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t. Lying is in our nation’s DNA. To be sure, the Germans, the Botswanans, the Laotians, the Micronesians, and the habitués of every other land on this globe regularly lie and/or are willingly lied to. But we raise the sin to an art form.

Only the United States, in its Declaration of Independence, proclaimed All Men Are Created Equal, the words written and ratified by a bunch of men who owned human beings.

Imagine if there’d been social media back in 1776. Thomas Jefferson and the Committee of Five would have been laughed off the internet.

Then again, knowing Americans as I do, countless 18th century netizens would have said, C’mon, man! They mean one day. Y’know, in the future. (And not the too-near future, BTW; we don’t wanna rock the boat too much!) Or others’d chime in, Nuh-uh! They don’t own slaves. Those Africans wanted to be kidnapped, chained, whipped, and stripped of their rights and dignity. Working the fields for the Founding Fathers would look great on their resumes!

Thomas Jefferson, et al, were full of shit. Even if their aspiration for a limited egalitarianism was novel and forward-thinking some 250 years ago. And it was.

 

1000 Words: Pastimes

Years ago I had nothing but contempt for people who cared the slightest iota about the British monarchy.

As recently as 1997 when Princess Diana died, I was dumbfounded by the worldwide emotional reaction to the event. Sitting in the living room of my Near West Side Chicago apartment with the redoubtable former teenaged touring Frisbee champion, African parrot owner, and the only person I’ve ever met who actually read Douglas Hofstadter‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning dense tome, Gödel, Escher, Bach, from cover to cover, Sidney T. Feldman, the two of us watched breathless coverage of the auto accident, mouths agape, and could only respond by agreeing to create a new game we called “Who’s Next?” Participants would be obliged to select three celebrities whose deaths within the next calendar year would be, in their opinion, likely. That first night, I chose Roseanne Barr, Courtney Love, and Ronald Reagan. I lost.

Anyway, I have always found the whole notion of the monarchy ridiculous, they being winners of a bizarre genetic lottery but otherwise unremarkable save for their propensity to engage in scandal and idiocy. I’d snort that this holy land, the United Sates of America, was created largely on the idea that kings and queens and princesses and princes and what in the goddamned hell ever else the royals call themselves (There are earls and baronets and dukes, although I think those characters might not be royal. Whatever. They’re all of a stripe as far as I’m concerned) were to be eschewed. That bloodline aristocracy was a stale relic of a long-past unenlightened age that we of the 21st Century found ludicrous.

Apparently not. As mentioned, the whole world wrung its hands over the tragic snuffing out of Princess Diana’s life. And now, a quarter century later, the world again is crying into its pillow for the death of the 96-year-old queen.

During that 25 years, my feelings have softened. Slightly. I still hold that the monarchy is ridiculous and those who follow the soap operas therein would behoove themselves to do something more productive with their lives, like staring at a blank wall. But I don’t run around spouting that philosophy anymore. It came to me a few years ago that I spend an inordinate amount of time fretting over, analyzing, predicting, mostly lamenting and occasionally celebrating the fortunes of a bunch of baseball players.

How much more ridiculous is it to know who Meghan Markle is than to be obsessively knowledgable about the accomplishments of one Koyie Dolan Hill of Tulsa, Oklahoma who spent six spectacularly unproductive years as a catcher for the Chicago Cubs?

I know way too much about this fellow.

Okay, I figured, I’m no better than someone who knows precisely who Camilla Parker Bowles is. Neither of us has spent time considering the intellectual and creative connections between Kurt Gödel, M.C. Escher, and Johann Sebastian Bach and how those connections illustrate the complex intertwining of human behavior and brain architecture.

Nevertheless, royal watchers and baseball aficionados are engaging in a human necessity: giving ourselves over to pointless inanity. We worry about heavy things throughout most of our lives. How am I gonna pay the bills? Is it safe to walk down the street? What’s that lump in my breast? Are my kids gonna be fried, drowned, frozen, or blown away by hurricanes caused by climate change? We need silly, stupid pastimes to escape from the heaviosity (a word coined by Woody Allen in Annie Hall).

Still, the entire top half of CNN’s home page yesterday was given over to the death of Elizabeth. The New York Times ran a six-column-wide banner headline on the death, with at least a half dozen supporting sidebars and features. And every local newspaper and TV station ran obligatory “Queen’s Passing Touches Many Lives Here” stories. I’m thinking the onset of nuclear holocaust will merit less ink and electrons.

Kids still are brought into the bookstore looking for princess coloring books, sticker books, and pop-ups. “I wanna grow up to be a princess,” a lot of the kids will say. Of course, that aspiration is not at all as common anymore as the many variations on the Girl Power theme, which heartens me. But a significant percentage of kids continue to be in thrall to crowns and gowns and the dream of people waiting on them, hand and foot.

I have one friend, a successful professional woman, who regularly posts about the royal family on social media even when no one of import has died or whatever scandals extant are fading from worldwide attention.

It doesn’t figure.

But, as I say, neither does my deep concern over the state of the Chicago Cubs’ bullpen this season.

Hell, some people build replicas of the Cutty Sark out of matchsticks. There are trainspotters, soap carvers, competitive duck herders, cosplayers, palm readers, firearms collectors, ferret racers, and any number of other seemingly pointless pursuits. Pointless to you and me, but of monumental importance to the practitioners thereof.

The Cutty Sark at the Matchstick Marvels Museum in Gladstone, Iowa.

None of them is more silly than my devotion of brain cells to the merits and drawbacks of the Three True Outcomes baseball philosophy.

Then again, I doubt there are more than ten people alive and awake in Iraq, a former British colony (then called Mesopotamia) that proudly gained independence from the monarchy in 1932, who have the slightest idea of what the Three True Outcomes are. Not many more Iraqis would even know what or who the Chicago Cubs are.

Yet, guaranteed, millions of Iraqis know who Elizabeth was. And a healthy bunch of them may even be mourning.

I’ve got to say it: I’m dumbfounded once again.

Nancy Hiller

If you are a parent, or a grandparent, or a great-parent, or even a child yourself, you couldn’t wish for a better role model than Nancy Hiller.

She was hard as nails. Smart. Creative. A terrific writer. A renowned cabinetmaker. A decent, moral, sensitive human being.

Nancy Hiller wouldn’t take shit from anybody. She didn’t judge, but she had an unerring moral compass. And when you shook her hand, you knew she’d lived a life working with wood and tools.

She appeared on my radio program, Big Talk, a number of times through the years. Each time, she’d talk about her latest book. And each time she’d reveal another layer of the rich life she’d lived.

She taught herself how to work with wood. Someone close to her told her she was wasting her time. She took that as a challenge. After attending trade school in London, she took a job as a laborer at one of the United Kingdom’s military museums, creating dioramas and displays. There, she worked with rough-hewn craftsmen, all males of course, who baptized her by verbal fire. But she never backed down from them, giving as well as she got. They came to respect her.

She studied religion in college after she’d moved to the US. The academic life didn’t exactly thrill her so she fell back on that which she knew best and turned that craft into an art. Her furniture, her bookshelves, her cabinets, her kitchens, her living rooms, were warm and bold, just as she was.

I hadn’t seen Nancy for a long while. The pandemic and pancreatic cancer kept her home. That’s where she died yesterday. Her husband, Marc Longacre, himself a noble human, announced the news yesterday.

The world is s bit diminished today without her in it.

Nancy hiller design dot com

A remembrance from Lost Art Press

Her Instagram page

Her books:

A couple of her Big Talk appearances:

My profile of her for Limestone Post magazine:

 

1000 Words: A Brilliant Ignorance

One of the hallmarks of adulthood is the ability to accept seeming contradictions.

Like the Ghandi epigram: Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.

Well, what is it? Am I gonna kick it within a day or will I still be here in the year 2525?

That’s the wrong question. A simplistic question. A question, perhaps, a child might ask.

But an experienced adult, one who’s flourished both emotionally and psychologically, would find no inconsistency in the line.

Ideally we, as individuals, will grow into that kind of mature thinker. Nations and societies, too. Although, based on my observations, it’s dauntingly hard for people, one by one, to reach that level of wisdom. Expecting — even hoping — for an entire population to get there seems to me a futile dream. This goes back to my dearly held opinion that the larger the number of people in a room, the dumber it gets.

I like to think I’ve accepted the idea that contradictory ideas can coexist, and so I pat myself on the back and try to believe I’m experienced and mature and oh so smart. Then again, I accept another contradiction: The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know much.

I’m trying, I guess.

Anyway, if this holy land, the United States of America, the 332.4 million of us inclusive, were, miraculously, to have grown into such astute thinkers, we’d accept the enormous contradiction that the Constitution upon which we base our laws and government was both the most advanced, progressive, ingenious, innovative document ever to be drawn up by a gang of people as well as a hateful, exclusionary, blind, knuckle-headed justification for awful behavior yet put into writing.

Sadly, several of the current members of the US Supreme Court buy into the flawed premise of Originalism. That is, the idea that all our laws and actions to this day must be hewn to the imagined thoughts of the framers of the Constitution. You know, a bunch of guys who owned muskets, horses, and people.

And, BTW, four of the nine current Justices were named by presidents who’d lost the popular vote but still were elected president. A quirk written into that very Constitution.

A Constitution that supposedly followed the parameters set by the Declaration of Independence that featured prominently the line, “all men are created equal.”

Except for slaves. And the indigenous peoples of the continent. And, of course, women. Although said Constitution was transparent enough not to even mention women, since, at the time of its writing, citizens of that gender were considered chattel. And I needn’t imagine what the Constitution’s framers thought of women, as Originalists purport to do; they were quite explicit, in speech and on paper, in their opinion of that gender.

Yet, rarely in the annals of human history had a ruling group codified the idea that neither priests nor royalty were superior, legally, to the rest of the citizenry. That, certainly, qualifies as an advanced, progressive, ingenious, innovative way to run a nation.

One could be forgiven for inadvertently typing the word Contradiction in place of Constitution.

Yep, that Constitution was brilliant. And spectacularly ignorant.

This point is driven home by the Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson, who stands these days as one of the bright, shining lights for the non-MAGA-tainted among us. I happen to be reading her 2020 book, How the South Won the Civil War. Her thesis is all the things the seceding South wanted prior to the 1861 hostilities — except slavery — were granted to them after the war ended, either immediately or as recently as these days via Supreme Court rulings.

Richardson and her book.

Granted, slavery was the thing the South valued most dearly. It was the underpinning of the region’s entire economy and culture. White superiority lie at the heart of it and that’s a visceral driver that remains to today. I won’t go into Richardson’s laundry list of reasons for her assertion (go buy the book) but I will cite a trenchant observation she makes about the Constitution.

Here goes:

America began with a great paradox: the same men who came up with the radical idea of constructing a nation on the principle of equality also owned slaves, thought Indians were savages, and considered women inferior. This apparent contradiction was not a flaw, though; it was a key feature of the new democratic republic. For the Founders, the concept that “all men are created equal” depended on the idea that the ringing phrase “all men” did not actually include everyone. In 1776, it seemed self-evident to leaders that not every person living in the British colonies was capable — or worthy — of self-determination. In their minds, women, slaves, Indians, and paupers depended on the guidance of men such as themselves. Those unable to make good decisions about their own lives must be walled off from government to keep them from using political power to indulge their irresponsible appetites. So long as these lesser people played no role in the body politic, everyone within it could be equal. In the Founders’ minds, then, the principle of equality depended on inequality. That central paradox — that freedom depended on racial, gender, and class inequality — shaped American history as the cultural, religious, and social patterns of the new nation grew around it.

Are we mature enough and experienced enough, have we flourished both emotionally and psychologically enough as a nation, to accept this dramatic, apparently irreconcilable polarity?

Simple answer: no. A friend of mine calls the US Constitution “a piece of shit.” Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, for one, believes it is the “Bible” of the nation. He wants the United States to be molded along the lines set forth by guys who wrote and ratified the document and owned muskets, horses, and people.

 

1000 Words: Hopelessly Hopeless

I’ve been touching on this, now and again, in recent posts here on this global communications colossus. The world, and especially this holy land, are in the deepest of funks.

Climate change is going to (pick one): burn us, flood us, starve us, drought us, or otherwise somehow whack the bejesus out of us until we and every other Earthly species, including Republicans, are wiped out.

Or, millions and millions of abortions are going to pare the population of Homo sapiens down to a scant few thousand.

Or, the Christian Taliban is poised to force every female human of reproductive age to bear as many children as possible.

Or, the war in Ukraine — or any spat between belligerents on this globe — will get out of hand and one side will resort to flinging nukes at the other, with the whole thing getting out of hand and engulfing the planet.

Or, a comet or asteroid surely will collide with the Earth, wiping us out ala the dinosaurs 165 million years ago. (See note at the end of the post.)

Or, either the Democrats or Republicans are engineering the End of Western Civilization.

Or…, or…, or…. See? There are countless dystopic scenarios the lot of us are fixating on in this year of somebody’s lord, 2022.

We’re all waiting for the next shoe to drop. We’re all — let’s face it — no better than that doomsday cult back in 1978, the Jim Jones gang, that was certain the Earth was about to be snuffed out so hundreds of its members sipped poison-laced Kool-Aid and beat the rest of us to oblivion. Or the Mayans, whose calendar technicians worked out the exact date of the end of the Earth: December 21, 2012. Or David Koresh’s Branch Davidians. Or that Heaven’s Gate bunch back in 1997 who committed mass suicide so they could escape this doomed globe.

Or…, or…, or…. See? There’ve been countless individuals and groups fixated on The End.

Humans are the only species, as far as we can determine, that has an awareness of finity. (Merriam-Webster and other authorities seem to disagree with me vis à vis the existence of the word finity.) Every once in a while, throughout history, large numbers of people have come to agree that our collective finiteness was just around the corner. The global human zeitgeist of this age is simply another manifestation of that bad habit.

Make no mistake, we face some mighty challenges over the next few years/decades/centuries. For all we know, our actions today or tomorrow, and those we’ve undertaken in the past, may well mean curtains for scads of us. Book it: our grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and all the rest of our progeny had better learn to breathe a fossil-fuel-fouled air and batten down the hatches against mega-hurricanes. Don’t even get me started on viruses, both extant and fixing to come into being.

So I’m not a Pollyanna.

But I’m not buying into the doom.

I can’t.

Having been raised a Roman Catholic (and quitting that gang as soon as I reached the age of reason) I can attest that one of the good things arising from that belief system was explicated during a sermon I heard back in the late 1990s when, in the depths of gloom I resorted to attending Sunday mass for a few weeks. The priest that Sunday said, “We’re here on this Earth to love and to hope.” It was an epiphany for me.

There’s no point in going on if we’re not hoping and loving. That simple line was so beautiful, so touching, so appropriate at that moment that I’ve never forgotten it. I remember what the weather was that Sunday, what I was wearing, how many people were in the church, how just hearing those words was a first step for me to begin climbing out of what had been a psychological and emotional hell.

We’re here on this Earth to love and to hope.

For all I know, that priest might by now have been defrocked for not rapping his parishioners over the knuckles for even thinking of the word abortion or not embracing the tenet that all that counts in this world is to praise and worship Jesus and all his bandmates.

That line sounds like something a Unitarian Universalist preacher might deliver. Or some other cleric of an equally subversive faith.

If the priests and nuns I’d grown up with had stressed that love and hope angle, I might have hung around longer. But when I hit the age of 12 and started figuring this whole god idea seemed awfully dubious, I bolted.

Anyway, hoping specifically seems today to be the most quaint of ideas. Nobody hopes anymore. How old fashioned. How 20th century!

But we have to hope. I have to hope.

If we don’t hope, our actions and behaviors will be tainted. We won’t take drastic actions to stave off the coming fires, floods, mega-hurricanes, millions of abortions, forced pregnancies, and other inconveniences everybody seems to be obsessed with now.

I want to turn on the news or flip open the paper and see a story about…, well, something good. Something like the deploying of the Webb Space Telescope, which over the last few months has inspired me and those who might tend to be open to inspiration. But too many of us are not and the news reflects that. All we hear about are racism, misogyny, war, fire, drought, mega-hurricanes and the rest.

There’s something more.

There’s hope.

[Note: While I was writing this, I was told by a friend that her mother, who was alive in 1910, remembers the newspapers of the day warning that Halley’s Comet, due that year, was going to crash into the Earth and kill us all. Again, doomsday-ing is nothing new.]

1000 Words: The Only One

I was born in the year of somebody else’s lord, 1956.

Since I arrived in this crazy, mixed-up world 66 years ago, this holy land has staged some 17 presidential elections. I was too young to be aware of the first three. The fourth (1968) grabbed me and got me hooked on the quadrennial ritual ever since. Here are the winners and losers:

  • 1956 Dwight D. Eisenhower; Adlai E. Stevenson II
  • 1960 John F. Kennedy; Richard M. Nixon
  • 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson; Barry M. Goldwater
  • 1968 Richard M. Nixon; Hubert H. Humphrey, George C. Wallace
  • 1972 Richard M. Nixon; George S. McGovern
  • 1976 James Earl Carter, Jr.; Gerald R. Ford, Jr.
  • 1980 Ronald W. Reagan; James Earl Carter, Jr., John B. Anderson
  • 1984 Ronald W. Reagan; Walter F. Mondale
  • 1988 George H.W. Bush; Michael S. Dukakis
  • 1992 William J. Clinton; George H.W. Bush, Henry Ross Perot
  • 1996 William J. Clinton; Robert J. Dole, Henry Ross Perot
  • 2000 George W. Bush; Albert A. Gore, Jr.
  • 2004 George W. Bush; John F. Kerry
  • 2008 Barack H. Obama; John S. McCain III
  • 2012 Barack H. Obama; Willard M. Romney
  • 2016 Donald J. Trump; Hillary Rodham Clinton
  • 2020 Joseph R. Biden, Jr.; Donald J. Trump

Four of those elections were historically tight.

In two of them, the eventual winner actually lost the popular vote.

Two of the elections are thought by many to have been won unfairly.

One of the elections was not decided until the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the eventual winner in a state recount case more than a month after the vote.

In every one of those 17 elections, save one, the tens of millions of people who voted for the eventual loser quickly forgot about their chosen candidate.

That’s because there was always someone else coming down the pike, a comer, a bright shining star, perhaps a savior or a favorite son. Someone new for the electorate to fall in love with.

Hell, the population of the United States in ’56 was 168,078,000. In 2020 it was 329.5 million. No matter how dumb you may think the citizenry of this self-described democratic republic is (or was; and, hell, do I think they’re dumb as bricks!), the voters always at least had the basic smarts to grasp the fact that, there being so many of us, surely someone among us was capable enough, determined enough, good-looking enough, likable enough, and free-enough of closeted skeletons to be worthy to take the Oath of Office in the next election.

Perhaps your book club needs a new leader. You may call that person “president.” But probably not. In any case, you may feel certain no one else among you has the stuff to lead the club into the next year. Or month. Or what in the hell ever span of time you have between books.

That’s because there are six or so members, total, in your book club. One of them is going through a divorce. Another has been diagnosed with cancer. Two are annoying as all hell. Then there’s you and you surely don’t want the job. So that leaves Sharon. She’s the only one who can do the job.

No one else.

As indicated above, there are more people in the United States of America than there are in every other country on this planet, except for China and India. It’s a safe bet there are, perhaps, thousands of people in this nation capable enough, determined enough, good-looking enough, likable enough, and free-enough of closeted skeletons to be worthy to take the Oath of Office in the next election.

That’s why, when our guy or gal loses a presidential election, we quickly start scanning the horizon for the next fabulous candidate.

Even after Nixon lost the 1960 election amid rumors of hanky-panky in Illinois and Texas, Republicans who flipped the lever for him that year swiftly started scouting around for their next candidate. Even Nixon himself attempted to wipe the memory of that loss from his mind, reasoning that making a stink about it would be too expensive and potentially unsuccessful, and the process would throw shade on the entire American electoral system.

I repeat: even Richard Nixon. He was a fellow who forgot no slight and forgave no insult. He was the original eternally aggrieved Republican and even he said, Forget it, let’s move on.

Forty years later, Al Gore won the popular vote and then Bush-loving hoodlums stormed the Miami-Dade County vote counting center, delaying the process and intimidating the counters enough to cast doubt on the veracity of the Sunshine State totals. Nevertheless, Gore sucked it up and said, Forget it, let’s move on.

The rules of the game may be wacky, both Nixon and Gore might have figured, but rules is rules.

Not only did Nixon and Gore figure that, so did all the millions of people who dug them enough to vote for them as president. They, too, by and large, said, On to the next election.

In all the years after the elections from 1956 through 2012, never was there the phenomenon of people waving flags, displaying banners, carrying placards, or otherwise caterwauling about the person who’d run second. Their person. The person they thought was best to lead the country. Who they rooted for, who they agreed with, who they donated money to.

Their guys lost and they moved on. Even in 2016, their woman lost. And they moved on.

Except for all the people who, to this day, wave flags, display banners, carry placards, and otherwise caterwaul about the person who’d ran second in the 2020 election. A man who lost the popular vote both times he ran for president. A two-time loser usually gets relegated to history’s dust bin. Like Adlai Stephenson (he’d also lost in 1952, four years before I came on the scene).

But the 45th President of the United States of America continues to run around the country telling anybody who’ll listen the election was stolen from him — and conveniently neglecting to provide any solid evidence of it.

Tens of millions of Americans are listening to him. Including all those people with Let’s Go, Brandon bumper stickers. Or waving Fuck Joe Biden flags. Or the guy down the road from me who has a huge banner attached to his garage with the words Miss Me Yet? superimposed over the mug of the man who lost the 2020 race.

Do me a favor: look up the word cult.

1000 Word: A Rich Vein of Hatred

I’m old enough to remember the Oscars night when Sacheen Littlefeather took to the stage and declined the Best Actor Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando as a way to protest Hollywood’s depictions and treatment of Native Americans.

Brando’s turn-down of the award followed by a couple of years George C. Scott’s nix of it. Scott, though, thumbed his nose at the statuette because he didn’t like the idea of competition among actors. He’d won the Oscar for his portrayal of World War II Gen. George S. Patton in the eponymous biopic. Which, BTW, was co-written by Francis Ford Coppola who, of course, directed The Godfather, for which Brando was being celebrated — or at least scheduled to be — that fateful evening.

Marlon Brando, though, was a noted advocate at the time for Native Americans, and so came the appearance of Littlefeather.

Image: UCLA Library Special Collections

The New York Times yesterday ran a piece on the event that took place nearly a half century ago. Sacheen Littlefeather now is an old woman and the photo the paper ran of her was certainly jarring. About as jarring as the face that looks back at me from the mirror every goddamned morning. No matter how much we acknowledge that time flees, its flight freaks us.

Littlefeather was a White Mountain Apache. In keeping with the whole Hollywood thing, she was breathtakingly beautiful, her Native American accoutrements seemingly straight out of the costume department. Despite that, she spoke honestly and with real emotion about the film industry’s depiction of Native Americans through the years. It seemed she might break down in tears at any moment during her minute-long speech. Only a creep would be failed to be moved by it.

Well, the Oscar audience that night 49 years ago was filled with creeps.

I was 17 years old at the time and still in thrall to things like the Academy Awards broadcast. I watched as Littlefeather spoke and was aghast at the boos emanating from the crowd. Of course, not everybody booed. The cheers for her balanced out the jeering but it was the negative reaction that stuck with me. Even then I was baffled that anyone could be so…, well, assholish as to boo someone speaking from the heart about the racist portrayals and treatment of her people.

What I didn’t remember, and learned of in the NYT article, is many in the audience actually started doing the tomahawk chop while Littlefeather spoke. If you’re not a sports fan, you may be unfamiliar with the tomahawk chop. In places like Atlanta and universities whose team names are some variant of the Native American thing, fans launch into rhythmic faux-Indian calls, chopping with their right hands in time, mimicking warriors wielding their savage weapons. You know, the way they’ve seen Indians in old Hollywood movies behave. Cop a peek at the fans of the Florida State Seminoles doing the chop:

As an aside, this is a prime illustration of why I shun, as much as humanly possible, going along with the crowd. I steadfastly refuse to do a thing for the simple reason everybody else is doing it. Do you blame me?

Anyway, the Oscars, then as now, is not a sporting event. This despite that fact that, as George C. Scott pointed out, it’s a race between competitors. You’d figure an Academy Award night crowd would be rife with creative, sensitive, progressive, caring folk who’d at least wish to listen to the plaint of a young, frightened woman standing up for her people.

Sadly, the crowd on the night in question was (il)liberally sprinkled with, um…, assholes.

I’m no babe in the woods. I know there’s been a broad current of hate running through the American bloodstream since this holy land’s very inception. I know about lynchings and institutionalized racism and block-busting and red-lining and homophobia and misogyny and every other kind of emotional and spiritual cancer that afflicts far too many of our fellow citizens. Still, I was shocked to learn about many in the Oscars crowd doing that stupid chop during Littlefeather’s speech.

And it gets worse. Apparently John Wayne had to be restrained from charging the stage and stopping Littlefeather from speaking. And Sacheen herself claims she was shot at — with guns, mind you — in the aftermath of the event.

Another aside, this one about John Wayne. His career and legacy largely were made by his roles in all those gorgeous John Ford westerns like Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Stagecoach, and Rio Grande. During World War II, Ford served as a commander in the US Navy, heading the service’s photographic unit. He actually participated in the D-Day landing at Normandy, witnessing the carnage and suffering a wound himself. For his part, John Wayne, the movie tough guy, stayed home during the war, increasing his reputation and bank account while many other Hollywood actors and directors sacrificed years of their careers for the war effort. Ford never forgave Wayne for avoiding service. In fact, acc’d’g to accounts, Ford repeatedly harangued Wayne about it during filming of their last picture together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.

Pretend Hero.

Have we gotten better over the years? President Truman ordered the integration of the armed services in 1947. Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey gave his rousing “bright sunshine of human rights” speech in favor of integration and full civil rights in America in 1948. In the 1960s, Ernie Banks, the biggest sports star in my hometown, was compelled to live in the all-black Chatham neighborhood. Thirty years later, the one-time lily-white suburb of Highland Park was proud to claim as its resident Michael Jordan. Today, no one bats an eye when a black and white couple walks down the street hand in hand. The year Littlefeather spoke, I was in a car with an older co-worker when he spied a black man and a white woman walking on Grand Avenue. “Lookit that,” he said, his voice dripping with contempt, “a nigger and a white chick.”

I’d like to think we’re better than that today. We can’t say the word nigger in a public setting now. And the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has issued an apology to Sacheen Littlefeather for her treatment that night in 1973.

But they’re still doing the tomahawk chop in Atlanta.

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