Denial   (2017Jun09)


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Friday, June 09, 2017                                               10:35 PM

During the Depression, it became obvious that business owners were a threat to the equality of the workers—but with the Red Scare, we managed to deny that—and denying that business owners are a threat is a founding pillar of the Republican platform to this day. When Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a new awareness came to the public—an awareness that what we do, and the waste we produce doing it, and the poisons we use doing it—has an effect on the places where we live.

Even as we busied ourselves, learning to throw our trash into receptacles (instead of on the ground)—chemical and petroleum companies began to push back on the idea of ecology—denying that our use of natural resources could have any ill-effect on the Earth—or that resources would ever run out. And climate-change-denial is still a part of the Republican platform, as well.

It was different in the past, when big money and big business had an understanding ear in the GOP—now, it seems more as if the fat cats outright own the GOP—lock, stock, and ethics. The masses of people who overlooked the favoritism of the entitled for the promise of conservative, unchanging security—they have become dupes of those who would make great change—and most of it retrogression or partisanship. And now they have a crazy man in charge—it may take time, but they will come to see him as a dangerous man.

So many of our political footballs carry within them some sort of denial on at least one side of the argument—right-to-lifers deny that legal abortion is better than illegal abortion—climate-change-deniers ignore the preponderance of both scientific authority and evidence—marijuana-haters deny the probability that pot has many medicinal uses—gun-nuts deny that the ubiquity of guns has any connection to our sky-high murder rate—it goes on and on.

And these people have their arguments, their points-of-view—but seem, in the end, to simply deny something which they are uncomfortable accepting as part of their reality. I can sympathize—but I still think they’re wasting their own—and everyone else’s—time.

Improv – Woods Trails

Improv – High Notes

Bach – Prelude in C (with Improv)

Satie – Gnossienne (with Improv)

Improv – Maelstrom

 

ttfn.

More Than Anything (2017May18)


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Thursday, May 18, 2017                                          1:45 PM

Humankind has a pretty long history—even the special case of United States history, alone, is a pretty thick almanac of ups and downs, bests and worsts—centuries of heroism and villainy, celebrity and infamy, achievement and catastrophe.

When Trump says ‘Never before in history…’, he does not speak as an historian. He is using the phrase ‘in history’ as a synonym for ‘very’. He is not merely being (laughably) ignorant when he claims his historical superlatives—he is also, subliminally, undermining the concept of history as meaningful archive. For Trump, a meaningful archive is a threat—evidence of the past.

For an old wheeler-dealer like him, the point of mistakes is to get people to forget about them—to gloss over any negatives and make that sale, close that deal—and move on to new sales, new deals. But for an elected official, the point of mistakes is to investigate them—to scour the records. It would be odd indeed if Trump were a history enthusiast—most of his mistakes have been made before.

But me—I am a history enthusiast—and Trump offends me on many levels, not least of which is his pretense of scholarship:

This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.” – D. Trump

No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly…” – D. Trump

These are professorial wordings, usually used by someone who isn’t pulling facts out his or her ass—Trump uses the words of intellectual rigor, as if to give his bullshit respectability.

Getting down to cases: Mandela spent decades in prison before becoming South Africa’s president. Lincoln and Kennedy were both shot in the head. Hitler and Mussolini were ridiculed in Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” so ruthlessly that the government tried to block its release in theaters.

If we want to talk history—Donald Trump may have a claim to being the biggest pussy ever to take office—as far as his other historic deeds go, we’ll have to wait until after the investigations to say with any real ‘surety’.

Obama – The Final President (2017Mar08)


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Wednesday, March 08, 2017                                            12:06 PM

In 1941, when our country was attacked, FDR told us the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. After the war, Truman assured us that the buck stopped with him. Eisenhower, a former general who knew about such things, warned us, in his farewell address, that a military-industrial complex was commodifying violence and leaching our strength during peace-time. JFK inspired us to reach for the stars. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Nixon, while a crook, at least ended our military involvement in Viet Nam. Ford pardoned Nixon, but in his defense, he always pointed out that accepting a pardon was an admission of guilt. Carter helped us begin to accept responsibility for our effects on the environment and the planet. Reagan won the Cold War. Bush-41 freed Kuwait. Clinton defended abortion, saying it should be kept ‘safe, legal, and rare’, and signed the Family Medical Leave Act, and Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell—the first acceptance of gays in the military. Bush-43 enacted No Child Left Behind—an attempt to democratize our educational system. Obama recovered from Bush’s ‘great recession’, passed the ACA, and killed Bin Laden.

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As you can see, every modern president has made a significant contribution to our nation and to the world. By being responsible, semi-woke leaders of the free world, they all used judgement, insight, and patience to achieve things that few people have the character and determination to achieve. And those presidents had educated, responsible legislators to work with.

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So join me in having a good cry—those days are gone. America has been broken into tiny pieces by a bunch of selfish, ignorant hacks and poohbahs. The world laughs at us, as their ‘Igors’ go on TV and parse ‘alternate truths’ and unfounded libel against the former president. They hand us to the Russians for thirty pieces of silver. They rush to pass laws that allow coal waste to be dumped in our drinking water—but dither over ongoing lead-poisoning in Flint that is destroying the nervous systems of a whole generation of kids.

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Photo by Eric Draper, White House.

These evil cynics and hypocritical truth-twisters don’t need to be resisted—they need to be lined up against a wall. They call themselves conservatives—but they only conserve their bank accounts. They call themselves people of faith—but the only faith they have is yours (if you’re fool enough to give it to them). They confuse governing with poker—where lying with a straight face is an integral part of the game. They have no ethics. They have no honesty. They have no shame.

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(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

And me? I was proud to be an American. There was a lot to be proud of. And we were just about to go on to even greater things. My dreams are shattered. My heart is broken. I see only darkness ahead. Where did this sudden lobotomy come from? Can we really blame the Russians for voting in this clown? And, if so, can we really expect his cronies to uncover the truth in these investigations? And even if we nuked Russia tomorrow, would that rid us of the yahoos that shouted ‘Trump that bitch’? I don’t think so. The explosion of racism in this country of late is all on us—election notwithstanding, we have people being violently xenophobic at every opportunity.

Stupid people have decided that they have a voice. And they do—it’s the voice of stupidity—and I have a message for them in return—shut your fucking mouth you stupid fucking asshole. I want America to go back to when stupid people had at least enough sense to respect intelligence, even when they didn’t understand it. And for all those of you who’ve gone all the way past crazy, to science-denial—here’s a special message for ya: Go eat a bag of dicks. I want my fucking country back.

The Dust We Stand On (2017Feb04)


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Saturday, February 04, 2017                                             5:31 PM

So, I was reading about my hero, Joseph Henry, who grew up in Albany, New York at the turn of the nineteenth century. That got me interested in the history of New York State. Today I started reading one such history and it described the Native Americans of the area prior to First Contact with the West—the Iroquois and the Oneidas, Mohawks and what-all—what was the Five Nations and would become Six. It described their early agriculture—the Three Sisters, which were beans, corn, and squash—the beans climbed the cornstalks like a trellis and the squash leaves kept the moisture in the ground, plus their root systems descended to three different levels, so the three crops weren’t competing for nutrients.

The East Coast Native Americans were different from the Plains Tribes and others further West and South—and certainly different from the Natives closer to the Arctic Circle, up North. They lived harsh lives, from our perspective—but looked at differently, they lived in the ultimate health spa—living and dying exactly as nature had evolved them to live. They hadn’t even gotten around to metallurgy before the Europeans came along.

Yet there was a civilization—with a spiritual framework, a wide-spread confederation of oversight (one couldn’t call it governance—since their lifestyles precluded the need for taxes or prisons) and, more to the point, a society just as complex—and more humane—than any we have created or seen since.

It is melancholy to imagine what the Americans would have done with their land, left to themselves. A land without livestock, mining or metalwork—an incentive to live less bellicose lives. Who knows how that would have panned out, given some space? But now we’ll never know—and given the reality, we are fortunate that any record of their cultures survives (not that all of them have).

So, I’m going to slog through this pre-invasion history—and then try not to think about it, as I move forward to the more modern history of colonization and ultimate statehood. What else can be done—rewind the past? There’s no helping the fact that the birth of the United States was the death of something else, something that had a right to exist, something beautiful—but no one can undo the past.

The genocide, like Henry’s discovery of Electromagnetic Inductance, is both a foundation of the present—and entirely irrelevant to the present. It is now nothing more than dust—but it is the dust we stand on. A fascination with history can turn sour if we don’t keep our heads above water—there’s a limit to empathy and we are only human.

The early chapters of my history also describe the geography—the many lakes and rivers—particularly the Hudson River and the Great Lakes—and what a convenient harbor New York had at the mouth of the Hudson. It is strange to think that waterways, today, tend to be obstacles to transport rather than a means. The vast majority of international shipping still travels the oceans—but today’s technology makes inland travel almost entirely a dry-footed affair.

The Native Americans hadn’t much technology above the bow and arrow—but they had invented canoes (and moccasins—a technology the Europeans first ridiculed—then instantly adopted). And water was kind of handy to have around in those days, even if you didn’t travel. They had a great trail that went from Manhattan all the way up to Canada—today we call it Rt. 22, mostly—and 90% of New Yorkers still live along that trail. But when they weren’t walking, they were using the profusion of rivers and lakes that New York offered.

I read somewhere that New York State has the greatest diversity of trees of any state. I read somewhere else that an early European colonist once described flights of migrating birds so vast that they would darken the sky from horizon to horizon. Can you imagine what it was like back then? Virgin forests, pre Iron-Age culture—golly.

 

I feel a little jinxed, peering into the details of the improbable history of the Empire State—the stuff of legend, half of it, and the rest merely incredible—here at a juncture in time when the whole thing may be balanced on a knife edge—and only because the entire world as I’ve known it seems bound and determined to hurl itself into the abyss as quickly as possible. From what I can tell so far, what we call New York was a great land before anyone ‘discovered’ it—it became a colony and a state that was an empire unto itself, regardless of the federal government—and the tip of it became a city so busy with power and life that it, too, became an entity unto itself, outside of its state.

New York State is one of those things so large and diverse that we are taken unawares by the sudden realization of its existence—this massive determiner of so many destinies—so much a part of our lives that we hardly realize it’s there. And it is even easier to overlook, given that each of its nooks and crannies—particularly within the five boroughs—is a province unto itself.

New Englanders are known to be flinty, anti-social types—but they are a step down from Manhattanites, who are actively antagonistic towards their neighbors. Yet New York City remains such a gravitational force on the globe that we can excuse the inhabitants their need to be actively repellent—they need to make sure you really want to be there—it’s crowded enough already. And the pressure at the center of human civilization is not for the faint of heart.

It makes me superstitious—as a computer guy, I’ve spent a great deal of my life learning about things that disappear—old hardware, old software, old businesses that have faded away—all my precious knowledge becomes so much sewage clogging up my brain—and it’s not as if that stuff was easy to learn, dammit. And now, as I study American history—and my home state, no less—I feel a cold draft on the back of my neck—it could be melting ice caps, it could be Trump’s inability to resist the big red button—I can’t help worrying that I’m learning about something else that may disappear someday soon.

History Repeats –or- Et Tu, Cooper? (2016Dec14)


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Wednesday, December 14, 2016                                               9:57 AM

History Repeats –or- Et Tu, Cooper?

During my reading of Joseph Henry’s biography, I’ve acquired a sudden interest in the history of New York State. As I researched the reference material, I ran across someone’s comment that there were scant histories of the state, which they found odd, considering its size and importance—and that would appear to remain the case. Amazon is strangely ungenerous when searched for the ‘history of New York State’ specifically.

The first book I came across was “New York” by James Fenimore Cooper. One passage stopped me in my tracks, right off:

“We are not disposed, however, to look for arguments to the debates and discussions of the Convention, in our view often a deceptive and dangerous method of construing a law, since the vote is very frequently given on even conflicting reasons. Different minds arrive at the same results by different processes; and it is no unusual thing for men to deny each other’s premises while they accept their conclusions. We shall look, therefore, solely to the compact itself, as the most certain mode of ascertaining what was done.”

[Cooper, James Fenimore. New York (Kindle Locations 190-193).  . Kindle Edition.]

I couln’t help thinking that nothing has changed in this regard—and that we are careless to overlook it. No matter what excuses or rationales are offered for a given legislation, all that truly matters is its effect. If poor people and prisoners can become ‘profit centers’ using the existing laws, then no amount of blather can forgive the fact that our laws promote a form of Capitalist slavery. If pro-business legislation gives power and security to businesses at the cost of fairness to the people, then such laws are unjust—and all the BS in the world isn’t going to change that.

Then I came to this part:

“A great deal that has been done among us of late, doubtless remains to be undone; but we are accustomed to changes of this nature, and they do not seem to be accompanied by the same danger here as elsewhere. The people have yet to discover that the seeming throes of liberty are nothing but the breath of their masters, the demagogues; and that at the very moment when they are made to appear to have the greatest influence on public affairs, they really exercise the least. Here, in our view, is the great danger to the country—which is governed, in fact, not by its people, as is pretended, but by factions that are themselves controlled most absolutely by the machinations of the designing. A hundred thousand electors, under the present system of caucuses and conventions, are just as much wielded by command as a hundred thousand soldiers in the field; and the wire-pullers behind the scenes can as securely anticipate the obedience of their agents, as the members of the bureaux in any cabinet in Europe can look with confidence to the compliance of their subordinates. Party is the most potent despot of the times. Its very irresponsibility gives it an energy and weight that overshadows the regular action of government. And thus it is, that we hear men, in their places in the national legislature, boasting of their allegiance to its interests and mandates, instead of referring their duties to the country.”

[Cooper, James Fenimore. New York (Kindle Locations 287-296).  . Kindle Edition.]

Déjà vu all over again, huh? Could our King Clown have won the late election if he had not, however contrivedly, attached himself to the Republican party? And how many Republicans, while eschewing Trump’s lack of ethics or character, were nonetheless still staunchly behind his candidacy, because he ‘stood’ for their party? The more things change, the more they stay the same, James old man.

Moreover, one of Trump’s endless empty promises was to abolish this partiality to party over public good, to ‘drain the swamp’—a problem he thoughtlessly claimed to be able to solve, in spite of the fact that Cooper saw its operation way back in the years leading to our Civil War, and attributed it, rightly, to human nature—which is something even Trump cannot ‘solve’.

I purchased two other references from Amazon: “Colonial New York: A History” by Michael Kammen, and “New York State: Peoples, Places, and Priorities: A Concise History with Sources” by Joanne Reitano. I’m looking forward to reading them, especially since I expect their prose to scan somewhat more lightly than that of James Fenimore’s.

There is nothing more exciting to a hopeful writer than to catch the scent of a hitherto-unexploited scenario, full of unfamiliar stories and strange new characters—and the history of the State of New York seems to offer just such a niche. With some notable exceptions, up to and including “Winter’s Tale” by Mark Helprin, I believe it was Cooper himself who last took advantage of the wealth of material inherent in our State’s story.

 

psalms83

Fan Mail?   (2016Dec14)

As an unabashed and vocal atheist on social media and elsewhere, I sometimes garner the special attention of evangelicals—I consider it a point of pride that I can sometimes bother them more than the average atheist does.

Ms. Sue B. of White River Junction, VT, out of an abundance of solicitude for my immortal soul, has sent me a letter—well, an envelope, at least. Inside was a typical Jehovah’s Witness flyer, with exhortations about how much God cares for me and how He can make me a better family man. I examined it closely, wondering why a stranger would send me anything by snail-mail (with a Christmas stamp, no less) and have nothing personal to say—and there was a handwritten note added to the inside of the flyer. It said ‘see Psalms 83:18’.

 

Psalms 83 (A Song or Psalm of Asaph.)

 

Keep not thou silence, O God: hold not thy peace, and be not still, O God.

For, lo, thine enemies make a tumult: and they that hate thee have lifted up the head.

They have taken crafty counsel against thy people, and consulted against thy hidden ones.

They have said, Come, and let us cut them off from being a nation; that the name of Israel may be no more in remembrance.

For they have consulted together with one consent: they are confederate against thee:

The tabernacles of Edom, and the Ishmaelites; of Moab, and the Hagarites;

Gebal, and Ammon, and Amalek; the Philistines with the inhabitants of Tyre;

Assur also is joined with them: they have holpen the children of Lot. Selah.

Do unto them as unto the Midianites; as to Sisera, as to Jabin, at the brook of Kishon:

Which perished at Endor: they became as dung for the earth.

Make their nobles like Oreb, and like Zeeb: yea, all their princes as Zebah, and as Zalmunna:

Who said, Let us take to ourselves the houses of God in possession.

O my God, make them like a wheel; as the stubble before the wind.

As the fire burneth a wood, and as the flame setteth the mountains on fire;

So persecute them with thy tempest, and make them afraid with thy storm.

Fill their faces with shame; that they may seek thy name, O Lord.

Let them be confounded and troubled for ever; yea, let them be put to shame, and perish:

That men may know that thou, whose name alone is Jehovah, art the most high over all the earth.

 

The eighteenth ‘verse’ is that last line: ‘That men may know…’ The entire Psalm appears to be an exhortation to God to punish the unbelievers, to make us ‘as the dung of the earth’, or as wood burning in a fire—to make us afraid with His storms and fill our faces with shame and let us perish, etc.

Now, I don’t mind so much—that’s an old Book from a rough-and-ready era of history—from religious freedom these folks did not know. But it does strike me as rather snotty—here’s Jehovah, who is supposed omniscient and omnipotent, and then here’s his people, all in his face, telling him what he should do and which of his ‘children’ He should be smiting left and right.

I suspect this Psalm was authored by ‘management’—it has the flavor of an inter-office memo advising the staff not to decorate their desktops with personal items, family photos or potted plants. You know the type—always enhancing their own authority by reminding everyone he or she speaks for the big boss.

I consider it one of the obvious pitfalls of religiosity—if one serves the all-powerful, then one must have power, n’est-ce pas? If religious zealotry makes a person a ‘cop for God’, that person can spend a lifetime regulating the behavior of others, without having to waste an uncomfortable moment examining themselves. It’s literally a cop-out, if you’ll pardon the pun.

But all evangelicals have that velvet-glove thing going on: God loves his itty-bitty childwen—but if you don’t love him back, well, don’t forget to duck, brother. Some parts of the Bible are patently childish, making it clear that it was written long before people had the self-awareness to hear the ‘whine’ in their supplications, or the ‘mine!’ in their fervor.

So, Sue B., whoever you may be, I appreciate your concern for my waywardness—and I don’t much mind the slap on the ass that lies behind it. But you and I aren’t going to get very far, condescending to each other’s apprehension of reality. I chuckle (fondly) at your blindness and you chuckle at mine—we’ll both be fine if we don’t confront each other with ultimatums—that’s where the trouble always starts.

It’s ironic, really—my atheism was born partly from an overabundance of enthusiasm for my childhood faith, Catholicism. I was willing to be a soldier of Christ—hell, I wanted to be a Kamikaze for Christ—and I soaked up every word, every idea that was taught me. But I was a logical little kid, and certain things began to sully my perfect reality. Nuns, for instance, would never miss a trick when delimiting our behavior in CCD classes—but their own behavior seemed to cut a few corners in the service of classroom law-and-order, even going so far as to contradict their own previous reasonings to suit a new scenario of rebuke.

My parents, also, were happy to have me indoctrinated into faith—but if I should criticize anything based on my CCD teachings, it was waved away like a pesky fly—apparently, only those in authority could cite the rules of Christian behavior. My life became the reverse of the Parable of the Talents—I was to ‘render unto the Church what was the Church’s’ and otherwise just shut up and do what I was told.

As the years passed, I learned all kinds of things about history, society and people—I accumulated a mountain of contradictions that disprove the seriousness of people of faith. But all that came later. My original fall from grace was the result of simple observation—grown-ups wanted me to take religion seriously, but they weren’t taking it very seriously, themselves.

It was a more-serious, year-round version of Santa Claus—aimed at kids, but scoffed at between grown-ups. And that condition remains—if you look at the way we live, it’s difficult to claim that most of us are ‘Christians’ in anything more than lip-service. We use Christianity when it suits us—and discard it just as quickly when the going gets tough.

I would gladly live my atheist existence away without once raising my voice against the faithful, but for one thing—I’m a little too OCD about the truth. Faith may be many things—hope, conscience, a dream, an anchor in the storm—but it is most definitely not the truth. Sane people don’t fight and die over the truth—they seek and find it, or they do not—but they don’t fight over it—that’s for opinions.

There is often conflation of argument and fighting (see my previous post on the art of argument) but argument is, in purest form, an investigation after truth—it only becomes a fight when it goes off the rails and becomes a debate, AKA ‘fighting with words’. The religious have the advantage in debate because language grew out of a religious society and inherits a bias towards it, down to the very vocabulary we use—much like misogyny, the assumption of faith is built-in to the fabric of our speech.

Thus, I am always willing to argue the question of God, but I stop short of debating it—uncovering universal truth is impossible enough with a friendly devil’s-advocate—to verbally spar over someone’s adherence to an ancient, easy solution is a complete waste of time.

History With A Grain Of Salt (2016Dec03)


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Saturday, December 03, 2016                                           1:41 PM

I’ve just watched the first five episodes of Oliver Stone’s “The Untold History of the United States” on Netflix. The thrust of his re-telling of our modern history begins with an analysis of Russia’s virtually lone struggle against Germany, transforming what we think of as the main events of World War II into relatively minor clashes—in terms of land-area fought over, scale of destruction, length of time, and number of lives lost and persons wounded—and the stats certainly make that much plain. The Western Front was smaller, shorter, and less bloody in many respects—even with the Pacific War thrown in, ‘our’ War involved about a tenth of the size and horror of the struggle between Hitler and Stalin.

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As he continues to explore the question of Truman’s decision to use the bomb, he frames it as more a demonstration for the Soviets than a body-blow to Japan. Stone suggests that the end of the Nazis enabled Russia to turn and join the US, as agreed, in fighting Japan, months afterward—and that their announcement of their intent to do so—came at about the same time as the two nuclear blasts—and was a great shock to an already-battered Japan. Thus, he presents the possibility that Russia, and not our new A-bomb, was responsible for Japan’s surrender, as well as Germany’s.

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His revisionism also puts America squarely in the docket, to blame for nuclear proliferation, the military-industrial complex, and the entire Cold War that followed—and we must admit that the USA, being suddenly omnipotent (and not having their country reduced to rubble by the fighting, as was the case almost everywhere else) became the prime superpower—and had all the problems and corruptions that absolute power is known to herald.

Oliver Stone does have a habit of mentioning Stalin’s atrocities in asides, often, as if afraid someone will accuse him of glossing over them (which the asides almost accomplish, ironically). But while Stone presents a new perspective and a clarification of several old false assumptions—and highlights some overlooked or hidden aspects that radically change the context of certain events—he is still dealing with the problem of ‘history as general summary’.

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His review, for example, leaves out the details of China’s suffering and transformation, its revolution and great famine. The British role in the man-made starvation in India during World War II, resulting in a genocide greater than the Nazis’, was overlooked as well (see Howard Fast’s “The Pledge”). An historical review, by its nature, leaves out more than it puts in.

His view of the last seventy years may be clearer-eyed, less American-centric—but it is still an impossible task to pick and choose the stand-out events of world history over so large a span of time, without putting one’s own ‘centrism’ into the picking. Still, Stone’s gruesome view of modern American history is, unfortunately, solidly-grounded in facts and records, shorn of the ‘spin’ which events are often given in their own time, and which tend to continue to stand as fact, absent an Oliver Stone.

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The show, ultimately, is a flat statement to Americans that being ‘the world’s greatest superpower’ and being ‘the good guys’ are, almost by definition, mutually exclusive concepts. He almost makes us embarrassed that we don’t see something so obvious. Our laser focus on the high-points of American History, and our brushing aside of all the many sins: the original genocide of the natives, the kidnapping and slavery of the Africans, the dehumanization of ethnic and racial minorities, the industrialism that spawned sweat shops, child labor, tenements, and all the rapacity of Capitalism—we wave these things aside and point to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation. Don’t look over there—look here—o, pretty!

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Most of history is a horror—and American history no exception. If you think about our greatest moments—the Bill of Rights, Women’s Suffrage, the Civil Rights Act, etc.—they are all merely points at which those in power finally conceded, for this specific case, for that specific group, that people should not be used and abused like farm animals. Points on the Timeline when those in authority declare, “Oh, did that hurt? I’ll stop now.” It’s almost funny that we have these tremendous struggles, usually over the question, “Why should I treat you like a human being?” It’s as if, when someone gets a little power, the rest of us have to turn as one and shout at them, “Hey, right and wrong still apply, douchebag!”

I suppose the great lesson of history is that victory is a sort of lobotomy—it convinces the victor that force is effective. And with force must come control. And with too much control comes the need for struggles anew, and a new victor, and on it goes.

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In sum, I was reluctant to watch another rehash of the last seventy years of world conflict—but I was not disappointed in my hope that Oliver Stone wouldn’t have bothered to make this series without some surprising and new information—and observations that really change the context for lay-historians like myself. I love this sort of thing, because you can’t really change the accepted view of history without adding in some new data—and this series exposes many overlooked, obscured, and newly-discovered bits of information, and makes connections that seem obvious once made—making one wonder why Oliver Stone had to do it, all this time later. But I’m glad he did.

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The subject guarantees that viewing will be somewhat daunting, and hardly inspiring—but looking ourselves straight in the mirror is ultimately a very healthy thing, if uncomfortable. I can’t help reflecting, however, that if Oliver Stone can take the old story and re-tell it as something almost unrecognizable—then I suppose someone else could do the same to his. When studying history, one must never neglect the grain of salt.

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Beaux Artes, in Passing (2016Nov19)


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Saturday, November 19, 2016                                          12:44 PM

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore—send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

—Emma Lazarus (from “The New Colossus”)

I can’t vouch for perfect accuracy of the above quotation—I typed it from memory. Sometimes it feels good to type something out, instead of just remembering to myself.

I suppose if I lived in a city, I’d spend part of my day on a soapbox. Once this journal-writing/blog-posting/daily-commentary thing gets under your skin, you become a wild-eyed prophet of sorts—whether you’re smart, stupid, or just plain crazy (or all three, as in my case). And it is odd that an activity so clearly aimed at others’ ears (or eyes) should reveal itself to be pure self-involvement. I start out expressing what I think others should know—and, without fail, I end up telling them what I want to say.

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I was just playing some Haydn on the piano. Haydn is the guy—he always puts me in a good mood. Whether you favor Beethoven or Brahms or Stravinsky or Tchaikovsky, you’ve got to give it up for Haydn—he has the best sense of humor of any composer in history. I always loved the drama and the towering emotions of the other great composers—but as I get older, it occurs to me that Haydn was the only composer who regularly laughed at himself. And it takes a certain genius to write music that makes people laugh—I have a hard time telling a joke, with words—it’s kind of awesome that Haydn can do it with sheet music.

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I have always loved art and music and poetry. When I experience the great peoples’ masterpieces, I am always a little bit tempted to envy them their seemingly superhuman talents. But I always yank my focus away from that, so that I can just enjoy the wonder of their works. Envy is always just under the surface with me—but I try to rise above it. When you spend your life trying to do something worthwhile, envying the greats is hard to avoid—especially if, like me, you’re a little defensive. But because it pollutes my enjoyment of their stuff, I always try to turn away from envy.

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In fact, it kind of bugs me, as an atheist, that I respect the Seven Deadly Sins—but, like the Ten Commandments, there’s a lot of good advice under all the mumbo-jumbo. Religions have that going for them—between the mythological parts, there’s a whole lot of experience-based, how-to ‘life-hacks’ included. It is the codified version of advice from old people—and now that I’m old, and know something about human nature, I find myself in agreement with many religious principles, in spite of my rejection of religion as an institution.

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Once you’ve gotten five or six decades under your belt, you witness how people can self-destruct through Envy or Lust or Pride, et. al.—religions label them sins, but even un-washed savages, once they reach a certain age, come to recognize these things as dangers—and that younger people don’t usually see that clearly. Religion includes a lot of old-people-advice. Perhaps that’s why a lot of people get ‘Saved’ or ‘embrace Islam’ in prison—it may be the first time in their lives when they’ve received advice from an experienced source.

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Another reason even we atheists have to give it up to religion is the inspiration it has provided to artists and musicians over the years. Bach seemed to feel that his compositions were prayers of a sort—when his fugues invoke a sense of grandeur, they are his way of glorifying God in music. Now that’s religion I can get behind.

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And it’s funny that a section of Germany that became so progressive about musical religious strictures (and music was bound by many limitations, back then) would produce, in rapid succession, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. One might speculate that any portion of Europe that enjoyed a sudden freedom in the creative arts would have produced similar giants—talent equal to our historic composers may have resided in many people, living in many places where such expression was illegal or sacrilegious. We’ll never know—this is the way it worked out. So, that’s a point against religion, as well.

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You can tell I’m a lapsed Catholic—we are the only atheists who obsess over religion more, as unbelievers, than we ever did as members of the church. But I’ll tell you why that is. Catholicism is very strict, very powerful—Catholics would make good Jihadists (just kidding—although, in the past, that was actually true in a way). My point is that they make this world seem like a temporary inconvenience—as if the important stuff is outside of reality. That was my home. And now I live in reality—dusty, achy, pointless, bothersome reality. I miss my home—recognizing that Catholicism is a delusion doesn’t change the fact that I was happier under that delusion.

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Recent archeological studies have raised doubts about the biblical account of the Jews who left Egypt for Canaan—scripture would have us believe that Joshua led the Israelites in the conquest of Canaan, and renamed it Israel, or ‘the promised land’. But it appears that the writers of Exodus may have indulged in a bit of revision of history, for appearance’s sake. Digs in the area now indicate that the Canaanites held sway long after the appearance of the tribes of Abraham, and that rather than conquer the land, the Hebrew culture insinuated itself into the area over generations. It seems the children of Abraham were not conquerors, but simply a more productive and stable society than the one it lived among.

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That struck me, when I heard of it, as an odd sort of propaganda—after all, conquest isn’t very godly—and the fact that the Hebrews changed the lands, and the people, of the area they settled in, non-violently and almost purely out of living in a better, more civilized way than the natives, says something better, to modern ears, than that they ‘kicked ass’. But it also proves that the Old Testament is as much an exercise in creative writing as it is a historical document, or the ‘revealed word of the Lord’.

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But there are other, more recent, records that serve as a source of controversy as much as they serve as a source of information. The Bayeux Tapestry, for example, is as much a collection of mysteries as it is a treasure trove of historical information. To begin with—it is not a tapestry—technically it is an embroidery. It is over two-hundred feet long and twenty inches high. And although it commemorates William the Conqueror’s Norman invasion of Anglo-Saxon Britain, the tapestry was worked in the Anglo-Saxon style over several generations. And it is worth noting that French historians are only recently admitting that it was not done in the Norman style.

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Damage to the Bayeux Tapestry is to be expected—Sylvette Lemagnen, conservator of the tapestry, has said “Its survival almost intact over nine centuries is little short of miraculous…” And while that is true, the beginning panels and ending panels are either missing or beyond repair. Historians speculate that the tapestry was always stored rolled up—and, depending on how it was rolled, either the end panel or the beginning panel was exposed to air and moisture far more than the rest of it. Thus the story told on those missing or damaged panels remains a mystery—over the centuries, many enthusiasts have attempted to recreate possible replacements. The missing panel at the end, in particular, has inspired several artists to re-imagine the tapestry’s continuation, telling the history of England far beyond its original story of the Battle of Hastings.

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The story the tapestry was intended to tell is obscured by the damage and by the various interpretations of certain scenes and Latin phrases (the exact truth of which has been lost or forgotten over the centuries). But the tapestry still illustrates for us a host of facts about the Norman invasion—and tells another, unintended, story—about how those 11th century Britons lived, worked, and fought. Above and below the main scenes in the tapestry are borders that depict a variety of subjects. People are shown fighting, hunting, weaving, farming, building, and in other activities. Animals, both real and fantastical, are also used as border decorations. Many tools, weapons, and techniques of the times are clearly illustrated. And the story told by the major scenes is augmented by Latin labels, comments and explanations (which are referred to as tituli—which I guess is Latin for ‘sub-titles’, or something).

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All in all, it is an awesome thing—a piece of embroidery, showing what amounts to an historian’s paradise—and it outlasted a multitude of castles, fortifications, and whole nations—a roll of fabric that only becomes more priceless as it disintegrates. And the most capricious aspect of all is that this ‘Britain’s first comic-strip’ tells us more about that time than all the source documents or written accounts that survive from that age.

Sunday, November 20, 2016                                            5:24 PM

I’ve been pondering the beginnings of formal music in Western Civilization. There has always been folk music—or so I assume, since even children will hum or whistle or stomp to a rhythm—but since folk music was ephemeral, passed from parent to child, never notated, never recorded, that is the only assumption we can make about early folk music.

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Some records have survived—the Bulgarian Women’s Choir famously performs songs that reach back to the work songs, love songs, and laments of the peasants of Tsarist Russia. Musicology researchers in 1920s USA found folk music among the hill-people that may be near-perfect preservations of that of the Elizabethans who first settled there—and British, Irish, and other musicologists have found similar hand-me-down relics of the folk music of the British Isles, closer to their origin. Many sources from many places give us remnants of the music that existed before music became the formalized fine art we practice today.

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But when I speak of our ignorance of folk music, I mean that we don’t know where the surviving fragments evolved from, what came before that, and what came even earlier. We can never know—because music has its own pre-history, which dates to far more recently than pre-history in general. I assume that people made music for millennia, but the ‘civilizing’ of music in the formal notation and harmonies that we loosely call ‘Classical Music’ is the first time that any records of music were made. There is some notation stuff from the Roman Empire—but nobody knows what scale it’s based on, and other important contextual stuff that would allow us to translate it into a performance—that isn’t an exception, so much as an example of my point.

So, aside from whatever we might guess, or imagine, or assume about music’s history, the very beginning of its recorded history was Gregorian Chant. Original manuscripts of Gregorian Chant still exist today—and they are still often sung as written, today, by groups that specialize in archaic music. I believe there is an ensemble of monks who are famous for their recordings and performances. The Vatican preserves some beautifully illuminated neumes on original parchment.

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In the late 800s, something called the Metz project developed a system called ‘neumes’, which would develop into today’s standard staff notation. The Gregorian chants from all the surrounding areas were collected and recorded using neumes—and thus the church standardized its musical portion of the liturgy. These chants were very simple by today’s standards—to our ears they sound quite monotonous, but there is a rough grandeur to them—and their main purpose was in singing the words from scripture—or, really, chanting them.

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As with anything, formal music then developed through a combination of new ideas butting up against established norms, popularity overcoming prurience, and tradition often stifling innovation. And there was a lot of ground to cover, if we were to get from Gregorian chant all the way to Ariana Grande, so it isn’t too surprising that it took centuries for music to reach the variety and sophistication we enjoy today.

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The church would remain the sole source of formal music for centuries—until the advent of court musicians, members of a royal household whose sole function was to create musical entertainment. After that, further centuries would see formal music confined to the church and the nobility. Don’t worry—the regular folks still had their folk music—and if I had to choose, I might have preferred their entertainments over the renaissance and early baroque composers’ refinements.

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Classical music would not see verve equal to Folk music until the advent of Ragtime and Jazz. Even when a composer like Brahms would adapt a Hungarian folk tune, say, its wildness would be contained by an over-civility inherent in composed works of the age. So don’t feel too bad for the poor riff-raff excluded from the fancy music chambers of royalty—they knew pleasures far more vital than those heard by the stuffed shirts at their concerts.

In those pre-industrial times, a commoner’s life was hard work—the chance to gain a post as a church musician or a court musician was no small advantage—and the internecine rivalries and petty squabbles of the musicians vying for these posts was a constant. The film “Amadeus” shows us something of this, but in a rarefied form, since its ‘villain’, Salieri, is tortured by envy over Mozart’s heavenly talent more than his professional position.

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We also note the high number of composers who come from musical families—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and others had musician parents, even musician grandparents. A sure sign that competition for these sinecures was fierce: once someone got their foot in the door, they did their best to secure the same for their children. Though in fairness, every trade and career in those times was primarily handed down from father to son. Women, with rare exceptions, were excluded from the music profession.

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I used to think of composers as wise men who sat writing down notation all day—but I’ve come to realize that many of these great composers led lives of constant busyness. You can read it in their records—complaints about the amount of work expected of them, their students needing training, their ensembles and choirs needing rehearsing, problems with money, instruments, venues, and preparations for big events—and in their few, free, hurried moments they would jot down the actual music we love them for, even today.

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I doubt most people consider the effort involved—writing down every note sounded by every instrument and choir-voice, in separate manuscripts for each performer’s music-stand (and this was back using a quill pen and rough paper)—the notation alone must have been incredibly tedious, notwithstanding the need for the finished product to create beautiful music. Thus I have come a long way from seeing my books of piano music as ancient, alien diagrams from the forgotten past.

Today, when I play, I think of that person—the life they led, the place and time they lived in, and the shared humanity between myself and this or that guy who lived in 15th century England or 16th century Germany. If you listen closely, you can almost hear them saying ‘hello’. It’s a little miracle.

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