December, 2014

The Red-ish Menace

December 30th, 2014 13 Comments



It’s been difficult to avoid watching the on-going protests over so-called police brutality, including the ones that continued in spite of Hiz Honor Bill de Blasio’s call for a break in which to bury the two fallen New York police officers. I remember being surprised, back shortly after Ferguson, and immediately after the Staten Island incident, at how quickly the protestors had access to professionally printed posters, but I was more focused on the violence and ignorance and idiocy of the protestors than on their accoutrements. I heard some pundit refer to the protestors, particularly the ones chanting, “What do we want? Dead Cops! When do we want them? Now!” as Al Sharpton’s “rent-a-mob,” but I gave it little thought. Ignorance and violence aren’t worth wasting much thought and effort on. Then a friend sent me the photo above and I took the time to do a little research.

At the bottom of the signs is a name, is the website of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. The Revolutionary Communist Party, USA is the brainchild of a vainglorious former Berkley, California radical malcontent by the name of Bob Avakian. He is also a former member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), former member of the Black Panther Party, and former member of the Free Speech Movement. He currently serves as the central committee chairman and national leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party.

So what has he or his Revolutionary Communist Party to do with race-huckster, tax-cheat, and professional liar Al Sharpton? Well, before Al Sharpton became the host of his own show on MSNBC, and before he started blogging for the Huffington Post, and before he became an advisor to both Barack Obama and Bill De Blasio, Al Sharpton supported the Communist Party’s efforts to defend Angela Davis from murder charges stemming from her purchase of the shotgun, two days before the event, used to kill California Judge Harold Haley. (Under California law, anyone involved in the commission of a crime is considered guilty of that crime whether or not they directly participate in said crime.) Angela Davis was eventually acquitted (and there is a long and interesting story there) and went on to run twice as the official vice-presidential candidate of the Communist Party. Since then, Sharpton has gone on to work with and associate with multiple avowed communists and Marxists, which of course brings us to Hiz Honor, Bill de Blasio (the former Warren De Blasio-Wilhelm, and before that, née Warren Wilhelm, Jr.), an avowed and self-proclaimed “leftist” fond—in his younger days—(according to the New York Times) of quoting Marx.

All of this (de Blasio, Sharpton, Avakian, the protestors) would qualify as nothing more than meaningless and mindless mayhem except for a startling similarity between the conduct of the protestors and the philosophy of “foco” developed and espoused by another Marx-quoting communist, Che Guevera. Putting it in baby talk, “foco” is the ideological theory that an existing government can be overthrown without having to wait for signs of decay or chaos or corruption within that government, but rather by causing those things, or even just the appearance of those things, by committing acts of violence that create the impression of governmental corruption or incompetence. In other words, if you riot and create chaos in the streets and call for the death of law enforcement officers, and then law enforcement officers are actually killed, you create doubt in the minds of the people as to the competence of their government.

This would all be somewhat more sinister, were it not for two things:

The first is that we don’t need anyone to create an impression of governmental corruption or incompetence. The government can do that all by itself, without any outside help, thank you very much.

The other thing is the complete lunacy of the Revolutionary Communist Party. I went on their website, trying to learn a little more about them and why they are providing professional protestors for Al Sharpton. It’s clear they want a world-wide revolution involving the overthrow of all known governments, including the Chinese, but they seem to have only a sketchy idea of what is to come after that. There is a lot of talk about the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (like that’s supposed to be a good thing?) but no concrete details on how to keep the necessary industry and agriculture churning along. Since communism didn’t work out so well in the USSR, and certainly seems to be on the wane, if not vanished, in China, it’s a little risible to imagine someone (Bob Avakian) really believes he has come up with a better version of a proven failure. It’s like trying to reintroduce the Edsel with different hubcaps. Hell, even socialism hasn’t worked out so well, historically. No civilization in all of history has ever adopted a socialist form of government and lasted more than one hundred years, and the only one that lasted close to that long was in China under the Emperor Wang An-shih (1021-1086), and Chinese emperors were never noted for brooking much opposition.

But Bob Avakian, undeterred, spouts the kind of ideological gobbledygook that impresses people who might actually, in other circumstances, be able to comprehend a simple declarative sentence. Consider the following:

“This concept was taken over from the philosophical system of Hegel, whose philosophy exerted a significant influence on Marx (and Engels), even while, in a fundamental sense, they recast and placed on a materialist foundation Hegel’s view of dialectics, which was itself marked by philosophical idealism (the view that history consists in essence of the unfolding of the Idea).”

That’ll hook the unlettered masses, by golly, especially those happy protestors who think Hegel is something on which you spread cream cheese and lox.

Mr. Avakian and the Revolutionary Communist Party rely heavily on the repeated use of key words and phrases: “synthesis;” “dialectics;” “dictatorship of the proletariat;” “the scientific roots of Marxism” (say what?); apparently thinking this will lend substance to their insubstantial rhetoric. In fact, “synthesis” is used so often and so vaguely that I eventually gave up trying to count the number of repetitions.

Even if you had any doubts about the actions of the police in Ferguson and Staten Island (I didn’t, and do not) you should seriously question the motives of protestors marching at the behest of Al Sharpton and carrying placards provided by the Revolutionary Communist Party.

Support your local police.

Book Review: A Christmas Carol

December 28th, 2014 11 Comments

Arthur Rackham, Christmas Carol

On Christmas day I took a break from my current history obsession (a much needed break, as I am in the throes of reading about the dark ages when all of Europe seemed intent on butchering all the rest of Europe) and reread A Christmas Carol. I had forgotten how wonderful Dickens is and how especially wonderful A Christmas Carol is, both in its message and its writing.

What was interesting was to learn that Dickens considered A Christmas Carol and the rest of his Christmas books (The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, The Chimes, The Haunted Man) all to be rather sketchy things dashed off to make money:

“I never attempted great elaboration of detail in the working out of character within such limits [of space], believing it would not succeed. My purpose was, in a whimsical kind of masque which the good-humor of the season justified, to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land.”

Would not succeed? There isn’t an author alive today who wouldn’t happily sell his mother into slavery and his soul to the devil to be able to create characters half as colorful and memorable as Scrooge, Tiny Tim or any of the Cratchit family, the spirits who haunt Scrooge, including Marley, or even such ancillary characters as old Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig. Yet Dickens apparently considered them barely limned.

Part of what makes them all so memorable for the reader is their kindness, their loving humanity, their good humor, their capacity for forgiveness, which is another way of saying what makes them memorable is the spirit of Christ within each of them, which is, of course, what Dickens was trying to express.

But another part of what makes them all so memorable is the skill of Dickens’ writing, the visual aspect that Dickens manages to convey so charmingly. Consider his description of the beautiful, nubile daughter of Scrooge’s lost love, playing with her much younger brothers and sisters:

[She] soon beginning to mingle in the sports, got pillaged by the young brigands most ruthlessly. What would I not have given to be one of them! Though I never could have been so rude, no, no! I wouldn’t for the wealth of all the world have crushed that braided hair, and torn it down; and for the precious little shoe, I wouldn’t have plucked it off, God bless my soul! to save my life. As to measuring her waist in sport, as they did, bold young brood, I couldn’t have done it; I should have expected my arm to grow round it for a punishment, and never come straight again. And yet I should have dearly liked, I own, to have touched her lips; to have questioned her, that she might have opened them; to have looked upon the lashes of her downcast eyes, and never raised a blush; to have let loose waves of hair, an inch of which would be a keepsake beyond price: in short, I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest license of a child, and yet to have been man enough to know its value.

If that doesn’t make you fall in love, you have no heart within you. And that is just the briefly seen, unnamed daughter of a barely named lost love! The narrator, obviously, is Dickens himself, and I suspect Dickens, like all writers, was guilty of falling somewhat in love with even the least of his creations, and passing that love on to his readers.

(I do have to admit that much of the visual power, for me, also comes from the illustrations almost as much as from the words. Dickens’ work was most associated during his lifetime with the illustrations of Hablot Knight Browne—known as “Phiz”—first and foremost, George Cruikshank, John Leech, Robert Seymour, and Fred Barnard, and to a lesser extent with George Cattermole and S. L. Fildes, but the edition I read this past Christmas day was a late printing [1948] of the Arthur Rackham edition first published by William Heineman in 1915. Arthur Rackham, as immortal as Charles Dickens, is one of the most evocative artists ever when it comes to capturing the alluring innocence and grace of young girls teetering on the brink of womanhood, and his children all inhabit the wonderland somewhere between fairies and flesh-and-blood. His painting of the happy battle between the oldest daughter and her boisterous young siblings is a masterpiece of high-spirits and beauty, chaos and grace.)

A Christmas Carol was the first of the Christmas books, written in part for mercenary reasons, and in part to revive his own flagging self-confidence. Martin Chuzzlewit hadn’t sold as well as he had hoped, and Dickens was apparently going through a variety of personal crises, not least of which was a case of what we would today call writer’s block. A Christmas Carol swept that block away like a flood bursting through a ruptured dam: Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House, A Child’s History of England, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, not to mention a host of lesser works, editing a weekly magazine, multiple public readings and tours, all took place in the twenty-seven years between A Christmas Carol and his death in 1870. What other writer has ever produced that many enduring masterpieces in a lifetime, let alone less than three decades?

While A Christmas Carol was very well received when it was written, acclaimed by Thackeray as a “…national benefit and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness…” it appears that The Cricket was somewhat more popular during Dickens’ lifetime, and though I may be misinterpreting a childhood memory of Eleanor Farjeon’s (herself an author of children’s stories and of the hymn Morning Has Broken, made into a popular song by Cat Stevens), I don’t think it became anything other than a popular literary hit. The Cricket on the Hearth was adapted for the stage as early 1845, while A Christmas Carol had to wait until after the turn of the century. Since then, of course, it has made up for its late start and has been adapted for stage and film and radio in countless productions and variations and misinterpretations ranging from the unspeakable to the delightful.

But none of the many theatrical adaptations, not even the best of the best, equal the book. The reason, primarily, is because none of them make full use of the main character, who is Dickens himself. It is Dickens who takes us by the hand and leads us through Scrooge’s past and present and possible future; it is Dickens who leads us through the lives of the characters with whom Scrooge interacts, past and present; it is Dickens who leads us through London, through glimpses of rural England, from inland farms and villages to a ship at sea, much as the spirits lead Scrooge. And of all of it is done with Dickens’ unique capacity for showing us the worst of humanity even as he presses home the point that there is far more good than evil in the world, always—yesterday, today, and tomorrow. To paraphrase an author I read once (and can’t remember now), when Dickens gives us a pill, he concocts it out of spices and sugar.

It is that rare capacity for hope and Christian charity and goodwill, even in the face of evil and despair, that makes Dickens so unique among authors, that makes his voice so compelling in each of his tales, and that dooms any adaptation of his work that does not make use of his most singular voice.

Consider the following:

It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humor.”

God bless us everyone.

Profiles in C- C- C- Courage

December 20th, 2014 21 Comments



Hollywood has always been a hotspot of venality, where the greatest creative fiction usually takes place in the bookkeeping department, and where producers buy red ink by the barrel for those creative endeavors. But in the old days it was also a place of a certain kind of courage, a courage—if you will—of conviction.

Sam Goldwyn used to put his own home up for collateral to finance many of his movies. Michael Todd sold his interest in his own company to finance Around the World in Eighty Days, and even so finished filming the movie in enormous debt; post-production was completed with bill-collectors literally beating on the doors.

And while it was the creative side of the industry (writers, directors, actors, and to a lesser extent producers) who reveled in political lampooning, no one can deny it took a certain amount of chutzpah in 1940 to release The Great Dictator, with Charlie Chaplin reducing audiences around the world to hysterical laughter with his contemptuous send-up of Adolph Hitler and (with his writing and Jack Oakie’s performance) of Benito Mussolini. Neither Mussolini nor Hitler—especially not Hitler—were known for their shrinking reticence for expressing dissatisfaction with bullets and murder.

Greta Garbo’s Ninotchka, released in 1939, wasn’t exactly a complimentary puff-piece about the Soviet Union or about Joseph Stalin, another man not noted for his mild restraint.

Ben Affleck’s Argo, while neither a satire nor comedic in any way (save for Alan Arkin’s great line: “If I’m gonna make a fake movie, its gonna be a fake hit.”) wasn’t exactly complimentary in its portrayal of Iran.

I’m sure there are many more satirical films that I haven’t seen, and still more that don’t qualify as risk-taking, having been made after dictators were dead, or because they poke fun at American presidents who rarely have movie makers executed. But I have never before heard of a film being canceled because of threats from a tin-pot, puff ball dictator in a minor league, fourth world regime on the other side of the globe. The first amendment has just officially been sacrificed to the loudest bully. And what a pathetic specimen at that.

Apparently the only person in Hollywood today with any balls at all is George Clooney.

Oh, Those Bad Police!

December 10th, 2014 31 Comments



Protestors have been marching all around the nation, protesting police brutality. It’s hard to take some of these protests seriously, especially when they involve violence and looting, or when they take place in poverty stricken and down-trodden enclaves such as Berkley, California or Boulder, Colorado, where police brutality is such a problem and where poverty means struggling along on less than a million dollars a year. In other places, other communities, it may well be a reflection of mutual distrust between law enforcement and minorities.

Some pundits have accused both President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder of being divisive over this issue, making it more of a racial issue than it either is or should be, but I don’t think that’s fair. Both Obama and Holder are black men, so they can’t help seeing the world through their own particular prism any more than I can help seeing the world through the eyes of a very privileged and pampered white man.

What I do think is wrong is that both Obama and Holder, and especially Hiz Honor the Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, as well as the protesters in the streets, and just about all the pundits and commentators, all of them, are screaming for more oversight of police, more restraint on the part of the police, more training for the police, more of this for the police, and less of that for the police. In other words, everyone is pointing at the police departments across America and laying the blame on them, as if all police are somehow solely responsible for all the ills of our society. This is as stupid and shortsighted as the gun control groups who blame an inanimate object for the actions of a criminal.

Not one single public person has put the blame for these incidents—whether they were justifiable or not—where it belongs, which is to say on a wide range of social and economic factors that have contributed to a black inner-city subculture of uneducated young men and women, broken families, and absent fathers, where violence is glorified, drugs are regarded as both a solace and a cool and lucrative way to earn a living, welfare is considered both a birthright and a substitute for personal responsibility, and the police—as representatives of mainstream (read “white”) society—are regarded as the enemy.

If you have young men, bursting with testosterone and energy and frustration, sitting at home with nothing to do, no education to do it with, no hope for a job, no hope for a future, no role models to follow, no moral guidance beyond violent video games and gangsta rap, and no belief in anything other than the most primal law-of-the-jungle code, what the hell do you think is going to happen?

But as far as I know (and I do try to follow the news) not one damned politician has suggested that maybe there are better places to assign blame than on the police.

I have heard blithering nonsense about shooting to wound, and I have already addressed that idiocy in an earlier blog (“Officer Involved Shootings” ) and more recently there has been a lot of equal nonsense about an “unarmed” man versus an armed police officer. Let me point something out to those of you who might not have ever had a violent physical encounter with someone: there is no such thing as an unarmed man. More people are murdered every year by what the FBI calls “personal weapons,” meaning fists, feet, and hands, than are murdered by rifles of any and all kinds, including those dweadful and scary semi-automatic rifles the government keeps trying to ban. When you add a seventy-five pound weight difference between the combatants (which is roughly the weight difference between the officer and the young assailant in Ferguson) it is a virtual impossibility for all but a tiny handful of men to prevail in such a fight. I spent twenty years studying karate (Shotokan), five years boxing, and one year studying Brazilian jujitsu. In all that time, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of men I trained with who might be able to prevail against a seventy-five pound weight difference, and three of those were professional instructors. The police get one short course on some very rudimentary self-defense tactics, and after that they’re on their own. So don’t babble on about “unarmed” men deserving kinder, gentler treatment.

But above all, don’t babble on about those evil police. Are there bad cops? Of course there are, possibly even as great a percentage as the percentage of bad people in society generally, but the vast majority of them are decent, honest men and women who do the best they can under circumstances that would make you or me or anyone else burst into tears of terror.

When you hear the sound of your back window shattering in the dark of night, who do you call? When you see a bunch of thugs beating and robbing a helpless victim, do you rush in to save the day, or do you dial 911? Do you want to be the one to try and stop drug dealers or human traffickers? If you see two rapists dragging a young girl into a car, are you going take them on, mano-a-mano?

Let’s stop bashing cops and start bashing the underlying factors that create violent young thugs of any color.

Thanksgiving Day, 1950-Something

December 1st, 2014 26 Comments


We tend to lump our childhood memories together into compartmentalized categories, categories we look back on through glasses of varying hues. Many of these overlap, so that the time you lived in the grey house with the big tree in the yard mingles with the time you went to that red brick school with the nice teacher and the nasty coach, even though in reality those two things were in separate towns, and both are confused with the period when your best friend lived across the street, and that memory in turn is erroneously conflated with memories of making gingerbread men, even though you know you’ve somehow got the timing wrong.

It doesn’t matter. Childhood memories are not historical fact, nor should they be. Instead, they are ways of lending coherence and continuity and understanding to a time when all the world was bright and new, a time when magic could be found in the mundane, and adventure lurked around every corner, just one tree branch higher, across one more street or under one more fence, or in that little creek, behind that hay bale, in that dark and mysterious wood, that corner of the barn.

So in one of my categories, Thanksgiving, we lived forever in Washington, DC in a big, old-fashioned, haunted house that really was across the street from my best friend, but every Thanksgiving was celebrated in Baltimore at the home of Uncle Bill and my father’s sister, Aunt Kitty. Their house was a vast, shingled, porch-and-column affair in Roland Park, a planned “streetcar” neighborhood (there were still streetcars in that long-ago) of tree-shaded lawns, and traffic-free streets and fallen leaves where my cousins and I would play football or tag or other nameless games, loud and shrill in the Indian-summer warmth, because the weather was always lovely and redolent of wood smoke on Thanksgiving back then. It was a Federal law the weather be lovely, a very sensible law intended to give grownups a little peace and quiet.

There were four cousins, all adored in equal measure, though in my heart of hearts it was Kathy who was my favorite, while “T” was my hero. Kathy was closest to me in age, so that was to a certain extent a natural pairing of two similarities, while “T” possessed a wild self-confidence and athleticism that made him a towering and compelling figure in the improvised games that swept across the lawns and streets, and up and down the back stairs until an authoritative voice ordered us all out again. (Grownups are so strangely immune to the imperious call of blue sky and green grass and dead leaves; but I’ll never be like that when I grow up.) Billy was the oldest, and Ellen the youngest, with my sister Judith and I falling in between, so that there was someone for everyone, no matter what the activity. And that strange intimacy between us all, as if the year’s interlude were just an afternoon apart, a weekend’s absence between games. No need to catch up, just grab the football and let’s go.

It wasn’t only wild games. There were also quiet times, sitting on Kathy’s bed with her and Ellen, talking—what did we talk about? The Hardy Boys? Nancy Drew? And even quiet times with the grownups, for I have a vivid memory of my Aunt Kitty, the prettiest girl ever to be born in Baltimore, pointing out the seashells she and Uncle Bill collected on their forays to Sanibel Island in a far off place called Florida, seashells lovingly arranged in a class-topped coffee table in a room that in my memory was a wall of glass where the sunlight always streamed in regardless of the weather conditions. I sat on the sofa next to Aunt Kitty, so beautiful, so nice, so sweet-smelling, as she named the shells one by one. Where are they now, those collected memories?

And other more docile memories: the kitchen, presided over by an ancient, white-haired lady whose name has now vanished from my memory as finally as she has from this world, presided over too by her ancient Dachshund, both of them occupying a position somewhere between employee and family member, a position as common and easy and natural in that day as it is incomprehensible in today’s world. The chain-link kennel just at the bottom of the kitchen porch steps where Uncle Bill’s amiable black Labrador retriever was contained as too rambunctious to be considered a house dog. Her name I remember well. She was Stran, Aunt Kitty’s middle name, a name chosen optimistically and unsuccessfully by Uncle Bill in the fond hope it would allow her—the dog—to come into the house, muddy paws and drumming tail and wriggling body and all. It never worked, and it was the only thing about Aunt Kitty I found incomprehensible, as our dog, our one-eyed Boxer, lived not only in the house, but mostly on my bed.

But no matter what the activity, when we were finally called in to the dining room, my Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes (my father’s phrase, one I cling to now as I do to all things and times when he was alive) were rumpled at best, fragmentary at worst, shirt limp with perspiration, tie askew, gray flannel pants (there was no other kind) grass-stained at the knees, newly polished shoes scuffed, socks at half-mast, hair disheveled, flushed and happy, and my parents would look at me with despair and amusement in equal measure, just as parents all over America probably looked at their offspring filing into dining rooms from the Chesapeake Bay to the San Francisco Bay.

And that dining room! Other than the lovely closeness of cousins, the other most vivid memories are of the meals. Was I always an adventurous eater? I think I must have been, but certainly at Uncle Bill’s groaning table I was. Actually, it was the children’s table; grownups sat at a white damask-covered table cluttered with place-settings, heavy silver forks and knives and spoons spilling out on either side, multiple glasses for water, white wine, red wine, napkins the size of beach towels, a centerpiece that in my memory consisted of holly and magnolia, though it was more probably different squashes and small gourds. The children’s table was in the corner by the window where our conversation wouldn’t compete with the adults, but the food was all served by Uncle Bill, just as most of it had been shot and cooked by him. He was an ardent duck hunter, an Eastern-shore boy, and it was in that dining room that I first sampled duck—canvasback, specifically—that he had shot at his club on an island in the Chesapeake Bay; venison one year; oysters on the half shell, salty and slippery and singing of tabasco-flavored sauce; crabs prepared in a multitude of styles, but mostly fried in cakes; salty hams brought up from Virginia; biscuits and cornbread; pies of pumpkin and sweet potato and the mysteriously named chess pie; small samples of wine, for that was not frowned on back in that innocent time; meals that went on and on with certain rituals time-honored and familiar.

One of these rituals always included—we children clamored for it—my father’s telling of the time from his own childhood when Aunt Kitty was admiring her new hat and dress in the reflection of the swimming pool of their childhood home (a pretentious and palatial pile called the Cloisters, open to the public now; actor Will Smith was married there) when she slipped and fell in, and my father began to laugh so hard he could barely run, and run he had to, for Kitty chased him round and round the pool with an ax in her hand and murder in heart. She always claimed he had pushed her, and during my father’s telling of this beloved anecdote of their own childhood days, Aunt Kitty’s face would take on a particular expression that combined amused forbearance, saint-like patience, and a steely glint that made me believe she was indeed capable of venting her anger with an ax.

And afterward, after the pies and port, after the stupor and the groaning and the yawning, when the grownups had been revived by short strolls around the block and pots of coffee always served on the seashell coffee table, we would drive back to Washington in my father’s green 1949 Ford, my sister and I sleeping—or pretending to sleep—on the rear seat as we listened to our parents. And in those soft oblique voices, the voices of all parents who are aware of little pitchers whose big ears might or might not be asleep, I sensed in ways I could not possibly have expressed then or even now that there was trouble in the paradise of Baltimore. Not in Roland Park or with my beloved aunt and uncle and cousins, but with other relatives, names only dimly recognized, in particular with my father and aunt’s mother, my rarely seen grandmother. I know now that she was widely regarded as the craziest woman in Baltimore, possibly on the entire eastern seaboard, but what was expressed then, in the soft voices and careful phrasing, was a quality of unbridled malice hidden by smiles, of viciousness camouflaged behind honeyed words. Many years later I would experience it all firsthand and sympathize with the memory of my poor father, and marvel at his courtesy and restraint and strength of character, but back then, in the backseat of a 1949 Ford, the words simply hinted at a world I did not wish to know, and I understood I was very lucky to be a child surrounded by love and laughter, fed on fine foods, safe in the security of Thanksgiving in the greatest nation on earth.

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