U.S. History posts
Friday February 12, 2021
Quote of Jan. 6
“Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
-- Donald Trump to Rep. Kevin McCarthy on Jan. 6, while the latter was under attack at the U.S. Capitol by the former's idiot minions, as revealed today by CNN. Whether this revelation extends impeachment hearings, which I think were set to wrap up, we'll know soon. It should. Witnesses should be called.
Look, it's not just that Trump told his followers the election of Joe Biden was a fraud, then told them when and where to come, and lit the match with a speech, and did nothing while the U.S. Capitol was overrun; he wanted it; he reveled in it. Remember that shot of Mitt Romney, eating crow with Trump in Nov. 2016? How pleased Trump was that someone who had disparaged him was coming hat-in-hand for a favor? That's Trump. He wanted that back again. By any means necessary.
I'll say this, too: We haven't begun to hear the worst he's done. Why I want the hearings to continue.
Wednesday January 20, 2021
T Minus 2 Hours
“In the end, Trump was everything his haters feared—a chaos candidate, in the prescient words of one of his 2016 rivals, who became a chaos President. An American demagogue, he embraced division and racial discord, railed against a 'deep state' within his own government, praised autocrats and attacked allies, politicized the administration of justice, monetized the Presidency for himself and his children, and presided over a tumultuous, turnover-ridden Administration via impulsive tweets. He leaves office, Gallup reported this week, with the lowest average approval ratings in the history of the modern Presidency. Defeated by Joe Biden in the 2020 election by seven million votes, Trump became the first incumbent seeking reëlection to see his party lose the White House, Senate, and the House of Representatives since Herbert Hoover, in 1932. A liar on an unprecedented scale, Trump made more than thirty thousand false statements in the course of his Presidency, according to the Washington Post, culminating in perhaps the biggest lie of all: that he won an election that he decisively lost.
”Yet Republicans—the vast majority, that is, of those who still identify themselves as Republicans—continue to embrace Trump and the conspiracy theories about his defeat that the departing President has spread to explain his loss. This, more than anything, might have been the most surprising thing about Trump's tenure: his ability to turn one of America's two political parties into a cult of personality organized around a repeatedly bankrupt New York real-estate developer. And so we are ending these four years having learned not that Donald Trump is a bad man—the evidence of that was already voluminous and incontrovertible before he entered politics—but that there are millions of Americans who were willing to overthrow our constitutional system in order to keep him in power, who would follow Trump's dark lies rather than acknowledge unwelcome truths.“
-- Susan B. Glasser, ”Obituary for a Failed Presidency," The New Yorker
The above and Michael Lewis' comments from the other day feel like the two biggest takeaways from this horrific era: tens of millions of Americans are willing to undermine American democracy for a demagogue; and the demagogue lost re-election not because of his undemocratic, inhumane and bullying impulses, but simply because he was a bad manager in a time of crisis.
Tuesday January 19, 2021
T Minus 12 Hours
“Donald Trump's tenure was characterized by colossal incompetence and mind-numbing indifference to the public good. His coronavirus management has resulted in more than 24.1 million cases in the United States and almost 400,000 deaths — projected to exceed 500,000 deaths by May. While overseeing arguably the worst loss of life since the great influenza of 1918, Trump also presided over the worst unemployment since the Great Depression. He is the first president in modern history to see a net loss of jobs during his time in office.
”He was the most dishonest president ever: He produced more than 30,000 documented falsehoods.
“He was the most corrupt president ever. He used his office to enrich his businesses, interfered in Justice Department investigations, engaged in obstruction of justice, stonewalled Congress, refused to release his tax returns, purged inspectors-general and pardoned his cronies and co-conspirators.
”He was the most openly racist president in modern times — arguably since Woodrow Wilson. ...
“He was the first president who refused to accept election defeat or propagated bizarre conspiracy theories to undermine confidence in the electoral system.
He became the only president ever impeached twice — once for trying to blackmail Ukraine into helping him politically, the second time for inciting a violent insurrection to try to stay in office. ...
”Thanks, President Trump. By being so awful, you have all but guaranteed that Biden will be far more successful by comparison.“
-- Max Boot, ”Trump was the worst president ever. But his failures set up Biden for success," The Wasington Post.
Tuesday January 19, 2021
T Minus 17.5 Hours
“Mr. Trump said in 2016 that America must be 'more unpredictable.' He was true to his word.
”The sudden infatuation with North Korea's Stalinist leader, Kim Jong-un, the kowtowing to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, the 'Chinese virus' obsession, the enthusiasm for the fracturing of the European Union, and the apparent abandonment of core American democratic values were so shocking that Mr. Trump's departure on Wednesday from the White House is widely viewed with relief. ...
“'Mr. Trump is a criminal, a political pyromaniac who should be sent to criminal court,' Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg's foreign minister, said in a radio interview. 'He's a person who was elected democratically but who is not interested in democracy in the slightest.'”
-- from “Trump Bequeaths Biden an Upended World,” Roger Cohen, The New York Times
Wednesday January 06, 2021
Jan. 6, 2021
Look at that headline. The main one—not the other story developing on the right. Look at that shit. Can the Times get any of this right? Forcefully? Sure, he began strong but he reverted to the B.S. argument that Republicans objecting in 2020 is the same as Dems doing so in 2000, 2004 and 2016. It began with the Dems, he implied. That's forcefully? Gore, Kerry and Clinton all conceded their elections. Trump hasn't. None of the Dems worked the phones to get other Dems to raise objections the way Trump has. None filed 60+ frivilous lawsuits. And let's not forget this: Hillary had legit complaints. The director of the FBI unprecedentedly opened an investigation into her 11 days before the election, which turned around the narrative, and, potentially, American history. And the Russians were working overtime to elect Trump—a fact that would've been known to Americans in a bi-partisian announcement in Sept. 2016 except some Republican objected and put the kibosh on it. Some Republican named Mitch McConnell. Trump was his path to a conservative Supreme Court. Well, he got that. He also got this. Put it on his doorstep in a paper bag and light it on fire.
For a time, by the way, the Times kept calling the right-wing nutjobs storming the U.S. Capitol “protesters.” Wish I had a screenshot of that. But eventually, as the day progressed and objections to such a designation were raised, it became this:
And then louder:
I was on a Zoom call this evening with some of P's Newsweek friends and one person kept calling the day's events “shameful.” That's exactly right. And the shame is on the GOP and the Fox Newses of the world.
I am so angry about this. I don't think I'll ever not be angry about this.
Two weeks left.
Wednesday December 09, 2020
Chuck Yeager (1923-2020)
The man who broke the sound barrier (right), and the man who portrayed him (left).
I think of Chuck Yeager every time I fly.
I'm not a pilot, by the way. I'm talking about flying commercially. As a passenger.
I think of Yeager because of something Tom Wolfe wrote in The Right Stuff that may or may not be true—I have no idea—but it certainly feels true. It's about airline pilot's voices, or voice, that singular sound we all want to hear, “with a particular drawl,” Wolfe wrote, “a particular folksiness, a paricular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself ... the voice that tells you, as the airline is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because 'it might get a little choppy.'” Wolfe said that voice, that drawl, originated in a specific place: the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia. Not that all pilots came from there; they just wanted to sound as if they came from there. They wanted “the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”
Yeager, of course, is the man who broke the sound barrier. It was a thing they didn't think could be done until he did it: 700+ miles an hour. Mach 1. It wasn't until I read The Right Stuff that I realized what Gene Roddenberry and “Star Trek” had been playing off of all that time with speed of light and Warp 1, 2, etc. I guess even Capt. Kirk wanted to be Chuck Yeager.
The Right Stuff became a great movie in 1983, and Yeager lucked out getting Sam Shepherd, whom he outlived, to play him, and everyone who's a fan will remember one of the movie's last lines. As the Mercury astronauts are being feted in Houston by MC LBJ, while Sally Rand does her famous fan dance, Yeager is testing out a new plane and loses control and crashes in the desert. Two men are riding in a jeep to the crash site, including Yeager's friend Jack Ridley, played by Levon Helm of The Band; and the other man, the driver, sees something moving up ahead, and asks, “Sir? Over there. Is that a man?” and Jack Ridley looks, smiles, and responds, “You damn right it is,” while the music wells triumphantly, and we get a close up of Yeager walking toward the jeep with his rolled-up parachute under his arm, his face half-charred, still calmly chewing his stick of Beemans. It's one of the great movie scenes. The movie should've ended there, but I think it went on a bit longer, unncessarily, returning us to the Mercury astronauts, about whose heroism the movie was ambivalent. But it was never ambivalent about Yeager's. He was the movie's true hero, the man who did the thing for the doing of it, even when attention went elsewhere.
Think of it: the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound. We did those things then for the doing of them.
Monday July 20, 2020
‘John Lewis is an American Hero Whose Life Work I Undermine Every Day’
John Lewis with fellow Freedom Rider Jim Zwerg in 1961
Good Slate piece by Joel Anderson about conservatives calling John Lewis a hero on social media while spending most of their careers opposing his life's work—and continuing to do so.
- Rep. Kevin McCarthy: “When Lewis was co-sponsor of a bill to renew portions of the Voting Rights Act in December, McCarthy and all but one of his Republican members voted against it. As recently as April, McCarthy blasted voting by mail as dangerous for the country and said the system involves 'a lot of fraud' while offering no evidence for the claim.”
- The Cato Insitute, which argued in favor of striking down the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act, had the nerve to call Lewis a “Libertarian Hero.” Assholes.
- Gov. Brian Kemp cheated to win the governorship from Stacey Abrams in 2018 by purging black people from the voting rolls but still proclaimed Lewis as “a Civil Rights hero, freedom fighter, devoted public servant, and beloved Georgian who changed our world in a profound way.” Right. Which Kemp and his cronies are trying to change back. Just without the dogs and hoses and hoods.
- Sen. Mitch McConnell: “In many ways, McConnell's betrayal was what kept Lewis working in his final years. ‘In December 2019, Lewis presided over the House as it passed legislation to restore and modernize the Voting Rights Act, requiring states with a long history of voting discrimination to once again get federal approval for any changes to voting procedures,’ [Mother Jones' Ari] Berman writes. ‘In a primary season marred by voting problems, like six-hour lines in Lewis’ home state of Georgia, it's been sitting on Mitch McConnell's desk for 225 days.'”
Mitch: You're a villain in our history. Now and forever.
Saturday July 18, 2020
John Lewis (1940-2020)
Lewis at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th anniversary of the march.
The Proust Questionnaire is a series of questions French author Marcel Proust dreamed up which are designed to make you think deeply about yourself and your place in the world. Vanity Fair uses it every month to ask a different famous person for their own answers and publishes them on its back page. In 2009, I decided to do my own. One question, it turned out, was pretty easy to answer:
Which living person do you most admire?
After a seven-month battle with stage IV pancreatic cancer, and a lifetime of struggle against racism, oppression and injustice, John Lewis died yesterday. He was 80.
I got to meet him once. In February 2000, University Book Store, where I’d worked two years before, held an event at the University of Washington campus for Lewis and his book, “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.” The event’s organizer, Kim Ricketts, was a friend, and she made sure I not only got in but backstage for a post-speech event.
Two main memories. One, I didn’t ask Lewis the question I wanted to ask. Others stepped up to the microphone to ask their questions but I kept editing mine in my head and never stood up. The question was basically “After facing all of the dangers you’ve faced—from the Nashville sit-ins to the Freedom Rides to Selma—what can possibly still frighten you? What are you still afraid of?” Yes, it’s part compliment, part legitimate query, which is partly why I hesitated; but I’m still curious what his answer would’ve been. I’ll never know.
Two, I did get to meet him at the event afterwards. He asked me about me. At the time I was an STE, or software test engineer, at Microsoft. That’s the grand way of putting it. The more straightforward way is: I tested Xbox games for a living. But he was curious, and complimentary, and told me I was doing good work. I think I cringed inside at his compliment. I knew it wasn’t good work. Or: I knew it wasn’t worthy work. It was getting-by work. Maybe he knew that getting-by work was most work for most people. Maybe he was being kind. Maybe he knew a well-placed compliment was a better spur than a finger-wagging judgment.
I probably first became aware of him after watching the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize” but he became my hero when I read “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63,” the first of Taylor Branch’s three-part epic, in the late 1980s. There are a lot of lesser-known movement heroes but I identified with him. He seemed calm to me. I like calm. And I just couldn’t believe how often he was at the forefront. Again and again, it was his body that went into the breach. He offered it up time and again in the Gandhian fashion to Southern racists, who rarely turned him down.
This is from page 261 of “Parting the Waters”: the first time Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and movement attorney Fred Gray met Lewis, 18, who wanted to sue for the right to attend Troy State College in his home country of Troy, Alabama:
King encountered a young man somewhat like himself in appearance—small, sturdy, dark-skinned, with a round face built for warmth more than looks—but completely lacking in refinement. Lewis spoke with a stammer, and could barely complete a full sentence even when the stammer gave him peace. He said he had “come up” so far back in the country that he could not remember even seeing a white person in his youth. This made him decidedly not the type the NAACP lawyers had ben choosing for integration test cases, because he appeared to be a Negro whom no amount of education could polish. Yet there was an incandescence in Lewis that shone through all his shortcomings. He said he was ready to die to go to Troy State but that he could probably avoid such a fate if he followed nonviolent principles. …
Lewis was proud of the fact that he had discovered King before the bus boycott made him famous. By chance, he had listened in 1955 to a radio sermon entitled “Paul’s Letter to the American Christians,” in which King assumed the style and theology of St. Paul to criticize Christians for selfishness and failures of brotherhood. Lewis still remembered being heartshaken in front of the radio. Within the space of an hour, his dreams of becoming a preacher had focused upon a new idol.
He was an odd child. He found God at age 8 and felt that chickens more than other farm animals were worthy of salvation. Maybe because they were the most vulnerable? The most helpless? He preached to the chickens and baptized young chicks. If a chicken was killed for dinner, Branch writes, “Lewis cried hysterically and boycotted meals.”
He wound up at Nashville rather than Troy, participating in non-violent workshops and then the sit-ins that took the movement to its second phase: not merely avoidance (of discriminatory buses), but direct non-violent confrontation (at Woolworth’s lunch counters). The sit-ins began in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960, quickly spread across the country, and Nashville became a focal point. Then Freedom Rides, SNCC, March, Selma. He went from young firebrand (at the March) to ousted SNCC leader by the next and less worthy generation of firebrand (Stokely).
Lewis and Jim Zwerg during the Freedom Rides, 1961.
I forget when I found out Lewis was still alive but it amazed me on some level. He kept putting his body on the line, and he was part of such important history, that I always thought of him in the past tense. And he survived it all? And was now representing Georgia’s 5th District in the U.S. House of Representatives? And fighting the good fight every day? “Good trouble,” he called it. He created the circumstances that allowed his career.
I got angry at John McCain’s attempt to use him during the 2008 debates. I teared up reading David Remnick’s story about Jan. 20, 2009: “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.” The bad guys are still at work, of course. They’re still trying to undo it all. The last time I posted about him was just before the 2016 election: “Friends of mine gave their lives [for the right to vote],” he wrote on social media. “Honor their sacrifice. Vote.” It included a photo of a young, beaten John Lewis being carried to a police wagon. “The above is still happening,” I added, “just in more muted form. I think some of Trump's supporters would like to unmute it. Don't let them.” Not enough people listened.
I wish he’d outlived Trump’s presidency but I’m glad he got to see the country and the world rise up in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. “It was so painful, it made me cry,” he said of Floyd’s death. “People now understand what the struggle was all about. It’s another step down a very, very long road toward freedom, justice for all humankind.”
I recommend “Eyes” and “Parting the Waters” and “Walking with the Wind.” I recommend “Reporting Civil Rights,” Library of America's two-volume collection of eyewitness journalistic accounts on the civil rights struggle from 1941 to 1973, which was published on the 40th anniversary of the March. I recommend “Selma.” I have yet to see “Good Trouble,” the documentary on Lewis that premiered this month. That’s next. I recommend Charles Pierce’s beautiful eulogy:
He was the bravest man I ever met. Heroes in war, most of them, know that the country will embrace them when they come home. They have that to sustain them in the worst circumstances. They already know they have a country worth fighting for. When John Lewis was riding buses, and using forbidden washrooms, and walking across the bridge, he didn’t have that on which to rely. In that violent, freighted time, he was a man without a country. His courage came from a different place. It came not from being a man without a country, but from being a man demanding a country, and he wanted this one. … John Lewis had the most American soul I ever saw.
I was surprised how much it hurt, hearing of his death last night, and it made me want to do something. Someone on Twitter mentioned that there were pedestals in need of statues. Indeed. Someone else suggested a renaming of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Yes. Yet others reminded us that in December the U.S. House, led by Lewis, voted to restore the Voting Rights Act that the U.S. Supreme Court had gutted in Shelby County v. Holder, and that the bill is currently languishing in the U.S. Senate, so now’s the time to pass it. I’m down for all three. But I have little faith in the third happening with Republicans in control of the Senate. Which brings us back to John Lewis’ life work. Honor him on Nov. 3. Make good trouble. Vote.
Monday May 25, 2020
No Way / American Way
Yesterday morning, driving to the Trader Joe's on Capitol Hill, I was stopped at a stoplight on Madison and 14th, where there's a small Bank of America branch, a parking lot, and a few bushes beneath a Bank of America sign. In the bushes I noticed a man squatting. A homeless man. Then I realized he was surrounded by small pieces of paper which he was using to wipe himself. All of this beneath that Bank of America sign. If someone had a camera on them, and talent like Margaret Bourke-White, it might've made for a good symbol for our times.
Monday April 22, 2019
Conspiracy Theorist in Chief
There's a good, sad article by The New Yorker‘s Elizabeth Kolbert about conspiracy theorists called (in print) “That’s What You Think” and (online) “What's New About Conspiracy Theories?”
(SEO has made dullards of us all.)
Kolbert reviews four new books about conspiracy theories and theorists; about what's new and what isn‘t, and tries to lay it all out.
One thing that’s new is this thing; where you‘re reading this. The like-minded find each other easier online, and if initially we thought this meant scrapbook makers and baseball card collectors, experience has shown it’s often the worst of the worst. There are certain subreddits you don't want to go down.
“This category of recent conspiracy theorists is really a global network of village idiots,” Pozner tells Merlan. “They would have never been able to find each other before, but now it's this synergistic effect of the combination of all of them from all over the world. There are haters from Australia and Europe and they can all make a YouTube video in fifteen seconds.”
YouTube is key, too, since it and other sites tend to push users toward more sensational versions of the material they‘re already watching. Their motives, says Kolbert, is commercial, not political, but the result is the same: extremism.
Classic conspiracy theories, Kolbert writes, tend to try to make sense of something that shatters our worldview: JFK assassination, 9/11. There has to be a reason for this unreasonable thing. But one thing that sets theorists like QAnon apart, Kolbert writes, “is a lack of interest in explanation.” What’s the child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton out of the basement of a DC pizza place that doesn't really have a basement trying to make sense of? “There is often nothing to explain,” Kolbert quotes one author. “The new conspiracism sometimes seems to arise out of thin air.”
And then there's Trump, the man who reps our loutish age:
Historically, Muirhead and Rosenblum maintain, it's been out-of-power groups that have been drawn to tales of secret plots. Today, it's those in power who insist the game is rigged, and no one more insistently than the so-called leader of the free world.
It's beyond his birtherism and “fake news” and “witchhunt.” Business Insider lists 19 examples of his conspiracy theories. I didn't know, for example, he'd floated rumors that Justice Scalia had been murdered rather than died of natural causes.
Democracies depend on buy-in; citizens need to believe in certain basics, starting with the legitimacy of elections. Trump both runs the government and runs it down. The electoral system, he asserts, can't be trusted. Voter fraud is rampant. His contempt for institutions ranging from the courts (“slow and political”) to the Federal Communications Commission (“so sad and unfair”) to the F.B.I. (“What are they hiding?”) weakens those institutions, thereby justifying his contempt. As government agencies “lose competence and capacity, they will come to look more and more illegitimate to more and more people,” Muirhead and Rosenblum observe.
Those are the forces against us.
Sunday March 31, 2019
Free, White and 21, Cont.
During another rabbit-hole meandering on IMDb, I came across this title—a play, of course, on the once-familiar, early-20th-century phrase, “Free, white and 21.” This version is a little more palatable, but I'm sure that's not why 20th Century Fox, way back in 1940, went with it. “Blonde” just has more sex appeal:
IMDb's synopsis is short but seems to give away a lot: “Stories of women who live in an all-women hotel. One (Bari) works hard and marries a millionaire; another (Hughes) cheats and goes to jail.”
“Bari” is Lynn Bari, who would become a WWII pinup; “Hughes” is Mary Beth Hughes, who began appearing in movies in 1939 and stopped in 1976. A year after this one, she was in “The Cowboy and the Blonde” (as the latter), and would go on to play “Blonde Spy” in “Sucker Bait,” a WWII-era documentary short, and “Atomic Blonde” in the 1950s TV series “My Hero.” She was also in “The Ox-Bow Incident” and “The Women.”
Found the film while searching on Frank Coughlan, Jr., who played Billy Batson in the 1941 serial, “The Adventures of Captain Marvel,” and has a bit part in the above.
Thursday March 07, 2019
Free, White and 21, Cont.
In “What Price Hollywood?,” an RKO picture from 1932, directed by George Cukor, Constance Bennett plays waitress Mary Evans who is plucked from obscurity by director Max Carey (Lowell Sherman), becomes a star, and gets married to a rich man, Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton, Commissioner Gordon of TV's “Batman”). It's ur-“Star is Born” since, as she rises, Carey plunges into alcoholic stupor and death, while her marriage to Lonny can't handle her celebrity and breaks apart. Here's the telegram informing her of this.
It's the second line that caught my eye. I first noticed it back in 2009 when watching “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” and, as I wrote back then, “The Worldwide Web isn't much help with the phrase.” Well, that was then. Now the phrase has a Wiktionary entry and an entire Jezebel compilation video of different actors saying it, or mouthing it in silent pictures, over the years. It was such a well-known phrase that it allowed for variation and puns: Not just slight variations like “free, white and 45” (“Dinner at Eight” (1933)), but “married, sunburned and forty-one” (“Foolish Wives” (1922)). Everyone knew it that well, apparently.
What did it mean? It meant master of your domain. It meant what Henry Fonda says after he says the line to Bette Davis in “That Certain Woman” in 1937: “I'm gonna lead my own life.”
Why did it die out? Check out Harry Belafonte's reaction to it in “The World, The Flesh and the Devil” (2:42) and then his follow-up (3:09), and you‘ll get the idea:
A little while ago you said you were free, white and 21. That didn’t mean anything to you—just an expression you‘ve heard for a thousand times. Well, to me it was an arrow in my gut.
Shame Jezebel didn’t end with that one.
It would be nice to say that the phrase died out because white people became a little more race conscious during and after the civil rights movement, and, sure, that's probably part of it. But more, I think it's the assumption of it, tossed out blithely: “Free,” of course; “21” and thus unentangled. And “white”? Because only white people had the opportunity to be free. And after the civil rights movement, that assumption, blithely tossed out or not, didn't feel so freeing.