Wednesday, March 29, 2006 04/03/06-Garrison Keillor

In today's excerpt, the wisdom of Garrison Keillor:

"Life is just one darn thing after another." (our favorite)

“It's a shallow life that doesn't give a person a few scars.”

“I believe in looking reality straight in the eye and denying it.”

“They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad to realize I'm going to miss mine by just a few days”

“Thank you, God, for this good life and forgive us if we do not love it enough.”

“Secret of life is to go through something harrowing that doesn't kill you...and to love one woman for the rest of your life.” 03/31/06-The IRA

In today's excerpt, the hideous moral dilemma of the counter-insurgency against the IRA. The British army had infiltrated the IRA by recruiting spies from among their members, a strategy ultimately deemed effective. But to be convincing, those spies had to kill British soldiers. One such spy, recruited in 1971, was IRA foot soldier Freddie Scappaticci:

"The IRA swelled in power, money and numbers. Its members executed increasingly ruthless operations against Protestant groups and British forces, but Scappaticci gradually began to notice a disturbing pattern: hot-blooded young men were sent headlong into dangerous missions, but their leaders stayed safe in their pubs back home. And when these foot soldiers died or landed in prison, the leaders sometimes showed up around town with the missing men's wives...To Scappaticci, their behavior seemed more like robbery than revolution. Scappaticci, the British intelligence services quickly recognized, had the makings of a perfect agent. A local man, born in Belfast. A credible IRA member. A disillusioned foot soldier. Beaten down. Ready.

In 1980, after a couple of years of working as a British spy--arranging meetings, handing over tidbits--Scappaticci joined the IRA's internal security unit, which IRA men called the Nutting Squad...When the Nutting Squad found a snitch or a British spy, its interrogators typically tortured him, squeezed him for information, then 'nutted' him with a pair of bullets to the brain...The position gave him access to the IRA's innermost secrets...over several years he helped foil numerous killings and kidnappings.

Moreover, his position atop the Nutting Squad made him untouchable, if his own activities ever drew suspicion, he could simply divert attention by fingering an innocent man. Some British press reports estimate he killed as many as forty people...Each night (these spies rocked themselves) to sleep repeating the mantra their handlers had given them: 'The greater good. The greater good.' Scappaticci engaged in difficult mathematics, a calculus of souls. If a man kills thirty people to save 3000, has he done right?"

Matthew Teague, 'Double Blind', The Atlantic, April 2006, pp. 54-6

Sunday, March 26, 2006 03/30/06-Iran in 1953

In today's excerpt, the United States loses its political innocence in Iran during 1953:

"...the Majlis recommended that the (Iranian) government nationalize the oil industry (from the British, who had commandeered it after World War I), and Musaddiq became premier, replacing the shah's candidate. Iranian oil was nationalized, and, even though the International Court at The Hague ruled in favor of Iran's right to nationalize its own resources, British and American oil companies joined in an unofficial boycott of Iranian oil. In Britain and the United States, the media portrayed Musaddiq as a dangerous fanatic, a thief (even though he had always promised compensation), and a communist (even though Musaddiq was a nationalist who wanted to free Iran from all foreign control.)

...By 1953...the oil embargo was causing grave economic crisis.

...President Dwight Eisenhower...approved United States participation in Operation Ajax, a coup engineered by British intelligence and the CIA to depose Musaddiq...Iranians felt betrayed and humiliated by the United States, which they had previously considered a friend. America was now following in the footsteps of the Russians and the British, who had cynically manipulated events in Iran for their own gain.

This seemed clear in 1954, when a new oil treaty was made which returned the control of oil production, its marketing, and fifty percent of the profits to the world cartel companies. This sickened the more thoughtful Iranians. They had tried to take control of their own wealth, with the backing of the international court, but this had not been respected. Ayatollah Kashani was appalled...'For the hundreds of millions of dollars that the American Imperialists will gain in oil,' he predicted, 'the oppressed nation will lose all hope of liberty and will have a negative opinion about all the Western world.' "

Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God, Ballantine, 2000, pp. 230-1

Saturday, March 25, 2006 03/29/06-Eating and Fashion

In today's excerpt, internationally renowned fashion designer, Hedi Slimane, who has revolutionized men's fashion during his tenure at Dior, eats:

"It matters what Slimane looks like, because he is, in a way, his own best model...Because he's so thin and others would like to be, his eating habits are a subject of curiosity. He says that he eats baby food, and some stories have suggested that he hardly eats at all. But the fashion designer who can do without food is a mythical beast, like the business executive who never sleeps. (Slimane's friend and mentor Karl Lagerfeld supposedly survives on Pepsi Max, and has said that the reason he lost eighty pounds, not long ago, was to fit into clothes designed by Slimane.) 'Hedi eats loads,' (his friend) Street-Porter told me."

Nick Paumgarten, 'Pretty Things', The New Yorker Magazine, March 20, 2006, p. 126 03/28/06-1963

In today's excerpt, optimism in 1963:

"During the first exuberant spring since the brush with Armageddon in Cuba, established organs of mass culture promoted almost anything that was optimistic. Life magazine celebrated the government's plans for using hydrogen bombs to blast out new harbors and a copy of the Panama Canal, and predicted that LSD, peyote, and other hallucinogens soon would be harnessed to make people 'more productive and generally effective.' There was infectious awe over miracles--both profound ones such as the discovery of the DNA molecule, the 'key to life itself,' and prosaic ones such as the invention of the pop-top beer can."

Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters, Simon & Schuster, 1988, p. 711

Saturday, March 18, 2006 03/27/06-the Grand Tour

In today's excerpt, art can be defined most often by what monied society deems it to be:

"By the mid-eighteenth century, Old Master paintings and classical antiquities had become de rigueur props for British gentlemen. Privileged young men would start collecting on the Grand Tour, the long ramble around Europe's cultural capitals that served as a sort of finishing school for the British male elite. The focal point of the Grand Tour was Rome, where the ancients and the Renaissance met. There, dozens of art dealers supplied 'Grand Tourists' with everything they were expected to take home with them, from Mannerist paintings and Piranesi prints, to Etruscan pottery and Roman busts. Dozens more artists earned there livings by painting flattering Grand Tour portraits, the essential 'I was there' record of the experience, in which Grand Tourists posed soulfully against backdrops of ruins, caressing antiquities in their hands."

Maya Jasanoff, Edge of Empire, Fourth Estate, 2005, pp. 35-6 03/24/06-Seneca

In today's excerpt, the philosophy of Seneca (4BC-AD65):

"...the scion of an established family, he was sent to Rome to be educated, and he remained there to pursue a career in government.

The Emperor Claudius banished him to the island of Corsica...mistakenly believing that Seneca had committed adultery with his own niece. Eventually, Seneca was restored to his position at the imperial court...and amassed great riches, under...the infamous Nero.

...Seneca was ordered to kill himself when the paranoid Nero (wrongly) suspected him of treachery.

...Faced with impossible moral dilemmas, Seneca took refuge in the Stoic values of detachment and indifference, and found that those values could bring him happiness even in circumstances more dreadful than he could have imagined...Emboldened by the Stoic belief that happiness is independent of mere circumstance, he accepted the 'blessings of fortune' without embarrassment or shame, yet remained fully prepared to relinquish them at a moment's notice..."

Independent Extra, 17 March, 2006, p. IV 03/23/06-Re-used Lines

In today's excerpt, some lines get re-used:

"The British (Post World War I) occupation of Iraq drew heavy criticism at home almost from its inception. In 1920, a large-scale Shiite insurgency cost the British more than 2000 casualties, and domestic pressure to withdraw from Iraq began to build...the result was what historians have called the 'Quit Mesopotamia' campaign, which remained an issue in British politics until the end of the British mandate in Iraq in 1932.

...the Conservatives got the message and in 1925 initiated a series of increasingly desperate measures to sell their Iraq policy to the public. Colonial Secretary Leopold Amery led the rhetorical charge. In speeches in Parliament and before audiences throughout England, Amery blasted critics for their 'reckless disregard...of the honour of their country.' Calls by British newspapers to pull out of Iraq only emboldened the country's enemies, Amery said, and a 'policy of scuttle' would expose the British to far greater dangers...

Amery claimed the situation in Iraq was significantly better than his critics realized...the whole Middle East was undergoing fundamental changes, he declared, and Iraq would soon be a model of development and democracy for the entire region."

Joel Rayburn, The Last Exit From Iraq, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006, pp. 30-32 03/22/06-Learned Hand

In today's excerpt, a sampling of the wisdom of Learned Hand, judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and the so-called 'most important judge never to sit on the Supreme Court':

A wise man once said, 'Convention is like the shell of a chick, a protection till he is strong enough to break through.' The Preservation of Personality, 1927, p. 32

I shall ask no more of you than you agree with Dean Inge that even though counting heads is not an ideal way to govern, at least it is better than breaking them. Democracy: Its Presumptions and Realities, 1932, p. 92 is made up of a series of judgements on insufficient data, and if we waited to run down all our doubts, it would flow past us. On Receiving an Honorary Degree, 1939, p. 137

Right knows no boundaries, and justice no frontiers; the brotherhood of man is not a domestic institution. A Pledge of Allegiance, 1945, p. 143 03/21/06-Preaching

In today's excerpt, Martin Luther King , already highly practiced in oratory even at a young age, studies the art of preaching at Crozer Seminary in suburban Philadelphia:

"At Crozer, practice preaching courses brought King some of his best grades and highest approval. During the three seminary years, he took no fewer than nine courses related to the art of pulpit oratory...

His homiletics professor, Robert Keighton, brought to the classroom a preoccupation with style and the classical form of argument, which suited King perfectly...Keighton, like St. Augustine, emphasized that a large part of religion was public persuasion, as can occur when speakers of the highest gifts address the most difficult questions. King came to accept the shorthand description of oratory as 'the three P's': proving, painting and persuasion, aimed to win over successively the mind, imagination and heart.

...Keighton taught that a preacher should first prepare an outline based on one of the proven sermon structures. There was the Ladder Sermon, the Jewel Sermon, the Skyrocket Sermon, the Twin Sermon, the Surprise Package Sermon, and many others. The Ladder Sermon climbed through arguments of increasing power toward the conclusion the preacher hoped to make convincing. The Jewel Sermon held up a single idea from many different angles, as a jeweler might examine a precious stone. The Skyrocket Sermon usually began with a gripping human interest story leading to a cosmic spiritual lesson, followed by a shower of derivative lessons falling back to earth among the congregation..."

Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters, Simon and Schuster, 1988, pp. 76-77

Sunday, March 12, 2006 03/20/06-Canada

In today's excerpt, the US tries to conquer and occupy Canada:

"The spring of 1813 found America's thirst for Canada unabated. Any hopes of easy conquest, however, had been sorely tempted by the failed campaigns of the previous summer...

All across the Niagara peninsula on both sides of the river, an eerie and vengeful veil of guerrilla warfare descended. It was neighbor versus neighbor, friend versus friend. With the principal combatants all speaking English and indeed sometimes being related, it was difficult to know which side someone was on and which house might be offered for shelter or capture...

New York militia general George McClure...ordered the burning of the nearby Canadian village of Newark. In a blinding snowstorm and amid bitter cold, its inhabitants were put out on the streets, among them many widows and wives with small children. In all ninety-eight houses were burned that night, almost the entire town of Newark. The British troops and Canadian militia would remember this. This was personal. The revenge would be personal as well, and would burn far longer than the flames of Newark, not only across the river to Buffalo, but also all the way to Washington the following year."

Walter R. Borneman, Harper Collins, 2004, pp. 99-171 03/17/06-The Plague in Ireland

In today's excerpt, the black plague reaches Ireland:

"Rumors of a terrible plague supposedly arising in China and spreading through Tartary (Central Asia) to India and Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt and all of Asia Minor had reached Europe in 1346. They told of a death so devastating that all of India was said to be depopulated, whole territories covered by dead bodies, other areas with no one left alive. As added up by Pope Clement VI at Avignon, the total of reported dead reached 23,840,000...

Watching every comrade die, men in such places could not but wonder whether the strange peril that filled the air had not been sent to exterminate the human race. In Kilkenny, Ireland, Brother John Clyn of the Friars Minor, another monk left alone among dead men, kept a record of what had happened lest 'things which should be remembered perish with time and vanish from the memory of those who come after us.' Sensing 'the whole world, as it were, placed within the grasp of the Evil One,' and waiting for death to visit him too, he wrote, 'I leave parchment to continue this work, if perchance any man survive and any race of Adam escape this pestilence and carry on the work which I have begun.' Brother John, as noted by another hand, died of the pestilence, but he foiled oblivion."

Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, Ballantine, 1978, pp. 92-5 03/16/06-The Yeshiva

In today's excerpt, a lesson in fundamentalism:

"The yeshiva (a word that derives from the Hebrew for 'to sit') would become the defining institution of the ultra-Orthodox fundamentalism that would develop in the twentieth century. It was one of the first manifestations of this emergent and embattled type of religiosity, and we can learn important lessons from it. Fundamentalism--whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim--rarely arises as a battle with an external enemy; it usually begins, instead, as an internal struggle in which traditionalists fight their own coreligionists who, they believe, are making too many concessions to the secular world.

The fundamentalists will often instinctively respond to encroaching modernity by creating an enclave of pure faith, such as a yeshiva. This marks a withdrawal from the Godless world into a self-contained community where the faithful attempt to reshape existence in defiance of the changes without...The students of such a yeshiva are likely to become a cadre, with a shared training and ideology, in their local communities. Such an enclave helps to create a counterculture, an alternative to modern society...directly opposed to the modern spirit and its emphasis on autonomy and innovation."

Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God, Ballantine, 2000, pp. 110-1 03/15/06-Railroad Trains

In today's , the first public railway journey and the first railroad accident:

"by 1830 a different type of machine came into being that changed the life and minds of all peoples. The memory of it is gone now, but it was the completest change in human experience since the nomadic tribes became rooted in one spot to grow grain and raise cattle; it was in effect a reversal of that settling down. Locomotion by the force of steam, the railroad, uprooted mankind and made of it individual nomads again. This and other cultural consequences were quickly felt from the little stretch of land where the first public railway journey was made.

That locus classicus was 30 miles between Manchester and Liverpool, and the date was September 15, 1830. On that inaugural trip the backers of the engineer George Stephenson rode with government officials and their guests, including the Duke of Wellington and William Huskisson, well-known economist and president of the Board of Trade. Thirty-three cars carried them in eight trains drawn by as many locomotives at the whirlwind speed of 20 to 25 miles an hour...

But about halfway, at a stop to refill the engines with water, the first railroad accident occurred. Amid exclamations of wonder and delight, the crowd poured out of the leading train on one track, while another passed slowly on the other. Huskisson, standing at the open door of the Duke of Wellington's carriage and conversing, was confused by the cry of 'Get in! Get in!' He tried to get in the door, was knocked down by the engine and fatally injured, though conveyed to medical help in 25 minutes.

The accident is charged with special meaning: from then on, human beings have had to sharpen their reflexes under the threat of moving objects."

Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, Perennial, 2000, pp. 539-40 03/14/06-Country Music

In today's excerpt, Hank Williams has yet another falling out with his wife Audrey in 1946, and thus Tony Bennett has his first hit record:

"The song he wrote about this latest unpleasantness with Audrey was called 'Cold, Cold Heart', and the lyrics read like another page torn from Hank's diary..."

For too long, country music had been regarded as the bastard child of American musical forms, unsophisticated wailings from the outback. Even Billboard had been slow in its recognition, first calling it 'hillbilly' music, then 'folk' and only now 'country'. The power of the music's simplicity and its consequent appeal to the common folk was lost on Tin Pan Alley, the brotherhood of tunesmiths in New York City and Chicago, musical sophisticates churning out mindless ditties like 'Mairzy Doats'...

Fred Rose, because he had come out of Tin Pan Alley, knew nobody had ever written lyrics like Hank. Both Rose and (Columbia records producer Mitch) Miller knew there was a universality in Hanks's lyrics that spoke as clearly to a hardware salesman in Georgia as to a stockbroker on Wall Street--'In anger unkind words are said that make the teardrops start'--and so it was that Miller presented Hank's demo of the new song to a promising young pop crooner named Tony Bennett, still looking for his first hit record. 'Oh, no, don't make me do cowboy songs.' Bennett said, but his gussied-up version of 'Cold, Cold Heart' rocketed to the top of the pop charts.

The pop music crowd held to its patronizing mode, a Billboard story being headlined "There's Gold in Them Thar Hillbilly Tunes.' "

Paul Hemphill, Lovesick Blues, Viking, 2005, pp. 128-9

Friday, March 10, 2006 03/13/06-land ownership and poverty

In today's excerpt, Hernando De Soto and his research team, rigorous and quantitative explorers of the economic failures of poor countries, dismiss the suggestion that these failures have anything to do with deficiencies in cultural or genetic heritage. They argue that despite the poor having accumulated trillions of dollars of real estate during the past 40 years, it is their lack of property rights--clear title and the legal system to support it--that prohibits them from turning assets into capital through such instruments as mortgages, and thus retards their progress:

"...By our calculations, the total value of the real estate held but not legally owned by the poor of the Third World and former communist nations is at least $9.3 trillion.

...It is very nearly as much as the total value of all the companies listed on the main stock exchanges of the world's twenty most developed countries: New York, Tokyo, London, Frankfort, Toronto, Paris, Milan, the NASDAQ, and a dozen others. It is more than twenty times the total direct foreign investment into all Third World and former communist countries in the ten years after 1989, forty-six times as much as all the World Bank loans of the past three decades, and ninety-three times as much as all the development assistance from all advanced countries to the Third World in the same period.

...The words "international poverty" too easily bring to mind images of destitute beggars sleeping on the curbs of Calcutta and hungry African children starving on the sand. A truer image would depict a man and woman who have painstakingly saved to construct a house for themselves and their children and who are creating enterprises where nobody imagined they could be built. I resent the characterization of such heroic entrepreneurs as contributors to the problem of global poverty.

They are not the problem. They are the solution."

Hernando De Soto, The Mystery of Capital, Basic Books, 2000, pp 35-36

Wednesday, March 08, 2006 03/10/06-the Greeks

In today's excerpt, Greeks in the fourth century BCE begin to articulate the modern idea of government--which, as exemplified in the US Constitution, is as much about the idea of limiting the power of those that govern than the idea of a democratic vote. This idea was to lay dormant, with limited exceptions, for over two thousand years:

"...the evolution of Greek philosophy provided a base on which the concept of a limited and responsible state could develop. Although their cities may have had virtually unlimited powers over their citizens, the Greeks saw themselves as radically different from the inhabitants east of the Hellespont. Aristotle was reflecting the accepted Greek view when he wrote, 'Barbarians are more servile by nature than Greeks, and Asians are more servile than Europeans; hence they endure despotic rule without protest.' Under the analysis of the philosophers, the state came to be seen as based on a compact between citizens. The pivotal moment came during the Peloponnesian War, when the Sophists...developed a startling new analysis of the origins and purpose of society:

'So, when men do wrong and are wronged by one another and taste of both, those who lack the power to avoid the one and to take the other, determine that it is for their profit to make a compact with one another neither to commit nor to suffer injustice; this is the beginning of legislation and covenants between men.'

Here we have the distant ancestor of the Enlightenment theories of the social contract."

James Macdonald, A Free Nation Deep in Debt, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003, p. 41 03/09/06-Martin Luther King, Sr.

In today's excerpt, Mike King, father of Martin Luther King, Jr., changes his name. Born Michael Luther King, he had lifted himself up from extreme poverty and a complete lack of schooling to lead Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and to take it from the brink of financial ruin to prosperity--in the bleak middle of the Depression. (His eldest son, Michael Luther King, Jr., was then known as 'M.L.' or 'Little Mike'):

"He was simply Mike King--always shaking hands, encouraging and demanding, making himself the center of attention in any room, full of claims about the past and promises for the future. The key to his multiple roles and identities was always Ebenezer Church...

He could safely say that he rescued Ebenezer Baptist Church from bankruptcy within his first few months as pastor. Membership increased geometrically from two hundred toward a Depression peak of four thousand. His gamble paid off so handsomely that the church made him the highest-paid Negro minister in Atlanta at the end of his first year. (He) asked his membership to send him on a summer-long tour of Europe, Africa, and the Holy Land...Reverend King's triumphant homecoming in late August 1934 was announced to Negro Atlanta in a banner headline in the Daily World: 'Reverend King is Royally Welcomed on Return from Europe.'

This was King's moment, the watershed of his life, and he honored the occasion by changing his name from Michael to Martin, becoming Martin Luther King. For consistency, he also changed the name of his older son to Martin Luther King, Jr. The change of name was one of the most important events in the (five-year-old) King's early life..."

Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters, Simon and Schuster, 1988, pp. 43-44

Tuesday, March 07, 2006 03/08/06-Groucho Marx

In today's excerpt: Groucho Marx, circa 1930

"In a pioneering work, American Laughter, film scholar Mark Winokur points out that 'the irony and disaffection in Groucho's voice, so comic to audiences, is aggressive and hostile. This quality (reveals) Groucho as a vaudeville comic accustomed to audience hostility'...

The quality could be discerned in Act I of The Cocoanuts when Groucho--as the hotel manager-- confronts the first of many widows (a Mrs. Potter, played by the rather large Margaret Dumont):

Groucho (as Mr. Schlemmer): Are you sure your husband's dead?

Mrs. Potter: Quite sure

Groucho: I feel better. I guess he does too. What I was going to say was, here I am and you're going to be here all winter, and I'm stuck with the hotel anyhow. Why don't you grab me until you could do better.

Mrs. Potter: My dear Mr. Schlemmer, I would never get married before my daughter.

Groucho: You did once. Don't forget, I love you, I'm mad about you.

Mrs. Potter: I don't think you'd love me if I were poor.

Groucho: I might, but I'd keep my mouth shut.

Mrs. Potter: Really, I'm afraid I must be going.

Groucho: Don't go away and leave me alone. You stay here and I'll go away.

Mrs. Potter: I don't know what to say.

Groucho: Well, say that you'll truly be mine, or truly yours, or yours truly, and that tonight when the moon is sneaking around the clouds, I'll be sneaking around you. I'll meet you tonight by the bungalow, under the moon. You and the moon. I hope I can tell you apart. You wear a red necktie so I'll know you."

Stefan Kanfer, Groucho, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, pp. 95, 98-9

Sunday, March 05, 2006 03/07/06-Palestine 1948

In today's excerpt, Harry Truman ignores the advice of his State Department and members of the Foreign Service and leads the US into taking over the Palestine issue from Great Britain in 1948. Great Britain had brought the issue of a Jewish homeland to the world stage through its Balfour declaration in 1917, but:

"...weary of it all, the (British) government on April 2, 1947, turned the question of Palestine over to the United Nations. Official Washington stood sharply divided on the Palestine question.
The (US Joint Chiefs of Staff) counted it of 'great strategic importance to the United States to retain the good will of the Arab and Moslem states.' The director of the State Department's Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs wrote Marshall on September 22, 1947, to advise him against 'any kind of a plan at this time for the partitioning of Palestine or for the setting up of a Jewish state in Palestine.' Purportedly speaking for nearly every member of the Foreign Service or of the department who had worked to any appreciable extent on Near Eastern problems, he asserted that partitioning would require American enforcement, would sabotage American-Arab relations, and would fail because of Arab non-acceptance.

Harry Truman was undeterred. Even as Arab nations began moving toward the borders of Palestine, the president instructed the UN delegation to support partition.

...Jettisoning its imperial baggage, Great Britain announced it would end supervision of the Palestinian Mandate on May 15, 1948. State Department planner George F. Kennan's subsequent position paper warned that the United States strategic interests in the Middle East and the Mediterranean had been severely prejudiced..."

Ed Cray, General of the Army, Cooper Square, 1990, pp. 656-7