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Saturday, January 9, 2016

"1957" (on my 10th year)


Whenever I think back on my childhood, for some inexplicable reason I always think of the year 1957, when I was 10 years of age. I don’t entirely know why that year stands out; perhaps it was the purchase by my father of our new, fin-shaped car, a Ford Fairlane 500 (named, now somewhat uncomfortably, in my current thinking, after Henry Ford’s Fair Lane estate), or, maybe just because, at that same year, we  moved in Marion, Iowa to Northview Drive, in a house painted in what was described as “Robin Egg Blue,” where my mother suddenly had the kitchen of her dreams, decked out with all-steel St. Charles cabinets. My father, recently made Superintendent of Schools in the suburban community of Marion, Iowa, held a position that I felt was of enormous importance. And I, apparently, was beginning to come into the consciousness that only a year later would turn me into a movie and young theater-going addict.
     That same year, my soon-to-be favorite Broadway musicals opened on Broadway, each representing a kind of oppositional view of American culture: Leonard Bernstein’s gang-fighting West Side Story and Meredith Willson’s paean to turn-of-the-century Iowa life, The Music Man. Like a Manichean maniac I loved both equally. And both works would help to develop my love of American musical theater, defining, in part, my love of the genre.
     I didn’t see, as a 10-year old, the significant drug-themed drama A Hatful of Rain or the notable love-crossed soap-opera An Affair to Remember, but I probably did see the other Iowa-based film-musical of the year, The Pajama Game; and I do remember attending Robert Stevenson’s Old Yeller, with the then-photogenic (which, I certainly recognized even at that age) Tommy Kirk, and I watched Elvis shake his hips in a Saturday matinee of Jailhouse Rock. Later, Walter Lang’s Desk Set, with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy might be said to define my notions of life in that year—forward thinking but domestically inclined.
      In those days, 5th grade was the year in which most teachers begin reading to their students, and Hazel Snell (an overweight German lesbian, I later realized) was no exception. Just after lunch, she would hunker down with her students to read out, day after day, passages from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie and Emerson Hough’s The Covered Wagon. Yes, I knew these sagas were pure melodrama, even back then, but Hazel’s daily reading made me want to read, and I soon sought checked out books from the local library, including the entire volumes of the Burns-Mantle Best Play Books, which as I have mentioned elsewhere in My Year, I gradually memorized. If I was uninterested in Prairie culture, I was fascinated, already, by the streets of Manhattan, where I would not visit for yet another decade.

      My loving parents often took us off for family travels during the summer, usually visiting relatives along the way. But that summer, I believe, they took the Ford Fairlane on the longest journey of our lives’, clear out to California to visit my favorite uncle and aunt, Bob and Sue, who was a Colonel in the Air Force, at that time stationed at Edwards Air Force Base. Despite my ignored pleas to stop and visit every city along the way, we quickly crossed the endless flatlands of Nebraska, the mountains of Colorado, and the endless deserts of Arizona, Utah, and lower California before we reached the water-infused gardens of the Mojave desert community of Victorville. 
     After a couple of days of being entrapped in their air-conditioned home, my uncle and aunt—perhaps a bit irritated by our entire family camping out in their living room—took us, via two cars, on a long kind of wagon-trail voyage winding through downtown Los Angeles—which in those days appeared to me as a small town with its ugly, stubby City Hall—from San Bernardino county into Orange county, where we visited Disneyland! 
     Although I felt myself a bit too old to truly enjoy the Disney wonders, I was immediately attracted to “Tomorrow Land,” and personally enjoyed the Peter Pan ride. The rest of it, loved by my younger brother and sister, was something I couldn’t be bothered with. Sue and Bob—with whom I can now easily sympathize—seemed in a rush to leave the wonderland confines. But my mother and father, brother, and sister, in absolute bliss, insisted on making it a long day they would never forget.  I must admit, I have never returned to Disneyland in the 59 years since, despite living only a few hours away during the last 30. Nor have I ever returned to Victorville. I love the sophisticated Los Angeles which has nothing at all to do, to my way of thinking, with amusement parks or desert retreats—or even the mythical Hollywood.
     Was that the same year, I wonder—suddenly recognizing it probably was—that I first encountered, through a wonderful high school production, of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado—or perhaps that year it was The Pirates of Penzance. Both featured, if I am correct, the wonderful local talent of Bob Hajnay, whose father I sang with in the Presbyterian church choir, and whose mother played the church organ. I was too young to really know Bob, but he was the kind of student who my father and all of his teachers loved. He later, so I believe, became an anesthesiologist, who now lives in Oregon. Bob was also a good athlete, a handsome figure for the hometown girls, one of whom, Sharon, he married and moved with, after their Iowa education, to Redding, California. 
      Those Gilbert and Sullivan musicals changed my life, guiding me to the Broadway musicals I describe above.
      1957 was perhaps the last year before I was made to start working as a paper boy, delivering the papers every morning at 5:00 or even earlier through the heavy snows of winter and the steamy days of summer. I was still young enough to attempt to build a small backyard shack (I had the wood, but no nails or hammer). I remember being permitted to put pumpkin seeds into the garden in our back yard, which produced gigantically deformed squashes that my parent’s applauded, but didn’t have a clue how to handle. Did we actually carve them out into Halloween jack-o-lanterns? If so, it was the very last time, my father and mother long after disapproving to the Halloween celebrations, when schools were draped in toilet paper and often broken into by celebrating pranksters.
     It was a year of the end of my childhood. By 1958 I was a different person, a young man awed by Hitchcock’s Vertigo; inn my 6th grade classroom, I wrote about the strange culture and religions of Japan. I no longer could relate to any of my classmates, and dived into those Burns-Mantle playbooks as if they might offer me a new reality; indeed they did!
      We moved into a new house, just around the corner, especially designed for my parents. But its’ split-level elegance could never match the simple suburban fantasy of 1130 Northview Drive. I moved from the bunkbeds of the previous house which I shared with my brother David, to the basement. And therein I retreated from the entire world for years until my move to Norway and later graduation. In that basement I read Beckett, Pinter, and Albee, wrote a musical about the fall of the Belgium Congo, and dreamed up Brechtian dramas that no one in the outside could possibly comprehend. I moved, through my imagination, into a world where no one I knew might possibly enter. 
      I now realize that 1957 represented the last year I had tried to engage with the world around me. No wonder I remember it so fondly. And although, I still love my brother and sister, my now dead father and my aging mother, they will never be as real and immediate as they were in that long ago 1957.  

Los Angeles, January 9, 2016

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"The New Irrationalism"

the new irrationalism
by Douglas Messerli

As I’ve written elsewhere, almost every year since beginning my annual cultural memoirs in 2005, I have, during the last week of July, looked into my invisible “magic ball” in order to see if I might glean a new unifying concern for the year approaching. Although in 2015 I have already committed in My Year 2016 to the subject of “belief,” and have begun working on essays that relate to “How to Believe,” perhaps, I now feel, I need to focus more carefully on the growing irrationality of my own countrymen as well as citizens throughout the world. Groups like ISIS, Al-Queda, and the Taliban have already forced us to face foes that surely represented some of most irrational beings on the earth—particularly from our point of view (if, indeed, US citizens feel that they have any collective point of view).

     The recent release of Woody Allen’s new film, An Irrational Man, along with the statements of numerous figures running for the President of the United States in 2016, particularly the almost completely irrational rants of Donald Trump, along with frighteningly absurd and, as President Obama himself commented, “sad” statements, such as Mike Huckabee’s latest rhetorical distortion (he described the President’s and other world leader’s proposed treaty with Iran as “marching Israel to the door of the ovens.”) and Ted Cruz’ outburst, who for days after refusing to say anything about Donald Trump’s outrageous commentaries, suddenly called House Leader Mitch McConnell a “liar.” Jeb Bush soon after spoke out for ending “Medicare.”
     These comments came soon after Trump had described (despite his denials) most of the Mexican immigrants as being criminals and rapists, argued that the Mexican government was purposely sending them here, and boasted that if he were to become President he would build a long wall across the border to be paid for by the Mexican government.
      A few days later he inexplicably argued that Senator John McCain—who was imprisoned for years in a Vietnamese prison where we was threatened and tortured—was not truly a war hero, adding the ludicrous comment that “I like my heroes not be imprisoned!” McCain is many things I do not admire, but to challenge his obviously heroic war-time survival is truly beyond rational thought.
     It is not only his outrageous statements that makes Trump seem truly irrational, but his belief that somehow because he has a great deal of money (the estimates of his total worth vary widely) that he automatically is a good candidate. “I know people in other countries,” he argues, as if having business relations with a few executives makes him a specialist on foreign policy. He likes the Chinese, “they’re smart,” he insists, as if all Chinese citizens were one and the same and that the word “smart” had any meaning in his vacuous monologue.
      Backing off a bit from his attacks upon Mexico, Trump insisted that he “liked Mexicans” and had many Mexicans working for him (which some journalists argued included illegal immigrants). Once again he seemed to presume that a contention of liking people of a certain country, particularly a people he condescendingly puts to work, might prove that his previous comments were not bigoted and incendiary.
     As The New York Times, moreover, reminded us again today—as if we needed any reminding, given Trump’s comments of the past few weeks—that the billionaire tends to describe all those who disagree with him about anything as “idiots,” “fools,” or “losers,” reassuring us that he is a proven “winner” by the fact of his new financial worth. Certainly there is no question that Trump equates money with knowledge and an ability to lead a nation.
     To me many, if not all of these attitudes, reveal an inability to rationally discuss and a refusal to deal with the truth. Obviously, politics, and, in particular, presidential elections have from the founding of the US not always brought about the greatest sanity in those running for election. There is, after all, something quite irrational in even seeking such a position of power. Quite obviously, I realize, some of these viewpoints are not necessarily irrational but simply represent different world perspectives from mine. But many of these views, as move toward open prejudice and even hysteria, come close to being irrational.
     I do think it fascinating that not one Republican candidate of those in the lead (some with such low ratings they clearly have little chance of being elected)—I here include Trump, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Ben Carson, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Rand Paul—supports gay marriage, for example, even though it is now the law of the land. Some are willing to move on despite their disagreement with the Supreme Court decision, but several of them (Carson, Perry, Santorum, Walker, Jindal, Huckabee, and Rubio) are willing to either support an amendment or other changes in the law to make same-sex marriage illegal. Carson argues that being gay is a choice, and, recently, Walker told a CNN interviewer that he did not know whether or not being gay was a choice. Santorum describes homosexuals as being “Sodomists,” and argued that same-sex rights implies the same rights for bigamists, those who commit incest, and adulterers (a strange statement, in fact, because the last of these “sins,” adultery, is not nor has it ever been in modern times against the law.) Jindal went so far as to demand the end of the Supreme Court!
    Almost all who have addressed the issue are against the idea of including sexual orientation as discriminatory, either in the marketplace or even in crimes of hate. 
    Every single candidate for the Republican Party is against abortion, with many of them voting against the idea of the right to privacy. Santorum, one of the most extreme, would not even allow abortion in cases of rape. Carson persuaded the mother of a hydrocephalic baby to cancel her planned abortion. Most oppose stem cell research. Huckabee clearly crossed the “rational” line on July 31 by stating that, if necessary, he would not rule out “employing US troops to stop abortion,” suggesting that by doing so he would openly defy the Supreme Court.
    All of the Republicans running for president strongly believe in no further gun controls, with some arguing for even fewer controls, Rubio arguing that the 2nd Amendment is a cornerstone of our Constitution. Perry recently insisted that he is entirely against “gun-free ranges,” arguing that people should be able to carry guns everywhere, including into movie theaters, to protect themselves and, perhaps, to kill would-be terrorists. He crosses further into near-irrationality by arguing the some individuals are “legally obliged to carry guns” by the 2nd Amendment rights. Walker also supports the right to openly carry arms.
    After the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, Carson seemed to blame those who were murdered by suggesting that had he been faced with such a shooter he would have insisted his fellow students gang up on the shooter to attack, thus preventing him from killing so many. Continuing in his blame the victims and survivors, Carson, without any real evidence, argued that if the Jews had been able to have guns there would have been no Holocaust.
    All speak out strongly against what they describe as Obamacare, including Trump, and many oppose any federal money going for health care, some, as I described Bush, above, are willing even to abandon Medicare and Medicaid. Carson would reconsider Social Security. Trump is the only one willing to help some, very poor individuals, to receive what even he describes as a far lower quality healthcare—but only if they are dying.
    If I suggest the general pattern here is approaching irrationality simply because of the general  dismissal and intolerance of individual sexual and reproductive differences, while simultaneously supporting weapons whose major purpose is to kill animals and other human beings, these candidates surely cross the line of rational thinking when they all, with the exception of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Paul Rand, disavow climate change or raise significant questions about the validity of scientists who believe in such changes. Typical of several of these deniers, Rubio throws up a barrier around his words that hides a disdain for science and a lack of commitment to their warnings. As he recently wrote:
                        Humans are not responsible for climate change in the way                   
                        some of these people out there are trying to make us believe,                   
                        for the following reason: I believe the climate is changing                   
                        because there’s never been a moment where the climate                   
                        is not changing. The question is, what percentage of that …                   
                        is due to human activity? If we do the things they want us to                   
                        do, cap-and-trade, you name it, how much will that change                   
                        the pace of climate change versus how much will that                   
                        cost to our economy? Scientists can’t tell us what impact it                   
                        would have on reversing these changes, but I can tell you                   
                        with certainty, it would have a devastating impact on our                    
The presumptions behind these words are that 1, scientists are not necessarily to be believed (after all, the climate has always been changing), 2, that we can do nothing at all to alter those changes, and 3) that trying to do anything would have dreadful effects on our economy. All three assumptions are mistaken and are irrational to my way of thinking.
      As the campaign moved forward, and it became increasingly clear that a vast majority of Americans (Edward Malbach in the October 16, 2016 edition of the Los Angeles Times sited a Yale and George Mason university poll suggesting that 70% of Americans support placing stricter limits on carbon dioxide emissions) were concerned about climate change, Rubio took the strange stance of arguing that “America is not a planet,” hinting, apparently, that since the US is only a country it cannot possibly take any action on climate change.
     Bush continues the old dodge: “For the people to say the science is decided on this is just really arrogant.” In fact, scientists and environmentalists have long argued that climate change has occurred, and now, we discover, that even Exxon Oil researchers had long ago perceived that the climate was changing.
      Others such as Huckabee and Walker use the more standard hedge to dismiss discussing the issue by declaring that they are not scientists, presumably, therefore, making them unable to have any sane viewpoint on one of the most important issues of the environment today. In other words, they cannot make a sane evaluation of the issue since, admittedly, they are disinterested in scientific facts and dismissive of scientists themselves.
      Rand seems to have recently made a turnaround in his position about global warming, joining 15 other GOP Senators in signing an amendment stating that climate change is real and that humans contribute to it. But as journalist Emily Watkins has warned, we have little reason to believe that the Kentucky Senator is serious in these matters, having spoken out against the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and even vowing to repeal them. In an interview from 2014, moreover, he commented that he was “not sure anybody exactly knows why” global warming is occurring, describing the scientist’s predictions as “alarmist stuff.” In his book of 2011 he wrote against “the radicalization of the country by environmentalists” spearheaded by the “propaganda” and “pseudoscience” of climate change. The newest candidate to enter the GOP race, Ohio governor John Kaisch proclaimed the day before I penned this piece that, although he admits climate change that it was dangerous to overreact. To “worship” the environment is “pantheism,” he argued, suggesting he would not proceed on any actions that might alter global warming.
     Christie is the only one who has openly confirmed that the climate is changing, and has actually supported legislation to do something about it.
     My comments above, moreover, say nothing about how some of these men might behave with regard to foreign policy. Most strongly support further NSA wiretapping and dismiss rights of privacy (Perry and Paul are exceptions). Most, such as Bush, argue for embedding troops with Iraqi forces. Perry wants to arm the Kurds and send special troops to battle ISIS. Although not explaining what he specifically means, Christie has stated “Given who I am, Putin would not have invaded Crimea.” Santorum argues not only for soldiers on the ground to fight against ISIS but calls for the assassination of Iranian and North Korean nuclear scientists. One can only imagine the ramifications of these decisions.
    Walker, as he has already done in Wisconsin, would surely continue to try to weaken unions and destroy the University and public school tenure systems, which allow scholars to speak out both to their superiors and to share unpopular ideas with their students without being easily fired. Again these are not necessarily irrational stands, but certainly represent an attempt to delimit the bargaining powers of workers and the free expression of scholars.
     If I have failed to comment on Trump with regard to many of these issues, it is simply because he has publically stated very few of his positions other than what he feels about immigration, and even then he has iterated only his negative emotions, although today he argued for a situation of “legal status,” without the possibility of citizenship. Moreover, he asserted, he first wanted all illegal Americas (which is estimated at 11 million or more individuals) must leave the country. He could not explain how he might gather this vast flock together for such a grand exodus.
     What we can suspect, simply based on his near-lunatic insistence several years ago that President Obama was not born in this country, that he will speak out even more provocatively than some of the other candidates. He now is completely assured that Hillary Clinton, by using her own email, committed a criminal act.
     Later in his campaign Trump seemed to go as far as blaming George W. Bush, Jeb’s brother, was in some way responsible for the events of 9/11, since the attacks, as Trump puts it, “occurred upon his watch.”
     One of the appealing elements of Donald Trump is that, in his uncontrolled ramblings he is immensely entertaining, himself playing the role of the fool. I briefly joked that the GOP candidates were lucky to have Trump running, simply because he made them all look so sane and serious. But the jest quickly seemed stale the more I saw how the condition seemed to catching.
     Carson has increasingly made outrageously incendiary comments, arguing that he could not support a Muslim for president—despite the Constitution’s assertion that religious belief has no role in who can run for that position. He also argued that “The Pledge of Allegiance,” adopted by Congress in 1942 from Francis Bellamy’s 1892-composed pledge, represented one of the founding documents of the United States that asserted we were a Christian nation. Evidently no one had advised that the term “under God” only came to be adapted into the Pledge during Eisenhower’s presidency in 1954.
    Moreover, it does not explain why such irrational statements continue to put both Trump and Carson higher in the polls. Nor does it clarify why he and his peers are not openly challenged for so many of their mean-spirited and quite illogical views.
    Even if we are to allow for the fact that politicians are particularly bellicose folk, with a long tradition of hateful statements, we must also recognize that American leaders are not the only irrational leaders of the day: one need only hear the threats of the Iranian leaders, of absurd commentaries of the Supreme Leader of North Korean Kim Jong-un, the frightful posturing and outright lying of Russian President Vladimir Putin, or even the sometimes bullying tactics of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, to realize that irrational behavior is an international phenomena.
     What happened to argument and debate, or what used to be described as diplomacy? Can people no longer have differing viewpoints, particularly in a world of such radical divides, without calling each other hateful names or simply dismissing the other’s values out of hand?
     Particularly since we live in such terrifying times, however, where some forces would wipe away presence of other religious and cultural values and sexual mores, need we not go out of our way to reestablish open discussions and dialogue within our own society?      
    Might there be a connection between these intolerant expressions and seemingly increasing confrontations between citizens going about on everyday occasions and police who quickly lose mental control, ending up in the death of innocent, often black, women and men (such as Sam Dubose, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott)? If we suspect that these encounters, in fact, have been going on for a long time, but are just now being caught on the cameras which are carried on i-phones and other devices by nearly everyone, it, nonetheless, reveals irrational behaviors that continue to separate us not only by race, but by social-economic status.  
    Just as dangerous, to my way of thinking, is the overheated puffing and often personal attacks of Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s dissents (which law professor, Edwin Chemerinsky argued recently in the Los Angeles Times was badly effecting his students by encouraging them to write ridiculing rather that seasoned statements), or the Facebook, Twitter, and attacks elsewhere on young teenagers, casual acquaintances, and writers (the fates of authors Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place come immediately to mind), all of which makes me fear that this kind of irrational behavior has become deep-set in our culture.
     In the end, perhaps, it is our blind commitment to our beliefs or our inability to no longer believe that fuels this kind of irrationality. Those who believe do so with a furor of intensity and mission, while those who can no longer believe often disdain and mock those who insist they still can and must! Both are different ends of the same gluttonous serpent, swallowing itself out of desperation and fears, both ends spewing their own admonitions and dismissals.
    If, as many religious scholars and international analysts have argued, that the current violent Islamic groups at war with the West do not represent a rejuvenation of faith, but the last gasp of it, then perhaps we ought to question if some of those same issues are not at play in our own world. Tea-Party politics and ultra-conservative groups are not necessarily representative of a revival of that old time religion, but rather of their failure to dominate the American consciousness. For them, the black liberal Obama is apparently a demon to which they can point for their feelings of being ignored and unheard. While the liberals, on the other hand, have often attempted to turn the same man into a shining soldier of their empowerment. That the very human being in between these visions accomplished anything during his years as President—and he surely has—is a kind of inexplicable miracle itself. But if we truly want to move forward—or even backward in some instances—we will have to cease in this irrational hatred and learn again how to talk.   

Los Angeles, July 29, July 31, October 13, 2015, October 17, 2005