Sunday, November 17, 2013

It's just 50 years, but in a way, it seems like 200

If you were born after 1980, it may be hard to imagine the small but important ways in which the world of 50 years ago--the world of my childhood--was different from today. There were no ATMs. Postage stamps cost 5 cents. There was no internet, no e-mail, no Twitter, no Netflix, no cable TV, no cell phones, no Wikipedia. Most cars did not have seatbelts. There were no SUVs--people bought large station wagons with fake wood panels on the side. Telephones had dials on them, but the very first pushbutton phones had been introduced. We had not yet been to the Moon.

Most people smoked. Most men wore hats, and most women wore hats to church. Most women wore dresses. Many cars were still not air-conditioned.

When you flew on an airplane, you were served an actual meal, served with tableware and napkins, like a restaurant meal but on a plastic tray.

Real-time TV broadcasts across the ocean only became possible in 1963, with the introduction of the Telstar satellite. My parents called me into our livingroom to watch a real-time broadcast of French people singing folk songs.

Many TV shows were in black and white, and if a show was in color, that was special. A peacock symbol would come on TV, and the announcer would excitedly say, "The following program is brought to you in living color!" Words like "sex," "pregnant," etc. could not be mentioned on TV. Married couples in TV sitcoms were shown going to sleep in twin beds, not touching. Seriously.

What did this mean on the day Kennedy was shot?

Walter Cronkite had to announce the news first on audio only, because it took 20 minutes to get a camera set up.

Half the President's cabinet, including the Secretary of State, next in the line of Presidential succession after the Vice President, was on a government plane flying from Hawaii to Japan. Their only connection to the day's events were radio transmissions to and from the White House situation room. When they heard what had happened, they turned around. Their being informed and turning around was a matter of a couple of hours.

When a federal judge in Texas, Sarah T. Hughes, was tapped to go on Air Force 1 to administer the oath of office to Vice President Johnson, she said, "Is there an oath?" No one could find it, and they had to devise one.

CBS News didn't know for a couple of hours if President Johnson had been sworn in, or where he physically was.

Compared to today's instantaneous communications, via Twitter and other means, this all sounds like the era of parchment and quill pens. And yet it was only 50 years ago.

© Michael Huggins, 2013. All rights reserved.

Little clues, large truths

Small details can yield real insight into who and what a person is. In a book of reminiscences about life in Washington, DC, compiled by Katharine Graham, I read that one Washington socialite summed up President Herbert Hoover by the fact that, while listening to a performance of a Beethoven sonata, he absent-mindedly clinked the change in his pocket.

Making my way through John Ferling's excellent Jefferson and Hamilton and the Rivalry that Shaped America, I read that Jefferson had Hamilton to dinner one evening when they were both new members of Washington's first cabinet and were just getting to know each other. Hamilton noticed portraits of John Locke, Sir Isaac Newton, and Sir Francis Bacon hanging in Jefferson's house and asked who they were.

"The three greatest men that the world has ever produced," Jefferson answered.

"The greatest man who ever lived was Julius Caesar," Hamilton replied.

At once, Jefferson saw how great the gulf was that separated him from his soon-to-be antagonist.

© Michael Huggins, 2013. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

All is lost and much is missing

I think I'll head to Studio on the Square to see the new Robert Redford movie, All is Lost. No, it's not about my dating life but about a man sailing the Indian Ocean alone, who must struggle to survive after his boat is struck by floating debris from a cargo ship. That part, sadly, is true: the world's oceans are now dotted with islands of floating garbage, some several acres in extent, from causes ranging from losses from cargo ships to the Japanese tsunami of a few years ago. Other than that, it occurs to me that, in the current cultural context of movies, the title "All is Lost" may refer to the fact that the movie contains no car chases, no explosions, no romantic interest or bedroom scenes, no other actors at all, and almost no dialogue. In other words, the viewer's interest must be held by the eloquent expressiveness of the face of a 77-year-old actor, which is kind of like being on a 4-hour walk with nothing but one's own thoughts to keep one company, an unthinkable condition for many.

© Michael Huggins, 2013. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Gaiety then and now

I suppose there could hardly be a better time to read historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s A Thousand Days, his 1965 memoir of the Kennedy White House, than this month. Schlesinger's combination of an observant eye and his historian's instinct for little-known facts lead him to paint a vivid picture of Camelot; we learn, for instance, that the core thought of "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do your country" is one that Kennedy had turned over in his mind for quite some time, but it also echoed a sentiment in a Memorial Day speech given by future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in 1884. We read that Kennedy caustically dismissed Eisenhower as disloyal to old friends and only interested in playing golf with "a bunch of rich guys that he met after 1945"; on the other hand, speaking of Barry Goldwater, whose politics and background were the polar opposite of Kennedy's own, Kennedy called him a man of character and decency.

I'm reading a description of the similarities and differences between Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson, twice the Democratic nominee for President and, later, Kennedy's Ambassador to the UN. Schlesinger says that visits to the homes of either Kennedy, in Massachusetts, or Stevenson, in Illinois, "had very much the same mood and tempo--the same sort of spacious, tranquil country house; the same patrician ease of manners; the same sense of children and dogs in the background; the same kind of irrelevant European visitors; the same gay humor"...umm, how's that again? Gay humor? Well, no, not *that* kind of gay (though just such rumors were floated, at one point, about Stevenson, because of his lifelong bachelorhood, but in fact, he was just as much a ladies' man as Kennedy). It's funny...this book was written only 48 years ago, but almost no one uses "gay" any more in its traditional sense, as Schlesinger used it. How the world has changed.

© Michael Huggins, 2013. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Is Cruz crazed?

Some straight talk from Jonathan Tobin of Commentary, who was as stalwart as anyone on blaming the debt crisis on Obama but still recognizes facts when he sees them:

"...after weeks of suffering the opprobrium of the mainstream media as well as increasing the distrust felt by many Americans for their party, what exactly did the GOP accomplish via the shutdown tactic?

"Did trying a government shutdown defund ObamaCare? No. Did it force President Obama to make a single tangible concession to Republicans or give way on something that would help them fight the battle against growing deficits and debt or the ObamaCare fiasco further down the line? No. Did it weaken and further divide the Republican Party? Yes.

"That leaves us with one more question: Are those that egged Boehner on to force a shutdown fight happy with these results?"

Well Ted Cruz took the gamble of his career. He's betting that his party is as nutty as he is. He will either be proven right and ride this sorry episode to the GOP nomination in 2016, or he will be the object of a huge and richly deserved backlash. I honestly don't know which will happen.

© Michael Huggins, 2013. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

How long, O Cruz...

We are a government of laws and a civil society that resolves its differences peacefully (unless you're an American citizen living somewhere that someone can fire a drone at you). Still, as I watch us dragged to the brink of default and the loss of the world's confidence by a group of ignorant, impudent know-nothings, I confess I have thought a great deal about a speech I read in Latin 45 years ago when I was 16, Cicero's first oration against Catiline. Granted, Catiline was plotting a violent coup, which Ted Cruz is not, but the effects of Cruz's behavior will cause a great deal more damage and hurt many more people than Catiline ever dreamt of. Here is the passage that keeps coming back to me:

"You ought, O Catiline, long ago to have been led to execution by command of the consul. That destruction which you have been long plotting against us ought to have already fallen on your own head.

"What? Did not that most illustrious man, Publius Scipio, the Pontifex Maximus, in his capacity of a private citizen, put to death Tiberius Gracchus, though but slightly undermining the constitution? And shall we, who are the consuls, tolerate Catiline, openly desirous to destroy the whole world with fire and slaughter? For I pass over older instances, such as how Caius Servilius Ahala with his own hand slew Spurius Maelius when plotting a revolution in the state. There was—there was once such virtue in this republic, that brave men would repress mischievous citizens with severer chastisement than the most bitter enemy. For we have a resolution of the senate, a formidable and authoritative decree against you, O Catiline; the wisdom of the republic is not at fault, nor the dignity of this senatorial body. We, we alone,—I say it openly, —we, the consuls, are waiting in our duty.

"The senate once passed a decree that Lucius Opimius, the consul, should take care that the republic suffered no injury. Not one night elapsed. There was put to death, on some mere suspicion of disaffection, Caius Gracchus, a man whose family had borne the most unblemished reputation for many generations. There was slain Marcus Fulvius, a man of consular rank, and all his children. By a like decree of the senate the safety of the republic was entrusted to Caius Marius and Lucius Valerius, the consuls. Did not the vengeance of the republic, did not execution overtake Lucius Saturninus, a tribune of the people, and Caius Servilius, the praetor, without the delay of one single day? But we, for these twenty days have been allowing the edge of the senate's authority to grow blunt, as it were. For we are in possession of a similar decree of the senate, but we keep it locked up in its parchment—buried, I may say, in the sheath; and according to this decree you ought, O Catiline, to be put to death this instant. You live,—and you live, not to lay aside, but to persist in your audacity.

"I wish, O conscript fathers, to be merciful; I wish not to appear negligent amid such danger to the state; but I do now accuse myself of remissness and culpable inactivity."

I am also reminded of how Old Hickory referred to his own Vice-President, whose Union-threatening obstructionism was on a level with that of Cruz, as "John Catiline Calhoun."

Our entire way of life cannot be held to ransom by ignorant, perverse fools. Something must be done, and I'm not sure what it is.

© Michael Huggins, 2013. All rights reserved.

When do I know enough to say no?

I saw the following question on Quora this morning:

Since we can't know 100% of the knowledge of the universe, what are the grounds for atheism?

My answer:

The premise of the question is flawed. Even if we did know every fact about the universe, God, if he existed, would be over, above, and anterior to the universe, so complete knowledge of the universe would tell us nothing about a Being who had been outside it all along.

God is not like a sound pitched on a frequency too high for us to hear. If he existed, he would necessarily be on a different plane altogether, living in a realm of being that contained ours and could affect it but could not, itself, be changed by anything that happened inside the universe.

Aside from that, the question could logically apply to a great many things. Since we don't have all knowledge, what are the grounds for not believing that

- Apollo rained a hail of arrows into the camp of the Greeks besieging Troy, because they had dishonored his priest, as recorded in the Iliad?

- A giant raven hatched mankind out from under a turtle shell, as described in some ancient Native American traditions?

- The infant Hercules strangled snakes that had been sent to kill him in his cradle?

- During the rule of Sulla, a loud and dismal trumpet blast filled the afternoon sky over Rome, amazing everyone with its intensity and with no discoverable origin, causing the sages to believe that this heralded the beginning of the 8th great age foretold by the Etruscan sages, as recorded in Plutarch's life of Sulla?

- The spirit of Augustus rose from his funeral pyre and was received into the realms of happiness by the Olympian Gods, as attested by someone who attended his funeral?

- The Angel Gabriel dictated the Qu'ran to Muhammad word for word?

- King Arthur, as a boy, drew a sword from a stone?

- Davy Crockett killed a bear when he was 3 years old?

- The Angel Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith and showed him gold plates inscribed in ancient languages?

Lacking all knowledge, I can't disprove any of those things, so this objection is not peculiar to atheism. It suggests, rather, what I often find to be true, that the religious share my skepticism toward all *other* religions but their own, while theirs, by a fortunate exception, is true and proven.

© Michael Huggins, 2013. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The effort to be broadminded

I haven't posted in about a year, and one reason is that they changed the Blogger editor some months ago and, true to form, when technical people try to improve something, they make it useless and inexplicable. Time was when this facility was mostly intuitive and easy to use; now, I can hardly figure how to do half of what I once did with ease, and that's what passes for enhancement.

But to the subject of this post: as I commented to someone last week, I follow media sources all across the political spectrum—in print and online, from, Human Events, and Commentary, on the right, to Mother Jones and Daily Kos on the left, while my own views are somewhere between The Economist and The New Republic. Similarly, on cable news, I feel I ought to look in on everyone from Hannity and The O'Reilly Factor to Jon Stewart and Bill Maher. So tonight, I tuned into what I thought would be Hannity, intending to change to Lawrence O'Donnell at 9:00 (i.e., to go from Hannity to sanity), but to my surprise, I found some pretty young blonde hosting something called the Kelly File which, in its own way, is even farther out than the X-Files, and is so offensively stupid that I am reminded of how Elvis, in his last days, used to fire a gun at the television set. Ms. Kelly reminds me of a quote near the end of Flannery O'Connor's story "A Good Man is Hard to Find," where the Misfit says "She would have been a good woman, if there had been someone to shoot her every minute of her life." One of her guests was another pretty young woman from some college conservative organization that calls itself something like "The Association of Enlightened Women." Got it.

Anyway, I'd be happy to interact with either of these two young ladies, though in a way that I needn't describe in public and that would earn me the epithet of "old goat." I can't see that either has anything of value to add to a discussion of politics. Anyway, speaking of "old goat" reminds me of the commercials I keep seeing for something that sounds like "reptile dysfunction," though it's actually about something else. It's interesting that although the male models in these commercials are as gray as I am, the women can't possibly be a day over 45. I too would be delighted to meet someone of 45, but I hardly expect it as a universal template for social life for men my age.

And now, back to watching empty-headed Fox News pundits extol the sleazy, cynical, shameless exploitation of 80- and 90-something vets by the Tea Party to protest a shutdown that the Tea Party started in the first place.

© Michael Huggins, 2013. All rights reserved.