Archive for the ‘The Way We Lived Then’ category

Monty Python Was A Documentary

October 31, 2014

At least — those bits of mockumentary they’d sneak into the circus (think Kray brothers) may have to be reevaluated in light of the intro to this bit of (astonishing) rock history:

Have to say — I never knew about Clapton’s secret past as a stained glass designer.  But that narrator intro is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.  “The Cream” — priceless.

Condsider this my halloween treat to you.

Your Morning Awesome

January 16, 2014

Thanks to increasingly indispensable blogger Lt. Col. Robert Bateman, who pops up every week or so over at Charlie Pierce’s joint, I just watched this:

Because I am a kind and generous soul, now you can too.

Monty Python’s Holy Grail…

November 26, 2013

…was a documentary:

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And hell, you think that’s bad, check this out:

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Holiday brain sploosh has already begun chez Levenson (first relatives show up in minutes), so killer rabbits somehow seem…

Appropriate.

BTW: there are a bunch more medieval psychoses on display at Tom Kane’s site, who, it seems, has come up with a socially useful application of writer’s procrastination syndrome.  My awareness of all this comes via @PZMyers, who got it from @SirWilliamD.

And with the honors thus done, you may consider this a “how weird will your holiday get” post.  Add your own notions in the comments.

Images:  Axe-rabbit comes from the Gorleston Psalter, England, 14th century.

Rabbit murderers lurk in the Smithfield Decretals, c. 1300

Your Daily Apocalypse, Outsourced Antibiotic Edition

November 21, 2013

Go read this piece by Maryn McKenna — who is, in my never humble opinion, one of the handful of very best reporters on matters of infectious disease, global health, and really scary stuff.

I was born in 1958, fifteen years into the era of clinically-available antibiotics.  I was my mother’s third child.  Had we shifted that timeline back a few years, that would have meant that there would have been a measure of luck in mom simply making it to and not through her third lying in.  As Maryn writes, before antiobiotics, five out of 1,000 births ended with the death of the mother.  No worries by the time I popped my head out into the maternity floor at Alta Bates.

But this a must read not because of any remembrance of the pre-antibiotic era, but because Maryn plausibly analyzes a post-antibiotic future.

Plaguet03

Here’s a sample:

Doctors routinely perform procedures that carry an extraordinary infection risk unless antibiotics are used. Chief among them: any treatment that requires the construction of portals into the bloodstream and gives bacteria a direct route to the heart or brain. That rules out intensive-care medicine, with its ventilators, catheters, and ports—but also something as prosaic as kidney dialysis, which mechanically filters the blood.

Next to go: surgery, especially on sites that harbor large populations of bacteria such as the intestines and the urinary tract. Those bacteria are benign in their regular homes in the body, but introduce them into the blood, as surgery can, and infections are practically guaranteed. And then implantable devices, because bacteria can form sticky films of infection on the devices’ surfaces that can be broken down only by antibiotics

Dr. Donald Fry, a member of the American College of Surgeons who finished medical school in 1972, says: “In my professional life, it has been breathtaking to watch what can be done with synthetic prosthetic materials: joints, vessels, heart valves. But in these operations, infection is a catastrophe.” British health economists with similar concerns recently calculated the costs of antibiotic resistance. To examine how it would affect surgery, they picked hip replacements, a common procedure in once-athletic Baby Boomers. They estimated that without antibiotics, one out of every six recipients of new hip joints would die.

As Maryn reports, the problem is tangled and complex — but there are clear actions that could be taken and aren’t, most obviously ending the reckless use of antibiotics in agriculture, which consumes something like 80% of the total produced.  But don’t waste time here: go read the whole thing. Get scared; get mad; call your congressfolk.

Image: Josse Lieferinxe, St. Sebastian prays for plague victims, 1497-99.

Sermons in Stones

January 22, 2013

Plenty of folks have responded to what seems to me to have been an extraordinary Second Inaugural address by President Obama.  See two Jim Fallows posts for starters.  It was, as Fallows says, a striking speech on at least two levels:  that of content, with the president’s clear and unequivocal declaration of liberal intent; and that of rhetoric with its phrases infused with historical intent, American civic scripture, and compact, elegant, present-day exegesis.

But the symbolism within the speech did one aspect of the speech that hasn’t got much (any?) notice — perhaps because Chuck Schumer told the story, not Obama.

That is:  the setting of the president’s speech, the porch of the US Capitol, provided a visual and material rhetorical grace note to the claims on history and present urgency that President Obama expressed in words.

Here’s the background: design work had begun on a new dome  for the building in 1854, following an expansion of its two wings of the Capitol, completed in 1855.  That work was nowhere near complete on 4 March, 1861, the day of Lincoln’s first inauguration:

LincolnInauguration1861a

Work on the dome — or rather payment for the work — ceased for most of 1861.  The lead contractor on the project had $1.3 million worth of building materials on site — I’m not 100% sure, but I believe that you can see some  of the construction materials for the dome in the foreground of the image above — and decided it was better to keep going and hope that the federal government would pay up in time, which they did.  As the Historian of the Capitol, William Allen, notes the story that the new president himself  [PDF] ordered the continuation of the work is a myth — but the symbolic significance of the project didn’t escape Lincoln either.

The exact form of the Lincoln quote in reply to a question as to why spend money on architecture in the midst of war seems a bit apocryphal to me, but there seems to be a pretty broad recollection that he said something like  “if people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.”  Certainly, when I interviewed him for this film, Allen emphasized how potent the ongoing construction was for the troops from all over the Union who mustered on the Mall before marching off to the forward positions of the Army of the Potomac.

The dome wasn’t quite complete in March, 1864, but it looked mostly as it does now — that towering white, grandly neo-classical confection, its domed shape a recognized symbol of the cosmos as a whole — of the order of heaven — in a bit of architectural iconography established at least as far back as the Emperor Hadrian, who so pointedly staked his claim of divine sanction in one of the foundational statements of western architecture.

And of course, to play a little of the political numerology so beloved of pundits, that means that the first Second Inaugural to play out against the backdrop of the dome was Abraham Lincoln’s.  The most recent, complete with language deliberately echoing Lincoln’s, came yesterday.

Schumer’s anecdote played on that connection — that Lincoln asserted the claims of union against the forces of disunion and authoritarian oppression, while Obama yesterday advanced the notion that we are a society, not an atomized cloud of individual secessionists.

We’ve lived a to-me unprecedented four years in which the opposing party has challenged not just the policies or politics of the administration, but its legitimacy, the right to exercise power conferred by democratic choice.  The echoes of race, of secessionism, of the authoritarian claim that the consent of the governed is tolerated only so long as hoi polloi make the right choices are all distant (and not always so muted) echoes of 1860 and 1861.  And yet the black man with the funny name just took the president’s oath for a second time, directly beneath what we might, not quite accurately, nonetheless call Mr. Lincoln’s dome.

This is how rhetoric engages historical change. The meaning of the dome is not the same as it was in March, 1865.  Still, it connects.  And even if President Obama’s opponents cannot bring themselves to accept the blunt reality of a Democrat, an African American, and  a mainstream-progressive (if that characterization makes sense, and I think it does) not just winning, but holding power, the dome is there to remind them of a lesson very similar to what the traitors of 1865 learned to such cost: that the union is not merely the property of entrenched power.

That’s the chief significance of the visual language of Obama’s greying head beneath that wedding cake of dome.  It’s sufficient.

But there is actually one more thing.  Somewhere — it may have been a Balloon Juice comment thread, actually — I read someone quip that with all of Obama’s talk of internal improvements, infrastructure and investments in the future, the man sounded like a Whig…just like that railroad lawyer, the young Abe Lincoln.  In that context, the Capitol dome is a perfect symbol of the innovation and swelling ambition of the nation, then and now.

For the dome is a glorious lie.  It may look like shining marble, a masonry structure just like the grand baroque domes of Europe, St. Peter’s and the like.  It’s not.  The entire thing, inside and out is a jigsaw puzzle of cast iron, painted to fool the eye.  I’ve had the exceptional good fortune to climb inside the dome, between the inner shape you see from the rotunda and the familiar gleaming confection that stands over the mall.  When you do you climb up the stairs there you duck through the ribs that hold up the outer skin and from which rods connect to the (self-supporting) inner one, each made of plates bolted together.

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(Don’t be fooled — all those coffers on the inner dome that appear to be pale carved stone in the drawing above are cast iron too, painted a dull grey on the side the punters don’t see.)

The iron segments that accrete into the dome were cast — in NY, I believe, though I’m on the road, away from my notes, and my memory may be playing tricks.  The material was shipped to Capitol Hill and assembled there, like a giant erector set.

The meaning — or at least a meaning?

You see in the fabric of the building at least two connected thoughts:  an object lesson in the sources of the defeat of the Confederacy:  already, by the 1860s, the American metal working industries — largely concentrated in the loyal North —  were advancing to and past the capabilities of the world leader, Britain.  And in our Civil War, Yankee industrial power and skill beat an economy based on the theft of human labor.  Paying attention to science, to technology, to the skills needed to play in the big leagues actually made a difference in that war, logistically, the difference.

Such attention is still all-in-all. . Hence the significance of that portion of President Obama’s campaign and inaugural address that spoke and speak to the need to invest in the brains and the technologies that matter right now.  And all the while he spoke, the dome stood behind him, granting historical assent.

Material objects have always been able to serve as both things and symbols. That China has just opened the longest high-speed rail line in the world is of obvious practical consequence for that nation.  No one doubts it has rhetorical significance as well.  The Mars rover Curiousity is so much more than a go-cart.  And so on.

Symbols as they age change:  they gain resonance; that accumulate layers of meaning, perhaps even some that complicate each other.  The Capitol Dome was completed as an element in the argument over what kind of country the United States could hope to be.

The second inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama, performed under that great structure, advances the cause of union and of this Union at this precise moment in time.  It is altogether fitting and proper that it should do this.

*Actually, the first dome was a visual disaster all on its own, one of Charles Bulfinch’s least impressive efforts — though it must be admitted that he didn’t have an entirely free hand in his design.

An Exaltation of Larks, A Surfeit of Targets

February 1, 2012

Maybe it really is too late.

Classical empires lasted centuries:  the Han Dynasty held sway for 400 years, barring that brief unpleasantness with Wang Mang.  The Romans had a similar run, depending on how you choose to bracket the rise and fall.  The Mongols were a little less permanent, but for all their brutal kin-slaughter approach to succession, they still managed to dominate Eurasia for a century and a half.  That empire on which the sun never set rose twice, in the eighteenth century, with British imperial ambition centered on North America, and then again in South Asia, the Pacific, and Africa from the latter half of the 1700s onwards, for quite a run.

The American Imperium?  Well if you count the continental expansion from Plymouth Rock and the Chesapeake west to San Francisco and the northwest rain belt — that’ll stick around for a while, I’m sure.  But our 100 years as the global power?  I’ve got no good feelings there.

That may not be so terrible.  Empires are not what you’d call friendly institutions.  But what depresses me even from within the comfort of my luxe corner of Faux America is the way the Wormtongues of our modern media village are working so hard to persuade us just to give up, to accept a world in which Mitt Romney is plausibly a President.

Others here and amongst our friends have written about just about everything that’s caught my horror-and-despair sensor in just the last 24 hours.  Brooks’ call for the running dogs of liberalism to take their turn growing turnips in the camps.  A breast cancer advocacy group choosing to kill women (welcome back ABL!) rather than suffer the taint of some of their dollars rubbing shoulders with other dollars that might pay for an abortion.  Theocrats with bully pulpits screaming victimhood unless the rest of us keep giving them tax breaks to discriminate.*  I’m exhausted by the very existence of Mitt Romney, and the fact that his whole candidacy is premised on the relentless repetition of the whatever distortion of the fabric of reality seems to play best at the moment.

But, as I say, the good folks that write this blog have been on the case — which is great, as it leaves me for now with just this little bit to add.

That would be that for all the willed and conscious bad faith that folks like Brooks sling so readily and so constantly; for all the sense that there was indeed something of an American promise, now betrayed by the figures celebrated and defended by our Village idiots; for all the three a.m. night-terrors at the thought of the world my son may inherit…for all of that, the real world of fact and reasoning can still rise up to bite the bozos in the ass.

Recall that Brooks called Murray’s book an account of “the most important trends in American society.”

And yet, strangely, that society for Murray, and hence for Brooks, includes only White Americans.  Which vision, if you are trying to study trends of significance for the next few decades, poses just a wee difficulty.  As I’m sure readers of this blog know, the numbers about these matters ain’t what they used to be, demographically speaking.

Via the US Census Bureau, we find that right now, the White non-Hispanic fraction of the US population comes in at roughly two thirds of the total.  You’d think that number counts as a datum in an important trend given that the proportion was around 88% in 1900, and remained as high as 75% in 1990.  Already, California is majority-minority, as are Texas, Hawaii and New Mexico — and most important, the entire nation will achieve that status sometime between 2040 and 2050.  And behind those blunt numbers lies a wealth of particular ways in which different people have figured out how to make it through each day; to take pleasure in life; to cook this or that flavor that would never have made it across the border when I was my son’s age; to make cultures that we may, if we’re far luckier than we seem at present to deserve, continue to weave into what we call American culture.

All of which is to say that daily, we live in a different country.  That’s more or less how I think of the current election:  either we try to work with that country as it continuously rearranges itself — or we live with the delusions of folks like Brooks who want to pretend that the last 50 years didn’t happen and the next 50 won’t.

In my better moments, I can see past the bluster and the facile assertions of this or that immutable trend — and smell the fear lies behind every word.  I have no idea what the United States of my dotage will be like; I do know that it will not resemble whatever fantasy tthat Brooks uses to sent himself off to sleep each night.

Which, amidst all the mounds of steaming horsesh*t that we mush navigate each day, still gives me hope.  And schadenfreude.

*Why yes.  I am trawling for a Moore Award.  Why do you ask?

Image:  Albrecht Dürer, Emperor Maximillian I, 1519

Required Reading, MLK Day edition

January 16, 2012

I’m ashamed to say, that until Charlie Pierce in his own, powerful essay on MLK day pointed me to it, I had never actually read Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech to Congress urging — almost ordering — the legislators before him to pass the Voting Rights Act.

Here’s a sample:

But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.

Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.

As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil I know how agonizing racial feelings are. I know how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of our society.

But a century has passed, more than a hundred years, since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free tonight.

It was more than a hundred years ago that Abraham Lincoln, a great President of another party, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact.

A century has passed, more than a hundred years, since equality was promised. And yet the Negro is not equal.

A century has passed since the day of promise. And the promise is unkept.

The time of justice has now come. I tell you that I believe sincerely that no force can hold it back. It is right in the eyes of man and God that it should come. And when it does, I think that day will brighten the lives of every American.

For Negroes are not the only victims. How many white children have gone uneducated, how many white families have lived in stark poverty, how many white lives have been scarred by fear, because we have wasted our energy and our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror?

So I say to all of you here, and to all in the Nation tonight, that those who appeal to you to hold on to the past do so at the cost of denying you your future.

This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all: black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are the enemies and not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too, poverty, disease and ignorance, we shall overcome.

Pierce calls this “the greatest speech an American president has delivered in my lifetime.”

Mine too.

Read it.

One last thought: One strand I draw from Johnson’s speech is that it is possible to have a politics that transcends the mere purchase and sale of interest; one in which words have both power and integrity.

I want that politics back.

Image:  Lyndon Baines Johnson with Martin Luther King on August 6, 1965, at the signing of the Voting Rights Act.


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