Sunday, December 29, 2013

Pride and Prejudice



Central Lake, Michigan

December 29, 2013

Recently I noticed on Facebook one of those pseudo-Hallmark postings, put there by a very nice and thoughtful woman who is fond of sharing her observations on all aspects of life (children, work, favorite movies, songs, holiday customs--you name it).  If you go on Facebook you know the particular shared sayings I'm talking about--usually they're done as pen and ink drawings of Victorian-era women over pastel backgrounds, with sometimes nostalgic and sometimes mildly to moderately irreverent observations about the lives of women, intended to be evocative, funny, cynical, or critical--particularly of men.

The one that caught my eye in this instance had this to say:  "All women desire a Mr. Darcy.  Unfortunately, all men have no idea who that is."  I found this interesting because I was about to reread Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice for the first time since graduate school, and also because of the astounding degree of both pride and prejudice contained in the posting.  Many people are aware that several television and movie versions of the book have been made, starring the usual suspects in British film, known and revered by movie-goers everywhere.  In all likelihood the "all women" to whom the card referred have seen one or more of these cinematic versions, but fewer of them have read the book.

I was struck by the obvious anti-male sentiment this e-card conveyed, coming from a person I believe to be enlightened and circumspect.  I don't think "anti-male" is too strong a characterization of the message, since it doesn't require women to have read Pride and Prejudice, only to want a man like its male protagonist, Mr. Darcy.  The women are let off the hook when it comes to reading, or even movie watching.  But it also says, in effect, that men don't read 19th century English literature or watch movies based on such books, and implies further that men are clueless about romance and matters of the heart and that they have no such needs of their own.  Moreover, it suggests a certain overall boorishness on the part of our gender, and a concomitant desire on the part of the other gender to have us be more literate and sensitive and, given the man to whom we are unfavorably compared, more wealthy and generous.  All this I chalk up in part to the e-card genre I described above, which seems to specialize in self-pitying word bites.

It was in this light, then, that I undertook my previously-planned re-reading of the most famous and best of Jane Austen's novels.  Now here I should perhaps qualify the term "re-reading."  In fact, although I have read the novel twice in printed form, this time I listened to a recorded book version of it, read by an Englishwoman with a suitably Sloaney upper-class English accent, perfect for the astoundingly articulate text written by an essentially self-educated woman barely out of her twenties.  So far, so good.

Jane Austen, it turns out, is considerably more generous to the male sex than my Facebook friend is.  The story, for those who aren't familiar with it (and I don't think less of anyone for that, male or female--tastes in literature and the cinema are vastly variable) may be distilled to this description:

The time is the beginning of the 19th century and the social milieu is the English gentry.  Everybody who figures in the book, even the most relatively poor of them, has servants and leisure and, by 21st century standards, is damned well off.  A wealthy single man named Mr. Bingley has just moved into a mansion in a country neighborhood, and people in or near his social circle are thinking that he might marry a local woman and make her rich, or perhaps unite two existing fortunes.  The folks to whom I refer don't have much else to do but to contemplate the preservation of wealth.

A certain Mr. Bennett is an even-tempered man with five semi-adult daughters and no sons and a silly wife to whose beauty he was once attracted.  He has plenty of money to live on, but because of an "entail" of his estate in favor of male heirs only, when he dies all his property will devolve to his nearest male relative, a first cousin once removed.  Rather than being distressed about this state of affairs, however, Mr. Bennett is philosophical, and is, because of his learned and gently cynical and resigned disposition, quite amused and bemused by this young cousin of his.  The cousin, Mr. Collins, is a completely idiotic, socially sycophantic clergyman who is thinking maybe he would be doing the Bennett family a favor by marrying one of the five daughters.  This was in the days when being in the clergy was regarded as a necessary but rather frivolous occupation, to be opted for if you weren't already rich and if you didn't have the stomach to become a military officer or an adventurer. Rather than being a calling by God, the Anglican priesthood was (and probably still is) an elevated form of civil service.  But enough about Mr. Collins and his profession; suffice it to say he does not succeed in marrying one of the Bennett girls.

Meanwhile Mr. Bennett's eldest daughter, Jane, who is beautiful and intelligent and sensible (having taken after her father in the brains department and her mother in the beauty department), becomes romantically involved with Mr. Bingley, who subsequently goes to London and appears to drop her.  But during Jane's visits to Mr. Bingley's country place her next-in-line sister, twenty-year-old Elizabeth (the heroine of the story, also very intelligent and down-to-earth) meets a close friend of Mr. Bingley's, the immensely rich Mr. Darcy, also single and in his twenties.  There's chemistry between him and Elizabeth, but she thinks he's too proud and supercilious, and he looks down on Elizabeth's family, especially her silly mother and her three equally silly younger sisters, as well as her uncle who (God forbid) has made his money in business, rather than the old-fashioned way, by inheritance.  Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, though decently well-off with no need to work for a living, have chump change compared to Mr. Darcy, whose income is over 10,000 pounds a year, which in today's money is well over a million dollars, but at a time when a million dollars could buy a hell of a lot more than it does now.  And that's his income, mind you, which consists mostly of interest on a considerably larger fortune, along with whatever he makes as the feudal overlord of a huge country estate.

Here is where most of the pride and the prejudice come in.  Elizabeth becomes prejudiced against Mr. Darcy, perceiving him to be too proud, based in part on her own observations and in part on misinformation fed to her by others.  Mr. Darcy is prejudiced against Elizabeth's immediate family and collateral relatives, a fact that she discovers, causing her own pride in her family to kick in.  So it goes, back and forth, through the inevitable misunderstandings and chance meetings between the two as well as meetings arranged by Mr. Darcy, who, in spite of himself, is falling madly in love with Elizabeth and is becoming willing to do damned near anything to win her heart, including putting up with her zany family.  I'll spare you the rest of the details and sub-plots and jump to the end.  Mr. Bingley and Jane do get married, and of course Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy get married too.  Elizabeth has become ashamed of herself for having judged Mr. Darcy so severely at first, discovering that what she perceived as his pride consists in part of a natural shyness and in part of such a complete lack of pretense that he can't bring himself to make small talk at dinner parties and balls and all that.  But he does possess social pride as well, which he gradually dampens down in favor of a more relatively egalitarian viewpoint (meaning, in this context, that he's willing to reach down into the middle level of the landed gentry for a wife).

When all is said and done Mr. Darcy is just a fabulously wealthy guy with a good heart, if you can get to know him.  And Elizabeth is a kind and sensible and bright woman of the correct social class who seems to be able to bring out the best in Darcy without sacrificing anything of herself.  The promise at the end of the book is that she's going to get him to gradually lighten up, and he's going to let her into his world of untold wealth, and they'll both be happy doing what well-off people in England do, which is, well, basically nothing.

As much as I can I've avoided reading any literary criticism of Pride and Prejudice, or for that matter any literary criticism at all.  For me it tends to ruin the story, and I like to figure out things like "what does it mean" for myself.  Which is not to say that I don't enjoy engaging in amateur literary criticism of my own.  It seems to me that Pride and Prejudice is at one level just a modern (for its time) retelling of an oft-told story, a fairy tale really, in which a deserving woman of lesser means is discovered and rescued by a wealthy prince type.  It's Cinderella, or the movie "Pretty Woman."  It's different in that the heroine isn't an abused stepsister or a whore-with-a-heart, but the same in that it's a story of a girl who is surrounded by people a little beneath her, though none of them know it, and who gets saved by a rich and noble guy.

Now let's revisit the offensive quotation from that e-card and explore what it might mean:  "All women desire a Mr. Darcy.  Unfortunately, all men have no idea who that is."  Does this mean that all women desire a guy who is richer than God?  If so, it takes 99.99% of us out of the running right away and leaves those women desiring something virtually unattainable.  Does it mean that all women desire a guy who starts out being an aloof snob and gradually becomes a little more liberal in his attitudes?  That describes Mr. Darcy pretty well, too.  If that's the case, it also excludes most of us because we weren't that way to begin with, not having possessed the wherewithal or inclination to indulge in such peering down our noses at the rest of the world.  Does it mean that all women desire a guy who is both wealthy and tolerably decent?  Again, that keeps the field extremely narrow.  And no matter what anyone says, Mr. Darcy's most important and endearing trait, the one that keeps everyone interested in him, is his fabulous wealth.  Of course it might also mean that all women desire a man who is so madly in love with them that he is willing to change dramatically and risk incurring the wrath, or at least the scorn, of some of his family members and social set, which did happen to Mr. Darcy.  Or, at its most simplistic level, it means that all women desire a man who desires them even more than they desire him.  (Here we might be getting somewhere.)

And what of the second part of this sentiment, that "unfortunately, all men have no idea who that is"?  That's where the screw really turns, isn't it?  It's insulting and inaccurate no matter how you read it.  Read literally, it means that men don't read old novels or watch movies based on them, which isn't true.  Alternatively, it pretty much has to mean that even if a few men do know who Mr. Darcy is, there's not a damn thing they can do about being more like him than other regular Joes are, because (a) they're not wealthy and so in love they'd stoop to a slightly lower social level for the woman they love, (b) they're complete egomaniacs and/or knuckle-draggers who wouldn't change unless Bill O'Reilly told them to, or (c) they're hopelessly unromantic.  Of course it's the last of these three possibilities that makes the most sense in the context of the card.

Having read Pride and Prejudice again it's obvious to me that Elizabeth Bennett, the female protagonist, is the one to be sought after, and far far more valuable than Mr. Darcy could ever be.  She's the keeper, not him, and so unlike all the other women in Jane Austen's novel that she leaves them in the dust.  She's attractive in a variety of ways, and not just physically.  She has wit, a fine sense of humor, an understanding of irony, knowledge of human nature (including her own shortcomings), levelheadedness, and education.  And she possesses a variety of other good traits, not the least of which are the ability to change and a complete lack of the type of unrealistic sentimentalism and underlying resentment of the opposite sex that characterize those who would create or post such a twisted e-card sentiment as the one that is the subject at hand.  She captivates without guile, she perseveres without suffering, she adjusts and prevails without sacrificing anything of her self, she possesses humility without being humbled.    

Indeed, after reading Pride and Prejudice, I think it would be more accurate to say, "All men desire an Elizabeth Bennett.  Unfortunately, few women have any idea who that really is."

Friday, November 29, 2013

The County, Part 2







Monrovia, California

November 29, 2013

I continue to find things out, very slowly.  (That might be a fitting inscription for my tombstone, except that it might not fit.)  I've been writing about the Los Angeles area for the past couple of blog postings, and I'm going to continue down that path.

I mentioned last time that there are 88 incorporated municipalities in Los Angeles County, and that some of them because of their comparatively small size use the resources of the County for policing and fire protection and that sort of thing.  West Hollywood is a case in point.  It's a full-fledged city, but is also an enclave of the City of Los Angeles.  Its distinction is that it is basically an inclusionary, liberal, and identifiably gay city, with a gay male population of 41%.  Its city council members are mostly gay, and its city flag is the familiar rainbow flag associated with the LGBT movement.  In addition to its gay population is a somewhat inapposite community of Russian Jewish immigrants, most of whom arrived there shortly before and after the breakup of the Soviet Union.  West Hollywood's Russian-speaking population of around 6,000 people is the largest such concentrated group in the U.S. outside New York City.  Thus as you saunter down Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood you are likely to see same-sex couples walking pairs of poodles, cheek-by-jowl with old women in babushkas carrying home vegetables for the evening's meal, passing storefronts featuring young male manikins wearing purple sequined thongs.  The image of elderly old-world Russian couples and dashing young gays living side by side in tolerant harmony is one worth musing on.

I said that West Hollywood is an enclave of Los Angeles, but technically it is not completely surrounded by the City, since it shares a border on its western side with Beverly Hills, another separate city within the City.  Traveling from Hollywood (which is part of Los Angeles) on the Sunset Strip to Beverly Hills, you wouldn't really know you were on the edge of a separate city unless you paid careful attention.  But within West Hollywood are some rather famous spots, and some rather unusual municipal phenomena.  It is home to the Chateau Marmont, perhaps best known as the place where John Belushi crashed and burned. It also has the Viper Room, outside of which River Phoenix collapsed and died.  West Hollywood was known long before its incorporation as something of a "wide-open" community, offering legal gambling at a time when it was prohibited by the City, and having a reputation as liquor-friendly during Prohibition.  Thus many nightclubs and cabarets sprang up in West Hollywood.  Today the city has a law decreeing that pets are to be called "companions," and their owners "guardians."  It has also outlawed the de-clawing of cats.  I don't know whether or not the Bob Barker/Drew Carey admonition to "have your pet spayed or neutered" has been challenged in West Hollywood, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were, as the idea of a guardian removing a companion's testicles without his permission might be abhorrent to many citizens.

I had always thought West Hollywood seceded from Los Angeles, but that is not the case.  Before 1984 it was an unincorporated and rather erose chunk of County land partially within and partially adjacent to the City, a little like East Los Angeles is, except that East LA and West Hollywood, though only a few miles apart, might as well be in different worlds.  On the map West Hollywood has the odd gerrymandered look of an area that was simply left over.  Its shape sort of resembles a pistol pointed eastward toward the heart of Los Angeles.  (See the map, above.)

Anyway, West Hollywood was formed in 1984 out of some spare real estate that had once been known as the community of Sherman, being named for Moses Sherman, a railroad magnate.  (Sherman Oaks, a region of the City of Los Angeles up in the San Fernando Valley, also was named for Sherman.)  The area that eventually became West Hollywood was for some years a sort of railroad town, with rail yards for the local interurban electric street railways that Moses Sherman started, and some of which he sold for several million dollars in 1904 to Henry Huntington (nephew and heir of Collis P. Huntington), another much more powerful railroad magnate about whom I have written before in this blog, who started the Huntington Library in San Marino after marrying his uncle's widow.  In about 1925 the region began to be known as West Hollywood.

Moses Sherman was born in Vermont in 1853, and in his early 20s moved out to Arizona, where he was a school teacher and administrator, and a capitalist.  He became Adjutant General of the Territory of Arizona, and thereafter referred to himself as General Sherman, a title that must have seemed both prestigious and pretentious in the last quarter of the 19th Century when Civil War hero General William Tecumseh Sherman (no relation) was still a revered presence in American politics.  After building the Phoenix Street Railway in Arizona, Moses Sherman journeyed to Los Angeles and started building trolley lines here.  He continued to build street railways, the most prominent of which ran north-south up through North Hollywood into the San Fernando Valley, connecting Van Nuys and Canoga Park to the downtown area.  Sherman Way still bears his name, and Hazeltine Avenue was named after one of his daughters.

(The likes of Moses Sherman, William Mulholland, Collis Huntington, and other early capitalists who ran and shaped Los Angeles, carving it up, cutting into its hills, and diverting its waterways for their original purposes, were undoubtedly the inspiration for the fictional characters Hollis Mulwray and Noah Cross, the latter played by John Huston, in Roman Polanski's 1974 film Chinatown.)

The fact that West Hollywood is now surrounded mostly by LA proper is not due so much to the omission of this piece of land from the incorporation into the City as it is to the rather disorganized way the City itself grew to gobble up many of the little communities that were adjacent to its core central district.  Hollywood, for instance, was once an outlying suburb to the northwest of Los Angeles proper, then elected to join Los Angeles itself.  Beverly Hills was sort of the same, except that it decided to become a separate city.  West Hollywood just stayed part of the County.  Besides growing northward into the San Fernando Valley, thanks in part to the Sherman rail line, the City grew westward to the ocean, incorporating Pacific Palisades, Venice, and several other communities, eastward toward Pasadena, gulping up Silver Lake, Echo Park, Highland Park, Eagle Rock, and several other little towns, and southward as well, cutting a thin corridor for itself down to San Pedro on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, and incorporating that city in 1909 so as to have its own commercial seaport.

Along the way, the City left many little areas either unincorporated or separately incorporated.  The result, when you look at the map of the City, is a metropolis that is wildly irregular in shape, interspersed with a bunch of separate cities. Contrast this pattern of development to that of the nation's other great city, New York.  There you find five pretty much solid chunks of land, each of which is now (as of about the last decade of the 19th century) a borough of that city, whereas each had been a separate county before, and in fact still is.  Thus New York City uniquely consists of five boroughs, and five counties, two adjacent ones on eastern Long Island (Queens and Brooklyn), one on the southern tip of the mainland (The Bronx), and two on their own islands (Staten Island and Manhattan).  New York, for as far-flung as it is, is still one huge monolith, which you can traverse from one end to the other by means of bridges, roads, railways, and ferries, without venturing outside the city limits.  The same cannot be said for Los Angeles.  There is no freeway or easy street route that will take you through the City from one end to the other without passing at least briefly through a non-city area, either incorporated or unincorporated.  Observe this on the map above, in which the colored areas are those of the neighborhoods or districts that are part of the City and the grayish-white areas are not part of it.

Los Angeles County continues to fascinate, and throughout it I continue to discover its little oddities.  For instance, the City of Arcadia (between Monrovia and Pasadena), home to the Santa Anita Race Track, has the second-highest per capita income of any city of over 50,000 in the U.S., exceeded only by Greenwich, Connecticut in that category.  (Arcadia's per capita income, by the way, is more than $67,000.)  Most locals don't know this.  Over on the other side of Monrovia is a tiny incorporated city called Bradbury, which broke away from Monrovia in 1957 and is now served by the public-safety agencies of the County.  Bradbury has a population of a little over 1,000, and consists almost exclusively of gated communities, boasting the highest average home price for a single zip code in the nation, in excess of $4.2 million.  It's one of those places few know about, and the residents like it that way, I'm sure.  It was the home of the late beloved evangelist, the Reverend W. euGene Scott, the garrulous white-haired preacher wacko who plied the late-night airwaves during the latter decades of the 20th century from his broadcasting headquarters in Glendale.  His widow Melissa Scott still lives there.  Another resident of Bradbury is Lynsi Torres, the thirty-something heiress to the In-N-Out Burger fortune and the youngest female billionaire in the country, whose house is thought to be worth $17 million.  But the most expensive property in Bradbury seems to be one known as The Bradbury Estate, clocking in at over $78 million.  Even in the absurdly inflated LA County real estate market, where a house the size of a decent Michigan garage can go for several hundred thousand, that, my friends, is an expensive place.  Unlike the more accessible and ostentatious neighborhoods of the west side of LA where the glitterati dwell, this is a community where billionaires and millionaires, businessmen, athletes and Saudi princes, go to live in privacy.  For all that, though, its brown and barren hills on the south edge of the San Gabriel Mountains do not look particularly attractive or inviting.  But then maybe that's the idea.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

The County


Monrovia, California

November 17, 2013

In my last posting I talked about someone I call Diabetes Woman, and I want to give you an update on her. Following my two less than amicable encounters with her I continued to pass her from time to time on my way down to the parking lot on Hill Street.  I'm not certain what her hours of operation are, but on my way into work at around 8:00 a.m. she's not yet at her post, and when I work all day at the downtown location she's not there at 4:30 in the afternoon when I go back to my car.  However, many times my day on the job is split between the downtown complex and a satellite County office.  The downtown complex includes the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration, named after a man named Kenneth Hahn, and the Los Angeles Central Superior Court, named after Stanley Mosk.

Kenneth Hahn was a mildly interesting man.  He was born in Los Angeles in 1920 to Canadian parents who had just moved there, and spent his entire life as a resident of the area, dying in 1997.  In addition to serving for forty years on the County Board of Supervisors, from 1952 to 1992, he also designed the current seal of the County of Los Angeles, which was modified slightly in 2004 to eliminate the Christian cross with which he had adorned it.  (Hahn was very a religious Protestant, often quoting scripture.)  Although Los Angeles was founded by Spanish priests and named for the Virgin Mary, it is now under the fortunate umbrella of the nominally nonsectarian American government, so removing the cross was a good move, albeit a tardy one, on the part of the County.

Stanley Mosk served as a California Supreme Court Justice for 37 years, from 1964 until his death at the age of 89 in 2001.  Prior to that he served as state Attorney General.  Of politically liberal Jewish heritage, he and his family moved to Los Angeles from Rockford, Illinois during the Depression after his father's business failed.  Mosk became the longest-serving state Supreme Court justice, and after his death the central downtown Superior Court building was named in his honor.

The two buildings named after these guys occupy most of a large block whose boundaries are Hill, Temple, First, and Grand Streets, with a narrow public area called Grand Park between the buildings.  They are connected by an underground parking lot where the Superior Court judges and other court officials as well as the higher-ups in the LA County administration park.  The satellite office I often go to is located in East Los Angeles, and is named for Gloria Molina, the County Supervisor for that area.  That office, a modest two-story building, is at the corner of Sunol Avenue and East First and we refer to it simply as "Sunol."  It is on my walks back to my car during the middle of the day to drive to Sunol--anywhere from about 11:00 a.m. to noon--that I see Diabetes Woman.  However, occasionally in the morning I would see her sitting high on the steps that go up the hill to the top of the Fort Moore Memorial.  I assume she slept somewhere up there then would come down to Hill Street to take her post in front of the entrance to the parking lot connected to the Cathedral.

Here let me digress again from Diabetes Woman to say a few words about the County of Los Angeles.  LA County is vast, both in area and in population.  At over 4,000 square miles it is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined.  And its population of over 10 million (some estimate it to be closer to 11 million, since many of its inhabitants do not wish to make themselves known to the authorities lest they be subject to deportation) makes it the most populous county in the United States, with more people than 42 individual states have. The majority of the population lives in the southern half of the county, while its northern region is thinly inhabited mountains and high desert.  For you Michigan folks, think of it this way.  Pack three times the population of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties combined into the same area those counties occupy, then add another area the same size that is mostly empty.

LA County's population is diverse though heavily Mexican, as you might expect (appropriately so considering that this area was part of Spain and then Mexico from its "discovery" by Europeans in the 1500s until the middle of the 19th century).  The general demographic breakdown is about 48% Hispanics, 28% non-Hispanic whites, 14% Asians (mostly Chinese, Filipino, Korean, and Japanese, in that order), and 9% African Americans.  Languages other than English and Spanish often heard include Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Armenian, Tagalog, and various Slavic tongues.  For those who no longer speak any language, the County contains the largest cemetery in the U.S., Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, and of course two of the most famous--the Forest Lawns of Glendale and Los Angeles.

Human diversity aside, the County is rich in geological, botanical, and biological variety as well.  Its highest point of elevation is a little over 10,000 feet and its lowest is sea level.  Cacti of a number of species abound, as well as native evergreens, sycamores, cottonwoods, oaks, and wildflowers, and a plethora of non-native plant species, including several varieties of palm trees, eucalyptuses, ficuses, citrus trees, and more ornamental lawn trees than you can count.  Up in the mountains and deserts as well as at the edges of the cities there are coyotes, mountain lions, bears, deer, foxes, bobcats, vultures, bald eagles, feral parrots, black widow spiders, and rattlesnakes.  Little lizards are everywhere.

Los Angeles County encompasses the City of Los Angeles, but also no fewer than 87 other incorporated municipalities and over 140 recognized unincorporated regions that account for over 65% of the County's area.  Apart from the 3.3 million people of the City of Los Angeles, the County contains at least 14 other cities with populations of over 100,000.

It is in one of the unincorporated areas, East Los Angeles, just outside the city limits of LA, where Sunol, the satellite County office I referred to above, is located.  East Los Angeles, bounded on the west by the City and on its other sides by Monterey Park, Montebello, and several other municipalities, has a population of over 125,000, more than 97% of whom are Hispanic. It would rank as the tenth most populous city in the County, except that it isn't a city, just a piece of County land.  I am not sure why this area, essentially a Mexican ghetto, does not belong to the City proper, since it is geographically just an extension of the Boyle Heights area of LA, also known as East Los Angeles.  At any rate, because it isn't part of any city, it is directly governed by the County of Los Angeles and policed by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, the largest sheriff's department in the United States.  The County itself is politically administered by a Board of Supervisors, consisting of five elected Supervisors, who hire an executive director, and each of whom presides over his or her own fiefdom, with primary jurisdiction over the unincorporated areas and sometimes concurrent and overlapping jurisdiction over the incorporated cities.  Many of the smaller incorporated cities contract with the County for police and fire services in lieu of having their own.  Supervisor Gloria Molina, as far as I can discern, is the de facto mayor of East Los Angeles, its alcalde.  The other four County Supervisors are Zev Yaroslavsky, Mark Ridley-Thomas, Michael Antonovich, and Don Knabe.  It is in the upper atmosphere of the vast Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration where these Supervisors wield their power.  My office, the Department of Consumer Affairs, is down in the basement, away from cell phone reception and natural light.  That is one of the reasons I enjoy going over to Sunol.  There I have a nice naturally lit desk by a window on the second floor, my own direct phone line, and out front a truck that sells tacos for a dollar apiece.

Well, that's a boatload of statistics and miscellaneous information, and really, what county doesn't have lots of stuff you could say about it?  I guess the point of it all is to emphasize that LA County is much more than the television and movie industries.  (To give it its due, however, Hollywood does a pretty good job of depicting the one and two story stucco sameness of the tightly-packed urban neighborhoods of Los Angeles, barred windows and all, usually when it does one of its many "tough corrupt cop" movies about the LAPD or the County Sheriff's Department.  Tough and corrupt are reputations both police forces have worked long and hard to earn.)  In fact, although media production is a big part of the economy, it's only the most famous part.  The rest of what makes the place run is what the average person does every day everywhere (other than driving snowplows, maybe).  In fact, holding up Hollywood and the wealthy neighborhoods of the west side hills and their glittering, privileged denizens as representing the essence of LA is little like trying to understand Detroit by examining Bloomfield Hills, or equating the south side of Chicago with Evanston, or driving around in Westchester County to see what the Bronx is all about.

It is, as I said, to East Los Angeles that I often journey about halfway through my day, and that is when I walk past Diabetes Woman on my way northward down the hill to the parking lot in Chinatown.  Not long after I wrote the last blog posting, I saw her at her usual post, still holding the sign whose efficacy I had had the temerity to question.  As I went by I expected her to stare yellow-eyed reptilian daggers at me or mutter something obscene.  Instead her eyes were bright and she smiled and held up a key that was attached to a blue lanyard around her neck.  "Look," she said proudly, "I got an apartment!"  She was beaming, and I was momentarily nonplussed by her unexpected display of joy.  I slowed down just enough to answer back, "I'm happy for you."  Our past animosity was forgotten by both of us in this moment of her joy.  It was obvious that she felt she had attained a new level of respectability, one that would elevate her status in the world in the eyes of suit-wearing types like me.  I wouldn't dream of disabusing her of that notion, though I can't say it makes much difference to me.  But it certainly was making a difference to her.

So Diabetes Woman no longer lives among the scrub in the abandoned ancient graveyard at the top of the Fort Moore steps, sleeping, as I imagine it, huddled in a blanket or two and surrounded by her small collection of worldly possessions, one of the more than 58,000 homeless people in the County, enough to fill Dodger stadium.  As I began crossing over the freeway I glanced back and saw her making the same happy boast to another well-dressed passerby, speaking to her warmly, like a friend.  But she still panhandles at her spot.  I suppose she now has at least a small amount of rent and/or household upkeep to pay for in addition to whatever she needs to do to obtain food and clothing.  A person, after all, has to make a living.

At the outskirts of Chinatown I passed a few more familiar denizens of my walk, including the funky always-smiling young Vietnamese guy who runs the parking lot, whom I once saw wearing bright red lipstick and eyeliner for no reason I could discern.  I also passed several of the same superannuated Chinese men and women I see shuffling slowly past me in shapeless pants and dresses, making whatever slow progress their long day requires, up the steep hillsides to the small apartments overlooking Hill Street, whose balconies are hung with drying laundry and red and gold talismans of luck and hoped-for prosperity.

This time I didn't think of the depiction of the perverse and treacherous diversion of the wealth of Los Angeles played out in Chinatown by John Huston and Jack Nicholson.  Nor did I dwell on the baldly hypocritical and insulting praise of the Mormon Brigade chiseled in the stone and glorified in bas relief on the Fort Moore Memorial, honoring the Pioneers who bravely "settled" Los Angeles for the country in the mid-1800s.  Instead I was reminded of the many souls who have journeyed to the County with no political or economic agendas other than to try to escape the terror and bigotry and degradation of their native lands, whether from south of the border, from across the vast Pacific, or out of the American deep south, most to a better life but some to something less than the promised land they expected.  Some were homeless and found homes, however modest; others left homes and became homeless, out here in the land of big dreams and often much smaller joys.

I thought of the final lines from "Lapis Lazuli" by William Butler Yeats, where he describes the images of three ancient Chinese men, climbing toward a little house:

There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes, mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Everybody Talks

Monrovia, California

October 21, 2013

There's a famous quote, usually attributed to Mark Twain: "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it."  Only the locals in Southern California pay much attention to our weather here, just as we're barely aware, except in a smug way, of the vagaries of the eastern and northern climes.  From everybody else's standpoint our weather is perfect--sunny, warm, dry.  Especially in the winter, when the east and north are snow and ice bound, it's very difficult for folks in other parts of the country to feel much compassion about the comparatively minor meteorological problems in these realms.

But here, people do complain a bit, as they do everywhere else.  The constant is not the weather, or the changes in the weather; rather it's the tendency to be less than happy with what you have, weatherwise.  The idea of "perfect weather" only exists in places where it can be readily contrasted with something less than perfect.  In a very real sense people in places where the weather is harsher and more variable (Minnesota where one of my daughters lives comes to mind) are more easily pleased by minor changes than are the denizens of SoCal.  Give Minnesotans a day in January when the temperature briefly rises above freezing and they'll be moderately cheerful (which is as cheerful as Minnesotans ever get about anything).  The next day, when it reaches a high of 15 degrees Fahrenheit they won't be angry, just resigned to the will of the Almighty and to the belief that it's out of their hands, which, whether you're religious or not, is an eminently sensible attitude.  And Minnesotans are nothing if not sensible, a thing that cannot be said for Southern Californians.  In fact, it's kind of a rarity here.

If it's hot here (as it tends to be from August through about October), people have something to complain about.  You might say it's a dry heat, so it's more tolerable, and that's true to an extent.  But what many folks don't realize is that, like practically everything else in the LA area, the weather is man-made.  So many trees have been planted in Los Angeles County over the last century or so--virtually all of them nonnative species such as eucalyptuses, palm trees, sweetgums, ficuses, and so on--that the area has gone from being essentially a cactus and sagebrush desert, as it was in the beginning, to a comparatively more humid environment.  Relative humidity is still a relative thing, though.  We don't get 90% plus humidity that often, but in truth it can get pretty sweaty, particularly when you compare the area to the less-developed inland regions, extending into the Palm Springs desert and beyond to the Arizona border.

Then again, if it gets cloudy or the temperature dips below 75 degrees during the day, everyone breaks out the hoodies and even those bulky Gore-Tex jackets that make them look like the Michelin man.  Why anyone in Southern California would even own one of those jackets is beyond me, but they sell the hell out of them in the "winter."  And not just to people in the social classes who might fly up to Utah or Colorado to go skiing during the winter.  But mostly people just layer up and hunker down when it's cool.  And by cool I mean cool like that first beautiful day in late April when, in the northeast, you would go outside in your short sleeved shirt to watch the crocuses and tulip shoots and the small patches of snow lingering in the shaded areas.  And God forbid that it should be cloudy, which, by the way, officially constitutes rain, since there isn't much of that.  Easterners should get a kick out of this: the other day it did actually rain for a few minutes, bringing the total rainfall for the year since July 1 up to a grand total of 0.13 inches.  Despite this paucity of moisture, and despite the fact that most of the water in the area is imported from hundreds of miles away, there is barely a nod in the direction of water conservation.   

I was watching a documentary the other day about the homeless of Los Angeles, who aren't much different from the homeless of any other large city, i.e., chiefly mentally ill and/or drug-addicted.  Though it wasn't a bad movie I quit watching after about fifteen minutes because I've spent so much of my life and working career in close proximity to mentally ill and drug and alcohol addicted people, and that just doesn't hold much fascination for me.  Lots of talk, lots of regrets, lots of promises, lots of misery.  Anyway, I do want to mention one thing about the documentary, and that was a comment by a semi-reformed resident of Skid Row who spends his time washing and sweeping the sidewalks, most assuredly a good thing to do, for which he deserves much credit.  It's a lot more than I do for the homeless or for the city.  But what struck me was a comment he made relating to the weather.  He pointed out that since it almost never rains in Los Angeles, the smell of urine and of life sticks to the sidewalks and streets, and nothing gets washed away by itself.  He has to slosh soapy water onto the sidewalks and scrub them with a broom.  So next time you're fighting a rainstorm in, say, Chicago or New York City, remember that it's doing some good beyond just replenishing the aquifers.  It's performing a sort of biblical diluvian function, getting rid of some of the stink of life.  No such luck here in the desert Southwest, which, if it were still really a desert and not an overcrowded city, wouldn't be so bad.

With the exception of Griffith Park and a few of the privileged tree-shrouded enclaves on the northwest side, Los Angeles is an ugly city, made more so when contrasted with the glimpses of natural beauty afforded in the distant hills and mountains and in the occasional patches of pure desert found mostly alongside its dried-out waterways.  Its immediate eastern suburbs along or beside old Route 66 in the San Gabriel Valley--Pasadena, San Marino, Sierra Madre, Arcadia, and my own Monrovia, are quite pretty and charming as suburbs go, but the part of LA I go through to get to downtown, and also the whole south and east sides, are not pretty at all.  Okay, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so I won't say it's positively ugly.  But it is certainly short on charm and on the basics of urban planning.  It's a city of little one and two-story houses and apartments of the mid-twentieth century--squared off stucco and framed bungalows, mostly--slapped together willy nilly up and down steep hillsides and jammed even closer together in the flat areas.  Imagine Garden City or Westland writ much larger, with hills, and you might get a sense of the clutter and architectural vapidity of the city of LA.  There are some exceptions, like the little cluster of skyscrapers that is the downtown civic center, which really doesn't cover that much ground, and the canals of Venice, and of course those tree-shrouded enclaves of the rich and famous in Bel Air, Brentwood, and Beverly Hills.  Los Angeles looks far better at night when filmed from high up in those affluent northern hills, a carpet of light stretching to the sea.  Dim light is flattering, something the city knows well from the movie biz.

Speaking of homeless people in LA, on my way from the parking lot to my volunteer job, walking south up Hill Street from Chinatown, I pass a number of people who are just waking from having slept huddled in the recesses of the infrastructure beneath the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial and its waterfall (mostly dry) or between the gigantic roots of trees along the edges of the highways.  Some of them stay to panhandle along the street where county and city employees and lawyers pass in droves each day.  I've given names in my mind to a few of them.  There's "I have AIDS--yo tengo SIDA" Man, for instance.  He lies curled up and pathetic, draped around the bottom of a No Parking sign on the sidewalk smack in front of the Stanley Mosk Central LA Superior Court, with a little piece of corrugated cardboard bearing his bilingual message in magic marker and a dirty cup to collect donations.  Thousands of people stream by him each day.  Don't know how much money he takes in.  Then there's "Have Diabetes Please Help" Woman--Diabetes Woman for short--who has a spot staked out right where Hill Street crosses over the Hollywood Freeway, near the ultra-modern Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.  (This reminds us that Los Angeles is a shortened form of its original name, El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles del Rio de Porciuncula, or The Town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of the Porciuncula River.  The river was later renamed the Los Angeles River.  Like the Fort Moore Memorial waterfall, it's mostly dry.)

As I have said before in this blog, I have nothing against panhandlers, or beggars, or whatever you choose to call them.  My belief, for what it's worth, is that the most honest way to beg for money is simply to ask for it rather than to attempt to play to patriotism (as in "Homeless Veteran, Please Help"), or to tug at the heartstrings of would-be donors.  At its core panhandling solicits a simple social contract between the taker and the giver.  It says, "I have comparatively little money and you may have more than I do; please share some of yours with me."  I like that.  It's streamlined and straightforward and leftist.  I hate to see it muddled with details.  And spare me the "God Bless You" as I pass by.  I don't care if they use the money to buy booze or drugs or food, shoes or ships or sealing wax.  That's their business, just as it's my business how I use the money I get.

Nevertheless I realize that most panhandlers may be embarrassed to just ask for money straight out, or may have learned that they get more by having a "hook" of some kind in the form of a need-based plea.  But the sign of Diabetes Woman troubled me a little, because (even though it's none of my business) it didn't seem quite compelling enough.  Diabetes, really?  I mean, I know it's a devastating and deadly disease, especially the Type I version of it (from which she probably suffers, given her comparative youth).  Call me calloused, but after all, it's estimated that nearly 10% of the U.S. population has some form of diabetes.

Thus it was that one day, in a George Costanza-Seinfeldian kind of gesture, I stopped in front of Diabetes Woman to have a little chat with her, bending over a bit, since she's always sitting on the ground.  "So," I began, "you have diabetes?"  She replied in the affirmative.  Diabetes Woman is a thin bi-racial woman with painted-on eyebrows and weird yellow-green eyes that give her a distinctly reptilian aspect.  "Do you need money for insulin or other medicines?" I went on.  She said no, not really, that her diabetes was under control.  "Do you suffer from diabetic neuropathy, gangrene, vision problems, or other complications?"  I continued, sounding to myself like a doctor or one of those ambulance-chasing lawyers who advertise on TV.  She said no.  "Are you perhaps in need of a kidney or pancreas transplant?"  Again she shook her head, smiling slightly as she fixed those reptile eyes on me.  She told me she was homeless.  "Well," I went on, "it just seems to me that simply telling people you have diabetes isn't all that likely to get them to donate to you.  How about saying you're homeless?"  I was trying to be helpful, even as I felt myself, through my own intrusiveness, getting sucked into a Larry David script along with the vortex of pent-up anger and instability simmering in her just below the surface.

"Well you're a money-grubbing motherfucker and your mother should have aborted you before you were born," she shot back, "and I don't have to sit here and let you insult me."  She spit the words at me like the green slime those little raptors spat into the eyes of Wayne Knight (the guy who played Newman on Seinfeld) in the movie Jurassic Park.  At this moment I thought very briefly of saying, "Well, you know, back in the late 1940s when I was born abortions weren't as readily available as they are now.  In fact they were illegal all over the country."  But instead I answered calmly, "Well, I think you might be the one who's being insulting now.  I just think you'd get more money if you had a better sign."  Then I proceeded on down to the parking lot in Chinatown.

Two days later I was on the same route, walking to my car, and stopped again in front of Diabetes Woman.  This time before I said a word she threatened to hit me with a blunt baton-like thing about a foot and a half long, which I think was a rolled-up umbrella.  I moved on, and she remained seated, calling after me, "Come back here with your old smelly white ass, and I'll break your leg."  I couldn't help thinking that this wasn't the best attitude to have when soliciting money, but then who am I to say?  We take our panhandlers as we find them, I had learned.

As I walked over the busy 101 Freeway and then Cesar E. Chavez Drive two things came into my mind.  Looking ahead of me, one was a movie quote from a classic LA film noir I often remember when I'm making my way down among the faux Asian storefronts filled with places selling ginseng root and dehydrated fish and other things westerners are not meant to buy.  I thought, "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown."

But also, casting my mind back up the hill to Diabetes Woman I couldn't help wondering, "Why would anyone carry an umbrella in Los Angeles?"

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Release The Tigers




Monrovia, California

October 9, 2013

A week or so ago I read in the LA Times of the death of one of my favorite obscure character actors from my youth, a guy named Jay Robinson.  His career peaked early, with his role as the insane and sadistic Emperor Caligula in a pair of "biblical epics," The Robe (1953) and its sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954).  These were cheesy movies at best, the first one featuring Richard Burton as a Roman official and Victor Mature as a defiant Greek slave, both of whom converted to Christianity literally at the feet of the hanging Jesus.  The sequel was carried by Victor Mature, and starred Susan Hayward as Demetrius's love interest and also the wife of old Claudius, who stepped in after Caligula's death.  Claudius didn't care much what Susan Hayward did in her spare time, so she and Demetrius lived it up during Demetrius's mid-movie crisis of faith.  The fact that the dewy-eyed Victor Mature took over from Richard Burton as the star of the second movie gives you an idea of how this sequel, like most sequels, was only intended to keep the pot boiling, and wasn't expected to measure up to the first one.  Despite good solid B-movie performances by the reliable Hayward and Ernest Borgnine as the trainer of the gladiators, the only real standout in the movie was Jay Robinson as the maniacal Caligula.

For some reason I could never quite figure out, The Robe was handled with a great deal more care than was its sequel, and didn't seem to go straight to TV, as did Demetrius and the Gladiators.  It's not that The Robe was that good, even within its genre, which of course included the overwrought likes of The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959).  Nor did Richard Burton's presence in it do much more than lend it a bit of respectability it didn't necessarily deserve.  Burton chewed the scenery as ravenously as did the rest of the cast, with his sonorous and slightly bleating delivery, but the part did earn him a Best Actor nomination that year.  The movie certainly didn't match up to his reputation as the new Shakespearean wunderkind of Hollywood, the younger version of Laurence Olivier.  But I guess maybe the audiences were excited by him.  Victor Mature, on the other hand, was a steady journeyman, never so blessed by the muses as was Burton, and had a lot less to lose and more to gain by starring in the sequel.  He appeared in over sixty movies throughout the 40s and 50s and avoided squandering his talent and fortune on excesses of the flesh, unlike his more touted costar in The Robe.  In fact, Mature retired early to play golf.  He was as good as his name, and lived into old age, always with an insouciant appreciation for the years of fame he did manage to achieve despite his limitations as an actor and his self-parodying matinee idol looks.  Richard Burton, on the other hand, became tabloid fodder, flushing his gifts away with booze and more mediocre scripts than he should have, considering that he did make a few great movies.

But let's get back to Caligula and those tigers.  As a kid my absolute favorite over-the-top performance in the black-and-white world of Saturday afternoon television movies (often hosted by the late great Bill Kennedy) was that of Jay Robinson as Caligula in Demetrius and the Gladiators.  He was so writhingly cruel that you just had to love him, draped in a louche manner over a chair, his head cocked like a mad bird, giving life or death commands to his Praetorian guards.  It was in one of these scenes, when Demetrius was proving himself on the gladiatorial field, that he decided to have done with the worthless Christian by ordering him to fight the ravenous wild beasts who waited behind bars to gnaw their recalcitrant victims to death.  "Release the tigers!" shouted Robinson, in a high whiny fey voice that perfectly suited what you figured a demented young emperor should sound like.  The tigers were duly released, and of course Demetrius dispatched them all, proving himself a formidable fighter while causing Susan Hayward to squirm with dignified desire in her perch opposite that of the emperor.

I've taken a long time to get to the life and death of poor Jay Robinson.  He was born in New York City, the son of a professional dancer mother and a father who was a director of the Van Heusen Shirt Company.  He was bitten by the acting bug and got his start on Broadway before coming west to make it in the movies.  A few years after those brilliant scene-stealing stints as Caligula when he was in his early 20s, rightly regarded today as the peak of his success, he was arrested for possession and sale of heroin, and suffered the consequences, including eventually a 15-month stay in a California prison for failing to appear in court.  While in the joint he worked as a firefighter.  Aside from a few random roles in 60s sitcoms, including a shot or two on Bewitched (as Julius Caesar if I'm not mistaken), he descended into comparative obscurity, working as a short order cook and a veterinarian's assistant between acting gigs.  He appeared in mostly campy roles during the 70s and 80s, including an episode of Star Trek and on the soap opera Days of Our Lives and in one episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century entitled "Planet of the Amazon Women." I'm not sure what he principally did for a living, but maybe that handful of odd roles was enough to keep the wolf away from the door.  It's a pity, really, because if he'd stayed at the top of his game he would have made a good Count Dracula.  Instead he got the minor role of some named Mr. Hawkins in Bram Stoker's Dracula.  Anyway, he died at 83 in his home in Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley on September 27.

The real Caligula's career wasn't much more successful, except of course that he was at least a wealthy emperor for a few years, rather than just playing one on the screen, and got his profile on coins and all that.  After a crazy four years of riding high, he crashed and burned before he turned thirty.  Kind of like Jay Robinson, except that Caligula was assassinated in a plot initiated by his Praetorian guard.  So he didn't get to live on in obscurity, just in infamy.

Jay Robinson claimed that being typecast led him to his heroin use and downfall, a rather poor excuse if you ask me.  But maybe Caligula suffered from a similar ignominy, that is, being typecast.  When you're the latest in a line of dangerous megalomaniacs, it's probably hard to break out of that role.  First there was Julius Caesar, then his adopted son who called himself the Divine Augustus, then Augustus's adopted son Tiberius, and after that Tiberius's great nephew Caligula.

I guess the common theme in the whole story line, from Caligula to Richard Burton to Jay Robinson,  is excesses of the flesh accompanied by ambition and delusions of grandeur.  Ancient Rome and Hollywood have certainly produced more than their share of victims.  Except for old Victor Mature, the Italian immigrant's son, who was pretty much content to rest on his laurels rather than to try to wear them on his head.  Once when rejected for membership in a country club because he was an actor, he said, "I'm not an actor -- and I've got sixty-four films to prove it!"  Today Victor Mature is buried in his home state of Kentucky, under a statue of a weeping Angel of Grief.

Jay Robinson reposes in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills.  The cemetery is just northwest of Griffith Park, down the hill from where a solitary male mountain lion roams at night.  I imagine Jay is in the big mausoleum where some other show biz types, like Liberace and Bette Davis, are entombed.  I'll go looking for him next time I'm out that way.  He'll probably be in one of the more modest drawers, with the likes of George Raft and Sandra Dee and Roy Williams the Big Mooseketeer, a small brass name plate to identify his remains.  But you never know--he might be in a big white marble sarcophagus topped with a statue of Caligula, armor-clad and demoniacally triumphant.  That would be cool.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Expiration Dates






Monrovia, California

September 7, 2013

The old clock on the wall says it's time to blog again.

And we're itching to bomb Syria.  The old clock on the wall says it is time for the United States to do something like that again, too, I guess.  The locale doesn't particularly matter, as far as I can tell.  Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Syria.  In each case we've decided that the guy or group we used to tolerate or support up to this point just has to go, NOW.  Happens in the Middle East with regularity.  Occasionally we fiddle around in Subsaharan Africa, too, though in all those areas the British and French have had a sort of right of first refusal when it comes to exerting the old colonial influence.  The bad guys started as good guys, or at least as the lesser of two or three evils, and now they've reached the end of their shelf life.  Take any gangster wearing a uniform or a clerical robe and turn him over and you ought to see an expiration date written on the bottom of his shoes.  For some leaders, as with some food products, it's a long date, and with some it's comparatively short.  Certain dictators and products are kept around for years and years and not thrown out, even long after their expiration dates.

My theory about food expiration dates is that, with the exception of things made with eggs and milk and fresh meat, most expiration dates are artificial, put there to induce people to throw perfectly good things out and spend money on new jars or cans of the same stuff.  For instance, just about anything made with lots of vinegar and/or salt can last for years, if not decades or centuries, if left unopened or if refrigerated.  Cheese doesn't really go bad so much as it gets, well, different.  The vast majority of foodborne illnesses are caused by the incorrect handling or preparation of fresh foods (the kind that don't usually have expiration dates because it's understood that they have to be consumed very soon after purchase) and not the ingestion of canned or preserved ones.  E. coli contamination of meat and vegetables from cow manure, salmonella in eggs, botulism in inexpertly canned stuff, whatever.  As Pasteur and Lister and others discovered a long time ago, it's the proper application of heat that generally takes care of the bacteria.  The ancient proscription of pork in the diets of billions of people on the planet--observant Jews and Muslims in particular--is based in large part on the fact that they didn't cook the stuff well enough to begin with, people got sick or died, and so they decided that God didn't want them to eat pork. (That and the fact that pigs will eat anything if you let them, including each other and their own shit.  But then again, so will chickens, especially those wonderful "free range" chickens everyone is so fond of.)  The outright banning of pork was a rather drastic solution to a comparatively simple problem, if you ask me, but what the hell, more bacon for the rest of us.  It's the God part of it that really sticks in my craw.  You want to protect your people, fine; but don't try to say that the Almighty has anything to do with it. Anyway, expiration dates on food?  Don't bother.  Just give 'em the sniff test.  Most people have jars of alkaline or acidic condiments in their refrigerators that have been there since Bill Clinton was in office.  Still going strong, like old Bill himself.

But the setting and careful observance of expiration dates is a good thing in politics.  This fact should be instructive to architects and administrators of the Pax Americana--the would-be Macchiavellis or Metternichs or Disraelis of U.S. foreign policy.  Prepare the new guys properly at the start, or pick the ones that look like they won't go bad in the first place, and you won't kill as many people in the long run.  Then give them an expiration date, and stick to it.  Eight to ten years seems like a good tenure of office limit for just about anybody, or for that matter any party.  Unlike pickled vegetables or nitrate-laden cured meats, even the most seemingly benevolent of leaders will tend to go bad if he anticipates no end to his reign,  Many of them were shitheels when the local voters or the CIA or the Brits or whoever put them in office.  Still, most non-advanced Western countries don't have reliable term limits that their leaders are willing to abide by.  Even though we imperial nations have no trouble setting people on the thrones of our client governments, when it comes to taking them off we just don't have a plan.  I say that if you're going to behave like like the second and third worlds are part of your empire then for everyone's sake be imperial.  If you have the club then wield the fucker.  Don't put a guy in office in a country that has never had anything approaching a western-style democracy and expect the local voters to figure out how to take care of things.  Instead, tell him, "Okay, you've got four years to prove you're not a completely incompetent, heartless, brutal wingnut or religious fanatic, and to do something good for your people.  Then if we're satisfied you can have another four years.  After that, you're finished."  When his time is up take him out and put in another Pasha or Governor or Prefect, like the Ottomans and the Brits and the Romans might have done.  Look, the fact is we're in charge, or at least we think we are, right?  So let's act the part instead of pretending that miniature Americas are going to spring up if we plant a seed in the sand or the jungle and give it a little water.  Get it all out in the open and keep it that way.

Even in our own country we don't let anybody stay in the highest office too long.  At first the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, setting term limits for the President, appeared to be a Republican reaction to the unprecedentedly long reign of FDR.  And to some extent it was.  But in hindsight it was for our own good.  If Ronald Reagan had been allowed to run for a third term he probably would have been elected.  Christ knows what kind of weirdness that would have wrought as his Alzheimer's disease progressed.  Bill Clinton could have had a third term, too, and probably that would have proved to have been too much Clinton by half.  What we got in his place wasn't good, but it was different at least, the way cheese gets different and begins to smell a lot more funky even though it's still edible. Take the current president (please, as Henny Youngman would say).  Keep him in there for an additional four or eight years and he's liable to become indistinguishable from his immediate predecessor, particularly in matters of foreign policy.

There's something about long terms in office that runs fundamentally contrary to the underpinnings of our nation. George Washington sensed this, and set the precedent that was only broken once before the Eisenhower Amendment chiseled it in stone.  In Washington's case, part of his reluctance to run for a third term was that he knew he wouldn't be elected unanimously, as he had been the two previous times (though he would have been elected).  People were beginning to have the temerity to openly criticize him and to divide into political parties, and he took that as an insult.  As it turned out he died during what would have been his third term, mostly because he was, by the measure of his day, an old man of 67.  He'd survived smallpox, the wear and tear of years of war and rigorous travel, and (even by the accepted norms of his era) the consumption of prodigious amount of alcohol.  His demise came from an illness greatly exacerbated by excessive bloodletting, an accepted medical practice of the time.  Whether he would have lived through a third term God only knows, but his sense of timing was impeccable.  Always leave 'em wanting more.  Whatever his motives for abdicating, in the single act of declining a third term Washington set the country's course and created a good precedent, largely by dint of the great sentimental sway he held over the country.  Some other men might have clung to power by any means; George Washington was willing to have it only by acclamation.  And it has worked out pretty well for the country.

Now, contrary to the wishes of George Washington, we find ourselves the creators, inheritors, and overseers of an empire. We're not comfortable admitting it, but it's a fact.  Like most imperial powers, we have a double standard.  We treat ourselves better and with more tolerance than we treat our colonies.  That is the way of the world.  Many people think that's a terrible thing, but empires aren't all bad.  Like it or not that's who we are.  To the extent that we abandon that responsibility or shrink from it, there will be a directly proportional increase in chaos, brutality, and bloodshed in those countries we rule, covertly or openly.  We should have the courage of our convictions. Imposing American-style democracy through the barrel of a gun isn't working.  Let's stop pretending we're liberating people and just embrace our true nature and our real agenda, namely, to get countries to behave more or less the way we want them to, irrespective of their personal whims, religious or otherwise.

Students of history tend to focus on the decline and fall of empires rather than on their longevity.  Blame Edward Gibbon for that, I suppose.  But history has taught us that many empires tend to last a long time, in human terms.  The Babylonian and Assyrian empires lasted 300 years; the British Empire 400 years; the Ottoman Empire 600 years; the eastern part of the Roman Empire, 1400 years, the ancient Egyptian Empire for longer than that.  The list goes on.

Honesty is always the best policy.  Be the Great Satan.  Embrace it.  Abandon the farcical rhetoric about the growing pains of democracy.  We should accept what we well and truly believe--namely, that our system of government and those of the western parliamentary countries really are, at the moment, better than anything the rest of the flea-bitten world has to offer, which is why people from those places are streaming to our countries and not the other way around.  If we can't give democracy to other countries then let's just rule them outright.  Above all, we should quit pretending that any government dominated or run by passionate intolerance will ever be worth a shit, and go forth and conquer with smiles on our faces.  It'll all be over in a few hundred years anyway.  In the meantime, keep an eye on those expiration dates.  



Monday, August 5, 2013

Lola






August 5, 2013

Monrovia, California

It's been a couple of months without a posting, and that's too long.  Not that the world has been devoid of storms, famine, privation and carefully engineered spontaneous revolutions, or the local and national political and social scenes lacking in their usual mishmash of tempests in teapots, wrought to the uttermost by the hungry media.  No, there's been plenty of all that.  So this is just a kind of check-in posting, a place holder.

Let's take a few news items in no particular order.  The Supreme Court of the United States of America So Help Me God (in the words of my dear old law school contracts professor Cornelius Scanlon) handed down a pair of decisions affecting gay marriage.  Two substantially different decisions, turning on different niceties of law, but both sending ultimately the same message, namely, that gay marriage is here to stay. In one, the court said that the federal Defense of Marriage Act could not treat a legally-recognized gay marriage differently for purposes of federal benefits which would otherwise inure to a heterosexual married couple in that same state.  In the other, the court said that certain local parties not representing the government of the state of California itself did not have standing to challenge a federal district court's decision to strike down the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage on the grounds that it was federally unconstitutional.  That one might seem a bit puzzling, since, once the dust has settled, it amounts to a low-level California federal judge having decided that the state can't amend its own constitution to ban something that several other states have amended their constitutions to ban (namely gay marriage) because the ban violates the constitution of the United States, even though the Supreme Court hasn't yet said that bans on gay marriage violate the U.S. constitution.  Huh?

For my European (and maybe even American) readers these Supreme Court decisions may seem a bit arcane and unclear.  In most countries on earth I assume the national government decides such basic and sweeping issues as whether or not gay marriage should be legal.  People who view things here from outside the weird confines of the system under which we operate in the U.S. might find it puzzling that our country, which appears as a monolith from the point of view of its military and diplomatic presence elsewhere, is, when it comes to other basic things, really fifty separate countries, each with its own laws about marriage, capital punishment, driver's licenses, speed limits, taxation, and so on.  A few things, like national defense, immigration, interstate commerce, commerce with the Indian tribes, and bankruptcy, remain forever within the exclusive purview of the federal government, but much of the rest is up to the individual states.  (Then again, there is ample precedent outside the U.S. for local governments being at odds with stable national ones, as in some communist-run arrondissement of Paris, for example, but I imagine the scope of such local independence doesn't extend to things like marriage laws and whether or not someone may be subject to capital punishment).

Also on the gay rights front, it seems that the rights of bisexuals might be at risk, because of the fact that they're sometimes not taken seriously by either gay people or straight people.  How can one be both? everyone wonders.  It's like being a moderate Republican in this day and age--a virtual impossibility in most people's minds, and sure to win you no support from either party.  They're like Phillip Nolan, the Man Without a Country, condemned to drift forever upon the seas under no flag.

When it comes to gay marriage and capital punishment, it is accurate to say that the U.S. is essentially two different countries, blue and red.  The red country consists of pretty much all the states that had legal slavery before the Civil War, with a bunch of corn-growing and cowpoke-filled ones and Alaska thrown in for good measure.  The red states are hostile to gay marriage, abortion, minority rights, and pretty much everything else that is good and just, and also tend to prefer that people own lots of guns and are executed for murder.  The blue country more closely resembles what the United States would be like if it aspired to the social ideals of western Europe (minus any meaningful economic socialism, of course).  So there you go.

Elsewhere in the news, this guy Anthony Weiner is running for the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York City but doesn't seem to be able to help himself out of his own weaknesses of the flesh.  Plus he's preternaturally skinny and weird, with or without the fake moustache and his nom de plume Carlos Danger.  This latter item always makes me think of the Firesign Theater's detective "Nick Danger, Third Eye."  When is Weiner going to drop out of the race, one wonders?  But while many are focused on his behavior my concern about him is other than that.  What bothers me is that he mispronounces his own name WEEner rather than WINEr.  I mean, is he a descendant of wine merchants or of people (or perhaps sausages) from Vienna?

Also there's the guy who pleaded guilty to kidnapping those girls in Cleveland and enslaving them and ruining their lives, who was just sentenced to life plus 1,000 years in jail.  What a bunch of softies they are over in Ohio.  Hell, with time off for good behavior the guy will probably be out walking the streets in only 300 years.

And then of course there's this peripatetic fellow Snowden, the new Man Without a Country, looking for asylum here and there, apparently holed up in Russia for the time being.  For some reason every time I see his name I think of the allegedly bisexual photographer/playboy Antony Armstrong-Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon, who was, if I recall correctly, elevated to that peerage on account of being married to Queen Elizabeth's late sister Margaret.  I glance at the headlines and invariably think, "Is that old Brit still around, and what's he gotten himself into now?"

It's a mad mad world, no place for the timid, or for those without a sense of humor.  In the words of the Kinks, "Girls will be boys and boys will be girls, it's a mixed up muddled up shook up world, except for Lola.  L-O-L-A, Lola."

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Having Some Work Done





MonroviaCalifornia

May 30, 2013

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.  However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of someone or other of their daughters.”

Jane Austen began Pride and Prejudice with these words as they related to wealthy eligible bachelors among the English gentry during the first decades of the 19th century.  In the context of the story she is about to tell, it is both true and untrue, real and imagined, and most importantly, written from a viewpoint not universal at all, but rather from the perspective of comparatively few people, and most especially, not from that of either of the initial persons in question.  The single man referred to in the opening lines and the wife chosen for him by the world--Mr. Bingley and Jane Bennett--do not marry as planned, and only later are reunited in a rather roundabout way.  Another pair who immediately fit the bill—Mr. Darcy and the heroine Elizabeth Bennett—also marry, though no one expects them to except the reader.  Thus is the initial promise of the novel accomplished, just not in the way the writer would have you expect at first.   

When best wrought in literature, irony accomplishes exactly what Jane Austen’s opening sentences do.  It views the inevitability and essential uncontrolability of the voyage of life from the perspective of those who think they can somehow steer its outcome into a different port, as it were.  It cloaks the varied vagaries of human experience in the blandness of what is generally accepted, so that no matter what happens afterwards, the readers will be both satisfied and left scratching their heads in wonderment when the story unfolds pretty much exactly as it was foretold to do.  Oedipus, in attempting to escape his foretold fate—that he will kill his father and marry his mother—runs right into its arms, but not without a great deal of contrary effort on his part and unwitting cooperation from his parents.  Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, in trying to find a little happiness and respite from the tedious fate he has fallen into by staying in his little village in mediocrity and marrying his hypochondriac cousin, simply achieves a new more wretched version of the same, only with a different cousin.

These examples, and many more that could be recounted here, are literary tales designed to encourage us readers not only to accept our own fates, whatever they may be, but to understand that trying to alter the course of life is essentially an exercise in futility, and furthermore, that attempting to divine what that course might be is equally useless, and usually wrong, apart from the universal understanding that we will all die some day, and if we're fortunate, grow old first.  As such, from both the literary and theological perspectives, irony reinforces the certainty of predestination over the illusion of free will.

Some examples are more elaborate than others, but that’s pretty much the sum of it.  In the Book of Job, it plays out at a cosmic level, as God and Satan engage in a petty contest, the outcome of which we all know in advance.  God knows Job is obedient to his fate, but agrees to let poor Job be tormented in various ways in order to teach Satan who’s boss, as if there’s any doubt about that.  It’s a prime example of the fact that free will is not only an illusion, but an evil one at that.  Only the Devil would try to convince himself or anyone else that the Almighty doesn’t have it all figured out in advance, and that the outcome is anything but inevitable, and that, in effect, God isn't going to bet against himself.  Predestination trumps free will, because if we believe that God is omniscient, even what appears to be free will has been preordained.  Satan and his human victims are the all-time losers because they keep trying to change the outcome. Here, at least, Calvinism got it right over Roman Catholicism.   

Well, I could go on in this wise for pages, and would enjoy doing so.  But by now you might well be wondering what any of this has to do with the hideous examples of plastic surgery depicted above.  It’s the subject of irony that ties it in.  Increasingly throughout the country, and out here in southern California especially, people are prone to trying to alter their appearances for the better by various forms of facial reconstruction, often with disastrous results.  I’m not talking about fixing a cleft lip or grafting skin onto horrible disfigurements caused by burn injuries.  I’m talking about what we like to refer to as “having some work done.”  A generation or two ago this mostly meant the facelift, whereby the sagging folds of skin wrought by age and gravity are stretched and tucked and snipped, usually under or behind the ears where the scars won’t show, and sometimes rhinoplasty, where the nose is trimmed and sculpted to make it smaller, straighter, and more often than not, less interesting.  In the old days this was done with an eye toward conforming to an ideal of beauty in line with that of the northern European Gentile look, as opposed to the conspicuously Levantine look.  It was done to actors and actresses, especially, at the behest of the moguls of the movie industry, who, ironically, were almost all Jewish themselves, from Goldwyn, Mayer, and the Warner brothers of old to Eisner, Katzenberg, and Spielberg of today.

Today elective plastic surgery takes many more forms that it did in its infancy.  Botox injections in the lines of the face, cheek implants, collagen in the lips, breast enhancements, you name it.  But the one thing it all has in common is that it’s usually instantly recognizable, much as even good toupees are.  And though it is meant to enhance the beauty of its subjects it almost always makes them look ridiculous or pathetic and ruins what natural beauty their faces or bodies originally possessed.  Who can look at Cher, for example, without thinking that she’s become a version of the deformed child she mothered in the movie Mask?  Who can behold the mouths of actresses like Goldie Hawn or Nicole Kidman and think that anything other than a cruel joke has been played by whoever convinced them that making their lips look like a cartoon version of a fish has improved their looks?  Who can gaze at the frighteningly smooth and stretched faces of octogenarians like Barbara Walters and Joan Rivers and believe that placing an artificial doll's head upon a superannuated body does anything but mock the wisdom and self-possession that ought to have accompanied their fame as they have aged?

The list of the stretched and puffed and smoothed faces of the aging famous, living and dead, goes on and on.  Michael Jackson, Priscilla Presley, Wayne Newton, Tony Curtis, Mickey Rourke, Dolly Parton, Meg Ryan, Melanie Griffith, Bruce Jenner.  The blubbering lips, the tight slanted eyes, the absurdly round cheeks.  I’m not talking about the discreet tuck here and there, but rather the faces that, to paraphrase Marc Antony in Julius Caesar, make nature stand up and say to all the world, “This is a freak.”

Then there are the regular folks, just walking around at the supermarket, with conspicuously swollen lips and distorted faces.  The lips, especially, are a source of eternal puzzlement to me.  Who in the world ever came up with idea that making someone's lips look fat would enhance their beauty? Well, for those poor folks (not poor in money, just in perspective), it’s more often than not simply a desperate attempt to turn back the hands of time and also to effect at least a partial change in ethnicity in much the same way those with straight hair want to curl it and those with curly hair wish it to be straight.

For the famous, I’m convinced that the urge--the need--for facial plastic surgery stems from a combination of factors.  One, of course, is the complete loss of rational self-image that besets them, actresses especially.  Since their careers often have been founded on their original youthful good looks, when they see the natural effects of age upon their faces they begin to panic, and what follows more often than not is a trip to the plastic surgeon.  Somewhere along the way their images of themselves have merged with what they see of themselves on the screen, covered in beautifying cosmetics and illuminated by flattering lighting, and they become convinced they’ve always looked better than they really have, or that if only one little thing were tweaked, so to speak, they would be damned near perfect.  So plastic surgery, they reason, is like a more permanent version of makeup.  And since they spend most of their time looking at their peers, when they see so many others with blubber lips and Barbie doll noses and cheeks the size of apples, they begin to perceive, however wrongly, that such is the standard of beauty in their profession.  Only imagine, if the modern version of plastic surgery had been around fifty years ago, what a person as insecure as Marilyn Monroe might have wound up looking like. 

Another factor is the surgeons themselves who, as intelligent people, of course know that they’re not really doing anyone but themselves any favors with all this cutting and pasting and filling.  They are like Satan in the Garden of Eden, convincing humans that they can attain more for themselves than comfort followed by peaceful oblivion, and thus leading them to ruin their lives.  There is, after all, absolutely no medical necessity or justification for cosmetic surgery of this kind, and only an evil physician would or could engage in such a practice.

Third is the fact that plastic surgery has become a fad, and moreover, an addictive one.  Get big lips on a small face, and you need bigger cheeks to balance them out.  Get bigger cheeks and you need fewer wrinkles.  Change all that and you need a different nose.  Actors are not, by and large, highly intelligent people, although if they are good actors they can play intelligent people and sometimes fool us into thinking they are smarter than they really are.   But just watch them on talk shows and you can see that they’re usually pretty average in the IQ department.  The brightest and the wittiest of them usually don’t succumb to the blandishments of excessively conspicuous plastic surgery.  They are imitators, and imitating others is what they do best, which I think explains a great deal.  But also, actors tend to do what others tell them to do (which, after all, is what directors are for), and to envy what others have, and so if a competitor is getting work done, they reason, it must be something worth having, more or less for its own sake, like having a fancy home or car.

And finally, I am convinced, is what I call the sabotage factor.  Some actresses (being, as I said, not overly bright as a rule) let themselves be talked into having their faces distorted and ruined by others in their profession who stand to gain from their removal from their positions at the front and center of the spotlight of celebrity once they become bizarre caricatures of their former selves.  Or they’re encouraged by fellow actresses who have made the mistake themselves, and whose misery desires company.  In Hollywood, after all, there is comparatively little room at the top of the pyramid of beauty and fame.  And still less room for intelligence and independence.

“Vanity…” says Al Pacino with a chuckle at the end of The Devil's Advocate, “...definitely my favorite sin.” 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Our National Religion





May 10, 2013

Monrovia, California

One of the organizations I support is dedicated to upholding the separation of church and state in this country.  It sends me a monthly magazine detailing the trials and tribulations of fighting this good fight, including articles about the constant assaults upon this national principle by the Religious Right (evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants mostly, with a few conservative Roman Catholics thrown in), a principle most of the people who invented the United States considered essential to the ongoing viability of the country.

This watchdog group keeps track of an almost constant onslaught of clearly unconstitutional laws and practices that violate the separation of church and state which are still being enacted by states and municipalities, and occasionally by the federal government.  Sometimes it joins lawsuits through its small legal staff, as an amicus curiae.  It also celebrates some of the historically significant cases that have helped to reduce the incursion of religion into the workings of our public institutions, mostly schools, courts, and other taxpayer-funded programs.  Incorrigible counties still put the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns, ignorant cities still put manger scenes in municipal parks, misguided school districts still allow or encourage the recitation of prayers as part of their daily routines, and crazy states try to allow Christian symbols to be printed on license plates.  When lawsuits make it to federal court these practices are almost invariably struck down, but sometimes the money and the will to take the suits that far are lacking.  The organization I support is currently headed by an ordained Methodist minister who, I presume, has no bias against Christianity, but does believe in the freedom of all persons to express their faith, or not, as they see fit, without  encouragement or interference from the government.

Let’s pause here to look at what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they decided that church and state should be separate, and when they pronounced as much on a number of occasions, both within the Constitution—in the First Amendment, of course, and also by the deliberate omission of references to God and religion in the body of the Constitution itself—and in other of their writings.  The omission of any reference to a deity within the Constitution speaks for itself.  Now look at the opening phrase of the First Amendment —“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . .”  Many people take this as simply a guarantee of freedom of religion, which indeed it is.  But the political and cultural milieu from which the first Americans came—British subjects all—suggests that the real purpose behind the First Amendment’s “establishment” and “free exercise” clauses was not so much to protect religion as to protect the government from religion, and in particular from the power and tyranny of the clergy over everyone, especially non-Christians, dissenters, agnostics, and atheists.  Religion in the most basic sense of the word is simply a belief in and worship of a God or gods.  In the First Amendment the word did not come with any qualifying adjectives such as "organized" or "recognized" or "accepted."

There is an inherent contradiction in the idea of freedom of religion within a society.  It really amounts to a rejection of the primacy of religion itself in favor of the primacy of laws that everyone knows were invented by humans.  This idea was so at variance with the orthodoxy of the 18th century as to be novel and practically heretical.  A civil war had been fought in England a century earlier over religious nuances most of us today would consider piddling—Episcopalianism versus Presbyterianism versus Puritanism.  Naturally it had much to do with temporal power and comparatively little to do with God.  Each faction wanted its own version of Protestantism to be the established religion of the realm, although a few people believed that Englishmen should be free to worship as they pleased, as long as they remained Protestant.

Most western religions, at least, claim to have the definitive truth about the relationship of God to the arrangement of the cosmos.  If a religion possesses the only correct path to enlightenment and a right relationship with God, how can a society be governed by anything but that religion?  Nothing else would make sense, would it?  After all, God is greater than any little country.  This of course is the position taken by many Christians today, and is the reason they fight so hard against the First Amendment.

We all assume that what makes religion truly dangerous is not so much the daily bowing and scraping of its humble adherents as the declaration of the absolute truth of things by the leaders of a religion, whether they go by the title of Bishop, Ayatollah, Guru, or the Reverend Billy Jim Bob.  Any time anyone presumes to pronounce the truth about God or about how God wants you to live, you should grab your wallet and go hide somewhere.  And if that person has a position of power in a government, well, you’re in big trouble.  Imagine if the head of the Mormons or the Pope were on the payroll of the U.S. Congress, with a permanent seat in the Senate and the power to mandate and officially interpret the practice of Mormonism or Roman Catholicism throughout the land and to punish or at least disenfranchise those who didn’t practice those beliefs.  Imagine having the President of the United States as the official leader of the Mormons or the Catholics.  Absurd, you say?  Tell me how that differs fundamentally from having the Archbishop of Canterbury on the British government payroll, with a seat in the House of Lords, no less, and the Monarch as the official head of the Church of England.  And although the power of the Archbishop and the Queen he nominally serves are today all but gone (thanks in large part to the examples set by the United States, France, and the Netherlands), back in the 1770s that power was real, and it meant that religion was always going to stick its nose into the workings of the government, not in the sneaky roundabout ways American churches do now, but in an officially sanctioned manner.

I mentioned the fact that the leader of the watchdog group dedicated to maintaining the separation of church and state is an ordained Methodist minister because it bolsters an assumption under which I have operated for many years, namely, that only a religious “insider” can fully understand the power of religion to overreach itself and try to impose its tenets on all people in a society.  Coming from a strongly religious background myself I think I can appreciate this more than my friends who were brought up with comparatively little understanding of the detailed workings of religion, particularly in the context of Christianity.  (No one, on the other hand, has any problem seeing the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, but few Americans are capable of looking directly into the mirror such excesses hold up to our own theological prejudices.)

Among people who are well-meaning but essentially ignorant of the inherent power and built-in absolutism of much of organized religion are those who are not themselves devout.  They perhaps imagine that Jesus was a Great Teacher and that the religion named for him embodies its more benign ideals.  There are those also who, though not particularly churchy, think of the Bible as a great fount of wisdom, and that reading it from cover to cover might be an exercise that would make them more righteous, or at least more understanding of the thinking of Christians. They do not realize that the Bible, far from being a coherent theological text, is a crazy quilt of myth, legend, history, and pure fiction, which makes it more akin to the kind of badly-written science fiction and fantasy stories that make it onto the silver screen, only with much less continuity and many more absolute contradictions.  These folks think that by studying Christianity in some reasonably organized or scholarly way they can come to understand it. 

To be fully understood, religious belief must be inculcated pretty much from birth, and furthermore, you’re only allotted one serious religion per lifetime.  I will never understand the mindset of a devout Muslim no matter how hard I might endeavor to do so.  Trying to come at a religion and understand it after having been raised outside rarely if ever produces results.  It’s like trying to become blond haired and blue eyed after having been born with brown hair and brown eyes.  You might fool yourself, but you won’t fool anybody else, and you’ll look silly trying.  I therefore assert, somewhat immodestly, that only those of us who were born into the family of True Believers can ever lay claim to understanding the real dark side of such belief.

This latter opinion is supported, I think, by examining the U.S. presidents who have done the most damage to the separation of church and state.  Some of our presidents have been devoutly religious men.  Jimmy Carter comes immediately to mind.  There was also my man John Quincy Adams.  James Garfield had been a minister before he became president.  These men did not mess with the separation of church and state, probably because they respected the full power of religion and knew its potential for tyranny.

Instead, for the most part it was the presidents who had always taken their religion with a grain of salt who thoughtlessly eroded the separation of church and state.  The first one was numero uno, George Washington himself, a nominal but basically unreligious Anglican with strongly Deist and Unitarian leanings (meaning that he didn’t really believe in the divinity of Jesus and the other supernatural claptrap of his birth religion).  This man, doubtless with the best of intentions but completely heedless of the clear proscription within the Constitution he was swearing to uphold (he was no intellectual philosopher or social architect, like some of his contemporaries), took the very first oath of office with his hand on the Bible, and added, gratuitously, the words “So help me God” at the end, though they did not appear in the prescribed oath.  After that, every president has felt the need to follow suit, lest he break from tradition and look like a heathen and lose votes in the next election or weaken his party.

Another erring president was none other than the revered and beloved Abraham Lincoln, raised by a Bible-thumping Baptist mother but never fond of organized religion and profoundly skeptical of Christian orthodoxy from an early age.  It was he who signed the law that ordered the words “In God We Trust” to be added to our coinage.   (One of his successors, Theodore Roosevelt, tried to have the phrase removed on the grounds that it was sacrilegious to put the word “God” on money, which was honest, at least.)  Lincoln, even though he was never a regular church-goer, got more sappy and sloppy in his references to God as he trudged along through his presidency, thus ignoring “the better angels of his nature,” to borrow one of his own phrases.  Maybe it was the terrible ravages of war, maybe it was the loss of his young son, but whatever it was it made him increasingly weak-minded when it came to the separation of God from government.

A rolling stone may not gather moss, but it does gather momentum, and into the 20th century the use of the phrase “In God We Trust” became increasingly more prevalent, making it onto paper money and eventually becoming the official motto of the United States.  It also happens to appear in the rarely-sung fourth verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which was approved for use under Woodrow Wilson and became the official national anthem in 1931, under Herbert Hoover.

The third revered president to do significant damage to the separation of church and state was Franklin Roosevelt, an Episcopalian (and more devoutly, an Anglophile) who spent most Sunday mornings at home than at church.  He was the first to employ clergymen to recite prayers at the beginning and end of his presidential inauguration, in 1933.  That has become standard practice ever since, turning what ought to be the greatest national celebration of the rule of secular constitutional law into what amounts to a church service—invocation, liturgy, sermon, benediction.  Though giving lip service to worldwide freedom of religion (probably as a wartime tactic) FDR also declared on a number of occasions that he believed the U.S. to be a Christian, and also essentially Protestant, nation.  True, we were opposing the combined forces of non-Christian enemies in battle at the time, but still, that left little room for much sympathy or hospitality on his part toward the millions of Jews who were being systematically slaughtered under Fascism. 

Under Dwight Eisenhower, another guy who rejected the faith of his mother early on, Congress mandated, and old Ike signed into law, the insertion of the words “under God” into the pledge of allegiance to the flag.  That was done largely at the behest of the Knights of Columbus, but was embraced by the Protestants in the legislature too.  The thinking was that no atheistic Commie could swear an oath of allegiance to the American flag if those words were in there—it would be like asking a vampire to munch on garlic.  Score one for the religious wackos.

And so it went.  In 1973, Richard Nixon, a very severely lapsed Quaker and pretty much irreligious, became the first president to end a major speech to the nation with the words “God bless America,” surely an exercise in cynicism unparalleled in presidential politics, since it was a speech in which he was sidestepping his responsibility in the Watergate scandal.  His successors Ford and Carter (both believers in the Constitution, apparently), declined to use this benediction, but it was picked up again by Ronald Reagan, another guy who gave only lip service to organized religion, and who practically never attended church services.  After that the die was decisively cast, and all his successors have made profligate use of the term “God bless America” after virtually every speech they’ve made.  By the time of our current Chief Executive, Barack Obama (another real dilettante when it comes to organized religion), the phrase had morphed into the more elaborate “God bless the United States of America,” and his inaugurations had become prayer-fests and clerical free-for-alls. 

Small wonder, then, that in spite of the Constitution, the Religious Right is utterly convinced that this has always been a religious country and that there’s no such thing as the separation of church and state, notwithstanding the First Amendment and the crystal clear pronouncements of Madison, Jefferson, and others on the subject.

One conclusion that could be drawn from the sad history of the almost immediate erosion of the separation of church and state in this country is that the leaders we have to fear most are not those whose personal religious beliefs are the strongest and deepest.  Nor should we be that concerned about the shills for the lunatic fringe of the Religious Right—fundamentalist legislators from Southern states and Arch-Catholic members of Opus Dei on the Supreme Court, for instance—those who wear their religion on their sleeves and have an open agenda.  We should instead fear superficially less religious presidents like Lincoln, Nixon, Reagan, and Barack Obama, who think they are doing the nation no harm by invoking the blessings of a nonsectarian deity while completely ignoring the rights of nonbelievers and pandering to the truly religious.  They arrogantly assume that all Americans who really matter believe in God, and not only that, but in a God who watches over and is involved in shaping the future of the country, who blesses us and in whom we should trust.  This is not the separation of church and state at all but a sort of national religion, less formal than Anglicanism, but a religion nonetheless.  Moreover it assumes ideas that are inherent to orthodox Christianity and a number of other religions, even if it does so in a general way, while sweeping aside the rights and beliefs of atheists, humanists, agnostics, and those who profess any number of other “isms” that either do not acknowledge the existence of God or do not think that God actively favors this country or its far-flung ambitions.

In the interest of political expediency, or in selfish moments of personal sentimentality or insecurity, they have weakened one of the pillars on which our government rests.