Saturday, December 26, 2015

My Christmas Wish

If any day of the year is appropriate for making wishes, it has to be Christmas.  While the year has been pretty good for me, there is still an unmet wish:  I long for politicians who simply do not exist: guiltless innocents who would be as incorruptible as the family dog.  With all the reality television shows currently masquerading as debates, this wish has become an obsession.

Frequently, I discuss this with Professor Grumbles (my dear friend, the German professor, whose formative economic training suffers from a surplus of Frank Capra movies).  He steadfastly believes that all business owners are Mr. Potter--without a single George Bailey to keep them in check.  Obviously, he has watched It's a Wonderful Life and believed it to be a documentary.

I, on the other hand, am just as guilty as he:   In my case, the Capra movie is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a movie about a common, honest man who becomes a United States Senator.   I love the movie, and measure every politician against Jefferson Smith--a practice that, in our current political climate, is rather like using a yardstick to measure fleas.

This is not a documentary about the workings of Congress, but a very simple movie about an ordinary American.  The senator's home state is never mentioned and there is no mention of the Great Depression, Hitler's Europe, or even the Democrat or Republican Parties.  This is not a movie about politics, but a movie about an everyday man who stands up for right; it is a story about a man who is a hero in the face of overwhelming pressure.  (There are a few hints available to us, however:  The original title of the unpublished story was "The Gentleman from Montana" and the movie makes it clear that the junior senator is a member of the minority party, which in 1939 would have been the Republican Party, which was the party of both Capra and Stewart.)

As in every good Capra movie, there is a simple visual clue that will aid you in understanding the movie.  Simply look at how tall Mr. Smith is in any given frame.  Played by Jimmy Stewart, when Jefferson Smith is an "ordinary man", somehow Stewart's 6'3" frame is folded into a small chair or he is seen at an angle that shows him to be shorter than his costars, despite his actually being almost a foot taller than most of them.  This is Mr. Smith as the innocent common man.

But, when Jefferson Smith rises to meet his challenges, he quite literally stands tall.  No longer a clumsy, awkward child who has landed amidst troubles he cannot challenge, Mr. Smith towers over corrupt politicians.  I tear up every time I watch the movie. 

Strangely, this now-classic and beloved movie did not have a promising start.  When produced, the film was hated in Hollywood and some even thought that Frank Capra was pushing a pro-communist movie.  The premier was held in Washington, with almost half the senate in attendance, and Capra recorded in his autobiography that the audience booed and jeered...and over a thousand people left the theater before the movie was over.  Even the senator who had been invited to share Capra’s box was angry.

The Washington Press Corps, who had invited Capra to premiere the movie in the capitol, despised the movie.  Facing a new rival in influencing the public, journalism feared what Capra termed “film power”.  The director was cornered in a booth at the Washington Press Club by an angry newspaper editor who, clutching a martini loudly proclaimed: “There isn’t one Washington correspondent in this room that drinks on duty, or off duty!”

The Senate Majority Leader, Alben W. Barkley called the film "silly and stupid", and claimed it "makes the Senate look like a bunch of crooks."  Congress, angry that the movie portrayed them as a collection of fools, struck back at Hollywood by passing bills that eventually led to the breakup of the studio-owned theater chains. 

Joe Kennedy, our ambassador to England—and the father of a future president—wrote both the studio and Capra that the movie would damage American prestige in Europe during the early days of World War II.   He called the film “one of the most disgraceful things I have ever seen done to our country.”

Senator James Byrnes called the picture “outrageous…exactly the kind of picture that dictators of totalitarian governments would like to have their subjects believe exists in democracy….”

Actually, just the opposite was true.  Franco banned the movie in Spain, Hitler prohibited it in Germany, and Mussolini banned it in Italy.  It is understandable when virulently anti-communist fascist regimes ban a supposedly pro-communist movie, but this doesn't explain why Stalin banned the movie in the Soviet Union.

Despite the opposition, the movie was shown.  Some countries changed the dialog when they dubbed the movie into the local language so that the movie's message could be altered to conform to the local official ideology.  And when occupied France was given one month to stop showing American movie by the Nazis, many theaters picked Mr. Smith as the last Hollywood movie to show before the ban took effect.  One theater in Paris showed the movie every day for 30 days. 

It did not take long for the movie's detractors to change their mind.  The movie was nominated for 11 Academy Awards.  (The film only won one of the awards—for best story—but 1939 was an exceptional year for movies.  Among the competition were The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Fantasia, and Stagecoach.).  In 1989, the Library of Congress added the movie to the United States National Film Registry, for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

When it comes to politics, the movie has ruined me.  Capra sucked me in, and even today, I believe in the difference that one man can make.  I believe in those ideals, if for no other reason that those ideals are the things worth believing in.  And it makes it damn hard to watch what we call politics today.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

No Trigger Warning Required

Dateline Cairo. After a public cabinet meeting today, the Egyptian Minister of Public Works, Mahmud Nomeh, announced that work would begin to dismantle the Great Pyramid of Giza, the long-standing symbol of slavery and oppression.

The pyramid, which was built some 4,500 years ago and stands just outside the city of Cairo, has been a target of demonstrations by thousands of unemployed archaeology students. Demonstrators have been demanding changes since the overthrow of the Mubarak government in 2011.  While the Mubarak government supported the Antiquities Department (and the tourist dollars it generated), under the present regime, tourism has all but stopped in the desert nation.

"The time surely comes when Justice must and will be heard," Director Nomeh told the press as he announced the monuments removal. "People of Egypt, that day is today. The Pharaohs, you see, were on the wrong side of history and humanity."

The decision did not come lightly:  it followed months of public shouting matches, penned op-eds and rhetorical firefights on social media that enveloped Nomeh’s request in June that the pyramid be discarded as a vestige of Cairo’s racist past.  Nomeh, who is widely believed to have future political plans, has been the most vocal in leading a movement to clean up the country’s troubled history.

"We, the people of Cairo, have the power and we have the right to correct these historical wrongs," Nomeh said following the meeting.  “The people of today’s Egypt have a right to a living history, to an organic history that evolves to meet the needs of a present generation--one that is not fixed in stone and that is not an insult to the daily lives of every working Egyptian today.”

The demolition of the pyramid is expected to take 23 years, with completion scheduled for the fall of 2039.  “We plan,” explained Nomeh, “to do the work in stages.  Each year, during the time the agricultural season is over, we will employ as many as 30,000 people to work in dismantling this affront to the people of Egypt.”

Egypt is suffering from a chronic unemployment problem.  While the overall unemployment hovers around 13% per year, for the youth of Egypt (those workers under the age of 29), unemployment is 26%, with over half of the nation’s youth living below the poverty line.  This seasonal employment, of roughly six months a year, would coincide with the time it is most difficult for unemployed workers to find new jobs.

If successful, this program of deconstruction could solve the chronic unemployment problem.  Nomeh explained, “In total, there are over 100 pyramids in this country, each a symbol of oppression and racism.  Each of these is an affront to the sensibilities of people descended from those slaves.”

In all, over 6,000,000 tons of stones would have to be moved from the thirteen acre site to an abandoned quarry at Tura, located just outside the present-day city of Cairo.  It has been estimated that slightly more than 2.3 million blocks would have to be shifted.  Due to a shortage of heavy machinery, much of the work will have to be done by hand.

The decision to demolish the Great Pyramid of Giza has been met with some opposition.   It was an emotional meeting, often interrupted by heckling, and infused with references to slavery, lynching, and racism, as well as with the pleas of those who opposed removing the pyramid to not "rewrite history."

Nomeh summed up the tug-of-war that has spanned the last few months of debate, saying that most of the opposition seemed to believe that now was not the right time to be debating monuments.

"We can argue that the timing was not good, but when would it ever be?  Let us do it now for our children, and our children's children," he said.

Leading a vocal minority that called for retaining the last surviving monument from the original Seven Wonders of the World, the former Director of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, proclaimed, “The people who built the pyramids were not slaves, they were paid wages for their work.”

This claim was dismissed by those who said, “While the workers might have been paid wages, the pay was insufficient and cooperation was forced, effectively making them wage slaves.”

Nomeh called the vote a symbolic severing of an "umbilical cord" tying the city to the offensive “legacy of the Pharaohs and the era blasphemy to Allah.”

Note.  None of this is true, of course.  (Well, almost none of it, anyway). Few of the statements in quotes above are actually my own writing--most of them were lifted verbatim from press reports discussing the planned removal of Confederate statues from New Orleans, and a few nouns were changed.  For example, statue became "pyramid", God became "Allah", and Louisiana became "Egypt".   The photo of the meeting shows Mayor Landrieu (who has announced plans to run for the Senate), following the meeting that voted to spend millions of dollars to remove statues from a city that has not yet repaired all the schools damaged by Hurricane Katrina.  Most of the facts concerning the pyramid are true, but Mahmud Hemon (Nomeh) was the architect who built the pyramid, not tore it down.
Horrifyingly, the passage about a 'living, organic history' that evolves to fit the needs of present day people was taken verbatim from a televised press conference.   If this sounds reasonable to you, consider driving across Los Angeles during the rush hour while traffic laws evolve to fit the needs of the drivers who honk their horns the loudest.
Sadly, the statistics for unemployment in Egypt are factual, and by a rather strange coincidence, are also fairly accurate for Black men in New Orleans.  Perhaps that should be Mayor Landrieu’s first priority.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The American Princess

Some people have an absurdly improbably life, and Agnes was certainly one of those.  In her lifetime, she was internationally famous, but today, surprisingly few even remember her.  The exact details of her life are almost impossible to discover, as she seems to have helped spread some of the countless rumors that surrounded her during her lifetime.  And despite autobiographies from both Agnes and her husband still existing, there remain more questions than answers about her life.

Despite many photos, there is even confusion about her actual appearance.  Seemingly reliable reports list her as both short and tall, and her hair was either black, red, blond, or prematurely white.  (From the photographs, I think we can eliminate the prematurely white.)

Though she—and her husband—were born on Christmas Day, the exact year is a little uncertain.  In her autobiography, she claimed that it was 1846, but it’s possible that she was born as early as 1840.

Nor do we know much about her early years.  In Europe, it was widely reported that she was of “Indian descent” while in America, she was thought to have been fathered by a European ambassador visiting America.  She always denied the rumors that she had once worked in a circus as a bareback rider and tightrope walker, or that she had been a stage actress in Havana, but certain passages in her autobiography confirm those stories.  It is certain that she lived in Havana for a few years before returning to the United States, but we may never know what she did there.
By the start of the American Civil War, the details of her life begin to come into focus.  Agnes Elizabeth Winona Leclercq Joy moved to Washington, DC in 1861.  In the early days of the Civil War, the capitol was an exciting place to be, and Agnes was one of thousands of people who flocked to excitement of a city embroiled in war.  Several young society ladies amused themselves in the endless parties and balls held by the torrent of Army officers gathering before actual battle commenced.

One of these officers, Colonel Felix Constantin Alexander Johann Nepomuk, the Prince of Salm-Salm, was immediately attracted to the short, tall, redheaded, blonde who could sit a horse amazingly well.  The Habsburg prince was the younger brother of the reigning Prince of Salm-Salm, a small principality along the Rhine.  Since Felix was not going to inherit either the throne or the family fortune, he spent his entire life fighting in various wars.  Though only 33 years old, he had already fought in two wars in both the Austrian and Prussian Armies.
Although Agnes and Felix did not yet have a common language between them, they fell in love and were quickly married.  As Agnes later wrote, “We did most of our communicating with our eyes, a language we both spoke fluently.” 

The newly minted Prinzessin zu Salm-Salm insisted on following her husband to the front, where, despite not having any medical training, she was quite active in caring for the injured soldiers.  And since the medical wing of the Army was chronically short of supplies, the princess remedied this problem by simply stealing from the supply trains of the officers.  Evidently, you can get away with this if you are a lovely princess and the wife of a colonel.

Well....almost get away with it.  At one point, the controversy about stolen supplies became something of a scandal that reached the White House.  President Lincoln personally mediated the solution, and in the process, pinned captain's bars onto the gown of the princess.  The legality of this promotion is a little murky, but very few people argue with either a princess or a president.

One person who could argue with President Lincoln, however, was Mary Todd Lincoln.  When the press reported that the “Captain” had kissed the President on both cheeks and the lips, several Washington sources reported loud public arguments within the White House about the incident.  In her autobiography, the princess reports that the incident was true, and she had kissed the somewhat surprised president in order to win a bet with the wives of other officers.

When the war was over, the newly breveted General Salm-Salm and his wife volunteered their services to Emperor Maximilian in Mexico.  Not only was the Emperor a distant cousin, but there was a fresh war between the troops of ousted Mexican President Juarez and the French backed army of Maximillian.  And Maximillian was interested in attracting former Union officers from America—he already had a lot of former Confederate officers seeking employment--hoping that their presence might dissuade the United States from offering support to President Juarez.

Napoleon III had invaded Mexico during the American Civil War and had installed the Habsburg prince and younger brother of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, as a puppet emperor despite this being a violation of the American Monroe Doctrine which stated that European powers could no longer seek new territorial gains in the New World.  This act was a clear violation of the doctrine, but in America, Americans were a little too busy killing other Americans to do much about it.  But by the fall of 1865, the Civil War was over, and the United States moved 50,000 troops to the Mexican border as a reminder to Napoleon that it was time to pull his troops—and Maximillian—out of Mexico.

The French troops did leave and Maximillian almost went with them, but Maximillian’s mother was the Princess Sophie of Bavaria.  She wrote her beloved son, telling him to remember that he was a Habsburg and that 'Habsburgs never run'.  This was the same thing her grandson Archduke Franz Ferdinand said when advised not to venture out in an open automobile in Sarajevo one day in 1914.  Since his assassination touched off World War I, one is forced to conclude that Princess Sophie was correct—Habsburgs may not run, but they are frequently carried.  (There is a persistent rumor that Sophie had actually fathered Maximillian with her close personal friend Napoleon II--if this is true, then Max certainly did not inherit any of his grandfather’s military skills.  It would also mean that it was Napoleon IV who sent Napoleon III to Mexico, but that would require a hell of a lot of history books to be rewritten.)
The Prince rose through the ranks of the Imperial Mexican Army rapidly, so that by the time he was captured along with Emperor Maximillian, he was a Colonel in command of cavalry troops.  Imprisoned in a convent, the Princess worked tirelessly to get the lives of the Emperor and her husband spared.  She sent telegrams around the world, garnering international support for clemency for Maximillian.  She also personally met with Mexican generals, ambassadors, and, eventually, with President Juarez himself. 

Pleading for the emperor’s life on her knees, the answer from Juarez left no doubt.  “I’m sorry Madame to see you on your knees before me; but even if all the queens and kings of Europe were in your place, I still wouldn’t be able to save his life. I’m not the one who takes it, it’s the people that rule his life and mine.”   A painting of this scene by Manuel Ocaranza is still popular in Mexico.
Since a pardon was impossible, the American Princess began planning an escape.  If enough money could be raised, the officers of the Mexican Army—many of which were deserters from the French Army—could be bribed.  The Emperor and her husband could potentially flee to Veracruz, which was still in the hands of the Emperor’s army.  The Elizabeth, an Austrian warship, could return them to Europe…but all these plans quickly fell apart when Emperor Maximillian simply would not cooperate.  Habsburg to the end, when he was finally ready to escape, he demanded that a proper royal retinue accompany him.  In all, he thought that an escape party could be no fewer than six people...And the escapees would have to be provisioned with wine, chocolate, swords, riding whips, and suitable horses.  Perhaps the strangest requirement of all was that he refused to cut off his distinctive blond beard, lest that anyone should discover that the emperor had a weak chin.

Some historians have suggested that the famous insanity of Carlota, Maximillian’s mad wife, was a symptom of tertiary syphilis, a disease she caught from her husband.  It is quite possible that Max, too, was beginning to go a little mad.
Maximillian was executed by firing squad June 19, 1867.  Before he died, he bestowed upon the princess the title Lady of Honour of the San Carlos Order and promoted the prince to the rank of general and bestowed the title of the Order of the Guadalup.  Since these royal titles were only significant in the royal court of Emperor Maximillian and President Juarez was executing all the Imperial officers with the rank of general, these were dubious honors.  Still, it’s the thought that counts, right?

While the Princess was unsuccessful at arranging the sparing of Max's life, she was able to get President Juarez to commute the Prince's death sentence to life imprisonment, then to allow an early release in exchange for a vow never to return to Mexico.
The Prince and Princess returned to Europe where their efforts on behalf of Maximillian made them the darlings of the Austrian Court.  And--luckily for the Prince--the Franco-Prussian War was just starting and he was quickly made a Major in the Prussian army, serving with the grenadier guards.  The Princess, once again, accompanied her husband to the front where she served with the medical staff.  For her efforts, she was awarded the Cross of Merit for Women and Girls.  (She was denied the Iron Cross as the award had never been given to a woman.)

In August, 1870, the Prince was killed during the Battle of Gravelotte while leading his men into battle.  Though shot in the right shoulder, he transferred his sword to his left hand and continued to lead his men until shot twice more.  While it is probably impossible to count all the battles he had participated in, this was his fifth war.

Widowed at the age of only 25, the Prinzessin zu Salm-Salm retained her title the rest of her life.  Working tirelessly to raise money for military hospitals, the organization she worked with eventually became known as the Red Cross.

Born an American, she traveled the world, earned the rank of Captain in the American Army, participated in three wars, and knew the crowned heads of state across Europe (and in Mexico).  She was an American-born royal princess almost a century before Grace Kelly (and led a much more adventuresome life than that famous princess), yet almost no one has heard of her.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Billion Dollar Doodle

He was something of a wanderer and a dreamer—a romantic who was better suited as a student than as the engineer his family hoped he would be.  Sickly and weak most of his life, he was nevertheless an adventurous soul who could never be still for long.

While his father wanted him to study engineering, he wanted to study theater, literaturealmost anything except engineering.  Finally, in something of a plea bargain, he settled on law.  When he was admitted to the bar, his father was happy, but he never actually began a legal career, instead beginning a lifelong habit of traveling the world.

It was during a trip through Europe that our dreamer first started to write a series of stories for a London magazine.  Before long, he had published an impressive number of travel articles.

It was while traveling through Belgium and France by canoe, that he met an American woman and despite her being more than ten years his senior and married with two small children—they quickly fell in love.  Fanny promised to return to California and obtain a divorce from her philandering husband (from whom she was already separated) so the two could be could be married.

While Fannie returned to America, our dreamer visited Unst Island, part of the Shetland Islands northeast of Scotland.  There he visited Muckle Flugga (No, I’m making this shit up—this is a true story—give or take a lie or two.) where his father and uncle were building the lighthouse that still stands there.  (Actually, building lighthouses was the family business: they were engineering pharologists.  The term comes from the Lighthouse of Pharo, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World.)

When he received word that Fanny had indeed obtained a divorce, he took passage to New York and after an extensive train journey, joined his fiancée in San Fernando, California.  The two were quickly married, but within a short time his health collapsed due to consumption (tuberculosis).

Strangely, his imagination seemed to soar when he was ill, and for the rest of his life, his best works would be done while he was ill.

One night, his twelve-year-old stepson drew a rough map of an island, no doubt inspired by the stories his stepfather had related about Unst Island.  The imaginary island even looked a little like Unst Island if you shut your good eye and squinted at it while drinking rum.  (It also helps if there is a parrot on your shoulder.)

The boy loved the game as his stepfather began inking onto the map exotic place names and imaginative features and before long, he was demanding stories to go along with the map.  Since this was just a game, the stepfather “borrowed” details from both fiction and history, mixed well with double doses of fun and fantasy.

Before long, the map had evolved into an imaginative tale of pirates and buried treasure—and for the first time ever, the pirates had left behind a treasure map on which `X` marked the spot where the chest full of pieces of eight were buried.  (There is no record of any pirate's ever doing anything remotely like this in real life.  Ask yourself, if you had buried a fortune in gold and silver, would you really need a map to find it again?)

His son liked the stories so much that he decided to write them down.  Writing as much as a chapter a night, the stories began appearing in a weekly magazine for children, “Young Folks.”  Titled “The Sea Cook: Treasure Island or the Mutiny of the Hispaniola”, the stories were all but ignored, perhaps for the simple reason that no child in history has ever referred to himself as a “young folk.”  (I strongly suspect that the magazine had a paid subscription list close to zero).

The next year, 1883, Robert Louis Stevenson republished the stories in a book, with a simplified title, Treasure Island.  Since then, the book has never been out of print, has become one of the most widely translated books in literary history, and has been made into more than fifty movies or television shows.  And, of course, the book has spawned an entire industry of imitators and spinoffs from Captain Jack Sparrow to Peter Pan’s Captain Hook.   (In one of the Peter Pan books the author, J. M. Barrie, states that the only man who ever frightened Long John Silver was Captain Hook.)

Sadly, when Stevenson began turning the individual stories into a book, he discovered that the original multi-color drawing of the island—the doodle that had created a billion dollar industry—had vanished.  The map that appears in the book is a recreation and if the original, now quite literally a treasure map, could be located, it would be worth a pirate’s treasure.