Saturday, June 28, 2008

On this date in 1914

The one small act that was responsible for the 20th century -- all of it. This assassination leads to WWI. Which leads to the collapse of the old continental empires in the heart of Europe, and the emergence of Bolshevism in Russia. From the ruins of WWI emerged a young demagogue named Adolph Hitler, and from his "war of revenge" (revenge for Germany's humiliating loss in WWI) begun in 1939, come all of the power structures, collapse of remaining empires, and postcolonial wars and horror in much of the third world. So it's all there -- all of it -- unleashed by Princip's bullets.

From the Writer's Almanac:

It was on this day in 1914 that the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were shot and killed by a Bosnian revolutionary, an event that led to the start of World War I.

Ferdinand was the heir to the throne of the Hapsburg Empire, and Bosnia was one of the empire's most rebellious provinces. Many ethnic Serbians wanted to free Bosnia from Hapsburg rule and unite their country with neighboring Serbia.

Early in the morning, on this day in 1914, Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, boarded a touring car that would carry them to Sarajevo's city hall. What they didn't know was that six Bosnian Serbs, members of an organization called the Black Hand, were planning an assassination attempt.

Ferdinand's car wasn't even half way to city hall when one of the assassins threw a grenade. The chauffeur sped up, and the bomb bounced off the side of the car, wounding 20 people in the cars behind. Ferdinand made it to City Hall unscathed, and he was greeted there as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. The mayor began making a welcome speech, and Ferdinand interrupted him, pointing out that he'd just nearly been killed.

Instead of offering to protect the archduke with an army escort, the general in charge of security suggested they return to the train station along the straightest, widest road in the city, so that they could travel rapidly. Unfortunately, no one told the chauffeur about the change in plans. So Ferdinand and his wife got back into the car, and the chauffeur proceeded down the route that had been published in the paper that morning. Once he realized his mistake, the chauffer stopped and tried to back out of a narrow street.

The chauffeur just happened to have stopped the car a few feet away from one of the assassins, a 19-year-old named Gavrilo Princip, with a .38 Browning pistol in his pocket. Standing just a few feet away from the royal car, he fired only two shots, but that was enough to kill both the Austrian archduke and his wife.

One month after the assassination, Austria used the event as an excuse to declare war on Serbia, even though the nation of Serbia had nothing to do with the Bosnian Serbs who had carried out the assassination. Germany chose to back Austria in its attack. Russia declared that it would defend Serbia from the assault. By August, France had entered the war against Germany. And when Germany invaded Belgium, Great Britain got involved as well, having pledged to defend Belgium from any invaders.

That series of alliances led to the largest war ever conducted in history at that point — all set in motion by a single assassin.

Coincidentally, it was also on this day in 1919 that the Treaty of Versailles was signed, officially ending World War I.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Quote of the Week

The ability to deal with the truth without having it wrapped in sweetness like some sort of metaphysical bon-bon is one of the few remaining tests of the quality of a person's character.

Crusty (with a tip o' the hat to F. Nietzsche)

Monday, June 23, 2008

A special quote, in remembrance ...

"Did you ever notice that you never seem to get laid on Thanksgiving? Maybe that's because all the coats are on the bed ..."

George Carlin

Happy Litha

Go outside tonight and engage in some neighborhood-appropriate celebration of the Summer Solstice. As long as whatever you're going to do doesn't scare family pets or small children, you're good to go. On second thought, to hell with the small children, I'm tired of having to curtail my revelries for fear of traumatizing the delicate widdle feelings of that army of annoying, malodorous little sprogs.

But I digress.


Sunday, June 22, 2008

Quote of the Week

"After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account."

General Antonio Taguba, chief Army investigator of the crimes at Abu Ghraib

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Happy Birthday, Sartre

We visited Sartre's grave in the Montparnasse cemetery when we visited Paris in 2005. I wanted to be certain that the old bastard was still safely dead. My suspicion that he might have risen from the dead to walk among us again was aroused by the fact that, as we wandered the streets of Paris, we saw his little petit-bureaucrat mug on magazines and newspapers everywhere. It wasn't until I got back to the US that I discovered the reason was that it was the centennial of Sartre's birth. I was happy to learn that, upon her death, Simone de Beauvoir was interred in the same grave. Rumor has it that she was buried on top of Sartre. I don't know if this is true or not, but considering how much he screwed around on Beauvoir during their life together, you kind of want it to be true that she gets to spend eternity on top of the old bastard. Am I right?

From the Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of Jean-Paul Sartre born in Paris, France (1905). His father died when he was 15 months old. When he was eight, he started writing plays, which he performed with hand puppets in the bathroom. In college, he fell in love with philosophy and literature. He kept a portrait of James Joyce on his dorm room wall. He met Simone de Beauvoir there, who became the love of his life. They promised never to tell each other lies, and also agreed that if they wanted they could take other lovers.

Sartre became a teacher. At a time when the European teaching style was lecturing from a distance, he drank with his students at local bars, played cards and ping-pong with them, and joined them for picnics on the beach. In his spare time he began to write a novel called Nausea (1938). The book was his first major success, and it made him famous. People called him the French Kafka. He went on to write Being and Nothingness (1943), about the meaning of freedom. He wrote, "Hell is other people." And, "If you are lonely when you're alone, you are in bad company."

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Why I Am A "Liberal"

Some days, I really long for the rich variety of political parties and positions available in Europe. You can identify yourself as a Communist or a far-right neo-fascist, or any one of a number of positions in between. Here in America, you’re basically handed three stances to choose from: conservative, liberal, or libertarian. They are simplistic, blunt-object categories, but they’re what we have to work with. Given these limitations, I would identify myself as a liberal. Why?
  1. I believe we have a moral obligation to help the least among us, rather than practice the Social Darwinism of the conservatives.
  1. I believe we have a moral obligation to stand in solidarity with all our fellow citizens to ensure that all of us enjoy the same level of civil and human rights, rather than the "I got mine, fuck you" attitude of the conservatives.
  1. I believe we have a moral obligation to demand that our government be "activist" in the best sense -- building alternative infrastructures (anyone who's ever traveled on Europe's public-transportation system knows what I'm talking about), improving the lives of the poor, providing top-shelf education and medical care to all citizens, supporting the arts -- rather than the attitude that government should be "drowned in a bathtub," except of course when the opportunity comes along to increase control of the population or blow some shit up somewhere in the world, which is the attitude of the conservatives.

Plus my paternal grandparents were IRA, and after my paternal grandfather died too young, my paternal grandmother became a union organizer and card-carrying Communist. They say that sort of thing skips a generation, so I figure it must've leaped clear over my Dad and landed square on my shoulders. :-)

I Knew This Guy Once

I knew this guy once, named Joe. Raconteur, man about town, serial philanderer, the kind of smooth talker who could gamble away his entire paycheck in one evening of playing craps with his buddies in the back room of John's Bar and then somehow manage to talk his constantly-pregnant young wife out of being furious at him. When he got very, very drunk you got the sense that there was a big hole there where the "person" was supposed to be; you had the eerie sense that you were dealing with some cleverly-designed construct that merely emulated a human being. Joe's "Rosebud" moment happened when he was 8 years old. His beloved father, a young man of 28, died slowly of blood poisoning from an abscessed tooth (this was the pre-antibiotics era, and poor immigrants generally couldn't afford proper dental care). The last words he heard from his father (delirious from infection and mostly likely insane from pain and fear of death) were words his father screamed at him: "Who are you? WHO ARE YOU???" I believe Joe grew up and spent the rest of his life trying desperately not to answer that question. At the age of 77, he made the calm, rational decision to starve himself to death as penance for his sins, real and perceived.

He was my Dad.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Quote of the Week

A thing moderately good is not so good as it ought to be. Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.

-- Thomas Paine

Monday, June 9, 2008

Quote of the Week

"This is a world of action, and not for moping and droning in."

Charles Dickens

Quote of the Week

The two greatest obstacles to democracy in the United States are, first, the widespread delusion among the poor that we have a democracy, and second, the chronic terror among the rich, lest we get it.

Edward Dowling

Thursday, June 5, 2008

On this day in 1968

Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. I had gone to bed before it happened, but I remember the next morning. I sat on the front stoop of our Jersey City tenement, watching my father standing out in the middle of the street -- drunk, unkempt, unshaven, awake all night, driven a bit insane I believe now -- screaming over and over again at the top of his lungs "They shot Bobby! They shot Bobby! They shot Bobby!!!" And crying, crying endlessly like some baby in a wrinkled business suit, something I'd only ever seen him do once before -- in November 1963.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Meditation While Drinking My Morning Coffee

I drank my coffee this morning before sunrise, as I always do, listening to the occasional outbursts from the rooster at the farm down the road, as I always do. And I thought about how things were changed now.

I got to see Sputnik go over in 1957. It is my earliest memory in this life; the memory probably stuck with me because my parents were making such a big fuss about it.

I got to watch Walter Cronkite intoning about how Russia had built some kind of weird wall splitting Berlin in two under cover of darkness.

I got to see that same wall come down, so many years later.

I got to see the best and the brightest minds of a generation gunned down one by one, turning so many Americans bitter and inward.

I got to see America lose a war, and then got to see America forget the lessons of that war and go charging into Iraq, flags flying, blissfully unaware that by doing so they were driving nails into the coffin of their fragile empire.

And now, this morning, this. A skinny black guy with a goofy grin and a funny name is my party's candidate for President of the United States of America. I feel old this morning. And I feel young.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Happy Birthday, Allen Ginsberg

There are really only two great, unforgettable openings in the whole history of epic poetry. There's:

Rage! Sing to me, O Muse, of the Rage of Achilles!

And then there's:

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked"

Mad, frenetic, hypnotic, like Whitman on speed, Ginsberg's masterpiece must be read out loud, in a single breath. Buy a copy from your local bookseller, mosey out in the woods for some privacy (or, if you're daring, wander the city streets unashamed) and read the entire poem out loud, with the emphasis on 'loud.'

From The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of Allen Ginsberg born in Newark, New Jersey (1926). His father was a schoolteacher and occasional poet. His mother was a Russian immigrant and devoted Marxist. She was in and out of psychiatric institutions all through out his childhood and had to undergo electric shock treatments and a lobotomy. Ginsberg went to Columbia University on a small scholarship and there he began consorting with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs. After college, he got a job in marketing research, wore a business suit everyday, and had on office on the 52nd floor of the Empire State Building. He says he started writing there, and that there he learned about careful manipulation of words.

He moved to San Francisco and became friends with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who published Ginsburg's first major work, Howl.

By his 30s, he was prematurely bald with a ring of hair on the fringe of his head and thick long black beard streaked with gray. He wore black rimmed classes and his Buddha belly was one of his most distinguishing features.

Ginsburg's reading of Howl was reputed to have "turned the 1950s into the 1960s overnight." It began:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night.

The death of his mother affected Ginsburg deeply and for a long time. He wrote his poem "Kaddish" for her, which began:

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk
on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I've been up all night,
talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles
blues shout blind on the phonograph
the rhythm the rhythm — and your memory in my head three years after —

He once said, "There's no bar to us proclaiming our delight and that's the strength of poetry."