The week (November 24th): Nobody asked me, but…

To again borrow a turn of phrase from the late, great Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

AN AMAZING CEREMONY IN SOUTH LONDON HONORED MOHEGAN SACHEM Mahomet Weyonomon, who died of smallpox in 1736 while waiting to see King George II with a complaint about British settlers encroaching on Indian land.

Queen Elizabeth II joined a group of American Mohegans, led by Bruce “Two Dogs” Bozsum, as they gave Weyonomon the Indian burial ceremony he had missed centuries before (a ceremony which included smoking a pipe filled with sweet grass and sage), according to the Associated Press account of the day.

The Queen unveiled a granite rock “carved with grooves symbolizing mountain trails” near the site of Weyonomon’s unmarked grave on the grounds of Southwark Cathedral. The Anglican dean of Southwark, Colin Slee, added: “We cannot right past wrongs, but we can remember them and transform them to inspire better conduct throughout humanity now and in years to come.”

IF CALIFORNIA, FLORIDA AND MICHIGAN move up the dates of their 2008 presidential primaries as close as possible to New Hampshire’s vote, as the Boston Globe reports, the winners will be the frontrunners—those candidates with name recognition and the money to finance expensive campaigns.

Earlier primaries in California and Florida would definitely benefit maverick Republican John McCain—who would be delighted to have the importance of the early South Carolina primary discounted (the state where McCain’s last presidential bid ran into trouble).

WHILE “SEINFELD” COMIC MICHAEL RICHARDS FRANTICALLY APOLOGIZIES for his racial rant at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles—and rightly so—what shouldn’t be lost from the shabby episode is how there’s nothing funny about the N-word, even when it’s used by black comedians and rappers.

In the wake of the the Richards’ incident, author Stanley Crouch has questioned “the ongoing vulgarization of popular culture” and what Crouch calls its’ “minstrel content.”

Crouch adds in his New York Daily News op-ed column:

So what remains before us is the issue of coming to terms with a popular culture in which the N-word, bitches and hos have become no more than condiments in a particularly unappetizing meal. We need not ban their use, but we do need to face the fact that we have been hustled far more often than not.

THE OPENING OF THE MOVIE “BOBBY,” about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 stirred memories of my childhood—being awakened late at night by my mother after my father, who was covering RFK’s presidential campaign, had called from Los Angeles with the horrific news of the killing. Emilio Estevez’s film has been called “ambitious, uneven and deeply affecting“; I’m hoping it captures the sense of hope and purpose that Kennedy brought to his last campaign.

WHEN CONSIDERING NEWS OF THE LATEST SCIENTIFIC TRIUMPH, I think of the words of the 20th century Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a scientist in his own right: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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American thanksgiving, 2006

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”

– Thornton Wilder

Thanksgiving occupies a special place in the American consciousness. We have made it a distinctly American holiday, with parades and football games and turkey dinners, and it is a day directly linked to our mythic past. We have embraced that First Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims and Wampanoags and elevated it into a founding national holiday. We are drawn to this day.

Why is that? Perhaps because Thanksgiving taps into some distinctly American beliefs about faith, family, and freedom. While it is a secular holiday in one sense (often cited as the perfect example of a national ritual divorced from formal religion), in another, it is not; after all, who are we giving thanks to? Whether publicly or privately we offer thanks to God (or Jehovah, or Allah, or a Supreme Being), a reflection of the deeply religious nature of Americans.

The celebration of freedom is also bound up with this holiday; while the Pilgrims were thankful for simple physical survival at their inaugural Thanksgiving feast in 1621, they never forgot their reason for coming to the New World—they came for the freedom to practice their own version of Christianity.

President George Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789 recognized this duality, this mixture of faith and freedom. He called for “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness” and included “the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed” as another favor from “the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”

At the bottom of all this is the notion that somehow America—the United States—is different, that this country is, as Ronald Reagan often reminded us “a shining city on a hill,” a place to start over, freed from the errors and ignorance of the Old World, and that we should be greatful and thankful for that fresh start.

Brown University’s Arnold L. Weinstein, a comparative literature scholar, has noted that no other society has held the American belief that “we can make ourselves and our lives into something beyond the origins and influences of our births, a theme sometimes called the American dream.” (This individualism, Weinstein notes, drives many Europeans crazy—they reject “American exceptionalism” in favor of a more communitarian philosophy.)

I know I am thankful for this notion of individual freedom when I sit down for Thanksgiving dinner with my family; I think many Americans share that feeling.

That is not to discount the wonders of family and community, and the need for strong civic and social institutions; we need all that. But what makes us different is that we have placed a greater value on individual freedom, even at the cost of social inequality, and have resisted the coercion and conformity that a more egalitarian society might require. That freedom gives us, as historian Daniel Boorstin once wrote, “the opportunity to be what we never thought we would be.” An opportunity to be quite thankful for on November 23, 2006.


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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (November 17th): Nobody asked me, but…

With a doffed cap to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me but…

SOCIAL ANIMALS, ESPECIALLY PRIMATES, employ varied reconciliation techniques after a fight. Frans de Waal tells us in his latest book, “Our Inner Ape,” that primates have different ways to “kiss and make up”; golden monkeys hold hands, bonobos have sex, chimps kiss and homo sapiens have their own rituals.

For the American homo politicus it’s the joint photo-opportunity. So, after a stinging defeat in the mid-term elections, President Bush sat for Oval Office photos with new Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Pelosi accepted the defeat of her candidate (Jack Murtha) for House Majority Leader by posing with the winner, Steny Hoyer (who was claiming there was “no bad blood” between them). Both scenes were strained, to say the least.

An even more fascinating example: the reconcilation between Connecticut’s Senator Joe Lieberman, who won as an independent in his race against anti-war Democrat Ned Lamont, and Democratic Senators who, post-election, greeted him like the prodigal son. What may have made the welcome a bit warmer: long-time Democrat Lieberman had suggested to the Associated Press that if his party veered left, he would consider voting with the Republican side of the Senate (which would result in a 50-50 tie in the chamber and give Vice President Dick Cheney the deciding vote).

BASED ON THE DISAVOWAL BY THE BOARD OF THE PRESBYTERIAN PUBLISHING CORP. BOARD OF 9/11 denier David Ray Griffin’s book, “Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11,” how can the publisher continue to sell it? The Board admitted that the book did not live up to its editorial standards and admits that theologian Griffin’s theory about the attack on America in 2001 is “is spurious and based on questionable research.” (Griffin, of course, sticks to his fantasy, demonstrating that conspiracy buffs love the theory more than the facts). Why does the Presbyterian Publishing Corp. leave the book on sale? Isn’t a recall in order?

THE TIMES OF LONDON HEADLINE: “DARWIN GOT IT RIGHT — IT’S SURVIVAL OF THE FASTEST” spotlighted some fascinating research suggesting that evolution proceeds more quickly than thought.

Science writer Eric Hand of the St. Louis Post Dispatch reports that a new study of lizards in the Bahamas showed that natural selection pressures drive evolution faster than previously believed: scientists conducted an experiment that altered the average leg length of the lizard population within months.

Scientists say that, from a political perspective, the cases offer a vivid reminder of the continuous process that some people imagine proceeding only in fossilized fits and starts: First monkey, then man.

But for the scientists themselves, the cases show that evolutionary biology has, well, evolved into a predictive, experimental science like any other.

Meanwhile, Newsweek reports that some scientists are hypothesizing that Neanderthals may have contributed a crucial gene, microcephalin, to the human pool, which “conveyed a very strong evolutionary advantage,” perhaps involving intelligence.

The gene is known to control brain growth… the crucial factor could have been anything from changing head size to make childbirth less risky, to improving energy efficiency in the brain. But one obvious possibility is that, perhaps in combination with genes that humans already possessed, it made them smarter.

Somehow those aren’t the qualities I would expect our ancestors would borrow from any inter-species romance with the Neanderthals.

AFTER A MANUAL RECOUNT, FLORIDA REPUBLICAN VERN BUCHANAN clings to a 369 vote lead over Democratic rival Christine Jennings for the 13th District Congressional seat (once occupied by Katherine Harris). The key question: why the huge undercount in Sarasota County, where 18,000 voters skipped the Congressional race, 13% of the county total (versus 5% elsewhere). Were there glitches in the touch-screen voting machines that deleted or changed votes, as some reports suggest?

This one is headed for court. Don’t be surprised if, at the end of the legal process, there is a revote. And don’t be surprised if Buchanan adds to his margin and wins a second election when he isn’t saddled with the “send a message to Washington” wave of the mid-term election.

THEY REMEMBERED POET ANNE SEXTON in ceremonies last week at Forest Hills Cemetary, outside Boston. Sexton, who committed suicide in 1974, would have been 78. The poet and translator Robert S. Fitzgerald once noted: “Poetry is at least an elegance and at most a revelation.” When it is a revelation, it lasts because it speaks to the heart, as does Sexton’s poetry.


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (November 10th): Nobody asked me, but…

Borrowing Jimmy Cannon’s signature opening, nobody asked me, but…

THE 2006 MID-TERM ELECTIONS, in which the Democrats regained control of both the House and the Senate, will be long remembered for the message American voters sent about President Bush’s troubled policies in Iraq and their judgment that Republican would-be reformers had been corrupted by inside-the-Beltway power. The exit polls suggested that voters don’t favor a precipitate withdrawal from Iraq, but had lost faith in Bush’s “stay the course” approach.

The election results clearly strengthen Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s hopes of become the first woman to win the Presidency in 2008. The Electoral College now favors Clinton (or any centrist Democrat): she needs only to add Ohio (which dramatically swung Blue in 2006) or Colorado, to the 19 states that John Kerry won in 2004 (California, New York, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine) along with the District of Columbia. The Democratic base, which includes more large states, appears to be more defendable than the Red states of 2004.

Those who question whether America is ready for a female President (or a black one, considering that Senator Barack Obama is another leading Democratic hopeful) are seeing the presidential election in national, popular vote terms. The question is: can Senator Clinton win the mini-elections in the 21 states she needs? The answer is yes.

Perhaps John McCain, if nominated by the Republicans, could put Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Michigan in play, but it is more likely that he will be hard-pressed to defend Missouri, Iowa and Virginia, to say nothing of Florida (where Bill Clinton campaigning could be a significantly positive factor for Mrs. Clinton among African-American and Jewish voters). Senator Clinton has to be considered the front-runner now, and it will be intriguing to see if Democratic primary voters remain anxious about her electability in a general election or accept the new math.

The quick announcement by Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa that he is running for President suggests, in part, that other Democratic Party centrists see that the Electoral College math now tilts Blue.

WHY DOES ANTI-SEMITISM BECOME THE FIRST REFUGE OF SCOUNDRELS? The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports that Venezuela has experienced a disturbing rise in anti-Semitism, fueled by the rhetoric of President Hugo Chavez. The ADL cites a “troubling mix of anti-Semitism and support for radical Islam that—along with anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism–have become the calling cards of the Chavez regime.”

What makes this even stranger is that there are only an estimated 25,000 Jews in Venezuela—which has a population of some 25 million—making claims of “Jewish control” laughable. For a demagogue like Chavez, though, attacking external enemies diverts attention from his consolidation of power within Venezuela.

MORE SIGNS THAT COUNTRY MUSIC’S POPULARITY is transcending boundaries: the latest music videos for singles by Keith Urban (“Once In A Lifetime”) and the group
Sugarland (“Want To”) have decidedly Blue State, urban backdrops, filmed in San Francisco and New York City respectively.

IS THE U.S. IN DANGER OF LOSING ITS PRIMACY ON THE INTERNET? Some, like Fortune magazine’s David Kirkpatrick, warn that “China, India, and many European and Asian countries are moving faster to implement the addressing scheme known as Internet Protocol version 6, or IPv6.” Why does that matter? Kirkpatrick notes that IPv6 will allow a dramatic expansion of the number of Web sites and “will enable much more secure network transactions, as well as dramatically better mobile use of the net.” He adds:

More importantly, v6, as it’s known among the experts, will allow us to do things we simply haven’t imagined before. Because it can assign a unique Internet address to anything electronic, it can tie in sensors in our homes, vehicles and even under our skin.

A survey by Jupiter Networks of 1,000 high-tech types found that “75 percent of respondents said that they would like to see a central Federal IPv6 transition office.”

DON’T BLAME NEW REPUBLIC PUBLISHER MARTIN PERETZ for building a mansion in the Cape Cod town of Truro, nor the other homeowners who are “upsizing” their houses in Truro and Wellfleet in Cape Cod National Seashore areas, leading to alarm about “mansionization.” If there are objections to the impact of the new trophy houses, there are solutions: the federal government can condemn and buy the homes, or private organizations can raise the money to acquire them. Another approach—stricter zoning laws—which has been used in many suburban communities to stop property owners from “building big,” reflects the “tyranny of the majority” and, one can argue, is driven by envy rather than sincere public policy ends.

COMEDIAN WHOOPI GOLDBERG once suggested: “We’re here for a reason. I believe a bit of the reason is to throw little torches out to lead people through the dark.”


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (November 3rd): Nobody asked me, but…

With a tip of the cap to New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

MIKE LUCKOVICH’S CARTOON OF DICK CHENEY subjecting a youthful Halloween trick-or-treater to forcible apple-bobbing (“Confess!”) captures the absurdity of Cheney’s endorsement of “dunking” suspected terrorists (“a no-brainer”) and the subsequent White House denial that Cheney wasn’t backing torture. The entire episode made the Vice President an inviting target for satirists…although his implied endorsement of water-boarding is no laughing matter.

THE “SHY TORY FACTOR,” where voters won’t admit to pollsters that they plan to vote for conservative candidates, makes the outcome of the upcoming midterm elections harder to predict. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, for example, always performed better when real votes were being counted than their pre-election-survey numbers would suggest. Senator George Allen (R, Va.) has to hope that the “shy Tory effect” is masking some of his conservative support in his race with James Webb.

NIKE’S NEW “THE LEBRONS” COMMERCIALS aren’t particularly funny; saturating sports programming with the ads won’t make them any funnier. Le Bron James is a great basketball player—but where is it written that all great NBA stars have to endorse a sneaker line? Is that what “I want to be like Mike” is all about?

IRAQI INSURGENTS ARE HIDING SNIPERS among civilians, apparently more confident than journalist Seymour Hersh that U.S. troops will adhere to strict rules of engagement meant to protect Iraqis.

Hersh, now writing for the New Yorker, told a Canadian audience at McGill University that “there has never been an American Army as violent and murderous as the one in Iraq,” and claimed to have seen a video “in which American soldiers massacre a group of people playing soccer.” (This would not be the first time Hersh made wild claims in front of an audience—in an article in New York magazine in April 2005 entitled “Sy Hersh Says It’s Okay to Lie (Just Not in Print)” author Chris Suellentrop reports that Hersh had told the soccer massacre story before, without providing any hard evidence, along with other lurid, and unsubstantiated tales about American wrongdoing in Iraq).

The reality on the ground is quite different. C.J. Chivers of the New York Times reported in a front-page story that Marines in Anbar had been ordered to show restraint, “a policy rooted in hopes of winning the trust of the civilian population.” Chivers further reported:

Iraqi snipers seem to know these rules and use them for their own protection. They often fire from among civilians, the marines say, having observed that unless the marines have a clear target, they will not shoot. In two sniper shootings witnessed by two journalists for The New York Times, on Oct. 30 and 31, the snipers fired from among civilians. The marines did not fire back.

No doubt there are American soldiers guilty of crimes and atrocities against Iraqi civilians, but the journalism I’ve seen from Iraq suggests that this behavior—in places like Haditha and Mahmoudiya—remains the exception, not the rule, in the way this counterinsurgency is being conducted. Considering that American forces have been stretched to the limit in a “dirty war,” the restraint shown has been remarkable. There was an amazing story this summer of an American medic, shot in the chest by an Iraqi sniper but saved by his body armor, later treating that very sniper who had been captured—alive.

If Hersh has evidence of widespread atrocities, he should publish it, sooner rather than later, and turn it over to the American military so the wrongdoers can be prosecuted.

ANY TIME I DRIVE THE LENGTH OF THE MASSACHUSETTS TURNPIKE this time of the year, I think of James Taylor’s song “Sweet Baby James” and these lines:

Now the first of December was covered with snow
And so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
Lord, the Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frosting
With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go

No snow on the Pike…yet.

IT IS FITTING TO LET THE AMERICAN HUMORIST WILL ROGERS have the last word: “The more you read and observe about this Politics thing, you got to admit that each party is worse than the other. The one that’s out always looks the best.”


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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