Sunday, July 17, 2011

Little Reviews(2) : Knights Errant In A Red Corvette.

      Route 66 : A  Herbert Leonard and Sterling Silliphant Production, created by Sterling Siliphant.

      Most television drama is ephemeral at best. The annals of TV history are littered with scores of forgotten shows. A few of these shows were praised by critics in their day, such as East Side/ West Side and (  to cite a show that was described a while ago in this space),  Slattery's People, but are now forgotten by all but a few enthusiasts, and  are probably doomed to languish in network vaults. However, there are also shows that are the stuff of legend, shows that somehow abide in the collective unconscious,  falcons across the sky of memory.  Two of these abiding dramas were created by one of televiion's handful of near-geniuses, a man named Sterling Silliphant.
       
        Silliphant began his career in advertising in the early nineteen fifties, soon he was writing excellent scripts for television dramas such as Perry Mason and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In 1959, he came up with two ideas that made him almost immortal. The first was a detective drama, but it was a a very different kind of detective drama than the ones popular at the time, such as Peter Gunn. While almost all shows at the time centered on "hard-boiled " private eyes, this shows would be centered on policemen- plain clothes detectives. . And these policemen would would be different from those found in previous shows such as Dragnet   and The Untouchables . These would be fallible, human, cops, in a film noiur setting: Modern- day New York City. Silliphant took the title of the show from a minor, but very good film noir of the late forties. Its name? The Naked City.  The show was narrated  by a man named Lawrence Dobkin, whose face was never seen, but whose clipped, ironic,  vocal tones were unforgettable.  In the first few minutes, he would set the stage for the evenings drama. At the close of each episode, he would utter the same, oddly haunting words,  "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them..". The show began in 1959  in a half-hour format, starring  stage, screen and television veteran John McIntire as a wise older cop, and a promising newcomer , James Franciscus,  as a young detective whom he mentored. The episode were well directed, superbly and often poetically written ( especially when Silliphant himself was doing the writng.) Mcintire was eventually killed off, and Franciscus left the show before the 1960 season began, when the show took on a new, one hour format. The older, veteran policeman, now called Frank Parker. was played by  an excellent, sad -faced actor named Horace McMahon.  His younger associate was a college educated, surprisngly erudite young detective named Adam Flint, played by  a fellow named Paul Burke. Soon, The  Naked City  was recognizecd as one of the greatest  programs on TV. Almost every episode was powerful, superbly acted,  well shot and  eloquently written. Many actors who later became famous had their start on the show.

          Silliphant, however, had an idea for a show that was even more off beat than The Naked  City. When he first pitched it to Naked City producer Herbert Leonard,  Leonard was highly skeptical . "This is a show about two bums in a sports car!". However, Leonard was wrong. The show was called Route 66.   Iinspired, in part, by Jack Kerouac's "beat generation" epic , On  The Road,  Route 66 told  the story of two very different young men, erudite, multi-talented  rich boy Yale graduate Todd Stiles ( Martin Milner) and jazz loving, two-fisted  orphaned  street kid, Buzz Murdock, ( George Maharis). who, in search of their star, wander North America in  a red Corvette, working at whatever jobs are available. On their wanderings, they visited every state in America, and met almost every kind of American; rich and poor, black and white, anglo and hispanic:  Jazz Musicians, farmers,  factory workers, beatniks, airplane pilots and race car drivers, among many others. In every episode, they ended up trying to help someone else. In some episodes, they were central figures, in others, they served as  a kind of chorus.to unfolding human tragedies, played  out on the TV screen.

           I had heard of Route 66 for years, and even had vague memories of one or two episodes. ( I was born in 1958, so I was about three when it first premired.). Recently, I was flipping channels early one morning at about Seven o'clock,  and I came across the show on my local Rero TV channnel. Since then, I have been definitely "hooked". A few episodes have been weak, at least one has been down-right silly. However, many of them are superb TV drama indeed. Of course, in almost every episode, two- fisted Buzz gets in a fight,  and almost always wins. Of course, both our boys usually met pretty women and fall, however briefly, in love. At the same time, most of the epiosdes make serious moral points, and a few are even religious and spiritual allegories. There are no dirty words, no gratuitous sex, and . despite the frequent brawling, almost no blood and guts. In short,  like Naked City, Route 66 was one of those rare Television  shows that often managed to transcend it s medium and sometimes  even approach the level of serious art. I urge alll of my (few) readers, to watch it on Retro Tv, if they get that channel. Failing that,  they can search out DVDS, most of which are for sale somewhere in cyberspace. They will not regret it.

                               Verdict:  Excellent classic television, and a modest contribution to American mythology as well.  Four and a half stars, out of five.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Coming Upheaval ?

                  " Gentlemem, I implore you; change the spirit of the government, for it is that spirit that is leadfing you to the abyss. "
Alexis DeTocqueville, speech to the French Chamber of Deputies, January 1848 ( Six months later, France was in the  throes of revolution.)

                      Most of my adult life has been devoted to the study of politics in general and Aerican politics in particular. I was born in 1958, and have vague but real memories of  the end of the Age of Ike and the Camelot era. I lived through the extraordinary upheaveals of the nineteen- sixties. The Vietnam War and Watergate were  the formative experiences of my early years.. I have studied American political institutions and the their history. I know the nuts and bolts of american politics. I have observed every important American politician, and every political trend  and idea of the last half century.  I think I can confidently say that America may now be going through one of the most profound political crisises of its history,  a veritable   " crisis of the regime."

                     It has been bad in this country before now.  The late seventies witnessed what Paul Johnson, the British jouranlaist and popular historian, cal,led "Americas  suicide attempt". . Many American were vexed and troubled in those days of nationwide "malaise".  America seemd Impotent, adrift and purposeless.  I remember it all too well.
                    However, those dark days of the late seventies, when the nation wa still reeling from Watergate and the Vietnam debacle, were nothing compared to the anxiety and pessimism which seem to grip us today. Some like to compare our current situation to the great Depression, when some thoghtful observers feared America might go to Communist or Fascist. ( Indeed, some Americans hoped we would. ) However, back in those days, most Americans still retained a stubborn faith in our basic institutions. No, for a full parallel with what is going on today, we would have to go back still further in our history.  I am not refering to the Populist and Progressive insurgencie sof the  eighteen nineties and early nineteen hundreds. Instead, , I am goiing back still further, to the  "Disruption of Democracy" , the "Ordeal of the Union', the chaos which gripped America in the years leading up to the Civil War.

                    I realiz
e some of you mioght think I am waxing apocalyptic or even hysterical, but all the signs are there. A few weeks ago, the well-seasoned observer of, and participant in, American politics,James Carville,  was guset on Imus in The Morning, and he claimed that he seriously feared  civic unrest in America.  Only yesterday, another guest on the same program, John LeBoutillier, recounted aconversation he had had with two veteran Democratic parrty strategists, Pat Cadell and Doug Scoen, in which they said America was in a virtually " pre-revolutionary" situation. Never in their collective experience had either of these two veteran observers  sensed a more profound pessimism and anger among most Americans, or a greater gap in belief and outlook between the average voter and the members of Americas political class.  Both parties are held in widespread contempt, our whole political process is seen as profoundly corrupt, and American instituions are seen as more unreliable than ever before. More and more Americans have almost lost faith in the American dream, and are convinced that their children will grow up in a world far worse than that of their parents.
                    
                      What is particularrly  scary about the times in which we live is the possibilty of an unsrupolous demagogue taking advantage of the chaos. A third party candidate with what Emerson once called " nerve and dagger"(and a large bankroll"  attempt to take adavantage of the curren drift and malaise .  Somewhere out there in America there is someone who fits the bill. We might get lucky, and this outsider might be a genuine statesman.  However, I have my doubts. In short,  America is in deep trouble, and it will take enlightened statesmen- aand informed and prudent citizens-  to rescue us. Unfortunately, both seem to be in short supply at present.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Living On the Edge

       I have been away from this blog for almost a month, concentrating on other matters. For one thing, I am trying to co- write two articles- one scholarly, one popular- on Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. For another, I have  been trying to earn a (small) amount of money working on a modest research project for a professor friend. This last has been especially important, as I am a man who is living in dire poverty. I have had no  almost income since April, and I have crushing bills. Because of the article writing and the research, I have been unable to make any further progress setting up my long dreamed of consulting firm.

         However, most of my time is  simply surviving. My mother is almost 77 years old and survives on inadequate social security payments. When I have  academic income, it is easier for us, but I am temporarily unemployed. This is why the two articles are especially important. If I "publish", my chances of a full-time job increase slightly. If I can follow up the two articles with something substantive on Abraham Lincoln, my chances increase exponentially.

                In a way, my academic inactivity is a blessing in disguise, as it gives me the time to actually write important things..things more important than this blog, which seems to have attracted scant interest.I have an idea for a book about life in the academic underclass, all of those over educated  but underemployed academics, toiling at a patchwork of part-time jobs. I often wish I had left academe for a more lucrative career in the world, instead of accumulating huge  debts  getting a PhD which has only resulted in a job which nets me little money.

                 Then why do I persist? I persist because I love teaching. I have the crazy notion that I have something worthwhile to impart. Almost all of my students like me; some have become close friends. Some have even told me that my teaching has inspired them to care more about citizenship and our public life. I only wish that all my work  gave me more income than a janitor. Perhaps it will someday.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

( Not ) Churchgoing: Thoughts on a Very, Very, Rainy Sunday Morning.

                           " A serious house on serious earth it is/ In whose bent air all our compulsions meet/ are recognized and robed as destines/ and that much never seems to be obsolete/ since someone will forever be surprising/ a hunger in himself to be more serious."   Philip Larkin "Churchgoing".

                            Even though these reflections are entitled   "The Decaf Drinking Papist"  ( Kudos to any reader who catches the reference! ) ,  no-one reading the  first few submissions to this web-site would have guessed that its author is in fact a Catholic. But that he is. At least, he tries, with very mixed results, to be one. This is not the place for a long autobiographical reflection on love/ hate relationship with the Catholic church.  That will have to wait for a future installment.  Instead, I want to reflect on  something good Catholics are supposed to do every Sunday morning, and which some even more serious Catholics try to do every day, but which this writer failed to do.

                             I speak of the simple act of going to church. Back in my Charlottesville days, I attended church, pardon the expression, religiously. Sometimes, I attended a tiny red- brick in down-town Charlottesville called "Holy Comforter", ( An "low church"  Episcopalian friend  said she was puzzled by the name:  " Joe, are comforters holy relics in Catholicism?".   I explained that  it was a reference to The Comforter -  the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. This explanation did not bring any enlightenment.   " I thought that holy spirit stuff was  something Pentecostal types do.")  More often, I attended the University parish church, Saint Thomas Aquinas.

                           Saint Thomas had been designed by an avant-garde Jesuit back in the late sixties, and it showed.  At Saint Thomas, the roof of the church did not swope up, it swopt down, to symbolize God taking flesh and coming down to dwell among us.  There were stained glass windows symbolizing, in very abstract ways,  the various liberal arts and professions, with inscriptions  beneath the windows quoting such very non-Catholic writers as John Galsworthy (!)  The principal decorations were abstract sculptures, fashioned from driftwood.  Out in front of the building was amassive stainless steel statue of a thoughtful, squatting Saint Thomas, which non -Catholic passer-by often mistook for a statue of another religious figure; The Buddha.

                           I spent too long in Charlottesville- long enough to witness the complete redesign of the church by more traditionally minded Catholics.  While  "Saint Thomas of the hubcaps"  remained, the other changes were far- reaching, indeed. The old- avant garde church was converted into a parish social hall, and a whole new  building was constructed next to it, in quasi-Romanesque style. Now the roof swooped up, quite spectactularly,  while stained glass windows were now dedicated to the various and sundry patron saints of the liberal arts and professions.

                           Despite all these changes, one constant remained; the extraordinary quality of the homilies. Saint Thomas, though originally designed by  "Jebbies", was staffed largely by Dominicans. Though the one US unversity under Dominican supervision, Providence, leaves much to be desired,  most of the US Dominicans are bright, articulate men. In fact, the  Black Friars are only surpassed by the Loyolas as far as intellectual attainment goes, and in Charlottesville, we usually got the cream of the crop, shipped down from the justly celebrated Dominican House of Studies. in Washington, D.C.  In addition, like a few secular universities,  Virginia  boasted at least one pretty articulate, polymath, Jesuit on its faculty. a teacher of church history. The Dominicans, as well as the Jesuit  (and his occasional Jesuit graduate students ) did almost all the preaching at Saint Thomas, and the results were usually quite stirring, and much more intellectually stimulating than almost any homilies I had heard previously.  It was like a continuous retreat for academics and well-read professionals.  In short, despite its flaws,  I loved going to Saint Thomas, even back in the days when it looked liked an ugly Unitarian assembly hall.

                                And then, in 2004,  I came back to Michigan, and started attending the suburban church of my youth.  I will not name it here, but only describe it.  It is a smallish suburban church, designed in the well intentioned but unispired style of the sixties, to all outward appearances almost indistinguishable from the Holiness and Episcopalian churches a few blocks away. It boasted two priests and a deacon. I will concentrate on the priests. The chief pastor when I came there was a young fellow- younger than myself, with a mildly interesting background. he was a  fellow Michigan State grad, who had even gone to the same almost famous residential college I had gone to,  James Madison. There he had specialized in political theory, just like me, and minored in Russian studies, unlike me. Also  unlike me, he never had to drop out for finaincial reasons, instead graduating on schedule with pretty good grades. All of that Straussian politcal theory apparently helped inspire him to find a vocation outside of the secular world, and to enroll in Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. After graduating from the seminary, he served a number of different suburban parishes, and ours was his latest. Simultaneously, he served as chaplain at a Catholic high school a few miles away.  At our parish, this very -well read ( he loaned some excellent books to me.) and very bright young man ( We occasionally had interesting conversations) , busied himself with his pastoral duties, endlessly planning parish festivals, consoling the bereaved and / or baffled. and organizing Bible studies discussion gropus with names like  " Learning From Andy: What the Andy Griffith Show Can Teach Us About The Christian Life. "
                              The other pastor. ( our church had need two pastors for some time.) was a Jesuit from India , who taught marketing at the business college of the University of Detroit Mercy. He boasted an advanced degree in Biblical studies ( including archeology) from a university in India, as well as an advanced degree in economics. He always spent a chunk of the years visting his family in the old country, including his aged mother. Every Mothers day, he would serenade the mothers in the congregation by singing an old Indian pop hit ( he did it in English), called  "Mother of Mine".
                                
                              Their preaching styles were very different. The young priest specialized in short, punchy homilies,  which often presented complex ideas in entertaining and even edifying ways. Ocasionally he showed his James Madison education by quoting Kierkegaard or telling anecdotes about great Russian writers. More often, he soecialized in pithy parables , which seemed to be taken from Paul Harvey broadcasts or old copies of Guideposts.  He was a popular priest,and most of us hated  it when the diocese transferred him to three church parish down river.

                             The Jesuit had a different preaching style, indeed.  Almost every homily was a long, often prolix, commentary on all three of the days readings, in which he displayed his knowledge of Biblical archeaology and sacred languages, often  with obessive detail that baffled the  congregation. In short, this Jeuit was constantly under the impression that was preaching to Jesuits, rather than a typical American suburban audience.

                               Even though the Jesuits frequently tried  my patience with his prolixity, and even though the young priests inspirational anecdotes were sometimes saccharine, I usually liked going to church.  For one thing, we have a pretty good music minister, who makes sure that the music at our church isnt usally as bad as the happy clappy guitar srumming junk too often found in Catholic Churches nowadays. For another, I volunteered to be a lector at the church.  So, two or three times a month, the congregation  would be treated to my less than dulcet tones as I read some passage from a Pauline epistle or the Old Testament.
                              
                              However, my mothers view of things was different.  She almost always found the young priest patently insincere, and the elerly Jesuit a long-winded bore.  Besides, the music and decor of our little suburban church simply lacked holiness .  She preferred an  older ,larger,  more majestic, suburban church from the old neighborhood, which had been built  back in the twenties, when all thechurches were fortresses of the Church militant, with gorgeous, slightly florid stained glass windows, pretty, if slightly  kitschy frescos, and an array of holy statues. The priest was a late middle-aged, earnest Polish American bore, who droned on (at short length) about how " our parish" was  a "church community". ( He seemed to repeat this inspired theme in every homily). She loved it. The sermons were short, brisk, and othodox. I hated it. However, it was this parish that she preferred, especially after I was relieved of my duties as a lector, for reasons that remain opaque to me. ( Most of the congregation complimented me, despite my odd vocal tones. )

                    It was a hard winter in Michigan this year, and I found it hard to trudge to my suburban church in the snow.  Besides, Mom did not like the way things were going at the church.  I finally starting attending again, rather fitfully, early this spring. The Jesuit is gone; retired  to India. The young priest, as I said , has been reassigned. Our new chief priest is a gentle, warm- hearted black man who has produced award -winning documentary films for the Catholic Church,  and who has  a in "Intercultural communication" from someplace called The Union Institute.  I've heard him deliver homilies several times. He seems very fond of the word " paradigm" and very fixated on the " Kemetic" culture of ancient Egypt.  He is an articulate fellow-  a great communicator in fact-  whose homiles sometimes  have a checkered relationship with the facts. Only the other day, he made the remarkable observation that "the Jews" were "an oriental people" : which " of course "  meant that they  " believed in Karma." I kid you not. That is exactly what the sweet, well meaning,  chap said.  After the service, a parishoner..a silver haired,  fur -wearing lady went up to the priest and said  " Your homilies are so wonderful: I learn so much!"

                                  Today  was rainy, very rainy. Mom made delicious apple pancakes, with hot buttered syrup. I watched Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and a few of  the morning political talk shows. I asked her if we were goiung to brave the deluge and drive to church. Her reply was that we would honor God by cleaning up the house. On reflection, she has a point.  Despite what that old British agnostic and misanthrope Philip Larkin said, one does not always  need to go to "serious house on serious earth", to feel serious on a Sunday morning.  Perhaps this often confused Catholic will get back into the church-going habit someday; he is just not sure when.

    

Friday, May 13, 2011

Just Call Him Newt

                 One would have thought that the whole Donald Trump misadventure marked the ne plus ultra of political stupidity in this campaign  season. The Donald, with his bottomless vulgarity and seemingly matchless egoism, was, in many respects, the weirdest 'serious' presidential candidate since the great demagogues of the thirties, if not the weirdest since the  eighteen seventies "free love" feminist, Victoria C. Woodhull.

     Then the Donald's ludicrous misadventure suffered three successive fatal blows. The first came when  Obama produced his birth certificate, thus providing proof positive to anyone  but a paranoid lunatic or a Worldnet Daily true believer ( but I repeat myself.), that he was, in fact, born in the USA.  The second was a self inflicted wound  by the real estate robber baron himself, when he displayed his intelligence and good taste by letting loose  with the " F-bomb" before an audience of proper, pious, Republican ladies. The third came during his nauseatingly smarmy and meretricious  reality TV show, Celebrity  Apprentice. Trump was about to make a terrifying command decision, Should he fire Hope or Nene? Then, the broadcast was interrupted  with the news that Obama had made a real command decision, and that he had sent Osama Bin Laden off to whatever reward he may deserve.

                                 The cumulative effect of these three events was to reveal Trump's presidential campaign for the squalid exercise in self- promotion it actually was. Now Trump can go back to his true calling, strutting like a peacock to impress b- list celebrities, enriching  his divorce lawyers, and using eminent domain to try to cheat   widows and orphans out of their estates, so he can build  still more casinos and luxury high- rises.

                                 Of course, Trump's fall left a vacuum. Where would the GOP find a presidential candidate as nauseating? Yesterday, they found their answer. Like Trump, he is a grotesque vulgarian. Like Trump he is self-promoting egoist. Like Trump, he has an enormous head of luxuriant hair ( though it is probably his own.) Unlike  Trump, he can actually lay claim to possessing a modicum of intelligence, and even abilities as a policy theorist.  He in fact, has a doctorate  in African history, from a reputable university. ( Tulane).  He is none other than Newton Leroy "Newt" Gingrich, PH.D, and he wants to party likeit is 1994.

                             There have been many strange careers in the annals of American politics, and that of  Newt is, perhaps, the strangest of all.  Looking at his many adventures over the years, one is tempted to recall what the sixth Marquess of Salisbury ( Or was it the fifth? I get all those able, worthy, pious members of the Cecil family mixed -up sometimes.) said about another extremely ambitious chaser after the glittering prizes, Iain McLeod. The old gentleman shook his finger at McLeod  during some now forgotten Tory party debate and cried out, " Too clever by half! "

                             Whether the aging Tory Grandee was wholly fair to McLeod is a matter for dispute; what is not matter for dispute is that those words apply all to well to the " newtster" . In  primary school, Newt won all the prizes, and made everyone aware of the fact. His secondary education culminated in a well researched, and it must be said,  intelligent, doctoral dissertation on educational policy in the Belgian Congo. Its thesis was that the Congo colonial overlords sowed the seeds of their own destruction by doing such a good job educating the future Patrice Lumumba's and Moise Tshombe's

                             Newt probably dreamed of teaching at  a top-tier university; he ended up teaching at a community college in Marietta Georgia. However, his ambition demanded more. In the seventies, he ran twice  for congress, as an ecologically minded, liberal to moderate Republican, and failed both times.
He leaned  his lesson well, and soon shifted to the right. His new found conservative ideology and the not inconsiderable political skills he had acquired in his first two unsuccessful campaigns finally  helped propel  him into congress, where he soon acquired a reputation as a bomb throwing grenadier for the Reagan revolution. His often grandstanding methods provoked  the wrath of even such a good-natured politician as Tip O'Neil. Soon, he had become powerful enough to engineer the destruction of O'Neils somewhat oilier successor, Jim Wright. Then, he was clever enough to maneuver himself into the role of Republican house leader.

                            Everyone knows the sequel. Gingrich spotted the many weaknesses of the Democrats, who had ruled the House of Representatives since 1954. Determined to erase the Democrats majority, and help his own party seize power, he devised the famous or (infamous) "contract with America", and got all of the G.O.P. house and senate candidates to sign it. Clinton was going through a bout of  unpopularity, and a combination of Clinton's negative coat-tails, a House banking scandal, and the G.O.P united front helped trigger the biggest midterm election landslide since the Democratic sweep of 1958.

                           Gingrich was now the first Republican Speaker of the house since  Joe Martin, and arguably the second most powerful politician in America. Gingrich was an odd sort of speaker, the sort of man who was brimming over with clever ideas, but also afflicted with a kind of incurable charlatanism. Too clever by half, in other words. Gingrich's over weening ego soon became a national joke. He was sincerely angry that he didn't get a seat on Air Force One comparable to that of the President. He had mercilessly criticized Jim Wright for profiting off a book deal; it transpired that he was profiting off a book deal of his own. He even had a grandiose on line course  on  "'restoring American civilization",  in which he cast himself as a champion of, and restorer of American civilization.
                           
                         While he secretly made a pact with Clinton to stream-line government and balance the budget, he was a bitter candidate of Clinton in public. He was especially critical of Clinton's extra-marital dalliances. The problem with this  was that Gingrich was throwing all his stones at Clinton while living in glass house of his own.  this champion of domestic morality went through a messy divorce. He even visited his first wife in the hospital, ( She was being treated for cancer.), and handed her the divorce papers.

                           Soon, several of Newt's erstwhile Republican  lieutenants in the House tried to organize a coup. Fortunately, they proved to be a gang that couldn't shot straight. However, Gingrich's scandals caught up with him, and the once powerful  Speaker resigned his office trailing clouds of disgrace.

                           Gingrich then began a prolonged stay in the political wilderness. He co-wrote a number of mildly interesting historical novels, and tried to establish himself as a policy guru. Gingrich may be vain and unprincipled; he is not stupid. In fact,  some of his policy ideas won plaudits from his old adversary Hilary Clinton. When the Obama epoch began, Newt tried to gain headlines by vociferously criticizing the President. He even began to make noises like a would-be presidential candidate.

                        And now, at long last, this oddly gifted  but profoundly flawed man has made it official . He wants to make a bid for the most glittering prize of all.  Gingrich might well be able to score debating points against Barack; Nixon after all, outpointed Kennedy.  However, like Nixon he will, almost certainly, lose all the debates with the glistening, charismatic, imperially slim, President.  Yes, Gingrich  is a clever man. However, it is the wrong kind of cleverness.  One of the neo-conservative intellectuals likes to quote  a saying of his grandmother's. Whenever that elderly Jewish lady encountered someone who was too smart for his own good, she would simply shake her head and say "smart, smart, STUPID!"  Gingrich may  be the king of the smart, smart, stupids.  The man named Newt  will get a book deal out of all this, and he will make some of his fellow  Republicans look dumb in debate. However, there is no conceivable scenario in which this man who is so fond of alternative historical scenarios can ever be president of the United States.

   

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Little Reviews (1): The Sixth Wife

                  Katherine the Queen :The Remarkable Life of  Katherine Parr,  The Last Wfe of  Henry VIII, by Linda Porter  St. Martins Press.
         The Tudors and their colorful  continue to fascinate us.  Granted, Henry the Seventh , after a promising beginning at Bosworth field, turned out to be an colorless, if efficient, ruler, : but virtually  all of his successors  were a colorful lot, with an aura of glamor and myth clinging to them. From television  ( The Tudors) to movies ( Elizabeth : The Golden Age) to novels middle-brow ( The Other Boleyn Girl) and high- brow ( Wolf Hall ), their stories have been told and retold. Yet  still, some nooks and crannies remain largely obscure. Now, light has been shed on one such almost forgotten figure.
          As almost everybody knows, the wives of Henry The Eighth were an unhappy lot.  The first, a Spanish Princess, could not produce a male heir and was discarded. The second was executed on trumped-up charges of adultery.. The third finally gave both to the son  he always wanted, though she died in the attempt and  the poor fellow grew up to  to be a sickly, short-lived weakling. The fourth, a German Princess, proved too plain for Henry's taste and was discarded as well. The fifth proved to be a strumpet and was executed on not so trumped -up charges of adultery.
        
            And there was the sixth, the least known of all. The now decrepit (and obese ) Henry, worn out from his lusts, sports, and gluttony's, needed a companion in his dotage and found one, in the person of one Katherine Parr. When she is mentioned in most  history books, the impression one gets is that she was a rather boring, respectable widow lady , from the lower nobility, and that she managed to make sure that the dying years of the monarch were tranquil ones. However, such an impression would be highly misleading. At least; the first half of the sentence  is misleading. She did give the old monarch some measure of happiness; but she was far from boring, as a new biography manages to show.

            Linda  Porter has already proven herself to be a formidable, learned, revisionist historian of England in the Age of the Tudors. Her first foray in sixteenth century biography, The Myth of  "Bloody Mary", won plaudits from almost all reviewers for finally shattering the historical demonology encrusted around that much  maligned monarch. Now she has turned to the task of rescuing Katherine Parr from her little deserved obscurity.
              
              It is a fascinating tale, after all.  Katherine Parr had already been twice widowed when she was chosen to be the sixth wife. She came from the lower nobility of the north of  England, allied with such formidable families as the Nevilles and the Percy's. The Parr's chose to be loyal to the White Rose rather than the Red, but still did well enough in the Wars of the Roses  to attain a measure of wealth and power. Katherine's mother, herself a formidable figure, made sure her intelligent and pretty daughter had a much better education than was customary for most women of her era. 
              
               Katherine was married twice before she bacame a Queen. Her first husband, Thomas Burough, was a minor nobleman and courtier who has left faint footprints in the sands of history. Her second husband, Lord Latimer played a major role in that complex historical tragedy, the " "pilgrimage of grace ", as an less than successful intermediary betwen the Catholic rebels of the North and the Crown.
               
               After Henry had his fifth wife, the adulteress Katherine Howard ( Henry seems to have had an obsssession with marying women named Katherine or Anne- the only one exception was  Jane Seymour.) sent off to her dubious cosmic reward, he soon realized he needed a new companion, and she ought to be more intelligent, more dependable, and less lusty than the fifth wife. He soon found someone who possessed all these qualities in Lord Latimer's widow. In Ms. Porter's words, " ( Katherine was ) an intelligent,determined but also vivacious woman who very consciously set about establishing an image and role for herself. " Unlike her immediate predecessor she was a woman of dignity and good sense; unlike all of her predecesors she was determined to be an excellent mother to all three of her children- and succcedded admirably at the task. In short, she was a complex woman, both a person in love with finery and pomp and  someone  of sincere religious devotion. She even wrote numerous  pious texts herself, including a volume oddly titled, Lamentation of a Sinner.  ( Her own sins do not seem to have been numerous.)
           
               Katherine was more than a devoted wife and an able mother, she was a ruler in her own right. Henry made her regent of England, tasked with running the domestic affairs of the kingdom when he was away on foriegn business, negotiating with the French or warring against the Scots. In this role, Katherine made an indelible impression on the ablest of her children, Elizabeth.  Again in Ms. Porter's words:

                                       While Elizabeth watched, Katherine governed England. This
                      practical lesson was far more valuable than anything her tutors could have
                      devised, and it left an indelible impression.
     
             The only real danger to Katherine's survival as Queen came when Bishop Stephen Gardiner, an determined foe of further religious reform, tried to paint her as too fervent a Protestant, and even as a sympathiser with the radical religious enthusiast Anne Askew. Askew ended up being tortured on the rack and dying at the stake. Katherine survived, thanks to bother her own political acumen and, as Ms. Porter points out, Henry's very sincere love for his wife.
                                       
                                             In the end, Katherine had been saved because this old man,
                         so often represented as a monster in his last days, sincerely loved his sixth
                         wife. He had grown tired of marital failure and he appreciated what
                          Katherine brought to his wife and family. So she survived.

                 On the twenty-eighth day on January, 1547, Henry died, and Katherine began a very different, if short,  phase of her life. She found a fourth husband in the person of a 'dashing sea dog" named Thomas Seymour and returned to writing the religious texts which had aroused Stephen Gardiner's ire. Her own death on on the fifth of September, 1548, was followed by dignified funeral in the reformed Protestant fashion. It is said that when her body was exhumed almost two hundred years later, her flesh remained  uncorrupted. That is a matter for dispute.What is not a matter for dispute is that she played  a crucial role,  perhaps the crucial role, in shaping the character of Elizabeth the First, the monarch who did more than any other  to shape the power and destiny of England. Thus, in her own modest way, Katherine Parr did much to help shape modernity. That was her greatest accomplishment.
           
                  Katherine Parr's personal motto was " To be useful in all I do." Readers of Linda Porter's book, who promise to be numerous, will find it more than simply useful, they will find it  thoughtful, informative, and entertaining.

                   Verdict: A delightful biography, shedding new light on a much studied , but still misunderstood, chapter of British- and human- history. Five stars out of five.
            
            

                
               
      

                 

          

           
             
            
          
               

       

Friday, April 29, 2011

What This Blog is About.

        Despite the subject matter of my first three postings, this web-site will not simply be about politics, or forgotten  vintage TV shows, or the travails of an adjunct. Rather, this web-site will try to offer  "something for everybody.   A few years ago, I had a much more elaborate web-site called "Intellectual chowder.".  It included book and film reviews,  polemics, profiles of under-ratd or little known writers and thinkers,  essays on sports and games, and a journal. I also featured a roving correspondent and occasional texts by other friends. Finally, I had a sort of bulletin board for the classes I teach.

While that web-site is now defunct, it was mildly popular and even had a bit of a following. This web-site will be a sort of condensed and simplified version of the old site. I will offer a variety of comments on current events, politics and religion. I will also offer "little reviews " of books, films, movies, and even television programs. I hope readers will find them interesting, enlightening, and even vocationally infuriating.
 My political views are independent enough to offend people on both the right and the left, while my religious views, while broadly Catholic, are rather idiosyncratic as well.

    I trust my readers will enjoy; they may even be provoked. At least, I hope so.

Life in (adjunct) Hell.

               Here I am winding down to the end of  yet another school year, and reflecting on my peculiar life as an adjunct.   When I finally finished my inordinately long doctoral thesis in 2004, I hoped I had finally built my launching pad to a good teaching job.  Now it is six years later, and I still barely scrap together an existence as an part- time instructor in a community college.  I have worked, for one term as an instructor at a second- tier university ( Oakland), however, almost all this time, i have been a toiler at Macomb Community College, getting by on approximately 14, 000 dollars a year. For a time , I had a good post doctoral fellowship from a think tank at the University of Virginia., but that has now run out ( it had a three year time limit).

              My existence is a difficult one. I have never learned how to drive, and must depend on friends and family to take me places. I pay 350 dollars a month  to a health insurance company that doesn't pay my most expensive medical bills. Fortunately, I have friends and family who love my virtues and tolerate my vices. If it were not for that, I would probably be knocking on the door of the nearest Trappist Monastery.

                Why I do I persist? Why do I live in adjunct hell? ( And I will say that some of my colleagues have much more onerous lives than me.) Well, for one thing, my job is not without its gratifications.  Most of my students like my teaching; in fact, they even love it. only afew days ago, one of my best students told me it was fun to have a teacher who just didn't drone from the textbook, and who discussed issues and ideas. Another student ( Who is Chief of Police in Port Huron .), wrote  a  letter of reccomendation  for me in which he praised my passion for my subject and my ' quirky', but learned approach.

              I will confess that I live for  such gratifications. They remind me that  I'm a teacher. Its just a shame that I am not adeuately compensated for my work.

               One last problem. My college has not given me any classes to teach this summer. All the classes have been given to a senior, retired  full -timer. That leaves me with no classes and no income. How do I propose to make it through the coming summer? Do I have any reasonable expectation of ever making a better life for myself?

 That will have to wait for a future installment.  Right now, I'm busy watching The Royal Wedding.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Where Have You Gone, Mr. Slattery?

                From 1964  to 1965, there was a television drama on CBS called Slattery's People. It was created by James ( Ben Casey ) Moser and starred Richard Crenna and ( in his first TV series) Ed Asner. Slattery was the minority leader of  an unnamed state legislature, and the "people " of the title were his often eccentric constituents and his fellow politicians. The show  was loved by critics and by those fans who appreciated its literate, thoughtful scripts and its excellent acting. Crenna was nominated for two Emmies and a Golden Globe, and the guest stars on the show included Pat O'Brien, Elsa Lanchester, Warren Oates, James Whitmore, Martin Milner, Vera Miles, Richard Kiley, Ricardo Montalban, Ed Wynn,  and Robert Lansing. The show was not afraid to tackle complex social and moral issues such as  abortion, wiretapping, zoning, "Good Samaritan" Laws, sports gambling, and funding for the arts and sciences. Almost every episode was a minature lesson in how democracy works, and in the inner workings of state legislatures. Every episode began with Richard Crenna uttering these words:  "Democracy is a very bad form of government, but, I ask you never to forget, all of the others are much worse."

                        I bring up this almost forgotten TV show, not to beg CBS to finally release it on DVD, ( Though it would still be an excellent teaching tool for my state and local government classes) , but to ask a very different question. Not, " What happened to the TV show, Slattery's People', but what happened to the sort of politician represented by Jim Slattery? Slattery was portrayed as a thoughtful, hard-working, honest, and tough- minded politician, who cared about his constituents, worked well with almost all his colleagues, and who tried to craft legislation that dealt with  important public issues.

                        Which brings us to my question. ( Every episode title in the show's first season was in the form of a question.) Were have all the Slattery's gone? It is a serious question.  The conscientious, thoughtful, principled politician seems to be a dying species. One of my favorite books about American politics is by the political scientist James Bessette.  It is called The Mild Voice  of Reason, and argues that  good legislatures  do not just make deals and compromises, but instead see their principal legislative task as deliberation., approaching public problems in a thoughtful, conscientious way. Bessettte's book is full of examples of thoughtfully crafted, public-spirited legislation. However, almost none of them are from recent times.

                  In different ways, Slattery's People and The Mild Voice of Reason point to something profoundly disquieting about our public life and about American  politics. More and more, our politiciians must wage "permament campaigns". This has a two- fold meaning. First of, reelection, at any cost, has become paramount.  Electioneeering is not evil in itself, but  contemporary methods of electioneeering inculacte all sorts of political vices. I recently saw  one-time US Senator  James Buckley- a conscientious and skilled legislator in his day, and respected even by many who did not share his brand of conservativism- on C-Span, lamenting the fact that too many politicians  today must spend an increasing portion of their time in fund- raising, rather than deliberation. In addition, spin doctors and media consultants have helped fashion a politics of sound- bites and pseudo events.
                   
                    Even worse,  bipartisanship is gradually becoming a thing of the past. Our politics  is increasingly a matter of taking no prisoners and winning at any cost. As recently as a few years ago , a legislator as liberal as Paul Wellstone was capable of drafting legislation in tandem with men as conservative as Sam Brownback and Pete Domenici. Now bipartisan cooperation is becoming rarer and rarer. Politicians no longer espouse public philosophies;  they are driven by public  ideologies. ( There  is a difference.)

                      Slattery's People may be almost forgotten. However, we must never forget that a healthy democracy needs leaders- and citizens- who are dedicated to public spirited, thoughtful democratic deliberation. It is a lesson we need to relearn today. It may even have been a difficult lesson to learn in the mid-nineteen sixties. After all,  Slattery's People only lasted a season and a half. Viiewers preferred The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The End of The Affair: Thoughts of a (largely) disillusioned Republican

        As most of my friends know, I have been an active Republican for almost all my adult life.  My greatest hero, politically and intellectually, was Abraham Lincoln. In political philosophy, my great exemplars were Burke, John Adams, Michael Oakeshott  and Tocqueville. I have read National Review, fairly faithfully for nearly forty years. I was always quick to defend Dwight D Eisenhower and even Ronald Reagan. I was offended when facile liberal mocked conservative politicians and commentators. I was, in short, a loyal conservative Republican, and I had no problem voting for most Republican candidates. I even held my nose and supported  'Dubyah "..

        However, all that is now changed, changed utterly. A disillusioned Republican has been born. The party I once loved has become alien to me. The reasons for this are complex. For one thing, the teaparty members have driven the party crazy. Their Ayn Rand worshiping Libertarianism  leads  most to despise Teddy Roosevelt . Worse, it leads most of them to despise LINCOLN. Other party factions are just as bad. I am a Christian; at least, I often try to be one. Increasing members of my party espouse a pharisaic biblical literalism. Some are obsessed with fundamentalist readings of Biblical prophecy; others think the world was created in six days slightly over six thousand years ago. Then there are the neo-conservatives geniuses who devised our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

          When we turn from the party's rank and file to its erstwhile leaders, matters become even worse. Look at the would be Presidential candidates. We begin with two reality TV stars:  Donald " Where's the Birth Certificate" Trump and Sarah "Caribou Skinner Blues" Palin. Then there is Tim "Mr Excitement" Pawlenty, Mike  " My successful diet qualifies mne to be President" Huckabee,  and the distinguished historian and Bible scholar Michelle Bachman. The closest thing to a qualified candidate the GOP possesses is Mitt Romney. Granted, he has administrative skills, some intelligence, and a handsome profile, he is also profoundly mistrusted by many of his own party.

            All is not yet quite lost for the party, but it will require mature and responsible leadership, and a rank and file that has learned to eschew a sterile biblical and constitutional fundamentalism. Sadly, neither of these things is  on the horizon anytime soon.

             Having said this, do not think that I have become a Democrat. I have lost my faith; I have not lost my reason.