Category Archives: Culture

ASSESSING TEDDY ROOSEVELT

Future generations may look back at 2020 as the Year of Madness. In the name of racial justice, statues of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant – the two men most responsible for the eradication of American slavery – have been defaced. The destruction in Madison, Wisconsin of the monument to Hans Christian Heg may mark the nadir of the inanity. Heg, a Norwegian immigrant, devoted his life to the abolitionist cause, fought bravely in several Civil War battles, and died leading a charge against a numerically superior Confederate force. His statue was torn down, decapitated, and thrown into a lake.

The equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt at the entrance of the American Museum of Natural History is another target of our national Cultural Revolution. The monument features Roosevelt on horseback, with a Native American on one side and an African on the other, both on foot. According to James Earle Fraser, the sculptor, the two figures at Roosevelt’s side “are guides symbolizing the continents of Africa and America, and … stand for Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” According to John Russell Pope, the Museum architect, the three figures together comprise “a heroic group.”

Teddy Roosevelt Statue

The statue will be removed because some object to the fact that Roosevelt occupies a position of prominence, seated in the center on horseback while his Indian and African guides stand on either side. The configuration, socially conscious critics insist, signifies that the Indian and African are inferior.

Of course there is another, less contentious explanation for Roosevelt’s central placement:  the statue was erected to honor him. Roosevelt was a devoted conservationist and the author of many books on natural history. As President, he placed some 230 million acres of land under protection. His father was a co-founder of the Museum, which has enjoyed a long association with the Roosevelt family. He occupies the central position for the same reason a newly wedded couple occupies the center of a family photograph. It doesn’t signify that the family members off to the sides are inferior; it simply means that they are not the main subject of the photograph.

The fact that removal has been ordained by the Museum Board itself, rather than by a mob, should fool no one. The Board acted under the same pressure animating the rest of our Cultural Revolution.

Rather than organize counter-mobs to protect such statues, perhaps the best response may be to use these events to educate the public.  As the destruction of the Hans Christian Heg statue demonstrates, much of the current madness arises from plain ignorance. The best cure for ignorance is knowledge. Continue reading

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WINSTON CHURCHILL’S LIFE MATTERED

In the wake of the George Floyd killing, protests have erupted around the world. Now Winston Churchill has been caught up in the maelstrom.

His monument in London’s Parliament Square has been boarded up after protesters daubed “was a racist” in red paint on it. His granddaughter Emma Soames told the BBC that the statue may have to be placed in a museum for its own protection.

The Churchill monument is by no means alone in attracting controversy. Confederate statues have been removed or covered with graffiti all over the South. Statues of Columbus have been toppled or vandalized in Miami, Richmond, and St. Paul. Those actions, whatever one might believe about their propriety, are at least understandable. It is hard to make sense of some of the other statue protests. In Boston, a memorial to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first black volunteer infantry unit in the Civil War, was defaced, and a petition to take down a statue of Abraham Lincoln has attracted 7,000 signatures. In Leicester, England,  a petition to remove a statue of Churchill’s erstwhile foe Mahatma Gandhi has received nearly 5,000 signatures.

One can only say, with Mark Antony: “Mischief, thou art afoot. Take thou what course thou wilt.”

But is the assault on Churchill’s monument mere mischief? Or was he in fact a racist?

In these times of upheaval and uncertainty, an answer of absolute conviction is due. So the only proper response to that question is an adamant: “Yes, but.”

Churchill Monument

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HER FINEST HOUR

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, known by her professional name Queen Elizabeth II, spoke to the world about the Covid-19 pandemic Sunday night. Her speech demonstrated why modern skeptics – including small-d democrats and small-r republicans — still find themselves awestruck by the ancient institution of monarchy.

Of course, Queen Elizabeth is not just any monarch. She carries with her person the aura of lengthy history. When she first addressed her realm she was a 14-year old Princess. World War II was in its early stages, Winston Churchill had been Prime Minister for only 5 months, the United States was neutral, and Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany were cooperative partners in a non-aggression pact. Her speech was designed to comfort evacuated British children who had been sent to the Commonwealth nations and the United States for safety. The broadcast was Churchill’s idea. He thought to use the young Princess to charm America into entering the war on Britain’s side.

On her 21st birthday, when she addressed her people again, she spoke as a confident young woman, who was nobody’s tool. She said: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”

Her life has certainly been long. She is almost 94 years old. She has ruled Great Britain and the Commonwealth for 68 years, longer than any other British monarch: 20 years longer than her namesake Queen Elizabeth I, and 5 years longer than her paternal great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria.

Her reign has had its share of successes and scandals, of family heroism and squalor. Just a few months ago, before anyone had heard of Covid-19, the press was full of stories about Prince William, Kate Middleton, Meghan Markle, and Prince Harry: where they were living, who was talking to whom, and other such delectable irrelevancies. None of that seems to matter now. On Sunday night, the Queen spoke as if her long and eventful life had been a preparation for the moment.

Queen Elizabeth

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WHY NOT A 1776 PROJECT?

Last August, the New York Times launched The 1619 Project, an ambitious effort to educate the public on the role of slavery in shaping America. The Project began with an issue of the Times Sunday Magazine devoted entirely to the subject of slavery. It has grown to include a podcast, and curriculum materials for schools. A book is planned. There is reason to believe that a generation of young, impressionable students will form their historical outlooks based on the Project.

Its title says much about its purpose: to challenge the notion that 1776 is the birth year of America. According to the Times, 1619, when slaves are said to have first arrived on our shores, “is the country’s very origin.”

It’s worth noting at the outset that the title of the Project may be misplaced.  According to Professor Nell Painter, the first Africans to arrive on our shores in 1619 were indentured servants, not slaves — a status they shared with many impoverished white arrivals. Racialized slavery did not emerge in Virginia until the 1660s. But setting aside the question of dates, the abominable institution of slavery took root in the New World and two centuries would pass before it was extirpated.

chains

Now any project that aims to educate the public on our nation’s history should be lauded. Much of the information imparted by the 1619 Project is thought-provoking and valuable. But its central theme should not go unchallenged.

Project creator Nickole Hannah-Jones, in her introductory essay, describes this theme:

Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South…. In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if the founders … had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue. … [S]ome might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.

If these statements were true, if the purpose of the American Revolution was to preserve slavery, then our nation was founded in evil, and every American should properly feel some element of shame in his or her heritage.

But these statements are not true. They are wrong. Continue reading

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TIME TO RETIRE PEOPLE ‘OF COLOR’?

People “of color” are everywhere. We are here referencing the term, not the people.  “Debate so white: candidates of color miss out as Democratic field narrows” a recent headline in The Guardian informs us. “Physicians of color are far too rare” worries the Philadelphia Inquirer. “People of color win majority of acting Oscars for the first time in history” announced the headline of Entertainment Weekly in the wake of the awards last February.

The history of the term “of color” is, well, colorful. Its use dates back at least as far as the 1790s, when French colonists coined the term “gens de couleur” to refer to light-skinned people of mixed African and European heritage. In the Deep South, freed blacks called themselves “people of color” to distinguish themselves from African slaves. During the Civil War, Frederick Douglass gave a speech in Rochester, New York, entitled “Men of Color, To Arms!” urging African Americans to enlist in the Union Army.

MEN OF COLOR TO ARMS

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ERDOGAN THREW IT ON THE GROUND

I go to my favorite hot dog stand
And the dude says,
“You come here all the time! Here’s one for free”
I said, “Man! What I look like? A charity case?”

I took it and threw it on the ground!
I don’t need your handouts!
I’m an adult!
Please!
You can’t buy me hot dog, man!

The Lonely Island (“Threw it on the Ground”)

In his Threw It On the Ground video, Adam Samberg demonstrates to an energy drink salesman, a hot dog vendor, his girlfriend, and others, that he is not a man to be trifled with. Whether he is handed a free sample drink, a complimentary hot dog, or a cellphone on which his Dad is calling, he shows his fierce independence by throwing it on the ground.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not exactly throw President Donald Trump’s October 9, 2019 letter on the ground, but he was animated by the same defiant spirit when he visited the White House and returned the letter to its author.

Adam Samberg   Erdogan

In fairness to the Turkish President, President Trump’s letter could be viewed, much like the hot dog man’s gesture, as an attempt to buy him. The U.S. leader had written that in return for halting his invasion of Syria, Trump would help him “make a great deal.”  Not only that, but also: “History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way.”  He warned him not to be “a tough guy” or “a fool.”

According to early reports, Erdogan threw the letter, not on the ground, but in the garbage bin. Continue reading

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HARVARD’S BILL OF RIGHTS PROBLEM

On May 5, 1941, in the bleakest days of World War II, with most of Europe under Nazi or Communist domination, Life Magazine devoted its cover story to Harvard University. The article began portentously:

The names of Alexandria, Padua, Paris, Heidelberg, Gottingen, Oxford and Cambridge are deathless, because each in its time has been a world center for man’s learning and his search for truth. To that roll has been added the name of Harvard, America’s oldest, the New World’s greatest and the world’s richest university. Today it stands alone. On the European continent the universities have been engulfed by a tyranny that recognizes no truth but the perversion of propaganda …. In the fourth year of its fourth century, Harvard must re-examine the purposes that justify its existence, count its resources and consider how it shall serve man in his unknown future.

The article deemed Harvard mankind’s academic beacon, its last best hope to preserve the flame of free inquiry in a darkening age.Life Magazine

Things haven’t quite worked out that way.

Visit Harvard today and one sees, not the last best hope for free inquiry, but an environment hostile, if not toxic, to the Bill of Rights and the values underlying them.

The latest symptom occurred in the aftermath of a demonstration calling for the abolition of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The demonstration was staged by Harvard College Act on a Dream, an immigrant advocacy group. It attracted a crowd of about one hundred people. The Harvard Crimson, the main campus newspaper, published a generally sympathetic story, quoting several of the organizers, one of whom happened to be a Crimson editorial executive.

And there the story, like the event, would have quickly faded — but for the inclusion in the article of one, seemingly routine sentence: “ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night.” Continue reading

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LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS NAMES

Pumpsie Green has died at the age of 85. He was famous as the first black baseball player hired by the last major league baseball team to integrate its roster. That team was the Boston Red Sox, and its delay may explain why it suffered an 86-year drought without winning a World Series.

Pumpsie Green

But Pumpsie Green deserves remembrance for a different reason: his name.

In ancient times, the names of gods and heroes revealed some quality of their divinity. For children, to whom professional baseball players rank with gods and heroes, athletes’ names perform a similar task.

From 1959 to 1966, the Red Sox never had a winning season. Pumpsie Green was signed during that drought, and before one saw him play at Fenway Park, his talents were predictable. He would be loose-limbed and agile. He would prowl the infield and nothing would get by him. A man named Pumpsie would not be a power hitter. But he would be fast on the bases. And so he was. On his first time up in the majors, he tripled.

Pumpsie Green was not unique. Other gods of that age also bore names befitting their personae.

Frank Malzone played third base. His name told you that he was all business. One pictured him playing with a cigar clenched in his mouth, never smiling. A man named Malzone was not to be trifled with. If you hit to third, you had no chance to reach first.

There was their Bill Monbouquette, a four-time all-star. On hearing his name, one imagined him dancing on the mound, befuddling hitters with his variegated rhythm. His teammate Dick Radatz was another, more frightening story. He stood 6’6” and simply obliterated hitters. His name evoked a creature from science fiction, emitting deadly gamma rays.

In 1967, the world changed. Dick Williams took over a team that had finished next to last, with a dismal 72 – 90 win/loss record, a team that ranked 8th out of 10 in League attendance. Under Williams, that same team would win the American League Pennant and boast the highest paid attendance despite playing in the smallest stadium.

There were legends like Carl Yastrzemski, Rico Petrocelli, and Jim Lonborg. But the more ordinary players with the resonant names deserve to be remembered.

Jerry Adair. Of course, anyone named Adair would play with agility and grace. And you could count on his audacity at the plate. Yastrzemski called him the coolest clutch hitter in the game.

Joe Foy. An infielder with that name would be a happy warrior, playing with flair and joy.

Billy Rohr. The name was meant to startle. And so he did. In his debut game against the Yankees, he was one strike away from an unprecedented no-hitter when Elston Howard blooped a single to right. He retired the next batter for a one-hitter. He won one more game, and then his growl faded and he vanished from the game.

Elston Howard

Speaking of Elston Howard. The same player who spoiled Rohr’s debut, joined the Red Sox in August 1967. He was 38 years old – ancient by professional baseball standards – and his career already spanned 19 years in the Negro Leagues and major league baseball, where he became the first black player hired by the New York Yankees. He was, in other words, an elder statesman whose very name evoked the stature and dignity of a British nobleman. And the veteran catcher lived up to it. In one storied night in Chicago, Boston held a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the ninth. With one out, and the speedy Ken Berry at third, pinch hitter Duane Josephson hit a fly ball to short right. Jose Tartabull, a man not known for his arm, caught it. As Berry tagged, Tartabull sent an arcing throw to the plate. There stood Elston Howard, solid and imperturbable, the very embodiment of his lordly name. Sir Elston leapt high to catch the throw, blocked Berry, and swept the tag to complete a game-ending double play.

Chicago Manager Eddie Stanky rushed from the dugout to protest, in vain. Eddie Stanky. Of course, legendary villains bore revealing names too.

Another villain was Harmon Killebrew, one of the most feared sluggers in the majors. His name oozed mayhem and murder. Of course he was nicknamed “The Killer.” In the final weekend of the 1967 season, Killebrew’s Minnesota Twins led the Red Sox by a single game. The teams were slated to play two games, so Boston had to win each one. Killebrew homered in the first game, and got two hits in both games. But Boston, powered by Yastrzemski (7 for 8) prevailed, winning both games, and the Pennant.

Were the baseball legends of the 50s and 60s actually graced with names more revealing of their talents than modern athletes are?  It seems so, but perhaps it was just a matter of being less visible. Since fewer games were televised, many youngsters “watched ” night games by smuggling transistor radios beneath their pillows. Baseball players were not as much seen as they were imagined. And their names lent guidance to their young fans’ imaginations.

Farewell Pumpsie Green. Your name will be forever remembered and honored. Farewell to all the legends whose names evoke their stories.

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HISTORY AND ITS DISCONTENTS

In 1940, when Great Britain stood alone against the Nazi juggernaut, France lay conquered, the United States was officially neutral, and the Soviet Union was tied by treaty to Germany, Winston Churchill recruited history to cheer his countrymen and stiffen their spines. In a September 1940 radio broadcast, as invasion loomed, Churchill said:

We must regard the next week or so as a very important period in our history. It ranks with the days when the Spanish Armada was approaching the Channel, and Drake was finishing his game of bowls; or when Nelson stood between us and Napoleon’s Grand Army at Boulogne. We have read all about this in the history books; but what is happening now is on a far greater scale and of far more consequence to the life and future of the world and its civilisation than these brave old days of the past.

Churchill could speak in this fashion because, not only was he well versed in British history, he knew his listeners were too. He knew that they knew who Drake and Nelson were.  And he knew that British schoolchildren found pride and inspiration in their country’s long history.

Churchill

It’s harder for American leaders to follow his example. For one thing, American schoolchildren do not learn much history, and their ignorance follows them into adulthood.

A recent study by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that only one in three Americans (36 percent) can actually pass a multiple choice test consisting of items taken from the U.S. Citizenship Test, which most immigrants pass easily. (Example: “Identify whether Rhode Island, Oregon, Maine, or South Dakota is a state that borders Canada.”)

Only 13 percent of those surveyed knew when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, even on a multiple-choice exam similar to the citizenship exam. About 60 percent didn’t know which countries the United States fought in World War II. Seventy-two percent of respondents either incorrectly identified or were unsure of which states were part of the original 13. Only 24 percent could correctly identify one thing Benjamin Franklin was famous for, with 37 percent believing he invented the lightbulb. Twelve percent thought World War II General Dwight Eisenhower led troops in the Civil War, while 6 percent thought he was a Vietnam War general. Fortunately, only two percent identified climate change as the cause of the Cold War.

If it’s any consolation (and it isn’t), the situation is no better in Great Britain. If Churchill were alive today, he would have to find something other than history to leaven his oratory. In a 2008 survey of British teenagers (cited in Andrew Roberts’s excellent biography of the man), 20 percent thought Churchill was a fictional character, while 58 percent thought Sherlock Holmes and 47 percent thought Eleanor Rigby were real people. Continue reading

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CHERNOBYL’S LESSONS

Socialism, an economic system with an unbroken record of failure, still succeeds in attracting adherents. One recent poll reveals that among members of Generation Z, slightly more have a positive reaction to socialism (61%) than to capitalism (58%).

In our hemisphere, Cuba and Venezuela stand out as stark monuments to the miseries inflicted by socialism. In Cuba, thousands of opponents were put “up against the wall” to be shot by firing squads, and thousands more are in prison today. In Venezuela, the government recently ordered the military to run over its own people, as they protested in the streets. But this is not what young people have in mind when they profess admiration for socialism. And, in fairness, they have a point. All socialist systems fail, but not all socialist regimes murder and imprison their people.

A better illustration of how socialism works — or doesn’t work — appears in the HBO miniseries Chernobyl.

Chernobyl gas mask

The city of Chernobyl is not Havana or Caracas. Rather, it brings to mind the reaction of the heroine in Ayn Rand’s We the Living  upon first hearing the words of the “Internationale”: “They were not intoxicating as wine, they were not terrifying as blood. They were gray as dishwater.” Chernobyl is a dishwater city. The buildings are decaying. Paint peels from the walls.  Everything rusts and corrodes. Men’s suits, even those of high ranking government officials, are dowdy and ill-fitting.

These physical attributes match the mental characteristics of the Party apparatchiks who run the place.  These are gray dishwater men, whose primary purpose in life is to avoid doing anything for which they might possibly be blamed. Continue reading

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