Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tim Donner Withdraws from U.S. Senate Race

Tim Donner in Richmond
Norman Leahy had the story first at Bearing Drift: 

U.S. Senate candidate Tim Donner has ended his quest for the Republican nomination to succeed retiring Senator Jim Webb.

That leaves four candidates in the Republican field:  former Governor George Allen, Bishop E.W. Jackson, political activist Jamie Radtke, and lawyer David McCormick.  Although Tim Kaine is the likely Democratic nominee, he also faces at least one opponent.

Donner's announcement came at 4:00 p.m, but 45 minutes earlier he telephoned me to give him a personal heads-up.  I took the opportunity to interview him about his decision and about his plans for the future -- including whether he might consider a third-party bid for the U.S. Senate or any other elective office.

The interview has been published in two parts on Examiner.com:
Exit interview, Part I: Senate candidate Tim Donner withdraws from race

and

Exit interview, Part II: U.S. Senate candidate Tim Donner ends campaign
In a part of the interview that was not published, Donner said to me:
Thank you, Rick, and I just want to say I’ve always respected your reporting. You have been more pro-active than almost any of the other journalists that I’ve come to know in the course of this campaign.

One of the things that struck me the most about the media, and I always knew there was a left-wing media bias, that was nothing new to me, but what I didn’t realize was just how lazy so much of the media has been in their unwillingness to do anything more than repeat press releases and poll results and fundraising efforts and FEC reports.

You’ve been out there on the scene, watching people speak, watching them interact, interviewing them in person, and so I have a great deal of respect for the work that you’ve done.
I wasn't seeking praise, but I certainly appreciate it.

I hope the other candidates I have interviewed -- including Allen, Kaine, McCormick, and Radtke -- feel the same way. I do all I can to be fair, even to interview subjects with whom I disagree profoundly (examples include Tim Kaine and Tom Perriello).

By coincidence, Donner's announcement came on the same day that former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson ended his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination and announced he will instead seek the Libertarian Party's nod.


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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas in Milwaukee - 1967

Back in 2008, I offered my recollections of how my family celebrated Christmas as I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s.

Now I have some videos to illustrate those memories.

I have transferred some ancient home movies, filmed with a Super-8 millimeter camera, to digital format. Through them, one can follow the holiday celebrations of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the year 1967.

Yes, 44 years ago. Almost half a century. I was eight years old. I don't remember what it was like to be eight years old, but at least I can see myself then again.

First, the early evening of Christmas Eve. On this occasion, the rotating responsibility of hosting the Czuta family and its branches by marriage (Benkert, Geilenfeldt, Jaeger, Michalak, and Sincere) fell to my parents, so the party was held at our house in Wauwatosa.

Can you believe that one acceptable Christmas present in those days was a decorative ashtray? (Watch carefully and you'll see it.)

Next, my family took to the road -- no doubt leaving the wrapping paper on the floor and half-empty highball glasses on the bar -- to visit with the Sincere family. The first sequence is at my grandparents' home on North 49th Street, with most of my dad's brothers and sisters (especially those who were not yet married) finding their way there as well.

The later sequence is at the home of my Uncle Bill and Aunt Lucy. Note the several pre-teen boys dressed in tacky Batman costumes. (Adam West would appreciate the gesture if not the execution.) Christmas Eve was about the only time that we kids were allowed to stay up well past midnight. My guess is that this footage was shot around 2:00 a.m., even as Santa Claus was gliding up above to deliver his presents to all the good girls and boys.
I'm sure if I uploaded just the 30 seconds or so of the Batman boys, that video would go viral.

Finally, Christmas morning arrives and it is time to open up those presents left behind by St. Nick.

The first 3'30" of this video takes place at the foot of the artificial Christmas tree at my own family's home on West Derby Avenue in Wauwatosa. The gifts that I open up, as toy poodle Tabitha bounds through the discarded wrapping paper, include a toy called "Incredible Edibles" and a "GI Joe Official Space Capsule," commemorating NASA's Gemini program. I also received a bowling ball (it weighed eight pounds, one pound for each year of my age, and did not yet have finger holes drilled into it).

Later, we traveled to the home of my grandparents, Chester and Josephine Michalak, on Spring Drive in Brookfield. Santa left behind a big haul for me and my cousins, Julie and Sheri (my sister, Cathy, and their sister, Jennifer, had not yet been born; our other cousins, Jason and Chris, were more than a decade in the future). Apparently I really liked that tacky Batman costume, since I wore it Christmas morning.
Whether this was a history lesson or simply an exercise in nostalgia, I don't know.

In any case, I wish you a Merry Christmas (1967!) and a Happy New Year!



Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Top Ten Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner Stories for 2011

Much of my effort in on-line reporting during 2011 has been devoted to regular contributions of articles to Examiner.com as the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner.

Last week, I decided to investigate the top ten most popular stories of 2011, based upon the preferences of the readers of the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner, using statistics made available through Google Analytics.  No real patterns emerged.  Several of the favorites were about Virginia politics, others were interviews with national celebrities; the number one story was about a movie.  All of them were published during the calendar year 2011 and none were carryovers from 2010.

Surprisingly, two articles that used "porn" in the headline did not break the top ten:  "Library of Congress collects pornographic films, violent video games" (published November 4) and "Porn king Larry Flynt defends free speech in Charlottesville" (published November 6).

Apparently adult content no longer has the cachet on the Internet that it once had. Not so long ago, using words like "porn," "erotica," "panties," or "scrotum" would be a surefire path to search engine optimization (SEO). Paraphrasing a Supreme Court decision and replacing "penumbra" with "aureola" was pure traffic-enhancing gold. But, it seems, no more.

For reasons of space, I ended up publishing three "Year in Review" articles on Examiner.com, dividing the top ten into groups of three, four, and three.

What follows is just the list of the ten most popular Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner articles of 2011. To see the annotations, please visit the original year in review pieces published on December 16, December 17, and December 18.

#10 - NEH chairman Jim Leach talks about ‘civility’ in Charlottesville
[Published March 17, 2011]

#9 - Disappointment as Va. House subcommittee votes to keep pot possession a crime
[Published January 17, 2011]

#8 - Va. Gov. Bob McDonnell says GOP stands for ‘equal opportunity for all’
[Published October 26, 2011]

#7 - Libertarian writers Welch and Gillespie unveil the ‘Declaration of Independents’
[Published July 19, 2011]

#6 - Virginia’s school supplies ‘tax-free holiday’ more complicated than necessary
[Published August 4, 2011]

#5 - Attorneys Ted Olson, David Boies discuss Proposition 8 and gay marriage at Cato
[Published May 18, 2011]

#4 - Charlottesville write-ins reveal voters’ allegiance, impishness
[Published November 9, 2011]

#3 - Libertarian reactions to the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces
[Published May 2, 2011]

#2 - Gary Johnson wins RLC straw poll, places third in CPAC poll
[Published February 13, 2011]


Drum roll, please...

#1 - 'Atlas Shrugged' movie: Audience reactions mixed, box office returns respectable
[Published April 17, 2011]

Next year will bring new topics, new stories, new personalities and -- eventually -- a new year in review article.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

The Little Typo That Could

Over on the most-neglected of my three blogs, Where Are the Copy Editors?, I have only created one post during the entire calendar year of 2011.  Yet it's proven to be unusually popular, with dozens of hits within a couple of hours of publication.

Headlined "By Far the Best Typo of 2011," it points the reader to a howler of a typographical error in a new book by Craig Shirley called December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World. (Suffice it to say that the book is rife with errors of all sorts. In the chapter I read last night, Shirley used the word "causality" when he meant "casualty." Every page has some kind of mistake like that, and each one could have easily been caught by an editor in the manuscript stage. Such things should never even make it to galley proofs.)

In any case, this very funny typo -- you have to read the original post to get the full impact -- has, relatively speaking, gone viral.  ("Relatively" meaning nowhere near as popular as the Lindsay Lohan Playboy photos.)

I Tweeted a link to the post that was reTweeted by the popular Wisconsin Twitter personality, MissPronouncer.


Then it got picked up elsewhere on Twitter and repackaged with a clever pun:

I'm not sure whether the retweet by @MissPronouncer or the new Tweet by @jbelmont was the driver for it, but the thing is, for a blog that had an average of zero views over the past four weeks, to get 75 or 100 hits within a few hours is, as I say, "viral," in a humble and relative sense.  It's also great fun.

I have not yet finished reading December 1941 but I do wish that I had started with a blue pencil on page one, just to keep track of all the bad editing of an otherwise entertaining and educational book.

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Replying to Critics of My RTD Piece on Theodore Roosevelt

Over the weekend, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published an opinion piece I wrote with the headline, "Why does Obama channel racist TR?"  It ran in six columns across the top of the Op/Ed page on Saturday, accompanied by a photo of Teddy Roosevelt.

In the article, I take note of President Barack Obama's recent speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, a small town that had been the location of an earlier speech (in 1910) by former President Theodore Roosevelt, in which he introduced the phrase "a square deal" as the theme of his upcoming campaign to regain the presidency.

Roosevelt split the Republican party in 1912, forming the Bull Moose party as a vehicle for his planned return to office, while the GOP nominated the incumbent, Roosevelt's hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft.  The divide between factions of the Republican party led to the election of Woodrow Wilson.

The key paragraph in my Times-Dispatch piece was this:
The sad fact is, Theodore Roosevelt was an unabashed racist who celebrated genocide. He was a Nobel Peace Prize winner who glorified war and facilitated the Japanese conquest of Korea. He was a eugenicist who thought only fit people (as he, or the government, defined them) should be able to reproduce.
My point in bringing this up was that it is strange that the country's first African-American president would want to wear the mantle of a man who, according to most accounts (and his own words), held non-white races and non-Anglo-Saxon ethnic groups in contempt.


For my article, I drew on the works of scholars like Thomas J. Dyer, author of Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race. (The fact that a book with a title like that exists should be an indication of Roosevelt's problematic views.) Another historian I cited was Nancy Carnevale, who cited Roosevelt's disdainful views of immigrants from southern Europe in her book, A New Language, A New World: Italian Immigrants in the United States, 1890-1945.

Even the Miller Center at the University of Virginia noted that Roosevelt
did little to preserve black suffrage in the South as those states increasingly disenfranchised blacks. He believed that African Americans as a race were inferior to whites
I also quoted directly from Roosevelt's own writings.

Although I have written articles for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in the past (for instance, "Third Party Resurgence Seems Unlikely," published on August 7, and "America Could Use a Good Dose of Calvin Coolidge," published on July 4, 2010), none has received the kind of reaction that this one has.

There were comments left on the Times-Dispatch web site (and propagated through Facebook) and I also received several emails, some critical, some congratulatory, in reply to my piece.

What follows are replies to most of the comments I received, either directly or through the RTD web site.  If you haven't read the original article yet, it may be helpful to do so before tackling the responses.

One of the emails and one of the commenters took me to task for misrepresenting how Texas came to be part of the United States.

The email correspondent wrote:
Not to make a big issue, but Texas was not 'annexed' by the USA. Texas was an independent nation in 1936 and joined the Union later.
Similarly, a published comment stated:
Texas was a republic, a separate country, from 1836 to 1845. The United States annexed Texas in 1845. Do your homework!
I did, of course, do my homework before mentioning "the annexation of Texas and other territories formerly belonging to Mexico" in my article.

In fact, the United States annexed Texas in 1845. The governing law passed by the U.S. Congress to join Texas to the United States, passed March 1, 1845, was entitled "Joint Resolution for Annexing Texas to the United States." The controlling legislation from the Republic of Texas, passed in convention on July 4, 1845, was called the "Ordinance of Annexation." (The texts of both those laws can be found on the web site of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.)

Another email came from a self-described "retired history teacher."  Given the lapses in grammar, spelling, and punctuation in the message, I print the text in full (first paragraph omitted here but shown later in this post):
Obama our nation's first Black president is trying to say that Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican, who was " progressive" and willing to move forward instead of being like the Republicans today who only move backward or not move at all. It is not about race? Its about vision of the future.

Teddy Roosevelt preached against greed of big business and worked hard to break up monopolies.

No where in your article do you mention that. If Obama understands that, why can't you?

In order for him to be re-elected our country will have to get over the race issue. Too much anti-Obama is about race. For this southern white male, and retired history teacher who supports Obama and will vote for his again no matter who the Republican is. If you think about it, it may be that your article; why would this Republican newspaper use it? To tell everyone not to forget that Obama is Black. You did it for them. Thanks alot.
Other writers (e.g., Jim Powell and Gene Healy) have addressed Roosevelt's domestic policies with regard to business and economics; that wasn't the point of my article, and that's why I did not "mention that."  I chose to write about a different topic.

What I find most odd about this emailer's complaint, however, is that he seems to imply that my article decrying racism had a hidden racist message. If so, he finds more irony in what I wrote than what I found in Barack Obama's wish to emulate a racist politician.

And, if there are Americans who are unaware that President Obama is African-American and need my reminder... well, those people shouldn't be voting in the first place. Ignorance has no place in the voting booth.

Another email correspondent writes:
This morning I read your piece on Teddy Roosevelt. It was an interesting read. Near the end you referenced two quotes from letters Roosevelt wrote, one to Charles Davenport and another to an unnamed recipient. It's my opinion that neither of these quotes supports your argument that Roosevelt was a racist as he not once makes mention of race as a factor in his breeding philosophy. You offer no additional support for how these quotes demonstrate TR's rascist views.
To a certain extent, this point is valid. The quotations about Roosevelt as a eugenicist to not, in themselves, prove he was a racist. But what I was trying to do by citing them is to prove he was a eugenicist, and eugenics was largely (but not entirely) based upon racist beliefs. Prominent eugenicists like Margaret Sanger were not shy at all about expressing the racist (mostly anti-black) roots of their aims.

In that regard, a third correspondent, unaware (I believe) of the others, wrote this:
A year or so ago, I read the book "The Imperial Cruise" by James Bradley, which detailed much of what Roosevelt believed and stood for, his speeches and his actions. He was truly a bully and his beliefs concerning Eugenics, interracial marriages and his encouragement to Japan to become the dominant force in the Pacific were horrifying. By the time I finished the book, I have been wondering how we could blast his face off Mt. Rushmore without damaging any of the remaining three.
One of the commenters on the newspaper's web site seems not to have read the article I wrote because he assets:
TR was no racist. In fact, his views on race unusually progressive just like his politics in general. He believed all people should be treaty like human beings. As for his war record, there was none. In fact, he won a Nobel Peace Prize. Your reading of American history is flawed and biased. He was a patriot.
My high school debate coach taught that "he who asserts must prove." I provided evidence for my contentions, but the commenter does no more than gainsay my argument. This is not argument at all, just contradiction. The fact that I mention the dubious circumstances under which Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize apparently slipped this commenter's grasp altogether.

Other correspondents and commenters rationalize Roosevelt's racist attitudes by suggesting that he was a man of his time or that he was no different than other public figures before or since.

Said one, in an email with the subject line "Your RTD Blog on TR" (has the line between blogging and newspaper opinion-writing become that porous?):
All heroes have feet of clay………………… Grow up………………………. Martin Luther King was a huge racist and adulterer…………………. Why don’t you ponder that for a while.
And another:
The same column could be written about Abraham Lincoln by harping on his placing preservation of the Union above freeing the slaves.

And the same has been said many times of Ronald Reagan, and that is far more relevant to today's political discourse.
And this one, which arrived in my email box after I began composing this blog post:
Mr Roosevelt was a product of his times; employing the teachings of evolution and carrying them out in his beliefs! Evolution teaches that life came from a simpler life form to a more larger and stronger life form. That only the strong survive and the weak fail to continue. Obama simply has no clue about the historical facts of the presidents he desires to emulate and should perform more research before he comapres himself to one of the characters of history.
Finally, the "retired history teacher" cited above began his email to me with this:
By our standards today every white male would have been racist in Rossevelt's time. By that same standard today every Black male would be racist towards whites.
I actually reject that thought. While the turn of the 20th century was no picnic when it comes to race relations -- the reprehensible Virginia state constitution of 1902 is evidence of that -- there were, in fact, principled individuals who believed fully that "all men are created equal" and who worked hard to achieve racial harmony in the face of great odds.


This was the time, remember, when groups like the NAACP had their beginnings. It was also the time, to be sure, of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, which inspired a resurgence of the KKK in the North as well as the South, and the time during which Woodrow Wilson ordered the re-segregation of public facilities in Washington, D.C.

Had it not been for those early pioneers in civic activism, law, and the humanities who fought against racism, jingoism, and eugenics, the accomplishments of the later "civil rights era" of the 1950s and '60s would have been that much harder to achieve. Were it true that "every white male" was racist toward blacks and "every Black male" was racist toward whites in 1900 and the years that followed, the civil rights movement could never have reached the launch stage.

Progress requires a core group of people of good faith who are also kind, thoughtful, fair-minded, and intelligent.  That people like Roosevelt and Wilson lacked those qualities is a good reason for us today to reassess their political legacies.

I am looking forward to any letters to the editor that appear in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in reply to my article. Once they are published, I will post links as an update, below.
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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Yes, But Why Thursday?

Every year about this time, a gently nagging but generally fleeting question crosses my mind.

Why, I wonder, is Thanksgiving celebrated on a Thursday?

The fact that Thanksgiving occurs every year on a Thursday seems so natural -- so divinely ordained -- that we take it for granted.  Even when that question nags me, what I usually do is resolve to check it out on Wikipedia, and then never carry through on the resolution.  (What?  A Thanksgiving resolution?  Seems like cognitive dissonance, especially if, like a typical New Year's resolution, it involves diet and exercise.)

In any case, at long last my question was answered, in an article by Monica Hesse on the front page of Wednesday's Washington Post, in which she discusses the origins and benefits of long holiday weekends.

Looking at the history of Thanksgiving, Hesse reveals why it's always been on Thursday.  Not pre-ordained, as one might expect, but rooted in the mundane:
The first federally endorsed Thanksgiving holiday was the one proclaimed by George Washington in 1789. More than 70 years later, Abraham Lincoln issued his own proclamation. But between those events were decades of relentless lobbying and letter-writing campaigns by Sarah Josepha Hale, a New Hampshirite who made it her life’s mission to formalize the then-ad hoc holiday. (She also wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”)

In Hale’s mid-19th-century heyday, “the only American holidays were Independence Day and Washington’s birthday,” says Penny Colman, who wrote “Thanksgiving: The True Story.” “And those were both military holidays — full of bombs and explosions.” Hale wanted a holiday that would honor domestic tranquility and not, you know, blowing stuff up. Additionally, she wanted it on a Thursday.

Partly, that was to honor George Washington, whose own proclamation had been Thursday-scheduled. The other part? To honor housewives. “Thursday is the most convenient day of the week for a domestic holiday,” Hale wrote in one of her dozens of Thanksgiving editorials. What with all of the washing on Mondays and ironing on Tuesdays, Thursdays seemed like the best opportunity for a homemaker to prepare a meal and still get to hang out with her visiting family.

Hale’s letters are credited with ultimately bending Lincoln’s ear and prompting him to standardize the Thursday feast. Had she opted for Wednesday or Sunday, the country might not know the joys of awkwardly long family gatherings or waiting in line at 5 a.m. on Black Friday for Best Buy’s deeply discounted television sets.
My guess is that more complete information, both on the origins of Thanksgiving as an annual observation and specifically on how it came to be observed on a Thursday each November, can be found in the 2009 book, Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday by James W. Baker, as well as in the book by Penny Colman mentioned in the Post article.
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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Who Killed JFK? Oliver Stone Has Some Theories

It has been nearly 50 years since the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, yet that event always seems like a current topic of conversation.

Oliver Stone
Indeed, it was precisely the topic of conversation earlier this month in Charlottesville, when film director and screenwriter Oliver Stone appeared at the Virginia Film Festival following a 20th-anniversary screening of his 1991 movie, JFK.

That film explores many of the alternative theories of the Kennedy assassination through the real-life character of New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner) and features some of the most offensively stereotypical portrayals of gay characters (played by, among others, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, and Kevin Bacon) that one could expect from a self-described philosophically liberal film maker (see third video, below, and Stone's answer to my question about his personal political views).

Stone was interviewed on the stage of the Culbreth Theatre by Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, which is engaged in its own project marking the fiftieth anniversaries of significant events of the 1960s.  (The project began last year with a forum on the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates.)

I was at the Sabato-Stone colloquy on November 4 and recorded video of the entire event.  Here it is, in two parts.

Part I:

Part II:

Prior to joining Professor Sabato in the auditorium, Stone met with the Charlottesville news media in a rehearsal hall backstage. Here's the video of that exchange of questions and answers:
Considering that newly-published books about the Lincoln assassination (such as one by Fox News talk-show host Bill O'Reilly) are still selling briskly nearly 150 years after that event, we can expect to be airing, debunking, and re-airing Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories for many decades to come.
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Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Live Internet Townhall Tonight with Governor Gary Johnson

I'm unfamiliar with the platform (yowie.com) but tonight at 8:00 p.m. (EDT) (or 5:00 p.m. Pacific time), Republican presidential candidate Gary Johnson will be hosting a live internet townhall.  He is inviting participation from people around the country.

The graphic below should take you to the site.  If not, check out http://www.yowie.com/videochat/58r.


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Blog Action Day 2011 Blog Post: Food

Two years ago, I participated in Blog Action Day for the first time. That year, the topic was "climate change." This year the topic is the less specific "food." (I can imagine plenty of blog posts featuring favorite recipes or odes to chocolate.)

This year Blog Action Day is scheduled to coincide with World Food Day, October 16. According to its own blog, 2,250 bloggers from 100 countries are participating in a global conversation about food.

I thought I might just revisit some of my previous posts about food and beverages. (I missed last year's topic, "water," which is the most common and, arguably, the world's most important beverage.) It turned out there are not many of them, at least not many that have been tagged for easy reference. Still, a few jump out and, as you will see, certain shared themes emerge from them.

My latest food-related item was posted in July, marking National Ice Cream Month. Previous to that (on April 7, 2010) was one that drew attention to a bizarre kind of Easter candy, and the one before that was an odd report about some New Zealand scientists who advised people to eat their pets as a way to save the environment.

It seems that there's something about food in the news that brings out weirdness, since I also noted the existence of "cock soup" on the shelves at Kroger back in June 2009, and in March of that year I wrote about the Oakdale Testicle Festival. Then in October of 2008, there was a report of a political candidate who was denying his opponent's calumnious accusations that he was a vegetarian.

On a more serious note, in the wake of then-current reports of "tainted tomatoes" across the country, in June 2008, I republished an old article of mine about the benefits of food irradiation, a topic that could be revisited in light of the recent listeria-infected cantaloupes scare in the United States. A few days earlier, I looked at the food policy of the U.S. government in a post called "How Congress Makes Us Fat."

Three days previous to that, I looked back at the 1996 Democratic National Convention and how the journalists there engaged in a literal "feeding frenzy" each afternoon, when the DNC hosts laid out a big buffet catered by local Chicago restaurants.

More sentimentally, on February 3, 2008, on what would have been my mother's 70th birthday, I recalled how she liked to entertain with food, particularly on occasions like Super Bowl Sunday.

The previous November, I discovered a favorite recipe of foot-tapping Senator Larry Craig, an odd concoction that involves pushing a hot dog through the center of a baked potato. (I am not making this up.)

More nostalgia came up when I found an article in the Marquette Tribune about a durable Milwaukee tradition, the Friday night fish fry.

One of my favorite odd-food stories was the one about the clergyman who discovered that eating soy products results in homosexuality. (Tofu does what?)

In terms of beverages, my favorite post has to be the one I published on the 25th anniversary of the introduction of New Coke. You would have thought Netflix had learned from that episode before introducing Quikster.

Speaking of anniversaries, it's hard to talk about beverages without talking about alcoholic ones -- so I celebrated the 75th anniversary of the repeal of the Prohibition amendment, on December 5, 2008.

That, of course, suggests cocktails, including the recipe for Alter Kaker, which linguist Michael Wex published as a "Yiddish mixed drink."

In the end, however, realizing the sobriety (no pun intended) of the topic adopted by the people behind Blog Action Day, I decided to focus on the darker side of food -- that is, hunger.

I found a book review I wrote while I was in graduate school about the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s. The Horn of Africa is currently experiencing a serious drought, which is hitting Somalia particularly hard. While parts of Ethiopia and Kenya have also been affected, drought there has not turned into widespread famine as it did in the 1980s because the governments there are now far more responsive to the needs and wants of their people. Ethiopia overthrew the Stalinist Mengistu regime in the early '90s, and Kenya has been having democratic elections since Daniel arap Moi was forced from power more than a decade ago.

Both countries, while far from perfect, are far more open to free enterprise than they were in the 1970s and 1980s, and -- has history has shown -- while drought may occur in free-market economies, drought in such countries does not turn into famine. (Somalia is still a basket case, divided by clan rivalries and beset by terrorist groups with ties to al-Qaeda.)

What follows is my review of Breakfast in Hell, by Myles Harris.

RICHARD SINCERE
A Doctor’s Story Of Deliberate Famine And an African Hitler 

Breakfast in Hell: A Doctor’s Experiences of the Ethiopian Famine, by Myles Harris, Picador, London, $4.85, 221 pp. 


Breakfast in Hell Ethiopia FamineIn the play Man of La Mancha, the poet Cervantes explains what impelled a plain country squire toward becoming the knight Don Quixote: “Being retired, he has much time for books. . . . All he reads oppresses him, fills him with indignation at man’s murderous ways toward man.”

This is one of those books. Breakfast in Hell came to my attention through an article by the author in The Spectator, the British public affairs weekly. The title was “The Regime That Kills Ethiopians,” and that sums up the whole story. It would be extraordinarily difficult to come away from Myles Harris’s account of the state-imposed famine in Ethiopia without profound anger and indignation.

Myles Harris is a medical doctor who has worked all over the world caring for the malnourished, ill-housed, poorly clothed and impoverished people who make up such a large number of us. Prior to his six months in Ethiopia with the Red Cross, he and his wife Janet had worked in undeveloped regions in Papua New Guinea, Australia and the Kalahari Desert.

It is clear from the outset that Harris went to Ethiopia with few, if any, preconceptions of what he would encounter there. The Red Cross needed medical personnel to work in famine areas, and he responded to their call. He had no trouble adopting the apolitical life of a Red Cross delegate and wanted only to help suffering Ethiopians.

He emerged from the country half a year later with bitter feelings toward the Mengistu regime, toward international aid agencies and toward petty Communist Party officials who blocked genuine humanitarian relief; he has fond and loving memories of his Ethiopian co-workers and the farmers, townspeople, young mothers and children he encountered in the feeding camps and medical stations.

Harris writes vividly and pulls no punches. He compares the Emperor Mengistu (as he calls Ethiopia’s Marxist military dictator) to Hitler and Stalin; indeed, reading some of the descriptions of Mengistu’s atrocities makes one think Adolph and Joe were mere pranksters.

For instance: The Soviets, as part of their aid to keep him on his throne, sent a unit of the East German Volkspolizei, “a secret police force with one of the finest pedigrees in suppression in the world. . . . At the time of the Ethiopian terror in 1977, some of the most senior Volkspolizei officers had once been serving members of the Gestapo. For, at the end of the Second World War, the capitulation of half the Third Reich to the Russians had meant little more for them than. . . swapping a swastika for a red star, before it was business as usual.”

The business these ex-Gestapo henchmen taught Mengistu was the need for a memorable terror to bring all Ethiopians into his iron grip. “Mengistu searched his heart for the most terrible thing he could do to bring his people through fear to the truth of Marxism-Leninism, and he thought of burial. Ethiopians hold burial to be one of the most important rites of life. To die unburied, to be forgotten in death, is so awful that even today those who whisper to you their memories of the Terror can hardly bring themselves to speak of this part of it…. [Mengistu] ordered that the bodies of the slain should lie unburied, and that those who tried to take them for burial were themselves to be slaughtered. One morning, the people of Addis woke to streets filled with corpses and a sky dark with vultures.” Later, “the lampposts were strung with corpses, not of men, but of young school boys who had tried and failed to rescue their fathers’ and brothers’ bodies for burial. . . . When it was over, of the 5,000 students at the University of Addis Ababa, only 1,500 were still alive.”

That excerpt exposes the minds of men who would, among other things, padlock food warehouses for days and weeks, refusing to give relief workers access to the tools of their trade; who would refuse hospital admission to obviously sick and dying children whose parents lacked the proper papers from the local farmers’ association, papers that took five days or longer to obtain; who would ship truckloads of grain from the famine-stricken north of the country to the healthier and more fertile south, where it was stored for unknown reasons -- perhaps for later shipment to the masters in Moscow. These are men who forbid the sale of yeast to Ethiopian citizens in order to secure a government monopoly on the baking and selling of bread.

Harris spares nearly no one from his understated but strongly felt wrath. The Red Cross and other relief agencies get criticism for trying too hard to work with and please the government -- a government that wants to keep the Red Cross from doing its job. At one point, he tries to explain this to his superiors:

“We had done exactly what we had been instructed to do by Geneva: emptied the camps of all except the very ill and returned the rest of the people to their villages.

“But each success would have found little favor with the Ethiopians. Suddenly, they had been washed into the center of a disaster worse than the First World War.

Confused and frightened, their only remedy -- huge feeding programs -- seemed the only rock to cling to. Then we came along and tried to close down their camps. Closing down their operation implied their failure, and, as in most aid programs, threatened bureaucratic livelihoods. Famine camps meant foreign aid, foreign aid meant jobs.”

Hitler, Stalin and Mao share one positive characteristic — they are all dead. But Mengistu and the communists who rule Ethiopia with him are alive and dripping with the blood of their countrymen. Why, then, do Western governments, the United Nations and Bob Geldof’s Band-Aid continue to send them money that perpetuates their tyranny?

Richard Sincere, a Washington writer, is currently pursuing post-graduate studies in international relations at the London School of Economics.
NOTE: This review originally appeared in the Washington Times on Monday, June 1, 1987, and in the New York City Tribune on Wednesday, June 3, 1987. It has been crossposted from Book Reviews by Rick Sincere, where it appeared on January 9, 2010.


Saturday, October 15, 2011

Ballot Petitioning for GOP Presidential Candidate Gary Johnson

Today my friend from Nelson County, Doug Hornig, and I spent about two hours on Charlottesville's downtown mall collecting petition signatures to put the name of former New Mexico Governor Gary E. Johnson on the Republican presidential primary ballot in Virginia.  The primary election is scheduled to take place on March 6, 2012.

For a long time I have said that the hardest job in politics -- with the exception of asking people for money to finance an election campaign -- is collecting petition signatures.  Over the past 20 years, I have probably gathered thousands of such signatures, both for candidates and for ballot measures.  To do so requires an ability to deflect rejection with aplomb (or at least not take it too seriously).  Most people are unfailingly polite, even if they refuse to sign, but even in the course of a few hours, one is likely to encounter a surly character who makes it clear that he holds you or your candidate or cause in disdain.  It's best just to ignore such people and return to the task. 

Petitioning is not an appropriate time for campaigning or engaging people on the issues or the merits of your candidate. If people ask for information, give as much as necessary to help them decide whether to sign, but focus on the goal of gathering as many signatures as possible in the shortest period of time, because the actual campaign can proceed only if your candidate qualifies to be on the election ballot.

On the flip side, however, comes the pleasure that circulating petitions in a place like downtown Charlottesville offers an opportunity to interact with friends and neighbors.  It's practically inevitable that in Charlottesville, you run into people you know.  Indeed, today, I chatted briefly with Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Wagner; local activist (and actor -- check out Superior Donuts at Live Arts beginning next week) Sean McCord; locavore, hunter, and author Jackson Landers; and Jack Faw, who brought the Ron Paul blimp to the Charlottesville area during the 2008 presidential campaign. It was fun to see them all, perhaps mostly because it was so unexpected.

Another unexpected thing was discovering that Charlottesville's downtown mall is not a gathering place for locals alone.  I collected about 35 signatures but only a small fraction came from people who live in the city of Charlottesville or Albemarle County.

It seems that on sunny autumn days, Charlottesville is a destination for people from all over Virginia.  The signatures I gathered today came from residents of Loudoun, Greene, Augusta, Bedford, Chesterfield, Clarke, Greene, King William, Loudoun, Louisa, Rockingham, and Spotsylvania counties, as well as the cities of Richmond, Suffolk, and Virginia Beach.

On the back of my clipboards, I have "Gary Johnson for President" in large block letters, two photos of Governor Johnson from his visit to Charlottesville, and his campaign web site address, www.GaryJohnson2012.com.  I don't have any literature to hand out but I did write the web site URL on both sides of the Free Speech Monument chalkboard near City Hall.

My usual pitch is simply to ask, "Are you registered voters in Virginia?"  If the answer is yes, I say, "We're collecting signatures to put Governor Gary Johnson on the ballot for the March presidential primary.  This isn't an endorsement or a promise to vote for him, just saying you'd like to give him a chance to compete with the other candidates."

At that point, some people say, "Sure, I'll sign."  Others ask, "Who is Gary Johnson?" and that gives me an opportunity to explain that he served two terms as governor of New Mexico, he climbed Mount Everest, he's a successful entrepreneur.  If necessary, I'll size up the voter and quickly decide whether to mention specific issues, such as Governor Johnson's success at shrinking the size of New Mexico's state government, his plan to allocate Medicaid and Medicare to the states in the form of block grants so they can be "laboratories of innovation" and "laboratories of best practices," and his opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

With others -- such as the couple selling tie-dyed t-shirts near the carousel -- I simply point out that Governor Johnson favors legalizing marijuana.  (That line got me more than a few signatures today.)

Grassroots supporters of Gary Johnson in Virginia will continue to collect ballot petition signatures until the turn-in deadline of December 22.  A good many volunteers will be deployed at polling places on Election Day (Tuesday, November 8) all over the state.  That day will be particularly fruitful because virtually every person you meet in those locations will be registered voters from a particular location, meaning that each signature is pre-qualified and categorized by city or county, which is required by State Board of Elections rules.

Anyone who is interested in participating in the Gary Johnson presidential petition drive in Virginia can learn more about the process and express interest in volunteering at the "Virginia Grassroots for Gary Johnson 2012" or the "Virginia for Gary Johnson" Facebook groups.  There is also a Virginia for Gary Johnson Meetup group.  (Meetup.com was instrumental in the early momentum of Howard Dean's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 and for Ron Paul's juggernaut in 2008.)

Like those of all other statewide candidates, Gary Johnson's supporters have to collect 10,000 signatures, including 400 from each of Virginia's eleven congressional districts, by the December 22 deadline.

Readers may also like:
Gary Johnson's Pursuit of Scrappiness
Governor Gary Johnson Plays 'Not My Job' on NPR
Gary Johnson on WINA's 'The Schilling Show'
Gary Johnson Speaks at CPAC 2010
Former NM Governor Gary Johnson to Speak in Charlottesville
RLC Videos: Peter Schiff and Gary Johnson

Gary Johnson wins RLC straw poll, places third in CPAC poll
Examiner.com exclusive: Gary Johnson reflects on his first visit to Jefferson's Monticello
CPAC bars GOProud; presidential candidate Gary Johnson presciently weighs in
At the 9/12 March on Washington: Former NM Gov. Gary Johnson aims 'to put a voice to the outrage'
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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Frank Kameny: A Life of Consequence

Dr. Franklin Kameny
Most people live their lives while history happens around them. A few people live their lives to make history happen.

Frank Kameny was one of those amazing few who make history happen.

Kameny died yesterday at age 86. He was a pioneering advocate and activist for equal rights for gay citizens and he passed away -- ironically or poetically -- on National Coming Out Day, observed each year on October 11.

I first met Frank Kameny about 20 years ago, when he was one of the speakers on a large panel assembled by Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty in the District of Columbia city council chambers to discuss the platform of the upcoming national march for gay and lesbian rights, which eventually was held in April 1993. Kameny, though a diehard liberal whose views were forged in the fires of the New Deal and World War II, railed against the proposed platform's venturing into issues barely peripheral to the core questions of gay equality - things like "universal health care" and "sexism in medical research," as well as a laundry list of New Left demands that were, in large part, eventually discarded from the final platform statement.  Some of the people at that meeting rolled their eyes and openly wondered why this crotchety old man (he was just 66 years old at the time) was bothering them with his retrograde actions.  Someone actually asked me why he had been invited.  I said he was invited because, were it not for him, the rest of us would not be here.

Later in the 1990s, Frank and I ended up on the same email discussion list. He weighed in on the issues of the past fifteen years in the same way he had lived his life: with ferocity and passion and a refusal to accept any situation simply because "that's the way it's always been done." He scoffed at "tradition" as a reason for anything, pointing out that if we had continued to maintain the traditions of our ancient ancestors, we'd be living in caves and roasting our enemies over firepits.

It was his fundamental perseverance that brought him -- and all gay and lesbian people in his wake -- to the point we are today.

Imagine this: When Frank Kameny was fired from his job as a government astronomer simply because he was gay, he was the first person to have the audacity to stand up and demand to get his job back, suing the government and writing his own brief requesting certiorare from the U.S. Supreme Court. (That petition is available on Amazon.com in a Kindle edition.)

He and colleagues organized the Mattachine Society in Washington a few years after that group first emerged in Los Angeles. Because meetings of homosexuals were illegal in those days, he personally (and audaciously) invited the local police and FBI to attend.

He and friends were the first to march in front of the White House to demand equal rights for gay Americans.  They also took their placards to march in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia during tourist season, a move steeped in symbolism.  ("We hold these truths to be self-evident:  that all men are created equal...")

When sexual relations were still illegal between persons of the same gender -- that is, when sodomy laws were still on the books and the Supreme Court had not yet ruled, in Lawrence v. Texas, that they were unconstitutional -- Frank went on the radio and solicited everyone in the listening audience, including, he specified, any law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and elected officials, to engage with him in an act of sodomy of their choice. No one ever took him up on his invitation (at least not that he revealed), and he was never arrested for that brazen act of solicitation to commit a felony.

In his lifetime, Frank Kameny moved from a world in which the government and all private employers could fire you for being gay; in which marriage of gay people was illegal everywhere; and where it was illegal for patriotic gay Americans to serve in the military.

Half a century after he took up the cause, sodomy laws have been wiped off the books; six states and the District of Columbia, plus numerous foreign countries (including Spain, Portugal, and South Africa) allow gay people to marry; and the notorious Don't Ask Don't Tell policy that banned gay servicemembers has been repealed.  Eventually, the government formally apologized for treating him so cruelly.

All this happened, in large part, because of Frank Kameny's dogged determination and insistence that "no" is not the right answer to demands for equality and freedom. He did not do it alone -- that credit belongs to hundreds and thousands of ordinary folks who themselves realized that "no" is unacceptable -- and he would have been the first to admit that his own efforts, by themselves, were insufficient.

But, boy, were they necessary.

Last year I had dinner with Frank and some friends. While we were waiting to be seated, I pulled out my voice recorder and asked him a few questions about his life. That interview resulted in three articles for Examiner.com, one of which was cited this morning in the Washington Post's obituary of Frank. (In fact, I learned of his death last night shortly after 10:00 o'clock, when a Post reporter called me up to ask for my reaction to the news. That is not the gentlest way to find out a friend is dead.)

One question I asked him was one that had troubled me for a long time. After he lost his job with the government and became a full-time activist, I wondered, how did he make a living? How did he earn enough to make ends meet? Here's his reply, from the raw transcript, most of which has not been previously published:
That’s a good question.

Incidentally, you know, a few months ago, last June, after mulling it over for 52 years, what was the Civil Service Commission, now the OPM [Office of Personnel Management], gave me a beautiful, full-page letter apologizing for their shameful (their word) act in firing me. I was tempted to ask, apropos of your question, for 52 years’ back pay.

... The firing occurred at the very end of ’57, maybe the very first months of ’58, and the next two years or so were very difficult. There was a period of eight months in ’59 when I was living on 20 cents of food a day, which even at ’59 prices was not much.

I had a degree in physics, optics, my bachelor’s degree is in physics, my master’s and Ph.D., as you probably know is in astronomy. I got a series of jobs over the next decade, three or four of them, in that. However, because of the Eisenhower 1953 executive order 10450, which we finally persuaded Clinton to reverse – and that’s a whole [other] story – over the next 40 years, but because of that I was unable to get a security clearance, which meant that I had a number of edgy jobs, companies that went out from under me.

Meanwhile, however, I began to get increasingly involved, starting in ’61, with the gay movement of the time, and got moving, and through most of the Sixties, it amounted [to] -- speaking figuratively -- I was a physicist from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon on weekdays, and I was a gay activist in the evenings and on weekends. But the activism gradually took over things.

The Seventies were very, very difficult financially. At the very end – ’78, ’79, ’80 – my mother gave me some stocks and they gave me an income. I wasn’t rolling in wealth, but the Eighties and through the Nineties, I was comfortable.

My mother died in ’97 and then left me some additional funds. But then I just -- I was going to invest those bonds or something, and I would have been very comfortable, again not rolling in wealth but OK. Just about that time ... what has been called the dot-com bubble burst and all at once in early 2000, I ended up with very little. Most of a million dollars just disappeared and the ten years since then -- it’s almost exactly ten years-- financially speaking, has been a nightmare.

People have helped out. They’ve been generous. It’s very edgy. It’s been very, very, very difficult and awkward.

A lot of money came in from getting my papers over to the Library of Congress. That brought in some other money, but still, I don’t sleep soundly at night.

Obviously, as you know, I’m good at some things, but a financial wizard I’m not. I don’t know how it’s all going to work out. Hopefully, something will come along.
Thus it is that Frank Kameny, once an outcast from polite society -- or so the government would have had you think -- had his home in Northwest Washington designated as a historical landmark; his papers have been enshrined in the Library of Congress; his gay-rights memorabilia are in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution; and a street near Dupont Circle bears his name.

I've noted elsewhere that, even on some issues of concern to gay people, Frank and I seldom saw eye-to-eye.  He was, after all, a New Deal liberal and I'm a libertarian.  But where we could agree was that all Americans deserve to be treated with equal dignity and respect regardless of their sexual orientation.  Gay is good, Frank said, paralleling the 1960s slogan "Black is beautiful."

Gay is good -- a fitting epitaph for a man who did what is right in spite of the odds, even at the cost of substantial personal sacrifice.  He will be missed by those who knew him.  Those who did not know him, but who benefited from his efforts, should wish they had.

Here are the links to my Examiner.com interview with Frank Kameny:
Gay-rights pioneer Franklin Kameny remembers his civil disobedience – Part I
Gay-rights pioneer Franklin Kameny remembers his civil disobedience – Part II
World War II veteran Franklin Kameny remembers his experience with 'don't ask, don't tell'
Among the many tributes to Frank appearing in print and on line today, I noticed two reminiscences by our mutual friends, Jon Rowe and John Corvino. The Huffington Post also has a piece that intriguingly links Frank Kameny with the Talmud, written by James Peron, president of the Moorfield Storey Institute.

Plans for a memorial service have not yet been released, but it has been suggested that the (non-religious -- Frank insisted) service coincide with the previously planned 50th anniversary party for the Mattachine Society of Washington on November 15.

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