Sunday, June 24, 2012

As If Hitler Still Walked This Earth

A few months ago I blogged: "Lenin, Hitler and Stalin collectively make today’s mass murder look like child’s play." But, today I realized that's not quite right. Reading "Peacekeepers At War" in this weekend's Wall Street Journal I was reminded that "the unrest in Congo has claimed more than five million lives since the late 1990's - most of them civilians from starvation and disease..."

The article deals with how the UN's peacekeeping role has changed to more aggressive tactics. "On another occasion, U.N. attack helicopters with troops on the ground killed more than 200 members of a militia group moving on Goma."

Now, I ask you, have you ever seen the phrase "U.N. attack helicopters" used before?

The indigenous tribes of the Rwanda-Congo region murder villages of civilians whenever an enemy militia encamps nearby attempting to claim more territory. This is a part of their warfare culture.  Does anything get any more primal than this?  If those UN helicopters do not attack then hundreds of villagers will be killed.  A complex quandry.

The Hutu in the region hate the Tutsis. Within each group there are multiple factions (each with its own armed militia), similar to the different strands of the Taliban America is at war with.

So, now the U.N. deployment to the region, featuring troops from Guatemala among other countries, which has a long history of ineptitude according to the WSJ article, is attacking militias if they attempt to harm civilians. This is something new...and controversial. The article points out that many disagree with this new U.N. display of force. It is too easy to end up affecting the power of one militia over another.

Beyond this superbly written feature article, I re-surmised my assessment of the scale of genocide in the postmodern world. The Rwandan Genocide claimed more than one million human beings in a mere 100 days. The Second Congo War, as the article points out, has claimed the lives of many millions more of innocent civilians.

In Rwanda and Congo there still live men who lead human beings to commit ruthlessness on the epic scale comparable to anything Hitler or Stalin dished out. As fixated as I have been lately on the horrible situation in Syria where 13,000 are now dead, in Africa things are far worse and have been for some time now.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

On the Day After Bloomsday

Today is Father's Day.  I spent a good portion of the day around family.  But, this morning I started reading James Joyce's Ulysses again.  This is the third or fourth time I have attempted to read Ulysses.  All previous efforts have ended in failure.  At some point a few hundred pages in I have always given up.

Yesterday was Bloomsday, celebrated particularly in Dublin and Ireland but all over the world as well.  June 16 is the day upon which the entire of Ulysses takes place, in 1904.  This year's recognition of Joyce's novel, considered by many to be the greatest novel in modern english literature, has a different undercurrent, regarding the fact that the novel is now in the public domain due to the end of its copyright protection.

So the novel is now available to the entire world for free, you can even download an audio book of it at no chargeUlysses now belongs to the masses.  (Which is ironic, given the fact that, by and large, the masses don't read.)

Even though I have found it to be terribly difficult to read personally, one particular Joyce fan thinks the novel is better approached as joyful, not hard.  So, I'm going to give that attitude a try.  Maybe I'll make it to the end this time.

I have always been drawn to "weighty" and "chewy" novels.  My appreciation for Proust, for War and Peace, and for Moby Dick have already been blogged about.  I am currently also about 100 pages into rereading Samuel Delany's Dahlgren, and I just finished rereading John Fowles' The Magus for the third time.

Except for Proust, who I have only recently developed a taste for, all these other books are from my college years.  Dahlgren is a challenging prose poem.  It is somewhat erotic, very psychological, and grippingly vivid in its details.  The overall cohesion of the story is tough to follow, however.  It is like reading inside a drug-induced state.  I think Delany intended it that way.  For all its toughness, however, I find that I can read it easily enough.

The Magus is only mildly challenging by comparison.  I finished that novel a couple of weeks ago.  It was not as satisfying to me this time compared to the other two times I read it.  I remember a girlfriend turned me on to it in college.  We both thought it was awesome at the time.  The novel seemed silly and immature to me this time.  No big deal really.  I won't likely ever read it again.

Gravity's Rainbow still waits on my shelf.  I have read that book once, before I went to India.  Subsequent attempts to read it have be unsuccessful, but I feel I'll make it all the way through it again at some point in the future.

I do not know why these types of novels (I can also mention the work of Dostoevsky and Faulkner among others as well) take up the majority of the fiction section of my library.  It is just what I typically want to read when I take a break from the philosophy and history and other non-fiction stuff that makes up the bulk of my reading time.

Nor do I have a clue as to what makes one of these "thick" classics easier to read than others.  Perhaps it is style or subject or character.  I just know that there are times in my life when something unreadable can become an obsession and there are other times when something I have always admired is not worth the effort.  Perhaps I do not choose my literature.  Perhaps it chooses me.

So, for whatever reason, this year I decided to try Joyce again on the day after Bloomsday.  I don't think the special timing of my endeavor will necessarily afford me any greater success, however.  The novel will either speak to me or it won't.  I am confident that great art can be great without my ability to fully appreciate it.  So, I'll either discover old-brilliance anew or the book will go back to the shelf where its somewhat creased paperback pages will continue their slow fade to brownish-yellow.

Oh!  I celebrate the anti-digital, the physical book in my hands, the feel of its pages and spine, its weight, the edge of the page fluttering in my fingers, the underlineing and highlighting of the tangible surface of printed text.  May eBooks be damned on every Bloomsday!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

How do you take your 50 Shades of Grey?

A couple of weeks ago I listened to a radio talk show, Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane.  The show featured the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon and I thought it was fascinating.  I am just now finding the time to blog briefly about it.  I recently posted on my interest in the reaction to this erotic trilogy.  I have not read it myself but I eventually might.  It is not the BDSM story that interests me.  I have read that stuff before.  What interests me is the massive success of the novels and what it says about culture, most especially the diversity of reactions to the best-selling books.

The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy has now sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.  The film rights have already been purchased and speculation abounds regarding all aspects of the film.  Public libraries, once banning the books, are placing them back on the shelves.  And, of course, an entire consumer industry is now emerging because of the popularity of the erotic novels.

The radio program caught my attention because, once again, it was a conversation mostly among liberated women about the books and about feminine sexuality. The first-half of the show was an interesting dialog between the host and her two guests, a sexual researcher from Indiana University (why didn't I major in that in college instead of just fu#k!ng around?) and a writer for Salon.  Both examined the phenomenon from a rather academic perspective, but the details they provided said a lot about the underlying erotic reality of American and Western culture.  A basic conclusion that was agreed upon was that this is really a sexual re-telling of the classic "Beauty and the Beast" story line.  The trilogy was referred to as a "bodice-ripper", a new term for me.  I guess that shows how shallow my understanding of all this is.

What was especially fascinating to me was the second-half of the radio program when callers were taken.  I guess the show must screen them to some extent and only allow the most diverse and intriguing on the air.  The first caller was a female owner of two "women's novelty boutiques" who has "never seen anything like this" in terms of driving the sales of her merchandise.  "We cannot keep these items on the shelves," she said, referring to items she carries that are mentioned in the novels or associated with BDSM.  Great for business.  She mentioned that she was seeing women coming into her stores that have been "way too shy" to enter in the past, buying items for themselves and their girlfriends.

An 80-year-old lady was the next caller.  She "thoroughly enjoyed" and was "having a lot of fun" with the books, sharing them among her friends.  "It is a love story and that's how I looked at it."  This caller apparently connected with the "Beauty and the Beast" aspects of the story, a central element to their popularity according to the show's two "expert" guests.

Next, a gentleman phoned in wondering, "eroticism aside," what women are looking for who read these books and what they are needing in their intimate lives, whether it is escapism involving "bad-boy fixer-uppers" or if they need more than just compassion to "fix-up some deep flaw in their lives."  Turns out there is quite a bit of research being done on this very topic.  The complexity of the topic is related to such factors as where women are in their menstrual cycle and where they are in their age of life.  One expert advised that people are very capable of separating their fantasy life from their real life and that most of what is "needed" here is probably just a form of entertainment.

A female caller followed this with the contention that the trilogy is important because it involves "a combination of desire and power" in terms of the Beauty taming the Beast.  She felt that kind of power can be very attractive and alluring to women.  Both experts agreed with this but they felt it is a bit more complex than that without really going into specifics.

Another female caller wondered that if the S&M taboo is now "exploded" what other taboos might be broken down next.  The experts discussed the possibility of this popularity reflecting a breaking down of taboos in "open relationships" and certainly with "gay marriage" and other "non-traditional family formations."  The experts felt this is actually a healthy thing for our society.  One small example given was that women can now wear pants to work, which was not the case even 40 years ago.  According to the experts that is representative of a change in sexuality.

The final caller was a practicing psychologist who shared her personal reaction to the book as well as how her patients are responding.  She found the book "most disturbing" and felt "an experience of being tortured."  It is "an erotic fairy-tale that plays on a lot of archetypal images."  It affected her dreams and has negatively impacted many of her patients who have read it.  The experts agree that the book is not without "a dark side" and "is powerful in that way."  But, the experts do not see this trilogy as either good or bad.  Different people will be affected by it different ways.

Well the entire radio program is indicative of this.  From the psychologist who is affected by the book's "darkness" to the elderly woman who is "thoroughly enjoying" it, the diverse reactions and perspectives, for me, point to the actual diversity of human Being.  It is a basic tenet of mine that "Diversity is natural and good."  Diversity is one of humanity's most fundamental survival traits.  Our biological diversity is reflected in cultural diversity, and both also reflect our individual diversity.

Some of the best indications of the nature of diversity are in how people react to controversial art or events.  It is something I just wanted to note here in my blog.  Both the erotic subject and the responses it evokes are something that can teach me and perhaps all of us if we are open to it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Neil and the Horse Ride Again

I’ve been listening to Americana, the new release from Neil Young and Crazy Horse, a lot over the past week. The album came out last Tuesday (June 5) and is the first collaboration between Neil and The Horse since 2003’s Greendale. It features very nontraditional versions of traditional American folk songs. There is plenty of the Old Black sound to enjoy here. In typical Crazy Horse fashion, the album is an acquired taste, the harmonies are inconsistent, and the band rumbles along seemingly on the verge of falling apart, but it definitely rocks.

The reviews of Americana are mixed, as is usually the case with Neil and The Horse when they decide to experiment with different musical concepts. A quick perusal of the feedback on ranges from “Neil Young and Crazy Horse are back with some SLOPPY JAMS!!!” and “Classic Horse Sound!” to “Oh Neil…Why?” and “Is Neil Just Messing With Us?” I laugh at the polarity that is so common polarity that seems to come with any project involving The Horse and whenever Neil turns adventurous.

Music critics seem to like Americana overall. Check out this guy’s review on youtube. He offers some good insights, although he and I don’t agree on some of the material on the album. Other interesting reviews here and here.

The first listen through should be considered “orientation”. You have to get accustomed to the rough, raw, and unpolished sound before the beat and drive and over-amped power starts to take effect. On repeated listening I find myself carrying around several of the tunes in my head. Then, ultimately, I see the flipping-the-bird-finger, edgy entertaining quality of the album. I like it.

As I have posted before, I became a certified Neil Young fanatic when Rust Never Sleeps came out in 1979 with Crazy Horse. I have all of the many Neil - Horse studio albums and a couple of dozen live bootlegs. This material spans over 40 years. I think Neil is at his purist when he plays with The Horse. There are, of course, many Neils for a Rustie to appreciate. You have the folk Neil, the country Neil, the blues Neil, the jazz Neil, the rocking Neil, the doo-wap Neil, the electronic Neil, the soul Neil, the CSNY Neil, and the acoustic Neil.

With The Horse, Neil is closer to the grungy Neil. Neil Young and Crazy Horse were a huge influence on grunge music. That crunchy, crackling, arcing sound is unique to their collaboration. Crazy Horse is the ultimate “garage band.” They are, in truth, not terrifically talented, but there is something about the synergy of them working with Neil that yields some very impressionable and memorable music.

Now, apply all that to traditional folk tunes like “Oh Susannah”, “Oh My Darlin’ Clementine”, “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain”, and “This Land Is Your Land” and you have something you certainly don’t hear every day. The album isn’t grungy, but it does feature hard rocking renditions of typically folksy numbers. If you can make the adjustment then you are in for some pure fun entertainment. The album makes me smile, even laugh at times at its wonderful, distortion tinged audacity.

My favorite tracks are “Oh Susannah” (check out the wonderful stumbling way it opens in the link above) and “High Flyin’ Bird”, the latter a cover of a Billy Edd Wheeler tune that was made famous by Jefferson Airplane. For me, these tunes sound the most like what you expect from Neil and The Horse, just great cranked-up, steady rockers with a touch of blues. Neil takes a lot of liberties with the lyrics on all these traditional tunes. The words are all there (well, mostly - Neil adds some of his own now and then) but they have never been sung, arranged, and re-emphasized this way.

It turns out that Neil has apparently had this idea to retool traditional American folk songs for some time.  Last October, he performed "Oh Susannah" live with Dave Mathews.  The song seems to resonate with fans as there are already a couple of covers of it on youtube.  This one is not that bad.  Whereas this one needs more work.

I did not expect the album to be groundbreaking or anything (it isn't), so I bought it as an MP3 download instead of on CD. The download came with the songs as well as a video version of each tune in Windows Video Media format. Each video features old movie footage. Some scenes from D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation are featured. Other videos include some silly documentary footage of early airplanes and depictions of depression era banjo playing. All the video complements the folk tune material and provides even more contrast, as if you needed it, with the sound Neil and The Horse blare out and belch forth.

Americana is not for the casual listener. It is probably something only Rusties can truly appreciate. It sits fine with me but Jennifer is still struggling to make it through the album even though she conceptually appreciates what Neil is trying to do. This is focused art in a blaring, intentionally rough form. But, the cool thing is that this is apparently just the first step in a larger renewed collaboration with The Horse. There are hints of new material that has been recorded as well, one song apparently lasting well over 20 minutes. That will hopefully be made available in a future album, possibly as early as this fall.

It is a great time to be a Neil Young fan. In the past few years he has produced three very good, very different studio albums, Prairie Wind (2005), Chrome Dreams II (2007), and Le Noise (2010). A couple of other efforts were Living With War (2006) and Fork in the Road (2009). He has successfully toured with CSNY in 2006 and solo in 2010. He's also put out three decent films during this time.  Heart of Gold (2005, by Jonathon Demme), CSNY/Deja Vu (2006, by Bernard Shakey), and Neil Young Truck Show (2010, again by Demme).  Now he's warming up with The Horse on an interesting, if at times difficult, folk-rock concept album. Perhaps Neil Young's most brilliant quality is his unceasing drive to experiment with his art. It keeps him fresh, relevant, and worthy of continued interest.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Prometheus Disappoints

Ridley Scott is another favorite director of mine.  He is up there with David Lean (whose work is a minor plot detail in the film I am about to review) and others.  A great classic film director. Blade Runner (1982), Thelma & Louise (1991), and Gladiator (2000), among others.  His revisitation of his first film, 1979's awesome Alien, truly a remarkable film in many ways, was much anticipated by me.  Perhaps too much.  For though the film is not without merit, I feel Scott's directing was negatively affected by a mediocre script co-written by Damon Lindelof, a major writing force in the TV series Lost, which I enjoyed for years.

I was fortunate enough to see Prometheus yesterday, the opening weekend of a hyped-up film.  I saw the movie in IMAX 3D.  This is one of the more less-3D movies that I have seen.  It was great to see it in IMAX quality, but the film does not utilize the 3D aesthetic in any special way.  It would have been just as impressive to watch in "plain" IMAX like Inception was presented last summer.  At any rate, Prometheus is at times visually stunning, the special effects are excellent.

But, that's kind of expected these days.  The list of movies in the last ten years that failed critically and financially while displaying fantastic visual effects is a long one, and Prometheus may unfortunately join it.  Scott does a lot of things right, however.  The material (as given) is well-told, not hastily rushed, visually interesting, multi-faceted, metaphysical, and Scott manages all the pieces pretty well.  There is shock, there is fascination, there is a huge canvas handled in classic style.

There are several things to admire about Prometheus.  Again, the film is compelling to see.  Both the sets and the costumes are exceptional.  The scenes featuring David, the robot, are shot and edited in a way that almost makes them a movie within a movie, they are the film at its bestAlthough there is plenty of action, much of the film is moderately slow (the original Alien is almost half-way over before anything really happens) allowing (theoretically) story elements and characterizations to take root and build their own tension.  The film has several big ideas in it, up to and including where does humanity come from?

But the script is too much television and not enough Hollywood.  Not that 'Hollywood' is always art, but TV, at least in my mind, is more forgiving in details than great film-script writing.  Great Hollywood scripts build something, they climax with the effective mingling of a multiplicity of character and dramatic elements.  In Prometheus the story elements are fragmented, only one character is really developed (David, the robot), and the horror is an array of somewhat associated facts, rather than a singular monster.

There is potential for greatness in this myriad of facts.  Greatness of a Lovecraftian nature.  That Ridley Scott could not marshall all the necessary elements in an orchestrated fashion (as he did with the original Alien) is mostly a flaw in the writing.  The film attempts to examine a lot of weighty stuff in a serious and scary way.  But, at times the script asks us to forgive it too much.  I just don't accept a lot of the unmotivated behavior of the characters and the overall convenience of the film.   If you are going to ask big questions and to interject complex human relationships then you better deliver.  You have to make me suspend disbelief.

When the ship arrives on the moon of a distant planet, looking for a safe place to put down, without any scientific investigation whatsoever, it happily happens upon the exact mound complex spot where the "alien race" developed "weapons of mass destruction."  Cool idea but come on guys, at least make them look for the place.  This bulls-eye is bullshit, even if it does advance the story efficiently.  What it doesn't do and what every successful sci-fi movie needs to do is establish a reality in which viewers can relate to these characters.  And that reality has to be up to complexity of the storytelling.  Weighty subjects demand realism without chessy conveniences.

Another example:  As in the the original Alien, everybody dies but for one strong, central female character.  The deaths in the original were entirely believable and experiential for the audience.  The deaths in Prometheus are, but contrast, almost of a throw-away nature.  Near the end of the film the spaceship kamikazes an alien vessel.  The Captain of the Prometheus and his two pilots willfully, even passionately, commit suicide.  I do not buy it. The way this is written I have absolutely no reason to believe that these characters (none of whom I particularly connect with or have reason to root for) sacrifice themselves for humanity out of the clear blue yonder.  I have no reason to believe they would even have context for their sacrifice.  It's ridiculously bad writing and Scott's attempt to create heroism in this moment comes off silly.

The script is peppered with this type of mediocrity.  There's nothing wrong with not explaining key components of the story in a movie.  Ambiguity is often an entertaining quality.  See Christopher Nolan's Momento as an example.  But, if you are asking the big questions you can't just kill everybody off and leave holes in the storyThe script sets up entire character situations and then does nothing with them.  The way Guy Pearce is used in the film is an example.  Central to the plot, his character is introduced as a surprise and then just simply killed off, adding some complexity perhaps but doing nothing with it.  Characters in this film are more dead-ends (literally) than accomplices to structured story development. Lindelof's ambiguity is really just confusion cluttered with cheap exists that seem to me to weaken dramatic television.

I hope Ridley Scott is more engaged in the writing for his exciting sequel to Blade Runner.  I give Prometheus a 7.  It is not a bad film, it just doesn't live up to all its script tries to promise.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Venus Transits the Sun

Tiny Venus transits the Sun at 9PM eastern time on my NASA TV App.  I was here.
These past few weeks have been a busy time for space enthusiasts, as several recent blog posts show.  Today, we got to experience the last transit of Venus across the Sun's surface (as seen from Earth, of course, it is all a matter of line of sight) until 2117

The days leading up to the transit prompted some interesting conversations with my fellow space geeks about whether a telescope makes astronomy any more "immediate" and meaningful than watching it on my iPad.  Sacrilege to some.  Of course, viewing space through a telescope as opposed to a video stream is the difference between seeing Mount McKinley in person and watching it on a web cam.  I get all that.  But, for some reason, I don't consider I am missing out on anything where space software and apps is concerned.

Before my iPad I used Starry Night on my PC regularly to view the night sky.  I could jump into the future and figure out when the International Space Station or some satellite would venture over my house and on clear nights I would go out at the appointed time to follow the object in my binoculars.  That seemed entertaining.

I guess it is a slippery slope.  Now, I prefer to just watch events on my various apps: Star Chart, Solar Walk, and Star Walk.  There is so much you can do with these apps that allows you to manipulate the cosmic moment, going forward or backward in time, knowing what a faint star is literally at the touch of the screen, being able to choose different angles to view things.  I'm sure I seem lazy to the weekend Star-hopper groups who stay up all night on a hillside somewhere with their hot chocolate.   But, to me, I am still experiencing the universe in a way that gives me a sense of wonder.

So it is with iPad in hand and with the NASA TV app playing that I witnessed the transit of Venus.  I have no solar filter for my Celestron telescope so I saw everything over the Internet.  I did not feel the moment was trivialized or rendered artificial in any way. 

Venus and Earth are now at their closest proximity - about 26.9 million miles apart.  Of course, Earth remains more or less 93 million miles from the Sun.  The distances involved and being able to see and experience the distance is one of the most rewarding aspects of astronomy for me.  I know that when I saw the silhouette of Venus today against the bright Sun I am literally looking across about 27 million miles of space.  I appreciate that regardless of whether I am looking through optical or digital devices.

I didn't realize until today (although it becomes obvious if you pay attention to solar modeling featured in software like Solar Walk) that Venus actually moves between the Earth and the Sun 5 times every 8 years.  But the inclination of the orbits in three-dimensional space generally prohibits a transit event.  This same inclination issue is the reason why we don't have more solar eclipses...the Moon doesn't usually line up just right between the Sun and the Earth.

It might seem that we are uber-lucky, given that the next one isn't for 105 more years, to get a transit event just eight years after the last one in 2004.  But, in truth, it is always like this.  Since the telescope was invented, Venus transits have been observed in 1631, 1639, 1761, 1769, 1874, 1882, and 2004.  See a pattern?  Alternating every 122 or 105 years Venus transits the Sun as seen from Earth.  When it thusly transits the Sun it does so twice within 8 years.  All thanks to the clockwork of planetary orbits.

Eight years ago I watched the event on the Internet, just as I did today (though it was on my PC then, not my wonderful iPad).  It was the opposite of today's transit.   Back then, the transit in the US was during sunrise, not sunset.  (I wonder if that alternates each time as well?)  My view was blocked then by the hill to the east of my house.  Of course, I could have planned to view it from a more opportune location.  Nothing prevented me other than the fact it was a workday and I probably had some meetings and projects scheduled.

The Internet allowed me to fit that into my day without taking vacation.  This did not diminish the event at all for me, anymore than it did today.  I know I will likely never see this again.  The fact that this last transit is an iPad-driven experience for me actually makes it more special, not less.  Technology is giving me an opportunity that I would otherwise miss.  Plus in Solar Walk I can replay the event.  In truth, I checked the whole thing out last week anyway.  Just to see how it would look.
The solar system at 9PM tonight as displayed in my Solar Walk app at a distance of 3.1 AU.  The orbit of Mercury is also visible.  You can see the close proximity of Earth and Venus as the latter planet made a transit across the Sun's surface from Earth's perspective.

Another angle of the same alignment at the same time.  This is from 5 AU and includes Mars, Jupiter, and part of the Asteroid Belt. 
The Now does not have to be chained to time and place.  Today more than ever, taking pleasure in the transit of Venus is a state of mind.

Note:  Of course, by the next day there were all kinds of great images and videos of the transit available on the web.  Here is the best one I saw.  Pretty incredible.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Second Diamond Jubilee

Yesterday, Great Britain celebrated only the second Diamond Jubilee in that nation's storied history.  All the regalia and pageantry was for Queen Elizabeth II, of course.  Being the United Kingdom, water vessels were most appropriate for such an occasion, symbolic of the great naval power that England was (and still is to some degree), making their former worldwide empire possible.  This procession carried on down the Thames River.

More than 1,000 small ships and rowers joined The Spirit of Chartwell for the once in a lifetime event.  I am not a fan of the British Monarchy (or any other for that matter) but I am a sucker for uniforms and flags and such, particularly when it is an historic event.  If history "lives" at all it is in and through such wonderful events as this. 

I am reminded of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and the interesting contrast it provides for Elizabeth's celebration.  Yesterday was an intermingling of Royalty with its "subjects" to some extent.  The Royal Barge was followed by a rather motley assortment of commoners, dressed in all sorts of ways, flying all sorts of flags.

In June 1897 Queen Victoria was treated to a somewhat different display.  The Royal Navy offered its Queen an official review of massive war ships off of Portsmouth.  Britain's finest naval vessels were accompanied by ships from fourteen other navies.

Two lines of British battleships and cruisers formed, 49 vessels in the first line alone. Beyond this massive array of sea firepower was a third line of foreign warships.  From Japan, Norway, France, Russia, America, Germany, and Italy, each country sent her best ships so as to appear worthy by comparison with the unmatched British might.

"The British Empire, guarded by this fleet, was the largest in the history of the world.  In 1897, the Empire comprised one-quarter of the land surface of the globe and one quarter of the world's population..."  (Massie, page xx)

"Onshore, all was noise and tumult.  The Southwest Railway Company had promised to dispatch forty-six trains from Waterloo Station to Portsmouth between the hours of six-thirty AM and nine-thirty AM on Saturday morning.  Trains ran every five minutes from Waterloo, arriving in Portsmouth and pouring their human cargo, slung with field-glasses, cameras, and guidebooks, onto the cobblestones of the station square.  From there, rivers of people flowed through the town to the piers and beaches.

"At twelve-twenty PM, the first two royal trains bearing the reviewing party from Windsor Castle arrived..."  (page xxvi)

The Royals boarded a special steamer and made their way out toward the warships at precisely 2 PM.  For two hours the boat toured the lines of ships.  After briefly boarding the British ship, Renown, the party was back in Portsmouth harbor at 5 PM just as it started to rain.  Being Britain, it had to rain - just as it did yesterday for Queen Elizabeth.

At any rate, rain never deters those Brits.  Eventually, it stormed.  Lightning flashed.  The show went on.  Everyone waited for darkness and then all the vessels, probably the most massive display of naval firepower ever assembled up to that day, were illuminated.  The crowd was delighted with the effect of dozens of large ships shining with the relatively novel toy of electricity as the storm subsided.

"For almost three hours, this unique technological and imaginative accomplishment glimmered in the darkness.  From shore and aboard the ships, people stared.  Around ten PM the Prince and Princess of Wales came out again from Portsmouth in the small royal yacht Alberta to cruise through the fleet.  At the yacht departed, bands again played 'God Save The Queen.'  Then, in a final salute to the Queen and her Heir, all the warships in the anchorage fired a royal salute.  The ships were wreathed in curtains of smoke, illuminated by lurid red flashes from the guns.  It was a spectacular climax: the continuous roar of the naval cannonade, tongues of bright flame leaping from multiple broadsides, smoke rolling in red clouds across the myriad of glowing electric lights."  (pp.  xxx-xxxi)

Today such a brash display of power would be too heavy-handed and unseemly.  But, it was all very proper in those more Imperial times.

Empires decline and fall, military might comes and goes, political alliances shift like sand in the wind, but a Royal Jubilee is still a pretty cool thing to behold.  Even if all those old battleships are replaced by a raucous collection of mismatched row boats and private yachts running down the Thames.  The Royals kept a stiff upper lip and, of course, carried on in spite of the rain.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Supreme Decision

The headline for the March 26 issue of Wall Street Journal read: "Health Law Heads to Court: Justices Hear Challenge in Case That Broadly Tests Boundaries of Federal Power."

The Economist took a similar perspective in its March 31 - April 6 issue with an article heading which read: "Full-court Press: Barack Obama's health-care law moves to America's highest court, and looks to be in danger. The case could transform the power of the federal government."

These are not examples of sensationalism. The fact is there has not been a bigger, more fundamental case presented to the Supreme Court since FDR advanced the cause of the New Deal. The Case of the Obamacare Mandate (part of President Obama's signature heathcare reform act) reflects a consistent thread of political debate that is woven into the fabric of American politics since the Founding Fathers first wrestled with the limits of Federal Power.

Obama remained silent during the proceedings. But, shortly thereafter he enraged some neocons with his strong remarks toward the Court. It quickly degenerated into this horribly twisted political event where the Office of the President was ordered to present a memorandum explaining the context of Obama's remarks toward the Court's Constitutional Authority. Battle lines were drawn or rather they were re-affirmed, an age-old American fight resumed.

There are forces in the world that transcend generations. One such force is the political and cultural legacy at the heart of this democratic republic. The American Civil War is in the Now. The war started long before the bloodletting of the 1860's. It is interwoven with the very fabric of founding this nation. The States were at war about what the Founding Fathers primarily argued over. We are still having the debate of our Fathers. What is the limit to Federal Power? What is the extent of State Sovereignty?

One way to examine this powerful undercurrent of Americana is to look at the history of the Amendments to the Constitution from a broad perspective. The first ten amendments are, of course, known as the Bill of Rights and were inspired by Thomas Jefferson, my favorite patriot, and written by James Madison. Jefferson was a genius but I'll save that for a future post.

Anyway, Amendments One through Ten deal primarily with individual freedoms and how individual justice should work. The Tenth specifically limits the powers of the Federal Government. The Eleventh grants the States more protection from the citizens of other States. It is clear and beyond reasonable debate to understand that when this amendment was adopted in 1795 State Sovereignty was in ascension, the Constitution was a document for clarifying the power of the Sovereign States working in unison.

While the Twelfth fine-tuned how the Electoral College worked in electing the President and Vice-President, the Thirteenth, of course, abolished slavery. This is the first amendment of the Constitution where Federal Power clearly overrode the Sovereign States. As such, it is a historic turning point for the Constitution. Federal Power became ascendant compared with State Sovereignty. In this way, it is not ridiculous to see that the War Between the States was partly a metaphysical bloodletting on States Rights.

Amendments Fourteen and Fifteen again deal with individual liberty and rights. But, the Sixteenth Amendment established the Federal income tax, a clear expansion of Federal Power. The citizens of every State would pay homage to the Central Government, this formed a different sort of Union.

Just a few weeks after the Sixteenth was passed in 1913 the Seventeenth Amendment dealt a heavy blow to State Sovereignty. Until that year, US Senators were elected directly by the State Legislatures, as stipulated in the Constitution, not by popular vote. This, of course, was a victory for democracy but it came at the expense of State power.

The Eighteenth Amendment established Prohibition nationwide, only the third amendment so far (after abolition and the income tax) to grant broad, new authority to the Federal Government. This was followed in 1920 with the Federal establishment of women's suffrage. Individual rights, from the beginning, have made up the majority of changes to our Constitution.

The Twentieth Amendment adjusted the timing of when sessions of Congress and terms of Presidents began in January. The Twenty-First expressed Federal power's ability to reverse itself and repealed Prohibition, again liberty was validated in the face of Federal authority. There have been six more amendments since then, mostly dealing with refining Federal procedures, though one, in 1971, expanded individual liberty a bit more by granting 18 year-olds the right to vote.

Constitutional amendments have either enhanced individual liberty or strengthened Federal Power over State Sovereignty or addressed the workings of electing the President and Congress. That is the story from this specific perspective. While I am blogging about a Supreme Court decision and not about Constitutional amendments, the amendments, taken together, reveal something of the struggle that is central to the Obamacare Mandate.

Obamacare was not conceived to address individual liberty nor to limit State Sovereignty. Nevertheless, by either validating or limiting the ability of the Federal Government to mandate that citizens participate in pools of public healthcare coverage, the Supreme Court will contribute another chapter in the on-going question of Federal Power.

There is no better summary of this central political thread in our nation's cultural debate than that written by E.A. Pollard, former editor of the Richmond Examiner,  in 1866.

"The two great political schools of America - that of Consolidation and that of States Rights - were founded on different estimates of the relations of the General Government to the States. All other controversies in the political history of the country were subordinate and incidental to this great division of parties. The difference between the States Rights and Consolidation schools may be briefly and sharply stated. The one regarded the Union as a compact between the States: the other regarded the Union as a national government above and over the States. The first adopted its doctrines from the very words of the Constitution; the seventh article for the ratification of the Constitution reading as follows:

"'The ratification of the Conventions of nine States shall be sufficient for the establishment of this constitution BETWEEN the States so ratifying the same.'

"The great text of the States Rights school is to be found in the famous Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798. These resolutions are properly to be taken as corollaries drawn from those carefully-worded clauses of the Constitution, which were designed to exclude the idea that the separate and independent sovereignty of each State was merged into one common government and nation. The Virginia resolutions were drawn up by Mr. Madison, and the Kentucky by Mr. Jefferson. The first Kentucky resolution was as follows:

"Resolved, That the several States comprising the United States of America are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government, but that by compact under the style and title of a Constitution for the United States, and of amendments thereto, they constituted a general government, for special purposes, delegated to that government certain definite powers, reserving each State to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government.". (pp. 41-42, emphasis is Pollard's)

Now this blunt (and seemingly irrelevant by today's standards) Resolution was very powerful and controversial back in the day. Jefferson wrote the Resolution anonymously, as he rightly feared he could bring impeachment upon himself by its publication - he was serving as Vice-President at the time. Most States (but certainly not all) specifically voted to oppose the Resolutions. However, many States, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island as well as (more famously) South Carolina, referenced the Resolutions for support whenever it suited them in opposing Federal Power in the years before the War Between the States. After that, the Resolutions were relegated to the Lost Cause mythology as Federal Power ascended.

As I have stated, the case of the Obamacare Mandate, does not directly address State Sovereignty. Nonetheless, it is the story of the American experience that where the question of Federal Authority arises that of power of the States is inherently weighed as well. As my brief history of the Constitutional Amendments shows, Federal Powers have been broadened at the expense of the States.

Should the Court strike down the Mandate it will mark the opening of a new chapter in this contentious story. The most recent chapter has involved a raging tide of Federal Authority in the form of The New Deal and The Great Society, twin pillars of American liberalism. It is perhaps unfortunate that big government and liberalism have become so intertwined. This was not always so and it isn't necessarily so today. Liberalism does not demand Federalism as its prerequisite.

Big Government is all about forcing other citizens to live however the particular interest group wants them to live. For liberals this is the welfare state. But, conservatives are just as guilty. They want Big Government to fight their wars and to force women to have babies they don't want to have. The landscape is the same. Both conservatives and liberals want Big Government - made in their image.

Still, there is a fallacy, at least among the Left, to think that their progressive form of government, once established, is forever their's - no turning back.  The implicit assumption of liberal concerns about the Supreme Court is, of course, anything that is based upon pre-New Deal thinking is backwards, simpleton, and misguided. Rather than resolve this issue, the twin beacons upon which postmodern American liberalism rests, may have grown soft and fat, the pendulum might be near the point of reversal.

That is for the Supreme Court to decide. Obama warns against the Court striking done his Mandate and thereby becoming "an activist court." Well, I've got news for the president. This is already an activist court, one that is stacked toward the Right just as the Court was stacked towards the Left from the 1930's into the 1960's. With their atrocious ruling in the Citizens United case, this court has already bloated the coffers financing political campaigns and rendered Thomas Jefferson's Freedom of Speech into a dehumanization of speech where corporate entities (in the form of something new - Super PACS) have a right to greater speech than the mass of human individuals.

Is it reasonable to expect an activist Right-leaning court to uphold the cornerstone of the largest expansion of Federal Power since LBJ was president? The answer to that question will not definitively answer all the other questions about the limits of Federal Power. But, it will set the tone for quite possibly the rest of my life.

The decision is expected later this month.