Category Archives: History

Making it seem as if anyone said anything you want

I was having a conversation recently with some acquaintances, one of whom is a doctrinaire Tea Party type — let’s call him TP — and the subject of the Civil War came up.

“The Civil War was not fought over slavery,” TP said.

“If the president who was shot in the back of the head in a theater could speak, he might differ with you,” I said. 

“No, it’s true,” TP said. “Lincoln said it in a letter to some newspaper editor.”

What TP was referring to was the Aug. 22, 1862, letter from President Lincoln to the the famed newspaper editor Horace Greeley, in which Lincoln stated: 

“If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

The letter, when read verbatim, out of context, to someone not familiar with all that was going at that time could then be used as it is being used now by Tea Partiers looking to defend Confederate monuments and the honor of the Confederate cause.

Of course, Lincoln was readying to deliver the Emancipation Proclamation in just just four months on New Year’s Day 1863, an action which should have forever put to rest any notion of whether the war eventually ended up being about slavery in Lincoln’s mind. 

His letter to Horace Greeley is widely seen by historians as Lincoln playing politics, trying to convince everyone that, no matter how much of a tyrant the Confederacy tried to say he was, he really just had the best interests of the Union in mind. (Some also believe that words such as these by Lincoln were anticipatory in trying to lessen the blow of the Emancipation Proclamation.)

Yet he we are 154 years later and the forces who would defend the Confederacy for whatever reasons are using Lincoln’s words (all just in text form, mind you) to convince entire swaths of the population that he really didn’t care about freeing the slaves.

It really is so easy to do in an age where people on both sides of the political divide increasingly get their news only from sources which match their political sensibilities, left or right.

As I listened to this acquaintance continue to try to convince me that I was wrong about the Civil War, I was taken back to an episode of the Radiolab podcast I heard this summer, and meant to mention in this space then, but never got around to it.  (You can just hit the play button below to listen to it yourself.)

The hosts of Radiolab said of making this episode that the more they got into the subject matter, the more if sent chills down their spines. I thought that might be hyperbole when I first read the words.

Not so after I listened to the podcast, titled “Breaking News.” I thought it was worth sharing with you if you did not get a chance to hear it a couple months ago.

Imagine if it were this easy to get anyone you want to say anything you want by using just an audio recording of their voice.

If you the think the news is broken now and people believe strange things they read, just wait until everything you say in audio recordings can be changed as easily as moving around some text in a transcript.

Never forget

There is historical precedent for beating back Nazis in the streets.

The Battle of Cable Street

Some of the Unite The Right Nazis are “fine people”

At least that’s what Trump said today in a press conference where he reverted to what we must now accept he is: a Nazi sympathizer. That’s not hyperbole. What other conclusion can be drawn from his bizarre behavior today?

Watch this shocking, frightening video and make up your own mind whether the Nazi marchers are “fine people.”

All of this Nazi marching takes on a more sinister tone if you realize, as much as you might not have wanted to believe it before, that an office that once represented as the leader of the free world because of World War II is now held by a guy who, in effect, smears the memories of all who died in World War II.

Nazis march in American streets in 2017.

The New Yorker looks at “large adult sons”

This article in The New Yorker looking at the internet meme of “large adult sons” is both well-written and engaging. But it also left me questioning: what’s the point?

Two excerpts from magazine contributor Jia Tolentino‘s article: 

One of history’s most disastrous adult sons, King Ferdinand I of Austria is said to be best remembered for his command to his cook: when told he could not have apricot dumplings because apricots were out of season, he said “I am the Emperor, and I want dumplings!”

This seems to be roughly when the large-son meme went more or less mainstream. It had been germinating in arcane corners of the Internet for a couple of years by then. In 2012, the Twitter user @MuscularSon, who eventually deleted his account, started tweeting in character as a beleaguered father of several mythically rowdy boys. “i cant control my enormous nerd sons. they force me to cosplay as a police box from Dr Who and take turns paintballing my enormous nude torso,” he wrote. And later, “my two awful big sons got into the 20 quarts of hummus i have and now their heading toward The City.” In November, 2013, @dril, the ur-account for this genre of absurdist online humor, tweeted, “i have trained my two fat identical sons to sit outside of my office and protect my brain from mindfreaks by meditating intensely.” In 2014, he tweeted, “please pray for my sons Thursten and Gorse, who have just glued themselves to a curtain.” By then, the image—a tornado of havoc around a couple of big, rambunctious sons—had somehow solidified as a comic trope.


The large-adult-son meme takes wing from the idea that men overcompensate when they are humiliated, and that a primary source of this humiliation is interdependence—sons act out when they are defined by their fathers, and fathers are disgraced by the oafish flailing of their sons. But it’s memes all the way down with this Administration: Trump, the father of the large adult son of the summer, is himself, clearly, a large adult son. He is the loudmouthed, mischievous, and disorderly child of a presiding father. He loves to get behind the wheel of a truck and pose for the cameras like an important birthday boy. The Web site Gossip Cop recently ran an earnest post headlined “Donald Trump Does not Wear ‘Adult Diapers,’ Despite Speculation.” These are strange times we live in. The seas are warming, the summer is ending; each day lasts a century, and we are everywhere ruled by large adult sons.

It’s all well done and readable, and sometimes the art of journalism (and opposed to the craft practiced by hard news reporters) is simply to chronicle something in a truthful and informative way.

Yet after reading this I was wishing  Tolentino had acknowledged that  what is different is that now these sorts of self-centered, self-serving and puerile behaviors are becoming so commonplace. And that is where their biggest danger lies: they are beginning to normalize behavior that was once thought uncommon and boorish.

I hesitate to use the alarmist “what abou the children?” line because it has been used so often to excuse bigotry. But I think it is useful now.

What about the children who could once look up to the office of the presidency? What are we telling them when an office that was once, sometimes grudgingly, seen as the Leader Of The Free World, is forevermore seen as up for grabs by people whose only interest seems to be their self-interests?

And what are we telling them when the leaders of our country — and say what you will about Johnson, Reagan, Clinton and the Bushes, but at least they knew when to act presidential in public– no longer even care to act as if they presidency should be above certain levels of untruth and pettiness?

Those are the important questions about this internet meme unaddressed by the article.

You literally don’t know the meaning of “literally”

And, by the way, Winston Churchill never said that.

Honest Abe confers with his realtor, Bob

I finally managed to stop today to snap a photo of the statue of Abe Lincoln talking with his stockbroker.

Every time I go by this ginormous art installation adjacent to the Tribune Building I laugh. 

Because that is what it looks like: Abe Lincoln consulting with some suburban tax attorney or realtor.

The less interesting version — to my warped mind, anyway — is that the guy in the sweater (an annoying Tea Partier) is holding a copy of the Gettysburg Address, which 25-foot tall Abe Lincoln is trying to explain to him had nothing to do with the Republican Party of today and that he would have switched over to the Democrats long ago.

(OK, I embellished a little with that description.)

This Tribune article explains that the “[T]he large bronze sculpture — called “Return Visit” — was created by Seward Johnson, the 86-year-old artist who brought to Chicago the “Forever Marilyn” sculpture of Marilyn Monroe in 2011 and the “God Bless America” sculpture in 2008 of the farmer and his wife from the “American Gothic” painting.

You can see Marilyn below. I definitely prefer her, but Abe is cool, too.

However, if anyone in charge reads this: please bring Marilyn back. She was awesome. As you can plainly see. 

Marilyn Monroe used to reside where Abe Lincoln and his tax preparer now stand.

Mary Tyler Moore is no more

Mary Tyler Moore is dead. 

The video above is, of course, one of the most famous episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (MTM) sitcom   — “Chuckles Bites The Dust” — that sits as but one testament to the brilliance of one of television comedy’s first ensemble casts. And certainly the first the be headlined not only by a woman, but one who played a capable single working woman.

MTM was the first comedy where a woman was not an extension of her husband and family, but rather was a fully formed individual in her own right.

It’s hard today to understand for many people how groundbreaking — and controversial — the show was for its time. 

It also had clearly adult — and sometimes sexual — edge to it which was rarely seen prior in a sitcom, and which was most prominently on display with the Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens, a character given life by current fan favorite Betty White. 

Sue Ann was a sexually voracious man chaser, given to popping off with lines like, “Mary, I was lying in bed last night, and I couldn’t sleep, and I got the most wonderful idea. So I went right home and wrote it down.”

That seems tame today, but it was daring stuff in the 1970’s because Sue Ann was like a man in the way she treated men and sexual conquest. Many gay men of the era felt they had a spirit animal in Sue Ann.

As upwardly mobile TV news producer Mary Richards, Moore was the perfect straight face for much of this naughtiness. She almost never ran with any of the blue material, but it was clear that her character got the jokes and liked them. She was no libertine, nor was she a prude, either. That women could laugh at such things was also new as adult humor became the province of more than just the men without the blue humor coming at the expense of the women. Women could make and laugh at jokes about something other than housework and raising kids.

The show ran from 1970-1977. From when I was 10 years old until I was 17. It informs much of my sense of humor.

I learned how to laugh and much of what was funny from MTM and Mary, Sue Ann, Lou Grant, Rhoda Morgenstern and Phyllis Lindstrom — the latter played by the brilliant Cloris Leachman.

The show even managed to sneak in a gay reference here and there. 

Oh, Mary, Mary, Mary. 

I’m so sad you are gone. But you live on for me in a show I still watch as a kind of television comfort food when I am down.

Especially that episode about Chuckles the Clown which blog visitors can watch above.

The show seems dated now in some of its references, but the sets are fabulous kitsch that is costing people fortunes to reproduce today.

(Note also that Moore was able to prove her dramatic chops in “Ordinary People” in which she played to pitch perfection an emotionally constricted suburban mother grieving so completely over the death of a favored son that she has no more love to give the surviving tortured son played by budding actor Timothy Hutton.)

In the Chuckles episode, Chuckles the Clown, a beloved television station kiddie show institution in the Twin Cities, has died. He was leading the circus parade in downtown Minneapolis dressed as Peter Peanut and a rogue elephant tried to shell him.

From that bit of comedic genius this episode takes off and highlights what made this series and its perfectly cast actors part of television history.

I was going to just link to the part of the episode during the Chuckles funeral itself, but you really have to watch all the craziness that builds up to that to truly appreciate Mary Tyler Moore’s legendary performance at the funeral.


“Mary Tyler Moore: Lou and That Woman (#5.4)” (1974)

Mary Richards: Did you crash the men’s room?
Sue Ann Nivens: Of course not. I went as somebody’s guest.

“Mary Tyler Moore: What Are Friends For? (#5.10)” (1974)

Lou Grant: [Lou hasn’t announced who from the newsroom will go on the Chicago junket. Sue Ann comes into his office, and tells Lou she’s going, and wants him to go as well] I didn’t know you were going.
Sue Ann Nivens: I wouldn’t miss a chance like this! 3 days… and nights, in the city where I had my first program. It was a cooking show , called; ‘Let’s Talk About Meat.’

I’m pissed. And sad. And confused. But ready to do something with all of that.

Dont Quit - Do It

Trump won.

I just woke up at 4 a.m., thinking the early returns were a fluke and I would wake up to Madam President.

That did not happen.

I remember feeling this hopeless once before.

It was 1983 and the AIDS crisis was just beginning. People were dying all around us.

The government was against us. There was open talk, not seen as terribly crazy at the time, that we all needed to be quarantined. Shipped off to camps.

Doctors didn’t want to see us. Our friends were being disowned by their families. Many of us were dying alone in hospitals. From top to bottom our political apparatus was indifferent to the death all around us.

It seemed hopeless. So hopeless. Just like I feel right now as I type this.

So we did the only thing we could do. We picked ourselves up and started fighting back, looking out for our own interests against enormous odds and opposition.

This is what we have to do now, starting today. Or at least soon after you are able to stop grieving.

I was one of the ones who openly scoffed at Donald Trump and his followers who said they would not accept the results of the election if Hillary won. This was undemocratic. It was un-American.

That was easy to do when I thought Clinton would win. But she didn’t.

Now our own side is full of talk about not accepting the results. But we have to do just that.

Pick ourselves up and realize that, in the ‘80s we had nobody on our side except for ourselves. A very small number in a big country. But it was enough to hold on, fight back, and will ourselves to keep going, to keep watch, until the horror was either over or it got better.

That is what we have to do now, with numbers far greater than what we had back then.

Half of the country is with us. That is more than enough.

Wallowing in anger and self-pity will not work. We have to put that anger to work. I don’t want to move to Canada, as nice as it seems. I don’t want to show our young people that we gave up. Our side, our values, our beliefs, are worth fighting for, within the means at our disposal.

And that starts today. With the next elections; the mid-term elections. We have to organize as never before so that in two years, our voices will be heard and the power of Donald Trump and the forces responsible for bringing him to the public eye and electing him do not win.

I refuse to roll over and let them win.

Let’s not fight each other. What’s done is done. It cannot be undone and we will never know if Bernie would have been a better candidate. Perhaps he could have beaten Trump. Most likely the right-wing would have savaged him the same way they savaged Clinton. And Trump would still be president.

People voted for third-party candidates, and that is their right as Americans.

The mid-term elections two years after Obama was elected were a disaster for us. Nobody did it to us. We did it to ourselves. Obama had great plans. And he could have done far more than he was able to do had we organized for those elections. But too many of us sat that election out, and many of the crazy Republicans in power now – including those who enabled Trump – won their first elections that year. Too many of us let that happen through our own inaction. That cannot happen again.

Blaming the Democrats for not doing enough is crazy if we created the circumstances which hobbled them.

Now we need to channel our despair and anger. The people we love, your children, your nieces and nephews, our friends, need those of us who can organize to do so.

We need goals. And those start with trying to lessen the damage Trump can do, and working on the mid-term Congressional elections and every local seat we can win next time. Too many of us sat this one out, again.

Fight back and organize.

If we could do it in the ‘80s when most of the country was against us, we can do it now when half of the country is with us.

This is not the end. It can be a beginning if we choose to make it one. Let’s get on with it.


London infrastructure project yields fascinating finds

Massive boring machines like this one—dubbed Victoria in honor of the British queen who oversaw the birth of modern railways—are carving 26 miles of tunnels beneath London as part of Europe’s largest infrastructure project. (NATGEO)

London’s version of Boston’s massive big dig is fully underway, and they are excavating some priceless historical artifacts during a public infrastructure project that gives urban archaeologists the rare chance for extended exploration in an area that is usually too densely populated and too busy for this kind of unearthing:

“These excavations have provided us with fascinating snapshots into the lives of Londoners through the ages,” says Don Walker, a human osteologist, or bone specialist, for MOLA. “It makes you realize that we all are just small, passing players in a very long-running story.”

One of the earliest chapters of that story came to light after 2010 at the three-acre building site for Bloomberg London, the soon-to-open European headquarters of the Bloomberg financial empire. Located in the ancient ward of Cordwainer, where leather workers had plied their trade since Roman times, a 40-foot-deep excavation pit turned out to be one of the most significant early Roman sites ever found in London.

As the soil was removed, entire street scenes were revealed, complete with timber-framed shops, homes, fences, and yards. Dating from the early 60s A.D. onward, the site was in such an astonishing state of preservation that archaeologists dubbed it the “Pompeii of the north.” More than 14,000 artifacts were found over the course of the excavation, including coins, amulets, pewter plates, ceramic lamps, 250 leather boots and sandals, and more than 900 boxes of pottery.

You can read more here.