Noel Holston – A journal of progressive Southern culture and politics Sun, 17 Feb 2019 15:51:39 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Noel Holston – 32 32 Zin and the Art of Planetary Maintenance Wed, 05 Dec 2018 13:05:03 +0000 Trolls. She’s watched it so many times, she knows it by heart. In the early 1990s, long before Zin was born, I was starting to worry about the impact of the greenhouse gases we were belching into the atmosphere and the plastic litter that we sent floating down the rivers and into the seas. I wrote a song about our dangerous notion that we could consume and pollute all we wanted and then, if things got really bad, just fly away. It began:

The planets and the stars Will not be ours Except, of course, to dream on For all our Star Trek fantasies This island Earth will be our home


I’m writing this for my granddaughter, but I’m not telling her. I don’t want her to be scared.

Zinnia is 6 years old. She’s small for her age but otherwise precocious. She reads like a fourth grader and trampolines like a jumping bean. Other kids her age may make “yuck” faces at sight of spinach or broccoli, but Zin already relishes oysters, kalamata olives and “stinky” cheeses. Her favorite bedtime lullaby is “The Sounds of Silence,” which I thought was beyond precocious until her dad explained that the Simon and Garfunkel song is featured in her favorite movie, Trolls. She’s watched it so many times, she knows it by heart.

Zinnia picks fruitIn the early 1990s, long before Zin was born, I was starting to worry about the impact of the greenhouse gases we were belching into the atmosphere and the plastic litter that we sent floating down the rivers and into the seas. I wrote a song about our dangerous notion that we could consume and pollute all we wanted and then, if things got really bad, just fly away. It began:

The planets and the stars
Will not be ours
Except, of course, to dream on
For all our Star Trek fantasies
This island Earth will be our home

Our space-travel capabilities have improved in the intervening years, but we still haven’t found a destination planet enough like our big blue marble to covet or developed the means for even a search party to get there.

In the meantime, we’ve created a floating plastic garbage patch twice the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean. We’re experiencing record high temperatures. Hellish wildfires are raging from California to Sweden, and hurricanes and typhoons are growing in size and intensity.

As if these inconvenient truths weren’t frightening enough, there’s a new report out from the US Global Change Research Program. Released on shopaholic Black Friday, of all days, it warns that if we don’t significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the annual average global temperature could increase nine degrees Fahrenheit or more, compared with pre-industrial temperatures, by the end of this century. The Congressionally-mandated report, compiled from the work of a dozen federal agencies, predicts increasingly calamitous weather that will endanger lives around the world. It also puts the cost of inaction in business-unfriendly greenback terms, estimating that the cost of unchecked climate change could reach hundreds of billions of dollars annually.

The year 2100 seems a long way off. Most of you who are reading this will be long gone when that new millennium is rung in. I surely won’t be around. But Zinnia and my other grandchild, Jackson, will be around to suffer for our short-sightedness and stupidity. So will billions of other kids here and around the world.

Zin is just beginning to figure out what she wants to do with her life. Maybe she’ll become a fitness trainer like her mom or a radio producer like her dad. Maybe she’ll be a doctor or a chef or a scientist or a maker of animated films like Trolls. Maybe she’ll have kids herself. I want her to have those opportunities. I want her to be living on a planet at least as beautiful and diverse and healthy as the one I grew up on – and, if at all possible, better.

No challenge we are facing or issue we are dealing with today is more important than our acting like responsible, caring adults and implementing every measure we can imagine to limit further physical deterioration of the only planet we have.

Not gun control or reproductive rights. Not Latin American immigrants or North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The environment. Our environment. Our incredibly complex, life-giving, life-sustaining, shared environment.

We need to do this whether we believe we’re God’s appointed stewards or simply because we recognize it’s suicidal to foul our nest. Pick your rationale, but make reversing damage to the Earth a personal and political priority.

We were making encouraging progress not that long ago, prioritizing cleaner energy sources, discouraging pollution, setting aside nature preserves both land and sea. Now, under new “leadership,” we are in spiteful retreat. There are those among us, including some rich and powerful people, who insist that the dire warnings of scientists like those who compiled the Fourth National Climate Assessment are a hoax or an anti-capitalist plot.

The former claim is an absurdity that would require a conspiracy of millions of scientists who’ve never met. The latter ignores the commerce to be engendered and the profit to be made from cleaner industry.

If the scientists turn out to be wrong, we will still be living a cleaner, healthier world as the 21st Century speeds along. If they’re correct in their predictions and we’ve allowed our leaders to shirk their responsibility, our children and grandchildren will be facing a rising tide of misery.

I would accuse the deniers of playing Russian roulette with our little ones’ lives, but that analogy overestimates the odds in our favor if we don’t act.

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Battle lines are being drawn Thu, 30 Aug 2018 12:10:29 +0000 Civil Rights Movement Veterans). In Georgia, for instance, a prospective new voter who was black would likely be required to take a lengthy test that asked, among other things, “Who is the Solicitor General of your State Judicial Circuit District and who is the presiding judge (or judges if more than one)?” and “What are the names of the Federal District judges in Georgia?” Few of us today, even those of us who hadn't been discouraged from getting an education, could answer either question without Google or Bing’s assistance.]]>

Until the 1965 Voting Rights Act banned so-called “literacy” tests, states across the South – and a few elsewhere — routinely employed them to stunt electoral participation by non-white citizens. (You can see copies of some of the actual tests on the website of the Civil Rights Movement Veterans).

In Georgia, for instance, a prospective new voter who was black would likely be required to take a lengthy test that asked, among other things, “Who is the Solicitor General of your State Judicial Circuit District and who is the presiding judge (or judges if more than one)?” and “What are the names of the Federal District judges in Georgia?” Few of us today, even those of us who hadn’t been discouraged from getting an education, could answer either question without Google or Bing’s assistance.

Sign reading Last Day Register to Vote trying to get voters to signup for political voting registration.In Mississippi, where I grew up, people attempting to get on the voter rolls in those Jim Crow times could be presented, at the discretion of the registrar, with a test that required them to interpret, on the spot, a passage from the state constitution. The registrar, invariably white, got to choose the difficulty of the passage and grade the response.

Louisiana’s tests were similar, though one parish in the early 1960s used a questionnaire that was unusually challenging. Indeed, it was fiendishly inventive and downright surreal. White registrars had the option of putting selected voters through a series of questions that resembled a rebus puzzle or the “Jumble” word game in a newspaper’s comics pages.

Here are a few samples:

8. Draw a line through the letter below that comes earliest in the alphabet.

14. Draw a line under the first letter after “h” and draw a line through the second letter after “j”.

22. Place a cross over the tenth letter in this line, a line under the first space in this sentence, and a circle around the last the in the second line of this sentence.

There were 30 questions in all on that Louisiana test, and these aren’t even the strangest. Some involved drawing geometric shapes and writing words upside down. The test-taker got 10 minutes, answers had to be exact, and a single wrong answer resulted in a failing grade.

Here’s another line you can draw – a line that runs with little zig or zag from the “literacy” tests, poll taxes and other voter-suppression ploys dreamed up starting in the 1870s, soon after the 15th Amendment gave black men the vote, to the subtler disenfranchisement maneuvers that are being employed even as you read this. Probably the most significant difference between the old days and now is that politicians who identify as Republicans, not as Democrats or “Dixiecrats,” are the perpetrators.

Georgia, my chosen home state, has one of the strictest voter ID laws in the nation. It was passed by a Republican-dominated legislature and signed by a Republican governor despite complaints from the Democratic side that requiring photo ID’s mainly serves to limit voting by poorer citizens who, as we know only too well, are disproportionately non-white.

The Republican nominee for governor in Georgia this year, Brian Kemp, is also the current Secretary of State, which happens to be the office in charge of overseeing elections. Kemp has ignored Democrats’ call to step down or at least recuse himself, this despite his history of prioritizing the purging of thousands of voters from Georgia rolls in the name of reducing fraudulent ballots.

Kemp’s Democratic challenger is Stacey Abrams, minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives. Their rivalry is nothing new. In 2013, Abrams founded the New Georgia Project, its goal to register 800,000 new voters, especially people of color and women. Secretary Kemp responded the following year by launching a fraud investigation of the registration campaign. It turned up a shocking – shocking! – 51 forged or suspicious voter applications out of the 85,000 NGP’s canvassers had collected. That’s .0006 percent.

While the investigation was underway, a tape emerged on which Kemp was heard telling a Republican gathering, “In closing, I just wanted to tell you, real quick, after we get through this runoff, you know the Democrats are working hard, and all these stories about them, you know, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sideline. If they can do that, they can win these elections in November.”

In his defense, Kemp and his supporters point out that he did not say anything about trying to stop minorities from registering, that he was only reminding his fellow Republicans of a political reality. But what does it say about his mentality that he considers minority voters a threat to him and his party, not a constituency to be welcomed and wooed?

Kemp is not an old-fashioned, race-baiting Southern politician in the Lester Mattox-George Wallace mold, but at the very least he suffers from the same tone deafness that afflicts many Republican leaders, including President Trump, whose endorsement Kemp enthusiastically accepted. He could avoid much of the controversy and negative press he invites if he would acknowledge his conflict of interest and watch his mouth.

Instead, he gets linked to imbroglios like the recent flap in Randolph County, where a consultant picked from a list provided by Kemp’s office recommended to local officials that they close seven of the county’s nine polling places because their toilets didn’t meet handicapped requirements. Not request state help to upgrade the restrooms. Not haul in some handicapped-accessible portables on election days. Close all but two polling locations in a poor, majority black county that, as it happened, went heavily for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

After the toilet matter hit the fan, making national news, election officials rejected the plan and dismissed the consultant. Nonetheless, it looked bad, looked like one more sneaky trick to keep people of color away from the polls.

We need to end this. Not just the practice, even the appearance. Make the process so clean and transparent that no one can cry foul, everyone who is eligible to vote is encouraged, and everyone who wants to vote gets assistance if they need it.

We need to draw a line.

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Global warning: ‘fake news’ is a fraud Sat, 18 Aug 2018 11:36:39 +0000 Boston Globe, ridiculing its financial difficulties and charging, with typically nonsensical phrasing, that the paper “is now in COLLUSION with other papers on free press. PROVE IT!” How had the Globe offended our most powerful and petty elected official? By encouraging the editorial boards of newspapers coast to coast to same-day publish their own, individual responses to Trump’s incessant press bashing and claims that journalists are “the enemy of the people.” More than 300 papers, large and small, from The New York Times and to the Yankton County Observer in South Dakota, responded to the Globe’s suggestion, standing up for the First Amendment and their own reporters’ integrity.]]>

In yet another alarming tweet about the supposedly “fake” news media, President Donald Trump this week assailed the Boston Globe, ridiculing its financial difficulties and charging, with typically nonsensical phrasing, that the paper “is now in COLLUSION with other papers on free press. PROVE IT!”

How had the Globe offended our most powerful and petty elected official? By encouraging the editorial boards of newspapers coast to coast to same-day publish their own, individual responses to Trump’s incessant press bashing and claims that journalists are “the enemy of the people.” More than 300 papers, large and small, from The New York Times and to the Yankton County Observer in South Dakota, responded to the Globe’s suggestion, standing up for the First Amendment and their own reporters’ integrity. Even the Florida Times Union, which endorsed Trump in 2016, joined the chorus.

Trump’s attack on the Globe in particular is scurrilous — and patently ridiculous. The paper has been published daily since Ulysses S. Grant was president, and whatever profitability problems it has are not, as Trump likes to insinuate, the result of editorial bias. Rather, they have to do with the difficulty of monetizing traditional, general-interest reporting amid the glut of information and opinion that’s available for free – or at least appears free – on the Internet. Even with a reduced budget and staff, it’s still an outstanding, reliable source of news.

Upside down head by the author, © Noel Holston.PROVE IT?

Well, an exhaustive investigation by Globe reporters uncovered decades of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in the city’s diocese. The reports won the Globe a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and became the basis of Spotlight, winner of the best-picture Oscar in 2015. Even the Vatican acknowledged, grudgingly, that the expose of pedophile priests was anything but fake.

The Globe won another Pulitzer in 2013, in the “breaking news” category, for its thorough, aggressive coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and the police hunt for the terrorists. No one in the shaken city doubted the Globe was publishing news that was real.

On Wednesday, just hours after Trump tweeted his anti-Globe screed, the paper reported that the Red Sox had lost to the Philadelphia Phillies by a score of 7 to 4. Sox fans were no doubt disappointed, but I doubt any of them insisted that their team hadn’t really lost, that the Globe had for some reason misrepresented the outcome. And why would it? It wouldn’t make business sense.

None of this is meant to suggest that Globe reporters never make mistakes or that its editorial convictions don’t sometimes bleed into its news reporting. Like all newspapers – including The Orlando Sentinel, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Newsday, three that have employed me – the Globe is the product of imperfect human beings who occasionally get facts wrong and far more rarely make stories up. The former will get you a reprimand. The latter, when detected, will get you fired. Newspapers, in my 30-plus years of first-hand experience, are obsessively concerned with their credibility. Soul searching about ethics, fairness and accuracy is a journalistic pastime far more common than knocking back shots of Jack Daniels at the corner bar.

What anybody using a fraction of his or her critical faculties understands is that what Trump calls “fake” news is almost entirely just reporting that he and his staunchest supporters don’t like. He not only wants to “control the narrative,” a common enough goal of presidents and CEOs alike, but also to see himself lionized, celebrated, worshiped.

Tough luck. It doesn’t work that way. Never did. In a great, rare country like ours in which the citizenry and the press are Constitutionally guaranteed freedom, Trump can at best expect a wide range of coverage, from fawning devotion by most of the newscasters and commentators on Fox News Channel to the cautiously balanced right- and left-inflected editorials of Atlanta Journal-Constitution to the accentuate-the-negative news thrust and bare-knuckled punditry of The Washington Post. They all enjoy the same freedom to tell it as they see it.

As do I. As do you. As does the President.

News flash: The press is not the people’s enemy, and the President of the United States is not the people.

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Donny O’Trump and the Liddle People Sun, 22 Oct 2017 12:06:39 +0000

Donald Trump caricature

Randy Newman caused an uproar years ago when he released a catchy pop ditty in which he declared that “short people got no reason to live.” The singer-songwriter insisted “Short People”was a metaphorical, anti-bigotry joke, as was his bent, but that didn’t stop a lot of short people and their families and friends from wanting to cut him off at the knees. I wonder why we haven’t heard a similar outcry over Donald Trump’s fondness for belittling “liddle” people. He’s not joking, much less engaging in metaphor.

I will confess to being a wee bit prickly about this because I am, at 5-feet-8, only an inch taller than Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, whom Trump recently dubbed “Liddle Bob” in a retaliatory tweet. Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had likened the President to a tantrum-prone brat in need of constant day care.

It wasn’t the first time Trump invoked modest height as a disparaging measure of an opponent. During the campaign for the Republican nomination, when he was still spelling like an adult, he disparaged Florida Sen. Marco Rubio as “Little Marco.”

He taunts the dictator of North Korea as “Little Rocket Man,” ignoring, perhaps at his (and our) peril, that the plump young man with the curious flattop has maintained his power with a shrewd, cut-throat mentality.

It should go without saying that physical stature is hardly a fair or reasonable indicator of any human being’s capability or worth, but hey, this is an opinion piece, so I will say it. It’s not. And not only is physical stature not a valid measure of worth, decency, intelligence or, for that matter, manliness, disparaging some guy’s height as an offensive or defensive gambit is, like impugning patriotism, a refuge of scoundrels.

I’ve known “liddle” guys of merit all my life. My dad’s youngest brother, only about 5-feet-2 and called “Shorty” by most everybody aside from his kinfolks, made the nickname his brand and parlayed it, with his natural business acumen, into car dealerships that earned him millions and put him on the boards of banks and companies all over southeast Mississippi.

In college at Southern Miss I had a classmate and friend who was so short and slight that, even upon graduation, he could be mistaken from a distance as a 10-year-old. He was one of the most popular people on campus, went on to Ole Miss law school, apprenticed under the state’s attorney general, and now heads one of the largest and most prestigious law firms in the south.

A list of the short, famous and formidable could fill a book. Many of them made such a mark they can be identified by a single name: Faulkner. King. Gandhi. Prince. Spielberg. Picasso. Beethoven.

Trump loves making up snide nicknames – Lyin’ Ted Cruz, Crooked Hilary Clinton, Failing (fill in a newspaper name). But because he’s bearishly built and of above-average height yet still insecure, defensive and mean, he is especially prone to invoke diminutive size as an insult, thereby revealing an ugly truth about his own character.

Donald J. Trump isn’t “liddle.” He’s just small.

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What the truck! Should monster pickups be outlawed? Wed, 30 Aug 2017 10:40:47 +0000

Big red monster truck

I was stopped for a red light while on my way to the grocery store when it pulled up in the lane next to me. I heard its rumble and felt its shadow fall like a partial eclipse before I actually saw it. When I glanced left from the window of my medium-sized sedan, I was eye level with its underbelly – the pristine wheel wells, the giant tires, the gleaming chassis, a concentration of chrome like a buck-toothed teenager’s orthodontics. The reflections of my car and the car just ahead of me in its side panels didn’t even reach as high as its door handles.

It was a truck. Not a semi, not a dump truck, not a tow truck. Just a pickup, but a pickup so ridiculously oversized, jacked up and tricked out that I wouldn’t have been surprised if had reconfigured itself, Transformer-style, into a robot with death-ray eyes.

I managed to grab my cell phone and snap a quick photo before the light turned green and the 4-wheeled, candy-apple monstrosity roared down the road to duke it out with Voltron.

What is it with pickup trucks these days? How did they get so big? Why?

Everywhere I go in Athens, Georgia, where I live, or on the road to North Carolina or Florida, I see them by the dozens – pickups made by Ford, Toyota, Dodge, GMC and other manufacturers that seem as big as the average fire truck of my youth in the 1960s.

They don’t just block your sight lines on the road. They make backing out of a shopping-mall parking space a daredevil chore. They give their drivers a feeling of invincibility that seems to make many of them bolder and more aggressive. They get lousy mileage and put excess weight on roadbeds. Some have even been modified to belch clouds of oily black exhaust. It’s apparently meant as a political statement, a sooty middle finger to the EPA and namby-pamby people who drive hybrids and electric cars.

What say we start a movement to ban them? Far as I know, there’s no Constitutional protection for needlessly big-ass trucks.

I actually have a soft spot for pickups. My first car was a pickup, a 1953 Ford with a flat-head eight, the spare tire mounted on the side and cattle bars around the bed that my daddy welded and installed himself. We pulled stumps with that pickup; we hauled cows, hogs, and hay bales stacked 10-feet high. Our first registered bull, a black angus, came home to our place in the back of that banged-up dark blue Ford. And it was only slightly larger than today’s Ford Ranger, which is practically a toy by current, oversized standards.

Explanations for this phenomenon vary.  Articles and discussion boards I’ve looked at put forth these theories:

  • We, the American people, have gotten bigger and fatter since the 1950s and ’60s, so it’s only logical that vehicles have ballooned to accommodate us.
  • Everything has gotten larger, from drink cups the size of mop buckets at convenience stores to living room furniture seemingly made for people who walk around muttering fee-fi-fo-fum.
  • People have gotten paranoid about their safety as the number of cars in use has multiplied.
  • Auto manufacturers make a bigger profit on trucks with lots of extras than on simple, utilitarian models, so they push the extras-laden big ones.

Whatever the incentive to make and own these vehicles, there are too many of them. And what really bugs me is that way too many of these Tundras, Silverados, Rams, Leviathans and Godzillas look as they’ve never been on a dirt road, let alone hauled a load of fence posts or been christened with cow manure. They’re show-room shiny and bear nary a scratch. They’re status symbols, purchased for flaunting, not utility. On one web page that’s devoted to hashing this question, a truck lover who yearns for a good, medium-sized, no-frills pickup referred to the big ’uns as “soccer mom pimp-mobiles.”

There’s good reason to consider banning them, though I would make exceptions. If somebody really needs a monster pickup for the work they do, fine, but let them prove it with affidavits documenting what that work is and renew their permits annually with photos of the truck in service.

The rest? The showboats? How about buy-back programs like some police departments have instigated to get guns off the street? Round them up, then melt them down for Focuses or Mini Coopers or bicycles.

To paraphrase Harry S Truman, the truck stops here.


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Protesting the President: Money (That’s What I Want) Mon, 17 Apr 2017 10:13:40 +0000

Tax Protest March April 15, 2017 by Mike Licht

Once again, President Tweety has claimed that Americans who march in protest of his policies or of him personally are doing so for pay. His latest accusation came in a tweet on Easter Sunday, one day after citizens in cities as far flung as New York and Birmingham hit the streets to demand that he release his tax returns.

I am going to take him at his word that events like these are orchestrated and funded as part of a vast left-wing conspiracy. And I would like to ask a simple question: Where do I sign up?

I have been protesting for free, but I would like to have something to show for my patriotic efforts besides sunburn and sore feet.

There have been reports that I’ve seen in the right-wing media that indicate that George Soros is picking up the tab. Or was it George Clooney? Anyway, whoever it is — George Clinton, George of the Jungle, Curious George — I am awaiting marching orders and a check. And I am assuming, given that this is some liberal’s plot, that the pay is above minimum wage.

So far I have only attended rallies and protests in Athens, my home town, and in Atlanta. I have asked protesters I have encountered who recruited them and how much they’re getting, but nobody has admitted to it. In fact, they scoff or get offended or look at me like I’m crazy: “Are you kidding? He’s a pig.”

Sure. Just what a hired conspirator would say.

I want in on this. No more pro bono. I am a one-man coalition of the willing. For the right price I’ll go anywhere. I am kind of like Paladin: Have “Not My President” sign, will travel.

In many ways, I would be an ideal recruit. I’m a white guy with short hair. I own khakis and polo shirts. I am retired but still ambulatory. I’m pensioner who could use the extra income, senior discounts notwithstanding. Also, my wife believes I spend way too much time on Facebook and need to get out more.

So, if one of the Georges or whomever is bankrolling these anti-Trump protests is reading this, please use the comments section below to give me an address or phone number. I’ll make contact. I would list my home address, but you know how it is. There are trolls out there, and gun nuts.

I am ready to fatten my wallet. I will also protest for food, but I would expect at least Zaxby’s if we are talking coupons instead of cash.

To the barricades. And the bank.



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The PBS Armed Services Telethon Fri, 17 Mar 2017 15:50:34 +0000

Attack on CPB by Mike Keefe

The White House’s budget proposal includes a $54 billion increase in military spending that ostensibly will be offset by cuts to a variety of cabinet-level departments and lesser agencies, among the the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which provides funding that helps fuel the Public Broadcasting Service, National Public Radio, some170 public-TV stations, and 900-plus public radio stations.

CPB’s requested appropriation for this year is about $490 million. President Donald Trump and company want to “zero it out,” effectively ending all federal support for the sources of an out-sized share of American broadcasting’s smartest, most educational programming – adult series like “NOVA,” “Frontline,” “All Things Considered” and “Fresh Air” as well as “The Electric Company,” “Word Girl,” “Peg + Cat” and more than a dozen other great children’s shows.

So, I have a counter proposal, at once modest and radical: Give CPB the money it’s asking for, which is less than one percent of the proposed military increase, and let the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard have a week-long pledge drive every year on PBS.

I’m not being facetious. In the telethon I envision, PBS would schedule a selection of its greatest all-time militaristic hits 24/7 for a week. The program roster would include acclaimed, award-winning documentary series such as Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” and “The War” (as in WW2), “Vietnam: A Television History,” the great British import “The World at War.” There would also be one-shots from PBS’s archives, docs about Eisenhower, MacArthur, the Manhattan Project, the design and construction of the World War II Memorial and more.

Come to think of it, PBS over the course of its existence has probably the the most military-friendly, patriotic network in the video universe. If it weren’t for PBS’s annual Memorial Day concert telecasts, where would you ever see and hear the U.S. Army Herald Trumpets, the U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters, or the U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants?

In breaks between the military programs, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assorted veterans and current service members and perhaps the President himself would make appeals for donations.

I can see the phalanx of ribbon-ed service men and women at the phones and the on-screen crawl: Decorated operators are standing by.

We probably couldn’t raise enough money to make the proposed spending increase unnecessary – I mean, $54 billion is battleship-load of $25 pledges – but surely with a full military press on PBS, we could get patriotic, troops-supporting Americans to pony up the cost of a few jet fighters or 100,000 hours of counseling for vets suffering from PTSD.

To help things along, we could try variations on some of the tried and true public-broadcasting fund raising ploys. Red state-vs.-Blue state pledge-offs. Challenges to VFW and American Legion posts. Munitions manufacturers could match pledges during certain hours. Boxed sets of the complete works of Tom Clancy. Camouflage tote bags.

So there you have it, a rough outline for the first PBS Armed Services Telethon, which ought to draw bipartisan support because it benefits our soldiers, provides tax relief and doesn’t grow the government.

As they say in advertising, if not the Army, let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes.


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A Climate of Denial Mon, 06 Mar 2017 10:55:40 +0000 “Gee, Brain, what are we going to do tonight?" “The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world.” With apologies to the creators of Pinky and the Brain, the wickedly witty cartoon series about a super-smart laboratory mouse and his decidedly less cerebral sidekick, I imagine an exchange like that recurring nightly at the White House between President Donald Trump and senior adviser Steve Bannon – except...]]>

E-5 multiple-vortex tornado

“Gee, Brain, what are we going to do tonight?”
“The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world.”

With apologies to the creators of “Pinky and the Brain,” the wickedly witty cartoon series about a super-smart laboratory mouse and his decidedly less cerebral sidekick, I imagine an exchange like that recurring nightly at the White House between President Donald Trump and senior adviser Steve Bannon – except I would substitute a certain four-letter, sexual slang term for “take.”

World-beaters in the worst way, these guys may be the death of us. Or, if not us, our children and grandchildren. Scarcely a day has passed since January 20 without the Trump White House issuing an executive order disabling some environmental safeguard or announcing a new pipeline, drilling plan or effort to revive an energy source whose time has passed.

Trump has already signed into law a bill that nullifies supposedly “job killing” federal restrictions on coal companies dumping mining wastes into streams and rivers.

Under its new, pro-petroleum boss, Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency voided an Obama-era rule that required oil and natural gas companies to report emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas, from their facilities. “The future ain’t what it used to be,” Pruitt boasted at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

Reports in a variety of publications, from mainstream to alt-right, have indicated that the Trump administration favors a $2 billion cut in the EPA’s budget, with its climate change programs likely to take the hardest hit.

Multiple news outlets have reported that the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s budget may be trimmed by 22 percent, which would threaten its climate-monitoring satellite program.

The Trump administration also is said to be considering requests from auto manufacturers to lower emission standards for cars and light trucks.

Meanwhile, our weather patterns increasingly bear a scary resemblance to the freaky meteorological conditions described in T.C. Boyle’s 2001 novel A Friend of the Earth. Boyle’s darkly comic work of speculative fiction takes place in the year 2025, when he imagines that unheeded warnings about fossil fuel folly have left average folks to contend with tilt ‘o whirl weather conditions and rising famine while the rich live high and dry in private enclaves in the least affected zones.

Eight years shy of Boyle’s apocalyptic scenario, we’re not seeing wildlife dying out in droves and wet crops rotting in the fields, but we are coming off another record year of escalating warmth and experiencing some of weirdest, least predictable weather in history: Chicago’s first snow-less winter in 142 years; torrential rains and dam-busting floods in long parched California; Massachusetts’ first known February tornado; rare wintertime twisters decimating communities from Texas to Mississippi to Illinois.

Why the President and so many Republicans are not merely ignoring these suspicious events but pushing for regulation rollbacks and renewed dirty energy is a bafflement. Well, it’s a bafflement if conservatism is about caution, about proceeding prudently, as opposed to being about short-term gain.

The world’s scientific community overwhelmingly agrees that climate change is real, that it is distinctly linked to human industrial activity and that the longer we delay addressing the causes, the worse and less reversible the consequences will be.

Is it possible that these scientists are all wet? Sure. Not likely, but possible. They may have miscalculated. They could be dupes of a Chinese hoax or part of an anti-capitalist conspiracy, as some people, almost entirely on the Right, have theorized. But if they were lying or simply mistaken, so what? The smart, sane, conservative approach would be to err on the side of caution. We might not grow the economy as fast, but our next generations will have cleaner air and water — you know, the essentials of life.

Never forget, in this big political gamble, this dangerous experiment, we’re the the laboratory mice.


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The Limbaugh Presidency Wed, 18 Jan 2017 10:53:00 +0000

Rush Limbaugh - Caricature by DonkeyHotey

On Friday, we Americans will witness the inauguration of our 45th President, Rush Limbaugh.

OK, not really Rush. Instead, what Hollywood casting agents would refer to as “a Rush Limbaugh type,” one Donald J. Trump.

Limbaugh — the Big Daddy, the Jabba the Hut of right-wing radio talk — is not the inescapable presence he once was. He’s not quoted so much, and his name is not invoked as often. Though his audience is still the envy of the radio industry, he doesn’t have the influence he did at his peak in the 1990s, when his books were automatic #1 best-sellers and his religiously zealous fans, the “Dittoheads,” aggregated in coffee shops, bars and private homes to hear their inexhaustibly verbose hero fire fusillades of contempt and derision at President Bill Clinton and his policies and peccadilloes.

He has lost some key sponsors and in some cities prime outlets since that pinnacle thanks to some of his more extreme character assassinations. And he has lost some of his novelty, if not his thunder, to Sean Hannity and other blustering stars of Fox News Channel, the cable network that Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes based on Limbaugh’s radio model. (Ailes, in fact, directed the syndicated TV version of Limbaugh’s show that had a brief but instructive run in the early 1990s.)

Still, Limbaugh’s impact on this year’s election is more certain, if not more profound, than Vladimir Putin’s.

Limbaugh’s broadcasts over the years cultivated, queued up and gave voice to millions of resentful, angry Americans, almost entirely white and heavily male, who would eventually become the biggest component of Donald Trump’s voter base. And his conspiratorial insinuations about Hillary Clinton, starting when she was First Lady, became significant part and parcel of the “baggage” she dragged through her Presidential campaign (and almost certainly fueled her unfortunate obsession with secrecy).

Perhaps more important, Limbaugh’s bombastic, bullying, vitriolic style both foreshadowed Trump’s and provided a blueprint for what a shameless political candidate could get away with.

Before there was Trump insisting in interviews and at campaign rallies that climate change is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese, there was Limbaugh on the radio claiming, repeatedly, that ozone-layer depletion was just a fabrication by “environmentalist wackos.”

Before Trump complained that aggressive Presidential-debate moderator Megyn Kelly had blood coming out of her “whatever,” there was Limbaugh telling an argumentative female caller that she couldn’t grasp his point because she had tampons in her ears.

Before Trump went grotesquely spastic imitating a disabled reporter who’d incurred his wrath, there was Limbaugh claiming that actor Michael J. Fox, in a political ad supporting stem cell research, had exaggerated the effects of his Parkinson’s Disease: “He’s moving all around and shaking and it’s purely an act.”

Before Trump’s dismissed women who’d criticized him as dogs, slobs and pigs, there was Limbaugh, on the TV variation of his program, purporting to show viewers a photo of the Clinton family’s new dog and “accidentally” flashing a photo of their daughter, Chelsea, then 13 years old.

Like Limbaugh, the list of parallels could go on. And on. And on.

Disinclined to share the spotlight with anyone, let alone acknowledge a debt, Trump hasn’t and likely never will give Limbaugh any credit for his rise. But he should.

He should invite Limbaugh to his inauguration ball and, after the obligatory waltz with his wife, Melania, take El Rushbo for a spin around the dance floor. They deserve each other even if the rest of us don’t deserve either.

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Barack and the Beatitudes Fri, 30 Dec 2016 13:53:38 +0000

President Obama’s mic drop at the White House Correspondence Dinner via

Some years ago, when I was living and working in Central Florida, my family and I attended a Sunday service at a Congregational church in Winter Park. In his sermon that morning, the minister envisioned Jesus’ long-prophesied return to our midst. In the preacher’s telling, the Prince of Peace so alarms some of the populace with his public denunciations of rampant materialism and his insistence on ideals such as humility, forgiveness, charity and non-violence that he is soon murdered all over again.

The sermon echoes back to me as Barack Obama finishes his second and final term as President of the United States. And no, I do not believe that Obama was the Second Coming or any kind of messiah. He’s just a bright, reasonable man with a strong moral compass and a pretty good jump shot, an alternately buoyant and contemplative fellow who tried to do a lot of the right things and got treated with hostility by too many of his fellow Americans, including some who refused to believe he was in fact an American.

Some of those same doubters and haters continue to insist President Obama adheres to the Muslim faith which, if it were actually true, is perfectly permissible under our beloved Constitution. But the ironic thing about this notion is that, regardless of his religion or lack thereof, it’s difficult to recall a President, with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter, who has behaved more like a Christian while in office.

Drone strikes and terrorist-hunting notwithstanding, much of Obama’s POTUS playbook has been straight out of the New Testament, especially ideas about compassion, forgiveness, mercy and the like that Jesus articulated in the Sermon on the Mount.

Obama made a vigorous effort to help the sick and the poor with the Affordable Care Act. He took a stand against state-sanctioned torture — the sort of horrors Jesus endured — and attempted to shut down our infamous prison in Guantanamo, Cuba. He didn’t have us invade any new countries and tried to get our soldiers out of countries his predecessor had. He advocated for a saner, reasonable approach to gun control. He encouraged us to be better, more conservative stewards of the miraculous planet we share symbiotically with countless other species. He asked us to be more inclusive, to at least respect, if not love, our fellow citizens of different race, national origin, religion, gender and sexual orientation.

All this plus helping to retrieve our economy from the cusp of catastrophe, demonstrating exemplary parenthood and lifting his voice at a funeral to sing “Amazing Grace,” a Protestant standard for which he needed no hymn book or prompter.

Yet none of it seemed to matter much to a sizable portion of our population, including quite a number who identify themselves as devoted followers of Jesus. If anything, it inflamed them. And thus we now have, slouching toward Washington, a rough beast, a boastful, conspicuously acquisitive, vindictive President-elect whose philosophy of life and lucre is more in sync with that of the late novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, who was hostile to religion of any and all stripes and considered the Christian ideal of living for others to be the height of stupidity.

It’s almost enough to make me doubt the life lessons I learned in Sunday school. Almost.

Yes, I see posts on Facebook almost every day by people whose comments and shares about scripture, salvation and Second Amendment rights would leave a reader to believe that “Blessed are the semi-automatic weapon owners” is one of the Beatitudes. But I also see as many or more posts and shares from folks – some Christian, some Jewish, some Muslim, some nonbelievers – who firmly believe that Barack Obama is a man of conscience and good intentions whose Presidential actions, even though they haven’t all worked out as he or we had hoped, warrant our gratitude, admiration and respect, not more slurs and false witnessing.

To put it biblically, he’s been a good and faithful public servant. And we have been blessed.

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The genial genealogist Fri, 30 Oct 2015 21:20:52 +0000 The New Yorker, The New York Times and other A-list publications and has 14 books on his resume. But most people know him as an enthusiastic, almost evangelical proponent of genealogical research thanks to Finding Your Roots, a popular PBS series in which he and his team have traced the lineage of notables ranging from Samuel L. Jackson to Barbara Walters to Georgia Congressman John Lewis.]]>


Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a professor of African-American studies and English at Harvard University, a literary scholar who writes for The New Yorker, The New York Times and other A-list publications and has 14 books on his resume. But most people know him as an enthusiastic, almost evangelical proponent of genealogical research thanks to Finding Your Roots, a popular PBS series in which he and his team have traced the lineage of notables ranging from Samuel L. Jackson to Barbara Walters to Georgia Congressman John Lewis.

Both Gates’ personae were on sartorially elegant display at Athens’ historic Morton Theatre this week when he delivered the 2015 Peabody-Smithgall lecture to a near capacity house.

His topic, “Genealogy, Genetics And Race,” was scholarly, but he started off folksy, quickly enthralling the audience with memories of his own mixed-race heritage, including one grandfather, Edward St. Lawrence Gates, who “was so white we called him Caspar.”

Gates, a West Virginia native, said it was years before he fully grasped how this could be so and how complex his racial background was. He said he knows now that his ancestors include a white woman who had a child by a black man and a black woman whose children were all fathered by a white man. His show-and-tell illustrations included a faded photo his an ancestor, the formidable-looking Jane Gates (1819-1888), a slave-born midwife.

Gates said that the advent of DNA analysis had been a huge boon to genealogically curious African Americans like himself because paper records, pre-Civil War, are so scarce and sketchy. And in exploring his own history, he said, he had learned much more about African-American heritage in general and the trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 1700s and 1800s, much of it surprising.

Research into the extent of the slave trade indicated that approximately 12.5 million African captives were shipped to the New World, he said, and it’s estimated that about 15 percent of those died in transit. He asked the racially diverse audience to guess how many of the survivors were sold in Charleston or some other North American port.

People shouted out guesstimates: “2 million,” “4 million.”

Actually, Gates said, the reliably documented figure is about 388,000. Far more slaves were shipped to what is now Brazil (4.8 million) and even Jamaica (1 million) and Cuba (778,000).

Gates wrapped up his presentation with more data that undercut conventional wisdom. The importing of slaves to North America had essentially stopped by 1820. By the time of the Civil War, most of the approximately 4 million Americans of African descent were American born. Almost half a million of those were free men and women, not slaves, and slightly more than half of that number resided in Southern states where slavery was still legal, not the “free” North.

“These people stayed where they had friends,” Gates said. “It just shows you the complexity of race and class.”

As did his entire performance, which received a standing ovation.

* * *

Author’s note: The Peabody-Smithgall lecture series takes its name from Mrs. Lessie Smithgall, a University of Georgia graduate who, as a young woman working at WSB Radio in Atlanta, introduced her boss, Lambdin Kay, to her mentor, John Drewry, dean of the university’s journalism school. Kay and Drewry went on to found the Peabody Awards program, soon to celebrate its 75th anniversary of honoring stories that matter in electronic media. Previous Peabody-Smithgall lecturers include CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley, former Time Inc. editor-in-chief John Huey, and former PBS president (and UGA alumnus) Pat Mitchell. Professor Gates won a Peabody Award in 2014 for The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, a multi-part PBS documentary series about African-American history.

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Ken Burns talks stars, bars, civil wars Fri, 04 Sep 2015 21:08:14 +0000

Ken Burns - The Civil War-PBS

Almost 40 million people saw at least part of The Civil War when Ken Burns’ multipart documentary premiered in September 1990, making it the most-watched PBS broadcast ever. It’s still the record holder, and it’s coming back Monday, September 7, for a special anniversary encore on PBS.

Two things will be different.

First, what viewers will see over the course of five consecutive nights is a newly restored, high-definition version of the Peabody Award-winning series. “The Civil War has never been seen in such visual clarity,” said Daniel J. White, who oversaw frame-by-frame rescanning of 50,000 feet of the original 16mm film negative. “The colors are brighter and you will see more details in the images.”

Second, the political climate in our country is dramatically more polarized. In 1990, The Civil War was embraced almost universally by viewers, regardless of region, its horrifying images, vintage letters read aloud and wistful theme music touching off a long-delayed period of mourning and reflection. Its grand encore is coming at a time when some Southern legislators have made secession threats and the belated removal of a Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house – this in reaction to a white supremacist’s shooting rampage at a black church – ignited a bitter debate about the meaning of that flag and even the causes of the war.

With this climate in mind, my Peabody colleague Matt Shedd interviewed Burns about his most famous documentary and how times have changed since the original showing.

Ken Burns
Ken Burns

Matt Shedd: You’ve talked about how this restored version is a “revelation visually.”

Ken Burns: It’s a “revelation” meaning that you’re returning to something you already knew. Essentially this looks as good as what I looked through the viewfinder and saw. So what I looked through the viewfinder and saw – whether it was a cannon on a hillside or an interview or the thousands of archives and newspapers that we used to tell the story – they got exposed on a tiny 16 millimeter film. And that had a great deal of grain, a great deal of image instability. It lacked the color palette that I was seeing and now we’ve got it. It just feels like something from 25-plus years ago just dropped in my lap again. It’s very exciting.

MS: Since you made it, have there been photos uncovered that you wanted to include or any other sort of documentation?

KB: Well, it was estimated that over a million photographs were taken in the Civil War period, but that only 125,000 exist of different images. There are many copies of some of the images, of course. I probably looked at 100,000, so every once in a while I come across one. But it’s interesting, unlike most of the films I’ve made where after it’s done, you stumble across an archive and you go, “Jeez, I really wanted to have that one for the Statue of Liberty” or whatever it was. With this one I go, “Oh yeah, that’s it. It was taken the same day as what we had and I think we’re okay.” So, you know, stuff comes out, but there’s not that kind of envy that you wish you could go and open up the film again. Nor did we tinker with the film’s content in any way.

MS: It doesn’t sound like you were sitting there kicking yourself when you were watching it on the big screen.

KB: The film we made is the film we made, and because I’m so fortunate to work in public broadcasting, the film that I release is the director’s cut. Nobody said: make it longer, make it shorter, make it sexier, make it less sexy, make it more violent, make it less violent. I’ve been able to make the films I wanted to make and have been able to release it.

It is an accurate representation, but not just of me, because this is such a gloriously collaborative medium, and I think the Peabody celebrates that. It’s also a really accurate representation of the collective team that put it together, whether it’s the writer Jeff Ward, my brother Rick, who is a co-producer, the editor, Paul Barnes who I’m still working with today

MS: When it came out in 1990, were there complaints about the film having some sort of slant or emphasis?

KB: We felt pretty good about the people who criticized it. I mean we had two enemies in the film. One was slavery. The other, I’m only half serious, is George McClellan, the timid Union General. And, you know, a timid general is music to the ears of any mother, so I’m not sure how much you can call him a villain.

But we didn’t think slavery was a good thing, particularly for Americans to be involved in, and made it clear from the opening scene. But, you know, the war has been obscured. The causes of the war and the contents of the war. . . have been obscured and romanticized and sentimentalized and actually changed in our popular culture, particularly in films. Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind both suggest that the Ku Klux Klan, which is our original homegrown terrorist organization, was somehow a positive force in the Civil War and its aftermath in Reconstruction, and that’s crazy. And our film says so.

A lot of people believe that there were causes other than slavery of the Civil War, and to some lesser, secondary extent, they’re right. But the principal cause — and you can go check South Carolina’s articles of secession, the first state to secede, the state that was the hotbed of that fire-eating secession-itis — it didn’t mention states’ rights. It didn’t mention nullification. It didn’t mention cultural or economic or political differences, which we talk about. It mentioned slavery, over and over again. And that’s why the war happened.

And I think, you know, the criticism we got was on the extreme right, if you will, and on the extreme left, which means we’ve done a good job. The extreme left said that we followed too much Lincoln and not enough of the radical Republicans in Congress who were changing the nature of American society, transforming lives of African Americans.

MS: Do you anticipate that it’s going to touch a nerve in light of recent events?

KB: Yes, oh very much so. This is what I’ve said all along: the main American theme, if you will, is about freedom, the tensions between, say, individual freedom and collective freedom, states’ rights versus a strong federal government.

But the next biggest theme in American life is race. We were founded on the idea, articulated in the second sentence of the Declaration [of Independence], “that all men are created equal.” The guy who wrote that sentence owned other human beings and he didn’t see the hypocrisy in the contradiction. And so we have an American narrative that’s constantly having to deal with or pretending that it doesn’t exist – this question of race.

The most important event in our history, without a doubt, is the Civil War. Everything that came to foot kind of funneled inexorably towards the Civil War, and everything since, in ways sort of obvious and not so obvious, has been a consequence of it.

So yeah, when we debate the Confederate flag or see the pernicious racism that still persists in this land, the Civil War has a lot to speak to us about. I think that we can have a much more intelligent conversation about these issues by including the past in it because human nature doesn’t change. It superimposes itself on the random chaos and so we begin to perceive patterns and cycles of history. No one is condemned to repeat what they don’t remember. It’s just that human nature remains the same. And so almost all of the films that I make focusing entirely on just telling a good story, not on scoring political points or advocating something, nothing. Just telling a story well always has a resonance in the present.

And so, what is the Civil War about? It’s about an imperial presidency. It’s about unscrupulous military contractors. It’s about race. It’s about the symbols of America being interpreted and reinterpreted differently by other people. It’s about weapons, new weapons, that create mass casualties on a scale never before imagined, and then you think, “Jeez, isn’t that what we’re talking about now?”

I like the possibility of having an intelligent national conversation because we don’t actually have conversations; we just have shouting matches between people who talk over and at rather than with other people. And so if you live in a society in which everything is always on the divide between rich and poor, between young and old, between North and South, between East and West, between gay and straight, between red states and blue states, you don’t get anywhere. But if you realize that Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly both genuinely love Abraham Lincoln, then you’ve got a place to start.

MS: You mentioned conversation versus shouting match. What would you call what’s going on about the Confederate flag?

KB: We actually had a good thing. I mean, I’m very, very sorry. It’s a tragedy that it took the loss of nine human beings to force us into understanding that this was not, you know, people holding onto their heritage.

That Confederate flag was one of the many flags of the Confederacy. It was used, and it appears in paintings and in photographs, but it was not the prominent flag of the Confederacy. The official flag was called the Stars and Bars. It flew over Fort Sumter, for example, when Fort Sumter surrendered at the very beginning of the war, not the Dixie flag.

That (one) came into prominent use after 1954. And what happened in 1954? The Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal was unconstitutional. That school desegregation had to take place. And that Confederate flag has worked its way into the state flags of many of the states of the old Confederacy. And has worked its way back out again, I’m happy to say, with the exception of Mississippi. And of course, it’s been with us for years in the courthouses and in the state capitol grounds.

And, as you know, the Alabama governor removed his and the state legislature in South Carolina finally, after the prompting of their governor, removed it in the wake of this tragedy, understanding that this was a symbol not of heritage, not of history, but of resistance to civil rights, which is saying, “Guess what? We don’t believe that all men are created equal. We think some people, based on the lighter pigmentation of their skin, are more equal than others.”

We had a good conversation about it, and symbols are hugely important, but for us to go forward as a country, and the recent political noise that’s going on has taken a few steps back, we’re going to have engage tougher issues. I mean just yesterday I saw a news report that a statue of Jefferson Davis had been removed from a campus in Austin, Texas. They’re debating the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Lee’s Circle in New Orleans. He has absolutely nothing to do with New Orleans other than he represents the Confederacy.

The cause for which the Confederacy fought was the perpetuation of chattel slavery in a country that had been founded four score and five years before on the idea that all men are created equal. It’s a hypocrisy the United States could not tolerate. And look, let’s be really honest, we ended up murdering 750,000 of our own people over this issue. That’s a big deal. All the other wars we’ve fought in from the Revolution forward through the most recent fight against ISIS — all of the dead don’t add up to the Civil War dead, by far. It’s a terrifying thing and in a very young country. We’ve now got 350, 375 million people or whatever it is. We were only 31 million when the Civil War happened and we lost 750,000. That’s like losing 6, 7, 8 million people in a battle today, you know?

MS: So, with everything from Michael Brown to the massacre at the church in Charleston: Are these examples of the Civil War still being fought?

KB: Well, let’s be really careful about it. At the very end of the film, the historian Barbara Fields says, “the Civil War is still going on and can be still lost.” She doesn’t mean that in the sense that these are coordinated armies but in the sense that the same struggle — that people are still, because of the color of their skin, denied the equal opportunities that other people have. In a way, all of the ingredients that went into the Civil War are also still present. And we’ve made enormous progress. We have an African American president, but we also see the price he had to pay for the color of his skin.

When Donald Trump starts talking about the ‘birther’ thing, it’s just a polite way of saying the n-word. When Scott Walker says, “I don’t know if he’s a Christian,” that’s another way of saying the n-word. We’ve always employed codes when we’ve found out that civil society doesn’t tolerate boorish behavior, and we’ve found ways to continue to perpetuate that boorish behavior. And that’s the American mission. How do you escape the specific gravity of that inability to see beyond someone’s skin color?

My whole work, I mean I don’t go looking for race, but I think out of the 27, 28 films – however many that I’ve made, all on American history — , I think there’s one on Frank Lloyd Wright, another on the first cross country automobile trip and maybe the Dust Bowl where race wasn’t a significant factor in the story.

And so it’s everywhere. It’s everywhere. So we need to realize that. We have to come to terms with it. Wynton Marsalis in the Jazz film said, “It’s like the mythology. It’s the thing that the kingdom needs in order to be well again.” Which is a beautiful way of saying: when we solve this, we transcend it. And we do in moments.

Like every other country on Earth, we have lots of work to do. And we’ve probably gone farther than any other country, you know? I invite you to go to Brooklyn or Queens and see how religions and races and peoples get along. Pretty well.


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Morton Downey Jr.’s kinder, gentler twin Mon, 24 Aug 2015 21:59:48 +0000

morton-downeyContrary to his fragmentation-grenade TV persona, the Morton Downey Jr. I knew was a pussycat. A pussycat o’ nine tails sometimes, but a pussycat all the same.

I got to know Mort – the subject of a new documentary called “Evocateur” — when he was just beginning to develop the obstreperous, outrageous on-air shtick that a few years later would make him briefly notorious.

All you “loudmouths” and “pablum-puking liberals” out there know what I’m talking about. On the nationally syndicated show that he and MTV mastermind Bob Pittman concocted, Mort made Jerry Springer look like a Nelson Mandela and Rush Limbaugh sound like Fred Rogers.

But that’s not what he was like when I did lunch with him several times in the early 1980s. I was the TV critic for The Orlando Sentinel, and he had recently joined the talent roster of WDBO Radio, an old-school CBS affiliate that broadcast a mix of easy listening music, news updates and innocuous chit chat. For WDBO back then, pushing the envelope meant silly stuff like its comic commercials for the “Heinie Winery.” The fake spots typically ended with the announcer delivering a line about the wonders a little Heinie every day would do for you.

Mort fit right in. His nightly program consisted of him playing “my daddy’s records” – his father having been Morton Sr., an Irish tenor who had been a star in the 1920s and ’30s – and engaging in nostalgic chit-chat with listeners who phoned in. It was about as fiery as a meeting of Larry King and Lawrence Welk.

But Mort quickly discovered something that I, having been a columnist at the Sentinel for several years, knew all too well: Central Florida, for all its Disney World fantasy and EPCOT progressivism, was crawling with wing nuts, conspiracy theorists, Birchers and bigots. Many of the same folks who sent their friendly, neighborhood TV columnist scrawled hate mail railing about his affection for pinko-commie network news anchors, people of color, fem-Nazis and “queers” found in Mort…well, if not an honestly sympathetic ear, certainly an obliging, opportunistic sounding board. He played his daddy’s music less and took more calls.

It was about that time that he first invited me to lunch.

I had never laid eyes on the man until that sweltering Florida morning he pulled into the Sentinel parking lot in a Lincoln Continental hardtop. The car was flashy. His suit, when he climbed out to greet me, cigarette in hand, was flashy. And so, especially, were his teeth. I had to force myself not to stare. The man had choppers like the white cliffs of Dover.

To my surprise, considering his ostentation, he did not steer us straight to some posh downtown eatery. He drove to a little, nondescript rib joint in a black section of Orlando that I had passed through maybe once in all the time I’d been at the paper. He grabbed the check when we’d finished off our pulled pork sandwiches and iced tea, but I insisted on picking up the tab. I knew he was out for publicity, and I didn’t want to feel indebted to him.

After that, we always went Dutch. And never once did we dine at any place fancy. Mort loved to eat, and he seemed to have found every good, out-of-the way place in town for soul food, Asian and Cuban.

He quickly gave up on me as a publicity outlet. Radio wasn’t my bailiwick at the Sentinel – it was part of the music beat. And I had what I considered a conflict of interest. I was doing occasional radio spots about TV for a rival radio station.

Political subjects almost never came up, but when they did, we argued genially. No frothing, no name calling. Mostly we talked about music. I had a big album collection and was the kind of record nerd who knew who wrote songs and which artist had been on what label. Mort was if anything more knowledgeable, fluent in not only with the sweet pop of his daddy’s era but with R&B, doo-wop and early rock ’n’ roll.

He’d made some records of his own in the 1950s, and he’d been a DJ. I took him at his word when he told me that he had been pals with legends like Cousin Brucie and Murray the K and that he knew Dion and Jackie Wilson. When he solemnly recalled how he would have died in the crash with Buddy Holly and Richie Valens if he hadn’t turned down that fateful plane ride, I wasn’t so sure.

What I did understand was that Morton Downey Jr. longed to be as famous as his daddy had once been, that he had tried his hand at a variety of media roles without attaining that level of success, that he was still very ambitious and that he was – how to put it? — adaptable.

His Orlando stay was not long. He moved on to a larger radio market – I don’t even recall where — and I lost track of him until he showed up on national TV in the late ’80s seething with fang-flaring indignation, baiting and shouting at his guests. His act – and I believe it was largely an act — was so far beyond even his Orlando radio bluster, let alone his lunch-time pleasantry, and that I wondered if he had been bitten by a werewolf.

At the height of his notoriety — before he apparently went off the deep end — I did a telephone interview with him for my new home paper, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

He was just as cordial as ever and was clearly reveling in his national celebrity. He asked how I was adjusting to life in the frozen north and how my kids were doing. Never once did he call me a pablum-puking liberal. Maybe he just didn’t feel the need to state the obvious.

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Firecracker follies Thu, 16 Jul 2015 19:30:25 +0000

One of three Illegal Fireworks Stands on the Skok reservation by Amy B. via (promotional use).

With fireworks legal in Athens on the recent anniversary of our nation’s independence,  I saw more flashes and fiery cascades over the Classic City than I could ever remember. The rise of Old Epps Bridge Road was a perfect vantage point. Every few seconds, the sky lit up in a different direction. It got me thinking about my history with pyrotechnics. The word “fireworks” for me evokes memories of Christmas, not the 4th of July. I have no recollection of lighting firecrackers or shooting off Roman candles in the middle of summer. Maybe it was just too hot in July in south Mississippi. I don’t recall my hometown, Laurel, ever having a big fireworks-in-park event, either.

Where I lived, in the Pendorff community out in the unincorporated, almost-anything-goes country, fireworks fever would strike around the end of November. As the day of Jesus’ birth neared, the sound of carols was punctuated, if not drowned out, by the clap of cherry bombs and the keening of bottle rockets.

It always amuses me when I’m driving on an Interstate somewhere like South Carolina and see these big, squat fireworks emporiums, bunkers almost as big as a Walmart plastered with bright red lettering announcing enormous selection and discount prices. I guess it’s big business now.

I remember a whole lot of medium to tiny fireworks stands, from converted produce huts on Highway 11 to makeshift Masonite booths and open picnic tables along the tar and gravel roads that often didn’t even have names.

My neighbor and best friend Frankie Mixon usually had his stand on the edge of the driveway to the little white house where his daddy kept the dry goods he sold on his rolling store. Mr. Mixon would get Frankie stock at Laurel Wholesale, where he did business, so Frankie could sell cheaper than most. Not that profit was foremost in his mind.

The main reason for kids to have fireworks stands on rural roads that saw little traffic — except when the neighborhood men were driving to and from work — was to have access to personal explosives. Once school let out for Christmas vacation, most every boy within biking distance of Frankie’s stand spent a good part of every day there, shooting the bull and shooting as much of Frankie’s merchandise as he could afford.

I will admit that I was kind of an addict. Money I would ordinarily save for Topps baseball cards or the latest issue of  Batman or Uncle Scrooge comics at the Bee Hive newsstand in town would go toward sheaves of firecrackers covered in Chinese hieroglyphics or bottle rockets or ground spinners. The contents of my piggy bank seldom survived the Christmas holidays, and I did everything short of steal to feed my fireworks habit. I picked up glass Coke and Orange Crush bottles and sold them at Mr. Beckman’s store for a nickel apiece. I did extras chores. I wheedled money from my Mama, ostensibly for gum or a Payday, then spent the money at Frankie’s.

It wasn’t enough to just  “pop” firecrackers. What I really liked most, and in this I was pretty typical, was blowing things up. Leave the sparklers to toddlers. I wanted bang for my buck. I never did mailboxes. Well, all right, once. But I got found out, and I not only got a whipping from my daddy but I had to pay a neighbor, Mr. Braddock, for the damages. Never did it again. And I never, ever applied a firecracker, much less a cherry bomb or an M-80, to a living creature, unlike some boys I could name but won’t who would tie a packet of Black Cats to the tail of a real cat or throw cherry bombs in the creek to blow up fish and turtles.

I was more likely to do something like toss a jumbo firecracker in a culvert under our driveway to see it flash out both ends. Or I might stick a jumbo firecracker or a cherry bomb underneath a mop bucket or an empty five-gallon can to see how high it would lift off the ground. And some of us, when we were feeling really invulnerable and stupid, and there were other boys around to egg us on, would stand on the can and see if the blast could lift us as well.

We were easily bored. If nobody had any money, Frankie would shoot up a few dollars worth while the rest of us watched. And we were always looking for new ways to employ the fireworks.

Which is how Frankie and I came to build the cannon.

We knew older boys, like Booboo Rawson and Frankie’s brother Charles, who had firecracker pistols. They would cut an L-shaped piece from some one-by-four pine board, then whittle it a little and sand it so that it was like a gun stock. They’d get a piece of plumbing pipe that had a screw-on cap and saw off the other end so that it was about 12-inches long.  Then they’d unscrew the cap and cut a slit with a hacksaw through the threads. They would insert a firecracker into the pipe so that the fuse stuck out through the slit. They would drop an old bearing or a round piece of gravel down the open end, pack it with a little torn newspaper, light the fuse, aim and…pray that the cap didn’t blow off and take off their head.

Frankie and I had a bigger idea. We found a piece of pipe, six or seven feet long and about two inches in diameter out behind his daddy’s storehouse. And it had a cap. It was rusted, but with a little motor oil and some big plumber’s wrenches, we got it off. We cut an extra large slit through the threaded end so that it could accommodate not some measly firecracker but a cherry bomb.

We were careful. We waited until early afternoon on a Wednesday, when we knew there wouldn’t be many people out and about who might tell on us.

We made kind of a ceremony of it, bringing it out like it was a Thanksgiving turkey while a gaggle of neighborhood boys oohed and ahhed and shook their heads in approval of our ingenuity and hard work.

We unscrewed the cap, inserted a bright red cherry bomb, its greenish fuse extended, then put the cap back on tight. Into the other end we dropped a rounded rock about the size of a golf ball, and then we added a wad of paper from a grocery bag and tamped it down with a long, straight stick.

We had seen movies like To Hell and Back and The Red Badge of Courage. We had seen artillery in action. We knew we need to elevate and secure our literally loose cannon.

To give it what we thought would be a proper tilt, we put the capped end of the pipe on the ground and leaned the barrel across the big, bulbous tank in which  Mr. Mixon stored the kerosene he sold by the gallon can on his rolling-store route.

We piled some boards over the pipe and weighted them down with pieces of cinder blocks. Our cannon was pointed east, the opposite direction from Frankie’s house and mine. We had no idea how far our projectile might carry, or if it would even leave the barrel.

I went to the road, just a hop and a skip away, to see if anybody was out and if any cars were coming.

I gave Frankie the go-ahead. He struck a kitchen match and lit the cherry bomb. We all ran back a few yards and partially hid behind a cluster of sweet gum trees.

The retort was sharp and very loud. Smoke and a hint of blue-yellow flame flared at both ends of the pipe. It bucked on the iron kerosene tank but did not dislodge. We could see the rock sailing through the cold December air. We could hear it whistling. It went past the Camps’ house, then across the yard of Frankie’s Uncle Vardy and Aunt Coot. And then we heard a second loud sound, a thwack, and saw a dark spot appear in the wall of the little white, detached garage of another neighbor, Fred Funderberg, a house painter.

Our first reaction was amazement. The cannon shot had carried a hundred yards, easily, and it traveled a surprisingly straight path, given the irregularity of the cannonball.

Our second reaction was “Hide the dang cannon!” We dislodged the pipe from underneath the boards and masonry, took it out in the woods behind Frankie’s house, laid it down and covered it with sticks and leaves.

We cleaned up all the traces we could find of the cannon’s manufacture, and went back to the business of loitering. We tried our best to look like nothing had happened, like there had been no big pop, nothing unusual.

Frankie handed out a few packs of little Black Cat firecrackers and we lit them one by one and laughed and horsed around, tossing them at each other’s feet.

After a while I got on my bike and peddled down the road past the Funderbergs’ garage, not stopping but giving it a once over out of the corner of my eye as I rode on down the road another couple of hundred yards. Then I turned around and rode back, real casual like.

There was a ragged hole about the size of a cantaloupe about six feet off the ground in the white siding of the garage.

Every boy who was there eventually rode or walked past the Funderbergs and checked out the casualty of our artillery fire. Not one of us ever blabbed about it. And if Mr. Funderberg ever wondered how that gash came to be in his garage or said anything about it to the neighbors, our folks included, I never heard it mentioned. Maybe it was chalked up to an act of God.

The firecracker stand stayed open, and Frankie kept up the tradition for years after that, making just enough money to replenish his stock.

We never rolled out the cannon again. For all I know, it’s still out there behind the Mixons’ house, resting and rusting beneath the leaves. The hole in the garage was still there when I went off to college.

By that time, I was no longer all that attached to fireworks – largely because a firework nearly ended two of my fingers’ attachment to my hand.

I was 15, more than old enough to know better. And it’s not like Mama hadn’t warned me. She never gave me a lot of grief about BB guns, none of that “You’ll shoot your eye out” stuff. She knew I knew where not to point a weapon, be it BB or shotgun or .22. But she didn’t trust fireworks, and if she had had her way, my brother and I would never have handled anything more dangerous than a sparkler. She and Daddy knew men in Laurel nicknamed Nub.

So, I knew better. But I got careless. It was a cold day the week between Christmas and New Year’s. The new had worn off what Santa Claus brought us, so a bunch of us boys had gravitated back to Frankie’s stand.  I was trying to stretch my budget, get as much pop for my money as I could. I had bought a dime packet of jumbo firecrackers – smaller than a cherry bomb, bigger than the normal size cracker – and I was carefully unraveling them from the string and lighting them and throwing them one by one. Lighting, then throwing.

A firecracker I was tossing did what we call “jumping the fuse.” A spark spurted and hopped directly to the load. The jumbo cracker went off just inches from my right hand.

It kind of stung, but my hands were so cold it didn’t seem like much. But an hour later, when I went home and warmed my hands by the space heater in my room, the pain flooded in. I saw that I had a powder burn. My thumb and first two fingers started to swell and get stiff. I could barely bend my fingers, and when I tried, it felt like my hand was going to crack.

Mama and Daddy were both at work. Which was good. The last thing I wanted either of them to know as that I had done something this stupid.

I wasn’t sure what to do, so I stuck my hand under frigid water in the bathroom sink to kind of numb it up, and then I dried my hand, just dabbed it with a towel, and put Vicks VapoRub on it.  Women in our family devoutly believed that “Vicksalve” would cure pretty much anything, so that’s what I did. And then I put an old athletic sock over my hand so I wouldn’t get Vicks on the furniture.

That first night, I thought I was going to lose my hand, or at least a couple of fingers. I wiped the Vicks off before Mama called us to dinner, and I kept my right hand out of sight when we were eating. I left-handed my fork and told Mama and Daddy I was trying to become ambidextrous like Mike Holmes, the star quarterback at my high school.

They didn’t bat an eye. They were used to me having fanciful notions. They were used to the faint aroma of Vicks. I got through the night without being detected. A whipping on top of my self-inflicted injury was one thing I did not want.  And the next morning, they both went off to their jobs in Laurel, so I had nine hours to walk around with my right hand smeared with Vicks and covered with a sock, hoping the swelling would come down, hoping my hand wouldn’t  fall off.

It didn’t. I got through the day and that night without being discovered.  And when my fingers took on a reddish-blue bruise color and those two fingernails started to turn black, I finally showed Mama. I told her I had accidently slammed the feed house door on my hand.

“Oh, honey,” she said, grimacing as she daintily held my hand to the light.

Then she went to get the Vicks.

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Mr. Peabody’s Invaluable History of the Civil War Tue, 14 Apr 2015 21:25:37 +0000

Civil_War_PosterTo begin with, we’re not talking about that super-smart cartoon dog who had a pet boy, though someone named Sherman does figure prominently in the topic at hand. We’re talking about the other Mr. Peabody, George Foster, namesake of the media awards that the University of Georgia has been handing out since 1941.

Submissions to the Peabody competition over the decades have piled up to embody a remarkable collection, some 90,000 kinescopes, 16 mm films, tapes and DVDs, all now stored in a huge, climate controlled grotto beneath the Richard B. Russell Special Collections Library on the UGA campus. For the past year, the staffs of the awards and the archives have been experimenting with making documentaries about TV and society using excerpts from selected archival programs. We did histories of comedy and crime shows last fall and a history of original animation for TV last month.

On Tuesday, April 21, we’re trying something a little different. To commemorates this month’s 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, we’ve put together an overview of that bloody, still divisive conflict that we’ve titled Blue and Gray.

Now, we could have just scheduled a showing of Ken Burns celebrated, multi-part PBS series about the war, and we have included some clips from that 1990 Peabody winner. But we also have dozens of programs – movies, plays, miniseries, other documentaries – going back to the 1950s that deal with at least some aspect of the War Between the States.

That’s what the documentary is assembled from and what it tries to reflect. You could almost call it  Fifty Shades of Blue and Gray, such is the diversity of the styles and perspectives that have been applied to the subject matter.

Structured to follow the war’s chronology, from secession to surrender. A 1972 Appointment with Destiny special produced by David Wolper  re-enacts the latter.

The documentary includes excerpts from the 2005 documentary series Slavery and the Making of America and the 1984 drama Solomon Northop’s Odyssey (the same story told more recently in 12 Years a Slave). There’s a powerful dramatization of John Brown’s treason trial from the 1992 miniseries The Blue and the Gray and a jingoistic speech to young Confederate recruits from a 1981 dramatization of Mark Twain’s The Private History of a Campaign That Failed.

The documentary encompasses scenes from big -budget network dramas such as Sandburg’s Lincoln (1975), Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (1988) and Andersonville (1996) and from documentaries such as Ridley and Tony Scott’s 2011 Gettysburg and Ric Burns’ 2012 Death and the Civil War. But there are also local-station specials such as Death Knell – Atlanta, 1864, produced by WAII-TV on the occasion 100th anniversary of Gen. William T. Sherman’s siege.

The oldest archival treasure excerpted is Fletcher Pratt’s History of the Civil War (1959), a staged reading of a then-popular historian’s book by a quartet of actors assembled by Chicago’s WTTW and directed by William Friedkin who, a few years later, would pick up an Oscar for his theatrical film The French Connection. An excerpt from a 1962 episode of The Lloyd Bridges Show depicts a momentary battlefield truce, a time-out to collect the wounded. John Cassvettes, soon to become an indie-film legend, directed with uncommon cinematic flair for a prime-time drama of that era.

The most surprising find from our sifting through the archive is silent film footage of a 1914 parade of Confederate veterans that was attached to the conclusion of a Jacksonville TV station’s 1961 documentary about Civil War battles in Florida. On horseback and in open touring cars, they ride past flag-waving onlookers to a rousing, overdubbed version of “Dixie.”

Do not look away. The screening of Blue and Gray in the Russell Library auditorium on the 21st is scheduled for at 7 p.m., with refreshments served at 6:30 p.m.

Admission is free and the public is invited. For more information, contact archivist Mary Miller, 706-542-4789, Click here for event details and directions.

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