Sunday, June 05, 2016

Within Our Gates

I had an amazing experience last night.  I attended a showing, at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, of Within Our Gates, a 1920 silent film directed by Oscar Micheaux.  I don't normally go to any movies these days, although I've always had a soft spot for the great silents.  I went to this one because the film was accompanied by members of the Oakland Symphony and the Oakland Symphony Chorus, directed by Maestro Michael Morgan.  I've sung with the Symphony Chorus since 2000, although I don't sing in the Chamber Chorus that performed last night; I knew all the singers and some of the musicians.

If you've never seen a silent film accompanied by an orchestra, with or without chorus, you may not realize that the performers are seated with their backs to the screen.  In fact, a chorus member told me they weren't allowed to see the film.  Only the conductor can see the screen, and Maestro Morgan had to coordinate the action in the movie with the composer's score.  I might add that it was black as the inside of your hat in that theater, except for light from the screen; and silent movies don't generate the light that modern movies do.  As far as I know, the singers had memorized the score; I didn't see many music lights except for the orchestra.  The score they performed was a world premiere, composed by Adolphus Hailstork of Rochester, New York, who attended the performance.

Within Our Gates is the oldest surviving film made by an African-American director.  You can see a plot summary on the Wikipedia article I linked.  The film was released only 5 years after Birth of a Nation. Wikipedia suggests that "critics have considered Micheaux's project as a response to Griffith."

 I never thought I would see a movie, with an all-Negro cast (to use the period term), describing the lives of African Americans in 1920.  The main character, Sylvia Landry, seems "middle class."  She can read and write, she has nice clothes, she can afford to travel.  She lives in a nice house, she visits people and they visit her.  But in a flashback, we learn that she grew up on a plantation, where her illiterate father worked for the owner, and was lynched after someone else shot the owner and he was blamed for it.  Yes, there is a lynching scene, and an attempted rape. 

It's one thing to know, from reading, that people lived and thought a certain way, and that certain things happened.  Seeing it in a movie is a whole different experience.  It was jarring to see these things: 
  • A Southern woman tells a northern philanthropist, who was considering supporting a school to educate black children, that there was no point in educating Negroes, they were just good for "porters and field hands," and "they just want to go up to Heaven."  
  • A Negro preacher tells his congregation they will go to Heaven because they are poor and uneducated, while all the white people will go to Hell because they are rich and educated.  
  • The plantation owner complains to his servant that Sylvia (the daughter of his fieldworker) is educated and can work out what her father's debts really are, instead of what the owner wants them to be.  
  • And then, of course, there is the lynching.  No, they didn't show the actual hanging.
And on top of all this, it was a good movie.  The acting was as good as silents ever got, and better than some I've seen.  For instance, I've seen Metropolis, a great classic, but frankly the acting is awful; this was much better, more like you were watching real people.  The characters were presented fairly, there were good and bad Negroes, and good and bad white people.  It was another world, that I never expected to see.  I will remember it.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The GOP's Trump Problem

I've been watching the 2016 Presidential campaign with fascination.  I admit that I, like many people, didn't think Donald Trump could make it this far - hey, we're all wrong every so often.  After the April 26 primaries, it looks like Trump is a done deal for the Republican nomination.  Full disclosure:  as a Democrat and a Hillary supporter, I'm delighted.

But the inner circle of the Republican Party is horrified.  Ted Cruz and John Kasich, neither of which has the chance of a snowball in hell to get the nomination, are scheming together to divide up the remaining primaries.  They hope, between them, to get enough delegates assigned, not so one of them could become the nominee, but to force Trump into a brokered convention, where they hope he will fail on a first vote and throw the convention open to nominate someone else.  And as far as I can tell, the Republican National Committee is backing them.

Who else could it be?  They ran seventeen people for this nomination, and after the bulk of the primaries they are down to three, two of which are dangling by their fingernails while Trump strides confidently toward the full delegate count.  After some backroom shuffling, Paul Ryan (one of his better moves) stood up and said he would not run under any circumstances.  Ted Cruz obviously thinks he should be the candidate, but he has almost no support in the Republican Party.  And yet the RNC still hopes to Stop Trump.

I am staggered by the blindness of this approach.  The RNC has repeatedly implied that a Trump presidency would destroy the Republican Party.  Do they really not realize what it would look like to the rest of the country, if Trump were to win the popular vote but not the delegate count, and then be replaced as the candidate by someone else at the convention??  Seriously - that would be the end of the Republican Party, convicted by its own actions of setting their own personal priorities above the wishes of their constituents.  Many of us already think they do this.  If somebody other than Trump runs for President on the Republican ticket this year, there will be no further question about it.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant

Another mass shooting, and this one is being called "terrorism," even though (like the attack in France a couple of weeks ago) it was done by a U.S. citizen and his wife.  This year we've had more "mass shootings" (381) than we've had days (339 as I write this).

Like a lot of people, I'm getting really tired of Congress' total lack of action on gun control, even the simplest and most obvious action of required background checks for gun purchase.  They even refuse to lift the ban on research on the public health effects of gun usage.  They even refuse to ban people on the no-fly list from buying guns!  What??

So I got curious about who's paying them for this, and went to maplight.comI found the following really depressing numbers.  Maplight lists 2 categories of funding under Interest Groups:

Gun Control (Anti-Guns) and Gun Rights (Pro-Guns).

The total amount donated to "gun control" members of Congress between the dates shown below was $9,750.  Not even five figures!  Here's the breakdown of the top amounts donated.  These numbers affected votes on 40 different bills during the 114th Congress.

Top Senate Recipients Funded

Edward J. Markey$2,500
Joe Manchin, III$2,000
Kirsten E. Gillibrand$1,000
Jeff Merkley$500
Tim Kaine$250
Contributions shown for the last six years of available data, Apr 1, 2009 - Mar 31, 2015, including contributions to presidential campaigns.

Top House Recipients Funded

Ann M. Kuster$1,500
Elizabeth H. Esty$1,000
Contributions shown for the last two years of available data, Apr 1, 2013 - Mar 31, 2015, including contributions to presidential campaigns.  

The list above represents all the members of Congress who got any pro-gun funding in the periods shown.

The total amount donated to "gun rights" members of Congress between the dates shown below was $2,754,455.  The breakdown on who got what is too big to display here.  Here is link to the full list:  

Take a look at the list.  Find your representatives.  I'm happy to say that neither of my senators is on the list, nor is my member of Congress.  Numbers for the Senate show the last 6 years; numbers for the House, the last 2.  I urge you to go to Maplight, look up your representatives, and see who is funding them.  And let them know that you did this.  As long as we allow these numbers to stay quietly in the shadows, the current situation will continue.

Thursday, November 26, 2015


I heard an absolutely fascinating interview the other day (Nov. 24) on Terri Gross' Fresh Air.  She was talking to a New York Times reporter, C. J. Chivers, about his recent article in the New York Times Magazine, entitled The Doomsday Scam.

The subject of this article, and about the first half of the interview, is a substance I'd never heard of:  red mercury.  What?  I'm not kidding when I say that my first mental response to the discussion of red mercury was, "What's its atomic weight?"  Red mercury has been discussed, publicly and privately, since the Cold War - the Soviets were reputed to have it.  Mr. Chivers was unable to find anyone who had ever seen it.  I recommend you to take the time and read The Doomsday Scam - it's absolutely fascinating and Mr. Chivers writes very well.

The theory of red mercury is that it can be used to build very small nuclear weapons.  The following description (excerpted from the article) was written, I'm sorry to say, by an American nuclear physicist who should have known better:
In one edition of his autobiography, he claimed red mercury was manufactured by ‘‘mixing special nuclear materials in very small amounts into the ordinary compound and then inserting the mixture into a nuclear reactor or bombarding it with a particle-accelerator beam.’’ The result, he said, ‘‘is a remarkable nonexploding high explosive’’ that, when detonated, becomes ‘‘extremely hot, which allows pressures and temperatures to be built up that are capable of igniting the heavy hydrogen and producing a pure-fusion mini neutron bomb.’’ Here was a proliferation threat of an order never before seen.
The author of this bilgewater is named in the article, so that's your incentive to read it.

But my second response was:  I've heard this legend before.  Not red mercury itself, but the legend of the rare and difficult to find substance that can confer unheard-of powers on the owner.  It was called the Philosopher's Stone, and it was the goal of every alchemist the ancient world, and the Middle Ages, ever produced.  Here is the invaluable Wikipedia on alchemy:
Alchemy is a philosophical and protoscientific tradition practiced throughout Egypt and Eurasia which aimed to purify, mature, and perfect certain objects.[1] [2][n 1] Common aims were chrysopoeia, the transmutation of "base metals" (e.g., lead) into "noble" ones (particularly gold); the creation of an elixir of immortality; the creation of panaceas able to cure any disease; and the development of an alkahest, a universal solvent.[3]
 Red mercury sounds like a form of Philosopher's Stone to me, although sadly one which is only used to destroy.  We tend to look down our noses at our ancestors, as ignorant and uneducated.  At least their rare and powerful Philosopher's Stone was used to cure and create.  Red mercury is apparently only intended to destroy.  How fortunate we all are that it doesn't exist.

But what is it in the human race that makes us believe in the Philosopher's Stone, or red mercury, or snake oil, or any other substance, just because someone we don't know tells us it exists and we only have to find it.

The Other "Trail of Tears"

Talk about the things they didn't teach you in school.  I went through the California public school system back in the day when it actually taught you (well, me, anyway) to read and think about things.  And I don't recall ever hearing one single mention of this.  But let's start with a question it probably never occurred to you to ask.  Say you are a slaveholder in the pre-civil war South, and you have more slaves than you want.  How do you sell them?

In this article, in the October 2015 Smithsonian Magazine, I found the appalling answer.

Retracing Slavery's Trail of Tears

It's longer than the usual Smithsonian article, but I read all of it. It was horrifying but extremely educational. I recommend we all read it, and remember, so we can not do that ever again.

As I regularly post, if we as a people don't understand who we were, and what we did, how can we possibly avoid doing it again?


I'm not going to list all the things I'm thankful for.  The list is too long, and some of it would sound awfully self satisfied.  Here are the ones I'll admit to:

I'm thankful I can walk.  I put a lot of work into walking again, after all the cartilage in my knees disappeared.  But today I can walk as far as I want.  You can never understand how important this ability is unless you've lost it and regained it.

I'm thankful I married Jim Ringland, and I'll just let it stand at that.

I'm thankful I still can sing, and do still sing with the Oakland Symphony Chorus.  It turns out that most of my really close friends sing with me there, and I'm thankful for them, too.

I'm thankful I managed to keep living in northern California.  There were times I was afraid I'd have to move to get a job, but it didn't happen.

I don't mean to say that life is perfect.  It isn't.  I won't go into the things I'd change if I could wave a wand and make it so.  But it's pretty good, on this beautiful (if chilly) Thanksgiving Day.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


In the wake of the Guardian article the other day ("Airpocalypse now: China pollution reaching record levels"), I was discussing pollution, in the form of the old London "pea soup" fogs, with some friends on Facebook. 

Conveniently, this week's Economist had a review of a book entitled London Fog:  a Biography.  I'm not sure my friends believed the things I said about the old London fogs; but the review quoted some awful incidents that even I hadn't read about. 

This is what happens when several million people at once light up the coal fires to heat their homes in the winter.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Who's In Charge Here?

What in tarnation is going on in the Republican Party?  

John Boehner, who's been Speaker of the House since 2006, resigns at the end of this month, essentially saying, "I can't manage this any more."

Kevin McCarthy, the House Majority Leader, Boehner's number two, and the candidate elect for next speaker, withdrew today from the contest because he "doesn't have 218 votes."  Wait - he's the guy who is supposed to marshal the votes in his party, and he can't elect himself leader?

In the next 3 weeks or so, Congress has to pass resolutions extending the debt limit (so the country can pay its bills) and funding the government (so it can operate at all).  Normally this is managed in the House by the Speaker and the Majority leader, and they both just quit, and the election for a new speaker has been postponed with no new date.

This is all going on because there is a hard-core group of House Republicans, maximum about 40 people, who refuse to negotiate or bargain or compromise on anything at all, and apparently the Republican leadership is SO afraid of them that they have all just backed down.

In addition, Donald Trump, who has the political expertise of a lawn gnome and the charm of a carnival barker, is the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and a majority of the California Republicans believe he'll likely take the nomination.  (I can't support that with a link, but I heard it on NPR in the last day or so.)

Republicans are the majority party, currently in charge in both houses of Congress.  These people are supposed to govern our country.  We already know they don't want to increase taxes to do things like repair roads and bridges, and maybe take care of the vets from all the wars they've started, because raising taxes would annoy their rich donors.  Now they can't even agree on who shall be their spokesman (it certainly won't be a woman) in the House of Representatives, because of a minority (40 out of 247) of uncooperative loudmouths.

Full disclosure:  I'm a Democrat.  But I remember a Republican Party that could govern.  It could negotiate and bargain (that's what governing is) and produce legislation that both sides agreed on, that was actually good for the country.  Hell, it was a governing party under Ronald Reagan, and I never thought I'd look back on the Reagan administration as a beacon of rational governance.

There has to be some kind of resolution to this, but right now I don't see where it'll come from.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Rudyard Kipling and the Confederate Flag

There was much public discussions recently, following the murder of 9 members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., over the practice of flying the Confederate battle flag at the South Carolina state capitol (among other places).  The flag at the South Carolina capitol has been removed to a museum.

People also discussed, again, whether the Civil War was about slavery, or about states' rights.  The official position of many Southerners, especially Southern officials, has been that the war was about states' rights.  In the course of the discussions, however, some people used Google to look up the state secession documents, which are readily available - and several of the documents make it crystal clear that the state is seceding because the U.S. government no longer supports slavery.  South Carolina's declaration, which was issued first, is quite explicit.  (Virginia's secession document, on the other hand, essentially says, "We're outta here," without giving a reason.)  The Texas declaration is even more interesting.  It contains this phrase, which I quote for consideration (emphasis mine):
That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.
A lot of the discussion I've read has suggested or stated that the Southern states essentially made this doctrine up to annoy people and make themselves wealthy - and they were wealthy.  In the first half of the 19th century there was much more wealth in the Southern states than in the Northern states (see Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century, Harvard University Press, 2014, pp. 158 - 163).  The South made a lot of money off the peculiar institution; but its preferences weren't only based on money, as the Texas declaration makes clear.  The white citizens of the South believed firmly that Africans were created by God as inferior beings, fit only to serve.  But they didn't invent that belief. 

And that brings me to Rudyard Kipling.  For no good reason, I recently decided to read Kipling's novel Kim.  I found it at the library, in a battered Penguin Classic edition, with the famous introduction by Edward Said.  As I read the introduction, I found myself hearing echoes of those secession declarations, in passages like this:

...whether we like the fact or not, we should regard its author as writing not just from the dominating viewpoint of a white man describing a colonial possession, but also from the perspective of a massive colonial system whose economy, functioning and history had acquired the status almost of a fact of nature.  This meant that on one side of the colonial divide, there was white Christian Europe; its various countries, principally Britain and France, but also Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy , Russia, America, Portugal and Spain, controlled approximately 85 percent of the earth's sruface by the First World War.  On the other side of the divide, there were an immense variety of territories and races, all of them considered lesser, or inferior, or dependent, or subject.  The division between white and non-white, in India and elsewhere, was absolute, and is alluded to through Kim:  a sahib is a sahib, and no amount of friendship or camaraderie can change the rudiments of racial difference.  Kipling could no more have questioned, that difference, and the right of the white European to rule, than he would have argued with the Himalayas.
 Kim was written in 1901.  England abolished the slave trade (but not slavery itself) in 1808, with the Slave Trade Act of 1807; the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. But Said, and Kim, make it clear that, 70 years after the abolition of slavery, the attitudes which had justified slavery were still current.

If you don't understand where you came from, it's hard to know where you are.  I've read numerous other sources which make clear that white Europeans and Americans, in the 18th and 19th century, considered all the races of color as their inferiors, and even as separate species ("descended from different Adams," as Stephen Jay Gould quotes - see below).   Some scholars even used the developing science of anthropology to support this.  The best explanation I've read is the first chapter of Stephen Jay Gould's great book, The Mismeasure of Man (W. W. Norton, 1981), in which he reviews the attitudes of 18th and 19th century European and American scientists to the "inferior" races.  In fact, I think the concept of race was invented during this period, to explain all these strangely complexioned peoples that the colonization process was revealing.  Remember, if you go back 150 years from the mid-18th century, you're in a world where the vast majority of Frenchmen had never met a German, much less a person of different skin color; and there were no white people, or black people, resident in America at all.

The Southern planters didn't invent their attitudes about Africans.  They inherited them from the civilization that produced the United States:  Great Britain, where those beliefs were accepted wisdom. 

The most astonishing thing about the Declaration of Independence is that Thomas Jefferson, a Southerner who never freed any of his slaves, could write "all men are created equal."  Not "all white men of property," which is probably what he meant.  All men.  And over the last 239 years, we as a country have taken what he wrote, and tried to make it true.  We haven't even convinced all Americans; we haven't succeeded yet; we're still working on it.  But that phrase has truly changed the world.