Daily Archives: 30 Sep 2015

A Tale of Two Willie Hortons

Willie Wattison HortonThe convicted murderer Willie Horton comes up in my writing quite often, because of his use by Lee Atwater in George HW Bush’s presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988. Dukakis was going to lose that campaign regardless, but the Horton ad is a classic example of racist demagoguery. But the last time I looked up “Willie Horton” on Google, I noticed, “See results about: Willie Horton (Baseball player).” And I thought: that’s gotta suck for him. But that was as far as I took it. But over the weekend, our own James Fillmore wrote an article over at Twinkie Town, The Other Willie Horton.

Willie Horton was a left fielder for the Detroit Tigers for most of the 1960s and 1970s. He hit 325 home runs and 1,163 RBIs in his 18 season career. That makes him tied for 109th most career home runs and 174th for RBIs. The guy had an amazing career — the high point of which was winning the World Series in 1968. But Fillmore started his article the year before, during the 1967 Detroit riot. Horton got into the thick of the violence, shortly after a game. Still dressed in his uniform, he pleaded with the mob for calm. It was a heroic, if doomed, effort.

The article tell’s Horton’s (literal) rags to riches story. And spends a fair amount of time talking about his public service work since his initial effort in 1967. It also has some curious facts, like his keeping his batting helmet when he switched teams, and painting it with the new team colors and logo. Nothing is mentioned of it, but I assume this is due to the usual athlete’s superstition about making changes, because you never know. It’s one of the most charming things about sports figures. I understand the impulse very well.

I don’t really know what great stats are, but clearly Horton was one of the greats. He wasn’t someone who slipped into the majors for a season or two and was never seen again. He’d certainly have to be considered one of the top 2,000 people to ever play. To provide some context, there are over a thousand active MLB players at any given time. So Horton is great. He’s not Willie Mays, certainly, but he isn’t that much worse. Yet when you enter his name into Google, you don’t even see a reference to him on the first scream on most computers. Instead, you see the Bush campaign’s despicable act of demagoguery.

I understand: Google search results are not accolades. In the grand scheme of things, the Willie Horton campaign ad is more important than the life and baseball career of Willie Wattison Horton. But it seems a shame. People like to talk about incentives. But in our society, there isn’t much difference between accolades and notoriety — whether it be profiteering hedge fund managers, murderers, or demagogues. Or great baseball players and social activists.

Afterword

For the record, the murderer’s name is actually William Horton. The demagogues who used part of his life changed his name to “Willie” to add to the stereotype — to make him more “black.”

How the US Defeated the Comanche

Erik LoomisThis new culture made the Comanche the dominant empire on the 18th and early 19th century Great Plains. At their height, around 1850, the Comanchería extended from the edge of the southern Rockies into central Texas and central Kansas. They raided much further, especially into Mexico, where they frequently went as far south as Durango to take captives and horses. This went far to shape the region. The Spanish and then the Mexicans wanted to move north but could not defeat the Comanches. The need for a buffer zone helped convince Mexico to invite Americans into Texas, who then became the victims of Comanche raiding. But the lack of Mexican settlement meant that the US could easily take the northern half of Mexico during the Mexican War. But they then had to conquer the Comanches, which was extremely difficult. As late as 1860, white expansion in Texas was quite limited due to Comanche raiding.

This system of work and culture made the Comanches very difficult for the American military to defeat. To do so, post-Civil War military planners went to a more sophisticated strategy developed in the second half of that war by generals such as Ulysses Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Philip Sheridan: total warfare. Rather than defeat these small, fast bands, undermining their way of life through the American industrial machine made more sense. Thus, the military decided to exterminate the bison. Bison populations plummeted in the years after the war, starting with the southern herds that sustained the Comanche economy and moving north. Market hunting was a piece of it, but this was a military strategy first and foremost. Without the bison and the work in hunting, processing, and trading them, the Comanche could not sustain itself. The second part of this strategy was to take away the Comanche’s horses, the transportation tool that facilitated this way of life. This strategy was tremendously successful, albeit increasingly controversial as the 1870s went on and total warfare against Native Americans outraged eastern reformers. Starvation and warfare decimated Comanche numbers, reducing them to about 8,000 by 1870. They began relying on the US government for rations, giving the US much power over them. They refused to stay on the reservations that developed in the late 1860 and early 1870s, but leaving also brought warfare that was harder for the Comanche to sustain with the decline in bison, horses, and people. Finally, after the battle in Palo Duro Canyon, isolated badlands in the Texas panhandle, the Comanche largely moved to the reservations for good. The bison were gone anyway.

Undermining traditional ways of work would remain central to the post-conquest strategy of dealing with Native Americans. The Dawes Act of 1887 served to both alienate reservation land from Indians while also forcing them into the subsistence farming lifestyle white Americans had decided was appropriate for Native Americans. By 1920, there were only 1,500 Comanche left in the wake of the destruction of their culture through conquest, land dispossession, Indian schools, and the despair all of this created. Like most other tribes however, Comanche numbers grew after that and continue to grow today, although with a very different set of cultural traditions and work life than that of the past.

—Erik Loomis
This Day in Labor History: 28 September 1874

Jeb Bush’s Hypocrisy on Religion and Science

Jeb BushJeb Bush is a Roman Catholic. And so, as for many conservative Catholics, Pope Francis’ visit was a bit uncomfortable. But it shouldn’t have been. Liberal Catholics have a long tradition treating the pope with a certain amount of skepticism. But conservative Catholics are the authoritarians. The pope is the guy who dictates what the church is. The conservative Catholics should fall in line. They are certainly the first to say so when the pope says something that they agree with. But not now. And truthfully, not ever when it meant believing something they didn’t want to. If anything, conservative Catholics were even more upset with Vatican II in the mid-1960s.

But that doesn’t make me any more understanding of the obvious hypocrisy. As soon as Pope Francis started saying liberal-sounding things, I started hearing conservatives making excuses. Basically it was some variation on, “I turn to the pope for religious guidance, not political guidance.” But that’s clearly not true. They were more than willing to turn to the pope for political support when it came to abortion or homosexuality. It’s just that they’ve decided that those are religious, whereas things in the Bible about greed and the environment are political. Clearly, I think they ought to do what the liberals do and just admit that they take what they like from the pope and leave the rest.

“He’s not a scientist, he’s a religious leader.” —Jeb Bush

A recent quote from Jeb Bush really blew my mind, however. In relationship to the pope’s position on global warming, Bush said, “He’s not a scientist, he’s a religious leader.” This goes along with the new Republican line on global warming, “I’m not a scientist.” Bush uses this line himself, “I’m a skeptic. I’m not a scientist. I think the science has been politicized.” So he can’t take advice from the pope because he’s not a scientist. But he can’t take advice from scientists, because the science has been politicized. And that leave him only to trust what he just wants to believe.

Pope FrancisThis is the modern world in a nutshell: no one in public life is ever expected to suffer for their beliefs. So Bush can go around talking to Latino Catholics about his Catholicism, but that doesn’t mean that it has any effect whatsoever on his thinking. So he could demagogue the Terri Schiavo case because of his faith, but he doesn’t even need to consider a rethink of his anti-environment, pro-oil policies, because it is outside his faith. His faith is defined by his political desires.

This is why it really is different for liberals. We may like it that Pope Francis seems to be on our side on the issues of poverty and global warming. But we never claimed these or any other positions were based on our religious principles. Well, most of us anyway. There are people like Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, who are liberal, anti-abortion Catholics. But note that she actually lets the religion guide her politics, not the other way around. And that is exactly what Jeb Bush and almost all of the Republicans do. They use their religion in the most depraved, sacrilegious way to do the bidding of their politics.

Bush is right: Pope Francis is not a scientist. And neither are the people he listens to for “advice” on global warming. So given that being a scientist isn’t a prerequisite for his taking advice, why doesn’t he listen to Pope Francis? Oh, that’s right: because it isn’t what he wants to believe; it isn’t useful for his political goals; and most of all, because he’s a hypocrite.

Is Writing Like Munchausen Syndrome?

Taryn Harper WrightI was listening to On the Media and there was an interview with a woman named Taryn Harper Wright. She has investigated a number of cases of the Munchausen syndrome — or in these particular cases, Munchausen by Internet. This is where a person pretends to be ill in order to get sympathy. They will apparently go to great lengths — for example, shaving their heads as though they are going through chemotherapy. My first thought was that it would be amusing to do some kind of parody of this. But the more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable it made me feel.

One of the great problems with the modern globalized world is that there isn’t enough meaning to go around. It isn’t enough to be the greatest violinist in a small village, you must be James Ehnes. You can’t even be the town drunk; now you have to be Rob Ford. So can we really blame people for grabbing onto anything at all that they think will make them feel special? We are so focused on economic issues, but it is ultimately a lack of meaning — a lack of belonging — that causes people to kill themselves. (In our society, meaning is too often defined in terms of economics — but I’ll leave that for now.)

But it would be especially bad for me to mock these people. There is nothing very different between pretending to have cancer and being delusional enough that you would think that other people should be interested in your opinions about literally anything that floats into your head. And that is, ultimately, the entire point of Frankly Curious. Writing itself is an incredibly narcissistic endeavor. While it is, for me at least, a way that I come to understand the world, it doesn’t need to be done in public.

One of the things that Wright mentioned with the people who pretend to have an illness is that it usually starts off small. But sometimes it snowballs and the person who had only started out running a little con to get a bit of sympathy finds herself in a situation where she is creating a real time novel for all the people who have gathered around her in support. Obviously, such people could get out of it by simply saying something like, “Good news! I met with my doctor and my cancer seems to be in remission!” But once you get on a treadmill like that, it’s hard to see the opportunities to jump off.

This too is like writing. You start writing because you like it. And then you get better at it. Sometimes, I feel like a fraud. I worry that my writing is a lot stronger than my thinking. So I can sound authoritative about things that I’m really not. On the other hand, all the writing over the years has gone along with a lot of reading, so I do know far more than I even did a couple of years ago. But this isn’t really about me. When I read someone like David Brooks, I think he’s pretty much a pretender — as much as any Munchausen syndrome sufferer. Because he is a good writer, but he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about despite the fact that he writes for The New York Times.

Regardless, it is something to be constantly on the lookout for. It’s easy to lie without trying, just because the words come so easily. I don’t think I do that. But then, I would probably be the last to know.

Afterword

If you think about it in terms of fiction writing, the Munchausen sufferers seem even more similar. Or think of mentalists who are just magicians but who insist that they can really read minds. It’s a kind of performance art. Of course, then we get into the issue of reality shows and how people are so much more accepting of bad art if it is “true.” But just because art is bad doesn’t mean it isn’t art.

Morning Music: 54 Nude Honeys

54 Nude Honeys54 Nude Honeys was a very successful punk band out of Tokyo — formed in 1992. They are silly and generally over the top. As you will see in the video below and on the cover at the left, they dress is skimpy leather and generally try to seem like bad girls. It’s all got the same campy feel as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Despite their success, the only album of theirs that is widely available is the 2006 compilation, 54 Nude Honeys (Greatest Hits). The song we are going to listen to is the title track off their second album, “Drop the Gun.” It is also on the the greatest hits album. The video features Yuri pointing a gun at things. If an action hero were doing it, people would think it was cool. But Yuri makes it look as silly as it actually is.

Anniversary Post: The Magic Flute

Emanuel SchikanederOn this day in 1791, The Magic Flute was first performed — just over two months before Mozart died. Mozart had always been keenly interested in the theater. Somewhere, I read a critique he had written of Hamlet and he got the basic problems with the play right. He really did understand dramatic structure. What’s more, he was very much involved with all the parts of his operas — working closely with his librettists. And that was most especially true of Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto for The Magic Flute.

Schikaneder was an interesting guy. He was born to domestic servants, but was educated and learned music. He eventually became leader of his own theater troupe at the Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna. He was generally the male lead, librettist, and often composer. He was highly successful during the decade before and after The Magic Flute. But he apparently wasn’t a great businessman — preferring to put on lavish productions and falling into debt. He died in 1812, impoverished and insane. But he led a very interesting life.

Here is a nice short video that doesn’t include any singing, but it includes all the visuals that are the kind of stuff that drove Schikaneder broke. It’s quite beautiful. And yes, I could post the whole opera here. But would you sit here for two and a half hours listening to it? No. (But if you would, the UGA Opera Ensemble performance — In English! — is just a click away.) This clip is from the Dallas Opera: