“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
— Benjamin Franklin, in reply to a question about what sort of government the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention had settled on.
February 2 is the day some people, primarily in North America, attempt to divine the next six weeks of weather by observing groundhogs who briefly exit from winter hibernation in their burrows. If it’s a sunny day, the groundhog will see his or her shadow and, counter intuitively, those watching the animal will pronounce six more weeks of wintry weather. On a cloudy day, with no shadows in sight, the prediction is for an early start of spring weather. People in some parts of Europe have a similar tradition involving different animals, such as badgers in Germany and hedgehogs in Britain.
Emerging briefly from hibernation in February 2014, a groundhog takes leaves to line its burrow nest or toilet chamber. Photo by Ladycamera.
This is all silliness, of course, with no proof of accuracy, but it is mostly harmless except for possibly obnoxious intrusions on the lives of peace loving groundhogs. In ancient Rome, prognostication using animals took a more deadly turn. All sorts of animals – chickens, sheep, and goats among them – were confined until the day they were sacrificed for the purpose of having a kind of priest called a haruspex examine the dead animal’s entrails for signs of the future. This was deadly serious business, not only for the sacrificial animals, but for the generals and politicians who often did not make a move unless the signs from the entrails were auspicious.
There is no record proving the consistent accuracy of haruspicy (divination by the inspection of entrails), just as there is no record for the accuracy of groundhogs at predicting the weather based on the presence or absence of cloud cover on a particular day. Nonetheless, people have been wasting their time and efforts on these methods of divination for millennia. The ancient method, haruspicy, was a nasty business all around, while Groundhog Day observations cause little harm and are of no consequence.
The Danish National Symphony Orchestra performs a suite of themes from Ennio Morricone’s music for the 1968 Sergio Leone film Once Upon a Time in the West. Tuva Semmingsen performs the vocals that were sung by Edda Dell’Orso on the original soundtrack recording.
What about reading the signs of the times, such as looking at newspapers to follow developments in the republic called the United States of America? What about a Senate majority of Republicans who vote to exclude witnesses in the impeachment trial of a corrupt president? What about a Republican state legislator in Montana who maintains that the Constitution of the United States sanctions the shooting and imprisonment of Socialists, merely for being Socialists? What about the chortling lunatics cheering on Orange Julius as he threatens and demeans his opponents at his demented pep rallies? And what about those same cheering, jeering lunatics threatening violence if their Chosen One is removed from office either by impeachment or by the results of an election?
Those signs and others are easy enough to read for anyone paying attention to developments in order to honor the obligations of an informed citizen. There are those citizens, however, who are too lazy to pay attention. Very well; they should continue in their laziness and stay home on Election Day in nine months, rather than show up and vote for the incumbent president simply because the wolf is not yet at their door. And then there are those voters, more culpable in the decay of the republic than anyone else, who are interested only in the health of their financial portfolio, and who are deaf and blind to the cries and despair of anyone shut out of the bounty and suffering under the oppression of the oligarchy. The signs now point toward a Tyranny by Corporate Oligarchy, and if citizens continue to choose it by doing nothing, then after Election Day in November there will be no going back and we will have gotten the government we deserve.
For those who can’t get enough of the sound of the loss of the republic, here it is on the theremin. Katica Illényi performs with the Győr Philharmonic Orchestra in Budapest, Hungary.
An ABC television publicity photo of Stan Freberg and a gong. This photo promoted a February 1962 special, Stan Freberg Presents the Chun King Chow Mein Hour: Salute to the Chinese New Year.
Stan Freberg ( 1926-2015) was an innovator in radio production in the 1950s and later in television advertisements, and his achievements were in technique as well as in content. He wrote, produced, and acted in his own works and contributed to those of others. His radio skits in particular were well designed soundscapes which were ahead of their time at the same time that they were the last of their kind. With his short-lived radio show of the late 1950s, Mr. Freberg rang out the end of radio’s golden age of original programming.
The technical limitations of most radio playback equipment of the 1950s probably did not do justice to the skill of Mr. Freberg and his colleagues at evoking an ambience capable of putting listeners in an imaginary, but convincing place. The care Mr. Freberg and crew took in production helped set up the listener for off kilter and absurdist content, making it all the funnier. Where their professionalism truly shined was in the stereophonic comedy albums they produced, which stood a much better chance of being played back on equipment capable of faithfully reproducing every nuance of sound effects and comic voice acting than the radio shows.
Had Stan Freberg been in his prime during the current age of podcasting he no doubt would have found the new medium well suited to his comic and technical skills. Similar limitations would apply for playback equipment, however, in that listeners using a smartphone without stereo ear pieces would not get the full effect of his satirical skits. Be that as it may, we are fortunate to have Mr. Freberg’s original recordings, and now with more ways than ever of listening to them. His brilliant satire shines through any medium, and his spirit of poking fun at our pretensions and reminding us not to take ourselves too seriously is the true Spirit of ’76, not any of the militaristic nonsense currently going on in the nation’s capital.
An animation of “Yankee Doodle Go Home (Spirit of ’76)”, from Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America Volume One: The Early Years. Stan Freberg as Yankee Doodle and as Bix, the Hip Fife Player, Walter Tetley as the Young Second Drummer, and Shepard Menken as the Officer. Paul Frees was the Narrator.
In 1947, as Jews leaving Europe were working toward establishing their independent state of Israel in Palestine, an anti-communist scare was gaining momentum in the United States, leading President Harry Truman to sign an executive order requiring loyalty oaths from federal workers suspected of communist sympathies and possibly conflicted allegiance. Over 70 years later, the state of Israel is well established with economic and military help from the United States, and the idea of a loyalty oath as an assurance that a government employee owes allegiance to America only, and not to any foreign power, has been turned on its head by state and federal laws assuring loyalty to Israel as well, or at least not to engage in criticism of that nation’s increasingly aggressive policies toward Palestinians within and without its disputed borders.
2015 release of the 100 dollar bill, showing the design measures taken to foil counterfeiting. The portrait of Benjamin Franklin remains. Presentation by Sar Maroof.
These laws, which require a state employee or government contractor to sign a pledge not to engage in Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) actions against Israel, are so blatantly unconstitutional that it beggars belief they have not been challenged and struck down in the courts already. They are a return to the old days of anti-communist loyalty oaths, but with a bizarre twist. And it’s that twist which complicates matters, because any criticism of the pledges or of Israel bypasses reason and plain reading of the Constitution and goes straight to emotional howls of anti-Semitism. Most people know that’s coming, and since they don’t want to withstand it, they don’t speak up in the first place. The lobbyists for Israel then have their own way.
What has also complicated the relationship between the United States and Israel since the late 1940s is how support for Israel has taken on a polyglot nature in the intervening years, particularly with the rise of white evangelical Christians in American politics since the 1980s. In the 1940s, American support for Israel came largely from American Jews and from the large numbers of people who sympathized with the plight of European Jews after the tragedy of the Holocaust. There are other reasons having to do with the labyrinth of Middle Eastern politics and, of course, oil, but those are beyond the scope of this post.
Since the 1980s, as support for Israel’s increasingly hard line toward Palestinians and relations with its Arab neighbors dwindled among some American Jews, the slack was taken up by white evangelical Christians who looked at the modern state of Israel and saw the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. They cared little about the multitude of practical complications, and they had an interested ear in the White House with Ronald Reagan. By the 1990s, a litmus test for election to political office in some parts of the country was support for Israel, right or wrong, and the test was administered not by American Jews, but by white evangelical Christians and, increasingly, by lobbying groups supported by the right wing in Israeli politics.
Lobbying in Congress by foreign powers is supposedly regulated by law, though in practice it goes on mostly unimpeded. In the 1980s, when Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime gained steam in this country and around the world, the South African government did not have anywhere near the lobbying clout in American politics of the Israeli lobby then, and certainly not as powerful as it has become since. South Africa did not have millions of Christian soldiers in this country who were willing to go onward for it no matter what. About all South Africa had were diamonds, and it turned out they were not enough to resist pressure from the rest of the world to reform its immoral system.
A scene early in the 1960 film Exodus, directed by Otto Preminger, with Sal Mineo and Jill Haworth arguing their different world views in 1947 aboard a refugee ship from Europe bound for Palestine. Paul Newman looks on. Indeed, those were the days.
Now times have changed for Israel, and it’s no longer the plucky underdog deserving sympathy; its policies of the last 40 to 50 years have tainted that image, turning it into a kind of South African apartheid regime, and if people in this country want to criticize it for that, or for anything else, then it’s none of this government’s business, no matter how many “Benjamins” change hands in the halls of Congress, or how many white evangelical Christians with fever dreams of a picturesque Holy Land as they imagine it from their family Bibles, a place for fulfillment of the Gospel that they probably suppose would be nicer if it weren’t inhabited by all those dusky modern Jews, no matter how many of those people angrily pull away their support from any politician who dares criticize Israel, and with it their fantasy.
With each successive year, the United States Postal Service shows more cracks in its structure, and at no time of year is that more evident than around the year end holidays as letter and package volume increases. It’s difficult to find empirical evidence of the Postal Service’s failings as a delivery service, though anecdotal evidence is plentiful. Just about everyone has tales to tell of late delivery, non-delivery, delivery to the wrong address, or failure to pick up mail. If it seems these failings are increasing, that’s more than likely an accurate assessment because the United States Postal Service is beset both from within and without.
The Postal Service as originally designated in Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 of the Constitution, says nothing about profitability of the Service, only that it is a necessary manifestation of interstate commerce and communication. The Founders recognized it as a public utility, in other words, not a business for private profit making as much as a service for the benefit of the public, with all the implications for public subsidy that can entail.
Along the way from 1775, when the Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin the first Postmaster General of the fledgling United States of America, some right wing factions got the idea that the Postal Service should behave as a quasi-private business still under government control. They got their way first in 1971 when the Postal Service was transformed into an independent agency under the Executive Branch, and then even more importantly in 2006 after Congress passed legislation requiring the Postal Service to fully pre-fund employee retirement health benefits, a requirement which has hamstrung the Service financially ever since.
U.S. postage stamp issued in 1976 honoring the 50th Anniversary of U.S. Commercial Aviation (1926-1976). Illustrated are the first two airplanes used to carry Air Mail under contract: Ford-Stout AT-2 (upper) and Laird Swallow (lower). Federal Air Mail contracts provided important sources of revenue to early aviation companies, including Eastern Air Lines.
Hamstringing the Postal Service was not an unfortunate unintended consequence of fiscal responsibility measures, but a deliberate step by Republican legislators to ensure the eventual failure of the Postal Service so that its carcass could be picked over by private businesses, with the choicest bits going to the highest bidder. Less choice bits, like mail delivery to remote outposts around the nation, would most likely be ignored, with a consequent loss of mail service to those places. Sorry, not profitable. Travel half a day to the nearest small town to pick up your mail at a privately maintained postal outlet. Sending a letter to that remote outpost? Sorry, flat rate postage no longer applies for first class delivery. That will be ten dollars, please.
Besides being attacked from the outside by vultures, the Postal Service has been hampered lately from within by a toxic work environment fostered by bad, unaccountable management which has led to chronic staff shortages around the country even when the troubled economy would dictate that people would flock to Postal Service jobs that are relatively high paying, with better benefits than most other employers offer. Word gets around, however, and eventually people become reluctant to apply for those jobs regardless of the monetary rewards. Meanwhile, attrition combined with the depressing, hostile work atmosphere saw to it that valued senior employees took early retirement or simply quit to get away from the place. If Congress ever gets around to convening an investigative commission, Postal Service managers will have a lot of explaining to do.
In the 1947 film version of Miracle on 34th Street, starring John Payne as attorney Fred Gailey and Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, the Post Office (as it was known then) was a respected institution.
In the meantime, try to be kind to your local mail carrier, who is only trying to make the best of a bad situation and, if possible, get home at a reasonable hour. Post Offices are short of staff, and mail sorting centers have been closed in the past ten years in a short-sighted attempt to save money, resulting in long hours for many mail carriers. Working after dark in the evenings has presented a whole new set of dangers to these people, from urban carriers walking a route being mistaken for prowlers to rural carriers in outmoded vehicles with only two weak hazard lights blinking to warn other drivers on dark country roads that they are sitting ducks as they move from box to box at low speed delivering the mail.
These are unnecessarily dangerous conditions for the carriers on their appointed rounds, and then to be confronted with bullying managers back at the Post Office when they’re finally done with their shift is too much. Something has to change at the Postal Service, starting with the top, but the first shove has to come from what corporate and political America considers the bottom, which are the customers who expect good service from their mail carriers, if only managers and legislators would either do better jobs supporting them or get out of the way and stop actively obstructing them.
And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. ‘Reality control,’ they called it: in Newspeak, ‘doublethink.’
― from 1984, by George Orwell.
The idea, so long promulgated that people have come to uncritically accept it as truth, of a “liberal media”, meaning by that the mainstream, corporate media, has never been more laughable than today. If people think corporate media outlets such as Cable News Network (CNN), Microsoft National Broadcasting Company (MSNBC), the New York Times, and the Washington Post, are “liberal” then perhaps their definition needs adjustment, because all of these media outlets are owned by giant corporations, and giant corporations are not known for liberal views.
Reproduction of a Charles Mills painting by the Detroit Publishing Company, depicting a young Benjamin Franklin (center) at work on a printing press.
What is more important with news is what is left out than what is left in and reported on. Those are the editorial decisions that filter down from corporate headquarters. Individual reporters may be to the left of Karl Marx, but it hardly matters if editors change their stories at the bidding of headquarters. What matters are the terms of debate, or what is open to question and what is not. Much of this is internalized by reporters eventually, or they don’t get to become editors. They have certainly learned and adopted as Gospel the rules of the game by the time they are ready to move up to senior staff.
But readers or viewers of the news never learn what has been left out by politic editors on behalf of their conservative corporate masters. Not every corporate master is conservative? Doubtful. Liberalism doesn’t go with that territory. Some astute members of the public may pick up the general drift of coverage from a particular outlet, but when it comes down to really important matters, they are addressed in nearly the same way by all the corporate media. It comes down to the narcissism of minor differences that Sigmund Freud pointed out when he wrote “It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of hostility between them.” For the diversion of the masses, educated as well as uneducated, the pundits on television and in the op-ed pages of the newspapers dispute how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, while their corporate masters fleece everyone of every last dollar. It’s a neat trick.
All of that aside, it truly is a disgrace to see the open contempt the current presidential administration and it’s Republican allies around the country display for the Fourth Estate, the Free Press. The corporate, greed-based media, have brought some of this treatment upon themselves with their craven promotion of a shallow reality television star for president – what did they expect? – but what is truly unfortunate is how the disgraceful treatment coming from the White House press room has overflowed to independent news outlets that try to honestly hew to journalistic principles.
The Artist’s Father, Reading “L’Événement”, an 1866 painting by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906).
There are questions to answer, however, before getting up in arms about the bad behavior of the current presidential administration in how it treats media it doesn’t like. First of all, the question of how the current crowd got into office can be bypassed. They are there now, and that’s that. The main question for now is: Who watches these television news shows uncritically and then counts themselves as informed? and Who reads these newspapers that have long since stopped being liberal in anything but stale reputation only, and thinks that they are caught up on the latest left of center take on important issues? Who are these delusional viewers and readers whose uncritical attention and financial support allows this charade to continue and thrive? Are they the ones who support a Free Press against an antagonistic, authoritarian regime in Washington, D.C.? Don’t bet your last corporate media stock share on it.
Meeting of the 2012 Ohio Electoral College; photo by Ibagli
The 538 members of the Electoral College meet tomorrow, December 19th, in the 50 state capitols and in Washington, D.C., to cast their ballots for President and Vice President. Many people across the country are unsure about the purpose of or need for the Electoral College, and they think we could do better without it. In Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, the Founding Fathers established the Electoral College, though they never named it as such.
“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . . “
There is further elaboration on the Electoral College in the 12th and 14th Amendments.
Nowhere in the Constitution is there anything about constraining the Electors to vote for the winner of their state’s popular vote. In 26 states and in Washington, D.C., Electors are bound by state laws or party pledges to vote for the winner of the popular vote in their state. The Founding Fathers did not foresee the rise of political parties, and they imagined the Electors would act more independently than has proved to be the case. Political parties now choose the Electors and dictate how they vote, and over half the states have codified that policy into state law. The Electoral College functions now as nothing more than a rubber stamp for the winner take all system in all the states except Nebraska and Maine, which allocate their electoral votes by congressional district.
If the Electors exist only to rubber stamp the electoral votes determined by the popular vote in each state, then why bother with human Electors at all? If the purpose of the electoral vote system is to protect the minority rights of less populous states from being overrun by more populous states, then tally the electoral votes allocated by each state’s popular vote and do away with the Electoral College members altogether. If, on the other hand, we expect Electors to act at their own discretion, then do away with the restrictions placed on them by the states and by the political parties, all of which may be unconstitutional, and allow them to vote their consciences.
The Founding Fathers had some good reasons for establishing the Electoral College, though they failed to envision how it has played out since the 18th century. As it exists now, it is neither fish nor fowl, neither a body independent of the will of the people nor beholden to it. The Electoral College is beholden to the will of the political parties, and any member who votes independently of that will is termed a “faithless Elector,” and may be subject to legal penalties as well as party ostracism. What good is an institution like that?
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, a painting by Howard Chandler Christy. The figures in this painting who were instrumental in the establishment of the Electoral College were James Wilson, in the green coat directly beneath the flags, who proposed it; and seated to either side of Benjamin Franklin, at the center, were James Madison on the right and Alexander Hamilton on the left, the two men who explained it’s function and lobbied for it’s inclusion in the Constitution.