The Democratic Party establishment is in a panic after Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s convincing victory in the Nevada presidential primary on February 22. An easy way to gauge the reaction of the Democratic Party old guard is to watch their mouthpieces spout off on MSNBC, the network that pretends to be at the forefront of liberal politics but in reality protects the interests of corporate Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. MSNBC is, with some reservations due to being more grounded in the real world, the opinion molder for many Democrats in a similar fashion to how Fox News affects Republicans.
This year the Democratic Party establishment had the fix in for former vice president Joe Biden the same way they had the fix in for former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2016. She lost the election, but hey, she won the popular vote! So what? So a surplus of a few million people, mostly in California and New York, voted for Hillary Clinton. It didn’t matter because their votes didn’t count as much as the votes of a few tens of thousands of people in Rust Belt states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. So the Democratic Party establishment had decided to do it all over again, this time with Joe Biden as their old guard hack.
A banner displayed by striking Chicago teachers in September 2012 questioning the real interests of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and his Democratic Party colleagues. Photo by Flickr user Groupuscule.
The old guard claims their anointed one is the most electable in the general election, a higher priority than ever now that everyone has had nearly four years experience of the alternative, the current president. Everyone, progressive and corporate Democrat alike, agrees four more years of that will destroy the republic as well as the Democratic Party. The old guard deploys fear of four more years of the current president to maintain themselves in power at whatever cost in lies and money. Claiming that only their front person has electability in the general election didn’t work in 2016, and it won’t work in 2020.
The reason is lack of broad appeal to potential voters who are inclined to sit on the sidelines instead of getting behind a corporate Democrat like Joe Biden. The Democratic Party establishment persists in under counting and under cutting the progressive, Socialist portion of the party because it scares off their backers on Wall Street and in corporate boardrooms. The country, and the Democratic Party in particular, are more liberal than the establishment and the corporate media will admit.
Woody Guthrie wrote and performed “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh (Dusty Old Dust)” in 1935. The policies and appeal of the president at the time, Franklin Roosevelt, would not look out of place today in the campaign of Bernie Sanders, yet conservative corporate interests in politics and in the media persist in portraying Senator Sanders and his supporters as fringe radicals.
The resulting propaganda from outlets like MSNBC convinces some voters that a presidential candidate such as Bernie Sanders would represent only a fringe of the Democratic Party, while Joe Biden or Michael Bloomberg or Pete Buttigieg would represent the mainstream of the Party, and therefore would be the only electable choice for the more conservative general populace. That’s not true. Look at the results in Nevada.
“You hear the applause at the end of the routine, the people are actually applauding themselves. What I’m saying is not necessarily funny. It’s what you don’t hear that’s funny, and the audience supplies that. It presumes a certain intelligence on the part of your audience, and I think they appreciate that.”
— Bob Newhart speaking in an interview on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition in May 2014.
Happy 90th birthday to comedian and actor Bob Newhart, who was born in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb outside Chicago, on September 5, 1929. Anyone who has ever enjoyed Mr. Newhart’s comedy knows he doesn’t talk down to his audience, and neither does he go way over their heads. His best friend, another comedian and actor, Don Rickles, placed Mr. Newhart’s appeal best when he nicknamed him “Charlie Everybody”.
A June 1977 publicity photo of the cast of The Bob Newhart Show. Standing, from left: Bill Daily (Howard Borden), Marcia Wallace (Carol Kester), Peter Bonerz (Jerry Robinson). Seated, from left: Bob Newhart (Bob Hartley), Suzanne Pleshette (Emily Hartley).
Bob Newhart portrayed Major Major Major Major in the 1970 film Catch-22, adapted by Buck Henry from Joseph Heller’s novel, and directed by Mike Nichols. Norman Fell portrayed Major Major’s orderly, Sergeant Towser.
Bob Newhart has made a career of understatement and staying sane while quirky characters and peculiar events swirl around him, and his style allows his audience to come along with him rather than merely spectate. His straight man “Charlie Everybody” reactions heighten the comedy by letting absurdity seep in and speak for itself, and that requires a delicate sense of timing and a feeling for the oddity in everyday life, a talent he has that is neither as easy to come by nor as simple to share as he makes it seem. Hi, Bob, and happy birthday! Thanks for helping us laugh, and feel good, too, remembering the first is a passing reaction to an event or situation, while the second lingers with us long after the laughter fades.
Bob Newhart remembers his best friend, Don Rickles, in this August 2017 interview with Conan O’Brien. Don Rickles died in April 2017, and the two had been friends since their days as entertainers in Las Vegas in the 1960s. Seated on the couch with Mr. Newhart is Peter Bonerz, one of his co-stars from The Bob Newhart Show and, earlier, from Catch-22. Warning: foul language.
Roger Ebert, the great movie critic who worked primarily in Chicago, Illinois, and over the course of his career garnered respect and influence internationally, believed movies were “like a machine that generates empathy”. By that he meant a well-made movie encourages viewers to lose themselves for a time and step into the shoes of others. There were more movies like that being made 50 years ago than there now, in the current era of comic book special effects franchises.
Stanley Kubrick took this photo in 1949 for LOOK magazine. Mr. Kubrick was a staff photographer for the magazine from 1947 to 1950, and he then went on to direct many great movies, becoming a model for other filmmakers of the New Hollywood. The Chicago Theatre was one of many movie palaces built around the country in the 1920s, and after renovations in the 1980s, it remains a popular venue for film exhibitions and live performances.
Mr. Ebert became the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper in 1967, about the same time as the emergence of New Hollywood filmmaking, an era lasting roughly from 1965 to 1985 when Hollywood studios financed character driven films made by directors like Mike Nichols, Bob Rafelson, and Francis Ford Coppola, who came from backgrounds in theater, television, or film school. Filmmakers in Old Hollywood often came up through the ranks, and many of them were refugees from Europe, escaping the fascist regimes spreading throughout the continent in the 1920s, ’30s, and early ’40s.
Old Hollywood was vertically integrated, meaning the studios controlled production and distribution and held talent under long term contracts. All that started to fall away in the 1950s when the federal government forced the studios to divest themselves of most of their wholly owned distribution channels, which had behaved as a cartel, and as television poached audience share from the movie industry. Some star actors and directors cut themselves loose from the major studio system, forming ad hoc film companies which sought limited input from the big studios. Finally, in order to compete with television, studios more frequently rolled the dice on big budget spectaculars such as Ben-Hur or Cleopatra, and those high stakes gambles either saved financially unstable studios or sank them nearly to insolvency.
By the late 1960s, the movie studios primarily served as film financers and weren’t as heavily involved in production and distribution as they once were. Along with discarding the Hays Code of movie censorship, a relic of Old Hollywood, the changed paradigm of filmmaking allowed greater freedom and creative control for directors, actors, and writers. The result was the flowering of small to medium scale films that became the hallmark of the New Hollywood, films such as The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, both released in 1967, and continuing with other great films made for adult sensibilities through the 1970s.
Jack Nicholson had a breakout role as an alcoholic civil rights lawyer in the 1969 film Easy Rider, directed by Dennis Hopper, who also starred in the film along with co-writer Peter Fonda. In taking on multiple tasks in the making of Easy Rider, Mr. Hopper and Mr. Fonda were more typical of New Hollywood than they were of Old Hollywood, where vertical integration assigned discrete tasks to different individuals within the studio system, and auteurism was discouraged by studio bosses who were leery of the practice ever since Orson Welles made Citizen Kane in 1941.
Jack Nicholson was the actor who became the face of New Hollywood filmmaking, simply because he was in more hit movies than anyone else during that time. His face, voice, and acting style and choices personified the New Hollywood era. Starting with Easy Rider in 1969, Mr. Nicholson was in one successful movie nearly every year, and in some years more than one, through the 1970s and into the ’80s. He has of course been in many successful films since then, and what is remarkable in retrospect from today’s vantage point when big budget sequels and reboots of franchises are Hollywood’s major output is that he has never repeated himself nor acted in one of those kinds of movies.
Since the demise of New Hollywood filmmaking, Jack Nicholson has chosen to stay with character driven films, though the number available for his participation diminished over the years, as he related in a 1995 interview with Roger Ebert. Even Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman, in which Mr. Nicholson played The Joker, can be seen as character driven despite its comic book origins and inclusion of special effects. It was the first film of its kind to take the source material seriously, and it was well-made by some exceptional talents.
In a later scene in Easy Rider, Jack Nicholson’s character, George Hanson, discusses the state of the country with Dennis Hopper’s character, Billy.
Unfortunately the endless variations on Batman in the 30 years since its release have grown wearisome. But the movie that started the push for a return to blockbuster filmmaking came out 14 years earlier, in 1975, when Steven Spielberg’s film Jaws appeared in theaters that summer and set box office records. Jaws was followed in the summer of 1977 by Star Wars, a film created and directed by George Lucas that started a media franchise which continues to this day. Those films, too, were well-made by exceptional talents. In the years since their release, however, those kind of films and their lesser cousins have increasingly crowded out the kind of smaller, character driven movies Jack Nicholson and the New Hollywood were known for, the kind Roger Ebert described as generators of empathy. In times when we are in need of empathy generators perhaps more than ever, we are largely left to project ourselves onto special effects beclouded superheroes.
Editor’s note: There was no post on this website last Friday, April 27, because it is healthy to take a break and go fishing once in a while.
“The pause that refreshes” was a slogan coined in 1929 by Coca-Cola marketers, and nearly a century later it remains one of the most memorable advertising slogans for Coke, or for any other product. It was also in the 1920s that Henry Ford instituted a new policy at his automobile manufacturing plant to shorten workers’ shifts to eight hours and their work week to 40 hours, a model that soon became the standard throughout American industry. In 1938, the federal government established with the Fair Labor Standards Act a minimum wage and rules for most workers to receive time and a half payment for hours worked over 40 in a week.
An Afternoon’s Rest, an 1885 painting by Niels Frederik Schiøttz-Jensen (1855-1941).
It’s still up to the states to regulate breaks and lunch time off for workers, and many do so in a minimal way, if at all. It may come as a surprise to some workers that their breaks often come solely at the discretion of their employer or, if they are with a union, because breaks are written into the contract between the union and management. Even bathroom breaks can be a source of contention between labor and management. It is a wonder then to consider how much conditions for workers have generally improved since the early years of the industrial revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when 12 and 16 hour days were not uncommon and workers’ welfare and safety were entirely their own lookout.
What changed things was when workers started to organize and bargain collectively in the late nineteenth century. It is a misconception to think the worker holiday of May Day started in communist countries, because it actually began in the United States, and has come to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago, Illinois, in May of 1886 when workers on strike and demonstrating for an eight hour workday ended up in deadly confrontations with the police over the course of two days. Unionization continued wringing concessions from management through the first half of the twentieth century, and from 1945 to 1975 the percentage of the non-farm workforce belonging to a union peaked at over 30 percent. In the years since, union membership has declined to less than half that, and the remaining unions, many of them organizations formed for the benefit of state employees such as teachers, are under attack from Republican controlled state governments.
A discussion of ways of coping in life from the 1964 film of The Night of the Iguana, based on the play by Tennessee Williams, directed by John Huston, and starring Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, and Richard Burton as the defrocked Reverend Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon.
None of that changes the need of people concentrating on their work to take a break from it every once in a while throughout the day, and for weeks or more at a time throughout the year. Robots have no need of breaks, but for the time being there are still jobs robots cannot do and those jobs will require the talents of fallible, sometimes frail humans. Enlightened management can choose to view breaks for workers as beneficial to both parties, since a more rested worker can be more productive in the long run than one who is run ragged. Less enlightened management may consider the burnout of workers as the cost of doing business, believing they are easily replaceable cogs in management’s profit making machine. That mindset prevailed over a hundred years ago, before Henry Ford, who was by no means enlightened in all areas, nonetheless saw that his workers and people like them were the buyers of his automobiles, and raised their wages and improved their conditions in the interest of maintaining a kind of partnership with them, rather than treating them wholly as chattel, as cogs in the gears of production.
Sears, once the largest retailer by sales volume in the country, has been in decline for the last twenty years and is on its way out of business. Some of its competitors in the brick and mortar and catalog sides of retail merchandising have either already gone out of business or are also on their way out. Sears failed to keep up with the online retail revolution, and a look around its sales website indicates that the company still doesn’t have a handle on it. Sears closed up its famous catalog in 1993, and since it never established itself online, it was left with brick and mortar stores which are not doing well.
The Amtrak train The Cardinal departs Chicago in May, 2009, for points east. The Sears Tower, the tallest building in the skyline, was renamed the Willis Tower in 2009 by the Willis Group as part of its lease agreement. Photo by Russell Sekeet.
Throughout the first two thirds of the twentieth century, Sears was such a huge merchandiser that it accounted for about one percent of all retail sales nationwide. It was the Amazon.com of that time, which was no small feat considering the supply chain difficulties imposed by an infrastructure that would not become truly nationwide until the 1950s with the building of the interstate highway system. Sears made its name by using its catalogs to reach under served rural customers at a time when the majority of people lived outside of cities. Now online retailers can reach anyone with an internet connection, and shippers deliver directly to the consumer’s doorstep.
It was at this time of year, late summer or early autumn, that Sears used to issue its Wish Book, a shortened version of its catalog, with an emphasis on Christmas gift items. One of Sears’ competitors, Macy’s, still kicks off the Christmas shopping season by sponsoring a Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City, though it has also been closing stores around the country. The 2008 recession accelerated the decline of the big nationwide department stores after a slow slip in sales since the 1990s. Specialty stores with a national or regional presence, like Radio Shack and Circuit City, have also either shut down or are close to doing so. What’s most often left then for Christmas shoppers visiting a physical store are the big box retailers like Walmart and Target.
Or people could patronize locally owned shops. The prices may be higher because the small shops don’t have the supply chain advantages of their much larger competitors, but the local small business gives back to its community. In that sense, the two types of stores should not even be considered competitors. Over there are the big box retailers selling goods cheaply, but also taking advantage of communities with unethical employment and supply chain practices. And over here are small businesses that are answerable to the community, because without local support and good word of mouth they are doomed to fail.
Left to right: Adam Gimbel, Frederic Gimbel, and Bernard Gimbel looking at a Luca della Robbia (1400-1482) statue of Madonna and Child, from the art collection of William Randolph Hearst. Parts of Hearst’s collection were sold at the Gimbels department store in 1939-1940. Gimbels had stores in the northeast and the midwest, and a prized location next door to Macy’s in Herald Square in New York City. Photo by Edward Lynch of the New York World Telegram & Sun.
Edmund Gwenn stars as Santa Claus in the 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street. The film’s setting is Macy’s department store in New York City.
It could be that the failure of the old retail giants like Sears will prompt renewed interest in shopping at local stores. Online retailers and a few big box retailers have already usurped much of Sears’ more than one century old business model. Sears and J.C. Penney and a few other large department stores have anchored enclosed suburban shopping malls since they first started appearing in the 1950s and 1960s. Now that those stores are declining, perhaps small, locally owned shops will pick up more business. That would be a welcome development, and it might eventually boost Small Business Saturday to a level competitive with Black Friday (it’s antithesis is Buy Nothing Day) and Cyber Monday. Like it or not, Christmas has been a commercial proposition in America for a long time now, and if small businesses can bloom from the ashes of the old retail giants, then at least some good will have come from that mercantile aspect of the year end holidays.
The middle of winter is time for garden maintenance projects the growing season doesn’t allow time for, such as keeping English Ivy (Hedera helix) at bay by pulling it off trees and structures, or yanking it out of the ground. The idea of eradicating it altogether is best left to fantasy. Besides, some gardeners, like the ones who brought the plant from the Old World to the New in the Eighteenth Century, harbor no ill will toward English Ivy and instead choose to encourage it’s growth. Those who look on it as a pest and choose to discourage it can be left wondering why anyone in their right mind would plant it next to a building and allow it to destructively sink its roots into crevices in mortar or siding.
English Ivy in winter climbing a tree in Poland; photo by Agnieszka Kwiecień.
The misconception about ivy’s destructiveness is due to confusion about names, and presents a good argument for learning the scientific names of plants rather than relying on common names. English Ivy, the invasive pest which produces aerial rootlets that find their way into a building’s cracks as it climbs upward, is not to be confused with Boston Ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata), which uses suckers to adhere to a building and is therefore less harmful. Boston Ivy is also an introduction from the Old World to the New, though it has a native relative in the Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). Boston Ivy, not English Ivy, is the vine that decorates old brick buildings around New England, and particularly on college campuses, where it lends its name to the Ivy League.
Boston Ivy in autumn, South campus, State University of NY at Buffalo; photo by Y.G. Lulat.
It is no easy or safe task pulling English Ivy off a building where some ill-advised previous gardener had planted it or allowed it to grow under the impression that he or she was evoking some of the atmosphere of tweedy academia. Depending on the building construction and its soundness, chunks of mortar or shards of wood siding are apt to come loose with the ivy where its rootlets have dug in. It’s best to cut the vines at ground level and let them die back in place, drying and shrinking in the process, and then after several months have passed, pulling away the remaining dried bits once they have lost their hold on the structure.
Wrigley Field, Chicago – Right Field Wall with Boston Ivy; photo by Flickr user wallyg.
Some gardeners think they can manage English Ivy clambering on a well maintained building. They may believe its evergreen and tough-as-nails attributes are worth the trade-off of constant vigilance over the safer alternative of planting the deciduous and better behaved Boston Ivy. More power to them if they think they can keep an eye on it! It is far more likely, however, that where you see English Ivy on a building it is there because someone didn’t know any better and, relying on common names, thought one ivy wasn’t much different than another and so let it go thinking it lent the place a touch of classy greenery. An excellent case can be made here for paying attention to scientific names for plants rather than dismissing them as the affectations of pedantic know-it-alls, and it’s a lesson those gardeners have learned all too well who have spent countless winter hours tugging out skeins of Hedera helix where it has tangled itself into absolutely everything.
Last Friday the Justice Department released their report on abuses committed by the Chicago police. At a news conference held by US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Chicago Mayor Rahm “#%*@!” Emanuel, and Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, Emanuel said he found the report “sobering.” Are we to infer from his remark that he was smashed out of his gourd when he allegedly colluded with the Chicago Police Department to suppress the dashcam video of the 2014 Laquan McDonald shooting while he sought re-election in 2015?
Police brutality has never been a secret to poor and minority communities in this country. A few things have changed in the last generation, however, to bring that brutality up front where the larger community can no longer ignore it. Foremost is the prevalence of cell phone cameras which allow citizens to document abuse as it happens. While the existence of photographic evidence seems to have had little effect in seeing that abusive police actually get jail time, it has had the effect of waking up the populace to the abuse.
Secondly is the “Us vs. Them” culture which has taken hold in police departments across the country. Police often behave now as if they are soldiers in an occupying army rather than civil servants pledged to “Protect and Serve” their fellow citizens. They shoot first and ask questions later, if at all, and do so with impunity because they know their union and the rest of the police department “has their back.” The local district attorney will file charges and investigate police brutality with reluctance because he or she needs the daily cooperation of the police in resolving other cases on the docket.
Infamously foul-mouthed Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel
A third and often overlooked factor is steroid use by some cops. Steroids can lead to hostility, hyper-aggressiveness, and poor judgment, all of which are prominent factors in police abusing their authority. Instead of defusing a situation, a cop on steroids is just as likely to escalate it by being confrontational and by issuing impatient demands for a suspect to obey orders, however irrational and impetuous.
There are ways to confront and remedy at least some police misconduct other than the standard police department method of placing an officer on administrative leave – a paid vacation – while they conduct an internal investigation until they hope everything blows over and everyone has forgotten about the incident in question, at which point the officer and the department can return to business as usual. It is police culture that is at the root of the problem, and until we address that, we should understand that adjudicating individual incidents of police brutality is merely playing at whack-a-mole. Along with Mayor Rahm “&+#!!” Emanuel, we need to sober up and hold cops accountable if we expect them to behave with accountability. Every good parent understands this principle.