It has been 20 years nearly to the day that Hurricane Isabel came ashore in North Carolina, causing enormous destruction along the densely built eastern seaboard as it moved up through Virginia and on into the northeastern United States. Now Tropical Storm Ophelia has made landfall in North Carolina and it appears it will follow a similar path of destruction as Hurricane Isabel did 20 years ago.
The notable difference between the two weather systems, besides strength, is how much later in the alphabet the “O” in Ophelia comes after the “I” in Isabel. I – J – K – L – M – N – O. That’s a six letter difference, yet the time of year for the landfall of both systems is nearly the same. Using the alphabetical convention for naming Atlantic storms this way is admittedly a seat of the pants method for marking 20 years of climate change, but it’s memorable in the same way that markings on a door jamb tell the story of a child’s growth over the years.
High water marks on a door jamb in Wertheim am Main, Germany. 2011 photo by Rainer Lippert.
The convention for naming storms has been in place since 1953. The U.S. National Hurricane Center at first maintained the list of storm names, a task which has since been taken over by the World Meteorological Organization. Only twice since 1953 has either organization run out of letters of the English alphabet and had to resort to letters of the Greek alphabet, in 2005 and 2020. They may run out again this year.
A scene from Jaws, a 1975 movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss. Warning: foul language.
In records going back to the late nineteenth century, the three most active Atlantic storm seasons have occurred in the last 20 years. None of the least active seasons have occurred in the last 20 years. If this trend continues, running out of English alphabet letters to use in naming storms may become a common occurrence over the next 20 years. Such an eventuality will be far from an ideal way for the inhabitants of the eastern seaboard and points inland to learn Greek.
What kind of English word is “Winnemucca”? How about “taco”? “Fond du Lac”? People who get bent out of shape over other people speaking languages besides English while out in public in this country probably fail to realize how many English words have their origin in other languages. As much as 30 percent of English words are borrowed from the world’s thousands of languages. It would be difficult or impossible for the average English speaker to use only Anglo-Saxon words.
In the United States especially, where nearly 100 percent of the population comes from elsewhere in the world, the English language is a polyglot mixture made up of additions from languages everywhere, and yet it stands apart in its diction, its spelling, and in other ways. Place names preeminently use some version borrowed from the many Native American languages that have all but disappeared otherwise. What does it mean to send somebody back where they came from, when almost everybody came from somewhere else at one time? Send them back where? To Ohio? To Florida? If we go back far enough in time, almost everyone will have to leave, and the Native Americans – what is left of them – will no doubt feel immense relief, as of an oppressive burden lifting away from them.
The Tower of Babel, a painting by Pieter Breugel the Elder (c. 1525/1530-1569).
Exclusionary talk is loco chauvinism. It is meshuga, and yahoos who go on about sending others back where they came from are clearly non compos mentis. They should examine their own origins, which in the latest generation or two or three might be in places like Tulsa, Santa Fe, Tennessee, or Baraboo, but going back further could be traced to Scotland, or Frankfurt, or Sarajevo, and ultimately to Africa. White folks weren’t always white, and anyway no deity ever descended from the heavens to declare whiteness a superior trait. It only matters to people who are terrified of losing their imagined superior place in society, and must have Others to look down upon. Ordering Others to speak English when they are conversing among themselves is not only high-handed, it ignores how immigrants have enriched and informed English itself with words and expressions from everywhere. The proper remark for an English-only speaker to make in that case, if any is necessary at all, is gracias, or merci, or danke, or mahalo, or arigatô, or . . .
Johnny Cash (1932-2003) sang a North American version of “I’ve Been Everywhere”, a song written in 1959 by Australian country singer Geoff Mack, and which in the original version included all Australian place names, many of them originating in the languages of the Australian Aboriginal peoples.
The measles outbreak in Clark County, in the southwestern corner of the state of Washington, across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon, has brought national attention to the beliefs of people who do not get some or all vaccinations for one reason or another, because vaccination rates in Clark County are far below the national average. The term many have come to apply to these people is “anti-vaxxer”, though it unfairly lumps everyone together, including people who are less against vaccines as they are for personal liberty, or who object on religious grounds. Since vaccination is a public health issue, however, the reasons for not getting vaccinated do not matter as much as the effects.
The history of the differing reasons for vaccine opposition goes back to the introduction of the smallpox vaccine, primarily by Edward Jenner, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in England. The idea that to combat a disease a person should voluntarily introduce a weakened form of it into his or her body ran counter to reason. Vaccination methods of the time were far cruder than today, and since sterilization of wounds and bandages were little understood, infection often followed upon vaccination. The alternative was death or disfigurement from a full force smallpox infestation, and some religious folks actually expressed preference for that because it was “God’s will.”
In Merawi, Ethiopia, a mother holds her nine month old child in preparation for a measles vaccination. One in ten children across Ethiopia do not live to see their fifth birthday, with many dying of preventable diseases like measles, pneumonia, malaria, and diarrhea. British aid has helped double immunization rates across Ethiopia in recent years by funding medicines, equipment, and training for doctors and nurses. Photo by Pete Lewis for the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID).
World Health Organization (WHO) 2012 estimated deaths due to measles per million persons, with bright yellow at 0, dark red at 74-850, and shades of ocher from light to dark ranging from 1-73. Gray areas indicate statistics not available. Map by Chris55.
Those who didn’t object to vaccination on grounds of cutting into a healthy body and introducing a light case of the disease or a bad case of infection, or of meddling in God’s will, objected to the perceived unnaturalness of the procedure since the vaccine ultimately came from cows infected with cowpox. To those people, introduction into the human body of something from an animal was unwholesome, even dangerous. Never mind that people do the same thing all the time when they eat meat, presumably from animals and not from other people, without the ill effects these folks foresaw, such as taking on the traits of animal whose parts were introduced directly into human flesh. On the other hand, perhaps they were taking the dictum “you are what you eat” to a logical extreme somehow unimpeded by the process of digestion.
It is probably best not to overload these viewpoints with the rigors of logic. People have their opinions, and they often do not bother to make the distinction between opinions and facts. The fact is that through vaccination programs, smallpox has been eradicated worldwide since the middle of the twentieth century, roughly 150 years after introduction of the vaccine. Similarly, measles in the United States disappeared around the turn of this century after nearly 50 years of vaccinations. About the time measles was going away in this country, in 1998 a doctor in England, Andrew Wakefield, published a report in the English medical journal The Lancet linking the MMR (Measles, Mumps, and Rubella) vaccine to autism and bowel disorders, and though the findings in the report and Dr. Wakefield himself were soon repudiated by the majority of other medical professionals, some anti-vaxxers latched onto the link with autism and have been running with it ever since, regardless of the lack of evidence to support the link.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics on U.S. measles cases (not deaths). Chart by 2over0.
The problem with anti-vaxxers of one stripe or another running with opinions mistaken for their own version of the facts is that vaccinations are needed most by vulnerable populations such as the very young, the very old, and people with suppressed immune systems. Infants cannot be vaccinated against measles at all. Many of these vulnerable people are in the position of having decisions made for them by responsible adults. In the case of children, that would be their parents, who of course have the best interest of their children at heart. The difficult point to get across to those parents is that in a public health issue involving communicable diseases, their decision not to vaccinate their children affects not only their children, but those other most vulnerable members of the greater society as well. Public health is a commons, shared by all, like clean water and clean air, and the tragedy of the commons is that a relatively few people making selfish decisions based on ill-informed opinions can have a ripple effect on everyone else. Personal liberty is a fine and noble ideal, but when it leads to poisoning of the commons then quarantine is the only option, either self-imposed or involuntary.
Snow has always been more problematic for movie sets than rain, but when the filmmakers and their special effects people do it well it creates an atmosphere for viewers that suspends their disbelief to the point of not noticing smaller details, like how the snow fallen on performers doesn’t appear to melt quickly when they go indoors, where it is presumably warmer than it is outside. All sorts of obstacles dictate the use of fake snow for movies rather than the real stuff, from warm weather outdoors to shooting scenes indoors on sound stages. Real snow also compacts underfoot, making it impracticable for filmmakers to get more than one or two takes in one spot outdoors even when they go to the trouble of brushing over footsteps to make the snow appear fresh for retakes. As expensive as it is to make a movie, it makes sense to use fake snow.
In the early twentieth century, filmmakers created fake snow with bleached cornflakes, salt, flour, cotton wadding, asbestos, or combinations of those materials as well as others. All posed problems either of realism or health and safety. Cornflakes crunched underfoot and were difficult to use once sound came into movies; salt was corrosive; flour congealed on exposure to moisture; cotton was a fire hazard, and its replacement, asbestos, was a health hazard. Filmmakers experimented with many materials, but it wasn’t until Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life that they came upon a winning formula which was realistic and safe.
Fake snow attracts visitors to Chamberlain Square in Birmingham, England, in August 2011 as part of the Six Summer Saturdays festival. The fake snow was supplied by Snow Business, an English firm that has also used the material on many movie sets. Photo by Elliott Brown.
For that film produced by the studio RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum), special effects supervisor Russell Shearman helped create a mix of foamite – a fire extinguisher material – with sugar, water, and soap flakes. Mr. Shearman’s snow effects were so convincing that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave him and his special effects department a Technical Achievement Award for their work on It’s a Wonderful Life. Watching this Christmas classic over 70 years later, after special effects have made huge advances in duplicating reality, and noticing how at the end of the movie the “snowflakes” on Jimmy Stewart’s shoulders take a long time to melt when he comes indoors to a warm reception from his family, friends, and neighbors, should not detract from anyone’s enjoyment of a great cinematic moment or the filmmakers’ expert creation of George Bailey’s (Stewart’s) snowy odyssey one long Christmas Eve in the fictional New York town of Bedford Falls (or its nightmare alternative, Pottersville). Movie magic at its best suspends the viewer in another world for a time, and on the few occasions when the artifice shows through, it’s charitable not to be too picky and to brush them off.
Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, and Vera-Ellen in the 1954 filmWhite Christmas, directed by Michael Curtiz, and with songs by Irving Berlin, including “Snow”. The performers take the train from Florida and eventually arrive in Vermont, where snow doesn’t fall until Christmas Eve.
Driverless cars will be ready for the mass market within a few years, though the question remains whether the mass market will be ready for driverless cars. There’s an incredible amount for the Artificial Intelligence (AI) behind driverless cars to learn, and for years Google has enlisted the help of internet users who train Google’s (now Waymo’s) driverless car AI whenever they tick the boxes on a reCAPTCHA relating to things seen on or around roads. Google owns reCAPTCHA, and for years has been using it for double duty as a security measure and as an AI trainer for its various projects.
Students at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, take final exams in the 1930s. Photo from the archives of Hamline University. Surely this driving test, which calls on knowledge affecting the safe passage of millions of people on the nations’ roads every day, can be taken as seriously.
What follows is a test to help you determine if you’re ready for a driverless car.
1. The rules of the road are for –
A) Lesser mortals
B) Drivers paying attention to such things
C) Sticklers and fussbudgets
D) All of the above
2. Using your turn signal is –
A) An inconvenience because your hands are otherwise occupied
B) Unnecessary because other drivers can divine your intentions
C) For losers, not an important person like you
D) All of the above
3. Using a phone while driving is –
B) The best way to update friends and family on every detail of your life
C) A good way to multitask for a superior driver like you
D) All of the above
4. Proper procedure when merging is to –
A) Come to a complete stop and wait for clear sailing on the main thoroughfare
B) Tootle along at your own speed and trust other drivers will make way for you
C) Use the opportunity to demonstrate your aggressive driving skills
D) All of the above
5. Waiting at a red light is a good time to –
A) Become engrossed in your phone and oblivious to the light turning green
B) Fiddle with your belongings and not notice when the light turns green
C) Creep forward every few seconds because you can’t wait for the green light
D) All of the above
6. When following another vehicle, be sure to –
A) Get as close as possible no matter how fast the other vehicle is traveling
B) Tap your brakes often because you’re following too closely to slow down using the gas pedal
C) Make impatient gestures to inform the driver in front of you of your displeasure
D) All of the above
7. Staying within your lane is –
A) Not interesting because there is no element of danger
B) Hard to do when you’re texting
C) A boring way to go around blind curves
D) All of the above
8. The speed limit is a –
B) Lower limit to speed
C) Thing only for old fogies
D) All of the above
9. Continuing to drive when very old –
A) Tests your deteriorating reflexes
B) Gives your clouded judgment a workout
C) Maintains your independence at the cost of everyone’s safety
D) All of the above
10. Driving defensively is –
A) A sign of weakness
B) Something requiring more attention than you have time for
C) Hitting the brakes frequently rather than modulating speed using the gas pedal
D) All of the above
English comic actor Rowan Atkinson as the selfish Mr. Bean.
There is only one right answer to all of the above, and if you checked it off for every question then you are ready for a driverless car, and everyone else on the road is ready for you to have one, too. Congratulations! At least our good friend AI doesn’t feel it necessary to eat a burrito and text a friend about it, all while piloting one or more tons of metal hurtling down the road.
“Gobbledygook” has three syllables, making it a suitable candidate for the brand name for a drug since they often have names that length, names such as Cosentyx and Myrbetriq. “Gobbledygook” doesn’t have any rarely used consonants, however, consonants such as “x” and “q” and “z”. Marketers also like to end their invented words for products with a vowel such as “a” or “o”, a practice they have followed with automobiles as well as drugs, as in Elantra, Levitra, and Toronado and Lexapro. Are they cars? Are they drugs? Manufacturers and their marketers spend millions of dollars to persuade prospective customers to feel good about their products and to feel they are unique, but it all ends up muddled together as gobbledygook.
George Larrick was the last investigator to rise through the ranks to become Commissioner (1954-1965) of the Food and Drug Administration. Inspector Larrick assembled an exhibit of dubious and even dangerous food and drug products, dubbed by reporters an “American Chamber of Horrors”, which effectively documented the need for what became the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Photo from the Food and Drug Administration.
The pharmaceutical companies are under much greater restraints in product naming than the automobile manufacturers, who apparently invent their names merely from the results of market research and internal spitballing. All those names ending in vowels, a fairly rare occurrence in English, but more common in the Romance languages such as Spanish, may be intended by automobile marketers to make buyers feel they are getting something faintly exotic. Drug makers have to submit brand names of new products to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has rules to ensure drug names are sufficiently distinct from one another to minimize the risk of confusion which, in the case of drugs, could lead to serious complications or death for patients if doctors or pharmacists mistakenly substitute prescriptions. There is no comparable risk involved in driving an Elantra instead of a Celica.
Using a drug’s scientific name is not an option the drug companies seriously consider because those names are often more polysyllabic and unpronounceable than the silly brand names they ultimately invent. In a very few instances, a shortened form of the scientific name becomes generally recognizable, as in ibuprofen or acetaminophen, but those can’t be trademarked. Therefore we have the option of buying Advil or generic ibuprofen, Tylenol or generic acetaminophen. It’s no accident, by the way, that both of those brand names are simpler and easier to pronounce than more recent drug brand names, since both of them were developed over thirty years ago, when competition in the pharmaceutical market hadn’t heated up to today’s incandescent level.
What has changed since then has been the increasing average age of the population and the consequent increase in demand for medicines to treat their growing health complaints. Drug manufacturers are also not above boosting demand with lengthy and frequently repeated television commercials urging prospective users to pressure their doctors into prescribing the advertised medicine. They cover the other end as well by sponsoring junkets and giveaways for doctors, nudging them toward prescribing the latest drug they have developed.
A most excellent reading by Irene Worth and John Gielgud in 1983 of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. The entire book is presented in this video, but the part that concerns us here is the first poem, “The Naming of Cats”, which proceeds up to the 1:45 mark.
It’s a high stakes game for pharmaceutical companies that have spent millions of dollars on research and development for a drug, and then millions more on shepherding it through FDA approval, and finally marketing it. Notice how television drug ads are 60 seconds long instead of the usual 30 seconds, and how often they are repeated, particularly during the day when their target audience of older people are presumably at home watching. There’s gold in them thar hills of retirement, and pharmaceutical companies mean to get their share. Whether the residents of the golden hills are better off with the latest heavily advertised gobbledygook drug or something else, or with nothing at all, is up to them and not to marketers, no matter how warm and fuzzy the television ads portray their lives can be, to paraphrase the Rolling Stones “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, an old song the human targets of drug ads might still remember well.
“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
— Words of Jesus Christ quoted in Matthew 22:21, King James Version of the Bible.
Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) Mona Lisa, with digitally added mustache. Derivative work by Perhelion.
This past Friday evening at a Sotheby’s art auction in London, the English graffiti artist Banksy remotely activated a shredder hidden within the frame of his painting Girl With Balloon moments after it had sold for one million British pounds. The lower half of the painting shredded, and there is some question now about the status of the sale and whether Banksy’s vandalizing of his own painting will render an even greater value for it.
Discussion of an artwork’s valueoutside of its aesthetic appeal is a reminder that for the rich who can afford to pay tremendous prices for art the value lies more in other, equally idiosyncratic, considerations than in its aesthetics. For the rich, art is an investment and a step on the ladder of social climbing. They may not find a particular piece they buy aesthetically appealing whatsoever. The essential thing is that enough other important people find an artwork appealing so that its value is driven up, checking off the boxes for high return on investment and an increase in high society credentials for its new owner. The artwork itself may languish in a warehouse after sale rather than go on private or public display.
The investment value of an artwork is, like money itself, largely artificial and sustained by the beliefs of the people who hold it or wish to hold it. No one can eat art, any more than they can eat money, nor can they grow food on it like they could on land, nor withdraw food from it as they might withdraw fish from the sea. It has no monetary value unless enough people believe it does. Aesthetic value, on the other hand, is almost entirely in the eye of the beholder, though some people may in their appreciation of art be too dependent on the opinions of “experts”. For an extreme case of wishful thinking brought on by peer pressure, look to the Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.
Before the Renaissance, art was for decoration of public spaces and the homes of the rich, and for religious instruction in places of worship since most people were illiterate and did not receive their education from books. The names of very few medieval and ancient artists have come down to us along with their works. That changed with the Renaissance, when artists such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael acquired reputations beyond their immediate patrons among the rich and powerful. Note how we have come to know all three by single names, as if they were modern day celebrities. And it was the widening of cultural influence beyond the insularity of any one city-state’s walls during the Renaissance that allowed artists to break out of anonymity.
The international renown of a few popular artists such as Rembrandt was slow to build at first, and their artworks commanded modest prices by today’s standards. It is the international culture of today and the concentration of great wealth among an ever smaller percentage of the population that has enabled the explosion in high prices for the artworks of a relatively small number of well known artists. The last great jump in prices was roughly during the Gilded Age around the turn of the twentieth century, when a great concentration of wealth created a new aristocracy of capitalists.
In the 1941 film Citizen Kane, wealthy newspaper publisher and art collector Charles Foster Kane, modeled on tycoon William Randolph Hearst and played by Orson Welles, discusses his changing economic circumstances with his banker Mr. Thatcher, played by George Coulouris, and his longtime assistant Mr. Bernstein, played by Everett Sloane.
Now there is another concentration of wealth occurring, this time on a worldwide scale rather than limited to Europe and North America. Nothing has changed, of course: as always, the rich get richer. It’s the scale of wealth accumulation that has changed, and when artworks are selling for hundreds of millions of British pounds or American dollars, a mere million for a painting by anti-establishment artist Banksy is entry level stuff. The rich people sitting on mountains of the wealth of the world would not flinch at shredding a million pounds, and the irony of one artist’s rendering matters not at all to them as long as the artist’s growing fame increases their return on investment.
10/8/2018 Update: Since last Friday, when Banksy’s Girl With Balloon partially shredded after being sold at auction for about £1,000,000, its value has increased by at least 50%, and may have doubled.
The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, seems to be less in evidence every year. It’s difficult to understand why many people don’t like to use it, and it may be that they simply don’t understand what punctuation is all about. Punctuation is like musical notation, or at least the parts of it that indicate to the players where the rests are and indicate the rhythm in a piece of music. The players are the readers. If there were no commas or periods in writing, readers would not know where to take a break. Imagine listening to a piece of music played that way. For that matter, imagine listening to someone who runs on and on without a pause!
If it’s confusing trying to sort out punctuation marks on the written page, try differentiating all the butterflies named for commas and question marks. This one is an Eastern Comma butterfly, Polygonia comma, from Chippewa County, Wisconsin. Photo by Aaron Carlson.
Take the title of the 1966 Italian movieThe Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which in the original is rendered as Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (the order of the nouns in the original Italian is good, ugly, bad). Never mind the difference in capitalization conventions for titles between English and Italian, and the change in word order from Italian to English, the key point is the inclusion of the serial comma in the original Italian and its absence in the English translation. It’s a simple thing, that comma. Why leave it out? Perhaps the translator was thrown off by the missing conjunction “and” in the Italian, which would have been rendered “e”, as in Il buono, il brutto, e il cattivo. In English, we are used to “and” coming before the last item in a series. It would not sound quite right to our ears if the title were translated as The Good, the Bad, the Ugly. That sounds choppy and abrupt. Throw in “and” before “the Ugly” and we have a rhythm that sounds right to the ears of English speakers. Except for one little thing.
The Danish National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sarah Hicks, perform a suite of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (main title)” and “The Ecstasy of Gold”, a piece from near the end of the film.
What happened to the last comma? Without it, not only the rhythm, but also the sense of the film title is off. Are we to rush through when we speak the last part of it? Instead of saying “The Good [pause] the Bad [pause] and the Ugly [full stop]”, are we meant to say “The Good [pause] the Bad and the Ugly [full stop]”? No one talks in the rhythm given in the second example. Does the phrase “the Bad and the Ugly” refer to one person only, in the same way that “the Good” refers to one person? Is that person both bad and ugly? Absolutely not, as is clear from the original Italian title and from the movie itself. There are three separate characters referenced in the movie’s title, and each is named by his outstanding characteristic.
In another rendition of the same suite, the composer himself, the great Ennio Morricone, conducts the Munich Radio Orchestra. The soprano soloist is Susanna Rigacci. The musical notes are the same in both renditions, but it’s interesting to hear the differences in their presentation.
It must be the “and” that throws people off when they write out a series. They must think “and” stands in for the serial comma, making it unnecessary. But it doesn’t. Listen to the music: TheGoodtheBadandtheUgly slowed down a bit is The Good the Bad and the Ugly, and slowed down a bit more in the right places, rendered in the way we actually speak, becomes The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. That wasn’t very hard, was it? We speak in words, and the words are like music, with rhythm and tempo. When we write down the words we speak, we need a way to convey to readers, to listeners, that rhythm and tempo, and that’s where punctuation comes in. That’s all it is. There’s nothing greatly mysterious about it, though semi-colons befuddle many, and the novelist and essayist Kurt Vonnegut disdained their use, remarking of them “All they do is show you’ve been to college.” Homer, who of course spoke his poetry for listeners and never wrote it down himself, would probably have agreed.
In this scene from Sergio Leone’s film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Eli Wallach’s character, Tuco, encounters an adversary and ends up succinctly admonishing him that it takes too long to speak, shoot, and leave.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
— Hamlet to Horatio in Act I, scene v, of Hamlet, by William Shakespeare.
It’s fair to say most people in the Western world are more or less familiar with the Judeo-Christian Bible and the Ten Commandments in its Old Testament books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, which they honor perhaps more in the breach than in the observance. There is an Eleventh Commandment which is known to few people other than some evangelical Christians, and it addresses how to treat others in what might be considered a reverse or Bizarro Golden Rule. The Golden Rule is common to many religions around the world and is stated many ways, but the formulation probably most familiar to Westerners is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The Bizarro Golden Rule, also known as the Eleventh Commandment, informs adherents to “Be mean-spirited with those you dislike or disagree with, and as spiteful and hateful in your dealings with them as satisfies your shriveled, churlish spirit.” The latest Christian conservative to scrupulously honor the Eleventh Commandment is Briscoe Cain, a Republican state representative in the Texas legislature, who, soon after the death of English physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking on March 14, tweeted the following passive-aggressive remarks: “Stephen Hawking now knows the truth about how the universe was actually made. My condolences to his family.”
Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, an 1839 painting by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863).
If there was any doubt about the veiled hostility in his tweet, Mr. Cain later took away the veil by elaborating on his dislike for Mr. Hawking’s atheism and supposed mocking of God. As egregious behavior from a mean-spirited Christian conservative, or evangelical, this is small beer. It nevertheless illustrates a mind set that has corroded civil discourse in public life, and how nothing will stop such a person from taking pot shots at perceived or imagined enemies, even the recent death of perhaps the most well-known and generally beloved physicist since Albert Einstein. Stephen Hawking’s atheism was his own concern, something he never forced on others, unlike the behavior of many evangelical Christians like Briscoe Cain. As for mocking God, even if Mr. Hawking did such a thing only in the eyes of Mr. Cain, surely God is big enough to forgive and forget.
That is not the God of Briscoe Cain and others like him, however, who apparently see in God much of what they dimly perceive in themselves: a smallness of spirit, mean, petty, and vindictive, with spite considered a virtue, and charity withheld from anyone deemed Other. One would feel sorry for such small minded people if not for the tremendous damage they do to the rest of society every day. In this material world, Stephen Hawking will be well and fondly remembered by future generations, while Briscoe Cain’s legacy will fade away except for the enduring stain of his negative contributions, may they amount to no more than his snide remarks made at the expense of a person who never did him any harm.
But in Mr. Cain’s view, it could be Mr. Hawking did do him harm by denying his God and, worse, supposedly mocking that God, which to a person with fragile self-esteem is the same as denying him, not just Him, and mocking him, not just Him. For people like that, all their sense of self worth is bound up in their God, and how their God is regarded or disregarded by others is taken personally by them. In the next world, if there is one, perhaps Briscoe Cain and his vindictive and insecure co-religionists will be fortunate and discover a God more beneficent and embracing than the God they envisioned and claimed to embody here on Earth, and inflicted upon everyone else without concern for whether others merited simple human kindness and respect regardless of their religious beliefs.
It’s hard to fathom how far to the right Republicans in particular, and the country generally, have moved in the past half century that people are surprised to be reminded, or to learn for the first time, that it was the Republican President Richard Nixon who established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. To be sure, Nixon was no environmentalist, and his establishment of the EPA was in his view a way to steal thunder from his political opposition on the left, where the environmental movement had been gathering momentum since the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962. Nonetheless, he signed the necessary papers and backed the new agency’s initiatives such as the Clean Air Act.
Fifty years later, Republicans abominate the EPA and associated environmentally protected areas around the country. The latest natural areas to come under attack are Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, both in Utah. The current Republican administration, at the recommendation of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, wants to reduce Bears Ears by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante by 50%, opening up the areas taken away from them for commercial and recreational use. The executive order mandating the change pleased Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch a great deal. The changes will undoubtedly be challenged in court by private environmental protection groups and by Native American tribes in the area.
Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, a painting by Frederic Remington (1861-1909).
When President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act at the end of 1970, he did so in the White House in front of a painting by Frederic Remington called Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, which prominently featured Theodore Roosevelt leading his regiment of volunteers at the 1898 battle. It was not the most politically correct staging of the signing of an important document by today’s standards, considering how the United States merely replaced Spain as the colonial power overseeing Cuba, rather than liberating the Cubans as American propaganda had it at the time of the Spanish-American War, but for the period around 1970 that aspect may have been overlooked by most bystanders to the signing in favor of the possibly intended point of celebrating Theodore Roosevelt and his championing of environmental protection, a first for an American president.
Contrast that rather sensitive staging with the completely insensitive, tone deaf staging by the current administration of a recent ceremony honoring Navajo code talkers and their contributions to American military efforts in World War II. Not only did the ceremony take place in front of a portrait of President Andrew Jackson, infamous for his hostility to Native Americans and for his authorization of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, known as the Trail of Tears, but the current president added a completely irrelevant snide remark that doubled as a smear of one of his political opponents on the left as well as Pocahontas, a Native American woman notable as a mediator with the English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, in the early 1600s. The current president apparently mistook his comment for wit, because he laughed, while very few others at the ceremony did. Paying attention to the current president’s remarks in person and on Twitter gives us insight into his character, but his actions and his choice and use of symbols speak louder than his words and tell us what he and his administration are actually doing to this beautiful country and its people.
Portrait of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, painted by Ralph Eleasar Whiteside Earl (1785/88-1838).