The Empathy Generator

 

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 - Chicago Theatre cph.3d02346
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.
— Vita

 

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Leave It to Google

 

People go out of their way to use the Linux operating system on their desktop and laptop computers for all sorts of reasons, and it’s a fair guess that among them is the desire to stay clear of the tentacles of major technology companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google. Microsoft has never made any pretense of being anything but evil, while Apple has pretended to be above the fray, and perhaps the least trustworthy of the three is Google, which tipped everyone off to their evil intentions by sanctimoniously proclaiming at one time “Don’t be evil”. Any individual or organization professing to abide by moral certainties that should not even be in question is not to be trusted.

 

It’s ironic then that because of some holes in Linux development such as lack of drivers for some peripherals, usually printers, Linux users may find themselves forced to rely on Google services as workarounds. In the case of printers, incompatibility with Linux has become less of a problem over the past 20 years as Linux has climbed in market share to around five percent. Microsoft’s Windows is around 75 percent, with Apple’s Mac operating system at about 15 percent, although it seems no one can agree on the exact numbers. Google’s Chrome operating system makes up most of the remaining percentage in use for desktops and laptops, and because it has access to all Google services built in, including Google Cloud Print, printing from Chrome OS is never a problem even if proprietary drivers are not available from the printer manufacturer.

 

MagpieOS infofetch
Magpie OS is an Arch-based Linux distribution, developed by Rukunuzzaman, a Bangladeshi developer. Screenshot by Kabirnayeem.99. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different Linux distributions, enough to suit anyone’s preference.

Some printer makers still do not provide drivers for Linux, and in cases where generic drivers won’t work the Linux user is confronted with either turning their incompatible printer into a doorstop or falling back on workarounds like using Google Cloud Print. It’s an efficient service that comes in handy. It’s also free. Free often comes at a price, however, and in the case of Google, like many other technology companies, that means turning the user of the free service into a product sold to marketers. Google is perhaps no worse in this respect than companies like Facebook, only more pervasive by its utter ubiquity. It’s nearly impossible to escape Google entirely and still get along in today’s technological world. Google’s Chrome OS may bring up the rear among major desktop and laptop operating systems, but its Android OS for smartphones leads the next highest competitor, Apple’s iOS, by a huge margin at around 85 percent to 15 percent.

Printer manufacturers appear interested mostly in configuring their drivers for the two biggest desktop and laptop operating systems, Windows and Mac, and Linux is generally an afterthought. Chrome can fend for itself, and to some extent Linux can as well, but not without having to resort to using Google services occasionally. Linux developers are volunteers, and they can’t keep up with the myriad of proprietary configurations for all the printer models hitting the market each year. Much of the proprietary nature of printer drivers has nothing to do with actually making the product perform its basic functions, but rather with marketing gimmicks like greeting card suites.

Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part III, a 1990 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Not that large technology companies are necessarily comparable to the Mafia, but to some people their grasp may feel similarly inescapable.

Now more than ever people need a reliable printer at home. About the only way left of obtaining tax forms is to download them from the internet and print them at home. Using the internet and printing out web pages has become a major factor in children’s schoolwork, and their parents need to print out receipts and coupons or run a home office. Getting along without a printer, or having to jump through hoops in order to get one to work properly, can no longer be part of how most people cope with the modern world. For most people, the 90 percent who use either Windows or Mac computers, compatibility problems are rare to nonexistent; for the 10 percent minority, and particularly those who wish to go against the flow with Linux, incompatibility between operating system and printer should no longer be an issue if manufacturers want to sell their wares to all consumers and ensure the same ease of use long enjoyed by the majority. It’s about time for proprietary drivers to go into the desktop trash can.
— Techly

 

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Through a Glass Darkly

 

“11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”
— The Apostle Paul in a letter to the Corinthians, 1 Corinthians 13:11-13, from the King James Version of the Bible.

DNA kits are very popular now, both for people ordering them for themselves and for those giving them as gifts. Sales of kits doubled in 2017 over all previous years, and have increased again in 2018 over 2017. Interest appears to derive mostly from curiosity about immediate ancestors, on which the kits do a good job of enlightening people, and secondarily about genetic health risks, on which the kits dealing with the subject deliver mixed results, needing confirmation from a medical professional.


One area of controversy with the results, at least for Americans, has come from links to African ancestry for European-Americans, and links to European ancestry for African-Americans. Most European-Americans, or white folks, get results that include some ancestry going back to Africa two hundred years or more, usually less than 10 percent of their total genetic makeup. Most African-Americans, or black folks, get results that include around 25 percent European ancestry.

Cesky Sternberk Castle CZ family tree 116
Portraits of six generations of the Sternberg family in Jiří Sternberg’s study, Český Šternberk Castle, Czech Republic. Photo by takato marui. Tracing ancestry is easier in the pure bred lines and close quarters of Old Europe than in the melange of ethnicities and transcontinental migrations of the New World.

Compared to the ethnic homogeneity of most Old World countries, Americans are mutts, and the melting pot was particularly active in the years of heavy immigration from Europe from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. Africans brought into the country as slaves until the Civil War eventually made up a larger proportion of the total population through that period than they have since, averaging close to 20 percent of the total for the first hundred years of the republic, and settling to a range of 11 to 13 percent of the total population afterward. It shouldn’t therefore surprise white people taking DNA tests to discover they have at least a small percentage of relatively recent African ancestry.

It is interesting, however, that DNA test results for black people yield an average of 25 percent European ancestry. It is not surprising there has been mixing of the races, despite laws against miscegenation going back centuries, but that black people have a much higher percentage of European ancestry than white people have a percentage of African ancestry, and yet black people are still and always considered black. This is Pudd’nhead Wilson territory, in which even a tiny percentage of African blood is tantamount to an entirely African genetic heritage. In America, once a person has been accepted into white society, it requires a considerable amount of African genetic input, along with other factors involving economics and relationships, for a person to fall from grace, as it were, from whiteness to blackness.


The evolution of man- a popular exposition of the principal points of human ontogeny and phylogene (1896) (14594954920)
In this 1896 illustration by Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), “Man” is precariously at the top of a tree encompassing all life on earth.

The grade has always been uphill, on the other hand, for black people to be accepted into American society, always predominantly white, no matter how much they were genetically European. Initial branding of blackness meant staying black in the eyes of white society until extraordinary circumstances or subterfuge intervened. In all this, what the majority of people, black and white, seemed to have missed was that racial differences were minuscule, along the lines of one half of one percent of the genetics every human being shares. Race itself is an artificial concept, a social construct, rather than a real biological divider.

It’s all in the mind, and those who would reinforce race as a divider of the human species have to perform mental and ethical gymnastics to justify their beliefs since science won’t do it for them. The idea that DNA test results with some percentage of African ancestry are showing merely what goes back millions of years for all of humanity also does not hold up. Yes, everyone on earth does have common ancestors in Africa, but that is not what the makers of DNA home test kits design them to illustrate, since they typically only research genetic relations going back several centuries, that being within the time frame for which they have reliably detailed information on background in their databases.

The immigration scene of young Vito Corleone, played by Oreste Baldini, in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Godfather: Part II. Unlike Vito Corleone when he matured, the majority of immigrants, then as now, do not end up engaged in dangerous and unlawful activities, despite what rabble rousing politicians want everyone to believe.

There also appears to be an assumption among even open-minded white people that since Africa is the cradle of all humanity, then Africans themselves must be genetically closer to that cradle than the rest who emigrated to far continents. African ancestry noted in the DNA test results must, they reason, be hearkening back to long ago ancestors white people share with everyone on earth. No. The test results show genetic input from recent African ancestors. And those recent African ancestors have evolved along with everyone else on earth, including Europeans, triggered by similar environmental and social changes pushing them to adapt. The European discoverers should not be so quick to flatter themselves with ideas of inherent superiority that they lose sight of how other societies have adapted quite well under unique circumstances without prizing discovery and conquest above all else as the sine qua non of human existence.
— Ed.

 

 

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We’re Watching You

 

There are so many surveillance cameras in private and public spaces watching private citizens that it seems the only way to redress the imbalance is for private citizens to start recording corporate and government officials with surveillance cameras of their own. Recording business representatives on their property without their permission would be legally permissible only on publicly accessible portions. Recording public officials, however, such as police employees, would be much easier since much of their business is conducted in public and because they are, well, employees of the public.

 

The police employees themselves will often dispute the right of citizens to film them as they go about their business, and intimidate filmmakers into shutting off their cameras and even turning them over to the police. Those tactics are illegal, and cops who use them are doing so either out of ignorance of the law or, more likely, in anticipation of ignorance of the law on the part of the filmmaker. It’s interesting that the increasing surveillance in public of private citizens by corporate and government entities is justified by asserting “If you’re not doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about”, but the same entities do not feel their dubious logic applies to them when the public films them going about their activities.

Inauguration U.S. Park Police Surveillance
A U.S. Park Police (USPP) employee takes video of spectators observing an incident in which the USPP had kettled a group of people at 12th and L N.W. in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017. The USPP officer has his back to the kettled group. Photo by Mobilus in Mobili.

Dashboard cameras, many of them with audio recording capabilities, are increasing in popularity mainly for insurance purposes in the recording of accidents. Some auto manufacturers have started including them as standard equipment or options, and therefore they are not entirely after market purchases by car owners anymore. What some car owners tend to overlook is the usefulness of dashboard cameras in recording interactions with police employees. Police have themselves had dashboard cameras for about 20 years, and body cameras are becoming more prevalent every year. The question is how much a citizen can rely on evidence provided by police dashboard cameras and body cameras in any interaction with police employees.

 

The police have cameras, which they can and do turn off, or the footage of which they can and do selectively edit. It’s well past time for the general public to have cameras in the same abundance. In their cars, for instance, they should have not only a dashboard camera pointed forward, but a rear dashboard camera pointed backward, because that is where a roadside stop by a police employee will end up if it goes outside, with the cop and the driver between the back of the driver’s car and the front of the squad car. All cameras should have the ability to swivel on their mounts, which in the case of the front pointing dashboard camera would allow it to capture the interaction with the police employee at the driver’s side window. All cameras should also have audio capability, though it is important to remember to advise passengers in the vehicle if this feature is on. Police employees do not have to be informed, because they are engaged in public business.

Bodycam-north-charleston-police
Police employee with bodycam in North Charleston, South Carolina, in March 2016. Photo by Ryan Johnson.

So many people have smartphones now that it may seem unnecessary to buy and install more than one dashboard camera in a vehicle. If the need arises, people think, they can always take out their smartphone and film the interaction with the police employee. There are a few things wrong with that idea. The first is that for most people, who interact with police rarely, getting stopped by a police employee can be intimidating and make them nervous, which in turn may make it difficult or impossible for them to get out their smartphone and point it directly at the police employee, making it obvious they are filming them. Secondly, for some aggressive police employees who don’t know or don’t care about the constitutional rights of the citizens who employ them, pointing a smartphone camera at them is like waving a red cape in front of a bull. It’s much easier and less conspicuous to reach up quickly and turn the dashboard camera toward the driver’s window, making sure to enable audio.

The Conversation, a 1974 film by Francis Ford Coppola, is about an audio surveillance expert, though in general the topic becomes the loss of privacy in the electronic age.

It’s a shame it has come to this, where the public feels they have to protect themselves against the very people who have sworn to serve and protect them, people who use public funds to trick out publicly funded squad cars in thousands of dollars worth of the latest technology, and themselves in quasi military gear and vehicles for the purpose of intimidating and beating down the citizens who pay their way. For the time being, it may appear out of control police employees are hurting only minorities and the poor, but that will change as they see they can get away with it, as they have. Any day now, the mistreatment will become indiscriminate, because that is the way of things like this. Psychotic bullies will beat up on almost anyone, middle class white people included, if they step out of lines that are ever more narrowly defined. They will beat up on almost anyone, that is, except the rich who are their real masters. Protect yourself with as many cameras as they have, if you can, because you can’t afford as many lawyers.
— Techly

 

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Growing Up Is Hard to Do

 

If in early 1977 you had dropped off for a long sleep and, like Rip Van Winkle, awakened many years later, in this case late in 2017, and you were an avid moviegoer, you would find many changes in the types of movies that were popular in the different eras. Some of the biggest changes would have come about because of Star Wars (1977) which was released shortly after you nodded off, and was the first successful movie with “B” movie themes made on an “A” movie budget, and because of Batman (1989), which was the first successful movie to take a comic book character seriously.

 

Now in 2017 those types of movies have all but crowded out the big budget movies with adult themes that the major studios used to make, the prestige pictures like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) that David Lean directed, as well as other pictures by directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. A few prestige pictures still somehow get made and released each year, but most movies with adult themes are small budget, mostly independently produced affairs that have a limited run in movie theaters before going to a movie rental service. The big money in Hollywood goes mostly to comic book superhero movies, “B” movies made with “A” movie money, and they take themselves very seriously.

Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941 serial) 13
A promotional poster for the 1941 serial Adventures of Captain Marvel, with Tom Tyler on the left and Nigel De Brulier on the right. Serials like this would not even have had the status of “B” movie, since they were usually only about twenty minutes long instead of feature length, though their production values were just as cheap.

 

When Star Wars first came out in theaters, its director, George Lucas, knew perfectly well he was borrowing themes and story lines from old “B” movie adventure serials, and he reveled in those corny conventions with a wink at the audience, who understood the whole thing was a kitschy romp. Similarly for Lucas’s friend, Steven Spielberg, several years later when he directed Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), an adventure yarn based entirely on the cheap movie serials of the 1930s and 1940s. George Lucas was the executive producer on that film, and both he and Spielberg, talented filmmakers who were steeped in old film lore, were like kids playing in a very expensive sandbox. Those movies made a lot of money, but still no one took their stories too seriously.

 

That changed with the release of Batman in 1989, directed by Tim Burton, who claimed he was never particularly enamored of comic books, but who wanted to take the tone of his film far from the campy take on the comic book superhero of the 1960s television show. Burton nonetheless injected some tongue in cheek bits into his movie, mostly in Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker, though that may have been as much Nicholson’s interpretation as Burton’s. The movie was a huge success, and studios took note of how intent the fan base was on seeing a serious treatment of the subject when the fans followed every rumor about the film’s production, especially the casting of Michael Keaton, known at that time mostly for comedic roles, as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Comic book fans were upset that the casting of Keaton hinted the film would be another campy treatment, like the 1960s television series.

Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941 serial) 12
A publicity still from the 1941 serial Adventures of Captain Marvel, starring Tom Tyler as Captain Marvel, here beset by two pesky foreigners.

When those same fans went to theaters and saw just how deadly serious Keaton’s Batman was, they were delighted. Ever since then, Hollywood has been ladling up more and more deadly serious comic book superhero movies to that fan base, who appear to be insatiable. Since Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) has achieved convincing results rendering the fantastic world of comic books over the past ten or fifteen years, movie producers have tripped over each other turning out more of these movies. All that CGI isn’t cheap, and a comic book movie can cost upwards of 100 million dollars to make. With a worldwide release, however, and all the merchandising tie-ins that comic book superheroes lend themselves to, a film studio can pull in upwards of one billion dollars from each movie.

A scene from the 1960s Batman television series, starring Adam West as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Burt Ward as Dick Grayson/Robin, that points to the silliness at the heart of the dual identity superhero premise.

 

Lawrence of Arabia probably did not generate enough merchandising to be worth mentioning. It was also a complex character study, and therefore did not have the broadest possible appeal. Comic book movies do not have the broadest possible appeal, either, but they have a broader appeal than the old prestige pictures that asked some maturity of their audiences in order to understand their themes. Is this what we want? It is apparently what the portion of the public with generous amounts of disposable income and low expectations wants when they go to the multiplex, because comic book movies have come to dominate the marquee listings. It would be nice if more new prestige pictures made it onto the marquee, because those are movies worth paying to see on the big screen, and in a theater with a terrific sound system. For those moviegoers, unfortunately, these are times of poor pickings, and they might as well stay at home to watch movies on their own setup, or take a long snooze, waking up in forty years to see if “A” and “B” movies have returned to their rightful order in the alphabet.
― Vita

 

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Charlie Don’t Surf

 

“Charlie, that’s beneath you,” Steve Bannon told interviewer Charlie Rose on the 60 Minutes television program this past Sunday, referring to Rose’s remark that we are a nation of immigrants except for the Native Americans. Bannon’s statement was bizarre and nonsensical, and seemed to come from his own peculiarly politicized vision of American history in which admitting that European immigrants largely stole the Western Hemisphere from Native Americans in a shameless display of cupidity and genocide is somehow nothing more than shameful leftist propaganda. So much for honestly facing the truth.

Charlie Brown parade balloon
Charlie Brown parade balloon at the 2016 Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City. Photo by Midtownguy2012. Maybe Steve Bannon was referring to all the immigrants in the streets of New York City below the floating Charlie Brown balloon.

Even though Mr. Bannon is out of the White House now, his legacy lives on in the administration’s immigration policy, specifically the recent announcement about ending the Obama era DREAMer policy of granting a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants. Mr. Bannon does not appear to care for immigrants, legal or otherwise, no matter what sort of intellectual gloss he slops onto his elitism. He is an unsavory man who sees nothing wrong with declaring war on the brown-skinned peoples of the earth, as long as people other than him and his kind are doing the fighting. The short termed White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, in his own succinct way, characterized Bannon absolutely correctly. Mr. Bannon is someone who takes himself too seriously, and is accustomed to overawed admirers reinforcing his own high opinion of himself.

A clip from the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and here featuring Robert Duvall as the gung ho Colonel Kilgore.

For all that, what do Mr. Bannon’s ideas amount to? Not much other than what can be found in the writings of Rudyard Kipling – the White Man’s Burden and all that – but without Kipling’s compassion. Steve Bannon is a man out of his time, which rightly should be about 150 years ago. Perhaps that was when America was great for him and his kind, or at least it was if he ignored the multitude of recent German and Irish immigrants, the millions of African slaves recently freed after the bloody Civil War, and all the Mexicans still at large in the new territories and states of the American southwest as a result of the giant land grab known as the Mexican-American War.

“Charlie Don’t Surf” from the outstanding 1980 triple album Sandanista! by the English band The Clash.


In that world, Mr. Bannon would no doubt have felt at home because his cognitive dissonance about American history would not have been noted by his contemporaries. He would instead have been part of the mainstream of Old Boy elites riding high on the backs of immigrant and poor persons’ labor, while snootily ignoring that fact and looking down on them, the source of his wealth, and of his leisure to engage in what amounts to little more than mental masturbation. Maybe that’s what he meant when he said “Charlie, that’s beneath you.”
― Ed.

The First Thanksgiving cph.3g04961
The First Thanksgiving, 1621, an early twentieth century painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930). The painting portrays Native Americans as guests partaking of the bounty provided by The Pilgrims, while by all honest accounts of the period the Native Americans generously saved the newcomers from privation in their early years of struggling to survive in the unfamiliar surroundings of the New World. Steve Bannon would no doubt find comfort and confirmation in the relationship of the two groups as portrayed in this painting.

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