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Nothing New Under the Sun

April 30, 2013 Leave a comment
Dixon Hall Lewis

Dixon Hall Lewis

Or so I’ve heard, though the guy who said it probably wasn’t thinking about Higgs bosons. Still, he may be right.

I came across additional evidence yesterday in the book I’m currently reading, Harvey Jackson’s Inside Alabama: A Personal History of My State. About a fourth of the way in, Jackson introduces Dixon Hall Lewis, who represented Alabama in the US Senate in the 1840s. Two decades earlier, he was a state legislator, then ran for Congress. In that race,

the issue he chose to exploit was federally funded internal improvements, which he opposed because (he claimed) they would open the door to tyranny by making people dependent on Washington instead of on themselves and their states.

Jackson contrasts Lewis with William Rufus King, long-time Alabama senator and briefly vice president under Franklin Pierce, until his death.

Together King and Lewis represent the bipolar nature of Alabama politics along with the tension that existed, and still exists, among Alabamians and their leaders. This was the issue: Should the state divorce itself, as much as possible, from the central government and go its own way even though such philosophical purity demanded that it give up advantages that come from collective action within the Union? Or should the state accept federal aid, with accompanying regulations and restrictions so that its people could have the same advantage enjoyed by other states? It was a dilemma, and efforts to solve it have made up much of Alabama’s history.

So while Dixon Hall Lewis denounced federal intrusions and suggested that states had the constitutional authority and moral responsibility to oppose laws that infringed on their sovereignty, William Rufus King offered a more moderate course. And Alabamians rallied to both. Understand that, and you are at the heart of the matter.

A hundred and eighty years later, Lewis’s descendants continue to turn down federal aid, from New Jersey Governor Christie’s rejection of funding for a new train tunnel under the Hudson to New York to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s (and others’) rejection of federal Medicaid funding under Obamacare. And NRA chief Wayne LaPierre fights gun control in an echo of Lewis’s warnings, reminding “senators that the founders didn’t want Americans to ‘live under tyranny.'”

Nothing new under the sun indeed.

Categories: History, Politics

Rehabilitating War Criminals

April 29, 2013 Leave a comment

George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Location:Dallas TX

We sure love our war criminal presidents, don’t we? Or at least we love rehabilitating them after they spend a few years in purgatory.

Let’s talk a bit about Nixon. The 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi were criminal enough, but have a look at this article by Bob Parry last month (hat tip, Charles Pierce), in which we learn of Nixon’s successful efforts to derail Johnson’s negotiations with the North Vietnamese in 1968 that could have ended the war. Moreover, Parry suggests, Nixon’s desire to hide the evidence of this lay behind the Watergate break-in of 1972.

Shortly after Nixon took office in 1969, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover informed him of the existence of the file containing national security wiretaps documenting how Nixon’s emissaries had gone behind President Lyndon Johnson’s back to convince the South Vietnamese government to boycott the Paris Peace Talks, which were close to ending the Vietnam War in fall 1968.In the case of Watergate – the foiled Republican break-in at the Democratic National Committee in June 1972 and Richard Nixon’s botched cover-up leading to his resignation in August 1974 – the evidence is now clear that Nixon created the Watergate burglars out of his panic that the Democrats might possess a file on his sabotage of Vietnam peace talks in 1968.

The disruption of Johnson’s peace talks then enabled Nixon to hang on for a narrow victory over Democrat Hubert Humphrey. However, as the new President was taking steps in 1969 to extend the war another four-plus years, he sensed the threat from the wiretap file and ordered two of his top aides, chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, to locate it. But they couldn’t find the file.

We now know that was because President Johnson, who privately had called Nixon’s Vietnam actions “treason,” had ordered the file removed from the White House by his national security aide Walt Rostow.

Treason indeed. As Charles Pierce comments:

There were 22,000 more Americans who died in Vietnam after Nixon sabotaged the peace talks in order to win an election. That’s 44,000 more American parents. That’s thousands and thousands more American children. That’s god alone knows how many more men, women, and children in Southeast Asia, all of whom died, very likely unnecessarily, because of Richard Nixon’s treasonous ambitions.

By the time of Nixon’s death in 1994, the rehabilitation was complete. We learn in the NYT obit that at the opening of his presidential library in 1990, he was “hailed as a statesman and a peacemaker.”

And now it’s time for the opening of yet another presidential library, which served as the occasion of more rehabilitation. Last week, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum (pictured above) opened in Dallas on the campus of SMU. Here’s a sight to stir your heart:

The jacket worn by President George W. Bush to serve a turkey dinner during his secret Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad in 2003.

The jacket worn by President George W. Bush to serve a turkey dinner during his secret Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad in 2003.

[From the presidential library website]

Bush did more than prolong a war. He lied us into one, helped along by a host of government officials and an accommodating press. No point reviewing the familiar details. Oh, and he introduced torture as government policy, this being confirmed (if it needed confirmation) by a report two weeks ago.

A nonpartisan, independent review of interrogation and detention programs in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks concludes that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture” and that the nation’s highest officials bore ultimate responsibility for it.

The sweeping, 600-page report says that while brutality has occurred in every American war, there never before had been “the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.”

[snip]

The use of torture, the report concludes, has “no justification” and “damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive.” The task force found “no firm or persuasive evidence” that these interrogation methods produced valuable information that could not have been obtained by other means. While “a person subjected to torture might well divulge useful information,” much of the information obtained by force was not reliable, the report says.

Yet, the opening of the Bush library offered an occasion to reassess Bush and place him in a positive light, which his fellow presidents were only too happy to do.

On this day, they collectively wrapped their arms around a fellow member of the club.

“We know President Bush the man,” Mr. Obama said. “To know the man is to like the man. Because he’s comfortable in his own skin. He knows who he is. He doesn’t put on any pretenses. He takes his job seriously, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is a good man.”

Mr. Obama, whose first presidential campaign was built on opposition to the Iraq war, praised Mr. Bush for his bullhorn-in-the-rubble fortitude after Sept. 11 and said his predecessor fought for what he thought was best for his country. He linked his own effort to overhaul the immigration system to Mr. Bush’s.

“If we do that, it will be in large part thanks to the hard work of President George W. Bush,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Clinton, who has become close to the Bush family, offered warm words and recounted how he and Mr. Bush used to talk politics while his successor was in office. Referring to the library behind him, he joked, “Dear God, I hope there’s no record of those conversations in this vast and beautiful building.” Hillary Rodham Clinton, sitting onstage with the other presidents and first ladies, laughed robustly.

Mr. Carter, one of the fiercest critics of the Iraq war, talked about how Mr. Bush ended war in Sudan and helped Africa. “I’m filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the contributions you’ve made to the most needy people on earth,” he told Mr. Bush.

Really? Spare me. I know it’s a complicated world and not everything is black and white. But here’s some black and white: President Bush was a war criminal and a liar.

Categories: History, Journalism, Politics, War

Inside Alabama

April 28, 2013 Leave a comment

insidealabama

A little over a week ago, I wrote about my surprise at finding myself reading Harvey Jackson III’s The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera: An Insider’s History of the Florida-Alabama Coast. I’m no less surprised by my decision last night to start his 2004 book Inside Alabama: A Personal History of My State, which I’m now about sixty pages into.

More about the book soon. First let me review how I found my way to Harvey Jackson’s books.

It started early last month, when we committed ourselves to visiting Athens and Augusta, Georgia. Eager to learn more about the state, I began with James Cobb’s short history, Georgia Odyssey, which I wrote about here and here. Next I read Ron Rapoport’s biography The Immortal Bobby: Bobby Jones and the Golden Age of Golf of one of the Masters co-founders, which I wrote about here.

I was ready next for a treatment of the South more broadly, so I decided it would be good to read Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War, which had been on my reading list for some time. It’s a massive book. Partway through, I set it aside for a book on an entirely different theme. On returning, I had reached the halfway point when the latest of James Cobb’s occasional blog posts appeared. After reading it, I went to his blog’s home page, where I noticed an image of Jackson’s Redneck Riviera, which Cobb had written about last June. Soon I was reading it.

I finished Redneck Riviera on Thursday. Jackson is an amiable host. There was a stretch in the middle when I wondered how much I cared about the late twentieth century battles over developing the Gulf Coast in the stretch running east from Mobile Bay in Alabama past Pensacola, Fort Walton, and Destin and on through Seaside to Panama City. But the stories got better and better, and by the latter stages, I could hardly put the book down. Storms, beach destruction and restoration, a case on whether a particular beach should be restored that went to the Supreme Court, the marketing of Spring Break, student mayhem, and Girls Gone Wild movies (more court cases), the fortunes of Destin as fishing village, the development of Seaside as a planned urban community (later the site where the movie The Truman Show was filmed), the contrast between Seaside and the author’s own adjacent community of Seaside, the arrival of a wealthier class of people, the more problematic arrival of speculators, the 2007 bursting of the real estate bubble, and finally, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Who knew this was such an interesting region, just a thin 135-mile stretch on the Gulf?

On its completion, I returned to Foreman’s account of the Civil War, circa spring 1863. The book has a Stoppardian Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead quality, with major events such as the Battle of Chancellorsville told through the eyes of minor characters, typically British observers or participants. Whoever’s eyes, it’s quite a story, and Foreman’s writing is vivid. I should really read to the book’s end. But my pattern appears to be set. After another 50 pages or so of reading, I was already thinking yesterday about what to read next.

Should I wait for the Tuesday release of Claire Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs? It already has a strong review in the New York Review (behind their paywall) by Alison Lurie, and another, by Sam Sacks, in yesterday’s WSJ. I considered it, then remembered that Jackson has a short history of Alabama. Here’s the publisher’s description of the book:

This book tells Alabama’s history in a conversational style with an unapolo-getically subjective approach. Accessible to general readers and students alike, it recounts the history and politics of a state known for its colorful past, told by one of the state’s most noted historians and educators, whose family came to the territory before statehood. A native and resident Alabamian, Harvey Jackson has spent a lifetime discovering and trying to understand his state. Expressing deep love for its people and culture, he is no less critical of its shortcomings.

Inside Alabama, as the title implies, gives Jackson’s insider’s perspective on the events and conditions that shaped modern-day Alabama. With humor and candor, he explores the state’s cultural, political, and economic development from prehistoric times to the dawning of the new millennium. Mound-builders, Hernando de Soto, William Bartram, Red Sticks, Andy Jackson, Bourbon Democrats, suffragettes, New Dealers, Hugo Black, Martin Luther King Jr., George Wallace, Rosa Parks all play colorful parts in this popular history. By focusing on state politics as the most accessible and tangible expression of these shaping forces, Jackson organizes the fourteen chapters chronologically, artfully explaining why the past is so important today.

Searching brought up as well a short review by Susan Pace Hamill that convinced me to download the opening portion and begin. She writes:

[Jackson] explores how historical myths surrounding the antebellum, Civil War and Reconstruction periods made it easy for otherwise good respectable moral people to believe excuses justifying what we now acknowledge as indefensible injustice.

Jackson’s blunt and blistering evaluations of Alabama’s lowest points will be uncomfortable for many to swallow but will also be difficult to ignore. Despite his substantial professional qualifications as a distinguished professor and scholar of southern history and culture for over forty years, Jackson does not come across as an aloof and judgmental academic locked up in the ivory tower at Jacksonville State University where he currently teaches. Rather, his affectionate tone clearly expresses unconditional love for the state. A native of Grove Hill with ancestral family roots going back before statehood, that include slaveholders and Bourbon Democrats who supported the 1901 Constitution, Jackson is very much connected with Alabama’s mainstream population – the very people who tolerated the terrible injustice dominating our past and who are currently allowing it to continue. In his coverage of segregated Alabama Jackson not only recaps the historical events but also ponders regretfully why so many good moral citizens, including himself, his own family and friends as well as others in his community accepted what we now understand was clearly wrong.

Once again, Jackson is a warm host. So far, I’ve read a short overview of Native American centuries, the arrival of French, Spanish, and British settlers and traders, the Revolutionary War, the familiar horrors of the Creek War, which took place in parallel with the War of 1812 and was one of Andrew Jackson’s great successes, the writing of a state constitution and coming of statehood in 1819, the first years of state government in the 1820s.

Featuring prominently in all this is Alabama’s geography, the river systems and early settlements, trade and development of agriculture. I’ve been studying maps, tracing the routes of the Tallapoosa and Coosa Rivers, their joining just above modern-day Montgomery to form the Alabama, its route west to Selma and then southwards to Mobile Bay, with a name change to the Tensaw when the Tombigbee flows in. And then, up north, I’ve learned about the settling of Huntsville and its location on the Tennessee River, which maybe I once knew but, if so, have learned anew. The old trading and migration routes have given me a better understanding of the state’s major features.

This morning I was inspired to go to Alabama’s tourism site, page through the online version of their vacation guide, and order a print copy. I don’t know when we’ll get there, but I sketched out a trip that would at least cover Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Montgomery and Selma, Mobile and the Redneck Riviera. For now, I’ll be content with Jackson’s book.

Categories: Books, History

Neighborhood Eagle, 2

April 28, 2013 Leave a comment

fosterislandeagle

In March a year ago, I posted a photo of an eagle I spotted on the north end of Foster Island, a leisurely 15-minute walk north of our house. As I said then,

it’s not entirely news that there are eagles from time to time in our neighborhood, but when I see one, I still get excited. … We are fortunate to live close to Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum … . Foster Island is its northernmost portion … [with] a clearing on the edge of the island, on the shoreline of Union Bay, with an outlook across Lake Washington to the east, the Montlake Cut (an artificial waterway with a drawbridge) dividing the north and south sides of Seattle to the west, the university to the northwest, and the Laurelhurst neighborhood to the northeast. The northernmost tall tree on the east side of the clearing is the eagle hangout.

This afternoon, I was just approaching the clearing from the south when I heard a rustle in the trees to the right and saw two large birds taking flight, emerging from a tree and flying right to left just ahead and above me. As their path took them straight ahead, I could see that they were bald eagles.

Arriving at the water’s edge, another hundred yards north, I surveyed the scene, but there was no evidence of their presence. Then I wandered around a bit, reaching the shore to the west just in time to spy a large bird approaching, not more than 20 yards above the water’s surface. A couple of wing flaps, glide, two more flaps, glide. It was a ways out, and I didn’t want to get excited about an approaching eagle that would turn out to be a gull. But sure enough, as it drew nearer, it became more and more eagle like, until it gained height on reaching land, passed by with full eagle features, and landed back in the tree from which it had taken off three minutes earlier.

I headed back to the tree, pulled out my iPhone, and took a lame series of photos, one of which you can see above. The blob almost dead center is the eagle, sitting almost exactly in the spot that was home to the eagle I photographed last year.

There’s no sign of a nest. Perhaps this is the same pair that nests a few hundred yards to our east, with the tree serving as their Union Bay fishing base.

I’ll be watching for them.

Categories: Birds

The Good Life: Cadbury Fingers

April 24, 2013 Leave a comment

cadburyfinger

I mentioned in my post minutes ago that our friends Tom and Carol arrived from Edinburgh last night. They did not arrive alone. In their luggage was four boxes of Cadbury Fingers.

Whenever we go up to Vancouver—less often than we should—we make it a point to pick up a box or two of Cadbury Fingers. And when our friend Cynthia used to get up there a lot, she would generously do the same. But these are even better: straight from the UK. As described on the back of the box, they are

Delicious finger shaped crisp biscuits smothered in yummy Cadbury milk chocolate.

Or, from the website:

This little biscuit is a national treasure and with its delicious combination of milk chocolate and crunchy biscuit, along with its compact size, it’s the perfect treat for the whole family. But be warned, one is never enough!

It’s true. One is never enough. They’re so good that you might think Fred is singing about them in the video below.

Categories: Food, Travel

Emma Turns 17

April 24, 2013 Leave a comment

emma17

Our sweet geriatricat Emma celebrated her 17th birthday today. Here she is, a couple of hours ago.

Emma wasn’t always so sweet, I have to admit. But her days of fierce independence have largely passed. No racing up the cherry tree to a branch twenty feet above the ground in the blink of an eye. No jumping onto the kitchen counter, or the desk. Just getting up onto the bed is chore enough. And ever since January, when we adopted Brooke’s suggestion of putting an electrically heated pad on the floor, there seems to be less reason to make the effort.

But Emma remains determined to get around. Last night, when we returned from the airport with our friends Tom and Carol, just in from Edinburgh, Emma came to the top of the upstairs staircase to greet us on the main floor below. A few minutes later, as we lingered in the basement guest bedroom after bringing the luggage down, Emma appeared—a rare trip to the basement—to make her presence known and be acknowledged. She’s a tough old gal.

Happy birthday.

Categories: Cats, Family

Richie Havens

April 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Richie Havens died today. I was a fan. I played his 1967 album Mixed Bag until it was wearing out. I saw him perform at Forest Hills as the opening act for Janis Joplin. (This would have been summer of 1969 or 1970, but I can’t remember which.) I never tired of hearing him sing Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower. And he did a pretty good job with another Dylan song—Just Like a Woman.

From the end of tomorrow’s NYT obituary:

Mr. Havens played many songs written by Mr. Dylan, and he spent three days learning his epic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” A man who heard him practicing it stopped him on the stairs as he headed for the dressing room of a nightclub, and told him it was the best he’d ever heard the song sung.

“That’s how I first met Bob Dylan,” Mr. Havens said.

For more, check out this compilation of TV appearances between 1969 and 1971.

Categories: Music, Obituary

College

April 21, 2013 Leave a comment

college

I’ve mentioned in a few recent posts that I read Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be during our trip earlier this month to New York and Georgia. I’ve been meaning to say more, as I will do now.

Delbanco is a humanities professor at Columbia who writes on a broad range of issues for non-academic magazines. I’ve long enjoyed his pieces on education at The New York Review of Books. (He also was a college classmate of mine, though I didn’t know him.) When College, a short book, came out last year, I considered reading it. Delbanco’s Princeton counterpart (prominent humanist, prolific writer on many issues) Anthony Grafton reviewed it last May, writing:

As the commercialization of American higher education accelerates, more and more students are coming to college with the narrow aim of obtaining a preprofessional credential. The traditional four-year college experience–an exploratory time for students to discover their passions and test ideas and values with the help of teachers and peers–is in danger of becoming a thing of the past.

In College, prominent cultural critic Andrew Delbanco offers a trenchant defense of such an education, and warns that it is becoming a privilege reserved for the relatively rich. In arguing for what a true college education should be, he demonstrates why making it available to as many young people as possible remains central to America’s democratic promise.

In a brisk and vivid historical narrative, Delbanco explains how the idea of college arose in the colonial period from the Puritan idea of the gathered church, how it struggled to survive in the nineteenth century in the shadow of the new research universities, and how, in the twentieth century, it slowly opened its doors to women, minorities, and students from low-income families. He describes the unique strengths of America’s colleges in our era of globalization and, while recognizing the growing centrality of science, technology, and vocational subjects in the curriculum, he mounts a vigorous defense of a broadly humanistic education for all. Acknowledging the serious financial, intellectual, and ethical challenges that all colleges face today, Delbanco considers what is at stake in the urgent effort to protect these venerable institutions for future generations.

This resonated with me. But also, by the time I finished Grafton’s review, I figured I’d read enough and pursued Delbanco’s book no further.

Then, on the eve of our trip, I saw a link to a piece by Delbanco at the end of March in The New Republic on MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. Reading it, I decided I should read College after all.

I should add that Delbanco’s MOOC article is worth reading in its own right. Here’s one passage near the end (and therefore out of context):

Back in the mid-twentieth century, the Ford Foundation report on “telecourses” asked the key question about technology and education: “How effective is this instruction?” When I came upon that sentence, it put me in mind of something Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a long time ago. “Truly speaking,” he said, “it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.”I first understood this distinction during my own student days, while struggling with the theologian Jonathan Edwards’s predestinarian view of life. Toward the end of the course, my teacher, the scholar of American religion Alan Heimert, looked me in the eye and asked: “What is it that bothers you about Edwards? Is it that he’s so hard on self- deception?” This was more than instruction; it was a true provocation. It came from a teacher who listened closely to his students and tried to grasp who they were and who they were trying to become. He knew the difference between knowledge and information. He understood education in the Socratic sense, as a quest for self-knowledge.

[snip]

No matter how anxious today’s students may be about gaining this or that competence in a ferociously competitive world, many still crave the enlargement of heart as well as mind that is the gift of true education. It’s hard for me to believe that this kind of experience can happen without face-to-face teaching and the physical presence of other students.

Delbanco touches here–as he does in his book and as Grafton does in the quote above–on the question of whether one attends college for job training or some richer sort of educational experience. Closely related to this is the question of where humanities and the arts fit into a college education, since they sure aren’t likely to lead to jobs to the extent that study in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math) does. Delbanco writes eloquently on this.

Science, moreover, tells us nothing about how to shape a life or how to face death, about the meaning of love, or the scope of responsibility. It not only fails to answer such questions; it cannot ask them. …

Meanwhile, literature, history, philosophy, and the arts are becoming the stepchildren of our colleges. This is a great loss because they are the legatees of religion in the sense that they provide a vocabulary for formulating ultimate questions of the sort that have always had special urgency for young people. … One of the ironies of contemporary academic life is that even as the humanities become marginal in our colleges, they are establishing themselves in medical, law, and business school, where interest is growing in the study of literature and the arts as a way to encourage self-critical reflection among future physicians, attorneys, and entrepreneurs … .

[snip]

Certain books—old and not so old—speak to us in a subversive whisper that makes us wonder whether the idea of progress might be a sham. They tell us that the questions we face under the shadow of death are not new, and that no new technology will help answer them.

Delbanco discusses the history of American higher education going back to its origins with the founding of Harvard in the 1600s, looking at the role of religion in the founding of our first schools and as well at the limited social strata from which students came. Even as we’ve moved toward a more open, democratic, meritocratic system, Delbanco argues that something has been lost.

As I later understood when I came to read [Michael Young’s] The Rise of the Meritocracy, Young and Baltzell were talking about … the Anglo-American version of noblesse oblige—a conception that seems much attenuated now that “merit has become progressively more measurable.” In our era of social sorting by academic prowess, which Young placed in an imaginary future but which we know firsthand, the “new upper classes are no longer weakened by self-doubt and self-criticism,” and, all too often, subscribe to “the axiom of modern thought … that people are unequal, and … that they should be accorded a station in life related to their capacities.”

It is hard not to be fortified in this view as one goes through today’s college admissions process, which effectively begins in preschool, accelerates through childhood, consumes much of adolescence, and comes to a climax on the cusp of adulthood. This series of trials and rewards is well designed to convince the winners that they deserve their winnings. … “Today,” as [Young] put it with tart irony, “the eminent know that success is just reward for their own capacity, for their own efforts, and fortheir own undeniable achievement,” and “become so impressed with their own importance as to lose sympathy with the people whom they govern.”

Mitt, I think Delbanco and Young are talking about you.

And finally, here’s a passage that includes a centuries-old quote from leading Puritan clergyman John Cotton (A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace, in The Puritans in America, edited by Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco):

Our oldest colleges have abandoned the cardinal principle of the religion out of which they arose: the principle that no human being deserves anything based on his or her merit. In that view—too harsh, perhaps, for anyone except a saint to live by—when God announced to Abraham that he had chosen him for an exalted role in history, he did so “without any respect unto any goodness in Abraham,” but rather “freely of his grace … for it is nothing God seeth in Abraham, for which he doth reveal his justification to him.” Such a God was not impressed by any demonstration of meritorious behavior in any human being. To the extent that human beings are capable of worthy actions, they are unmerited gifts from a merciful God, and should be occasions for humility rather than pride.

Amen.

Categories: Books, Education, Humanities

Redneck Riviera

April 19, 2013 Leave a comment

redneckriviera

I’m a little puzzled by my decision earlier his week to put other books aside and jump into Harvey Jackson III’s The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera: An Insider’s History of the Florida-Alabama Coast. I’m sixty pages in so far and enjoying it, but how did I even come upon it? Let’s go back a month.

At the time, in anticipation of our upcoming trip to Athens and Augusta, where we would visit the University of Georgia and spend a day at the Masters, I looked around for books on the state and the tournament. This led to James Cobb’s short history, Georgia Odyssey, which I wrote about here and here. And then, instead of a book on the Masters, I read Ron Rapoport’s biography The Immortal Bobby: Bobby Jones and the Golden Age of Golf of one of the Masters co-founders, which I wrote about here.

I was ready at that point for a more detailed history of Georgia or the South, and contemplated reading (high school classmate) Steve Hahn’s Puliter Prize winning A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration. But instead I turned to a book that had long been on my reading list, Amanda Foreman’s mammoth A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War. In my post on this decision, I quoted Rick Hertzberg’s review two summers ago in the New Yorker, in which he called the book

an immensely ambitious and immensely accomplished—and just plain immense—work of narrative art. At a third of a million words sprawled over nearly a thousand pages, “A World on Fire” is not far south of “War and Peace.” Yet the pages fly like the wind—like “Gone with the Wind”—because there’s so much life, so much action, and so many vivid people in them.

I don’t entirely disagree. I’m halfway through now, and it is indeed filled with life, action, and vivid people. When I pick it up, I’m fully absorbed. Yet, when I put it down—to sleep, to work, whatever—I don’t find myself missing it. Indeed, while part way through, I squeezed in the reading of another book entirely during our trip: Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (post still to come). I was open to interruptions.

Which brings me back to Jim Cobb, author of Georgia Odyssey and a professor at the University of Georgia. He had enough personal asides in his book that I could tell he was a guy worth getting to know better. And guess what? That’s easy to do, thanks to his blog Cobbloviate. He averages about 2-3 posts a month. This opening from a post two months ago gives a sense of the man.

The interim between the end of football recruiting and the start of spring practice is a season of unremitting funk for the Ol’ Bloviator. One of the reasons that his funk resulutely refuses to remit is that when nobody’s playing or practicing, he is more prone to move back a step or two and take a harder look at some of the more troubling off-field aspects of this now thoroughly commercialized amateur pastime that, most of the time, despite himself, he loves way too uncritically.

For instance, we here at UGA have just seen fit to bestow a modest $400,000 pay increase on head football coach Mark Richt, who had been struggling heretofore to get by on a paltry $2.8 million. Hopefully, Mr. Richt will now feel loved and motivated enough to go out and give our lads another season’s worth of hugs and thwacks on the buttocks sufficient to inspire them to give their all for the old Red and Black. If this is not incentive enough, perhaps an additional $800K in performance bonuses will do the trick.

Apparently, we had to give Richt a little boost in pay simply to avoid the mortal embarrassment of having his salary cease to seem less than “competitive” in the Southeastern Conference, where football is not simply the tail that wags the dog but the whole big ol’ dog, who wags his tail and does whatever else he chooses whenever and wherever he by God chooses.

Four days ago, a new Cobbloviate post popped up on my RSS feed. After reading it, I explored the blog anew and noticed an image of a book cover on the home page. Embiggening the image, I found myself staring at the cover of The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera. Further searching within Cobb’s blog brought me to a post from last June in which he discusses the book. He in turn links to three reviews. And then I went to the book’s website at University of Georgia Press, which provides this description:

The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera traces the development of the Florida-Alabama coast as a tourist destination from the late 1920s and early 1930s, when it was sparsely populated with “small fishing villages,” through to the tragic and devastating BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010.

Harvey H. Jackson III focuses on the stretch of coast from Mobile Bay and Gulf Shores, Alabama, east to Panama City, Florida—an area known as the “Redneck Riviera.” Jackson explores the rise of this area as a vacation destination for the lower South’s middle- and working-class families following World War II, the building boom of the 1950s and 1960s, and the emergence of the Spring Break “season.” From the late sixties through 1979, severe hurricanes destroyed many small motels, cafes, bars, and early cottages that gave the small beach towns their essential character. A second building boom ensued in the 1980s dominated by high-rise condominiums and large resort hotels. Jackson traces the tensions surrounding the gentrification of the late 1980s and 1990s and the collapse of the housing market in 2008. While his major focus is on the social, cultural, and economic development, he also documents the environmental and financial impacts of natural disasters and the politics of beach access and dune and sea turtle protection.

The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera is the culmination of sixteen years of research drawn from local newspapers, interviews, documentaries, community histories, and several scholarly studies that have addressed parts of this region’s history. From his 1950s-built family vacation cottage in Seagrove Beach, Florida, and on frequent trips to the Alabama coast, Jackson witnessed the changes that have come to the area and has recorded them in a personal, in-depth look at the history and culture of the coast.

I know essentially nothing about the Gulf Coast. I was intrigued. So I downloaded the free opening portion from Amazon and began. I also started studying maps. Here’s one:

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You can see the focus of the book, from Mobile in the center to Panama City on the right. Lots of inlets, waterways, islands (or one-time islands, now connected to the mainland).

Once I finished the excerpt, I returned to Amanda Foreman and the Civil War for a couple of days, but images of Pensacola kept floating into my head. So I downloaded the rest of Redneck Riviera. I’ve gone from Jackson’s rapid treatment of the 1920s and 1930s through the war years, military expansion at Naval Air Station Pensacola and Eglin Air Force Base, and into the 1950s, with World War II veterans making the coast a vacation destination. Growth and development are in the air.

It’s all news to me. Not the general arc of the story, but the details, including the geography. I’m learning a lot.

Jackson can’t compete with Foreman on life, action, and vivid people. Not to sell him short. He brings plenty of each. And he’s quite a storyteller in his own right. More than that, he’s an awfully companionable fellow. He and Cobb—they’re plain good company. But the development of a stretch of the Gulf Coast in the fifties simply can’t be as exciting as the battles of North and South for the attention of Britain, not to mention the battles of North and South against each other.

Nor need it be. Keep in mind that the two tales are linked. The development of the South a century after the Civil War is well worth reading about in parallel with the war story itself. I’m happy with my decision; I’ll keep alternating.

Categories: Books, History

Kenwood House 3

April 18, 2013 Leave a comment
Rembrandt self portrait, circa 1665

Rembrandt self portrait, circa 1665

I’ve already written twice about Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London, the current exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum: two months ago, when we had to miss the opening because of a conflict, and a couple of weeks later, after we toured the exhibition under the expert guidance of Susan Jenkins, senior curator of English Heritage.

I’m returning to the subject in order to write about another tour we had the opportunity to take, two mornings ago, this time led by Seattle Art Museum’s own Chiyo Ishikawa, the curator for European painting and sculpture. Recall Chiyo’s description of the exhibition from SAM’s website:

Within the neoclassical Kenwood House at Hampstead Heath on the outskirts of London, resides a magnificent painting collection known as the Iveagh Bequest. Kenwood is home to an exceptional collection of Old Master paintings, including major works by Gainsborough, Hals, Rembrandt, Reynolds, Romney, Turner, Van Dyck, and many others. The Iveagh Bequest was donated to Great Britain by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847–1927) and heir to the world’s most successful brewery. Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: Treasures of Kenwood House, London, a selection of approximately 50 masterpieces from the collection, will tour American museums for the first time. Among other treasures, the exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see Rembrandt’s late Portrait of the Artist (ca. 1665), which has never left Europe before.

The Earl of Iveagh’s personal collection was shaped by the tastes of the Belle Époque—Europe’s equivalent to America’s Gilded Age. His purchases reveal a preference for the portraiture, landscape, and seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings that could typically be found in English aristocratic collections. Since the earl was a newcomer to London emigrating from his native Ireland, he may have selected works that would help him fit in with his peers and elevate his social standing.

Chiyo took a group of about thirty of us from SAM’s lobby up to the exhibition’s opening room, where she reviewed Guinness’s astonishing buying spree and a change in British law that made it possible. (Families with agricultural holdings who previously were not allowed to sell their art were now permitted to do so provided they reinvested the income in farming.) She then took us from room to room, focusing on two or three portraits per room and providing context that complemented what we had learned from Susan Jenkins. For example, Chiyo singled out the Frans Hals portrait of Pieter van den Broecke from 1633 (featured atop my second Kenwood post and reproduced below) as the most unusual in Guinness’s collection, because Hals’ work had only recently been rediscovered and was not widely viewed as a worthy painter.

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Chiyo also spent some time contrasting the work of Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, eventually confessing—in case it wasn’t clear—that she was a big Gainsborough fan, more so than Reynolds. She invited us in particular to look at the two portraits below, which are hung on perpendicular walls within a single room.

First, Reynolds’ 1782 portrait of Mrs. Musters as ‘Hebe’.

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From the webpage:

Hebe is the Greek goddess of youth, the daughter of Zeus and the future wife of Hercules. Here she is on Mount Olympus, portrayed by 24-year-old Sophia Catherine Musters. Mrs. Musters sat 18 times for this portrait by Joshua Reynolds.

Mrs. Musters, however, was unhappily married. She had many male admirers and was unfaithful.

In fact, an earlier portrait by Reynolds was reportedly not given to Mr. Musters but instead to Mrs. Musters’ lover, the Prince of Wales.

So Reynolds compensated for that loss by painting a new portrait for the husband. This time he chose to portray Mrs. Musters as that ultimate beauty: a Greek goddess.

And here is Gainsborough’s 1760 portrait of Mary, Countess Howe.

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From the webpage:

Thomas Gainsborough actually preferred painting landscapes to portraits. But early in his career, his landscapes weren’t selling all that well.

He studied the full-length portraits of aristocracy by Anthony Van Dyck and eventually Gainsborough attracted commissions from fashionable clientele such as Mary, Countess Howe.

Countess Howe was actually an aristocrat by marriage and not by birth. So technically the painting should be called “Lady Howe.” But Mary Hartopp became a countess after her military husband became an earl. The couple was vacationing in Bath when they asked Gainsborough to paint each of them.

Gainsborough went all out painting her in pink silk and ruffles standing outdoors on some estate. She was, of course, posed inside Gainsborough’s studio but that landscape suggests the countess as both aristocrat and a landowner.

The couple had come to Bath because Earl Howe was suffering from gout and needed to recuperate. Gainsborough chose to underscore strength and boldness in Countess Howe. She has her hand on her hip, her toe pointed and her eyes gazing straight ahead.

Putting details of technique aside, Chiyo distilled the issues into the simple question, how would we like to be depicted? She then talked about Gainsborough’s marvelous treatment of Mary’s clothing and the pleasure he took in magically creating effects that one must stand back some distance to appreciate.

Oh, but I’ve skipped ahead. For what would English portrait painting be without Anthony van Dyck and his arrival in London in the 1630s to paint in the court of Charles I? Chiyo talked about this while we focused on van Dyck’s 1634 portrait of Princess Henrietta of Lorraine.

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From the webpage:

If art is an escape, then the full-length portraits hanging throughout Kenwood House sent the 1st Earl of Iveagh back to a more civilized time. The paintings of young wives, mistresses and of course, royalty, underscored elegance, grace and poise. The world was nothing but genteel, as seen in this portrait of Princess Henrietta of Lorraine.

But this princess was dripping in scandal: charges of treason, banishment from France, masquerading as a man in order to escape punishment, and even suspicions of orchestrating attempted murder.

There’s only the slightest hint in this portrait that she has suffered: the thorns on the roses held by a page. Otherwise, all is well. She’s wearing pearls and Flemish bobbin lace; standing in front of gold brocade with a boy at the ready.

Van Dyck has painted a 23-year-old princess who is defiant and not a bit defeated.

Chiyo explained that the seemingly disproportionate size of the head compared to the body in this and other portraits makes sense once we understand that at the time, portraits would be hung high on the wall. (One must have a home with high walls! Some of these paintings wouldn’t fit on our walls no matter how low we hung them, though I’d be happy to take a couple home and give it a try.)

The final room of the exhibition features portraits of children. Here’s Thomas Lawrence’s 1825-27 portrait of Miss Murray.

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And from the webpage:

Louisa Georgina Augusta Anne Murray is between three and five years old. She’s got a lapful of petals. Her stockings are rumpled. Her hair is in ringlets. She’s bright eyed and pink cheeked and a picture of purity.

She was born out of wedlock and her mother’s lover commissioned this portrait. He chose the greatest portrait painter at the time: Sir Thomas Lawrence. The painting might have been a way to underscore the child’s innocence (and obscure her actual social status). The child’s parents were eventually wed.

The artist had been a child prodigy himself, so he knew all about being the center of attention. In a letter to her parents, the painter said he wanted to capture her “fleeting beauty and expression so singular in the child before the change takes places that some few months may bring.”

This portrait of sweetness ended up being one of the most reproduced images of a British child; replicated in Victorian engravings and on biscuit tins.

The exhibition closes May 19. We hope to get back to explore it more closely on our own. If you’re here in Seattle, be sure to go.

Categories: Art, Museums