Maintaining consistent political rectitude is a tough chore, as has become very evident in the last few weeks, most recently with the furore over the photo that appeared in a 1984 yearbook purportedly showing Governor Ralph Northam in blackface – or possibly a Ku Klux Klan costume. The boys of Covington Catholic High School have seemingly been absolved of taunting a Lakota tribal elder at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial two weeks ago, but the governor’s political career is at stake in the latest round of political garment-rending, if not for the photo, at least for his admission of having impersonated Michael Jackson in a dance competition when he was 25. There’s undoubtedly more to the story in this instance, too.
Several things seem clear however. Racial insensitivity based on skin color has a long and troubling history in the United States, to put it mildly. Blackface is particularly objectionable, but it should be noted that redface, brownface, and yellowface betray similar prejudice. But until recently, none seemed to excite much attention in the dominant white population regardless of the hurt inflicted on minorities. In some instances, “cosmetically enhanced” portrayals were accepted and even applauded. (Black like Me, the riveting 1961 book by John Howard Griffin and 1964 film version with James Whitmore, comes to mind for exactly that reason – but was this blackface?)
Billy Crystal’s channeling of Sammy Davis Jr. in the 2012 Academy Awards provoked criticism but not outrage. He had done so many time before. Go back further and we find Laurence Olivier’s blackface performance of Othello for the National Theater in 1965 earning rave reviews. In 1951 Ava Gardner portrayed a mulatto in Showboat, Jeanne Crain did so in Pinky (1956). Long before, white actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll charmed generations of radio listeners as Amos and Andy with a large support cast of comic caricatures. Before that, Al Jolsen’s “Mammy” and the antics of Eddie Cantor were somehow not considered offensive, although today they strike audiences as more than cringeworthy. (When Amos ‘n Andy made the transition to television in 1951, after more than 30 years on radio, the producers had the wit to cast a virtually all-black cast in the featured roles.)
Fast forward to 2008, when more than a few eyebrows lifted at Robert Downey, Jr.’s venture into blackface in Tropic Thunder, but in 1968 Keenan Wynn had received a pass in his portrayal of black-shifted Senator Billboard Rawkins in Finian’s Rainbow. (When the anti-racist musical was revised recently, two actors portrayed the racist senator.) It’s complicated.
Native Americans have also long endured being portrayed by white actors and well-meaning Boy Scouts, whose famous La Junta, Colorado, Koshare Indian Dancers never included a Native American so far as I know. The group still performs, clad in their own costumes. Similarly costumed college “mascots” such as the University of Illinois’ Chief Illiniwek were part of “tradition,” and were retired only after bitter disputes. Redface portrayals have long since been part and parcel of the American entertainment industry, given exceptions (themselves sometimes gratuitously demeaning). Johnny Depp’s atavistic reprise as Tonto in Disney’s Lone Ranger film was nothing short of a career low.
Perhaps the most famous “fake Indian,” was “Iron Eyes Cody” a Sicilian-American actor born Espera Oscar de Corti, who appeared as a Native American in more that 200 films. His most famous role was in the televised 1971 public service announcement as “the Crying Indian.” Hardly anyone ever questioned de Corti’s false persona until after his death in 1999. De Corti played his part with convincing dignity, but despite efforts of Native American actors from Jay Silverheels as the original TV Tonto (the radio Tonto was voiced by a white man) to the contemporary and dignified efforts of Adam Beach, Russell Means, Eric Schweig, Wes Studi, Dennis Banks, and Chief Dan George, among others, redface imposture continues. And so, evidently, do prejudice and discrimination.
Native Chinese and Chinese Americans were long treated with the same tacit and often overt contempt in entertainment media, often as villains but sometimes in positive roles. Perhaps the most famous (and to many, irritating) of these was casting a series of white actors as Charlie Chan in decades of films, primarily Warner Oland and Sidney Toler, but even Peter Ustinov had a go at it. Japanese characters fared no better until recent times. Casting Ricardo Montalban as Nakamura in Sayonara (1955) or Marlon Brando as Sakini in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) now seems simply bizarre.
Mexicans and Mexican-Americans received similar treatment, from the famous portrayals of Zorro by Douglas Fairbanks and Tyrone Power to Guy Williams and George Hamilton (and the immensely funny Henry Calvin as Disney’s Sergeant Garcia). At least the recent remakes with Antonio Banderas got it mostly right. Other Hollywood portrayals of Mexican figures from Wallace Beery’s over-the-top performance as Pancho Villa in 1934 to Marlon Brando’s Zapata (1952) suffered from a blind eye to generations of excellent Latino actors. Even Charleton Heston got to play a Mexican policeman in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. (1958). The list is long.
Suffice it to say that changing face is an American tradition. And so is its tacit support of racist stereotyping and offence, whether intentional or not. We can do better. We must.
From Nov. 19, 1863:
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
“… the only thing we have to fear is fear itself–nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.” First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933.
First came the devastating Supreme Court decision called “Citizens United” in 2010 which opened the floodgates of vast fortunes and enabled billionaire oligarchs and corporations to influence, not to say determine, elections throughout the nation.
Next came the gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013 by a 5-4 decision, especially because of the advocacy of the late Justice, Antonin Scalia, but a special victory for Chief Justice John Roberts. Unsurprisingly the voter suppression that followed in many states especially targeted citizens of color, the poor, and the elderly. Instead of making it easier to vote and encouraging more people to exercise their rights and duties as citizens, within five years tens of thousands of voters were stricken from the registers, nearly a thousand polling places were closed, and because of Congressional resistance the US continues to hold national elections in particular on a regular work day rather than on weekends, as is the case throughout the free world, making it even more difficult for ordinary working people to vote.
Largely enabled if not encouraged by the woeful Citizens United decision, meddling in our elections by Russian and possibly other foreign nationals has become a major concern as well. In the meantime, the voting pattern of the United States remains in the lowest tier in the so-called free world. During the 2014-16 nationwide elections in 32 industrialized nations, the U.S. placed 26th, alarmingly close to the bottom of the pile. [http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/21/u-s-voter-turnout-trails-most-developed-countries/]
It could be argued that the United States of America was the founding nursery of modern democracy. If present trends continue, it may also be its cemetery.
No, not the March for Our Lives that riveted the nation’s and much of the world’s attention on March 24th. The Children’s Crusade was a legendary movement of thousands of young people and adults across Europe in 1212 following the disaster of the Fourth Crusade and a few years before the similar failure of Fifth Crusade. Their intent was the peaceful conversion of Muslims and the liberation of the Holy Land.
It seems that teenage visionaries from France and Germany initiated separate pilgrimages that converged on Genoa and Marseilles in hopes of setting out for Palestine, some apparently predicting that the sea would part to permit their passage. Neither company reached their goal. Thousands perished while crossing the Alps or attempting to return home. Others were betrayed, kidnapped, and according to some sources sold into slavery.
Late last week, led by American teenagers inspired by a vision of a more peaceful, safer world, hundreds of thousands of young people and adult associates converged on Washington, D.C. and other cities in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Their intent was to bring sanity and justice to a situation long out of control, the worship of the false and dangerous idol of unlimited gun ownership despite the slaughter of innocents it has engendered. Initiated and led by survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school shooting, it was a thrilling and remarkably joyous pilgrimage, a peaceful celebration of youthful outrage, hope and idealism.
There was, of course, opposition. Based on a misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the Second Amendment to the U.S., Constitution, opponents of reasonable gun control such as banning civilian ownership of military-grade assault weapons even many police forces do not possess and the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines, and implementing more strict enforcement of background checks have succeeded in largely blocking significant legislation. Well funded by weapons industries and the National Rifle Association, they may do so again. In today’s political arena, money talks louder than anything else. Despite promises to back such reforms, the president has already been brought to heel by the NRA and there is little support for such legislation in either chamber of Congress.
So will the March for Our Lives change things? The first Children’s Crusade came to grief because of misdirection, false hope, and ultimate betrayal by their elders. We can only pray and work to prevent history from repeating itself. According to Matthew’s Gospel, it was on what we now call Palm Sunday, when Jesus was scolded for allowing children to shout “Hosanna” on his behalf, that he cited scripture to silence their critics, tweaking Psalm 8:2:
“Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?”
We hear more than infants and nursing babies here. We hear the articulate protest of the next generation. It would do well for presidents, senators, and representatives to pay close attention.
The devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey is fast assuming the status of the worst natural disaster in US history, surpassing the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina exactly 12 years ago this week.
Could the destruction have been prevented? Not entirely, of course, but it could have been greatly reduced.
Step one: reduce carbon emissions significantly… best time to start: 25 years ago.
Step two: expand and develop environmental protection laws and policies… best time to start: 25 years ago.
Step three: pay greater attention to climate scientists, who warn that as the sea warms and levels rise, hurricanes will increase in size and intensity, if not necessarily in frequency… so we hope! Best time to start: tomorrow.
Take away for Mr. Trump: Climate Change is real. Do not gut the EPA regulations, the agency itself, or US natural resources. Stay in the Paris Climate Accord. The people deserve it. The earth requires it.
This year, in August and September, the 40th anniversary of the launches of the two Voyager spacecraft are being rightly celebrated.
Each of the probes carried on board a remarkable document — a record of civilized life on Earth devised as a greeting card to any life forms in the universe intelligent enough to intercept and decipher these messages. A product of the creative collaboration of astronomer Carl Sagan, his wife Linda, and their associates, each of the Voyager messages included sounds and music representative of human cultures on the planet as well as pictures inscribed on a long‑playing phonograph record. But the Sagan team strove to make sure that all mention of God, the sacred or the religious dimension of human experience on Earth was deleted from the gold-plated record.
Secular music by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven was included, along with jazz and folk songs from around the globe. But there were no liturgical chorales, masses or oratorios; no Gregorian chant, no Negro spirituals; no hymns or native religious canticles. There was no religious art – Leonardo’s Last Supper, for instance, or Michelangelo’s paintings from the Sistine Chapel, or the windows of Chartres, arabesques from the walls of the Alhambra, or sculptures from Angkor Wat. No Buddhist or Hindu temple appears, no cathedral, synagogue, or lamasery‑‑ only the Taj Mahal – technically a mosque, but “a monument not to religion,” it was noted, “but to love, and thus an appealing choice.” (A few gothic chapels slipped by‑‑ in a photograph of Oxford University — probably because they are unrecognizable as places of worship to anyone unfamiliar with the “City of Spires.”)
There were lengthy statements by politicians and other “world leaders”‑‑ the President of the United States, a two‑page list of US senators and congressmen “associated” with NASA, the Secretary General of the United Nations, and statements and even poems from fifteen UN delegates. There were none however from the Dalai Lama, the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, a rabbi, an imam, a Buddhist nun, or a yogi.
One other oblique reference did manage to slip by the screening process devised by the scientists, however. It was a statement by an African from South Uganda, Elijah Mwima‑Mudeenya of Kampala, who said, “Greetings to all peoples of the universe. God give you peace.”
In the end, what Sagan nearly accomplished was a gross misinterpretation of the real human situation on this planet, whose inhabitants are overwhelmingly members of a variety of religious traditions, some of which (preeminently Christianity and Islam) demonstrably gave rise to the very science Sagan and his colleagues espoused.
But despite claims, or should I say boasts, to the contrary, science is not uniformly value-free nor devoid of significant prejudice. Sometimes disastrously so. So I hope that any advanced civilization capable of playing phonograph records has some appreciation of irony. I wonder what our hopefully friendly extraterrestrials in some remote aeon in some imaginably distant realm of the universe will make of Elijah Mwima‑Mudeenya’s blessing once they get the phonograph going.
Three months ago, the roiling tumult in the White House occasionally made the six-o’clock news here in Ireland. I relished the respite from the reality-show sequelae that dominates news broadcasts in the US. That, however, changed gradually over the summer. Now it is difficult to turn on the telly without finding the latest serio-comic “fake news” about or from the White House leading off the reports on RTE, the BBC (1, 2 and 4 mind you), France 24, Euronews, and even Al Jazeera.
The sudden rise and fall of Anthony Scaramucci quickly replaced the news of Sean Spicer’s “resignation” and Reince Priebus’ dismissal as the loyal Trumpman dutifully fell on his metaphorical sword. Scaramucci wasted no time living up to his family namesake. As widely noted, Scaramuccia (“little skirmisher”) was a clown figure of the Commedia dell’arte, known in French as Scaramouche, a Punch-and-Judy figure who was more Punched than Puncher, often pummeled by Harlequin for his “boasting and cowardice” (Wikipedia). Scaramouche was also a splendid 1921 novel by Rafael Sabatini set just before and during the French Revolution. As the basis for several films, the 1952 version was a boyhood favorite of mine and endeared the figure to me ever after. (The novel is terrific. Read it on the beach this summer while you still have time.)
In any case, Scaramucci enjoyed (if I may use the term) the shortest tenure yet of Trump appointees, dismissed because of his “inappropriate language” in denouncing other Trump appointees, notably Reince Priebus. Given Trump’s own penchant for the “colorful language” that earned him a rebuke from the Boy Scouts of America (among others), it has to be conceded that Scaramucci’s tirade went beyond even that pale.
All of this carnival of errors (I hate to say comedy: it isn’t that funny), has been dutifully reported by media throughout Europe with an admixture of amusement, horror, and revulsion. But, we are assured, the White House is not in turmoil. Chaos perhaps. Possibly disarray. But not turmoil. (Don’t look now.)
In the four weeks I have been back in the US, the list of “persons of interest” in the Trump circle seems to have grown day-by-day: Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Roger Stone, Felix Sater, Jared Kushner, Michael Cohen, and Boris Epshteyn… I may have missed a few.
Give the strange pro-Russian remarks by Trump during his campaign, followed by a string of overtures and both semi-public and clandestine meetings with Russian officials since then, it’s small wonder that a climate of consternation and outright worry has descended over Foggy Bottom (AKA “the Swamp”). To which concern must now be added the current unraveling of decades-old traditional alliances with European allies Germany and France and other NATO members. It might be well to remember that NATO was established to deter Russian aggression following World War II.
Over the past several years political and diplomatic uneasiness rose exponentially following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its covert invasion and tactical occupation of east Ukraine, evidence of Russian email hacking, its interference in elections in the USA, France, and apparently elsewhere, Vladimir Putin’s unflinching support of Syria dictator Bashar al-Assad, including his bombing of anti-ISIS rebels and attacks on civilians, and now alleged rooting around the inner regions of the Trump White House.
Regrading human and civil rights in Russia, the world’s attention was briefly focused on the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, but dozens of other political opponents, diplomats, reporters, and civil rights activists have been similarly murdered during the Putin years in a display of ruthless autocratic rule. Even a partial list must include
Denis N. Voronenkov, lawmaker and Putin critic (Mar. 23, 2017)
Sergei Krivov, consular duty commander at the Russian Consulate in New York (2016)
Boris Nemtsov, physicist, statesman and liberal politician (2015)
Vladmir Kara-Murza, activist and writer, poisoned, recovered (2015)
Boris Berezovsky, business oligarch, government official, engineer and mathematician, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences (2013)
Alexander Perepilichny, businessman, whistleblower (2012)
Sergei Magnitsky, tax attorney (2009)
Stanislav Markelov, human rights lawyer and Anastasia Baburova, journalist (2009)
Natalia Estemirova, journalist (2009),
Anna Politkovskaya, journalist (2006)
Alexander Litvinenko, former KGB agent who accused Putin of blowing up an apartment block and ordering the murder of Anna Politkovskaya (2006)
Paul Klebnikov, American investigative journalist, editor in chief of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine (2004)
Sergei Yushenkov, politician killed as he tried to gather evidence proving that Putin was behind the bombing of the residential apartment block (2003)
And recently, Putin’s main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was found guilty of embezzlement and given a five-year suspended sentence which barred him from running next year against Putin (Feb. 8, 2017).
As Trump sinks alliances with democratic allies in western Europe but praises strongmen such as Recep Erdogan, the proudly murderous Filipino president, Rodrigo Duterte, and most ostentatiously of all, Vladimir Putin himself (alternatively prime minister and president since 1999), how could the question NOT arise – who’s actually calling the shots in the White House? And, more importantly, why?
Over the last two weeks, when not enthralled with the Punchestown races, Ireland has been entranced by the publicity firestorm raging around the proposed relocation of the National Maternity Hospital from Dublin City to a new facility to be built on the grounds of St. Vincent’s Hospital, a large, up-to-date teaching hospital in South Dublin affiliated to University College Dublin. The burning issue is the transfer of ownership of the hospital to the Sisters of Charity who own the land. Although approved almost unanimously by the Board of Governors, the transfer of ownership was immediately denounced by a number of political and media figures. Two members of the board resigned in protest this week.
Although the hospital would be administered by an independent corporation, barring interference by the sisters or the Church, the tarnished reputation of the Sisters of Charity, who operated the now-infamous Magdalene Laundries in the mid-20th century, seems sufficient warrant to many for the objections. More is obviously at stake, however, as the rhetorical bombast has often centered on the Catholic Church itself.
The public expressions of outrage probably evince more a revulsion toward the past behavior of church figures than some deep-seated hatred of the Church itself, but sometimes it is difficult to separate the two. The figure of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid casts a long shadow over 20th-century Ireland. Without doubt there was plenty of collusion between the DeValera government and the ecclesiastical establishment. The stern hand of moral guardianship outlived De Valera and McQuaid, surviving until successive referenda decriminalized homosexuality, permitted divorce, and loosened some restrictions on abortion. But the intransigence of the hierarchy in the face of growing public support for more liberal and compassionate attitudes in law and life undoubtedly contributed to popular alienation from church authority.
Recent events added considerable fuel to the fire. The Mother and Baby Homes scandal, brought to light in recent months, involving hundreds of cases of infant deaths that were improperly reported and largely unexplained, figured prominently. But there were other instances that over the last few years have cast a very dark shadow over past Church-State social schemes, among them the shocking revelations involving the Industrial Schools, the Magdalene Laundries, dozens of clerical sexual abuse cases, the badly-handled Bishop Casey affair (resurrected by his death last month), and a long history of institutional misogyny and entrenched sexism.
According to the 2016 census, three densely populated areas, Dublin City, Dun Laoghaire, and Galway City, reported that more than a third of the population regard themselves as non-Catholic. Among counties, Tipperary had the lowest percentage at 12.9%. Civil marriage is on the increase, and the nationalization of church-run schools is well underway. Vocations have withered alarmingly. Many parishes no longer have residential clergy and some offer no services at all.
Most recently, an 18 months-long Citizens Assembly finished its deliberations regarding repealing or replacing the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, introduced in 1983, which prohibits abortion. Prompted by highly publicized and deeply troubling issues arising over a decade ago, both on humanitarian grounds and because of pressure from the EU, 99 randomly selected citizens have been poring over thousands of pages of testimony, discussing and debating possible interventions by the Oireachtas, Ireland’s parliament.
Last week the members of the assembly voted overwhelmingly (87%) to recommend that the Eighth Amendment should not be retained in its current form. Only twelve members (13%) voted to retain the articles in full, close to the 16% reported of Ireland’s citizens in a national poll.
It will probably take generations for the Irish Church to recover its credibility and moral authority. It is hardly surprising that church affiliation and attendance have declined markedly over the past two decades, especially among the young, despite occasional periods of recovery between scandals. Nor is it surprising that there is plenty of evidence today of bias and in some cases political as well as journalistic antipathy against religion itself in all its forms. It sells papers and creates celebrities. But it does not in itself solve deeply troubling moral dilemmas. That takes time and a commodity in increasingly short supply, good will.