Ichabod's Kin
A place for politics, pop culture, and social issues

Jun
19

            I was once part of a populist movement to change the national anthem to America the Beautiful.  

          The Star Spangled Banner is eminently unsing-able, and is even trumped on July 4 when we set off fireworks to strains of the 1812 Overture— composed by a Russian and nothing to do with us. It celebrated an anniversary of Russia’s defeat of Napoleon, and Tchaikovsky himself cared not a fig for the piece, calling it “loud and noisy.”

          But in 1974, Arthur Fiedler and a Boston businessman needed something to bring crowds back to the Pops concerts and chose the 1812 Overture. With booming cannon, church bells ringing, fireworks and a sing-a-long, it was its first performance for our 4th of July celebrations, but is now an annual event all over the country.

          Another song has also taken on new life: God Bless America, by Irving Berlin, who put it aside for 20 years before it became Kate Smith’s “signature song” beginning with Armistice Day 1938 (as war clouds gathered once more). We hugged it again with a vengeance after 9/11, especially at athletic events, while launchimg “pre-emptive strikes” and wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

          It’s actually a form of prayer, though Berlin feared that his phrase, “…to the right…” might be confused with the political right, and changed the words to “through the night.”

          Our real national anthem is a war song of sorts, and I’m hardly alone in a wish to change it: more than a quarter of Americans want Bruce Springsteen to write a new one–while others prefer Dolly Parton, Stevie Wonder, or rapper Jay Z to do so.

          America the Beautiful is a kinder and gentler— and more sing-able—hymn. It’s also more realistic, calling us not only to pride in nation but to self-responsibility:

                                                 America, America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,

                                                            confirm thy soul in self-control,

                                                                      thy liberty in law.

          And there’s a patriotism I can live with. “Mend (our) every flaw,” before telling everyone else on the planet how to live, amid excessive claims to so-called American “exceptionalism.”

          Patriotism is love of one’s country and typically a nod to each nation’s natural beauty. But along came “nationalism” and its head-butt with the simple love of country that is patriotism.

          Extremes of nationalism are not “patriotism,” but distortions of it that flatter themselves with words like “super-patriotism.” Think British and French colonialism, which looked on Asia and Africa as inferior peoples; think European dictatorships that led to World War II; and use of Loyalty Oaths in America that led to new words, like chauvinism and jingoism.

          Our so-called “pre-emptive” strike on Iraq in the Bush era was clearly flawed, for which we should dearly seek its mend. I say so because I believe sincere dissent is the true patriotism; the real American Way.

          An increasing number of American states and cities simply don’t work anymore. My first good glimpse of Boston made me wonder how the middle class lives here. What this will mean to our society, not only in terms of money, is that we’ll always need scapegoats. And who are they and who will they be? Well, we can always count on the usual ones being prime targets.

          The renewal and transformation of white hate bodes ill for African Americans, and is now a more forceful war where much police culture is no friend to black lives.

          “God mend thine every flaw…”? It’s a worthwhile prayer.

          And if we will have preemptive strikes, let’s make some for equality and morality. After the Emancipation Proclamation, blacks endured Jim Crow and share- cropping, and another 100 years for Voting Rights. And still the racism is entrenched, even among the young: a fairly recent Globe article out-ed the fact that our night clubs remain de facto segregated, except in Cambridge, of course.

          But there are more flaws that that: anti-Semitism, homophobia and gay-bashing, pedophilia by religious leaders amid their hypocritical disgust for gay lifestyles, domestic violence towards women and children, and hatred for immigrants, are current and recurrent as deep sicknesses of the human soul. The latter should prompt us to ship the Statue of Liberty back to France till we earn its permanent ownership.

          God mend thine every flaw! Or, we could do it ourselves, if we wanted to. But there is nothing wrong with being humble about our love and pride for country—and mending where mending is due.

         

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Jun
19

          Given all recent attention to the end of the American Civil War and the death of Lincoln, be it known that there is among you a Southern transplant to New England, but one lacking the revisionist views of those for whom that conflict will never be over.

          My Yankee acquaintances however doubt that my grandfather could have fought in that war, and indeed the proof is unusual: he was born in 1841 and my grandmother was his second wife but not till many years later—she was born in 1883 and bore him three girl-children, including my mother. A Rebel, he was wounded at Shiloh, ending his military service. He died 20 years before my birth but the bullet that struck his upper leg remained there the rest of his life: had it entered a little higher, I wouldn’t be here, and lucky he was that removal of said leg was unnecessary. John Wesley Stone was in the Kentucky Seventh Infantry and, like Gen. Robert E. Lee, “rejoiced” that slaves were freed by the outcome.

          Thus is one myth shattered, that all Southerners believed in slavery or even deemed it the cause of the war—just as many Americans today see our modern conflicts as patriotic while Halliburton and Dick Cheney view them much differently.

          My maternal grandmother, born years after that War’s end, was never heard to speak with other than total respect of all Civil War leaders: it was “Mr.” Lincoln, Mr. Grant, and Mr. Sherman, just as it was Mr. Lee and Confederate president, Mr. Davis—though it was the habit of southern women of her generation to refer even to their husbands, living or dead, as Mr. Stone or other appropriate surname.

          That is not to say that all southerners are over that bloody war and don’t still blame Yankees and their devil of a president. They called it the “War of Northern Aggression,” forgetting that their 3000 cannon balls that stripped Fort Sumter was a hell of a calling card.

          That my Missouri home is typically labelled a Slave state then, was trumped by being more a “Border” state, and as much at war with itself as with anyone else, and pro- and anti-Slavery support varied county by county. State history classes in school and college were steeped in stories of young men off to fight Yank or Rebel and on return home were shot by families whose allegiance had changed in their absence. We were also told that “Gone With the Wind” was a bunch of crap because slave owners were typically abusive-to-murderous and no slave women like “Mammy” ran such households.

          Still, there are pesky clots of southerners who remain charmed by the notion that the Rebel legacy is totally misunderstood, and they are out to redeem it–formal and informal orgs comprising a “Modern Confederacy” that is a well-funded, active political movement with a lucrative memorabilia industry. Sure, a few have interest in ancestry and history but others are given to a new narrative of the old days that is simply anti-government sentiment in sheep’s clothing, and that the Old Confederacy merely wished to preserve what the Founding Fathers had envisioned.

          Indeed, they attempt to expose “falsehoods” in a U.S. history written by “East coast elites” and “liberal academics” whom they feel have been unduly influenced by “minorities,” with much wailing over people who speak Spanish and the presence of blacks in high government posts. At last, they grouse about folks like themselves whom they feel work hard and get nowhere–a sense of victimization plus a loss of “righteousness,” whatever the hell that is.

          It should not surprise that the largest contingent are white, male, Republican Mississippians, but overall almost a third of whom would support another “Confederacy” in a modern civil war (half would stay loyal to the U.S., and the remaining fifth are undecided). They insist that the majority of them deny that slavery was the main reason for the Civil War, but a Penn Research Center poll found only 38% willing to agree.

          They also claim 30K active followers and over twice that many fellow travelers. Their current objective is to put the Confederate flag on Texas license plates–for which they went to the Supreme Court the past March.

          It is all worth keeping an eye on, not because a New Confederacy will get anywhere, but that underneath there is a political agenda that will fit snugly into many right-wing narratives today.

         

Sep
24

         All good things end. A certain rental car service has been one of my faves—good experience and ease of everything, from soup to nuts. No more, not in my case, anyway. For two years running, it has played the old bait-and-switch game and the time came for me to make inquiries.

          It may be that the new way of doing things has not metastasized throughout the company, but at the Phoenix, AZ airport they appear to be on a mission to defraud.

          Long flights are bummers especially for early-hour departures and what can easily turn into, in our experiences, 22-hour days—viz., getting from here to Logan airport with the proverbial hour-and-a-half ahead of flight; five hours in the air with crabby cabin crews; catching a shuttle to the all-in-one rental terminal—and dealing with the charmers at the rental counter who are ready to pounce on your car reservation.

          This does not include getting the car, which is a bit of a hike, laden with baggage and, at last, driving to your destination, checking in and settling in. But by the time we were at rental counter, and knowing the hours still ahead, we were drained and just wanting to get our car and go.

          Our area travel agent, as the year before, made the reservation, using said rental company as the agency’s preferred rental reference. As said, prior to this year and last, all went swimmingly. So what’s happened?

          Okay, so you’re tired. Yours has been a long day and will be longer. This may be what certain reservations agents count on. Now they’re the hunter and you’re the hunted. You lay out your reservation letter and their questions begin: Would you like such and such a car? Sounds good; I have one like that (it would turn out theirs was older and much higher mileage), so okay.

          Then: would you like insurance? I already have good insurance. Well, yes, but it wouldn’t cover certain kinds of liability, like an uninsured driver who messes you up while in their not-so-fine car. The previous year I wondered whether that was really worth it, and opted for full coverage but was not told the cost: final bill was three times my cost of reservation.

          This time, I declined but was not told that their car, older and more mileaged than mine, also cost more. We’re having a hard time on our feet by now, given our exhaustion, but walk away to our car and once inside note that the bill is twice our reservation cost.

          Okay, I decide to contact the company’s rental desk at our resort to request adjustment and a different, lesser car if necessary. But no one staffs said desk; you must use a desk phone and someone who is somewhere but you don’t know exactly where, puts you off repeatedly or, short of that, you must leave name and number for their reply within a stated time—a time that doesn’t come.

          Need I say that no one would help; the sole time I had “Justin’s” ear he told me to call another company place up the road but that dude was totally uninterested in helping, either. This went on each day of our stay.

          As we departed the desert, I kept the car company Survey to rate the service provided, completed and returned it on return home. Guess how much the rental cofmpany really cares: yep, as in No Response.

          My own car insurance agent, in all her years in biz, and knowing all about the vagaries of car-rental companies, had one such accident which is used to scare the hell out of customers–an uninsured driver (why are they always the ones who are maniacs behind a wheel?) smacked her and, here’s the catch, it took my insurance agent a year to get out of the grasp of the car rental agency.

          Why? Because they had her credit card, and didn’t intend to sustain the loss themselves, so until they could get hoped-for satisfaction, she wanted to keep her on the hook for all costs. She finally got rid of them but it wasn’t easy.

          Now here’s something else you need to know: why do rental agents at your destination want to sell you more than you reserved for? Because a travel agency, as in my case, gets a small commission for their trouble; but if the car-lease folks can re-write the contract with an upgrade and/or more insurance, they get it all.

          It is said that there are different kinds of untruths: fibs, white lies and bald lies being among them. But that’s when someone tries to evade deserved embarrassment or blame. When, on the other hand, evasion, incomplete information and undisclosed costs are used to get something from you that you didn’t ask for, that’s lying.

          It’s all about lies and liability in the car lease business. And the car rental company I’m talking about, a one time a leader in service, has slipped more than a bit. Comparatively, I nowget much better service from other companies, like Enterprise. If you’re wondering which one I’ve complained about, there’s a clue in this post.

          But what I got the past two years from my former fave company doesn’t feel good: it HURTS.

         You can do what you want, but it’s no more of them for me.


May
12

     Travel is no longer much fun, and trips long and short induce this summary of experiences:

     First the usual mysteries of the road: people who don’t know the town they live in, and those hired to be at your service but are ignorant of their job descriptions.

     Inquire at a gas pump, a department store checkout or of a local-yokel on foot, where a certain street is, and they won’t know, but will then yell at a colleague who doesn’t know either, till you borrow a map and find it’s the next street over.

     I used a GPS on another trip and would have been on time at destination but was led from the airport to a location considerably north–thence many miles south where we arrived very late. We’ve never used a Garman again.

     Methought then that if anyone knew directions it would be liquor store salesmen, but women are now employed as a cost-saving measure and the gals only know the way home and to their mother’s house.

     Then there are those paid to help you at airports or wherever but, oh, dear they’ve had a bad day. Even holding your mouth right can get you nowhere, and complaints to supervisors reveal that one staffer isn’t feeling well; another’s supposed solicitations were mistaken by us for petulance; and a young woman, alas, was mad at her boyfriend and deserved our sympathy.

     Since being good sports and exhibiting patience is not enough while on the road, we have taken to prayer–and to tossing salt over our shoulders as a default mode. But I hereby submit that nothing works.

     In these latter days, before an asteroid strikes earth and none of this will matter, it is also the age of technology, and I am thoroughly mystified at cell phone behavior. I have a smartphone (so-called because I am dumb for needing one)–and I abide by public rules for their use. But others assiduously avoid such compliance.

     I even check my unheard calls and email on it when no one else is in the room, but on their sudden re-entrance the first utterance heard is, “Oh, there you are on your cellphone again”—regardless that when others are on land-line in another room, it is for lengthy duration and can be heard all over the building.

     But cell users are not the only culprits here. On public conveyances, people with big voices are bad as any. C&J drivers ask all to avoid cell calls while en route, but not a word is said about loud conversations, meaning you get to hear both ends of them.

     On a 3:30 a.m. trip to an airport last year, two male retirees wanted us all to know that one didn’t like broccoli and the other shared at length how wonderful his granddaughter is. I vowed no repetition of such incident. On the next such commute, a couple behind yakked about the most inane crap you can imagine. I stepped over to the driver and requested that all patrons be asked to consider the early hour by keeping all conversation to a minimum, and muted, given this may be the only rest and quiet some passengers may have had, or get, for the rest of the day.

     To my delight, the driver repeated it almost verbatim and the yakkers ceased and desisted. I don’t mind risking wrath as long as I feel I’m on principled ground; but, as we know, most people are not so disposed, and instead disinclined to risk others’ judgment–forgetting that many folks, confronted with truth, will oblige its wisdom; those who don’t, I care not a fig about and seek not their admiration.

     Our commuter rail is another matter. Some cars are supposed to be cell-phone free but I’ve yet to find one. It is my luck therefore to be seated near jackasses who carry on the most ridiculous conversations viva voce. I find this intolerable and have taken to an effective remedy: when behind such gentry, I take out my own phone and pretend to be in idle but lively prittle-prattle with a (nonexistent) conversationalist.

     I speak more loudly than is my habit, and have found I am an expert in creatively banal verbiage. This annoys the jerk-wad and brings him to twist around and administer a hateful stare–whilst I avoid such glances by looking out the window, cheerful and uninterrupted all the while.

     If he shuts up, I conclude my one-sided dialogue; should his chit-chat resume, I can always think of another imaginary friend who needs a long, caring, trivial check-in.

     To wit, I’ve found that having a good humor about those who intrude upon my privacy and good graces is the better way. After all, laughter is the best medicine, even when it’s only mine.

 

 

 

John Burciaga - "Ichabod"

John Burciaga – “Ichabod”

Mar
08

          The annual gush over hunks and chicks strolling a Red Carpet (why not the Yellow Brick Road?) is because they are our royalty. We’ve never gotten over losing that when we broke up with the Brits.

          Now we pick from a cast (pun intended) of hundreds at once, very much alive and mugging cameras for our indulgence. And if not at their talent, then at their clothes, shoes and whatever wardrobe malfunctions. But it’s clear our hearts do not belong to Daddy, unless his name is Oscar.

          We call them “movies,” which has morphed to “movie theaters,” but whatever are we saying with that shorthand word: —what’s not “moving” on a stage or in other entertainment? It comes from the very first term, “moving pictures,” but still…

It is not to demean or deny movies and why we love them: it has to be a miracle anyone still goes to live theater when the competition has so many resources; not to mention the audience need not bathe or dress up—just settle in with the obligatory coke and popcorn and let those big faces on the screen scare the hell out of us or induce our tender tears.

          Certainly the talent is there, as on Broadway, but movies add all the glitter and sight/sound effects. Hence, stage acting is deemed “real” and more of a challenge. But screen actors chose the medium seen by more people, all over the globe—and more fame and fortune as well.

          It is proper too that attention is given now and then to those behind the scenes of the muggers’ success—writers, directors, screenplay adapters, et al, but however deserving they are, admit it: you thank god that it always comes back to those we lust for, in their stages of dress or undress, while we play flies on the wall at their big party.

          Nor can we deny powerful movie performances, however enhanced by special effects. And actors are at last left on their own for the coup de grace of the moment’s entertainment: one can cite McConaughey’s and Leto’s contrasting but balancing performances in “Dallas Buyers Club” and the verbal slug-fest between Roberts and Streep in “Osage County” (trailers for the latter made us think it was a comedic drama but in the climactic scene we thought they might kill each other for real). And here’s to Matt’s willingness to stop being just a stud-muffin and do truly serious roles—and the same to Julia for escaping her glamor-shot, T&A type-casting for real acting. Now if she and Sandra Bullock can stop dating ape-men who are out of their league, we could admire them even more.

          Matthew and Jared however took separate paths with their acceptance speeches: Leto nailed it with one of the better takes in Oscar history, while Matt reverted to his “Buyers Club” voice, laced with lame religious references.

          Before we abandon the style-factor, those Carpet shots give new meaning to “Selfies,” except someone else is holding the camera. And it’s amazing that so many people with so much money can’t come up with really smashing dresses, in this case making it easy for Lupita Nyong’o to smoke everyone else by a long shot. And here’s the latest tragedy: men are now busting style-moves on the carpet with similar results—meaning, don’t wear what they do, even at home.

          Ellen is becoming a national treasure, endearing by her totally naturalness and still surprising with her comedic deadpan.

          As for Leonardo, Scorsese has wasted too much directing capital trying to make him Brando’s successor. He was a young surprise in “Titanic” with the callow, shirtless body of an 11-year old, but he hasn’t aged that well as adult talent. His intended dramatic first appearance in the Gatsby remake was anti-climactic: nothing like Gable’s sparkling first presence in GWTW.

I was laughed at for saying the promising talent in Titanic was Kate Winslet—but she has since scarfed up all the big awards. This time it was a mistake to go for Gold with Leo in “Wolf of Wall Street”; Mike Douglas had already nailed that genre with the “Greed” movies. Leo always comes up empty but someday will get a “career” award a la Bob Hope, who hosted more Oscars than anyone and graced them all with countless un-funny one-liners. In an interview of recent vintage, Leo’s good friend Winslet referred to him lovingly as, “silly, farty old Leo.” There’s an award for you.

          So our hearts still belong to Oscar after all these years, though he’s poorly handled by recipients on Award nights—they dangle, jab and point with him. It’ll be the day when someone just plain drops him on the floor.

        

Feb
01

          Americans, encumbered with a love of all things military and the notion that those in uniform can do no wrong, quickly forget the sins of the most higher-up, the generals: the Petraeuses and McChrystals and their ilk.

          Pride went before their fall, but it’s all a ho-hum, let’s-move-on matter. But generals do matter: they are the point-people for the one at the top: the ones tasked to carry out orders from the Commander in Chief. When they fail to do so, their boss gets the blame.

         One who could and should have said no was Colin Powell, when George W surprised him, in a high-level meeting, of his intentions to invade Iraq: “Are ya with me, Colin?” What a time to find out; but like a good soldier, Powell, a career, top-ranking military man, knew better than anyone who was Boss, and had little choice but to say yes–then was obliged to pitch Bush’s Cheney-inspired, bogus “weapons of mass destruction” charges at the UN. Colin’s big mistake: had he resigned, he could have become president.

          Others in our history let down their prez by not following orders, like the flamboyant MacArthur who disobeyed, got canned, then considered a run against his boss, Truman. Sadly, out of uniform and sans corncob pipe, he was just another balding old man whose reach exceeded his grasp.

Think of McClellan, who could have ended the Civil War but wouldn’t let his superior forces do it—and upon replacement, pre-figured MacArthur by challenging Lincoln politically. Lincoln by that time desperately needed a victory, and Joe Hooker boasted he’d take down the Rebs at Chancellorsville, saying God would have to have mercy on Gen. Lee, because he, Hooker, would not. Imagine his surprise when, outnumbered two to one, Lee kicked Joe’s sorry ass, and Lincoln trudged on in his search for someone who could fight. Too bad that when Meade won at Gettysburg, he let Lee’s shattered forces escape to fight again.

When the draft was instituted, people saw the war not as one to save the union, but to free slaves, and in the New York City riots that ensued, blacks were shot, burned and hanged.

Abe, friendless even in his own party, was caricatured in the press as an ape, monkey, baboon, and orangutan, and most of all, weak. He knew McClellan could win the election, and kept changing generals with no success until, at the witching hour, Vicksburg victor, Grant, moved on Richmond and Sherman did the rest. McClellan, if president, would have negotiated peace with the Confederacy and we would have become a two-nation mid-continent.

Scrub all those Civil War names and replace them with those who’ve let down Obama and the story would look the same. Like Lincoln, he’s been let down by his “generals,” both in and out of uniform. Bob Gates’ recent book, “Duty,” useful to Fox News and its cherry-picking analysis of any information, actually reveals Obama as the most independent thinker of recent presidents, able to question advice and revise policies–you know, the kind we used to say we wished we had. Gates has largely been given a pass for dishing on his nation’s leaders in time of war. Known as a Mr. Weepy when announcing casualties while Defense Secretary, one wonders if his own guilt for being part of the system tempted him to throw others under the bus.

When he became president, Lincoln was known mostly for his debates with Douglas. Laden at the get-go with civil war, he was quickly deemed impotent and vacillating–a more apt description of his generals. But one writer noted that he only appeared non-aggressive: in truth more like a wire that would not snap, holding together both government and people.

Lincoln and Obama are much alike, especially in their perceived alienation from those who elected them. It is ironic that a failed website, where Obama again was let down by departmental “generals,” and which soon will be a non-issue, has damaged him the most.

A Buddhist saying is that the bamboo is an exemplar of strength—not by brute toughness but its ability to bend without breaking. Obama is such an example. Or, if you will, the wire holding us together through this terrible era.

And like Lincoln, someday he will be considered great. Many presidents became so by virtue of wartimes or acquisition of territory. Obama’s legacy will be getting the U.S. out of war(s), and the Affordable Care Act will take its place alongside Social Security and Medicare.

 

 

         

 

 

 

Nov
25
English: "The First Thanksgiving at Plymo...

English: “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thanksgiving traditionally is a time to eat like there’s no tomorrow. And there are some big fat ideas about the day that ain’t necessarily so.
    Of course times have changed and so has Turkey Day, an occasion that such fowl surely would anticipate with dread, except that they don’t have powers of anticipation till they see the farmer’s axe. A late friend of mine was a chronic stutterer but compulsive musician who dubbed himself, “The Worst Country Singer in the World,” and would stammer through his signature song, an ingenious rendition titled, “Please, Mr. Swift, Don’t Take My Boy Again This Year.”
    Clearly the song was about the meat processing industry, of which Swift & Co. was representative of those in the U.S. that, well, “made a killing” when Thanksgiving came around. Today there are more vegans among us who eschew, rather than chew, any kind of meat then or any day in the year. If nothing else, their influence has occasioned more sensible controls on our amount of consumption.
    We are also a far cry from the first issue of Life Magazine, whose “dietician” was firmly in the pocket of the Camel cigarette company. For the family celebration of that year, her special spread suggested that each course of the Thanksgiving meal be preceded, and followed, by diners enjoying a good smoke (of a particular brand, of course). In each case, she said, it enhanced taste, digestion, conviviality and other crap that said dietician was paid to promote. For that hallowed tradition, let us all fold our hands and say in unison: “No, thanks.”
    But there is more to consider than gastronomical matters. The “values” people out there, of whom there is a frightful number in the world these days, love to say that Thanksgiving is a “conservative” holiday, since only their kind love family and children, not to mention land and liberty. My encyclopedia however says the “Pilgrim Fathers” were the “left wing” of Puritanism who also dumped the Nicene Creed in favor of a Covenant of community relations. Oh, damn the facts! There’s nothing more inconvenient than truth as confirmed by historical records.
     It is also believed that Thanksgiving Day goes back not only to the pilgrim-ish people but perhaps even to Adam and Eve when, to his chagrin, she served an apple when he adamantly preferred turkey–and thus inspired a noble tradition observed ever since.
    Well, the Pilgrims did have much to be thankful for, first and foremost to the Wampanoags and other “savages” who shared generously with that rag-tag bunch. Too bad the natives didn’t take a dimmer view of those fun folks who would grow from fifty in number (an equal number had died off at an alarming rate) and would be followed by others bearing disease and a tendency to break treaties. That’s why we give thanks that Day while descendants of  “Indiana” protest the whole kit and caboodle.
    On a recent trip to my Missouri hometown, my wife noticed the word “Capaha” on various sites and local institutions and I explained that was the local tribe that inhabited the region prior to white settlement. She rightly mused that use of their name was our way of dealing with the guilt for what we did to them.
    Once rid of the natives all over the U.S., for the most part, we’ve become our own worst enemies. As we sit down this year to the obligatory feast, the visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads will be the economic distress occasioned by a recalcitrant, extremist Congress. Wow, once we took this land by force we sure knew what to do with it, didn’t we.
    For the above we utter a sad but harsh, “No, thanks.”
    But for all else: for love, family, and for good, generous, tolerant people, each of whom is worth more than a hundred times those others who tell lies on TV news and vote for nincompoops at every opportunity, we join the character in Shakespeare who said, “I can no answer give, but thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks.”

Oct
28

     llalloween’s here, and I am reminded: Some people are scaredy-cats, and I’m one of them. We order our lives so as to feel in control, to be captains of our fate, masters of our destiny. So who are we kidding?
    Herman Hesse said we live in the realm of the uninsurable. Freud said it’s human to build mental defenses against our fears and anxieties—or to convince ourselves that we don’t have any.
    Ah, “from ghoulies and ghosties and three-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night, good Lord deliver us…”
    Personal rituals help us to feel more comfortable in a frightening world: If you’re among the majority that puts on both socks first, then shoes, be advised at this time that a fifth of the population puts sock and shoe on one foot, then the other. This may seem unworthy of mention, but whichever people do, they seldom do it the other way. Why? Does it matter, or make that much difference which way it’s done?
    Some people always check behind a shower curtain even in the home of a friend. This is more typical of women ages 21-34, while men are more likely when we’re 45-54. Guys, what the hell are we afraid of at that age?
    And how do you eat corn on the cob? Most people  go around the cob in a circle. The rest eat it in rows like a typewriter. Few can bring themselves to do it the other way: something terrible might happen. Same thing with spaghetti—do you cut it up or wind it on a fork? These are almost equally popular ways, but those who use one way won’t do it the other: the world might come to an end.

                                                             FEAR AND TREMBLING

    The celebration of fear, as is our custom around Halloween, goes back to the Druids. But Rudyard Kipling said he found more belief in ghosts in the southern U.S., between Savannah and Memphis, than in any similar area of Europe. More than half the American adult population believes in the Devil; nearly half believes there are human-like aliens among us; and almost a third believes some houses are haunted.
    So if you thought Astrology is all the rage, it’s way behind aliens and haunted houses. Even witches, the kind we parody in costume, like Rodney Dangerfield, get no real respect: despite all that’s written and said about them, only 14% of us believe they exist. That is interesting because at Halloween so many want to dress that way. Of course, there is a saying that, “wear the right costume and the part plays itself.” But let’s not go there.
     “Fear and trembling” are part of the human condition, not things “out there,” but inner human states. People and things don’t “scare” us as much as they awaken fears already inside. Millions are spent on movies to do just that; but for free, anyone can do it by grabbing us suddenly from behind, or by jumping out of a closet as we walk by.
     As Hugh Walpole said, “…for all of us, our particular creature lurks in ambush,” and we can become, as Shakespeare said in Hamlet, “distill’d almost to jelly with the act of fear.” Edwin Friedman’s metaphor was that fearful anxiety hovers like a cloud over society, looking for some place to land, and will come to rest on any current public fantasy or rumor, whether having to do with a social minority, a national enemy or reports of alien—or we could add, terrorist—visitors.

     Nothing was more respectable than ancient evil. While people give little credence to witches, good ones or bad, they once were among the most dramatic targets of social anxiety. The Halloween festival evokes images of them that are now trivialized and hardly worth a thought. But the word, wicca, relating in English to the word, “wise,” tells us that in ancient days, witchcraft was the craft of the wise. They were among the few who could read and write when illiteracy was the general rule. In time, it was believed they could heal the sick and improve growth of crops. Today we call people with similar gifts, physicians and scientists.
Halloween is the beginning of the Wiccan new year, when witches honor friends and family who have died, and are invited to attend as “guests,” a word related to the word for “ghost.” But almost everything they documented about their lives, beliefs and practices was burned or lost; all we have left comes from those who disliked and persecuted them.

                                                 THE DEVIL IN MASSACHUSETTS, AND
                                                       THE FUNNY MAN WITH FANGS

     Of course the witch trials in Salem didn’t help. One of the landmark studies on that was written by Marion Starkey, whom I visited in her home in 1987 when I was on sabbatical. Undoubtedly many of us read it as a bestseller then, titled, The Devil in Massachusetts. Many innocent people were horribly defamed and killed on the testimony of others who, shortly after, apologized for their sudden, strange capacity to lie. Starkey was one of the first to debunk the idea that any real “devil” was at work: rather, a tiny group of pubescent girls whose rage toward their Puritan environment became the death of the most innocent people in their town.
     Then there’s Dracula. Were it not for Bram Stoker’s chilling little tale, we would think a man in a cape, with fangs and slick black hair to be rather silly. After all, the real blood-suckers in our society are handsome and engaging, like Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy—or charming little buggers like Charles Manson. But their Pentium chips were definitely out of whack, and their power to seduce and destroy was possible precisely because they were not silly-looking characters.

                                                            CITIES OF THE DEAD

     Along with Dracula comes the curious notion of the living dead, or the “undead,” about which, I submit, people care not a fig. What we do care about is being dead: nobody wants to be that—that’s why so much of religion is about eternal life, which is interesting, given that lots of people don’t know what to do with a Sunday afternoon. But we maintain constant connections with those no longer living. And I don’t mean séances and other channeling. Our real fascination is with cities of the dead: that’s what cemeteries are—necropolises, literally, cities of the dead. And the living go there more than those who are not. If we think people behave well in church, consider that nowhere do they behave better than in cemeteries, where they visit those who are there but who do not speak and are not seen.
     Thankfully, there have been people who were, and are, unafraid of both the past and of the unknown. Such have been the great humanists of the world. Science began with those who were willing to face the unknown, humanists who made no claim to finished truth. They sought mystery like some people chase tornadoes, and what is mystery but not knowing? We think we should never be caught dead saying, “I don’t know.” We won’t stand for a mechanic to say so: “What do you mean you don’t know what’s wrong with my car?”

                                                                    MY GREATEST FEAR

     When Halloween comes around, we’re still like the Druids, who started all this nonsense anyway; they tried to chase away the god of autumn darkness with great bonfires—literally, bone-fires, fires made with bones. They tossed in also certain unfortunate people who had broken laws, or were prisoners of war. Later, spirits of the victims were believed to try to return to their original homes. The folks at home, not a little unnerved by the prospect, left food by the door, hoping the spirits would eat it outside and leave them alone. Of course, beggars filched much of it in the mid of night, not to mention irreverent teenagers, and next day the more superstitious householders had all the proof needed of “ghostly” visitation. Silly them, but that’s where we get Halloween.
     I wish we did more with Halloween. We could use it as a time to face our fears; to consider the mystery and importance of death, as is done in Mexico’s Day of the Dead; and to appreciate the importance, sometimes, of honestly saying, “I don’t know.”
I’m not scared as much of what people may do, as what they may not. It bothers me that the vast majority of Americans get their news from sound-bytes and that they believe and vote according to them. It scares me that so many won’t read a damn book once in a while; the value of books is that they get and place most if not all the information in order and in context.
     It is said that Freud used a couch for his practice of psychoanalysis simply because he could not stand to be stared at; imagine, the couch became as much of an institution as his method! I think too many of us cannot stand to face the truth or ourselves.  And that scares me.
It may surprise some that I do not fear the Tea Party as others do. From their beginning I knew it would be transitory. I also knew it would cause and create much mischief, and it has. But in the context of history, it has been here before in various guises, whether the Know-Nothings, Fr. Charles Coughlin or Sen. Joseph McCarthy of the infamous Red Scare in America. Ted Cruz is another Joe McCarthy and he even resembles him.
     You may say, yes, but any of these movements can get out of hand. They did, f a time. But the difference is that they were not in a vacuum, as was Hitler and Nazism, Stalinism or Fascism. Our extremists arose in a democracy, and Americans, for a time, will listen to, entertain and consider extremes but ultimately a democracy tends toward moderation.    
     But it still requires vigilance and good information. We cannot expect much of others and little of ourselves, or what will become of us?
     And that is what scares me most.

Sep
02
Portrait of Henry Ford (ca. 1919)

Portrait of Henry Ford (ca. 1919) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

                                      Thoughts on Labor Day 2013

    Hesiod said the first mortals were made of gold. That would be totally good news but Kronos was king of heaven and had a habit of eating his own children, so it was wise to exercise caution. Otherwise these first humans lived like gods, carefree and free of toil, eating sumptuously without fear of want until, as he notes, untroubled by pains of old age as we know it, they died as if overcome by sleep. Sort of like actors and entertainers, before they enter rehab.

    Ovid confirmed that lives of early mortals were spent in firm content and ease amid an eternal spring with rivers filled with milk and nectar. Damn! We really were promised a rose garden! As late as the early 18th century, John Woodward, a natural historian, agreed that the earth in that early time was much more fertile, the surface soil luxuriant and abundant, and toil unnecessary.

    Now who would mess up a thing like that? Well, our boy, and our girl: so we’re told in the good old Judeo-Christian tradition. What a religion! We sure can pick ‘em, can’t we? In that Garden, God made One Thing off limits, and they just had to do it. Not that it was a desperate case, a Promethean situation where you’re in a bad spot, pinned to a rock for eternity trying to figure a way out; or like Sisyphyus, condemned forever to push a rock uphill.

    In the annals of all creatures that ever walked, crawled or flew, Adam and Eve made homo sapiens the biggest losers, ever. And part of the curse for life on earth would be painful toil, what we call “work,” struggling for our substance by the sweat of our brows.

THE MAN WITH THE HOE

    That will do if you need a religious story. The other reason was that the mythical age of Gold was followed by the very real age of Iron. And Hesiod’s tone changed: would that he were dead, he wrote, “for now it is a race of iron,” and our ilk would never cease from toil and misery day or night—while the gods give us harsh troubles. Progress has its price.

    Work is an expenditure of energy, usually at a level and extent we would not prefer. And for ages since we have quarreled over whose work is the hardest. But as John Masefield wrote,

    “To get the whole world out of bed
    And washed, and dressed, and warmed, and fed,
    To work, and back to bed again,
    Believe me…costs worlds of pain.”
    
    The end result is Edwin Markham’s “The Man with the Hoe,” and its lament of the worker-as-victim:

“Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
    Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
    The emptiness of ages in his face,
    And on his back the burden of the world.
    …dead to rapture and despair
    …Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox…
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?
    …There is no shape more terrible than this…
    Time’s tragedy is in that aching stoop
    …this dread shape humanity betrayed…
    How will you ever straighten up this shape;
    Touch it again with immortality…
    How will the future reckon with this Man?
    How answer his brute question in that hour
    When whirlwinds of rebellion shake the world?…
    How will it be with kingdoms and with kings…
    When this dumb Terror shall reply to God…?”
    
    Oh, poppycock, said Henry Ford: Work dignifies a person! Certainly Henry’s did but he was at the top of the production chain and  he was looking for people for his assembly lines. And with the automobile, Henry had One Great Idea while all the rest of his notions were rather odd. For one thing, he considered history to be “bunk,” but of course if we took his name out of our history books, he would probably turn over in his grave. He ventured there never will be a system that does away with work, and a sense of satisfaction always should be taken from a day’s labor.

THE PROMISE OF LEISURE

    Ford also played down the side effects of repetitive work on mind, body and spirit, and said that his observations proved otherwise. Modern research methods show that to be “bunk,” but Henry has already made his fame and fortune and is long beyond caring what we know now. And we should mention the prediction of John Maynard Keynes that, with any luck, economic problems would be solved in a hundred years (he said that in 1930, in case you’re counting) and that the real problem will be what to do with our leisure. O happy day! It would fulfill Samuel Johnson’s observation that, “Every man is, or hopes to be, an Idler.” Certainly that would work for me.

    And it sounds like a return to Hesiod’s age of Gold. If so, we’ll have little use for Dickens and his stories. Dickens kept his eye on companies and their owners and managers and revealed the vulnerability of the worker. It was not a pretty sight, and work did not tend to “dignify” the worker. Bob Cratchit was one of many parents with one or more sick or handicapped children and forced to work for abusive bosses like Scrooge. Ebenezer, as we know, wasn’t happy unless he could be on someone’s else’s back and he spent a lifetime as an obnoxious little creep. But he held all the cards. He was a creep because he could be.

    Dickens told also of men who toiled like shadowy demons at the great factory furnaces; of people in bad apprentice situations or attached to people wealthy by luck of birth, from whence to observe the differences between those lives and their own; and of those who had to live by their wits and at odd jobs. He told of the up and coming “young gentlemen” primed to take the place of the old, whose lives are lived by “Shares;” going to boards of directors meetings to talk about Shares; being sent to mysterious meetings in London and Paris that are about Shares; and who have no principles, but have a hell of a lot of Shares!—and hence are justified at their end of an unequal world. My god, if we ever stop reading Dickens, where in the world will we get an appropriate sense of guilt?
    
    But he also had some delightful moments with humor in the workplace, as in Great Expectations and the way ordinary entrepreneurs “conducted business” by watching each other: one keeping an eye on the saddler, who in turn eyed the coachmaker, who stood with hands in pockets monitoring the baker, who was watching the grocer, before it stopped with the watchmaker who, hunched over his magnifying glass, was the only person on the street, said Dickens, “whose trade engaged his attention.”

WOMEN AND WORK

    The world came to sympathize with Dickens’ not-so-fictional characters, but it took longer to muster empathy for women as laborers. An Irish street ballad is longer than this but begins:

    “I heard a man the other day…savage as a Turk,
…grumbling at his wife…’She never did any work…’”

but after a litany of daily chores, ends with,

“…don’t grumble at your wife…I’m sure
there’s none of you can tell the daily labour
that a woman has to do.”

    An earlier ballad was simply titled, “A woman’s work is never done.” Now all of this overlooks the good face put on women’s role in the labor scheme of the Bible. From the beginning when God rested only one-seventh of the time spent in creation, and the circumstance that brought us to earning our bread by sweat of brow, St. Paul admonishes the early Christian community that those “who don’t work should not eat.”

    For women, this was in spades, and the lengthy verse in Proverbs regarding the “virtuous woman” could have been written by Henry Ford: her toil was repetitive, demanding and filled with pressure, responsibility and no wage; but if she did it without complaint, she got the prize of being called “virtuous” —but hardly a day off, sorry to say.

THE TORTURE OF SISYPHUS

    Simone de Bouvoir called housework the “torture of Sisyphus,” a “furious war against dirt” that makes the homemaker “bitter, disagreeable and hostile…(and) the end sometimes is murder”—a sobering thought if ever there was one. And I don’t recommend reading Thomas Tusser’s 16th century take on the Tudor Housewife’s Day, which will leave you with the urge to slap someone. Indeed, a question that Boswell put to Samuel Johnson that the latter could not answer, was why women servants made so much less than men when clearly they worked so much harder.

    But as women found other work, it often was considered next to loafing, as was that of men in similar occupations. I refer especially to the profession of writing, including journalism. And I refer specifically to two distinguished women, the first, Harriet Martineau, one of the most popular English journalists of her day.

    Among her topics were political economy and taxation, but felt it important to defend mental work as being laborious as any, and that her interviews with physicians confirmed the toll on minds and bodies.

LABOR AND THE MIND

    Indeed, H.L. Mencken declared writing to be “the most dreadful chore inflicted on human beings… exhausting mentally and fatiguing physically,” at end of day leaving one empty of brain and stiff of neck and back, all so “that babies may be fed and beauty may not die.” He mourned that writers suffer alone, working a cappella, and said he never knew an author “who was not a hypochondriac.”

    Then there was Louisa May Alcott: her descriptions, in Little Women, were testaments to how, from earliest age, girls were prepped for unpleasant roles as unpaid domestics and homemakers. It was her own literary success, however, that kept her entire family going, as long as she lived.

                             TO WAKE NO MORE

    And you had to look hard for any sympathy given to slaves, whose lives indoors or out were spent in debilitating toil. Booker T. Washington was at a loss in the face of questions about what sort of sports and amusements he enjoyed as a boy, because he hadn’t had any. As a young slave, he was not as strong as others and overwhelmed even by lighter tasks he was made to do. As a free man, Douglass was shocked at Northerners’ idea that slaves sang because they were happy; out of his own experience he could assure them that the singing was out of sorrow and misery.

    Long before either of them, Thomas Day wrote:

    “…my heart sinks, my…eyes o’erflow…
    For I have seen them, (by) dawn of day,
    Rous’d by the lash, begin their cheerless way
    (with) unwelcome morn’s return…
    No eye to mark their sufferings with a tear,
    No friend to comfort (or) hope to cheer;
    …like…dull unpitied brutes repair
    To stalls as wretched, and as coarse a fare;
    Thank Heav’n, one day of misery…o’er
    And sink to sleep, and wish to wake no more.”  

    Mencken lacked the subtlety of a Dickens: all democratic theories include the “dignity of labor,” he said, a delusion that is one of the worst, but without it the worker would have nothing left in his ego but a belly-ache. Brandishing broad generalizations of art and coal mining, he said the artist would go on working with no reward whatever, and often does, but without his pay the miner wouldn’t work another minute just for the sake of “express(ing) his soul in 200 tons more of coal…”

    Now, I could bore you further, but mercy is one of my abiding virtues. What do we make of all this? Is it recognizable, applicable? Well, yes. We still on the hunt for an age of Gold—of abundance and leisure without the kinds of work we don’t prefer. But our reality is the ongoing age of Iron wherein the gods treat us harshly and idleness is atrophy if not death.

A NEW WORLD OF WORK

    We are not slaves in the plantation sense but of the work of our own choosing. At times we fear that, like the slave, our work is killing us. Too often we toil at the giant furnaces of overcommitment and workaholism. Or we are forced to cobble an existence of survival, close enough to those who seem privileged economically, though demonstrably not better people than we. We look with envy on those whose main preoccupation appears to be the “Shares” of a booming economy and a bull market. Or like the writers of yesteryear we may seem to others privileged to easier tasks, when the truth to us is meaner. Or like Dickens’ entrepreneurs, find ourselves in a circle of strivers whose avocation is to watch each other with envy or disapproval.

    Whatever we find distasteful in our work, we are in an age of those who are constantly in, or seeking, jobs, careers, trades, professions, businesses; or the management, often risky, of trading, investments, and portfolios. When forced to idleness, we are threatened in self-respect, self-image, well-being or the survival of our plans and families. All this further complicated in an age of paper, cyberspace and stock market symbols.

WORKPLACE ISSUES

    While work may be work, the workplace and our livelihoods are different. We change jobs, try to balance issues of work and home, and ensuring time with kids. We are working couples, “power couples,” and worry about the self-image of working at home or in full-time parenting. There are headaches of owning a business; stress and illness at work, from business travel and unusual work shifts; of health insurance and other benefits and perks; workplace safety; minimum and living wages; of physical challenges and accessiblity.

    Some of these already have been deemed valid or still meeting resistance and challenge, but seemingly ours is a world far from that of Hesiod and Dickens, of Alcott and Martineau, a world now fought over by pressure groups and politicians.  

    Ben Franklin once wrote a piece in which he remarked on the continuing attraction, in his time, of American society to the life of the Indian on our continent, and how the Indian resisted our way, even when exposed to it, but noted those whites who, exposed to Indian life from capitivity or other circumstance, often opted to stay or to return to that existence.

HENRY’S CHOICE

    When Henry David Thoreau wrote of his experience at Walden, he underscored a similar life. He said he didn’t read books the first summer; he hoed beans. One summer morning he sat in his sunny doorway till noon in reverie, undisturbed solitude and stillness, while birds sang aroundtill the sun fell, and was reminded of the lapse of time. In those seasons he said he grew like corn in the night, “far better than any work of the hands” and silently smiled at his good fortune:

    “I lived like the…Indians, of whom it is said that ‘for yesterday, today and tomorrow they have only one word (which) they express by pointing backward for yesterday, forward for tomorrow, and overhead for the (present) day.’” And all this was deemed sheer idleness by his neighbors, but had he been tried by the standards of the birds and flowers, “I should not have been found wanting.”

    We may feel Thoreau’s life is impossible for us. So, perhaps, is the one we now have. Perhaps somewhere between is a better world altogether.

                                                             *          *          *

Check out:

    Ferber and O’Farrell, with Allen, Work and Family: Policies for a Changing Work Force.

    Hesiod, Works and Days.

    Wells, H.G., Work, Wealth and Happiness.

    Zedeck, Sheldon, editor. Work, Families and Organizations. 1992

Jul
02

    “America the Beautiful” should be the national anthem: Katherine Bates’ words, published in 1910 (and originally titled, “Pikes Peak”), are truly patriotic in the best sense of the word–an expression of love for country and the joy it brings to its inhabitants.

  

Plaque commemorating the song, "America t...

Plaque commemorating the song, “America the Beautiful” atop Pikes Peak. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Star Spangled Banner is eminently unsingable and often referred to as the “firecracker song,” which it really isn’t, considering that we brandish fireworks on the Fourth of July, strangely, to the strains of the 1812 Overture.

    Truth being stranger than fiction, said Overture was written by a Russian with no intention of commemorating any even in American history, but to celebrate an anniversary of Russia’s defeat of Napoleon. Tchaikovsky himself had little enthusiasm for it, deeming it “loud and noisy.” What made his efforts palatable was a handsome commission.

    Some 85 years later, in 1974–something well remembered by Bostonians–Arthur Fiedler and a local businessman deigned to restore crowds to the city Pops concerts and chose the Overture. With booming cannon, church bells a-ringing, fireworks and a sing-along, it worked its magic–the first use of that music for a celebration of the Fourth that became an annual event. How sad that in recent years viewership has declined and 2013 will be the first time since its inception not to be telecast nationally.

    Our real national anthem is a war song of sorts–a battle hymn for a particular battle, and I am hardly alone in my wish to change it. More than a quarter of Americans want Bruce Springstein to write a new one, and that’s not counting those who would prefer even Dolly Parton, Stevie Wonder, or rapper Jay Z to do so.

    America the Beautiful is kinder and gentler, and a more singable, hymn. It’s also more realistic and calls us not only to pride in nation but to self-responsibility: “America…! God mend thine ev’ry flaw; confirm thy soul in self-control…” Therein is a patriotism I can warm up to, and one that is advisable when we are tempted to tell everyone else on the planet how to live, and making excessive claims to so-called American “exceptionalism.”

    Extremes of nationalism are not patriotism; they are distortions of it that flatter themselves with words such as “super-patriotism,” but tend rather toward chauvinism and jingoism. Among their uglier recent manifestations are attempts to deny Muslim mosques in various parts of the country; that absurd American Berlin Wall that we have, and will extend, on our southern border; and the burden we want to put on immigrants who are already here; and the latest–the Supremes’ evisceration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

     Along with true patriotism are those things embodied by democracy and its freedom of expressions (however crackpot they may be), including civil discourse–albeit we are hard pressed to cite recent examples of it. Indeed, we are amid, not civil discourse, but a great civil war of words (with apologies to A. Lincoln). These are violent times in word and deed–and there will be blood, whether on the floor of Congress, in letters to editors or -Ed and Op-Ed pages, TV news or at your friendly neighbor block party.

    Facebook is hardly a sanctuary, where “Friends” are alternately confrontational and belligerent whilst others, unnerved by the warring, extend pacification and love towards all, and others quote the Buddha and offer mantras. God bless us all, but nothing seems to sweeten the national conversation.

    To reference the Bible is to make our day worse, where the word “fool” shows up a lot and Jesus himself calls his critics a bunch of snakes and sons of hell given to greed and self-indulgence, as well as “unclean” within and without. Is that how I should respond to the Tea Party? St. Paul called the Galatian Christians liars and suggested that those who still practiced circumcision should just go all the way and totally emasculate themselves.

    To its credit, the Good Book also has a softer side–advising us to avoid unwholesome talk; to be quick to listen and slow to speak and to rid ourselves of anger, rage and malice and do all we can to create peace and mutual encouragement. Wonderful advice, and precisely what mediators today advocate to restore civil discourse: they call it “anger management,” “respectful listening,” “negotiability,” and “peace-making.”

    In other words, we’re not, after all, beyond better relations with our social and religious opponents–we’ve simply forgotten, or ignore, how to do so, or are just plain no good at it anymore. As one Msgr. Charles Pope went on to say in a paper on scriptural teachings regarding civility: the better biblical formula seems to be “clarity with charity, truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness,” and a call to heed the old adage to “say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”

    But it’s a challenge. On this Fourth of July, and amid our mutual hatefulness, keep in mind the truer patriotism as espoused by the great Norman Thomas: “Don’t burn the flag; wash it.”