Saturday, November 01, 2008
But he survived, and is most famous now for his books, which essentially invented what's now known as oral history. He died on Friday at the age of 96.
I remember his agile mind and mellow voice, and his shirts with the small checked pattern. He was a paragon of curiosity, a volcano of compassion; he knew a good story, and he could tell a million of them. He was a persistent force in getting black and white Americans to understand and glory in their common culture as well as common humanity. He was a Chicago Everyman, and an American intellectual. He was an enthusiast. And therefore, unique and unforgettable. He cared most about the future.
Asked in Mother Jones interview to name one issue that's been neglected the most through the years, he didn't hesitate: "The big one is the gap between the haves and the have-nots--always...The biggest shame is that there is so much abundance around but that so many have so little and so few have so much."
Asked in this interview if he was going to retire, he replied: "I suppose if I have an epitaph it would be: "Curiosity Did Not Kill This Cat." I don't see retiring in the sense that we view it--I don't see how I could. Dying at the microphone or at the typewriter would not be bad."
Friday, October 31, 2008
I love this video--and it reminds me of the amazing attraction Obama has for children. From the brats at the skatepark near here, to the stories on the Internet about preschoolers watching 'Rock Obama' whenever he's on TV, or identifying their first word--Obama--on yard signs. So this one is for all the kids on Halloween, including the Obama children who are stealing their dad from the campaign trail for a few hours today.
Today is the 70th anniversary of the famous Orson Welles radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” on October 31, 1938. It’s famous because a lot of people believed that America actually was being invaded by Martians.
Even after the panic subsided, some people weren’t amused. One was the author of the novel that the Mercury Theatre of the Air had dramatized: H.G. Wells. Though Wells and Welles seem to get along when they met later in Texas, when H.G. first heard about the broadcast, he was livid. He didn’t approve of his novel being turned into “a Halloween prank.”
While Wells deliberately set about writing a popular novel in The War of the Worlds, it’s true that he had serious intentions and points to make. There was a real world situation that gave him the idea for the story, and it relates to a central theme in Barack Obama’s campaign. [continued after photo]
But lots of people didn’t tune in until the program was well underway, and they heard ordinary dance music interrupted by what sounded like news bulletins, until the fake news took over. Nothing like this had been done before.
Historians dispute how many Americans actually panicked and tried to flee, etc., though comedian and writer Steve Allen wrote vividly about his aunt in Chicago being swept up in it when he was a child and she was taking care of him.
Afterwards, H.G. Wells wasn’t the only one who wasn’t amused. FDR blamed Orson Welles when a few years later, some people refused to believe that Japanese airplanes had suddenly attacked and destroyed much of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.
In the novel, Wells shrewdly combined two topics that separately inspired a number of popular novels of the time. One was invasion. Even then, Europeans could feel the Great War coming (what we call World War I), partly because the European powers were adapting new technologies to build up the machinery of war. So in popular novels, authors imagined mechanized invasions. (English authors imagined Germans invading England; German authors imagined English invaders, etc.)
The other topic was Mars. New telescopes led to increasingly better observations each time the orbits of Mars and Earth came closest to each other. In the 1890s, these observations led to sensational speculations. An Italian astronomer saw what he called “canali” or channels, but the word was translated into English as “canals.” American astronomer Percival Lowell thought these canals would prove the existence of Martian civilization. In 1894, a French astronomer reported “strange lights” on the Martian surface which might be signals. Eminent investigators, including Marconi and Edison, devised ways to signal back.
So in this frenzied atmosphere, more than 50 novels concerning Mars and Martians were published during the 1890s. H.G. Wells simply combined these two popular subjects into one story: an invasion from Mars.
But there were also levels of meaning within the story, which Wells deliberately created. One had to do with evolution. For much of the story, all the humans see of the Martians are their incredible fighting machines. Much later, an actual Martian is seen: a weak creature with a huge head.
The principal narrator of the story recalls the theory of a “distant relative” (named H.G. Wells) that this could be what human beings might eventually look like. As technology got more complex, humans would need bigger brains, but not their bodies. Martians were simply an older civilization. So in a sense, humanity was being conquered by its own future.
Some scholars see the novel as anti-imperialist, and there is a lot in the text to support that interpretation. (The writer of the Spielberg version said he intended an anti-Iraq movie, which is less clear.) Some scholars also dispute this interpretation. But what is indisputable is how Wells got the basic idea for creating the story.
It’s indisputable because Wells described it, several times. Wells was walking with his brother Frank in the Surrey countryside when the conversation turned to the Aborigine inhabitants of Tasmania, south of Australia, who were eradicated when the English transformed the island into a prison colony. What if some beings from another planet suddenly dropped from the sky, his brother wondered, and did the same to England?
In the novel, the narrator refers to the Tasmanians, who "in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants in the space of fifty years.”
The narrator didn’t attack Europeans for doing that—in fact, he was looking at the Martian invasion from the Martian point of view. “Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?"
Still, it is clear that the idea came from imagining how “we”—ordinary 19th English in villages outside London—would feel if we were invaded by beings as superior in destructive capability as the English were when they wiped out the Aborigines of Tasmania. (American Indians are also mentioned in the novel.)
In other words, the initial impulse was empathy: imagining from the other’s point of view. At the very least, Wells implied, empathy should limit if not destroy our hypocrisy. If we invade and destroy, we may not be so different from others who invade and destroy. That our machines are more powerful does not mean that the lives of those we conquer are worth less.
Empathy can provide a note of caution and realism to actions that otherwise are obscured by technological distance and comforting terminology, like “taking out” a “target.”
Empathy can guide us to think of the impact of all our actions on others, and in a more positive way, it can guide us in preventing and alleviating suffering, in providing opportunity.
This is the way Barack Obama talks about it. I can’t recall another candidate who even uses the word “empathy,” but Obama does. He says we need more of it, partly because we are so interconnected, and what happens to some of us can and perhaps will happen to more of us. It is part of his core belief that “we are all in this together.”
It may seem a long way to go from a Halloween broadcast of a scary story, to an affirmation of empathy in the final days of a crucial campaign. But it’s really not. It’s really at the heart of The War of the Worlds, and of this political moment.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Wednesday was a big Obama day. As he continues to build leads in swing states, his half-hour on prime time, two huge Florida speeches (one with Bill Clinton) and an appearance on the Daily Show kept the momentum going. But back when it was all getting started, an anonymous woman in a southern church hall gave the campaign an early slogan when she shouted to the crowd, "Are you fired up? Are you ready to go?" This song by a Seattle group is a soulful expansion of "Fired Up, Ready to Go!"
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Obama in Harrisonburg and Norfolk, VA and in
Chester, PA Tuesday. A new Pew poll has him leading nationally 52% to 38%, and an LA Times poll has him up 9 in Ohio and by 13 in Florida. Early voting is going his way, but the real test is in six days--voters have to vote. Tonight at 8 PM on several network and cable channels-- a 30 minute presentation by Obama--and later, he's on The Daily Show.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
In Pittsburgh on Monday for a speech to a capacity crowd at Mellon Arena, receiving a Steelers jersey from the team owner Dan Rooney who has supported him since the primary, then at Obama hq on the South Side to call a few voters before heading to eastern PA Tuesday.
Pittsburgh has been in the campaign news for all the wrong reasons lately, but here are some images to savor from Barack Obama's appearance in the Steel City on Monday--a capacity crowd at the Mellon Arena. AP images.
Monday, October 27, 2008
A sourced report at TPM reveals that 30 to 40 workers at a telemarketing call center in Indiana refused to read a script that accused Barack Obama of voting to endanger children.
These dozens of workers lost their pay for the day at the very least. This follows two reports last week of single individuals who refused to make similar calls and were sent home. Their example has been echoed by this larger group in Indiana. I salute them for their decency and courage.
It's not working. For the first time in a long time, when the buttons are pushed, nothing happens. Could it be that these are seen as empty as well as deceptive? Could it be that, as Frank Rich wrote Sunday, "As we saw first in the Democratic primary results and see now in the widespread revulsion at the McCain-Palin tactics, white Americans are not remotely the bigots the G.O.P. would have us believe. Just because a campaign trades in racism doesn’t mean that the country is racist. It’s past time to come to the unfairly maligned white America’s defense."
But it's not white virtue we're talking about. Andrew Sullivan points out:" More interestingly, the polls suggest overwhelming Latino and Asian support for a black candidate, erasing fears that those racial dynamics would come into play."
President Obama is going to face the need for sweeping change, and he's going to need the active support, the ideas and the help of millions of Americans. So let's get it all out there--let the McShame campaign use every last discredited charge and hateful suggestion. Let's purge all the poison of those empty words, bankrupt ideas, deceptive names, destructive ideas and phony "wedge" issues from the body politic.
We can take one more week of the Rabid Right's greatest hits. Then flush them down the drain on November 4.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
On Saturday, John McCain and Barack Obama each spoke in Albuquerque, New Mexico. McCain's crowd was described by reporters as under 1,000. The fire chief estimated Obama's crowd at 45,000. Among the newspaper endorsing Obama this weekend are the Anchorage (Alaska) Daily News. The top photo is from New Mexico Saturday; the bottom three are from Indianapolis, IND on Thursday.