Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lincoln-Douglas Redux

Andy's posting about convention burn-out inspired this one: For our first homework assignment in Critical Thinking, we were asked to watch the conventions and then post our comments on the speeches, basically analyzing them the best we could based on our readings in the first chapter of our text.

My point about the conventions is that in this setting you aren't likely to hear any clearly-defined substantive propositions. Political conventions have evolved into carefully staged media events. Their mission is to place the candidates in the best possible light to sell them to the voting public. Any propositions have to be tailored to appeal as much as possible to the common denominator without alienating the party's supporting base. For most people, general topics instead of details will suffice.

The question is, when you take off your partisan hat in order to be a well-informed and discerning voter, how do you get past the platitudes that the candidates feel forced to say for public consumption, the scurrilous attacks their campaigns make on each other, and the hype that their campaigns have surrounded them with, to get at the real core of what the candidates believe and what they are likely to do once in office?

Let's face it, the so-called tv debates that have been around since the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 are a joke. The only thing you can learn from these things are how well the candidates' staffs have prepared them to answer any off-the-wall question thrown at them by network journalists and anchors. To be sure, Nixon's swarthy appearance, Al Gore's sighs, and Lloyd Bentsen's great barb about Dan Quayle being no Jack Kennedy were fine fodder for next morning's water-cooler gabfests, but were totally immaterial to the issues at hand.

I saw Newt Gingrich commenting on this very same issue on one of the political talk shows recently, lamenting the shallowness of the debating process these days. Pushing Newt's political views aside for the moment, Newt as a former history professor and historical author has a good perspective on all this: for comparison, he brought up the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, when Lincoln was challenging Douglas for one of the US Senate seats from Illinois.

According to the "Lincoln-Douglas Debates," edited by Robert W. Johannsen, "Lincoln traveled over four thousand miles through the state, delivering sixty-three major speeches. Douglas exceeded Lincoln's mileage by some nine hundred miles and delivered fifty-nine speeches, each one lasting two to three hours, and seventeen shorter speeches." Although sound systems and tape recorders hadn't been invented yet, fortunately we have the verbatim record of all of their seven joint debates, outdoors between August and October - at Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy, and Alton, Illinois - because the Chicago newspapers sent reporters to the events to take down the candidates' words in shorthand.

The format for the debates followed this schedule: one of them would open with a 1-hour speech; the other would rebut with one of his own for 1-1/2 hours (which of course couldn't be written out because he had to respond to everything his opponent had just said), and then the opening speaker would do a rejoinder for another half-hour. To thumb through these pages and see the breadth and depth of the knowledge about the issues of the day these two men had, and how they could speak at such length on these issues, is absolutely astounding.

This fall, I'd like to see Sens. McCain and Obama recreate this format, each with just hand-written notes, no talking points, and no teleprompters. How much of a chance do you think this has of happening.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Along with 29 other students - in what now looks like a closed class - I'm getting ready to start HIS 479 "From Vikings to Hackers: A Pirate's World History." I especially wanted to get into this class because it's a 4-credit ECCE in Global Studies which I needed, but the subject matter appears to be quite interesting too. One of the books on the required reading list is Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island," which I know I've got but I haven't found yet. Searching for this lost book got me to thinking about the general fascination with buried treasure.

I'm not sure just how widespread this practice really was with the buccaneers of the Spanish Main. Of course, banking practices being what they were at the time, or lack of them, might have instilled the notion that burying a wooden chest full of jewels and gold doubloons six feet down in the sand on a deserted barrier island would provide the equivalent security of, say, a modern-day bank vault. But it wasn't as if you could readily access this plunder, given the rickety old tubs they were sailing around in, and the fact that after a couple of hurricanes the barrier islands might not even still exist.

Still, the prospect of buried treasure holds a tremendous attraction. Whether it's Jean Lafitte's booty down in Louisiana, the Lost Dutchman Mine in Arizona, or the Knights of the Templar's holy grail at Oak Island, treasure hunters are always on the prowl for the big payoff, just like all the people at the gambling boat in Peoria.

Why anybody would voluntarily bury valuables underground is beyond me. Just the thought of having to do something with a shovel makes me break out into a sweat - a cold sweat. It's a hideous thought involving using muscles that aren't designed for such strenuous exertions, as least that's my belief. I guess the southerners had to bury their silverware when the Yankee raiders and scavengers showed up during the Civil War, but that's probably only because they hadn't invented plastic forks yet.

In my family, Uncle Charlie had the reputation of being a tightwad. It wasn't true, of course, but he secretly enjoyed the razzing and even promoted the notion that he had jars and jars of coins buried out in his back yard and down in the cellar. One day at a Yankees-White Sox game he turned the tables on his detractors. When the hot dog vendor showed up on his rounds, Uncle Charlie said, "No thanks - brought my own" - and pulled a fully wrapped and mustardized dog out of his coat pocket. I realize this is an old and oft-repeated joke but according to Dad it really did happen.

This brings up modern-day treasure hunting with metal detectors. A friend of mine caught the bug and went out and bought one of the top-of-the-line models, I think it was around $1500. It was so powerful it could detect mercury fillings in a mummy in a tomb under one of the pyramids, that is, if the ancient Egyptians practiced dentistry along with trepanning. After a few times scoping around an abandoned railroad bed, which required a long, sweaty hike out into the middle of the woods, my friend uncovered a couple of highly-sought after and valuable rusted railroad spikes. I think he put the detector back in the closet and returned to his cave to start watching the entire DVD set of Benny Hill, which suddenly held more interest than metal detecting.

Summer Reading

Once reason I was happy to see the end of the spring semester, besides getting a few more credit hours under my belt, was I would get to read what I wanted in my spare time. Originally, I intended to continue the readings that we didn't have a chance to cover in the textbook for Aesthetics (PHI 439), "Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art," by Lamarque and Olsen. Meanwhile, new books continued to accumulate from library sales, thrift stores, and church rummage sales - bargains I just couldn't pass up, even being extremely choosy, as I've already run out of room on the bookshelves. This meant I was only able to quickly browse through the new acquisitions. I did stick to a couple, though, through at least past the half-way mark.

Jimmy Buffet's "A Pirate Looks at Fifty," is an amusing sort-of-a-memoir in the light-summer-reading genre, centered on a tour around the Caribbean in his personal seaplane to celebrate his 50th birthday. One of the best parts of his life story revolve around his tale of his earlier seaplane crash in Long Island Sound. He credits his survival to a week's worth of Navy survival training that he had to go through to ride an F-16 out to an aircraft carrier. The problem is the book is over ten years old so now he's a pirate looking at sixty or more. And, I don't think there's room in the world for any more sixty-year old pirates, because Keith Richards of the Stones already holds that title.

Witold Rybczynski (wish I could use his last name in Scrabble when I get a tray full of consonants, but proper names are against the rules), professor of architecture at McGill University, produced a gem of a little book in "The Most Beautiful House in the World." In it he traces the evolution and construction of his own house south of Montreal. Along the way he makes these pleasant side excursions and forays into the historical precedents of architecture and building, and ties the whole thing together into one neat package.

"Socialism in America" by Irving Howe, is a small hardcover library discard that I came across, tracing the history and implications of the movement in the USA. In the early years of the 19th century, especially in the west and midwest, during the era of Big Business, Big Railroads, and the Big Trusts, the little people in the factories, mines, and out on the farms were being squeezed unmercifully. Socialism was a booming and wide-spread populist reaction to all of this, concurrent with the translations of Marx and Engles' works into English in the late 1890s. Socialist rallies matched the temperance and religious revival movements in attendance and enthusiasm. Howe continues on to analyze the movement and why it hasn't succeeded here, and what it will take for it to succeed.

Last but not least, there's "Italian Baroque and Rococco Architecture," by John Varriano. I think I like this book not just for its content but because of the gold 19th-century typeface on its cover and its oversized glossy pages, which give a softcover like this a feeling of quality. My, how times change. It's hard to believe that the expansive Baroque architect, Borromini, now considered a brilliant designer, had no influence in his own time and was actually reviled, called "a complete ignoramus, the corrupter of architecture, the shame of our century" (54). Funny how one century's fool is another century's genius, and vice versa.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Parked Blue Van - Part I

As I've already noted, I don't have an old blue van parked in my yard. But somewhere I'll bet somebody does. I imagine it's probably on the outskirts of some little out-of-the-way southern town: a faded, pale blue '68 Chevy van with a snub-nose out behind a falling-down barn, rusting away amidst tall scraggly weeds and half-covered up with kudzu vines. Of course, one of its wide-track '60' rear tires is missing, the wheel held up by a couple of concrete blocks, and the windshield's cracked from a stray .12 gauge birdshot blast (the result of a long-ago and long-forgotten night of inebriated revelry.) One of the van's side doors is partly open - the hinge is broken, and it won't shut anymore - and up front, in between the cracked vinyl bucket seats, the engine housing cover with its faux wood-grain drink-holder lies crookedly askew. There's still an 8-track tape player in the dash, and scattered on the floor are a couple of the square and boxy 8-track tape cartridges bearing legendary names like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Marshall Tucker Band. In the back, the wooden bed frame is exposed under a missing mattress, and the paneled walls are peeling off in strips. There's a lot of trash back there on the damp and moldy shag carpet, including some empty Lucky Strike packs and an empty bottle of Southern Comfort...

Thursday, August 7, 2008

No, I don't have...

...a blue van parked in my yard. After half-dozen of proposed aliases were rejected by Blogspot as already taken, in frustration I growled, "Probably something as offbeat as, say, 'The Parked Blue Van' is already taken, too." Lo and behold, much to my surprise, it wasn't. Well, that's as good a name as any, let's go with it and get this blog up and running!