Remembering Cautiously

Memorial Day has a special poignancy when thousands of people are needlessly dying from a disease.  As the unofficial kick-off to summer, the holiday also marks the loosening of restrictions (most likely prematurely) and we can only wonder how many more will die when our usual carelessness resumes.  I’m not alone, I suspect, in hoping that this crisis will have brought some permanent changes, such as thinking about others.  It’s almost impossible to hope that such consciousness will rise to the level of government, of course, but if we the roots of the grass care for one another won’t that care naturally grow to a national level?  Americans have long loved the myth of rugged individualism.  There may have been a day when that was plausible, but we are now so interconnected that anyone considered successful has become so only because of considerable support of others.

This holiday is all about remembering.  Unfortunately remembering our war dead hasn’t done much to prevent wars.  If they’re not the acting out of our fears (as every belligerence since World War II seems to have been) then what are they?  Phobias of communists, terrorists, and assorted “others” lead us into mass killing, often for economic gain.  What if we were to put those vast military resources toward fighting a deadly disease?  What if we had a national will to take care of our people rather than to enrich ourselves?  Wouldn’t we be all the richer for it?  Instead we face more needless deaths, more people to remember on the next Memorial Day.  Maybe the sun will be shining then.

Those of us non-essential workers who’ve nevertheless been working remotely these past two-and-a-half months have a day off today.  Many will want to gather, but we know it’s not really a good idea.  We know the way infection works.  We have no battle plan against COVID-19.  We’re chomping at the bit for economic vitality, forgetting that those who are on the front lines are continuing to get sick.  It’s strange to have a holiday under such circumstances.  The warmer weather invites us outdoors while the plague drives us inside.  There’s a place for bravery, but when bravado masks itself with foolishness there will be a price to pay.  It’s Memorial Day and we can honor our dead by not rushing to join them with unreflective premature relaxing of safety measures.  Let’s stay safe this holiday by remembering what we’ve learned.

Clear Thinking

I first heard of Norman Ohler’s Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich before it found a publisher.  Even at that point I found the idea fascinating.  My knowledge of the Second World War isn’t deep.  I was born less than two decades after it happened, so it was still heavy in American consciousness, but as a child I wasn’t much interested in history.  (I was a fan of monsters even then.)  Like many people, since November of 2016 I’ve had a renewed interest in how the Nazis rose to power, and how a highly intelligent nation could follow someone as unstable as Hitler.  When I spotted Blitzed on a discount table at the Moravian Book Shop I figured it was a good opportunity to learn more.

Never a drug user myself, I grew up in a culture where such use was prevalent.  I had never realized, however, just how ubiquitous drugs were in Nazi Germany.  Ohler begins by noting the use of crystal meth in keeping German soldiers awake and alert for days at a time, thereby allowing Blitzkrieg to take place.  The offensive on the western front would likely not have worked without it.  The story gets seedier from there.  Hitler, a vegetarian who eschewed drugs and alcohol, had a personal physician who began giving him daily injections of vitamins and what we’d likely recognize as placebos for a number of physical ailments.  Even as decisions were made for genocide, der Führer was being injected with hard drugs of the opiate family, eventually becoming an addict.  Decisions about the fate of an entire nation were being made by a leader so high that straight thinking wasn’t a possibility.

Ohler is careful not to claim that Hitler’s excesses of hatred and megalomania were the results of his drug use.  They were there well in advance of his decline.  Outside the bunkers in which Hitler spent much of the war, drugs were widely used, and abused, in the German military.  In order to try to entice young men into what would become suicide missions, high doses of drugs were provided, often enough to prevent the effective outcome hoped for.  This is a fascinating, sordid story.  It’s a side of the tragedy of the war that we don’t often hear, and it’s a further indication of just how easily madness spreads.  Reading the descriptions of Hitler’s personality, in this particular era, was frightening.  Especially since history has a nasty tendency to repeat itself.

Looking Back

Image credit: David Hunter McAlpin Fund, 1944, via Wikimedia Commons

Like many I’m shocked and saddened by the fire at Notre Dame cathedral.  At the same time a recurring theme of this blog has been that modern people are disinclined to pay for the past, and some analysts are saying that lack of funds for regular upkeep of the cathedral over many years are at least partially behind the tragedy.  Monuments that have stood for centuries require constant care, but it’s so easy to take them for granted.  Cathedrals aren’t just religious buildings.  They are humanistic in the sense that they stand for our natural tendency to create great markers of our time on earth.  So very human.  Many human acts we wish to erase, but some represent a loss to the very soul of our species when they’re gone.

Even in this secular age the great cathedrals of Europe are on the agenda of many a traveller.  My own recollections of Notre Dame have grown hazy with the years—I do recall the stolid towers and flying buttresses.  Even the doubtless inauthentic but still ancient crown of thorns.  The famously secular French stood in the streets and sang hymns as the fire raged. 

My single trip to Paris was followed by a stop in Germany where we saw towers of cathedrals left standing even when the remainders of the buildings were gone—bombed out during World War Two.  Asking a friend about it we learned that the Germans felt these skeletal churches were appropriate reminders of the horrors of war.  No masses could be said in them ever again, but they stood, in their ruined majesty, as their own kind of monument to human folly.

We live in a post-cathedral world.  Symbols of the unity of a nation, demanding resources beyond what could really be afforded, cathedrals served to unite.  Citizens of London, it is reported, shoved bombs off St. Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz.  Religion today has been turned into a means of dividing and conquering people.  It builds border walls rather than cathedrals where those of any faith might be allowed in and invited to wonder.  Images of that famous spire helplessly falling amid the flames suggest the shock of the twin towers collapsing.  Although the structure survives, much has been lost forever.  And if people react like they are wont to do, there will be outpouring of resources to rebuild and restore, but only for a while.  We tend to think that looking at the past is frivolous.  Yet, my photos of Notre Dame remind me that a life spent looking back may well be the only kind worth living.

Centuries

Although it may not be obvious, history marks us as hopelessly shortsighted.  As a species we’ve only been keeping written records for about four millennia.  History, as we know it—without the intervention of gods—is an even more recent phenomenon.  Since living a century is a rarity (although becoming more common), a hundred years seems like a very long time.  Our lives spin out over a brief span of active decades until we run out of energy and let others make the important decisions.  We hope, against hope, that they will have learned from our collective mistakes.  Learning isn’t always our strong suit as a species.  In just one century we forget and arrogantly refuse to read our history.

One hundred years ago the War To End All Wars ended.  World War One was a slaughter on a scale unimaginable, involving nations around the world distrusting each other and hating one another enough to threaten all the advances of millennia of civilization.  When the war was over we thought we’d seen the last of conflict.  Two decades later it started all over again and the Second World War wiped out millions of lives.  The aggressors, known collectively as fascists, were strong nationalists, believing in racial superiority and privileged rights for those in power.  When that war ended, just about seven decades ago, a stunned world took little for granted beyond the awareness that fascism was, at least, gone for good.

Today we stand on the brink of a chasm that spans one century.  Fascists are in power in the United States and elsewhere.  International tensions are running high and the “leader of the free world” openly eschews reading history.  Protests against the war in Vietnam were largely prompted by the real-time coverage on television.  Now we have a world-wide web, but no basis for truth beyond the tweets of madmen.  For many people the decade-and-a-half that they spend in school seems a long time.  We used to believe that it took that long to learn what our restless youth need to survive in a complex society.  We teach them, among other things, history.  The need to learn from our past is perhaps even more important than technology.  My generation of academics, reaching over half-a-century now for many of us, has been taught that lifelong learning is the value we must instill in students.  Given that we’ve collectively had a century to learn, and that we’re still edging toward the same collapsing precipice, a hundred years seems not nearly long enough.

Firestorms

Banned Book Week technically doesn’t start until the week after next, but I have a pathological fear of being late.  I don’t know why.  It could be that I’m aware time is of limited quantity and much of it is owed to the beneficent corporation that keeps you alive, so you have to trade it for food.  And books.  Not much of it is left to do what you want to do.  In any case, my last book for the 2018 Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge was in the banned book category.  Long ago I had decided it would be Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.  I’ve read it before, of course, but it had been long enough that the details had been sanded away and I could only remember parts.  One thing I’d forgotten is how much Vonnegut brings religion into the story.

Writers who avoid religion miss the motivating factor of the majority of human beings’ lives.  This has always seemed a strange denial to me.  I’m not suggesting that every novel should mention religion, but since it is concerned with ultimate interests, it is somewhat surprising that it’s so often overlooked.  Not that it plays a major role in Slaughterhouse Five, but any novel concerned with death is inherently in the realm of ultimate concerns, I should think.  Right, Dr. Tillich?  In any case, I’d forgotten that Slaughterhouse Five was such a poignant, funny, and sad novel.  Vonnegut’s experience of World War Two clearly haunted him—most writers are haunted by something—and his musings were, and often are, banned.

If there were banned books in my high school (and I grew up in a conservative area, so surely there were) I didn’t know about them.  Let’s face it, teens seldom sit around talking about significant novels.  Many, at least among my classmates, didn’t read those that were assigned in English class.  Slaughterhouse Five wasn’t one of them.  I learned about Kurt Vonnegut from a friend while in college.  This is the third of his novels that I’ve read in 2018.  The first two I’d never read before.  So it goes.  I’m keenly aware of time.  I’m also aware that those who would ban books are often those who obtain elected office.  And when you find that your own nation has turned on you, remembering the fire-bombing of Dresden is an appropriate response.  For such reasons Banned Book Week remains important.  It should be a national holiday, at least among those of us underground during the firestorm.

Christian Nationalism

Apparently we’ve forgotten the Second World War. In our touch-screen, never-have-to-get-off-the-couch culture of convenience, we’ve completely disregarded the millions that, yes, died in vain. You see, Christian Nationalism is on the rise, according to a story my wife sent me from the Huffington Post. About as much an aberration from literal “Christianity” as you can get, this movement believes America’s success is tied to its role as a Christian nation. Such believers, if they can even see that such rhetoric leads to war, don’t care. For the fact is that the economy of China is poised to pass, if it hasn’t already done so, the economy of what used to be United States. Call it Confucian Nationalism, but I have the feeling that when two giants try to get into the same compartment things tend to get unpleasant.

Serious thinking is a natural resource of which America has clearly run out. Easy answers, empty of content—junk food of the mind—are easily tweeted out from a personality that declares his own opinions truth. Everything else is fake news. Evangelicals, it’s sorely obvious, need to read The Analects. Don’t claim that its obscure; I’ve read the Bible. If you think you can figure Paul out, well, that’s what I’d call “fake news.” Oh, and by the way, Paul was anything but a nationalist. For all his faults, he knew that Christianity is nothing if it’s tied to nationhood.

Instead we puff out our chests and, ignoring the Bible on this very proverb, become the blind following the blind. If God has a plan he’d better reveal it to his 45th prophet soon because there are some enormous gulfs in the road and he insists on walking without a cane. American exceptionalism is built on the backs of the poor and helpless. They are also the ones most easily swayed by its perverse rhetoric. Nations must separate themselves from their religious beliefs. We’ve seen what happens when incompatible religions become the identifying factors of countries. As long ago as the 1970s I’d learned that nationalism was a powerful force for evil. I hadn’t been alive during the Second World War, but the world into which I’d been born was entangled in Vietnam. We were halfway around the world playing the bully, but it was because of capitalism, not Christianity. The end result, however, was the same. Unimaginable human suffering. Death, pain, and sorrow. And we’ve decided that the Prince of Peace wants us to head down that road again. “Vanity,” I hear Qohelet whisper.

Experimental Truth

Only the truly naive suppose that the government doesn’t lie. I just miss the days when they lied for what could be construed as good reasons. Now you can tell if the president’s lying simply by observing if he’s talking. In nostalgia for the days of defensible lies, and also my own youth, I picked up The Philadelphia Experiment by William L. Moore and Charles Berlitz. Before you roll your eyes too much, please bear with me. I was aware of this book when it first came out, but I never read it. My brother did and his interest has stayed with me all these decades until I finally got around to a bit of guilty pleasure reading myself. In case you don’t know the story, it goes like this:

In 1943 the U.S. Navy was experimenting with invisibility. At or near a naval yard around Philadelphia, the U. S. S. Eldridge was subjected to intense electro-magnetic fields that made it vanish. It showed up moments later in Chesapeake Bay, and then reappeared in Philadelphia. The crew aboard the ship went mad, although the experiment had been successful. Now, of course the story was denied, and still is, by the military. Moore and Berlitz track down enough clues in this book to make the event plausible. Nothing can be proven, and according to physics, this kind of thing can’t happen. Reading the account is a spot of fun amid the daily lies spewing from Pennsylvania Avenue.

There is a personal element involved in this story as well. One of the characters (at least one) uses a pseudonym. (Although the event was decades earlier than the book was written, the military has a long memory.) The pseudonym stuck out because it was Reno Franklin. The name was gleaned from a road sign from Oil City, where I went to high school. It gives the mileage to Reno, and then, Franklin (the town where I was born). Seeing my little town in a book that was a bestseller in it’s day was a strange kind of validation. Did the Eldridge really disappear one fine day in 1943? Most of us will never know. In the name of national security the truth, if there is anything actually to hide, has been classified. But that’s where guilty pleasures come in. Books like this, although they can’t be considered unvarnished truth, are enjoyable to read and vanish into a haze of a world where the Nazis ruled on the other side of the Atlantic, not over here.

Clockwork Heavens

DecodingTheHeavensIn a museum in Athens sits a device chock-full of gears and cogs and dials. Indeed, it looks quite a bit like the movement of a pre-digital clock. This particular object, known as the Antikythera Device, is what would sometimes be labeled an “out of place artifact” were its provenance not so well attested. History doesn’t always play fair. Jo Marchant’s Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000 Year Old Computer—And the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets tells the fascinating story. Discovered by sponge-divers blown off course by a storm in 1900, a sunken ship at Antikythera became the first ever site of a ship-wreck excavation attempt. Even today underwater archaeology presents numerous challenges, but in the turn of the previous century, even land-based archaeology was a kind of glorified treasure hunt rather than an attempt to reconstruct ancient history. As the divers visited and revisited the site into 1901, they discovered ancient Greek statues that are among the best preserved from the ancient world. They also found the corroded box of gears that nobody really noticed for several months.

Marchant carefully unravels the slow process of discovery, acclaim, and forgetfulness that accompanied learning about this highly advanced computer. As with many other important finds, World Wars I and II led to distractions that made history somewhat less appealing than killing millions and then trying to recover from the damage. (The Ugaritic tablets, as I’ve often suggested, suffered a similar forgetfulness for being found at the wrong time.) As scholars, usually only one or two in a decade, began to notice the Antikythera mechanism, it became very much an object out of time. A sophisticated computer for calculating the movement of the sun, moon, and planets, the device could also show the phases of the moon, predict eclipses, and keep track of the Saros, Metonic, Exeligmos, and Callippic Cycles (18, 19, 54, and 76 years in duration, respectively). These cycles accounted for the adjustments needed by leap years and other fixes in the modern calendar. I can’t even keep track of Daylight Savings Time.

Adding to the mystery and drama, the Antikythera Device dates from the first century BCE, a time confirmed by radiocarbon dating and the presence of coins found on the ship. It is unknown who made it, but the influence of Archimedes is implicated. A similar device would not be known for another 1500 years with the beginnings of the Early Modern Period. The Roman Empire, which held power in the Mediterranean world at the time, was on its way toward the legendary decadence that would lead to its inevitable fall. It seems that a culture based on military might had little use for academic devices that were literally centuries ahead of their time. History does not repeat itself precisely, but broad strokes may often reveal more than passing similarities. And for those who want to discover a computer than shouldn’t have been, Marchant’s book is an excellent introduction to how the wisdom of the ancients still keeps us guessing.

New Century

Time is the ultimate commodity. New Year’s Day is one of the ten standard holidays to the business world, a grudging nod in the direction that those who are tasked with making money for others might take a little break. Yesterday as I arrived in Times Square at 7 a.m., with a handful of others on the bus, vendors were already setting up their card tables on street corners with cheap, glitzy baubles to celebrate the drop of a ball as 2013 slowly wound out. Like many others, I marched to a job where little was happening. Emails elicited no response. Entire buildings in parts of Manhattan didn’t bother with anything but emergency lights since who really works on New Year’s Eve? Some of us must. As the long hours slowly passed at my cubicle, my mind wandered back over the past few weeks, months, year, decade, quarter and half centuries. New Year’s Day is one of the oldest religious holidays, if not the original one. But how far have we come?

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Only a century ago the world was poised for the Great War as 1914 dawned. Trenches were dug in minds before they ever appeared in the mud of the Somme. 1918 brought a tenuous peace that would lead toward inevitable renewal of hostilities after a decade was allowed for Gatsby and the jazz age. World War Two ended with the first threats of mutual annihilation, and just five years later the Korean War began. The police action ended in time to offer another opportunity at war in Vietnam around three years later. I grew up aware of the Vietnam War, but in a religion that taught me it was just preparation for the Really Great War yet to come. We gave ourselves fifteen years before starting a war in the volatile Persian Gulf, a conflict with a sibling Second Gulf War with its premature mission accomplished. Technically it’s over, but for how long? Drones fly over our heads even now. Books on World War One line bookshop shelves (in as far as there are any bookstores anymore). Sometimes I hope there are no prophets.

New year was a ritual marking that sacred resetting of time, and eventually it took on a significance all its own. A spiritual reboot, as it were. A time to move on from past troubles. As I walked through Times Square yesterday evening, my only thoughts were for the bus that would take me home, away from the massive celebration. I had a book to read against the long journey and already by five o’clock the crowds had begun to coalesce. So many people. So many hopes and dreams. The ball stood poised over Midtown, ready to fall, and a new kind of symbolism became apparent. We begin the new year with a downward trend. The tangled webs we’ve been weaving for decades have not been reset. Politics and power-brokers will continue to build on what they started long ago. Some of us just want to get home.

World War 1.2

75 years ago today Orson Welles presented a radio drama version of The War of the Worlds. Perhaps it was the looming fear of the Second World War in a society that hadn’t yet overcome the trauma of the First, or perhaps too few people had read H. G. Wells’ novel, but the result was surprisingly catastrophic. Panic arose as listeners supposed that the invasion was real—the broadcast, although announced as a radio drama, followed a news bulletin format that overrode the rational faculties of many. This episode would influence government decisions about what to reveal to the public for years. And, naturally, it all began in New Jersey. Unlike the novel, the radio broadcast set the invasion, initially, in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. This tiny town is difficult to locate even today, falling as it does between the busy north-south roadways that run through the central part of the state.

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The Hindenburg disaster had taken place the previous year in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Welles, impressed by the radio coverage of that celestial fear, used those broadcasts as models for his play. A few weeks ago I ventured to Grover’s Mill to let my imagination roam free for a while. A great deal of history may have been determined by that broadcast and the public reaction. We are ready to believe that danger lurks above. The First World War began to make early use of the airplane as a weapon. The sky, previously, had been obtainable only with the slowly moving balloon. Only eleven years earlier Charles Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic by plane for the first time. The Second World War would see air combat as a major component of victory, also for the first time. My mother grew up in New Jersey, watching planes searching for German U-boats off the shore. The skies were not so friendly then.

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As I stood in Grover’s Mill, I recollected an unpublished book I once wrote about the weather in the book of Psalms. The thesis, somewhat loosely, suggested that for the average person the sky reflects the mood of the divine. Dramatic clouds still look angry, even when God is removed from the equation. The Reagan era gave us all new things to fear raining down on us from the skies. September 11, 2001, brought the skies crashing to the earth again. Invasion from above is an apt way to add a chill to Halloween, for it takes the prerogative of the deity and makes it either human or alien. At least most people who believe in God think he’s on their side. When the Wright brothers took their heavier-than-air craft briefly to the skies in 1903, The War of the Worlds had only been on the market for five years. The coming decades would drive God from the skies and we would come to learn that what falls from above would no longer have our best interests at heart.

To the Flag

In the great witch hunt that began (or perhaps simply continued) with the Neo-con upsurge in which big business climbed into bed with theological conservatives, the pledge of allegiance became the acid test of true Americans. The Communists were now fading as a threat, and to be patriotic requires a clear and present enemy, so the un-Americans could be found among those who refused to pledge allegiance to a flag. In a recent CNN story, a case is going to court in Massachusetts to remove the words “under God” from the pledge. The dilemma is as simple as it is complex—children who do not believe in God may either recite what they don’t believe, or be ostracized for opting out. (Those of us who make a habit of opting out of things know the feeling well.) The argument goes that children are pledging loyalty to their country, not to a religion. Why should they be forced to say what they don’t believe?

The pledge has an interesting history. The original oath, a celebration of the now much-suspect Columbus Day, was intended as a quick credo of loyalty. No deity of any sort was invoked. Over time, additions started to creep into the pledge (the original version read “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”). It was not until after the tremendous horrors of World War II, when society was over-reacting to all kinds of threats, real and imaginary, that the words “under God” were added, in 1954. Godless Communists beware! Like the original pledge, this emended pledge celebrated a civil holiday—Flag Day.

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Nationalism could well be considered a form of religion. Customs differ in various parts of the world, and highlighting the differences allows for the conferring of unique advantages among the members. True capitalism cannot work in a culture of complete fair play or equality. Nations must be able to declare ownership and control of resources, including those known to every “human resources” officer in the universe as the most troublesome kind. To be useful to a nation, loyalty must be pledged. And children, who don’t have the experience or psychological development to make an informed choice about the Almighty, must say that they believe in “one nation, under God,” where “one nation indivisible” has itself been divided by God. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad to be an American—I can’t imagine being anything else. But I especially like the part about “liberty and justice for all.”

Portrait of God as a Young Man

Famed swing state Ohio is back in the news with Jesus in the front lines. It was an unlikely setting to notice such a thing. I was sitting in a conference room at work, awaiting the start of a meeting. A laptop was set up with a projector, and the homepage cast upon the screen was msn.com. There, on the wall at work was Jesus’ name.

The story has to do with a public school in Jackson City. A student group had donated a portrait of Jesus to the school in 1947, but in a multicultural world the constitution sometimes has to take on the Prince of Peace.

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While the legal issues are thorny, I have an even more probing question to ask. What makes a portrait a religious object? There is a fair bit of dispute about the historical Jesus—who he really was, where he was from. Despite the sangfroid of the New Atheists, there is little reason to doubt that there was a historical person Jesus. If that is the case, what makes his picture any different than that of Woodrow Wilson or Ronald Reagan? Or Churchill, with his religious-sounding name? One could argue that we don’t know what Jesus looked like—and this is true—but neither could we really identify many historical figures before the advent of photography.

The making of a picture into a religious object comes down to intent. Intent on the part of those who hung it, and on the part of those who view it. The 1940s were a different era. The Second World War was just ended, America was proudly Christian after fighting for the cause of truth, justice, and, well, the American way. Could the school group have donated Jesus in that era as the portrait of a great man? Without supernatural implications? I suspect we all know the answer to that.

Fast forward a few decades. The world has changed drastically. We are multicultural. The internet entertains us with such stories as this. If not for the internet, and a casually chosen homepage, I would never have even heard of Jackson City, Ohio. Is it possible that we could look at a picture of Jesus in our day without religious adoration? Quite possibly. But the furor raised by the religious right every time a perceived slight stirs up the dust would seem to make such an association impossible. Any prominently displayed picture of Jesus in a government location, no matter how local, is perceived as a religious act. It seems that we’ve lost our ability to appreciate the wider realm of possibilities. And that is sad. Who was Jesus, really? Historians and theologians come to no consensus on the issue. One thing is for certain, he’s sure to set people against one another wherever he appears.