Saturday, May 15, 2010

Judging A Book By Its Cover

My forthcoming book has a cover, a rather nice one I think.  What makes it particularly interesting is that it is based on the designs of El Lissitzky, a prominent Russian artist from the early 20th Century.  To learn more about his work, check out the link below.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Resuming an Irregular Schedule

Forcing myself to write something three times a week is a pain, and the world is filled with too much pain already.  For that reason, I am going back to posting something only when I have something meaningful to say.  Hopefully, that will improve the quality of my posts. Cheers!

I will also mention that Barnes & Nobles is offering a deal on my book -- More than $20 off the cover price and free shipping. Such a deal.  It can be ordered at:

Monday, April 19, 2010

Pondering the Cruelty of April 19th

In his poem “The Waste Land,” T. S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month of the year. ” Looking back into history, the 19th certainly is one of the cruelest days in April.

Today is the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, the horrors of Waco, and the beginning of the SS assault on the Warsaw Ghetto, days which saw the senseless murder of hundreds of innocent men, women and children. Today is also the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and the start of the American Revolution.

These are interesting events to ponder in light of the angry mobs of Teabaggers who seem so abundant across America, and a recent poll by the Pew Research Center showing that four out of five Americans distrust the Federal Government.

For those Americans who would rather place their trust in a free market, there is the fraud investigation of Goldman Sachs, and the airline companies who are willing to bet the lives of their passengers and crews that the volcanic cloud covering Europe is really harmless and that regulators are being too cautious.

Sitting here in Edinburgh, with that volcanic cloud drifting over my head and the smell of ash in the air, I must also wonder what the fundamentalist Christians of America would be doing if this cloud were drifting above them. Preaching the doom of Armageddon I suspect.

Much of America’s discontent is tied to the economy. Unemployment, home foreclosures, lost savings, struggling to survive have been all too common in America for the past two years. People want to put the blame on someone, and government is such an easy target. But the government is made up of Americans with the same positive and negative traits found in all of us.

If we truly want a better nation, perhaps it is time we stopped complaining, stopped whining, stopped pretending that our government is some alien life form. Perhaps it is time for us to check our racism and bigotry, to recognize that religious freedom means respecting the views of others.

America needs to open a meaningful dialogue, to start looking for real solutions. We need to stop shouting at each other and start listening. We need to look for points of agreement, points of compromise, points that can help us build a better America.

April, after all, is the beginning of Spring, a season of rebirth.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Culloden and Scottish Independence

On April 16, 1746, at Culloden Moor outside of Inverness, a British Force under the command of the Duke of Cumberland defeated an army of Scottish clansmen under the leadership of Bonnie Prince Charlie. 


Historians record Culloden as the last military battle on British soil – I guess they put German air raids during the two world wars in a different category.   Regardless, it was the last time a Scottish Army and an English Army – please ignore the fact that there were Scots and English on both sides – met in armed conflict against one another.

For Scots, the battle marks the beginning of period of intense persecution by the English.  Following the battle, the Duke of Cumberland initiated a ruthless policy of “pacification” against the highland Scots that earned him the title of “Butcher.”  The English government destroyed the old clan system, banned the kilt and tartan, and ultimately drove countless Scots from their native land, my ancestors among them.

Today, Culloden is one of the many reminders of Scotland’s never ending struggle against the English. Another is painted on the wall of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, words from The Declaration of Arbroath, Scotland’s Declaration of Independence written in 1320.  “For so long as one hundred men remain alive, we shall never under any conditions submit to the domination of the English. It is not for glory or riches or honours that we fight, but only for liberty, which no good man will consent to lose but with his life.”

Scotland’s struggle for independence continues today.  It can be seen in the re-established Scottish Parliament and the Scottish National Party’s campaign for freedom from English oppression.  And it can be found in the hearts of Scots at home and in exile around the world.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

145 Years Later, the Harm of Booth’s Actions Still Linger

On April 14, 1865, five days after Lee’s surrender, John Wilkes Booth shot and mortally wounded President Abraham Lincoln. In doing so, Booth did more harm to the South than Sherman did in his “March to the Sea.”

The plot sought the simultaneous assassinations of Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. That evening, Lewis T. Powell broke into Seward's home and seriously wound the secretary. George A. Atzerodt, who was to kill the vice president, lost his nerve and fled. Booth succeeded.

After shooting Lincoln, Booth shouted, "Sic semper tyrannis! [Thus always to tyrants] – the South is avenged!" Unfortunately for the South, Booth’s actions did not avenge the Confederate cause, instead it helped to bring almost a century of suffering to the average southerner.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the South was in ruins. Its infrastructure ravaged, its class structure reordered, and its economy destroyed. Decisions needed to be made concerning how the rebellious states should be treated in the aftermath of America’s deadliest war.

Looking back at reconstruction, we see two very distinct and different approaches to the rebuilding of the nation. Lincoln always took the position that the Southern states had not left the Union. By the end of 1863, he announced a plan for reconstruction that granted amnesty to all who would swear allegiance to the Union, and recognized the state governments as soon as ten percent of its citizens took the oath.

When Johnson became President, he followed a similar course of action, but lacking the political clout of Lincoln, lost control of reconstruction to the “Radical Republicans” in Congress.

Congress, as is often the case, proved to be far more responsive – not always a good thing – to the emotions of the citizens of the North. Here were the abolitionists who had long pushed for an end of slavery, as well as the families who had sacrificed half a million lives in the cause of preserving the Union and ending slavery. Here too were those who saw Lincoln as one of the nation’s greatest leaders. One only needs to read Walt Whitman’s poem “Oh Captain My Captain” to understand the emotion of many ordinary Americans in the North.

Congress wanted blood. Congress wanted Southern leaders to prostrate themselves and beg forgiveness from the North for the terrible price inflicted upon the nation. As a result, marshal law was declared, the South was divided into military districts and much harsher standards were set for readmission into the union.

Ultimately, Southern states would be readmitted, but the average southerner would suffer for generations to come. The South would enter a period when it was basically an economic colony of the North, rather than a region equal of standing. Many within the old Southern elite would regain their power, but many of the independent farmers of the South, the ones who had never owned slaves, would lose their land, becoming tenant farmers. Former slaves would struggle under an oppressive system of inequality, and the South become a isolated region that suffered the extremes of poverty.

The actions of the Radical Republicans in Congress also contributed to a North-South animosity that lingers today, along with the racism, the fear of strangers and the religious intolerance of the South.

Perhaps, if Lincoln had lived, had he been there to continue to provide the leadership America so desperately needed, things would have been very different. Personally, I think Booth did a terrible disservice to America, North and South.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Life Without the Bomb: A Little Alternative History

Alternative history is a fascinating way of looking at the world. In my last blog entry, I speculated on a world without the bomb. Some may have assumed that I saw a world of peace and happiness. I did not.

While the bomb took the lives of a great many innocent people, it may have saved the lives of a significantly larger number of others. I am not talking about American forces who might have been asked to invade Japan. Personally, I do not think such an invasion would have been necessary. Japan was close to surrender before the bomb was dropped and conventional bombing was having a devastating affect.

Without the bomb, I think the world might well have fought the infamous World War III that was so popular with science fiction writers of the period, a war that would have been far more destructive than either of its predecessors.

During the Cold War both sides were equally afraid of a nuclear war. As a result, wars during those years were limited to conventional weapons and often involved surrogates, rather than a direct confrontation between the world’s two superpowers. Atomic weapons were a deterrent.

In a world with only conventional weapons, a direct confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union may have been unavoidable. The two nations came very, very close several times.

For example, I think the bomb prevented Stalin from being more aggressive in the late 1940s. After all, at the end of World War II, the most powerful conventional military force on the planet probably belonged to the Soviet Union, not the U.S.

Thinking about the alternatives, I suspect that the bomb saved a great many lives, just not in the way we have always believed. I also believe that a demonstration of the bomb’s power would have been sufficient. Unfortunately, we have not reached the point where we value human life above all else, especially the lives of those we dehumanize during times of war.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Questions About the Bomb

With the recent death of Morris Jeppson, there remains only one living member of the Enola Gay flight crew who dropped the first atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. He is Theodore Van Kirk, the navigator.

Personally, I have always been fascinated with the history of the bomb, perhaps because I was born one year and one day after Hiroshima, and as a young boy I had a Sunday School teacher who talked about going into Nagasaki with the American military after the explosion.

The history of the bomb, at least from the American perspective, seems to begin in August, 1939, with a letter from Albert Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt, telling him of research “into a new and important source of energy” that might be used to build very powerful bombs. As Einstein explained, “A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.”

As a result of that letter, the Manhattan Project was formed and ultimately the atomic bomb was created. The secrecy surrounding the project was so great that even Harry Truman did not learn of the project until he became President after Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. It was less than four months before Truman would be faced with the most important decision of his life -- Should America drop the bomb? In fact, no one was certain what would happen when a atomic bomb was detonated until the Trinity test on July 16, 1945, less than a month before the bomb was used in war.

For most of my lifetime, the United States justified the use of the atomic bomb with the simple explanation that it eliminated the need for an invasion of Japan and as a result it saved a million American lives. This explanation has been questioned in recent years, as scholars have gained access to documents that were classified for decades.

Some of the questions now being asked, include:
• Why was the bomb dropped at a time when Japan was already close to surrender?
• Why didn’t the U.S. simply demonstrate the power of the bomb to the world without killing so many Japanese civilians?
• Did Truman use the bomb to gain the upper hand in negotiations with Joseph Stalin?
• Would America have used the bomb on Europeans?
• Did the U.S. spend so much money developing the bomb, that it had to use it?

While I have my own perspective on these questions, I do not pretend to have the final answers. Needless to say, these questions, and others like them, promises to provide scholars with a heated debate for decades to come.

Today, I look at the bomb from the perspective of someone born at the beginning of the atomic age; someone who spend forty-five years of his life living in a Cold War with the constant threat of nuclear war; someone who now lives in a world where nuclear weapons continue to proliferate as the rhetoric between opposing sides grows louder. Today, I must wonder what would the world be like if Einstein had not written his letter to Roosevelt; if the Manhattan Project had failed; if Truman had not given the order to drop the bomb, if atomic power had remained undiscovered?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Imagine Jesus in an Apache Helicopter

A video recently leaked to the public shows two American helicopters killing 12 people on a Baghdad street, including a Reuters news photographer and his driver. The military wrote it off as an accident. Included in the tape are the words of the Americans involved, men who seemed to take pleasure in killing the people on the ground below.

At one point, a van arrives to pick up the wounded. The helicopters open fire on the van, wounding two children. One American comments, “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.”

War is a terrible thing for many reasons, not the least of which is the way those involved protect themselves by dehumanizing others. It is always easier to kill a stranger, a faceless enemy, someone who is perceived as less than human, especially from the sky.

History is filled with examples. When the English invaded Ireland in the 17th Century, they called the Irish “savages,” just as they did Native Americans. It was much easier to kill a savage. In the Civil War, the opposing armies were no longer Americans, they became “Yankees” and “Rebels,” each a dirty word to the other side. In World War II the Allies fought the “Krauts” and the “Japs,” and in Vietnam the enemy became known as the “Gooks.” All of these terms helped dehumanize the enemy – be it soldier or civilian.

During World War I, propaganda reported that German soldiers ate babies, German nurses poured water onto the ground rather than give it to wounded enemy soldiers. During World War II, cartoons and movies demonized the Germans and Japanese. In the United States, Americans of Japanese descent were interned in concentration camps.

After each of these wars, once the combatants had an opportunity to meet their enemy, they discovered that those on the opposite side were not very different from themselves. They didn’t eat babies, they weren’t evil people, they were mostly honest, hard working folks, people who had not wanted to go to war any more than most Americans.

In a nation that loves to wave the banner of Christianity, too many seem to have forgotten the little song they were taught in Sunday School – “Red and yellow, black and white / they are precious in his sight / Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

Jesus sure as hell would not shoot at children, or anyone else for that matter.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Still Living on the Frontier

The Mind of the South, published in 1941, is a fascinating book written by a North Carolina journalist named W. J. Cash. The book was the product of more than a decade of research, observation, thought and writing. Its significance can be found in the fact that, after almost sixty years, the book remains in print.

One of the more interesting observations Cash made about the South was that many in the region continue to retain attitudes and characteristic common to the frontier. Looking around today, one might make the same comment about the nation as a whole.

Historically, American’s frontier was the area just west of civilization, over the next hill or down the river, as the nation expanded from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was a land with few rules, where survival depended upon an assortment of attributes. For most frontier folk these qualities included honesty, strength, hard work and cooperation with one’s neighbors. Less positive qualities included thievery, mayhem and general skullduggery. As a result, honest folks tended to distrust strangers.

Frontier life was a lonely, isolated existence. Except for occasional trips to the general store for a few basic supplies, or church when the circuit riding preacher came to town, people lived pretty much to themselves. They survived on the fruits of their own labor, enjoyed the good times and did not always make it during the bad times. It was a hard life, filled with uncertainties. It hardened people to the outside world, and against forces they did not understand or could not control.

As civilization followed the frontier, it brought with it greater security, great dependence on others, and a far more comfortable life for most Americans. It also brought rules and regulations, as well as more government.

Government helps to make our lives more comfortable and secure. It also provides opportunities, through education, improved transportation and enhanced communication. Unfortunately, a great many folks still distrust their own government.

As Cash noted, the frontier mentality lingers, and if one reflects upon the characteristics needed for survival during those earlier times, it helps explain the attitude of many modern Americans – libertarians, teabaggers, fundamentalist Christians and others who distrust the outside world, the government and all those people with a different point-of-view.

Abraham Lincoln noted long ago that ours is “a government of the people, by the people, for the people,” but if we don’t start trusting our own government a little more, we may very well “perish from the earth.”

Friday, April 2, 2010

Searching for the Fountain of Youth: A Brief Florida History

As a many-generation, native Floridian, I must note that today marks the 497th anniversary of the discovery of Florida by Europeans. While Native Americans have lived in the area for more than ten thousand years, sadly their history must be left to the archeologists.

On April 2, 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon, a Spanish explorer, landed somewhere along the northeastern coast of modern day Florida. The year 1513 seemed like a long time ago, until I noticed that the pub where I had dinner last evening was in a building constructed in 1434.

Old Juan came to Florida searching for the Fountain of Youth, which he never found. If he had bothered to ask, I could have directed him to Downtown St. Petersburg and a drinking fountain, enclosed by a small courtyard, with the words “Fountain of Youth” chiseled in the stone above it. Of course, the last time I checked, the city had turned off the water to the fountain.

Regardless, millions of Europeans made the journey to Florida over the subsequent centuries. In fact, while the rest of the Atlantic coast between Canada and Cuba went from British colony to statehood, Florida changed hands several times -- controlled by the Spanish, French and British, before becoming a U.S. territory with Andrew Jackson, “the old Indian hater,” serving as the first territorial governor. Jackson spent most of his time in Florida making life miserable for the few remaining Native Americans left in the region.

In 1845, Florida became the twenty-seventh state, but clearly had second thoughts, because in 1861 Florida became the third state to secede from the Union, certainly one of the dumber decisions made by the Florida Legislature, although there have been many.

A bit of Civil War trivia concern’s Florida’s Confederate Governor, John Milton, who committed suicide at the end of the war, saying "Death would be preferable to reunion." Makes one wonder about the intelligence level of politicians who only speak in sound bites.

After the war, Florida began separating itself from the rest of the South, to the point that many Deep South southerners consider Florida a “Yankee” state, and they are probably right. Instead of growing cotton, rice and cigarette tobacco, like the rest of the South, Floridians raised cattle, grew oranges and started rolling cigars.

Warm Florida winters are what made the difference. They helped Florida attract folks from the North – investors, railroad builders, developers and lots of tourists searching for the “Fountain of Youth.”

Thursday, April 1, 2010

81st Anniversary

Today is the 81st Anniversary of the Loray Mill Strike in Gastonia, North Carolina. You may want to read my essay in today's Charlotte (NC) Observer. My forthcoming book is the first biography of the woman who was co-director of the strike. You will need to cut and paste the link.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Panic in the Streets

There is a great deal of anger in America.  People are outraged.  Hysteria has become common place.  Almost everywhere we find politicians, political pundits, friends and even family members making outrageous comments about how this or that will destroy America.

While rhetoric such as this may seem comical at times, the anger is very real, and it is rather scary.  Consider the recent raid by Michigan police on individuals described as “a group of apocalyptic Christian militants who were plotting to kill law enforcement officers in hopes of inciting an antigovernment uprising.” And, in case you missed it, the  Department of Homeland Security reports a rise in activity among such groups, which is common during economic hard times.

America’s current panic attack, like so many in our history, is the result of a variety of forces, including political propaganda designed to turn ordinary folks into an angry mob.  Mobs, like mad dogs, do not listen to reason, they just attack.

History is filled with angry mobs and propaganda designed to panic the common man.  Consider the Boston Massacre, an event that helped start the American Revolution.  Five colonists died, and as many as nine others were wounded, but was it a massacre?   No.  Evidence suggests that it was a terrible accident committed by frightened British soldiers confronted by an angry mob. 

Propaganda has been used many times in the past to create panic among the populous in order to crush the campaigns of labor activists, civil rights workers and others promoting peaceful change.  The Loray Mill Strike, as I described in a recent essay, is just one of thousands of such events that can be found in our history books – except of course in Texas, but I digress. 

In a world of instantaneous communication, a single sound bite has the potential of starting a revolution, especially when people do not take the time to think about the information being presented, simply accepting or rejecting it based on the source, and  passing it on.

Do we really want another American Revolution?

Monday, March 29, 2010

1929 Loray Mill Strike Remembered

For a taste of one of the events explored in my forthcoming book -- Strike! The Radical Insurrections of Ellen Dawson -- please read my essay on the Loray Mill Strike published today by the History News Network.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

So Much History on a Single Stone

Recently, on one of my Edinburgh “walkabouts,” I discovered Rosebank Cemetery in Leith. The cemetery dates back about a hundred and fifty years, not particularly old for this part of the world.

Rosebank is of interest because it contains a memorial and the graves of soldiers killed in the Gretna Rail Disaster of 1915, when 226 people, mostly members of the 7th Battalion of the Royal Scots, were killed in an accident near Glasgow that involved five different trains. It is the deadliest railway accident in the history of the United Kingdom. Because it occurred during World War I, when news has highly censored by the government, the disaster is not well known. The orange colored memorial features a large Celtic cross and bronze plaques with the names of the soldiers who died on their way to the trenches of France.

As I wandered about Rosebank, examining various tombstones and snapping photographs of things that caught my eye, I was struck by one particular stone. There on a single marker, broken as so many are, was the tale of a single Scottish family, all dead for more than a century.

The stone tells the story of David Wishart Watt, born around 1822, in Leith, Edinburgh’s thriving port of the time. He was first married to Elizabeth Gordon, a woman very close to his own age. Elizabeth died on July 28, 1866, at the age of 43, after having suffered the lost of three of their young children – Joseph on July 21, 1856, Agnes on November 23, 1856, and a second daughter named Agnes on December 1, 1865.

Watt remarried quickly, as was common in those days, needing a mother to care for his children. His second wife, Alison Wight, was approximately 10 years younger than he, but she died within three years, on September 5, 1869. In the years that followed, Watt lost three more of his children. Alfred died on May 25, 1878 at the age of 18, Joseph died on the day after Christmas in 1880 at the age of 23, and Frederick Niven died in London. Watt, lived on until June 11, 1900, when he died at the age of 78, having outlived two wives and six children.

There is much history on that single stone and yet it leaves so many unanswered questions. This is the frustration faced by historians, especially those of us who are fascinated with the lives of ordinary men and women. We must try to reconstruct the past from the tiny bits and pieces of information that survive more by chance than intent.

© 2010 by David Lee McMullen

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Racism in the Arizona Desert

Arizona legislators want illegal immigrants arrested on sight, charged with vagrancy just for being in the state. Given its location, one can safely assume that most of these illegal immigrants are from Mexico.

I will ignore both the words on the base of the Statue of Liberty and the fact that such a bill, if passed and enforced, will certainly cause problems for those economically advantaged folks in the state who knowingly underpay illegal workers to tend their gardens, clean their homes, care for their children, work in their sweatshops and do hard labor for construction companies.

Instead, I will go straight to the history books and ask one basic question: “What makes these land-grabbing gringos think they have the right to enact such a law?”

For thousands of years the area we now call the Southwestern United States and Northwestern Mexico belonged to Native Americans, people who roamed freely across territory now divided by international borders.

Then, with the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th Century, most of this area fell under the control of Spain. The Spanish were a lot like the modern day Arizonians who support this bill, greedy folks who rammed their religion down the throats of the Native Americans, enslaved them and stole their land.

In the early 19th Century, as the Spanish Empire crumbled, Mexico won its independence. Unfortunately, the new Mexico government acted a lot like the old Spanish government, at least in their treatment of Native Americans.

In the 1840s, the U.S. intentionally started a war with Mexico for the purpose of stealing territory – specifically modern day California, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Texas. While most gringos barely recall the war, it still has a bitter taste for many Mexicans.

Some may suggest that Mexicans are not Native Americans, but they are wrong. Today, 90 percent of Mexicans are at least part Native American and 30 percent are full blooded. That’s a far larger number than among people living in the United States, where we did our best to eradicate Native Americans.

Personally, I think this Arizona proposal should be stamped in red with one word – Racist! Of course, I lived in Mexico for almost a year, and I know that the majority of Mexicans are friendly, hard working folks who make good neighbors. Too bad most people in the U.S. don’t understand that. North America would be a much better place if the U.S. treated Mexico with the same respect it treats Canada.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Three Days a Week

To my millions of readers (Yeah, right!)
I have decided trying to write something every day is too much work for an old brain, or a young brain for that matter, so I am going to shoot for three days a week.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Football, Ballet and Evolution

This weekend The Sunday Times of London presented readers with a question. “Why do we idolise footballers when ballet is so much harder? and sexier.” Since I have long appreciated both, I found myself wondering why. Perhaps the answer is as simple as “football is a contest for men” (said with a deep baritone voice) and “ballet is for girls” (said in a soft melodic voice), although I suspect not. If one looks at the history, these seemingly ridiculous responses do offer a clue.

Football, or variations thereof, date back to our earliest recorded times. Evidence suggests primitive versions of the game were played by the ancient Chinese, Greeks and Romans. Like the gladiators of the old Roman Circus, modern football is a violent contest of strength and determination, providing great rewards to the victorious, shame and dishonor to the vanquished. It is also easy to draw comparisons between football and war. Games are like battles, seasons are campaigns. Coaches study military tactics. Spectators, dressed in team colors, join the combat, screaming from the sidelines and fighting among themselves. Football brings out the beast within us, our savage side, and it is driven by our insatiable desire to destroy the enemy, to win at any cost.

Ballet is relatively new, dating to the courts of the Italian Renaissance, a time when humans began to reacquire at least a modicum of civility after the period in European history known as the Dark Ages. The audience at a ballet tends to be better mannered, better dressed and certainly more reserve in their appreciation of a performance. A ballet combines the arts of movement, music and stagecraft, usually telling a story. Without a single spoken word, ballet can solicit the full range of human emotions, including sexuality. And, as The Times noted, ballet is performed by individuals who are superior athletes, men and women who endure great pain in their quest for perfection.

Football allows us to reach back to the days of our earliest ancestors. It appeals to our animal instincts. Ballet, by contrast, offers a window to the future, to a world of beauty, sensitivity and civility that humans have yet to achieve. Sadly, the popularity of one, as opposed to the other, says a lot about our current stage of evolution.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Truly Historic Moment

Despite an annoying overuse of the word by sportswriters, this is truly an historic moment. For only the third time in the past 75 years, the United States has taken a meaningful step toward making America a more caring nation. And once again it took a Democratic Congress, with the leadership of a Democratic President, to make it happen.

Passage of Health Care Reform is a major step toward assuring that every American has access to basic health care, something that is long overdue, and the credit must be given to President Obama and the Democrats in Congress.

Universal health care is not a new idea. It was a plank in the Socialist Party platform at the beginning of the last century. It has been established in some form for more than half a century in most of the major industrialized countries around the world, where it seems to work well. Unfortunately, America has had to fight the greed of an insurance industry that profits from sickness and disease.

Twice before, Democrats have provided the leadership necessary to help those Americans most in need. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt and a New Deal Congress created Social Security, providing security for the elderly, widows and their children. During the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson, pushed Medicare through Congress, helping to guarantee medical care for the old, the disabled and those most in need.

While I am no great fan of the two party system, and the Democrats had done some pretty sorry things in the past, they deserve an enormous amount of credit for providing this nation with the essential elements of a basic social safety net.

Interestingly, to find the only point in time when Republicans did something of comparable value, one must go back 150 years, to the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln and a Republican Congress freed the slaves and helped African Americans begin their journey toward true equality.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Armageddon? Sexual Abuse and Deaths of Note

John Boehner, the minority leader of the House of Representatives, said yesterday that the health care reform bill is Armageddon because it will destroy America. What happened to words like bad, not so good, or wrong? Must everything be a disaster of global proportions in order to gain our attention? Extremes are part of the problem these days. Once you say something will destroy America, there really isn’t much room for negotiation or compromise. One is stuck out on a limb where it is either do or die. This is one of the reasons why media clowns like Glenn Beck are so popular. Everything, no matter how trivial, is the final straw, the one that will send our world crashing toward eternal damnation.

Switzerland has joined the growing list of nations caught up in the global scandal associated with the sexual abuse of children by agents of the Catholic Church. In the United States, the church has already paid more than $2 billion in compensation to the victims. In Ireland, the charges of abuse cover a period of more than sixty years, dating back to the 1930s. The pope has apologized for what he calls these “sinful and criminal” acts, but has yet to punish the offenders. The church seems to be continuing its “go and sin no more” charade, pretending that backward collars make pedophiles acceptable members of society.

Two deaths of note – Liz Carpenter, 89, a journalist and public relations person best known as Lady Bird Johnson’s press secretary, she was a feminist with a bawdy sense of humor, a breast cancer survivor and a surrogate mother in her seventies. Steward Udall, 90, Interior Secretary during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, was a defender of American’s natural resources. He helped the government preserve almost 4 million acres, including four new national parks, and was instrumental in saving Carnegie Hall from the wrecking ball.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

States' Rights, Iraq and Tiger Woods

In case you’ve missed it, what with all the Tea Parties, some conservatives are dragging out their old warhorse – States’ Rights. Across the nation, state officials are preparing to nullify federal health care reform, exempt their states from federal gun laws, seize federal land, and prevent the federal government from using National Guard forces. This is really nothing new. It is a tug-of-war that has been going on since the first constitutional conventions and, looking back over the past 200 plus years, the Federalists generally seem to come out on top.

Yesterday marked the seventh anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. The human cost of this war is enormous. More than 4,000 Americans have died, another 30,000 Americans have been seriously wounded and, taking the most conservative estimate, more than 150,000 Iraqis have died. And it isn’t over yet. This war was branded – an advertising term picked up by the military – as Operation Iraqi Freedom. Catchy little title used to promote the neo-con’s regime change strategy of trying to build pro-American governments in the Middle East. Interestingly, in this month’s Iraqi election, the followers of the anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr emerged with the potential of playing a key role in the next Iraqi government. You’ve got to be careful when you give people the vote, they have a way of voting for what they believe, not what you think they should believe.

Would somebody please explain to me why I should care what Tiger Woods does with the rest of his life. He acts like the male version of Britney Spears – too much money and too little sense. Of course, that can be said about a lot of celebrities these days. Perhaps it is time to start taxing stupidity.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Thoughts about the News of March 19, 2010

It looks as if Congress is finally going to pass some sort of health care reform, probably not the best possible bill, but legislatures are about compromise, not quality. Interestingly, the Republicans are still refusing to play. They are sticking to their old abstinence policy of “Just say no.” Perhaps the final product would have been better if they had tried to work with the Democrats on this issue. The divisiveness of American politics continues to hurt us all.

Another sex scandal in the Catholic Church. The current Pope was head of the German archdiocese when it ignored a doctor’s warning about a priest abusing young boys. One must wonder how a group that is so concerned about the unborn, can be so unconcerned about the sexual abuse of young boys.

Fess Parker died. He played Davy Crockett in the Disney television series, a craze that swept America in the mid-1950s. Bad history, but great television from my childhood. Back then, every guy my age wanted to wear a coonskin cap, carry a rifle named "Ole' Betsy" and fight for Texas at the Alamo.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Corporate Campaign Contributions -- The NASCAR Solution

Some people think the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision removing limits on political campaign contributions from big corporations is the worst decision since Dred Scott, a decision that contributed to the start of the Civil War.

As a historian, I am not sure I would agree. Anyone who has followed the history of the court knows that there have been many questionable rulings over the years. This is just the latest. In fact, depending on your particular perspective, most decisions can be seen as good or bad. Personally, I think the court’s decision to summarily resolve the Presidential election of 2000 was a really bad one, but I know there are others who would disagree.

The problem with a Supreme Court decision is “that’s all folks,” at least for the foreseeable future. There is no place for the losing side to turn. Perhaps the absurdity of the ruling will be recognized in a decade or two, but unless we’re prepared to fight another civil war, there is really nothing that can be done to alter the court’s latest edict.
Campaign financing has long been a touchy subject and the Supreme Court’s recent decision does not help to resolve the matter. So, as we look ahead, perhaps it is time to consider a new approach. Rather than try to control the spigots of corporate gold that fill the war chests of our elected officials, perhaps we should try to regulate a little more honesty into the process.

Back in 1996, NASCAR racing legend Richard Petty was the Republican candidate for Secretary of State in North Carolina. Although he lost his bid for public office, he sparked an idea that may now be worthy of consideration.

During his campaign, Petty was asked by reporters if he intended to continue accepting corporate sponsorships once he was elected. His response was a very emphatic “Yes!” It was how he made money. Why should he change?

Anyone who has seen NASCAR knows that race cars are cluttered with the logos of their numerous corporate sponsors, and race car drivers wear equally colorful jackets proclaiming their loyalty to the companies that underwrite their respective racing teams.

What if we required politicians to do the same? What if they had to discard their pinstripe blue suits for brightly colored jumpsuits emblazoned with the insignias of their corporate sponsors. Republicans could wear red and Democrats could wear blue, although with unlimited corporate underwriting I suspect that the distinction between the two parties is apt to be even less significant in the future than it is today.

Corporations might even endorse such a plan. It provides an excellent new advertising opportunity, a chance to keep their product names before the public and a way to demonstrate their support for government. It also allows corporations to keep tabs on their elected officials, and I stress the words their officials.

Politicians have, and this may come as a shock to some, often been willing to take money from both sides of an issue in order to get elected, just as big money corporations gladly support opposing candidates just so they can be guaranteed access to a winner.

And, all of those awards certificates and “grip and grin” photographs that currently adorn the office walls of most politicians could be replaced with a background of corporate propaganda reflecting the public official’s various sponsors. Just like watching NASCAR, it would only take a quick glance at a Congressman’s clothing, car or office to know how he will vote at the next roll call.

In fact, we might want to take this idea a bit further by eliminating the salaries of politicians, as well as staff expenses, from governmental budgets. Politicos could be put on the corporate payroll directly. They might then discover what life is like for those few Americans who still have the opportunity to work for a living. In fact, if Corporate American is going to be allowed to buy America’s decision makers, why not let them take over the government completely?

Based on the brouhaha that has been created by recent health care proposals, it is clear that most Americans distrust their government. Why not let Corporate America take over running the country? Giant corporations have done such a great job in the banking and financial services arena, I’m sure they can have America running smoothly in no time at all.

© 2010 by David Lee McMullen

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Manhattan Declaration and "Traditional" Marriage

My thoughts on this subject can be found in an essay published on the History News Network, and republished by LA Progressive and RH Reality Check. Here is a link to the article. You will have to cut and paste it into your browser.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Finding Field Marshall Haig

Across the street from Cannongate Kirk, at the lower end of the Royal Mile – the street that runs from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace – is the Museum of Edinburgh, a small, unimposing museum with free admission.  Being of sound Scottish ancestry, I hate to pass a bargain, especially when it has something to do with history.

The museum is housed in a restored Sixteenth Century house and includes an eclectic mix of artifacts, dating from Roman times to modern day. Wandering through the collection, I discovered something different at almost every turn.  There were household items of pottery, china, glass and silver; signs and manufacturing tools from businesses that are now long-gone; military, police and fire brigade equipment; and numerous other bits and pieces of Edinburgh from the past two thousand years or so.

Undoubtedly, the most heartwarming display belonged to Greyfriars’ Bobby, the Skye Terrier who watched over his master’s grave for fourteen years during the mid-1800s and was adopted by the residents of Edinburgh.  In the display, one can read Bobby’s story and see his collar, watering bowl, and pictures of the people who cared for him during those years.

As I meandered among the many small rooms of the museum, I discovered a large collection of pictures and personal items belonging to Douglas Haig, commander of the British forces during most of World War I.  Being a student of the Great War, as it was once called, this memorial to one of Edinburgh’s native sons drew my serious attention.

Haig remains a controversial figure even today, with historians divided over his legacy.  Some see him as a great military leader who ultimately guided the British forces to victory on the Western Front.  Others, however, see him as an incompetent general, a blunderer and a butcher, who wasted the lives of hundreds of thousands of British soldiers. 

From my perspective as a Marine Corps corporal, I tend to fall in with the latter group.  However, I would add the caveat that Haig was the product of the upper crust of British society.  Like so many military and political leaders of his time, he was born and raised to do exactly what he did.  There was an arrogance about them all, an elitism  that continues to plague world leaders even today.  They made stupid decisions, with little or no concern for those outside their own social circles.  They abused their power and paid the price with other people’s lives.

World War I was one of the first modern wars.  Millions of innocent people died.  Historians explain the carnage as the result of advancements in military technology,  the tools associated with defending a position – specifically the machine gun.  In an era when generals were taught to win battles with infantry and cavalry charges, the machine gun changed everything.  It was not until World War II that military leaders learned to combine the strength of infantry, tanks and airpower to overwhelm defensive positions.

Haig was an old school military leader.  He seemed to believe, as Winston Churchill later noted, that he could stop machine gun fire with  “the breasts of brave men.”  When one studies the history of war in general, it is too often evident that the military leaders who rise to the top of the ranks during times of peace often fail to provide the kind of leadership needed during war.

Haig’s exhibit is on the third floor of the museum, toward the back of the building, and I suspect that it is missed my many who visit.  At first, I thought the display was appropriately hidden, but perhaps I’m wrong.  Maybe it should be out front, where it will be seen by more people, reminding us of the incredible stupidity of valuing unconditional victory over human life.

Regardless, there is little doubt in my mind that of the two famous sons of  Edinburgh, I would much rather have had a faithful Skye Terrier named Bobby as my friend, than a pompous old Field Marshall like Haig.

© 2010 by David Lee McMullen

Monday, January 18, 2010

Reflections of My Younger Self

On Facebook, friends are posting pictures of themselves as young children, so I decided to join in on the fun. It was a spur of the moment decision, involving not much serious thought. Since I am traveling and have only one suitable picture scanned into my computer – a studio portrait of my family taken when I was a baby – I cropped the picture down to just my face and posted it.
At first I thought of it as just a cute photo and not much more. Unlike most babies, who tend to look like Winston Churchill without the cigar, I saw a striking similarity to Yoda, the wise old Jedi knight from “Star Wars.” My ears stuck out too far and I had a rather large head, something some people will probably say hasn’t changed much in the past sixty-something years. A few extremely observant people may even notice that my left eye is weak. That eye, as I now recall, had a tendency to cross when I was young, but corrected itself over time, although it can still be a little wobbly at times. It probably explains why I tend to see the world from a slightly different perspective.
This particular picture has always been a part of my life. It was on my mother’s dresser for years, before it was passed on to me when I accepted responsibility for all the family photographs. Since the portrait included my parents, I always concentrated on the two of them when I looked at the picture, thinking less about the little guy sitting on his mother’s lap.
Although they have passed away, in the picture my parents remain forever young. My father was 28, home after helping to make the world safe for democracy as the first sergeant of a bomber squadron during World War II, and was working as an accountant for a local lumber company in St. Petersburg when the photo was taken. My mother was 24 and had been a legal secretary until I came along. In the picture, like so many young couples in post war America, they appear happy and destined for a long and successful life, but like many families those dreams were never fully achieved.
Today, as I look at this old photography of myself, I can barely imagine what it was like to be so young, so happy, so untarnished by the realities of the world. I find my older self wanting to warn my younger self of the unforeseen dangers ahead, counsel the little guy on the best paths to take, and point out those extraordinary, but fleeting, experiences that he should savored the most. Then I asked myself: Would life be better if we were given a road map to follow? Perhaps, although I think not.
I have learned a lot as a result of looking back at my younger self. I am reminded of how bright the world can seem when dreams for the future are just beginning to take shape; I am reminded that casual decisions, such as posting an old baby picture, can help one rediscover long forgotten memories; and I am reminded that by reflecting on the past, I can better understand what the future may hold – probably a very good perspective for a rambling historian such as myself.

© Copyright 2010 by David Lee McMullen