Tuesday, July 31, 2012

What Makes an Enabler?

If you are familiar with San Francisco, you are familiar with the name Alioto.  Joseph L. Alioto was mayor when I was a student at San Francisco State during the 1968 strike.  It was very heady times.   At the center of our world were organizations like the Third World Liberation Front, Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers, and we were forced to take a position for or against a strike demanding an Ethnic Studies program.  (Not really a choice.  Nobody I knew failed to join in.)  And we had to contend with right-winger S. I. Hayakawa, then university president and later Republican senator from California during the early Reagan era. 

It was also flowers-in-your-hair hippie time in San Francisco’s Haight/Ashbury, Vietnam War demonstrations were growing every year, the Zodiac killer was on the loose and even the police and firemen were striking.   Alioto rode it all out, and the fact that, despite all this, he was given the job of nominating Hubert Humphrey for Vice President at the 1968 Democratic Convention suggests that his place in leftist California and national politics was pretty solid.

Besides his fame as a San Francisco Democratic politician, he was known for his very publicly Catholic family.  His first wife, Angelina, went missing at one point.  When she showed up finally, it turned out she had been making a pilgrimage to all the California missions, allegedly “to punish him for neglect.”

Joe and Angelina had a daughter, Angela, who also went into politics, even becoming president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for eight years.  Since then she has become a noted civil rights lawyer, winning some whopper cases like the $135 million suit against Wonder Bread, and the Mary Kay Cosmetics case.  She also served for a time as vice chair of the California Democratic Party.  Her name catches your attention, so I couldn’t help but read the letter to the editor in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle bearing her signature.

It turned out to be a strong endorsement of San Francisco’s new Roman Catholic archbishop, Salvatore Cordileone.  She was taking issue with a previous article the Chronicle had published the day before.

The headline on your article about Archbishop-elect Salvatore Cordileone (“New Archbishop key in passage of Prop. 8” July 28) should have highlighted his key role in opposing the death penalty, providing housing for the homeless, securing citizenship for undocumented immigrants and working one-on-one with our diverse communities – all major, major issues in our city.

I am delighted to have a new archbishop-elect who is brilliant, who cares for the plight of the poor, who is humble and – you know I have to say this – who is not only Italian but, indeed, Sicilian! (My grandparents on my mother’s side were born in Corleone, Sicily.)

San Franciscans love a debate, indeed we love political conflicts, and clearly there are issues that will be debated.

But, for now, we should celebrate this historic appointment to our great City of Saint Francis.  The only question I have: Is the new archbishop-elect a Giants fan?  That is a must in this city!

Angela Alioto, San Francisco

The San Francisco Chronicle doesn’t identify her as the Angela Alioto I just described.  It is possible there’s another one (although the Chron would be doing some serious mischief if that were the case and they let it go unnoticed – and then there’s the mention of a grandparent from Corleone in Sicily).  But if it is the Angela Alioto I know as the legislator who got through the first no-smoking legislation, worked on programs for the homeless, AIDS education for teenagers, and on Jerry Brown’s campaign for president, the very same Angela Alioto who supports the Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club, the Harvey Milk Club and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, this endorsement for Cordileone is one hell of a downer.

Cordileone deserves credit for his opposition to the death penalty, to be sure.  But let’s not forget that’s the church’s official position and Cordileone is nothing if not a perfect party-liner.  Officially, the church is also known to be concerned with the plight of immigrants and the homeless.   I don’t know the man, so I can’t be sure of the degree to which his heart is in these causes.

What I do know is that he is an outspoken member of the conservative faction within the church, trying to move the church back to the days before Vatican II when the hierarchy had clear control over the minds of catholics, back before women started asking for equal responsibilities and status within the church, back before the majority of catholics came around to thinking divorced members of the church should still be entitled to the sacraments and that gay and lesbian people were not disordered.

Cordileone has been called “the father of Proposition 8,”  the campaign that led to the removal of the right to marry gay men and women once had in California.  Cordileone and his predecessor, George Niederauer, got Prop. 8 off the ground.  They worked hand-in-glove with Maggie Gallagher and her grossly misnamed National Organization for Marriage to tap into sources like the Knights of Columbus and the Mormons of Utah and get them to pour millions of dollars into coffers which would buy misleading television ads and ultimately scare the voters into thinking same-sex marriage was somehow a threat to civilization.  A threat which most people ­– Catholics included – no longer perceive, incidentally.

And this brings up an interesting question.  Why is it so many otherwise progressive Roman Catholics still join forces with the retrograde power structure of their church and ignore the pastoral church, the teaching and nursing centers, the folks who care for the poor and who make compassion, not control, the center of their religious faith?  Why are there so many “enablers” like Angela Alioto still convinced that devotion to their Savior requires devotion to the patriarchal structure of this decaying institution?

It’s hardly news that there are two Roman Catholic Churches.  One ­– the one in which the majority of European and American Catholics who have not left the church still hold out hope for – takes its cue from the reform movements of Vatican II in the 1960s.  The other – the monolithic power center old boys' network now fighting for its life – is seeking to roll back time, reinstate the Latin mass in which all attention is focused on the priest, shore up papal authority, shut down efforts to lift the lives of women out of the dark ages, endorse the right to contraception and full control over their bodies which they have long been exercising anyway.  And clamp down hard on the nuns now seeking to achieve equal status and responsibility within the church hierarchy.

Angela is not the only Roman Catholic to come out clearly on the side of the hierarchy.  Whether she enjoys being a member of the ruling circle, whether it’s a question of esthetics, whether it’s longing for a father figure, only she can tell us.  But this all-out endorsement of this nasty piece of work called Cordileone is disturbing.

Go to her law office website, take a look at the good her firm does in the field of civil rights, filing discrimination suits, sexual harassment claims, defending whistleblowers – the list is long and very impressive indeed.  Give credit where credit is due.  Then take note of her membership in an organization known as the Secular Franciscan Order, a group of Catholics who are intent on making sure the focus is on the church pastoral, the approach of the humble St. Francis, for whom Angela’s city is named and for whom she espouses a special devotion  – not the church militant or the church of Father knows best.

Then ask yourself what prompts so many progressive Catholics to throw their weight behind such retrograde forces.  What makes them speak in the same voice as those who would remove the right to effective birth control, to keep gay people in a pariah state, to insist that the right to protect the church should take higher priority over the lives of children.  What makes an Enabler like this?

I just read in this morning’s paper that Richard Muller, the well-known Koch-funded holdout on global warming, has just done a complete turn-around.  He has come to recognize man-made global warming is for real.  Perhaps Angela Alioto can one day leave behind the folks with the money and the power and come to understand the facts on the ground that exist apart from political ideology.  Perhaps she too can experience a turn-around and back off from this disappointing public endorsement of an authoritarian crusader such as Cordileone, a man even the National Catholic Reporter describes as “combative” in the struggle not merely to withhold gay rights, but even to outlaw use of the words gay and lesbian, words he said are “not in the church’s vocabulary.”

What a great way that would be for her to honor the Alioto name.  

What an endorsement that would be for the church we associate with Saint Francis.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Me and Dennis and Richard - not so much a review as a learning moment

It is always enlightening to read such a review as this one of the great MET performance of Rosenkavalier in the 2009 season, by Anthony Tomassini, New York Times music critic.  Tomassini is a man in his mid-60s.   He’s been around.  He was mentored by Virgil Thomas, about whom he wrote an award-winning book, and by the Boston Globe’s music critic, Richard Dyer.  Tomassini also wrote a guide to the opera, titled Opera: A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Works and the Best Recordings.  He has credentials and background, in other words.

Still, I always squirm when I hear critics take potshots at the greats.   I know it’s their job, and they usually know what they are talking about, but it seems so petty, somehow, to hear things like “Ms. Fleming may have lost a little of the sumptuous vocal beauty and some of the soaring pianissimo phrases of before,” and then damn with faint praise: “Yet Ms. Fleming and Ms. Graham sang splendidly over all.”

The little boy in me who sat in wonder in the theater last night, listening to a rebroadcast of that performance, was so carried away that he wants to jump up and down and dare anybody to talk like that in front of him.  Pull out my sword and challenge him to a duel.

And, by the way, just so you know what I’m talking about, stop and have a five-minute listen to the trio in the third act “Hab mir’s gelobt.”  It’s in concert form and lacks the richness of the opera staging, and it’s Renée Fleming with two other singers, but it will illustrate what I’m about to say.

If you’ve even the slightest appreciation for the soprano voice, Richard Strauss has to be your god.  So in love with women’s voices was he – the soprano voice, in particular – that he wrote an opera in which a fat lady mature singer has to play a seventeen-year old impetuous loverboy of a middle-aged woman – and the role is so taxing only the most highly trained and experienced can handle it – just so he could feature not two but three glorious soprano voices going at once, later on.  So you get maximum cognitive dissonance.  And then you have to sit through the trumpet sounds of orgasm as the curtain goes up on the first act and watch them kanoodling in the bed.

Back in the day when I was going to the Frankfurt opera several times a week for seventy-five cents a pop, this was all too much.    I was only 22 or 23 at the time, and this was just too much suspension of disbelief for my young years.  Besides, my idea of great music at the time was Smetana’s “Ma Vlast” or anything by Grieg.  Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff were cool dudes, or whatever term we used in those days.

When I got to Frankfurt, after a year at the Army Language School in Monterey, the Army had messed up and lost my records.  They had all my records, actually – just not my pay records, so for about three months I had no money coming in.  I had to borrow from friends.  You can’t get the military to hurry when they don’t want to, and besides I had free room and board so what’s the wuss, they said, and it was a thin time.  I couldn’t travel, couldn’t go to restaurants.  Movies were $1.50, if I remember right, and the opera, because Germany subsidized it for American soldiers back then, was $.75.  You had to take what you could get, sometimes behind a post, but you got to go to two operas for the price of one movie.

One of my friends in Frankfurt was Dennis Wakeling.  He had graduated from USC in opera and later became opera director at North Texas and contributer of some fifteen articles in the Opera Quarterly that I’ve been able to dig up.  We used to have dinner at the mess hall and he’d fill me in on the plot and background of the opera we were about to see.  It was Opera 101 and I could not have had a better introduction.  I’ve always felt a little sad I didn’t build more on this early experience.

Dennis tried to hide his dismay at my plebeian music interests.  “Grieg!  Good God,” he said.  “He’s practically honky-tonk!”  Actually no, he never said that.  I just heard him say that.  What he really did say, though, was “Someday you will come to appreciate Strauss – nobody, but nobody has written more beautiful music in the twentieth century.”

What I didn’t like about Strauss was what I used to see as honey on sugar-cubes.  Too much sweetness.  Too much lush.  All dressed up in fancy dress and nowhere to go.  Sweeping phrases, like a ham actor swinging his arms on stage, moving from one exaggeration to another and never getting anywhere.  All this build-up and never any resolution.  I saw it as music to drive you insane with frustration.  (And yes, I'm trying to underscore what I'm saying with all these repetitions.)

Then something happened.  At a dark moment in my life, one of those times when you get real serious about life and death and the meaning of things, I happened upon Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, sung by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf.  I was in just the right head space, evidently.  The music went straight in.  A direct contact with the nervous system.  I’ve never been so moved by anything musical like that in my life, before or since. 

For many years I only listened to Four Last Songs when I could get away from it all and give it my full attention.  Shut out the world, use it as meditation.  It didn’t lift my spirits, necessarily, but invariably gave me a sense that life is a lot richer than I was giving it credit for.  I now go back to it more regularly, although I still make a special occasion of it.

At some point it occurred to me that if I could connect so strongly with Strauss's Four Last Songs, maybe it was time to try Rosenkavalier again.  Maybe I was way off about the guy.  Hadn’t he done Also Sprach Zarathustra – the opening fanfare to the movie 2001 – A Space Odyssey?   [Or if you want to listen to the whole thing in the non-whored version.]   And other things I found worth listening to.   Salomé, for example.  Till Eulenspiegel.   But so strong was the memory of walking out on the first act of Rosenkavalier that I passed up opportunity after opportunity over the years to go back and try again.

And maybe that’s why last night’s performance was such a blow-me-out-of-the-water experience.  I went this time to the Westfield in downtown San Francisco, out of the way up on the fifth floor of this obscene mall where you expect to find things like Batman movies – a giant theater, comfortable leather seats, clear view of the giant screen.  You sit there and Placido Domingo comes out and talks just to you, telling you you’re in for a real treat.   The music starts, it’s that same scene of orgasmic trumpets, the  same two fat ladies in the bed romping with chaste kisses (we can’t really get into it, can we).  But this time I’m with the theater full of lesbians who know a good thing when they see it, and in no time at all I am carried away.  “Fool!  Fool!  Fool!” the little voice keeps saying in my head.  “All these years – a whole half century – you walked away from a thing of such beauty.”

It does help that it’s the MET.  I’m a big fan.  They can do no wrong.  Well, theoretically they can, of course, but I’ve never seen them do wrong.  Their performances are known for their all-around brilliance.  This one would be worth seeing just for the costumes alone.  Hell, the furniture alone.  The orchestra under the direction of Edo de Waart  (OK, OK, Mr. Tomassini, you say he allowed them to bully the singers in the first act.   If you say so.)

You should be in the right mood.  You should be able, if you see it in the simulcast version on screen as I did, to sit through over three hours of luscious soprano voices going on and on and on and on.  It’s got to have the longest third act in history and you argue with your back and your bladder (they cut out the intermissions, these megaplex idiots, apparently to clear the mall by 10 p.m.) so that your eyes and your ears can have more and more, as if you were listening to half a dozen encores.

I went in expecting good things.  It was Renée Fleming, after all.  But I did not know Susan Graham, who sang Octavian, the Rose Cavalier.  Didn’t know she would be Fleming’s equal.  Didn’t know this comedy would actually work.  I’m not much for farce, and opera buffa and I don’t often hit it off.  But I roared in places, so well done were the acting and the set-ups.   Loved the Icelandic bass, Kristinn Sigmundsson, who sang the role of the oafish Baron Ochs.  Enjoyed it the way you’re supposed to enjoy a good concert or drama – or opera, which puts them together.  By getting loud and laughing and crying in all the right places.

I did a lot of both.  Now comes a whole new stage in my life, the post-Rosenkavalier era – as an unabashed lover of Richard Strauss. 

Dennis Wakeling died in 1992.  I’m sorry I never got to tell him how well he called the shots on that one.

picture credits:

the presentation of the Rose in the Second Act:  http://thefoolandtheopera.blogspot.com/2010/01/now-showing-at-cinema-nova-mets-der.html

Renee Fleming as die Marschallin and Susan Graham as der Rosenkavalier: http://artsblog.ocregister.com/2010/01/07/the-met-live-in-hd-in-oc-this-weekend/23765/

Susan Graham in the costume she describes as a disco ball for opera (the photo doesn't capture the sparkle): http://www.examiner.com/slideshow/metropolitan-opera-s-der-rosenkavalier-with-fleming-graham?slide=8823356

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Raden Soemawinata

A friend sent me a very touching set of photos in an e-mail a while ago.  It featured a man jumping into some pretty cold water to rescue a dog who had been blown off a pier into the ocean.  (See if I take my dogs for a walk in a storm.)  One of those viral things.  I was so taken by it that I failed to consider it might be one of those urban legend things.

Have a look at them - I've included them at the end.  They were taken by a newspaper reporter of this guy we are told was a German tourist.  The viral thing didn't identify the location – and that is the kind of thing that should have warned me it was probably bogus.  Turns out it was bogus, but because the dog was the size of my two little “jack cheese” (chihuahua/Jack Russell terriers), whom I love more than the teeth in my mouth and the last remaining hairs on my head, I was a total sucker for the sentiment attached.  Not only that, the dog looked just like Sophia, who came to visit a couple weeks ago, with her adoptive parents in tow, friends of mine from Japan days.

In the viral version I got, the whole thing ended with a dorky joke involving a German accent:

Due to his selfless heroic act, I ASKED, "ARE YOU A VET?"

HE REPLIED, "VET ?!  I'M VUCKING ZOAKED!"  (caps in original)

making the German accent (and a bad imitation of one, at that) the point of the whole thing, instead of the beauty of the rescue. 

This is probably the 200th time I’ve been suckered in by urban legends and other online misrepresentations, and passed them on to friends, so I probably ought to be ashamed of myself.   I did begin to feel a little sheepish when one astute friend wrote back with the comment, “Doesn’t look like a German.  Looks more like a Japanese!”

So I went searching.  It took only a couple google searches to discover that the actual event took place in Brighton Beach, near Melbourne, in Australia, and that the rescuer was not German, but Australian of Indonesian background.  And in the process, another question got answered.  How come the guy looks so good in his underwear?  (I mentioned that in passing when I suggested maybe some underwear manufacturer ought to make an ad out of this.)  Turns out he’s a twenty-year old named Raden Soemawinata and he’s a model.

The dog is a Maltese/Shitsu named Bibi, by the way – not that far from my girl, Bubu, and I’ve decided the gods have decided I am in need of a good day.

This story made my day.  So no apologies.  Instead, a nod of appreciation to the gods.  “I am grateful for your many kindnesses,” I want to say to them, to use that phrase I heard in Japan a lot.  Like having a model at the ready who had no trouble taking off his pants and jumping around in his underwear.  And being one of those people who actually listens to grandmother's advice never to go out except in clean underwear - "because you never know...."

Raden, it turns out, was at the pier scattering his grandmother’s ashes, when those same gods decided to throw him a little challenge.  He accepted it, and it looks like he’s having a bit of fame.  Somebody, it appears, even wants to make a movie out of the rescue, if I’m not mistaken.  Apparently nothing is sacred. 

Hope it doesn’t go to your head, Raden.

But you done good, as a friend of mine likes to say.

Or, good on ya! – as I believe they say where you come from.

My girls and I are eternally in your debt.




Don't know where to credit the pictures.  They are in a great many places by now.  If you go to Google images, they'll all pop up.  The real credit should go to the photographer at the Melbourne Herald Sun, but on the UK's Daily Mail website featuring the story the copyright holder is indicated as Newspix/Rex Features.  I trust, given their ubiquity, this attribution is adequate.

And if you want to join Raden's fan club, he has a facebook page, of course...

Happy Ending

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Other Half of the Story

If you were a fan of West Wing, you will remember that wonderful scene in the 25th episode, titled “The Midterms,” in 2000, when Martin Sheen as the President puts down a radio talk show host named Dr. Jenna Jacobs – a clear take-off on Laura Schlessinger (Laura Ingraham would do, as well, actually).  Watch it here

Writer Aaron Sorkin took the script from an e-mail which had gone viral, and which revealed the ridiculous inconsistency of hypocritical Old Testament literalists who cherry-pick the Bible to find hate material against LGBT people, leaving out things like adultery and divorce that might impinge on their own behavior:

Here’s the dialogue:
President Josiah Bartlet: Good. I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination. 
Dr. Jenna Jacobs: I don't say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President. The Bible does.   
JB: Yes, it does. Leviticus. 
JJ: 18:22.  
JB: Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? 
While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or is it okay to call the police?
Here's one that's really important 'cause we've got a lot of sports fans in this town: Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point?
Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side?
Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? 
Think about those questions, would you? One last thing: While you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight-Ass Club, in this building, when the President stands, nobody sits. 
How many times have we said, “I wish I had said that.”  We think of the bon mot we failed to call up that would have fit the occasion, the witty retort, the proper putdown that would have put some smartass in his place, and the frustration is palpable.  It’s too late now, the moment of victory has slipped through your fingers when you might have triumphed over some pusher of foolish notions and set the record straight.

Aaron Sorkin, one of the more articulate voices of the political left, has put on screen two of the best perfect squelch moments I've ever seen.  To that West Wing one, Sorkin has added another masterpiece of putdown, this time by Jeff Daniels playing anchorman Will McAvoy in The Newsroom.  Watch it here.  

Will is at an academic conference when a girl he identifies as “sorority girl” asks a question from the audience:

“Sorority Girl”: Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?

Karen: Diversity and opportunity.

Lewis: Freedom, and freedom.  So let’s keep it that way....    Will?

Will: It’s not the greatest country in the world, professor.  That’s my answer.

Lewis: You’re saying…

Will: Yes.

Lewis: Let’s talk about…

Will: Fine.  Karen, the NEA [the National Endowment for the Arts] is a loser.  Yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paycheck, but he gets to hit you with it any time he wants.  It doesn’t cost money; it costs votes; it costs air time and column inches.  You know why people don’t like liberals?  Because they lose.  If liberals are so fuckin’ smart how come they lose so goddam always?  And with a straight face you’re gonna tell students that America is so star-spangled awesome that we’re the only ones in the world who have freedom?   Canada has freedom.  Japan has freedom.   The UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, Belgium has freedom.  Two hundred seven sovereign states in the world, like, 180 of them have freedom.

Lewis: All right…

Will:  And yeah, you, sorority girl.  Just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know.  And one of them is there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world.  We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labor force, and number 4 in exports.   We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies.  Now none of this is the fault of a twenty-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are without a doubt a member of the worst (period) generation (period) ever (period), so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.  Yosemite?

[We] sure used to be.   We stood up for what was right.  We fought for moral reasons.  We passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons.  We waged wars on poverty, not poor people.  We sacrificed.  We cared about our neighbors.  We put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest.   We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy.    We reached for the stars.   Acted like men.   We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it; it didn’t make us feel inferior.  We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election.  And we didn’t scare so easy.   We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed.  By great men.  Men who were revered.

First step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.  America is not the greatest country in the world anymore. 


The right will call this display of verbal bravado in Sorkin heroes sanctimonious, smug, intellectually self-serving, and an unbalanced attack on Republicans.  The left will call it sanctimonious, smug, intellectually self-serving, and just what the doctor ordered.

The characters are from real life.  Just as Sorkin based Dr. Jacobs of West Wing on Laura Schlessinger, many are trying to see in Will, the Jeff Daniels character, the personality of Keith Olbermann (a connection Daniels denies, by the way).

Manipulators on the right wing saw the potential early on for tapping into American sexism, racism and homophobia to get out the vote, knowing America’s masses could be counted on to vote against their own self-interest if you could persuade them a defense of their religion or their civilization was necessary.

The West Wing scene was written just before the tide began to turn against homophobia and it began to go the way of sexism and racism in this country.  There was still serious harm being done in the name of religion against LGBT people, and the progressive left was beginning to recognize the phenomenon.  Today, leftist scorn has shifted somewhat to the jingoists on the right who wave the flag in your face, pray loudly at national sports events, put down the French with their “freedom fries,” and parade around as “patriots.”  Same combination of religion and politics in both cases.  With the West Wing monologue it was religion in the foreground, politics in the background; with the Newsroom monologue it’s the other way around.

Curiously missing in all this is the fact that in America, what we call the left is what most of the modern world would call the center.  We look at the Will character telling Americans they are not Number One anymore and we assume with pleasure the likelihood that the right wing is going apoplectic.  Most of us don’t recognize, though, that if you’re not American, this is anything but news.  Certainly not something to celebrate.  More like a big yawn.  

Of course we’re not number one in the heroic sense.  We have had our great moments, obviously, but as much as we like to think of ourselves as best personified by Superman, we have a terribly spotty history we run and hide from.  Slavery and genocide of the American Indians, for starters.  Consider what the U.S. meant if you were a kid in the Mexican Army when Texas became American.  A fighter for Philippine independence from Spain watching your country simply shift masters.  A citizen of a banana republic owned by American agrobusiness, a Korean watching the Russians and the Americans use your country as a football field, a Palestinian watching America stand idly by.

I have no interest in demonizing America, and recognize my political views are not the most sophisticated, and I’m not interested in listing all of her faults.  I just mention a couple because I wanted to explain to myself why I was so uncomfortable with the second half of that Jeff Daniels monologue.  “We were great once.  We could be great again.” 

It was a pep talk.  A coach telling a lagging football team to get its act together.  After revealing so much that the right wing overlooks when calling America “the best country in the world” it doesn’t carry through with total honesty.   Some honesty, yes – pointing out that we no longer wage war on poverty but now wage war on the poor, for example.

The second part, the romantic appeal to the good old days, when we were somebody, when we were brilliant and strong and noble, pretty much had to be added to the monologue in order to make it palpable as a TV script.  Without it, it would be an impossible downer, and nobody would watch.  It would feed into the Rush Limbaugh/Fox Network view of the left as people who hate America. 

With it, it’s a powerful talk-back to those on the right.  It does demonstrate there are patriots on the left – we just have fewer scales on our eyes preventing us from seeing America’s faults. 

But take a closer look at the script.  Just as religious homophobes cherry-pick the Old Testament for reasons to withhold dignity and civil rights from gay people, this left-wing list of American accomplishments is also cherry-picked.  It’s true, the Will character did tick off things in the first half like the number of people incarcerated and the high level of infant mortality, but there’s no serious criticism of the failure of democracy which we have experienced in our generation, in tandem with the failure of the financial system.  It’s still entertainment.  Not critical social analysis.  It’s more feel-good than a call to action.  One for “our side.”

I’m being unduly harsh, possibly.  Like most people on the left I loved the piece and forwarded it to friends – who, not incidentally, were simultaneously forwarding it to me.  I recognize that it is only the first step in facing a social problem – recognizing the problem.  As a creative piece, it should be judged on those terms and not criticized for what it doesn’t do.

But I guess that’s my point.  It’s only a first step.  Not a righting of a wrong, but a half-hearted call to arms.  Things are seriously broken – and that includes the American political system.  The Occupy movements show that some of us have begun to recognize it, but we haven’t found our legs yet.   Leftist television and Occupy are still feeble first attempts, but we’re not yet serious, and there are indications – the impotence of labor unions, for one – that the way out is still a long way off.

I don’t want to belittle these early efforts.  But we’re still just crying in the wind.

picture credits:

Saturday, July 21, 2012

It's up to the angels

      "For those who were wounded - physically, emotionally and spiritually - our hope is in their recovery and renewal. To them we offer our prayers, ours ears to listen, and our hearts to love."
       Pastor Brady Boyd, senior pastor of New Life Church, tweeted: "Sad day in my state. Pray with me for the family and friends affected by this senseless and evil act."
       Desperation Band tweeted: "Tragedies like this leave us speechless. Please pray with us for all affected by the shooting in Aurora last night."   (source)

Twelve people were shot dead in a Denver suburb the other night and dozens more were injured.  By some “very bright” guy who obviously went off his rocker and decided slaughtering people would be a peachy keen idea.

We are told we should get down on our knees and pray for the victims and their families.

I’m sorry, but that suggestion makes my blood boil.

Get down on my knees?  No, you get up off your knees, you sweet misguided fools.

Pray to a merciful Lord for understanding?

How about recognizing that your imaginary friend in the sky doesn’t give a shit one way or the other whether we slaughter each other down here on Planet Earth.  Even if he is the Clockmaker some of you on your knees say he is – I’m not so keen on that interpretation, either, by the way, but that’s beside the point – he clearly wound us up and left us on our own.

·       Charles Whitman, a former marine who climbs up the clock tower at the University of Texas campus in Austin, kills 15 people and wounds another 32 before being shot dead by police – August 1966
·       14 people are shot and killed in Seattle's Chinatown – February 1983
·       A man opens fire at a McDonald's restaurant in San Diego and kills twenty-one people before he himself is shot by the police – July 1984
·       A former employee enters a post office in Oklahoma and shoots 14 workers dead before killing himself – August 1986.
·       George Hennard drives his pickup truck to Luby's cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, and shoots 23 people dead before killing himself – October 1991
·       Two students take guns into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado and kill 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves – April 1999
·       A gunman dresses up as Santa Claus and kills nine people at a Christmas Eve party before taking his own life in Covina, a suburb of Los Angeles – December 2008
·       A gunman kills eight people and wounds five more at a shopping mall in Omaha, Nebraska, before killing himself – December 2007
·       Jeff Weise kills his grandfather and another person, then goes to school at Red Lake High School in Minnesota and kills five students, a teacher, a security guard and then himself – March 2005
·       32 people are killed at Virginia Tech by a man named Cho Seung-hui – April 2007
·       A shooter kills six, including a 9-year old girl and critically wounds U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona. – January 2011.

These are eleven public incidents of people off their meds (or never on them in the first place) striking out at total strangers in a public space, people who, for the most part, we have no way of stopping in advance, because we don’t know how. 

Didn’t think there were quite so many American massacres, maybe?  Well, how about this.  While we are being told to pray for the twelve people just killed in Colorado (and counting), remember that we are not being told to pray for the all the other people being killed on the very same day – on any given day in America.  12,632 gun killings a year in America, that’s 34.6 dead people a day, to use the 2007 figures

Not because they don’t count, but because we live by what the media tell us and we don’t get daily reports on killing.  We simply wouldn’t put up with it.  Besides, if we added the young kids we send off to kill other people in other countries, we’d be praying all the damn time.

Among the world’s richest twenty-three countries, 80% of the people killed with guns are killed in America.   87% of all the kids killed.  But Obama and Romney are not going to bring it up at one of their $50,000 a plate dinners.  Not the way we do things.

We know what we can’t do.  We can’t lock people up who are crazy.  Or who look like they might go crazy in the immediate future.  We have wired most public buildings, airports and schools in America with metal detectors, so that we don’t have to deal with gun control, but business would grind to a halt if we put one in front of every store and movie theater, as well.  That’s not an option.

Although some people have more than their fair share, we have a gun for every man, woman and child in America.  Bullets cost fifty cents a piece.  The Colorado killer filled his AR-15 with the 100 rounds he used for the same amount of money it would take to fill a tank of gas.

We can’t get either Obama or Romney to address gun control, so totally are we in the clutches of the National Rifle Association.   The Republicans, we can understand.  The rich can afford bullet-proof windows.  But the Democrats?  What’s wrong with the Democrats?   Gore lost to Bush, we are told, over the gun control issue.  Oh, OK. 

So we pray.  We pray that it doesn’t happen, and then when God shows he’s not going to answer that particular prayer, we pray for understanding.  And we pray that he takes the souls of the victims up to paradise where they will live happily ever after.

We Americans are famous for believing this horseshit.  We believe in angels.  Nobody believes in angels the way Americans believe in angels.  Somewhere between 77 and 81% of us, depending on whose poll you listen to. 

Is it possible to come up with better evidence of brain rot?

We’ve lost our ability to think and act our way out of a dilemma.  But then, what are we to do?  To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go through life with the brain you have, not the brain you might want or wish to have at a later time.

I guess that means it’s up to the angels.

angel painting credit

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Merchants of Doubt - A Review

A friend of mine grabbed me in a bookstore recently, put Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s Merchants of Doubt in my hands and said, “Here!  You’ve gotta read this!”

I’m grateful.  And now I want to second the motion.  It’s one of those books you want to recommend to everyone.  It makes the case that we are doing ourselves and future generations serious harm by allowing politics to get in the way of addressing global warming.  Specifically, that we have fallen prey to those on the political right who have figured out you don’t really need to engage in scientific debate on global warming; you only need to persuade enough people to believe there are two sides to the argument, and that means there is controversy, and that means inaction is warranted.

If Oreskes and Conway are right, the right has had the upper hand for some time now.  We have done precious little about global warming so far.  The political will isn’t there and the average American has yet to take it seriously.

My initial interest in the story told here comes from my interest in the sociology of knowledge, a set of philosophical questions about knowledge guaranteed to make most people’s eyes glaze over: What is knowledge?  How do we know what we know?  How do we spread knowledge?  Who controls knowledge and how?

Merchants of Doubt demonstrates that, in the proper hands, this theme can seed a story with the readability of a good detective novel.

We are at a serious disadvantage in dealing with the environment because most of us lack the scientific training to even ask the right questions, much less set up research projects and analyze the results.  We are at the mercy of those who do know, or who claim to.  And that means we are at the mercy of charlatans and others with a vested interest in persuading us to believe what it is in their interest to have us believe.  And, if that were not bad enough already, many of us embrace religious notions like “thinking makes it so” and other ways of giving in to our desire to believe what we want to believe.  Scientific method is a specialty field, not part of our universal education, unfortunately.  We’re a whole lot dumber than we need to be.

For some time now we have whittled away at the line between fact and opinion, with the result that when some political or religious leader comes along with a story, we ask first whether it suits us to believe it, rather than seek to separate fact from fiction, and to approach the information – and all knowledge – critically.

Oreskes and Conway have made a strong case that we have been duped by the political right into believing there is controversy over global warming when in fact there is not,  that if you line up the two sides you find scientists on one side and political hacks on the other.  They argue, further, that mainstream media have fostered the great American error of assuming there are two sides to every story, and what we should always do, first and foremost, is seek balance.  Give equal time, no matter how foolish the argument.

Jews died in concentration camps.   OK, so let’s listen to the Nazi side of the story.  Blacks were slaves.  But have you ever looked at it from the slaveowner’s perspective?

I’m not making cognitive and moral equivalency arguments here, but I am pushing this “balanced view” idea to the absurd extreme to make the point that balance is not always called for, and sometimes there are more important issues at stake than giving voice to people who don’t have a whole lot of valid information.  Leaving no stone unturned to make sure all views are heard is necessary when seeking a consensus – when a community has no choice but to close schools, for example, and has to decide which ones.

But when you want to build a bridge, you call in engineers.  You don’t invite librarians to do the math – unless maybe they’re retired engineers.

Our political system is lousy when it comes to the challenge of global warming.  It has no mechanism for processing content arguments.   All it can do is establish priorities.  What should come first, the environment or job creation?  Others have argued that we have given too much weight to the right wing argument that stopping pollution and protecting the environment generally comes at too great a cost, and that we have not really tackled the cost of inaction.  What Oreskes and Conway are arguing is that you can only have a meaningful debate when both sides are being honest – and the right is not.  We don’t actually know the cost of inaction because the cost is being deliberately withheld by interests vested in the status quo.

Not part of Oreskes and Conway’s argument, but worth mentioning, I think, is the additional burden we face in coming to terms with the environment – the fact that only government can make environmental protection happen.  Nobody else has the broad range of interests in view; nobody else has the clout.  And just as the right is casting doubt on global warming, they are at work dismantling the government’s power to take action.  Why should government tell me not to smoke, to exercise, avoid fat, drive at the speed limit? they ask.   Why isn’t that a question for each individual to decide?  Who is this Big Brother to tell us what to do and how to live?  It’s un-American.

Because Oreskes and Conway are both science historians, and not physicists or meteorologists, they tell their story as social scientists or reporters, and not as hard scientists with first-hand knowledge of climate research, and they will no doubt be dismissed as liberals with an agenda.  They don’t hide the fact they are going after the right wing.  This means that while they argue we should be listening to scientists, and not political hacks and other polemicists, their book itself is polemic.  They are making a case for getting politics out of the global warming issue, not making the case for global warming itself.

The case they make is that the right has figured out it can get lots of mileage out of simply casting doubt about scientists’ findings.  After corporate interests realize they can no longer refute the evidence of harm, they can still count on people’s natural inclination to want to not go off on some campaign half-cocked.  Ironically, while four out of ten people in the world have never heard of global warming, most Americans have.  This suggests it's timidity, not ignorance, that is to blame here.  Haste makes waste is a notion that is hard-wired in most of us.

Oreskes and Conway argue that the debate over global warming is less about the science of it all, less about the environment itself than over who gets to speak and who listens.   Proof of this is in the fact that the people arguing against climate control are the same people who argued against efforts to curb acid rain, and to protect the ozone layer. The same people who got their start working for tobacco companies trying to pooh-pooh the idea smoking was bad for your lungs and heart.  It’s not about evidence, in other words; it’s about satisfying corporate America’s lust for profits.

Oreskes and Conway name names.  They line up good guys and bad guys.  Chief good guy is Ben Santer, a recipient of a 1998 MacArthur “genius” award and atmospheric scientist at Lawrence Livermore Lab, and the IPCC – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Bad guys include Frederick Seitz and Fred Singer, both hawks of the Reagan era obsessed with the Soviet threat, both associated with the George C. Marshall Institute, the conservative think tank founded for the purpose of defending Reagan’s Star Wars initiative.  Singer got his start working for big tobacco, casting doubt on second-hand smoke studies for the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, another conservative institution.

Besides Seitz and Singer, Merchants of Doubt also singles out for reproach two other Cold War warriors, Robert Jastrow and William Nierenberg.  Their 1989 report questioning global warming got them into the Bush I White House and attracted a lot of media attention.  In fact, Oreskes and Conway argue, it was this early willingness by American mainstream media, including Newsweek, The New York Times and The Washington Post, to frame the Jastrow/Nierenberg argument as a side in an academic debate that has led to the frustrating situation we have today, where scientists are in virtually total agreement about the dangers of global warming, and the only real “other side” is made up largely of political appointees and ideologues.  

Readers of Merchants of Doubt, if Amazon reviewers are representative, tend to think as I do that Oreskes and Conway’s arguments are powerfully persuasive.  The book gets a 4.2 out of a 5-star rating.

Merchants of Doubt has generated considerable interest.  Google “Merchants of Doubt” – in quotation marks, to be sure you’re getting at the title – and you come up with nearly a million hits.  Also telling is the rich discussion among Amazon readers.  Pursue the debate, for example, among readers Leon G. Higley and John Mashey, Peter Brawley, and Lars Karlsson, and others.

Also valuable among these comments is the point made by Derek Grimmell, which I just made, that we should not judge Merchants of Doubt as a research study but as an argument such as one might make in a court of law.  This point is essential to a critical evaluation of the book.  Ultimately we are dependent on the integrity of researchers who ask the right questions about global warming and gather reliable evidence.  Few of us are in a position to do that ourselves.  The service that Merchants of Doubt performs is in framing the question: are we well served by the political leaders and the media who have a voice in this issue?  Oreskes and Conway suggest we are not.  They claim the sides are not equal, that for the most part scientists are on one side and political hacks on the other.
“Over the course of more than twenty years,” they write,

these men (Seitz, Singer, Nierenberg and Jastrow) did almost no original scientific research on any of the issues on which they weighed in.  Once they had been prominent researchers, but by the time they turned to the topics of our story, they were mostly attacking the work and the reputations of others.  In fact, on every issue, they were on the wrong side of the scientific consensus.  (Introduction, p. 9)

If the authors are right, it’s up to the politicians to explain their hubris in taking the side of non-experts and arguing against experts, and it’s up to the media to explain why they are trying to get us believe the sides are balanced.

One last word.  Although I made a point of stating that Merchants of Doubt is primarily polemical, and not an objective report of research evidence, Oreskes and Conway have done a powerful job of presenting that evidence as well.   Nor should the authors be dismissed simply as historians, as Erik Conway’s employment at the Jet Propulsion Lab and connections at the California Institute of Technology should make clear, for example.  There are over sixty pages of notes backing up the conclusions they reached in their years of research for the book and they have posted an impressive list of documents online.  How much those conclusions contribute to the debate itself is for others with the technical expertise I lack to determine.  When it comes to framing and clarifying the argument, however, I am persuaded Merchants of Doubt is a major contribution.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Fujiko Hemming - a review

If you are unfamiliar with Fujiko Hemming (or Fuzjko, as she spells it), take six minutes and thirty-eight seconds to enjoy a performance of Liszt’s La Campanella, her signature piece. 

Taku and I are great fans of this lady.  She’s on our CD player all the time.  And last night we heard her play again at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater, that lovely barn of a place that nonetheless gives you marvelous access to the performer, with its comfortable seats in the round creating an atmosphere of closeness and familiarity, despite its size.

She played the same program, essentially, that she played last year in the same location.  She started with Chopin, played some popular Debussy, then that awful Mussorgsky thing, Pictures at an Exhibition, and ended with Liszt, including the Campanella piece.  And another Chopin piece, a nocturne, for an encore.

She doesn’t have the impact of a young lion like Lang Lang; she’s not a take your breath away Van Cliburn; she probably won’t go down in history like Vladimir Horowitz or become a legend like Wanda Landowska.  But she is a world-class concert pianist, despite her eccentricities and reputation for missing notes all over the place, and has a devoted following, especially in her Japanese homeland.  The audience at the Palace of Fine Arts last year and last night seemed to be perhaps 90% Japanese, although that may have to do with publicity – the concert was a charity concert for victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima.

She’s a character.  She’s an old lady who moves slowly and dresses in her own unique style, ranging from quiet elegance to bag lady with flowers in her hair.  She’s a painter, an animal lover – cats, in particular – vegetarian, appreciative of her fans, generous in her charity.  A personality you get to know after a while and find appealing.

I can’t be sure how widely known she is outside of Japanese circles, but I do know Japanese have taken her to heart.  She is the daughter of a Japanese mother who went to Berlin in the 1930s to study music.  Her father was a Swede of Russian origin who left her mother when Fujiko was just a child.  Fujiko was raised in Japan, but lives now in Paris and keeps a close connection with her European origins, including her father’s family, apparently.  She suffered a devastating loss of hearing in both ears at one point but made her way to Sweden, thanks to her Swedish citizenship, and found a partial cure – she has 40% hearing in one ear, and that has enabled her to teach and pursue a career as a concert pianist.

She gives the impression of not caring about the small stuff.  She seems to play for the joy of music, and not so much with an eye on her career.  A romantic, a lover of beauty, she creates the impression that says, “Here I am, take me or leave me, hope you enjoy this, don’t ask for more than I’m capable of.”  If that comes across as tired, it’s possibly because she’s nearly 80 years old and is still playing Chopin and Liszt pieces not written for sissies.  The sheer accumulation of energy created by listening to fourteen Chopin etudes in a row – her opening number done without applause breaks all in one go – is breathtaking.

Then there’s that Pictures at an Exhibition piece.  I didn’t like it last year, and liked it even less a second time around.  For me it’s a novelty piece.  I risk the label of insensitive clod, possibly – I know the piece has its fans, some of whom gush over its “musical invention…vivid aural form…clocks, bells, chants, feathers, flames..., etc.,” to quote one writer at Wikipedia, but I hear mostly tramping through the living room in a pair of muddy boots.  Alas, Fujiko seems to love it, and she carries it with her wherever she goes.  That’s OK with me.  I can handle anything that she does, as long as she keeps the Chopin coming and always ends with Liszt.

Listen to her do one of my favorite Chopin pieces – the “I’m always blowing bubbles” – (or was it  “chasing rainbows,” come to think of it) number Fantasie Impromptu  – (audio only, unfortunately).

If you’re up for a competitive listening of La Campanella, start with a couple of Lang Langs for some hot shot versions, this one with a Chinese announcer twit who talks over his music at the start, and this one of Lang Lang in front of a high-energy London crowd trying to smother him in dry ice.  Then by all means have a go at the world master, Evgeny Kissin's version.  That brilliant white boy (especially back when he had that 60s Afro) brings me to tears, just thinking of what the human brain and hands are capable of, when they work together.  Or is he a robot, maybe?

Then listen to lovely Alice Sara Ott for yet another crisp clear and technically perfect (to my ears) version

If after that you go back and play Fujiko again, you’ll see what I’m talking about – not up there with the biggies in crispness or pizzazz, certainly not with Kissin or Lang Lang in pyrotechnics.  But – and maybe it’s just those pudgy grandmother fingers – I feel a warmth in her playing that keeps me coming back to her again and again.

And that means I’ll go again a third year in a row if she comes back to San Francisco next year.  I’ll just maybe take a coffee break during the Mussorgsky.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Muy amable

Francisco Madariaga Quintela and his father
I saw a documentary years ago now that I can no longer place.  It was about goings-on in  Latin America. Jeane Kirkpatrick was coming out of a meeting with Augusto Pinochet and a reporter with a microphone was asking her  what she thought of him.  “Muy amable,” she said, smiling.  “Muy amable.”   

I felt a coldness in my spine I rarely feel.  A laser-beam loathing for this woman.  Pinochet was already known as a ruthless torturer and killer of his political opponents, and here we had this official voice of the American government calling the guy a nice man.  All the ugliness of American foreign policy, the wars to further American interests, the training of thugs at the School of the Americas, as it was then called, evidence that American complicity in torture didn’t begin at Guantanamo, all seemed to be summed up in this wretched woman’s assessment of a “very amiable” dictator.

Kirkpatrick was Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy advisor and creator of the so-called “Kirkpatrick Doctrine” which advocated support for totalitarian dictatorships like the ones in the cone - Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile – under the guise of fighting communism.

I blogged back in 2007  about my obsession with Father Cristian Wernich, the priest who participated in torture of the Argentine government’s political enemies during la guerra sucia (the “dirty war”), as it has come to be called, when they used to take young leftist idealists and make them disappear.  They would claim ignorance of their whereabouts after taking them up in military airplanes and dropping them into the ocean to drown. (If your Spanish is up to it, here is a ten-minute summary of the charges against this man.  I still choke up every time I hear the sentence announced and the cheers of the crowd, knowing that justice has come at last.)

That trial was five years ago already.  Argentina is a completely different place.  Still troubled economically and not as stable as most Argentines would like, it is free of the curse of U.S. supported dictators who knew how to play the anti-communism card to keep their hold on power.

Five years since that trial which I’ll never forget, and this morning, it all comes back with the news that they have just completed the long drawn out case against two Argentina leaders, Jorge Rafael Videla and Reynaldo Bignone.  Videla was the architect of the sinister plan to kidnap the children of the enemies of the state and turn them over to the kidnappers and murderers, a notion that could only have been hatched in hell.

The good news is they gave Videla an additional 50 years on his life sentence and Bignone 15.  Absurd sentences if you think logically.  Richly satisfying sentences if you are committed to a sense of justice.  Seven others were convicted as well.   The bad news is you can’t bring people back to life once you’ve dropped them from airplanes.  And in most cases, you can’t put the lives of the 300 to 500 children of these victims back together, either.

One of the difficulties in dealing with this period of history, from 1976 to 1983, similar to the difficulties in dealing with any exercise of ruthlessness by the Hitlers, Pol Pots, Charles Taylors, Pinochets and Saddam Husseins of the world, is that the attention necessary to prosecute their crimes tends to curdle the blood and tax your ability to keep the bile from overflowing.  Dropping people from airplanes is possibly the most merciful part of this story.  (Unless you can put yourself into the head of a 21-year-old falling from the sky and feeling her lungs fill with water, that is.)

For me the psychological cruelty perpetrated by Videla and others of the dictadura is even worse than the physical torture.  Along with the policy of “disappearing” people they created a policy of systematic abduction of their children.  In some cases babies were kidnapped right out of the uterus, by Caesarian section, and handed over to the very people torturing them, to raise as their own.

Abuela – grandmother ­­– is a beautiful word in any language, but in Argentina there is the image of thousands of mothers and grandmothers who refused to let time heal their pain through forgetfulness.  They fought on, the madres demanding justice and recognition of the crimes, and the abuelas working to get their children's children back.    Nobody knows the exact number of children missing, but the figure is usually estimated at between 300 and 500.  Children stolen from parents just before those parents were killed – and handed over to their killers.  I know I’m repeating myself, but it takes time for this to sink in. 

If you haven’t seen the 1985 film, The Official Story (La Historia Oficial) make a point of finding it, if you can.  It was the first Latin American film to win an Oscar for best foreign film.  

For Americans, there is a side to this story that should not be missed.  According to AP wireservices, Elliott Abrams, who was Secretary of State for Latin American affairs during those dirty years, testified by videoconference and let it be known that the Reagan government was aware of the disappearances.  They “knew that it wasn’t just one or two children.”

In a book by Martin Edwin Andersen, called Dossier Secreto, which the New York Times called a “tour de force,”  Andersen, a professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and onetime aid to Senate Majority Whip Alan Cranston, details the junta’s celebration of the shift from Jimmy Carter’s administration, whose human rights policy was causing them serious distress, to Ronald Reagan’s. 

According to an Alternet article from this morning,

When President Jimmy Carter’s human rights coordinator, Patricia Derian, berated the Argentine junta for its brutality, Reagan used his newspaper column to chide her, suggesting that Derian should “walk a mile in the moccasins” of the Argentine generals before criticizing them. 

To this day, Reagan is celebrated as a hero by the political right in this country.  Flying into Washington, unless you can manage to land at Dulles, you have to endure the pain of landing at Reagan National Airport.  The man who once called the Nicaraguan contra thugs “moral equals of the Founding Fathers” gets to go down in history, even in MSNBC’s Chris Matthews’ assessment, as “one of the greats.” 

At least we have the satisfaction of knowing justice was brought a little closer with the decision to add more years to the life sentences of Videla and Bignone.  And if you dig a little, you may come up with additional bits to lift the heart and calm the rage. 

In addition to the horror in the stories behind the Videla/Bignone and Cristian Wernich verdicts, there is also the heroism in the stories of attempts to track down the kidnapped children of the Disappeared.  One of those stories made headlines in February of 2010.  It’s the story of Francisco Madariaga.

The story actually starts with Pablo and Carolina, two children adopted by Norberto Atilio Bianco, an Argentine military doctor and his wife, Susana Wehrli, who left Argentina to live in Paraguay when the Argentine military dictatorship collapsed.    And just as they felt the need to escape the justice they might face in the new Argentina, many of those who had fled the military dictatorship were now returning.   One of those was Abel Madariaga, who had been living first in Brazil, then in Sweden.  Abel returned to Argentina as soon as he could in 1983 and came to believe that the son born in 1977 to his wife, Silvia Quintela, might be this boy Pablo, and that the doctor father who had raised him might have been involved in his wife Silvia’s death. 

Madariaga petitioned the Paraguayan authorities to conduct a DNA test to resolve the question of paternity.  For ten years they refused until finally, under pressure from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, they relented.  For reasons not clear to me, the new Argentina government apparently managed to have them extradited to Buenos Aires to face charges.

Madariaga was not to get satisfaction, however.   Pablo and Carolina both had established families by now in Paraguay, and did not want to know if Madariaga’s charges had any substance.  They refused to go to Argentina or to submit to DNA testing.

That is the story, at least, as told by Robert Parry, writing today in AlterNet.   It would appear there is some considerable delay between the filing of his story and the big news of the past few days, however.  Parry missed a very important second story.

Elsewhere in Argentina, a boy grew up with the name of Alejandro Ramiro Gallo.  After Alejandro’s parents' marriage fell apart (his father was jailed for murder at one point),  Alejandro began to suspect he was adopted.  He confronted his mother and she broke down and told him the truth.    The two then went together to consult with the Abuelas working so hard to reunite families, and Alejandro took a DNA test.  

Meanwhile, Abel Madariaga had joined the grandmothers’ group - the first man ever to do so – and was around when the tests came back.  Alejandro Ramiro Gallo doesn’t use that name any more.  The DNA tests showed him to be Abel's son.   He now goes by his birth name unknown to him just a short time ago.  He is Francisco Madariaga Quintela.  The two had found each other after 32 years.

That second story can be found in two recent articles in the Huffington Post, here and here.

There is a p.s. to the story in an earlier HuffPost which contains this interesting information
Former Capt. Victor Gallo and his ex-wife Susana Colombo, were sentenced to 15 and five years in jail, respectively. Their adopted son, Alejandro, now Francisco Madariaga, testified against them and said he hoped their sentences would set an example.
One can only wonder what mixed feelings the boy had testifying against the mother who raised him.  True, she was an accomplice to the kidnapping.  But she was also a victim of her husband’s violence and she went with her adopted son to contact the abuelas and help him reunite with the father who had spent the last thirty-two years searching for him.

Some of the pain and sorrow of the acts of these “muy amable” dictators enabled in part by the Reagan administration and the likes of Jeane Kirkpatrick and Henry Kissinger is only now, at long last, beginning to dissipate.  So far the abuelas have returned 105 missing children out of the estimated 500.  They're still at it, hoping to find more.

 photo credit  
 added July 21: Al Jazeera coverage of court's decision on YouTube