“Instruct the wealthy of this age not to have a superior attitude, nor to hope in the uncertainty of riches, but in the living God, who offers us everything in abundance to enjoy, and to do good, to become rich in good works, to donate readily, to share, to gather for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may obtain true life.”—1 Timothy 6: 17-19
July 30, 1511—Giorgio Vasari, who embodied the term “Renaissance man” with his painting, architecture, and biographical profiles of prior influential artists of the age, was born in Arezzo in Tuscany.
A child prodigy, Vasari paid heed to a relative who urged him, “Study well, little kinsman.” As he grew into adulthood and became the breadwinner for his family (his father, an ornamental potter, had died in a plague), Vasari became a busy, if not trend-setting, painter (his teacher was Michelangelo) and architect. (Two weeks ago, The International Herald Tribune, marking the 500th anniversary of Vasari’s birth, published an article by Roderick Conway Morris that highlighted the artist’s extraordinary commissions from his patron, Cosimo de’ Medici, the Duke of Florence.)
But, at a time when the art of biography was not very well advanced, Vasari created a blueprint for how it could be done, offering a practitioner’s insight into the problems faced by his subjects, as well as willingness in later editions to correct prior inaccuracies. He not only created an indispensable record of the Renaissance in Italy, but, when translated, also influenced historical portraits of this period elsewhere, too.
In his The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, for instance, Jacob Burckhardt, the influential 19th century historian, wrote: “Without Giorgio Vasari of Arezzo and his all-important work, we should perhaps to this day have no history of modern art, or of the art of modern Europe, at all.”
In addition to illuminating the lives of the great Italian Renaissance artists (he’s one of the principal sources for our knowledge that Leonardo and Michelangelo, Vasari’s teacher and friend, were not-so-friendly rivals), Vasari also framed subsequent understanding of the Renaissance. It was a rebirth of the great art of antiquity, which, he argued, had been left in mere shards by a Roman Catholic hierarchy intent on destroying any pagan art that could adversely affect the morals of Christians.
In recent years, modern historians, while valuing Vasari’s writing for its insight and verve, have also learned to regard some of it with a critical eye. In discussing medieval architecture, for instance, he coined the term “Gothic” to express his extreme displeasure with a form he regarded as Germanic and barbarian. The artist-biographer's disdain not only reeks of prejudice but, as one looks around examples of such architecture, is hardly evidence of a reversion of civilization, but an advance on it.
“I had been in a motorcycle accident and I’d been hurt, but I recovered. Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race. Having children changed my life and segregated me from just about everybody and everything that was going on. Outside of my family, nothing held any real interest for me and I was seeing everything through different glasses. Even the horrifying news items of the day, the gunning down of the Kennedys, King, Malcolm X…I didn‘t see them as leaders being shot down, but rather as fathers whose families had been left wounded.”--Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One (2004)
Bob Dylan is characteristically cryptic but expressive in his memoir in describing the motorcycle accident in upstate New York that occurred 45 years ago yesterday.
Actually, “mentioning” might be a more appropriate word than “describing,” in terms of the details he provides: zilch. He has said somewhat more about the circumstances elsewhere in interviews, though usually no more than a sentence or two. The upshot of his statements: he broke some vertebra, had it taken care of, didn’t tour for awhile, and moved on. No big deal.
Only it was a very big deal on the rock ‘n’ roll scene, for these reasons:
* This being the Sixties, all kinds of rumors circulated. At the time, one of the wilder ones—on the order of the “Paul Is Dead” canard that later floated around about Paul McCartney—was that Dylan had suffered such injuries to the brain that he was no longer mentally functioning. A more plausible rumor was that he had been treated for drug addiction. (A neat summary of the known facts, eyewitness testimony and rumors surrounding the accident can be found in this post from the blog Rule Forty Two.)
* The rock ‘n’ roll scene was in the midst of a creative, can-you-top-this moment. Along about 1965, rock ‘n’ roll entered a period when all kinds of experimentation with new sounds and lyrics occurred. One seminal album that spurred much of this was the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. The Beatles would respond, most emphatically, with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (Dylan himself contributed much to the creative ferment with the double-album Blonde on Blonde, released just a few weeks before his accident.) But now, as the different artists weighed the challenges posed by other musicians, surveyed the increasingly uncertain world outside the studio, and indulged in all kinds of drugs, one of the key figures in this creative revolution was, uncharacteristically, out of the picture for nine months—or, as Don McLean would put it several years later, in “American Pie,” “the jester [was] on the sideline in a cast.”
* Dylan, the principal songwriting influence of his generation, was now, preposterously, under the radar of the music business. Dylan had no sooner helped the folk-music movement reach its popular zenith with “Blowin’ in the Wind” than he had spurred the growth of a more introspective, “folk-rock” movement by taking a cue from The Byrds and going electric. In the two years just before the accident, he had released five albums. Increasingly looked to as “the voice of a generation,” he was the epicenter of a hurricane of change and attention.
And that, precisely, might have been the trouble. Whether Dylan was treated for substance abuse, or whether, as some have thought, he was not seriously hurt at all but let the world think so, I have no doubt that Dylan’s memoir expressed his psychological, if not his physiological, state of the time very well.
“Truth was,” as Dylan might put, he was profoundly tired of all the “voice of a generation” talk. It was more than the fact that he was just a musician and flabbergasted by the amount of attention he was receiving, by the way every last one of his utterances was dissected. A musical magpie who took his influences wherever he found them—Woody Guthrie, Smokey Robinson, Theolonius Monk, Frank Sinatra—he did not want to be put into a creative pigeonhole. And he was becoming ever more wary of being seen as a political oracle: “Don’t follow leaders, just watch the parking meters,” he had warned waggishly in “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” (Come to think of it, even the image accompanying this post is emblematic of his spirit then and, to a large extent, now. It doesn't at all preclude him observing everything, but it sure keeps the listener and viewer from thinking that they can see into him and, therefore, peg him.)
Before the accident, Dylan had a helter-skelter schedule of 60 concerts planned. All that went by the wayside during his convalescence. Love and commitment (at least for a time) had made him a different person.
During the latter stages of his convalescence, he began to record with The Band, in a series of loose, carefree sessions that soon found their way onto bootlegs, known as The Basement Tapes. The studio album he finally released in 1968, John Wesley Harding, was quieter, simpler, starker than any he had released before the accident. Yet even in that way, in the midst of a year when the world went crazy from shouting and shooting, it expressed the heart of Dylan’s independent, ferociously contrarian spirit.
July 28, 1971--Brooks Robinson, often (justifiably) considered the best defensive third baseman in baseball history, must have thought that some evil wizard put a spell on his glove overnight, because he committed three errors--not in a doubleheader, not even in a single game, but in a single inning.
The crowd of 22,000 had to be wondering: Had someone given the Baltimore Orioles’ defensive superman kryptonite?
It happened in the fifth inning of the Baltimore Orioles’ day game against the Oakland A’s at Memorial Stadium. The O’s Mike Cuellar was having a pretty good day for himself, in the midst of an eight-strikeout, six-hit performance--but Robinson was suddenly making him work much harder than necessary.
With two out, the A’s speedy shortstop Bert Campaneris laid down a perfect bunt that would have been a base hit anyway. But Robinson’s fumble sent Campaneris racing to second and put pitcher Blue Moon Odom (who had walked previously) on third. A’s leftfielder George Hendrick got on base because of a second bobbled ball by Robinson. Yet a third miscue by the 11-time Gold Glover scored Odom and Campaneris before Cuellar himself stanched the bleeding by striking out Reggie Jackson.
At the plate, Robinson wasn't much better: 0 for 3, including grounding into two double plays.
Luckily, the A’s could not capitalize further on Robinson's awful day, and teammate Frank Robinson accounted for all the Orioles' runs in the 3-2 contest with a three-run homer in the ninth inning off reliever Rollie Fingers.
Over the past decade or so--most agonizingly, after Mariano Rivera blew the save and the seventh and deciding game of the 2001 World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks--Yankee fans have grown accustomed to either Joe Torre or Joe Girardi saying of their normally lights-out closer, “This just goes to show that even Mo is human.”
The Cincinnati Reds must have felt that this “human” moment of Robinson’s came nine months too late for them. In the 1970 World Series, the Big Red Machine had felt ready, at different points, to tilt the fall classic decisively in their own direction--until, that is, a wicked Johnny Bench line drive was hit in the direction of “Brooks Robby” (the name bestowed on him by New York tabloid headline writers to distinguish him from “Frank Robby,” i.e. Frank Robinson). Anybody else would have been handcuffed by a ball like that, but Brooks somehow managed to spear it. In the same series, a Lee May grounder down the line at third provided another highlight reel for the third baseman.
Oh, and at the plate, Robinson hit .429 with nine hits, including two homeruns (one giving the Orioles the victory in the third game).
No wonder Robinson was named World Series MVP that year. No wonder the Reds fell to the Orioles, four games to one.
Had he been a banjo hitter, it’s unlikely that Robinson would have entered Cooperstown. (See, for example, the fate of teammate Mark Belanger, who, with eight Gold Gloves but only a .228 lifetime batting average, was the very definition of “great field, no hit” at shortstop.)
Nevertheless, like Ozzie Smith, Robinson’s great fame derives from his magic with the glove. The plaque for "the Human Vacuum Cleaner" at Cooperstown speaks of the records he set at his position for seasons, fielding percentage, games, putouts, assists, and double plays.
In 1971, Baltimore’s starting rotation became the first to have four 20-game winners in the same season: Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally, and Pat Dobson. But it’s a real question how successful they would have been without Robinson (who, despite that bad inning, would go on to receive his 12th of 16 consecutive Gold Gloves) at the hot corner.
"What you and I see as a lie, in a writer is called imagination."—Journalist/novelist Martha Gellhorn (and third wife to “liar” Ernest Hemingway) to Eleanor Roosevelt, quoted in Nicholas Shakespeare, "Martha Gellhorn," Granta, Summer 1998
“Man does not live by words alone, despite the fact that sometimes he has to eat them.”—Democratic Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965), speech in Denver, Colo., September 5, 1952
Americans have been learning this truth the hard way the last several weeks, as the debate over raising the debt limit reveals our current system of government exhibiting all of the symptoms of what political commentator Jonathan Rauch has called “demosclerosis”—i.e., the growing inability to adapt and deal effectively with the nation's problems.
Republicans and Democrats alike have brought us to this pass through overly close adherence to the moneyed interests that fuel their campaigns. Now, after promising these vested interests everything their little hearts desire, these politicos find they may have to eat their promises and words. As Adlai Stevenson foresaw nearly 60 years ago, this is seldom a heartening spectacle.
“The emoluments of a music critic are not large. Newspaper proprietors offer men from a pound a week to five pounds a week for music criticism, the latter figure being very exceptional, and involving the delivery of a couple of thousand words of extra brilliant copy every week. And, except in the dead season, the critic must spend most of his afternoons and evenings, from three to midnight, in concert rooms or in the opera house. I need hardly say that it is about as feasible to obtain the services of a fully-qualified music critic on these terms as it would be to obtain a pound of fresh strawberries every day from January to December for five shillings a week. Consequently, to all the qualifications I have already suggested, I must insist on this further one--an independent income, and sufficient belief in the value of music criticism to sustain you in doing it for its own sake whilst its pecuniary profits are enjoyed by others. And since this condition is so improbable in any given case as to take my subject completely out of the range of the practicable, I may as well stop preaching, since my sermon ends, as all such sermons do, in a demonstration that our economic system fails miserably to provide the requisite incentive to the production of first-rate work.”—George Bernard Shaw, “How to Become a Music Critic,” Scottish Music Monthly, December 1894
What many people don’t realize about George Bernard Shaw—born on this date in 1856—is that, before he started writing the plays that would net him the Nobel Prize for Literature, he had served as a music critic.
Reading his tongue-in-cheek “sermon,” as he put it, on the sorry state of music criticism in his own time, I wonder what he would say about the dire state of the profession today. In a post to the blog MinnPost.com a few years ago, David Hawley asked, “Is classical-music criticism in daily newspapers going the way of the dodo?” His answer wasn’t particularly hopeful. (Actually, the tone of his piece was akin to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot—i.e., laughing in the face of gathering darkness, absurdity and all-around meaninglessness.)
Hawley focuses on the decline of newspaper classical-music criticism in the face of online reviews, but another issue may end up looming just as large. Blogger Jon Silpayamanant, looking at trends in ethnicity as well as the aging audience for classical music, raises an infinitely troubling concern: “If the white population in the US is aging at a faster rate than the population of the US as a whole and the Classical Music audience is aging at a faster rate than the population of the US as a whole I’m wondering if the rate of the aging white population is at all correlated to the rate of Classical music audiences.”
That’s one way of looking at this. But Shaw, more than 100 years ago, implicitly raises another: class. True to his Socialist beliefs, he ends with ironic jabs not only at the profession he’s about to leave for good but also at the capitalism he will spend the raise of his life deriding: “our economic system fails miserably to provide the requisite incentive to the production of first-rate work.” These days, he might also have concluded with, “the production and appreciation of first-class work.” Look around at any classical music performance and it becomes clear how upscale the audience is.
Income may play as much a role in the troubling demographics noticed by Silpayamanant as anything else. The gap between whites on the one hand and blacks and Hispanics on the other seriously widened as a result of the most result recession. Shaw would have been the first to point this out--and the resulting implications for culture.
My father’s fascination with things of the earth, which (if you’ll pardon the pun) took root as a farmboy in Ireland, has continued in all the years he’s lived in the United States, but somehow it never became part of my genetic inheritance.
That is, until I got a Coolpix camera, started experimenting with outdoor shots, and noticed how readers of my blog—heck, even I—responded to shots of flora and fauna.
I was especially taken with the image accompanying this post, which I took while on vacation two weeks ago at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York. Still, I had a bit of a problem: I couldn’t name this rather exotic-looking plant.
For help, I turned to another visitor at my inn, who had struck me as unbelievably knowledgeable about everything associated with the place.
Sure enough, she didn’t disappoint me.
“Oh, that’s a giant hosta,” she said matter-of-factly.
“A giant what????” I asked, not trusting my ears.
She helpfully spelled out the name of the plant.
A giant hosta? From the image staring out from my camera, it looked to me more like the hosta that ate Chautauqua—no, make that the entire southwest corner of New York State. It summoned memories of the talking and singing plant of Little Shop of Horrors (in the baritone of Motown’s Levi Stubbs), pleading with hapless Rick Moranis with an urgency not even heard on the Four Tops singer's peerless “Reach Out” or “Bernadette”: “Feed me, Seymour!”
“She's looser than a thrift store turtleneck and probably just as diseased."—Sue Sylvester (played by Jane Lynch), on substitute teacher Holly Holliday (played by Gwyneth Paltrow, in the accompanying image), in Glee, Season 2, Episode 17, “A Night of Neglect,” air date April 19, 2011, written by Ian Brennan, directed by Carol Banker
As I write this, I’ve been home a week from my vacation at the Chautauqua Institution, and even back from yet another (albeit short, business-related, and given the transportation circumstances, far less pleasurable) trip. But, as I invariably do, I find it hard to leave this upstate community all behind, even as I re-engage with my job and tackle new challenges there. Before this week is over, I’d like to wrap up different aspects of the trip.
(In other ways, you’ll be seeing evidence of my stay for even longer, as I post pictures of the abundant flowers in this picturesque lakeside village as part of my ongoing “Photo of the Day” series.)
Much has changed at Chautauqua since I first started coming here in the mid-1990s, including the growing presence of cellphones and other electronic devices. But in most important ways, this picturesque Victorian village—a National Historic Landmark—has been altered little during that time.
People keep trying to encapsulate the spirit of Chautauqua in a phrase. On my last full day on the grounds, a speaker at one event compared it with Brigadoon, another enchanted village where time seems frozen. A close relative of mine has called it “Disneyworld for intellectuals.”
In fact, most of the place can still be recognized by Theodore Roosevelt, who, at one appearance, termed it “typically American, in that it is typical of America at its best.” Many proud Chautauquans would support that statement, but a more piquant, instantly recognizable catchphrase was supplied by Jim Leonard, a contributor to the blog “Making Great Places,” who approvingly quoted friends who said it was like “vacationing in a Norman Rockwell painting.”
In other words, Chautauqua might be thought of as a lakeside block of Americana.
The striving for self-improvement, the search for a usable future, animates the spirit of the place, but it also does so by harking back to the past. This post will describe, in words and pictures, exactly how it does so.
The most obvious visual representation of this lies in its architecture, which I described in a prior post. But it’s hardly the only example.
The first slice of Americana that I’m talking about can be found on Bestor Plaza and the nearby Amphitheater, where, early in the morning (and, I was surprised to discover at a concert, even at night), you’ll see and hear newsboys and newsgirls hawking The Chautauquan Daily (second picture above).
Talking about a throwback in time! I was a newsboy more years ago than I’d like to remember, and I think that more than a few of my readers were, too. But how many of us even have our papers delivered (as opposed to downloading them on, say, a Kindle) today by youngsters on foot or bike, as opposed to adults in cars? Very few, I think. Yet that tradition lingers up here every summer.
Time, to be sure, has introduced a few wrinkles in this quaint mode of delivery. The most obvious one is price.
A longtime Chautauqua visitor at my inn recalled as a girl hearing one “newsie” promoting his paper with the cry, “Only one thin dime.” Inflation has taken care of that one.
The cost of a paper had gone up to 50 cents on my prior visit here four years ago, and it had shut up to 75 cents Monday through Friday and a full dollar for weekend delivery during my stay this summer.
But in the way they compete for visitors’ attention and dollars, Chautauquans could easily find common cause with their compatriots on the streets of America a century ago. The young lady in the picture on the left, for instance, had a particularly endearing cry:
“Chautauquan Daily, full of knowledge, Buy a paper, put me through college.”
What a cry! No plaintiveness, no guilt-tripping—just an emphasis on possibility. Naturally, I dug into my pockets until I found three (not-so-thin) quarters for her.
A second bit of Americana associated is the Sunday chicken barbeque, sponsored by the Chautauqua Fire Department (fourth picture, above). It’s just the type of small-town event that makes for grand fellowship. (I bet it’s especially welcome on the grounds of Chautauqua, where even an event such as this—only held a few times each summer—provides a respite from the paucity of food choices in the gated village.)
The third slice of Chautauqua Americana is the Thursday Morning Brass Band (third picture above), which I encountered, of all times, on a Friday. I had gone to listen to musicians from the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra (CSO) speak, but their voices were soon overwhelmed by this band, just outside Smith-Wilkes Hall. (I gather that the different sets of musicians had been booked on adjacent spots accidentally, with no expectation that one would overwhelm the other in volume—something I don’t expect to happen again.)
Well, for all my interest in the classical music being discussed by the CSO members, I was having more and more trouble hearing them. Besides, the sounds from the brass band were so cheerful—a form of aural sunshine to complement the visual one all around us (typical songs: “Ain’t She Sweet?”, “76 Trombones”)—that I was easily seduced to slip out.
The third photo captures what I saw: the group of veteran musicians in an outdoor setting. What you can’t see is what they played—the kind of music you could once find easily in thousands of gazebos in town squares early in the 20th century on a summer evening, but now most likely to be played by the Boston Pops on the Fourth of July. When the brass band played “When the Sounds Go Marching In,” the theme song of my alma mater (St. Cecilia High School, Englewood, N.J.), I honored their exquisite taste in music with a little something for the band’s collection basket.
The last bit of Americana in my photo essay is the Chautauqua Belle (first picture above). Four years ago, it was a near-run thing whether this boat, launched in time for America's bicentennial back in 1976, would make it for another season. But it did, and it now endures as one of only four known 100% steam-powered sternwheelers left in the U.S. While checking out the scenery at the northern end of Chautauqua Lake, passengers receive a running narrated historical tour on the community.
I didn’t step foot on the boat this time around, but the loud toot of its horn around 6 o’clock one night made me run to the shore to get a better look—the same way, I’m sure, that young Mark Twain used to attract attention as a Mississippi River pilot in the glory days of the steamboat in the mid-19th century.
His riverboat experience made Twain regard bodies of water as elemental, stern and majestic. After winning fame as an author, he became a mainstay of the Chautauquan circuit of public speakers in the late 19th century. I suspect that this religious skeptic would have loved poking fun at the earnest Protestant spirit that dominated this community in those years, but also that his satire wouldn’t be too savage. After all, he shared their belief in self-transformation and questioning of institutions—elements that remain in the DNA of this community to this day.
The image accompanying this post represents my attempt at mind over matter. If I look long enough and hard enough at this photo of the lawn in front of the rectory of my local church, I’m absolutely certain I can wish away four straight days of 90-degree-plus heat index readings.
Somehow, I’d forget that this past December, I had to shovel out my driveway for hours, then walk gingerly down my streets to avoid the ice, just to be in position to snap this scene.
Nevertheless, right now, the willing suspension of disbelief about this background would feel like a great gift, as I contemplate the last several days muggy weather...
“In live theater, the author is a theory put into practice by the actors. The theater is a lie in which you harpoon the imagination of the audience in creating the fantasy that's on stage."—Maury Yeston, composer (Nine, Titanic, and now, the Roundabout’s Death Takes a Holiday), on theater as a collaborative art, quoted in Marshall Heyman, “A Music Man’s ‘Holiday,'" The Wall Street Journal, July 23-24, 2011
“Another constant in his [Rupert Murdoch’s] career is its embattled, roller-coaster quality. Murdoch is said to be popular and admired within his own organization, rather than resented, mocked, or gossiped about behind his back. But with business rivals he is always in feuds and showdowns, and not only high-profile ones like that with [Ted] Turner. He has taken big risks (one associate describes Murdoch's making, in a matter of minutes, the billion-dollar decision to back Fox News ‘the way you or I might order lunch’), and his business has suffered serious reverses. In 1990, in an episode vividly described by [William] Shawcross, Murdoch was nearly forced to liquidate News Corp after a bank in Pittsburgh refused to roll over a small but crucial portion of his corporate debt. Although admirers compare him to Bill Gates or John D. Rockefeller because of his appreciation of technology and his instinct for strategic advantage, Murdoch is perhaps best compared to Bill Clinton: his nature keeps getting him into predicaments from which his talent lets him escape. “—James Fallows, “The Age of Murdoch,” The Atlantic, September 2003
His appearance before Parliament, Rupert Murdoch said mournfully, was “the most humble day of my life.” Many might think he had misspoken, meaning to say it was “the first humble day of my life.”
But James Fallows’ profile in The Atlantic runs directly in the face of those ready to begin writing Murdoch’s business obituary. I had long recalled this piece because of an odd little anecdote about the publisher's relationship with Bill Clinton: “Each has lunched at the other's office in New York, and Murdoch came away impressed by Clinton's ability to discuss impromptu almost any issue arising almost anywhere on earth. Associates of both say that despite the political differences between the men, they clicked because of complementary personalities: Murdoch loves to listen, and Clinton loves to talk.”
But in re-reading the piece, I realize that Fallows had overlooked another possible reason why these two men, in a weird way, bonded: their Houdini-like ability to escape damn near everything. That same ability should increase skepticism, even among the many who loathe him, of any notion that Murdoch’s number is, at long last, finally up. Remember, above all, the line from the late novelist Josephine Hart: “Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.”
(Full disclosure: two of my college friends were among the high-profile casualties after Murdoch began installing his own primarily British-based upper echelon after acquiring The Wall Street Journal. The carnage there was as immense as it was predictable.)
Take this latest scandal, for instance, about the Murdoch empire's all-too-cozy relationship with Scotland Yard, and in particular the phone hacking. It's not like he hasn't tried something sleazy like this before. For instance, not long after Murdoch’s buccaneering entrance on the American media scene, he had done something similarly loathsome: the infamous “SAM SLEEPS” photo, of “Son of Sam” serial killer David Berkowitz behind bars, was spread all over the front page of his recently acquired New York Post. Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever adequately explained how the Post photographer got back the prison guard for that shot, nor why a grand jury never returned an indictment in the case.
Even if Murdoch slinks away, mortally wounded, from the media wars, he has already left his imprint on the way Americans receive and process news. Fallows guessed correctly, nearly eight years ago, the reaction against the Post, Fox News, and the other elements of Citizen Murdoch’s empire: “papers, radio shows, TV programs, and Web sites for liberals, and conservative ones for conservatives.”
In a way, Fallows noted, Murdoch was engineering a reversion in time: “Our journalistic culture may soon enough resemble that of early nineteenth-century America, in which party-owned newspapers presented selective versions of the truth. News addressed to a particular niche—not simply in its content but also in its politics—may be the natural match to an era with hundreds of satellite and cable channels and limitless numbers of Internet sites.”
In other words: no more dream of journalistic objectivity. One side has Fox, the other MSNBC; one side has the Wall Street Journal, the other The New York Times. Neither is remotely interested in what the other has to say--or, indeed, any other non-ideological view. I have my news and you have yours, buddy, and never the twain shall meet.
I took this photo at Times Square on the way in to work yesterday. It still wasn’t even 9 am, and the humidity was already brutal. These two people’s coping mechanism was perfectly understandable under the circumstances.
“How can the bird that is born for joy Sit in a cage and sing? How can a child, when fears annoy, But droop his tender wing, And forget his youthful spring?”—William Blake, “The Schoolboy,” from Songs of Experience (1794)
I had a tough time selecting the image accompanying this post. You see, when I used Google Image to search for the appropriate youngster or group of youngsters to illustrate William Blake’s point, the results I saw, overwhelmingly, were diligent, even happy young scholars toiling away the summer hours.
Needless to say, this was not the memory I had of young people forced to stay cooped up in rooms on some of the hottest days of the year while their friends were going to the Jersey Shore.
In fact, the one face that did illustrate the anguish and misery Blake described was the poet's. He looks as if he’d been denied the chance to experience the joys of nature, doesn’t he?
“All the counselors hate the waiters And the lake has alligators And the head coach wants no sissies So he reads to us from something called Ulysses.”—Allan Sherman, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter From Camp),” 1963
Comedian Allan Sherman’s hilarious novelty song, performed to the tune of Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours,” reached #2 on the Billboard charts in late summer 1963. I still can’t listen to the whole thing without collapsing in laughter.
Arthur (played by Dudley Moore): [while taking a bath] “God, isn't life wonderful, Hobson?” Hobson (played by Sir John Gielgud, pictured left): “Yes, Arthur, it is. Do your armpits.” Arthur: “A hot bath is wonderful... Girls are WONDERFUL!” Hobson: “Yes, imagine how wonderful a girl who bathes would be. Get dressed.”—Arthur (1981), written and directed by Steve Gordon
Yes, I know that I’ve already done one (maybe two) Movie Quote of the Day from this movie. So sue me. The original Arthur, which premiered 30 years ago today, is still worth lifting a glass to.
And while we’re at it, let’s toast three of the talents sadly no longer with us who helped transform this bubbly concoction into a hit: Gordon (dead at age 43, only a year after a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his single film), Moore (likewise, Oscar nominated, for Best Actor), and Gielgud (who actually won, in his second nomination as Best Supporting Actor).
“No man makes himself. We owe our lives to God and to our parents. No man can succeed alone without the people. A businessman depends on the people who buy. If he accumulates great profit, in a large measure the people are responsible for his profit. A student cannot be educated without others. The student must be taught. Someone else writes the books. Someone else builds the buildings. Someone else gives the endowment. Often somebody else pays the bills….No man can succeed alone. No man is self-made. No man can lift himself by his own bootstraps.”—Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, “Why Jesus Called the Rich Man a Fool,” delivered at the University of Chicago on March 11, 1962, included in Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Speaks: Representative Speeches of a Great American Orator, edited by Freddie C. Colston (2002)
Theologian Gary Dorrien’s Thursday lecture at the Chautauqua Institution examined the life of Benjamin Elijah Mays, one of the early 20th-century African-American ministers who have now faded into history but who should be better known, particularly for their influence on the career of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (When King was attending Morehouse College, he listened attentively to the sermons of Mays, who was president of the school at the time.)
You can hear some of Mays’ cadences—and the same passion for social justice—in the words of the Nobel Peace Prize winner. That message still resonates, as became evident to me when one of the visitors at the inn where I stayed recited the above quote practically verbatim when recounting the lecture later.
“We have a choice to make each man
Who dares to dream, reaching out his hand
A prophet or just a crazy goddamn
Dreamer of a fool—yes a crazy fool.”—Harry Chapin, “What Made America Famous,” from his Verities and BalderdashLP (1974)
Listening to WFUV-FM’s Pete Fornatale on my car radio this afternoon returning from vacation, I was reminded that it was 30 years ago today that Harry Chapin died at age 38 in a car crash on the Long Island Expressway.
I was stunned at the time when I heard the news, not least because it had only been the prior month that I had seen him in concert, for the third or fourth time, in New York.
There are any one of a number of Chapin songs I could have used for the “Song Lyric of the Day” (and, at some point in the future, I’m sure I will), but over the years this one has stuck with me the most.
It’s probably at least twice the length of the hit tune from Verities and Balderdash, “Cat’s in the Cradle,” and that’s not the only indication of its epic intentions: Chapin made this song the center of a 1975 Broadway musical.
I guess what has stayed with me about this tune (concerning the events surrounding a fire) is that it’s expressing something increasingly elusive in our polarized age.
Put aside the imagery of the long-haired kids and the more conservative fire-department members who save their lives--put another way, Chapin is talking about an early manifestation of red and blue America, hoping that the differences between them can be bridged, through mutual respect born of acts of unselfishness.
It all harks back to the belief that animated Chapin’s life and career as musician and activist, and ensures that his legacy won’t be forgotten soon: that one person can make a difference.
And yet, the last questions in this story-song don't sugarcoat the quiet terror faced by those who go against the grain of the world, and are delivered by the singer with stark power that haunts listeners to this day: "Is anybody there?/Is anybody there? Does anybody care?"
“The transformers are well protected — they’re 30 yards from the side of the highway; they’re well fenced-in by cyclone fences and by big signs that point to the transformers and say, ‘Danger! Do not touch.’ Well, the system is pretty well-designed to keep out, let’s say, a drunk teenager on Saturday night.”—Former CIA head R. James Woolsey, explaining ironically how America’s electrical system is a national-security disaster waiting to happen, in a July 15, 2011 address at the Chautauqua Institution, quoted in Nick Glunt, “Woolsey: U.S. Energy Can Be Target of Terrorist Attacks,” The Chautauquan Daily, July 16-17, 2011
The Chautauqua Institution might have felt that, as perhaps the best-known of the five speakers for its “American Intelligence” theme week, R. James Woolsey would be a great way to end five days that sparked great audience interest. Instead, what they—and the audience gathered at the Amphitheater on Friday morning—got was something of a mixed bag.
True, if you put aside his folksy but commanding presence, Woolsey said nothing particularly out of the ordinary—or, as a fellow boarder at my inn cried out in exasperation, “He didn’t offer any solutions to the problems! What good is that?”
And yet, how many members of Congress—or, for that matter, the administration—are even mentioning the problem of electrical-griod security? At the moment—a very long moment at that—they’re simply having trouble averting a shutdown of the government. How can we expect them to show foresight, let alone deal responsibly with the people who elected them in the first place?
Perhaps, then, it takes someone to get up and repeatedly state the problem—something along the lines of the message of Cato the Elder: “Carthage must be destroyed!” The ancient Roman repeated that message until it was finally heeded, and perhaps something similar is needed in this case.
“I worry that these weapons are becoming addictive. It is too easy — and an effective way to project power — without putting boots on the ground, to use the common phrase, and risking American lives.”—Novelist and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, addressing the Chautauqua Institution on July 14, 2011, on the Obama administration’s growing use of predator drones in the War on Terror, quoted in Nick Glunt, “Ignatius: Ethical Dilemmas Are Very Present in International Espionage,” The Chautauquan Daily, July 15, 2011
“One cold day a posse captured Billy And the judge said string him up for what he did And the cowboys and their kin Like the sea came pouring in to watch The hangin' of Billy the Kid.”—Billy Joel, “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” from his Piano ManLP (1973)
When I was first heard as a teen Billy Joel’s account of the death of Billy the Kid, it never really bothered me that he got the facts of the case all wrong, I was so caught up in the excitement of hearing this fresh new rock ‘n’ roll voice (not to mention the not-so-subtle tribute to the Western strains of Aaron Copland in the background of the song).
To be fair to the Piano Man, he has acknowledged that he took considerable poetic license with the facts of the case: i.e., that William H. Bonney / Henry Antrim/ William McCarty (the different names and how he came by them illustrative of the few facts we have on his life) in actuality met his end at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett on this date in 1881.
Now, I wish that musicians (and screenwriters) would try a different interpretation of The Kid’s life, something more along the lines of Michael Wallis’ Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride: that this legendary desperado was hardly either a cold-eyed psychopath or a Western Robin Hood, but more likely a scrawny kid from the streets of New York, son of an Irish Potato Famine emigrant, a fish out of water in the Southwest, forced to live by his wits after the death of his mom and stepfather; a junior member of a cattle-rustling outfit who came of age in when Civil War veterans often combined, in deadly fashion, alcohol and firearms to produce a deadly environment; and that he even had plea-bargained with New Mexico territorial governor Lew Wallace (author of Ben-Hur) when the deal came undone and he ended up with his appointment with legend.
“Well, prime minister, we know that the IRA is about to bring in a large lorry bomb. We don’t know when it’s coming in; we don’t know which port it’s coming in at; and we don’t know what the target is. But, prime minister, I thought you should know.”—Stella Rimington, former director general of the British intelligence agency MI5, on a briefing with John Major on a terrorist threat, quoted in Nick Glunt, “Rimington: U.K. Espionage Has Evolved as Times Changed,” Chautauquan Daily, July 14, 2011
The anecdote above produced many chuckles in the audience at Stella Rimington’s lecture yesterday morning at the Amphitheater at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, but her point was deadly serious: the large gaps of information available to decision-makers around the world as they attempt to preserve the lives of their citizens.
People with a political axe to grind of whatever ideology might think that Presidents ought to know precisely when or where an attack will take place, but more often than not the precise time and place are going to be unknown.
In addition, there is the matter of how and when to charge a terrorist suspect. Governments in the West, particularly in the United States and Rimington’s U.K., need more than enough information to make an indictment stick. Without that, the suspect can go free. Attempts to lengthen suspects’ detention periods to provide further time for building cases run into civil-liberties challenges.
On the other hand, waiting until every “I” is dotted and every “t” crossed in an indictment can lead to massive loss of life.
John Major’s response to Rimington’s maddeningly imprecise briefing? A sigh, followed by “Stella, do your best.” Pretty admirable stoicism, if you ask me.
I’m not a fan of Britain’s former P.M., but this time I sympathized with his frustration, just as I do with his past and present counterparts, no matter what their party, in his country as well as in the U.S., as they deal with thousands of similar maddeningly imprecise reports of threats. It's enough to make you wonder why on earth they would ever want their jobs.
As much as I am bursting to share with you all that I’m learning all this week, perhaps the most important reason for a travel journal or diary is simply giving to others (and recalling for yourself) a sense of what was like at a certain time and place. And so, before moving on to the day’s events, I want to try to picture for you, at least momentarily, what it’s like up here in the southwestern corner of New York, not far from Niagara Falls and Buffalo.
When you hit a warm spell, as I did the first couple of days, the heat and humidity can be bad—particularly, as occurred with me in past years, if you’re staying on an upper floor in an older inn that lacks air conditioning. Even with overhead fans, all you can do at night is sweat it out and pray to get through it. Such places are an asthmatic’s nightmare.
My last several times here, though, I’ve made it a point to book a room with air conditioning. You might even be lucky and not need to put it on at all, which often occurs in the final week of the summer season in late August. On those cool nights, breathing is wonderful.
The heat and humidity took a turn for the better last night. The mid-day highs today were more than 10 degrees lower than yesterday, and the humidity was gone.
Now, in this pedestrian-friendly (visitors’ cars are only allowed on the grounds for 45 minutes, for loading and unloading) village, the abundant trees, an absolute necessity during the fierce heat, become a wonderful amenity. So today, taking the Brick Walk to one of the daily “Brown Bag Lunches” held throughout the week (more on this later) and hearing rustling from the trees and tinkling piano keys from Lutheran House, I felt something like heaven.
Cars tend to be in short evidence during the week, so what you’ll see from Monday to Friday are more likely to be bicycles or (in the case of the elderly) motorized wheelchairs, golf carts or shuttle buses. Bicycles have received more negative attention here than in past years because of some riders’ lack of attention to pedestrians, but make no mistake: for any city dweller or suburbanite, you will feel safer than you would at home.
There are lots of reasons to walk as much as you can around the grounds, but one of the best is simply to enjoy the Victorian-era architecture here. The institutional structures—the Amphitheater, the Hall of Philosophy I discussed yesterday, Hurlbut Memorial Church, to name just a few—are striking in and of themselves. But then you are struck by the picturesque hotels, inns and cottages, featuring a variety of styles (and often creating hybrids of these, too).
I had some real trouble settling on just one photo for this post. But you can see in the one I’ve chosen some features commonly found around these summer accommodations: mostly wooden frames, heavy on shingles and clapboard, often covered with gable roofs—and one of the things I love best, and what I don’t see often in my neck of the woods in Northern New Jersey: front porches , not just on the main level, but frequently also on the second, third and even fourth floors. And on these streets, you’re likely to see not just highly ornamental “gingerbread houses” but also many American flags (and even some foreign ones) flying from homes.
Oh, yes—and flowers blooming everywhere, in simple but glorious profusion.
The Brown-Bag Lunch: Another Learning Event
Besides lectures at the Amphitheater and Hall of Philosophy and Special Studies classes, Chautauqua also lists on its schedule a variety of brown-bag lunches where visitors can learn about topics on a more informal, ad-hoc basis. For this week that I’m attending, for instance, there are 10, on subjects including book reviews, nature writing, the role of nutrition in cardiovascular health, and Shakespeare.
The brown-bag lunch I attended today was a book review, on Louise Knight’s biography, Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy. It was presented by the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, the oldest continuous book club in the U.S. Between 60 and 70 of us sat in lawn chairs or at picnic tables, listening to two reviewers (one hostile, the other ambivalent) explain how Addams, a child of a Yankee upper-class milieu, founded the multicultural Chicago settlement house Hull House and became the first U.S. woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
The high standard set in the first two days of my “Espionage 101” class continued to be maintained by today’s lecturer, Mark Stout, an intelligence analyst for 13 years and the current International Spy Museum historian. The title of the talk, “Intelligence Analysis: Art, Science or Voodoo?” accurately summed up the ambiguities and stresses involved in this work. (Analysts are often introverts, while policymakers who use their recommendations tend to be extroverts.)
All kinds of information can be processed in intelligence: traffic intelligence (i.e., knowing how often two people speak, how often, and for how long), electronic intelligence, geospatial intelligence, and open-source (e.g., foreign newspapers, TV, Twitter, Facebook) intelligence.
Among the other speakers I saw:
* Stella Rimington, former director general of Britiain’s MI5, on “The Changing Face of U.K. Security”;
* Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights of the American Jewish Committee, on “Human Rights, the Holocaust and Genocide Prevention,” at the Everett Jewish Life Center.
“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), The Cost of Discipleship
I included the first sentence of this quote in my post yesterday on Day Three at Chautauqua, but I think now that the full context of it makes Bonhoeffer’s words even more compelling.
I don’t remember ever having looked at the Hall of Philosophy, one of the places I visit most frequently while on vacation here, from anything like the angle I took when I snapped the accompanying photograph yesterday. Like most visitors, I suspect, I normally approach it at eye level, by walking via the Brick Walk from the Amphitheatre.
But I beheld a whole new way of looking at it—as well as the larger Chautauqua mission—as I walked uphill from Lake Drive 24 hours ago, weighed down by the heat and humidity. From this perspective, through one arch and into another, the Hall of Philosophy evokes, even more than the normal approach taken to this sylvan spot, the Olympian perspective suggested by its marble classical pillars. You, too, can reach this height, the architecture and landscape suggest, but you’re going to have to work at it.
This hall is the traditional site for lecturers on religion, or simply authors who might not pull in the crowds that speakers at the amphitheater usually do. But these afternoon speakers, I’ve found, are, more often than not, provocative and/or simply fascinating, and today’s were no exceptions. Over the years, I've seen speakers discuss here the problematic elements of anti-Semitism in the New Testament, what polls were saying about upcoming elections, and stem-cell research, not to mention compelling theologians such as Karen Armstrong and John Dominic Crossan.
Some speakers are bound to make at least some members of the audience uncomfortable—that is, if they’re doing their jobs correctly. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be physically uncomfortable while taking in what they say.
The hall looked pretty full when I arrived for today's 2 pm lecture by Geoffrey Kelly, an authority on the great German preacher and anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I knew I didn’t want to be anywhere during this hour except under the hall's wooden roof—otherwise, I’d burn beneath the fierce afternoon sun.
So, as I scanned the hard white benches, I prayed (how appropriate!) for a spot that a) had good sightlines, unobstructed by those large pillars, and b) was unoccupied. It took a while, but something eventually turned up.
Kelly, a professor of systematic theology at LaSalle University, is author of 12 books, including five on Bonhoeffer. He was, then, unbelievably knowledgeable on this theologian whose hard, urgent brilliance still echoes across the more than 60 years since his death at the hands of the Nazi regime he’d opposed for more than a decade.
Bonhoeffer, who never wavered in the slightest from his belief in social justice and human rights, still underwent something of an evolution in how he hoped to achieve his ideals. A longtime consistent believer in pacifism, he had come, by the end of his life, to believe there was no way to bring about his ideals except through the death of Adolf Hitler. And so, he became involved in Operation Valkyrie, the failed attempt by German officers to assassinate Hitler. He paid for his participation through death in a concentration camp in the closing weeks of the war.
Kelly traced this Lutheran minister’s interaction with the African-American minister Franklin Fisher (who influenced him deeply by exposing him in Harlem to the black social gospel), Reinhold Niebuhr, and Mahatma Gandhi. Most of all, what lingers from the lecture is Kelly’s invocation of Bonhoeffer’s most impassioned statements on God and human fellowship:
• “God’s truth destroys our untruth.” • “Peace must be dared; it is the great venture.” • “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church.”
After Kelly’s lecture came one by Willard Sterne Randall, a former investigative journalist who has made a second career for himself as a historian of Revolutionary War figures. I particularly admired his studies of Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin and his Tory son, so I knew I had to hear what he had to say about Ethan Allen.
Certain aspects of Allen’s life speak with particular urgency today, Randall noted: Our time, like Allen’s, involves warfare far away in mountainous regions, and the suffering of Allen and other prisoners of war at the hands of the British has deeply affected American policy, in some way or other, down to the present day.
As for the week’s theme of spies: International Spy Museum executive director Peter Earnest spoke twice as long as his lecture in the amphitheater yesterday while continuing to be entertainment and informative on the subject of "Recruitment" in the morning class, “Espionage101,” and Bruce Riedel, a senior Brookings Institution fellow (and former CIA officer), gave a measured, cautiously optimistic assessment of “The Intelligence War With al-Qaida.”
He dwelt at particular length on Pakistan and the successful mission to get Osama bin Laden. (He found it hard to credit the notion that its military and intelligence services couldn't know that bin Laden was so close, but thought it possible that the country's president might have been unaware--a very disturbing possibility.)
The Value of Listening
Yesterday, sitting on the porch at Carey Cottage Inn, I overheard another visitor praising the lunches served at Hurlbut Community Church. For $6, she said, you could get a plate (a choice of soup/sandwich or salad; turkey salad; fruit plate; vegetable wrap, or the daily special, in this case a crab sandwich), and the meal would be ready for you.
In prior years, I saw signs around the grounds about these meals, but maybe hearing it endorsed by someone else made a difference this time. So, at the conclusion of Riedel’s lecture, I headed over to Hurlbut, and was glad I did.
This sounded awfully good to me, particularly since I almost had receipt shock at the Refectory the day before . My memory of that eatery—a place of simple but comparatively inexpensive food—must have been playing tricks on me, since my meal of a chicken sandwich, French fries and soda came to more than double what I discovered I could pay at Hurlbut.
In contrast, at Hurlbut, I was happily rewarded with an inexpensive, tasty, and even comparatively nutritious meal without having to wait forever--as well as the knowledge that I was contributing to a fine cause and institution. I’m hooked now for the rest of the week.
I wish that my experience tonight at the Bratton Theater, where I caught a production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, had been as favorable. But I’ll write about it later in the week, when I won’t be so tired or grouchy as I am now and, hopefully, will be more tolerant.
“The budget of the United States is a moral document, and yet we spend 40 percent on the military while we are cutting education, aid to the poor, Medicare and Medicaid. Oil companies have made the largest profits in the history of corporations, and they are going to Congress asking for more tax breaks. We give to the rich and take from the poor. CEOs are earning 300 times more than workers….Jesus was neither a Republican nor a Democrat. Jesus called all of us to righteousness. Did you know that 40 percent of the new members of Congress cite Ayn Rand and her gospel of selfishness as their primary guiding force, rather than the Sermon on the Mount?”—Rev. Tony Campolo, Sunday sermon at the Chautauquan Institution, July 10, 2011, quoted in Mary Lee Talbot, “Morning Worship,” The Chautauquan Daily, July 11, 2011
For me, at least, the hardest part about spending a day of vacation at the Chautauqua Institution is deciding what I simply don’t have time for. The events in the Amphitheater—the morning lecture and evening entertainment—are carved out, and very little competes against it. Most people make it a point not to miss either (particularly since their gate passes entitle them to attend these).
But many people don’t take advantage of courses offered in the Special Studies program. I’m not sure if it’s because these involve additional fees or simply because they’re not better promoted, but they’re a fascinating variety of items, for all different kinds of tastes: recreation (swimming), hobbies (bridge for beginners), personal finance, music—you name it.
And so, early this morning, as I stood at the Main Gate to sign up for classes, I wearily considered my options. I was pretty sure, unless I was closed out, that I would take morning classes on the American intelligence system offered in conjunction with Chautauqua’s program partner for the week, the International Spy Museum. After that, the choices became far tougher.
I thought for awhile about a short story class, but some of the authors for the week (e.g., Mary Gaitskill, Ethan Canin) didn’t especially interest me. A more serious contender was an early afternoon class on sonnets. But then I ran smack dab into one of the quandaries Chautauqua puts in the way of the curious: there were competing simultaneous events—lectures by spiritual authors, or bestselling writers (Erik Larson).
I also thought fleetingly aboutclasses on codebreaking and on identifying different plants and trees (an increasing interest of mine as I post more nature pictures on this blog).
Then, finally, I bowed to the inevitable: It wasn’t only a matter of being unable to be in two places at once, or even of spending even more money than intended on classes. I simply needed time to breathe—to write, and even to take advantage of a simple architectural device everywhere in this Victorian Era village but increasingly missing elsewhere in America: the front porch, a place where you can see and chat. Even now, in the age of digital communications, Chautauquans give all signs of wanting to slow the pace of life down. A good thing, too—how else would you learn to appreciate the gardens everywhere you turn here if you didn’t take the time to stop and look?
Masters at Telling Spy Stories
If Chautauqua hoped to kick this week off with a bang, it succeeded beyond their wildest dreams this morning. Both the morning class I signed up for, “Master Class: Espionage 101: Five Days of Spy,” and the 10:45 a.m. lecture at the Amphitheatre featured vivid stories galore.
I’ll admit to some trepidation about the “Master Class.” I could manage the 8:30 starting time all right in terms of waking up. It just seemed like a lot to rush over from breakfast and anything else you needed to do in the morning that early, then hope that the two hours for the class wouldn’t be too excessive.
As it happened, that starting time proved providential. Temperatures today were forecast to hit 87 degrees, and the humidity seemed to be matching it. Better to start the class that early than later, when the heat and humidity would become unbearable.
In the six or seven years I’ve visited Chautauqua, this morning’s “Master Class” might have been the most heavily attended Special Studies class I’ve ever taken. The coursebook indicated that the maximum enrollment was 200, and my best guess, in looking around the Hurlbut Church Sanctuary, the site of the class, was that we were approaching this.
This morning’s class was taught by Tony and Jonna Mendez, a married couple who, a decade apart, served as CIA Chiefs of Disguise. Now both retired, they can speak with more candor than before (though still not entirely unrestricted) about their work. The CIA’s Office of Technical Services, at least as the two described it, could easily rival the executive devices given to James Bond by British’s “Q.”
(In fact, Tony Mendez’s involvement in rescuing six U.S. diplomats from Iran at the height of the 1979-81 hostage crisis has now led Hollywood to his doorstep. George Clooney and Ben Affleck are producing the film, with Affleck starring as Mendez.)
Among the hairy (sometimes literally) stories told by the Mendezes:
• “Lipstick guns” were invented for female agents in a jam. They only had one bullet and you had to get up close to use it, but they still worked in a pinch; • The technology used for today’s hearing aids was developed to set up bugging devices. • Miniature cameras were invented to conceal special technology needed to take pictures. • In a special spy-catching exercise in which the Mendezes were involved, they were able to take advantage of the old-school, male orientation of the FBI to deceive the latter agency. • At the time of the daring rescue of the American diplomat-hostages, the CIA was trying to recover from its own major intelligence failure. The agency totally underestimated popular support for the Ayatollah Khomeini, believing that the Shah of Iran would remain in power for another 25 years. • In creating disguises, it’s easier for a woman to pass as a man than visa versa. * Simple wigs can be quite effective. (Put a wig on a bald man and not even his wife would notice the difference, Jonna quipped. • At one point, fearing that the Soviets might get there first, the CIA conducted experiments in parapsychology. Most such attempts ended badly, but at least a few such events demonstrated surprising success.
Almost immediately after the end of that class, Peter Earnest, executive director of the International Spy Museum, put the upcoming week’s events in an historical perspective. Intelligence, he noted, “began in a tall tree, probably somewhere in Mesopotamia,” as one neighbor plotted how to get another’s nuts and berries. (To destroy the neighbor’s nuts and berries, he chuckled, was an early instance of covert action.)
Besides being considered the father of his country, he noted, George Washington is also thought of as the father of American intelligence. The Spy Museum has a copy of a letter in which the general commissioned an operative to set up a spy network in Tory-dominated New York City.
After briefly considering the use of intelligence in the Civil War and World War II, Earnest dealt with the lead-up to World War II. After the war, he noted, the United States discovered that the Soviet Union had, the decade before, recruited 500 agents for work in the U.S. (In fact, they had so many in Henry Morgenthau’s Treasury Department that the KBG sent a secret message not to send any more operatives, lest U.S. law enforcement grow suspicious.) The number of U.S. agents in Moscow at the time: zero.
Earnest also likened Pearl Harbor and 9/11 as “failures of imagination”—the inability of intelligence professionals as well as career politicians even to think of a nightmare scenario.
Two actions taken at the behest of the 9/11 Commission have produced mixed results till now, he observed: the office of Director of National Intelligence, he noted, was still “trying to find a role,” while things “hadn’t gone smoothly” with the Department of Homeland Security, either.
Theater Enrichment and Evening Entertainment
I won’t see the Chautauqua Theater Company’s version of Anton Chekhov’s tragicomedy Three Sisters until tomorrow night, but this afternoon I couldn’t resist the opportunity to hear the company’s backstage staff tell about their work. Listening to the organization’s “fellows” for scenic, lighting and costume design, it was clear to me that tomorrow night’s show will be extremely daring and avant-garde—not your parents’ tradition of the genteel Chekhov.
I wrapped matters up tonight by listening to the Music School’s Festival Orchestra concert in the amphitheater. Sandwiched between such traditional classical fare as Robert Schumann (Piano Concerto in A Minor) and Richard Wagner (e.g., “The Ride of the Valkyries”) was John Adams’ The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra.).Perhaps it was simply a function of prolonged exposure to this week’s theme, but it struck me in listening to the Adams music that it could have easily served as an excellent film thriller about China, if Alfred Hitchcock were still alive to make it.
(I did miss one entertainment event: a concert at Lenna Hall late this afternoon. As you can see from the accompanying image, my chances of landing seats were slim to none.)
I'm a librarian (no, NOT a "cybrarian" or "information scientist" or any of the other trendy terms the profession has come up with), as well as a freelance writer/researcher; my political leanings are contrarian, much to the dismay of friends on the left and right, and so I will give anyone looking for my vote exactly what they deserve -- the back of my hand