Thursday, December 31, 2015

Song Lyric of the Day (Bob Seger, on How to Approach the End of a Year)

“Take it calmly and serene
It's the famous final scene.”— Bob Seger, "The Famous Final Scene," from his Stranger in Town LP (1978)

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Quote of the Day (Richard Feynman, on the ‘Way Nature Works’)

“Trying to understand the way nature works involves a most terrible test of human reasoning ability. It involves subtle trickery, beautiful tightropes of logic on which one has to walk in order not to make a mistake in predicting what will happen.” —Nobel-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988), The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist (1998)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

This Day in Presidential History (FDR Urges ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ for Britain)

December 29, 1940—Two months after campaigning on a promise not to involve America in another overseas war, Franklin D. Roosevelt took an enormous step toward doing just that by urging his countrymen to become an “arsenal of democracy” by shipping arms to Great Britain in its struggle against the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan.

The military might displayed by these dictatorships was immense, but so, at the time of this foreign-policy “fireside chat,” was the American isolationist movement—a force that crossed partisan, religious and ethnic lines, taking its initial cue from George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address admonition to “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” reinforced by the nation's disillusionment with WWI.

That movement was also deeply suspicious of FDR's intentions. While normally choosing his words with enough care to allow him wiggle room in case of a policy reversal, Roosevelt felt the necessity, in an October 1940 campaign address in his close race against Republican Wendell Willkie, to make the kind of categorical assertion that his enemies would remember for decades: “I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war.”

(That statement makes the short list of Presidential utterances regarded by supporters as unfortunate bows to necessity and by naysayers as blatant lies, along with George H.W. Bush’s “Read my lips: no new taxes” and Barack Obama’s “If you like your doctor, you'll be able to keep your doctor; if you like your health care plan, you'll be able to keep your health care plan.")

FDR had just demonstrated, in his precedent-breaking third-term victory, that he still held enormous sway with the electorate. But it would take all his mastery of men to shift America’s diplomatic posture away from isolationism. In solving the immediate problem of confronting Fascism, though, he would shove the nation decisively toward what historians Thomas K. Duncan and Christopher J. Coyne of George Mason University have called “The Permanent War Economy.”

Roosevelt was one of the great Presidential phrasemakers (e.g., “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” “rendezvous with destiny,” “date that will live in infamy”). But in this instance, it was Harry Hopkins, his former Secretary of Commerce (and continuing devoted informal adviser), who suggested the most enduring phrase in the radio address, and Hopkins who would help implement the legislation it championed as the President’s unofficial representative to the U.K.

Unlike his predecessor at Downing Street, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill had found in FDR a congenial transatlantic partner in his policy concerning Hitler. The British Prime Minister, then, had no hesitation in spelling out, in a long letter read by FDR on a Caribbean cruise early in December 1940, the dire straits in which his country found itself.  A little less than one year after declaring war on Germany—and only a bit more than half a year since Churchill himself had assumed the reins of power—the U.K. was running out of money to pay for war goods.

FDR had arranged a “Destroyers for Bases” swap in early September, but American law still limited the transfer of weapons. His Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, had expressed frustration over Congressional foot-dragging in coming to the aid of Britain. (Congress was “doing an immense amount more harm than good and [members] restrict the power of the Commander in Chief in ways in which Congress cannot possibly wisely interfere. They don’t know enough.”)

Churchill’s massive missive catalyzed FDR to push for the Lend Lease Act to get munitions into the hands of Britain and Canada. In one sense, the President was doing what he had been since the start of the New Deal: not consciously implementing a long-range program, but dealing, on an ad-hoc basis, with an immediate problem as realistically as he could. But, even as he attempted to defuse the fears of isolationists at the start of his speech by saying it would not be “a fireside chat on war,” he was pointing toward its ultimate import by labeling it “a talk on national security.”

“We must be the great arsenal of democracy,” he urged. “For us this is an emergency as serious as war itself. We must apply ourselves to our task with the same resolution, the same sense of urgency, the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice as we would show were we at war.”

By his own lights, his proposal—to pull out all stops, through Lend Lease, to ensure Britain had enough resources to survive against Nazi Germany—was the only feasible way to ensure that America would not become directly involved, as he put it, in “a last-ditch war for the preservation of American independence and all the things that American independence means to you and to me and to ours.” But in the process, he was uniting the military, big business and labor in a defense-mobilization effort that would survive the end of WWII, through the Cold War and the War on Terror, as the military-industrial complex.

FDR can be best understood now as a crypto-interventionist. He had to proceed carefully because of neutrality legislation passed by Congress in the last decade. But events overseas gave an assist to his persuasive rhetoric: His fireside chat had “particular power and urgency,” noted David McCullough in his biography of Harry Truman, “because German bombers were pounding London” in the Blitz.

The march of Nazism across Europe began to tilt the balance, in the following year, as the President took one unneutral step after another to supply Great Britain and the USSR in their fights against Hitler. It culminated in the fall of 1941, when the U.S. had become involved in an undeclared shooting war in the North Atlantic against Germany. 

Had Hitler not declared war on the U.S. after Pearl Harbor, thereby fulfilling his diplomatic promise to his Axis partner, Japan, the United States would have faced the thorny question of whether to take the last fateful step—a declaration of war—in which FDR’s policies had increasingly inclined the U.S.

Quote of the Day (Edith Wharton, on Being Alive)

“In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.”— American novelist and short-story writer Edith Wharton (1862-1937), A Backward Glance: An Autobiography (1934)

Monday, December 28, 2015

Song Lyric of the Day (Billy Joel, With Advice for Steve Harvey)

“If all it takes is inspiration
Then I might have just what it takes
If I don't make no bad mistakes and
I've gotta get it right the first time.”— Billy Joel, “Get It Right the First Time,” from his LP The Stranger (1977)

I’ve always said that the promotion of beautiful women is an ugly business, and it’s being proven all over again in the case of poor Steve Harvey.  Before, the genial comedian-Family Feud host must have thought that hosting the Miss Universe pageant would be a neat way to extend his “brand.”

Guess again. Harvey forgot the muted warning of Billy Joel that he could only show he had “just what it takes” if he didn’t make any “bad mistakes.”

But when Harvey read the wrong name—Miss Colombia—from his “reveal card,” all bets were off. The consequent catcalls made Harvey perhaps the most ridiculed emcee of a major TV event since David Letterman’s disastrous 1995 Academy Award appearance (“Oprah? Uma. Uma? Oprah”). (The fallout from the latter—including the talk-show host’s frequent inclusion among the worst emcees in Oscar history—are spelled out in this piece by Matthew Jacobs for the Huffington Post.)

Do you recall Letterman ever hosting the Oscars again? Neither do I. If Harvey doesn’t experience similar unforgiving treatment, it’ll be because pageant owner WME/IMG just inked a deal with him for at least three, maybe as many as six or seven, years, according to ETOline.

It doesn’t mean that WME/IMG didn’t roll their eyes at the follow-up, let alone Harvey's original screwup. Okay, they may have thought, Harvey made a mistake. But who hasn’t? And anyway, he corrected himself moments later. And he announced—right on the air!—that he would “take responsibility for this!” A standup guy, if you’ll pardon the pun.  

True, but only up to a point, because several consequences ensued almost immediately upon Harvey’s all-too-human error:

*Those moments provided the opportunity for Miss Colombia to wave and pose with the crown. It was also an opportunity for thousands of her countrymen to glory that the crown rested on her pretty head, rather than on their traditional continental rival, Miss Venezuela. (The latter has gone on to become Miss Universe seven times, versus twice for Miss Colombia.) On the social media, those precious moments were long enough for that image to be broadcast wherever guys feel their senses quicken at the sight of a pretty woman or wherever younger lissome lovelies dream of making a fortune off the fantasies of these guys. In other words, in every corner of the globe.

*Those moments made it all the harder for Miss Colombia to yield a crown that had been HERS! Oh, the anguish! Here was a prize that who knows how many contestants have worked years to achieve. The crying that audiences see invariably from winners comes from sweet relief. Except that in this case, nobody would have blamed Miss Colombia for crying twice—first from relief, then from rage that her emotions had been out there for all the world to see, all for nothing. (I mean, check out the image accompanying this post. There’s a temptation to think that this shot comes from the interview stage of the contest, where the contestants are asked their opinions on world events and other assorted matters. But from the look on Harvey's face, I’d say this is after the reveal card debacle. There's an overwhelming message in the expression on his face: You done hating me yet?)

*Those moments brought to the surface a phenomenon almost as eagerly awaited by a certain lowlife type of guy as the swimsuit competition: a catfight. In a move signaling a new form of cooperation within the European Union, Miss Germany disclosed in an interview that neither she nor the other contestants had wanted the eventual winner, Miss Philippines, to win. (Even the latter, on this YouTube clip, had a look on her face that seemed to say: You people sure about this now? Because I don’t like hand-me-down crowns! No, instead of closing ranks behind the latter, Miss Germany hailed her counterpart across the Rhine, Miss France, as the one who should have been The One. All that sweetness and light, that all-for-one spirit, was revealed to hide a collective ruthless competitive streak that Tonya Harding might have appreciated.

*Those moments served as only a prelude to another event that must have made the pageant organizers wonder if Harvey might be so impulsive as to be error-prone in almost any conceivable format. In a tweet sent out shortly after his mistake, Harvey apologized for any embarrassment caused to the two young ladies involved. But whatever points were added for sensitivity could only be subtracted for boneheadness, for Harvey referred to “Miss Philippians” and "Miss Columbia." Miss Philippians? I don’t recall any such person referred to in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. Miss Columbia? I wasn't aware that the Ivy League institution had gotten into the beauty pageant business. Neither was anyone else, as Harvey had to immediately send out another tweet apologizing for the spelling mistakes in his first.

Get it right the first time? Heck, Harvey sounds like he might have trouble getting it right the second time. If the pageant organizers think so, too, there might not be a next time.