Archive for January, 2010

Puritans and Pickpockets

January 28, 2010

The Cobbe Portrait

The golden age of theater began shortly before Shakespeare’s birth and lasted until shortly after his death when the Puritans shut down England’s theaters. Puritans have always opposed fun and joy and bliss. That’s why Americans have such a hard time enjoying themselves; the Puritans bequeathed us their culture, their religion, their politics, and their fears.

One of the reasons the Puritans hated the theater was the convention in those days of not allowing women to act on stage. Since young boys had to play the female roles, the Puritans worried about sodomy at the theater and all the other things their fevered imaginations could conjure.

Moreover, thieves, cutpurses, and pickpockets, worked the theaters so the Puritans worried about that too.  But, even then, people made jokes about the theaters. Bill Bryson relates one in his new, lively little book about Shakespeare. A woman wants to go to a play but has to convince her husband it will be all right. He relents but with a warning: “Watch out for thieves and keep your purse deep in your petticoats.” Late that afternoon — plays were in the afternoon in those days — she returns in tears and tells him that her purse was stolen.

“Did you keep it your petticoats, like I told you?” he asks.

“Oh, yes.” she replies.

“Well, didn’t you feel a hand up your dress?” he wants to know.

“Yes, but I didn’t think he’d come for the purse.”

The Bryson book is Shakespeare and it is an excellent overview of what we know — and, more to the point — what we don’t know about Shakespeare. It is a fine introduction to the subject for non-specialists and I recommend it.


Footnotes in American History – Corporations are Just Like You and Me, only with More Money

January 24, 2010

This continues our series of footnotes in American history, footnotes we imagine will appear one day in the future when the definitive history of our time is written. Based on this week’s opinion of the United States Supreme Court in the campaign finance case, this footnote will appear in the Oxford-Kindle History of America series.   The case turned out exactly as the cats and I predicted back in September, a 5-4 win for corporations.


Ftnt. 43

The Supreme Court, in 2010, announced its 5-4 decision in the case of Citizens United. The Court held, in that case, that corporations had exactly the same free speech rights as real people.

Because corporations, like regular people, had First Amendment rights to run for political office and become judges, corporations soon dispensed with the subterfuge of buying judges and politicians and began running for office themselves. That is what comes of anthropomorphizing corporations. Due to the trillions of dollars available to the largest corporations, real humans could not compete and corporations, exercising their god-given First Amendment rights, took over America’s entire government. By the end of the Obama Administration in 2016, hardly any real people were left in government and the presidential election that year pitted the Bank of America against Exxon-Mobil. The election was close and eventually came down to a few disputed votes in Florida. The Supreme Court was called upon to choose the new president. Here, from ancient archives, is a copy of the news story that ran in the New York Times ( a defunct “newspaper” corporation. Historians are unsure what  “newspapers” were, but they seem to have been “paper” based.)

The New President

Dateline  2010 – Washington D.C.

Supreme Court Chief Justice NBC announced the decision of the Supreme Court today in the contested presidential election between Bank of America and Exxon-Mobil. The Bank of America wins and will become the Nation’s 45th president. Speaking on behalf of the president-elect, Simon Toady – corporate spokesman for the Bank of America — said that the bank was delighted with the result and looked forward to four years of record-breaking profits. “Our shareholders are going to see their stocks go through the roof! And the bonuses!” he announced happily. Toady said the new president would immediately introduce legislation requiring all Americans to deposit all their money in the Bank of America. He also announced that all Americans would be required to carry credit cards issued by the Bank of America and that their credit card fees would be raised to pay for the inauguration.

Simon Legree, spokesman for Exxon-Mobil, said, “We congratulate the Bank of America on its win. But what goes around, comes around and corporations live forever. We’ll get our chance at the presidency and, when we do, look for the price of gasoline to go through the ceiling. We take care of our shareholders!”

The 2016 Loser

The Supreme Court’s decision relied heavily on its earlier case of Bush v. Gore, the first time in the Nation’s history that the Supreme Court elected a president. That case was decided in the olden times of 2000, before the Court realized that corporations had exactly the same First Amendment rights as regular persons, which meant that corporations could run for office and become judges. Chief Justice NBC wrote the Court’s opinion and was joined by Justices Microsoft, Verizon, Goldman-Sachs, Wal-Mart, Toyota, China First, and Scalia (the last remaining human on the Court). Justice AFL-CIO dissented but, as the majority opinion noted, “Nobody pays any attention to unions anymore.”

In a related matter, the Chief Justice announced that Justice AFL-CIO would shortly leave the Court. “We had a higher bid from Blue-Cross for that seat,” said the Chief Justice.

In other political news of the day, House speaker Nancy Pelosi announced her retirement. She will be replaced by JP Morgan Chase Corporation which announced that it would fiercely oppose the new president’s attempt to “steal all our deposits.” Political analysts doubted that the new Speaker’s efforts would amount to much since Bank of America’s stocks went up 500% on the announcement of the Supreme Court’s decision. Spokesman Toady said, “The stock market will decide what is best for America, not ordinary citizens or some backwater corporation like JP Morgan Chase.”

Analysts said the election results ensured that Americans would, once again, be deprived of health care reform.

NBC and “The Tonight Show”

January 19, 2010

Rumor has it that NBC will pay Conan O’Brien thirty million dollars to stop doing “The Tonight Show.”  I guess he will take it.

If somebody offered me thirty million dollars to stop writing this blog, I’d probably take it.

Supreme Court Service of Justice Stevens

January 17, 2010

Justice John Paul Stevens

Today marks an event of some note in the long history of the United States Supreme Court: Justice John Paul Stevens passes Justice Black to become the fourth longest-serving member of the Court. Justice Stevens has now served on the Court for 12,447 days. Only Justices Douglas, Field and Chief Justice John Marshall served longer and Stevens is only 123 days behind Marshall and only 167 days short of passing Justice Field to move into second place. Unlike Field at the end of his career, Justice Stevens is still in full command of his brain.

Assuming both that he does retire at the end of this term and that the term ends on June 30, Stevens will have surpassed Marshall and will be only three days short of passing Justice Field and moving into second place. So, if you are reading this Mr. Justice, don’t allow your retirement to become effective until after you pass Justice Field. You are a nicer human being than he was and a much better justice.

Stevens would still be two years and two weeks short of Justice Douglas’s record. Douglas sat for almost thirty-seven years.

Coincidently, Justice Sotomayor, currently last on the list of  111 justices will move into 110th place tomorrow when she passes Justice Thomas Johnson who served for only 163 days back in 1792. And in four days, Justice Breyer moves into 57th place, passing Lewis Powell.

Adjectives at the Supreme Court

January 13, 2010

Despite the great anticipation of the political chattering class the Supreme Court did not issue its opinions in the campaign finance case this week.  But the Court was not idle, issuing two opinions and hearing arguments in several cases.  One of those cases, Briscoe v. Virginia, involves laboratory tests in criminal cases. That argument derailed momentarily when one of the lawyers used an unusual adjective.

MR. FRIEDMAN: . . . I think that issue is entirely orthogonal to the issue here because the Commonwealth is acknowledging –

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: I’m sorry. Entirely what?

MR. FRIEDMAN: Orthogonal. Right angle.  Unrelated. Irrelevant.


JUSTICE SCALIA: What was that adjective? I liked that.

MR. FRIEDMAN: Orthogonal.


MR. FRIEDMAN: Right, right.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Orthogonal, ooh.
JUSTICE KENNEDY: I knew this case presented us a problem.
MR. FRIEDMAN: I should have — I probably should have said –

JUSTICE SCALIA: I think we should use that in the opinion.
MR. FRIEDMAN: I thought — I thought I had seen it before.


The Supreme Court Returns

January 10, 2010

The Supreme Court’s Christmas vacation comes to an end this week. (They get longer vacations than the rest of us.) The clerk’s office has indicated that opinions will be issued on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, probably because the justices are feeling a little guilty that they got a month off and we only got a few days. They won’t take another long break now until the end of June when they’ll take three months off which, if you do the math, means they get four months a year of vacation.

Actually, I’m being unfair. The Court works even when not in session and they are busy. Justice Souter once noted that coming to work at the Supreme Court was a like walking into a tidal wave. Justice Douglas, on the other hand, once remarked that the Justices wouldn’t be nearly as busy if they would just read the Constitution from time to time. Still, I imagine that Justice Scalia worked in a tennis game or two during the last month.

The political classes are on pins and needles because they are expecting a decision in the campaign finance case this week, the one that was argued — for the second time — back in September.

If you think — as I do — that big money now plays a baleful role in the Nation’s politics, look to be disappointed again. The Court is likely to strike down more attempts at campaign finance reform and hand America’s biggest corporations and unions another victory.

Those of us who think serious reform is required to get our political system back on track will do well to remember the words of the tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis. He lost sixteen consecutive matches to Jimmy Connors before finally winning one. Gerulaitis said afterward,

“And let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row!”

We’ll win one someday.
The photo of the U.S. Open was taken by  Stan Wiechers.

A Dust Speck

January 5, 2010

This video from the American Museum of Natural History is making the rounds. It reminds me of a “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoon. In the first frame Calvin is outside gazing up at an immense sky, full of stars. In the second frame he yells, “I’M SIGNIFICANT!” In the third Calvin still gazes upward in silence. In the last frame, still looking up, he says, “. . .screamed the dust speck.”

Maybe so, but we are the universe conscious of itself and able to stand in awed silence at its beauty and immensity. And our own smallness.

(The video has sound but only background music which is unnecessary for watching it. Watch it full screen, if you can.)


January 1, 2010

Today, I’m going to tell you a story about something that happened to me on New Year’s Day, 1803.  Or at least I think it happened to me. If reincarnation isn’t real, then it didn’t happen, or at least it didn’t happen to me. Anyway, I was a Post Captain in the Royal Navy — that is, as I say, if there is such a thing as reincarnation and if we can remember anything about prior incarnations.

We must be careful about reincarnation. Our minds are like bathtubs: We live and collect memories of a life and then we die and somebody pulls the plug on the bathtub of memory and it all goes down the drain. That is, as I say, if reincarnation exists, which, of course, it may not.

Anyway, there I was, a Post Captain on one of his majesty’s warships during the wars with Napoleon. By that time in that life, I was the captain of a fifth-rate ship-of-the-line. That’s me up there on the quarterdeck in the picture. I can tell because the artist not only got the color of the sky and ocean right, he got the ship exactly as it was in real life, and that is definitely me standing on the larboard side.

Here’s more evidence. I like the ocean and often get an oceanic feeling watching the surf.  True, in this life, I am a land-lubber but why would I love the ocean as I do if, in prior incarnations, I had not followed the life of the sea? Otherwise, I’d be like Shakespeare, another land-lubber who saw the ocean as dark, forbidding and a place for shipwrecks. Plus, I have read — twice — the entire Aubrey-Maturin series of novels by Patrick O”Brien and am almost certain that some of the fictional exploits of Captain Aubrey of the Royal Navy were based upon things that happened to me or my friends in real life. And I have a friend now who is much like Dr. Maturin in those O’Brien novels. Finally, there is the fact that I recognized the sounds in the movie “Master and Commander” as being close to the real thing.  True, the movie did not and could not portray the smells of a ship-of-the-line, but, if it had, no one could have watched it: Our ships smelled awful.

Another reason I am certain I was in the Royal Navy during the time of Napoleon’s depredations is that, after I died, I became a mountain man in the American West.  Or maybe I was an Indian, but it was definitely in the American West before it was settled. I know this because of how much I love traipsing around Rocky Mountain wilderness in this lifetime. There is nothing I love more than to sit on a high mountain slope and feel the breeze come blowing up out of a river canyon below me while I watch the wild iris swaying in the breeze in spring or the Indian Paintbrush in the long grasses of summer. And I read almost all the mountain man literature I can find. Why do that unless I was one of them?

And it’s pretty clear that I was General Patton. The timing was perfect. As a mountain man, I could easily have lived into the 1870s and Patton was born in the 1880s. And he died in 1945, plenty of time for me to have rested up and come along in my current incarnation as myself. Moreover, I’ve read widely in military history as did Patton. And my favorite quotation from Frederick the Great was his favorite too, “L’audace, L’audace, toujours, L’audace.” That can’t be a coincidence. Finally there was Eisenhower’s decision in 1944 not to give me all the gas I needed to cross the Rhine and get to Berlin. I’d have beat the Russians to Berlin by six months but no, Ike, the SOB, made me sit around on my ass while he gave the gasoline to Monty who never intended to use it since he never moved unless he had 15 -1 odds, goddamned prima dona. Hell, Ike could have given Devers the gas and Devers could have beat the Russians to Berlin and he wasn’t half the general I was.

See. I even talk like Patton sometimes.

This lifetime, so far anyway, has been less eventful. Of course, that may change as soon as the Pulitzer prize committee starts awarding Pulitzer Prizes for blog writing. There may be better known blogs than this one, but, I’m sure you’ll agree, none better written.

In fact, not all of my past lives were as exciting as that time in the Royal Navy. (Although I may have been with Alexander the Great when he crossed the Khyber Pass and there was that time I was Queen Elizabeth the First and once I was the fourth Dalai Lama.) Interspersed with all these human lives, I was a Ponderosa Pine for several hundred years, a Peregrine Falcon, an albatross, an elk, a dragonfly, a dark ant, a beetle, a mushroom, some algae, a microbe, and who knows what else.

So my story about New Year’s Day, 1803, must be a true story and I know you’d enjoy it but this post is already too long and I have the Pulitzer committee to think of.

Anyway, it’s a good story. You can take my word for it.


The painting at the top is by Geoff Hunt who did all the covers for the paperback O’Brien books that were published in the U.S. He paints marvelous scenes from the Age of Sail, as you can see from the example above. The one with me in it.

The mountain man painting is by Alfred Jacob Miller and may be me.

The photo of me on Sicily conferring with Lt. Col. Lyle Bernard at Brolo in 1943 is from the U.S. Army archives.