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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Teddy Roosevelt: A Conservation Crusader

Teddy Roosevelt and conservationist John Muir at Yosemite
Of all our American presidents, none was more interested in wildlife and wilderness than Teddy Roosevelt. During his years as president, Roosevelt was responsible for preserving 234,000,000 million acres of America, including the Grand Canyon and the giant redwoods of Muir Forrest. While in the White House, he kept 60 pets and has been called the father of the nation's fish and wildlife refuge movement. He loved big and he loved vast and nowhere was that idea better formulated than in his attempts to keep Alaska a pristine monument to the grandeur of nature, a battle that still rages..

Tonight, award-winning historian, Rice University professor, and author Douglas Brinkley appeared at the Barnes and Noble in downtown D.C. to read from and discuss his latest book The Quiet World: Saving Alaska's Wilderness Kingdom  - 1879 to 1960.

Brinkley said he decided to write his latest book when he realized that his previous book The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and His Crusade for America had failed to convey the  complete story of Roosevelt and Alaska. In fact, Brinkley said a book he currently is working on will pick up the Alaskan story and feature the contributions of President John Kennedy, Stewart Udall, and Rachel Carson. 

Brinkley said his research has convinced him that, as Roosevelt so often preached, America must continue to protect its environment and natural resources.

"We don't understand what we have and it saddens me," Brinkley said. "Roosevelt was convinced that if we lost the wilderness, we would lose our moral compass. We have to fight to keep these places. It takes govenment and it takes resilience."

That battle between environmentalists and capitalists intensifies during bad economic times, Brinkley noted. "It always happens when our economy is in trouble," he noted. "When you hear today 'drill, baby, drill' it's the same war that TR was fighting 100 years ago. Alaska was 1 of his last great crusades."

Of course, Roosevelt was not alone in his Alaskan fight. Some of the greatest later support came from Walt Disney, who produced a series of documentaries detailing life in America's extreme north which renewed interest in Alaskan preservation.

But, in his time, Roosevelt was the main force. "We had a naturalist president at just the right time," Brinkley said. "He said things like the loss of a species 'would be like slashing all the Rembrandts in a museum.' He injected Darwinism into the national bloodstream.When he died in 1919, he left a void in conservationism."

In the 1960s, as pollution threatened, the movement shifted to environmentalism. But no matter what the name, Brinkley said we must keep at the fight that Roosevelt began.

"We have this great system and we've let it decay," Brinkley said. "It's a sign we've got to wake up and save these things that Roosevelt thought were so important." 

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
I was excited to get a chance to listen and talk to Brinkley tonight. To me, he is to historical scholarship what Bruce Springsteen is to American music. I believe Brinkley is our greatest historian today. His book The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf is the definite work on that American tragedy. But my favorite Brinkley book is The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey, written early is his career. Concerned that his students at Hofstra University were not grasping key elements of the American story, Brinkley outfitted a bus, grabbed a driver, and with specially selected music and a required  reading list on board, headed across the country for 6 weeks with a group of his students so they could come to understand America by that most American invention, the road trip. If you haven't read Majic Bus, read it. You will not only learn about history, you will learn how history can and should be taught and how it can be made to live today.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Welcoming the Year of the Dragon

With bangs popping, drums pounding, Buddah figures bobbing, and silk dragons swaying as background, thousands of residents jammed the small Chinatown section of DC this afternoon to help the area's Chinese community celebrate the Chinese New Year.

The traditional Lunar or Spring Festival celebrations go back thousands of years. While the American calendar calls this year 2012, it is 4710 in the Chinese calendar. It is also the Year of the Dragon, the most lucky of the 12 Chinese signs.







 
Of course, as with so many things in this political city, the idea of a DC Chinatown is contentious. Critics say that a large Chinese gate and 1 street of Chinese restaurants do not a Chinatown such as those in San Fransisco make. The area referred to as Chinatown is now dominated by the Verizon Center, home to Washington's professional basketball and ice hockey teams. In an attempt to capitalize on the Chinatown theme, area chain restaurants like McDonald's and even Hooter's and stores like Urban Outfitters display Chinese characters on their outside signs, which has outraged supporters of authenticity.

But for one afternoon, the controversy was put aside as everyone seemed to enjoy the parade, sponsored by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Associated. Crowds, in some places 20-deep, lined the streets. Fathers and mothers placed little ones on their shoulders so they could get a better view of the brightly-colored, costumed marchers. A particular hit with the junior set were the Chinese martial arts groups,  who would periodically halt to perform their skills and pose for pictures.

While waiting for the parade, young boys and some girls created a fun way to pass time. The streets were lined with vendors whose tables were packed with snap bangs and, the youngsters, armed with a box or 2 of the poppers, took the street, squealing with delight as they dashed and darted to avoid fire-cracker like objects snapping as they struck the pavement.

The parade crowd, which caused gridlock on the sidewalks, was a boon to local Chinese eateries. For example, with an hour to go before the parade start, the wait at Ming's and Tony Cheng's Seafood was at least 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, those outside not dining, wiggled and wormed their way to find the best vantage for viewing. With restaurants already full, many decided that their best viewing option was to mount the stairs of the local eateries and watch from there.

Tales, Tips, and Tidbits
Almost all cultures have foods that they believe should be consumed on the new year for good luck.  As the son of a southern father, I always found black eyed peas on our New Year's dinner table no matter what the menu.  The Chinese, too, have their good luck dishes. Originally, we had wanted to dine at Zentan, which was offering a meal of traditional Chinese good luck food for $47.10, a figure  based on the date of this year of the dragon. But Zentan isn't open on Sundays. So, instead we ate at Eat First, our favorite Chinatown restaurant. Click here to see what we would have eaten if we had gotten to Zentan before the special expired on Saturday.

ApocalypTOON 2012: Political Cartoonists Gaze at the Year to Come





It's true that no one can predict with certainty what a new year will bring.  However, it can be fun to try. And, with that idea in mind, 8 editorial cartoonists joined forces this weekend to present ApocalypTOON 2012, their wry, witty look at this year's still-to-come happenings at the Artisphere in Rosslyn.

Showcasing their future forecasting talents in cartoon style with humor in the pop-up exhibit were:
  • Kal of The Economist
  • Tom Toles of The Washington Post
  • Jeff Danzinger of NYTS and CWS
  • Daryl Cagle of MSNBC
  • Matt Wuerker of Politico
  • Patrick Chapette of the International Herald Tribune
  • Damien Glez of La Monde and La Gazette and
  • Dan Piraro of Bizzaro
As you might expect, many of the cartoons dealt with the upcoming presidential race and the worsening political gridlock between Democrats and Republicans. The current financial crisis, environmental concerns, technology, and international uncertainty were other frequently addressed themes.

One of my viewing favorites was a Shakespearean Macbeth-based Mittbeth, where GOP candidate Mitt Romney is talking to tea party stalwart and witchcraft dabbler Christine O'Donnell while O'Donnell's 2 fellow witches call to her to hurry back to their cauldron since they are ready to throw some eye of Newt into their political poison.

Tales, Tips, and Tidbits
While the ApocalypTOON exhibit was extremely brief (only 4 days) there's no reason to despair. All 8 of the artists will be practicing their craft for the respective employers for the entire year.  And you can bet they will be dealing with some wackiness that even their creative imaginations couldn't envision.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

We Still Love Lucy

On a Monday evening in October, 1951 a new CBS show was broadcast for the first time featuring a wacky wife, her Cuban husband, and their 2 best friends. At the time, probably no one realized that it would become one of the most popular programs ever, make the 1st female TV superstar of its lead, and indeed change the face of television.

But now it appears safe to say that the show - I Love Lucy by name - has been seen by more viewers in its 60 years of showings than any other program  in broadcasting.

And to celebrate that significance, the Library of Congress organized a special exhibit entitled I Love Lucy: An American Legend.

The show was derived from a radio hit featuring Lucille Ball. Initially, when producers began scripting the changes for television, they were hesitant to cast Ball's real-life husband, Desi Arnaz in the role of her on-screen spouse. However, Lucy and Ricky as they came to be known by their legion of fans,  designed a hugely popular vaudeville tour that convinced producers that the pairing would work.

In its 6 years on the air, I Love Lucy ranked as the number 1 show during 4 of them. In 1955, it became the 1st show to be broadcast in reruns. To date, it has been dubbed in 22 languages and seen in 80 years.

To tell the story of I Love Lucy, the Library employed the Ball and Arnaz family scrapbooks, as well as photographs, magazine and newspaper articles, scripts, manuscript music, and other documents from the Library's massive collection. The exhibit also displayed items that were produced to promote the show including Lucille Ball paper dolls and a tie showing the likeness of Lucy, Ricky, and their co-starring best friends Fred and Ethel Mertz.

Ever the shrewd business couple, Ball and Arnaz created a production company that continued to influence TV long after their show left the air. Among the classic hits produced by Desilu Studios were The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mission Impossible, and Star Trek.



Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Judged by the constant laughing crowds around the screen, the most popular item on display was a continuous loop of excerpts from some of the most memorable moments of the show including Lucy's commercial as Vitameatavegamin girl, her Italian grape stomping escapade, and her doomed, hilarious attempt with Ethel to keep up with an ever-faster candy conveyor.

The Civil War as Reported from the Field

Many historians have called the American Civil War the first modern war. But with advances in technology such as the telegraph and photography, the graphically bloody War Between the States also marked a turning point in the way reporters covered and newspapers and magazines reported war.

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the conflict, The Newseum offered the special exhibit Blood and Ink: Front Pages from the Civil War.

Beginning with an 1807 page from the Charleston Courier which posted a $30 reward for the return of a run-away slave and ending with the Lincoln assassination, the 30 pages on display revealed the depth and speed with which the news was reported.

Calling attention to mistreatment of prisoners
.
In those days, newspapers made no effort toward objectivity and so accounts of the same battle or event were much different in the North than in the South. But even without geography, politics of the area played a huge role in shaping the news. According to the 1860 Census, 80 percent of all newspapers "were political in their character."

As happens even more so today with the emphasis on being first (witness the early erroneous reports of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno's death), Civil War newspapers could be completely wrong in their stories. For example, a copy of The Philadelphia Inquirer boldly headlines the 1st Battle of Bull Run a huge Union victory, when, in reality, it was a rout.  

One of the most interesting front pages, especially considering the Occupy protest movements being led by young people today, is a student-written front page from Connecticut lamenting the 1st national draft instituted by President Lincoln. "Many a mother's heart grows sick and many a sister's cheek goes pale," the story about the drafting of 9 young men reports.

The exhibit also dramatized the devastating effects of the Union blockade of the South on the Confederacy. By the end of the war, many Southern newspapers were being printed on wallpaper because there was no printing paper available.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips

While there were advances in reporting during the Civil War, the scene was a long way from today's 24/7 news cycle with cable news, the internet, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. But what if Twitter had been around in the 1860s? Well, through the power of imagination the closing display at the Blood and Ink exhibit demonstrated what the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg might have read like if it had been reported by actual witnesses on Twitter.

Text as Inspiration

Art has been associated with books since the invention of the printing press. There is the book cover. Often, there are internal illustrations. But what if the book itself took the form of a piece of art? Well, that was the premise of the exhibit Text as Inspiration: Artists Books and Literature at the National Gallery of Art.

In the exhibit, 14 artists took prose and poetry and transformed a book into a total, tactile art project.

Some of the artists wrote the words they used as inspiration themselves, but most used the words of a familiar or favorite author.

Personal highlights included:
  • "There are monsters in my hair" by Rebecca Aarons which incorporates Ralph Steadman-like  black and white etchings.
  • Maryline Poole Adams' "Presenting - The Seven Ages of Man" which sets the text of Shakespeare within a replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theater
  • "Eve" by Sandra McPherson which consists of an accordian-folded strip representing Adam's rib.
These and the other pieces in the show can be viewed by clicking on the link in the first paragraph.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
You can no longer view this exhibit as it closed Jan. 29. We checked it out as part of a 3-museum, 1-day visit to see 3 shows the day before they closed. But not to worry. On the very day that we made our just-before-they-close trek, The Washington Post published a 16-page section of things to do and see in DC from now until April. Ah, so much to see and do, so little time. What a great problem to have.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Where Did We Come From?

Creationism? Evolution? Some combination?
Is the Biblical story of creation in Genesis true? Or instead, are we the result of eons of evolution? Are the two mutually exclusive? Or are there ways they can be reconciled?

These were just some of the deep questions explored today at the monthly HOT (Human Origins Today) discussion at the Smithsonian's Museum of National History.

Guiding the open discussion were Dr. Connie Bertka, a Unitarian Universalist, a theology professor, and the scientific co-chair of the Smithsonian's Broader Social Impacts Committee, and Dr. Caitlin Schrein, a post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program.

Bertka said that most people place creationism/evolution arguments of human beginnings in 1 of 3 categories:
  • they believe there is a conflict between the 2 and they are constantly "at odds against one another"
  • they separate the 2 out and claim they "really ask different questions and don't have much to do with one another. Science tells us how and religion tells us why."
  • they let the 2 "intersect, integrate, and have an impact on each other."
As both a scientist and a theologian, Bertka readily admits that she thinks the 3rd course is best. "God could create through evolution," Bertka said. "Science can't say God didn't create you. That is beyond the power of science."

For her part, Schrein said one of her specialties is the study of how high school and college students come to study evolution.

Schrein says that her studies show that about 1/4 of biology teachers in the United States do not teach their students about evolution and many in certain areas actually teach creationism despite the fact that federal law clearly spells out that instructors "cannot condone, promote, or denigrate religion in a science class."

Schrein says that part of the problem is that many people think "evolution is a bad word."

"This is a dilemma in our country," Schrein said. "We have teenagers trying to reconcile science and religion ... what the science class says and what their parents believe. And this is happening when they have all these other other identity crises at that crazy, crucial pubescent times in their lives."

During the questioning, one participant asked if human evolution is complete or is it continuing. "Evolution is not done. Environments are changing. "(Charles) Darwin would have loved to be here right now," Bertka said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you are interested in exploring more about human origins and the perplexing questions it can raise, you will want to check out the Smithsonian's Broader Social Impacts website. You can do so by clicking here.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

President Lincoln and the Constitution

President Lincoln and his cabinet
Today, most people regard Abraham Lincoln as one of our greatest presidents, a leader who saved the Union and rightfully emancipated the nation's enslaved African-Americans. But that  certainly was not the case in Lincoln's own times. And not all negative opinion came from Southern states; quite a bit of it was focused in the North as well.

"There was the real question - did Lincoln go beyond the boundaries of the Constitution as envisioned by the founding fathers?" says noted Lincoln historian and chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.

Holzer, the author of 42 books on Lincoln and the Civil War, was joined at the National Archives tonight by Mark Neeley, professor of Civil War era history at Penn State University, and former Rhode Island Cheif Justice Frank J. Williams, founding chairman of the Lincoln Forum, for a discussion of Lincoln and Constitutional issues.

Holzer prefaced the Lincoln talk by pointing out that with terror suspect incarcerations at Guantanamo Bay and potential judgements by military tribunals, the question of presidential power and the limits as specified in the Constitution "continues to engage us today."

The 3 scholars agreed that on almost all the major issues that he faced, Lincoln was often "in conflict with himself" about what he was legally bound to do. For example, when confronted with the question of secession, Lincoln found out that the the Constitution was silent. He discovered that he "had no (supporting) text" to back his 1860 letter as president-elect that "no state could leave unless other states OKed it," Neeley said. "He had to do a lot of things very fast."

In another controversial move, Lincoln suspended the right of habeus corpus, a protection which calls for all prisoners to have their incarcerations approved by a judge. The president defended the decision by contending that the South's decision to wage war was "a conspiracy 30 years in the making, involved spies and saboteurs, and dissent is part of the enemies program."

The 3 scholars said they were convinced that Lincoln, who viewed the Constitution as a "mystical, sacred, almost religious object," believed he was acting according to its pecepts. As the president said himself on the issue of public safety "I do not intend to be a tyrant."

"But since Lincoln wasn't a diarist, we'll never know for sure," Neeley said.

During the question and answer session, the panel was asked what would happen if states wanted to  
secede today.

"We have the same Constitution and it still doesn't say," Holzer answered. "But they said it pretty loud with a cannon."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
During our 7 months in DC, the National Archives, with its lineup of panels, book talks, and films, has become one of our most visited sites. If you are planning a DC visit, you check out the special goings-on at the Archives by clicking here.

What Do You Say to a Judge?

Attorney Garner and Justice Scalia
The idea of trying to convince a judge of the rightness of your position is as old as the concept of justice itself. And, like all pursuits, there are good ways and not such good ways to engage in legal advocacy. This afternoon, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was joined at The Newseum by lawyer, author, and former editor in chief of Black's Law Dictionary Bryan Garner in a spirited discussion of the best ways to make a clear, compelling, persuasive legal argument.

"As long as their have been judges there has been legal advocacy. So it does go back to Aristotle and even before that," Justice Scalia said in his opening remarks at the forum, which was sponsored by The Supreme Court Fellows Program Alumni Association and  The First Amendment Center.

While most of the well-dressed crowd were Washington attorneys and young law clerks looking for legal arguing tips, much of Justice Scalia and Garner's remarks could apply to anyone interested in persuasion such as writers, formal debaters, or even teenagers trying to convince a parent that they  should be allowed to stay out later.

As a basis for their highly entertaining give-and-take talk, Justice Scalia and Garner used a text they had co-written entitled Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges, which in 2009 received  the Burton law book of the year award.

One of the more interesting linguistic debates centered around the idea of using the pronoun he. Garner argued that using he only and not also referring to she or some gender neutral construction leads to sexist language, a contention vigorously disputed by Justice Scalia.

"He is the general term for a person," Justice Scalia said. "Using (something like he/she or he and she) tortures language into some less elegant form. Far from eliminating sex consciousness, it elevates it."

Another dispute arose around the use of contractions with Garner supporting such use and Justice Scalia dissenting. "If you would say it as a contraction, you should write it as a contraction," Garner said.

Justice Scalia acknowledged that contractions have a place in discourse, but argued that place is not in formal, legal writing. "There is a form of language that is used in the marketplace. There is a form of language that is used in the street. And there is a language of dignity. There is a time and a place for everything and the time for contractions is not in a legal brief where you may affront a judge by using contractions," he said.

In jest, if the Supreme Court were to accept contractions, Justice Scalia said "we might as well take off those funny robes, sit around in a circle, and all get real chummy," a remark which drew much laughter from the largely legal crowd.

While there is danger to being too informal with language, there is also danger in using words which make the writer seem too highbrow or too obtuse, both speakers agreed. Justice Scalia said a good rule is to avoid words and phrases that "if you use that word at a cocktail party they would look at you funny."

However, while the style of legal writing is important, it is the law, not the way in which it is couched,  that is paramount.  "The law is the law and it must be applied dispassionately," Justice Scalia said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
I have long maintained that if you sit down with someone you disagree with, you might find they aren't as bad as you imagined. That was the case today with my encounter with Justice Antonin Scalia, known as 1 of the 2 most conservative judges currently sitting on tyhe Supreme Court. Even though I am an uber-liberal, after spending 90 minutes listening to Justice Scalia, I now have much more respect for the man. You can't argue that he is extremely interesting, super intelligent, highly motivated by a moral sense, and laugh-out-loud witty. Like me, he is also a former Jersey boy. There's no doubt that I would welcome Justice Scalia at any intellectual debate or at my Super Bowl Party if I were having one.  Now, if I could just convince him to switch to the liberal left side.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Deadline Premiers at the Newseum

For film, romance in the middle of investigative reporting
As a reporter for the Charlotte Observer, Mark Etheridge won the Pulitzer Prize for his story of the  racially motivated, senseless murder of a young black male which went unsolved for 13 years until Etheridge began his investigative series.

Talley and Roberts
Later, Etheridge rewrote the story as a novel called Grievances. Now the news series/novel has been turned into a motion picture entitled Deadline, a film which stars Andrew Talley and Eric Roberts and received its world premier at the Newseum tonight.

"We hope this film shows why daily newspapers and investigative reporting are still important today," Etheridge said in remarks following the initial showing. "We are pleased to show the film at this iconic place for journalism and investigative reporting."


The Pulitzer-Prize winner said that several detail changes were made for the movie. Some were made for cinematic impact. For example, the actual person who tipped Etheridge to the original story was a 30-year-old white male; in the movie that character is an idealistic 21-year-old daughter of an established Southern family. Some changes were for reasons of economy. Since it was cheaper to film in Tennessee, Etheridge (in the film his character is called Matt Harper) worked for a fictional Nashville paper and the murder took place in small-town Alabama.

"There's a line is the film that talks about the difference between facts and the truth. The truth is still there. The truth is an African-American male was murdered as he was walking home for no reason other than the color of his skin," Etheridge said.

Director Kurt Hahn, who joined Etheridge for the post-film discussion, said that while the film is certainly an American southern story "it resonates around the world."

"Unfortunately, these things still go on today," he added, noting recent cases of racially motivated murders in Mississippi and London, England.

Etheridge said the road to the film was not easy. When he first wanted to write the story, he had to convince his bottom-line minded  publisher that the story was worthwhile, even if it didn't take place in the readership area of the paper. As for the novel, Etheridge received 19 rejections before he found a publisher. Jokingly, Etheridge claims the background story of the print to book to movie tale may have a special resonance for reporters.

"As a reporter, you're always worried about the nut cases that show up claiming they have a story. Well listen to them. Sometimes they are right," he said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Hahn and Etheridge have a unique way to promote Deadline. They said they will be joined by some members of the cast on a Deadline tour bus, which will travel to 42 cities where local newspapers will host a screening for the film.  That tour will begin in Nashville in February and wind its way around the country. The pair said it will be sort of like a rock and roll tour. "The drugs will be different," Etheridge said with a smile. "We'll have Advil and Flomax." "But we still don't like the green M&Ms," Hahn added.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Muslims Are Americans, Too

A young patriot and a Muslim
For Alexander Kronemer, it was one of those moments that parents dread, a time when your child becomes acutely aware of how brutish and insensitive the world can be. It began, innocently enough, as Kronemer and his son were watching the Washington Redskins on TV. However, father and son could not finish watching the game because they had to leave for the younger Kronemer's wrestling practice.

"He wanted me to put the game on the radio," Kronemer says. "He was young and naive and thought the Redskins might score."

However, before the radio could be tuned to the game, they both heard a station broadcasting a vitriolic, hate-filled diatribe against American Muslims and the Islamic religion.

"It was saying that a Muslim American wasn't a patriotic American," Kronemer, a Muslin said."I was deeply in shock from the hateful things that were being said."

But his shock only deepened when he looked at his son and saw that he was being dramatically impacted by what he was hearing. "I was too angry to talk about it immediately, but when he came out of wrestling practice I asked my son if he wanted to talk about it. And he said 'no.' And I knew the damage was already done," Kronemer said.

Kronemer, a writer, lecturer, and documentary producer, said the incident prompted him to make the  My Fellow American, a short film that was used tonight as an introduction to the program What Is the Truth About Islam and Muslims in America? (Everything You Always Wanted to Know - But Were Afraid to Ask) at the Newseum.

"We are living in very polarizing times," Kronemer said. "People want to demonize, not debate. We need to remind people that behind the demonizing rhetoric are real people."

"We, in this country, are at a crossroads. Will we continue to let some divide us and make us into smaller groups or are we going to embrace our diversity and our differences?" he added.

Following the short film and Kronemer's remarks, a 4-member panel discussed the issues of Islam and American Muslims and took questions from the audience on the issue.  The panel members were:
  • Melissa Rogers, director for the Center for Religious and Public Affairs at the Wake Forest University Divinity School
  • Haroon Moghul, a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding
  • Asma Uddin, an International Legal Fellow for the Becket Fund for Religious liberty
  • Rabbi Marc Schneier, the founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding
Obviously, the campaign against Muslims intensified after the 9/11 attacks and other terrorist activities committed by Islamic groups. The panel stressed, however, that such incidents were the result of fringe extremist militant groups and were not supported, and indeed were condemned, by the majority of Muslims, not only in America but around the world. 

The panel agreed that more programs were needed to promote sensitivity, empathy, and understanding among all American people.

"It has to go beyond dialogue. It has to go to fighting for the rights of others," Rabbi Schniere said. "We (Christains, Muslims, and Jews) not only share a common faith, we share a common fate."

The rabbi said Jewish law outlined in the Torah proscribes such action. "I used to think the greatest law was to love your neighbor as yourself," Rabbi Schniere said. "But I was wrong. The Torah mentions loving your neighbor once. It mentions loving the stranger 36 times. If you think about it, it's really not that hard to love your neighbor. The real challenge is to love the stranger."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Tonight's program truly captured the technological essence of an early 21st Century media event. The short film that introduced the program has its own website where you can interact online with the issues presented. There was a video camera in the lobby if you wished to record reactions to the program to be placed on the website. The discussion was streamed over the internet, meaning that anyone anywhere in the world with a computer or smart phone could view it. And, viewers could send in questions for the panel by Twitter at the hash tag #truthaboutislam.

Civil War Awakening

As the director of Washington College's C. V. Starr Center for the study of the American Experience,  professor and noted author Adam Goodheart believes in a kind of "marines boots on the ground" method of teaching history.

"You can't really learn about history by sitting in a room and reading about it," Goodheart says. "You need to get out and see where things happened and people really lived."

So, with that theory in mind, Goodheart annually borrows the college's mini-bus and drives his freshman students out to "a land that time forgot," the old Emory plantation, a piece of Maryland shore history that has been owned by the same family since 1669.

On his trips, Goodheart lets his students, as part of their tour, visit the now-abandoned mansion house's attic, where they would encounter family records stuffed in old lard cans, peach baskets, and steam trunks.

Goodheart was aware of the family story of the drama that supposedly revolved around a relative's difficult decision whether to side with the Union or the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War and passed that tale along to his students. One year, one of his particularly inquisitive students, Jim, decided to write his term paper on that dilemma, planning to use the uncatalogued, yellowed, rodent-chewed documents as primary sources.

Goodheart tried to discourage Jim, but finally relented and said he would take him out to the plantation again on a Saturday where they could look for evidence. "I told him if we didn't find anything in 2 or 3 hours, he would have to write on another topic," Goodheart says. "I really didn't expect to find anything useful."

However, among the first bundle of papers they perused, they discovered Maj. William Emory's resignation from the U.S. army and a host of letters describing in detail his agonizing decision to side with the Confederacy.

Using these primary sources, Jim was able to write his paper. But, more importantly, Goodheart found his way into his latest book  1861: The Civil War Awakening. The author appeared at the National Archives today to discuss his work, which is focused on "the struggle within the hearts and minds" of the people forced to wage what historians often call the 1st modern war.

Take Emory, for example. At 14, he entered West Point as a cadet, and spent the next decades of his life fighting for the United States. As 1861 dawned, he was stationed in Indian territory (now Oklahoma), torn between his allegiance to his military career and his raising in the south, including his deep friendship with Jefferson Davis, who was to become the Confederacy's president. Realizing that his decision would leave him either patriot or traitor, he decided that his Southern roots were too strong to allow him to remain with the Union.

As Goodheart was reading Emory's letters, he encountered a  particularly riveting passage. "Every so often (as a historian/writer) you encounter something that leaps off the page, grabs you by the neck, and pulls you into the past," he said. For Goodheart, that line was Emory's claim that his agonizing decision and all that would follow "is like a great game of chance."

"This kind of took away that Homeric cadence of battles with almost Biblical names ... Bull Run ... Shiloh ... Antietam ... Gettysburg and showed that it really was a struggle in the hearts and minds of the people," Goodheart said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Even though the War Between the States occurred 150 years ago, it still resonates in the American psyche. Goodheart, who is writing a periodic column about the Civil War for the New York Times, says he is still somewhat surprised by the reaction his book talks and the column elicit. For example, there was the southern gentleman who contacted the Storm Thurmond Center at the University of South Carolina to find out if that talk about that book about the War of Northern Aggression was open to the public. "People still have such big feelings about it," Goodheart said. "I don't think if I had written a book about the War of the Roses I would have somebody in the back shouting 'Yeah. The House of Lancaster,.'''

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Music and the Musings

How do you put together an anthology of the best music writing of a given year?

Well, if you are music scholar and author Daphne Carr, series editor for the newly released Best Music Writing 2011, it begins with a lot  of reading - about 5,000 articles worth of reading to be exact.

Of course, she did have help from guest editor, author, and music critic from The New Yorker Alex Ross. "We tried to maximize the diversity of music in our selections," Ross says. "I think the great thing here is you have so many different types of music spoken of from P-Funk to Wagner."

Carr and Ross appeared at the Politics and Prose book store tonight to discuss the latest book in the undergoing series.  They were joined by 4 Washington area contributors, whose readings of their articles definitely demonstrated the diversity found in the compilation. The 4 stories included:
  • a critique of a Wagner opera from a rock critic's perspective
  • the story of a Nashville song writing couple who composed hundreds of country songs, almost 20 pop hits for the Everly Brothers, and the University of Tennessee fight song "Rocky Top."
  • the opus of a failed Wilmington, Delaware musician who finally achieved success as a purveyor and promoter of elusive 78 rpm records and
  • the first-person search for the original massive missing Mother Ship prop from George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic tours, which according to music legend and myth may be rusting away in a dense Maryland woods.
Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
In discussing both the past and the future of the music series, Carr and Ross continually referenced  21st Century changes in the writing and publishing business. For example, while traditional printed materials such as essays, profiles, interviews, reviews, and news articles were featured, about 1/3 of the material came from on-line sources such as websites and blogs. In fact, even the way in which material is selected and the annual  compendium is published will be more tech savvy next year. To read more about that process, click here.

The 3 Ambassadors: Evangelists for Reading

Walter Dean Myers knows the importance of reading. He knows it as a reader who has been devouring books since he was 5. He knows it as the Harlem son of a father who was illiterate and a mother with only limited reading skills. He knows it as a writer who has been involved in nearly 100 writing projects, many of them such as Monster, Fallen Angels and Hoops aimed at young black males.

Scieszka, Myers, and Patterson
And now, as the newest national ambassador for young people's literature, the 74-year-old Myers is ready to push that reading effort to families and schools across America. The author was named today as the latest ambassador after being chosen by 2 groups: the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress and Every Child Is a Reader, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Children's Book Council.

Tonight, Myers was joined by the 2 previous ambassadors Jon Scieszka, the author of such best-sellers for the young as The Stinky Cheese Man, and Katherine Patterson, who wrote the middle-school classics A Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved at the Politics and Prose book store to discuss ways to encourage reading in America.

"We need to educate parents that they don't have to be a great reader to read to their child," Myers said. "Many parents are intimidated and embarrassed because they don't think they read well enough. Some parents have so much anxiety in their own lives that they feel they don't have time to read to their children."

Scieszka said that one of the tricks, especially for male readers, is matching the reader with the right book. "To reach reluctant readers, we need to let them read across a wide spectrum," the author, a former elementary school teacher said. He also said young readers should be encouraged to read both in books and on electronic devices like the iPad and Kindle."I think they (kids) are really agnostic about what they read on," he added.

Patterson said the future of American democracy may rest on the ability to promote reading. "If we don't read we will lose our democracy," she said, adding that it was also important to read widely.  "So many people today don't read anything they don't already agree with," Patterson contended. "Reading helps promote respect for others and their viewpoints."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
While all 3 writers at Politics and Prose are giants in the field of youth literature, the younger members of the crowd were most impressed with seeing and hearing their idol Scieszka, who served 2 years as the 1st literary ambassador.  The author said that he began writing his own stories after he read The Gingerbread Man to his daughter "380,000 consecutive times and then had to read it all over again the next day." Scieszka said he was fascinated as a youngster with Fractured Fairy Tales, which were part of the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons and that led him to"really enjoy messing with other people's stories." That remark prompted a question from a young admirer who asked, "How come you don't write your own stories?" After the laughter died down, Scieszka said such frank, unfiltered questions from young people were his favorite part of his 2 years as an ambassador.  Once, he said, during the question portion, a reader asked "we moved and my Dad can't find his underwear." And then there was the reader who wrote Scieszka saying, "we were supposed to write to our favorite writer. But Roald Dohl is dead, so I am writing to you."

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Futuristic Writer Looks to the Future

Ask noted author William Gibson, who has been called the "noir prophet" of cyberpunk and coined the term "cyberspace" in one of his short stories in 1982, where technology will take us in the future and he gives a quick response - he doesn't know and no one else does either.

"It's an illusion that we decide where we are going with technology," Gibson says. "We can't predict what technology is going to do once human beings get their hands on it."

Gibson, the author of Neuromancer and a host of other science fiction best-sellers, appeared tonight at the Politics and Prose bookstore to read from and discuss his new collection of non-fiction articles entitled Distrust That Particular Flavor.

 But, not suprisingly the large crowd of fanboys (and quiet a few fangirls) most wanted to ask Gibson about the technology and the future which play such as integral role in his creations.

Gibson made it clear that he considers himself a writer who often uses the future as a setting, not a futurist. He said that while he can envision a world where "fridges ands toothbrushes are as intelligent as any other object, even you" it is impossible to know the future with certainty.

"It's an accidental process where the outcome can never be imagined by people who first bring it into the world," he said. As an example, Gibson noted that he is sure that the originators of the combustion engine did not sit around discussing the possibility that their invention could doom the environment.

Sometimes, an author can create a world which later comes true. Gibson said he wrote about a world that was "Ronald Reagan's vision of America cranked up to 11. There were only rich people and poor people and criminals. Sometimes I think it might be getting that way."

Gibson said that while all people probably feel they live in extraordinary times, today's world is actually "weirder than anything ever imagined before we got to it."

"You can't describe the world today without sounding like raging science fiction," he added.

Gibson said as a teenager he loved reading science fiction, but it was his intrigue with the fiction parts, not the knowledge of science that fueled his early writing. " My ignorance of computing was almost perfect," Gibson said. "Maybe that allowed to see the forest for the trees. Although that is a cliche, it is sometimes true. When I first heard the word 'interface' used as a verb, I thought that was the most scientifically sexiest thing I'd ever heard. I'd give anything to have made that up."

But, undaunted, the fanboys continued to try to pin him down -  will the future be a Utopian vision or a Dystopian nightmare? Gibson's final answer: "The world is as it is. Utopian ... Dystopian .. they are, or at least they should be absolutes. I guess it really depends on which side of the bed I get up on in the morning."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
At book talks, some authors read from their work. Others don't. Gibson followed the first approach, reading tonight from a review he wrote about Steely Dan's released-in-2000 CD  Two Against Nature, their 1st release in 20 years. It seems that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the musicians behind the Dan, as their fans call the band, asked Gibson to write the review. Gibson, himself a huge fan, readily complied. "I was always including coded references and pieces of stolen Steely Dan in my work and I thought this would be a chance to pay them back," Gibson said. The author said he considers Steely Dan to be both lyrically brilliant and genuinely subversive. "I was walking in the supermarket and I heard this (Steely Dan) song about Cuervo Gold, and cocaine, and the ... shall we say ... pleasures of a younger girl and I thought 'Is this really what they play in supermarkets? Is anyone else hearing this?'' As for his review, after several pages of strikingly-worded insights (some of which I actually understood but all of which were fascinating), Gibson concluded most simply:" "I'm not a reviewer. I just want to say I like this record a lot."

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Recycling: It's as Old as Time

Recycled Japanese coat: Practical but also art
Most people probably consider recycling a relatively recent trend. But actually it has been a practice since the beginnings of civilization.

Today, on the final day of the exhibit, we viewed Second Lives: The Age-Old Art of Recycling Textiles at the Textile Museum, a small show visually capturing centuries of reuse of textiles.

Some of the recycling was the result of economic frugality. For example, women in ancient Pakistan would weave intricate decorative wall hangings from previously used remnants. Once those weavings became too frayed and tattered for display, they would be turned into floor mats or saddle pads. Once that use was no longer feasible, the remnants would be burned for fuel. 

Other recylings, such as those in Japan, were the result of higher concerns. In Japanese culture, there has long been a sense of deep regret when something is wasted, a feeling which derives from Buddhist philosophy. That led to sakiori - the Japanese title for the process of making fishing and farming coats and other garments from the discards of older apparel.

And still other recyclings were the result of lower concerns such as war. On display were Polish blankets woven from cloth that had once served as Iranian tent coverings taken during battles between Christian and Muslim opponents.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
We've said it before, we're going to say it now, and I'm sure we'll be saying it again - whenever you travel you have to be flexible. Today, on our Metro trip to the Textile Museum, we encountered both delays and unexpected station closings as the result of weekend line work. In fact, we couldn't even get to the station for the museum and had to walk to the center. No problem: you simply adjust. However, not everyone was magnanimous toward the Metro situation. When it was announced that the red line train we were on was going to be halted at the next station, the man in front of us shouted, "Goddammit, it's like we're living in a 3rd world country." And while I can understand his frustration, I have to disagree. A 3rd world country wouldn't have a Metro system.

Weaving an African Tale

The Kuba Kingdom - an old federation of 20 ethnic groups in Africa's Democratic Republic of the Congo - has gone by many names. The people of the lightning. The people of the king. The people of the cloth. And it's this last designation that forms the basis of the exhibit Weaving Abstraction: Kuba Textiles and the Woven Art of Central Africa now on display at the Textile Museum.

Woven baskets

Weavers displaying their wares

A look at the 1 of the patterns

Massive woven ceremonial skirts, some more than 8 yards long





Utilizing extreme patience and skill, Kuban weavers for centuries have transformed the leaves of the raffia palm, some of which can grow to be more than 80 inches in length, into works of art that served as everything from war shields to ornate storage baskets to funeral dressings.

Each weaver employed original patterns and motifs that would indicate the prestige and station of the recipient.  Critics have compared the diversity exhibited to the off-beat rhythms of the African drum music which influenced the American introduction of jazz.

The exhibit is on display until Feb. 12.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
It would be almost impossible not to be impressed with the intricate weavings. We considered buying one from the gift  shop until we discovered the purchase price - $875. Now, while the work was worth the cost, the price was too steep for us. However, if anyone is looking for a perfect gift for the Prices, I would suggest you visit the Textile Museum's gift shop and pick up 1 of those woven textiles.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Presidents as American Caesars?

Ancient Roman writer Suetonius created a biographical project he called The 12 Caesars, a book which detailed the public and private lives of 12 consecutive Roman leaders such as Julius Caesar, Nero, and Caligula and is still being read today. Now 2,000 years later, using Suetonius' biographical sketch formula as a model, noted biographer Nigel Hamilton has composed his American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush.

Hamilton acknowledges that the use of the word Caesar, which connotes the idea of empire and emperor, may be disturbing to some. However, given American's place in the world in the 2nd half of 20th Century, it is apt.

"Pearl Harbor changed America," Hamilton said. "It introduced global responsibilities to the United States. At that time, America had about 10 (military) bases outside the U.S. Now we have 1,000 bases that we know of."

Hamilton said that he has always been "fascinated with leadership" and believes that quality may be best exemplified in the modern American president. "They have to carry enormous responsibilities especially after the bomb. Are they going to wage war?. Are they not going to wage war?" Hamilton said. 

Speaking about his latest book at the National Portrait Galley, Hamilton said he considers his work a collection of 12 "portraits in prose." He said that the scope of the project did not allow him to focus on all aspects of each of the presidents profiled. "I don't think that I've ever written a biographical book of less than 1,000 pages and all of those were about just 1 person," Hamilton noted. To limit the focus and keep in line with the title, Hamilton said he chose to discuss the presidents in light of foreign affairs and personal lives and "cut out domestic policies."

Hamilton makes no claim to objectivity. He finds Richard Nixon vile and George W. Bush inherently unfit to be president. He says the "3 giants" of the modern age are Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.

He said Suetonius provided a great formula to use. "He really wrote spellbinding, intimate biography. It is so frank it can still be problematic today," Hamilton said. "I tried to write a book drawing on the lessons good and bad from the previous 12 residents of the White House."

Of course, only time will tell if his effort matched that of his model Suetonius. 

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
While book talks at Politics and Prose, Busboys and Poets, the National Archives, and the Library of Congress are great, there is something special about book talks at the National Portrait Gallery.  The talks are held in the actual bookstore for the museum and there is seating for only about 25 people.  It's a great chance to get really close to authors.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

American Hall of Wonders Looks Backward

"Scientists at Work" (1894/1895
Before there was author Pierre Boulle, before there was actor Charlton Heston, before there was Planet of the Apes (the 1968 original, not last year's remake), there was artist William Holbrook Beard. In 1894, Beard painted "Scientists at Work." But instead of scientists, Beard peopled his painting with well-dressed, pondering, persuing monkeys, which critics found one of the first satiric coments on the debate about evolution raging at the time.

Beard's painting is just 1 of more than 150 artworks and artifacts that make up The American Hall of Wonders exhibit, which is in its last week here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The exhibit is designed to capture the imagination behind the art, science, and invention of Americans in the 19th Century. The introductory piece is a large painting of  artist Charles Wilson Peale welcoming guests into a museum he created in 19th Century Philadelphia to highlight the changing face and shape of a rapidly growing America. Visitors then stroll through a series of rooms, each echoing Peale's painting with a red velvet stage curtain pulled aside.

Some of the rooms highlight the vastness of nature that was America. There is a room devoted to bison, one to the magestic wonder of Niagra Falls, another to the giant redwoods of California where 19 lumberjacks could fit in the notch of a Sequoia.  There are sections devoted to newly developing sciences:  zoology, botany, geology.  And then there are a series of rooms devoted to the inventions that allowed America to expand from sea to shining sea and eventually assume world dominance: the clock (time is money), the steamship, the train and the gun.

The exhibit is closing Jan. 8, but you can view a slideshow, listen to podcasts, and read articles about the Hall of Wonder by clicking here.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
One of the best things about living in the city of the free museums you visit is that you can go back and check out exhibits whenever you want. After we viewed the Hall of Wonder, Judy returned for another look at the Seeing Gertrude Stein exhibit, which she had named the best curated exhibit we saw last year. You can see what we originally said about the Stein showing by checking out the Dec. 4th entry in the archives section of this blog which is located after the current  posts.
    

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I am a retired educator and journalist who is enjoying his new life in DC. So much to do here and so much for free.

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