A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Santayana Was Right

                                                 (Above: Nell Gwynn)

With all due respect to President Obama, I think he's forgetting something when he calls for more emphasis on math and science in the schools.
Yes, they're important. They will be crucial to our kids competing successfully in the global market.
But will it also make them better citizens? Not necessarily. For that, they'll need to be well grounded in another subject, one that is getting almost no resources at all: history.
How can they tell where our country is going if they don't know where it's been? How will they be able to see through demagogues' lies if they don't know the real story?
George Orwell's Big Brother said, "He who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past." That was true while I was growing up in the 1950s, when the textbooks taught us the "Gone With The Wind" version of the Civil War: namely, that the slaves were happy with their lot, and the Ku Klux Klan were the good guys.
That myth made it much harder for everyone to face the truth about race relations in this country, and it delayed the march of justice for many generations.
The only protection against politicians' lies is a well-informed public. That means citizens who understand that the United States is NOT a "Christian country," as some claim; it's a country that was founded by Christians who were deeply skeptical of allowing any church, even their own, to dictate how everyone should act.
The Founding Fathers had read their history, and they knew all too well what had happened in Europe, where religious wars devastated the population.
They also knew their ancient history, and they knew that the Roman republic was destroyed when it abandoned the rule of law, leaving Rome at the mercy of competing generals.
That's why they created three different branches of government and balanced them carefully so that none of them could overpower the other two.
But when a society forgets its past, it's forced to reinvent the wheel, re-fighting battles that everyone assumed were won decades ago.
Don't believe me? Look at the current efforts to undermine abortion rights, access to contraception, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Pernicious special interests are trying to undo these dearly won freedoms, and the greatest weapon they have going for them is our collective historical amnesia.
But apart from such practical considerations, there's one more reason to study history, which was best expressed by one of my college professors, John Morton Blum. He said, "When you come down to it, the best reason to is that it's so much fun!"
And he was right. What human mind, even Shakespeare's, could come up with stories that are as fascinating as those that happened in real life?
Take Nell Gwynn, the mistress of King Charles II, who balanced the rival interests in his kingdom by having two official mistresses: one Catholic and one Protestant.
An angry Protestant mob surrounded Nell's coach as it was entering the palace, howling, "Hang the King's Catholic whore!"
"Wait, good people!" cried Nell. "I am the King's Protestant whore!"
And they carried her into the palace on their shoulders, cheering all the way.
You can't make stuff like this up.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Thumbs Up

The Vatican might as well convert the Papal Apartments – a euphemism for a palatial 10-room suite featuring sumptuous furnishings and priceless works of art - into a museum and make some money off the tourists, because no pope is ever going to live there again.
They wouldn't dare, not after Pope Francis has set a precedent by refusing to move in and living instead in a simple, unadorned 2-room flat elsewhere on the Vatican grounds. It would seem too immodest.
You have to hand it to Pope Francis. Refusing to move in was a masterpiece of symbolism, in line with his theme of fewer regal trappings and more humility. He's clearly a very smart guy, but what else would you expect from a Jesuit?
Which brings me to my favorite Catholic joke, which I first heard the late Harry Reasoner tell on the CBS Evening News: A Dominican, a Benedictine and a Franciscan are arguing good-naturedly about which order is the holiest, and they finally decide to submit the question to prayer.
Suddenly, the heavens open up, and down flies a pure white dove with a slip of paper in its beak, which it lays at the feet of the three monks. It reads, "You are all equally favored in my sight. Signed, God S.J."
* * *
Meanwhile, the Westboro Baptist Church – that vile group of homophobes who picket the funerals of fallen American soldiers – have announced plans to picket the funeral of film critic Roger Ebert, who died last week after a heroic battle against cancer.
I knew Roger slightly, and let me tell you: He would have considered it an honor.
We were introduced by my college classmate, Gene Siskel, with whom Roger partnered in their groundbreaking movie review TV show for two decades until Gene's death – also after a heroic battle against cancer – in 1999.
What Gene and Roger did was amazing: no less than conducting a running, 20-year debate about art.
Granted, it's a popular art – the movies – but their debate was a serious one. Gene and Roger may have been partners on their TV show, but they were also rivals, working for rival newspapers. And they had very different ideas about film, which they expressed with a passion that sometimes made viewers think they disliked each other.
They didn't. Yes, they argued; but they argued like brothers. They had great respect for each other, both professionally and personally, and they both were right.
Now Gene has company in the Great Balcony in the Sky. Thumbs up to both of them.
                            * * *
Finally, a sad farewell to Annette Funicello, every Baby Boomer boy's first crush and an iconic figure to everyone my age, boy or girl. The most popular by far of all the Mousketeers, Annette grew up to become a gracious adult who bore the multiple sclerosis that eventually took her life with a dignity that surprised none of her fans.
She was called "America's Sweetheart" because she always seemed to be even prettier on the inside than she was on the outside. No scandal, no story of diva-like behavior, ever attached itself to her name. The only consolation is that her suffering is over. So long, Annette.
M-I-C. See you real soon.
K-E-Y. Why? Because we like you!