Sunday, October 12, 2014

This Day in History (Parts I and II)

PART I



On October 12, 1892, Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer with the financial backing of Spain, landed in what is now the Bahamas, but what he went to his grave convinced was the easternmost edge of Asia.


Others weren't so sure. On a voyage a few years later this fellow, Amerigo Vespucci, discovered, or was at least present when others discovered, what is now Brazil. It soon became clear this was a whole new continent they were dealing with. America, it was now called.


Two continents, actually. 




Though Spain got the whole Age of Exploration ball rolling, Britain was eager stake their claim to the New World, of which Old World explorer Francis Drake played no small part.



Though he first had to get Spain's pesky Armada out of the way.



Now a world power, arguably the world power, Britain set about making America in their own image, starting with Jamestown in Virginia.



Meanwhile back home in England, a group known as the "Puritans" had emerged. I put that in quotation marks because it was a term used not by them but others, namely their opponents. The Puritans, in fact, were mostly Calvinists, though some were Presbyterians and others Congregationalists. They didn't always dress like above, but I needed a picture, and how else you gonna recognize them? Historians now think Puritans get kind of a bad rap, that they were in fact very reform-minded and simply wanted to curb the excesses of the Church of England and the British crown, which amounted to almost the same thing in those days before the Separation of Church and State. They were probably no more prudish than other religions around then, and were no more superstitious than most. Of course, by the standards of the 21st century, they would have made Pat Robertson look like John Waters anyway. Everything in context.



A radical fringe--yes, the puritans had a radical fringe--just wanted out of there, and so set sail to America on the Mayflower. Puritan leader William Bradford said they were guided by a "prosperous wind", as you can see above.







Their destination was Virginia, but they settled for present-day Cape Cod in Massachusetts after they ran out of beer. Seriously, it was a staple back then. Still think those puritans were puritanical? They couldn't stay there, however, as they had angered a bunch of Indians whose corn they pilfered. To the Mayflower they returned, taking it to Plymouth Harbor, a short ways away, and went ashore there.



A horrible first winter killed about half of what was now called the Plymouth Colony, but things got better afterwards, especially after they met some helpful Indians, whose corn they promised this time not to take without asking. More provisions arrived from back home, and the colony, reduced in numbers as it may be, was declared a success.




Soon all of what became known as New England was settled by Puritans.


Including this little corner of Massachusetts. 


It all started when a slave from Barbados named Tibuta decided to entertain some little girls with tales of her homeland. Afterwards, the girls started acting strangely, thrashing and throwing things about when they were supposed to be sleeping. Sounds like they were having nightmares, but to their parents, then doctors, ultimately the Law, that seemed too farfetched. A more logical explanation was witchcraft, considered a fact-of-life in Salem and everywhere else in the English-speaking world, and in a few other languages as well. It's why people got sick, why crops failed, why it rained on your day off from work. An all-purpose explanation.




What was different this time around, is that the little girls could identify the witches, due to "spectral evidence" i.e. invisible demons hovering over the accused in the courtroom that only they could see. Latter-day scholars have noticed these invisible demons tended to blame people the girls parents didn't like, whom they were feuding with, or were just unpopular in the village as a whole. Those accused were tortured into naming their accomplices, usually people whom they didn't like.



Unpopularity had never been so lethal. Before it was all over with, about 20 people, mostly women, had been executed. That it was now so easy to arrest, try, and put to death these agents of Satan, who never turned anybody into a frog in retaliation, seemed to escape everyone's attention.



Cotton Mather was both a scientist who contributed greatly to our understanding of the hybridization of plants, and a clergyman who is said to have applauded the witchcraft trials and the guilty verdicts that followed. Clearly this man could compartmentalize.




In the meantime Sir William Phips was appointed by the Crown to the governoship of Massachusetts. He arrived to find the entire colony now engulfed in witchcraft accusations. He set up a special court to sort the whole thing out. Accusations increased.  They even accused Phips wife, which he understandably felt was going a bit too far.




Phips asked Cotton Mather, whose family were political supporters of his, to come up with a brief summery of the trials. Though Mather may have saw it as a positive evaluation, Phips (who like everybody else did believed in witchcraft) thought otherwise.

Part II

On October 12, 1692, two hundred years to the day Christopher Columbus stepped foot on what he thought was Asia, Governor Phips sent this letter to the London, part of which read:

 I hereby declare that as soon as I came from fighting [Phips had helped quell an indian uprising in Maine before being appointed governor] ... and understood what danger some of their innocent subjects might be exposed to, if the evidence of the afflicted persons only did prevaile either to the committing or trying any of them, I did before any application was made unto me about it put a stop to the proceedings of the Court and they are now stopt till their Majesties pleasure be known.

Translated into 21st century English that means, if you are going to accuse someone of witchcraft, you have to come up with better evidence than invisible demons. No one ever did, and though there were a few more trials, nobody was ever found guilty again. And you know why? BECAUSE THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS WITCHCRAFT, THAT'S WHY!

Massachusetts and the rest of New England got over all this, the Puritans went back to being reformers, and within the next century it became the most progressive part of the country. Slavery ended in New England before it did anywhere else in the 13 Colonies, and the region's reformers were in the forefront of this event:




But that's a another day in history.

Did you know today is a holiday? Freethought Day, meant to commemorate Phips letter that ended the Salem witchcraft trials. Not a very well-know holiday, true, and postal workers aren't going to get a three-day weekend out of it, but I would argue that October 12, 1692 was just as important as the October 12 that came 200 years earlier. It's one thing to go to a continent, how you behave once you get there is quite another.

Happy Freethought Day to you all.

 






Sunday, October 5, 2014

Quips and Quotations





It takes a great deal of courage to see the world in all it's tainted glory, and still to love it.


--Oscar Wilde

Saturday, September 20, 2014

In Memoriam: Tony Auth 1942-2014

 Longtime editorial cartoonist for The Philadelphia Enquirer, but syndicated all over for those of us never fortunate enough to have visited the City of Brotherly Love. Won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976.


“Our job is not to amuse our readers...Our mission is to stir them, inform and inflame them. Our task is to continually hold up our government and our leaders to clear-eyed analysis, unaffected by professional spin-meisters and agenda-pushers.”

“I get a lot of hate mail, but it’s predictable...They claim I’m sort of taking advantage of free speech, that I ought to go to Russia, where I’d be shot, and that if America was any good, I’d be shot here, too.”


 Auth began working for the Philadelphia Inquirer during the Nixon administration.




The militaristic police commissioner-turned-mayor of Philadelphia during the 1970s was an early target of Auth's.



Unfortunately, I'm not sure I can identify with either of those two guys.



From way back in 1985. If anything, it's even more timely today.


 1986: Fortunately, this cartoon's no longer timely.



Health worries.


 Here's a tribute to fellow editorial cartoonist Herbert L. Block, better known as Herblock.




2000: So who won the damn thing?




This appeared right after 9/11. Not much exaggeration there.


The late paleontologist was a firm believer in evolution, and wasn't the least stressed out about it.


Mission accomplished




 A national landmark we really don't need.



Finding it constitutional is all the rage these days, but it wasn't a mere ten years ago.


Take your pick.


 The price of oil shot up late in the last decade, and we began looking for an alternative.



2008: I'm sure they both did, but was it the same lesson?


“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” Obama appoints Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, despite her radical views. 


 2009: Fears about health care reform.





2010: Reality sinks in.



Harold Camping predicts the Rapture will occur on May 21, 2011. This cartoon appeared the next day.  


   
I don't see a diet anytime soon.



Was the recent VA scandal (long wait times leading to more than a few deaths) simply a matter of supply and demand?


Baggage.



The "all the rage these days" I was referring to earlier.



 I think this was drawn prior to the most recent set of controversies bedeviling the NFL, but it certainly seems timely, doesn't it?






What better way to end this than with a tribute from another cartoonist?




Saturday, September 13, 2014

Cementimental Journey

In a recent post about Joan Rivers, I digressed just a bit to harp on celebrity endorsements, the idea that we should all run out and buy a product simply because a famous person is paid X amount of dollars to tell us we should buy a product. Well, what follows may very well be the most ridiculous celebrity endorsement of all time: 





Now, I happen to think Doris Day is a very talented individual whose girl-next-door image is occasionally and unfairly held against her in these porn-star-with-silicone-breasts-online times. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should really get past With Six You Get Eggroll already and give her a Lifetime Achievement Oscar before she dies. Day was a fine comic actress and a very good singer, though her lushly orchestrated songs of the 1940s and '50s might sound a bit jarring when contrasted to the more lustily synthesized dance tracks of today. Still, if Lady Gaga can put out an album with Tony Bennett, can't Day maybe do a duet with Usher? Que se-owowowo se-owowowo.

OK, I've established to my satisfaction if not necessarily yours that Day is talented, but does that talent really extend to highway construction? When I first saw the above ad and then blew it up as large as possible to read the small print, I actually wondered if it wasn't a Mad magazine parody or something by Bruce McCall. But, no, as far as I can tell, it's a real ad that appeared in the August 1949 issue of Asphalt and Macadam Monthly. Judging by that magazine's title, it's apparently possible to come up with something novel to say about asphalt and macadam 12 times a year. I suppose it's also possible that state and municipalities all over the country purchased International Harvester Series 56 Diesel Road Rollers for their road crews 65 years ago based solely on Doris Day's say-so.

Still, it's not a good idea to a pave a highway in the hot sun. I hear it can give you freckles.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Quips and Quotations (Comediennes Edition)


 
Joan Rivers
1933-2014





Terribly sad news about Joan I watched her back in Bev hills at the ye little club where I started out she was one of the greats

--Sandra Bernhard


A legend, a friend, a mentor, an icon, and wildly funny. One of a kind. RIP

--Kathy Griffin



My heart is torn in half. She wasn't done.

--Sarah Silverman


She was fearless, but very supportive. Just a real trailblazer for female comics, and I just think all comics.

--Judy Tenuta


This is the first time in her life Joan Rivers ever had bad timing. She left way too soon.

--Elayne Boosler

like u, i was an ugly duckling. then you taught me to become a swan. and we'd laugh, because finally, we were swans together.

--Margaret Cho


Joan Rivers will always be a pioneer. She paved the way for a lot of comedians. I’m very sad she’s gone.

--Ellen DeGeneres


My friend Joan Rivers has passed away once again to quote Billy Crystal... There are no words. Bon Voyage Joan.

--Whoopi Goldberg



Sad news. I'll miss her presence in the world. I admired Joan Rivers tremendously. All female comedians owe her a huge debt of gratitude

--Rita Rudner

 Oh Joan.

 

 --Wendy Liebman




There will never be another Joan! Every female who's ever stood on stage, mic in hand & told jokes owes her EVERYTHING. RIP, funny girl.

--Carol Leifer

We have lost a true legend. Thank you Joan for paving the way for broads like me.

--Wanda Sykes 









With the exception of Judy Tenuta, all of the above quotes came from Twitter, in case you're curious about the lack of punctuation in some of them, and exactly how Wendy Liebman went about expressing that crying yellow face.


 At the time of her death, I wasn't a fan of Joan Rivers, and I'm not a fan two days later, and I doubt I'll be a fan a week from now. I WAS a fan of hers from around 1979 to about 1982 when, after being a minor media presence for about 15 years, she suddenly zoomed ahead of everybody else. Her excellent timing and spitfire delivery of one-liners was on par with Bob Hope, Rodney Dangerfield, and Don Rickles. And unlike Hope, she wrote all her own material, sometimes on the spot as she was a great ad-libber. I found her more dangerous than those other comedians, a rebel, which was important to me when I was 17 as I was more into comedy than rock music but still wanted the latter's sense of unruliness. I also began to see Rivers as an artist, whereas Hope, Dangerfield, and Rickles were mere entertainers who always played it safe. Her frequent appearances on Hollywood Squares notwithstanding, Rivers seemed to me to be more in step with the new kind of comedy that burst onto my TV-conscious consciousness with the arrival of Saturday Night Live in 1975, though it was 1983 before she actually guest hosted that show. Instead she did Carson, but was easily Carson's most provocative guest. I especially liked how she made fun of celebrities. Not that I really had anything against celebrities--I found them much more interesting than I ever did sports figures--but it just seemed oh-so-cutting edge, and no one ever cut deeper than Joan. 

Eventually my enthusiasm for Rivers dissipated. Pretty quickly, in fact. Even before she bombed with her own show opposite Carson, she had bombed with me. I can't remember what exactly it was that provoked it, but around 1983 I decided she wasn't a rebel, wasn't cutting edge, wasn't dangerous. No, I didn't decide she was just mean. Something far worse: opportunistic. Though she claimed to oppose celebrity worship, and that the opposition thereof was the reason for so much of her nastiness, I suspect she wanted to be a celebrity, with the added perk of worship, too much herself for her satire to ever rise above the superficial. Take her famous digs at the then-portly Elizabeth Taylor, which more than anything else let Rivers zoom ahead of the pack. I laughed at those jokes at the time, but, in retrospect, Rivers was just picking, and picking on, low-hanging flab. Taylor's career was in a slump in 1979. Rivers was making fun of a has-been, a has-been who had put on weight ("Her favorite food is seconds.") What a star looked like is the only problem she ever truly had with celebrity worship. That stars eventually lose their looks, or that some stars, inexplicably as far as she was concerned, never had much in the way of looks to begin with. Like the singer Adele, of whom Rivers recently remarked, "She sang live and said, 'My throat, my throat, I don't know if I can swallow.' And I said, 'Oh, you can swallow.’" To be fair to Rivers, Adele does indeed have a weight problem. So the next time one of her songs comes on the radio, remember what you're HEARING is a fat girl singing. Rivers, as she often did, used Adele's bank account--claiming it was a $100 million dollars--as an excuse for making fun of her. What a $100 million dollars wasn't, in accordance to Rivers own political views, was an excuse to unduly tax Adele. Rivers own $100 million dollars might have been jeopardized otherwise. But getting back to Elizabeth Taylor, by the end of the 1980s she was relatively thin again, and Rivers let her alone. She probably thought there was nothing left to make fun of, but there WAS. Once all the pounds were shed, Taylor came out with her own designer perfume. Or rather, some cosmetic company's lab had come up with a new fragrance, and she sold her name to it. Now, if there's any aspect of celebrity worship that is worth ridiculing beyond everything else, it's the celebrity endorsement, the idea we should rush out and purchase a bottle of perfume, a grill, a box of cereal, athletic shoes, hotel reservations, wine, a refrigerator, a rental car, a camera, chicken soup, pop or soda depending on where you live, some sort of bone medication, insurance, and a pizza simply because Liz Taylor, George Foreman, John McEnroe, Michael Jordon, William Shatner, Orson Welles, Betty Furness, OJ Simpson, James Garner, Arthur Godfrey, Michael Jackson, Sally Field, Charlie Brown, and  Mikhail Gorbachev are paid X amount of dollars to tell us to do so. But that was one aspect of celebrity culture Rivers never went after. She had her own line of jewelry, after all. Rivers in fact liked the celebrity status quo. Just as long as you stay young-looking, and if that seems impossible, do what she did and make repeated visits to the plastic surgeon until you look like a Guy Fawkes mask. 

I was originally going to mark Joan Rivers passing with a long essay contrasting her to, and ultimately finding her the unequal of, Sandra Bernhard, possibly the funniest woman on the planet. Bernhard first came into prominence about the same time Rivers was named permanent (until it wasn't) substitute host of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Bernhard was everything Rivers professed to be: rebellious, a misfit, a rabble-rouser, and a trenchant observer of celebrity mores. She was a true outsider, genuinely alienated from the status quo, an ambassador from alternative culture whom Rivers couldn't possibly comprehend much less match rooted as she was in traditional show business. Instead of pricking the excess cellulite of a violet-eyed anachronism, Bernhard plunged her dagger right into the mercenary heart of contemporary culture ("Stone Phillips was invading my privacy. I was pissed until I realized I wanted Stone Phillips to invade my privacy. I've been working 25 years just so I could have some freak with a normal haircut invade my privacy.") She was also the only performer I know of capable of doing a dead-on Tina Louise imitation ("Ooh, Gilligan.") It wasn't all pop culture. Sometimes she examined the lives of normal everyday Americans. Teenage cheerleaders, for instance ("Oooh, Billy, you're so cute. I wish I wasn't your sister so I could fuck you!") As far as her appearance, she turned physical attractiveness on its head with her unique ability to look pretty, then homely, then pretty again at the twitch of one of her bulbous lips. Speaking of lips, eventually even she did a celebrity endorsement, but spouting off in a lipstick commercial about "thin-lipped Republican bitches" most likely improved sales only among Democrats. Whereas George Foreman grills would have been acceptable to all political persuasions (unless you thought boxing should be banned, in which case you might lean left.) Even if it she was a bit partisan, she did try to be fair to both sides of the political spectrum  ("On one side you have book burners, Congressional wives and Pat Robertson. On the other side, you have vulgar comedians, foul-mouthed rap groups and Dennis Hopper--all your choices should be so easy."--little did she know Hopper would turn Republican late in life.) I imagine being constantly on the cutting edge has probably hurt her career somewhat. I mean no disrespect when I say her stardom is marginal at best. She's a cult figure, and not the show biz phenomenon Rivers was. It's a pretty sizable cult, so I doubt that it bothers her too much.

So that was my game plan. Portray Bernhard as the true artist, and Rivers as a money-grubbing hack who passed off cheap shots as incisive social satire. Only one thing gave me pause. Would Bernhard herself agree with my assessment? How could she not? Still, before I got too far into it, I should make sure. Now, it's not like I could ask her. I don't know the woman, and, as marginal as her stardom may be, there was little chance of me ever meeting her. So I decided to check out her Twitter account. See if upon hearing of River's death she had exposed her for the phony iconoclast she really was. What I got instead was the comment near the top of this post. One of the greats? That takes something away from Bernhard's own greatness, if you ask me. I still believe my comparison of the two comediennes was valid, but it hurt me, and made it hard to write such an essay, that Bernhard didn't think so. Oh, Sandra, how could you do this to me?

Well, there were other controversial female comics out there, women who actually had something vital to say, and weren't merely pushing the envelope in the hope they could one day sell jewelry on QVC. I checked out Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho. They had nothing but the highest praise for Rivers. What the hell? I wondered if a siege mentality hadn't taken hold of them. Being the targets of scorn, they felt they all had to stick together and support one another. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. That kind of thing.

Panic set in. I was running out of controversial female comics. So I decided to take another tack. I'm not 18 anymore. I no longer demand that entertainment be cutting-edge as I once did. Indeed, I find 21st century pop culture to be excessively cutting-edge (while remaining routinely commercial.) All the obits were now portraying Rivers in feminist terms, as someone who had broken down barriers, who had opened doors for female comics of all stripes, from the very sedate to the extremely loudmouthed. Were the female comics themselves going along with that absurd notion? I scoured the Tweets of every comedienne who had ever made me laugh, giving special attention  to those who styles were very different from Rivers. Wendy Liebman is so soft-spoken she might as well be in the front row of a funeral service, but still knocks 'em dead with her jokes, if you'll pardon the pun. Ellen DeGeneres' coming out of the closet may have forever made her controversial in the eyes of some, but she is in fact a very good observational comic who takes a nuanced approach to things and doesn't feel the need to smash her subjects with a sledgehammer. And then there's Rita Rudner. Very funny but very gentle, the opposite of Rivers. Rudner is really the anti-Joan Rivers. Surely she owes Rivers nothing. Except, according to her tweet, she and all the other female comedians owe her not just a debt of gratitude but a HUGE debt of gratitude. All the other kinder, gentler comediennes were equally effusive in their praise. More effusive than they are on stage, as matter of fact. I decided to check up on Whoopi Goldberg, whose first big success was a one-woman show on Broadway that was basically stand-up. Though she seems very mainstream these days, Goldberg's background is in avant-garde theater, and that still informs her approach to comedy. Rivers kind of got her start the same way, playing Greenwich Village hangouts early on, but for the last 40 years her comedy's mostly been informed by Vegas. So there's little in common between those two. Except that according to Goldberg's tweet the two were friends, and she was now at such a loss of words she had to quote Billy Crystal! Whatever. Just please don't anyone start calling HIM a groundbreaking comedian.

I thought I finally struck gold with Janeane Garofalo. Her negative comment didn't come in the last few days but back in the late '90s. Rivers was hosting one of her popular critique-the-clothes-at-the-award-show cable specials, where she was joined by daughter/straight man Melissa and a panel of fashion experts. Though she pretended not to take it seriously, Rivers was never more wedded to show biz convention than when hosting these things, and despite all the clowning around, really seemed to feel who wore what mattered. The award show this time was the Emmys, and Garofolo had walked down the red carpet wearing something odd. I can't say what exactly, but the picture on the right should give you an idea of her typical wardrobe. It actually quite fits her image as an alternative comic who for a while looked like she might cross over into the mainstream. Whatever she was wearing that night, it wasn't your typical evening gown. Such a breach of decorum was too much for the famously-decorum-deficit Rivers and she not only criticized Garofalo for her transgression, calling her a "bag lady", but kept showing the tape of her walking down the red carpet over and over again in slow motion, raising the hackles of Melissa and the rest of the panel until someone, to Rivers delight, called Garofalo a "pig". Now, I haven't seen this particular show, can't find it on YouTube, and thus can't independently verify it. I have seen similar post-award show specials Rivers did back then, and find Garofalo's versions of events quite believable. The alternative comedienne was expecting some kind of criticism from Rivers, at first finding it funny, until the older female comic went for the kill. Garofolo told somebody in the media that it had made her cry.

Viola! I had my negative comment. The only problem was that it had a tit-for-tat quality about it. I wanted any anti-Rivers quotes to have the purity of objectivity. I couldn't help but feel that had Garofolo sat out that particular Emmy awards, she'd right now be tweeting that Rivers opened doors, broke down bounderies, etc. That Garofolo herself has been known to hurt people's feelings also complicated manners. I decided not to use the quote. I was back at square one.

It was time to face reality. If Bernhard, Griffin, Silverman, Tenuta, Boosler, Cho, DeGeneres, Goldberg, Rudner, Liebman, Leifer, and Sykes all liked Rivers, and I liked Bernhard, Griffin, Silverman, Tenuta, Boosler, Cho, DeGeneres, Goldberg, Rudner, Liebman, Leifer, and Sykes, but didn't like Rivers (or, more accurately, thought she was overrated) then there must be something wrong with ME. I stand by all my criticisms, but I have to admit it may have just been simple overexposure that turned me off to Rivers. I can only hear the word "vomit" so many times before I feel like vomiting myself.

I'd like to think all those women would have made it in comedy to whatever degree they have even if Rivers had never been born, but what do I know? I'm not a female comic. I have no idea of how hard it is for a woman to break into stand-up comedy. They seem to believe Rivers opened doors for them. If that is indeed the reason I can now enjoy the comic stylings of Sandra Bernhard, Kathy Griffin, Sarah Silverman, Judy Tenuta, Elaine Boosler, Margaret Cho, Ellen DeGeneres, Whoopi Goldberg, Rita Rudner, Wendy Liebman, Carol Leifer, and Wanda Sykes, then Joan, wherever you are, you done good.

One final quote:

Just gonna assume everyone telling me I'm ugly on twitter tonight is commemorating Joan Rivers and therefore I love you all

--Lena Dunham

No, I'm not a fan of Dunham, for the simple reason I've never seen her HBO series Girls, as I currently don't have cable. But this comment made me laugh out loud. I may have to become a fan--KJ