Saturday, December 31, 2011

Superman Fighting the KKK

As a life-long Marvel Comics fan, I have always turned my nose up to DC Comics.  DC comics always seemed too simplistic. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman may have seemed really creative when they were created in the 1940's but for my post-hippy angst, Marvel was much more appealing.  Stan Lee created characters like Spiderman, the Hulk and X-men in the 1960's.  They are much more complex.  Their stories have an edge to them and have a lot more social commentary in them with themes of racism, otherness and individuality.

I just finished a  chapter in Freakonomics (by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner) that gave me new appreciation for Superman, not the comic but the radio show.  In the 1940's political activist Stetson Kennedy went undercover with the Ku Klux Klan with the intention of publishing a book about their inner workings.  He learned a lot of their secrets like their recruiting techniques, passwords, handshakes and terminology.  For example, when a Klansman went on the road, they could find other Klansmen by asking around for "Mr Ayak" which stood for "Are you a Klansman?".   If a Klansman heard someone asking for Mr. Ayak at a bar, a church etc., they could identify themselves by replying "Yes, and I also know a Mr. Akai" which stood for "A Klansman Am I."

The Klan was growing strong.  Kennedy thought that just another journalistic book would not affect the spread of bigotry enough, he had a better idea.  He contacted the producers of the very popular Superman radio show.  Superman was running out of villains.  Why not take on the Klan?  "The Clan of the Fiery Cross" was born in 1946.  For 16 episodes Superman battled the Klan.  In these episodes the Ayak/Akai passwords were revealed and the Klan mystique was demystified.  If the following years the Klan attendance dropped and recruitment plummeted.  What was once a secret code was now common and afloat in the pop culture airways.

Levitt and Dubner call Kennedy, the "biggest blow" to the KKK in their history.  They may have over stated this, but the idea that tolerance is good business may have started here.  Nonetheless my appreciation for Superman, real world or otherwise has greatly increased.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Corn People and Corn Cattle

It is that time of year again.  It is corn time.  Not the corn growing season, of course, certainly not here in Vermont.  It is corn season because the Iowa Caucus is approaching and politicians just love corn this time a year.  To survive in Iowa, you have to express your undying love for corn, corn subsidies and ethanol.  Ethanol is a dead-end environmentally, but that doesn't matter to our so-called liberal president, he supports it.  At this point, it seems that only Fox News thinks Obama is a liberal.

In 2008, John McCain was the only major candidate to be honest and come out against corn.  Of course, in the Iowa Caucus that year he came in a distant third to Huckabee and Romney, confessed corn lovers.   More recently, in this year's Republican Primary race, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty promoted "phasing out" corn subsidies.  What happen to him?  He dropped out of the race after a very poor showing in the Iowa Straw Poll.  Why is the Straw Poll so important?  With such a poor showing, donations to his campaign would dry up.  

Newt is crazy about corn subsidies.  He finds it to be a national security issues.  He wants us to wean off oil and pump ethanol in our cars or heat our homes with it but that would require much more land to be farmed than is possible.  This is just another nutty, Newty idea that has little basis in reality.

The US is, by far, the largest producer of corn on the planet, producing almost half of the supply.  The US has 400,000 farms growing 10 billion bushels, using 72.7 million acres for cash receipts of $15.1 billion.  Corn and soy beans are our two biggest crops. Where does all this corn go?  Very little of it is for direct consumption of humans.  32% are exported overseas, 18% of it goes to sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup and then rest goes toward feed stock for cattle.  Most of our overseas corn goes to feeding cattle as well. Corn fed cattle grow faster thus costing less money.   

The digestive systems of cattle aren't exactly equipped for all this grain.  They usually feed on grass, but most cattle in the US have a diet of at least 90% corn feed.  This causes ulcers in the animals among other things.  To combat the illnesses they are given antibiotics.  70% of the antibiotics used in the US are used by the meat industry.   You feeling a hankering for a burger about now?  No, worries, even farmed salmon are fed corn now.  

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The 27th Amendment

The US Constitution states that two-thirds of the states need to ratify an Amendment to become the law of the land, but there is no expiration date to this ratification (see Coleman vs. Miller).  The 27th Amendment (the Madison Amendment) is the latest Amendment to our Constitution which became law in 1992, but it was originally introduced to Congress by James Madison 203 years before.  Madison wasn't president yet; he was a Congressman at the time.

The 27th Amendment is not very interesting or controversial.  It basically states that Congressional pay raises can only be granted directly after a House of Representatives election. So after a increase is voted in, an election must take place before it can go into effect. Six states originally ratified it:  Maryland, Vermont, Virginia, Delaware and the Carolina's.  At the time, 10 states were needed to make it a law.  Ohio ratified it in 1873 and Wyoming in 1978.  It wasn't until 1982 that it started getting wider recognition by the rest of the states.   An under-graduate student at the University of Texas, Austin, Gregory Watson, started a letter writing campaign to get the rest of the states to ratify it.    It took ten years.  On May 7th, 1992, Michigan and New Jersey became the 39th and 40th states to ratify the Amendment.   There are still five states that did not ratify it:  Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York and Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ramona and the Dawes Act

When you think of novels that had an affect on American political movements of the19th Century, the first two books that come to mind are Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Twain's Huckleberry Finn.  These two books affects on the abolitionists movements are undeniable.  A book that is much lesser known today had an equally large affect on a different political movement, on Indian affairs, Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson.

Ramona was published in 1884 in serialized form in the Christian Union magazine.  It chronicles the life of a fictionalized Scottish-Native American orphan woman and her husband, Allesandra in what is now Southern California in the days following the Mexican-American War.  It is almost an unknown novel today, but it was one of the most popular books of the 19th century.  The racial discrimination and hardships that Ramona and Allesandro face created much empathy in its readers and may have been the first time white readers saw natives portrayed as being human ... as exhibiting love, ambition and charity. One of the recurring themes of the book is how easily white Americans can legally take land from the natives.  You could say that the affect that the book had on politics was so strong that you could possibly draw a direct line from the novel's publication to the passing of the Dawes Act.

The Dawes Act was passed in 1887 with good intentions to help protect Native American land rights.  The act took tribally owned land and split it up to be owned by individual natives.  Another selling point of the bill was that it promoted assimilation by forcing them into tradition European style living situations.  The end result was disruption of the traditional communal life of the tribes and provided an easier way of taking Indian land for it was now split up and speculators could now deal with (aka philander or steal from) individuals rather than large tribes and tracts of land.  In the 47 years of the Dawes Act about two-thirds of their land base were lost to the white man.  Helen Hunt Jackson was opposed to it from the beginning.  She wrote some famous letters to Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow expressing the problems with the act.

Among other things, Ramona had a positive affect on commerce in the region. The place names in the book were fictitious and Jackson died before she could set everyone straight as to where they actually represented.  So many places in Southern California claimed to be the "home of Ramona" to attract wealthy tourists.  The railroad was connecting California to the rest of the world so these were hot destinations.  The place of her wedding and her grave were also other popular attractions. Today there is a town named Ramona and the Ramona Pageant has been held in Helmut, California annually since 1923.   The San Bernardino Freeway was once named the Ramona Freeway.

Like so many Hollywood adaptations, the most famous adaption by D. W. Griffith in 1910 was an extremely  watered down version of the novel.  This silent film, starring the wonderful Mary Pickford, concentrated strictly on the romance between Ramona and Allesandro so the social commentary was lost.  I can't help but think of Hollywood's butchering of some of my favorite books like Will Smith's I, Robot or Disney's take on Huckleberry Finn.  It seems that somethings just don't change.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Halifax Explosion

As an American and a Vermonter that lives less than an hour's drive from the Canadian border, I am a little embarrassed as to how little I know of Canadian history.  What I learned today was about the Halifax Explosion.  On December 7th, American commemorate Pearl Habor Day, but on December 6th, Canadians do so for the Halifax Explosion.

On December 6th, 1917, amidst World War I, two ships collided in Halifax harbor causing the largest unintentional explosion in the history of the world.  2,000 people died and 12,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed when 500 acres of the city were obliterated.   The explosion caused a tsunami, the gust of wind from the blast knocked over trees and shot a fireball into the air.  The very next day, during rescue operations, 16 inches of snow fell on the town.

The Norwegian ship the SS Imo, carrying relief supplies for war victims, collided with the French supply ship the SS Mont-Blanc.  The French ship was carrying munitions including TNT, picric acid, benzol and guncotton.   The harbor was particularly crowded during the war due to a U-boat net that surrounded the harbor and increased traffic due to the war.

I know I am ignorant of Canadian history and my ears perk up whenever I hear something interesting about our neighbors to the north.  Regardless of how ignorant I am not, watching this video makes me feel knowledgeable:

Asking Americans about Canada      

Monday, December 19, 2011

Who was Georges Méliès?

If I had to list my favorite film directors, I would have to put Scorsese in my top five.  His latest film, Hugo, is not your typical Scorsese film in that it is not about gritty characters like gangsters, boxers or cab driving veterans.  It is a children's film based on the book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  Can he pull off a children's film?  Some say no, that the film is too slow and children get bored half way through.  Regardless, I look forward to seeing it.

One of the main characters in the film is Méliès (portrayed by Ben Kingsley). This is a fictitious portrayal of a real person.  Georges Méliès was a French illusionist who by the 1896 became interested in the new art form of film. He started making films using some of his illusionist techniques. He is attributed with creating some of the first science fiction films ever and being the first special effects specialist. He created over 500 films from 1896 to 1913 ranging from 1 to 45 minutes long.  Without the use of a Mac that is a lot of work.  He was one of the first film editors and dabbled with out-of-the-box techniques like over-exposing film. Most of the films didn't have any plot whatsoever ... they just showed off his illusions ... a person disappearing, a person growing very large, a man turning a skeleton, a trip to the moon, a trip to the sun.

I had never heard of him before Hugo was released but I am familiar with this film, Viaje a la Luna (in english Trip to the Moon).  You might be as well.  It is about a bunch of astronomers who build a rocket to the moon (loosely based on works of Verne and HG Wells). Perhaps Scorsese was drawn to this book because of the Méliès character. Think of Hugo as an homage ... for what else is special effects other than illusion?