Tuesday, April 30, 2013

This Day in History: April 30--Saigon Fell

From the Empirical Archives: A Review of "Steplings"

A Review of Steplings
Carrie Wasinger

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Empirical

The tradition of the quest is a long and laurelled one. Joining narratives as disparate as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the image of the journey is ubiquitous in western culture. We find it in song (“The Long and Winding Road”), folk tale (“Little Red Riding Hood”), and film (Stand By Me), in fine art and in pop culture. The journey is one of our most symbolic ways of describing the evolution of character, so it’s not surprising that we turn to tropes of travel when we describe the formative moments of youth. Teens “go off ” to college; middle age brings us nostalgic visions of that magical road trip taken in our twenties.

Monday, April 29, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: The Woman in McDonald's by Richard Luftwig

The Woman in McDonald's
Richard Luftwig
PHOTO: David Schott

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Empirical

With her half-finished coffee she studies
each insert of the Sunday paper
as if sight reading her music for the week.
In quarter-note snips, she clips
any coupon that looks hopeful,
careful not to do damage to bar codes
and expiration dates, shrinking

the usefulness of each page down to size.
Then steadily, she sorts her prodigies
into their proper piles:
veggies, sauces, pasta, meat,
dairy, detergents, paper, pets,
and the always popular “other.”
She writes in her notebook

in a tight, penciled hand each coupon’s
impending date of death, their life’s worth,
and if they can be doubled, then places
each survivor in a clear plastic folder
with expandable accordion bellows.
Later, while leaning her forearms
on her shopping cart, she will poise

her fingers like a concert pianist
and trace along the folder tips
as if playing a waltz only she can hear.
At checkout, she will perform
a masterpiece, counting off
her savings like an metronome,
filling her bags with accompaniments.

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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Picktures and Pieces 25: Tactic, Strategy, Philosophy

Tactic, Strategy, Philosophy
by Randall Auxier

Nonviolence. Just refraining from hitting somebody? Gandhi's original idea, ahimsa, had the same problem. It's called a "privative" term --the absence of something that might have occurred. But Gandhi made it clear that he meant something positive by "nonviolence." It's supposed to designate a kindness and respect for others and for oneself, a certain power of the soul by which the violence and oppression we experience can be transformed into a force for good. Not to trivialize it, but say, for example, someone cuts you off on the expressway. You feel a surge of energy in your body. You snarl, you want to make a certain gesture, right? You are empowered. Nonviolence is the power to take that energy and channel it into constructive action. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., believed that this power could create peace where violent responses never could.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Picktures and Pieces 24: Bus 109

Bus 109
by Randall Auxier

To tell the truth, I don't remember the bus number. I thought I would never forget it. But I chose 109 because Kate Campbell's song by that name pretty well sums it up. It was a strange time to be a kid. (I speak from experience.) In the South, we tended to act --and to think-- like our parents. I don't know what they did in California or New Hampshire, but in Tennessee we learned to say "sir" and "ma'am" in addressing all (white) adults. Some of us were taught to say that to black adults as well. Some of us used the "n" word; some of us were told never, ever to say it. By accident of birth, I was in the latter group. Many of my white friends were in the former group.

Friday, April 26, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Is Reading Aflame in Our Society by Joe Asnault

Is Reading Aflame in Our Society
Joe Asnault

Burning of Kopimi (Copy Me) Books in Sweden
PHOTO: mikael altemark

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Empirical

I feel like a seasoned veteran. Eighteen years on the job as a junior high and high school English teacher. I feel like I’m finally hitting my stride, and then a colleague of mine handed me Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide. The last sentence stuck me, like Jack’s spear into the pigs in Lord of the Flies: “We need to find this courage. Today. Nothing less than a generation of readers hangs in the balance.” This final sentence can be better understood by understanding Gallagher’s main premise and the title of his book. Readicide is a new word which Gallagher feels should be in the dictionary. “Readicide: noun, the systematic killing of the love of reading often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.” Gallagher–a high school English teacher–recognizes the problem. His book and his other writings also offer viable solutions. Yet I had to ask myself: Am I contributing to this “readicide” through my teaching practices? Am I contributing to the conscious choice of teens and future adults to not read? I felt sick to my stomach and bizarrely it was a good feeling; a harbinger of change and of awareness that in our world now, deep, intellectual reading is on the decline, and I can convert my painful realization into impetus for change.

This Day in History: Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster Occurred

From the Empirical Archives: Syria: Notes on a Tragedy by Emanuel Stoakes

Syria: Notes on a Tragedy 
Emanuel Stoakes
Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, Syria
PHOTO: Kok Leng

Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Empirical

At the time of writing the Syrian regime is rumored to be “on the brink of collapse” as the battle in the ancient city of Aleppo reportedly approaches its endgame. The reader will, by now, be able to confirm the veracity of such reports, the latest example of similar claims that have been stated confidently on many occasions since the opening of the conflict. I write at a time when the United Nations observer mission has, like Ramadan, recently departed. The sanctity of the Holy month, not unlike the presence of the UN, did little to inhibit the brutality being visited upon Syrians from either side. Neither the Geneva Convention nor the injunctions of religion were forces powerful enough to slow the engine of this dirty war.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

This Day in History: Findings on DNA Double Helix Was Published

From the Empirical Archives: Paolo Soleri’s Proposal for Urbanizing China by Lissa Mccullough

Paolo Soleri’s Proposal for Urbanizing China 
Lissa Mccullough

Beijing City Planning Commission Model
PHOTO: Ivan Walsh

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Empirical

City planning in China, as in the rest of the developing world, is coping with rapid urbanization while at the same time facing limited natural and energy resources, pressures on agricultural production, and concern about environmental degradation. Currently about 40 percent of China’s population lives in cities. By 2025, an additional 350 million Chinese will become urban, raising China’s urban numbers to one billion. Because China’s cities are growing outward as well as upward, urbanization has consumed a massive amount of rural countryside. The “spreading pancake” (tan da bing) of urban growth in China has devoured some 45,000 square miles of productive farmland in the last thirty years. This sprawl has also generated demand for the automobile. China’s domestic automobile market now exceeds that of America. If China were to match car ownership in the United States per capita, it would mean more than one billion cars.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Bathsheba by Gary Steven Corseri

Gary Steven Corseri
PHOTO: Michael L. Baird

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Empirical

Across the summer breeze she moves,
silver bracelets snaking forearms,
silver earrings scooping starlight.

She weaves between the dark and light
of the pooled moon, in leopard’s skin,
soles barely touching cool flagstones.

A choreography of desert blooms
divides the mist in summer’s orchard.
Her maids swirl scents in precious waters.

A strap unwound, her garment droops
like last blood-luscious leaves,
diaphonously vanishing.

Drunk night spills at her feet.
Water cupped, palms rise to lips,
whispering unctuous prayers.

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This Day in History: The Nation's First Newspaper Began Publication

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

This Day in History: Teddy Roosevelt Delivers 'Citizenship in a Republic' Speech

From the Empirical Archives: A Moment with Michael Baird

PHOTOS: "Mike" Michael L. Baird, flickr.bairdphotos.com
A Moment with Michael Baird
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Empirical

Michael’s living the dream at Morro Bay in California, taking photographs of the macro and micro realms he encounters there. Empirical gets a peak inside his world.

Empirical: Hi Mike. Thanks for talking with us. You’ve quickly become one of our favorite go-to photographers. How did you get started in photography to begin with?

Mike: I retired twelve years ago, at the early age of 55, from a VP of Engineering position at ask.com in Silicon Valley in 2000, just when the internet was starting to blow up. As a farewell gift my associates gave me one of the first digital point-and-shoot cameras.

Empirical: You had never been involved in photography before that at all?

Mike: Before I got my digital camera in 2000, all I had done was use disposable point-and-shoots, and I didn’t really know or care about the basics of photography.

Empirical: So what happened after that? What took you to the ocean?

Mike: After twenty years in the fast lane, participating in lots of start-ups, an IPO, stress, and absolutely insane working hours, my wife Heidi and I decided to abandon the career, restore our health, and better enjoy our limited time on earth, in one of the best places to live on earth. Landing in the idyllic Central Coast California town of Morro Bay, I found myself surrounded by the beauty of nature, the solitude of vast open spaces, and involved in volunteer work in our California State Parks and the Morro Bay Museum of Natural History.

Empirical: I’m sure they appreciated that. What did you do for them?

Mike: I immediately became a docent for State Parks, and being pretty much the only one with a digital camera supplemented with abundant computer and internet skills, I became the default photographer providing all of the images needed for interpretation, programs, presentations, museum newsletters, museum displays, and outdoor kiosks.

Empirical: You dove right in, it sounds like. Was there a certain point that you began to take it more seriously and to see yourself as a photographer?

Mike: I created the morro-bay.com website as a way to integrate into the community, and through that (and my volunteer work) I soon met many local artists and other intelligent, well-educated, retired friends–many of whom encouraged my new-found photography activity. Because I was not particularly well-informed about birds, flowers, natural history, and the stuff of State Park interpreted hikes, I instead contributed through my photography and computer skills, offering, for example, to help every one of the 150 docents to become computer literate, and to repair and upgrade their machines, and provide free technical support. That burst of PC volunteerism soon led to overload, and I retreated almost exclusively into photography. I created a social network of now over 350 local photographers (http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/photomorrobay/ and http://www.flickr.com/groups/photomorrobay/) who are now teaching each other how to grow and improve.

Empirical: I guess you moved on from that original digital camera. What equipment do you use now?

Mike: I soon found that I needed a much better camera, and better lenses, if I were ever to get the professional quality in the photos that I wanted. Choosing Canon, I’ve gone through every model from the first Rebel to the latest 5D Mark III, upgrading cameras once a year.

Empirical: Did you get any training other than in the social network you created?

Mike: I’ve never paid for a lesson, and have an aversion to doing so, as I’d rather buy a $500 lens than take a $500 course. I consumed all of the most-popular photography books on Amazon. com, and exploited much of the free rich content on the internet. I now consider myself a fairly advanced photographer technically, but certainly not an artist. I actually don’t think of photography as a very challenging technical activity. After all, a camera is a simply machine to operate, with just a few variables to control, and there is not much science to it, for the limited kinds of documentary work that I do. I spent my earlier years as a research scientist, after getting a PhD in computer science in 1973, so taking photos was more relaxation and recreation than a technical challenge.

Empirical: Did your work in computer science help with your digital photography?

Mike: I was completely at home with the new field of digital image processing, as my early work was in the field of computer vision and robotics.

Empirical: You have quite an impressive background. What kinds of subjects do you relate to best as a photographer?

Mike: Photography was becoming more an excuse to get outside. Everyone told me the best photos are only taken early or late in the day, but I’d said “I don’t wake up to do photography; I do photography when I’m awake.” I shoot opportunistically whatever is presented: including people, photojournalistic events, insects, mammals, reptiles, birds, flowers, and landscapes. My camera is an extension of my eyes, and I’m interested in seeing everything in this world closer and in different ways.

Empirical: Why don’t you see your work as an art?

Mike: I recognize that there is an entire other world of artistic photography, where images are created that I’ll never be able to visualize, let alone realize. That’s not my domain. I’m a documentarian, not an artist. I shoot what I see in everyday life, what comes my way, and rarely do I go after a planned target.

Empirical: Can you say more about your basic philosophy when it comes to photography?

Mike: My Flickr profile (http://www.flickr.com/people/mikebaird) says “Life is short, and I get a kick out of seeing others enjoy my images in a responsible way. My motivation for freely sharing almost all of my photographs under a Creative Commons Attribution License, without compensation, and for almost any purpose non-profit or for-profit, comes from my interest in contributing to a legacy, which I define as the ‘bits one leaves behind on the Internet.’ This can only be done by having a fair number of images with attribution persist in perpetuity, through inclusion in a wide number of educational, wiki, archival, governmental, NGO, private, and corporate websites and digital resources. This follows the LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) philosophy for preservation of intellectual property.” Through the magic of Flickr, Creative Commons, and the internet, I now have thousands of my images being used in websites, blogs, books, kiosks, displays, movies, and archives (many in Wikimedia and Wikipedia... but I don’t put them there myself ). I encourage photo sharing, and say, “A photo taken but not shared might just as well have never been taken.” As a result of my preaching this, and many others taking that advice to freely share, a small photo community around me in San Luis Obispo County, CA, has in a way been transformed into a highly visible, recognized center-of-excellence for photography.

Empirical: Do you have other hobbies in your quite active retirement?

Mike: I also do a lot of kayaking, hiking, beach walking, birding, and I spend eight hours every day learning things from the internet which is just the most fascinating thing in the world to me. Cool resources like Empirical magazine come to my attention, and the cycle of sharing and learning continues.

Empirical: We appreciate your saying that. And thank you for sharing with us.

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Picktures and Pieces 23: White Devils

White Devils
by Randall Auxier

This woman is many things to the people in her life, but I want to write about some things she isn't. For the record, I don't know her name. I know only that she is from Bangladesh --assuming the website has this right (which is not a safe approach to interpreting the interwebs, I suppose, but not much depends on it in this case).

This woman is probably not wealthy. I read a little while back that the average household, worldwide, lives on the equivalent of $2200 per year. That was given as the average. The poverty line in the USA is several multiples above that amount. We call our luxury poverty? Well, relatively, perhaps. Half the people in Bangladesh live on less than the equivalent of $520 per year, and 37% of the population lives under what even Bangladeshis call their own "poverty line," and they aren't among the poorest nations in the world.

What we mean by "rich" or "poor" has to be adjusted for context, but, suffice to say, taking a cab from Washington Heights to lower Manhattan would probably cost this woman half a year's income, so I think she won't be doing that. It isn't easy to navigate that trip. When Dorothy tried it in The Wiz, she found herself in Oz (which is hard to distinguish from Midtown Manhattan). I love this interpretation of Oz, but as down home as that story is, it still assumes a certain kind of privilege. Diana Ross's version of Dorothy is, well, quite wealthy --having home, hearth, and means. An independent, fully employed, African American professional woman is powerful beyond imagining compared to the woman in this picture, and that power isn't due to Lena Horne's singing. It's about money, opportunity, and location, location, location.

This woman is also not young, but if she had taken that taxi when she was about 20 years old, she would have passed by Lenox Avenue and West 116th Street where a building formerly called Temple Number Seven is still located. This was the Mosque of the Nation of Islam led by Malcolm X, and the site of some of the most spectacular public speaking of the 20th century. The subject matter of his speeches was unfamiliar to most, but our young rider might have overheard the term "white devils" as she passed.

White folks usually don't care for the phrase "white devils," or for the accompanying suggestion that they lack souls. Some dismiss it as hate speech, others think it is just rhetorical hyperbole. I think that for most of his religious life, Malcolm X believed it literally and I think he struggled on occasion, and a great deal in his last two years, with finding anything like a human soul in the members of the white race. But what is a soul? What endangers it?

People of a secular, modern temperament try to find the sense in old fashioned religious language by bringing in "common sense," as they understand it. So they say that Minister Malcolm "really means" that the historical capacity for "man's inhumanity to man" is prevalent in European endeavors of the last half millennium. Fair enough, but it's an understatement, is it not? Two World Wars and a Cold War, with hundreds of millions slaughtered, brought to you by white folks (mostly). And that's just the 20th century, and only the highlights.

When asked what he thought of European civilization, Gandhi reportedly said "I think it would be a good idea." Before our taxicab rider turned 30, she would see some three million of her countrymen die in a post-colonial war traceable to the British partition of India. A similarly brutal war was fought between Iraq and Iran ten years after that and due to the aftermath of European colonial ambitions and failures. It would be impossible to estimate how many people died in the 20th century because of messes left by Europeans all over the world. Impossible. And yet I know it could be a billion human lives. Or more. This was the aftermath of the European desire to dominate the world. They enslaved or subdued most of the world, killed each other by the hundreds of millions, destroyed almost every indigenous culture and ancient social structure, and left the world in shambles, fighting deadly wars. Vietnam had an especially nasty post-colonial war, and the war in Korea possibly isn't over.

What does a group of people have to do to provide evidence of diabolical origins? Is it so crazy to begin to wonder whether there might be something deeply wrong with, well, white people? Why can't they have the decency just to murder each other and leave the rest of the world out of it? It seems like a reasonable question. When you add in such historical matters as the slave trade, and its human costs, and when you become aware that this bunch of humans has constructed itself as "white" so as to have a label to unify all these activities as the necessary progress of humanity, I wonder that the burden of proof doesn't shift to the white folks to prove that they really do have souls.

Our Bangladeshi woman is, thus, also not white. That means she has a very high likelihood of being excluded, by practice and sometimes by law, from numerous opportunities and privileges she might have had, especially in Malcolm X's day, but even very much in our own day. And she is not male. And she is not an American. I think that if there is a fair response to the strident criticisms of white devils by Malcolm X, it would involve, after some study and some soul searching (irony intended), apologies and reparations and a commitment among the privileged white people in the present to join the struggle against white privilege. But I don't see any of that happening. I see a lot of people learning from an early age how not to notice their privilege and power, and I among them. I don't know what to say to this woman, but I am genuinely appalled at what people like me have done and continue to do to people like her.

If Malcolm X has an Achilles heel, however, this woman might point out to him that although he is black, he is also a man and an American (however much he may have hated the latter). There is privilege there, too, even if it is not the fullest sort claimed by some. These young men, however, have every advantage. Oddly, they agree with Malcolm X on a number of crucial points. That is my next topic.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Call for Bloggers

Empirical magazine is rolling out a new version of its digital magazine and its website/blog. Empirical is seeking bloggers to write at least once a week on one or more of the following topics:

  • Current events (politics, economics)
  • Education
  • Environment
  • History
  • Philosophy
  • Reviews
  • Spirituality

This is a wonderful opportunity for your writing to get noticed and showcased on the Empirical magazine website.

Please write tara at empiricalmag dot com with a cover letter and three writing samples. 

From the Empirical Archives: Reintroducing the Wolfe by John Elwyn Kimber

Reintroducing the Wolfe:
Why Modern Houses are Good for the Soul
John Elwyn Kimber
Schindler's Wolfe House
ILLUSTRATION: Steve Ferchaud

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Empirical

The year is 1931, and on an improbably steep hillside overlooking the harbor of Avalon, on Catalina Island, California, one of the most remarkable modernist houses of the 20th century has just been completed. It cascades down the slope like a frozen waterfall in an intricate interlocking rhythm of overlapping planes, cantilevered balconies, and carefully judged windows and voids. Every inch of this astonishing building is carefully thought through from the inside out, and the result is one of the most architecturally-distinguished holiday cottages ever devised. The architect is Rudolph Schindler, and his house, the Wolfe House, out-does even his own most famous creation, the Lovell beach house, in spatial drama and ingenuity. Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Fallingwater’ is still several years away; in 1931, the Wolfe house is probably the most dramatic response to a steep site yet realized by any modern architect. To look at the photographs newly taken on completion of this audacious structure is to assume that here is an instant modern classic, destined surely for architectural fame and careful conservation.

This Day in History: April 22--Earth Day

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Picktures and Pieces 22: Conversion(s)

by Randall Auxier

Here is a smiling Malcolm X. Many think of him as the angriest black man ever, and the most famous photographs of him show intensity, conviction, defiance, an iron will. Yet, those who knew him well always talked about his sense of humor, his charm, his easy manner. Men and women of great personal power often seem contradictory to more ordinary folks. It isn’t surprising. The same exasperating spread of stories is told about Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Gandhi, Joan of Arc. Malcolm X surely belongs in such company, historically, and we aren’t likely to get any final clarity on such extraordinary people.

This Day in History: April 20--Ludlow Massacre

Friday, April 19, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Schooling for Sale by Brian Elliott

Schooling for Sale: A Critique of US Public School Reform
Brian Elliott

PHOTO: Olav Bryant Smith
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Empirical
What’s wrong with America’s schools?

It’s not hard to find criticism of the US public school system. Both local and national newspapers regularly carry articles outlining a new policy initiative, a school district’s remarkable success or, more likely, the alarming characteristics of a “failing” school.

From the Empirical Archives: Savages Came

Savages Came
Christopher Wolfe
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Empirical

The savages came to the table ravenously.
Consuming consummate plates
Of Continental shelf shifting into mouths
Yawning wide with cormorant appetites,
Like goldfish exploding their bellies,
Or condors beaking ferociously
Over the bones of civilization.
Treating external parts like finger foods,
Or d’oeuvres in the House of Plenty.

Doorbell guests arrive copious cups
Of Chianti centered in fists of stained white linen.
Conversation gravitates tethered in careful controlled revelations
Coupled with self-serving lies and subtle innuendo
That entertain with threatening off-the-cuff commentary
And sparkles like champagne after the explosion.

Party crawl, and the sense of privilege permeates
The night
As the denizens of disclaimers careen
From place to place peregrinating
From politics to promotion.
And electing by committee who will design and map
The direction to the next exclusive exclusionary club stop.

Inside the sanctum sensorium the goers not only go but come,
Eddying like a tide which filibusters delicately,
Deciding who is taken and who is merely residue.
The sensorium feels like an artificially induced private heaven,
Where everyone in the intoxicated passion play is given godhood.
There it is hot humid and dangerous with the fire
Of cooperation through cunning inchoate compromise.
Conviction is sniftered out generously, and the apt quip
“While the liquor flows the decisions flowed on and on”
Sends laughter higher which fondles the flames.
Outside the fog nearly freezes and grips the dark,
With frost like bitter icing capping a tasteless cake.

While the Players Club sweats profusely
In a cornucopia furnace which by timed divestitures,
And consolidation gestures profit with outstanding projections of intense heat,
The cheers are deafening, piercing the blackness growing outside.
An escalation beyond census begins,
As the orgasmic pleasure seizes the mind body soul
Of each rattling the cage that encases their limits.

It is as if satisfaction can only be had by moving deeper
Into the coagulant of an esoteric market,
Wherein the promise of even greater ejaculates felt at the edge of sweat!
Once the many mounted insatiables craving more and more,
Crawling back into bed with the hope of income from easy earnings
Like a whore penetrative and expectant,
Willing to turnover and turnover again,
Poleaxed with intoxicated desire to pass where caution is no longer an issue,
And that Getting is supremely more erotic and then the Having

Sunrise blazes across the firmament,
Last embraces, limbs untwining, morning piss.
Some hiding genitals some looking for theirs.
Rising, clothes draping, accessories attaching,
And the decadence from last night’s revels
Is quickly forgotten in favor of business as usual.
In the self-imposed quagmire of financial possibility.
Let’s all do it again. Yes Let’s Do it as soon as possible!
Keep the fires steaming and full liquor streaming!
The savages in agreement limousine away,
Ready to sack Rome and raise the society,
In an effort to corner the market on empire.

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This Day in History: April 19--Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Began

Thursday, April 18, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Mexican Elections in Perspective by Ignacio Castuera

Mexican Elections in Perspective
Ignacio Castuera

Panama Canal postcard (1915)
COPY: rich701/Flickr

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Empirical

To better understand the results of the recent presidential elections in Mexico, it is necessary to look back at a history of hopes dashed as this nation attempts to live in the shadow of the mightiest empire in the history of the world.

Alexander von Humboldt was the first Protestant allowed to visit the Spanish colonies in Latin America. He corrected the geographical coordinates of Acapulco and visited the city of my childhood, Puebla, which he loved. At the end of his trip he was asked by President Jefferson to meet with him to share his impressions and to talk about subjects of interest to the two intellectual giants. It must be remembered that the same year Jefferson and von Humboldt exchanged views, the Lewis and Clark expedition was launched.

Upon his return to Europe, von Humboldt, a Prussian, attended an event in Paris where he met both Napoleon Bonaparte and a young man from Nueva Granada, Simón Bolívar. During his conversations with Bolívar, von Humboldt urged him to return to the Spanish Colony, liberate it from “Catholic bondage,” and create a large country capable of balancing the power of the “Colossus of the North.” Years later Bolívar said about von Humboldt: “Alexander von Humboldt has done more for America than all its conquerors. He is the true discoverer of America.”

Bolívar did go back to free his colony from Spain, but the great country von Humboldt and he envisioned never materialized, as Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador emerged as three independent–and often quarrelling–separate countries. (Panama was also part of that original great country that Bolívar and von Humboldt envisioned, but when the US was denied access to Nicaragua to create a canal to connect the Pacific to the Caribbean Sea, the US created that artificial republic in territory that was originally Colombian.) To date, the Colossus of the North has almost unchallenged power with few exceptions that rise up from time to time. Right now Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil to some extent, and, until recently, Paraguay seem to offer a measure of resistance.

Puebla, Mexico
PHOTO: Russ Bowling

Zeroing in on Mexico, one must learn, or remember, that even though Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla issued a declaration of independence from Spain in 1810, a long and costly war of eleven years had to be fought before Mexico could really be considered independent. During the War of Independence, a succession of regents ruled the new nation. At one time a Mexican Empire existed with Agustín de Iturbide as emperor, but it disintegrated quickly although many “royalist conservatives” continued to hope for that kind of political option.

Just as it happened in South America, a big country was not allowed to exist next door to the Colossus. First Texas declared itself an independent nation which later became a territory of the United States. In 1846 Mexico lost much of its land due to a most questionable war with the United States. Only Abraham Lincoln opposed the war and asked for proof that indeed Mexico had been the aggressor. Neither he nor Congress ever saw the kind of documentation that would offer such proof. All Mexican territories north of the Rio Grande became US possessions, and some US historians believe that if northern senators had not opposed it even more land would have been lost by Mexico. Ironically, they feared that as with Texas, acquisition of Mexican land would expand the slave states. If it had not been for this concern, Cuba and Nicaragua could have easily become US territories.

After 1848 the smaller and weaker nation of Mexico continued to search for the kind of government that would be appropriate to the new realities. The politicians were divided among conservative and liberals, and a succession of presidents ruled for short periods at a time.

In 1858 Benito Juárez, a Zapotecan Indian from Oaxaca and member of the liberal party, was elected. The conservative party refused to accept the election, and using as an excuse the fact that Mexico still owed a great deal of money to France, “invited” Louis Napoleon to occupy the throne of the defunct Empire of Mexico. Louis Napoleon offered the throne around Europe and young Maximilian of Hapsburg accepted it. Although the Civil War raged on, the Second Mexican Empire existed only in paper and Maximiliano I was known as the Emperor of Mexico. He did not travel to Mexico until 1864.

Pancho Villa
PHOTO: David B. King

During the almost simultaneous Civil Wars in the US and Mexico, Juárez and Abraham Lincoln forged a friendship sustained by correspondence and the personal friendship of their secretaries. At the end of the American Civil War, Lincoln issued a stern warning to the French, tilting the Mexican Civil War in the direction of Benito Juárez. Maximilian was executed along with the leaders of the Mexican Conservative Party in May of 1867. The Conservative opposition to Juárez that precipitated the Mexican Civil War was due to the reforms he proposed to the Mexican Constitution and that is why instead of simply calling it a civil war, Mexican historians refer to it as The War of Reform. 

Among other reforms, Juárez succeeded in abrogating the laws that made the Roman Catholic Church the official state religion of Mexico. At least one of the wishes of von Humboldt became true, albeit much farther to the north than he wanted. Eventually all the new nations that emerged from the former Spanish Colonies followed suit.

During the War of Reform, a young general, Porfirio Díaz, emerged as a brave soldier and a sagacious politician. Eventually Díaz was supported by the Liberal party and became President of Mexico. Sadly, Díaz became drunk with political power and was corrupted by significant funds coming from American copper and oil companies. He was receiving so much money that two ironic statements from him remain axiomatic in Mexico today: “No general can withstand a ten thousand dollar cannon shot,” and “Poor Mexico, so far away from God and so close to the United States.” He ruled for almost thirty years until the Mexican Revolution of 1910 when the familiar figures of Zapata in the south of Mexico and Villa in the north emerged. Villa’s raids across the US border happened because he understood that Díaz’s power was connected to United States interests.

After the Mexican Revolution of 1910 succeeded in removing Porfirio Díaz, a struggle for power took place. Francisco I. Madero, the intellectual who was the most legitimate and capable candidate, was installed as president but he was not acceptable to the economic and political interest of the Colossus. Madero served for only two years. It is common knowledge that the murder of Madero was concocted by a cadre of Mexican traitors headed by Victoriano Huerta, the general in charge of all the armed forces of Madero. Huerta’s plot was assisted very directly by two US interventions: the direct support of the American Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson and the seizure of the Port of Veracruz by US forces sent by President Woodrow Wilson supposedly to stop German expansion of WWI into the Americas. This is known in Mexico as the Ypiranga Incident, after the name of the German registry ship that was seized by US forces only to be released a few days later. These interventions tilted the Mexican Revolution in ways acceptable
to US interests. (For years the most common dog name in Mexico was Wilson; one of the equivalents in Mexican Spanish of “I don’t give a damn” is me vale Wilson; and a wrestling lock which is supposedly impossible to break is called a Wilson!)

Huerta’s plan was discovered but he denied all accusations and unfortunately Madero believed him. A few days later La Decena Tragica (the Ten Tragic Days) occurred with the assassinations of Madero, his Vice President José María Pino Suárez, and many others, and concluded with the installation of Huerta as president of Mexico. Mexican politics remained very unstable until the birth of the PRI, Partido Revolucionario Institucional. Originally the PRI (originally part of the Socialist Internacional) sought to respond to the highest aims of the Mexican Revoluton, nationalizing the railroad companies that were extensions of US companies, and in 1938 President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized the oil companies. It is important to note that in all of these nationalizations Mexico paid high prices to the original companies that established businesses in Mexico.

Mexico City
PHOTO: Leandro Neumann Ciuffo

After World War II under President Miguel Aleman Valdez, the PRI took a right turn politically, and became at best a centrist party whose control remained unchallenged. Unrest was present in varying degrees from student riots (one of which destroyed the statue of Miguel Alemán on the Campus of the National University) to armed uprisings primarily in the state of Guerrero where rebels wanted to complete the Frozen Revolution of 1910. In 1968, prior to the Olympics which were held there, the massacre of Tlatelolco left thousands of young people dead or “disappeared.” 
All this undermined the prestige and power of the PRI. The main beneficiary of the PRI’s decline was the conservative Partido Acción Nacional, PAN.

Since the years after WWII, the PRI had acted in ways that were congruent with benefits for United States interests; this became truer when PAN took over in 2000. Vicente Fox, who was the first President of Mexico from PAN, learned all of his political and economic training as CEO of Coca-Cola Mexico. It is not too far-fetched to state that Fox first worked for Coca-Cola of Mexico and then worked in Mexico for Coca-Cola.

For many years it was believed that the PRI rigged many elections. Ballot boxes were blatantly stolen. Truck loads of voters were driven to polling stations with clear mandates to vote for the PRI and money was offered for voting for the ruling party. But since 2000 a different kind of cheating has emerged for the first time for the benefit of the PAN and most recently for the “refurbished” PRI.

The Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) emerged slowly from a combination of the PRI left-leaning populists and other left-leaning parties. Fox’s victory in 2000 was all but assured when the PRD fielded a presidential candidate, but many observers believe that the PRD candidate against Fox, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas (son of the legendary leftist PRI member and former President Lázaro Cárdenas) was the real winner and that the PAN resorted to the very same tactics that the PRI had used in earlier elections in order to assure a victory for Fox.

In 2006 Felipe Calderón Hinojosa from the PAN was elected, but once again major questions were raised about the election. Most observers in Mexico believe that the real winner was the PRD candidate and angry demonstrations were held in several parts of the country, especially in the capital where the PRD holds an almost absolute political power to this day. The official count had López Obrador, the PDR candidate, losing by very few votes.

Pok-a-Tok field
PHOTO: Nick Paquet

The results of the recent election are an almost exact parallel for López Obrador, but this time it was the PRI that “won” over the PRD by only a couple of percentage points. Official pre-election polls are not permitted in Mexico, but several organizations conducted scientific polls and the results have been shared in the cybermedia, especially using YouTube. In these polls López Obrador had a 49% support in late May with double digit advantage over the PRI candidate, an eventual “winner” of the elections, Enrique Peña Nieto. López Obrador has urged his supporters to remain calm and not to repeat the violent reaction that occurred in 2006.

It is important to indicate that only ten days after his inauguration in 2006, President Felipe Calderón “officially” declared the War on Drugs in Mexico by committing 6500 armed troops and raising salaries of the military and police. For three decades the government had a live-and-let-live policy regarding drug cartels and during that time hardly anybody outside those cartels died as a consequence of violence related to drug use or trafficking.

One definition of the War on Drugs offers a particular note of interest for those observing the Mexican elections and the intervention of the United States in the affairs of countries south of the border. Wikipedia has a succinct and clarifying definition: “The War on Drugs is a campaign of prohibition and foreign military aid and military intervention being undertaken by the United States government, with the assistance of participating countries, intended to both define and reduce the illegal drug trade.” This is taken from the book Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Claire. Translating the concept for our purposes, the War on Drugs is the most recent transformation of US interventionism in Mexico. Here political parties are united now, as the elected man from the PRI has expressed, albeit in nuanced ways, that the War on Drugs will continue. The War on Drugs has been denounced by three former Presidents of Latin American where the Drug War is raging (Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia.) Otto Pérez Molina, former President of Guatemala, pronounced the war a failure just a few months ago during the Summit of the Americas and has had the courage to propose decriminalization.

At the time of the writing of this article, the Mexican poet, Javier Sicilia, is in the midst of a campaign in the United States to end the War on Drugs. Sicilia’s son died tragically in the cross fire of disputing sides of the war. He reasons that drug use is not a criminal problem–it is a health problem. However, there is a lot more profit in supporting a War on Drugs arming all sides, legally and illegally, than in addressing the problem as a health issue. Sicilia also has stated that those who buy drugs most of the time plan to use them on themselves, but those who procure weapons plan to use them on others. This kind of impeccable reasoning is bound to get a prophet like Sicilia killed, rather than heeded.

Eduardo del Rio (known simply as Rius) is a popular and populist pedagogue whose books try to educate the masses about the harsh political and economic realities of Mexico. During the recently concluded campaign, he stated that it seemed impossible that after twelve years of PAN regimes the PRI was making a comeback and was asking voters to support the PRD. He went on to add during most of his speaking engagements that it was nearly impossible to counter the propaganda machine of the corporations who used radio, television, and other mass miseducation. His books, said Rius, reach a maximum of several hundred thousand readers. Televisa and TV Azteca (the Mexican media giants) reach millions in seconds with lies, misinformation, and misrepresentation.

Rius’ statement can be echoed in the US and in most North Atlantic nations. The stories reporting the results of the Mexican election hide much more than they reveal. Enrique Peña Nieto was declared the winner, but at this writing, a most unlikely coalition of PRD and PAN politicians are questioning the results and urging a thorough investigation.

As pointed out before, after WWII the PRI has behaved in ways that benefit US interests more than the Mexican citizens. When NAFTA (North American Fair Trade Agreement) was implemented, an unlikely combination of factors came together. First, in the United States, Bill Clinton, who had campaigned against NAFTA before the elections, proceeded to twist arms of Democrats to ensure passage of NAFTA. In Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the President of Mexico from the PRI, together with Carlos Slim pushed for the approval of NAFTA in Mexico. This deal was instrumental in helping Slim to become the richest man on Earth (according to Forbes magazine.) So both in the US and in Mexico, the common folks keep on getting poorer no matter which party wins. The real winners after the elections are the big corporations and the oligarchies that truly own both countries.

The only hopeful development in Mexico is the emergent growth and influence of the PRD. The Regente of Mexico City (a sort of Mayor but with much more power) is from the PRD. The more educated people voted for the PRD and the youthful movement, Somos 139. (“We are 139” is a movement that emerged as students in the elite Universidad Iberoamericana responded to the claims that only 138 students had walked out in defiance and opposition to the candidate from the PRI). They played a major role in campaigning for López Obrador.

The PRD will get a significant number of seats in the Mexican Congress and the PRI will have to negotiate instead of merely dictate. The PRD has the potential to prove Porfirio Díaz wrong; pobrecito de Mexico, tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos (poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States) is no longer strictly axiomatic, but the road ahead will not be easy either.

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This Day in History: April 18--San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Picktures and Pieces 21: True Believers

True Believers
by Randall Auxier

To dangle at the end of a tether seems extreme. But these devout fellows don't worry about the judgments of other people. What calls human beings away from comfort to freely chosen suffering can't be fully explained. It's for those who can discern a reality that exceeds our everyday senses, but also pervades all that we see, hear, feel. There is an aesthetic quality to this religious pull, but the senses are subordinated as the pain becomes a conduit of connection between those who find themselves confined in a human body and those intelligences not so cramped.

This Day in History: April 11--Nevill Ground Burned to the Ground by Suffragettes