1984

George Orwell’s 1984 was published in the UK on this day in 1948.  The transposition of years in the title was probably intentional, because the book was in part a reflection of his view of the world after World War II.  He once described the book as a depiction of what the world would be like if atomic war did not wipe out mankind.

I read the book and others like it growing up, and it helped to form something of an underlying skepticism of government for me, along of course with the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon and Watergate.  At the same time, I also recognized that 1984 was written as a warning and with the encouragement for us to do better.

When the year 1984 came and went, the then-waning Cold War was the only genuine comparison that I saw between the book and the actual year.  The book seems much more prescient today, now 70 years later.

Certainly, two-way video now pervades our personal space.  Technology has rendered personal privacy less and less an option, often without our knowledge.  Outright lies presented as truth are today’s doublespeak.  Government seeks to control sex by limiting it to procreation.  Distant war is now taken as the norm.  The very book itself has been banned at times and in places. And we seem to go about our daily lives as if we accept all this, or at least as if we are powerless in its face.

Orwell wrote 1984 after his wife died during a routine operation.  Much of the book was written during a time on the Scottish Isle of Jura, which included one of its coldest of winters.  While there, Orwell was diagnosed with TB, still then incurable.  His struggles with writing the book while in this condition are described in a Guardian article from ten years ago.

Orwell died on January 21 of 1950.  He is buried in a small churchyard under his true name, Eric Blair.  Given his latter days, it is little wonder that his last book is so bleak and seemingly hopeless.  And yet still, we are here to mark today.  May there be many more days like this to stop, reflect and perhaps to make 1984 more fiction than fact.

 

 

 

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On Top of the World

The first recorded climb up and return from the highest mountain in the world occurred 65 years ago today.  Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit (in that order) and survived to tell about it.

Some deem the feat another example of Western Imperialism, since Hillary was recorded as the first to set foot on the peak and as the English dubbed the mountain “Everest,” though it is known by other names locally, one of which translates tellingly to “Holy Mother Peak.”

Famously, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine died in the first known attempt in 1922.  No one is quite sure whether they died in their ascent or descent.  Mallory’s body was found near the summit in 1999.

Everest, if you will, is accepted as the highest peak in altitude above sea level, but Mauna Kea in Hawaii is far taller, if you include its height from sea floor to sea level.  One peak in Ecuador is taller, if you measure from the center of the earth, since the rotation of the planet causes it to bulge neare the equator.  Still, Everest deserves its reputation.  Even though a few have ascended it without aide, its height above sea level, makes the use of oxygen tanks the rule.

There are a number of lesser peaks that are technically harder climbs, particularly today.  In recent years, the Everest industry has used Sherpas at the beginning of each season to build and repair what amounts to a rope stair rail up the most difficult sections of the ascent.  This has enabled large numbers of sometimes marginally athletic climbers (often wealthy or well-sponsored) to take the climb off their bucket lists.  I exclude the few but notable handicapped climbers from any such derision. Last year 648 accomplished their goal.

Everest is known for its dangers, from avalanche, earthquake and unpredictable storms; but fatalities have been lower than many believe.  According to Wikipedia, deaths number about 4 per 100 successful climbs.

In fact, Everest has become something of a place for extreme stunts.  One skied from the summit, and lived (barely) to tell about it.  Two, who did not have oxygen to rescind, paraglide down.  The summit has now even been used for a helicopter landing.  Only bungie jumping seems left.

When traveling, I sometimes scan a mountain and wonder if anyone has ever made the climb.  I suspect that there are many mountaintops with no footprints to mar their peaks.  For its time and technology, Hillary and Norgay’s accomplishment deserves its place in history.  Only the first footprints on the moon stand taller.

 

 

 

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The Sacrifice of Children

After the Santa Fe High School shooting this week, I wanted to grieve silently and wonder alone at what could be so wrong with our society that we shrug and move on again and again, as if child sacrifice were a regular ritual that we accept as shameful but  unchangeable.

But then it occurred again, this time at a graduation near my home.  Even if we have no easy answer to this evil among us, silence, even in grief, is tacit complicity.  So I offer these thoughts.

Human sacrifice has been both scorned and accepted throughout what we know of our history.  Archeologists have recently uncovered the site of 140 child sacrifices in Peru, said to date from 550 years ago.  Still child sacrifice has not been simply the heathen practice depicted of savages appeasing volcanic gods.  The biblical stories of Abraham and Jephtah also reference the practice.

As civilized people, we claim to have risen above such pagan acts, and yet here we are.  Wikipedia has a page chronicling mass school shootings in this country.  Since Columbine in 1999, when 15 died, the incidents have grown in number and victims in what should be alarming regularity.

And yet, here we are today blaming mental illness and the proliferating availability of guns, rather than ourselves for turning our backs and moving on.  Certainly, madness and guns are deadly both together and alone, and a searching and respectful discourse is needed on both counts, followed by meaningful steps to abate this and the related violence that distinguishes our country among all others, even in a time when crime here is otherwise declining.

I teach young adults at an age when their personalities are largely formed, but at which their future lies largely ahead.  They have survived high school and college, mostly unscathed, although one was affected by the Las Vegas hotel shooting of a year ago.  In our class we teach life values to the group and meet regularly with each student to help with his or her individual issues and needs.

We often blame schools for failing to teach in these ways, but such are lessons that should first be learned at home and through the examples of family and friends.  Indeed, our schools are underfunded and overburdened even in providing basic education.  We must look no further than our very selves to place blame and to begin change.

A family member and her partner took in a niece who was failing as a student some years ago.  She became a star student, who was able to attend college for her senior year of high school.  Certainly she deserves credit, but love, attention and good examples also enabled her success.

Our many children sacrificed in mass school shootings (1000 by one estimate) are a source of immeasurable grief.  The millions who attend school in fear, or worse in acceptance, of the risk of the next shooting are slowly sacrificing their innocence.

It is the 21st Century, and we must rise above all this.  I know that sensible gun measures need to  be a part of the answer, but tolerance of violence must end as well.  We must find, as Buddha said, “A middle way.”  I hope that these are a few of the first words in the discussion and not the last.

 

 

 

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The first known battle for which there is a reliable written record took place today in 1457 BCE.  Egypt, under King Thutmose III, defeated the Caananites under the King of Kadesh in the Battle of Tel Megiddo.  The site name may be familiar to many Christians, because it is read by some who interpret the book of Revelations as the site of the final battle between Christ and the kings of the earth, making bookends of the first and last recorded battles between men.

Megiddo sits on a rounded mountaintop in the northern reaches of Israel along a historic trade route through the Levant region.  A smaller mountaintop settlement also fell today in an area south of Megiddo.  Masada was a Jewish fortress built by Herod the Great around the time of Jesus’ death.  It was one of the last holdouts against Roman troops in the first Jewish-Roman war.  Before it was taken, over 900 Jews took their own lives, rather than surrender.

Seventy-four American soldiers lost their lives on this day in 1968, now fifty years ago, at the peak of the Vietnam War.  A soldier who bore my name died some time earlier on May 17, 1966 after not quite nine months of service there.  He was twenty-two.

I am not so naive as to believe there is no just war.  There is evil to be resolved among nations, just as there is between persons; and force, or the threat of force, is sometimes necessary.  Only yet I wonder, in retrospect, about some of our recent conflicts.  We seem to give our wars ironic names:  The Civil War, The War to End All Wars, The Great War, The Cold War, and war against WMDs.  Some were warranted and worth; others, I have my doubts.

Modern historians note that we have experienced fewer armed conflicts, at least in number of deaths, during my lifetime.  Some attribute this fact to the fearsome presence of nuclear weapons.  Another irony, perhaps.

Albert Einstein is reported to have written these words to Harry Truman,”I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones”.   My uncle fought on Iwo Jima in hand-to-hand combat.  He came face-to-face with an enemy soldier who was hiding in a cave.  My uncle survived.  He remained a tough soldier long after he left the service, but to this day, he still cries when asked to tell his story of war.

I have never fought in a war, other than those of words, and have less right to judge than others, but the presence or risk of war is never far away for us all.  Thinking on such things some time ago, I wrote these lines, which came back to me today:

Once upon this morning,

The sun no longer rose.

It was dark all day,

And everyone slept

Peacefully through

What would have been

Just another day,

Only the end of the world

Had come and gone

And with it, war, disease,

Hunger and hatred.

Perhaps the Four Horsemen

Could no longer find their way.

Instead, we held each other close

And started counting over,

This time in days without fear.

Those are far from the last words on a woeful topic, but they offer a measure of hope, and that we must all have and share if we someday prove Einstein’s theory wrong.

 

 

 

 

 

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Much has and will be said of the killing of Martin Luther King, as the 50th anniversary of his assassination passes on this April 4.  Much of what I have read, in settings from the New York Times to National Geographic and in nearly every news source today, focuses on what has, or hasn’t, changed in the time that has passed.  A few pieces have addressed the transition that has transpired from King as a leader in a movement to an icon.  These are a few of my thoughts I believe worth sharing.

I was born in Atlanta, the home of King’s church and of his protest movement.  I was 14 when he was shot in Memphis.  1968 was already a tumultuous year with racial tension and escalating war protests.  Every issue took on added importance, with an election coming in November.  It was all a far cry from the summer of love a year before.

I had followed the news from an early age and remember well when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  I felt a sense of pride at his recognition for all the symbolism that is added to the cause of civil rights, but I also listened to the cautionary commentary, here in the South and beyond, that King might be emboldened to push for greater change more rapidly.  At 10, I wasn’t sure enough of my own convictions to ignore those who feared such change.

Atlanta’s mayor, Ivan Allen, had been the only Southern elected official to endorse the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and he promoted Atlanta as “the city too busy to hate,” not just in words, but in deeds.  As King prepared to travel to Oslo to accept his prize, Allen planned a dinner in King’s honor, following his return.  It was meant to include business and other leaders from Atlanta’s black and white communities together.  It was to be integrated.

As the date for the dinner neared, most white leaders had not responded.  Robert Woodruff, the former head of Coca-Cola, who was funding the dinner as one of his many charitable causes, took action.  He personally contacted many of the invitees and encouraged Paul Austin, the then head of Coke to speak out.  Austin, who had served the company in South Africa, publicly questioned whether the company should have its world headquarters in a town where King was not honored.

1600 attended the dinner in which King spoke.  In time one  of his young deputies, Andy Young, became Atlanta’s mayor.  John Lewis still serves in Congress on behalf of the community.

The causes that King worked and died for remain incomplete, but John Lewis, quoted by CNN, spoke of them well when he said:

On the day of King’s death, Robert Woodruff called Mayor Allen.  Threats of violence were spreading across the country.  Knowing that Atlanta, as King’s home and a symbol for racial cooperation, risked rioting, Woodruff urged caution and pledged to pay for the costs of maintaining the peace.

Much will be said and written today in King’s memory, but much more remains to be done.

 

 

 

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Those Who Can’t Remember…

George Santayana wrote that those who can’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it, a sentiment said by others in many ways, though we rarely heed the advice.  It was 100 years ago now that the world encountered a pathogen more deadly than the world war then at its height.

The 1918 flu killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million people.  The first record of what was later confirmed to be a new strain of influenza was on March 4, 1918 when Albert Gitchell reported sick to the doctor assigned to Fort Riley in Haskell County, Kansas, who was Dr. Loring Minor.  By the time Gitchell died, over 500 soldiers at the camp had sickened as well.

The area where the fort was located was pig-farming country, which could have spread the disease to humans, but other theories of its origin suggest that its first human infections occurred in Asia.  What pathologists do know is that the circumstances of 1918 were the setting for the perfect contagion storm that took place.  For the first time in history, travel across and between countries had become common.  Soldiers from all sides were packed closely together making the spread of the flu through coughing a firestorm of disease.  As they were transferred, they carried the infection with them.

Notably, the 1918 strain of flu struck hardest at the young, especially soldiers, presumably because they had not gained any level of immunity from similar strains that older persons might have experienced.  Once the disease had been identified, the public was urged to stay isolated and to wear masks in public.  All that were available, however, were of porous cotton, which offered little protection.

The central focus for the disease became military bases in France, where soldiers passed through on the way to the front.  Oddly, it took the name, the “Spanish Flu,” because the country was neutral, and the press there was permitted to report the extent of the carnage the disease caused.

By whatever name, the virus is believed to have mutated as it circled the globe, becoming even more virulent.  It ultimately may have abated only because it had consumed most of its available victims.  In the course of less than a year, 3 to 5 percent of mankind died.

With modern medical care and flu vaccines, we tend to downplay the impact of the flu today.  A 2013 study, however, estimated that a similar flu pandemic today would kill perhaps as many as 300,000 in this country alone – better than half of the impact of the 1918 strain here.  If those numbers don’t concern you, consider the fact that this year’s flu vaccine appears to have only been 20 percent effective.

There is little we know about influenza.  Indeed, we can only guess what type of flu will come later this year and cobble together vaccine elixirs that we hope will help.  One wonders what Santayana, who lived through the 1918 pandemic, would say today.

 

 

 

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Black Hole

Stephen Hawking died earlier today at the age of 76, more than 50 years after he was diagnosed with ALS.  During that period, he expanded the knowledge of cosmology and time through his groundbreaking work related to black holes.  His work and discoveries were accomplished largely through mental effort alone, because he could not use his hands to develop equations and perform computations.

Hawking’s life was a remarkable one in many additional ways.  He was born on the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo.  He was the Lucasian Chair at Cambridge University, a position once held by Isaac Newton.  Finally, he died on the birthday of Albert Einstein.

Despite his lofty work and handicap, Hawking retained a human touch and  even had a bit of whimsy that he shared with the world through his bestselling book, “A Brief History of Time.”  He also travelled extensively for someone with his limitations and gave lectures, using a special speech synthesizing device.

He thought deeply about the future of mankind, space exploration and artificial intelligence.  In each case, he displayed a remarkable optimism for one in such a condition.

One of the principles fundamental to cosmology is that information can never be destroyed – in a sense, the past is never lost with the passage of time, even if it falls into a black hole.  Hawking was never fully able to posit what happens to information absorbed into a black hole, and the discussion remains unresolved.   A good summary of the debate is published here.  In some way, I suspect that all that was Stephen Hawking remains with us as a part of the universe he explored from his wheelchair.   If science had its saints, Stephen Hawking would surely be among them.

The New York Times shared a timeline of Hawking’s work and life well worth reading.

 

 

 

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Larger Than Life And All The More Human For It

February 22 of this year would have been a red letter day in the life of an American icon. On this day in 1986, forty years ago, Johnny Cash proposed on stage to June Carter.  If you believe that some people or loves can be larger than life, that moment and their life was destined to be.

He was driven through much of his musical career by personal demons that nearly consumed him through alcohol and pills.  He was saved by his faith and his love that was more than a love, June Carter Cash.

The two had met at the Grand Old Opry thirteen years earlier, but in a scene replayed in the film “Walk The Line” he impetuously proposed to her onstage together in London, Ontario.  She said yes and, by all accounts, they remained madly in love until she passed on May 15, 2003.  He continued to record largely songs of loneliness until his death, four months later on September 12.

So strong was the legend of their love that on the morning of Johnny Cash’s death, Shelby Lynne wrote her haunting tribute, “Johnny Met June.”

Got some news today from the radio man
He spoke the words softly and as somber as he can
The world stood still and the sky opened up
made my way to fill up my coffee cup.
Then it occurred to me as the daylight sky shone blue
Today’s the day that
Johnny met June.

He waited a while he knew that he would
He was gonna hang around here for as long a he could
The days went by and hours idle passed
He was never sure just how long he would last
But there’s not much love in a lonely room
Today’s the day that
Johnny met June

Hey my darlin’ hey my sweet
I’ve waited on the day that I knew we would meet.
Hey my sun, hey my moon
Today’s the day that
Johnny met June.

Now were starting over it’s the place that we are
You look more than pretty underneath all the stars
Love, love is a burning thing
Oh how I still love to hear you sing
And everything we ever heard about heaven is true
Today’s the day that Johnny met June
Today’s the day that Johnny met June.

Sam Phillips of Sun Records was quoted as saying that Elvis Presley “couldn’t hold a candle to Johnny Cash”.   His stature and voice, both almost larger than life, were equalled only by the humanity he wore on his perpetually black sleeve and the sparkle in his eyes for June.

Somewhere along the way, I came to think of Cash as a modern day Samson.  The two became legendary for their appetites and their lawlessness.  At the same time they incongruously loved and were loved by God, traits that perhaps only truly knowing God can explain.  Both knew true loves, though one ruined and the other saved their partner.  Cash’s personal strength and honesty certainly brought down the columns of Nashville’s church of Country music.  There were those that did not love him, but all were in awe of him.

I suppose I could go on, but my story began about love, and there is no better place to end.  If there is true love, as I believe, Johnny and June knew it.  I am glad to say I know it too.

 

 

 

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Tides and Times

One day last week, while we were preoccupied with news of the day now forgotten, a  milestone passed that is worth reflection.  As reported in today’s New York Times, as much time has passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall as the time in which it stood.

I was seven when its construction began in August of 1961, and I still recall the blur of worried news as years passed with airlifts of food and reports of deaths from East Germans seeking escape to the West.

The Wall was the site of one of JFK’s memorable speeches, in which he declared in poor German grammar, “Ich bin eine Berliner.”  Years later, Ronald Reagan used the same scene to call out – this time in English, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!”  In its time, that Wall stood for the evil that was the other side, to those on each side.

Perhaps because of its status as the ground zero of the Cold War, the Wall seems to have stood forever in the public mind.  In fact, it neither rose nor fell on a single day and stood in one form or another for only a few months more than 28 years. In terms of wars – hot, cold or lukewarm – that is long.  The twenty-eight years that have passed since then, however, seem to have passed in a moment.  Indeed, I have law students who were not yet born when the Wall fell and to whom the Soviet Union and all the Wall stood for are ancient history.

I have, in a drawer somewhere, a pebble from the Wall, sold in true Capitalist form, as a souvenir by Germans from one side or the other.  There is little else tangible left to mark the battleground between East and West that lasted a generation.

In the generation that followed, the two Germanys assimilated reasonably well, and mostly subtle differences remain between the sides.  Certainly, economic prosperity spread from the West, but most Germans, from either side, see themselves simply as Germans.

Contrast that rapid change with the century that has passed since our country was reunited, following the Civil War.  We lived through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Segregation.  Our Civil Rights era lasted twice as long as the time that has passed since the fall of the Wall.

I have no glib answers to this sad difference, but it is food for both thought and discussion.  It remains for us a topic on which not enough has yet been said.

 

 

 

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A loss of Innocence

Fifty years ago today North Vietnam began its Tet Offensive turning the Vietnam War from one of guerrilla actions into a surprise offensive against the cities of South Vietnam.  In previous years the Viet Cong had announced a partial ceasefire for the Chinese New Year period.  In 1968, however, they used the occasion to go on the offensive, even reaching Saigon in a matter of days.

The offensive lasted until February 24, when South Vietnam recaptured what little remained of the city of Hue.  While it was held by the Viet Cong, thousands of civilians were executed.

Until then, the US government had led the public to believe that the war had long been about to turn the corner toward victory.  Public opinion had begun to turn agains the war, with nearly half the country questioning the war. Opposition was particularly strong among those subjects to the draft.

This opposition was crystallized by the photo you see here, taken on February 1, in which a police chief, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executed a suspected Viet Cong officer on the streets of Saigon.  The photograph taken by Eddie Adams was published across the world and resulted in his receiving the Pulitzer Prize the next year.

On February 17 after the close of the offensive, the prominent anchor of the CBS Evening News Walter Cronkite, who was later described as the most trusted man in America, said these lines on his broadcast:

“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds” and added that, “we are mired in a stalemate that could only be ended by negotiation, not victory.”

It was later reported that President Johnson was watching the broadcast and, after hearing Cronkite’s remarks said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Soon events spiraled against Johnson and the war.  Although not publicized until later, the My Lai Massacre, in which American troops killed scores of civilians, took place on March 16, the day that Robert Kennedy entered the race for President against the sitting President of his own party.  On the last day of March, Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection.

Events continued through the traumatic year of 1968, but one place to mark the start of the loss of faith in our government was this day, fifty years ago, with the Tet Offensive.   Are we better off for our acquired skepticism, or are we more divided, to the point of polarization over what indeed is truth?

Pontius Pilate asked that question somewhere around two thousand years ago.  Sadly, the question remains relevant still today.

 

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The Last Word

After all is said and done, more is said than done.

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