The beautiful twilight sky (Nov 28, 2019) after sunset with the planets conjuction of Moon (with earth shine), Venus and Jupiter.

I was really alarmed by how many people saw the report of (potential) life signs on Venus and immediately said “We need to cease all space exploration and never look beyond the Earth”. For example, the Christian columnist at “The Week” wrote a characteristically dimwitted column about the subject [coincidentally, it strikes me as funny that followers of Abrahamic faiths worship an omnipotent extraterrestrial wizard, yet clutch their pearls about space!].

Yet even people who do not take such absolutist anti-knowledge position, are still wary of bigger plans for space-faring. Right here, in Ferrebeekeeper’s comments, our own frequent reader K Hindall, took a more nuanced, but still restrictive view:

“I am all for the exploration of space, but not establishing a permanent human presence elsewhere…We need to prove that we can take care of a planet before we go bounding off to live on other ones. It’s like giving another toy to a child who has proven that they just break their toys, not play with them. When we’ve stopped driving everyone else on the planet into extinction, then it will be soon enough to talk about living on a different one.”

It is well said (and I left out the part where K Hindall ably defend the space sovereignty of the Venusian bacteria). Yet I worry that it is wrong-headed (please keep commenting K Hindall! You know we love you).

Lately I have seen more and more philosophical arguments that humankind should have never developed agriculture or civilization. Although these arguments do indeed seem to have a fair amount of moral and ecological validity, they somewhat overlook the facts on the ground right now. We are an aggressive invasive species which has gotten everywhere. What is to be done?I agree with K Hindall that humanity is not to be trusted. Yet does that mean we must resign ourselves to never dream beyond the Earth? I keep thinking about the fable of the animals and their gifts (a story which presents a powerful dark truth human nature). We are destroying the world with our gifts–which seem greater and darker by the day. And yet despite all of this strength we cannot agree with what is proper to do or what rules we must follow. Indeed our disagreements on these points are a further cause of our destructiveness!

In fact I worry that K Hindall has it backwards: humankind won’t be able to desist from destroying ourselves and our fellow Earth life unless we find a more suitable frontier for our boundless appetite and ruthless cunning.  If we wanted to stop using up the Earth right now, we would have to live with hundreds of thousands of super intrusive new rules that nobody would ever agree to (no more children for most people, no more of most categories of useful chemicals, no more pets, no more flower gardens, no more travel, no more beef, no more luxury –a tiny beige microcube and a set of mostly-incomprehensible, ecologically-useful tasks for everyone!).  Perhaps people would accept such austerity for dreams of mansions on Jupiter, I doubt they would accept it to know that somebody else’s ever-so-great-grandchildren can live in “Logan’s Run”.

If they exist (which I doubt), the Venusians might already be earth life, brought by some meteor or Soviet probe.  Maybe the opposite is true and we have all been Venusians (or some even more esoteric alien ) all along. I am not sure that it is wrong for living beings to reproduce and expand into new territories–it is the nature of life!

Pragmatists will say that this whole essay is like writing about whether it is wrong to fly around like Superman and shoot powerful beams out of your eyes. We can’t do that anyway! So why worry about it? And yet…every year we have better flying devices and better high energy beams. Who is to say what is possible? Our dreams shape our abilities. And casting our dreams towards a worthwhile pursuit might be a way to finally grow up out of childhood.

Just like the bamboo destroys itself (and the whole forest) by flowering, we are destroying the world ecology. My fondest hope is that we are doing this for a purpose: to cast the precious seed of Earth life up into the heavens. Even if we gain wisdom, power, and prudence beyond all measure everything could go wrong with this plan. We could destroy other worlds. We could destroy ourselves. It is still worth risking though. Plus the whole reason that Bonnie Kristian (whose name seems suspiciously fake) is alarmed by humans is that we don’t do what we are told. We do what we are able.

Longtime readers will know that Ferrebeekeeper eschews the popular fascination with Mars in favor of our much closer sister planet, the luminous Venus. Therefore, I was delighted to see the second planet from the Sun making front page headlines around the globe (of Earth) this week when scientists discovered traces of phosphine gas in the strange, dense Venusian atmosphere.

The internet tells us that phosphine is a colorless, flammable, very explosive gas which smells like garlic or rotten fish. Additionally, it is extremely toxic. This stuff is not exactly the must-have gift of the season (well…maybe for Christmas, 2020), so why am I so excited to find it on a planet which may be the best option for an off-world human colony?

Phosphine exists on Earth where it is produced by the decomposition of organic matter in oxygen-free conditions (it is also a by-product of certain kinds of industrial processes). This means that the only known methods of producing phosphine involve living things (I suppose industrialists and anaerobic bacteria both qualify as such). It may well be that phosphine is produced on Venus due to some quirk of the planet’s strange atmosphere or weird volcanism (which is not well understood and seems to be fundamentally different from that of Earth).

In the past we have explored some compelling yet inconclusive evidence of life in the clouds of Venus. Today’s news adds to that evidence, but is still not compelling. The phosphine gas and the cloud bands both demands further study, though (and if we happened to learn more about the opportunities for cloud cities, so be it). I have long thought that a robot blimp probe of Venus’ clouds is the most rational next exploration mission for NASA (no matter how much I love super rovers). Perhaps the phosphine revelation will bring other people closer to this view. Maybe you should drop a quick email or phone call to your favorite elected representative about that very thing (or you could always write Jim Bridenstein–he is the rare Trump appointee who seems to be basically competent).

Speaking of basic competence, I was sad to see many of the liberal arts enthusiasts on my Twitter feed angrily denouncing this discovery and demanding “no more money for space!” (I unfollowed them all, by the way–sorry poetry). Beyond the fact that this discovery was made here on Earth by a clever lady with a simple telescope and a gas chromograph, money spent on space exploration is spent here on Earth. Such expenditures further fundamental discoveries in material science, engineering, aerospace, robotics, and other high tech disciplines. Our world of high tech breakthroughs, the internet, super computers, solar power, nanotechnology, and super safe aviation (among many other things) was made possible by government money spent on space exploration (or did you think some MBA guy running a private company would ever think more than one quarter into the future?). Beyond these reasons though, Venus was once the most earthlike of all other Solar System planets. Long ago it almost certainly had warm oceans teeming with life. Uh, maybe we should have a comprehensive answer about what happened there before we say that government money should only be spent on social initiatives. If you came home to your nice row house and noticed that the house next door had been knocked down, the neighbors were gone, and also the temperature there was 470 degrees Celsius (880 degrees Fahrenheit) and the sky replaced with sulfuric acid, maybe you would ask what happened! (although, to be fair, that very thing seems to be happening now in California, and a substantial number of people say “science has no place in understanding this).

Anyway, commentary about earth politics aside, I continue to be more and more excited about our closest planetary neighbor. Seriously, can you imagine how cool a robot probe-blimp would be?

Many years ago I defeated a cruel demon…or so I thought, but now that demon is back in my life wreaking havoc.

Oval Model Study (Wayne Ferrebee, 2003) oil on canvas

Long ago, when I first came to New York City (back in the nineties!), I did so for one overwhelming reason–to learn to paint realistically! Every day I would work as a stooge at a meaningless, ill-paid office job, then, at night, I would stand neck-to-neck in a crowd of aspiring artists desperately trying to capture the likeness of a real person. Every weeknight, for three-and-a-half hours, I would get more and more unhappy as my legs started to ache and my concentration started to waiver while, on the canvas, the lines of noses and eyes and mouths (mouths are so ridiculously hard to paint!) would begin to sag and drift and change color. Then I would clean my brushes of the poison cadmium and lead, lament my ruined clothes, and ride home on the subway. I would get home at about midnight, have dinner & unwind, and then be up at 7:30 AM to drag myself into the horrible, horrible office to do it all again.

I did this for a year or two before the master portraitist who taught the class even knew my name. Eventually, I could capture a basic likeness. Sometimes it even seemed like I had a hold of some burning creative ember fallen from heaven and the paintings would light up with secret divine fire, before again abruptly becoming muddy lumps smeared on geometric circles & rectangles of cloth.

Oval Model Study (Wayne Ferrebee, 2006) oil on canvas

Whenever a painting seemed to be good I would be so proud. I would take it home and put it up on the wall…and then the defects would start to appear to my eyes. Eventually I would have a bad day at work, or a relationship setback, or some other emotional low point which would pitilessly expose the stupid deficiencies of both my life and my artworks. Then I would grab the ill-made paintings off the wall and slash them apart in paroxysms of rage. Afterwards I would feel painful regrets, as I realized how hard I had worked on a painting which was basically ok except for a fuzzy elbow or maybe even for some defect I had only imagined. Also my friends looked at me aghast (finally realizing how emotionally challenging a life in the arts is) and I would feel ashamed for worrying them with my melodrama.

Eventually the constant exigencies of my ill-fated toy company pushed me out of the night class for good. I still had so many of these paintings that I had worked so hard on. Yet over the years they dwindled as I drank more and as the little toy empire also began to falter and come apart. My angry demon of self-reproach and self-hatred became more savage. My personal collection of student works dwindled down to eight (including only four that were sort of complete). But then I jettisoned that toy company, changed my life around, and embarked on a whole new phase of artistic labor. The last few paintings stayed up on the wall, unmolested. They watched as I trudged to new meaningless day jobs, and crafted doughnut after doughnut, and then flounder after flounder. They became constants in my life as I tried to make things work, until this week, when for various reason, I could no longer abide the sight of these strangers’ faces hanging in my bedroom mocking me for the aspirations I cherished when I was twenty five. The demon had returned.

Tondo Model Study (Wayne Ferrebee, 2004) oil on canvas

For a furious moment of incandescent scarlet rage, it felt wonderful to destroy these failed reminders of the years and years of desperate, fruitless struggle. Only now that they are gone do I realize what friends these faces had become. They were always there through good times and through hard times watching me trudge along America’s treadmill to nowhere. Likewise they watched at night when inspiration struck and I got back to work painting and drawing. From the wall they watched me turn middle aged and saw my youthful strength & illusions drain away. For good or for ill, there will be no more paintings like these. My artistic path has led me elsewhere and I am unlikely to have the luxury to ever return to this pure style

Now I wonder if maybe the three paintings were ok after all. Perhaps the fading cadmium and ochre did hold a luminous fragment of truth about who people really are in their secret minds and hearts. Maybe I actually succeeded in catching a little hint of Rembrandt’s genius or Raphael’s divine mastery. Whatever the case, they are gone now forever because of my temper tantrum. I am sitting around like a ghoul lamenting the absence which I orchestrated.

Art is a journey to the terrifying world of pure ideas and back. It is a dash to the mythical real of gods and monsters. Perhaps you can occasionally return with a glistening treasure of numinous worth. More likely your heart will be wounded and you will be locked in a dark mirror, or forced to put on a fool’s motley garb, or otherwise trapped in the underworld.

Yet I am not writing this painful essay solely about my own wrenching art career (indeed, to my eyes, this essay makes me look even more like a loser). Looking at the worldwide mess which constitutes the year of our lord two-thousand and twenty, it is obvious that I am not the only wounded soul snatching my best accomplishments from past eras off of the walls and slashing them up in fury. A few silly paintings are nothing compared to real faces of friends and family lost to this mismanaged pandemic. What does art matter when the world’s oldest democracy is ripped apart? Art reflects societies and our society is being torn to shreds as the far right becomes an evil, insane cult of personality and as the far left says that all of the nation’s oldest ideals are hopelessly tainted by dark sins of the nation’s youth.

I have always thought my self-destructiveness to be a shameful weakness unique to me and other unhappy people; yet now I see that it is an illness which is society-wide–a horrible danger inherent to trying to change and become better. There is no way for me to go back and piece these three destroyed canvases together. My oeuvre now exists without them. America will have to face some similar truths in an emotional audit. We will all have to work harder to save the good works, flawed as they are (no matter how frustrating we are with ourselves). We are also going to have to trudge back into the underworld…middle-aged, debt-burdened, and with deeper feelings of alarm and anxiety about who we really are.

On the other hand, I did accomplish what I came for. I learned to paint well. Now I just have to learn to live better (and maybe how to talk to gallery owners). If only I had some paintings to show them…

I still can’t get over fancy pigeons. Not because of what their outlandish appearance reveals about selective breeding or about pigeons, but because of what it reveals about us humans. People purposely select some pigeon feature and then spend decades (or whole human lifetimes) emphasizing it to the point of absurdity in generation after generation after generation of bird.

We have already looked at shortface pigeons and black Indian fantail pigeons, but I think today’s fancy pigeon might be even more remarkable. The Jacobin pigeon is an Indian breed of pigeon noted for huge feathery collars which nearly obscure the birds’ faces.

I initially thought that I was misspelling the name of these birds and they were “Jacobean” pigeons (like the huge stiff lacy collar which was in fashion in Jacobean England), but that is completely wrong. These are truly Jacobin pigeons–not because they want to tear down kingship and guillotine a bunch of feckless aristocrats, but instead because they are named after the Jacobin order of monks (which must have had very noteworthy collars and cowls).

Just look at the poor birds! They really look like haughy 5th avenue matrons!

Yuan Jie (ca. 720 AD to 772 AD) was a poet, scholar, and politician of the Tang Dynasty. His intellectual and literary gifts allowed him to score high marks on the imperial exam which, in turn, allowed him to rise to high office. He helped finally suppress the An Lushan Rebellion (a dark era of insurrection and strife which left society in tatters). Although he rose to the rank of governor, Yuan Jie disliked his office and felt uneasy with his rank (and with the shallow fragile nature of society). As soon as his mother died, he resigned his rank. According to the sinologist Arthur Waley (who translated the following poem by Yuan Jie) the Chinese scholarly opinion of Yuan Jie at the end of the Ching dynasty was that “His subjects were always original, but his poems are seldom worth quoting.” Here is one of his poems (as translated to English by Waley) so that you may judge for yourself:

Stone Fish Lake

I loved you dearly, Stone Fish Lake,

With your rock-island shaped like a swimming fish!

On the fish’s back is the Wine-cup Hollow

And round the fish,—the flowing waters of the Lake.

The boys on the shore sent little wooden ships,

Each made to carry a single cup of wine.

The island-drinkers emptied the liquor-boats

And set their sails and sent them back for more.

On the shores of the Lake were jutting slabs of rock

And under the rocks there flowed an icy stream.

Heated with wine, to rinse our mouths and hands

In those cold waters was a joy beyond compare!


Of gold and jewels I have not any need;

For Caps and Coaches I do not care at all.

But I wish I could sit on the rocky banks of the Lake

For ever and ever staring at the Stone Fish.

Even back in the world that used to be, we all knew that 2020 would be a bitter pill to swallow because of the horrible election (not that elections are usually horrible–this one is unusual because of the super polarized citizenry and because one of the participants is such a shameful cheater). At least we had the Summer Olympics to look forward to though! Alas, the year has swept away the great international contest of sport, and we will have to wait until 2021 to learn if we will have any Olympics at all this cycle.

This leaves sports-crazed Americans with football, a proxy war game which allows us to illustrate our fierce devotion to Mars, God of War, by means of low-grade human sacrifices. I only started watching football late in life (as a way to bond with a sports-crazy business partner) and, having no team affiliation, I jokingly swore to root for the team with a flower for an emblem. It actually turned out that there was and is such a team–the New Orleans Saints, and, for a variety of improbable reasons I root for them.

This year though, an even more fascinatingly improbable team brand has emerged. After long decades of willfully ignoring the issue, the Washington Redskins finally gave up on their shamefully racist name. The “Redskins” are now no more (which is good…even typing that name out makes me imagine a tribal elder stoically shedding a single tear at the callous brutality of franchise nomenclature). Instead of immediately rebranding, the football team which represents the nation’s capital has embraced emptiness and they are now called “The Washington Football Team”.

I for one salute the monastic new direction the team is going in. It is dangerous for sports franchises to trifle too much with their brand (since it might be revealed that teams are just big collections of burly mercenaries supported by various lawyers and agents), yet the Washington Football Team has come by its generic new name through a comprehensible set of circumstances. I feel like they should travel further towards ego-death by giving the players long hard-to-read numbers, choosing a less flashy team color like gray, beige or umber, and, best of all, choosing an appropriate mascot like a blob of tofu, a block of bleachers, or a concrete block.

Perhaps the fate of the Washington Football Team will hinge on what happens to them during what is sure to be a strange (or possibly curtailed) season. Let us hope they either have a super boring season and remain the only team without a symbolic name, or they go on some incomprehensible vision quest and become something really weird and interesting (or would that offend native Americans…again)? In the mean time maybe you should propose some possible mascots below (in the spirit of Wenlock and Mandeville). I would propose “Washington Flounders” but we are trying to re-enthuse people about the government (come to think of it, our eagle might need a makeover after 2020 too). Let me know what you think in the comments below!

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Goose/Duck figurine (Han Dynasty, ca. 200 AD) Terra Cotta

In predynastic China, when an important person died, they were well provisioned for the next life in a straightforward fashion: whatever they would need in the next world was placed in the tomb with them.  Since it would be unthinkable to live without servants, concubines, beasts of burden, and delicious animals for roasting, this meant that important funerals in ancient China were also the occasion of human and animal sacrifice!  By the time the Han Dynasty had rolled around however, the wasteful extravagance of walling up servants and throwing away food, had given way to more symbolic (and humane) customs.  Vassals and livestock were allowed to stay in this world: in their place, little terra cotta figurines were placed inside the tomb.  Here is a very pretty example of such a funerary sculpture–a lovely Chinese goose/duck.  Although the figure is rendered with bravura simplicity (it was going into a tomb after all), it is also an expressive and lovely work of art.  It is not too much of a stretch to imagine the bird craning its neck down to gobble delicious grain and bugs off the ground or whipping its head around to hiss at the viewer.  Perfect for imagining an eternity of feasting in the next realm!

Scooby-gang-1969

We’ll get back to talking about the fear and ignorance which is tearing America apart in later posts.  For right now, I would like to say goodbye to one of the people who defined my childhood and provided me with endless delight back in the Saturday mornings of the 1970s.  Joe Ruby (1933-2020) was a writer and producer who worked with Ken Spears to create “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” a hit animated series about four teenagers and a Great Dane who traveled around in a groovy van, solving various mysteries.

Each episode featured a supernatural mystery, which, upon closer inspection was revealed to not be supernatural at all.  The ghosts, monsters, phantasms, and sorcerers were always revealed to be scary tricks employed by grifters and con-artists (usually as part of a real estate scam or a smuggling ring).  The gang would unravel the mystery and unmask the villain through classical sleuthing, slapstick, and ratiocination.  Although the gang occasionally collaborated with other classical American cultural heroes, such as the Harlem Globetrotters, Batman & Robin, and the Addams Family, the real break in the case usually came from the group’s intellectual, Velma, who would spot a loose thread and pull at it until the villain’s ridiculous scheme lay exposed in its full venality.

Scooby-DemonShark-05-Unmasked

“Scooby Doo” debuted in 1969 and eschewed the violence which was a staple in other cartoons because the studio was concerned about the the wave of political assassinations which had rocked the sixties.  Although some of the various spin-offs (of which there were many) abandoned Ruby’s core principle that the supernatural stuff was not real, the original series was actually a show about enlightenment values and reason (albeit dressed up with plenty of hijinks and a talking dog).

In most cases of “Scooby Doo Where Are You” the gang was able to figure out who the monster really was by means of a simple question: who would benefit from scaring people?  Then it was a simple matter of conquering their own fear to  unmask the villain.

Scooby-NoFace-02-Unmasked

Joe Ruby also wrote “Thundarr the Barbarian” a post apocalyptic show about a distant future where everything is hopelessly ruined and grotesque warlords oppress the world’s beleaguered survivors.  Maybe if everyone had asked more “Scooby-Doo” type questions centered around rational, material evidence, the dark world of Thundarr would never have come into being.  You must cling to reason, even if you are scared, otherwise the monsters step out of the smoke and mirrors and become real.

thundarr

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Today’s post starts out funny but quickly becomes troubling and: so maybe just read the first part?

As you might have guessed, we start with Jerry Falwell Jr.–not because his current scandal is hilarious (although it really is) but because his affairs illustrates some larger points which we would be wise to think about.  Falwell is a rich and powerful evangelical leader who is one of the most prominent  members of the “religious right,” an aggressive blend of Christian fundamentalism and far right politics.  He has long treated his father’s university as a private fiefdom–a political/moral training camp for creating followers and minting money.

Falwell Jr. has a long history of racist tirades, homophobic stunts, shady business dealings, Covid denialism, and preposterous conspiracy theories, but such things are not entirely unknown among America’s extreme right-wing churchmen.   For the last few weeks he has been under a cloud because of strange racy photographs of himself removing his trousers while undressing a lady companion. This week, however, his whole masquerade blew apart when it was incontrovertibly revealed that he liked to watch his wife sleep with other men, most notably a special live-in pool boy named Giancarlo Granda (who may or may not have been extorting the couple), but apparently other business partners and acquaintances as well. When the scandal became undeniable, Falwell Jr. threw his wife under the bus by claiming it was all her fault. He admitted no wrongdoing, pulled the cord of his golden parachute and pocketed 10 million dollars for quitting his job as head of an ultra-conservative Christian university.

As a New York City libertine (albeit a celibate one) I believe that what married couples do in their bedroom with handsome young poolboys, business partners, sundry others, and who knows what sort of costumes, devices, onlookers, animals, religious paraphernalia, super drugs, etc. is entirely their own affair. Yet the outrageous hypocrisy of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s public persona (and the extent to which he has leveraged said public persona for political influence and money) make his discomfiture particularly risible.  We probably shouldn’t be so amused: Jerry Falwell Jr. is now ten million dollars richer (ten million dollars which had already been taken from starry-eyed devout kids in exchange for a worthless education and a bunch of lectures about the necessities of abstinence and supporting Trump). Indeed, based on recent evidence, this huge freak is probably turned on by the worldwide derision directed at his private life.

Beyond Falwell himself, this excellent article in Slate, highlights the true significance of this sort of scandal.   Jeffrey Guhin (whose ideas I have liberally borrowed here) writes:

In the old theological meaning of the word, scandal isn’t really about what happens to the person who does something wrong. It’s about what happens to everybody else, those left in the scandal’s wake, wondering if there’s anything left to believe. In that sense, Falwell’s scandals are of a piece with Trump’s. Falwell makes people wonder if religion is actually just jerks reciting pieties and making money; Trump makes people wonder the same thing about democracy.

Here is the real problem, acts like Falwell’s diminish our collective faith in other people.  That faith is the bedrock of religion (ask the Pontifex Maximus what happened to worship of Jupiter after a few centuries of Caligula, Nero, Caracalla, and Elagabalus).  When devout Christians attack liberal professors, Hollywood movie stars, and atheist bloggers for destroying Christianity they are looking at the wrong villains.  The emperors of Pagan Rome had their unstoppable legions burn Christians to death in front of vast crowds and it only made Christianity stronger and more popular.  Christians who love the power of cruel smug bullies and the promised wealth of the idolatrous prosperity gospel are the real reason Christianity is declining in America.  Don’t take it from me, take it from peer-reviewed sociologists who carefully studied people who walked away from the house of Christ.

But even if you are not religious, faith in other people’s actions and motivations is also the basis of education, of government, and of the economy (Guhin correctly notes that money is just paper and computer numbers unless we believe in it).  Faith in other people is even necessary for evidence-based disciplines like science and medicine (we have seen how much modern medicine helps people if everyone regards doctors as the highly paid stooges of crooked insurance corporations).  Tobacco companies realized they could defang earnest anti-smoking studies by pointing to unrelated scientists whose research was funded by corporations and then just saying “everyone is equally bad”! Faith in other people is the bedrock of everything unless you are a lone hunter gatherer (in which case how are you reading this?).

vvh

Day after day, I go to Facebook and look with bemused sadness at the posts of relatives and friends who are Trump supporters.  Far from feeling that this most un-Christian president’s ostentatious support of Christian values is a grotesque affront, they regard him as someone who “keeps it real”.  Trump’s penchant for doing illegal things and then insouciantly shrugging and say “everyone does it” is part of the way he gets away with it. Scandal and disillusion has left smart and caring people as cynics who believe that all politicians are crooked fraudsters.  Disillusionment prevents them from discerning which politicians are actually criminals.  It is another dark example of the cynical anti-government death spiral Republican leaders seem to be caught in (the enormous danger of turning citizens against the government was also the real thesis of my oh-so-long-ago 2016 endorsement). In the mean time our government (which needs to be doing lots of very complicated things to help our fellow citizens, ensure the nation’s defense, protect the world ecosystem, and secure a worthwhile future ) is left in the hands of ghoulish kleptocrats.

Anyway, all of this talk of outrageous hypocrites who pretend to be supremely holy when they are actually depraved, power-hungry leeches is wearing me out. Let’s tune into the Republican convention and see what Mike Pence has to say.

cds

Commencement at Liberty

The Republican Convention of 1880

In ages past, national political conventions lay at the heart of how American political parties selected candidates.  This made for strange and fascinating stories, such as the tale of the Republican convention of 1880 when the delegates met in gilded age Chicago and cast their ballots 36 times before finally settling on a presidential candidate, James Garfield, who wasn’t even running for the presidency!  Yet, during the progressive era, the right to select candidates was wrestled out of the hands of shadowy party grandees and handed over to rank-and-file party voters.  In turn, the political conventions stopped being real political contests and became vast kabuki-style infomercials (albeit meaningful ones, where the parties try out new messages and launch the careers of aspirant national leaders).  For viewers at home, the net result of all of this was dreadful tv!  All of the political conventions I watched during the eighties, nineties, aughts, and teens were turgid set-pieces with lots of talking heads shouting soundbites to enormous halls filled with screaming followers.  It makes my head hurt to just think about these things, and I am sure if you start reminiscing about Joe Paterno, “swiftboating,” Gary Hart, Clint Eastwood talking to a chair, the Astros being thrown out of their own stadium (snicker),  Governor Ann Richards, etc…etc…ad nauseum, you too will start to be overcome by despair at the benighted human condition.

This year, however, the Covid-19 global pandemic has forced some much needed changes on America’s worn-out political conventions!  What I have seen so far from the Republican convention has not been encouraging (unless you are a cannibal lizard person or a devout believer in the same), but last week’s Democratic convention had a wholesome charm which was a tonic in this fragmented and frightened era.  Structural differences in the two parties generally do not favor the Democratic convention.  Because of their big tent , it is easy for endless smaller issues to drag the event in too many directions to easily comprehend a larger theme. This year though, all individual grievances were subsumed into an overarching theme of grief and of how the nation can overcome and allay the disasters and follies of the past few years.  This involved hearing from more actual workaday Americans than in any convention I can recall.   There were small farmers talking about losing their livelihoods, children mourning their plague-stricken parents, and victims of gun violence. George Floyd’s brother spoke with steady eloquence about his dead brother’s gentle spirit.

There were also pointless celebrities like the annoying Julia Louis-Dreyfus Hall, but there is no need to dwell on them.  Celebrities have ruined enough things in America.  If we can drive them away from politics, it will be a huge relief (although I doubt it will happen).

The best part of the convention, unexpectedly, was the role call of delegates pledging their votes to the candidates.  This involved little clips of lots of local figures and local, um, locations, and it was a delight to see so much of the country and its inhabitants for a change (as opposed to the red, white, & blue bunting, confetti, makeup and lies which are the fabric of most conventions).

Among the 2020 delegates, Khizr Khan was back–older and with one drooping eye–but with the same fierce pride in the United States of America, and radiating the same righteous anger at those who would threaten or abuse our beloved Constitution.

kz

Also compelling was the Rhode Island delegation.  There was a standard leader of some sort pledging his support to Biden, but next to him was a masked calamari chef!  The culinary ninja just stood there silently with a huge glistening tray of fried squid. His physical presence radiated power, and his golden brown seafood banquet certainly won my heart (did you know Rhode island was famous for squid?) Ferrebeekeeper has fantasized about mollusks being the highlight of a political convention, but I never thought it would really happen…

rhode-island-dnc-roll-call-DNC

I am not sure if the convention was satisfying to hardcore political junkies. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and the Obamas all made fine presentations (Bernie talked to us from the woodshed where he maybe wants to take some obtuse Americans), however none of these speeches were really about the granular details of policy or political competition.  That is fine with me.  I think the Democrats were wise to try to make emotional inroads into the unsettled hearts of Americans who are seeking a better life for themselves and their family.  We already know that Biden and his allies have ample experience of public policy and legislating.  We need to see that they care about the whole nation (as opposed to one particular group).

At the end of the event, Joe Biden gave his best speech so far: a homespun but competent and compelling oration which made him seem like what he is: a lifelong public servant who cares about Americans of all sorts.  He said he was willing to work with opponents to get things done for the nation as a whole. I believed him.  There was no balloon drop, but even the awkward final moment of the convention had a certain earnest charm: Biden and Harris clearly wanted to hug each other, but were constrained by social distancing guidelines. Instead of embracing and mingling with their families, they put on masks and stood there awkwardly before heading out into the parking lot to watch some fireworks.   We all know exactly how they feel.

All of which is to say, I liked the Democratic Convention more than any convention I have seen so far.  Although it did not address lots of points of policy with exacting detail, it did not need to.  There is time for such things during the campaign, and anyway, let’s face it, the fact that Joe Biden will not flout the law or sell out our national interest to Vladimir Putin or some murderous Saudi Prince has already won my vote (although I believe there are many actual policy choices which Biden pursues which will be beneficial to all Americans). Plus he will actually show up and do the job!  Although there were plenty of less-than-polished moments in terms of the new format, the convention radiated decency, competence, and compassion.  Obviously we will talk more about the election this autumn, but the Democratic Convention has already surpassed my expectations. It made me feel better.  When was the last time you could say that about a political event?

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