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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.

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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…

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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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Here are more political musings for this highly political fortnight.  Let’s start with a basic assumption.  Donald Trump is not worthy of anyone’s vote until he releases his tax returns.  That is the basic price of entry into politics.  Until he shows otherwise, we can just assume his scammy casinos and fraudulent colleges are bankrupt and all of his money comes from the Russian government. We do not even need to get to the parts about him being an ignoramus, a bully, a fraudster, and a, um, fascist who would upend decades of international peace, progress, and prosperity for his own naked self-aggrandizement.

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So, it looks as though we are supporting the Democrats this year no matter what their circus…er, caucus looks like…but what does their circus look like?  After blogging last week about the Republican convention in Cleveland, it is necessary to say something about the Democratic convention this week in Philadelphia.  So far the Democratic convention has certainly been glitzy–with all sorts of high-profile show-biz folk. After a colorful opening day during which diehard Bernie Sanders supporters disrupted the proceedings, things have settled down and the grand Kabuki of party reconciliation is proceeding apace.  I was also pleased to see the current president return to his finest form with a moving speech about Americans coming together around values like decency, hard work, and responsibility.  Where has this kind of soaring speech been during his presidency?

At heart, I am a believer in our world of capitalism, free markets, and open trade (although I don’t especially love the way the market panders to comfort over meaning).  I don’t think people are as different as the Trumps (or even the Jesse Jacksons) make them out to be.  I am a social liberal.  The theocrats need to keep their imaginary gods (and their very real inquisitors) out of people’s private lives.

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I also believe in classical liberal economics (although I use that phrase in a sort of 19th century way which will hopefully not confuse people). I read The Wealth of Nations, and I was convinced by Adam Smith’s arguments.  However, the part of that book which nobody talks about is the part about monopolies (which Smith saw as anathema to his system). Large corporations merge into immense corporations, which then become nearly impossible for upstarts to dislodge. Such corporations can and do play havoc in the market.  They alter regulations to throttle competitors.  They fix prices so that everyone pays more.  Our version of capitalism may not actually be capitalism, but is instead its hijacked successor.

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The rentiers who gain greatly from operating these monopolies (or cartels or duopolies) need to keep them from being disrupted by the only force large enough to do so: the Federal government. The Republicans…the real Republicans who have seemingly vanished overnight played a cynical game where they accumulated electoral gains by telling people not to believe in government or politicians and then collecting campaign money and post-career favors from the too-big-to fail titans.  The business interests have an easier time writing their own ticket, and minimizing the uncertainties which stem from rapid technological innovation and globalization.

However that is a cynical way of looking at politics, and we can’t afford to be cynical. Also, when I talk to thoughtful conservatives they say what I just said, except they strongly aver that it is the Democrats who have been taken over by moneyed interests.  I don’t disagree, but the sheer extent to which Republicans have acted to paralyze and undermine government makes me think of them as the true malefactors.  Is there a way to make things better?

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During his stump speech on Tuesday night, Bill Clinton said, “Change is hard and can be boring” I have not found this to be true.  Change for the better is hard.  It is exceedingly easy to make things worse.  I keep looking on Facebook and seeing my old scoutmaster from red America lambasting the Democrats and praising Trump, and it fills me with sadness.  What does he imagine in going to happen?  We will start a trade war (or a war war) with China, and suddenly it will be 1963?  Erecting trade barriers (or literal barriers) will make the cost of goods and services leap through the roof and we will be in a recession that makes the one from 2008 look like a jolly day trip. Even then protectionism and isolationism will not fill up factories with high paid workers—those days are gone forever.  If we betray our longstanding allies suddenly the world will be unimaginably dangerous…and we will have no friends.  Our power and prestige could evaporate overnight: such things are made of networks and handshakes and treaties and beliefs.  For that matter so is money (which is just promises in a database somewhere).

So we have to love the Democrats. Thoughtful people may disagree about some of their positions, but we have no choice but to back them this year. Frankly I have never had much love for the Republicans’ world of religious authoritarianism, intrusive rules about substances and bodies, censors, and unfettered cash worship anyway.  The things the Republicans represent which I do love are the belief in a robust military and the desire to throw money at technological progress (which is an entirely necessary requirement for having a worthwhile military in our world of super computers, nano-materials, and space technology).  Blue sky research is also the way to have a vibrant economy tomorrow, and maybe to stay ahead of humankind’s terrifying negative impact on the world ecosystems.  This year, the Republicans are not interested in improving the military or pushing science forward (they even stopped Newt Gingrich from going on about his moonbase) so screw ‘em.

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Hillary was not born as some cold spoiled oligarch—she worked hard to become one. She has substantial brains and a steely work ethic.  She needs to stand up for the networked world.  This is going to mean working with the corporate hegemons—the same monopolies I was bemoaning two paragraphs ago.  It is going to mean some unpalatable compromises with unsavory corporations, countries, and coalitions. Yet we know Hilary has a knack for this sort of ugly work. She also has kind of a flinty look—like she could be another Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel…our own formidable iron lady!

Tonight she is going to look us in the eye and tell us she loves us all and wants to hug us and that she will work tirelessly to make us richer and more free. Then she will turn around, go into a smoky backroom somewhere, and make very different promises to the great masters (neither they, nor anyone else, can trust Trump–so they are going to have to deal with her).  This saddens me, I wish we could hear about these actual plans for grown-ups rather than whatever airy waffle Hilary serves up in tonight’s speech.  But this year has made it all too obvious that people must be talked to as though they are childish idiots.

I guess I am with her.  We can keep muddling forward together to greatness.  Hilary for President!

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(at least she looks happy to have my support–and that is a very cool twill!)

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It has been a while since Ferrebeekeeper has written about politics.  This is partly because everything everywhere this year has been about politics, and I wanted a break from the relentless annoying noise (at least in my own little patch of the internet).  Also, in general it seems like the vastly increased media/internet attention has not led to better outcomes:  instead the “anything for clicks” mentality has made a volatile situation worse.  Also I did not want to fan the flames by writing about Donald Trump.  Like the screaming kid grabbing people’s hair and kicking desks in 5th grade, he draws his strength from demanding all of our attention.  If we could just ignore him, he would lose his dark power to enthrall.

But, now that Donald Trump is officially the candidate of the Republican Party, my strategy of pointedly ignoring him has failed.  It is time to actually pay attention to a clickbait election so shrill and mean-spirited that it makes one long for the days of Andrew Jackson, Polk, Goldwater, or even Nixon….

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Except of course we don’t really long for such things.  Those days are gone and good riddance. Saying otherwise is hyperbole; and hyperbole is our enemy right now.  The Republican Convention makes it sound like we are all going to die. “Enemies are at the gate!  Our cities are coming apart because of violence and dissembling immigrants!  Economic depression and stagnation will doom us all to servitude and starvation!”  This is a dishonest and dangerous strategy.  It will fail in unexpected and dangerous ways.

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I grew up at the end of the Cold War, and I was an anxious child.  I read things and knew about the state of world affairs back then.  It seemed pretty improbable that we would survive an era when twitchy old men with endless arrays of poorly computerized nuclear weapons stared unblinking across the world at each other.  Looking back at those times with nostalgia is madness! The fact that we didn’t all perish in nuclear hellfire sometime between the fifties and the nineties is a miracle.  This world is all gravy—an improbable bonus round (and, let’s face it, the fact that we have this impossibly ephemeral bubble of consciousness between two infinities of oblivion is already pretty miraculous).

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Yet Cold War shadows linger: the conflict was a decades-long existential crisis which caused us to come together and work in tandem.  It demanded good leadership and lockstep order at home, and the gravity of the fight allowed us certain freedoms abroad.  Now that the long grim conflict is over, we have great opportunities: opportunities of being closer to other nations and helping people. We can undo some of the great power meddling which was necessary to win that conflict (while making goods and services cheaper for everyone). We can learn astonishing new things. All of humankind can move forward to a brighter world where everyone has opportunities. However to get to such a place will require creative thinking, nimble pursuit of rapidly-changing opportunities, and the ability to adapt quickly to surprising circumstances.

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The Republicans make it sound like they want to go back to the past.  But, for goodness’ sake, we don’t want to go back to a time when everyone could die because of a rogue bear! And if they want to go back to the time just after the Cold War, when America was the only great power, well it wasn’t a Trump who was in the White House then. In fact we know exactly what Trump was up to during that time because New Yorkers lived through it.

I have lived in Brooklyn a long time, and New Yorkers know Trump.  He has refined his act here. There have been times when Trump’s hair-pulling hissy fits and histrionics (and spouse abuse and mistresses and bankruptcies) have sucked up all the oxygen in the local tabloids.  It has given us a measure of immunity to his damnable act…and a valuable insight about his nature.  Like liars who talk about truth all of the time, or broke people who talk about money with every breath, Trump talks incessantly about winning.  It is not because he is a winner.

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So here is what is going to happen in this election: This is the biggest act of Trump’s mendacious life and he is going to lose spectacularly to a woman. He will drag his ticket down with him, but not so much that we can escape the deadlock which is hurting our nation by preventing us from researching and creating.

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You definitely need to vote, and you need to pay attention, but also remember that, in the bigger picture, things are ok.  Don’t be afraid! What people say about the end of America isn’t true.  Race relations are improving. People are being drawn out of poverty.  The pie is getting bigger here and abroad (although the pie hogs are getting stronger and more shameless too).  Heck, even if Trump gets elected through some nightmare circumstance, America has survived presidents who were ninnies, racists, incompetents, or even in a coma.

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Or all of the above

We need to put on our grown-up clothes and calm our anxieties and deal with a world of great change and great opportunity. Now excuse me while I go back to ignoring politics and send out some applications and proposals.

venussymbolThe astronomical symbol for the planet Venus, a circle with an attached dorsal cross, is the same symbol which is used in biology to represent the female gender.  With the exception of Mother Earth (which understandably goes by many names), Venus is the only planet in this solar system named after a goddess.  Even in other languages and cultures, Venus is often imagined as feminine: to the Persians she was Anahita; the Babylonians called her Ishtar or Inanna; and the Australian Aborigines called her Barnumbirr (we will say nothing about the Theosophists because everything is much better that way).

venus-goddess-of-loveConsidering the long association between Venus and goddesses, it is appropriate that international astronomic convention asserts that surface features of Venus should be named after women (or mythological women).  Only a handful of features on the planet have male names (most notably the Maxwell Montes which are named after James Clerk Maxwell) and these masculine oddballs were grandfathered (grandmothered?) in before the female naming convention was adopted.  Hopefully the future floating cities of Venus will also sport lovely female names as well…

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I had a post all planned for today but the difference between reality and fancy has forced me to scrap my original idea.  First, and by way of overall explanation, allow me to apologize for not writing a post last Friday.  I was attending a stamp convention in Baltimore over Labor Day weekend in order to fulfill a social obligation.  The stamp convention is where my idea for today’s post came from and, of course it’s also where my idea went wrong.

I had initially (optimistically) planned on selecting a variety of stamps representing categories from my blog.  What could be better than a bunch of tiny beautiful pictures of snakes, underworld gods, furry mammals, planetary probes, gothic cathedrals, and so forth? But, alas, my concept was flawed.  The international postal industry is vast beyond the telling, and, undoubtedly, some nation on Earth has issued stamps featuring each of those subjects, however stamp collectors do not categorize their collections by subject. Instead they organize their precious stamps by pure obsession (usually but not always centered around a particular historical milieu).  Apparently there are also subject stamp collectors out there…but real stamp collectors think of them the way that champion yachtsmen regard oafs on jet skis.

True philatelists are more interested in finding oddities which grow out of historical happenstance.  Their great delights are the last stamps issued by an occupied country just before regime change, or the few stamps issued with the sultan’s head upside down, or a stamp canceled by a Turkmenistan post office which was destroyed a week after it was built.  The nuances associated with such a subtle field quickly overwhelmed me. Additionally, I was unable to approach gray-haired gentlemen in waistcoats who were shivering in delight from looking at what appeared to be identical stamps with identical potentates and ask if there were any stamps with cuttlefish. It seemed blasphemous. I ended up leaving the stamp show without any stamps at all!

But don’t be afraid. There is an entity which is even more obsessive than the stamp dealers: the internet!  To add to my previous post on catfish stamps here is a gallery of mollusk stamps which I found online.  The beautiful swirls and dots and stripes of this handful of snails, octopuses, slugs, and bivalves should quickly convince you that even the world’s post offices have nothing on nature when it comes to turning out endless different designs.


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