Category Archives: Politics

Border Country

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I have fairly sloppy reading habits these days, moving randomly from one book to the next, choosing them for the slightest of reasons. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Wales, and I stopped in a bookstore. This bookstore was not in Hay-on-Wye, which is noted for its bookstores and its annual literary festival; frankly, I found Hay-on-Wye to be too commercial and couldn’t get out of there soon enough. Rather, it was a small bookstore in Crickhowell, in South Wales, which, it turns out, was a place that Tolkien visited on a holiday as a young adult and whose influence can be found in The Hobbit.

Whenever I go into a bookstore, I feel obligated to purchase something. For me, it’s like getting a table in a restaurant: you wouldn’t go in at all if you didn’t mean to buy something. And, because I was in Wales, and because the bookstore had a wonderful collection of Welsh books written in English, I picked up a novel by Raymond Williams called Border Country. I chose it because I am a retired English professor and am familiar with some of Williams’s critical work. I was hoping it would be a good book, because I always root for scholars who write fiction, being one myself.

I will simply say here that Border Country surpassed any hope I had that it would be an interesting book to read on vacation. It really is a fine novel, a beautiful and thoughtful narrative in which Welsh village life is depicted against the background of labor struggles, the clash of generations, and the difficulty involved in leaving one’s home and then returning to it.

Williams creates a subtle story with a strong narrative pull, largely because of the lively, interesting characters he presents. The protagonist is a professor of economics who lives in London with his wife and two sons; he must return to the Welsh border country, however, because his father has had a stroke. But “border country” also refers to the space that Matthew Price (called “Will” back in his hometown of Glynmawr) occupies within his own world: neither fully in the cosmopolitan world of London intellectuals (we get only a glimpse of his life there) nor in the village of his birth, Matthew is caught between worlds and a strange, palpable dysphoria ensues.

Yet the novel does not dwell on this unease. Rather, it provides flashbacks to an earlier time, when Matthew’s father Harry first arrives in Glynmawr to work as a railway signalman with his young wife Ellen, and in doing so it recounts the struggles involved in making a life in that beautiful and rugged country. The novel, true to its form (and no one would know that form better than Williams, who was a literary scholar of the highest merit), presents a varied and beautiful mix of narratives, woven together so subtly and with such artistry that the reader moves effortlessly between them.

I am new to Welsh literature, but I have learned this from Border Country: reading Welsh novels means reading about the Welsh landscape, with its rough yet welcoming mountains, where life is difficult but well worth living. Williams manages to get that feeling across to the reader in his simple, almost elegiac tone. The threads of the story keep us turning the pages, but the message of the book will stay with us long after we finish reading.

This is a novel that deserves to be read. It is both a pleasure and a pain to say that: a pleasure to discover a hidden gem, and a pain to realize that this gem has been obscured by newer, less deserving but flashier novels, and has only been revealed by the undisciplined, random choice of a reader strolling into a bookstore looking for something to read while on holiday in Wales. So I’m doing my part to gain it the readership it deserves by saying here: get this book and read it. You will be glad that you did.

Border Country, Raymond Williams

Parthian, Library of Wales, 2017

 

 

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How I Spent My Winter Vacation

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It has been a long, dark winter for many of us. The key to surviving such bleak periods is keeping busy, and I am lucky to have found an absorping, yet perhaps a pointless, task. A project fell into my lap, and to explain how it got there, I have to go back to a very dark time indeed: Election Day.

In those days after the Election, I, like many other people, struggled to come to grips with a president who had not won the popular vote, who represented the very things that I have come to despise about my country, and who was, in short, an embarrassing representation of the intellectual and cultural vacuity that threatens the United States. I was in a dark place. I clutched at straws for salvation. One of the things I found online was a fine essay that I forgot to bookmark, which is now lost to me. But in that essay was a reference to the French writer Léon Werth, to whom Antoine St. Exupéry had written a moving dedication in The Little Prince.

My lost essay referred to Werth’s book 33 Days, which recounted the author’s harrowing journey to escape the German occupation of France in 1940. The book, it seems, was lost until 1992 and only translated into English in a few years later. (You can buy the book here, at Melville House Press.) After reading about Werth, I became interested in his second novel, Clavel Soldat (in English, Clavel the Soldier) which was published to some national acclaim in 1919.

I looked for an English translation, but could not find one, so I had my son, a student at Michigan State University, check out the original French version (which had to come out of “Deep Storage”–the very phrase sends shivers of excitement down this scholar’s spine). When at last he handed the book to me, held together with a string, and I held it in my hands, I was in for a shock: the pages had never been cut.

I knew what this meant well enough. No one, despite its presence in the MSU Library 20170402_163630from August 22, 1949, to the present day, had ever read this copy of the book. I now had a thorny ethical dilemma to resolve. Was it right for me to cut the pages, even if that meant that I would in all probability harm the book, perhaps destroying it? Like any other scholar, I respect the sanctity of the written word. And yet books are meant to be read, aren’t they? If I refrained from reading the book, wasn’t I doing the worst disservice possible to Léon Werth, by not reading a book over which he had labored? After all, I’ve done my own share of writing things no one can be bothered to read; I know how easy, perhaps inevitable, it is for a writer to become invisible. Looking at it from that perspective, I realized that I had no choice. I was compelled to read this book, to rescue it, at least temporarily, from complete obscurity.

Yet I was disturbed by the need to cut the pages, because it seemed somehow like a wanton act of destruction. And so I decided on a compromise of sorts. Though I am not a translator by any means, I can get by (je peux me débrouiller) in French, having majored in it in college some two thousand years ago. The last literary work I had translated was a mere twenty pages of  Mongo Beti’s Ville Cruel, which I had to do back in graduate school, but it was a cold, dark winter, Trump had been elected president, and I had to find something to keep me from succumbing to existential despair. It seemed clear to me that I was called on by some strange cosmic force to translate this novel into English, if only to prove that one person, at least, had read it.

And so I embarked on my translating work. I began some time after Thanksgiving, and each day I translated a few pages. It became a habit as well as a self-imposed duty. I used a cartridge pen (and at least 30 ink cartridges) to write by hand in a spiral notebook, in order to slow down the process of reading just enough to allow me some deliberation about wording. I relied on my very old Harrap’s French-English dictionary, a wonderful bookstand from A+ Bookstand with which to prop it up, a utility knife lent to me by my husband to cut the pages, and a total of three spiral notebooks. I resorted to on-line dictionaries as well when I came across difficult phrases.

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It was only when I was a third of the way through the translation that I began to suspect that no one had ever translated Clavel Soldat into English before. After all, 33 Days had only been translated in the mid 1990s; perhaps this novel had escaped the notice of international readers. I emailed the British Library to see if their copy was in English, as it was listed online; three days later, they emailed me back to say that it was, in fact, in French. At the moment, as I write this blog, I believe that I am the first person to attempt to translate Clavel Soldat into English.

Yesterday, I finished my first round of translating Clavel the Soldier. The task has taught me a great deal, even though I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to do with the translation (after I’ve done my best to polish it). Through translating Werth’s novel, I’ve obviously learned a lot about World War I. I’ve also picked up a great deal of out-of-the-way information–for example, Peter Kropotkin is now my hero, although I’d never heard of him before. And I’ve learned that our age does not by any means have a corner on the market of despair and cynicism. Most of all, however, I’ve learned about patience, about the art of slinging words together as well as you can to communicate with a reader, and, more important than anything else, about the need to engage in creative acts even during the darkest times, even when you think that you might be the only person in the world who will ever acknowledge or celebrate them.

That’s a lot to take away from one simple winter project. As I said, I’m not sure what will become of my translation of Clavel Soldat, but I am very grateful to have discovered the novel and to have done my part, however fruitless, to bring new readers to it. It has been a humbling but enriching experience, and I look forward to refining the translation in the months to come. After all, winter is over. Spring is just beginning.

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Could Capitalism Be the Enemy?

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Earth Day 1971 Poster, from Wikipedia entry on “Pogo”

Like many other people these days, I’m asking a lot of questions, and I’m not finding too many satisfying answers. But that doesn’t matter. We should all be suspicious of quick—and satisfying—answers. While it might produce a kind of temporary euphoria, the tendency to try to solve our problems quickly and neatly is precisely what seems to have landed the world in this precarious position, with climate changes staring us in the face as we confront unprecedented human migration across increasingly hostile borders. It is a scary place to be.

One question I’ve been asking is this: could capitalism, with its emphasis on constant growth and acquisition of wealth, be the evil spirit lurking behind this state of affairs? This is a difficult question to consider, and it’s likely that few people will be brave enough to confront and admit such a question. (For curious readers, here is an article in last week’s New Yorker that explains, at least in part, why new ideas and self-criticism meet such resistance.)  But it’s worthwhile to lay out a few arguments for this menacing explanation, even if not many people take the time to consider it.

First of all, capitalism, with its emphasis on garnering profit, depends on constantly expanding market shares. It doesn’t work in a static environment; in order for a capitalist economy to function well, it must grow. And yet, as any observant person realizes, constant growth simply isn’t sustainable. Eventually the market place becomes saturated. When that happens, there are few options for the capitalist enterprise: either it expands its market—in which the same thing will happen a few years, or decades, later—or it works to cut out competitors and appropriate their growth and their profit. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or an economist, to determine that this process isn’t feasible for long-term stability in a society dedicated to equity and the pursuit of happiness.

And that brings up the second problem with capitalism as it has developed. The acquisition of profit and material goods seems to be insufficient for the kind of capitalists, the captains of industry, we have created in recent years. In other words, the most successful capitalists have become so wealthy that it is ludicrous to suppose that they are intent on gathering still more money, or luxuries, for themselves. How many mansions are necessary for a person’s, even a family’s, happiness? Is it really necessary for Mark Zuckerberg to own 700 acres of prime Hawaiian land—and to sue longtime landowners to make sure that his privacy on this new piece of property is inviolable? One theory about the tendency of the super-wealthy to engage in this kind of action this states that capitalism’s great heroes and heroines garner not only wealth for themselves, but happiness as well. And, since happiness is not as easy to gauge as material wealth, the best way to determine whether one is happy is to compare oneself to those who are not happy. This, in essence, is what capitalism does: it takes happiness away from people in order to create a sense of happiness in the capitalist, who, numb to the thrill of wealth and plenty, cannot determine whether he is actually happy unless he can be sure that there are others who have been made unhappy by his own acquisitive actions. This view of capitalism presents it in a horrifying, sordid light. It goes something like this: once their quest for great wealth has met with success, capitalists create another quest for themselves: that of acquiring the happiness of others. This kind of theorizing leads to a truly disconcerting question: What if the “pursuit of happiness” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, and so dear to every American citizen, has become a literal pursuit, in which the happiness of others becomes fair game for pursuing? This frightening scenario, in which capitalists resemble Dementors more than anything else, may well be taking place in our society.

But we need not enter the world of Harry Potter to find a third reason to reexamine capitalism in our time: it appears to be antithetical to the idea of ecological conservation. I could argue this carefully, in a step-by-step demonstration of the ways in which capitalism abuses the natural environment, but this is quite unnecessary, with stories like Standing Rock, Line 5, the Kalamazoo River oil spill, fracking, and other items in the news. We all know that big business cares little about the natural resources it uses, regarding these resources like factory machinery as it tries to figure out a way to produce still more oil for an ever-growing market. The argument that capitalism stands in opposition to safeguarding our environment has undoubtedly been made before, and it is unnecessary to go into it at length here.

Instead, I would like to offer a fourth reason that capitalism may be the enemy. It depends on competition, maintaining that competition brings out the best in people. But even Darwin, as this article in The Guardian points out, believed that cooperation was at least as  important in evolution as competition.

I have little hope that I can change anyone’s mind about capitalism. Most Americans cling to their belief that it offers us, and the world at large, the best way to live—period. Besides, changing our ideology would be too great a task to undertake.

Or would it?

As we encounter more and more crises, sooner or later we will have to face the fact that Americans are not always the good guys, as we have been taught to believe. Ideology is a difficult veil to penetrate—in fact, it may be impossible to penetrate the veil at all, and we may have to be satisfied with shifting it aside from time to time to try to catch a mere glimpse of the truth. Denying the efficacy and value of capitalism is a scary proposition, and doing so necessitates that we decide what will take its place—another scary proposition. It will take some time to reach the point where we can face these difficult ideological problems. But I believe we will get there. For now, let’s start by admitting that the old comic strip from 1971 was right: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

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Making Art in Troubled Times

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Image from the webpage of the Ashmolean Museum: http://britisharchaeology.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/highlights/alfred-jewel.html 

I will admit it: after the election in November, I succumbed to a sense of defeat. What is the point, I moaned, if autocracy and tyranny are not merely accepted but welcomed by the masses, if the great ideal of a democratic country is systematically dismantled before our eyes? Why bother with anything, much less with the last fifty pages of a novel that no one will ever read?

At the time, I was working through the last part of a story I’d begun a couple of years earlier, and I was ready to give it up, because, well, why would I finish it when the world as I know it is coming to an end? (My feelings arose not only because of the U.S. election results or the ensuing realization that a foreign power had tinkered with our “free elections,” but also because of the global rise of a dangerous populism, coupled with imminent global climate change.)

But a good friend gave me some advice, and I soldiered on and completed the draft. Right now, I am steadily working on it, revision after revision. And I am doing this not because I think my novel can change the world. It certainly won’t; it won’t be read by more than a hundred people, and that’s if I’m lucky.

But this short essay is not about the art of writing without readers; I will deal with that in a future post. For now, all I want to do is to encourage everyone who reads this blog to go on and continue their artistic activities. I say this not as a writer, or even as a reader, but as a scholar. And I have a very simple reason for doing so.

Art is the residue left by human culture. When civilizations disappear, when lives and institutions have crumbled into the dust, what remains is the art they created. Some of this art arises from genius, like the works of Mozart and Shakespeare; some of it comes from normal people, like the rest of us. But we need it all–every last scrap of it, not only the wonderful pieces that make us cry with joy or sadness, but even the average and ungainly works of art, because even bad art is an expression of human experience, and in the end, it is the experience of being human that binds us together on this lonely little planet.

So go ahead with your art. Draw, paint, weave, write, compose or play music. Do not worry that you are fiddling as Rome burns. Rome will, ultimately, burn–history tells us that. But what is left behind are wonderful murals that will take your breath away, mosaics, epic poems, statues and monumental structures. Don’t worry about whether your art will be appreciated; it is the act of making it that is important, not whether or not it is celebrated. Think of that lonely monk who produced Beowulf; he  was probably scared shitless that his Anglo-Saxon culture would be erased by the next Viking invasion, but he fought off this feeling of futility and kept going, thank goodness. Remember his small act of courage, try to emulate it, and above all, keep going.

Do not be afraid of working in the darkness; you may not be able to dispel it, but your work could provide light for others, not only now, but in the future as well.

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Jump-Starting the Revolution

Women's March on Rome

Women’s March on Rome

 

I woke up early this morning thinking of all the women I love and respect who are out today in the cold dawn, protesting an American administration founded on hatred, lies, and ignorance. In past years, I would be out there with them, raising my voice with theirs, matching my stride with theirs, fighting injustice with a show of peaceful but determined resistance. I’m not: I jumped the gun and raised my own thin voice too soon, missing an opportunity to be part of this powerful and impressive force for change. Yet there is work of all kinds to be done everywhere–in the streets of Washington, D.C.; in Rome, Italy; in Lansing, Michigan, and all over the world on this day and in the days to come. There is work to be done in my own study right now, as I hunch over my computer in the darkness with a small black cat and a steaming cup of tea to keep me company as I try to explain why a revolution is necessary.

This involves facing several hard but absolutely necessary facts, which I will lay out below.

First, education in the United States is not under attack: rather, for the last generation, it has been systematically eviscerated and dismantled. We are used to hearing that K-12 schools are under attack, and they certainly are. But what goes unnoticed is perhaps just as dire: Public education at the college level no longer exists in this country at all. The steep rise in college tuition, even at state schools, which we have accepted for decades as a matter of financial need and fiscal responsibility, means that few people can afford to go to university without making great sacrifices. College students today must be able to pay tuition that is, frankly, unaffordable–or they must be willing to hock their futures by taking out student loans that will shackle them for years to come. This is not public education. Public education is free, or available at a small cost. So, as one of the first steps in starting this revolution, let us first admit what we all know to be true: We live in a world in which getting a college education is reserved for the wealthy or the financially improvident. As a society, we are eating our young, telling them to go out and get an education for all the wrong reasons (namely, to get a job that probably doesn’t exist), and then we are imprisoning them in debt, a debt which forces them into penury and servitude for years, if not a lifetime. Student loan recipients should be in the streets protesting–and yet they can’t do so, or they would lose the paltry, minimum-wage jobs they must work to pay back these loans. The cause of all of this? It’s simply this: education is tottering on the brink of the abyss today, because for decades, power-seeking politicians have understood that an uneducated electorate serves them well.

Second, government is not an evil. Government is good and necessary. Since the Enlightenment at least, government has been essential to safeguard the welfare of a population. We have been told it is a sad necessity–we have even been told by some that the less government we have, the better off we will be–but this is not true. It is a lie. The only people who really believe that government makes their lives worse are the truly uneducated: people who accept the lopsided stories they’ve been told repeatedly and loudly by lying politicians who stand to gain by fostering this anti-government stance. These demogogues use a hatred of government to get elected, to create tax breaks for themselves and their bosses, and to continue to dismantle government entities that work to create a population of critical thinkers. We can argue about the amount of government we need, but to say that government is by and of itself bad is both wrong-headed and short-sighted.

Unfortunately, these two things go hand in hand. We live in a society that values ignorance over education, displays of strength over deliberative thought, and blind faith over a spirit of inquiry. We live in a society that is fearful and superstitious. We live in a society that vilifies those who are different, and ignores and marginalizes those who have diverse stories, backgrounds, and viewpoints.

And so I say let the revolution begin. We are running out of time, people. We need a revolution, because at this point in human culture, we are facing the most dire threat imaginable: not an alien invasion or a zombie apocalypse, but a sudden shift in our climate that will affect every human being on the planet. Because we are a resilient and clever species, chances are we will survive this threat, but to do so, we will need  to muster all our resources. We need to be educated, smart, and open-minded, so that we will be able to anticipate problems and crises, and to react to them with well-conceived solutions.

So on this morning, I say to my sisters out there marching in the cold: thank you. More than that–I tell them, Let’s start this revolution today, right now, and bravely face the future we have created for ourselves. It will be a hard job, but we must mend the miseducation of our society, just as we can end the diseducation that has been systematically thrust down our throats for the last 30 years. We can become a nation of thinkers who accept difference and welcome diversity. We can replace fear-mongering with critical thinking, and we can set American exceptionalism aside, once and for all, as we face our future together with people of all nations. Only by doing so will we have any hope of being prepared for the uncertain future that lies before us.

Let the Revolution begin.

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The Observer Effect in Local Politics

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An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, a painting by English Painter Joseph Wright (1768). Image from Wikimedia.org

 

I used to try to encourage people to become more active in politics by saying, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” I thought that in order for democracy to work well, people needed to get out and be part of the political system of which, whether they acknowledge it or not, they are a part. I believed that taking action–by running for office, working to get candidates elected, and keeping abreast of current issues–was the best, and perhaps the only, way to make government accountable to those it serves.

I now see that I was wrong.

Local politics is in fact the only level of politics that really matters to most of us, because it’s the only sphere of politics which most of us can affect. And local government functions better when it is played out in front of an audience. In other words, people behave differently when other people are watching them: they are more careful with their words and their behavior. I discovered this by accident; in the wake of profound disillusionment from the election, I took the only action I could. I started attending local governmental meetings: a city council meeting here, a coffee hour with a state representative there. I began to follow the local political news, just to have a sense of what was going on in my little world. It wasn’t much, but it was all that I could do, and I was tired of sitting at home in disgust, frustration, and fear.

What I discovered is that democracy is subject to what is called, in physics, “The Observer Effect,” which states that the mere act of observing a system changes it. Once we set out to observe something, even as a silent bystander, we have an effect on that which we observe. While this might make trying to get a good measurement of electrons impossible, it works to our advantage in politics. We can, as spectators, effect the changes we want to see in governance. With very little effort–by just showing up–we can begin to make our local political units more accountable, and hopefully, more honest and effective.

And so, I want to correct my earlier statement. Democracy, at its lowest but its most important level, can indeed be a spectator sport. We don’t all have to run for office, making speeches and participating in debates. We don’t even have to study the issues, although it would be better if we did. All we really need to do is show up and let our elected representatives know that we are, in fact, watching them. By doing so, we will inspire them to consider their ideas and words–and ultimately their actions–more carefully and thoughtfully. And we will do our part, however small and seemingly insignificant, to make sure that democracy not only survives, but thrives, during this difficult time.

 

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After the Apocalypse

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I am no  stranger to political loss. I ran a decent campaign for state representative in 2012, but my opponent, a well-funded Republican, beat me handily (58% to 42%). But today’s loss is different. This morning, we all woke up to a world that is not the same place it was yesterday. I have to wonder whether this feeling of grief and horror is how my elders felt on November 22, 1963. Something important, that was once beautiful though imperfect, is broken, perhaps irreparably.

I do not want to point fingers, to wail and moan about the coming years, to wring my hands with worry. I want to get past my feelings of anger and hostility, my disgust with an electorate so ill-educated and short-sighted that it has elected a person monumentally unfit for the highest office in the land. I want to put aside my fear for my children, my guilt for not doing enough to prevent this.

Maybe I’ll get there  tomorrow, or the next day.

Not today.

Today, all I can see is an America that is sick and dying. Today, I can only see that democracy is not the best form of government when a populace persists in selfish, xenophobic, and inhumane beliefs. Most painful of all, today I have to admit that the country I loved (despite my criticisms of it through the years) is a fiction, a mere chimera.

Today, I mourn for everyone who will be touched by this tragedy, and they will number in the millions. And to my readers across the sea and above and below the border, today I apologize for my country.

Today, I am ashamed to be an American.

Tomorrow, the resistance begins. Who will lead it? What form will it take? We will find out the answers to those questions when the shock and disbelief wear off, when the sharp edge of grief subsides. And until then, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that we will not give up fighting for what’s good, and decent, and right. Because that’s how Americans–true Americans, those who are not motivated by greed and fear–act.

Here, then, is my battle cry: I will not give up.

 

 

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Five Fascinating Facts about Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin holding a Charlie Chaplin doll. Source: Wikipedia

Charlie Chaplin holding a Charlie Chaplin doll.
Source: Wikipedia

 

Most of us know Charlie Chaplin as a star of silent movies, the iconic Little Tramp–a clown who made millions laugh during some of the hardest years of the early twentieth century. But he was more than a comic genius. I’d argue that even if he’d never been the most successful film comic to date, he’d still be remembered for the following achievements:

  1. Chaplin composed the tune “Smile,” as the background music for his masterpiece Modern Times (1936). A decade and a half later, John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added the lyrics and title to the song, producing a major hit for Nat King Cole. It has since been recorded by Tony Bennett, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Josh Groban, and Robert Downey, Jr., as well as by the Japanese singer Misia.

2. Chaplin was one of the founders, along with  film pioneer D.W. Griffith, Hollywood power couple Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and lawyer William Gibbs McAdoo (former Treasury Secretary under President Woodrow Wilson, his father-in-law) of United Artists Film Studio. Their goal was to maintain and preserve artistic independence in creating their own film work.

  • Original list of Stockholders of United Artists. Source: Wikipedia

    Original list of Stockholders of United Artists.
    Source: Wikipedia

3. The only earned Academy Award Chaplin ever won, despite his iconic stature in the film industry, was for the score of his film Limelight (1952). Turner and Parsons again added words to the tune, creating the song “Eternally.” Because Chaplin was exiled from the United States when Limelight was produced (see below), the Oscar was not awarded until 1973. The song was recorded by many artists, including Jimmy Young, Petula Clark, Michel Legrand, and Sarah Vaughan. (Yes, that’s a very young Claire Bloom below; she was Chaplin’s co-star in this fascinating film.)

4. When Chaplin sailed to London in September of 1952 for the premiere of Limelight, he was informed that he could not re-enter the United States without submitting to an interview regarding his political and moral behavior. At the height of McCarthyism, this revocation of Chaplin’s re-entry permit was tantamount to political exile. Chaplin, disgusted by what he called the “hate-beleaguered atmosphere” of  the U.S., settled in Switzerland, returning only once to the land that had seen his rise to stardom, in 1972, to receive an honorary Academy Award.

 

5. Chaplin was not only a great comedian, but also a philosopher who worked in the medium of film. The Great Dictator (1940)  a powerful political satire that addressed the growing threat posed by Nazism–was made before the United States had declared war on Germany. (Incidentally, Chaplin worked on the score for the film as well, but the music was credited to Meredith Willson, who would go on to write The Music Man.) These days, in the midst of political unrest, Chaplin’s final speech of the film is frequently cited as an appeal to logic and sympathy in the face of mechanistic and rote obedience to power.

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My Short, Unhappy Life as a Politician

 

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Four years ago, I made a decision that turned out to be a mistake–a real whopper of one. I ran for state representative. It is a decision that I still regret today.

Why would I, a political innocent, so to speak, decide to run for office? The extent of my experience in the political world at that time was knocking on doors fo2009-01-07-shepardobamaposter.jpgr Barack Obama back in 2008. I knew next to nothing about the real political climate. I was naive and optimistic, and, excited by the events in Zuccotti Park (the Occupy Wall Street movement), I thought I saw real possibility to be the  change that President Obama had called for. I thought I could make a difference–that my very innocence in the realm of politics might make me more credible and hence more  attractive to voters. Of course, I can see now, at a distance of almost four years, that I was not just naive, but downright stupid. It probably isn’t the first time a candidate has been motivated by silly, misguided ideas.

The real question is this, however: why did I, a person with a more than adequate supply of humility, decide to run in the first place? What made me think I could make any kind of a difference? I’ve been considering that question for the last three years. Looking back, I see there was a perfect storm of situations that made me believe that it was not only my right, but my duty to run for office. First of all, as a community college professor, I was teaching writing and public speaking to a population of largely underprivileged students. I realized that not only could I gain valuable experience as a teacher if I ran, but that I could also serve as an example to my students. After all, at the end of every semester, I would offer both my writing and my speech students this parting advice: “Now you know how to raise your voices. Go out and do it. Make trouble for other people. Be good citizens.” Running for office was a chance for me to practice what I preached, and it would help make me a better teacher.

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Primary Night Tally

(Side Note: This much was true. I did learn a lot from campaigning, which I tried to incorporate into the tiny textbook I wrote for my speech students. I used what skills I had in writing and in public speaking several times a day, and I found that teaching those practical skills was both meaningful and necessary. I do think I became a better teacher by running for office.)

Second, my position as a community college professor in a very rural area allowed me to see that the people whom recent legislation hurt were my students. I felt obliged to help them as much as I could. Third, as union president, I was also able to see the willful ignorance and arrogance of those in office. Fourth, my husband is a whiz at numbers and finance, and I knew he would make a fine campaign manager, and that by sharing the experience with me, we could be partners in a greater good. Fifth, I knew many people in my town, and they all told me they thought my candidacy was a good idea.

All of these things added up to a feeling of excited inevitability, which then turned into a sense of obligation to run. The only way I can describe the result of this transformation is to compare it to a statement found not once, but three times in Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart: “There are things you have to do even if they are dangerous, otherwise you aren’t a human being but just a bit of filth.” This may be overstating the case a bit, but at the time, I really felt that if I didn’t run, I would be shirking an important responsibility, and that I would be avoiding an unsavory but necessary duty.

The result of all this will not be a surprise. I lost–and by a hefty margin. I don’t mind losing the election; it was probably the best thing that could happen to me personally. But I lost more than the election, and that’s what really bothers me. Somewhere along the way, I lost my my faith in a political system that unabashedly favors those with large campaign coffers. I lost my desire to talk to and get to know people, which had been so useful in the classroom, and which I am only now regaining. I lost a good deal of self confidence, too, because I saw the limit of my own ability. Most tragic of all, I lost what had started me on my journey in the first place: hope.

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Even a wonderful group of supporters can’t guarantee a victory.

For three years, I have tried not to talk about my abortive foray into politics. To be honest, I look upon it as if it were a stupid stunt I pulled while on a bender, as if I woke up one morning to remember that pulling off my clothes and jumping into the fountain was not a dream, but a horrible reality. And, like a hungover college student on Monday morning, I now regard my actions while under the influence with a sense of bemused shame:  I’m impressed with the enormity of my mistake, because I should have known better than to have exposed myself.

But I am healing from my experience, and perhaps the best evidence of this is my willingness to analyze my feelings about running for office. I offer up this post as a testament to a person’s ability to recover, if not to learn, from unpleasant experiences.

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A collector’s item

 

 

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