Voice of the Past: Oscar Wilde on Drollery

A Wilde time 3

In high school, I had a Lex Luthor. Most people have and do have one and know the type–the kid that was out to get your goat no matter. Sometimes the adversary was indeed a bit smarter than you. Like Lex however, the ego that came with the intellect was often his undoing.

Kitbash Lex Luthor

Later in life, Lex found his way into trolling on facebook, often making incredibly lethal remarks on the postings of my peers. However, the other day, I caught Lex engaging in vile plagiarism. He posted a quotation that looked a bit too familiar on his page, without attribution:

“Our Democracy is self-destructing because it abused the right of freedom and equality, because it taught it’s citizens to consider rudeness as a right, breaking the law as a freedom, audacity as equality, and anarchy as blissfulness.”

Sounds great, right? His toadies fawned over his wisdom, but not me. A simple web search of the the quote proved that he gleaned it from an ancient Greek philosopher, Isocrates.  Intriguingly, the quote is a mis-attribution. No matter, Lex expropriated it to burnish his own name.

Isocrates pushkin

Now, my inclination was toward humiliation, but my better nature took over. After all, in this analogy, I am Clark Kent, and well, Superman doesn’t use the tools of evil for good. I let it go. But I relate the story here. And that might have I said to Lex? As irony would have it, I would have employed Oscar Wilde, who famously said:

“Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.”

This of course raises a lovely analogy game for Lex:

If Quotation:Wit,

then Plagiarism::Asininity!

Lesson: Always quote your source material. Understand that you are borrowing their wit, not being witty yourself.

Oscar Wilde Statue, Dublin

Isocrates Photo credit: Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Lex Luthor Photo credit: shaun wong / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Oscar Wilde Photo credit: Foter.com / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Oscar Wilde in Dublin Photo Credit: Photo credit: anaxila / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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Dealey Plaza

Looking up Elm Street, Dealey Plaza, Dallas

So much ink has been spilled over the events of November 22, 1963, that I can hardly add anything new here on this blog. After all, since the very day of President Kennedy’s horrific demise on the freeway entrance in Dallas, every pundit, hack, conspiracy theorist, celebrity and average Joe has engaged in this parlor game. If Caesar’s murder was for the ancients the great story of intrigue and regicide, JFK’s story in some ways in the modern parallel.

Kennedy’s murder gave birth to the American pastime of indulging conspiracy under every turn. From JFK to RFK, then Malcolm X to MLK, we do not experience a national event without some nutter spinning the most elaborate explanation. TWA-800 was bombed, they say. President Bush colluded with bin Laden to bring down the towers, they say. Elvis is alive they say. As David von Drehle highlights in this week’s TIME lead article, indeed, Dealey Plaza is a festering wound on the American spirit. Like Lady MacBeth, the blood stain is indelible. We can’t let the story go. Paraphrasing Cokie Roberts, Americans cannot believe that an event of such historical magnitude may in fact have been caused by such a small, weak little loser, like Lee Harvey Oswald, alone.

 

 

I have been to Dallas on two occasions, and took time to wander about Dealey Plaza—the scene of the crime. Dealey is the sort of tourist attraction that a city has to learn to live with. It is an embarrassment to a city. But to demolish it would be to rob future generations of understanding. Humans seemingly need these haunted places, to allow the scenery to engage the senses and create vivid impressions and understanding. After all, why would I want to visit such a ghastly place but to satisfy my own historical curiosity and to think through my own conspiracy theory?

When I was a kid, upon the 30th anniversary of these events, the news was full of Oliver Stone’s hagiography of the events—his film JFK. That effort was beautiful theater but not much more. (And a rather beautiful score by John Williams). Seen through the lens of 20 more years of history, I have a hard time indulging the wild collusion of forces (CIA, FBI, LBJ, Oil men, the military-industrial complex, the Cubans, the Mob, the Russians) that allegedly came together to off their greatest nemesis, a presidential playboy who was about as liberal as Reagan. Nah, Occam’s razor applies here. Occam said that among competing theories, the one with the least assumptions is most likely the truth. Americans have such little faith in their government to deliver the mail on time, let alone conspire to commit a coup d’état.

DealeyPlazaAbove

Dealey Plaza is a sad place, but not simply for being the site of the assassination. The plaza is a bit isolated from the downtown core. Developed as part of an urban renewal program, the plaza is really nothing more than a green space connecting the on-ramps of the highway to the downtown core. The architecture is a modernist version of Bernini’s great arms that hug St. Peter’s Square in Rome (though much more modest). The impression I get is that this space was to provide the motorist an interesting approach into the city. Perhaps in the 1950’s, when America was in-love with the automobile (and, the cars were works of art unlike the fiberglass heaps of today), an office worker might want to take their lunch outside, and watch the Bel-Airs and Corvettes drive by.

Dealey Plaza

Today, it is an exhaust-filled no-man’s land. Tourists meander through, taking photos for their own mememto mori. They stand on the pylon where Abraham Zapruder shot his film. They wander behind the dilapidated fence behind the grassy knoll—the place where the conspiracy types believe the real shooter took aim. They stand in the road, where an “X” tackily marks the spot of Kennedy’s death. They look up to the Texas School Book Depository and perhaps begin to think the Warren Commission had it right—from his sixth floor sniper’s next, Oswald had a clear vista toward the motorcade. They tour the Sixth Floor Museum and take in the official history.

reading the paper on JFK

On my two visits, much had not changed—the city was trying to raise funds to restore the plaza to its 1963 appearance. Hucksters sold tattered, acid-yellow newspaper souvenirs to the tourists, providing the barebones about the history and space. This cheapened what seems to be hallowed ground, much in the way the souvenir slingers crowd around Ford’s Theatre in Washington (the site of Lincoln’s assassination) or the underpass in Paris where Princess Diana met her end.

On that last note, touring the death places of the famous and powerful seems to be a universal human behavior. In Turkey, tourists stand in the room where the founder of the country, Ataturk, died in his Sultan-sized bed, some 70 years after the fact. Tourists still go to the place in the Forum Romani where Caesar was immolated 2000 years ago. Christians go to a church they believe to be the place of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus rose. Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, the site of his suicide, is paved over. Yet tourists still linger there.

DallasTrip_09Oct2010 122

Down the road from Dealey Plaza is the city’s official memorial to JFK, a modernist pile developed by the architect Phillip Johnson. Johnson, a friend of the Kennedy’s, designed the great outdoor space to be a cenotaph and temple to JFK–a place for quiet reflection in the bustling city. Locals raises money for the monument, but didn’t care much for the modernist memorial. Dallas conservatives—the sort that wished death upon Kennedy in private only to live in shock over their wish coming true—hated the monument as well. But what other memorial could pay tribute to Kennedy—the first master of television media, the telegenic president in full color who championed the arts (albeit at Jackie’s behest)? No exact sculpture would do, nor a Lincolnesque Greek temple. This memorial is a large, white box–a canvas by which the viewer can cast his own contemplative memories about the 35th president–with nothing but the open blue Texas heavens above. It is an awesome temple—a place that forgives Dealey Plaza a few blocks away.

DallasTrip_09Oct2010 123

Dallas has changed greatly since 1963. It is still a city about big money, but it is about other things too. My generation knows it as the city of the Dallas Cowboys, of the Dallas TV show (and its remake), of hipster beer spots and an enormous airport. Today marks the first time that the city has memorialized the event (aside from the memorial by Johnson), a city looking to move forward. City officials removed the tacky “x” from the road, cleaned up the plaza and kept the conspiracy theorists at bay.

The boomers obsess over the Kennedy era, as they quiz one another about where they were on that day. But 50 years on, the gloss is coming off of Camelot. Kennedy’s presidency can be critiqued with a critical eye. Kennedy’s philandering doesn’t go unnoticed. However, none of those transgressions ameliorate the “undignified end” that this president met in Dallas. We are the inheritors of those days—of increased security, restricted freedoms and armies of security that will prevent another November 22, 1963 from happening again. In many ways, Dealey Plaza is a memorial to the end of American innocence. 

President Kennedy (left), Texas Governor John Connally, and Jacqueline Kennedy, minutes before the president was shot.

Dealey Plaza Photo credit: StevenM_61 / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

X Photo credit: martin_kalfatovic / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Dealey Aerial Photo credit: Foter.com / CC BY-SA

JFK Memorial Photo credit: brad_holt / Foter.com / CC BY

Memorial Pediment Photo credit: brad_holt / Foter.com / CC BY

Newspaper readers Photo credit: incendiarymind / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

 

Remembering the Armistice

lest we forget

There are those of us old enough to remember our great-grandfathers, who when pressed with a child’s questions about The Great War would talk in quiet and protected ways. They saved their stories for their fellow soldiers down at the American Legion or VFW, where they could drink hard liquor and tell each other about the horrors they witnessed in far away lands, at the hands of the first mechanized warfare. They were told it was the “War to End All Wars” but they must have known better. My great-grandfather, George Henry Krider, served in the First American Expeditionary Force that went to Europe in WWI. While I do not know his regiment or tour of duty, I do know that he was mustard gassed and barely survived. He had breathing problems all 85 years of his life.

He and his buddies would ask us kids to sell the poppy boutonnieres that we rarely see nowadays. Those doughboys are now all long gone and the memory of their service wanes. In America, we tend to treat Veterans’ Day more as a celebration of Sparta and less as a day of extreme loss and sorrow. For our allies in the Great War, November 11–the Armistice Day–represents an end to the most violent war in their cultural memory. In England, where the poppy is worn to this day, whole towns saw no sons return from the battle. The scions of family names were cast to oblivion.

The British wear the poppy in honor of their forebearers. They also mourn the loss of all their sons in the maw of war. In particular are those artists–musicians and poets–whose pens were silenced in the battle. And it is from one particular pen that the poppy became a symbol of remembrance:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie
         In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

Written by John McCrae in honor of a fallen comrade, the poem was highly popular. McCrae was a Canadian field physician, who died at the end of the war from pneumonia contracted in the field. The words were first used for to recruit soldiers for the cause, but have since returned to their more honest origin–of sorrow.

While the British and her Commonwealth Nations still honor their war dead in this way, to this day in Washington, DC, there is no memorial to hold a remembrance for our great-grandfathers and their fellow soldiers. Official America has forgotten this conflict. While Congress and others play politics in advance of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice (in 2018), each Veterans’ Day in my mind falls a bit hollow. This is a day to mourn, to remember, and to ask those veterans who survived the maelstrom to share, reflect and think not of the glory of battle but of the colossal tragedy. And since no one is alive from those days in 1918, it is left to those of us who succeed them to learn from the lessons of history, instead of allowing the vainglorious in places of power to repeat that history.

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot!

Guy fawkes henry perronet briggs

Many schoolchildren and townspeople alike in the British Commonweal are observing “Guy Fawkes Day” today. Americans might recognize Fawkes, both from the film “V for Vendetta” as well as the use of his visage by those lefties engaged in “Occupy” movements around the time of the stock market crash of 2008.

V

The story of Fawkes is the story of success and failure. Whereas the US founding fathers were successful in their endeavor to end oppressive rule over them, poor Guy Fawkes was not so lucky. History remembers him as a terrorist. Ben Franklin knew as much when he quipped “We’ll all hang together, or all hang separately.”

Guy Fawkes was a disgruntled Catholic, who lived during the times of the English Reformation. His Catholic church persecuted by the newly-formed Church of England, Fawkes and a few conspirators decided to take matters into their own hands by plotting to blow up the House of Lords. On November 5, 1605, Fawkes put his plan into action, sneaking around the basement of the Houses of Parliament, but was foiled by the king’s yeoman before he struck the match.

Fawkes was summarily hanged, drawn and quartered. Parliament passed the “Observance of the 5th of November Act” in 1605 as a feast day giving thanks for King James’s survival. Over the years, the tradition took on anti-Catholic sentiment, and was celebrated as “Pope Day” in the US until the American Revolution (source: Wikipedia). My wife, educated in British and Australian schools, learned this rhyme well, and often joined her schoolmates in hanging an effigy of the poor freedom fighter or terrorist (depending on your stripes):

    Remember, remember!
    The fifth of November,
    The Gunpowder treason and plot;
    I know of no reason
    Why the Gunpowder treason
    Should ever be forgot!

    Guy Fawkes and his companions
    Did the scheme contrive,
    To blow the King and Parliament
    All up alive.

    Threescore barrels, laid below,
    To prove old England’s overthrow.
    But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
    With a dark lantern, lighting a match!

    A stick and a stake
    For King James’s sake!
    If you won’t give me one,
    I’ll take two,
    The better for me,
    And the worse for you.

    A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
    A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,
    A pint of beer to wash it down,
    And a jolly good fire to burn him.

    Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
    Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
    Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

Guy Fawkes

Variations of this poem have existed since the time of Fawkes and King James, with many a poet adding or deleting a verse. In parts of the UK and abroad this evening, the tradition of burning an effigy of Fawkes persists. However, many festival goers simply know of tonight’s events as “Bonfire Night”–the modern “holiday” devoid of the violence and lynching, akin to the rather sanitized “Trick or Treat” in the US.

Fortunately, the burning an effigy of the Pope has fallen off a bit. Intriguingly, other public demons have served as stand-in’s for Guy–including Lance Armstrong. The “holiday” seems to have morphed into less of a holiday celebrating the spoiling of a terrorist (or freedom fighter’s) plot, and more of an excuse to burn an effigy at night, in the fall, with beer in hand.

Getting ready for 5th November

Painting Photo credit: Henry Peronett Briggs / Foter.com / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Guy Fawkes Mask Photo credit: gato-gato-gato / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Guy Fawkes Night Effigy Photo credit: wwarby / Foter.com / CC BY

Schoolkids on November 5 Photo credit: theirhistory / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA