Under the burning cross

February 28, 2009

klan2I see by the papers that the Nebraska Supreme Court came down on the side of common sense this week by upholding the dismissal of a state police officer who joined a branch of the Ku Klux Klan. The subject of the ruling, Robert Henderson, joined the Knights Party in 2004 and resigned in 2006. He joined in the first place because his wife left him for a Latino man. Henderson, I gather, was not a student of logic. His defense contends that the court has brushed aside Henderson’s First Amendment rights – an interesting argument to make on behalf of a man whose own view of other folks’ rights is, to put it mildly, suspect. That, of course, wouldn’t justify mitigating his citizenship, but the state’s position isn’t that Henderson couldn’t belong to the Klan, but that he couldn’t belong to the Klan and be a sworn law-enforcement officer. Presumably, Nebraska also wouldn’t want a police officer to join a group that promotes pedophilia. The objection from his defense that Henderson strictly kept his racial views to himself while he was on duty somehow isn’t reassuring. One would rather that Henderson wore his hood on duty so that a black or Latino motorist stopped on a dark stretch of highway would know what and whom he was dealing with. This case isn’t done, and it might wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court where an argument either way from Justice Thomas could make for compelling reading.


“Never again”?

February 28, 2009

I once read a caveat about words – that even God can’t kill them once they’re said. I don’t know if that’s theologically correct, but it applies in my mind to Richard Williamson, the pseudo-bishop who thinks the Holocaust has been exaggerated if it took place at all. Williamson is a reactionary who wouldn’t accept the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and went off into the ultraconservative Pius IX society to play at being a Medieval Catholic. Among the games was his ordination as a bishop. Benedict XVI, trying to end the schism, agreed to allow Williamson and four other priests back into the Church, but Williamson embarrassed the pope and made himself a laughing stock by questioning in an interview many aspects of the Holocaust that are well documented – by the Nazis themselves, among others. The Vatican responded to the furor that followed that statement by saying Williamson would have to recant that statement if he expected to function as a Catholic bishop. All he has done is issue a statement saying that he’s sorry he caused such a fuss. The Vatican rejected that statement and said again that Williamson must explicitly disavow any question about the reality and the dimensions of the crimes committed against Jews and others during World War II. There was nothing ambiguous about the Vatican’s position, so Williamson’s statement was obviously disingenuous. No matter what he says now, he should not function as a priest, never mind a bishop. Instead, he should be put to work recording the reminiscences of the GIs who liberated those death camps.

Living on the edge

February 26, 2009

beetleI hate when this happens. I got in the Beetle Tuesday morning, and it wouldn’t start. It had the death rattle. Dan, the incomparable auto repair guy, said it sounded like a dead battery, so I had AAA lug it over there on a flatbed. The AAA driver jump started the bug before he took it away, so I had some assurance that it would live to fight another day. Dan had it overnight and came to the conclusion that there was nothing wrong with it. The battery is still good, even after a few “stress tests.” The alternator is functioning properly. The wheels turn in circles as Nature intended. Aside from the faded flower in the bud vase, there is nothing wrong. Good news, right? Except that the battery was dead on Tuesday morning for no apparent reason, so now I live in constant fear that it will be again be dead for no reason—and not in front of my house but, say, tonight, when I get done teaching my class in Passaic. Passaic, for the love of Pete!

I once had a Rambler that would just stop running, perhaps when I was in the middle lane doing 55. I’d coast over to the side of the road, get a ride home, and send Wayne the Mechanic out to get it. Wayne would get in and turn the key, and the car would start. “Mr. Paolino, I can’t fix it if it isn’t broken.” Yeah, I studied logic in college, too. But I drove that Rambler with my heart in my throat, because I never knew when it would stop running.

Maybe I’m missing the thrill inherent in such experiences. After all, if it weren’t for that battery, tonight would be just another night in class. Instead, I’ll be in a state of anxiety all night and, if I go out into that dark parking lot—in Passaic, for Pete’s sake—and the car does start, that’ll be more enlivening than the usual trip home. Maybe that’s what Winston Churchill was talking about when he said, “There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.”

“… and unto dust …”

February 25, 2009

pizza1I always feel a little guilty right about now in the rolling year. No, not because we’re supposed to feel guilty during Lent. Not exactly, anyway. I get a little self conscious about all those Lents in my childhood, the Lents everyone in my house and people of our acquaintance couldn’t wait for. In those days, the emphasis in Lent was on the “giving up,” at least in popular culture. For me, that meant a hiatus in the constant gorging on candy and ice cream and Yoo Hoo as I worked, if you can call it that, in my family’s grocery store. Naturally, I looked forward to resuming that self-destructive behavior, but I wouldn’t have traded all the candy and Yoo Hoo in the world for what was unleashed in my grandmother’s kitchen when this day came.

Like many women of her generation and background, Grandma had a repertoire of Italian meals that she cooked only during Lent. Besides being restricted to the season, they were parsed out on certain days during the five weeks of “penance.” My favorite was the hand-made pizza with wild mushrooms Grandpa had picked up in Ramapo. I even loved the spaghetti with anchovy sauce, though I don’t think I could stomach it now. Of course, whenever she was cooking – and when wasn’t she cooking? – Grandma would call me into her kitchen and slip me whatever preliminary scraps were available – a clear violation of the fast. While some people, including me, still practice some material sacrifices during Lent, the season has a much more positive spin now than it did in the 1940s and ’50s. Presumably, those who endured the trials of those days piled up treasures in heaven, as we used to say. I piled up IOUs.

Here, kitty

February 22, 2009

felix-the-catWe spent a couple of hours yesterday watching, of all things, Felix the Cat. I think the earliest cartoon was from 1924, which was about two years after the character first emerged from Pat Sullivan’s studios. Felix was enormously popular, and that isn’t surprising. Using simple two-dimensional black-and-white images, the artist created an impressive variety of situations for this proto-Garfield. These cartoons, incidentally, like many cartoons of that era, are laced with stereotypes of blacks, native Americans, Mexicans, and Asians. Most of the Felix cartoons shown in movie theaters were silent like their contemporaries Koko the Clown and Farmer Alfalfa, and when the studio belatedly tried to add sound, Felix’s career died by the end of the decade. The later TV, movie and comic strip version by Joe Oriolo and his son and namesake is a different product altogether that doesn’t have some of the grim undertones of the original.  The Felix of the Pat Sullivan studio was often portrayed as friendless and hungry and, accordingly, as scheming and amoral, if not immoral. In one sequence, for instance, the cat plucks the white hair and whiskers from the head of an old southern black man to add to a bale of cotton he hopes to trade for a meal. That was considered hilarious in the 1920s, though probably not to the folks in the rear balcony.

The final frontier

February 20, 2009

Those of us who are trying to keep track of how the federal government is spending money might want to jot down the $591 million NASA is launching into space early next month in a search for planets that are like our own. “Like our own,” in this case, means planets that orbit a sun at a distance that would allow life-sustaining conditions. The space craft, with its powerful telescope and cameras, won’t be looking for life in space, but only for planets that might sustain life if there were any, given factors like density and gravity. This project is going to take 3 1/2 years. Presumably, NASA will find the money to actually look for life sometime after that – unless, of course, the mission doesn’t find any “planets like our own.” NASA, one presumes, regards as a temporary setback the fact that we’re having trouble sustaining life on this planet

Those of us who were living when the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite might appreciate the fact that there is no conversation about this latest mission, which is to get off the ground, as it were, on March 5. Back then, we were so embarrassed by the Soviet achievement that any progress in the American space program was news. When the first manned moon mission was launched it got more attention than the final episode of “Dallas.” Now we don’t care, which in the present economic climate is probably good for NASA.

“Dallas”? It was a TV series.

Never mind.

CP For reasons I’d rather not go into, I have been studying math. As in algebra and geometry. I know, I know. There was a time and place for this process, but my mind was otherwise occupied – or altogether unoccupied – back then. Besides specific things such as figuring ratios and solving for x, I have learned two things. I have learned that math isn’t difficult. I’m not sure that the prospect of its difficulty was what kept me from learning it when I should have, but if I had been asked back then, I would have made that my excuse. This wouldn’t have carried too much weight with my Dad, who could calculate in his  head faster than I could figure on a mechanical calculator. (Hey, I was born in 1942!) But then, he couldn’t understand why I couldn’t remember that James A. Garfield was the 20th president. Anyway, I have learned in this, my new incarnation, that I can learn pretty much any math function if I simply concentrate. Who knew? 

I have also learned that those who talk about the beauty to be found in math ain’t just whistlin’ “Dixie.” I’m having this whole epiphany in which I’m synthesizing the verities of mathematics with the “Summa Theologica” of St. Thomas Aquinas – but maybe I shouldn’t bring that up in mixed company. For now, it’s enough to know that it all adds up.



I probably should have known this already, but when I opened the Daily Office this morning I learned that today is dedicated on the church calendar to Saints Cyril and Methodius, brothers who spread Christianity in the Slavic countries in the ninth century. No chocolate hearts involved, as far as I can tell. St. Valentine, it seems, was dropped from the calendar in an update that occurred in 1969. He was removed because his history is vague. In fact, there was more than one Valentine – or Valens – in the early history of the church, and the whole affair was too indistinct to justify the observance. Those Valentines, apparently were all real, but there was nothing romantic in what little is known of their histories. Some writers have claimed that Geoffrey Chaucer, in his “Parlement of Foules” made the first reference to “Valentine’s Day,” but I gather that has been  pretty much debunked. Too bad. It might have compensated a little for Chaucer’s role in torturing generations of English students. I gather from what I saw at the mall yesterday that the rededication of this day has had no impact on Hallmark or Russell Stover.


Uber alles

February 14, 2009

As though the economy weren’t enough to worry about, Germany is involved in a controversy over re-publication of news stories from the period of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. If I understand this correctly, the Allied Powers gave the copyright of much of this material to the State of Bavaria, and Bavaria does not grant permission to republish it. But a British publisher decided to ignore the copyright issue and distribute a collection of articles, including an account of the burning of the Reichstag in 1933, the incident that gave Hitler the excuse he needed to assume dictatorial powers. We all know how that worked out.

Agents of the German government is going around seizing copies of the second weekly edition of the reprints, but 250,000 copies of the first issue have been sold already. One complaint the government has is that the first issue included a Nazi poster in which a large swastika was visible. Images of the swastika have been prohibited in Germany since the end of World War II. Another complaint is that the articles are not accompanied by any commentary that might be helpful for those who do not know the legacy of  National Socialism.

The broader rationale for stifling these reproductions is that neo-Nazis could use them to further their goals.

Poor people. Poor, poor people who carry such a burden and try to make it lighter by surrendering their fundamental rights. Poor people who forget or never knew the “Action Against the Un-German Spirit” and its blazing festival in May 1933 – 25,000 books burned in one day, more than a quarter of a million burned before the Thousand Year Reich came to a premature end, all to “purify” the Fatherland and rid it of “Jewish intellectualism.”

“The future German man will not be a man just of books,” Joseph Goebbels told a mob of students at the May bonfire, “but a man of character.”

Or perhaps, Germany would rather forget that too.


He’ll see you now, damn it!

February 12, 2009

The other day I was railing to one of my daughters about doctors who make appointments that they can’t meet. Why schedule a patient for 8:30 a.m. if you can’t see him until 9 a.m.? Like that. My primary doc and my dentist see patients on schedule. Be careful what you wish for. This morning, in the outer waiting room, I was engrossed in a magazine story about an international movement to grant rights similar to human rights to your great apes, your orangutans and your gibbons. I had at least eight or ten paragraphs to go when I heard the voice: “Charles?” You never get back to a magazine you were reading in a waiting room. That’s a law of nature. I think Darwin first described that phenomenon and, by the way, Happy Birthday! Then there is the wait between the nurse’s initial rituals and the arrival of the doctor himself. Jerry Seinfeld talks about that, and Morty Seinfeld probably has a few things to say about it too. Except that he’s dead. Today I was engrossed in a magazine article about the disappearance of the Pygmy culture in equatorial Africa when in came the doctor, right on time. So I was left mid-gibbon and mid-Pygmy, but – the doctor tells me – everything else was normal.