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Re-living the Past

The Original U-2 Spy Plane

Almost identical to the movie's plane.

Almost identical to the movie's plane.

Who, What, Why

Bookstores still exist. Movie theater parking lots are full on weekends. Tablets are popular. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that never stops growing. So, there are several conduits to the past. Recently, I wrote a few scattered comments about movies I had seen in the vain attempt to actually catch up on what's current. Part two will have to wait. A movie about artificial intelligence caught my interest. I discovered I had even more catching up to do. A simple magazine in a grocery store rack at the check-out informed me that I only interacted with low-level artificial intelligence, such as search engines or voice-responders, in reply to straightforward questions. At the same time, continuing the pursuit of getting to be marginally in-the-know, I watched Bridge of Spies, a re-creation of the U-2 event I recall from childhood. It was a depressing piece of news back then. It somehow filtered down to me despite the fact that I neither watched the news nor regularly read newspapers. The movie is another matter, told from a very interesting, quasi-legal angle. The international fiasco had to do with intelligence, which has various dictionary meanings. Gathering information, or intelligence, is indispensable. It is also called spying. Knowing what to do with it, let's say, had Francis Gary Powers returned with a nifty, aerial photo-album, is an altogether different matter. Usually, everything of vital importance gets filed away, I would think, and we, the little people, need not worry. But this was too much to cover up. So, the story is told now as a dramatic commodity, not without meaning, but devoid of currency, buried in the past.

But people keep going back even as we move forward, aging all the while, without any say in the matter. In part, the world is grinding to a halt. New inventions are always in demand, but updated versions of the same old things with the novelty having warn off simply cost too much. How long can a highly commercialized, computerized world last? It remains to be seen, having no precedent. But historical personages still command attention, in addition to the challenges with which they were confronted, and how they were handled. Some books which caught my interest lately have little connection to one another except insofar as all occupy my time. The reign of Catherine the Great is one. I have so little knowledge of Russian history that I merely thought, why not dig in. The last days of Joseph Smith in Illinois is another, since they took place relatively close to where I call home. Another is the murder of Theo Van Gogh, which has been left in a virtual warehouse, the storage facility for Muslim-related atrocities. Call the whole enterprise an escape from the present, which can easily be re-entered at one's leisure.

Amsterdam Street Scene

Unlikely setting for a ritualistic murder.

Unlikely setting for a ritualistic murder.

Tribute on You Tube


It is only natural that after a significant, hideous event, analyzers would sift among the preceding historical debris for misconceptions and missed opportunities. In the case of Van Gogh, the burgeoning of an ultra-modern, multi-cultural policy, having sprung up in the aftermath of WWII, is offered in support of an explanation. In the abstract, an open and free democratic society is irreproachable. In reality, it is beyond control. Our best intentions are impractical. It has been a while since the United States has had to turn to its uptight conservatives to redress wrongs liberal allowances ultimately wrought. If hindsight implies 20-20 vision, then why do we shy away from the probability that the world is actually at war. Perhaps it is because we think of Armageddon in much more heightened terms than a single man, on bicycle, who stops to cut the throat of another in broad daylight. But if the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was enough to start WWI, then there are any number of events to suggest, individually, or in concert, that another world-wide state of belligerency has already begun.

Van Gogh, posthumously, serves the purpose nicely. As a compatriot of Anne Frank, his death, by bullets and a machete, provides a continuity of sorts to WWII, which, in turn, is the godson of WWI. There is, of course, no Hitler, nor Nazi Armed Forces, but terrorists and their clerics, however loosely organized or disorganized, can be considered a second phase of the former. They do not seem nervous, guilty, or apologetic about it either. They kill with impunity, since they have already made their final peace, and feel that, in time, the "pusillanimous" enemies of Mohammad will wither and die. The words and catchphrases have been altered. But they mean to set up another hierarchy, like the Nazis, and do away with, maybe not "inferiors", but "infidels". Let's leave it at that. The diiplomatic approach of the past administration should not be condemned outright; it was useful and proper in its place. Naturally, the Netherlands cannot be compared to either Israel or the U.S. But we are dealing with a global environment, albeit totally interconnected by a network of screens, together with an international sprawl of dual citizenships, emigrants, immigrants, travellers, agents, provocateurs, hidewaways, refugees, aliens, and ex-pats the likes of which the world has never known.

Looking Out at Iowa From Nauvoo, Illinois

Still rustic.

Still rustic.

June 27, 1844

Robert Smith's Carthage Greys are probably all but forgotten. But they were responsible for having shot brothers Joseph and Hyrum Smith to death while Governor Ford failed to mediate a situation that had gone berserk. Of trivial interest are the population figures in Illinois at the time. History books suggest that Nauvoo surpassed Chicago in this regard. But the aura of violence that once pervaded the one, now defines the other. Like Lawrence, Kansas, or the Badlands of South Dakota, Illinois has had its share of shocking bloodshed. As in the above-mentioned episode, murder did not solve the problem. Does it ever? Then followed a trial in which all defendants were acquitted. Ford lamented the impossibility of an effective prosecution at the time. But Smith, fourteen years after the publication of the Book of Mormon, heated arguments over plural marriages, numerous revelations, and local clashes over goods, property, and sheer hatred, had become well-nigh intolerable. It is interesting to note how inspired British converts sailed the Atlantic, then upward on the Mississippi to Nauvoo, met by the self-designated but also recognized prophet. Nauvoo might have, had things been otherwise, become a much more important city. Its population now is slightly over a thousand -- merely a small community and tourist attraction. Travel by river, of course, had been essential prior to the first transcontinental railroad in 1869.

Did Smith have it coming? His killers certainly thought so, as did the murderer of Theo Van Gogh. The latter feasted his eyes and ears on "kill" videos beforehand. Some people, moreover, just collect and accumulate enemies without half-trying. In both cases, the outcome proved more victorious for the victim than the perpetrator. It is impossible to condone murderous acts of violence (an abolitionist editor was also killed in 1837 in Alton, IL), though it is equally impossible to truly retrieve the precise grievances that riled up the rowdy locals. There are a few best forgotten elements that characterize Old America. Among them were hard drinking and God craziness. Smith's church survived and thrived, while many another, originating in the same era, vanished. There is something to be said for faith alone. Many believe Smith was a prophet, the Book of Mormon true, and the LDS Church universalist. Many believe otherwise.

Moscow's Grand Kremlin Palace

Catherine insisted upon being crowned in Moscow.

Catherine insisted upon being crowned in Moscow.

Meanwhile, in Russia....

During both the American and French Revolutions, Catherine II sat on the throne of Russia. It was an unlikely coup that dethroned her husband, Peter III, so that she became Empress. One cannot find fault with the Russian court for a slight lackadaisical attitude toward the former upheaval. America was brand new. The other, in France, shook Catherine up. Nonetheless, Russia had its own problems, such as frequent war against Prussia, no longer on the map as such, not to mention a rather short-lived incursion into Denmark. Then there were the Turks, too, who had to be fought without a firm foothold on the Black Sea. There are those obsessed by Royals. But Catherine's story, as told in a recent biography, might raise the question why. For the longest time, it seems as though in the wake of the death of Peter the Great, lauded for having expanded the Tsardom and transformed Russia into a European power, they dance, drink, play with toys, hunt, and cavort in ways that might rival the fleeting, romantic liaisons of a sordid Peyton Place. But as always, parties come to an end.

Napoleon once commented upon how the French loved pageantries, which he would not deny them. It was much the same in Russia. Catherine spent eight months in Moscow after being crowned. We love Russian music and literature, but spurn their politics, whether monarchist, Communist, or at present, federationalist. Somehow, the U.S. is always coming up against it. Many descriptions of mid-18th century serfdom within aristocratic Russia are positively horrifying. Catherine, with next to no experience, was able to preside over a vast, if imperfect empire. She consorted with both Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Voltaire (1694-1778), then wrote her own treatise over a period of two years on statecraft. She asserted the need for absolutism in Russia. To think that it would not be until 1917 that a diametrically opposite experiment would be tried, ending in failure in 1991, is mind-boggling, having yielded almost nothing, except finally putting an end to Tsars. People here have strong feelings vis-a-vis Russia without knowing hardly a thing about it. Seldom do we hear from experts, whether in academics or the world of diplomacy. Further, while we are still waiting upon the election of a female president, the outdated Royals, such as Catherine, proved the gentler sex undeniably fit to rule. In fact, she is looked upon as having complemented the accomplishments of Peter I. Hence, against her own wishes, she shares the same accolade: the Great.


One of 494 murders in 2015.  Now at 691 in 2016.

One of 494 murders in 2015. Now at 691 in 2016.

Are They Us?

It is an automatic reflex to compare today to yesterday, whether within the confines of our nation or elsewhere. Thus, the artistic freedoms of which Van Gogh was a chief advocate are not hard to comprehend, though not all his actions, deeds, and behavior were normal. But turn attention to his colleague and contemporary, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born activist, astonished that her pupils preferred the biased and austere proclamations of the Koran to the Dutch Constitution. This sort of thing is nothing new. The vast majority of Americans have found an accommodation for a constitution that, owing to laws and fundamentals running counter to the divine edicts of either the Old or New Testament, is the arbiter of all disputes. The problem of those who take exception is much more advanced in Europe, similarly pulled in irreconcilable directions. She plays a role in the brief life of Van Gogh for having collaborated with him on a film dealing with ethnic and sexual restrictions in the modern Netherlands.

Or, take the assassination of Smith, himself compared purposely unflatteringly time and again in newsprint to the prophet Mohammad. Were the Illinois militias much different than today's gangs? Both take or took the law into their own hands. It would be nice to merely harp on the pointlessness of both murders, except that it is how people think, however few actually act upon their baser instincts. Kill Van Gogh and rid Amsterdam of anti-Muslim fervor. Kill Joseph Smith and end a wayward, undesired Christian sect. Neither worked, but one can clearly see what life would be like if man's more irrational nature were given freer rein. As to the case of Catherine the Great, an autocrat, who does not seem to blend into the picture, she is still worth keeping in mind. A return to more stringent forms of government lying dormant but not dead is always an option. For us, we do not really know if in January we will passively watch an inauguration or a coronation on our flat screens.

Are We Done With the Past?

Rembrandt 1648


From Spinoza to Bouyeri

Owing to the shooting and stabbing in November, 2004, how far back must an investigation go to establish the necessary background? It might seem that 1632 is too far, or surely far enough. This was the year Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam, a descendant of a Jewish Portuguese family. According to Wikipedia, never the most accurate, if the most accessible source, a Portuguese Inquisition of the 1500s drove Jews to either Spain or Amsterdam. In 1492, only Amsterdam granted asylum. Today, the taking in of Moroccans and the Surinamese only followed a charitable precedent set decades before. But is the rescue of political and persecuted peoples the only reason, applying not only to the Dutch, but all Europeans countries exhibiting open arms? "One day, surely, Muslims and Christians, Dutch and Moroccans, would learn to live in peace, and perhaps love one another." (90) My source on Van Gogh warns readers not to quote from an uncorrected copy. But the idea, on its own, is sound, though it does not account for a recrudescence of anti-Semitism both Europeans and non-Europeans have mutually developed. Surely, Osama bin Laden's decision to launch attacks against "long-range" targets cannot have overlooked the desire to erode support for Israel. After all, Bouyeri, a Muslim, might have sought to persuade Calvinists to hesitate over lingering sympathies in the aftermath of the Holocaust. It was a Sheik's allusion to American foreign policy, favoring Israel, and, in his mind, disfavoring Palestinians, that induced Mayor Giuliani to return a check in the amount of $10 million for Ground Zero.

Here is another question. Do hunted peoples live in the same world as their predators? It is not only Jews of European ancestry, but American Mormons, too, from many backgrounds, who found themselves thrust backward from Missouri to Illinois, then sent forward, past Iowa, above Missouri, on a westward trek that finally took them to Utah. Further, what are we to say about Russians, invaded twice, first by France, then by Germany? As a people, so numerous and different from one another, they are difficult to figure. Having failed to secure a port on the Pacific in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), they were, later on, able to sustain a tiny island kingdom of anti-Americanism just off the coast of Florida from 1959. They are strong; they are weak. They are idealistic, yet capable of terrible purges. At present, not just Russians, but everyone else besides, seem focused on pipelines. President Obama became an instant folk hero by disapproving the XL. But oil will have its way. What else will have its way despite our best efforts to prevent it? Intolerance? Terror? Isolationism? Indifference? Insanity?

  • Submission: Part I (TV Short 2004) - IMDb
    Directed by Theo van Gogh. Short film on the mistreatment of women in the Islam. It shows abused women, with Koran texts on their bodies that validate their mistreatment.

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