Dear Ferguson Rioter:

August 21, 2014

Dear Ferguson Rioter:

Congratulations on your choice of this time-honored means of expressing discontent while also obtaining expensive new  Nikes (for free!). The arch support will allow for sustained flatland sprints at speeds in excess of those obtainable by armor-encumbered riot cops. Clever. If standing your ground and fighting the man is more your style, loot something with stronger ankle support; New Balance cross-trainers or Asolo mountaineering boots. In any event, you’ve certainly shown outrage by helping yourself to other peoples’ property. The moral highroad, indeed.

You must be tired after a week of nightly looting; help yourself to Gatorade from the burned-down Quik Trip convenience store. The revolution relies on electrolytes. Hydration in the face of tyranny is more important to your community than the security of local businesses (and your neighbors’ houses).

If you find a free minute, maybe clarify the purpose of your riot. To express anger over the shooting death of Michael Brown? If so (and if there is a purpose to looting, other than opportunistic greed), what is the basis of that anger? That an unarmed black man was shot by a white policeman? Unless you know more than the rest of us, those three facts (the race of the decedent, the race of the policeman, and the lack of equal arms) seem sufficient by themselves to have driven you to a murderous rampage – to the extent that one of your number, when asked whether she would be satisfied with a federal civil rights investigation into the shooting and appropriate punishment, said “I will be satisfied when that cop is executed for murder.”

But are a black decedent and a white shooter synonymous with guilt? It seems so, in your mind. Never mind that the circumstances surrounding the shooting are almost entirely unknown – whether Mr. Brown attacked or threatened the officer, reached for the officer’s gun, rushed him, etc. These are things that might be useful to know before calling for an execution, but you seem not to mind not knowing them. Bravo, for your single-minded pursuit of revenge in the face of a complete ignorance of relevant and potentially mitigating information. Apparently, the only evidence you require for conviction is race. In earlier days, this was called racism: a readiness to convict and execute based on race alone. It was an evil then, but apparently you’ve found a loophole: when the shooter is white, a jump to conclusions and call for vengeance based on race isn’t racism, it’s justice. Good work thinking outside the box.

And attacking entirely unrelated policemen, including Missouri State Highway Patrol officers who couldn’t have found your suburb on a map last month and have only arrived now because of your unwillingness to leave your neighbors in peace? Assuredly, you have a clever motive for it – and you have been equally clever in criticizing officers for appearing overly militarized; that is, wearing tactical riot gear and driving Hummers. You would have them remove the gear to appear friendlier toward the community. Perhaps if the community wants friendlier cops, the community should stop throwing bricks at them? A discussion for another day.

Maybe, however, it is time your wish was granted; maybe police officers should withdraw entirely from your town. It seems to be what your placards reading “Cops Kill Kids” demand. In that case, you will be free to continue looting whatever the best looters have not already gotten. And when those folks, turning away from empty storefronts, start walking toward your house, you can call… somebody.


Right Rite, Right or Wrong.

August 18, 2014

Had I not been born a Jew, I would have made a good Roman Catholic. Dwight Eisenhower said of Dartmouth College “this is what a college should look like.” This is true of the Vatican’s rite: it’s what a religion should look like.

Granted, a millennium and more of entrenched dogma that seemed like a good idea when first promulgated but subsequently staggered under its own contradictory weight is heavy baggage – but baggage common to most faiths. The Holy See has an excess of it because it has been more aggressive in recording the strictures of its faith than others: no fewer than 37 universities, including the Pontifical colleges in Vatican City, offer degrees in canon law, that body of doctrine in comparison to which the Internal Revenue Code looks like See Spot Run. The Hindu faith is older than the Roman one, but the Indian swamis never bureaucratized their beliefs and so, thousands of years later, are not caught in their contradictions.

Still, the ins and outs of any particular faith are irrelevant for our purposes, assuming they all allow for belief in a higher power and propound the idea of treating others as we would ourselves. With those basics in place, the details are unimportant because it is highly unlikely that any specific religion knows much of anything about God. This strips importance from the details of belief; what harm or benefit is there in preferring one myth to another? A man once asked Rabbi Hillel to teach him the Torah while standing on one foot. The Rabbi stood on one foot and told him: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The rest is just details.”

Absent the details (like whether God really spoke to Moses from a burning bush, or guided the magi via galactic GPS), and assuming the fungibility of a belief in God and a moral commandment to treat others as we would ourselves, the difference in religions boils down to the appearance of ritual. So what value is there in organized religion, Catholic or otherwise (on a personal level – setting aside charitable works)? This: comfort and guidance. It gives voice to faith, and provides for the expression in ancient, beautiful forms of thoughts and hopes which would otherwise be private. In public acts of faith there is comfort: comfort in tradition, comfort in community, comfort in ritual, comfort in a public affirmation of personal belief. This is worthwhile, and the Roman religion excels at these: it has beautiful, elegant trappings. Its rituals are nearly unequalled for splendor and ceremony, which elevate their moral content.

Perhaps the Jews understand this appeal especially well. In 1994, the Dalai Lama visited Israel and asked a rabbi: “What it is that unites Jewish people the world over — what the kernel of the doctrine is that unites all Jews?” The rabbi told him: “When it comes to doctrine, there is hardly any uniformity. What unites all faithful Jews are the rituals. Come Friday, all Jewish homes, from Siberia to Ethiopia, hold Sabbath in the same manner. We have been doing this for thousands of years, since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.”


Look At Me Right Now! .com

June 10, 2014

Social media has ushered in – among other things – an age of staggering egocentricity. Any mook with a mobile phone can, with sickening ease and speed, announce anything to the world. Idealists regard this ability as the freedom of unregulated self-expression. In truth, not every aspect of every self is worth expressing. Too seldom does somebody with an intelligence quotient greater than the number of letters in the English alphabet announce something interesting about something interesting. Too often, social media is little more than an open sewer in which worthwhile self-expression suffocates in dim-witted self indulgence. The ability to tell anybody anything has fooled many into thinking anybody cares. Granted, those many probably did not require much effort to fool.

Why do we visit museums? To see worthwhile art. What if museums let slip standards and filled themselves with every cartoon from a third grader’s penmanship notebook? We would not visit. Or visit once, just for the novelty.

Once, publishing a thought to more than the number of subscribers to a neighborhood newsletter required a threshold level of intellect and  at least a nodding acquaintance with the language in which publication was attempted, and typically applying that aptitude to something worth the effort and cost of publication. This was a golden age in which “selfies” did not exist – or, if they did, were not inflicted upon readers like mustard gas. Discretion existed. It was understood that, just as restraint is the essence of taste, an absence of restraint proves an absence of taste.

When effort and cost ceased to constrain publication, so too did quality.

Worse than a simple absence of taste (which is a personal problem) is an overinflated sense of self-importance (which can present a public problem). Those unrestrained by taste in an age of social media are free to indulge a staggering egocentricity which insists people other than their parents care that they are a) sooo tired of waiting in line at Starbucks ha ha ha!, b) thanking all my peeps for the bestest birthday wishes!!! feel sooo loved, or c) omg so so so excited for Glee season finale!!!!!!!!!!

Cost and effort, the safeguards of publishing which once kept the thoughts of morons safely out of sight, are hence mourned.

This may be an ironic stance for a web log to take. The medium was once rightly derided by Joe Rago of the Wall Street Journal as the provence of “the blog mob” – a territory to be avoided. But drastic times, etc. Public discourse used to be a marketplace of ideas. Entry to the market meant having something worth selling. Nowadays, the cost of admission is a cartload of garbage with which to abuse shoppers.


Different Expectations.

May 16, 2014

WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange recently sat for interviews which were to form the basis of his ghostwritten “autobiography,” the final draft of which he objected to publishing on the ground it made too much information public. An “unauthorized autobiography” was thereafter published, over objection. Some cried hypocrisy: the man whose mission was to expose the secrets of governments was taken aback at the prospect of his own secrets made public.

In truth, there was no hypocrisy: individuals (typically) have a greater expectation of – and right to – privacy than governments, because individuals are not given power by the citizenry. Governments, conversely, are empowered by, and accountable to, their citizens – the private investigation of governments (by citizens, journalistic citizen apparati, or other means) is an important check on their power and a shield against over-reaching, as well as an alarm to corruption and waste (necessarily tempered by security concerns). Individuals, on the other hand, are answerable to laws, not to the population at large, and have thus a more pronounced expectation of privacy in their affairs. People elect governments, making governments answerable to people. The same is not true of Mr. Assange, who never stood for election.


Arms & Manners.

May 13, 2014

With deservedly little fanfare and even less facility with written English, we return to the digital fray with two quick notes.

No. 1:

A photographic phenomenon hardly less detestable than the “selfy” is the “skinny arm,” an affectation of young women who, through wishful thinking, have come to believe that photographs taken of them with arms cocked and angled toward the viewer make said arms look thin. This is not the case. Arms typically look fat because they are, not because of poor posing. No imaginative posturing will correct this. A treadmill might.

No. 2:

There is nothing more indicative of low origin than discourtesy. Your editorial staff recently flew to Boston, by way of Chicago. Going and returning, the administrative and mechanical failings of several airlines made sailing less than smooth. Nothing much could be done about this on the ground level, but the rudeness and complete absence of tact with which airline terminal workers foisted on travelers 15-hour delays hardly improved things. Irate customers became more so. Responding to exasperation, workers complained loudly to customers of their own tedious hours manning ticket booths and check-in desks overnight, leaving little question as to how those particular workers got stuck working an overnight airline ticket booth in the first place.


The Prints of England.

September 17, 2013

The English political magazine Vanity Fair published over 2,000 lithographic caricatures between 1868 and 1914, the bulk of which documented the Empire’s social, sporting and governmental notables. The subjects were as often the fodder of snide editorial asides, though a sympathetic establishmentarian stance pervaded. As the magazine’s title indicated, the caricatures tore into the assorted vanities of their targets – though in the good-natured way of an inside joke. They appeared weekly and became the journal’s distinguishing feature.

Originally assailants of royalty and politicos only, the caricaturists soon enlarged their focus to include actors, artists, sporting types, judges, men about town, and the assorted ornaments and oddments of the imperial military. Victims learned to appreciate that lampooning came as recognition for some accomplishment (laudable or less so) and took it in stride, like the subjects of friars’ roasts. Few protested. Thomas Gibson Bowles, founder, explained his magazine’s purpose in response to a critical Daily News article: “There are grim faces made more grim, grotesque features made more grotesque, and dull people made duller… but there is nothing that has been treated with a set purpose to make it something that was not already originally in a lesser degree.” Bowles himself provided biographical accompaniment to the art under the pen name Jehu Junior.

Two of the more popular caricaturists proved to be Carlo Pellegrini and Leslie Ward, each also thankfully prolific. Their work was published under the pseudonyms Ape and Spy – Ape considered the wittier and more insightful of the two, Spy drier and more aloof, often studying subjects clandestinely for hours. Judges presiding over court were especially vulnerable.

Each man sketched in public, then returned to the magazine’s studios to create final drafts in water color. Lithographers printed the product by way of the innovative transfer paper, the invention of which was critical to the enterprise. Lithography eliminated the necessity of drawing backwards to account for the reversal of printing presses. Their prints remain highly collectible today, as both bits of anecdotal history and political art.


The Big Fire.

July 30, 2013

From Racquet Club: A Youthful Hundred: “The Big Fire, or: Who’s That in the Negligee?”

The busy, hot St. Louis summer of 1957 reached its peak in early August. The Racquet Club slowed down with the rest of the city, as members vacationed in cooler climes, and the squash players, who typically liked cold courts to keep the ball from getting too lively, suffered with summer’s usual stifling conditions. Saturday, August 3, had been a typical, lazy, midsummer weekend day of no particular note. That evening, out at Sportsman’s Park, the Cardinals, led as always by Stan Musial, had vanquished the Phillies 3-1. Around 3:30 a.m., Larry Callan, a cabbie driving by the Club on North Kingshighway, noticed flames coming from the windows of the second floor above the Card Room, in the area of one of the squash courts. He immediately pulled over to the corner of North Kingshighway and Westminster and pulled the alarm on box 1725.

Three other alarms were called in by fire personnel as they arrived over the next thirty minutes.

At 3:30 a.m., the Club had, of course, long been closed for the evening, its only inhabitants being a few boarders and one or two employees asleep upstairs. One of these folks became aware of flames tearing through the second-floor squash area, roused the others, and led a contingent of a half-dozen sleep-addled Racquet Clubbers, in various states of nighttime dishabille, from the upper floors, down three flights, through the Library and foyer, and to the sidewalk outside. By the time they had assembled in the front of the building, sirens were filling the warm night air, and hook-and-ladders were pulling up to the curb.

Suddenly one member — it is unknown who — roused the cobwebs sufficiently enough to gain his bearings and with them, his sense of decorum.

Looking at the flames jumping out of the second-floor windows, it was obvious the fire would prove to be costly and damaging. On the other hand, it was a big building, the fire was at the moment isolated in one area, and the fire trucks were already on-site. The danger would obviously be fully contained in short order. Given all this, he stepped in front of the helmeted firemen in their heavy gear, axes in hand, jumping off the trucks and preparing to storm in though the front door. The service entrance, he informed them, was down the alley, and the Club would appreciate it they would kindly redirect their efforts by using that door.

The somewhat surprised firefighters stopped dead in their tracks, looked at one another, shrugged, and ran down the alley for the service entrance.

In a few hours the fire was out, although, unfortunately, two firemen were hospitalized. Almost certainly the bar had been temporarily relocated to the sidewalk out front. (It is hard to imagine the members fighting fire without firewater.) But most importantly, decorum had been maintained, protocol followed, even in the midst of the conflagration. The front door had remained a members-only passage throughout the crisis.

Lest some feel this too rigid an adherence to regulations, it must be remembered that the rules were in fact relaxed: the firemen were not required to wear ties as they went about their duties, even though the dress code required it of everyone in the public areas of the Club.

The cause of the blaze, which appeared to originate in a storeroom, was never identified. In terms of damage, the squash court was fully charred and burned, the Card Room was gutted and damaged by water, and the Oak Bar incurred smoke damage. Final costs for replastering the walls and ceiling downstairs, repanelling the walls, sanding and refinishing the floors, and tending to wiring and ductwork issues exceeded $20,000. Fortunately the painting of Judge Taylor at the east end of the room and the mural over the fireplace were undamaged. No efforts were made to repair the squash court, however, and it would remain a sealed-off ruin for more than twenty years.

There was, as it turned out, fallout beyond the physical damage. Apparently, one of those so rudely rousted by the flames from the fourth floor, and left standing on the sidewalk at 4:00 a.m., turned out to be a woman — and not an employee. No acceptable explanation for her presence was ever offered. Women, of course, were not allowed on the premises, day or night. In addition, business was frowned upon, so even were she a consultant of some variety, as is likely, she would still have been outside the protocols established for Club activities. There is no record of a sanction of any individual who may have been serving as her host for the evening. Larry Callan received 125 from the Board for his Club-saving effort, and the Fire Chief received a letter “to show our gratitude for the efficient way his fireman put out the fire.”


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