24 April 2010

"Dispatches from the Edge" by Anderson Cooper

Dispatches from the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival
Anderson Cooper
Date of Publication: 23 May 2006
Cover Price: $24.95
212 Pages
ISBN: 0-06-113238-1

Dispatches from the Edge would suggest a collection of anecdotes from the various global scenes from which Anderson Cooper has reported, and it is that.  Beyond that, though, it is the sort of personal confession that reveals just how psychologically complex and emotionally damaged the seemingly cool newsman really is.

The primary thread concerns the major events of 2005 (the Christmas '04 Tsunami and its aftermath, the ongoing war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina) and what Anderson Cooper saw and experienced amongst them.  Prior to that year, he had managed to divorce himself from the tragedies upon which he built his journalism career.  It's genuinely evocative to read him outright admit to being bored at home going to movies with friends, just itching to get back to the thrill of a war zone; and just as disturbing to read his frank account of how journalists cope with the inhumanity they are called upon to witness in their professional careers.

Throughout the '05 catharsis, Cooper relates key events that shaped him into the person he was prior to the breakthrough chronicled here.  Losing his father at the age of 10, and his brother's suicide years later are two obviously traumatic experiences.  Just as he reveals himself more of a thrillseeker than a noble journalist, he confesses some fairly selfish and dark thoughts about his brother.  It seems they each coped with their father's death in different ways; while Anderson committed himself to becoming as entirely independent as possible to remove himself from vulnerability, his brother retreated into himself.  Cooper's unabashed resentment is shocking to read, and yet somehow it is precisely why this memoir is so compelling.  Who among us would publicly admit to such sentiments?

Stylistically, Dispatches from the Edge reads as an anthology of journal entries.  It could easily have been a collection of blog posts, or the transcription of a podcast.  Each segment of each chapter is concise, saying only what is necessary about each theme to convey his point.  (And, really, what else would you expect from a professional journalist?)  Readers with no interest in Anderson Cooper, journalism or world events will still find something to appreciate about this jarringly honest memoir.

Ronald Reagan and the Changing Face of Currency

President Ronald Reagan
Recently, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) introduced H.R. 4705, which would replace Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill with Ronald Reagan.  Some of the opposition is based on a favorable view of Grant, especially in his native Ohio where he is still revered.  It's an odd schism, because both are certainly ranking members of the Republican Hall of Fame.  Were I Rep. McHenry, I would have tried to get the $10 changed; only economists care about Alexander Hamilton's contributions to our capitalist society; alas, he didn't consult my opinion before submitting his resolution.

For the moment, let's leave aside the legacies of these two presidents.  The first question that has to be asked is, what is the protocol for assigning portraits to our currency?  The U.S. Treasury website has an FAQ page, and here is the official answer to the question, "Why were certain individuals chosen to be pictures on our paper currency?"

Answer As with our nation's coinage, the Secretary of the Treasury usually selects the designs shown on United States currency. Unless specified by an Act of Congress, the Secretary generally has the final approval. This is done with the advice ofBureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) officials. In addition, the Commission on Fine Arts reviews all of the designs.

The law prohibits portraits of living persons from appearing on Government Securities. Therefore, the portraits on our currency notes are of deceased persons whose places in history the American people know well.

The basic face and back designs of all denominations of our paper currency in circulation today were selected in 1928, although they were modified to improve security against counterfeiting starting in 1996. A committee appointed to study such matters made those choices. The only exception is the reverse design of the one-dollar bill. Unfortunately, however, our records do not suggest why certain Presidents and statesmen were chosen for specific denominations.
Does this inspire you?
That last sentence is the most significant, to me.  How can we debate the merits of leaving portraits on our currency, when we don't even know the criteria by which they were initially selected?  Rep. McHenry insists that "every generation needs its own heroes," and I think he's right about that.  Before we debate whether or not Mr. Reagan is this generation's hero, I think it's fair to ask: Is Grant?  More importantly, should our currency celebrate our heroes at all?

Historically, only popular leaders have been engraved on currency (with the notable exception of leaders who insisted their own image be on money, their being in power trumping any debate of their actual popularity).  Are there any Grant aficionados who brim with pleasure when they come into possession of a $50 bill?  I, for one, am usually just grateful I've got fifty bucks--Grant doesn't really factor into my personal satisfaction at that moment.

The pro-Grant camp seems to be of the mind that he's been on the bill for ages anyway, he made his name fighting for the right side of the Civil War and that should be that.  This might sound strange coming from a guy who earned his bachelor's degree in history, but I'm unconvinced that's sufficient reason not to tinker with our currency.  Let's review who's on what money as of right now:

  • $1 - George Washington (February 22, 1732*-December 14, 1799)
  • $2 - Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743-July 4, 1826)
  • $5 - Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809-April 15, 1865)
  • $10 - Alexander Hamilton (January 11, 1755*-July 12, 1804)
  • $20 - Andrew Jackson (March 15, 1767-June 8, 1845)
  • $50 - Ulysses S. Grant (April 27, 1822– July 23, 1885)
  • $100 - Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706-April 17, 1790)

    Note that Grant is the most recently deceased of the lot, having died almost 125 years ago.  Are we to believe that no one in the republic's second century is deserving of being on our currency?  Because that's the ultimate position taken by those who resist changing our currency.  Does it have to be exchanging Grant for Reagan?  Of course not; but I think Rep. McHenry has hit on a worthwhile discussion here.  Who are our heroes?  Are we to believe that these seven men are the be-all, end-all of Americans worthy of being immortalized on legal tender?

    It wasn't always the case.  There are some denominations that haven't been in circulation in quite a while, and it's interesting to acknowledge them:
    • $500 - William McKinley (January 29, 1843-September 14, 1901)
    • $1000 - Grover Cleveland (March 18, 1837-June 24, 1908)
    • $5000 - James Madison (March 16, 1751-June 28, 1836)
    • $10,000 - Salmon P. Chase (January 13, 1808-May 7, 1873)
    • $100,000 - Woodrow Wilson (December 28, 1856-February 3, 1924)
    That makes Wilson the most recent American placed on paper currency.  I think we can all agree that list is absurd, not for who's on it, but the denominations.  Even rich people would be like, "Really?  Where am I gonna get change for a Chase?"  I can't even get McDonald's to break a Franklin, and they're one of the most successful businesses in the world!

    Let's bring coins into the discussion, though.  Again, the Treasury can't explain what went into deciding how portraits were assigned.  The roster is currently:
    • $0.01 - Abraham Lincoln  (February 12, 1809-April 15, 1865)
    • $0.05 - Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743-July 4, 1826)
    • $0.10 - Franklin D. Roosevelt (January 30, 1882-April 12, 1945)
    • $0.25 - George Washington (February 22, 1732*-December 14, 1799)
    • $0.50 - John F. Kennedy (May 29, 1917-November 22, 1963)
    • $1.00 - Sacagawea (c.1788-December 20, 1812) [Sacagawea, you may recall, isn't even depicted on her own coin--the artist used a living model in lieu of any existing image of Lewis & Clark's famed guide.]
    Previous occupants include:
    • $0.50 - Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706-April 17, 1790) [coin: 1948-1963]
    • $1.00 - Susan B. Anthony (February 15, 1820-March 13, 1906) [coin: 1979-1999]
    • $1.00 - Dwight D. Eisenhower (October 14, 1890-March 28, 1969) [coin: 1971-1978]
    This is entirely exclusive of the numerous depictions of Lady Liberty that graced various coins in various poses over the years, or the Indian Head/Buffalo nickel [1913-1938].  But then, Treasury has been more willing to tinker with coins over the years.  We've already seen their series of quarter dollars dedicated to all fifty states, and this is scheduled to be succeeded by a series dedicated to our presidents.  It might be fair to ask, isn't a Ronald Reagan quarter dollar sufficient recognition of our 4oth president?

    I don't know that I have an answer to that, or any other question raised by Rep. McHenry's House resolution.  What I do know is, there are legitimate questions being asked and I think it's a worthwhile conversation to have.  What are we saying by our choices of whose images go on our money?  Are we just resistant to change?  Are we expressing some kind of value judgment on the men and women in question?  Does it somehow add to Washington's legacy that he's on the one dollar bill and the quarter, the two denominations of money most likely to be handled and noticed?  Does it detract from Jefferson's, that he's on the $2.00, regarded more as a novelty than "real" money?

    Currency-worthy? I think so.
    Personally, I think there's plenty of room for changing our currency to reflect the legacies of our past leaders, as well as the changing interests and values of today's society.  I've already called out Alexander Hamilton as someone I'd replace (no offense to Hamilton, of course; but space is awfully limited and he's had a good run).  My first pick to replace him on the $10 bill would be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose famed dream represents the great hope of America, and whose tireless efforts literally helped change the world for the better.  Lincoln and Grant may have liberated the slaves, but it was King who helped see their heirs to true freedom.  But before we can talk about the Hamilton-for-King trade, we need to discuss the Grant-for-Reagan deal that's on the table.

    Whom do you think is deserving of being on our currency?

    11 April 2010

    Willie Nelson: Still America's Voice

    It's no secret that I absolutely love Willie Nelson.  He exudes a warm, friendly personality and whatever shortcomings might be charged against him, being insincere is not one of them.  Quite the opposite, in fact; what I admire most about Willie is his willingness to put his money where his mouth is.  For instance, Willie didn't just buy into bio-diesel as a concept.  He literally bought into a bio-diesel company, and converted all his buses to run on the eco-friendlier fuel.  This is the same guy who wasn't content to watch the American family farm be bought up by corporations thirty years ago, and co-founded Farm Aid to do something about it.  And even if you think it's irresponsible of Willie to be so public about his enjoyment of marijuana, at least he's no hypocrite about it--he has been very supportive of Dennis Kucinich's candidacy over the years, in large part due to the Ohioan's support for legalizing Willie's favorite herb.

    I've been reading and hearing a lot lately about how divided America has become in recent times.  The hostility toward President Obama's health care reform, the Tea Party movement, Fox News and all that; it's nearly impossible to escape without isolating yourself from the Internet, TV, radio and printed publications. I was reminded this morning of Bruce Robison's clever tribute song, What Would Willie Do.  Bruce ruminates, "You know sometimes I wonder when I ain't gettin' nowhere/What would old Willie do when it all gets too much to bear?"  I've been feeling lately like I "ain't gettin' nowhere" discussing these issues, and so I took today to turn to Willie.

    Emmylou Harris once remarked that, "If America had a voice, it would be Willie's," and I think that's true.  Over the years, Willie has stood for nearly everyone at one time or another.  He was one of Charley Pride's earliest supporters, famously kissing him on stage to quell the discontent of a racist crowd.  His relationship with his--and our--Native American heritage is well documented.  He even gave a somewhat controversial shout-out to gays with Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond Of Each Other in 2006.  As Bruce Robison noted, "He loves all the people, no matter their races/Hell, he even made a hit country song with Julio Iglesias/and that ain't easy to do."

    Then I got to remembering an anecdote that Steve Earle once shared about Willie.  Earle had gone to see Willie perform at a club in Texas back during the heyday of the Outlaw movement, which curiously attracted two very different audiences: rednecks and hippies.  These two were (and are) diametrically opposed to one another, and in the 1970s, violence was always a few beers away.  Anyway, on the occasion of Earle's witnessing, the hippies wanted to sit and listen to Willie, and the rednecks wanted to dance.  They harangued one another, until finally Willie halted the performance to address his audience.  "There's room for some to sit, and for some to dance," Willie admonished.  And, just like that, the hippies returned to sitting peaceably and the rednecks to dancing merrily.

    In our national discussion, it's a shame that we're told that either the hippies won't let us dance, or that the rednecks don't want to let us sit.  When I ask myself, "What would Willie do?" I'm forced to answer: He would tell us there's room enough for some to sit, and for some to dance.  This is America, after all, and he is still our voice.

    Heirs to the Confederacy

    In case you missed it, Confederate history has been back in the news thanks to the governor of Virginia, Robert F. McDonnell, who declared April "Confederate History Month" in his state.  I've been trying to organize my thoughts about this ever since the news broke, and it wasn't until this morning in a fit of Prednisone-fueled energy that I was able to approach the subject.  What follows is the entirety of my contribution to an online forum discussion thread concerning the Confederate legacy and its place in today's national discussion:

    A little late to the thread, but the subject has been on my mind lately.  Some observations and responses, in no particular order and directed at no one specific:

    The most relevant lesson to take from Confederate history is that the overwhelming majority of whites who took up arms and gladly put their lives on the line...despite it actually being contrary to their own interests!  The Southern economy rested almost entirely on slavery; whites who did not own slaves to run their own plantations had few employment opportunities...which is why they were so poor in the first place.  The Northern economy was based on wage labor, where the absence of slavery permitted a more favorable environment of competition for gainful employment.  The average Southern white would have been better off without slavery and didn't realize it.

    States Rights
    Someone in this thread argued that Democrats hid behind "states rights" against Republicans, and that was entirely true.  What's important to remember, though (and I didn't see it noted elsewhere) is that after Franklin Roosevelt came to office, the ideologies of the two parties effectively switched.  Republican President Nixon was the one who adopted the "southern strategy" and brought the "states rights" shield back into prominence.  In a nutshell, what happened was his predecessor, Democrat Lyndon Johnson, had signed into law several pieces of legislation that exercised federal authority over racist Jim Crow laws.  Nixon couldn't repeal them, so he did the next best thing: he found a way to get out of enforcing or expanding them as best he could by arguing that the states had the right to operate as they saw fit "without interference from the federal government."

    Southern Family Ties
    One stereotype about Southerners is entirely true, and that is that they are very family-oriented.  Incest jokes aside, Southerners have traditionally stayed close to where they were born and place a higher value on extended familial relations than their more transient counterparts.  Even first cousins aren't necessarily a close relation today for many Americans (especially as families continue to move away from one another to seek jobs, go to school, etc.), but in the South, cousins are still largely treated as siblings.  It's in this context that one must appreciate the hand-me-down nature of family tales of their Confederate ancestors.

    Furthermore, our society loves underdogs...sometimes, even when they lose (Rocky, anyone?).  Combine that innate sentiment with the close-knitted nature of Southern families, and you've got a recipe for hero-worshiping Col. Great-Gran-Pappy.

    Stay Off My Blue Suede Shoes!
    Trash talk the South all you want...but you leave The Dukes of Hazzard and Waffle House the hell alone!

    Thomas Jefferson was a deist.  God existed to him, but mostly insofar as it gave a convenient answer to the unanswerable questions about our origins.  God set the world in motion; what mattered to Jefferson was what Man did with it.  I suspect that today, he probably would have been more of an atheist or agnostic, because it's likelier he would have been contented by less God-centric answers to those questions.  Then again, he may have found some peace in the idea of an unknowable God being out there somewhere.  I am certain he would balk at instructing children in school with a doctrine that rejects scientific evidence.

    Convenient Federal Power
    Going back to the 19th Century, yes, it's awfully convenient when the South thought that federal power was a bad thing.  They certainly didn't mind negotiating congressional agreements that permitted slavery to expand into new territories (I'm looking at you, Missouri Compromise) or the aforementioned Dred Scott decision that denied one state the right to liberate a fugitive slave from another state.  But then, we see this hypocrisy in their heirs today.  I'm constantly being presented with news articles about the federal programs that benefit the very Tea Partiers who are allegedly outraged at the existence of those programs.

    Jon Voight & James Buchanan
    Incidentally, I saw a clip of Jon Voight reading a letter addressed to the American people from Mike Huckabee's Fox show.  In it, he asserted that President Obama is "the first president to weaken America."  The first thought I had was, "What about Buchanan?"  Everyone talks about Lincoln and how he saved the Union, but no one ever says a damn thing about Buchanan, who determined that the South had a legal right to secede and that the Union did not have the legal right to prevent their secession--a rationalization for sitting idly by for literal months during his lame duck period.  Had he taken decisive action during his presidency, the Civil War may have been much briefer.  Instead, the secessionists had time to organize so much that they were able to select Jefferson Davis as the provisional President of the Confederate States of America an entire month before Lincoln's inauguration!  If standing by and allowing that to happen didn't weaken America, then I would love to know what measuring stick Voight is using to evaluate President Obama.

    Rationalization Evolves Into Mythology
    When Johnny Rebel didn't come home, his family had to decide what to tell themselves to make it acceptable.  Johnny couldn't have died in vain--he had to have sacrificed himself for something important.  This happens in every armed conflict; for that matter, any time someone dies in a way that doesn't jibe with what his or her surviving loved ones wish to believe.  And what they came up with to justify Johnny not coming home was that he died fighting to preserve the purest form of independence and freedom from governmental interference (never mind the obvious hypocrisy of the argument).  And that's what has been allowed to grow from a rationalization to an outright mythology in the South, and their heirs are desperate to envision themselves a part of that noble legacy.

    Calhoun and I are not in agreement about nearly anything, but I readily admit that there's a great deal of admiration I have for how articulate and passionate his surviving words tend to be.  If you isolate them from any other understanding you have of the situations, there emerges a sort of logic to what he says.  I liken it to when I was in math class, and I would get the wrong answer by doing what I believed to have been the correct process.  It always turned out that my mistake was in one of the very earliest stages of my work, and that early mistake threw off the entire thing.

    Robert E. Lee
    One thing about General Robert E. Lee that is often overlooked is that he himself did not wish to secede; he only went along with the Confederacy out of a deep personal devotion to his home state of Virginia.  Lee's personal views on slavery have been a point of contention over the years.  Any criticism he might have offered of any value was kept from the public discourse, but some excerpts from private letters invite an interpretation of the man as having accepted the "peculiar institution" while simultaneously disliking it.  Why this matters is, it provides the necessary kernel of truth for the self-pardoning sub-mythology of the Confederacy as being about more than slavery.  If Lee could fight for the Confederacy despite not wanting to, or even believing in slavery, then there had to be more to it for him...and if there was, then there was something more to it for everyone else who participated, too.