Powdered Wigs, Syphilis, and Tradition

Today I was at a friend’s house watching the new History Channel miniseries about the Revolutionary War.   While we were watching it my friend asked me why people wore wigs back in that time period.  I had to find out and upon doing so found this article:

Why Did People Wear Powdered Wigs?

A sample:

For nearly two centuries, powdered wigs—called perukes—were all the rage. The chic hairpiece would have never become popular, however, if it hadn’t been for a venereal disease, a pair of self-conscious kings, and poor hair hygiene.  

The peruke’s story begins like many others—with syphilis. By 1580, the STD had become the worst epidemic to strike Europe since the Black Death. According to William Clowes, an “infinite multitude” of syphilis patients clogged London’s hospitals, and more filtered in each day. Without antibiotics, victims faced the full brunt of the disease: open sores, nasty rashes, blindness, dementia, and patchy hair loss. Baldness swept the land.

At the time, hair loss was a one-way ticket to public embarrassment. Long hair was a trendy status symbol, and a bald dome could stain any reputation. When Samuel Pepys’s brother acquired syphilis, the diarist wrote, “If [my brother] lives, he will not be able to show his head—which will be a very great shame to me.” Hair was that big of a deal.

The rest of the article is interesting as well.  Eventually Louis XIV, King of France, and Charles II, King of England, also started wearing wigs.  (Both of these kings were also thought possibly to have had syphilis.)  Well once kings start wearing wigs it is only a matter of time until others do.

So basically you had a bunch of rich people that were fucking too much, got syphilis, started wearing wigs, and then they influenced a whole lot of other people to start wearing wigs.  What is so funny is that judges used to wear wigs in the U.S.  Judges in England still wear them.  So you had and have all of these so called respectable people carrying on a tradition that in part started because of an STD.

It kind of makes you wonder what other respectable traditions have their basis in bullshit too…

Death, Mortality, Abraham Lincoln, and His Secretary of War

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If you want to know why Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals is such a thing of beauty, look no further.  The following two pages (at least on my Kindle) shows you how jam packed this book is with ideas and humanity.  Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton were polar opposites in personality, but were a perfect team when working together.  The one thing they both personally shared was a deep understanding of mortality due to the fact that both of them suffered the tremendous loss of loved ones.  As well as losing family members, Lincoln’s first love died when he was young.  Stanton lost his first wife at an early age.  Excerpt:

That Lincoln was also preoccupied with death is clear from the themes of many of his favorite poems that addressed the ephemeral nature of life and reflected on his own painful acquaintance with death.  He particularly cherished “Mortality,” by William Knox, and transcribed a copy for the Stantons.

Oh!  Why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud,
A flash of lightning, a break of the wave,
He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.

He could recite from memory “The Last Leaf,” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and once claimed to the painter Francis Carpenter that “for pure pathos” there was “nothing finer…in the English language” than the six-line stanza:

The mossy marble rest
On lips that he has prest
  In their bloom,
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
  On the tomb.

Yet, beyond sharing a romantic and philosophical preoccupation with death, the commander in chief and the secretary of war shared the harrowing knowledge that their choices resulted in sending hundreds of thousands of young men to their graves.  Stanton’s Quaker background made the strain particularly unbearable.  As a young man, he had written a passionate essay decrying society’s exaltation of war.  “Why is it,” he asked, that military generals “are praised and honored instead of being punished as malefactors?”  After all, the work of war is “the making of widows and orphans – the plundering of towns and villages – the exterminating & spoiling of all, making the earth a slaughterhouse.”  Though governments might argue war’s necessity to achieve certain objectives, “how much better might they accomplish their ends by some other means?  But if generals are useful so are butchers, and who will say that because a butcher is useful he should be honored?”  

Three decades after writing this, Stanton found himself responsible for an army of more than 2 million men.  “There could be no greater madness,” he reasoned, “than for a man to encounter what I do for anything less than motives that overleap time and look forward to eternity.”  Lincoln, too, found the horrific scope of the burden hard to fathom.  “Doesn’t it strike you as queer that I, who couldn’t cut the head off of a chicken, and who was sick at the sight of blood, should be cast into the middle of a great war, with blood flowing all about me?”  

Great Moments In American Politics: Pulling a Gun While Being Drunk in the Senate

A lot of people hate Congress, but what they don’t realize is that it has improved!  What follows is the behavior of Senator Willard Saulsbury of Delaware as reported in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  (Sualsburg was pat of the group that opposed the Emancipation Proclamation):

In the Senate, Willard Saulsbury of Delaware took to the floor to prevent a vote sustaining the administration on the suspension of habeas corpus.  He could hardly keep his footing during a liquor-fueled harangue, while he inveighed against the president “in language fit only for a drunken fishwife,” calling him “an imbecile” and claiming that he was “the weakest man ever placed in high office.”  Called to order by Vice President Hamlin, he refused to take his seat.  When sergeant at arms approached to take Saulsbury into custody, he pulled out his revolver.  “Damn you,” he said, pointing the pistol at the sergeant’s head, “if you touch me I’ll shoot you dead.”  The wild scene continued for some time before Saulsbury was removed from the Senate floor.

Just remember what’s out there in the American bloodstream, right below the surface.  Happy New Year!

Five Reasons Lincoln Was a Great Man

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I am slowly making my way through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, as I have a bunch of books going.  I also just watched the movie Lincoln for the third time last night.  Before that I watched Ken Burn’s The Civil War series.  The more I learn about Lincoln, the more I like him.  Normally I hate questions like if you could go to dinner with anyone living or dead, who would you choose?  I usually feel put on the spot and there are a million ways you could answer that anyway, depending on the conditions.  It’s like someone asking you what your favorite color is.  Well, I like blue, but depending on the context I might also like…

But I have to admit if I were forced to answer a question like that right now I think I would have to say Lincoln.  Unlike many people, the more he is taking off of a pedestal, the more he is humanized, the more unbelievably likable he is.  Here are five reasons, out of many that I could have picked, to explain why I find Lincoln so compelling:

1.  He was extremely interested in the world.  This is someone that had almost no formal education.  However, he would consistently try to push himself to learn more.  Books were his companions.  He loved books and could recite passages from literature and poetry by memory.  He wanted to learn complex geometry at one point.  He simply got a book out, read it, practiced it, and learned it on his own.  Usually the myth of the self-made man is bullshit, as most people have someone that helps them along the way, were born in favorable circumstances, etc.  However, Lincoln was about as close to this archetype as possible.  He was also interested in people and loved to sit around late into the night talking with people about an incredibly wide range of topics.  He was simply someone that loved to learn, push himself, and acquire new skills.

2.  He was humble in victory and gracious in defeat.  While Lincoln was confident in himself, he was never egotistical.  When he would win a case as a lawyer or a political victory, he was quick to give credit to others around him, and he never lorded his victories over his opponents.  When he lost, even when he was smeared by political opponents, Lincoln was quick to forgive.  He was also quick to empathize with others, he tried to understand them, so that he never took it personally when he was attacked.  This was crucial to why he was successful, as he never let petty political rivalries get in the way of his career.

3.  He was good natured.  I cannot think of one story where Lincoln was ever cruel to anyone.  And even though he suffered at times from melancholia, he always told funny stories and tried to put others at ease.  He would make himself the butt of a joke if it could make people smile and make them comfortable.

4.  He was not afraid to change his position if new facts emerged.  If a problem were to arise, Lincoln tried to learn as much about it as he could, often reading late into the night, and would try to reach a conclusion based on the facts.  When he was wrong, which wasn’t much, he would admit it and try to learn from it.  He rarely let preconceived notions of how he viewed the world get in the way of dealing with whatever facts were in front of him.

5.  He was always able to overcome personal setbacks and grief.  He lost the first election that he was in.  When he got his first big case he was snubbed and let go by the two more educated attorneys that were on it.  Instead of going home mad, he stayed in the audience to try and learn as much about the law as possible.  The first person he was ever in love with died.  Two of his children died during his lifetime, one while he was in the White House.  Yet time after time, while being highly skeptical of an afterlife, and full of tremendous grief, he pushed on, able to overcome his own grief to do things for the good of others.  Part of the reason he was a great man wasn’t because he always succeeded.  In fast he faced several serious failures and personal setbacks.  He was a great man because he pushed on in the face of these.

Although I am only about halfway through Goodwin’s book, I can’t recommend it enough.  Spending time with Lincoln is a true pleasure.  The book will teach one an incredible amount about American History.  Also, by examining Lincoln, one can learn a lot about how one should try to live.

Show Tonight and The Fruits of Debate

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Tonight Shinyribs will be playing at John T. Floore’s Country Store outside of San Antonio.  You can get tickets at the above link.  We will be there much earlier than showtime, so if you are in the area come out and shoot the shit.  I am happy to discuss anything and everything I write about here, even if you disagree.

In reading about the 1800’s I am realizing how much public debate was part of the landscape then.  People would debate for hours on various political topics.  People in general were much more involved in the political process as a whole, as least the people that were allowed to be.  (AKA white males)  Well we don’t want to return to those times by any stretch of the imagination, it would be great if there was more real debate in this country and not just people sloganeering and spinning from both sides.

I played a show last month where I made a bunch of political comments.  Afterwards a gentleman came up to me and said that while he was on the opposite side from me, he was happy to see someone actually saying something.  We then had a good talk about some of the issues.  I think that kind of thing is healthy.  Politics is compromise.  It is winning inch by inch.  Sweeping change is rare.  Although I would love to see sweeping change right now, I know that a slow grind is the only way the mountaintop of progress can be reached.

Many of those in power don’t want ideas being shared, they don’t want critical thinking, and they definitely don’t want real and open debate.  Rebel and talk to each other.  Express your opinions.  There are always going to be some people that you just can’t reach, but you never know.

How Do We Form a More Perfect Union?

I am very disillusioned with the state of our country right now.  Ever since the election, I have been trying to figure out how people could elect those that don’t have the well being of the average citizen in mind.  Instead of stewing over the loss, I tried to educate myself.  My intuition told me to start with slavery and the Civil War, as this is a period of American history that is still affecting how we think today in terms of our regional and cultural divides.

While I was thinking about all of this I had the opportunity to go to Australia.  I want to share some facts with you about Australia:

1.  By law they get 28 days of paid time off each year.

2.  Healthcare, although it is slightly more complicated than this, is basically free.

3.  Minimum wage is 17 dollars an hour.

4.  If someone is without a job or homeless they get a stipend.  It’s like unemployment that never runs out.

5.  They have clean and plentiful public transportation.

Those are all facts.  However, here are some personal observations that I made:

1.  The cities that I was in were very clean.

2.  The people were almost all friendly and helpful.

3.  Most of the people looked in relatively good shape.

4.  I saw no large-scale poverty.  In fact, while walking many days through a city twice the size of Austin, I never saw one homeless person.  (I’m not saying that they don’t exist, only that they exist in much lower numbers than they do in American cities.)

5.  The cities that I saw were vibrant and modern.

I know that Australia has its problems.  Right now they are having immigration issues for instance.  However, they seem to do a much better job at taking care of their citizens than we do.  I can imagine that just having 28 paid days off each year while living in a nice climate would alone make life more livable.

So how is it that a country that was started partially by criminals can be doing things so much better than a so-called Christian nation?  To answer this would require a book.  Although I intend to come back to this question, I am not going to answer it here.

The whole time I was there I was again reading about slavery and the Civil War.  What I found troubling was that so many of the arguments that were used to protect slavery are still used today to protect powerful economic interests.  Often progress in this country is stopped by arguments over states rights, religion, and economics.  We can’t pass a certain law that would benefit people because it would:

A. Infringe upon states rights
B. Would force people to go against their religion
C. It would hurt the economy

These are the same kinds of things that again were used to protect slavery.  In cases A. and B. these are the exact same arguments.  Although there were many people that were anti-slavery from a religious standpoint, there were also many that used religion to justify slavery.

During slavery education on average in the South was far behind the North.  In the present economic power is doing what it can to strip critical thinking from education.  This is not a North/South thing, although there is some of that going on if you look at recent election results.  However, I can take you to places that are backwards in my home state of Pennsylvania, while my current home of Austin is quite progressive in a lot of ways.

It’s just that as I dig deeper and deeper into the well I find myself more discouraged at the state of our country, not less.  Especially when you look at someplace like Australia in comparison, you realize that there is no reason that we couldn’t be doing a better job of helping the less fortunate.  It’s out there in the world, being done, right now as we speak.

***

Often when I have looked at the war in Afghanistan I see it as almost science fiction.  It’s like people from the present are fighting people from the past.  That is not to say that I believe we are right to still be there, only that if you look at the technology and education of the United States against somewhere like the mountains of Afghanistan, which are still tribal, I think it is a fair way to look at things.

After visiting Australia and reading about our history I can’t wonder if our own country is still fighting culturally outside of space and time.  Are there not places that still have the mentality of the 1950’s arguing against people from the present?

All of this raises more questions than answers.  But that is where I’m at.  How did we get to where we are at and how can we make it better?  Can we make it better with entrenched economic powers that need to keep people ignorant to achieve their goals?

In one sense there has been a lot of progress in our country.  I don’t think anyone but the Ku Klux Klan wants to go back to the days of slavery or Reconstruction.  However, we are not where we need to be.  We need to stop thinking that we’re number one at everything and realize that there are other places out there that have some of the answers.  We have to confront our history so that we can recognize the problems of the present.  There is no shame in realizing you can do better then you are, getting up, and trying again.  Shame is only for those that quit.  When and where do we start?

12 Years a Slave Review

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12 Years a Slave is a movie of incredible power.  It not only speaks truth to power and depicts an important time in our history, but it does this while being extremely emotional and artistic at the same time.  Rarely does a movie get all aspects of film making as right as this one does.  This is not a film that gets by on good intentions.  It is a tour de force for all involved.

The movie follows the story of Solomon Northup, a person who was a free black in the pre Civl War North.  He is captured by fugitive slavers and taken down south under false pretenses.  It certain ways it is almost like the Inferno section of The Divine Comedy as it charts the lead character’s descent into hell.  We watch as Solomon goes further and further and further down the dark rabbit hole of American slavery.

I don’t believe a movie is important just because it tackles a serious subject matter.  There are plenty of made for TV movies and lesser Hollywood films that take on controversial subjects with often forgettable results.  Often these movies inform us, but many of them do not move us.  In order for something to stay with a viewer it has to have a certain kind of poetic truth, more than the just the mere representation of facts.

The direction by Steve McQueen is the work of a true master.  The same can be said by the cinematography of Sean Bobbit.  The camera lingers in all of the right places, adding meaning and pulling ideas out of the story.  There are landscape shots that add a surreal fever dream quality to certain scenes.  There is a scene that focuses on the slaves singing.  For a moment I was left thinking about the power of music to help one transcend suffering on this earth.  And yet, scenes like this are done without hitting you over the head.  The score is almost minimal.  Much of the powerful emotions of the film are communicated by the powerful performances of the actors and by what the camera chooses to linger on.  Often films will try to manipulate you with their score.  I found myself moved almost to tears several times just by the images onscreen.

Every actor in this film brings their A game.  Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyoung’o, as Solomon Northup and the female slave Patsey, are able to convey complex emotions often with nothing more than the expressions on their face.  Also, none of the white actors in the film allow their characters slip into caricature.   Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson always make it feel, no matter how horrible their deeds as slaveowners are, that you are watching the actions of complicated human beings.

This movie is not only a deeply moving historical drama, but it is also as horrific as any horror movie, and even features certain scenes of jet black comedy.  Yet it does all this while never letting you forget that as strange and as horrible as the scenes in the film are, that this is anything other than another day in our history.  This is not the work of strange beasts who have no relation to our present, but the day to day lives of many of our American ancestors.  It does not simply condemn the past, but also makes us aware that the deeds of these people are very much alive in our modern world.  In fact there are times when Fassbender’s character sounds quite a lot like modern day racists.  He simply had the legal permission to cary out his worst impulses.

Anyone that thinks this movie is depicting worst case scenarios simply hasn’t read enough history.  I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  William H. Seward, a member of Lincoln’s cabinet, makes a trip down south and is completely disgusted by the day to day depravity of the South at that time.  He sees a group of black children being led in shackles while being whipped.  Children!  And again at the time this was nothing unique, but just another day in America.

When I mentioned that there were scenes of dark comedy, I meant that the film features moments where the absurdity of human behavior comes to the forefront.  Several times Fassbender’s Edwin Epps character commits horrible acts while being drunk, and then quickly justifies his acts by bringing up the Bible.  Hannah Arendt once said that, “the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.”  We recognize the truth in this behavior, in that even in our modern world many people justify their behavior through religion.  Because this behavior is absurd, to anyone that has a brain, it becomes ridiculous, but it is no less true or horrific for being so.

This movie, which features so many scenes of horrific depravity, is also full of compassion.  The dignity for which Solomon bears his suffering is inspiring.  Brad Pitt also plays a character later on in the film that reminds the viewer that, even during times like these, the world is full of good people as well.

If this movie just relayed the message that slavery is bad it would be bringing nothing new to the table.  However, by infusing this story with poetic truth, the filmmakers have made a film that allow us to reflect on our present.  While watching the film I couldn’t help but think that not only was this a story of where we came from, but so much that is in the film is still with us, even if it is often just below the surface.  I think if you not only want to understand our past, but also our present, this film is a must see.