May 20, 2018

“From my cold, dead hands” – Charlton Heston’s most famous and infamous non-movie quote

Charlton Heston & flintlock, Cold Dead Hands speech 

EDITOR’S NOTE: The recent deadly school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, not long after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, reminded me of the context of Charlton Heston’s first notable use of his famous/infamous quote “From my cold, dead hands.” It was in a speech at an NRA meeting held a few months after the 1989 Stockton, California schoolyard shooting, in which dozens of children were killed and wounded by a lunatic armed with a semi-automatic rifle. Heston used those words in other speeches after that, including one on May 20, 2000 that gained even wider attention because he aimed them at Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. If Heston were still around, I suspect he would still be using the same defiant catchphrase to oppose any restrictions on guns in this country today, despite how many lives they have been used to take since 1989.

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For most of his life, Charlton Heston was best known for his long, highly successful career as an actor.

He appeared in more than 100 films, including some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters.

By the late 1980s, his movie career was starting to wane. But his prominence as a Second Amendment gun rights activist was just beginning. 

During the ‘60s, Heston had publicly supported Democratic politicians and liberal causes.

He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. at civil rights events, supported labor union activities, and endorsed gun control legislation, such as President Lyndon Johnson’s Gun Control Act of 1968.

As he got older, Heston became increasingly conservative.

He became a supporter of Republican candidates, like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, and spoke out against “political correctness.”

He also became an active, high-profile supporter of the National Rifle Association and its political efforts to block gun control laws. 

In the 1980s, Heston appeared in NRA ads and direct mail campaigns. In 1998, he was elected President of the NRA. He served in that role until 2003.

It was during his years as a prominent NRA supporter that Heston popularized the gun rights slogan: “From my cold, dead hands.”

Those words became his most widely-known non-movie quotation. He is even sometimes credited with coining it. But he didn't.

It’s based on previous slogans used by gun rights groups as early as the mid-1970s.

Charlton Heston, James Baldwin, Marlon Brando & Harry Belafonte, 1963 revFor example, an old NRA bumper sticker Heston was well aware of said: “I’ll give you my gun when you take it from my cold, dead hands.”

It was a catchy way of suggesting that gun owners were willing to literally fight to the death to prevent the government from “taking away their guns.”

Charlton Heston first used the last five words of the bumper sticker line in a notable public forum on April 29, 1989, at the NRA’s annual convention in St. Louis.

Three months before that, on January 17, 1989, an unemployed welder named Patrick Edward Purdy had used a semi-automatic rifle to shoot and kill five school children and wound 32 others on the playground at the Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California.

This shocking and, at the time, still rare example of a mass school shooting generated a media firestorm.

It soon led to calls for state and federal action to ban semi-automatic weapons.

In his speech at the NRA’s April 29, 1989 convention, Heston argued that proposals for such bans were sparked by “media bias” against guns and would be unworkable, unacceptable infringements on the Second Amendment rights of American citizens.

After Heston finished the speech, he was presented with a silver-and-gold plated replica of a flintlock rifle, as a sign of appreciation from the NRA.

Smiling happily, Heston held up the gun and said: “I have only one more comment to make: From my cold, dead hands.”

Heston later used “From my cold, dead hands” in other speeches at NRA events, usually as part of his closing lines.

One particularly high-profile use was in the speech he gave at the NRA’s May 20, 2000 annual convention, which came during the 2000 presidential campaign and garnered considerable media attention.

In that speech, Heston criticized Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore for his support of stronger gun control laws.

At the end, he lifted the flintlock he was given in 1989 over his head and said:

“As we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: ‘From my cold, dead hands!’”             

“From my cold, dead hands” has continued to be a favorite slogan of gun rights advocates — and a target of mockery by gun control advocates.

It has also spawned numerous take-offs and variations involving things other than guns.

Some of my favorite examples are listed in the post on my site at this link.

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May 15, 2018

“A little learning is a dangerous thing.” (A little knowledge, too, but that’s a misquote.)

Most people have heard the old line of poetry: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

It became a proverbial saying that has been — and is still is — used and repurposed in many ways.

The common variation is “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” However, that’s an misquote of the original line written by British poet Alexander Pope in his work An Essay on Criticism.

This famous “essay” is actually a book-length poem.

Pope first published it anonymously exactly three hundred years ago today on May 15, 1711.

It’s composed in iambic pentameter. That’s the poetic style with words that have an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, thus sounding like “da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM”.

There are two other famous lines in Pope’s An Essay on Criticism almost everyone knows, even they’ve never read the poem.

One is the “To err is human, to forgive divine.” The other is “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

If you have read Pope’s An Essay on Criticism, you know it’s not an easy task.

It’s composed in a flowery, antique style and full of obscure references that make it hard for modern readers to grasp.

For example, here’s a longer passage that includes the famed “little learning” quote:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fired at first sight with what the muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts
While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take nor see the lengths behind
But more advanced behold with strange surprise,
New distant scenes of endless science rise!”

This type of poesy is a bit reminiscent of Shakespeare. And, Shakespeare wrote some of his famous sonnets and verses of his plays in iambic pentameter.

But, personally, I find Shakespeare’s work much more enjoyable to read or hear than Pope’s and generally easier to comprehend.

With apologies to my high school and college English teachers, Pope’s poem An Essay on Criticism sounds to me like:

“Blah-BLAH, blah-BLAH...A little learning is a dangerous thing...blah-BLAH, blah-BLAH...To err is human...blah-BLAH, blah-BLAH...fools rush in...blah-BLAH, blah-BLAH.”

Of course, I only absorbed a little learning back in those days. (Hey, it was the Sixties.)

I encourage you to read the entire poem for yourself and draw your own conclusions about its Pierian spring of poetic wisdom.

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April 25, 2018

“My man Friday.”

ROBINSON CRUSOE, third edition
The book by Daniel Defoe that is usually referred to with the shortened name Robinson Crusoe became a bestseller soon after it was first published on April 25, 1719.

The original title used the long, descriptive style common at the time: The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an uninhabited Island on the coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pirates. Written by Himself.

It went on to become one of the most famous and most widely-read books in history.

You may not have read Robinson Crusoe, as famous as it is.

“Classics” don’t seem to be “required” reading anymore, especially if they’re politically incorrect. And, Robinson Crusoe is not PC by today’s standards.

However, it’s almost certain that you know the two enduring fictional and linguistic tropes that come from Robinson Crusoe.

The name of the central character became and still is shorthand for a person who is stranded alone on an island or some other desolate place and uses his ingenuity to survive.

If someone says “like Robinson Crusoe,” most people will know what that means.

The novel is also the origin of the familiar idiomatic expression “Man Friday” — which led to the later female versions “Girl Friday” and “Gal Friday.”

A common dictionary definition of “Man Friday” is “a man who helps someone with their work and is loyal and can be trusted.”

A popular English idiom dictionary for people learning to speak English says “Man Friday” means “an assistant or companion, usually a capable one. The common feminine equivalent is ‘’Girl Friday’.” It also says a similar expression is “right-hand man.”

Those definitions of “Man Friday” are, so to speak, white-washed versions of the role of the character Friday in the book.

In Robinson Crusoe, Friday is a slave-like servant to Crusoe. Not exactly a slave, but close to it.

And, Crusoe is an excruciatingly-ethnocentric guy who has nothing against slavery and believes, like most white Englishmen in the 1700s, that non-white races were intended by God to serve them.

As you probably know, Crusoe gets marooned alone on a desert island after a huge storm wrecks his ship and drowns his shipmates.

Robinson Crusoe & Friday (art by Ernst Liebenauer & Karl Fahringer)If you haven’t read the book, you may not know the island was located off the coast of South America or that the ship he was on was bound for Africa “to fetch negroes” to serve as slaves on a plantation Crusoe had established in Brazil.

Crusoe is totally blasé about slavery, especially when it comes to Africans, who he views as ignorant, inferior, naked savages.

He has a slightly higher opinion of the Indians of the “New World,” and thinks the Spanish killed too many of them and mistreat them a bit too much. But he’s not fundamentally opposed to enslaving Indians either.

That — and the fact that Crusoe treats Friday like a slave — may be why Friday has been portrayed as being black in some film and TV adaptations.

In the novel, he’s a Carib Indian, a tribe that Crusoe describes as cannibals who regularly slaughter and dine on humans. Whether they actually were true cannibals, or practiced an occasional ritualized form of cannibalism, is a subject of historical dispute.

At any rate, during the more than two decades Crusoe spent alone on the island, he sees signs that Caribs had visited there, including footprints and remains of their cannibalized victims.

Then, in Chapter XIV, Crusoe sees a group of Caribs dragging some others along the shore, presumably to be slaughtered and eaten.

One runs away. Crusoe shoots his pursuers, frightens off the rest and saves the intended victim’s life.

Crusoe can’t communicate with the man he saved, since neither speaks the other’s language. But instead of using the simple “Me Tarzan, you Jane” approach to finding out the man’s name, Crusoe names him Friday, because that’s the day their chance meeting occurred. 

Over time, Crusoe teaches Friday to speak English and asks him a few things about customs of the Carib people. But he doesn’t ask his real name, and clearly doesn’t much care.

Crusoe first uses the term “man Friday” in Chapter XIV. Shortly after he saves the Indian's life, Crusoe says:

“I took my man Friday with me, giving him the sword in his hand, with the bow and arrows at his back, which I found he could use very dexterously, making him carry one gun for me.”

From then on, throughout the book, Crusoe calls him “my man Friday.”

By “my man Friday,” he really meansmy man,” in the controlling sense. And, in the book, Friday is fine with that. He’s a grateful, obsequious and obedient servant to Crusoe.

Below is what you might find to be a gagworthy passage from Chapter XIV in which Crusoe describes Friday’s looks and subservient demeanor. In it, Crusoe also explains that he taught the Carib his new name and the word Master (with a capital M):

    “He had a very good countenance, not a fierce and surly aspect, but seemed to have something very manly in his face; and yet he had all the sweetness and softness of a European in his countenance, too, especially when he smiled. His hair was long and black, not curled like wool...The colour of his skin was not quite black, but very tawny; and yet not an ugly, yellow, nauseous tawny, as the Brazilians and Virginians, and other natives of America are, but of a bright kind of a dun olive-colour, that had in it something very agreeable, though not very easy to describe. His face was round and plump; his nose small, not flat, like the negroes; a very good mouth, thin lips, and his fine teeth well set, and as white as ivory.
     After he had slumbered, rather than slept, about half-an-hour, he awoke again, and came out of the cave to me, for I had been milking my goats which I had in the enclosure just by: when he espied me he came running to me, laying himself down again upon the ground, with all the possible signs of an humble, thankful disposition, making a great many antic gestures to show it. At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before; and after this made all the signs to me of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know how he would serve me so long as he lived. I understood him in many things, and let him know I was very well pleased with him. In a little time I began to speak to him; and teach him to speak to me; and first, I let him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life; I called him so for the memory of the time. I likewise taught him to say Master; and then let him know that was to be my name.”

When an English ship finally comes to the island and Crusoe is rescued, he takes Friday along. The Carib remains his loyal servant when Crusoe goes back to Brazil, where his plantation is still thriving, thanks to slave labor.

He also takes Friday along with him in Daniel Defoe’s sequel to Robinson Crusoe, which few people are familiar with, titled: The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe; Being the Second and Last Part of His Life, And of the Strange Surprising Accounts of his Travels Round three Parts of the Globe. (Now usually just called The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.)

In that second novel, Crusoe decides to sail with Friday and a small crew to the island where he’d been stranded. On the way, they are attacked by Caribs.

Friday is hit with three of their arrows and dies. Crusoe says with an underwhelming lack of emotion he was quite “annoyed at the loss of my old trusty servant and companion.”

It’s hard to view the term “Man Friday” as a positive thing if you think too much about how racist and pompous Robinson Crusoe is as a character. But he and Daniel Defoe were of their time.

The novel is still a classic adventure worth reading, though Crusoe is not really a “good guy” in the modern sense and Friday’s role doesn’t quite fit nice-sounding definitions like “a man who helps someone with their work and is loyal and can be trusted” or “an assistant or companion, usually a capable one.”

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April 10, 2018

The Original “12 Step Program”

William Wilson, aka Bill W (1895-1971)Today, there are many organizations that use a “12-step program” to help people deal with some type of addiction or other problems.

In addition to alcohol and drug-related groups, there are groups with 12-step programs for everything from food addicts and sex addicts to debtors, “underearners,” and workaholics.  

Of course, all of the current organizations that have “anonymous” in their names and teach some type of 12-step program are based on Alcoholics Anonymous and “The 12 Steps” in that venerable organization’s famed guide to overcoming alcoholism — officially titled Alcoholics Anonymous, but generally referred to as “the Big Book.”

The organization Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935 by two men who had struggled with alcoholism in their own lives: William “Bill” Wilson and Dr. Robert “Bob” Smith.

The official publication and copyright date for the what is called the first edition of the Big Book, as recorded by the U.S. Copyright Office, is April 10, 1939.

Most of the first edition was written by Wilson, under the name “Bill W,” though he used things written and said to him by other members.

The basic text of the book was originally compiled by Wilson in 1938. Prior to the official “first edition,” copies were printed by AA members using a multilith duplicating machine.

In part, Wilson’s use of the pen name Bill W. reflected AA’s approach of allowing people to come to meetings and avoid embarrassment by not using their full names.

This is the basis for the “anonymous” in Alcoholics Anonymous and led to the now familiar self-introduction: “My name is X, and I’m an alcoholic” (a line included in later editions of the Big Book, but not the first edition.)

It also reflected the belief of Wilson and Dr. Smith that AA organizers should not gain personal profit or publicity for their work on behalf of the organization.

12 Step Programs ListThe “12 Steps” Wilson included in the Big Book, with input from other early AA members, are the origin of the widely-used approach and term “12-step program.”

The basic gist of a few of the AA’s 12 Steps — such as making a list of people you’ve harmed and asking their forgiveness — is familiar to most people.

But the actual words of the 12 Steps in the Big Book are rarely cited as quotations or included in collections of quotes.

Arguably, they should be.

Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the best-selling books of all time, having sold more than 30 million copies since 1939. And, the 12 Steps have remained essentially the same in the three later editions of the Big Book.

In the first edition, the steps appear in Chapter 5: “How it Works.”

Wilson describes them as the process he and others early members of Alcoholics Anonymous used to recover from alcoholism and suggests them as the model for all AA members. He wrote: 

“Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery:
     1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.
    2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
    3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
    4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
    5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
    6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
    7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
    8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
    9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
    10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
    11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
    12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

The religious aspect of the 12 Steps were a matter of controversy from the start, since some AA members were atheists or agnostics.

That aspect is still criticized and off-putting to some people.

But, whether you’re a believer or not, you may find the Big Book’s explanation of the role of spirituality in helping alcoholics recover interesting.

Chapter 4, titled “We Agnostics” says: “If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago. But we found that such codes and philosophies did not save us, no matter how much we tried. We could wish to be moral, we could wish to be philosophically comforted, in fact, we could will these things with all our might, but the needed power wasn’t there...We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves.”

The Big Book’s view of that higher Power is more expansive than Christian Fundamentalism.

“We discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God,” Wilson explained. “Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach and to effect a contact with Him. As soon as we admitted the possible existence of a Creative Intelligence, a Spirit of the Universe underlying the totality of things, we began to be possessed of a new sense of power and direction, provided we took other simple steps.”

You may disagree with those views.

But it’s hard to deny the good that Alcoholics Anonymous and its 12 Steps have done for millions of people struggling with alcoholism.

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March 20, 2018

“Because it’s there.”

In March of 1923, British mountain climber George Leigh Mallory was touring the United States to raise money for an expedition to Mount Everest planned for the following year.

At that time no one had ever made it to the top of Everest — the highest mountain on the planet.

In 1921 and 1922, Mallory was a member of the first two expeditions that tried to reach the summit of the mountain. Both had failed.

During his 1923 fundraising tour, Mallory was often asked why he wanted to climb Everest.

The question seemed somewhat odd to an adventurer like Mallory, but he came up with a standard answer to use: “Because it’s there.” 

That reply became famous when it was quoted in a story in the March 18, 1923 issue of the New York Times.

The headline of the story was “CLIMBING MOUNT EVEREST IS WORK FOR SUPERMEN.”

Mallory’s standard response was included in the opening paragraph:

“Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” This question was asked of George Leigh Mallory, who was with both expeditions toward the summit of the world’s highest mountain, in 1921 and 1922, and who is now in New York. He plans to go again in 1924, and he gave as the reason for persisting in these repeated attempts to reach the top, “Because it’s there.”

Mallory wasn’t being entirely flippant when he said, “Because it’s there.”

He went on to explain: “Everest is the highest mountain in the world, and no man has reached its summit. Its existence is a challenge. The answer is instinctive, a part, I suppose, of man’s desire to conquer the universe.”

During Mallory’s 1922 expedition, this desire to “conquer” Everest cost the lives of seven Tibetan Sherpa porters, who were killed in an avalanche.

Two years later, it cost Mallory his own life.

On June 8th, 1924, Mallory and his climbing partner, Andrew Irvine made a final push to reach the top of Everest.

Observers below saw them reach a height within a thousand feet of the summit. Then they disappeared from sight — and did not return.

In 1953, the dream of conquering Everest was finally achieved by New Zealand mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa companion Tenzing Norgay.

Forty-six years later, in 1999, an expedition funded by the TV show Nova and the BBC discovered the frozen body of George Mallory about 2,000 feet below the summit, where he appeared to have died after a fall.

Andrew Irvine’s body has yet to be found.

Over the years, some people have speculated that Mallory and Irvine may have reached the top of Everest before dying and thus may deserve credit for being the first climbers to achieve that goal, rather than Hillary and Norgay.

When asked about this in an interview in the mid-1980s, Sir Edmund Hillary responded dryly:

“If you climb a mountain for the first time and die on the descent, is it really a complete first ascent of the mountain? I’m rather inclined to think, personally, that maybe it’s quite important, the getting down. And the complete climb of a mountain is reaching the summit and getting safely to the bottom again.”

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