November 24, 2009

The “pearl of great price”: an allegory for people who don’t want to win the lottery

Every once in a while, there’s a news story about somebody who won millions in a lottery and ended up being miserable as a result.

I remember one from a few years ago that sounded like a Shakespearean tragedy.

It was about a Pennsylvania man, William “Bud” Post, who won $16 million in the state lottery. After he won, people came out of the woodwork to try to con him and take advantage of him. His brother hired a hit man to try to kill him, so he could inherit the money.

Over time, Bud’s money was drained away by bad investments. He got in trouble with the law for firing a shotgun at a debt collector and eventually went bankrupt. He died at age 66, after telling a reporter “I was much happier when I was broke.”

Somehow, such stories still don’t make me NOT want to win the lottery.

Back in high school, I had a similar reaction to reading John Steinbeck’s famous cautionary novel about sudden wealth, The Pearl.

The title of this tragic novel, first published on November 24, 1947, is thought to be inspired by a famous Bible quotation, Matthew 13:45-46. It’s from one the parables of Jesus, in which he says:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:
Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.”

In Steinbeck’s novel, The Pearl, the son of a poor, but relatively happy Mexican pearl diver is stung by a scorpion. The pearl diver and his wife are too poor to pay a doctor for medical care and fear their son may die. But then the man finds a large, valuable pearl that makes him “wealthy.”

This saves his son’s life – in the short term. But it also makes him a target of con men and thieves. He gets in trouble with the law for killing one of them. Then, he takes his wife and son on the run to escape retribution. But in the end they are caught and the son is shot and killed. The pearl that originally had such great value ends up having a great price.

In a previous post here, I noted that, as a snotty high school kid, I wasn’t really moved by Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. But today, as a 59-year-old married man, father and grandfather, I am.

I can say the same thing about Steinbeck’s novel The Pearl. I definitely appreciate it more now.

But I’d still kinda like to win the lottery.


November 14, 2009

Lee Atwater and the Republican Party’s “big tent.”

In November of 1989, the first year of George H. W. Bush’s presidency, there were two closely watched gubernatorial elections — one in Virginia, the other in New Jersey.

The Democratic candidates won both races. And, in both campaigns, the candidates’ positions on abortion played a role.

The winning Democrats, Douglas Wilder in Virginia and James Florio in New Jersey, were pro-choice. Their Republican opponents, J. Marshall Coleman and Jim Courter, were anti-abortion.

This led to speculation that the Republican Party’s hardline position against abortion would be a problem in the 1990 mid-term election, allowing the Democrats to gain seats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

On November 14, 1989, reporters asked the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Lee Atwater, what he thought.

Atwater had helped design the winning presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. He was a master and pioneer of the use of political “wedge issues” like abortion and crime.

It was Atwater who created the notorious “Willie Horton ad” that played a key role in Bush’s victory over Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988, by making Dukakis seem soft on criminals.

When asked what the November 1989 gubernatorial election meant for Republicans, Atwater gave a much-quoted answer that helped popularize the political term “a big tent.”

“Our party is a big tent,” Atwater told reporters that day. “We can house many views on many issues. Abortion is no exception.”

Some language reference books say that Atwater coined the phrase “a big tent” that day.

But, although his use is the most famous and gave the term wide familiarity, it had been used previously in politics by both Republicans and Democrats.

In 1975, for example, Democratic House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill told a reporter: “The Democratic Party is a big tent. We are widely diversified.”

During the 1980 presidential election, the Republican National Chairman at the time, Bill Brock, urged the party to embrace a “big tent” strategy. That year, Ronald Reagan won in a landslide over President Jimmy Carter and Republicans gained control of the Senate — the first time Republicans controlled one of the Houses of Congress since 1954.

Lee Atwater died from a brain tumor less than two years after making his own, more famous “big tent” remark.

Before he died, he said he regretted the divisive wedge issue style of politics he helped create. In a widely-noted article published in the February 1991 issue Life magazine, Atwater wrote:

“My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood.”

After writing those revelatory words, Atwater passed away on March 29, 1991 at the age of 40.

If he were still alive, it would be interesting to hear what he’d say about the current state of political “discourse.”

For further reading and viewing, I highly recommend the book Bad Boy: The Life And Politics Of Lee Atwater by John Brady and the documentary Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story.

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November 13, 2009

Jefferson’s bloody “Tree of Liberty” quote still fertilizes freedom and fanaticism

One of the signs held by a gun-toting protester against the Democratic health care proposal earlier this year said “IT IS TIME TO WATER THE TREE OF LIBERTY!”

This is a shorthand reference to an oft-used and abused quotation by Thomas Jefferson:

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Jefferson made this remark in a letter to Col. William Smith, dated November 13, 1787.

It was part of a what he said in the letter about Shays’s Rebellion, a brief uprising of poor farmers and revolutionary war veterans in western Massachusetts that reached a head that year.

They were mad as hell about the crushing taxes they were forced to pay and the laws that let the government confiscate their property if they couldn’t pay those taxes.

As a symbol of their protest, they designated certain trees as liberty trees,” like those used during the Revolution to hang tax collectors working for the British Crown. They demanded changes in the tax laws, they had guns – and they were prepared to use them.

The Massachusetts state government reacted forcefully to put down this threat to their power, with encouragement from Founding Fathers like Samuel Adams. In the rebellion’s most significant “battle,” dozens of protesting farmers were killed or wounded by the state militia. Hundreds were eventually put in prison. Some were executed.

Thomas Jefferson was in Paris at the time. From that distance, he adopted a philosophical view of Shay’s Rebellion.

In his letter to Col. Smith, Jefferson did not justify the rebellion. In fact, he said it was “founded in ignorance.”

But then, Jefferson went on to say the part that people who are mad as hell about something love to quote:

“What country can preserve it's liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms...The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”

Protesters against “Obamacare” are fans of Jefferson’s “tree of liberty” quote.

So was Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people by blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, as an anti-government “protest.” When arrested, McVeigh was wearing a t-shirt that had a picture of a tree of liberty dripping blood, and the words: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Indeed, for over two centuries now, Jefferson’s “tree of liberty” quote has been used by various people who think it somehow justifies what they believe and do.

And, I expect it will be for years to come.

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For further reading and viewing, check out Shays's Rebellion: The American Revolution's Final Battle by Leonard L. Richards and the recent DVD A Little Rebellion. There’s also an interesting discussion of Jefferson’s “tree of liberty” quote on the American Creation blog.

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November 07, 2009

Is Nixon’s November 7, 1962 rant a “teachable moment”?

Long before dogged news coverage of the Watergate scandal helped force Richard M. Nixon to resign as President in 1974, he disliked the press.

In fact, throughout his long political career, Nixon felt the media generally had a liberal bias and an unfairly negative attitude toward him.

He disliked the way the press failed to fully embrace his anti-communist fervor in the late 1940s, when he was a Congressman and member of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

He was annoyed by some of the coverage he got as Vice President under President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s.

He thought the press was unfair to him in his unsuccessful campaign for President against John F. Kennedy in 1960.

And, in 1962, after Nixon lost the race for Governor of California to Democrat Pat Brown, he was convinced that slanted press coverage was a factor in his loss.

On November 7, 1962, the morning after that election, Nixon held a press conference in which his ire at the press infamously overflowed.

Most people know this frequently quoted part of what he said that day:

“You won't have Nixon to kick around any more because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”

But that quote is just the short sound bite from what Nixon said that day – a famous quotation with no context.

If you’re interested in politics and the media, you should read the entire transcript of what Nixon said, especially since it has some ironic relevance to recent political events. (The transcript is posted on the venerable Language Log. There’s also a video excerpt on YouTube.)

I particularly suggest the transcript of Nixon’s November 7, 1962 rant as recommended reading for President Obama and his team, because their recent attacks on Fox News seem eerily Nixonian to me.

I don’t say that because I believe Obama will be creating an “enemies list” or tapping reporters’ phones or doing other evil Nixonian things like that.

I say it because, to me, the attacks on Fox News seem as petty and counterproductive as Nixon’s “last press conference.”

Here are some of the other famous quotes and phrases linked to November 7:

“She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world.”  - American politician Adlai Stevenson’s famous comment to the press when he learned about the death of Eleanor Roosevelt on November 7, 1962. He was adapting an old Chinese proverb that was also used as the motto of the Catholic humanitarian group, the Christopher Society, in the form: “It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness.”

“It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” - The title of the classic movie comedy that spawned the linguistic formula of four repeating adjectives: “It's a —, —, —, — , [something].” The film, with it’s all star cast of great comedians, had its world premiere at the Hollywood Cinerama on November 7, 1963.

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