November 22, 2016

“You say you want a revolution?”

“You say you want a revolution” is a line every Beatles fan knows.

It’s from the song “Revolution” on the Beatles’ famed double album known as The White Album.

John Lennon was inspired to write the song after watching news about the student riots in Paris in May of 1968.

Like many people around the world, he was shocked to see crowds of young people throwing bricks and Molotov cocktails at the police, breaking shop windows and setting cars on fire.

There wasn’t one specific cause for the riots.

Various demonstrators said they were angry about various things, ranging from university policies and tuition costs to the treatment of low wage French workers and the war in Vietnam.

In the lyrics he wrote for “Revolution,” Lennon indicated that he supported efforts to seek social and political changes, but opposed using violence as means to those ends:

       “You say you want a revolution
        Well, you know
        We all want to change the world…
        But when you talk about destruction
        Don't you know that you can count me out.”

The first version of “Revolution,” with the “count me out” lyrics, was released on a 45rpm single record on August 11, 1968. It was the B-side. “Hey Jude” was the A-side.

The video at the top of this post is a live performance of the single release. (In it, Lennon sings “We’d all love to change the world,” instead of “…want to change...”)

On November 22, 1968, the Beatles released their famed double album known as The White Album.

The first song on the second side of the second LP disc was a version of “Revolution,” titled “Revolution 1.”

It was a slower musical take of the song that had been recorded before the version used on the single.

In the final audio mix of “Revolution 1” for The White Album, Lennon overdubbed a snippet of himself saying the word “in” after “Don't you know that you can count me out.”

So, on “Revolution 1” version we hear:

       “But when you talk about destruction
        Don't you know that you can count me out … IN!”

Why the change?

Because after the original single version of the song was released in August, Lennon was criticized by many leftist leaders and groups who felt that “Revolution” insulted them and their positions on social issues.

That bothered Lennon.

John Lennon - Power to the People recordHe actually agreed with many of the positions espoused by Left wing activists; especially their opposition to racism and the Vietnam War and their support for better wages and benefits for common working people. 

One reflection of his inner conflict was the “out … IN!” in “Revolution 1.”

As journalist Jon Wiener noted in his retrospective on Lennon’s music in The Nation, Lennon once explained: “I put both in because I wasn’t sure.”

After 1968, Lennon became even more frustrated by the lack of progress toward the social changes he supported and by the continuation of the war in Vietnam.

In 1971, after the Beatles had broken up, he wrote the song “Power to the People,” a phrase borrowed from the Black Panthers and other radical groups that actually did sometimes espouse violent revolution.

It was recorded by Lennon, Yoko Ono and The Plastic Ono Band and released a single that year.

In the lyrics, Lennon revisited the topic of revolution, writing:

         “Say you want a revolution
        We better get on right away...
        A million workers working for nothing
        You better give ‘em what they really own
        We got to put you down
        When we come into town
        Singing power to the people
        Power to the people.”

The record jacket for the “Power to the People” single shows a photo of Lennon with his clenched fist raised in a revolutionary-style power salute.

I’m a huge fan of the Beatles and like a lot of the solo music John Lennon recorded before his tragic assassination by John Hinckley in 1980.

As I was writing this post, I listened to “Power to the People” again on YouTube.

The music still sounds pretty good. And, as a Baby Boomer who leaned fairly far left in the Seventies, I recall why I related to the song’s message back then.

But nowadays, as I near my own Seventies agewise, I prefer “Give Peace a Chance.”

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November 18, 2016

“We will bury you!” (Or something like that.)

On November 18, 1956, Communist leader Nikita Khrushchev, the head of the Soviet Union, attended a party at the Polish Embassy in Moscow.

At that event, he made some boasting comments about the competition between Communism and “capitalist states” like the US.

One of those comments included what would become Khrushchev’s most famous (and infamous) quotation.

The words he spoke in Russian were “My vas pokhoronim,” an idiomatic expression that was traditionally used as a humor-tinged taunt in Russia.

Some translations say it means “We will outlast you.” But since the word pokhoronim does refer to burial, it has also been interpreted as “We will be present at your funeral.” 

It bears a similarity to the American English idiom “It’s your funeral,” which is often used jokingly.

US news reports translated Khrushchev’s remark as “We will bury you.”

In an era when nuclear war between US and USSR was a constant concern, Americans didn’t see it as funny.

The context of the quote involved comments Khrushchev made about two recent world events.

One was the brief revolution in Soviet-dominated Hungary, which had just been brutally squashed by Russian troops.

The other was the recent bombing and invasion of Egypt by France, Britain and Israel, precipitating the Suez Crisis.

At the Embassy party on November 18th, Khrushchev blamed Western-backed “Fascist gangs” for fomenting the rebellion in Hungary. He also denounced the “imperialists and their puppets” who had attacked Egypt, a recent Soviet ally.

Then, according to an Associated Press report, Khrushchev added:

“Socialist states...base ourselves on the idea that we must peacefully co-exist. About the capitalist states, it doesn’t depend on you whether or not we exist...If you don’t like us, don’t accept our invitations and don’t invite us to come to see you. Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.”

The story caused a huge stir in the US.

Headlines blared “‘We Will Bury You,’ Russian Boss Rants” and “Raging Soviet Boss Shouts At The West ‘We Will Bury You.’” 
Many Americans believed Khrushchev was saying that the Soviet Union could — and some day would — violently destroy the US and its allies, implicitly in a nuclear war.

Nowadays, most books and Internet posts that cite the quote say “We will bury you” is a mistranslation of the Russian idiom and that Khrushchev was being more flippant than fearsomely threatening.

A post on the always-interesting site, titled “6 Mistranslations That Changed The World,” offered this explanation:

“As it turns out, a better literal translation of his words would have been, ‘We will be present when you are buried.’ This was actually a pretty common saying in Soviet Russia. What Khrushchev really meant was, ‘We will outlast you.’ It was just the usual ‘communism is better than capitalism’ posturing that went on all the time in the Cold War, but thanks to misinterpretations...Americans thought Khrushchev was threatening to literally bury us in the rubble of a nuclear attack.”

I grew up in the 1950s, when we practiced “duck and cover” drills at school and families were building fallout shelters in their back yards in the hopes of surviving the expected nuclear showdown with Russia.

I tend to think the modern take on Khrushchev’s most (in)famous quote overlooks something.

In 1956, the nuclear arms race and the threat of nuclear war were real and taken very seriously.

“We shall be present at your funeral” or “We shall outlive you” or any of the other “better” translations that are now suggested would probably have sounded just as hostile and threatening to most Americans.

So the fact that “We will bury you” may have been a mistranslation, misquote or misunderstanding, while interesting, may also be moot.

The concern caused by Khrushchev’s use of the words “My vas pokhoronim” would likely have been the same in the US regardless of the translation.

Of course, six years later, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, we found out Khrushchev didn’t actually have the sharries to start a nuclear war with the U.S.

He backed down after President John F. Kennedy threatened to push the button first if the Soviets refused to remove the nuclear missiles they had secretly shipped to Cuba.

I don’t know what Kennedy said to Khrushchev behind the scenes during that high stakes game of Cold War brinksmanship.

But I suspect it might have been something along the lines of “We will bury you.”

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November 04, 2016

As Maine goes, so goes: (a) the nation (b) Vermont . . .

In the November 1936 presidential election, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was reelected for a second term in a landslide victory over his Republican opponent, Kansas Governor Alf Landon.

Roosevelt received more than 60% of the vote and won in all but two states – Maine and Vermont.

On November 4, 1936, the day after the election, Roosevelt’s campaign manager James A. Farley gave reporters what would now be called a good sound bite.

“As Maine goes, so goes Vermont,” he quipped.

Farley’s witty remark soon became a famous humorous political quotation.

It was especially funny to political observers because it’s a take-off on the older saying: “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”

What’s the origin of that venerable political proverb?

It is sometimes claimed to be based on the fact that Maine was the first state to enact a law prohibiting alcohol in 1851.

For example, an article published in the Boston Globe in 2000 said it “was coined at the peak of the state’s 19th-century temperance movement, in an era when New England shaped national opinion on fundamental issues from slavery to child labor to women's suffrage.”

But that temperance theory is wrong.

Nor is the saying based on Mainers’ record on votes for president.

In fact, historically, Mainers have voted for a higher percentage of losing presidential candidates than many other states.

The saying “As Maine goes, so goes the nation” primarily stems from the fact that Maine once held its state elections for Governor, U.S. Senators and Congressmen and other non-presidential offices in September – two months before other states.

The outcome of this unique early election was seen as an indication of how the political winds were blowing in general for the Democrat and Republican parties.

Maine’s September election, on the second Monday of the month, was created in its constitution in 1820, when it split from Massachusetts to became a separate state.

In presidential election years, Mainers also went back to the polls in November to vote on the presidential race.

In 1957, Maine changed its election law and, in 1960, started holding all general elections on the same November election dates as other states.

But even though Maine’s old September election tradition is gone, the saying “As Maine goes, so goes the nation” has lived on – as has James Farley’s update, “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.”

In 1972, some observers thought Maine gave a different sign of things to come in politics when it passed a law making it the first state to allow its electoral vote to be split. Under that law, the winner of each congressional district gets one electoral vote, and the winner of the statewide vote gets the state's remaining two electoral votes.

Supporters of that law touted it as a more democratic alternative to the traditional system of having all of a state’s electoral votes go to the presidential candidate who gets the most votes statewide.

As it turned out, the nation didn’t go that way. In 1996, Nebraska became the only other state to pass a similar law, though I don’t think it led anyone to start saying: “As Maine goes so goes Nebraska.”

Since Maine has only four electoral votes, it’s not usually a key swing state in presidential elections. However, as I write this paragraph, some political pundits were speculating that the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump may be so close that even one of Maine's electoral votes could determine the winner. I may update this post after the November 8th election. In the meantime, we'll all continue to be, er, kept in suspense about that.

As it turned out, Donald Trump did get one electoral vote from Maine. It was the first time since the 1972 law was passed that the state’s electoral votes actually were split between two candidates. However, it wasn’t a deciding factor in the election. Trump would have
won handily without it. Hillary Clinton won Maine’s other three electoral votes, since the majority of Mainers voted for her. So did the majority of voters in Vermont, suggesting that James Farley’s quip “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont” remains truer than the earlier saying “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”

NOTE: If you’d like to read more about the 1936 election, FDR and James Farley, I recommend the book Mr. Democrat: Jim Farley, the New Deal and the Making of Modern American Politics.

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