Category Archives: Politics
The Lady Killers
We tend to think of assassins as being men. That’s not surprising as men seem to be more interested in that sort of thing. Women are seen as the givers of life, so it seems out of character.
And yet, throughout history, women have been driven to commit murder based on strong motives usually having to do with politics and power.
Charlotte Corday, born in 1768, was from a noble French family. She was associated with the more moderate Girondin Movement during the French Revolution. She believed the famous French revolutionary Jean Paul Marat was turning the revolution on a dangerous path. Using her credentials as a journalist, she obtained entrance to his home and, famously, murdered him while he was in his medicinal bath. Four days later, she was guillotined. She said she had “killed one man to save thousands,” but this turned out not to be the case.
Lucrezia Borgia was born in Italy during the Renaissance into the notorious Borgia family which was known as evil, violent and politically corrupt. Anxious to meet the family’s standards, she earned her reputation as a poisoner and disposed of several husbands in this fashion.
Shi Jinqiao avenged her father’s beheading in 1925 after tracking his killer for ten years. Her father had killed a Chinese warlord.
Idola Lopez Riano, nicknamed The Tigress, is said to have killed more than 20 people whom she first seduced during the Basque war of independence from Spain.
Violet Gibson , an Anglo-Irish aristocrat tried to kill Benito Mussolini twice but failed both times. She spent the rest of her life in a mental asylum.
More recently and closer to home U.S. President Gerald Ford was targeted by two different female assassins in 1975. The attempts occurred within three weeks of each other. The first was Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme who pointed a semi-automatic pistol at the President in San Francisco and was immediately arrested. Seventeen days later Sara Jane Moore fired a revolver at him in Sacramento. She missed.
So much for the “weaker sex” misnomer.
Next time: Women who were assassinated.
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Over the course of a week, about eight million people (including me) get part of their daily information from The PBS News Hour now presented by Judy Woodruff. This show has an important place in American television journalism.
I welcomed this show when it first appeared in 1976 because of its contrast to what was showing on ABC, CBS and NBC. Their shows were a hodgepodge of events with what seemed an emphasis on unusual happenings in order to keep the viewers’ attention. They were also full of noisy commercials, which sent people to raid the refrigerator, often forgetting to return.
And it’s my understanding that some of the news, even way back then, was actually fake.
In my opinion, The PBS News Hour gave us something much better.
The show started out as the MacNeil-Lehrer Report in September 1976 and from the beginning, it pioneered big changes in TV news. The show was the nation’s first hour- long news program. It was independent from advertisers, so its writers were able to do longer, deeper reporting and the show could exercise its editors’ critical judgements more freely than on the networks.
And from the beginning the PBS announcers seemed more informed and well-read than the “talent” which fronted the network news.
The show did maintain the comfortable two-anchor format. Robert MacNeil reported from New York and Jim Lehrer was based in Washington although they appeared to be sitting side by side (early social distancing?).
The two men shaped the program into what it is today, a solid comprehensive overview of what is happening in the world that leaves us to draw our own conclusions. Today’s anchor is Judy Woodruff, a white woman. The reporter covering the white House is Yamiche Alcindor, a black woman, and, waiting in the wings, being groomed to become an anchor is Amna Nawaz, born in the US to Pakistani parents. The wheel has gone full circle from white men to women of color.
Buried With The Gods
Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Emile Zola and Jean-Paul Marat have their last home and resting place in The Pantheon in Paris.
This magnificent building is modeled after the one in Rome, which is itself a recreation of ancient Greece’s “home of all the gods.”
The Pantheon currently hosts the remains of 100 Frenchmen highly regarded by their countryman. 95 of the 100 are men of course. The Pantheon bears the inscription: “To the great men, from a grateful nation.”
The newest arrival at the Pantheon, however, is a woman. Simone Veil was interred there in July 2018. (Her husband Antoine got in at the same time, because of her.) They were officially reburied with great pomp, symbolism and honor.
She was a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. She was deported to Auschwitz at age 16 with her parents who died there. For reasons she never understood, a Polish guard took her part and assigned her to work where she would not be at risk. She survived and went on to become the first woman Minister of Health in the Valery Giscard d’Estaing administration.
Veil wrote France’s 1975 law legalizing abortion. This was a difficult task in a Catholic country, and Veil bravely faced attacks for her work. She continued to champion women’s rights including the treatment of women in prisons and adoption rights for women. She also served as President of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. She said: “Whenever one tries to suppress doubt, there is tyranny.”
In another modern honor, the French put her name on a Metro station.
Here are the other women who have (so far) been buried in the Pantheon….
Genevieve de Gaulle-Anthonioz (1920- 2002)who fought in the Resistance in World War II, She combated poverty and was a member of
the French Economic and Social Council.
Germaine Tillion 1907-2008 Active in the Resistance Movement. She helped Jews and other prisoners escape.
Marie Curie 1867-1934 French physicist and chemist. Discovered radium, received 2 Nobel Prizes. (and waited 60 years after her death before finally being rewarded by burial in the Parthenon)
Finally Sophie Berthelot 1837-1907 wife of Marcelin Berthelot, a world famous chemist. She died on the same day as her husband and they were
buried together. So she was not really recognized for her own accomplishments.
Perhaps we could request a change to the inscription on the building. (I have a hammer and chisel in the garage.)
Oh! Those French “Premieres Dames”
Just like their American counterparts, French First Ladies have no real existence. They have no official function and no defined role. They just “come with” and “go with” the President they happen to have married. People mostly see them stepping out of a plane with their spouses looking decorative and smiling bravely. They are then whisked away into some kind of limbo and are not seen again until the next ceremonial moment.
In the USA, the expression First Lady came into common use in the late 1800’s, but an early description of Martha Washington described her as “The first lady of the nation.”
Like their American counterparts, the French Premieres Dames are expected to find a worthy cause to sponsor, often of a charitable or humanitarian nature and without the slightest hint of controversy.
Sometimes First Ladies have modest roles in local politics but they always have to be careful not to outshine the charismatic men who are their spouses.
George Pompidou’s wife, Claude, presided over the Foundation to Protect Modern Art. Danielle Mitterand was president of France Liberte Foundation which advocates for clean water as a human right.
Bernadette Chirac is also fighting for feminist issues, especially in underdeveloped countries. She is concerned with girls’ education, forced marriages, sexual harassment, and rape.
Yvonne de Gaulle, wife of French President Charles de Gaulle, started the tradition of a self-effacing President’s wife. She had to. She barely existed, dwarfed by her husband’s gigantic personality and 6-1/2 foot height.
In an interesting twist, Francois Hollande has the distinction of coming to the Presidency with one female companion and leaving it with another.
At this year’s G-7 held in Biarritz in August Benadette Macron organized spouses’ activities and the usual photo opportunities.
At that event, Melania Trump, resplendent in her long white dress, paraded her lavish wardrobe and promoted Gucci, Calvin Klein and other apparel firms. It looks like a President’s wife (whether in France or in the USA) has to content herself with modest occupations and a small role in history.*
*One notable exception is Eleanor Roosevelt who I blogged about previously. Here is a link to that posting.
Death and Life of The Arab Spring..
It has now been nearly a decade since a fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire in a protest against police brutality and corruption. Thus began, “The Arab Spring” protests driven by millions of people who wanted participation in the governance of their countries.
But when it was over the foundations and pillars on which freedom is built were not there.
Egypt is again a repressive police state. In Yemen, the President fell but instead of reforms, there came Civil War, cholera and famine. Here, the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is being played out causing much suffering and death.
Even more stable states such as Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco are grappling with the fallout of discontent and unrest.
Tunisia emerged as the only “success story.” In 2013 it adopted a secular constitution. There were 26 candidates for President, and a runoff election narrowed it to 2. But before the runoff one of these candidates, Nabib Karaoui (who got the highest percentage of the votes in the general election) was jailed on charges of corruption and money laundering. Usually leaders have to be in office a while to achieve this distinction.
Democracy in Tunisia may be delivering what seems like a meager result, but the simple fact that ordinary citizens are participating and expressing their choices is rare enough in the Middle East to be worth mentioning.
The flame needs to be nourished and in time it may catch on and maybe even spread. President Obama had expressed interest in the outcome but of course our current President is viewing it with complete indifference.
Last week in Egypt, thousands of people in Cairo and Alexandria continued protests which began in September demanding that President Abdel Fatah al Sisi beremoved from power. They are being met by severe reprisals, imprisonments and other punitive measures prompting Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to label Egypt a repressive regime. But none of this is deterring the peoples’ determination to oppose the government.
The flame of the Tunisian Spring is still flickering feebly. It must not be allowed to die out.
Are the Three Bearded Men Still on Their Pedestals?
Three men dominated the intellectual world of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. They were not scientists. Not one of them spent any time in a research lab or conducted any scientific experiments; yet each in his own way altered the existing cultural landscape.
I also think that each one of them was noticeably wrong about some of the things he believed.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) believed in the existence of a class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and thought this struggle was intrinsic to the capitalist industrial world. One group controlled the means of economic production and profit, the other provided the labor. The conflict between them was that of oppressor against oppressed and revolution was the only means by which this situation could be reversed.
This was to be a communist revolution on the model of the French Commune uprising of 1871 in which the Paris commune rose against the French Government after the French defeat by the Germans in the Franco Prussian War.
The Revolution did occur, but it happened not in the capitalist industrial world but in an agrarian Russia in 1917. It quickly lost its focus and created a new set of oppressors. The labor theory of value has since been discredited. The idea of an inevitable overthrow of the dominant class turned out to be too rigid and somewhat naïve.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1039) was the inventor of psychoanalysis and the interpretation of dreams and delved into the unconscious for an explanation of human behavior. Freud said: “Human beings can keep no secrets. They reveal their innermost selves with their unconscious mannerisms. Whatever we do we are expressing things about ourselves to people who have ears and eyes to see.”
Freud coined the concepts of the id, ego and superego and explained their working within the human being. His concepts are still hotly discussed though they have fallen out of favor in the scientific community. But popular culture appropriated many of his insights. “Freudian slips”, “the subconscious”, “cathartic release”, and “defense mechanisms” are now part of our vocabulary.
Freud, like Marx, stimulated others to think about new topics even though both men were often not entirely correct in how they viewed these topics.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882).
In “On the Origin of Species” in 1851 Darwin outlined his theory of natural selection, which states that all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small variations that increase their ability to compete, survive and reproduce. He believed that species changed and mutated over time and gave rise to new species that shared a common ancestor. Each mutation created a more complex and efficient organism.
Here are some of the arguments that critics advance to question some of his thinking:
Darwin does not explain how life originated in the first place.
There is a lack of fossil evidence to support the ideas of a “tree of life”
Natural selection is too slow to spread traits.
Some also question whether evolution is directional and has a specific aim or is blind and random.
Earth is much older than Darwin states.
Some new traits do not increase survival chances.
These interesting criticisms do not delve into religion and “creationism” which is a separate controversy.
It is interesting how some thinkers can be so wrong in important ways and yet stimulate so much change, influence so many thinkers, and propel us towards new ideas.
What’s In A Name?
Macedonia became an independent country in 1991 when Yugoslavia, of which it had until then been a part, disintegrated. Ever since that time Greece has been loudly proclaiming its objections to the use of the name Macedonia because it is the same as one of Greece’s own historic regions (of which what is now called Macedonia was a part).
There are strong feelings on both sides and the dispute has yet to be resolved. In antiquity Macedonia was a part of the Roman and Byzantine Empires. Alexander the Great launched his conquests from ancient Macedonia.
Georgia is a state of the United States, the last of the original 13 colonies, named after King George II of Britain.
Georgia is also a country situated at the intersection of Europe and Asia and a former Soviet Republic. Its red and white flag features St. George’s cross.
The capital is Tbilisi which used to be called Tiflis. Russia and all the other Slavic countries call it Gruzia. Georgians hate that name because it is associated with the times when Georgia was part of the Russian Empire. Georgia would like to stop other countries from calling it Gruzia.
People sometimes confuse Slovenia and Slovakia, both middle European countries. Slovakia used to be married to Czechoslovakia, but they divorced amicably in the 1990s. Slovenia was another one of Yugoslavia’s component parts, which was cast adrift after Yugoslavia ceased to exist.
It is not unusual for countries or cities to call themselves by one name while other countries call them by a different one, often one that they have discarded. Bombay became Mumbai, Peking is now Beijing.
The French, however, continue to use the old names. This is not surprising. They also call Torino Turin. We refer to Firenze as Florence and what we call Venice is in fact Venetia. Old habits are hard to forego and sometimes we never bothered to learn the correct names anyway.
Name origins have mostly faded into oblivion. Here are some curious ones:
Sudan means The Land of the Blacks (for obvious reasons). Ethiopia (erstwhile Abyssinia): The Land of Burned Faces. The Greeks called Spain: The Land of Many Rabbits and Burkina Faso means: The Land of Honest Men. Nigeria is not the Land of the black People as one might think but: The Land of the Most Beautiful People in the World.
If you Google country names or some equivalent expression you can find many more fascinating ones.
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The Almost First Woman American President
And now we come to our most intelligent, forceful, complex and contradictory First Lady of all: Hillary Clinton.
My introduction to her was an interview she and Bill gave on 60 Minutes during their first run for the presidency. And I do mean “their” because she immediately struck me as an equal partner to the future President. It was during that campaign that we first heard the famous remark that she was not the kind of wife who stayed home and baked cookies. And Bill supported her by declaring that the American public would be getting a “two for one.”
I was very pleased with this open expression of feminism. I thought it was time for women in politics to openly assert themselves. As First Lady, Hillary had her own office in the West Wing of the White House. (Rosalyn Carter’s office was in the East Wing).
Unfortunately for Hillary, within days of becoming First Lady she was named by Bill as Head of the Task Force on Health Care Reform. This created a controversy since she was not an elected official. The task also proved to be far too complex and it failed. The problem has not been solved to this day and we are in the unenviable position of being the only advanced democracy in the world without effective universal health care insurance. Hillary continued to champion various health initiatives such as children’s health insurance, gender equality in medical issues and veterans’ illnesses.
On her many trips abroad Hillary denounced domestic violence and “honor killing.” Hillary was a great advocate for women and children’s rights and as much an activist as Eleanor Roosevelt whom she admired greatly.
Hillary Clinton’s independent spirit ultimately and very unfortunately clashed with her loyalty and support of her husband, and Bill Clinton let her down badly by having multiple and overt extramarital affairs. His conduct eventually led to his impeachment.
In an interview in 1998 Hillary referred to the Lewinski/Impeachment events as a part of “this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for President.” This statement had repercussions on her credibility. Whether she really believed this or was being protective is not clear.
When it turned out that Bill had lied she continued to play the role of loyal wife. Instead of admitting to being victimized and wounded, instead of divorcing herself from the whole sordid affair, she meekly accompanied her husband on a vacation to Martha’s Vineyard.
I will stop here although much more could be said about Hillary. I will only add that I believe she would have been a good and effective President had she been elected.
RUSSIA’S AUTOCRATS (part 1 of 4)
Editor’s note: We’re proud to present Simone’s history and comments about autocracy in Russian history.
This will come in four parts over the coming month. Simone will build the story for us in her
unique fashion. Here, it begins.
The Absolutist Czars
Russia’s natural equilibrium rests on a solid autocratic base, embedded in the title of the Czar: Absolute Emperor of all the Russias. Throughout its history whenever schisms seemed to undermine this base, Russia employed a self-correcting mechanism to return to the status quo ante. Regimes and names change, but the pendulum always swings back to autocracy. No Czar or any other ruler ever shared power. It was his alone. The Czar was affectionately known as “batiushka” (little father). His “children” understood that he had to be severe.
Here is a condensed history:
Ivan the Terrible 1530-1584
Prince of Moscow, he conquered surrounding provinces and was the first czar and autocrat. His name became synonymous with torture and cruelty .He changed Russia from a medieval state to an emerging regional power and he set out to destroy any who dared oppose him. The massacre of Novgorod, which lasted five weeks and killed uncounted thousands, is regarded as a demonstration of his mental instability and brutality. He was Terrible. Other Czars were “Great.”
Peter the Great 1672-1725
He inherited a backward state and instituted gigantic reforms. Singlehandedly he propelled Russia to the rank of a major power. He is known as a Westernizer. St. Petersburg began as an island at the mouth of the Neva River and was a “blank sheet” on which he could build a new city from scratch and construct a microcosm of the New Russia. Because he was an autocrat he could use slave labor, work people to death, and not worry about the peasants’ welfare. But he did create a “window on the West.”
Catherine the Great 1729-1796
Born a German Princess, she transformed Russia into a powerful, modern wealthy country. During her reign Crimea and part of Poland were acquired. Her empire extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Catherine was a patron of the arts and founded many institutions of learning such as the Hermitage Museum of Art. Both Peter and Catherine were absolute monarchs.
Alexander the Third 1881-1894
He witnessed the murder of his father Alexander II, killed in St. Petersburg by an anarchist. He promoted the Trans-Siberian Railroad which made the port of Vladivostok more accessible, thus integrating East and West.
Nicolas II 1868-1918 (the last Czar)
During his reign Russia suffered a major defeat following the Russo-Japanese War. He authorized the violent repression of “Bloody Sunday,” a peaceful march of protest during which men, women and children were shot and killed indiscriminately.
He also suppressed the 1905 Revolution. In addition his reign was marred by the interference of the “mad monk” Rasputin in court decisions. Finally there was the rout of the Russian army during World War I. It was the last blow. Nicolas was forced to resign. His cousin George V of Britain, who looks remarkably like him, was unable or unwilling to offer him sanctuary. Finally, after several years of exile, he and his whole family were cold-bloodedly shot. They died never understanding why they had to die.
Next time:Part 2: The Czar is dead. Is autocracy dead?