‘The Backward Seating at the State of the Union’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: PETER ARKLE

Photo: PETER ARKLE

The end of January brings two certainties: another 49 days until spring and the president’s State of the Union address. In the past, the president often used to palm off this constitutionally mandated chore to a clerk; nowadays he (or she) is expected to deliver it in person. But in every other respect, the rituals associated with the event haven’t changed at all: The president speaks for about an hour, ecstatic applause erupts from one side of the chamber, and grim silence exudes from the other.

Many foreign observers find these partisan reactions reassuringly familiar. What they find puzzling is the placement of the Democratic Party to the right of the aisle and the Republican Party to the left. Equally confusing is the U.S. media’s long-standing allocation of the color red to the Republicans and blue to the Democrats. In the rest of the world, right-wing parties sit on the right and left-wing ones on the left; blue is the color of conservatism, and red is the color of revolution and communism—or pink, if one leans toward socialism—something apparently unknown to the networks and CNN.

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‘Resolved: No More New Year’s Resolutions’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Few New Year’s resolutions actually make it past January. If everyone followed through on their resolutions, the consequences for humanity would be dire: The fast-food industry would collapse, the gym would become unbearably crowded, and lifestyle magazines would have nothing left to say.

It is human nature to start off the year with a host of resolutions. The ancient Babylonians are known to have done it. The Romans even made a virtue of it, leaving us with January—named after Janus, the god of new beginnings.

The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, scorned the idea. It wasn’t humanity they doubted but the willingness of the gods to refrain from interfering in our affairs. “Men should pledge themselves to nothing, for reflection makes a liar of their resolution,” wrote Sophocles. Indeed, at the heart of almost every Greek myth was a warning of the terrible fate that awaited those who believed that all things were within their control. From Arachne to Oedipus, the message was clear: Don’t challenge the power of the gods lest you end up as a spider, or killing your father and marrying your mother.

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‘It’s your Waterloo, chaps: a new epoch of female spending power is here’ – The Sunday Times

Creative Commons

Creative Commons

Here is a thought for when the bells ring in 2014: we are teetering on the edge of a new epoch. Historians should never pretend to be fortune-tellers, but we can recognise patterns. One of the most consistent over the past millennium has been the significance of years ending in 14 as a marker or gateway between eras. It is as though the tide of human events reaches the new century only after a decade and a half of frothy preamble.

In the 13th century, for example, 1214 was the year that the feudal barons turned against King John, followed in 1215 by the signing of Magna Carta.

The mass misery that characterised the 14th century, with its great famine and Black Death pandemic, began with the harvest failures of 1314. The meteoric rise of the Portuguese empire in the 15th century began in 1414 when Henry the Navigator laid down plans to attack the Moors. Continue reading…

”Tis the Season to Stop Fighting’ – The Wall Street Journal

PETER ARKLE

PETER ARKLE

For some, a traditional Christmas means church and carols; for others, it means presents under the tree. But for countless millions, Christmas also means a day of epic family arguments. As the novelist Graham Greene once observed, “Christmas it seems to me is a necessary festival; we require a season when we can regret all the flaws in our human relationships: it is the feast of failure, sad but consoling.”

A recent survey conducted for the British hotel chain TraveLodge appears to support Greene’s gloomy contention. Two years ago, the chain noticed a sharp upswing in bookings for Christmas Day. Hoping to capitalize on the trend, its marketing department commissioned a poll of 2,500 households to see how the typical British family spends Christmas Day. The findings offered few useful insights for the company but proved a gold mine for sociologists.
The respondents revealed that, on average, the first fight of the day takes place no later than 10:13 a.m., usually after the discovery that someone has consumed all the chocolate. A lull then ensues while presents are opened and the drinks cabinet raided. At 11:42 or so, the children express their disappointment with their haul while the parents become enraged by their lack of gratitude. At noon comes a “discussion” of the level of alcohol consumption before lunch, followed by simmering tension until everyone finally sits down to eat around 2:23. The fragile truce established during the turkey carving is destroyed by a massive family row at 3:24. Exhaustion then sets in until 6:05, when tempers flare over the remote control. At 10:15, there is one final blowup before everyone goes to bed.

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‘How to Fake It in America’ – The Wall Street Journal

Peter Arkle

Peter Arkle

The philosopher Gilbert Ryle coined the term “ghost in the machine” to make fun ofDescartes’ influential idea that the human mind (“the ghost”) is utterly separate from the body. But it was the English rock band The Police who popularized the expression, making it the title of their classic 1981 album. Today “ghost in the machine” shows up everywhere. It has become a metaphor for the assorted forms of fakery that are constantly revealed in the mashup of modern culture.

The anger directed at Beyoncé for lip-syncing the national anthem during President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January reflected the country’s disgust with performers who fake it. The mere hint that a singer is no more than a dancing puppet can create a scandal—or even end a career. As the disgraced front men of the 1980s pop act Milli Vanilli will attest, you can’t pretend to perform and keep your Grammy. Continue reading…

‘Writers on Writers: Amanda Foreman on Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope, and ‘Philomena” – Variety

Image from Variety.com

Image from Variety.com

Last year, I was one the judges for the Man Booker literary prize. It didn’t matter that I am not a novelist. The experience of great writing is a universal pleasure. All writers feel a thrill when they encounter a work that has been beautifully crafted. I felt it while watching “Philomena.”

On one level the story is a straightforward biopic: a working-class woman spends a lifetime looking for the son she was forced to give up for adoption. Yet, behind the apparent simplicity of the film lies a rich layer of theatrical craft. The writers took two potential problems — the circuitous nature of the story and the missing voice of the son — and turned them into virtues. Continue reading…

‘A Hairy Issue: Beards Through History’ – The Wall Street Journal

Image by Thomas Fuchs

Image by Thomas Fuchs

There is a reason you may be seeing more beards these days on TV or the street. It has nothing to do with a resurgence of Victorian aesthetics, a mass outbreak of folliculitis or the conquest of the U.S. by hipsters.

The embrace of cheek-fuzz is actually part of a world-wide hair-a-thon to raise money for cancer charities. No-Shave November and its Australian-born cousin, Movember, are annual events that invite participants to forswear their razors for a month. The point, as the No-Shave November website puts it, is “to grow awareness by embracing our hair, which many cancer patients lose, and letting it grow wild and free.” Continue reading…

‘Survival in Pre-Civil War South: 12 Years a Slave Honored at the Lotos Club’ – The Huffington Post

By Regina Weinreich

The subject of race was addressed head on at a luncheon celebrating the film “12 Years a Slave,” easily the film of the year in an awards season gathering momentum. “I’m a black man, as if you didn’t notice, and part of the global identity of slavery” said director Steve McQueen on a panel led by Amanda Foreman at the Lotos Club on Tuesday. The director was seated between two of his stars Chitwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o and in front of guests who included the luncheon’s host George C. Wolfe, Geoffrey Fletcher, Spike Lee, Thulani Davis, Walter Mosley, and many more of the city’s cultural and industry elite, but the context of McQueen’s remark was an answer to a question about his being a British citizen making art of a particularly American experience, and embarrassment. With family from the West Indies, he pointed out, we are all part of a diaspora, and that understanding makes the horrors of plantation life witnessed in his powerful movie all the more dreadful, and close to home no matter what your color or ethnicity.

Others attending included the actors Tovah Feldshuh, now in “Pippin,” and Nikki James, Tony winner for her work in “Book of Mormon.” James, soon returning to “Mormon,” and slated to play Eponine in the coming revival of “Les Mis,” said she had read for the part of Patsy, the love object of the cruel, psychopath plantation owner played by Michael Fassbinder. While James acknowledged that it is always a disappointment when a part goes to someone else, she admired Lupita Nyong’o’s work as Patsy, especially as this is the young actress’ first film and she was chosen fresh out of Yale. Beaten and tortured, Patsy picks cotton by day and prays for death by night. One of the most heartbreaking scenes is when Solomon (Ejiofor) leaves the plantation, a free man at last, but he leaves her, a soul mate, behind.

In many ways, the story of Solomon Northrup, based on his memoir of the same title, who, as a free man was kidnapped and sold into slavery, has a happy ending. He does return to family and loved ones. But Patsy as a character is emblematic of the huge numbers that never lived free lives. Despite the relief of seeing Solomon with a grandson named for him, the searing images of where he has been are unforgettable.

One of the movie’s producers, Dede Gardner (she’s partners at Plan B with Brad Pitt who plays a heroic role both in the film as a Canadian abolitionist, and beyond, getting the film financed and green lit) noted that one of her jobs was protecting the film, fighting the fear that the subject is not commercial, is too difficult in its most extreme violent moments. Gardner is clearly building a career with fine films that have this edge. Her current project is a movie of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” starring Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts. As in matters of race, the politics of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980’s, pose questions of conscience and humanity that we are all only beginning to address.

‘The Bad Idea of Daylight-Saving Time’ – The Wall Street Journal

CHRIS SILAS NEAL

CHRIS SILAS NEAL

Every November, a great theft is perpetrated against hundreds of millions of innocent people. They are robbed of an hour of afternoon sunlight by the government decree that divides the year into standard and daylight-saving time. The switch to standard time occurs precisely at the wrong moment, when the days are already growing shorter.

The arguments used to justify the DST arrangement always employ the language of cost, savings and safety. But, as the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies once observed: “At the back of the Daylight Saving scheme I detect the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier, and get them up earlier, to make them healthy, wealthy and wise in spite of themselves.”

It was in the 14th century that humanity was liberated from relying on the sun or water for telling the time. In place of sundials and water clocks came the wonder of mechanical devices that worked independently of cloudy days and freezing weather.
The oldest working clock in the world is said to be the hourly clock in Salisbury Cathedral in the west of England. Designed in 1386 to strike a single bell on the hour every hour, it was built with one purpose in mind: to bring people closer to God by reminding them of service times. For the medieval peasant and noble alike, time wasn’t the handmaiden of money but an expression of religious faith. Continue reading…