John Birch Society Blues

Yesterday’s passing of Otis Chandler has prompted dozens of articles lauding the pivotal role he played in the history of journalism as well as the evolution of Los Angeles. But some of his adversaries are starting to emerge, hoping the attention on Chandler’s career will help them settle old scores.

First up: The ultra-right-wing, conspiracy-minded John Birch Society. Thanks to Google News, which put this story near the top of its Otis Chandler news links, we get to read their reaction. On The New American, Birch Society President John F. McManus has this to say:

Death notices about the passing of Otis Chandler, the Publisher of the Los Angeles Times from 1960 until 1980, mentioned his decision to have the newspaper devote several feature articles to the infant John Birch Society in 1961. JBS Founder Robert Welch remarked at the time that those articles, while not complimentary, were evidence of “honest reporting.”

The attention given to the Society by the Times had been prompted by widespread awareness that many of Southern California’s leading citizens, including several members of Mr. Chandler’s immediate family, had become members. But, after the series about the Society appeared, Mr. Chandler took it upon himself to place his own critical and condemnatory editorial on the paper’s front page. Strangely, its condemnations pointed to positions and policies never voiced by the organization and, in fact, were positions that the Society had vigorously opposed.

Previously known for its strong conservative and anti-communist stance, the newspaper under Chandler’s leadership veered sharply leftward, a stance it has never wavered from over the past 45 years. In 1973, Robert Welch included the name of Otis Chandler among several leftwing luminaries he accused of “working, throughout their whole careers, to bring about a one-world government.” It is, perhaps, because of The John Birch Society and despite the efforts of men such as Otis Chandler that the American Republic continues to enjoy independence.

McManus wants it to sound like a David vs. Goliath story, but by 1961, the Birch Society was no “infant.” It had 60,000 to 100,000 members, dozens of paid staff, hundreds of active volunteers, and was using state-of-the-art grassroots organizing techniques, many of which were later adopted by the two major political parties. It had a strong presence in Southern California especially, so the Times was taking something of a risk in picking a fight with the Birchers — especially since the Times itself was still loyally read by conservative Angelenos.

Chandler’s Times could hardly ignore a group of that size whose founder claimed that President Eisenhower was a “conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist Conspiracy,” who took orders from his high-level Communist brother Milton. Despite the madness of such statements, the Birch Society continued to be power-brokers in the Republican party at least through the mid-60s, despite being denounced by William F. Buckley and other hygiene-minded conservatives. Buckley’s name is still a dirty word among Birchers along with Chandler’s.

(The Times‘ more mainstream conservative critics have been gracious or, so far, silent.)

And Speaking of History…

Andrew at Here in Van Nuys has posted a list of some of the History Channel’s latest contributions to historical understanding.  Pretty pathetic.  If I were History, I’d sue to get my name back. For example:

How William Shatner Changed the World
An Alien History of Planet Earth
Star Wars: Empire of Dreams
“Jaws”

The whole post is worth reading, but keep the Xanax nearby.  “Those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it?”  Maybe we need to revise that to, “Those who cannot watch the History Channel are condemned to watch Star Trek repeats.”

Seeing It Coming

When I was young and first learned about World War Two, Hitler and the Nazi party, I remember feeling baffled that Germans were now our ally. It’s a child’s question: How did the Germans go from hating us and wanting to kill us, to liking us and wanting to help us?

The answer I’d get — that Hitler was not representative of Germany and that most Germans never hated us — deepened the mystery rather than resolving it.

As I got older and read history, I had another question: Hitler told the world everything he planned to do, long before taking power; and he told us how he was going to do it. It was all written down, in Mein Kampf, a book in wide circulation in the 1930s. Why did so few believe him and prepare to stop him? The unsatisfying answer was, his book was so crazy, no one really believed he meant it.

Von Ryan - Sinatra.jpgI grew up on movies about the glorious Allied victories and heroic struggles of World War Two — Von Ryan’s Express, The Longest Day, The Great Escape, countless others. While I still love those films, I’m not so taken anymore by the notion of World War Two as a “good war.” It was a terrible war. Tens of millions of people died. And it could have been avoided.

Once the Allies finally were roused to fight Hitler, he was so much more powerful than he had been when he began violating the Treaty of Versailles, drafting an army, and marching troops into the Rhineland. These were illegal acts. France and Britain had the right to enforce the treaty militarily. Compared to the horror of WWII, a fight in the Rhineland would’ve cost few lives. A humiliated Hitler might have been ousted from power…and all over the world, hundreds of millions of people would have grandparents today.

On the other hand, if D-Day had failed, Hitler would have had more time to complete his development of a nuclear weapon. He would have won the war and dictated the peace. That avoidable outcome was a nearer thing than we like to admit. The movies made it seem like the Allies won because we were more heroic and had superior values. Unfortunately, that’s false. Our soldiers were brave, but our countries were also lucky.

David Warren is a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen. In an essay on the Danish cartoons issue, which is getting passed around on the web, Warren finds parallels between the 1930s and today. Like the Brits who felt sure their friends in Germany wouldn’t let that wacky speechmaker go too far, the West is deluding itself by relying on the irrelevant fact that most Muslims don’t hate us.

I do not doubt the great majority of Muslims, in Canada and around the world, are decent, “moderate” people, who want no part in a “clash of civilizations”. But it has become obvious they can do nothing to stop the triumph of “Islamism” internationally, or oppose the fanatics proselytizing in their own communities.

Germany was full of moderate Germans, as Hitler rose; Stalin drove his oars through a sea of moderate Russians. While we must not forget that the Muslims are the first victims of “Islamism”, and may suffer most from its triumph, we are beyond the point where we can do more for them than destroy the tyranny by which they are enthralled.

Indeed, many Muslims, by birth or faith, remain our best allies, warning us as many fine Germans did of what is coming our way. For example, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born politician in the Netherlands — a magnificent young woman — speaking recently in Berlin:

“Publication of the cartoons confirmed that there is widespread fear among authors, filmmakers, cartoonists, and journalists who wish to describe, analyze or criticize intolerant aspects of Islam all over Europe. It has also revealed the presence of a considerable minority in Europe who do not understand or will not accept the workings of liberal democracy. These people — many of whom hold European citizenship — have campaigned for censorship, for boycotts, for violence, and for new laws to ban ‘Islamophobia’. … The issue is not about race, colour, or heritage. It is a conflict of ideas, which transcend borders and races.”

cartoon protest.jpgCould these radicals, a minority within a minority, win? Could they bring the governments of Europe to heel? Could they accomplish what they’ve publically said they intend to accomplish? Sure they could. They can scare their opposition into silence. They can force politicians, diplomats, editors and academics to weave elaborate rationalizations to cloak their fatalism and fear. They can operate unopposed for quite awhile, and march into positions from which it will be extremely difficult to dislodge them.

Following the course they’re on, the Islamicists will be able to blackmail much of what we used to call the Free World. They’ve already started. They don’t even need a nuclear bomb to force the West’s hands. Small-scale terrorism and street action is sufficient. But the jihadists will eventually get the bomb and then it won’t be about cartoons anymore.

It’s not so hard, now, to see how the Nazis came so far. We’re watching a show just like it again.

Otis Chandler, R.I.P.

Otis Chandler.jpgLA Observed and, naturally, the Los Angeles Timeswebsite are the primary places to go for the obituaries and other links to remembrances of Otis Chandler, the most consequential publisher the LA Times ever had.

History will probably say the last great era of newspapers was the 1960s and 70s. If that turns out to be right, history will say the era was dominated by the Washington Post‘s Katherine Graham and Otis Chandler, two unlikely characters — a widow and an heir who were initially dismissed as lightweights — who carved out a new role for newspaper journalism in the face of the “new media” challenge of their era, television.

In 1960, major cities had as many as half a dozen daily newspapers engaged in cutthroat circulation battles, using sensationalized news coverage as the bait. But nothing was more sensational than seeing news happen right in front of you, something newspapers could not offer but TV could. For that and many other reasons, newspapers began dying off and the industry’s future was most uncertain.

In the face of that threat, both Chandler and Graham got creative. They developed new models for their respective newspapers, giving readers in-depth coverage, investigative reporting and analysis that TV could seldom provide. You can’t say it was innovative, because the New York Times was already doing something similar. But don’t forget, it was not possible for people in Los Angeles to read the New York Times back then unless they got it mailed to them. (I know because when my parents moved us in 1968 from a New York suburb to a L.A. suburb, they got one of those by-mail subscriptions. I can still see the big white envelopes that used to jam our mailbox.) Treating Los Angeles newspaper readers with respect was an entirely new phenomenon.

With his radical remake of the LA Times, Chandler proved a city other than New York would support a newspaper aimed at discerning readers. His vision of a quality newspaper was no New York Times clone. Chandler created a paper distinctly reflective of Los Angeles’ suburban lifestyle — less stuffy, more colorful, a paper that emphasized stylish writing over tight editing, that understood its readers to be active people who spent their weekends at the beach, in the garden or on hiking trails.

In the tradition of his family, Chandler unashamedly used his newspaper to boost Los Angeles. Chandler’s boosterism, however, was more about culture than real estate (although he certainly could not have been unhappy to watch LA’s suburbs grow, with a potential new subscriber in each new split-level.) He embodied the LA intelligentsia’s inferiority complex; but he didn’t just fret about it, as it was fashionable to do back then. He addressed it. Nowadays, I don’t think LA is seen as a culturally backward city, lacking in venues for serious music and fine art. That’s a big change and Otis Chandler had a lot to do with it.

Chandler enjoyed a long retirement, but he emerged from it like Marley’s Ghost in the aftermath of the damaging LA Times scandal involving Staples Center — a scandal bad enough in itself, but also a symbol of the Times’ slow-and-then -rapid decline in the 20 years after Chandler left.

I happened to attend a USC Annenberg School fundraiser in 2000 where Otis Chandler was one of the honorees. It was one of the most dramatic events I’ve ever attended. The room was full of Times reporters, most of whom paid their own way to see their spiritual leader, whose legacy was now in the hands of the wrong kind of people. The new Times’ management initially didn’t want to support the event, but they capitulated and bought a table under pressure from staff veterans.

The Times’ table was directly underneath the podium in some kind of makeshift ballroom on the 20th Century Fox backlot — if I recall correctly. While the Times’ reporters filled seats near the back, then-publisher Kathryn Downing sat up front with other executives. To cheers from the gallery, Chandler let them have it with both barrels, addressing Downing directly, pointing a finger at her, holding her personally responsible for the damage the Times’ reputation had suffered.

Chandler was justly proud of the edifice he’d built. What we all saw that night was the rage of a man who’d been forced to endure its decay — the rage of a king. It was a powerful coda to one of the great Los Angeles stories.

Four months later, the Chandler family sold the Times to the Tribune Company. Otis Chander said the family didn’t even tell him about their plans until two days before the sale was consummated.

I was at a meeting this morning when I saw the news of his death on my laptop. I passed the info along to others at the meeting — people younger than me — and got blank stares. Of course, how would anyone know what Otis Chandler accomplished if they were schoolchildren when he retired? Yesterday’s newspapers wrap flowers. Newspapers from 30 years ago barely exist at all. But a great newspaper has consequences, and if you’re in LA today, your daily life is in part a consequence of Otis Chandler’s determined vision of a better newspaper and a greater city.

(Update 2/28/06.  A little more about Chandler and the John Birch Society above.)

Mario…Save My Brain!

Mario.jpgI’m 50. Well let me back up. I grew up in a household with four brothers. Even when I was 15 and my brain was young and dew-covered, I didn’t always call them by their correct names. But now that I’m 50, all kinds of memories seem a little further out of reach than they were ten years ago. Don’t get me wrong. The offsetting benefit of experience adding perspective makes up for the fade-out of things I used to remember.

I want to be able to use that experience for at least another two or three decades. But if I can’t remember stuff…wait, what was I saying?

Fortunately we live in a time when functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can track what’s going on inside our skulls, showing us with great precision the brain locations were different work is done. For example, the Max Planck Institute in Germany recently discovered the precise spot inside our brains where complex grammar gets processed — a key trait that separates humans from other species. (Hat tip to ZDNet’s Emerging Technology Blog.)

There is a spot inside your brain that lights up on the fMRI when you need to process a simple linguistic concept: Subject, verb. Article, noun. Apes are also equipped with that capability. We, humans and apes, can understand the difference between a likely combination that conveys information, and an unlikely combination that conveys nonsense. However, when you have to understand or create a complex sentence, what lights up is an area of the brain that apes never developed.

English majors like me will be glad to find out that the ability to understand a complicated sentence provides an evolutionary advantage. Adept use of parenthetical phrases got you better mates.

This kind of knowledge is more than just scientifically interesting. It can help us prolong the useful life of our most precious physical asset.

Our brains age, but the effects of aging can be reversed. University of Illinois scientists, using the same fMRI imaging technology, discovered the brain can be exercised; and that those who train their brains can restore their ability to think and remember.

For the new study, researchers in (Professor Arthur F.) Kramer’s lab looked at areas of the brain known to be associated with executive control — scheduling, planning, juggling multiple tasks and working memory. These areas, the ventral and dorsal prefrontal cortexes, are tied to cognitive declines in aging.

Participants were 32 men and women, ages 55 to 80, and 31 younger adults. They were divided into control and experimental groups, with the latter receiving training on a time-measured task of identifying green or yellow Xs and/or whether a letter on the computer monitor was a B or C. Researchers then analyzed comprehensive fMRI data compiled before and after training of various parts of the brain and of changes in performance and times involving the tasks.

Before and after results were dramatic in ventral regions of the brain, said lead author Kirk I. Erickson, a psychology postdoctoral research associate.

“You can see,” Erickson said as he pointed to graphs showing results of activity in the left ventral region, “that even though the older adults start out with a lower amount of activation before training, those who were trained actually increased the amount of activity. You see a convergence with the young people. After training there are less age-related differences. Older adults begin to look more like the younger adults in brain activation.”

This is big news to people like me. Where can we learn these exercises? I can tell the difference between green and yellow. Hook me up!

Like magic, the consumer market responds. Specifically… Nintendo. The Mario Brothers guys. The study isn’t even officially published yet, but…

Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day for Nintendo DS is a fun, rewarding form of entertainment everyone can enjoy, as it helps players flex their mental muscles. Brain Age is inspired by the research of Professor Ryuta Kawashima, a prominent Japanese neuroscientist. His studies evaluated the impact of performing certain reading and mathematic exercises to help stimulate the brain.

Brain Age presents quick mental activities that help keep your DS brain in shape. Activities include quickly solving simple math problems, counting people going in and out of a house simultaneously, drawing pictures on the Touch Screen, reading classic literature out loud, and more. You can also play sudoku, the number puzzle game which has become an extremely popular feature in U.S. newspapers.

On your first day of exercise, you will take a series of tests and get a score that determines how old your brain is. This number is called your “DS Brain Age”. By performing daily exercises just minutes a day over weeks and months, the better you’ll get at the exercises and the lower your DS Brain Age will become.

Of course, baby boomers, the most paranoid about losing our edge, aren’t big users of electronic game consoles. They came on the pop culture scene a little late for us. But Nintendo has sure figured out a way to get our attention, haven’t they? And for those of us with kids, what are we supposed to say now?

“Kid, turn that infernal machine off and do your homework.”

“Dad, don’t bug me. I’m training my brain.”

“D’oh! Move over son…”

I’m sure more products like this are on their way. These next few years are going to be very surreal as consumer marketers start handing us new tools for self-transformation.

Get ’em While They’re Young

One of my problems with the Democratic Party is that it seems to re-invent itself every election based on polls, vogue issues and the policy preferences of the person who happens to win the presidential nomination. All kinds of things are wrong with running a political party that way. The Republicans’ current run of success can be attributed in part to the party’s philosophical consistency, which if nothing else conveys commitment, even if it sometimes leaves them looking out of touch. Democrats don’t like being out of touch, but being too “in touch” can make you seem like a chameleon.

At least one Democrat is thinking ahead, however: Jeremy Zilber, author of the new children’s book, Why Mommy is a Democrat. Here’s a sample page:

share_our_toys-585x417.jpg

The sample pages on Zilber’s website do a better job of explaining core Democratic values than any speech John Kerry or John Edwards made during the 2004 campaign.

As a political scientist, Zilber is surely aware of the cliche that the Democrats are the “mommy party,” while Republicans are the “daddy party.” In troubled times like now, these identities don’t do the Democrats much good. But I give Zilber a lot of credit for being unafraid to steer right into that reputation; I expect this book to be very successful. The worst nightmare of a committed Democratic activist is for their child to grow up and become a Republican. I’m not sure this book will prevent it, but why not go down fighting?

But — maybe this conveys my ambivalence — imagine Harry Truman’s reaction to a book like this.

(I have to admit; I found out about this book via Powerline, which could barely keep its pants dry chortling about it.)

Turning Point…But Which Way?

The coverage of the bombing of the shrine in Askariyah flags this event as a turning point toward civil war. If there is any U.S. consensus about Iraq among pundits left and right, it’s that Iraq’s divisions are so great, and this event will so inflame them, that it’s only a matter of time until the entire country descends into bloody chaos and finally breaks apart — making a mockery of the huge U.S. effort to render a democratic state out of the ruins of Hussein’s dictatorship. The right says “it was a worthwhile gamble.” The left says, “told you so.”

But this Baghdad blogger, who goes by “24 Steps to Liberty,” reports another kind of turning point might have been reached due to this latest act of terror:

The first reaction to the bombing which “targeted a Shiite” shrine came from the Sunni residents of Samarra. The first demonstration to condemn the attack was held spontaneously by Sunnis in the area where the shrine is. Almost all Sunni leaders went on TV to condemn the attack and show solidarity and unity with the Shiites. Here are some of what the Sunni leaders said on TVs all day yesterday [that’s what I could get]

– Wafiq Samarraie, a Sunni politician from Samarra city and serves as Iraq’s president’s advisor for security issues. [from Arabiya satellite channel]
He said “Iamam Ali al-Hadi is not only for Shiites. The shrine is a symbol of all Iraqis and of Samara city in particular. I demand to dismiss the governor of the province and take all the legal procedures to prevent strife. There will be no strife in Iraq. Iraqis will not fight each other. Samarra city should be protected. The information is very clear. The government should have chased the terrorists in eastern Samarra and they are a few. The government and the governor should have done something this issue. I tell the tribes in Samarra, especially in eastern Samarra, that ‘ it is a shame to leave the strangers among you. You should inform the police force about them.’”

– The Iraqi Islamic Party, IIP, one of the most powerful Sunni political and religious groups, issued a statement saying: “The size of the wicked conspiracy that is targeting the Iraqis, their sacred symbols, and unity, is clear now. After the series of attacking mosques and assassinations of clergies, people of Samarra woke up today on the bombing of Imam Ali Al-Hadi dome. We, the Iraqi Islamic Party/ Samarra branch, denounce this criminal act and demand a wide investigation to reveal the controversies that raise many questions on who was behind this incident.

(snip)

We in the Iraqi Islamic Party/ Samarra branch, urge our people to go in wide, peaceful demonstrations to condemn this crime. We also remind all Iraqis to protect their unity to prevent the chance for suspicious conspiracies, which target all Iraqis with no exception. IIP/ Samarra branch”

– Iraq’s Kurdish president, Jalal Talbani, net with tribal leaders and prominent figures from Salahudin province, where Samarra city is, and talked about the incident. [from Iraqiya satellite channel]
He said “This is a crime against Iraq as a whole, not against Shiites only. It aims to provoke a sectarian strife and a civil war among us. I hope the Sunni clergies would condemn this crime. We all are facing a conspiracy against Iraq and its entity. Therefore we should all unite to prevent the danger of civil war.”

The title of his post: “We Are All Misinformed.”

Read the Iraq-based bloggers, and you learn they are very aware of how their country is being depicted in the U.S. media — and how it enrages them. They complain about the U.S. media even more than we do. No wonder, since so much more is at stake for them than for any of us. Not all of them agree; some are more anti-U.S. than others, but collectively, they give a perspective that the American and British reporters will never give you.
I think it’s still okay to be optimistic about Iraq. Uncool as it might be to say it in some precincts, there’s heartening evidence of progress and reconciliation, if you look for it.

However, the Baghdad dentist Zeyad who writes “Healing Iraq” was a little too close to some frightening street fighting today:

Fierce streetfighting at my doorstep for the last 3 hours. Rumor in the neighbourhood is that men in black are trying to enter the area. Some armed kids defending the local mosque three blocks away are splattering bullets at everything that moves, and someone in the street was shouting for people to prepare for defending themselves.

There’s supposed to be a curfew, but it doesn’t look like it. My net connection is erratic, so I’ll try to update again if possible. The news from other areas in Baghdad are horrible. I don’t think it’s being reported anywhere.

My father and uncle are agitatedly walking back and forth in the hallway, asking me what we should do if the mob or Interior ministry forces try to attack us in our homes? I have no answer for them.