Tuesday, August 4, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Shakespeare Today In Spain?

William Shakespeare wrote plays that were tragedies, comedies
and histories, but perhaps his most enduring work was in his
tragedies. His insights in these seem to resound almost 500 years
later in our very different world. But changed as the world might
be, the Bard’s A Midummer Night’s Dream character, Puck, utters
his timeless allegation:

“O what fools these mortals be”

While Shakespeare located most of his comedies and histories in
his own England, past and contemporary, he told the stories of
other European royals and rulers, and placed some of his
most powerful tragedies in foreign lands he had not visited,
including Denmark, Greece, and Italy.

I think if Mr. Shakespeare were alive today, he might be tempted
to write a play about a recent king of Spain who has fallen into
tragic times.

In 1966-67 I attended the University of Madrid. Spain was still
ruled by an aging fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, who had been
allied with Nazi Germany during World War II, but who had kept
power in the post-war period. Because of student protests, classes
were on and off, but when they were on, and I went to them on
campus, I often noted rows of parked official cars. Later, I was
told they were the transportation entourage for the young
Spanish crown prince, Juan Carlos, who had been named by
Franco as his successor, and was being educated under the
dictator’s direction.

Juan Carlos’ grandfather had been the last king of Spain before a
liberal coup established a republic in the early 1930’s. The king
and his heir went into exile in Portugal, but when a civil war
(1936-39) was won by a right-wing government eventually led by
Franco, the heir was not brought back as king, even though a
kingdom had technically been restored.  Three decades later,
Franco decided to make the last king’s young grandson, Juan
Carlos, his heir and king on the condition he return to Spain from
Portugal to be educated (and presumably continue Franco’s
policies).

I did not ever meet my “classmate” Juan Carlos, but I heard a lot
about him, especially from a high-ranking Spanish army officer I
had met, and it was thought that when he did become king, he
would be a puppet of the military.

In the mid-1970s, Franco died, and Juan Carlos became a
constitutional monarch. The real power was in the elected
parliamentary government, and much to the fascists’
disappointment, the parliament and prime minister were much
more liberal than they were. In the early 1980’s, a right-wing
military faction staged a coup d’etat, took over the parliament
building, and demanded that the king surrender.  In his royal
palace with his wife and children, King Juan Carlos surprised
everyone by bravely defending the young Spanish democracy, and
refused to give in --- quickly causing the coup to collapse --- and
established the young king as a popular national hero.

The king’s popularity lasted for many years, and was bolstered
by his sensational confrontation with a notorious South American
dictator, but rumors that the public Juan Carlos was not the same
as the private Juan Carlos, as well as scandals involving the royal
family, grew. Finally, Juan Carlos admitted to an extramarital
affair and other improprieties, apologized to the nation, and in
2014 he abdicated, the throne, at age 76, in favor of his son Felipe.

Still highly regarded by many older Spaniards who remembered
his historic courage in defending Spanish democracy, but with a
tarnished reputation, Juan Carlos retired to a lower public profile,
and continued to live in the family’s royal palace in Madrid.

Now, however, allegations have surfaced about his part in a
Saudi Arabian business deal, including the charge he received
$100 million from the Saudi king. No trial has occurred, but a
formal investigation has begun.  Juan Carlos has not yet
commented publicly on the charges, but has just informed his
son King Felipe that he is leaving Spain to go into voluntary exile.

It is, in the end, a sad story of hubris. The legacy of a courageous
young modern king seems likely to be be overwhelmed by
accounts of greed and bad judgment --- another fallen
“Shakespearean” king.

The Spanish William Shakespeare was its great writer Miguel de
Cervantes who wrote in the same time as Shakespeare did. 
It might have been better if Juan Carlos were more  like
Cervantes’ immortal character Don Quixote --- a hapless deluded
figure, yes, but whose public and private quest was about honor.

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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Biden's Veep Soon?

Putative Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s vice presidential
choice will likely be made and announced in the next two weeks.
Because he indicated (but did not pledge) he would select a
woman of color, most speculation has been about a number of
black elected women across the country --- although the
Hispanic governor of New Mexico, Michelle Lujan Grisham,
and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have been
regarded among the dozen or so finalists. Congresswoman
Karen Bass of California is only the latest of a  number of 
mostly hitherto nationally-unknown black women politicians
to be touted for the job.

Trying to second-guess a nominee’s running mate choice is a
difficult matter, and my own record is very mixed at best. I did
write that Joe Biden was Barack Obama’s best choice in the
summer of 2008, but more often than not, I got it wrong over
the years, and in 2016 I did not even try very hard.

This cycle, the Democratic vice presidential nominee is
arguably more important than usual, presumably because Mr.
Biden would be 78 in 2021.

Several months ago, after Biden’s nomination was assured, I
wrote that California Senator Kamala Harris was the most
likely choice. This was before Mr. Biden took an apparent lead
in his race against President Trump. Others predicted Biden
would throw a “Hail Mary” with a lesser-known figure in an
effort to catch up. Well-known figures such as Oprah Winfrey,
Michelle Obama, and Susan Rice were also mentioned.

Since that time, many in the media and most pollsters have
asserted that Mr. Trump is now behind. (whether this is
true, and if so, by how much, is a separate discussion, but for
now this is the conventional wisdom).

Assuming that the Biden campaign agrees that they are indeed
ahead, I think a “Hail Mary” veep choice is quite unlikely.
When ahead, it is psychologically difficult to risk one’s
advantage with controversy. The natural inclination is to go
with safe choices. Senator Harris is that perhaps more than
anyone else --- a former presidential candidate. a black woman,
young, and acceptable to most wings of her party.

Having said that, in this unpredictable year, the final choice
could be someone else.

But whomever the final choice is, they will be subjected to
many days of scrutiny, especially about their ability to assume
the presidency on short notice.

An abbreviated national convention will than take place in
Milwaukee, followed by the traditional Labor Day campaign
kick-off, the presidential and vice presidential debates --- and
the next thing you know, it’s election day!

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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: "Safe" Seat Up For Grabs?

The Fifth congressional district of Minnesota includes the
city of Minneapolis and some of its upscale suburbs, and it
is one of the safest Democratic seats in the nation. The
incumbent is Ilhan Omar, a Somali-born first-termer, who
won the seat in 2018 when the then-incumbent retired to run
for state attorney general at the last moment. Controversies
about her political views and personal life have surrounded
Ms. Omar from the outset, and became magnified as she
joined a group of four known as the “The Squad” in
Congress, each of which spoke out with views from the far
left of their party on both domestic and international issues.

Nevertheless, MN-5 is one of the most liberal urban districts
in the nation, and her advocacy of Medicare For All , Green
New Deal, and ceaseless criticism of President Trump, for
examples, seemed to reflect the views of a majority of
voters in the district, and it was expected that she would
easily be re-elected in 2020.

A number of candidates filed against her in the Democratic
(in Minnesota called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party or
DFL), but the opposition to Ms. Omar appears to have
coalesced behind Antone Melton-Meaux, a respected black
attorney and self-described lifelong progressive Democrat,
who felt, noting Ms. Omar frequently missed House votes,
she was a detriment to the interests of the district’s residents.
With his own attractive family (his wife is a prominent local
surgeon), he cites his community activism, including working
with foster children and as a volunteer minister at a social
justice church.

Melton-Meaux has significantly out-raised Omar for campaign
funding,  Also, am independent PAC is mailing out a steady
stream of sophisticated campaign literature to voters in the
district --- literature which constantly reminds them of Omar’s
unpopular controversies.

Although there is a Republican primary and candidate, a
significant number of GOP voters could opt to choose the
DFL primsry ballot to vote against Omar. Republicans usually
provide 25-30% of the district vote. MN-5 has the largest
number of Jewish voters in any state district, primarily in the
Minneapolis suburbs. Most of them vote DFL, and most of
them voted for Omar in 2018, but after her steady stream of
anti-Israel comments, many of them are more likely to vote in
2020 for Melton-Meaux.

Because of Omar’s national notoriety, local observers point
out, this race has drawn increasing national attention and
campaign funding for both major candidates.

One of the strengths of the DFL in urban areas is its Get Out
The Vote (GOTV) organization. In a primary such as this one,
however, the DFL is likely to have a good turnout --- but it
might not be clear if the effort is turning out Melton-Meaux
voters or Omar voters. As well, the challenger’s supporters
might be more energized to vote. On the other hand, most
DFL leaders are at least publicly supporting incumbent Omar
(even if they have private doubts about her). and are now
scrambling to help her.

With less than three weeks until the primary, incumbent Omar
remains the favorite to win renomination, but her challenger
Melton-Meaux appears to be rising fast with an increasingly
formidable campaign. Only days ago, his chances
seemed impossible, but with less than a month to go, a grass
roots political storm appears to be forming.

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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The Shapes Of The Lines

There are very few straight lines in Nature, and in human activity.
Yes, there are cycles, seasons, orbits, rhythms, patterns and other
repetitions, but almost always the world provides a series of
jagged ups and downs, and curving sideways variations.

I have observed these variations to be especially relevant to the
phenomenon known as American politics. The majority of races in
a national election, including those for the U.S. house, senate,
governorships and seats in state legislatures, are not competitive.
That’s because most incumbents win or because most districts
are made up of voters who mainly support one political party.

Presidential elections are often competitive, as are always s certain
number of all the races. Those which are close, in normal times,
do not proceed in  straight lines, but their candidates have ups and
downs throughout the campaign cycle. Undecided voters often
don’t pay attention to a specific race until October or later. Polls,
unless rigorously taken with likely voters and good samples,
rarely are useful.

That’s in normal times.

In a cycle such as the 2020 election, the normal uncertainties are
magnified.

At the outset, more than a year ago, it appeared that a booming
economy would see the re-election of President Trump, but that
control of he U.S. house would remain Democratic, and that
control of the U.S. senate was up for grabs. Then the pandemic
occurred, and all likelihoods became uncertainties. Shutdowns,
quarantines and the upheaval of social activity preoccupied
voters, and the political environment was complicated by urban
unrest and violence. In recent weeks, media polling has suggested
a negative impact on the Trump campaign and many, but not all,
Republican candidates. Establishment media trumpets this as a
virtually certain victory for Joe Biden and the Democrats coming
in November. In fact, such a victory could happen, but I suggest
it will not happen because a few premature polls and a few pundits
said so four months before election day.

I suggest both Donald Trump and Joe Biden, as well as competitive
candidates of both parties in other races, have a few more ups and
downs ahead --- and before votes are cast.

The key to any competitive election is the timing of their campaign
on the day the votes are cast. A candidate wants to be moving up
then, and his or her opponent moving down. That’s obvious to say,
but often difficult to perform, especially in a volatile environment.

Just as in 2016, some voters who intend to vote for Mr. Trump
seem reluctant to tell pollsters their choice, or even to be
interviewed. It doesn’t take very many of these to seriously
distort a poll. Few Biden supporters apparently have this
reluctance. If the election is a blow-out, this won’t matter, but
there is no evidence yet of a landslide election for either party.

In 2016, it should be recalled, most Democrats and many
Republicans thought that Hillary Clinton would win --- as late
as one hour AFTER the polls in he eastern states closed. It might
be, as I have said, a different story in 2020, but we  are not going
to know this until the votes are being counted.

As I wrote repeatedly for 2016, be wary of premature outcomes in
the 2020 election. Much is yet to be said --- and to happen.

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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Ten More Amazing Events From History You Probably Didn't Know About

[The items below appeared in earlier form previously on The Prairie Editor]
     
1.   ONE OF THE OLDEST ETHNIC GROUPS IN
      EUROPE HAS NOT EVER HAD ITS OWN
      NATION. THE RUSYNS (OR CARPATHO-RUSYNS)
      SPEAK THEIR OWN LANGUAGE, AND HAVE A
      DISTINCT RELIGIOUS AND CULTURAL
      HERITAGE. An ancient people who have lived in
      the area around the Carpathian Mountains in
      central Europe for the past thousand years, the
      Rusyn lands have been part of Russia, Ukraine,
      Austro-Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and Romania.
      In 1919, after World War I, various Rusyn leaders
      traveled to the Versailles Conference in Paris to
      plead for their own nation, but were denied. Today,
      many of the world’s 4 million Rusyns live in the U.S.,
      a number of whom are celebrities. The most famous
      was  the artist Andy Warhol.
     [Further reading: The People From Nowhere by Robert Magocsi]

 2.  THE MOST CELEBRATED SPY OF WORLD WAR II
      WAS A CATALAN WHO HAD TO SIGN UP FIRST AS 
      A NAZI AGENT IN ORDER TO BE CONSIDERED 
      BY BRITISH INTELLIGENCE AS THEIR DOUBLE
      AGENT.  Juan Pujols, known universally by the cover
      name “Garbo,” devised and implemented the
      greatest military deception in modern history by
      fooling Hitler and the German Wehrmacht to think
      the primary Allied invasion of Europe in 1944 would
      be at Calais and not at Normandy. Even three
      months after D-Day, “Garbo” persuaded the Nazis
      to hold vital divisions at Calais, waiting for an
      imaginary army invasion that did not come, and
      many consider Garbo’s efforts were a vital part of
      D-Day’s ultimate success. When Pujols fled Spain at
      the outset of World War II, and tried to join the British
      as a spy. he was turned away. Only when he joined the
      Nazi Gestapo, did the Brits take him on as a  double agent.
      [Further reading: Agent Garbo by Steven Talty]

3.  THE FIRST SCIENTIST TO CONCEIVE THE
     THERMONUCLEAR REACTION IN HYDROGEN,
     A DISCOVERY THAT LED DIRECTLY TO THE
     H-BOMB, WAS NOT AN AMERICAN, NOR A
     GERMAN NOR ANY EUROPEAN. The first physicist 
     to do so was, ironically, the Japanese physicist
     Togutaru Hagiwara who revealed his discovery at
     lecture in Kyoto in May 1941, seven months before
     Pearl Harbor. Although the first H-bomb was not
     exploded until 1954, Hagiwara, in a further irony,
     was also a pioneer in the theories which led to the
     first A-bomb being exploded over Hiroshima in 1945.
    [Further reading: The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Robert 
         Rhodes]   

 4. ARAMAIC WAS THE ACTUAL LANGUAGE OF THE
     OLD TESTAMENT. Although Hebrew and Arabic are
     today derived from it, Aramaic is still a living language for
     about two million Assyrians, a Christian people who
     live in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq where they have
     faced persecution for centuries. (A senior member of
     the U.S. house of representatives, Anna Eshoo of
     California, is the only Assyrian-American in
     Congress. 

5. JEFFERSON DAVIS’S FOLLY: THE U.S. CAMEL CORPS
In 1853, then U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis of
Mississippi proposed that camels be employed for
transportation in the southwestern frontier. Seventy camels
were then imported from Egypt to form the U.S. Camel Corps
which had some little success prior to the Civil War, although
the camels reportedly were difficult to manage.  By 1858, the
project was abandoned, and the camels were then only used
for military purposes. The last known camel reconnaissance
was conducted by the then U.S. army commander in Texas,
General Robert E. Lee in 1860. After the Civil War, the U.S.
camel experiment was abandoned, probably in part because
of its association with the two despised leaders of the
Confederacy. All camels were sold at auction,and as late as
the turn of the century, feral (wild) camels were reported to be
sighted in the  arid plains and deserts of the American West.

6. PENNIES USED TO BE THE SIZE OF HALF
DOLLARS, AND TWO CENT, THREE CENT AND
TWENTY CENT COINS USED TO BE LEGAL
Prior to 1856, the U.S. copper one cent piece was approximately
the size of a half dollar. In 1856, the smaller “penny” was
introduced with a flying eagle on its obverse, and in 1859, it was
replaced with the “Indian head” obverse. In 1909, on the
centenary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, the “Lincoln cent” (with
an obverse still in use) was introduced. Also in the mid-19th
century, experiments in other coinage denominations were tried,
including both silver and nickel three cent pieces, a copper
two cent piece and a silver twenty cent piece. All were legal
tender, but did not prove popular. Today, they are collector’s
items.

7. THE FIRST MODERN SUMMER FESTIVAL
WAS BEGUN IN WESTERN NEW YORK
The first modern American “summer festival” was opened in
1876 at a site on Lake Chautauqua in western New York, a few
miles east of Erie, Pennsylvania. On land that became known as
the Chautauqua Institution, the venue was created by Protestant
religious leaders who wanted to hold a summer event of serious
religious and aesthetic discussion and presentations of the
performing arts. It quickly caught on, first in the region (drawing
visitors from Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Rochester)
and then nationally, as world famous theologians, philosophers,
political leaders and famed artistic figures spoke and performed
to large crowds in the “gated” community which featured
Victorian-styled homes, cottages, hotels and boarding houses.
Soon, “Chautauquas,” or local religio-cultural summer events
began appearing all over America, and the word “chautauqua”
became a word in the dictionary. From the early 20th century on,
the Chautauqua Institution season became a notable site for
major addresses by U.S. presidents and presidential candidates.
President Franklin Roosevelt made his famous “I hate war” speech
there, and more recently, President Bill Clinton spoke in the
legendary Chautauqua ampitheater. In the 1930‘s, Chautauqua
provided a haven for many of the world’s most famous musicians
fleeing Nazi persecution, including the composer Arnold
Schoenberg. The Institution’s largest hotel, The Athenaeum, is a
magnificent example of grand Victorian architecture, and has
been seen in several motion pictures.

8. A FILM WITH 300,000 EXTRAS
Until Gandhi was released, the world record for the number
of extras in a film was a 1954 Soviet folk tale film with its
battle scene using 106,000 extras. The funeral scene for the
epic about the life of the famed Indian figure, however, used
300,000 extras, of which 200,000 were volunteers and about
100,000 were paid a small fee.

9. JASCHA HEIFTEZ PLAYED THOUSANDS OF
CONCERTS, BUT ONCE STOOD UP AN AUDIENCE
BECAUSE HIS MOTHER DIDN’T LIKE THE HALL
Jascha Heifetz was one of the world’s two greatest classical
violinists, and arguably the most famous. From his debut in
St. Petersburg, Russia at the age of five until his death in
1982, Heifetz literally performed in recitals, concerts and
recordings thousands of times in cities large and small
across the globe. On January 12, 1922, he was scheduled for a
recital at the historic Park Opera House in Erie, PA.  By that
time, Heifetz was world renowned, and all of his affairs were
handled by his parents (since he was not yet 21 years old). The
group which arranged the recital in Erie had a contract for the
space now renamed the Park Theater, but the demand for
tickets was so great that the event was moved to the Erie
Arena several blocks away. Instead of the few hundred which
the Park Theater could accommodate, the Erie Arena had
a capacity for 2500, and it was sold out. Heifetz’s piano
accompanist, Samuel Chotzinoff (he later became a major
U.S. music figure, and was personally responsible for
persuading Arturo Toscanini to come to America and conduct
the NBC Symphony), was sent to check out the original venue,
but was told the concert was moved. After then visiting the
Erie Arena (where boxing matches were  sometimes held), he
reported back to Heifetz’s manager-mother Anna who was
the third person in the entourage. Claiming her son would be
humiliated by appearing where prizefighters fought, she
adamantly refused to let Heifetz perform. Some contemporary
observers suggested that the real issue was money --- that
Mrs. Heifetz wanted a share of the bigger crowd revenue, but
the bottom line was that Heifetz didn’t play. The story has a
happy ending, however. On March 1 and 2, 1949, the great
violinist returned to Erie to play with the Erie Philharmonic
under its conductor Fritz Mahler (nephew of the composer).
A violinist in the orchestra reported later that the virtuoso’s
playing was “so perfect and inspiring that we played better
than we ever have, before or since.”

10. THE GREATEST BASEBALL BATTER
IN HISTORY COULD HAVE BEEN ONE OF
THE GREATEST PITCHERS
Most will agree that Babe Ruth was the greatest baseball
player ever, and he achieved his fame from his great
prowess with the bat, hitting far more home runs than
anyone else until recent times, and for having one of the
highest lifetime batting averages ever. But Ruth did not
begin his career as a batter. For the Boston Braves, he was
an ace starting pitcher. He even won 23 games in 1916 and
and 24 games in 1917. His lifetime pitching record was
93-46, and he pitched primarily for only six seasons. (He
pitched only five games for the Yankees and won all of
them.) But in one of the most disastrous and one-sided
trades in baseball history, the cash-strapped Braves
sold Ruth’s contract to the New York Yankees in 1920. In
his new home, Ruth quickly became a batter and fielder,
and changed the sport indelibly with home runs and his
iconic public personality.


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Copyright (c) 2014 2015 2016 2017 2020 by Barry Casselman.
All rights reserved.



Wednesday, July 1, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: U.S. Senate Races Now

In addition to the presidential campaign, the contests for
control of the U.S. senate are key to he outcome of the 2020
election.

The purely numerical advantage has shifted this cycle to the
Democrats who have only about half as many incumbent
seats as the Republicans up for re-election. In the most
recent cycles, the GOP had this advantage, and it helped them
keep their current 53-47 majority control.

Although 34 seats are up this year are up, only 10-12 are now
seen as competitive. Most of these are GOP seats, and this
has given Democrats hope that they might retake majority
control in January, 2021.

The senate minority now need either 3 or 4 pick-ups to regain
the majority (depending on which ticket wins the White
House; the vice president presides over the senate and
breaks any ties). That also assumes he Democrats lose no
seat they now hold.

The six senate seats which now appear most likely to switch
parties are in Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Maine
(currently held by Republicans), and in Alabama and Michigan
(currently held by Democrats).  Of these, only Alabama seems
almost certain to change hands.  If so, this would change the
math for Democrats taking control by an additional seat.

Each party had recent good and bad news about the two most
vulnerable GOP seats. In Arizona, incumbent Martha McSally
has fallen behind former astronaut Mark Kelly. and in Colorado,
former Democratic Governor  John Hickenlooper is stumbling
badly in his last-minute effort to unseat GOP incumbent
Senator Cory Gardner.

Republican Senators Thom Tillis (North Carolina) and Susan
Collina (Maine) are facing challengers heavily financed with
out-of-state money. GOP challenger in Michigan John James
is strong candidate against low-profile Democratic incumbent
Gary Peters, but trails in the polls.

Other potentially vulnerable seats include those in Georgia,
Iowa, Montana and Kansas (now held by Republicans); and in
New Hampshire and Minnesota (now held by Democrats),
but pick-ups in these seats probably depend on whether the
presidential election is close or not.

Voter moods, as best can be measured, are almost always
volatile in the summer months before a national election,
and probably more so this unprecedented year.  In this
environment, media  propaganda news can prevail over
common sense., and a spate of partisan or flawed polls can
be misleading. Time and again over the years, I have
cautioned that the most accurate and useful polling occurs
just before the election in October when pollsters are highly
motivated to be as accurate as possible.

I also have long pointed out that some races rated as “safe”
early on by various pundits  unexpectedly become very
competitive as election day approaches. I will have more
about which ones these might be after the conventions and
Labor Day. Some senate nominees have not yet been
chosen.

The bottom line now in early July in the  U.S. senate races
is that senate control in 2021 is undecided, and dependent  not
only the presidential contest outcome, but also very much
on the quality of the candidates running this year.

Developing.....

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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Friday, June 26, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Ten Amazing History Stories You Probably Didn't Know About

[earlier version first published on The Prairie Editor blog in 2013]
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------


  THE WORST SHIP DISASTER OF ALL-TIME
      WAS THE SINKING OF THE WILHELM GUSTLOFF
      ON JANUARY 30, 1945.
      The Wilhelm Gustloff, built as a Nazi passenger
      cruise ship (and named for a Swiss Nazi demogogue)
      in 1937, had been stranded in the East Prussian port
      of Gotenhofen on the Baltic Sea since the outset of
      World War II. As Soviet troops overtook East Prussia
      in early 1945, over a million ethnic Germans, whose
      families had lived in East Prussia for centuries,
      attempted to flee to the German mainland a few
      hundred miles away via the Baltic sea route to avoid
      the feared revenge of the Russian soldiers as
      they reconquered the area. The Wilhelm Gustloff,
      built to accommodate 1500 passengers and 500 crew,
      was overloaded with about 11,000 men, women and
      children (some of whom were German soldiers), and 
      began a 200-plus mile sea trip in a storm. (The trip
      was no longer possible by rail or truck.) A Soviet
      submarine spotted the ship, and sent four torpedoes
      at it, sinking the ship in a brief time. Approximately
      9400 persons died in the sinking, making it it the
      largest loss of life from one ship disaster in history.
      [Further reading: Death in the Baltic by Cathryn J. Prince.]

  THE FATHER OF THE AMERICAN ENGLISH
      LANGUAGE WAS NOT A LITERARY PERSON,
      WROTE NO BOOKS, AND DID NOT EVER
      ATTEND A SCHOOL.
      Although his name is a household word in the United
      States and in much of the rest of the world for his
      role as president of the United States during the
      nation’s Civil War (1861-65) and his assassination, it   
      is much less known that Abraham Lincoln could be
      rated today as the father of the modern American
      English language. This role is usually assigned to
      a major literary figure (e.g., Shakespeare in British
      English, Dante in Italian, Cervantes in Spanish,
      Pushkin in Russian, et al). The only American writer
      who even comes close to Lincoln, and came after
      him, was Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain”).
      Lincoln’s major speeches are still considered today
      as the finest examples of their kind by an American,
      and his collected speeches and letters form a unique
      body of the English language spoken and written in
      the U.S. as it was being transformed from its British
      origins. Lincoln’s language, almost alone among his
      19th century contemporaries (including Hawthorne,
      Emerson, Melville, Longfellow, et al) remains fresh
      today without the “dated” quality of almost
      everyone else in his era. Amazingly, Lincoln was
      entirely self-taught, and did not ever attend a school
      in his childhood.
      [Further reading: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,
      Rutgers University Press]

  THE FIRST MODERN NOVEL WAS WRITTEN
      MORE THAN A THOUSAND YEARS AGO BY A
      JAPANESE NOBLEWOMAN known as “Lady
      Murasaki” (her real name is unknown).
      A lady-in-waiting to the Empress Shoshi of
      the Heian period  of 11th century Japan, she
      wrote her extraordinary fictional account of life,
      manners and personalities of the Japanese 
      court life in an unprecedented work entitled The
      Tale of Genji. It is also described today as the first
      psychological work of fiction. The novel form did
      not truly emerge until more than 500 years later in
      the West. Remarkably, The Tale of Genji is even 
      today a highly readable, fascinating masterpiece.
      [Further reading: Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki]

  THE GREATEST AMERICAN NATURAL DISASTER   
      was the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 which
      inundated most of the mid-Mississippi River Valley
      following an unprecedented period of rain beginning
      in August, 1926. At its peak, months later the flood
      covered 27,000 square miles, and dislocated 700,000
      residents. About 500 persons are known to have died   
      (although the total death toll,was not ever known).
      Total damages in today’s dollars would approach
      $1 trillion. Then-President Calvin Coolidge did not
      visit the area, but sent his Secretary of Commerce
      Herbert Hoover instead, and put Hoover in charge of
      the recovery. When Coolidge decided not to run for
      re-election in 1928, Hoover was nominated in his
      place, and elected president.
   
  THE LANGUAGES OF THE FINNS, ESTONIANS   
      AND HUNGARIANS HAVE THE SAME ROOTS
      AND COME FROM ASIA NOT EUROPE.
      Known as the Uraic family of languages,
      Magyar, Finnish and Estonian have no roots in the
      much larger Indo-European family of languages
      which are spoken in most of the nations near them.
      Although their exact origins are not yet known,
      philologists, in fact, trace these languages partially
      back to Siberian Asian (Chuvash) roots and to those
      who came to the region more than two thousand
      years ago. Magyar, the official language of Hungary,
      is the largest non-Indo-European language spoken
      in Europe.
    
  THE GREATEST LIVING POET COULDN’T
      SPEAK OR WRITE .
      The late Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer suffered a
      stroke in 1990, and after that was unable to speak
      or write. Nevertheless, he received the Nobel Prize
      for literature in 2011, and was considered by many
      to be the greatest living poet in any language.
      His short and austere poems, critics say, create
      stunning images and spaces. Before his stroke,
      he worked professionally as a psychologist in a
      prison while at the same time writing poems and
      publishing several books of Swedish poetry. He has
      since been translated into many languages.
      [Further reading: Twenty Poems by Tomas
      Transtromer, and Windows & Stones by Tomas
      Transtromer; (both translations)]

  ONE OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST
      SCULPTORS HAD NO TRUE HANDS.
      The 18th century Brazilian sculptor Antonio Lisboa
      was the son of a Portuguese carpenter and a slave
      mother. While relatively young, he developed either
      leprosy or sclerodoma, and lost all the fingers of his
      hands as well as the toes on his feet. He became   
      known as “O Aleijadinho” (or “The Little Cripple”).
      He created most of his sculpture in the Brazilian
      province of Minas Gerais where, after he was
      disfigured, and through truly remarkable efforts, he
      sculpted many masterpieces, most of which survive
      today.
      
8.   SAUDI ARABIA DID NOT EXIST UNTIL
      1924, OIL WAS NOT DISCOVERED THERE
      UNTIL 1937, AND THE GOVERNMENT DID
      NOT MAKE A REAL PROFIT FROM OIL
      UNTIL AFTER WORLD WAR II.
      Until 1924,the Arabian peninsula had no fixed
      national boundaries, no formal nation states, and      
      was inhabited primarily by nomadic Bedouin tribes
      that went back thousands of years. It technically was
      part of the Ottoman empire under its sultan who
      ruled the Islamic world. Ibn Saud, a young leader
      of the Wahhabi tribe and 6 foot 4 inch warrior prince
      who grew up living in tents and moving about the
      southern Asir region of Arabia with his family,
      began his unification of the various tribes in 1902
      by seizing the ancient Wahhabi capital of Riyadh,
      and then by systematically eliminating in battle the
      usually more powerful rival sheikhs in the region
      over the next two decades. After the sultan was
      deposed and the Ottoman empire dissolved
      following World War I, Ibn Saud was declared king
      of the new Saudi Arabia. Short of cash, he made
      deals with the British, and then the Americans, to
      allow exploration for oil and gas in the peninsula
      which led to major discoveries in 1937. Because of
      breakout of war in Europe and Africa in 1939-40,
      the huge profits from the oil fields did not appear
      until after World War II, when Saudi Arabia became
      the world’s largest producer and seller of oil.
     [Further reading: Ibn Saud by M. Darlow & B. Bray]

  THE AMERICAN SPY WHO FOUND OUT
      THAT THE GERMANS WERE NOT
      WORKING ON THE ATOMIC BOMB
      WAS PREVIOUSLY A CATCHER IN MAJOR
      LEAGUE BASEBALL FOR 15 YEARS.
      Morris “Moe” Berg played for American League
      teams for most of his 15-year baseball career, and 
      was called “the brainiest man ever to play baseball.”
      Casey Stengel (of all persons) even once called him
      “the strangest man ever to play baseball.” An
      impoverished son of European Jewish immigrants,
      he received degrees from Princeton and Columbia
      law school, and became famous early for his highly
      successful appearances on the national radio quiz
      show “Information Please.” A polymath, he spoke
      seven languages fluently, and when war broke out, he    
      became a U.S. spy and was sent undercover to Italy
      and occupied Central Europe to secretly assess
      the Nazi atomic bomb program. After World War II,
      he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. In
      spite of his extraordinary and colorful career and 
      life, he died in obscurity in 1972.
      [Further reading: Heisenberg’s War by Thomas Powers]

10.  THE SMALLEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD
        IS LOCATED ON THE SECOND FLOOR OF
        A VILLA IN DOWNTOWN ROME, HAS EXISTED
        FOR ALMOST 1000 YEARS, HAS DIPLOMATIC
        RELATIONS WITH MORE THAN 100 NATIONS,
        IS AN OFFICIAL OBSERVER AT THE UNITED
        NATIONS, COINS ITS OWN MONEY AND PRINTS
        ITS OWN STAMPS.
        The (shortened) name of this country is
        officially Sovrane Militare Ordine di Malta or
        S.M.O.M. It is an important worldwide Catholic   
        philanthropic entity known also as the Knights of
        Malta, and which once ruled the island nation of 
        Malta. Today, its size is reduced to two villas in
        Rome and some land on the outskirts of the Italian
        capital; only the upper floors of one of the villas is
        considered the sovereign territory of S.M.O.M. It is
        therefore the only nation on earth which can only
        be entered by elevator.
        
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Copyright (c) 2013 and 2020 by Barry Casselman.
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