Friday, June 15, 2007

June 15-July 6

Fortunately, nothing terrible or depressing or infuriating or repellant has ever happened between June 15 and July 6. No one of any ill repute was ever born during that span, and no one ever passed prematurely into the void. Nations behaved themselves; despots halted their relentless sprees of death and immiseration; rare flowers bloomed and extinct species reappeared miraculously, as if there were indeed a god in heaven.

For all these reasons, I will be taking a three-week hiatus from this blog while visiting the various lunatics to whom I am related.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

June 13

On this date in 1971, the New York Times began publishing documents leaked by a former State Department official named Daniel Ellsberg. The secret report, which reconstructed the history US policy in Southeast Asia from 1945-1967, had been commissioned by Lyndon Johnson's Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who resigned not long after requesting it. Among other things, the documents revealed that four consecutive American presidents -- Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson -- had deceived the public (including Congress) as to the precise nature of the United States' role in French Indochina, its relationship to Ngo Dinh Diem's regime in the South, its efforts to deliberately thwart the 1954 Geneva Accord, and its covert military activities in Laos and North Vietnam prior to August 1964, when the Gulf of Tonkin "incident" allegedly took place.

Among the documents released to the Times was a 1952 National Security Council Document warning of the dire consequences of communism in Southeast Asia, where France was then engaged in a struggle to maintain its empire.
Communist domination, by whatever means, of all Southeast Asia would seriously endanger in the short term, and critically endanger in the longer term, United States security interests.

The loss of any of the countries in Southeast Asia to communist aggression would have critical psychological, political and economic consequences. In the absence of effective and timely counteraction, the loss of any single country would probably lead to relatively swift submission to or an alignment with communism by the remaining countries of this group.
The document went on to recommend that the United States maintain its support for the French in a war that eventually took hundreds of thousands of lives. It also suggested that the US might at some point need to intervene on its own to prevent the "loss" of Indochina to communism.

These plans, as it happened, didn't work out so well.



Tuesday, June 12, 2007

June 12

The day after Gov. George C. Wallace sought to prevent the integration of the University of Alabama, a fertilizer salesman and Klan member named Byron De La Beckwith gunned down Medgar Evers in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi home. Just before 2:00 a.m. on 12 June 1963, Medgar Evers -- a 37-year-old father of three -- died at a local hospital.

Evers had few illusions about his life’s work. Several years before his death, Evers recalled his childhood in Decatur, Mississippi:
When I was eleven or twelve a close friend of the family got lynched. I guess he was about forty years old, married, and we used to play with his kids. I remember the Saturday night a bunch of white men beat him to death at the Decatur fairgrounds because he sassed back a white woman. They just left him dead on the ground. Everyone in town knew it but never [said] a word in public. I went down and saw his bloody clothes. They left those clothes on a fence for about a year. Every Negro in town was supposed to get the message from those clothes and I can see those clothes now in my mind's eye . . . . But nothing was said in public. No sermons in church. No news. No protest. It was as though this man just dissolved except for the bloody clothes . . . . Just before I went into the Army I began wondering how long I could stand it. I used to watch the Saturday night sport of white men trying to run down a Negro with their car, or white gangs coming through town to beat up a Negro.
A veteran of the segregated armed forces who fought in Normandy during World War II, Evers returned to the United States with a determination -- shared by millions of black soldiers and their compatriots -- to enjoy and exercise their full citizenship. He graduated from Alcorn State and sold insurance for a living, but he grew increasingly involved in the emerging civil rights movement, which was a deadly commitment in one of the most unreconstructed racist havens of the old South. Evers became involved in the investigation of Emmett Till’s murder in 1955, and he organized economic boycotts, prayer vigils and nonviolent marches, all of which earned him the respect of national civil rights leaders and the enmity of segregation’s defenders. Evers, who was his state’s first NAACP field officer, had been targeted by white supremacists for nearly a decade before his death. His home was firebombed, he received teleophe threats on a daily basis, and he was chased by racist drivers who more than once tried to run him over.

In his final speech, delivered less than a month before his death, Medgar Evers expressed optimism that
the years of change are upon us. In the racial picture things will never be as they once were. History has reached a turning point, here and over the world. Here in Jackson we can recognize the situation and make an honest effort to bring fresh ideas and new methods to bear, or we can have what Mayor Thompson called “turbulent times.” If we choose this latter course, the turbulence will come, not because of so-called agitators or the presence or absence of the NAACP, but because the time has come for a change and certain citizens refuse to accept the inevitable.
Byron De La Beckwith, refusing to “accept the inevitable,” shot Evers in the back and escaped justice for more than 30 years. At last convicted of the murder in 1994, De La Beckwith died of heart problems on 21 January 2001, the day after George W. Bush took the oath of office.

Monday, June 11, 2007

June 11

On this date in 1963, a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc drove from the Linh-Mu Pagoda in Hue to Saigon, parked his car in a busy intersection, doused himself in gasoline and diesel fuel, and -- with a string of Buddhist mala (prayer beads) clutched in his hand-- calmly immolated himself. David Halberstam, then a reporter for the New York Times, recalled the event in 1965:
Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think . . . . As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.
His act -- captured most famously by Associated Press photographer Malcolm Browne -- stunned the world and hastened the demise of Ngo Dinh Diem, the corrupt South Vietnamese president who was then engaged in a nationwide crackdown against Buddhists and political dissidents. In a letter written just before his death, Thich Quang Duc explained that his sacrifice was intended as a call for Diem “to be kind and tolerant toward his people and [to] enforce a policy of religious toleration.”

Diem’s regime was somewhat less than sympathetic to these pleas. Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu -- Diem’s sister-in-law and the “First Lady of South Vietnam” -- dismissed the act as irrelevant and ineffectual. “They only thing they have done,” she observed with a wave of her hand, “they have barbecued one of their monks.” She added that Duc’s death was not even “self-sufficient” because he had to use “imported gasoline.” Madame Nhu was also quoted as urging the monks to continue their protests. “Let them burn,” she said, “and we shall clap our hands.” Less than four months later, Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu were killed in a coup, and Madame Nhu -- the “Dragon Lady” -- was driven into exile.

Later that day, in the country that supported Diem’s brutal dictatorship and would soon initiate war against the Vietnamese, Alabama Governor George Wallace momentarily blocked federal officials from escorting Vivian Malone and James Hood into Foster Auditorium, where they were to register for classes at the state’s flagship university. After reading a speech denouncing federal intrusion into the rights of racist whites, Wallace stepped aside and allowed the desegregation of the University of Alabama to proceed. Wallace did not light himself on fire, though part of him must surely have wanted to burn something -- a cross, perhaps, if nothing else.

(. . . welcome to folks coming over from Raw Story. I'd recommend having the proverbial "look around," but this is a pretty depressing place to hang out . . .)



Sunday, June 10, 2007

June 10

In retaliation for the assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich, German SS forces liquidated the Czech village of Lidice 65 years ago today. Heydrich had died of blood poisoning on 4 June 1942, a little more than a week after a hand grenade destroyed the vehicle in which he was traveling near Prague. His death occurred only a few months after Haydrich convened the Wannsee Conference, where initial plans for the “Final Solution” were articulated.

As Heydrich’s body was being laid to rest in Berlin, orders were circulated that Lidice was to be eradicated. The next day, German security police surrounded the town and executed all the men and older boys, shooting them in groups of ten in an orchard and leaving the nearly 200 bodies to rot in the open air. The women and children of Lidice were separated and sent, respectively, to the camps at Ravensbruck and Chelmno, where nearly all of them died of disease or were gassed to death. The women of Lidice were forced to labor on behalf of the Riech, for which they processed textiles leather goods, built roads and manufactured ammunition. A handful of children were selected for “Aryanization,” while the remaining ones -- more than eighty in all -- were exterminated in the gas chambers at Chelmno, where more than 150,000 others perished during the war.

After Lidice had been evacuated, every building was dynamited and bulldozed. Even the bodies in the town’s cemetery were disinterred and burnt.

German cameramen filmed the destruction of Lidice, and radio broadcasts boasted of the massacre afterwards:
As the inhabitants of the village Lidice near Kladno committed the harshest offence by supporting the assassins of SS Obergruppenfuhrer Heydrich, the male adults have been shot; women have been transported to a concentration camp and children given proper re-education. The buildings of the village have been leveled to the ground and the name of the community has been deleted.
Lidice was never rebuilt, although numerous towns and neighborhoods in Mexico, Brazil, Panama and the United States took the name "Lidice" in honor of those who died in one of the war's most memorable atrocities.

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Friday, June 08, 2007

June 8

Perhaps the worst period of Iceland’s history commenced on this date in 1783, when the Laki volcano erupted, that oozing laza and spewing pyroclasts and poisonous gases into the atmosphere for eight consecutive months. Located in the Southeast of Iceland at the corner of the Vatnajokull Glacier, Laki ultimately coughed out 14 cubic kilometers of lava over an area of 600 square miles, making it the largest lava eruption in recorded history. The Skaftáreldar, as it came to be known, killed one out of every five Icelanders over the next two years, most of whom succumbed to a brutal famine when most of the nation’s livestock perished.

Ebenezer Henderson, a Scotsman who published a travelogue about Iceland thirty years after the eruption, provides us with one of the best descriptions of the event:
[It]not only appears to have been more tremendous in its phenomena than any recorded in the modern annals of Iceland, but it was followed by a train of consequences the most direful and melancholy, some of which continue to be felt to this day. Immense floods of red-hot lava were poured down from the hills with amazing velocity, and, spreading over the low country, burnt up men, cattle, churches, houses, and every thing they attacked in their progress. Not only was all vegetation, in the immediate neighbourhood of the volcano, destroyed by the ashes, brimstone, and pumice, which it emitted; but, being borne up to an inconceivable height in the atmosphere, they were scattered over the whole island, impregnating the air with noxious vapours, intercepting the genial rays of the sun, and empoisoning whatever could satisfy the hunger or quench the thirst of man and beast. Even in some of the more distant districts, the quantity of ashes that fell was so great, that they were gathered up by handfuls. Upwards of four hundred people were instantly deprived of a home; the fish were driven from the coasts, and the elements seemed to vie with each other which should commit the greatest depredations; famine and pestilence stalked abroad, and cut down their victims with ruthless cruelty; while death himself was glutted with the prey. In some houses there was scarcely a sound individual left to tend the afflicted, or any who possessed sufficient strength to inter the dead. The most miserably emaciated tottering skeletons were seen in every quarter. When the animals that had died of hunger and disease were consumed, the wretched creatures had nothing to eat but raw hides, and old pieces of leather and ropes, which they boiled and devoured with avidity. The horses ate the flesh off one another, and for want of other sustenance had recourse to turf, wood, and even excrementitious substances; while the sheep devoured each other's wool. In a word, the accumulation of miseries, originating in the volcanic eruption, was so dreadful, that, in the short space of two years, not fewer than 9,336 human beings, 28,000 horses, 11,461 head of cattle, and 190,488 sheep perished on the island!
The Laki eruption also temporarily reshaped the planet’s climate, cooling North America to such an extent that the Mississippi River froze as far south as New Orleans the next winter. Mortality rates in rural England also rose over the next few years, as clouds of ash precipitated respiratory illness and killed off crops and livestock. Combined with the effects of El Nino patterns and related Icelandic eruptions from Grimsvotn (which lasted until 1785), the Laki event helped devastate France’s harvest throughout the rest of the decade, leading to massive poverty, famine, and discontent. By 1789, the French had seen enough and took matters into their own hands.



Thursday, June 07, 2007

June 7

Nine years ago today, three white men from Jasper, Texas, used a chain to tie a 49-year-old black man named James Byrd, Jr., to the back of a gray pickup truck. Having already beaten him severely and having sprayed his face with black paint, the men the dragged Byrd for three miles before dumping his body -- by then missing a head and an arm -- outside Huff Creek Cemetery, where generations of African Americans from the small east Texas town had been laid to rest.

Lawrence Brewer, John King, and Shawn Berry encountered Byrd as he was walking home, drunk, from a party. Although Brewer and King were each known to be white supremacists whose hatred for blacks had been refined in prison, they offered Byrd a ride nevertheless. According to Berry’s version of events, King eventually drove the group to a secluded field, where he announced his intention to “scare the shit out of this here nigger.” After the assailants kicked and beat Byrd to near unconsciousness, King explained to Berry that “we’re starting the Turner Diaries early.” During the scuffle King dropped his lighter, which investigators later discovered. In addition to being engraved with his prison nickname, “Possum,” John King’s lighter also bore a neo-Nazi symbol.

Forensic investigators determined later that James Byrd was still alive -- and probably struggling to keep his head up -- as the pickup dragged him by his feet. Before the rim of a drainage ditch tore off his head and arm, Byrd lost his wallet, keys, shoes and dentures, all of which were scattered along Huff Creek Road.

Texas Governor George W. Bush declined to attend James Byrd’s funeral, explaining that his presence would be viewed as too “political.” Bush decided that hate crime legislation -- particularly a law named in memory of Jasper’s latest lynching victim -- would be too political as well, and so he refused to offer his support for the bill, which died in committee. For their part, Brewer and King were sentenced to death for the murder of James Byrd, while Berry received a sentence of 40 years to life.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

June 6

On this date in 1242, Church authorities in Paris set fire to 24 wagonloads of Jewish books. The bonfire was conducted in a manner consistent with the wishes of the late Pope Gregory IX, who had issued that all Hebrew texts were to be seized on Saturday, 3 March 1240, while French Jews were attending synagogue. The confiscated texts were then scoured by Dominican and Franciscan censors, who were charged with identifying and incinerating works that contained “errors” and were “injurious” to Christianity.

Precisely 510 years after the Paris book burning, an enormous fire -- the third in as many weeks -- gutted a full third of Moscow. One hundred and thirty-seven years later, on 6 June 1889, a tipped glue pot in a Seattle carpentry shop caught fire and quickly spread throughout the wharf and downtown commercial district. Remarkably, no lives were lost in the disaster, although nearly sixty blocks of mostly wooden buildings were reduced to ash.

On 6 June 1971. a commercial DC-9 and a Marine F4 Phantom collided in mid-air near Duarte, California. The wing of the Phantom severed the cockpit from the cabin of Airwest Flight 706; both planes then tumbled 15,000 feet into the San Gabriel Mountains, killing everyone but the Marine co-pilot, who managed to eject from the doomed fighter and parachute to safety. Forty-nine passengers and crew members died on Flight 706, whose final destination that night was to be the city of Seattle.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

June 5

5 June 1968.



Monday, June 04, 2007

June 4

Today is the 33rd anniversary of one of the most staggering promotional failures in American sports history. On 4 June 1974, fans who showed up to watch the Cleveland Indians host the Texas Rangers were treated to a remarkably ill-conceived event known as “Ten Cent Beer Night.” Throughout the game, vendors dispensed tens of thousands of cups of Stroh’s beer to the 25,000 irascible fans who filled the soul-less, bug-infested cavern otherwise known as Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The result, quite predictably, was ugly.

The 1960s and 1970s were an awful time for northern Ohio, as the departure of heavy industry and the frenzied flight of white residents to the suburbs helped cut the city’s population nearly in half from its post-World War II high of 900,000. By 1974, Cleveland was five years past the infamous Cuyahoga River chemical fire and four years from declaring bankruptcy. For those who were able to struggle out of bed on June 4, the opportunity to drown in cheap alcohol must have seemed like an instance of divine intervention.

As fate would have it, a similar cheap beer promotion grew out of hand the previous week, when the Rangers and Indians met in Arlington, Texas. Midway through that game, the teams brawled, and Rangers fans responded by tossing cups of beer onto the field. Nothing that night, however, rivaled the lunacy that ensued in Cleveland when the Rangers arrived for a three-game series on June 4; averaging a mere 8000 fans per game that season, Cleveland Indians officials hoped that alcohol might create a buzz that their team's players themselves could not.

During the first few innings, tipsy fans tossed smoke bombs and firecrackers at each other. By the second inning, a topless woman had leaped onto the field and chased down one of the umpires for an unwanted kiss; another streaker joined the Rangers’ Tom Grieve as he circled the bases following his second home run of the night; a father and son team ran into the outfield and dropped their pants. Meantime, golf balls, rocks and batteries rained down on Texas’ players throughout the game. At one point, someone heaved an empty gallon of Thunderbird wine at Rangers’s first baseman Mike Hargove. As the game neared its conclusion, the evening descended into total chaos. During the ninth inning, the Indians managed to tie the score and placed the winning run on third base. At that point, a fan ran into the outfield to steal Jeff Burroughs’ glove. When Burroughs began chasing the fan, Rangers’ manager Billy Martin, along with several of Burroughs’ teammates, rushed to help out -- several of them, including Martin, carried bats.

Not caring that their team was about to win a rare victory, the most intoxicated people in Cleveland began throwing hot dogs, beer cups, broken seats and glass bottles at their guests from Texas. Thousands of fans stormed the field, some of them brandishing chains and knives and metal chairs.

Within minutes, the umpires’ crew chief Nestor Chylak had invoked Rule 3.18 and forfeited the game to Texas. Chylak later described the fans as “uncontrollable beasts,” adding that he had never seen anything quite like it, “except in a zoo.” American League president Lee MacPhail concluded that beer "played a great role" in the affair.



Friday, June 01, 2007

June 1

The kindly Puritans of colonial Massachusetts strung Mary Dyer from an elm tree on this date in 1660. Her crime, for which she had already been banished from the colony, was her membership in the Society of Friends and her willingness to show her face in Boston in defiance of the law.

An early emigrant to Massachusetts Bay, Dyer was the subject of religious controversy when she participated in Anne Hutchinson’s unorthodox meetings during the late 1630s. Hutchinson promoted “antinomianism,” the heretical view that individuals could acquire salvation and understanding without the assistance of the formal clergy. When the authorities banished Hutchinson from the colony in 1637, Dyer and her husband followed her to Rhode Island, where the law tolerated their beliefs.

After Dyer left the colony, Governor John Winthrop ordered the exhumation of her stillborn infant, to which Dyer had given birth in October 1637. Winthrop’s journal described the child’s “monstrous” body as final evidence that God disapproved of Dyer’s peculiar ideas.:
[I]t was of ordinary bigness; it had a face, but no head, and the ears stood upon the shoulders and were like an ape’s; it had no forehead, but over the eyes four horns, hard and sharp; two of them were above one inch long, the other two shorter; the eyes standing out, and the mouth also; the nose hooked upward; all over the breast and back full of sharp pricks and scales, like a thornback, the navel and all the belly, with the distinction of the sex, were where the back should be, and the back and hips before, where the belly should have been; behind, between the shoulders, it had two mouths, and in each of them a piece of red flesh sticking out; it had arms and legs as other children; but, instead of toes, it had on each foot three claws, like a young fowl, with sharp talons.
Winthrop’s description was published throughout Massachusetts as well as in England.

After converting to Quakerism during a trip to England in 1652, Dyer returned to the colonies -- and to Massachusetts, where in 1658 she and several colleagues were arrested and sentenced to die for violating the anti-Quaker ban instituted two years before. While her two friends were hanged, Dyer’s life was spared for the time being, and she was banished from the colony. Two years later, in May 1660, she returned and was immediately arrested, tried and convicted.

Offered the opportunity to apologize and vow to leave Massachusetts forever, Dyer refused to save her own life. “Nay, man,” she explained, “I am not now to repent.” These were her final words.

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