Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A SLICE OF KOREAN CINEMA

Several years ago I developed an interest in Bollywood and before that European movies, but when my son taught English in Seoul I decided to expand my interests again and watched a few Korean movies.  There is an adjustment not only for subtitles, but for culture.  It is not hard to appreciate some of the creativity and a unique perspective.

My first acquaintance with Korean films tested my violence tolerance.  Realism is pervasive in a majority of Korean films.  By that I mean you get a good dose of blood and torture in bleak environments. The photo to the left is about a totally different genre so you won't be overwhelmed with the violence found in many of the better known Korean movies.

"Silmido" released in 2003 was the first Korean film to sell 10 million tickets.  A very violent story of condemned  prisoners assembled and trained for an assassination and then abandoned when the assassination became politically untenable.  It dealt with relations towards North Korea.

"JSA" dealt directly with the border (which my son visited and like other tourists was able to straddle his feet on either side).  Another violent movie, but one that showed North Koreans weren't necessarily all "bad." Suspenseful.

"Chaser" got my attention from a Roger Ebert review who referred to a chase scene on foot.  The protagonist was a detective turned pimp trying to uncover a brutal murderer of his "girls."  This one generated a lot of tension.

"Mother" at first didn't impress me, but slowly I realized there was much more to this movie.  Although mostly filmed in grubby conditions it turned out to be more sophisticated.  Joon-ho Bong, was the director

"Memories of Murder" is a gruesome murder mystery based on serial killings. Another well done mystery directed by Joon-ho Bong

All of the above are well done and if you can tolerate a fairly high level of violence you might enjoy them as much as any alternative.  Some others I did enjoy included "Silenced" and "Lady Vengeance", which will be remade in Hollywood. But there is more to Korean movies.

"The Housemaid" originally filmed in 1960 and remade in 2006 is called an "erotic" thriller that made an impression at the Cannes Festival.  Suspenseful and with some social context it will stun you.

"The Gifted Hand" was released in 2013 (I saw on an Air New Zealand flight) has some violence, but also a little science fiction, fantasy and mystery.

"Masquerade" was a period piece.  In Korean history there was a period of 15 days not accounted for, but in which some laws were reversed for the benefit of lower and middle class people.  Story suggested the king hid away while a commoner ruled and made things a little better.  It reminded me of "A Royal Affair" and of course "The Prince and the Pauper"  There are a few Korean cultural details that you will remember.

"Poetry" is about a mother having to deal with a violent act committed by her son and although not well educated develops an interest in poetry.  There is an unusual sexual episode included, not at all what you might expect because it involves a middle aged woman with an invalid.  It is not kinky, but is integral to the story.

On a lighter vein I watched  "After the Banquet," a sort of romantic comedy with a young girl looking for her real father at a college reunion.  Of course there are a few men who logically could have been and they are in different circumstances.

"The Happy Life" is joyous for the most part with a big musical component.  A group of 40 year old men under trying domestic circumstances rejoin as rock band members and are led by the son of one of the original members who had died. They each have a unique marital or family difficulty, but in the end triumph with their music.

The most recent Korean film for me was "Finding Mr Destiny" which originally had been and was about a stage musical.  A typical, but well done enjoyable romantic comedy with likeable characters.

My most enjoyable film for this project  was "200 Pounds Beauty" pictured at the top.  As I write this at the end of April it is my most enjoyable of any movie seen so far this year.  A lot of quirks in it, but essentially a romantic comedy with a very likeable heroine (in dual roles).   Ah-jung Kim is delightful as both the 200 pounder and the beautiful Jenny.  The underlying message is don't judge people by their appearance.  A great song "Maria"-.  about 2:30 into clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJMkP69ua0c

To gain a different perspective on Koreans I also watched "Never for Ever" an American movie.  Vera Farmiga. played a white women married into a Korean Christian family that found it very difficult to cope with her husband's infertility.  She stumbles on an undocumented immigrant to help impregnate her and eventually they become attached.  That male role was played by Jung-woo Ha who was prominent in "The Chaser"

We all have different tastes, but if you like a little different perspective you can find something to your liking in Korean cinema.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Fire and Ashes by Michael Ignatieff

Michael Ignatieff recently spoke on radio programs and got my attention enough to reserve his book.  It is very thin compared to other political memoirs, but is also very humble and insightful.

Years ago I had seen him on "The Big Idea" on TVO.  The depth of his thinking impressed me, not at all like a politician trying to get votes.

In reality he had lived a well respected comfortable life in academic circles and had been lured back into politics.  He wanted to make a difference, but was unprepared for the dirty world of politics.  Many insiders admired his intellect, but although Canadians are not as anti-intellectual as Americans we still expect something else.

Michael had been well known for his choice of words and expressing himself, but found himself trapped by words.  As he learned, every word can be mis-interpreted or turned against you.  A voter's perception can hinge on small details, often details that are irrelevant.

As he listened and observed his education of reality built up.  As he became opposition leader his adversaries paid for tv ads denouncing Michael as a visitor.  He had in fact been challenged as an intellectual who did no action.  His return to Canada was to be active.  His family and himself had a history for helping Canadians.

Still he was as he admitted pretty naive.  He came to realize that more important than knowledge was connections.  A contrast came from former room mate Bob Rae who had not only learned a lot of street political smarts, but built up a lot of connections.  They clashed and it probably benefited no one.

One notion that penetrated his brain gradually was that there is a divide in Canada (and other nations) between urban and rural.  That hit a personal nerve as I have lived (and to some degree worked) in rural and small towns as well as big cities and now live in Hamilton, formerly known for its industry.  At my Haliburton high school more than 45 years ago a teacher asked how many expected to work in that area after graduating.  Only two of twenty stuck up their hands and they both had fathers who owned grocery stores.  Michael noticed that many of our resources (sources for wealth) were in remote parts of the country like mines and forests, but that to have a better life many rural people felt they had to go to a big city.

Michael's book is not bitter, although he recounts enough things to embitter most of us.  He is humble and urges the importance of being involved in politics.  There are a lot of noteworthy thoughts in this slim book.  Canada has lost a man of integrity and intelligence.  One hopes that politics can find room to identify more people of his caliber and nurture them instead of grinding them up.

To read more of my personal experiences with the rural-urban divide:  http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2014/10/the-rural-urban-divide.html

Sunday, April 27, 2014

HIAM ABBASS ALWAYS LEAVES AN IMPRESSION

Hiam Abbass first got my attention in "The Visitor" where she entered the movie about half way through, but changed the direction very dramatically  The basic story remained (about illegal immigrants), but now this attractive middle aged woman added romance with Richard Jenkins.  You might wonder how a middle aged woman could get my attention.  Her personality is strong and mature which to me commands respect.

She was brought into America (from France) for this one movie and it was only flukey that I saw her again, but again she left a strong impression. 

In "Lemon Tree" she played the main character as a Palestinian woman who had a lemon orchard that could not get necessary water to survive.  She eventually made friends with the Israeli wife of an Israeli cabinet minister.

In "The Syrian Bride" she played  the strong sister of the bride who would have to give up her home by marrying a Lebanese television host.  A lot of bureaucratic obstacles complicated this family drama.  Hiam's character helped make things happen.

She played the mother of a would be suicide  bomber in "Paradise Now" This was a tense psychological study.

In "Miral"  most promotion was given to Frieda Pinto who was criticized as not really Arabic.  Ironically the writer who wrote the book found people mistaking Frieda for her.  Nevertheless Hiam was a lead and once again demonstrated her strength and maturity.

In "A Bottle in the Gaza Sea" she plays the mother of the male lead in yet another Palestinian Israeli conflict movie.  She puts a human face on Arabs often depicted as either terrorists or simple minded people.

"Disengagement"  a French film released in 2007 featuring Juliette Binoche.  Hiam has a very slim role at the very beginning and that's it.

In "Amreeka" Hiam played the sister to  a Palestinian immigrant  played by Nisreen Faour.   Lots of cultural adjustments.

Perhaps the biggest movie I watched was Steven Spielberg's "Munich" but
she had a very small role, less than one minute.  She was good and I hoped she got paid well.

Most recently I watched "The Source," a most unusual movie in Arabic where the women of a village decided to hold a sex strike and Hiam plays a disgruntled mother in law trying to end the strike.

There seems to be lots of room for glamorous sexy women, but as I age I appreciate strong mature women.  Hiam, an Israeli Arab citizen who spends much of her time in France where she has made many movies.  She has presence.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Age of Oversupply

Today we are still toiling to survive after a financial crisis.  There have been many analyses and suggested solutions, but I believe most of them are based on outdated notions and are not sophisticated enough to really deal with the current reality.  Daniel Alpert opened my eyes to see the world in a different way, although the facts he uncovers are known to many.

Daniel Alpert has identified oversupply of labour and capital as the key ingredients of our current dilemma.  Never before have we had developing nations as creditors to so called developed nations.  One of the key causes is that huge companies in developed nations have increasingly been able to use cheap labour to produce their goods.  Developing nations such as China, India and Indonesia find themselves with more money than ever and still maintain a high savings rate.

The Keynes prescription for a lack of business activity and high unemployment is for the government to step in to help generate consumption.  A current problem is that if American (or Canadian) workers have money to spend much of it will go to foreign countries.  China and others are developing huge surpluses that end up being borrowed by developed nations.  This translates to cheap borrowing, lower wages and low inflation.

The conservative ideology on one hand preaches austerity and the liberals tend to favour pumping more money into workers hands.  In the United States extremist conservatives think the problem comes from the government being far too involved in the economy.  The author points out that in the past many government actions around the world have resulted in the economy moving forward for the benefit of all.  This crisis requires governments to co-ordinate around the globe for their long term mutual benefit.  It would be easy to over simplify his solutions, but most of them seem like common sense once you accept his basic premise.

Old ideologies aren't working and the pressures will make it more difficult.  Those who feel markets will work to rectify the situation might be partially right, but there are a few problems.  It will take too long and incur much suffering, some of which could lead to a revolution. Daniel Alpert has one of the best explanations I have encountered.  Get more information at http://www.economonitor.com/danalperts2cents/

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"Crooked Arrows" brings back memories of lacrosse

Having watched quite a number of sports movies over the years the general theme is that of an underdog overcoming tremendous obstacles (always against an arrogant champion) to win the grand prize at the last second.  "Crooked Arrows" follows that pattern.  Sports movies are full of cliches, ordinary acting, but also exciting action and "Crooked Arrows" was not much different.  Originally I reserved it at the library, but saw so many negative reviews I cancelled it.  I recently spotted it on shelf when looking for a time filler.  Glad, as it brought back some memories.

The special features were as interesting as the movie.  I never played lacrosse, but for a few years I followed it very closely.  I always fancied myself an appreciator of native culture and the special features reminded me of that connection.

The Oshawa Green Gaels came to town when I was in high school and very involved with track and basketball.  I didn't know how unique they were for a few years, but their excitement registered strongly with me.  They believed in the importance of fitness that allowed them to execute a fast break style like the Boston Celtics.  One of my favourite players was John Davis who was a phenomenal scorer.  As years went by some of my school mates joined, such as Charlie Marlowe, Joe Krasnjy and Larry Lloyd.  A particular favorite was Gaylord Powless and years later I met a sister and brother at a party hosted by my friends Bob and Adrianne Stone.  Bob had joined me in watching many of the games.

In another blog I told the story of hitch-hiking (http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2012/02/hitch-hiking-memories.html) and looking for a place to stay overnight near Huntsville.  Picked up by one fellow I rambled on about some of my interests and it turned out he was a Green Gael who played on a few of their championship teams.  He told me this very casually, but more importantly found a cheap place for me to spend the night in his home town of Dwight.

A prime reason for their success was Jim Bishop who was an advocate for fitness.  He recruited players who could execute his fast break strategy.  Eventually he went on to be involved with the Detroit Red Wings of the NHL and also to help start a pro lacrosse league.   His team, the Green Gaels won the Minto Cup, the Junior lacrosse championship for Canada 7 times and had been voted Canada's top amateur team a few times.

The Green Gaels eventually became boring, not because they lost any skill, but because they won so often by lopsided scores that there was little dramatic tension in most of their games. There was still excitement at how they could work a fast break and the skills of all the players.

After a few years of watching the Junior Green Gaels I watched the senior Brooklin Redmen and saw  what most people see about lacrosse.  Although demanding a high level of skill it can be rougher than hockey.  These games tended to be lower scoring, but in some ways just as exciting.

I moved and went to university and got away from lacrosse except reading newspaper reports.  After a few job changes I found myself working for the Etobicoke Guardian in the circulation department.  One of the teams they covered was the Etobicoke Eclipse, a lacrosse team and I saw a chance to use one of their games in a sales contest.  At the time I was writing a newsletter and had developed a cross word puzzle that encouraged my carriers to find the answers in the newspaper and also the newsletter itself.  I got the sports reporter, Howard Berger to agree to put one of the answers in his column.  At the game I had arranged to have a photo to be taken with one of the top players and a contest winner.  The Eclipse chosen was Adam Oates who went onto to be a prominent hockey player for the Boston Bruins.

Part of the Oshawa Green Gaels' success came from the involvement of Gaylord Powless who learned his lacrosse in Oshweken, a Mohawk reservation near Brantford.  Gaylord was honoured as Canadian Indian athlete of the year at least once.  In "Crooked Arrows" the main tribe associated with lacrosse was Onadaga in upstate New York, another branch of the Six Nations.  I became aware they consider themselves a sovereign nation and lacrosse was a sacred game.  The movie showed a concept of lacrosse having almost a religious meaning for the players.  

"Crooked Arrows"would be enjoyable if you either like lacrosse or would like to understand native American culture (really both sides of Canadian/American border). For me it was personal.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Generations at Work--2nd edition

There has always been a pattern to generations.   Historically youngsters accept their parents idea of what they are supposed to do, but around puberty there is normally a little rebellion.  When youngsters transition from school to work there are adjustments that can be difficult for all parties.  But now it is safe to say the world  has changed at such a rapid pace that generations can be differentiated  each with a different approach to work.  The old patterns have been complicated by revolution in one sense.  This second edition was needed to refine our understanding and reduce conflict.

What has changed much more than human nature is the times.  History is going at a faster pace and the way we grow up and integrate ourselves into the work world is constantly changing.  Although we are all  essentially human differences are significant enough that they can cause friction in the workplace.

The authors discuss the differences and the causes in enough detail that the reader can look around themselves and see much truth and perhaps some exceptions. There are many dates thrown about, but the authors found the following the most practical at this time.  Traditionalists born before 1943 experienced World War II and the Korean War.  Boomers born 1943 to 1960 experienced an expanding economy, teenager power and the assassination of Kennedy.  Generation X experienced economic turbulence and major technology advances.  The Millennials grew up in modern technology and perhaps more than any previous generation had their lives programmed, but ran into still more economic downturns.

As a Baby Boomer myself it is easy to observe the general characteristics of the three older groups that give some insight, but few surprises.  I was at first surprised by descriptions of the Millennials.  Naturally they are more comfortable with new technology than the rest of us.  They lived through a much more protective age than us older people and consequently are more concerned over safety and risk.  On the other hand they have been greeted with a rough job economy.  Some of them with strong technology credentials are able to get jobs, often high paying, but if they didn't possess noticeable skills they were forced to study or accept lesser jobs when they were available.  They had good relations with their parents and many rely on them for advice.  Their priorities are different--they work to live, not live to work and would disappoint many of their elders in their work ethic.  They are very much into collaborative efforts.

Pretty well everyone has had a generational conflict.  It boils down to the other person doesn't see things the way you do, but it doesn't have to be fighting all the time.  The authors believe that there is an opportunity to benefit from multi-generational businesses.   Companies can be more creative with input from different perspectives.  They can provide a comfortable response to a wider group of customers.  Decisions made as a group are more broadly based and more acceptable to the workers and managers.

Of course there are a few obstacles.  Two principles to pave the way are to communicate effectively to everyone and to develop differences as a strength.  Mentoring can be helpful, but one concern is that Boomers who lecture are resented by Generation X.  Also mentoring should be two way from older to younger, but also younger to older.  Some larger companies provide formal education to help one generation better understand another generation. Each generation needs to have its perspective respected and each can benefit from a general understanding.

To learn more visit the Generations at Work website:  http://www.generationsatwork.com/

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

My short, but educational political adventure

This is another post that gives away my age.  When I was 20 and not eligible to vote I was swept up with Trudeaumania.  He had just been declared party leader and called a national election for the summer of 1968.  I was in university and my room mate amongst others was very excited.

Looking back after many years I would reassess one factor. Trudeau was noted as always having a quick answer.  Robert Stanfield, the Conservative candidate was noted for not having the quick answer, but would take some time before responding.  I now think a quick response is a poor way to evaluate anyone.  However I still thought Trudeau was the deeper thinker.

I was between semesters without a job and got my parents to accept that I would look for a job in Oshawa (we lived in Haliburton about a two hour drive away) and live with my Grandmother Coakwell.  Really I just wanted to be with my friends.  I volunteered for the local Liberal association and at first they had me stuffing envelopes.  Then they paired me up with another fellow and we put up lawn signs.

There were three main candidates.  Michael Starr was the incumbent Conservative who had been the first Ukrainian cabinet minister and was well regarded.  Our Liberal candidate was Des Newman who was the mayor of Whitby and president of the Canadian Mayor Association.  The third candidate was Ed Broadbent for the NDP who had a lot of union support.

After a week or so of this my father decided if I didn't have a paying job I should come home.  I explained this to the organizers and shortly they offered to pay me.  Well this was welcome news; making some money and enjoying myself.  I put in several hours each day helping with signs and at night often attended rallies.

My work partner was about two or three years older than me and we had a lot of interesting conversations.  One project he came up with was to use campaign signs on a hillside between Oshawa and Whitby that drew a lot of traffic.  We spelled out TRUDEAU in big letters.  Apparently it made television news.  My partner then realized that voters in our riding were not going to vote for Trudeau so we re-configured the signs to spell out NEWMAN.

I often talked about the election to my Grandmother as well as her sister, my Aunt Flo.  They had probably voted Conservative all their lives and greatly admired Michael Starr.  At one point she said she had never heard of Desmond Newman.  I had been reading a newspaper from Edmonton and had noticed one of their campaign ads that said  "You should know this man."  That hit a nerve.  Whitby was only a small fraction of the Oshawa population, so naturally people in Oshawa felt little awareness or loyalty to the Whitby mayor.  I went to the campaign manager, Ted Curl who used to host a tv show I had watched aimed at teenagers.  He dismissed my idea at first, but later came to use the idea which probably helped close the gap in awareness.

I thought as an intelligent university student I could reason with voters, but there was a limit to that.  This was the beginning of my disillusionment with voters.  Very seldom could one engage in serious discussion of the issues.  Some women thought Ed Broadbent was handsome, others voted along ethnic lines with Michael Starr getting the Ukrainian vote, and some elderly women at a picnic said they were disgusted that Trudeau had invited a young women to swim with him in a hotel pool.  At another time the local Liberals decided to hold a three riding rally at the Oshawa Shopping Centre with Trudeau making a campaign speech.  This was so popular that it created traffic problems which was given as another reason for rejecting Trudeau. 

My work partner was experienced with campaigns and explained to me the effects of signs.  In one sense it was just like the soap ad effect.  When people see a lot of signs they want to hop on the bandwagon of the winner and their thinking is swayed.  On the actual voting day it is beneficial for voters to see the signs as they work their way to the ballot box.  We not only put signs up by request, but looked for public spots to boost our candidate's awareness.  Many people feel obligated to vote, but don't have the time or interest to study the issues.

The local paper had a column where readers could send in questions for the candidates who would all answer the same question.  The answers almost always fell along party lines and were careful not to offend anyone.  On one occasion our campaign manager got upset at the amount of time Des Newman took to answer a question of an elderly lady who complained she didn't have enough income to live on.  Des did a lot of research and found that there were several programs in existence to help extend her income.  The problem was that the research time cut into the hand shaking time that wins a few votes each run through.

We don't really have endless election campaigns in Canada and election day arrived.  I was not eligible to vote and asked what I could do to help.  I was told about scrutineering, for the first time.  I asked to be taken to a place where the Liberals were out numbered and they found one in what might be described as a union neighborhood.  The rules have changed, but as I recall we were able to see the names checked off for those who voted.  The vote is anonymous which afterwards I reflected on--you really couldn't tell who voted for who, except when a driver obviously affiliated with a particular party brought in some voters.  At least you thought you knew the connection. Tallying up the votes was a lengthy process, with several minor problems resolved with a consensus of opinions involving the polling staff and all of us scrutineers.

It was a momentous election.  Pierre Trudeau won a majority government with breakthroughs all over the country.  I was disappointed that Des Newman who I had come to admire personally finished third.  I didn't appreciate  the significance for several years.  Ed Broadbent became the first NDP candidate to win the riding, but beat Michael Starr by only 15 votes (there was a recount).  My impact was not all that great, but I did get both my grandmother and aunt to switch their vote away from the Conservatives to the Liberals.  I would like to think all the sign work, my ad idea and the few serious discussions I had helped make the difference between the top two candidates.  Ed Broadbent went on to become the head of the Canadian federal NDP party and had a lot of illustrious accomplishments many of which I admired.  Des Newman finished about 310 votes further behind making this the closest 3 way race in Canada.  He made a gracious speech.

I attended the party afterwards and it was a downer.  I didn't feel as bad as some; after all Trudeau did get in and I didn't live in this riding. The next day I helped take down the signs.

Back at university I received a letter inviting me to join the youth wing of the Liberals and to some event.  My decision was not to get involved in a political party.  Although I was pleased the Liberals were in power I did not want to tie myself to a long list of policies that I wouldn't necessarily agree with.  My thinking was shaped by my sociology and philosophy professors at the University of Guelph and I don't regret that at all.

That was over 45 years ago and I look back at it as an educational experience.  I have retained an interest in politics, but have tried to separate myself from the mechanical aspects of getting elected to actual government policies.  Politics is a dirty business--getting elected and re-elected.

I now live in a riding that includes Hamilton downtown.  From my municipal ward we have sent the current head of the Ontario NDP party, Andrea Horvath to Queen's Park and the current mayor of Hamilton, Bob Bratina.  My daughter, Heather years ago persuaded us to support one councilor candidate with a lawn sign and quite willingly voted for her.  On another municipal election we supported the winning mayoral candidate with another sign.  Since then we have decided not to display political signs.

I have volunteered as a poll clerk for a few elections.  The money was significant and I can appreciate the job is important for our country.  I was very impressed at how the Ontario government was trying to make it easier to vote.  They advised us volunteers how to deal with language problems, physical handicaps and even mental/emotional handicaps.  Quite a contrast to the attempts of Republican governments to restrict voting.  When voting is restricted it diminishes the credibility of the government.

Lately my preference is for the Green Party after some discussions with my son Michael.  One of their problems is that under our current system they don't have much opportunity to make an impact.  I remember at one time the NDP was considered the conscience of our Parliament and from that platform accomplished lots of good things including our current health care system.  The federal Liberals had a system where each party would get $2.50 per vote after an election.  It wasn't much, but it gave the less powerful (really all) parties some independence.  The Conservatives took that away which is one of their many decisions I deplore.

My biggest concern is over the election process.  The biggest underlying problem is the uneducated voter.  None of us can understand the complexities of issues that affect our lives and so we end up trusting a big part of our lives to people we really don't know.  The education starts in school and should be strictly factual as far as how our government works.  Logic is often abused in campaigns so needs to be understood better.  Science and history are also important.  Beyond school I think the media has a responsibility which has been subverted.   The press (all media) needs to be free, but it also needs to be factual or at least transparent.

Another part of my concern is the first past the post system.  I attended one general meeting when Ontario was considering offering a proportional system to be voted upon.  One fellow got up and said that we only wanted to change the system because "our guy" didn't get in.  For myself he is at least partly right, but more than that the whole process is tainted.  Many people wrestle with their vote and end up voting for their second choice, because they fear a third party might win.  Others are so discouraged by their prospects they don't bother.  And of course many don't bother to study the issues.

Proportional voting has a few variations, but the basic idea is that every vote counts.  Under the present system there are only a very few votes that actually count--the one that puts one candidate into the leader spot.  The others might have psychological impact.  If you voted for the winner and they won by more than one vote, your vote wasn't needed.  If you voted for the loser, well you lost.  It is a  complicated issue, but basically everyone should realize their vote does make a difference and take the time to study the issues.  When the voter has real power the politicians will listen more carefully.  Dalton McGuinty mocked the results of the proportional option, during one election while he personally got something less than 40% of actual votes (and even less of eligible voters).  It only shows how ignorance can be manipulated.

Over the years I have voted for at least three different parties at the provincial and federal elections and have admired politicians from different parties.  I follow American and international politics with great interest.  I accept that nobody gets into power without a lot of effort and not all that effort is completely ideal. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Theodore Roosevelt is not remembered by many today, but a study of him would open eyes.  His personality lent itself to caricature and many were merciless.  Many faults and mistakes are uncovered, but he had a driving force that overcame a lot of obstacles.  In fact in many ways he overcame obstacles that are prominent in today's environment.

As with her book on Abraham Lincoln, Doris sets the context.  We are individuals moulded by our context and it makes more sense when trying to understand an historical person that their historical context be part of the story.  The Bully Pulpit pairs Theodore Roosevelt with William Howard Taft, two different personalities, but with a common political philosophy. Of course their families were important to their success, but Doris identifies another important part of the situation--journalists.

Journalists were a key part of Roosevelt's success.  There is quite a contrast with today's politics.  Roosevelt courted journalists not only to promote himself, but to get their opinions on society and the economy.  Roosevelt encouraged journalists to do exposures  of corporate abuses and felt often that was the only way for the public to overcome corrupt politicians.  Sam McClure who is covered in great depth as publisher encouraged his reporters to expose abuses in America.

How Roosevelt got to be president was unconventional.  The party bosses found him annoying because he was not sympathetic to big business abuses and kept putting him places where they felt he could do no harm.  He was police commissioner in New York and found all sorts of abuses (often by masquerading his identity and taking a reporter to check on patrolling police or slum landlords).  He became a young Governor of New York and antagonized party powers so that they arranged for him to be nominated as Vice President for the 1900 election.  In those days it was not fashionable for presidents to campaign the way they do today so Theodore did most of that and was instrumental in getting President McKinley re-elected.  As vice president he was not consulted very much nor given very much to do, but an assassin's bullet ushered Roosevelt to be the youngest President.

Once in power, Roosevelt energetically set about correcting what he saw as faults.  He felt big corporations were very abusive in their treatment of employees and customers.  At the same time he rejected socialists thinking that they would throw out the baby with the bath water.  Instead he felt regulations were the answer.  Big corporations resisted his efforts and were able to buy a lot of support from Congress, but Roosevelt tempered this by encouraging journalists to expose abuses.

Roosevelt was relatively liberal in his views, but  recognized you could only push so far.  He invited Booker T Washington, prominent black leader  to dine at the White House and was criticized for it, none the less he managed to appoint some blacks to positions.  He was an advocate for giving women the vote.

It was amazing what he could accomplish despite the opposition of big money, but he realized compromise was a step on the way to making improvements.  As a hunter and outdoors man he set up conservation areas realizing big business would take over any land they felt they could make a profit on.

He admired and befriended William Howard Taft.  Their wives were opposite in some regards.  Roosevelt's wife avoided the limelight and hated campaigns. Taft's wife discouraged her husband from pursuing what he really wanted which was a judicial appointment and pushed him to politics.  Roosevelt also pushed Taft towards politics, but twice offered him Supreme Court positions.  Taft was Governor of the Philippines and felt duty bound to help set them towards democracy. 

Taft and Roosevelt had a falling out due mainly to Roosevelt if I read Doris correctly.  Teddy, still a young man desired to have power and felt he had demonstrated he could use it to good effect.  Taft was not as charismatic, but a very intelligent ethical man.  In the end the squabble between the former friends allowed Woodrow Wilson to win the 1912 election.

In a short review there are many interesting and important details that are skimmed over.  Doris Kearns Goodwin is excellent at describing the political maneuvers of the time.  She recognized the role of journalists and has given whole chapters to describe their efforts which were inter-twined with the politics. This has been only my second reading of a Doris Kearns Goodwin, but her writing is something to explore and look forward to.