DAILY BRIEFINGThe Brief Reign of Cave 76
Aug. 9 - We went to a garden party on Saturday afternoon. It was the "naming party" for the 5-month old daughter of an old friend of Trine's. I'd never attended such a ritual and had been anticipating yet another Viking rite, rewrit the Social-Democratic way. But it was just a lot of people sweating it out in a garden, drinking beer and snacking on fruit wedges.
I was still a little woozy from a rough night and morning with Molli, so my defenses were down and I found myself sucked into the conversational orbit of a thirty-something English teacher eager to demonstrate her knowledge of all things American. It was, I think, her way of making a friendly overture.
She was a Dane who had lived in St. Louis for a year or so as an exchange student in the late 80s. She joked about how Europeans never seem to understand the simple magnitude of America. We laughed about that. I reciprocated by joking about American ignorance of European geography. "You're from Denmark? I just love Amsterdam!"
It was light-hearted stuff. Aren't we all silly. Ha ha ha.
She said she'd been dating a black guy in St. Louis and the school had refused to let her bring him to the prom. They didn't want his picture in the yearbook, they told her. ("Of course I was dating an African American," she told me, "because he was interesting. I could date all the white boys I wanted back home.") She took a Latino guy to the prom instead—a Latino guy, she informed me, whose skin was even darker than the black guy's. So the last laugh was on... well, I don't know as anyone was laughing. I wasn't.
I expressed my horror. In my twenty years of adult life in the United States—in Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Connecticut—I'd never encountered or even heard talk of such naked institutional racism. I didn't tell her that. I didn't doubt her, but it didn't seem appropriate to tell her how very, very rare such incidents have become. When someone shows you their twelve-inch scar from an old knife wound, you don't remind them that the overwhelming majority of human beings only use cutlery for food preparation.
She'd experienced that horror and had probably projected it out as a part of our national culture. Empirical conclusion: Americans are racist. (But people who date "dark-skinned" Americans because they're "more interesting" than the "white guys" like they have back home are paragons of egalitarianism.)
She was, as I said, an English teacher. At about this point she observed, somewhat significantly, that "these are really interesting times to be teaching English!" I didn't know what to make of that line—even though I knew exactly what to make of it. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, my defenses were down, and I swallowed her bait.
"Why?" I asked. If the woman were a slot machine she'd have lit up, sounded a siren, and poured thousands of dollars in coins on me. Instead, I found myself engaged in yet another awkward dialectical encounter.
I'm going to tell you more or less what this friendly young woman told me and leave it at that.
First of all, Danish students are much more engaged in the world than their American peers. They understand things better. They see things more clearly. They are not so naive. They understand, for example, that the Iraq war was entirely about oil. They ask why one country would feel compelled to play big brother to another if it weren't all about oil. Because they actually understand things. They can penetrate the hyperbole and see through to the root causes: a corrupt administration, corporate interests, Mickey Mouse fascism, and so on.
It's a very exciting semester she's beginning right now and she's going to begin by taking the class to see Michael Moore's new movie. She'll also try to expose them to other points of view (she said hurriedly, and a little insincerely), but she thinks Mr. Moore is especially adept at showing the truth in an engaging way. (I'm trying to imagine a teacher telling me, "Here's the truth. Now let's look at some other points of view." Bold!)
And so on and so forth.
* * *
A couple of weeks ago I was having a cup of coffee at Studieskolen with a couple of my classmates. There was a map of the world on the wall beside us, and the bottom of the poster displayed pictures of all the flags of the world. We were all pointing out our own flags.
Britain was trying to help Israel find his flag. He ran his finger horizonatally along Iceland, Ireland... and then his finger encountered a hole in the poster. Someone had carved the Israeli flag out. They'd done it so aggressively that a chunk of the wall behind the flag had been gouged out as well. We inspected the map itself and observed that someone had even tried to erase the word "Israel" from its spot on the eastern Meditterranean.
We were horrified. Israel just shrugged. "You get used to it," he said. "That happens all the time here. In one of the maps downstairs they've completely rubbed Israel off the map."
* * *
In the classic Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner sketch, "The 2000 Year Old Man," Reiner asks Brooks's eponymous old man about patriotism in the distant past. The old man acknowledges that civic chauvinism has existed from the dawn of man. He even remembers his first national anthem:
Let 'em all go to hell... except for Cave 76!I hereby declare the limited personal space required by my family to be Cave 76. I hereby adopt Brooks's anthem as my own. My abiding patience is gone. Persons who insist on shoving their politics in my face can henceforth anticipate having them served right back.
(Nuanced bastards... where are your manners?)
* * *
Most Danes I've met are perfectly charming and politically discrete. I will continue my own policy of political discretion with those who remain politically discrete with me.
Oh, hell, who am I kidding? I'm not gonna mix it up with anyone. None of these anti-American Europeans are going to listen to me anyway—I'd just argue myself hoarse and leave them convinced, in the end, that Americans are not only evil and stupid, but stubborn.
I hereby revoke my pledge to emulate Cave 76.
* * *
Trine and I were married a year ago yesterday. That's why there was no bloggish. You're welcome to revisit the wedding bloggishes (here, et seq) if you missed them last year. But I'd prepped all the appropriate material for August 9. Rather than waste it, I'll include it in today's belated briefing. . .
* * *
On August 9, 1492, Rodrigo Borgia allowed the Cardinals of Rome to inspect his genitals (a practice subsequently bequeathed to Bishops). Only after he had proved to the Cardinals' satisfaction that he was, indeed, a man, was Mr Borgia permitted to be Pope Alexander VI.
As the historian Orson Welles observed in The Third Man (1949): "In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."
Rodrigo Borgia had earned the papacy the old-fashioned way: through nepotism and bribery. Once he had it, he turned it into a family institution. His two legitimate children, Cesare and Lucrezia, were alternately married off to cement alliances, divorced or widowed to initiate hostilities, or dispatched with poison to conduct diplomacy.
When out of town on business, he left in Lucrezia in charge of the Papacy. In gratitude, she bore him a son.
(Many scholars repudiate this charge, insisting that the Pope could not possibly have fathered his own daughter's child. They assign paternity to Lucrezia's brother Cesare.)
By 1503 Alexander VI had expanded Rome's powers considerably and was therefore poisoned. Three years later Cesare died while fighting as a mercenary in Spain. Lucrezia died in 1514 from complications of pregnancy. That was more or less the end of the Borgias, and the Papacy has become less and less interesting with the passing of every year since.
* * *
It was on August 9, in the year 378, that Valens, the Roman Emperor of the East, led an army of 30,000 men against a horde of Visigoths outside Adrianople.
The Romans got off to a good start, but soon the Visigoth cavalry returned from its foraging mission. The Roman infantry was no match for the Visigoths on horseback and two-thirds of the Romans, incuding the Emperor, were slaughtered.
Military strategists were at last compelled to acknowledge that guys on horses were stronger than guys who weren't on horses. This was the most significant development in western warfare since the discovery of the big stick, and European warfare was permanently and irreversibly altered in favor of guys on horses.
August 9 was Flag Day in Gabon, Independence Day in Singapore, and National Women's Day in South Africa.
August 9 was the birthday of Christopher Cuomo (1970), Arion Salazar (1970), Gillian Anderson (1968), Deion Sanders (1967), Whitney Houston (1963), Melanie Griffith (1957), Sam Elliott (1944), Robert Shaw (1927), and Jean Piaget (1896).
August 10 is Independence Day in Ecuador.
Born on August 10: Antonio Banderas (1960), Rosanna Arquette (1959), Ian Anderson (1947), Rocky Colavito (1933), Jimmy Dean (1928), Eddie Fisher (1928), Rhonda Fleming (1923), and Herbert Hoover (1874).
© 2004, The Moron's Almanac