Friday, May 29, 2015

Nothing New Under The Sun.
Or In Pop Culture.

Do you think memes are something new?

In 1928, a cartoon by Carl Rose, which was captioned by E.B. White (of Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web fame), was published in The New Yorker. Broccoli was a new thing on the American plate, having been introduced by Italian immigrants on the East Coast.
The New Yorker was only three years old at that point, and was not as successful as it would be later. (Also, in what might be entirely coincidence, "spinach" was a term in 19th Century England for "nonsense.")

For whatever reason, the phrase caught on: "I say it's spinach" came to mean "to hell with it," and eventually "spinach" came to mean something worthless. Elizabeth Hawes, for example, titled her 1938 autobiographical exposé of the fashion industry, for example, Fashion is Spinach.

Alexander Woolcott used the phrase in 1934's While Rome Burns ("I do not myself so regard it. I say it's spinach.") S.J. Perelman was an American humorist who wrote (among other things) two Marx Brothers movies (Monkey Business and Horse Feathers) and, in 1958, a TV version of Aladdin with music by Cole Porter; he wrote a story in 1944 for the Saturday Evening Post called "Dental or Mental, I Say It’s Spinach."

Speaking of Cole Porter, other musicians used the phrase, too.

As with most immigrants, Israel Isidore Baline (better known as Irving Berlin) felt he needed to be more American (and more patriotic) than anybody around him. (It's pretty common with a person "born-again" into any subculture - religious, societal, or any other coherent group.) His way of doing that was to be more in touch with popular culture than anybody else. So he wrote songs that reflected "the common man" - many of them, we would now consider racist (but that was very common in America at the time).

In 1932, Berlin was already a successful musician, when he wrote the musical Face the Music. (That wasn't redundant. Shut up!) In it, he included the song "I Say It's Spinach (And The Hell With It)."

The lyrics start at 1:14, if you're in a hurry.

Also, despite the impression you get from the video, the first Popeye cartoon was made by Fleischer Studios a year after this song was recorded, in 1933. And at the end of the song, the Popeye-like voice is by a man named Poley McClintock. He'd been using the low, croaky voice on records since 1927; some people have suggested that voice actor William (Billy) Costello based the voice of Popeye on McClintock.

So, even without the internet, a single meme could find a place in the popular culture of America before parts of the country even had running water.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day 2015

On 8 July 2003, in the middle of the night, a squad of 13 guys led by me landed on the runway of what had been called, until very recently, the Saddam International Airport in Baghdad. We were there to take over security of the area from one of the squads who'd gone in to set up the camp four months earlier.

The landing was pretty standard for a region known for rocket attacks - we flew over the end of the runway, and then spiraled down, straightening out at the last possible moment, to touch down while presenting as small a target within reach of the ground forces as possible.

At that point, I was a lukewarm liberal, not the most outspoken person politically; my wife had eased me out of some fairly conservative views, and turned me into a compassionate human being (I'm not sure I've ever forgiven her for that).

While over there, seeing the rubble we'd left of a beautiful city and learning more and more about how the Bush Administration had lied to get America to go to war, my attitude began to swing more firmly to the left.

I was lucky (if that's the right word) that none of the guys I took there came back in a box (one of them essentially came back in a straightjacket, but that's a story for another time). We didn't have a lot of direct fire - our big risk was the daily, ongoing rocket and mortar attacks.

I started learning more about what went on in the run-up to the invasion, and when I got back to the States, I volunteered for the Kerry campaign. And I wasn't the only vet in the room. That didn't work out as well as we'd hoped, and the day after Kerry gave his concession speech, I filed my retirement papers from the military.

So maybe I have a different perspective on the subject. I find myself getting a little angry as the GOP tries to rewrite what is, for many of us, current events.

We didn't invade the country that attacked America, we invaded Iraq based on lies that they weren't cooperating with US weapons inspectors. To call that action "a mistake" is an abuse of the English language. But that's the currently popular position to take on the Right.

The full story (that some people in the Bush administration felt that we needed a permanent base in the Middle East, and it was just fine to destroy a country to get that) wasn't something that would go over well with the American people. So they had to change the narrative. It wasn't a "mistake," it was a calculated effort to mislead the public.

(If you don't know about them already, you should read up on the think tank that called themselves The Project for the New American Century. Jeb Bush is trying to back slowly away from his statement that he would have invaded Iraq, just like his brother did. (And of course he would have. Most of his advisers previously worked for his brother.)

Marco Rubio won't even go that far - he thinks it wasn't a mistake because it got Saddam out of power. So apparently, all those Iraqis can just suck it.

In a recent Rolling Stone article, Matt Taibbi pointed out that, as I said above, it was actually clear to a lot of people "that the invasion was doomed, wrong, and a joke."

It was not a "mistake," it was a cold-blooded, calculated conspiracy, carried out from the highest office in the nation.

It's a hell of a "mistake" that leads to almost 4500 dead Americans, and literally countless Iraqi dead and injured.

Memorial Day. It's all about remembering.