Friday, September 20, 2013


A review of Life’s 2000-2009: The Decade that Changed the World (2009)

(Rating 4 of 5)

At the end of 2009, Life released their decade issue capturing the major moments of the first decade of the 20th century.  This decade led off with the most controversial presidential election since 1876, it would end with the inauguration and first year of America’s first African-American president.  It was a time where the peace that was result of the end of the Cold War, gave way to the horrors of September 11 and the ‘War on Terror’ that would consume the decade.  This decade saw both the Red and White Sox end their long championship drought; same-sex marriage became a legal possibility, and longstanding regimes came to an end.

This review was originally longer however I started to go into a long rant about how my life sucked in this decade, I guess my cognitive dissonance is too severe to discuss this decade.

The quality of the structure of the project is high nevertheless.   There are a lot of bad memories here but the work itself is well done.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


A review of Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster’s The Century (1999)

(Rating 5 of 5)

I received this book as a Christmas present from my parents in 1999.  With six days to go before the ‘end of the century’ I crammed in the entire book in under a week so I could experience the twentieth century right before it went away.  After that I put the book aside and had not opened it again since my senior year of high school.  However with the twentieth century over a decade in the past I decided to open it up again and reexamine the time period that gave to us antibiotics, Hitler, computers, and practiced communism.  

In his classical story Rip Van Winkle, Washington Irving tried to demonstrate how life in America rapidly changes.  If a man went to sleep for thirty years he would wake up to find the world unrecognizable.  In the twentieth century you don’t have to do a story where a man skips thirty years, if you missed five straight weeks you would be struggling to catch up.   As each year passed, society rolled out a new piece of technology often changing life as we know it. 

“The change was sudden and dramatic, and how could it not be?  The automobile was, after all, the first significant improvement in self-guided transportation since the bicycle (which, after its introduction in 1839, had a similarly dramatic effect upon the nineteenth century).  And by the time it became widely available to anyone with a few hundred dollars, the car had already begun to redefine nearly every facet of life.
            The burgeoning automobile age established a new since of freedom and individuality: people no longer had to make their plans according to train schedules, and they traveled not with hundreds of strangers, but by themselves or with family and friends.  At the same time, it also established a new, wider sense of community: small towns and villages that existed miles away from anyplace else were now connected to each other by roads, granting people who had long lived in isolation the opportunity to enjoy up-to-date medical care, higher-quality education, and whatever else lay ‘down the road.’” (p.103)
The car becoming a device every family had to have changed the way people lived

One of the biggest mistakes of the twentieth century was the establishment of prohibition.  It was supported across the political spectrum by people who were foolish enough to believe that you can change bad personal behavior by simply making said behavior illegal.  Prohibition only succeeded in making drinking less public, led to a major crime wave, and wasted lots of money.  Unfortunately prohibition goes on today, just not with alcohol, but in this new madness called the drug war waged by over-budgeted vice squads.    

“One cause that united both minister and Klansmen was the Eighteenth Amendment.  The movement to ban the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages had once been led by Progressives, who cited growing studies showing the medical risks of heavy drinking and alcohol’s destructive influence on marriage and family.  But by the time Prohibition was enacted, its driving force was puritan, who hoped it would beat back the forces loosing modern morals, and the nativist, who saw it as a way of rejecting the wine-drinking immigrants of southern Europe. Of course, it did neither.” (p. 119)
Prohibition gave wealth to mobsters such as Al Capone

This book also allowed me to once again appreciate the accomplishment of Charles Lindbergh, despite that the guy personally was giant rat dressed as a man; he was one hell of an aviator. 

Charles Lindbergh

“By the mid-1920s, the airplane seemed to have more potential as a circus act than it did as a vehicle for transportation.  Carnivals and county fairs featured daredevil riders performing stunts like wing-walking and parachute jumping, and spectators bought rides at five dollars a thrill.  Barnstorming pilots, evangelists for aviation’s future, hopped from airfield to airfield, moving without maps, going as far as their gas supplies would take them, gathering circus crowds whenever they were alit.  But while people everywhere found the flying machines interesting, the general mood was one of ‘you’ll never get me up in one of those things.’  Then came Lindy.” (p.136)
The biggest monster in world history

Nothing would alter the world more than the most awful events of the twentieth century: World War II and the Holocaust.  Both the events and their aftermath would transform the direction of the human race, and the one who brought both these things about was tyrant Adolph Hitler.  Because this man lived millions would die as he succeeded in brainwashing a nation.

“Early in his career, Hitler had discovered that he had an extraordinary talent for the kind of oratory that would appeal directly to such feelings, and once the moment of public vulnerability arrived he exploited it to the fullest.  In speeches that often ran two hours or longer, he would hold a crowd of up to half a million spellbound, taking time first to warm up and sense the mood of his audience, then diving in to do his work.  Sweating profusely, shaking with fury, he would build the attitude of his listeners into a frenzy, playing with an assortment of techniques that would make them first laugh, then cry, then explode in a fit of rage.” (p.168)
Allied Leadership

While there was a worldwide depression going on and mad men rising to power life still went on, and before Facebook, World Wide Web and cable television (or any television) there was Life magazine capturing the world in some of its greatest and not so great moments. 

“Among the places the New Deal pictures appeared was a fresh new photo magazine called Life.  Started in 1936 by Henry Luce, the founder of Time, Life was an instant success.  The mere idea of a photo magazine was so exciting to thirties’ readers, it inspired more than a quarter million of them to buy subscriptions even before the first issue had been published.  And once Life hit the newsstands, its popularity rose so quickly, Luce nearly killed it when he couldn’t raise advertising rates fast enough to pay for the magazine’s skyrocketing circulation.” (p.192)
One of my favorite aspects of this book is the articles that were written by various people who were at major historic events or were just aware they were living in unique times.  The one written by Karla Stept about the German takeover in Austria is especially powerful. 

“All of this was a complete shock to us, because we had never heard of things like this happening in Germany.  And we found out later on, they never did happen there.  It was an Austrian specialty.  What took five years to accomplish in Germany took them only twenty-four hours in Austria.  One should not forget that.  For five years in Germany they had worked up to this by adding one thing to the next.  In, Austria they did it in just one day.  The Germans had to learn to be anti-Semitic.  The Austrians always were.  They must have harbored all that rage for hundreds of years.  And now suddenly they were free to express it.” (p.200)
The beginning of the twentieth century saw a world that was ruled by Europe but by the century’s midpoint that was coming to fast end.  The great European empires were stretched out financially, physically, and morally.  In the modern world it was not going to be acceptable for people to be governed by governments thousands of miles away, who were given little to know say on how it was conducted.

“One of the most far-reaching consequences of the Second World War was the abrupt end that it brought to colonization.  The finish came at the urging of the United States, which had long argued that colonial empires were inconsistent with its belief in democracy, and at the expense of the crippled European powers, particularly Britain, whose rule had dominated the map for centuries.  But the change was inevitable: if they had done nothing else, the century’s wars had confirmed the legitimacy of the dusty old order and its subjugation of the masses (though the surge in the world’s population would probably have forced the issue if war had not).  Even the Moscow-led Communist insurgencies, seizing power sometimes with little popular support, cynically claimed the mantel of democracy.” (p.308)
The automobile changed the way people traveled the television changed the way people stayed home.  You could listen to radio and work, television involved your most important sense: sight.  People now had a window to the world in their living room.

“There were something irresistible about television, and while few understood just how important it would become (more a new environment than a new mass medium, as inescapable as the weather, wrote Richard Reeves), they wanted to there when it took off.  In the medium’s early years there was Howdy Doody and the World Series, but only when the rectangular cathode-ray tube was perfected in 1950 and the price of the average DuMont and Philco dropped to $200 in 1953 did the age of television truly descend upon the nation.  By 1960 more than 45 million television sets found homes, not only in the suburbs, where their elaborate wood cabinets fit quite nicely into the family room or the den, but also in the inner-city taverns (where bartenders complained that patrons spent too much time watching and not enough time drinking.)” (p. 331) 

With television’s rise came a new kind of media celebrity.  Now not only would people’s work be famous but also their image.  America had always had celebrities, you can say our first was Ben Franklin, but now the celebrity’s image was burned into public retinas.  It would give some people everlasting fame, but they would never be normal again.

“Elvis Presley was one of two mass media figures who came of age in the fifties.  The other is Marilyn Monroe.  That the age of television should have produced one of the biggest movie stars in history would seem to be a paradox, but just as Elvis was more than just a musician, Marilyn was more than a movie star.  She was Marilyn, the object of mid-century wish fulfillment for men, of envy for women, and of fascination for quite nearly everyone with eyes.” (p.346)

Do I even need captions?

Just as the colonial empires were falling apart internationally, at home, a new revolutionary movement was starting that would tear down the system of Jim Crow and challenge the very public consciousness to the injustice that nation had let go on for centuries.  The legacy of the movement still battles on today.

“To be alive in the sixties was to feel exhilarated, present, not necessarily happy but at least fiercely awake.  To be young in the sixties was to be all this and more.  Along with the ‘consciousness-raising’ and pleasure (particularly sexual pleasure, freed from the fear of pregnancy when the Food and Drug Administration approved the birth control pill in 1960), the sixties glorified youth and freedom; the years also maligned old age and tradition, discipline, and conformity that had been the hallmark of the most recent decade.” (p.370)
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the primary leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and easily the most visible

John F. Kennedy, the second youngest president and the youngest elected, took office on January 20, 1961 and arrived like a breath of fresh air.  Kennedy had an energetic presidency that created the P.E.A.C.E. Corps and challenged the nation to go to the moon.  He had his setbacks such as the Bay of Pigs disaster and the late response to the Civil Rights Movement, however his greatest hour occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis when he got the Russians to take the missiles out of Cuba.  The nation was traumatized when the President was taken from them, on television.

“Anyone alive and aware on November 22, 1963, when the news from Dallas arrived across the radios, television, and phone lines, in the form of frantic voices of neighbors calling over suburban lawns and the somber tones of tearful school principals speaking to their students from loudspeakers, remembers in sharp detail where they were and what they were doing.  More interesting is those who can recall what they felt.  For most, the information stuck like a poisoned tipped dagger, delivering to they system equal amounts of grief and disbelief.” (p.384)
Kennedy didn’t live to see his moon landing, but it happened before the end of that decade.  For years some cultures had worshiped the moon, and everyone has looked at it.  It was Neil Armstrong however, who walked on it and stuck our flag in it. 

“Still, like Lindbergh’s feat in the twenties, the astronauts’ mission had provided a balm for the pain of their own crazy decade, perhaps most importantly in the views their lunar camera captured when they were directed back towards earth.  At home, mo matter where you stood, the sixties looked messy and unreadable, like a painting viewed too close to make out anything but the texture of the brush strokes and the smudge of color.  Yet from out there, in the dark eternity of the universe, the planet projected a picture of harmony, an essential beautiful orb, ordered and still.” (p.419)
This the 20th century for me

America saw one president murdered on TV, and then they saw a second one fall. Richard M. Nixon had been a major figure in politics since the late forties, served in the House, Senate, and as Vice President to Dwight D. Eisenhower.  After losing the presidency to Kennedy in 1960, then the California governorship to Pat Brown in 1962, he seemed finished.  However he would stage the ultimate come back a take the presidency in 1968.  Yet he would lose it all by 1974 in the Watergate scandal that brought him low.   

“Schlesinger called this new, more muscular executive ‘the Imperial Presidency,’ and while he had seen its beginnings in the administrations of other leaders, it was Richard Nixon who seemed to him to have taken the arrogance of power to a new level.  After all, it was one thing for a president to claim executive privilege in the conduct of war, but Nixon had extended the definition of national security to encompass much o this domestic decision-making, indeed as a justification for any and every executive act.  ‘When the president does it,’ he said, famously, ‘that means it is not illegal.’” (p.439)
Whatever ones personal opinion of Ronald Reagan, no one can deny he changed the political landscape of America.  The dynamics of American politics completely changed with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 more than any since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election in 1932.

“Ronald Wilson Reagan was the most significant president in forty years.  When, in 1980, he was elected to the nation’s highest office, catapulted by anger over Carter-era interest rates and the humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis, some had feared the former California governor for his simplistic and extremist rhetoric, particularly on issues of foreign policy.  Still, most people assumed the old maxim would apply—the one that said that the office had a tendency to smooth the edges, turn all men into moderates—and that Reagan’s would ultimately be a presidency like that of his two recent Republican predecessors: conservative, yes, but unchallenging either to the long-established principles of containment as regards foreign policy or to the consensus on social policy that had been in place since the time of Roosevelt and the and the New Deal.  They could not have been more wrong.” (p.475)

The HIV virus was discovered the same year that I was born, I have been reminded of that every significant birthday I have ever had.  The gay rights movement less than a decade from Stone Wall was finally gaining some strength, then a new virus that nailed them first and practically decimated a generation.  And since it was that group that fell first, the government hesitated to even get involved, the far right even praising the disease as god’s cure.  Had the government taken action sooner who knows how many lives could have been saved?   

“By 1986, fear had even penetrated the nation’s bedrooms.  For years, medical science had been scoring success after success, so many that there was the feeling that disease was about to become an anachronism. Along with technology, medicine had been society’s best advertisement for progress, boasting an uninterrupted flow of accomplishments leading to the bettering of human life.  Then came the deadly pandemic known as AIDS.  The acronym (for ‘acquired immune deficiency syndrome’) started out from the page ominously, like a finger of fate resurrected from the time when plagues like the Black Death ravaged whole populations in medical Europe.  Now AIDS appeared capable of wiping out as much of a quarter of those alive in out own time, an Old Testament kind of scourge spread primarily through sexual contact, which in itself represented a cruel piece of irony, for now man’s most intimate act, the one that conceives life and gives pleasure, could also take life away.” (p.494)
Now you cannot talk about the twentieth century without mentioning computers, after all I am word processing this on a computer and placing it on a blog.  We now live in a world for computers that humans just live in. 

“To many people, the computer was a positively magical device—not a machine in the usual sense, but something else.  It was not, after all, like a mechanical wristwatch or a car or any of the traditional kinds of machines with which one was familiar, the kinds that could be opened up and examined, with their levers and gears moving.  Open up a computer and it looked nothing like what it did, for information was stored there and retrieved from there in ways invisible to the human eye.  And the computer didn’t even do ‘work’ in the traditional sense, either.  Most machines are like slaves. The automobile, for instance, starts and is propelled forward by its driver’s commands, but a computer is more like a partner, a collaborator—performing functions at the behest of its user, yes, but also taking in information, interpreting it, then delivering back recommendations that inform the user’s next set of commands.” (p.551)
The Berlin Wall did not survive the Century

In close, The Century is a remarkable read about a remarkable time.  The twentieth century began with President William McKinley and ended with President William J. Clinton, it starts with funeral for Queen Victory and ends with one for the Princess of Wales (who just posthumously became a grandmother).  In 1900s the old world was smashed and replaced by bi-polarization that terrified the world with the thought of nuclear destruction. Yet, that new order did not see the end of the century as the Cold War ends with the Berlin Wall coming down and Soviet Union falling.  Then Americans could spend the final decade wondering who their President was having sex with, completely oblivious to the horror that was coming in the next decade.  
{Video is the 2012 CJF Honorary Tribute to Peter Jennings}