Category Archives: history

Inside the meme factory: The Clintons figured this out long ago

By Christopher B. Daly

When Hilary Clinton complained back in 1995 of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” trying to bring down her husband, she was not wrong. In fact, she and her husband’s political advisers were onto something: the interlocking network of conservative institutions set up since WWII to American politics to the right. As the Clintons realized, the right-wing think tanks and the right-wing media were mutually supportive in their campaign to concoct conservative political themes and inject them into the mainstream media. (Whether this system qualifies as a “consipracy” is a fine point, but Hilary was right to be paranoid: people were out to get her.)

A new batch of disclosures from the Clinton presidential library lay out the Clintons’ grasp of this phenomenon, circa 1995. They rightly identified Richard Mellon Scaife as a major source of funding for both conservative think tanks and media.

Scroll down past the heading sheets for a fascinating glimpse inside this usually hidden world.

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The best book you may never have read (or forgotten about)

By Christopher B. Daly

Thank you, Dwight Garner, for the appreciation in today’s NYTimes for a neglected American classic — the 1974 oral history All God’s Dangers. It’s amazing to think that this wonderful book has fallen below the radar. Even compared to the other books that were finalists that year for the National Book Award, All God’s Dangers deserves to be read, taught, and remembered.

[What were those other books? It was a non-fiction all-star team:

--The Power Broker, by Robert A. Caro

--All the President's Men, by Woodward & Bernstein

--Working, by Studs Terkel

--Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig.]

Rosengarten’s book, which began life as his dissertation for his doctorate in the History of American Civilization at Harvard, tells the story of an Alabama sharecropper, Ned Cobb, in his own words.

Ned Cobb (aka Nate Shaw)

Ned Cobb (aka Nate Shaw)

It was was an inspiration (and a model, along with Terkel’s book, Working, another oral history) for the book that I and five co-authors began working on in 1982, called Like a Family. Like those two 1974 books, our book focuses on working-class people, telling their own stories in their own voices.

 

 

In his piece in the Times, Garner focuses on the book All God’s Dangers and does not pay much attention to whatever happened to the subject, Ned Cobb, or the author, Ted Rosengarten. You can find more about Cobb here and here. And you can find more about Rosengarten, who became a writer in South Carolina, here and here.

Ted Rosengarten

Ted Rosengarten

 

 

 

 

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The history of journalism lives on in Worcester, Mass.

By Christopher B. Daly

Here’s a recent article in Worcester magazine introducing readers to the incomparable American Antiquarian Society. It sounds like a museum of antiques, but it is actually the most extensive collection of American newspapers, pamphlets, lithographs, sheet music, and ephemera from the 17th century through the late 19th century.

From the article:

A few of the Society’s most valued materials include a first-edition copy of Lewis and Clark’s journals, printed in the early 1800s; the first printed Bible in British North America, released in 1663; the only known copy of the famous English book “Pamela,” which was the first book printed

COVER_philosophic-cockin the United States, published and sold by Benjamin Franklin; and the only known original copy of the political cartoon “The Philosophic Cock,” which was an early slam of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, depicting Jefferson as a rooster and Hemings as one of his hens. At the end of last year, one of the few remaining copies of the first book ever written and printed in British North America, in 1640, the Bay Psalm Book, sold at auction for $14.2 million – the American Antiquarian Society just so happens to also have an original copy of the book.

 

 

The AAS attracts scholars from around the world, including Ken Burns and Jill Lepore, and it is  open to the public.

Here’s a note on the AAS’s history from Wikipedia.

AAS was founded by Isaiah Thomas on October 24, 1812 by an act of the Massachusetts General Court. It is the third oldest historical society and the first to be national in scope.[4]Isaiah Thomas started the collection with approximately 8,000 books from his personal library. The first library building was erected in 1820 in downtown Worcester, Massachusetts. This building was later abandoned and a new building was constructed. It was completed in 1910 and stands on the corner of Park Avenue and Salisbury Street. There have been several additions to this building to accommodate the growing collection, the most recent of which was completed in 2003.

There’s also a story as to why Isaiah Thomas was in Worcester. He was the editor of a Boston newspaper on the patriot side in the American Revolution called The Massachusetts Spy. On April 16, 1775, when the rebels were coming under increasing scrutiny by the British forces occupying Massachusetts, Thomas began to fear that

Isaiah Thomas, rebel printer, by Ethan Alan Greenwood.  Courtesy, AAS

Isaiah Thomas, rebel printer, by Ethan Alan Greenwood.
Courtesy, AAS

the redcoats would soon descend on his Boston print shop and put him out of business. So, under cover of darkness, he loaded his presses onto wagons and piled on as many back copies of his own paper as possible, along with any other newspapers or other printed material that would fit. He moved the whole operation to Worcester, safely remote from the coastal bases of the British forces, and prospered there. He later wrote the landmark book, History of Printing in America.

 

So, a hat-tip to Isaiah Thomas.

 

 

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Fun with maps: American history edition

By Christopher B. Daly 

A big hat-tip to The University of Richmond for its excellent work in digitizing an important collection of historical maps of the United States. The source material is the great Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, published in 1932 by scholars Charles O. Paullin and John K. Wright. Now, the maps have been digitized, so they are much more accessible and actually more informative, since some of the changes those old maps documented can now be animated.

Credit goes to the Digital Scholarship Lab and the Mellon Foundation.

Here are two of my favorites:

1. This one shows rates of travel as of 1857, taking New York City as the starting point. It allows you to see how far apart different places in America were near the eve of the Civil War.

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2. This one shows how wealth was distributed in 1880. Surprise: Nevada had the highest per-capita wealth, probably because it had so many silver mines and so few people.

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Jacob Riis showed “How the Other Half Lives”

By Christopher B. Daly 

A hat-tip to journalist and educator Ted Gup for a terrific story about his discovery of a classic work of journalism history — the copy of How the Other Half Lives that was owned and annotated by the author himself, Jacob Riis. As I described him in my book, Covering America, Riis (pronounced rees) was a Danish immigrant to New York City who was shocked and outraged by the conditions he found in the city’s many tenements in the late 19th century. Picking up his notebook and a camera (equipped with a then-new technology — the portable flash), he explored the warrens of tiny, windowless rooms where New York’s newest and most miserable found cheap housing. In buildings lacking heat, ventilation and plumbing, the masses huddled while the wealthy were building ever grander pleasure domes uptown on Fifth Avenue and the rest of the Upper East Side. His work also provided a template for the journalists of the classic “muckraking” movement in the first decade of the 20th Century. 

An important thing to know about Riis’ expose, published in 1890, is that it had an impact. His photos and writing contributed to a political demand for improvements in New York City housing codes, which resulted in concrete improvements in the tenements. The city adopted new building codes that required more light, less crowding and, eventually, heat and plumbing.

In his piece in today’s Times, Gup — an investigative journalist himself who now chairs the Journalism Dept at crosstown Emerson College — describes how he stumbled upon a first edition of How the Other Half Lives that contains Riis’ own handwritten comments and marginalia. He also rightly commends Riis as a “multimedia” journalist for his combining of text and photos (and his use of a flash to light up those dark inner rooms of the tenements).

As many have observed (including the city’s new mayor, Bill DeBlasio), Riis is as relevant as ever, now that New York City is living through another Gilded Age in which wealth is as unevenly distributed as it was in the days of Rockefeller, Morgan, and Hearst.

"The Italian Rag-picker," by Jacob Riis, from his book, How the Other Half Lives.  Photo from Museum of the City of New York.

“The Italian Rag-picker,” by Jacob Riis, from his book, How the Other Half Lives.
Photo from Museum of the City of New York.

 

 

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Partisanship in journalism: a discussion

By Christopher B. Daly

For readers’ convenience, I am posting some material that airs out the issue of partisanship in the news media. In sequence, here are:

1. A NYTimes invitation to a Sunday Dialogue, a feature of the paper’s Sunday Review section in which readers are asked to respond to a short essay.

2. My reply as published on Dec. 7, 2013.

3. A thoughtful email that I got from a reader, who gave me permission to post his ideas here.

4. The Sunday Dialogue replies by people other than me.

5. The original author’s reply to the replies.

6. My reply to that reply.

08letters-articleLarge

 

How Fox News, MSNBC and others present the news.

 To the Editor:

An autobiography gives an intimate account of a life, but to get the larger picture, you also need the biography.

The same goes for news. Relying on one source, or even on several sources with the same bias, will leave you with only part of the story.

That’s why the much maligned right-wing media is just as important as the so-called mainstream press. Fox News and others on the right certainly have a deeply embedded conservative bias, but the liberal bias on the other side is just as pervasive. Taken together, they roughly fill each other’s omissions.

Fox, for example, spent a good part of the past year digging into the Benghazi attack and I.R.S. tax-exempt status stories and talking hopefully about smoking guns, while the mainstream press was determined to take the Obama administration’s word for it that it did nothing wrong in either case.

More recently, when the president’s pronouncement about keeping your health insurance proved false, it was reported as a lie by the right and as a simple misstatement by the left.

And when the Obamacare website failed so miserably that not even the mainstream press could cover for it, the networks were obliged to sound like Fox for a while, although noticeably lacking was the appetite for pursuit that characterizes their coverage of Republicans.

Fairness in journalism requires not that every story or point of view receive equal weight but that every valid position receive equal respect. Thus the pro-life position should be treated with the same validity as pro-choice; small-government conservatives with the same respect as tax-and-spend liberals; Republicans as more compassionate than they sound and Democrats as less omniscient than they think.

But since journalists and news organizations are partisan at heart, one must sift through the best reporting and punditry from each side of the journalistic divide and take all the biases and agendas into account to arrive at an informed understanding of any story.

MARK R. GODBURN
North Canaan, Conn., Dec. 2, 2013

The writer is an antiquarian bookseller.

Here’s my comment:

In his lament about bias in the news media, Mr. Godburn assumes that unbiased journalism is possible and desirable. History suggests otherwise.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, American journalism was highly political, often polemical and openly biased. That was the kind of journalism in which the likes of Sam Adams and Thomas Paine gloriously argued for liberty, and it was the form of journalism that was on the founders’ minds when they enshrined the doctrine of a free press in the First Amendment.

Only later, beginning with Benjamin Day’s Sun newspaper in 1833, did American journalists begin to develop a strong tradition of factual reporting. In part, this was the result of Day’s ambition to sell his paper to every reader (“It Shines for All”) and not limit his audience to members of any one political party.

In the 20th century, the major broadcast network news divisions, first in radio and then in television, reinforced this idea. They not only wanted the highest possible ratings, but were also operating as publicly traded corporations and were regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.

Nowadays, from within the turbulence of the digital age, we can begin to see that the years when big media companies were purveying what they described as nonpartisan, factual reporting were actually a historical period that is already fading into the past. The Internet has reinvigorated the “advocacy tradition” in journalism, and it has also made possible new forms of reporting such as crowd-sourcing, reporting that enlists the audience and the like. The spirit of innovation lives.

CHRISTOPHER B. DALY
Boston, Dec. 4, 2013

The writer is a professor of journalism at Boston University and the author of “Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism.”

Here’s the email I got from blogger Steve Claflin:

Professor Daly:

Thank you for “Partisanship in the Media” in the December 8 New York Times letters.

The revived “advocacy tradition” problem you mention might be easier to manage if we had a form of majority rule that allows the general public to have more influence.

In the old days, the House was able to vote on any bill and the majority would prevail. Until an important bill recently passed by a wide margin, a Tea Party minority could usually intimidate other members, especially the Speaker, and prevent legislation that would easily pass from even getting to the floor. The minority party in the Senate can routinely block action on bills, because minority rule is built into Senate procedures. 60 votes are needed, with the help of a fickle minority, to pass legislation.

Is there anything more vital to democracy than majority rule? Is this what distinguishes democracy from autocracy? Is this what a democracy needs in order to succeed? We have the elections we normally associate with a democratic process. We reassure ourselves by going through the motions.

But the active ideological minorities in Congress, and the members who are owned and operated by special interests that donate large sums of money, are repeatedly able to slow or block or derail changes those few oppose and the rest of us generally favor. As such repeated occurrences so rudely remind us, we can have the structure, the trappings, the proceedings, the appearance of democracy without having majority rule.

Here are the other comments published in the Times:

Readers React

In an ideal world, graced by Enlightenment ideals, Mr. Godburn’s recommendation that citizens sift through biases of diverse news media outlets to form a complete perspective would be warmly endorsed. However, in this far-from-ideal world, individuals live in media echo chambers, selecting out viewpoints that agree with their own and sometimes avoiding conflicting ones.

Research finds that conservatives gravitate to Fox News and liberals to MSNBC — as well as to like-minded websites. A Pew Research Center study reported that from August to October of 2012, just 6 percent of Fox News’s election stories about President Obama were positive, while only 3 percent of MSNBC stories about the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney were positive.

Exposure to biased media strengthens partisan biases, exacerbating political polarization rather than producing the more informed understanding that Mr. Godburn desires.

RICHARD M. PERLOFF
Cleveland, Dec. 4, 2013

The writer is a professor of communication at Cleveland State University.

I read The New York Times every morning. I also watch more MSNBC than I like to admit. Occasionally, for entertainment, I’ll wander to Fox for a Bill O’Reilly moment or two.

Mr. Godburn’s thesis is an example of false equivalence. The Times is real journalism. But even The Times sometimes stretches too far in the service of “journalistic objectivity.” When one perspective is true and the other is propaganda, they should not be presented as equally valid.

As to MSNBC and Fox: The MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, for example, is surely dramatic. But I have never encountered an instance in which she was fundamentally dishonest. On the other hand, Fox is frequently and outrageously untethered from the truth, and its talking heads are attack dogs. Anyone consuming equal doses of this “news” will have intellectual indigestion.

If you bend over too far in the effort to be balanced, you’ll fall flat on your face.

STEVE NELSON
New York, Dec. 4, 2013

Well said, Mr. Godburn. Political correctness and a pervasive left-wing media bias are corrosive and do immense harm to the democratic process. People eventually find out that they have been misled. This breeds cynicism and mistrust. The left and the right learn to develop their own separate versions of the “truth.”

But while most right-wing news sources acknowledge their bias, those on the left deny their bias. Left-wing news sources are suffering a fallout in ratings because people are waking up to these facts and don’t like being manipulated.

FRANK COOK
Wayne, Pa., Dec. 5, 2013

Mr. Godburn makes a telling point, but he doesn’t go nearly far enough. His assertion that liberal and conservative news outlets “roughly fill each other’s omissions” assumes that there are exactly two reasonable points of view toward any given social issue; that these viewpoints are locked in a zero-sum game whereby each one can be validated only to the degree that the opposing one is impeached; and that they happen to correspond to the platforms of our two leading political parties.

Both parties are only too eager to promote this theory themselves, since it implies that together they have a monopoly on the truth. So a responsibility of both a free press and its readers is to examine both contrary viewpoints critically and consider other viewpoints — a third, fourth or fifth perspective — that have not been embraced by either side.

THOMAS LEITCH
Newark, Del., Dec. 4, 2013

Balanced news media is essential in any democracy. But let’s remember what brought us to the present situation — the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which required the airing of contrasting views on public issues, and the loosening of regulations on media concentration, allowing many media outlets to fall under the control of a few corporate-owned conglomerates.

Both have created a situation in which media is not only biased and unbalanced, but overwhelmingly influenced by the opinions and wishes of its corporate masters.

DOMINIC QUINTANA
Astoria, Queens, Dec. 4, 2013

Having recently returned from a trip to Brussels, I found the evening news there to be refreshing and professional. One subject wasn’t beaten to death 24/7 as it is here. You didn’t have to flip from channel to channel to see the “whole” picture, and the news was international in nature. In the United States you rarely hear about what is going on in Africa, Australia and, actually, most of the world.

It is a shame.

BONNIE CHALEK
Ridgewood, N.J., Dec. 4, 2013

I agree with Mr. Godburn that we need different perspectives. I would like to point out that Fox News is the No. 1 news source in America. Surely, that should qualify Fox as “mainstream.”

Studies have also shown that, for many Americans, Fox News is their only source of news. Those viewers are getting a slanted perspective — not balance. Defenders of Fox News often portray it as an underdog struggling to have a voice in the crowd of “mainstream” outlets, but that depiction simply isn’t consistent with its ratings.

I commend Mr. Godburn for admitting that news outlets he identifies as left-leaning did report on the problems with Obamacare. I find that so-called left-leaning news outlets, including The New York Times, are frequently critical of Democrats and their policies.

Mr. Godburn would have a much more difficult time finding comparable examples of Fox News criticizing the G.O.P. — except perhaps when it criticizes moderate Republicans for not being in lock step with the rest of their party.

TOBY PLEWAK
Easton, Mass., Dec. 4, 2013

It may be a fool’s errand to think that we can overcome media bias. The media is ultimately a collection of voices of various people, who generally stick to certain biases and opinions. The answer instead may be to encourage media outlets to be more forthcoming about their biases.

If we, as media consumers, know that a mainstream news outlet typically holds a certain viewpoint, then we can take in the news with a better understanding of what information may be missing or may be shaded one way or another. As it is, given the rather obvious political positions held by certain newspapers and television news divisions, many of us have already begun interpreting the news in this way.

MATTHEW K. KERFOOT
New York, Dec. 4, 2013

Here is Godburn’s last word:

The Writer Responds

Professor Perloff reinforces my point by noting that conservatives gravitate to right-leaning news sources and liberals to left-leaning ones, often without being exposed to contrary views or inconvenient facts.

But then he says that going to such biased sources only exacerbates the problem, as if he thinks there are reliably unbiased sources that one can go to instead. There are not, and that is why it is necessary to mine a variety of biased ones.

Mr. Nelson engages in the cheap liberal tactic of Fox-bashing. If Fox’s talking heads are attack dogs, they are poodles compared with the pit bulls he favors at MSNBC. Simply calling one’s favored sources true journalism and the other side propaganda doesn’t make it so. And if too much news causes intellectual indigestion, too little causes intellectual blinders.

Mr. Leitch is correct that there are more than two points of view. And examining all of them will not necessarily allow one to arrive at some desired middle ground. Just because you have one foot in hot water and the other in cold doesn’t mean you’re comfortable.

Professor Daly’s claim that I assume unbiased journalism is possible and desirable may have been a good lead-in for his journalistic history lesson, but that’s not what I said. The problem is not that journalists are biased — it’s that they claim they aren’t.

MARK R. GODBURN
North Canaan, Conn., Dec. 5, 2013

And, of course, since this is my blog, here’s my final, final word:

I will grant that maybe I misread his original post. When he wrote that all journalists and news organizations are partisan at heart, I thought he considered that a flaw. Perhaps inevitable, perhaps correctable (by reading multiple sources from different perspectives) but still a problem. If he says he doesn’t think so, then who am I to argue? I would say that many people (including a lot of journalists) do consider partisanship some kind of original sin of journalism.

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Surveillance state: The rationale for secrecy is, of course, SECRET

By Christopher B. Daly

top-secret-stampYou may think you are a sovereign citizen of a free country. You may think that “we, the people” rule through elected representatives who are accountable to us. But that would be wrong.

The latest affront to self-government is a ruling issued by a federal appeals court on Friday (beware of Friday rulings). Here’s the background:

Thanks to accused leaker Edward Snowden, we know that the U.S. government runs a secret program in which the government calls on the telephone companies to hand over information about you without a court order or subpoena, even if you are not suspected of any wrongdoing. You were not supposed to know about it, but that cat is now out of the bag.

So, you might want to know where the government gets off concocting such a scheme and how it could possibly square such massive, secret, peacetime spying on law-abiding citizens with the Constitution. Well, too bad. The Obama administration’s lawyers, who wrote a memo in 2010 attempting to justify the whole thing, decided that the memo itself should be kept secret, and President Obama agrees.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and others filed suit seeking to get access to the memo. The government refused. On Friday, Judge Harry T. Edwards said no. EFF can’t see it and neither can we, the people. According to a link-rich story in today’s Times by the redoubtable Charlie Savage, the ruling seems likely to stand.

This is just the latest cause for disappointment in President Obama when it comes to transparency and press freedom. If he wanted to really serve those great causes, he could:

–stop prosecuting and issuing subpoenas to reporters at an unprecedented pace

–stop over-classifying new material as “secret”

–begin reducing the backlog of classified materials that can be de-classified with no harm

–adopt the common-sense reforms recommended by his own task force on surveillance issues.

There are many things to admire about Barack Obama, but his record in this area is not one of them Perhaps it confirms that the Founders were right to be suspicious of executive power per se, regardless of the individual wielding that power. They saw, rightly, that power is by its very nature aggressive, always seeking to expand and never yielding unless forced to do so.

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Million+ historic photos put online

By Christopher B. Daly 

Don’t miss: if you are a historian, researcher, or dedicated browser, visit the new flickr site of The British Library. The library recently made news by posting more than 1 million historic images — all digitized, all in the public domain, and all available for use now. Plus, there’s metadata for each one. The site is not as easy to navigate (it’s actually a bit overwhelming) as the U.S. Library of Congress site for the Prints & Photographs Division, but I’m hardly complaining.

It’s also based on flickr, so you need to have an account to take full advantage. (I tried to re-activate my old Yahoo account — Yahoo bought flickr a few years ago — but it was so cumbersome and annoying that I gave up, for now. I got these images by dragging them in from news sites.)

British Library Flickr

 

blflickr5_0

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Fall leaves: let’s leave them where they fall

By Christopher B. Daly 

Ah, another late-fall day here in New England. Full of watching the winter juncoes arrive, harvesting the last root vegetables, and listening to the roar of the leaf-blower. Sure enough, where I live just outside Boston, Monday mornings in fall bring an invading army of landscapers. Just after most of my neighbors have started their commute to work, those of us who work at home bear the brunt of the commercial landscapers’ day-long assault.

I am not advocating a radical, tear-up-your-lawn, no-mow approach (although there’s no harm in that, either.) Nor am I advocating a ban on lawn mowers and a return to hand-powered mowers (although there too, I think we could do a lot better).

I am calling for a deep reconsideration of a practice that has become de rigueur here in the suburbs, but which our ancestors would have considered demented. That is the compulsion to remove every fallen leaf from our lawns, driveways, and walks.

According to an article in the New York Times, there is a growing trend (is there any other kind?) toward re-thinking the assumption that all leaves must be whisked “away” to somewhere else. As an ecologist could tell you, there is no such place as “away.” Everything goes somewhere.

Let’s consider the leaf.

A leaf is part of a plant that allows it to live by conducting photosynthesis, converting sunlight into energy, which fuels the plant. In doing so, plants take in carbon dioxide through their leaves and emit oxygen. In this way, leaves do an enormous amount of good for the planet and for each one of us — also known as “ecosystem services.”

So far, so good.

In this part of the world, though, most plants drop their leaves in the fall to prepare for the rigors of a snowy, icy winter in which there may be no liquid water available for many months. The leaves fall to the ground, where they form “leaf litter,” a mat of leaves that — if left alone — would eventually decompose and join the soil, enriching it with organic material. The leaf litter is the plant’s attempt to shape the environment in its favor, as for example, when a pine tree drops some of its needles to form a dense, acidic mat below that discourages other plants but favors more pine trees. (I suspect that almost every plant harbors a secret plan to take over the world.)

This is what brings some plants into conflict with some humans. The conflict is particularly acute between the deciduous trees (like oaks and maples) and the suburban homeowner. Suburban homeowners are, by definition, also suburban landowners, so they are involved whether like it or not in land-use policy.

Overwhelmingly, suburban landowners are putting their land to use in the same way: growing grass for lawns. They are, in other words, farmers who grow a single crop, which is to say that they are involved in “mono-culture.” Oddly, suburbanites devote a lot of time and money to raising that one crop, only to cart it away and pay to dispose of it. They do not eat it, and they do not feed it to any livestock (rabbits do not count).

Part of the expense in maintaining a grassy lawn is the cost of protecting that lawn from the leaf litter. If all the trees in all the yards in an area like the one where I live in New England were allowed to drop their leaves undisturbed, our yards would soon begin to look like the forest floor rather than a grassy lawn. The leaves in the leaf litter layer would overlap and smother most grasses.

Hence, the great fall mania for leaf clean-up.

Originally, most Europeans who settled in this part of the world did not bother with a lawn. They sensibly built their houses close to the road, leaving just enough room for a front garden. In back, most people would have had a historic_societybarnyard — a patch of hard-packed dirt between the house and the barn. Most of the rest of the land would be fields and orchards or it would be left more or less wild as a living resource for harvesting wood and foraging all kinds of useful things. Those ancestral New Englanders had real outdoor chores demanding their time and strength, and they could not possibly have squandered any time raking leaves just for the hell of it.

In the 19th century, the lawn made its debut, and in the 20th century, the lawn conquered millions of acres of U.S. land.

At mid-century, when I was a child, most suburbanites handled their own yard care. In my neighborhood in Medford, Mass., I can recall only one family that hired a landscape service, and they were the wealthiest folks around. Everyone else just got out there and took care of their yards, or else they hired a teenager to do it for them. People like my father waited until the trees had dropped nearly all their leaves, then he started raking at the point farthest from the street. He raked the leaves into a long mound at the edge of the street. Then he did what everyone else did: he took  some matches out of his pocket (where he kept them because he was a smoker) and set the leaves on fire.

For a child, this was one of the great rituals of the year, a communal festival of sorts, with great sounds and smells and the infinitely absorbing allure of an open fire. As children, we tended those leaf fires, blowing on them, feeding them with dry leaves, trying to build the biggest fire the adults would tolerate. photo-chicago-boys-raking-and-burning-leaves-wilmette-street-1955Yes, there was some danger involved, I suppose, but at that stage in our national evolution, children were expected to learn to handle risk, not to avoid it. If the tail of your jacket happened to get burned while you were squatting to blow on some nearby embers, that was a lesson learned.

Sometime in the 1970s or 80s, under the banner of the environmentalist goal of clean air, every town I know of in New England banned the practice of open burning of leaves. (Yes, the air is cleaner, but, of course, something was lost in the process, too, and that needs to be acknowledged.)

Which brings us to the present. Nowadays, a dwindling number of suburban homeowners continue to do their own gardening and yard work. More and more, my neighbors summon commercial landscapers (and not the kid down the block, who is too busy anyway). This brings us an odd sight: like soldiers before battle, the landscape workers, who are engaged in a supposedly healthful form of outdoor exercise, first gear up with headphones, surgical masks, and sunglasses. After all, they know better than anyone just how obnoxious the portable, gas-powered leaf-blower is, and they want to protect their ears, their lungs, and their eyes.

220px-Aa_backpackleafblowerThey need protection, too. The average leaf-blower emits up to 70 or more decibels of noise along with some amount of smoke from its unmuffled, two-stroke, gas-fueled motor. But that decibel rating is a figure for a single well-maintained blower. The ones I experience are often old and banged up, and the guys who use them often gang together forming sonic artillery three to four abreast. Motors roaring, they wave their tubes from side to side, like a sci-fi elephant.

If it’s wet, they just redouble their efforts, roaring longer and louder to try to move those wet leaves from here to there. If it’s dry, watch out. Blasting away with their jets of air leaving the nozzle at nearly 200 mph, the leaf-blowers move more than leaves. They also pulverize and aerosolize pretty much every other small thing on the ground: bird shit, mouse dung, mold, cigarette butts, dust, allergens, pollen, weed seeds — it all swirls together in a choking, irritating mini-cyclone of detritus. And, oh yes — if your landscaper sold you an application of a herbicide or pesticide, then some of those poisons are going up in the toxic swirl, too. No wonder the guys on the crew try to protect themselves.

Usually, they blow the leaves onto a huge tarp, which they haul to the street. Then, they use a giant vacuum cleaner to lift the leaf pile into the back of their truck. What happens next is another ecological crime.

They haul all the leaves away. In other words, they deplete the yard of a significant amount of organic material that would otherwise rot and recycle into the soil. So, the removal of the leaves seriously depletes the land of its natural fertility. This is clearly a demented activity. Why do homeowners let the landscapers pilfer this valuable material?

Then comes the kicker: the landscapers will be back in the spring to sell the homeowner a treatment with . . . artificial fertilizer! This is to compensate for loss of the free, natural fertilizer that the yard would enjoy if the leaves were left in place. This is the equivalent of a burglar selling you your own stuff back!

To make matters worse, the removal of all those leaves means that the landscaped yard has no leaf litter. That is, there is no part of the yard in which certain organisms can winter over and carry on their lives. Many beneficial insects depend on the leaf litter for food and shelter. Without it, the yard is nearly barren, featuring only the useless lawn. And of course, no bugs means no birds (unless the suburbanite also hangs a bird-feeder — another unnatural act; don’t get me started on that one!) as well as no toads or all kinds of other creatures that were here before us.

All in all, the landscaped suburban lawn is pretty much an ecological disaster. Too often, it is a wasteland of clipped grass and exotic ornamental shrubs, shaded by a couple of non-native trees like Norway maples. This is a high-maintenance, expensive, inefficient approach that alienates the homeowner from nature, exposes the landscaping crew and the neighbors to noise and air pollution, and impoverishes our landscape.

We can do better.

[In another post, I will try to suggest some ideas for bringing some ecological sanity to the suburbs. Meanwhile, get a rake and a broom.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Whitey Bulger: Life without parole

By Christopher B. Daly 

 

In the end, the sentencing of James “Whitey” Bulger was oddly unsatisfying. Bulger  – the lord of the underworld, the big man with the killer’s coldness, the guy who struck fear into so many for so long – left the public stage without so much as a whimper. Playing the role of a stand-up guy (or at least, his version of one) all the way to the bitter end, Bulger not only refused to testify, he also refused to even make eye contact with his victims’ families.

 

To make matters worse, Bulger committed one last robbery: he robbed all of us in the Boston area of the satisfaction of a real showdown with the forces of images-1justice. Bulger should have been on the witness stand (and his testimony should have been on television), but he denied us that. It was a petty crime, compared to all his monstrous crimes against individuals, but it was one more shot at a public that grew tired of him long ago.

 

His trial over, Bulger will now spend the rest of his few remaining days in prison, where he belongs. So be it. I don’t believe in the death penalty on other days, and I will stick to my position on this one. I will not give Bulger the satisfaction of getting me to make an exception for him. I will choose not to sink to his level. (No more special treatment for you, pal.)

 

The whole process of putting Bulger on trial took so long that when the final stages unfolded in federal court last week, there was an odd quality of a formality about it. After all, Bulger’s capture took place more than two years ago. Ever since, it was more or less assumed that Bulger would be found guilty and given a life term.

 

Indeed, the thoroughly predictable and highly scripted process of a criminal trial was overshadowed this year by a lot of other local news of spontaneous origin. In April came the horrible crime of the Boston Marathon bombing, in which a couple of miserable losers decided to try to rob us all of something wonderful — the

Dhokhar Tsarnaev surrendering, with his forehead marked by a sniper's infrared.

Dhokhar Tsarnaev surrendering, with his forehead marked by a sniper’s infrared.

spirit that always used to bloom in Boston on Marathon Monday, a mix of having fun and playing hooky and being nice to out-of-towners and trying to hurry spring along.

 

That was followed this year (simply in time, not in a great cosmic reckoning, as some would have it) by the quite unexpected rise of the Red Sox, who gave us something of a civic bouquet this year — not by winning the World Series, which was nice but a bit much. No, I think the Sox’ real gift to us this year came from seeing them having fun playing a child’s game as if it mattered and seeing them outperform expectations. All that, plus beards — what a treat.

 

*       *       *       *

 

Yet, there is still some unfinished business in the Bulger matter. Whitey Bulger owes us all the answers that we didn’t get when he chose not to testify. He may try to tell his story – on his terms, of course, with a book or letters – but he should have had to sit in the dock, under oath, and face questions not of his choosing.

 

For that matter, his brother Billy (the former president of the state Senate) images-2owes us some answers, too. What did he know about his brother, and when did he know it? Billy owes us these answers because he was not a private person all those years. He’s not in the same category as the third Bulger brother or their sister. No, Billy was at or near the center of public power during the very same years and in the very same city that Whitey was at or near the center of criminal power.

 

I will not compare or contrast the two brothers, except to say that as a journalist who covered Billy during that period and who often got the back of his hand, I believe that even rough justice demands that he give answers to the people whose money he spent and whose government he hijacked. No more of his grinning and winking and ducking. What did he know and when?

 

Other unfinished business?

 

There’s the FBI, for one. The agency has yet to offer a convincing explanation of how Whitey Bulger could have drafted the FBI’s Boston office into his protection racket or of how the agency is preventing a repeat by some other hoodlum.

 

Then there is the matter of how anybody could have fallen for the blarney that Whitey was a good guy who was keeping drugs out of South Boston or that Billy was a good guy because he gave away some turkeys at the holidays. Both of the Bulgers got too much power, and we are the ones who let them get away with it.

 

So, in the end, I suppose, the final reckoning is not with them but with ourselves. That’s a sentence with no parole, no appeal. In a way, we’re lifers, too.

 

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