Thursday, April 09, 2020

ON THE AVENUES: #VoteEwwNoMatterWho, or when being realistic means being radical.

155 years ago today in the front parlor of Wilmer McLean’s home in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, a nattily attired Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to the commander of all Union armies, mud-splattered Ulysses S. Grant.

Lest there be any doubt, Grant was the genuine military genius of the two. Grant saw the whole of the strategic picture and effectively used the resources at his disposal, applying them remorselessly along the pathway to an outcome he foresaw quite clearly.

Grant was not without flaws as a human being, but he was mercifully immune from self-aggrandizing bull’s excrement. Tellingly, if reincarnated in 2020, Grant wouldn’t have a chance whatsoever of making a difference.

McLean, a wholesale grocer by trade, lived in Manassas until Bull Run, the Civil War’s first great battle in 1861. McLean’s house was used as headquarters by the rebel commander General Beauregard and damaged during the fighting, so subsequently he moved his family 120 miles west to a place he reasoned would be safer.

It was, right up until it wasn’t. Immediately upon the conclusion of the surrender conference, Union officers denuded the parlor in short order, pressing money into McLean’s hand (hundreds of dollars, in fact) as they carted away tables, chairs and bric-a-brac as souvenirs.

McLean moved away after the war, unable or unwilling to capitalize on his house’s singular legacy by converting it into a roadside tourist trap. Maybe this was because no “authentic” furniture remained, or more likely, owing to the hostility of defeated Virginians toward northern visitors.

Shortly thereafter, the utter fabrication of “Lost Cause” mythology provided the necessary value in memoriam, although too late for McLean. It is alleged that McLean conjured one quotable observation from his personal Civil War: "The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor."

Today he’d be on all the late night shows and probably practice punditry on one or more of the news channels.


Meanwhile, a distinctive feature of that first Battle of Bull Run in 1861 was the crowd of groupies it attracted.

Union troops bound for certain glory were accompanied on their march toward the enemy positions by wagon loads of Washington picnickers, sure of a wonderful day in the countryside watching their favorites dispense with the confederates. It all came to a premature and unpleasant end when the visiting team was ignominiously routed, sweeping the party goers along with them, straight back to the safety of the capital’s fledgling fortifications.

The victors were content to snack on the leftovers.

Indeed, war is hell, and the scene in 1861 reminds me that so are most of the elections of our lives in postwar L’America. The COVID-plagued primary in Wisconsin earlier this week was merely an extreme example of the norm. Chads are left hanging, voting is suppressed, courts are rigged; the pillage of oligarchs and evangelists proceeds as we binge-watch dystopian drama.

Like those hangers-on making for Manassas with their watercress sandwiches and cider, we keep coming to the polls in our dashing finery, hoping for a miracle of political intelligibility -- outright statesmanship obviously lies beyond the pale -- and if we’re lucky the reward is dull, plodding mediocrity, but usually our reward is garish spectacle at the expense of substance, the sheer underachievement fixed as if by constitutional mandate.

Paraphrasing H.L. Mencken, we get exactly what we vote for -- good and hard. Not unlike Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., we pay our money, take our chances and spin the DemoDisneyDixiecratic wheel of ill fortune … and every second Sunday, Biden remembers exactly how many grandchildren he has.


That’ll show those horrid Bernie Bros; Sanders is out, and my new "choice" is Biden's dementia versus Donald Trump's depravity.

Red or blue?

I say: #VoteEwwNoMatterWho.

In reality (Bernie Sanders’ campaign) it gave voice to the voiceless, raised people’s sense of what’s possible through collective action, and refused to accept that exploitation and the fear of economic devastation should be the lot of millions.”

Ah, of course the soulless right-of-center “Democrats” have their answer at the ready: it’s all about being realistic, or at least as it pertains to their selective, generally white-washed version of reality.

That nasty too-damn-left Bernie was selling a bill of make-believe goods to the guileless youth, the wooly radicals, the blue-wing’s version of numb-Trump-skulls; those naïve neophytes just need to abandon their idiotic hopes and dreams, get realistic and embrace reality.

As if their lives weren’t realistic enough already.

And what exactly is being realistic in this context? It’s beating Trump, of course, even if every other office in the country from Senate to dogcatcher remains in Republican hands, just so long as we have no ambition grander than assuring money and power remain the exclusive province of two political parties, each taking their turn suckling the teat.

When the centrists wag their finger at me and pontificate about shutting up and accepting what’s realistic, it kills me as dead as Sullivan Ballou, a Union officer who lost his life at Bull Run.

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt …

Yes; that was different. We could debate the remainder of the pandemic about the specific circumstances of Ballou’s death as a soldier, and how they vary substantively from those of a voter in the 2020 presidential election, but to me the divergence is striking in terms of the concept of sacrifice.

Ballou was willing to make one. Most of the purported Democratic centrists dispensing holy writ about reality aren’t.

If they were, they’d not be so flippant about everyday REALITY on the part of the voiceless, who have seen in the Sanders campaign the possibility (reiterating) “of collective action, and refuse to accept that exploitation and the fear of economic devastation should be the lot of millions.”

They’d not be supporting the prevailing kakistocratic, catastrophic socio-economic “realities” with their wallets, every single day, only pausing from the endless consumerism when it’s time to denounce what Republicans are doing to wreck the system, although most of the “opposition” is as fully invested in its disproportionate excess as the MAGAtites.

When are any of the faux “left” centrists going to risk any aspect of their well-ordered existences, cease fluffing and buttressing the forces that oppress others more so than them, and make a sacrifice of any appreciable magnitude as a downpayment?

Be realistic, they repeat over and over like a mantra. Now’s not the time for pie in the sky, Roger.

Really? When the hell in human history has the time been "right" for aspiration?

How realistic was the Magna Carta, the Reformation, or our own American Revolution, even as imperfect as these milestones were?

How realistic was it to break the four-minute mile, to cure polio or route sewage underground rather than let it flow through ditches in the street?

How realistic was it for sensory-deprived Helen Keller to be an author, former slave George Washington Carver to be a scientist, or dirt-poor Abraham Lincoln to be president?

When are the centrists going to withhold assent from American-style injustice, go on strike, hit the streets -- show some effing solidarity for something and someone else apart from their own scolding virtue-signaled ostentatiousness?

Sullivan Ballou? He actually stood FOR something.

Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.

Listen up, centrists. You've slain the Bernie dragon, now here’s the reality. If you want to be rid of the orange menace, it’s time to dismantle his habitat, and commence some adaptive reuse of your own decaying political worldviews.

Take your eyes off Red Bernie and listen to what he actually says … and observe who else has been listening to him. If learning is truly the objective, there’s a chance you might, and still be able to speak with people who are extremely disappointed in disgraceful timidity. You're now being paternalistic with regard to the people who suffer most, when their preference is to DO SOMETHING.

Notice I wrote "speak with," not "speak to."

Our system has been made gloriously efficient for the haves, the accumulators of capital, and the hoarders of corporate profits, but it’s not resilient at all for ordinary human beings. The coronavirus is proving this abundantly, right now. It’s bigger than The Donald. Democrats are complicit in it as well. Shouldn't one of the two political parties articulate a viable alternative in terms of programs and policies?

There’s yardage to be gained, and there’s no turning back to the halcyon days of Obama for the simple reason that they weren’t.

Sacrifice something, centrists -- anything will do -- and instead of blaming the phantasmagoric imagined Bernie Bros for your own distemper, muster the grace sufficient to credit those principled people on your left for having the hopes, dreams and cojones to be FOR something, rather than merely against, and who see power in the realism of good ideas, not capitulation to capitalism in the throes of cancer.

Ah, but I’m so forgetful. You centrists are going to need someone to blame if it doesn’t end well this November, and Bernie’s supporters can be so very easily scapegoated. After all, you're already quite proficient at the practice.

Shaddup, already. Are we on strike yet?


Recent columns:

April 2: ON THE AVENUES: Pandemic, pornographic, pecksniffian. Just three random words until the booze kicks in.

March 26: ON THE AVENUES: It's a tad premature to sing the healing game.

March 19: ON THE AVENUES: If it's a war, then the food service biz needs to be issued a few weapons. We need improvisation and flexibility to survive the shutdown.

March 12: ON THE AVENUES: Keep calm and carry on.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

To repeat, the toilet paper shortage is about capitalist "efficiency," but hey, Joe Biden will fix it, right?

Whenever I think about Joe Biden as the standard bearer for the DemoDisneyDixiecrats, defecation springs to mind -- and with it, the need for toilet paper amid the rigors of the pandemic.

Here's another explanation of the same fundamental lesson: an economic system organized for maximum profit on the part of the producers isn't necessarily built to be resilient in times of crisis.

What Everyone’s Getting Wrong About the Toilet Paper Shortage, Will Oremus (Medium)

It isn’t really about hoarding. And there isn’t an easy fix.

Georgia-Pacific, a leading toilet paper manufacturer based in Atlanta, estimates that the average household will use 40% more toilet paper than usual if all of its members are staying home around the clock. That’s a huge leap in demand for a product whose supply chain is predicated on the assumption that demand is essentially constant. It’s one that won’t fully subside even when people stop hoarding or panic-buying.

And this repeat from last week:

COVID-19 and the “Just-in-Time” Supply Chain: Why Hospitals Ran Out of Ventilators and Grocery Stores Ran Out of Toilet Paper, by Louis Proyect (CounterPunch)

"Hospitals began to run out of masks for the same reason that supermarkets ran out of toilet paper — because their “just-in-time” supply chains, which call for holding as little inventory as possible to meet demand, are built to optimize efficiency, not resiliency."

SHANE'S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS: The German word Fernweh, or "farsickness."

Homesickness for a place I've never been?

The concept is discussed in the article linked below. The answer in my own personal instance begins with the city of Trieste, to which I'm powerfully drawn -- but I've been there, so it cannot qualify.

Consequently, it's the southern Peloponnese in Greece.

The photos preceding are from the vicinity of the Mani peninsula. In 1985 I came close, relatively speaking, having traveled briefly in the northern Peloponnese by the Gulf of Corinth, from Patras to Athens, and then to Nafplio before returning to Patras for the boat back to Italy.

Even then I felt an attraction to the wilder, elemental areas to the south, but a combination of inexperience and a wider travel agenda caused me to put it off "until next time." Unfortunately there hasn't been a next time, at least yet.

Two previous links: 

ON THE AVENUES: From Baltic to Mediterranean, the diary of an unrepentant New Albanian Europhile.

More about Patrick Leigh Fermor, travel writing and a lost European world.

And now ... Fernweh. Farsickness is the opposite of homesickness, and can also imply wanderlust. I plead guilty to these various charges.

Many of You Are Homesick—For a Place You’ve Never Been, by Eric Grundhauser (Atlas Obscura)

We asked which places gave you “fernweh,” and you gave us poetry!

A couple weeks back, we asked Atlas Obscura readers to tell us about the places that make them feel a sense of fernweh, a German word that literally translates as “farsickness.” Put another way, it’s the concept of feeling homesick for a place you’ve never been or could never go. The responses are in, and they are beautiful.

By far the destinations that our readers said invoke that strange sense of foreign homesickness more than any other are the misty green landscapes of Scotland and Ireland, with an overwhelming number of responses invoking those two regions. Icelandic and English locales were also popular places that you miss without having been there. Still others wrote in to tell us about their feeling of connection with fictional places such as The Shire and Narnia.

But the common thread among nearly all the responses is a sense of poetry. Your responses speak of places both real and imagined, in lush, often evocative verse that paints a vivid picture of your own personal fernweh. Since we received hundreds of responses to our question, we couldn’t share them all, but a selection of our favorites can be found below ...

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

За нашу дружбу! Allan Gamborg and his updated Soviet Digital Art website.

Regular readers will recall that over the years, I've repeatedly doffed my уша́нка (ushanka -- it's the furry cap) in the general direction of Allan Gamborg.

It's hard to believe 33 years have passed since I first met Allan, Kim Andersen and Kim Wiesener during the rambunctious summer of '87. These three Danes of the apocalypse have been artfully weaving in and out of my travel narratives ever since, as during this famous escapade (in Allan's own words):

For example, I still think of the evening in that Belgian beer place (2000?), where all got complete rat-assed and the party just dissolved in utter chaos.

Ah, those were the daze.

Allan has lived in Moscow for more than two decades, and somewhere around his third or fourth career in the workaday world he assumed yet another identity: purveyor and advocate of Soviet-era art and artists.

You need not have an opinion about Vladimir Putin, or be a dirty rotten Commie, to enjoy Allan's web site. You merely must appreciate art.

Today an update arrived.

Dear Friends,

I hope you are all well and safe in these turbulent times.

I have been spending a significant part of the time in self isolation updating my art database with photos, descriptions and artists’ biographies.

All this material you can find online - art works and descriptions - for about 900 (mainly Soviet) artists.

If you have a free minute (or some vacant days), and wish to relax with some art – please visit.

Artist Portfolios

Best wishes,


Here's the full story.

This website is dedicated to Soviet Art and Socialist Realism in the 20th century. We feature a large number of Soviet and socialist fine arts and posters as well as applied arts and design of that period.

The artists featured were active in the Soviet Union from the 1920s through the 1970s, and their works cover Russian avant-garde, socialist realism as well as the non-official underground art of the 1960s and 1970s.

The collection contains Soviet fine arts, mural designs, graphics, prints and USSR posters, and a unique assortment of applied arts, textile and fashion designs, and tapestries of the 1950s and 1960s. We also show a number of theater designs, including costumes, set designs and curtains. Another specialty of the gallery is children's book illustrations of the 1950s and 1960s.

Thematically, we often focus on Soviet art works and posters telling stories about people and their city or village, work, industry, culture, politics, and works of art illustrating the era and its history as a whole. Specific topics include Soviet agriculture, sports, theater and ballet.

The artists featured were taught by the most famous artists of the late 19th and the early 20th century, and studyed at the most prestigious art schools of the Soviet Union at the time: The VKhuTeMas, the Polygraphical Institute, the Surikov Institute, the Repin Institute, the MIPIDI, and the Moscow Textile Institute.

Most artists featured led a “double” artistic life. On the one hand, they were all members of the state controlled Artists’ Union, being on the state budget of the Soviet Ministry of Culture, producing Soviet art works in support of Soviet ideology, socialist realism, propaganda posters, etc. On the other hand, they took every opportunity to paint for themselves, i.e. painting themes and in styles they personally preferred. Working on genres such as landscape, cityscape and still-life was a manifestation of artists' independence from official ideology.

Many of these works of art were lost to the dust of artists' studios. Here we aim at showing both aspects of the artists’ works.

BEER WITH A SOCIALIST: The Schönramer brewery, by way of Birra Tirana and other lager breweries in Europe.

My intent today is to link you to an amazing article by Joe Stange about a brewery about which you've heard little located in the Bavarian countryside, and with an American expatriate brewer (!) who is crafting gorgeous traditional lagers (primarily Helles and Pils, but also a Festbier and Bock). I'll take my time getting there, so it you're the impatient sort, start scrolling.

In any event, the previously unknown Schönramer brewery has occupied a spot on my revised bucket list.

I've been fortunate to visit quite a few "classic" lager breweries during the course of 35 years Euro-wandering. Since the 1980s and early 1990s, obviously much has changed in the brewing business.

Classic is an elastic term. I mean breweries of the old school that hit it big brewing lagers in the 1800s. This isn't to dismiss smaller-scale operations like Schönramer, the Bamberg breweries and so many others.

Again and again, modernity has decreed that breweries of sufficient size, finding themselves folded into large cities, determine it is expeditious to (a) take advantage of skyrocketing property values by (b) giving up prime inner city real estate for adaptive reuse so as to (c) move increasingly automated beer factories into industrial zones in more rural areas. 

Ergo Heineken (Amsterdam) and Carlsberg (Copenhagen). I visited them prior to their moves. Tuborg, sister brewery to Carlsberg, fell victim to rationalization in the early 1990s; brewing went to Carlsberg and the acreage was redeveloped.

Pilsner Urquell and Budvar (both Czechia) and Dreher in Budapest remain where they've always been. I hope Eggenberg in Cesky Krumlov is still in business. It may have been the best quality lager of the lot.

No doubt the craziest of all probably was Birra Tirana in the capital city of Albania, 1994. Here's an extended excerpt from the Albania narrative.


Back in the Brewing Business in Tirana.

In contrast to the brewery at Korce, the plant dating from 1952 in Albania's capital city of Tirana is a utilitarian, white-tiled facility resembling a dairy more than a brewery. It was built with Soviet assistance, and looks it. Our ride from the port city of Durres to the brewery in Tirana took us past rustic villages, abandoned and dilapidated concrete irrigation channels, wandering herds of livestock, Albania's sparkling new Coca-Cola bottling plant, row after row of shabbby scialist tenements, and finally a vast lot where the burned-out remains of the city's Communist-era bus fleet reposed in blackened, skeletal lines.

At the time of our visit, the Tirana brewery hadn't yet been privatized, but it was working again. Typically, upon arriving at the gate we encountered reluctance at letting us enter. Eventually a wiry, chain-smoking worker with an impressive five o'clock shadow and darting, nervous eyes took an interest in us and went off in search of the plant director, who couldn't be found -- but by that time we were in, our guide Genci having persuaded someone to make a decision and let the foreigners come inside out of the blazing, midday sun.

Minutes later, we met the "lost" director in the hall, and he hastily grunted retroactive permission to enter, no doubt thanking his lucky stars that he no longer lived in a nation where such negligence might be rewarded with a trip to the eastern Albanian ore mines or the dungeon-like prisons of the citadel in Gjirokastra with its handy rooftop garden once used by firing squads, but now serving as a convenient point from which to survey the ancient hilltop town and surrounding mountains.

We were met by a diminutive, white-coated brewmaster who happily led us around the spartan, functional plant and answered questions through our interpreter. Like the older brewery in Korce, Tirana's brewery had ceased to function for quite some time. According to the employees, it closed because the former brewery bureaucrat had been paid off by entrepreneurs who were engaged in importing Macedonian Skopsko Pivo and who were intent on eliminating the local competition.

Only one style, a Czech-style pilsner, was being brewed at the time of our visit. Hops are purchased from Germany and barley from Italy. Yeast bought in Italy is being cultured in a so-called laboratory; some was foaming merrily in a kitchen-sink sized steel receptacle.

After 5 to 7 days of primary fermentation, the beer is pumped into the secondary tanks in the basement for 21 days of lagering at near-freezing temperatures. As we enjoyed the contrast in temperature between the frigid lagering cellar and the sunbaked streets outside, the brewmaster's assistant tapped off some two-week old, unfiltered Tirana's Best and proudly offered glasses to each of us. It was surprisingly tasty, and it was better than most of the Italian imports on sale in Albania.

Later, we sampled the filtered, bottled, final 11-degree product and noticed the lack of labels -- they haven't quite gotten to that yet, but they hope to soon. Appropriately, the beer is priced to sell below the lowest-priced imports; this is a sound strategy in a country as poor as Albania. On both sampling occasions, first in the cellar and then at the bottling line, we were joined in our tasting by the wiry, chain-smoking employee from the guard shack, who had accompanied us the entire route through the brewery.

As we surveyed the women from the bottling line, who were taking a break as the line was repaired, I spotted our guide discretely posted behind a machine, taking a final, furious drag on his smoke as he removed the cap from an unguarded bottle and drained most of it in one swallow. In my view, it was his well-deserved reward for being responsive to the visitors, and I thanked him for it.


Two lager links. First, from the UK.

Don’t like lager? Think again, by Melissa Cole (The Guardian)

Lager has a bad reputation, but there are so many varieties made under this ancient brewing method to delight in

Now the Schönramer story. I drooled just reading it.

Greatest Drinkability: The Bavarian Brewer's Art, by Joe Stange (Beer and Brewing)

In the foothills of the Alps, Schönramer Brewmaster Eric Toft is a tinkerer and fine-tuner of highly addictive lagers.

... There are now more than 1,500 breweries in Germany, and the Private Landbrauerei Schönram is not one of the big ones; it brews about 94,000 barrels a year. Meanwhile the village of Schönram has only about 380 residents. The brewery sells 90 percent of its beer within a 40-mile radius.

More than three-fourths of that is the same kind of beer: Schönramer Hell.

It’s a daily staple. If you lived there, you could have it brought to your house. “We self-distribute nearly everything,” says Brewmaster Eric Toft. “We have four trucks that do home delivery, like the milkman.” You don’t even need to be home. Leave a key with the driver and some euros on the table; they’ll make change, put beer down in the cellar, and take away the empties. See you next week.

Another illustration: The Schönramer brewery built the small church across the street in 1853, largely for its employees—including those at the maltings, now defunct—but also for all the locals who walked for miles to fill the brewery’s pub on Sundays. The priest received compensation in the form of beer—156 liters per month.

Today, in keeping with tradition, Schönramer’s 55 employees—like those of many other German breweries—get a monthly beer allotment in addition to their take-home pay. It’s not as much as it used to be. Today, they receive “only” 120 liters. That’s the equivalent of roughly 56 American 6-packs. Per month ...

Monday, April 06, 2020

I feel a rant coming on: No, national chain restaurant franchises are not local mom 'n' pop shops.

On more than one occasion the past week there have been reminders from the local owners of national chain restaurant franchises that they’re mom and pop shops, too.

Jeeebus, this gets tiring. For background see the charts above and below, and then allow me to pound the desktop for a moment.

Taco Bell, Burger King, Culver’s, McDonald's -- whichever, whatever -- are not chains, they yell, because they’re franchises, and because the franchises are locally owned they’re not chains at all, and therefore, this 1,298th location cut from the same template is no different from Aladdin or Lady Tron’s.

We're locals just like you indies! We're mom and pop!

By the same mangled logic, the 2009 Ford Fusion that I inherited from my mother, which I believe was manufactured in Sonora (Mexico), magically becomes a “local” New Albanian automobile because I drive and operate it locally ... and because of this, I can take credit for building it by hand.

Uh huh. Look, you substituted money for creativity and bought a fully developed restaurant designed and programmed by others. You cannot change the menu on whim by substituting Frito Bandito Hot Browns for Roadkill Chalupas, but you’re quite happy to reap the benefits from national saturation advertising and sponsorship campaigns of the sort almost never available to genuine indie innovators.

Yes, it’s true that you must have enough money to buy the franchise and sufficient moxie to run it, but I’m guessing that bankers are far more cooperative with proven franchise financing than start-ups from scratch, and of course the entire point of franchising is to adjust the risk factor downward compared with start-ups by applying the sheer weight of huge and bland pervasiveness.

Which the public adores, even those who ought to know better.

It's ever harder to discuss matters like this without unleashing f-bombs. Franchisees are almost as annoying as those wealthy kids born on third base, convinced they hit a triple. It’s more like paying the umpire for a base on balls, trotting to first, and claiming to have been hit in the face by a pitch.

And, as a side note, genuine independent local small business owners know exactly what being hit in the face by a pitch feels like; it's how we learn, daily, without a safety net extended lovingly by a multinational.

All in it together? In terms of the pandemic, yes. But as it pertains to this idiocy about franchises being local, no, not really. Think you might stop pretending?

BOOKS OF MY LIFE: Confederates in the Attic, and what it says about past versus future.

I’ve been a Civil War buff since childhood, but even so, the genre of battlefield reenactments always has puzzled me.

In his entertaining book, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (published in 1998), the late Tony Horwitz considers the Civil War’s numerous legacies, including the meticulous and obsessional efforts at authenticity on the part of those engaged in bringing 19th-century military campaigns back to life.

Horwitz describes one of the participants:

"One hardcore took this method acting to a bizarre extreme. His name was Robert Lee Hodge and the soldiers pointed him out as he ambled toward us. Hodge looked as though he'd stepped from a Civil War tintype: tall, rail thin, with a long pointed beard and a butternut uniform so frayed and filthy that it clung to his lank frame like rages to a scarecrow."

When I was much younger, I had the good fortune to visit more than a few of the Civil War battlefields -- Shiloh, Chickamauga, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, among others -- and these occasions always seemed appropriate for reflection about cataclysmic events in times long since passed. You’d think the vivid colors and immediacy of a battlefield reenactment would complete the scene, except that it never scratched the itch with me.

The very thought of reenactments being staged to observe every detail of conflict sans the indescribable pain and sure death borne of extreme human violence seems a sophomoric intrusion of sorts, something conflicting quite jarringly with any notions of sacrificial hallowed ground – assuming even these thoughts have any genuine merit in the first place.

Men and their machines come and go, but ideas live on, and perhaps it is because the reenactment genre misses this fundamental point about the power of ideas that I fail to grasp it. It’s the future that matters, as approached with accumulated experience gleaned from the past’s examples. The future is why any of us bother getting out of bed in the morning. The past is gone, and the present is a figment of conceptual imagination, one entirely ephemeral.

Concurrently, yes, the precise details of how a 150-year-old cotton tunic was sewed together have their place, as do pageantry and spectacle, but re-animated hardtack and nighttime spooning (soldiers huddling for warmth) pale in comparison to the sad fact that in the year 2020, roughly half the American populace -- generally the paler-hued ones -- seems to have willfully forgotten what the Civil War was all about, hence the word “unfinished” in the title of Horwitz’s book, itself 22 years old.

In a thoughtful 2013 essay, Horwitz suggesteds "the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is too narrow a lens through which to view the conflict."

150 Years of Misunderstanding the Civil War, by Tony Horwitz (The Atlantic)

... It's hard to argue with the Gettysburg Address. But in recent years, historians have rubbed much of the luster from the Civil War and questioned its sanctification. Should we consecrate a war that killed and maimed over a million Americans? Or should we question, as many have in recent conflicts, whether this was really a war of necessity that justified its appalling costs?

Convincing these people that certain foundational issues pertaining to human rights were resolved long before the advent of the internal combustion engine probably ranks as more important than reenacting battles, assuming there is a future without a further round of secession.

Acting out uniformed history? Fine.

Knowing what history is trying to tell us? Priceless.


The preceding was written on October 31, 2013, and I touched it up a tad to reappear six and a half years later. Confederates in the Attic is a fine book, and I recommend it heartily. It has been a while since I read it, but I'm confident the subject matter remains relevant. 

In 2013, my aim was to relate the book to a situation in our own city, this being the New Albany Bicentennial celebration of 2012-2013. Current city council president Bob Caesar was in charge of the Bicentennial. Six and a half years later, the public has not seen the financial records documenting these events. In response to public access requests, the city denied possessing them. Caesar once suggested they were in his possession, although nothing came of this. 

Here's the second half of my 2013 Confederates in the Attic digression. Ironically, the attic probably is where those records reside to this very day. 


Such is the critical error committed repeatedly during the past year by the cadre of well-intentioned, history-loving New Albanians who were brought together to contribute planning for this year’s Bicentennial celebration – an event that shouldn’t be occurring until 2017, anyway, since that’s when the city was incorporated … sorry, I digress.

The customary guiding lights have hoarded the process and tried to imbue the celebration with symbolism of their choosing, and yet the enduring difficulty with symbolism is the variability of the symbols themselves. They mutate incessantly, depending on one’s perspective and general vantage point.

Do you remember the centerpiece of the grand American bicentennial in 1976, when the old, tall, “masts from the past” sailing ships came into the harbor at New York?

It was a wonderful and epochal party, redolent with symbolism – flags, patriotism and Americana. The newspaper accounts agreed, but the late Randy Shilts, author of And the Band Played On, saw something else. To Shilts, the occasion of July 4, 1976, might well have been the point when Patient Zero kicked off the worldwide AIDS epidemic (this supposition has been disproved, by the way).

Wooden ships were on the water, and the future was pounding on the door. It is quite possible that owing to Ronald Reagan’s backward-looking obsession, we took far too long reacting to the scary reaper out on the stoop.

And so it is that from the very start, New Albany’s bicentennial program template was locked into a pattern so utterly predictable that Year Zero itself has been a massive yawner of an anti-climax.

Opposing ideas have not only been dismissed; they’ve been actively resisted, and it’s both sad and infuriating to contemplate the extent of an opportunity wasted. Apart from the solitary tangible gain of an over-priced, generically designed public area, variously known as Somnolent Estates, Rent Boy Park and Caesar’s Folly (the “official” designation is Bicentennial Park), we’ve been given a carpetbagger writer’s coffee table book to remember our rare old times and what seems like 4,762 occasions to watch as the selected don period costumes, dance the minuet, and recite the enumerated hagiography of the historic preservation code -- cookie-cutter events priced primarily to recoup the book’s lamentable costs.

It’s all safe, white-bread and oh-so-conservative, and fully appropriate for the buck-a-day extras at yet another Lewis & Clark expedition commemorative film, but it remains that the problem with making our bicentennial entirely about the city’s past, and not in any discernible way at all about our future, is that the situation begs a rather embarrassing question.

Why were our urban forefathers adept at city building for the times to come, but their modern-day ancestors are able to muster little more in terms of achievement than decay management?

You're thinking: Haven’t we come a long way during the past few years?

(We have. But what about the three decades before that?)

Downtown is revitalizing, isn’t it?

(If eating and drinking’s your thing, yes it is. If retail gains, residential enhancement, community engagement and two-way, calmed and completed streets interest you, then welcome to our default condition of perpetually self-flagellating stasis)

But Roger, don’t I look marvy dressed up as a Scribner?

(You needn’t ask me. I’ll be sober in the morning, but we’ll collectively experience this bicentennial hangover for the rest of our lives. You might direct your inquiry to that child slouching over there, assuming he’ll relinquish his iPhone)

And so, the safe and genteel rewriting wrought by the Coup d’Geriatrique winds its way toward the inevitable reenactment of New Year’s Eve, 1893, when a slew of white folks gathered somewhere amid Benedictine sandwiches and non-alcoholic cider, and chatted amiably about keeping the lower classes firmly in their place.

In the vacant lot where daughters once were paired and insider trading schemes consummated, the future is now. An empty liquor bottle meets pavement, drivers ignore pedestrians, and Farmers Market expansion plans are recycled by the same-way-every-single-time design suspects as Big Gulp cups flutter to the pavement.

Somewhere in the city, a dog barks.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

HISTORY: Yuri Slezkine's The House of Government and the making of the Soviet ruling class.

It's been a year and a half since I read The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, by Yuri Slezkine, described by its publisher as "the epic story of an enormous apartment building where Communist true believers lived before their destruction.” I found it interesting, indeed, and it inspired an educational digression about various palaces (see below).

Yesterday out of nowhere came a lengthy essay at Jacobin about Slezkine's book ("The Making of the Soviet Ruling Class"), written by Kevin Murphy: "(He) teaches Russian history at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory won the 2005 Deutscher Memorial Prize."

This essay isn't for everyone, but if you're interested in early Soviet history, it's informative.

A Flawed Masterwork

The House of Government is the most contradictory, eclectic study of the Russian Revolution ever published. Brilliant, captivating, and often heart-wrenching, in many ways it is social history at its very best. Some of Yuri Slezkine’s harshest academic critics, who have only published obscure dust-collecting volumes, should realize that nothing comparable has been published in half a century. Slezkine should be commended for dedicating so many years of his life to producing an indispensable read for every serious student of the Russian Revolution.

But we also need to be honest about its flaws. The House of Government is a conceptual dumpster fire, framing what could easily have been an epic masterpiece into a predictable story that we’ve heard so many times before by putting forward a “continuity” thesis that relies upon a plethora of factual errors and omissions. Readers who can tune out the often exasperating analysis and treat it as unfortunate background noise will enjoy the ride.

Murphy uses a word we don't see every day.

As a prosopographical study of how an important part of the party apparatus converted itself into a new ruling class, The House of Government fills a huge gap in the history of Stalinism, even if the author himself doesn’t view it in such terms.

Prosopography defined: "A description of a person's social and family connections, career, etc., or a collection of such descriptions."

Slezkine's book and Murphy's essay both make for heavy reading, but I'm glad I did. There'll never be a time like that again ... will there?


I suppose we'll have to settle for ... bottom left.

May 8, 2018

Time does not fly when you're reading cornerstone-sized tomes, but in the middle of Week Seven, there's light at the end of a humongous arched entryway in the building ostensibly being profiled: The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, by Yuri Slezkine.

Sorry, CM Barksdale: the book's about the people living in the colossal structure, not the bricks and mortar itself. In 1931, at roughly the same time this building was completed, the church down the way was demolished to make way for progress, Stalinist-style.

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

 ... The original church, built during the 19th century, took more than 40 years to build, and was the scene of the 1882 world premiere of the 1812 Overture composed by Tchaikovsky. It was destroyed in 1931 on the order of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The demolition was supposed to make way for a colossal Palace of the Soviets to house the country's legislature, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Construction started in 1937 but was halted in 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union during World War II. Its steel frame was disassembled the following year, and the Palace was never built.

It never happened, and it was left to the Genius of the Carpathians, ill-fated Romanian despot Nicolae Ceaușescu, to erect the biggest damn Commie building of all -- not cloud-piercing skyscraper, but the Palace of the Parliament (formerly House of the Republic).

Stalin may not have gotten his Soviet palace, but Ceaușescu got his, good and hard after a show trial (template: Koba).

Why Joseph Stalin Never Got His Soviet Palace, by William O'Connor (The Daily Beast)

... The final designs for the palace were terrifying. The structure was a pyramidal skyscraper made up of seven ascending concentric cylinders. Each of those hulking cylinders was to “be decorated with allegorical sculptures of heroes of the Soviet epoch.”

Crowning this monstrosity was no less than a 328-foot statue of the deceased Vladimir Lenin.

Work on the Palace began in 1938, with the government spending roughly $18.9 million to get it started. The Soviets declared that it would open on Nov. 7, 1942, the 25th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, leading even The New York Times to snicker and write, “The building cannot possibly be completed by that date.”

The base of the building was to be 460 feet in diameter. It would be filled with offices, museums, restaurants, and a main hall with a capacity of 20,000.

It was also to have 148 elevators and 62 escalators. According to Time there would also be a library with 500,000 books.

The base was to be made of marble and granite, the rest of the building clad in a purple-red tufa (a type of limestone) from the Caucasus, and the statue would be made of aluminum or chrome steel.

Due to its height up in the clouds, engineers “estimated that on only ninety days out of the year will the head of the Lenin statue be clearly visible from the ground.”

The foundations were completed and the steel frame for the lower levels put in place, but alas, WWII got in the way. In 1942 the steel frame was dismantled to provide steel for the Red Army and more urgent infrastructure projects.

As a point of comparison, note that a 328-foot tall statue of Jeff Gahan would be taller than Riverview Tower, which is merely ≈ 190 feet.

LIVE TO EAT: Randy Smith offers "a grass-roots campaign to support and sustain local eateries."

It's an excellent strategy for helping your favorite eateries without jumping through hoops. Just invest in your future meals by helping them pay the light bills now.

Thanks to Randy for contributing this idea. Have you purchased gift cards from your favorite independent local businesses? Tell me about it.


To the Editors:

Hi, guys. My spouse and I, as we've aged, are eating out less frequently. Part of that is a habit of healthy eating, but, frankly, my own business had never really contributed much to our household income.

We've also ramped up our travel via vacations, taking about 2 week-long vacations each year and a few long weekends. Necessarily, that boosts the number of occasions where we eat out. Someday I hope to share our favorite out-of-town dining experiences with you. We've had some great ones in Virginia, Ohio, Tennessee, Mississippi, Florida, West Virginia, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

At root, though, we have a few local independent restaurants we love.

I wanted to talk to you about a grass-roots campaign to support and sustain local eateries. Yes, there are other such campaigns. But independent restaurants are "independent" and rarely are willing to ask for help.

Can't we who aren't struggling right now throw a few bucks to them?

Here's my proposal. Pick your 3 favorite independent restaurants. Call them and buy a gift certificate of $25, $50, $75, or $100.

Maybe you order takeout, too, but the pure cash infusion now in exchange for sustaining those restaurants into the future seems to me to be an invaluable investment.

Three of our favorites have suspended operations until further notice, and I regret that I can't invest in their futures right now. But those who are hanging in right now can use our help. And those other three will value our patronage when they return to "normality."

We are investing $75 each in Aladdin's Cafe on Bank Street, and Israel's Delicias de Mexico Gourmet on Market Street.

We stand ready to do the same for Cups and Cones on Vincennes Street, Hing Wang on Spring Street, and New Albanian on Plaza Drive. If you know how we can do that, let us know.

These are our favorites. You'll have your own. Pick three of them and invest in their futures. After all, they are one of the biggest contributors to our quality of life in New Albany.

Randy Smith, formerly of Destinations Booksellers, et al.

Saturday, April 04, 2020

One of four $10,000 LEE Initiative “Grants for Good” is awarded to Pints&union to support restaurant workers relief efforts in SoIN.

Things started getting just a wee bit crazy on Thursday and Friday, and I trust this will help to explain it. I've tried to keep "official" pub communications separate from this blog and my own social media presence, but these are exceptional times and I want to push the news as far as possible.

Pints&union web site (from expedience, I'm using the beer blog at the web site as non-beer communications outreach)
Pints&union Facebook 
Pints&union Instagram

Here's the scoop.


Three weeks ago, Chef Edward Lee’s 610 Magnolia restaurant in Louisville KY was turned into a relief center for restaurant workers who’d been laid off or experienced a significant reduction in hours and/or pay because of the COVID-19 crisis.

Virtually overnight the LEE Initiative’s team (Lee, Lindsey Ofcacek, Collis Hillebrand and Kaitlyn Soligan) repurposed the organization to launch the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, providing food, supplies and assistance for restaurant workers in need. Just as quickly, it became a prototype for all of America.

Thanks to overwhelming community support, an anonymous private donor, and the continued generosity of Maker’s Mark, the LEE Initiative almost immediately was able to expand the Restaurant Workers Relief Program to 15 locations nationwide.

Restaurants across the country now are providing to-go meals, groceries, diapers and other essentials to those who need them.

Now, with support from Maker’s Mark, the LEE Initiative has awarded $10,000 grants to four like-minded organizations around the country.

The organizations receiving these grants were selected based on the positive work they’re already doing to support the restaurant industry during COVID-19.

Pints&union in New Albany (Joe Phillips, owner) is humbled to be one of the grant’s recipients, and the only one located in the state of Indiana.

The other three recipients are: Kelly English of Memphis TN (Fino’s Italian Deli); JJ Johnson of New York City (Fieldtrip Harlem restaurant); and Erik Bruner Yang of Washington D.C. (Power of 10 Initiative).

Prior to receiving this grant, Joe immediately pivoted Pints&union to do what’s possible to help people during the COVID-19 situation.

In addition to offering regular carryout/curbside to our customers (which we’ll continue to do), we’ve donated take and bake family meals and distributed groceries to service industry workers, single parents and local non-profits, including Rauch Inc., which provides services to people with disabilities.

Beginning Wednesday, April 8th, Pints&union will offer drive-through grocery service for restaurant workers from 5:00 p.m. - 8:30 p.m. on the alley side of our building. Restaurant workers must have their IDs and paycheck stubs as proof of employment.

We’re a small pub and intend to begin the campaign with five-days-a-week relief (Tuesday through Saturday) to start, aiming for seven later if it’s possible.

Note: Curbside carryout service will continue at the front of the building.

Inventory will change weekly or daily as donations arrive and are distributed. Times may vary depending on need and will be posted.

Take away meals are first come, first served and will consist of frozen soups, breads, pickled vegetables and the like. Extending the shelf life of donations and helping the food supply chain minimize waste are our chief goals. We’ll have life essentials on hand as well for those in need (limited supply). All variables are subject to change and we’ll keep everyone posted at Facebook and Instagram.

It must be stressed that the LEE Initiative’s grant is intended to serve as seed money. We need you to donate whatever you can, in cash or in kind, to help keep our relief efforts moving forward.

Go to:

Select campaign: Restaurant Workers Relief Fund

Select amount: ($)

Go to this tab: “Are you funding a chef's grant program?”

Select: Joe Phillips RELIEF

Or, send us an e-mail at pints&, and let’s get the conversation started. Thanks for your patronage and donations. We’ll continue to help for so long as help is needed.

"COVID-19 and the “just-in-time” supply chain" ... um, which "ism" is it?


Serendipity is the motive force in life, and I knew there was a reason why I've held onto this roll of East German toilet paper since 1989. Just in the nick of time, too.

Meanwhile, for everyone out there equating empty (sections of) store shelves, depleted masks and missing ventilators with socialism, communism or other "isms" of which accurate definitions are lamentably lacking, have a nice read.

Spoiler alert: It's about capitalism, not those pesky other-isms. 

COVID-19 and the “Just-in-Time” Supply Chain: Why Hospitals Ran Out of Ventilators and Grocery Stores Ran Out of Toilet Paper, by Louis Proyect (CounterPunch)

On March 25th, N.Y. Times op-ed columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote about “How the World’s Richest Country Ran Out of a 75-Cent Face Mask.” The subtitle certainly went against the grain of what you’d read from a page dominated by Thomas Friedman: “A very American story about capitalism consuming our national preparedness and resiliency.”

Manjoo identified just one of many failures of the Trump administration to be prepared for the epidemic. Alex Azar, the HHS Secretary had testified that there were only about 40 million masks in our domestic stockpiles, around 1 percent of what would be required. Like much else, mask manufacturing had migrated to China in the same way as all other textile industries had long ago.

Manjoo put this into context:

Hospitals began to run out of masks for the same reason that supermarkets ran out of toilet paper — because their “just-in-time” supply chains, which call for holding as little inventory as possible to meet demand, are built to optimize efficiency, not resiliency.

I remember first hearing about just-in-time inventory techniques in the 1990s in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR. Just-in-time was also called “lean manufacturing” or “stockless production.” Management gurus saw it as a way to eliminate waste and continuously boost productivity ...

Friday, April 03, 2020

BEER WITH A SOCIALIST: Prohibitionists see an opportunity amid COVID-19's onslaught.

But riots would violate social distancing, right?

Beer writer Andy Crouch, who is from Massachusetts:

"Liquor stores are filling growlers out of kegs in the back of a truck in customers' driveways. There are no liquor laws anymore. How we go back to "normal" after all of this is beyond me."

Here in Indiana, watching as dozens of alcoholic beverage laws vanish (temporarily) overnight has been like watching the Warsaw Pact crumble in 1989. The Indy Star explains, focusing on a key point.

Indiana, once a last bastion of blue laws, considers alcohol sales 'essential', by Chris Sikich (Indianapolis Star)

Political watchers say it's unlikely anyone had to make pleas to the governor, or at least plead very hard. Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, said there would be civil unrest if the government had tried to outlaw alcohol when everyone was stuck at home.

"He's doing something that both meets demand and doesn't create a new problem," Downs said.

He said (Eric) Holcomb's likely chain of thought was quite logical.

"Grocery stores are open and would have continued to sell alcohol," Downs said. "So that means liquor stores had to be an essential service too (to ensure an even playing field). And if we're trying to make sure that restaurants can survive, that means people who order food for carryout absolutely should be able to get their booze there rather than create more risk by travelling elsewhere."

According to a high-powered medical authority, it isn't so simple. Peter P. Bach says that continuing to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages during the pandemic, when people are compelled to stay at home with their loved ones, only enhances domestic violence.

Consequently, a new reason for prohibitionism.

Ban alcohol sales during the pandemic, by Peter B. Bach (Boston Globe)

Domestic violence appears to be rising and states need to shut down liquor stores until home isolation is no longer needed.

Millions are beaten and injured annually in the United States by drunken domestic partners and parents, and that is when times are good. With the economy tanking and families locked together because of stay-at-home orders to combat the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, domestic violence rates appear to be soaring. This requires an urgent response: States should immediately order the closures of liquor stores. They can reopen when home isolation is no longer needed.

And yet this: "Most adults drink rarely or not at all. Just 10 percent of adults account for 75 percent of all alcohol sold, consuming 10 or more drinks per day."

No question that confinement of families, sudden demands to oversee home schooling, precipitous job loss, and worry over an invisible viral predator are the ingredients of a toxic domestic brew. But alcohol is what turns it into a second invisible public health crisis.

Most adults drink rarely or not at all. Just 10 percent of adults account for 75 percent of all alcohol sold, consuming 10 or more drinks per day. That kind of excessive use impairs judgment, engenders anger agitation and dysphoria, and can lead to violent behavior.

Reducing access to alcohol during the crisis will reduce the frequency of home violence. Finland’s liquor store employee strike in the 1970s as well as Sweden’s curtailment of liquor store sales on certain days in the 1980s, both had that effect. South Dakota imposed twice daily sobriety breathalyzer checks for individuals with multiple arrests for drunk driving last decade. That worked too. Not only did drunk driving rates fall, but so did calls for domestic violence — both by about 10 percent.

These data could support curtailing liquor sales at any time, and reducing domestic violence was one of the motivations for the temperance movement a century ago. But our response to the coronavirus pandemic itself is what makes this move appropriate now and for the duration of home isolation, as the isolation frustrates an array of safeguards we have in place to identify domestic abuse in the first place.

The reasoning leads to a predictable place: "These data could support curtailing liquor sales at any time, and reducing domestic violence was one of the motivations for the temperance movement a century ago."

And, we recall how the temperance movement a century ago played out, eh?


One thing's for sure: There couldn't be any better time to be an agoraphobiac than a period defined by social distancing.

In other news, this week Mayor Jeff Gahan redefined the terms of pandemic-era engagement for the city's parks department, and also campaigned for masking.

And this:

After meeting with himself by fax, Gahan suspends curbside street sweeping until further notice.

ASK THE BORED (IN EXILE): It appears that street sweeping is suspended through April 7, although it should be eliminated altogether.

Having granted the mayor's request for wide-ranging emergency powers, city council finds itself mostly, well, dismissed. At least one council member finds this situation disconcerting. Take it away, Josh Turner (5th district).


In regards to the city council meeting being cancelled this upcoming Monday.

While I acknowledge the authority of New Albany City Council President Bob Caesar to cancel the council meeting that was scheduled for next Monday, I respectfully disagree with his decision and worry about the precedent it may set.

Thanks to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s executive order, we can meet electronically (as we did on the 27th), and, in the interest of transparency and accountability, we should take advantage of that ability.

As a result of Mr. Caesar’s decision to cancel, the third reading of the ordinance to appropriate riverboat funds to Catalyst Rescue Mission will be delayed. Mr. Caesar may not consider providing for homeless people to be essential business, but I do. Under the circumstances, I believe it is critical to the public health of not only our city, but to the public health of the entire the region. The pandemic has created significant, unforeseen expenses. Catalyst is on the front lines of the pandemic, helping some of the most vulnerable people in our community. 

Among other expenses, they have rented tents so they can separate their population according to health department guidelines. They are doing everything they can to help flatten the curve, and supporting their efforts should be a council priority.

For the next regularly scheduled council meeting, on April 16, I have requested that the following ESSENTIAL items be placed on the agenda.

1. I would like to have both the police and fire chiefs present to:

  • a. Give a report to the council about their department’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including any impact on their budget.
  • b. Detail plans for ensuring the ongoing readiness of both departments and for protecting the health and safety of officers and firefighters. My concern stems in part from what is happening in Indianapolis.
  • c. Answer questions from the council.

2. I would like to have the controller present to provide a report on the budget implications of the pandemic, including additional costs and anticipated revenue issues. Evansville just cut its budget by $2.8 million, and we need to understand where we are and start planning appropriately. In addition, I would like for the controller to answer questions from the council.