Just Jake

Jake Highton is a journalism professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno. He teaches media law, history of journalism and advanced reporting. Highton is the author of numerous books, including "Nevada Newspaper Days." He writes a weekly column for the Daily Sparks Tribune.

Location: United States

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Yuletide magic through recordings

De gustibus non est disputandum.
We all have our likes and dislikes, our passions and hatreds. I like jazz but two highly intelligent people I know dislike it. I hate organ music, probably because it reminds me of my upbringing in the Lutheran Church.
But I learned long ago at garage sales that one man’s trash is another’s treasure. With that caveat, I present my favorite Yuletide recordings.
They are: “The Nutcracker” by Tchaikovsky; “Christmas in France” by the Little Singers of Versailles; and the “Messiah” by Handel.
Yes, I know. “The Nutcracker” has become a horrible musical cliché at Christmas. But to me it is still magical, either listening to recordings or seeing the ballet.
Little Clara and her brother Fritz peer through a keyhole to watch a fairy tale unfold. The wizard Drosselmeyer produces three enormous boxes to begin the magic show.
The storyline is familiar. Clara adores the nutcracker but is terrified by the seven-headed Mouse King…The nutcracker turns into a handsome prince. Clara and the nutcracker sail away and live happily ever after.
Throughout we hear the wonderful Tchaikovsky music with its succession of dances: “The Sugar Plum Fairies,” the “Snowflake Waltz,” the “Waltz of the Flowers,” “Arabian,” “Polonaise” and “Galop.”
There is no mystery why it has become such a Christmas staple. Children love its fantasy, its expression of the wonder and joy of Christmas.
I can still see in my mind’s eye Valerie, my six-year-old daughter, awakening me too early one Christmas morning. She was trembling with excitement and anticipation before opening her presents.
And I can still see another daughter, Vicki, nearly two, looking over a balcony, staring with open-mouthed surprise at a Christmas tree.
But we love children at any season.
Longfellow expressed that love in a poem, “The Children’s Hour.” An “old mustache” of a father is in his study when he is assaulted with love by his three daughters, “blue-eyed banditti.”
They devour him with kisses. But he is a match for them, holding them fast in his “fortress” and putting them down “into the dungeon in the round-tower of his heart.”
Purity of Children

The traditional Christmas carols have long since left me indifferent, sung by dreary rote after dreary rote each December. But the child singers of “Christmas in France” offer a remedy, singing 12 wonderful Yule songs in French.
Their voices ring out with the purity of childhood innocence. It is as if I am hearing them sing in a centuries old cloister somewhere in France.
I find the singing moving, the essence of Christmas: “Il est né le divine enfant” (the divine child is born). And Bizet’s “L’Arlésienne Suite” with its majestic opening: “Ce matin j’ai rencontré… (This morning I met…).
Glorious ‘Messiah’
A Reno Unitarian friend, knowing I was the village atheist, once asked me incredulously how I could stomach church music such as the oratorio “Messiah.”
“Because it is great music,” I replied. “It is simply magnificent.”
And so it is. I love its ringing joy, its driving score, its power, its affirmation. And, at the risk of sacrilege, its sometimes toe-tapping rhythms.
One of the greatest musical moments in my life occurred in London in 1985: a performance of “Messiah” in the 5,300-seat Royal Albert Hall.
The chorus: an incredible 400. The singing emotional and powerful. I was glowing for days afterward.
But I can see why my Unitarian friend was put off by the work: the words are straight out of the Bible.
“And the Glory of the Lord”…“For unto us a child is born”… “Glory to God in the highest”…“All we, like sheep, have gone astray”…“Why do the nations so furiously rage?”…“Lead my sheep”… “The trumpet shall sound”…“O death, where is they sting?”… “Worthy is the Lamb”…“Blessing and honor”…“Amen.”
And the incomparable “Hallelujah.”
No matter how many times “Messiah” has been sung and how many ages hence it will be sung, it will never be a chestnut. It had its première in Dublin in 1742. It will be sung at Christmas until Doomsday.
Like the great music of Beethoven, “Messiah” can never be tiresome if is performed well, if it is sung with the zest and loftiness worthy of the grand music it is.
Anyone who cannot appreciate “Messiah” cannot have a soul.

Monday, December 22, 2008

3 great Christmas stories

Students at the University of Nevada, Reno, have often found me forbidding and intimidating. It’s as if I were one of those newspaper city editors of yesteryear who were crusty, gruff and brusque.
One such city editor a century ago was Charles Chapin of the New York Evening World. Chapin boasted that he had fired 108 men, including the son of the great Joseph Pulitzer.
Chaplin was so hated in the newsroom that when he called in sick one day reporter Irvin Cobb remarked: “Let us hope it’s nothing trivial.”
So, no, I am hardly a Chapin throwback. What few UNR students know is that beneath my demanding, driving, hard-shell exterior is a guy who is all mush.
I wax particularly sentimental at the Yuletide, rereadng my three favorite Christmas stories: the beginning of Luke 2, the beginning of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens and H.L. Mencken’s “Christmas Story.”
Luke 2 is not my favorite biblical passage. John 8: 3-13 is. Those verses from John sum up the essence of Christ.
John relates how the scribes and pharisees brought to him a woman taken “in the very act” of adultery. They ask Jesus if she should be stoned to death according to the law commanded by Moses.
”He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,“ Jesus replied. The accusers, “convicted by their own conscience,” disappeared one by one.
(Read the King James Version published in 1611. It is literature. Modern translations may be more understandable sometimes and more accurate sometimes, but they lack the poetry, the majesty of the KJV.)
Luke 2: 1-20 is a marvelous account of the birth of Jesus. Mary is “great with child” not the prosaic pregnant. And then: “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Next: the Dickens classic. One-half of one of my book shelves is taken up by his novels and stories. The book with “A Christmas Carol” is discolored at the bottom of the spine from decades of being pulled from the shelf.
The opening delights me as often as I have read it.
Scrooge is “solitary as an oyster”… “No beggers implore him to bestow a trifle”…Christmas? “ ‘Bah!’ said Scrooge. ‘Humbug!’ ” He declares that every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”
When his nephew wishes him a Merry Christmas, Scrooge replies: “What right do you have to be merry?…You’re poor enough.”
When two visitors ask for a donation for the poor, Scrooge replies “Nothing.” Then he cruelly adds that if some people would prefer to die rather than go to rest homes “they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”
Finally, “Scrooge took his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern.” Old, alone, bitter.
Next: the Mencken story. Mencken was vitrolic, acerbic, caustic, mocking, mordant, sardonic and iconoclastic.
He snarled about the “the swinish multitudes.” He declared that “One horse laugh is worth a thousand syllogisms.” He said “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” He called Americans an “ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers” who “live in a land of abounding quackeries.”
HLM was the great crusader against nonsense, a disturber of the peace. He hooted at the absurdities of boobus Americanus. It sometimes seemed that nothing pleased him. But Christmas did.
Mencken reveals a tender side in his wonderful Christmas tale. It is quintessential HLM but with a twist, a classic story that few know about except Menckenoids
“Christmas Story,” first printed in The New Yorker in 1944 and published by Knopf in 1946, is gentle with its irony.
Fred Ammermeyer, a flaming infidel who sends the clergy of Baltimore a copy of “The Age of Reason,” is determined that the waterfront derelicts will celebrate Christmas without any of the usual holy roller calls for repentance.
But the bums, reverting to mission piety after several rounds of beer, begin singing Christian hymns: “Throw Out the Lifeline,” “Where Shall We Spend Eternity” and “Wash Me and I Shall be Be Whiter Than Snow.”
This was too much for the police lieutenant who wanted no part of salvation piety. He slouched off from the party scene in disgust.
He complained later to a friend: “Well, what could you expect from a bunch of bums? They have been eating mission handouts so long they can’t help it…Think of all that good food wasted! And all that beer! And all those cigars!”

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Senate disgraces itself--again

The U.S. Senate is clubby, an exclusive inner group that salutes its own senators even if despicable. So it was hardly surprising that it recently gave a lachrymose farewell to Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska.
Nevertheless, to honor a man convicted of seven felony counts, including illegally concealing gifts, is beyond the pale for even that often ignominious body.
A letter writer to the San Francisco Chronicle put it perfectly: “A body of elected officials so blinkered by ‘collegial’ loyalty that it offers damp-eyed kudos to a greedy, corrupt old thug like Stevens on his way to jail has a serious ethical deficit.”
Sad to say, this shabby performance was directed by Nevada’s Sen. Harry Reid, majority leader, who called Stevens a lion of the Senate.
Another senator, John McCain of Arizona, has neither ethical principles nor a sense of decency.
During a Georgia campaign for the Senate in 2002, McCain called Saxbe Chambliss disgraceful and reprehensible for maligning Sen. Max Cleland, Vetnam vet and triple amputee.
Now, six years later, McCain goes to Georgia to hail and endorse the disgraceful and reprehensible Senator Chambliss in his runoff election against Jim Martin.
The Senate has too many lowlifes like Chambliss and McCain.
Term limits fade
Term limits, which roused the vox populi a decade ago, seems to have run its course--fortunately.
It never was a good idea to impose limit terms on elected officals. Like so many supposed reforms, term limits was no reform at all.
They robbed citizens of too many good public officials with their knowledge and experience. Voters can always “term-limit the bums” at the polls.
Hail Krugman
Economists, like lawyers and judges, are some of the most conservative professionals in America. So it was amazing that the liberal Paul Krugman of the New York Times this year won the Nobel Prize in economics.
Krugman’s column sparkles amid the op-edit pages of America riddled with middle-of-the-roaders and conservatives. Paul Samuelson, another economics Nobelist, calls Krugman “the only columnist in the United States who has had it right on almost every count from the beginning.”
Damned cellphones
Walking across the University of Nevada, Reno, campus recently, I passed four students in a row with cellphones clamped to their ears. Driving home a few days later, I passed a guy riding no-hands on his bicycle, two dogs on a leash held in one hand and a cellphone held in the other.
Detestable. Cellphones have become my bête noire. They indicate hollow minds.
Football playoff
Hey, Barack Obama is going to be a great president! His first sports decision as president-elect is a call for college football playoffs to decide the national champion.
Oh, I hear the howls of the purists. That football has no business being played in colleges. That the season is already too long.
All too true. But sports is a reality, a big business. Championships should be decided on the field, not on paper.
Manny Ramirez, who forced the Boston Red Sox to trade him to the Los Angeles Dodgers last summer, is a fine batsman but a disgusting human being.
Tim McCarver, Fox broadcaster, observed: “Some of the things he did were simply despicable, like not playing, refusing to play and forgetting what knee to limp on.”
Civilized minority
The Sparks Tribune may be the freest newspaper in America. It prints my radical views that no other newspaper would. Indeed, my leftist positions may be too extreme for even left-wing magazines like The Nation and The Progressive.
Even the editor of the Trib, Nathan Orme, has had doubts about my column. He sent me an email a couple months ago wondering if I could write about “something that does not disgrace America.”
Doubtless he was being facetious. To his great credit he never censors anything I write.
I am like Iago who says in “Othello”: “For I am nothing if not critical.” I do not find much right with America. Governments, politicians, institutions, society and mores are all wanting.
So I make no apology for my views. It is my nature. I burn fiercely at injustice. As Martin Luther said at the Diet of Worms in 1521: “Here I stand. I can do no other.”
I write to please myself, not to please anyone else. Above all, like H.L. Mencken, I write for a civilized minority. Writer James Farrell explained what he meant:
“Those who believe in and are interested in ideas and the play of the mind. Those whose taste is for books in which you find truth.”

Saturday, December 06, 2008

On the last frontier: atheism

A woman friend once asked me: “What do you care if you tell a lie? You’re an atheist.”
The question and the statement reveal a gross misunderstanding of atheism and atheists.
Atheists are moral, ethical, humane, good and decent. It is simply that they need no god to tell them to be so.
Even John Locke, the great 18th century British philosopher whose political theory influenced the American Founders, said “atheists must not be tolerated.”
Such thinking still prevails today in America, one of the most Christians nations in the world.
Atheism is one of the last barriers to political office. Many voters believe that atheists are immoral. A Gallup-USA Today poll recently showed 53 percent would not vote for an atheist.
The nadir of atheist hatred was reached by state Rep. Monique Davis of Kentucky earlier this year. She railed against atheism: “This is the land of Lincoln where people believe in God…It’s dangerous for our children to even know that atheism exists! We believe in something. Atheists believe in destroying!”
Disregard the ravings of a maniacal cretin. But is it immoral to believe in cradle-to-grave socialism? Many atheists do.
Is it immoral to seek justice and fairness? Many atheists do.
Is is immoral to seek to improve the human condition in America and the world? Many atheists do.
Tom Krattenmaker, in a USA Today essay, wrote:
“Nonbelievers, who can be found all across the landscape engaging in acts of decency and battles for justice, are worthy citizens in a country whose Constitution imposes no religion and whose tradition cherishes freedom of choice in all matters religious.”
Atheists are far more tolerant, far more understanding of people and human nature than the so-called Christians who sang, preached and prayed at the Crossroads Bible Church in San Jose, Calif., before the recent election.
Their purpose: support for Proposition 8 placing a ban on gay marriage in the California Constitution.
A visiting preacher from Orlando, Fla., exhorted the Crossroads congregation: “Homosexual marriage is wrong. If we take sides, we must take the side of God.”
If God is for banning gay marriage I vigorously dissent. I favor the deep love, the deep happiness and the deep joy of same-sex couples marrying.
Sen. Diane Feinstein of California supports gay marriage. “I’ve seen the happiness of people, the stability that these commitments bring,” she said. “Many adopted children who would have ended up in foster care, now have solid homes. They are brought up learning right from wrong.”
Opposing love, happiness and joy is incomprehensible. Gay marriages are also made in heaven.
The San Francisco Chronicle ran a page one picture accompanying the Crossroads church story. It showed the host of a pro-Prop 8 rally praying at the Jubilee Christian Center in San Jose.
His hands were clasped, his head thrown back, his eyes closed in a fervid appeal to heaven. It was perfect picture of un-Christian primitiveness.
But even un-Christian Catholics and Mormons, far more sophisticated than the evangelicals, joined the coalition supporting the ban. Un-Christian Episcopalians have just split from the main body of the church for ordaining a gay bishop and blessing gay unions.
Surely Christian charity, now called love in modern translations of the Bible, should be extended to homosexuals.
And how about the Vatican opposition to women priests? Surely that too is un-Christian.
The Vatican notified a priest that he will be excommunicated for participating in an ordination ceremony for a woman priest. The Rev. Roy Bourgeois, who has been in the Maryknoll religious order for 36 years, was anguished by the edict.
But he rightly asked: “Who are we as men to say that we are called by God to the ministry of the priesthood but women are not? That our call is valid but theirs is not?”
Good questions, questions for which the church has the lame defense of dogma. Dogma is a bad reason for anything.
Pope John Paul II reiterated the church’s stance in 1994. He said that because Jesus chose only male apostles “the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on a woman.”
That “authority” is two millennia old. It has long since lost any validity. But the church clings to the past, refusing to accept 21st century reality.
More “authority.” Ultra-Orthodox Jews do not tolerate women singing publicly!
No wonder Sam Harris in his book, “The End of Faith,” declares that religious faith is “the one species of human ignorance that will not admit even the possibility of error.”
Atheists are often more Christian than Christians.