Category Archives: Essays

Coming Back Around

“Golden State Killer” suspect Joseph James DeAngelo in a Sacramento court room on April 27, 2018.

“Yeah, I’ve heard that before,” muttered my coworker, Darrin*, with a dismissive eye roll and an exaggerated sigh.

“It’s true!” I insisted.  “What goes around comes around!”  I provided a number of examples of what I believed were people experiencing hellacious bouts of bad karma because of what they had said or done in the past.  Some of the people I mentioned to him were relatives, friends and former colleagues.  “It may seem people get away with stuff,” I told my incredulous friend.  “But eventually, it comes back around to bite them in the ass and smack them upside the head.”

‘Do unto others what you would have them do unto you’ isn’t just some quixotic biblical phrase; it’s a natural factor of our universe; a vital forced that – like natural gas and radio waves – surrounds us silently, yet powerfully.  Overused and trite as it may seem, it’s real.

Presently, social and political conservatives across the U.S. are irritated at the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections.  Even President Donald Trump has dismissed it as a “witch hunt.”  But I’m quick to remind my conservative friends and relatives about the concerted attempts by Republicans 20 years ago to impeach Bill Clinton over his assignation with a White House intern.  The economy was more robust than it is now, and the unemployment rate was lower.  We weren’t involved in any foreign conflicts.  The American populace was excited about the upcoming millennium change.  But the self-righteous clowns of the GOP who considered Clinton’s off-duty sexual dalliances – even before he got elected – paramount to the country’s global image.  They had been upset about his alleged “draft dodging” antics during the Vietnam War.  Now, we have a Chief Executive who received multiple draft deferments during the Vietnam era, boasted of fondling women, supposedly frolicked with an adult film “actress”, and mocked a former U.S. prisoner-of-war.  The glaring hypocrisy would be funny if it wasn’t so ironic.

But I’ve always been a strong believer in the ‘what goes around comes around’ ideology.  I don’t view it as a cute, antiquitous saying; a naïve vision of a complicated and brutal world.  It’s very real and somewhat ubiquitous.  Someone may escape with questionable behavior for a certain amount of time.  But eventually, it really does come back around to haunt the transgressor.  Currently, there are no better examples than two criminal matters – one a long-running rampage that redefined law enforcement tactics and forensics; the other a missing person case that garnered little media attention.

On April 24, 2018, law enforcement officials with both the State of California and the U.S. federal government announced that they had made an arrest in one of nation’s oldest cold case criminal sprees: the “Golden State Killer.”  From at least 1974 to at least 1986, the burglar / rapist / murderer – known variously as “The Visalia Ransacker”, the “East Area Rapist”, the “Diamond Knot Killer” and (unimaginatively) the “Original Night Stalker” – now has a name: James Joseph DeAngelo.  Starting with his suspected origins as a burglar who terrorized the central California farming community of Visalia for nearly two years to his last documented attack in Irvine, California, officials claim DeAngelo committed one of the longest and most brutal series of crimes both California and the nation has ever experienced.  The numbers are staggering: at least 50 rapes (including two girls ages 12 and 16) and at least a dozen murders have been attributed to the man who miscellaneous criminal incarnations ultimately gave him the name “Golden State Killer”, a moniker created by the late author Michelle Eileen McNamara for her book “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.”

A map of just some of the crimes committed by the “East Area Rapist” / “Golden State Killer”.

Criminologists declare that the “Golden State Killer” (GSK) is a perfect example of a criminal whose offenses metamorphose from the seemingly mundane (burglary and ransacking) to brutal (the sexual assaults) to the worst kind of crime (murder).  Officials haven’t confirmed it yet, but they strongly believe DeAngelo got his start as “The Visalia Ransacker” (VR).  From about April of 1974 to December 1975, the culprit burglarized and ransacked up to 100 homes; often stealing mostly small items, such as photos, costume jewelry and trinkets.  In one burglary, he purloined a teenage girl’s bra, but he also nabbed her father’s gun.  That same gun may have been used in the only homicide attributed to the VR: the murder of Claude Snelling, a professor at the College of the Sequoias.  The local police had set up a variety of covert stakeouts and came very close to apprehending the crook three months later, when he committed another violent act by shooting at a police officer.  The bullet glanced off the officer’s flashlight and plowed into his eye.  The policeman survived.  The VR rampage stopped with that.  Six months later the “East Area Rapist” (EAR) began his violent assaults upon the East Side of Sacramento, the state capital.

Within two years the EAR had attacked more than 20 women and girls when he increased the tension in the city and surrounding communities by brutalizing female / male couples.  His viciousness knew no bounds.  At least 2 of his female victims were pregnant; others were menstruating; in one incident, he molested a 7-year-old girl while her mother and older sister were tied up in the same room; and, in one of his earliest attacks, he tied up and raped an Air Force nurse, as her 3year-old son slept next to her.  At the end of 1979, the EAR graduated from tying up couples and raping the woman to finishing his act by murdering them.

His methods were the same.  He’d sneak into a dwelling in the earliest morning hours, tie up his victims (face-down with their arms twisted behind them), blindfold them, place dishes atop the man’s back – a sort of impromptu alarm system and a trait criminologists claim they’ve never seen anywhere else – sexually abuse the female and ransack the house.  He always wore gloves and a mask and spoke through clenched teeth, as if he was trying to disguise his voice.  He usually declared he was only there to steal food and money.  Then he’d vanish into the night.  The dishes on the back trick was perversely innovative and would ultimately tie a few of the VR burglaries to some of the EAR assaults and ultimately to the murders; thus giving him the all-encompassing name of “Golden State Killer.”

A number of residents near crime scenes received anonymous phone calls before the assaults.  Others reported finding fence gates opened or knocked down; doors that had pry marks on them; window screens removed; unfamiliar footprints around the house; and trampled flower beds.  Some people actually saw prowlers in their neighborhoods.  Many dog-owners claim their animals alerted them to something amiss in or around the house.  The dogs would bark and growl incessantly at windows and doors inside a home, or people could hear the dogs making a fuss in the back yard.  One teenage girl in the small coastal town of Goleta says her dog barked relentlessly at the patio door.  She was alarmed to find it unlocked, but even more horrified to see a masked man standing outside with a knife.  He bolted from the scene.

At the time, my parents and I owned a German shepherd who resided mostly in the back yard.  His uniquely vociferous bark could be heard from far away.  One neighbor told us she knew when someone was near our house because of that dog’s bark.  In the 1990s, a coworker said she and her son couldn’t figure out why his pitbull was making such a racket in the back yard one night.  He kept telling the dog to be quiet.  Then, he awoke the next day to find his car had been burglarized.

People need to pay attention to their animals.  Like crying babies, a barking dog or a moaning cat is trying to tell you there’s something wrong.  There are unknown numbers of people in the GSK strike zones whose frustrated animals scared the assailant away.  In other words, the victim count could have been much higher had it not been for a family pet.

While all assaults are brutal – sexual or otherwise – and all home invasions are frightening (even if the residents aren’t present), the GSK added psychological torture to his crimes.  He’d often call his victims after the attack.  Millennials may find this hard to imagine now, but in a time before caller ID and call-return – when computers were the size of refrigerators and no one got ticketed for driving without a seat belt – you’d actually have to pick up a ringing phone to find out who was on the other end.  If you were lucky, you had an answering machine, which some people used more as a call-screening device.  One victim claimed a man called her former work place in 1982 – four years after his attack – and left a message with a former colleague; verbiage on the note provided certain details only the victim and the assailant would know.  A 1977 victim claims she received a call at home in April of 2001 – after a news article had come out announcing DNA profile matches linked the GSK cases together – and spoke in the same voice that she clearly recalled from nearly a quarter-century earlier.  “Do you remember when we played?” was all he said.

Even now, a sketch of the “East Area Rapist” bears a striking resemblance to alleged perpetrator Joseph James DeAngelo.

One thing that made the GSK’s crime spree so successful is that he most likely stalked his victims.  It’s not uncommon for criminals to “case” a house before burglarizing it.  But the GSK appeared to engage in covert surveillance of just about everyone in a given neighborhood to find his perfect target.  His first known victim, a 23-year-old woman, claims she got the eerie feeling that someone was watching her, weeks before the assault at her father’s home in June of 1976.

All crime victims suffer immense psychological trauma related directly to the attack.  Surviving GSK victims are certainly no different.  The aforementioned Air Force nurse said, for weeks afterward, she didn’t even want her own husband touching her and grew worried that her son would grow into such a monster as the EAR.

Crime victims aren’t the only ones who suffer; their families are victimized as well.  The men in the lives of the EAR victims felt angry and powerless, like most normally would, that this could happen to them.  Most men would fight back, even if it meant dying, to escape such a criminal.  Yet, with the lives of their loved ones at risk, only a few men in the GSK cases dared to act – and most lost their lives in the process.

Mike Williams with his newborn daughter in 1999.

The family of Jerry Michael (“Mike”) Williams certainly felt they were being victimized as well – not just by the absence of their loved one, but by a police department that seemed uninterested in discovering what happened to him.  Just weeks after DeAngelo was arrested at his home, police on the opposite side of the country – in Tallahassee, Florida – announced they’d made an arrest in Williams’ murder.  His widow, Denise Williams (nee Denise Merrell, nee Denise Winchester), had claimed that Mike got up early on the morning of Saturday, December 16, 2000 to visit nearby Lake Seminole for a brief duck-hunting excursion.  No one ever saw him again.

Denise said she initially thought Mike may have decided to visit either his recently-widowed mother, Cheryl, or his older brother, Nick, before coming home and that time got away from him.  When he didn’t return by evening to join her in celebrating their sixth wedding anniversary, she allegedly became concerned and began calling people.  When no one could explain Mike’s whereabouts, Denise eventually called police to report him missing.

In contrast to later high-profile missing persons cases (e.g. Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway), local law enforcement told Denise to wait.  Adults, after all, have a right to disappear, if they want.  And, as an adult male, Mike Williams definitely could vanish of his own accord, without a need (legally) to explain himself to anyone.  It didn’t seem to matter that the young couple had an 18-month-old daughter; there were no signs of embezzlement at his work place and no information about a mistress; that Mike had no criminal records; that the couple hadn’t reported any strange phone calls or previous threats to their safety; and that Denise refused to let police search their home.

Ten days after Mike’s disappearance, wildlife officials – searching the lake once again – came upon a camouflage hat, similar to the one Mike had and would have worn.  The hat hadn’t been there 9 days earlier, when authorities had scoured the lake.  But they’d only searched the lake once before they discovered the hat.  The item seemed relatively new and didn’t appear to have been in the water for nearly two weeks.  DNA tests came back negative for any connection to Mike, but if he had worn it, the hat would have been in the water for several days; so any trace evidence would have been lost to the elements.  Then, in June of 2001, authorities made another shocking find in the lake: a pair of waders that hunters often wear when going into the water.  As with the hat, however, no evidence that Mike had worn them could be found.

Nonetheless, wildlife officials pointed out that 80 people had previously drowned in Lake Seminole, and the body of each one had been recovered.  Cheryl and Nick Williams hired private investigators to search for Mike.  Although they couldn’t find any new evidence or witnesses, they did produce an outlandish theory: somehow Mike must have fallen out of his boat, they hypothesized, drowned as he became entangled in weeds and other lake detritus, and was then eaten by one or more alligators, with other aquatic wildlife – such as turtles and catfish – consuming what was left.

Alligators have been known to attack humans, so initially some thought it was a remote possibility.  But reptilian experts informed police that alligators don’t feed during cold weather.  They enter a near-dormant state, as they remain submerged in water and try to keep their body temperature warm.  In December of 2000, temperatures in the waters of Lake Seminole had dropped to 46°F (8°C), and the lake iced out to as much as 20 feet (6.1 m) from shore.  Even when large reptiles, including alligators and crocodiles, have attacked and tried to consume a human, there’s almost always some part of the body left behind.  Mike stood 5’10” (1.7 m) and weighed about 170 lbs. (77 kg).  If no part of the body remains, then some chewed up piece of clothing or footwear is usually left behind.  No sign of Mike could be found.

Moreover, the areas around the lake weren’t secured by police.  Many people suspected the hat and waders were deliberately placed in the lake waters after Mike disappeared and – along with the hungry alligator theory – was a ruse to mislead investigators.  After the waders were found, though, police seemed to stop looking for Mike.

The discovery of the hat and waders allowed for officials to declare Mike legally dead – and ultimately for his widow to collect his life insurance.  Much to the astonishment of family and friends, Denise had vigorously pursued the declaration, and the insurance company finally relented – but only if a public memorial service was held.  And that’s just what happened in early 2002.

Even after investigators reopened the case in 2004, nothing came of it.  Cheryl claims she received threats to her personal safety, as she insisted authorities continue investigating Mike’s disappearance.

Aside from the hat, waders and hungry alligator theory, investigators made note of some other odd details:

  • The boat launch where Mike’s Ford Bronco was found, which he would presumably have used to put his boat in the lake, was an undeveloped patch of mud.  Yet nearby were finished concrete launches that he was known to use in the past.
  • A storm the night after Mike was reported missing had easterly winds that should have blown the abandoned, unmoored boat across the lake to the Georgia side.  But it was found closer to the Florida side.
  • When the boat was recovered, its engine was off, yet the gas tank was full.  According to the manufacturer, if it had been on when Mike allegedly fell out, the engine should have stayed on, causing the boat to run in circles until its fuel was exhausted.
  • Friends who’d gone hunting and/or fishing with Mike told investigators that Mike never did so alone.  His concern for personal safety was paramount, which is one reason why he kept his firearms at work.  They added that no one they knew wore waders while piloting a boat because they’re cumbersome, and maneuvering a vessel would be nearly impossible while clad in them.

“My gut feeling is Mike did not die in Lake Seminole,” Ronnie Austin, a former Florida state attorney, said in 2006.  He had just left the state’s attorney’s office for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and added that his belief was shared by all the investigators at that point.  “I would say this is a suspicious missing person.”

Despite police doubts, Mike Williams obviously wasn’t ranked among the valuable people (generally meaning White females) for whom police must search.  I personally didn’t hear about this case until 2011, when I saw a report about it on the true-crime series “Disappeared.”  And I can literally count on one hand the number of times the disappearance of an adult male made national headlines.

But there are even stranger facts involving both Denise and someone else in Mike’s life: his best friend, Brian Winchester.  Family and friends noticed the two seemed to grow close in the months after Mike’s disappearance, with Brian spending a great deal of time visiting Denise.  Family and friends thought it curious that Brian, an insurance agent, had sold the Williams insurance policies totaling some $1 million.  They found it downright bizarre that Brian had asked investigators how much time needed to pass before someone is declared legally dead.  Finally, everyone realized that Denise and Brian had committed the ultimate betrayal: they had an affair.  Even more shocking, 6 years after Mike vanished, Denise and Brian got married, and Brian moved into the same house where Mike had lived.  The union inspired more dubious thoughts about the couple, and they became ostracized in their own neighborhood.  In announcing Denise’s arrest, police claim that Denise and Brian Winchester went further with that betrayal: they murdered Mike solely so they could be together and collect on the life insurance.

These events would normally send up the proverbial cavalcade of “red flags,” but police apparently thought nothing of it in the immediate aftermath of Mike’s evanescence.  While the disappearances of the above-mentioned Peterson and Holloway launched worldwide searches and garnered global media coverage, Mike Williams’ family was forced to engage in their own inquiries, which ultimately metamorphosed into a lengthy letter-writing campaign to then-Florida Governor Charlie Crist.

In October of 2007, Nick Williams found a photograph of a .22 caliber Ruger pistol (and its serial number) that their late father had once owned.  Mike inherited the firearm from his father, and after Mike was declared legally dead, it was one of the few items belonging to him that Denise had NOT returned to her former in-laws.  In 2008, Florida insurance investigators began looking into the Williams case from a financial angle.  They discovered that Denise had collected only the policies sold to her and Mike by Brian.  But fraud investigators closed their case shortly afterwards, citing a lack of evidence as a barrier to proceeding further.  They did concede, however, that they felt there was more evidence and that the entire situation was suspicious.  By then, however, rumors of a grand jury looking into Mike’s disappearance began circulating.  Police remained silent on the matter, but I can only imagine that – along with the previous insurance fraud instigation – Denise and Brian became nervous.  If there’s no honor among thieves, there’s even less among murderers.

How exactly the FDLE deduced that Mike Williams had been murdered (as most family and friends already believed) and didn’t just abandon his family (as Denise and Brian repeatedly and publicly stated) has not been revealed yet.  But I feel the confirmation source is none other than Winchester himself.

In 2012, Denise and Brian separated and divorced 3 years later – allegedly due to Brian’s sex addiction.  In August of 2016, matters between them reached a violent crescendo, when Brian broke into Denise’s car.  She had seen him and confronted him; whereupon they got into a heated argument.  Brian managed to grab Denise’s cell phone and then produced a gun.  That compelled her to get into the car.  But, instead of driving home, she drove to a drug store.  Brian threatened to kill himself.  Denise apparently was able to calm him down and drove him to a park near her work where he’d left his truck.  He then pulled a large tan-colored sheet, a large plastic sheet, a spray bottle of bleach and a tool from Denise’s car.  Despite her insistence that she wouldn’t contact police, that’s exactly what she did.  She drove to a nearby police station and recounted what had happened.  Brian was arrested and convicted of kidnapping and other crimes.  In December 2017, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Police allege that Mike Williams’ wife, Denise, and best friend, Brian Winchester, not only had an affair, but conspired to murder him and make his disappearance look like an accidental drowning.

Cheryl and Nick Williams openly declared they hoped Brian’s incarceration would prompt him to reveal what he knows about Mike’s disappearance.  That certainly may have happened.  But, just after Brian’s sentencing, police announced they’d recovered Mike’s remains two months earlier.  He’d been interred in a spot more than 50 miles (80 km) from Lake Seminole.

According to some sources, however, the break didn’t come necessarily from someone with knowledge of or involvement in the crime.  It came from law enforcement officials who had been searching the area where Mike’s body was found, as they scoured the area for the body of a drug informant who vanished nearby in 2008.  Understand the irony of this: police were literally moving Heaven and Earth to find the remains of a drug addict-turned-police-informant when they accidentally uncovered Mike Williams’ corpse.

At a press conference earlier this year, John Pugh, an attorney with the State of Florida said, “In cases I have prosecuted, I often tell victims and the families of victims that the wheels of justice sometimes turn slowly, but they do turn.”

For Mike’s family and friends, there’s little comfort in the discovery of his body.

“People say I should be happy, but I’m not,” Cheryl Williams said.  “I honestly wasn’t looking for a body.  I was looking for Mike to come home.”

Cheryl and Nick Williams still can’t hug Mike, and his daughter will never get to know her father.  As of this writing, it remains unknown how Mike was murdered and hastily buried and who all was involved.  Was it really just Denise and Brian?  Or, as some have speculated, did Denise’s father also play a role?  This case is intriguing on so many levels and would probably be laughably implausible if it wasn’t true.

When Joseph DeAngelo made his first appearance in court, he sat in a wheelchair – as if he was too old and feeble to stand on his own – but was shackled.  No one felt sympathy for him.  He had been seen riding his motorcycle recently and was prone to verbal outbursts against his neighbors.  He had served 4 years in the U.S. Navy and had been a police officer in the California cities of Exeter and Auburn at the time of the EAR rampage.  He was fired from Auburn in 1979, after he was caught stealing a hammer and dog repellant from a drugstore.

Officials now believe he may be responsible for yet another murder (the 13th one) in the mid-1970s.  A number of miscellaneous assaults and attempted assaults occurred around the time of the EAR rampage.  Investigators wonder if DeAngelo could be responsible for some, if not all, of them.  Some unsolved homicides and disappearances are attached to known serial criminals; thus leaving open the question of just how many victims there really are.  The “Golden State Killer” meticulously planned his attacks, by stalking his targets and studying the neighborhoods where they lived.  He was careful not to show his face or leave fingerprints.  And he always managed to escape, even from areas where police had set up perimeters and had helicopters searching overhead.  But, despite his intricate preparations, he unknowingly betrayed himself with something even he couldn’t have foreseen: DNA.  As one female official addressed the court, DeAngelo glared at her; his viciously misogynistic personality overshadowing his 72-year-old form, and everyone got a glimpse of the true monster lurking beneath the wrinkled face.

For Denise Merrell and Brian Winchester, months of secret assignations and fastidious plotting collapsed under the weight of the instability of their own relationship.  Mike Williams lost his life, but his widow and best friend will lose their own lives – without actually dying.  Mike’s daughter now knows the truth of her father’s disappearance; the man didn’t abandon her and her mother.  Her mother murdered him – another brutally cold act of betrayal.  Essentially, she’s now an orphan.  Denise got at least $1 million in insurance proceeds, but where is that money now and what good will it do?  As ill-gotten gains, the money is basically useless, and the insurance company may sue to get it back.

In both the “Golden State Killer” and Mike Williams cases, the perpetrators ultimately lost.  They will have nothing left but anger and bitterness over…what?  Themselves?  They can blame no one else – not really.  All that time, all that energy, all that money – and it came around to haunt them.

 

Additional reading: “Case Files of the East Area Rapist / Golden State Killer” by Kat Winters and Keith Komos, © 2017, Cold Case Writer.

Disappeared” Blog.

*Name changed.

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Knowing Jolyn

She looked a little out of place; this older woman attired in crimson red with a matching hat.  She seemed dressed for church, not a Toastmaster’s meeting.  Ironic, though, that the group met in a church every Friday evening around 6 p.m.  Most Toastmasters groups meet Monday through Thursday after work.  Some even meet before the work day starts, especially if it’s a company oriented-club.  But Friday evenings was the only time our group could schedule, when it was formed in 2000.  I joined it the following year and came up with a slogan: ‘A Different Kind of Happy Hour.’  People liked that, and it drew a wide variety of visitors.

It was just such a nondescript Friday evening in the spring of 2003, when Jolyn Robichaux arrived.  None of us realized it at that moment – and I’m certain not even she knew – but Jolyn would make an indelible impact on our lives.  Her personality was as bright as the outfit she wore that evening; her verbiage as graceful as the way she carried herself into the room.  Her worldly experiences proved she was one of those rare individuals who take life by the throat and wring every ounce of ecstasy from it.  With a vibrant smile and an infectious laugh, Jolyn had an incredible on anyone she ever met.  And I am honored to have been one of them.

Jolyn passed away a year ago this month.  She would have been 90 this coming May.  I’d last heard from her, via email, in early 2015.  I had always made it a point to mail her a birthday card; a simple gesture she knew was genuine, but – in this electronic age – she still found amazing.

“That you actually took the time to hand-write my address on it and mail it,” she once told me, “shows how compassionate you are!”

Jolyn appreciated such ordinary and inconspicuous acts; those “little things” people often overlooked or dismissed.  Her own life, however, was anything but ordinary or inconspicuous.  Born in Cairo, Illinois in 1928 to Margaret Love, a beautician, and Dr. Edward Chuny Howard, a dentist, Jolyn seemed to have two strikes against her from the start: she was female and Black; attributes that rendered her almost sub-human at the time.  Anyone growing up during the Great Depression learned how difficult life could be.  For people like Jolyn, it was almost unbearable.  Still, everyone did the best they could.  Jolyn’s father often bartered his dental services with neighboring farmers in exchange for food.  Many of those farmers were White and surely wondered how a Black man could have possibly become a dentist.  But he earned their trust and respect with his strong work ethic and concern for their dental health, at a time when dentistry often straddled the border between medieval cruelty and an unnecessary luxury.  There were joyous moments as well, she always emphasized, when discussing her younger years.  “You just have to look for them.”  And hard work is, most often, worth the effort; paying off “one way or another.”

Jolyn (back left) in 1943 beside her sister, Charlotte Howard, with brother William and their mother, Margaret.

Jolyn graduated valedictorian from Sumner High School at the age of 16.  But the happiness the Howard family felt over her academic achievements was tempered when her father fell ill with a rare blood disease.  What should have been a joyous occasion was shattered when Dr. Howard died shortly thereafter at the age of 48.

Despite the tragedy, Jolyn knew she had to move forward.  One curious attribute of successful, independent people is their ability to handle death – even the deaths of loved ones.  As painful as it was to lose her father at such a young age, Jolyn knew the world wouldn’t stop because she was sad and began attending classes at Fisk University in Nashville.  Two years later, however, Jolyn decided her mother needed help, both financially and in caring for the two youngest Howard children.  Jolyn left Fisk and moved to Chicago to work full-time, while planning to take evening classes at Roosevelt University.

Classes at Roosevelt lasted only a year, as Jolyn told me, because Chicago’s “fast life” got hold of her.  That included the bevy of handsome, well-dressed and well-spoken men she encountered.  Both of her parents would have howled in anger, Jolyn said with a laugh, at the mere thought of her “getting frisky” with any man.  Remember, this was late 1940s / early 1950s America; a post-war nation where opportunities looked endless on the personal and professional fronts – even for women and non-Whites.

Now ensconced in a more liberal and open-minded environment, Jolyn found work with the Chicago Veterans Administration and the National Labor Relations Board; as an executive secretary with two other large corporations; and even as an assistant to a renowned diagnostician.  It’s difficult to imagine now, but for a Black woman to take such jobs at the time was incredibly radical; almost rebellious.  Yet, like much of what she’d do throughout both her personal and professional lives, Jolyn wouldn’t let herself be assigned a certain role or position, as then-contemporary norms prescribed.  She was already dictating her own place in this world – not by someone else and not even by society as a whole.  Radical, indeed!  But to her, it was as natural a reaction as breathing.  There was just no alternative.

Amidst the many people she encountered in Chicago, Jolyn cited one particular individual as having, perhaps, the most significant impact: Mary McLeod Bethune.  As Jolyn would do in the coming years, Bethune didn’t let her race or gender define her or keep her from attaining success on her own terms.  Born to former slaves in South Carolina in 1875, Bethune would go on to become an acclaimed educator in the African-American community and was an especially charismatic role model for women.  Although not naïve to the traumas of racism and sexism, Bethune still felt that education was a vital tool in the pursuit of equality.

Jolyn realized how important this was to her, too, and went on to earn a degree in education from Chicago Teachers College, graduating magna cum laude in 1960.  When I made the decision several years ago to return to college and earn a degree in English, Jolyn expressed as much excitement as my parents.  I lamented the fact that I’d waited so long to complete that one life-long ambition.

“The important thing is that you get it done,” Jolyn told me via email.  “If it’s important to you, then it’s important!”

In 1950, Jolyn met Joseph Julius Robichaux at a private party in Chicago.  While dancing that same evening, he startled her by asking her to get married.  Perhaps even more surprising to him is that she didn’t say yes immediately.  Again, it’s hard to understand now, but in mid-20th century America, women normally didn’t say no to marriage.  With so few opportunities for even well-educated women – especially Black women – the roles of wife and mother were pretty much the apex of their lives.  Telling him no put her, as she eloquently described it, “the naughty girl list.”  But Joseph persisted, certainly knowing what an extraordinary woman had entered his world.  Jolyn eventually said yes to Joseph, and the couple wed in 1952.  Four years later they welcomed their first child, Sheila.  In 1964, their first son, Joseph Howard, was born.  By then, Jolyn had fallen – somewhat – into that traditional wife-mother role.  But she still managed to do so on her own terms.  Aside from completing her education, she participated in various civic activities and assisted her husband in his burgeoning political career.

Jolyn and Joseph Robichaux (center) in 1964.

In 1967, the Robichauxs entered into a new venture, when they purchased Baldwin Ice Cream Company.  Baldwin had been founded as the Seven Links Ice Cream Co. in 1921 by Kit Baldwin and six of his Black coworkers at the Chicago Post Office.  As a Black-owned and Black-operated enterprise, Baldwin stood out in the maze of corporate America.  In 1948, Baldwin bought out his partners and renamed the company after himself.

By 1971, it seemed life couldn’t be more fulfilling or more perfect for the Robichaux family.  But tragedy once again punched a hole into Jolyn’s life, when Joseph, Sr., died of leukemia.  While dealing with such a heart-wrenching event, Jolyn realized she had three choices (albeit difficult ones): continue the family’s interest in Baldwin, find work teaching, or become a full-time mother.  She chose to stay with Baldwin.  The company was in receivership by 1971, due in part, to a staid routine that no longer yielded a profit in a rapidly-changing economy and culture.

That same year Chicago Mayor Richard Daley appointed Jolyn to replace her deceased husband on the Jury Commissioners Board of Cook County.  The position – which she held until 1979 – provided a steady income.  In 1975 she earned a certificate in ice cream technology from Pennsylvania State University (Penn State).  Jolyn then re-made Baldwin into her own.  She developed business relationships with other ice cream executives in the Chicago area and increase sales in Baldwin’s 17 chain stores.

Baldwin’s phenomenal success prompted President Ronald Reagan to name Jolyn as USA Minority Business Woman of the Year for 1985.  She received the award personally from Vice-President George W. Bush.

In 1992, Jolyn sold her ice cream business and made an unexpected move: 4,130 miles (6,646 km) to Paris, France.  Still bristling with an entrepreneurial spirit, Jolyn created a one-woman business that brought American gospel singers to Paris for performances at the American Cathedral in Paris.

Shortly thereafter, Jolyn was back in the U.S., settling in Dallas to be closer to family.  But retirement appeared to be an alien concept to her.  In 1997 she participated in the Heart Disease Research Project at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.  From 1999 to 2001 she served on the Dallas Opera’s Board of Directors.  She was a docent at Southern Methodist University’s prestigious Meadows Museum of Art; served as a mentor at Dallas Life Foundation, an organization that helps homeless people get off and stay off the streets; and even worked as a substitute teacher in the Dallas Independent School District.

I knew she loved opera and not just because she had lived in Paris.  We both shared that passion.  But not until after her death did I learn she did so much for her community and many of the people who occupied it.  It doesn’t surprise me.  Jolyn wasn’t a braggart.  Unlike some sports and entertainment celebrities and more than a few politicians, Jolyn did what she liked to do and helped whenever she could.

Jolyn with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) in 1974.

She was more than just a friend; she was a trustworthy mentor to me personally.  I could relate the various trials tribulations of dealing with my parents’ declining health, not really thinking that Jolyn was actually a few years older than either of them.  She was truly inspirational; choosing to celebrate other people’s accomplishments and aspirations.  After presenting one of my most passionate speeches, “A Matter of Respect,” to Toastmasters one evening, she almost jumped out of her chair to give me a hug.  “I saw the fire in your eyes and could hear it in your soul!” she proclaimed after the meeting.

She read several of my short stories and essays on this blog and predicted, “You will get published!”

If I counted my own personal achievements, they’d certainly fall short of even just half of what Jolyn did with her life.  Like me, she kept a regular journal; understanding how truly therapeutic it could be.  They were her essentially her autobiography – as are most journals – but told me via email, “They will not be published.”  That may have been a wish she asked of her family, but I honestly hope they defy her on that one.  If there’s anyone whose life story deserves (must be) told, it is that of Jolyn Robichaux.

About 5 years ago Jolyn invited me to join her at a dance class not far from where I live.  I told her I would, but a family emergency arose at the last minute.  She expressed greater concern for my welfare than for my absence at the class.  And I thought later, ‘That’s just like her; already in her mid-80s and learning something new.’

That described Jolyn perfectly – dancing to the very end.

 

“When I Die”

“When I die, when I finish living this life, when all my stakes and claims in this world are rendered null and void, I want to leave like the final swirl of smoke from a smoldering ember, rising as a smile into nothing.”

– Jolyn Robichaux, 2005

Jolyn’s family has asked that donations be made in her name to the Vivian G. Harsh Society, which maintains the largest collection of African-American history and literature in the Midwest.

 

Vivian G. Harsh Society

c/o Harold Washington Library

400 S. State St., 5th Floor

Chicago, IL 60605

http://harshsociety.org/donate/

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Voodoo You

“It just isn’t going to work, and it’s very interesting that the man who invented this type of what I call a voodoo economic policy is Art Laffer, a California economist.” – George H.W. Bush, Carnegie Mellon University, April 10, 1980

 

I’m frightened for the United States, and it’s not just because of my disdain for our faux president, Donald Trump.  I’m genuinely concerned about what could happen over the next few years.

In the above quote, George H.W. Bush was referring to the plans of fellow Republican and 1980 presidential candidate Ronald Reagan for revitalizing a stagnant U.S. economy.  Then, when Reagan won in most of the primaries, his camp offered Bush the vice-presidential position, and the former Texas congressman shut up about economics.  In 1980, the nation was in a bad financial situation.  The costs of the Vietnam War, coupled with oil embargoes from OPEC nations, had finally taken their toll.  Unemployment stood at nearly 10%; the prime interest rate was 21%; inflation was 14%; home mortgage rates were 17%; and the top marginal tax rate was 70%.  In the second quarter of 1980, the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) declined by 8%.  By the end of the year, the overall GDP boasted about $3 trillion (in today’s dollars).

With the help of some Democrats in both houses of the U.S. Congress, Reagan was able to generate an agreement that slashed taxes down to 50% on wages, to 48% on corporate income, and to 20% on capital gains.  These measures initially jumpstarted the economy.  Average citizens had more expendable income, which they poured back into the economy by purchasing many so-called big ticket items, like vehicle and electronics.  By 1990, the size of the U.S. economy had grown from $3 trillion to $6 trillion, with roughly 4 million new businesses and 20 million new jobs created.  Although the national debt increased from $1 trillion to $4 trillion during the same period, overall revenues doubled.

Reagan’s economic policies were in line with conservative views on taxation: if we give the “investing class” (meaning, the most affluent) generous tax breaks, they will respond by expanding their businesses or starting new ones, which in turn, will create more products and / or services and more jobs.  Along with reduced business regulations (“job killers” in conservative lingo), average citizens will have more income, which of course, they will pour back into the economy.  Such growth then will expand the tax base; the additional revenue will replace any money lost to the initial tax cuts.

Ask any frustrated project manager and they will tell you that everything always looks great on paper.  While Reagan disciples keep championing his financial moves, the reality is that “Reaganomics” didn’t work out as planned.  One thing people forget is a little thing called the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982, which rolled back financial regulations that had been established by the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt to prevent further damage caused by the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression.  It’s interesting that Bush’s voodoo comment was made at Carnegie Mellon University.  Founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1900 as Carnegie Technical School, it merged with the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research in 1967 to become Carnegie Mellon.  The Mellon Institute had been established in 1913 by brothers Andrew and Richard B. Mellon who, like Carnegie, were self-made businessmen and titans of early 20th century America.  Andrew Mellon served as Secretary of the Treasury from 1921 – 1932, one of the longest tenures for this position.  He created the “trickle-down” economic theory by declaring, “Give tax breaks to large corporations, so that money can trickle down to the general public, in the form of extra jobs.”

But Andrew Mellon is also known for a notoriously rotten hands-off policy with the Great Depression.  The banks that failed had put themselves in such a precarious financial position, he believed, and thus, they were responsible for extricating themselves from it.  It didn’t seem to matter that these bank failures took people’s money with them; therefore, amplifying the effects of the 1929 crash.

Still, President Reagan – like any good fiscal conservative – held onto these beliefs and eagerly signed the Garn-St. Germain bill.  That reduced the number of regulations on financial institutions and allowed them to expand and invest more of their customers’ deposits in various ventures, particularly home mortgages.  Again, that looks-great-on-paper ideology swung back around to bite everyone when the Savings & Loans Crisis erupted.  Between 1986 and 1995, 1,043 out of the 3,234 savings and loan institutions in the U.S. failed; costing $160 billion overall, with taxpayers footing $132 billion of it.  It was the worst series of bank collapses since the Great Depression.  That led to the 1990-91 Recession, the longest and most wide-spread economic downturn since the late 1940s.  I started working for a large bank in Dallas in April of 1990 and saw the S&L crisis unfold in real time.

Nonetheless, trickle-down economics saw a rebirth with George W. Bush, as his administration further deregulated the banking industry and also deregulated housing.  Combined with the costs of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. economy almost completely collapsed at the end of 2008.  The 2007-08 Recession was the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.  Unemployment reached double digits for the first time since the start of the Reagan era, as millions of citizens lost their homes and their savings.  Had it not been for such programs as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (the FDIC, established by Roosevelt), we surely would have plunged into another depression.

Now, with Donald Trump in office, I fear we’re headed for the same morass.  On December 22, 2017, Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act; the largest overhaul of the U.S. tax code in 30 years.  Financial prognosticators have already forecast the act will raise the federal deficit by hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars over the next 10 years.  The law cuts individual taxes temporarily, but cuts corporate tax rates permanently.  As suspected, the most affluent citizens will benefit greatly, as they experience a significant reduction in their taxes.  The rest of us lowly peons may see a tax increase after those temporary provisions expire in 2025.

You know that classic definition of insanity?  Doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results.  It’s more like, well, if you keep doing stupid shit, stupid shit will keep happening!

Ignore Russia-gate for a moment and the fact Melania’s side of the First Bed is colder than a Chicago winter.  This past week Trump visited the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.  This is where the most elite members of the business world meet (conspire) with leaders of developed nations to create economic policies and decide what’s best for us peons.  Kind of like evangelical Christians often meet to decide what people should see and read.  They’ve set themselves up as the righteous few; the ones who supposedly understand exactly what works and what doesn’t and are divinely compelled to bestow such knowledge upon the rest of us.

Trump ran his presidential campaign on the wave of anti-Washington sentiment; appealing to average citizens about reviving a once-lost “Great America” with a variety of clever ruses: ban Muslims, build a wall along the Mexican border, etc.  So many people, of course, bought into it.  Like Ronald Reagan, Trump was able to tap into that sensitive nerve of everyday angst; spitting out a slew of quaint buzz words to appeal to average folks.  He had said he would never take part in a WEF convention.  Yet, there he was; leading a parade of those self-righteous few into another kind of revitalization: the Gilded Age.

I doubt if most Trump voters even know what Davos means and how it could impact their lives.  Understand, though, that Switzerland is a place where Hollywood celebrities often went for a retreat or a little vacation – code words for cosmetic surgery; long before Phyllis Diller made it openly acceptable.  That’s essentially what Donald Trump did this past week.  He flew to Davos to tell the world, “America first is not America alone.”

I’m frightened for the United States.

 

Image: Golden Spike National Historic Site, Utah.

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I Sight

us_constitution-hammer

Over the past few months the dreaded “I” word has been floating across the nation: impeachment.  As in the impeachment of President Donald Trump – which sounds pretty good – because his words and actions have put the U.S. in a precarious global position – because he really wasn’t elected to the office – because he’s an obnoxious bastard.  Okay, that last one is more of a personal opinion.  And, of course, we all have a right to that!

But talk of impeaching the president of the United States is like warning Americans about visiting North Korea: don’t go there.  Forcibly removing the president from office was a rare topic of discussion – even among politicians – until the 1970s.  But, after the Watergate left a bitterly angry taste in the mouths of the American populace, impeachment has been tossed around as often as limes at a Mexican barbecue.

Since Watergate, only one sitting U.S. president has faced a concerted attempt at impeachment: Bill Clinton.  And that was only because he engaged in an eel-hunting adventure with a perky, overweight intern, which culminated in a blue dress wardrobe malfunction before anyone invented the term.

Yet, as much as I despise Trump and as little as I thought of George W. Bush, I would look at anyone who talks of impeachment with concern.  Do you realize how serious that is?  Do you understand exactly what it takes to oust such a person from the White House?  It’s almost like a military coup; the kind that occurs in third-world nations.  Think Cuba or the Philippines.  Yes, that kind.  It’s nowhere near as bloody and violent; we use pens and roll-call votes here, instead of guns and machetes.  But it remains a complex and arduous task.

Keep in mind that, aside from Clinton, only 2 other U.S. presidents have faced impeachment: Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon.  The key term here is faced impeachment.  To date, no sitting president has actually been removed from office by impeachment.  The House of Representatives has the sole power of impeaching the president, while the U.S. Senate has the sole power of trying impeachments.  This all occurs under rules of law established in the Constitution; therefore, no single branch of government possesses omniscient power to remove a sitting president.

The first step, obviously, is to identify what acts performed by the president qualify as “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”  The House votes on articles of impeachment.  If there is just one article, it requires a two-thirds majority of House members.  But, if there are two or more articles of impeachment, only one of them needs to garner a majority to induce impeachment.  Nixon came very close to actually being removed from office.  But he resigned after the House voted in August of 1974.

Second, the proceedings move to the Senate where an actual trial is held.  The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court oversees the case, as they would any other legal matter.  Here, a team of lawmakers from the House serves in a prosecutorial role, while the Senate is technically the jury.  The president has his or her own lawyers.  Once all sides have presented their arguments, the matter is handed to the Senate.  If at least two-thirds of Senators vote in favor of the articles, then the president is removed from office, and the vice-president assumes the presidency.

This isn’t punishment for being tardy.  The U.S. likes to present itself as a beacon of democracy for the world; a master of political dignity and fairness.  If we are compelled to remove our own national leader from office, what does that say about our voting system?  What does it say about the concept of democracy altogether?  Is the presidential vetting process so pathetic that we can’t identify someone with a criminal mindset beforehand?

Elizabeth Holtzman is a former U.S. congresswoman from New York.  In 1974, she was on the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Nixon.  In a 2006 essay entitled “The Impeachment of George W. Bush,” she not only describes the arduous process of removing a sitting president from office, but also the emotional toll it took on everyone in both houses of congress at the time.

“I can still remember the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach during those proceedings,” she wrote, “when it became clear that the President had so systematically abused the powers of the presidency and so threatened the rule of law that he had to be removed from office.  As a Democrat who opposed many of President Nixon’s policies, I still found voting for his impeachment to be one of the most sobering and unpleasant tasks I ever had to undertake.  None of the members of the committee took pleasure in voting for impeachment; after all, Democrat or Republican, Nixon was still our President.”

Curiously, she goes on to state, “At the time, I hoped that our committee’s work would send a strong signal to future Presidents that they had to obey the rule of law.  I was wrong.”

In this regard, she was discussing the possible impeachment of George W. Bush.  I can think of no other Chief Executive in modern times who exhibited such incompetence and corruptness as our 43rd president.  That he got into office under dubious circumstances in the first place is enough to question the integrity of our electoral process.  That he managed to remain there, despite mounting evidence of war crimes, is anathema to the grander concept of democracy.  I’ve always said that, if the Democrats had at least made a concerted attempt to remove Bush from office, they wouldn’t just appear heroic in the eyes of their constituents; they also would have upheld the rule of law governing all institutions.

Remember that congressional Republicans tried to remove Bill Clinton for lying about his sexual dalliances.  It was an incredibly one-sided, vindictive assault on democracy – all because the man didn’t want the world to know he’d screwed around on his wife and because right-wing extremists didn’t like him, no matter what he happened.  You’re going to impeach him for THAT?!  Then-House leader Newt Gingrich – who was married to his third wife with whom he’d cheated on his second wife – had led the cavalcade of self-righteous Republicans.  He and his constituents paid for their hypocrisy when they lost their super-majorities in both Houses of Congress in the 1998 elections.

Watching the Trump presidency collapse around the real estate magnate-turned-reality-TV-star is almost laughable.  But it’s not that funny.  His behavioral quirks and fetish for name-calling are hallmarks of social ineptitude and, perhaps, mental instability.  As with George W. Bush, that Trump actually made it into the White House is an insult to the core of the institution of democracy.  Growing evidence shows that Russia interfered with the 2016 U.S. elections.  Exactly how they did it has yet to be discovered – or revealed.  But I honestly believe the Trump presidency is a fluke.

In his novel, “Shibumi,” author Trevanian (Rodney William Whitaker) relays the incredible tale of Nicholai Hel, a Shanghai-born spy of Russian – German heritage who is the world’s most accomplished assassin.  After surviving the carnage of the Hiroshima bombing, Hel retreats to a lavish and isolated mountain citadel with his beautiful Eurasian mistress.  But he’s coaxed back into the netherworld of international espionage by a young woman.  Hel soon learns, however, that he’s being tracked by a mysterious and omnipotent global entity known simply as the “Mother Company.”  The “Company” is a composite of corporate giants that installs leaders in key nations – even those in the developed world – manipulates the markets for such necessities as food and oil and incites wars whenever it deems appropriate.  The conflict between Hel and the “Mother Company” becomes something akin to a board game, where millions of lives are used as toys for the benefit of a few powerful elitists.

I keep thinking we’re already dealing with that type of set-up; that Bush, Jr., was placed into office, so we could go to war in Iraq and gain access to their oil reserves, and that Trump was planted in the White House for whatever machinations the Russian government has underway.

But I still want everyone to be careful with the “I” word.  It really is just a small step from undergoing the lengthy route of impeaching a president to rigging his limousine with explosives – like they do in those unstable third-world societies.  Democracy is a difficult political state to establish.  It’s even more difficult to maintain.  It doesn’t function on its own; it simply can’t.

This mess we’re in may provide great material for standup comics.  But it also presents us with an ethical dilemma.  Again, I ask, do we truly understand how serious this talk of impeachment is?

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Romanov Redux

Russia’s ill-fated Romanov Family, c. 1913.

Shortly after Donald Trump was sworn into office as the 45th President of the United States, I referred to various photographs of the Trump family in their multi-million-dollar New York penthouse residence.  “The Donald” is, of course, featured prominently front and center, with his (third) glamorous, trophy wife perched nearby; along with their son, Baron, and the real estate magnate’s adult children.  Almost as prominent are the slew of plush, gilded furnishings spread throughout the abode.  I kept thinking I’d seen similar photographs before; various pictures from newspapers and magazine, as well as recollections of a TV show that truly embodied 1980s-era chic and gluttony: “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”  (Trump was featured in the very first episode and made recurring appearances.)

At one point, though, I turned to my massive collection of books and spotted one that displayed an even more accurate depiction of the Trump family; another clan who lived long ago in similar plush surroundings, perched high above the lowly masses.  Lindsey Hughes’ “The Romanovs: Ruling Russia 1613 – 1917” describes the life and times of Russia’s last monarchal family.  For more than 300 years, the Romanovs directly impacted world politics with their wealth and power; creating a massive empire that – even in today’s watered-down version – stretches across two continents.  From Tsar Michael to Tsar Nicholas II, the Romanovs maintained a steady grip on the region; impressing their subjects and striking fear in their enemies.

But, by the time the dynasty marked its tercentenary in 1913, that grip had begun to weaken.  Like the rest of Europe’s royal families, the Romanovs remained encapsulated in their heavily-fortified palatial environs; far removed from the sundry plights tormenting their own people and oblivious to the real world lurking outside those jewel-encrusted walls.  Nicholas II was the first of the European monarchs to be ousted from power, as World War I intruded into Russian territory, and a growing internal revolution stalked the Romanov family.

While the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophia, essentially marked the start of World War I, the death of the Romanovs signified the end – not just to the war, but also to the long-held concept that power and wealth are best held in the hands and pockets of a blessed few and that those few are part of the same bloodline that is never to be disturbed or questioned.  It was shocking enough to international onlookers that a single gunman was able to kill Franz and Sophia with a few shots from a pistol; even as many outside of Europe initially wondered where was this place called Austria-Hungary.  But, as news of the Romanovs’ demise trickled out, the anger and frustration of an oppressed people became brutally apparent.  Nicholas and his immediate family, along with a handful of servants, were peppered with bullets in a basement far removed from their stately home; their bodies burned beyond recognition and dumped in neighboring woods.

The Trump family in their New York penthouse abode.

World War I was actually the culmination of the growing anarchist movement, which had its genesis in the heated anger of economic and social inequality among Europe’s working classes, before spreading westward across the Atlantic to plant itself in the U.S. and Canada.  Even México had succumbed to the wrath of the peasant masses; with outlaws Francisco “Pancho” Diaz and Emiliano Zapata joining forces to lead a revolt against a semi-monarchal dynasty of wealthy landowners and bankers.

This was the dawn of the 20th century; where ordinary people – the one who really keep a nation moving – finally stood up and collectively announced, “Enough!”  The rampages continued, as Europe began losing their colonial holdings in Africa and elsewhere, and Latin American nations saw military dictatorships crumble in the face of concerted human rights’ campaigns.  One of the 20th century’s last acts of peasant anarchy came with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  In Romania, the chaos became lethal when leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were dragged before a court trial staged by their otherwise lowly subjects, found guilty and lynched in public.  That something so horrific could happen in 1989 shocked the world.  But, for the oppressed peoples of staunchly communist Romania, it was perhaps the best Christmas present they’d ever had.

To some extent, anarchism actually sprouted roots with the American Revolution, where a mass of English immigrant descendants decided they simply did not want to be slaves to the British Crown.  Shortly afterwards, French commoners took a queue from their American counterparts and launched their own revolution; one where they didn’t just extract their regal hoodlums from gigantic estates, but relished in the sight of royal heads literally rolling across wooden platforms.  Throughout the 19th century, Spain and Portugal stood virtually helpless as their colonial holdings in the Americas wrenched themselves from the clutches of royal decree – only to stumble through the difficulties of independence and struggles with democracy; quagmires that exist to this day.

In 1900, China’s Boxer Rebellion was a desperate attempt by commoners to boot out European interlopers, which included assaults on Christian missionaries and converts.  Some 100,000 people lost their lives in the various battles that summer.  But a growing dissatisfaction towards the Qing Dynasty and the family of Emperor Puyi (sometimes spelled P’u-i) compelled the working classes to descend upon the sacred and mysterious “Forbidden City.”  Puyi was only 3 years old when he ascended to the throne in 1908; less than four years later he was forced to abdicate and lived out the rest of his life as an undistinguished commoner.  At the start of the 20th century, it seemed that China was poised to endure the same experience as the African continent: be carved up by European colonialists.  But, if the Chinese people no longer wanted single family rule, did anyone believe they’d let bands of foreigners from the other side of the globe do the same?  By the 1930s, China had evicted the Europeans.

World War II fractured Europe.  A few royal families managed to survive; most notably in Great Britain.  But they were all financially and morally exhausted.  This culminated in the U.K. losing their colonial hold on India and Pakistan in 1947.  Next came the vast continent of Africa, where European decolonialization occurred over the ensuing four decades; a massive undertaking that involved millions of people on a scale the world had never experienced before.

The 20th century’s anarchist fangs reached across the globe, toppling the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos and Haiti’s Jean-Claude Duvalier in the 1980s.  One of its high points was the release of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the dismantling of that country’s brutal apartheid regime within a decade.  South Africa had been the last of Europe’s many colonial assets to gain independence.

Imprisoned by the British in 1953 following the Mau Mau uprising and exiled in 1959, Jomo Kenyatta later emerged as one of the best-known African leaders. He served as Kenya’s first president from 1967 – 1978 and founded various pan-African nationalist movements.

A low point, though, was Argentina’s futile attempt to wrest control of the Falkland Islands from Great Britain in 1982; a brief conflict that resulted in more than 900 military deaths.  Why the U.K. insists on retaining control of this tiny cluster of isolated rocks 7500 miles from the homeland remains less of a mystery than a prime example of colonialist arrogance.  (Some Britons still refer to the U.S. as “the colonies.”)  While Argentina was in no political or financial position to engage in such a daring military feat at the time, they have since matured and solidified their infrastructure.  In 2012, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner blocked two British cruise ships that had visited the Falklands from docking on the mainland.  Argentina has vowed to enforce further similar bans in the future, which could damage the Falklands’ vital tourist industry.

In the Middle East, anarchism produced schizophrenic results.  Anti-royal sentiments led to the 1973 deposition of the Barakzai, Afghanistan’s royal family.  That may have set the stage for the Soviet Union’s bloody but futile attempt to annex that country in 1979.  However, the U.S. became unexpectedly mired in the antagonism of the Iranian populace towards their own royal family, the Pahlavis.  Shah Reza Pahlavi had crowned himself emperor in 1967 and led a brutal regime where dissidence was punished with unprecedented violence and oppression – tools common among wicked oligarchs.  Pahlavi’s 1978 ouster led to the notorious Iran Hostage Crisis, which caught both the U.S. and the world completely off-guard.  Concerned more with the Soviet threat and the oddly-christened “Cold War,” the U.S. government unwittingly experienced its first battle with Islamic extremism.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, royal families held on in Jordan and Syria.  The discovery of oil on the Arabian Peninsula in the 1930s allowed the region’s ruling families and their subjects to be pulled up from the doldrums of a tribal / fiefdom-style existence and dropped into the vats of unimaginable wealth.  No one seemed to care that women couldn’t drive cars, much less vote.

Average Mexican citizens rose up in 1910 to depose President Porfirio Diaz who ruled over them off and on for nearly four decades.

While anarchist anger dominated the 20th century, does the same hold true now?  Studying the Trump clan, I can’t help but conjure up images of the Romanovs.  Economic inequality is just as great now as it was a hundred years ago.  We’ve returned to that “Gilded Age” period where the bulk of the world’s wealth and power sit in the grubby hands of a privileged few.  The recent “Great Recession” was the worst economic downturn the U.S. had experienced since the “Great Depression.”  Both debacles were the result of greed and political incompetence; the former mess instigated by the verbally-challenged scion of another monarchal-type dynasty: the Bush family.  Aside from producing two of the worst presidencies within a generation, the Bush clan’s close ties to the Saudi royal family essentially allowed planning for and execution of the 9/11 events to go unnoticed; thus culminating in one misguided war and another illegitimate one, as the economy glided atop a housing bubble that didn’t just pop – it exploded.  If regulations and measures a liberal president had established some eight decades ago hadn’t been in place, both the U.S. economy and the U.S. populace would have sunk into chaotic and murderous oblivion.

Power and wealth usually go together; conjoined twins that sometimes have no mercy for the commoners squirming beneath them.  The leftist “Occupy Wall Street” movement didn’t gain as much traction as the right-wing “Tea Party,” which claimed passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010 as the seeds of their founding; when, in fact, it was the election of the nation’s first biracial president that pissed them off.  If they were so upset about undue taxation, they would have put blame for the economic downturn where it belonged: on the backs of their own Washington leaders who keep propagating the myth of “trickle-down economics.”

But the rise of a foul-mouthed, thrice-married bombastic businessman to the highest office in the land has lit another fire beneath millions of ordinary Americans frustrated with a “jobless recovery”; no one going to jail for causing the recent banking / home loan debacle; and endless conflicts in the Middle East.  The illegitimacy of Donald Trump’s placement in the White House makes a mockery of the American democratic experience.  Our 18th century predecessors carefully designed a unique concept of governing and valiantly fought against the very people who brought them here.  The United States was an outlandish experiment that could have gone seriously wrong if so many people hadn’t realized its true value and potential over the ensuing centuries.  As a nation, we didn’t want a group of self-righteous elitists – families riddled with colorblindness, hemophilia and unbridled arrogance – to rule over us and not be questioned.  Our American forbears understood that humanity must work as a unit to achieve the best possible society.  The various civil rights actions of the past 200 years – from abolitionism to gay/lesbian rights – have helped to refine this strange idea known as democracy.

Looking again at the Trump clan, I still can’t help but think of the Romanovs and realize how much they all have in common.  However, I don’t wish the same fate upon the Trumps.  As brutal as we often seem to the international community, that’s not what Americans do or who we are.

Either way, we didn’t want or need a royal family 240 years ago to impose its fickle will upon our lives – and we don’t want or need one now.

 

Film footage of Tsar Nicholas II’s coronation in May 1896.  It’s one of the earliest known (and one of the fewest surviving) motion pictures and the first known example of the new medium utilized to capture a major news event.

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Telling Donald Trump Not to Tweet Is Like…

The 45th President of the United States has achieved a previously unimaginable goal: reduce the size of the federal government.  In this case, it’s the presidency, which has been downgraded to 140 characters.  He has left people disoriented and unsettled; rattled and dismayed; flummoxed and constipated.  Many of his most devout followers have embraced the lemming ideology of life and started following their magical penis-pied piper to the precipice of a faux utopia.  And we thought George W. Bush was mentally-challenged!  Well…he was.  Yet Trump has taken messianic mendacity to supersonic levels.  I keep thinking that someone on his staff should advise him to keep his pre-dawn twittering in the bathroom.  But that would be like telling Abraham Lincoln, ‘Don’t go to the theatre!  You’ll catch a cold.’  It’s virtually impossible to demand this bombastic, bull-headed businessman behave presidential.

It may be hard to imagine, but there are some logical comparisons to such a feat.  But there are plenty.  Therefore, telling Donald Trump NOT to Tweet is like…

  • …telling the Kardashian girls not to take selfies.
  • …telling Bill Clinton to honor his marriage vows.
  • …telling Matthew McConaughey to keep on his shirt.
  • …telling Ann Coulter to stop being such a bitch.
  • …telling Justin Bieber to act like an adult.
  • …telling Michael Moore to lay off the doughnuts and eclairs.
  • …telling Elton John to tone down his wardrobe.
  • …telling Kanye West to stop interrupting people.
  • …telling Paris Hilton to get a job.
  • …telling Rush Limbaugh to take a deep breath.
  • …telling Caitlyn Jenner to grow a pair.
  • …telling Willie Nelson to shave and get a trim.
  • …telling Barbara Walters to retire once and for all.
  • …telling Eminem to act White.
  • …telling Pope Francis to stop wearing those designer gowns.
  • …telling Bill Maher to shut the hell up.
  • …telling Oprah Winfrey no one misses her.
  • …telling Brittney Spears she can’t sing worth a shit.
  • …telling Snoop Dogg to learn proper English.
  • …telling Alec Baldwin to stop making fun of Trump.

Telling Donald Trump Not to Tweet is like… [Readers, please feel free to provide your own response].  The more fun we can have with this, the more likely Trump will get pissed off and Tweet and subsequently provide us all with more joke material.  And the more we can all laugh at and ridicule our mentally-unhinged elected officials will bring us closer to that highly-coveted state of national nirvana.

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Good News With Trump

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In my 40-plus years of watching, studying and laughing at American politics, I have NEVER seen the country as divided as it is now.  I thought things were bad in the 1990s, when conservatives tried everything they could to bounce Bill Clinton out of office – and only succeeded in proving he has a female fetish (like most straight men do), while making themselves look like incompetent assholes.

Then came these last two decades, and the country became even more divided; first under George W. Bush (the poster child for closet alcoholics) and then under Barack Obama (the poster child for grace under extreme pressure and stupidity; the latter two courtesy of the even more assholish conservatives, if that’s actually possible).

But now, with Donald J. Trump in the White House (and his third wife several miles away in her gilded penthouse loft), I’ve been surprised.  Again!  The U.S. even more divided than Neapolitan ice cream.  If it gets any more divided, opposing sides will fall off into the oceans; thus making global warming look like a bad day at the beach.  Then again, if the extremists do fall off into the ocean, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

Still, amidst the dim-bulb antics of the current presidential administration, I’ve actually found some bright moments.  Yes, even with a psychologically unstable, orange-tinted, womanizing twit-master like Trump occupying the highest office in the land, there are a few positives.  It’s proof that, indeed, you can make wine from prunes!

  • People realize the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is just as important as the Second.
  • They’ve learned the names of their local congressional representatives.
  • Voting (or not) really does matter.
  • Two centuries of civil and human rights progress aren’t 100% safe and untouchable.
  • Not everything on Facebook or Wikipedia is true.
  • Hispanics aren’t “recent immigrants.”  We’ve been here longer than the Trump family.
  • Neanderthals didn’t die off; they became Republicans.
  • The term “alternative facts” makes less sense than “compassionate conservative.”
  • The nation’s infrastructure, like dams and highways, is under greater threat than gun rights.
  • The inexpensive (meaning, cheap) food we buy at Wal-Mart doesn’t grow or pick itself.
  • Decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court actually do impact our lives.
  • Women’s bodies aren’t “hosts.”
  • Not all White males are evil.
  • The British really can get pissed off.
  • The Cold War didn’t end with the collapse of the Soviet Union; it moved into cyberspace.
  • Reality TV is dangerous.
  • Neo-Nazis remain a threat.
  • Politicians who have nothing more important to do than regulate public bathrooms need to be voted out of office.
  • People without English surnames often speak better English than people with English surnames.
  • Building a wall along the U.S.-México border will put a lot of Mexican immigrants to work.
  • Republican politicians have no qualms about eliminating healthcare for poor, sick people; while enjoying their own taxpayer-funded health insurance.
  • Coal mining is as obsolete as it is dangerous and dirty.
  • We need more female politicians.
  • Native Americans have put up with enough shit from the U.S. government.
  • The Kardashians aren’t (and never have been) relevant to anything.
  • President Obama was too nice to his critics, but I still feel he should have been able to run for a third term.  You know…just to piss off the Republicans.
  • American was great long before Trump ran for office.
  • How soon before we can fly to Mars?

 

Image: Gary Larson

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