History

“It Was Twenty Years Ago Today”

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In 2005 my wife dragged me, kicking and screaming, to China. I did not want to go because I had a picture in my head that I was quite comfortable with and didn’t feel like challenging it. But, since my wife is almost invariably right it turned out to be one of the most amazing trips of my life. I still talk about the asparagus. Best asparagus ever. No doubt it was farmed in melamine-tainted soil with carcinogenic fertilizers – but it was truly delicious.
My experiences in China taught me many things – and I wrote about it here. The trip opened my eyes to the fact that China is not communist as much as it’s totalitarian capitalist. I saw Ferarris and BMWs and other expensive cars you’re not supposed to have in Marx’s ludicrous class-free fantasy land. I saw a modernity that I’d never expected to see. Sure, over a billion live in squalor, but 300 million more – a number that’s close to the total number of us here in the U.S. – live middle and upper-middle class lives. They go to bars and restaurants, hang out with friends, drive cars, and have jobs that don’t involve wearing comrade overalls. In many ways they’re like us, with the exception that the government is ominous, ever-present and really creepy.
One of the most popular things I’ve ever written came from the trip. Sad really. I spend so much time trying to be high-brow, yet I write about poo and it becomes the star of the show.
China introduced me to fantastic and bizarre culinary and cultural experiences. Like sucking down dumplings as twelve people stood around me, waiting to take my seat. And eating a bird’s nest. But one of the most enriching experiences came from talking to people. They live on the other side of the world, have a totally different perspective on life, and have ingrained opinions on our culture and lifestyle – just as we do about theirs.
Naturally, they’re guarded. Their lives can be dramatically altered at the whim of the state. For that reason, most of the people I met steered clear of politics. Some people were clearly brainwashed – like the ones peddling Mao’s Little Red Book and selling cutesy Mao watches. The man killed millions upon millions of his own people – on purpose and through failed policy – yet to lots of folks he’s like Bono.
Other people simply chose the path of least resistance. They had good lives, especially when compared to the life of a peasant in the countryside. They didn’t want to muck that up. You don’t ask questions, you accept the rules that are laid down, you sacrifice what you’re asked to sacrifice, and all’s well.
But there are others. The ones who see through the propaganda, the censorship and the whitewashing. They’re not content to live in a land of awesome asparagus. They see their government for what it is: a big, uncaring, scary, all-powerful machine that is perfectly willing to gun down thousands of people for the crime of wanting something better.
I met one of those people on the trip. In the safety and security of his car he was able to let his guard down and as we talked I got a sense that he was a dissenter. Unlike other people who had recited the party line to me on various topics, he had opinions and asked me questions about my country and politics. As we went past the giant portrait of Mao over the gates of Tiananmen I asked him what he thought about Mao, Tiananmen, the Party and the night in 1989 when students did the unthinkable by gathering in protest. Something that scared the living bejeezus out of their government.
He shook his head, and recalled that night. He was there. Hope and change weren’t marketing buzzwords, they were ripples emanating from that square and rocking the very foundation of the Chinese government. He was there when that excitement turned into terror as gunfire ripped people apart, and he was among the panicked crowds that fled down side streets, lucky to avoid the bullets and batons his government used to silence dissent.
He lost friends that night. And he was full of anger about it, as he should have been. I took away from our conversation two things: One, he was a man who, just like you and I would, seethed from the injustice perpetrated on his fellow citizens. And two, he was afraid that his government would succeed in making it all a distant memory.
The leaders of the People’s Republic would really, really like us all to forget that night, twenty years ago today. They do every Orwellian thing they can to pretend it was a non-event, that thousands didn’t die, and that parents weren’t awakened by soldiers dumping the bodies of their children on the doorstep.
It was an ugly, ugly night. They’d like to forget it all happened. All you have to do to strike a blow against tyranny is to not let them.
My friend would thank you. Quietly, of course.

The Six Wives of Jake Gyllenhaal

The facial recognition technology at MyHeritage.com uses complex algorithms to examine facial characteristics and match them to an extensive database of photographs. Some day we’ll be using it to locate relatives – but today we’re using it for casting purposes, to see which actors the computer thinks Henry VIII and his six wives most resemble.
KING HENRY VIII
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Henry VIII is the first to be examined (kings always go first or you can get in trouble). The computer scrutinizes the portrait and determines that actor Jake Gyllenhaal would play the King. Can’t argue with that, though Jake would have to gain plenty of weight to be a contender.
CATHERINE OF ARAGON
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Henry wanted to divorce poor Katherine so badly that he shut down Catholicism in England for a bit, which made the Pope all frowny-faced. The computer believes Cate Blanchett would make a great Catherine – which seems like a solid casting decision as she can act and she’s already played Anne Boleyn’s daughter.
ANNE BOLEYN
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Anne Boleyn’s mean-spirited antics and conniving persona would make her a great contestant on Survivor. Unfortunately there was no Survivor five hundred years ago, so instead she got her head taken off. The computer believes John Cusack to be the man for the job. That’s a role we’d all most likely enjoy watching him play.
JANE SEYMOUR
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Henry had a soft spot for Jane, probably because she died after childbirth and he didn’t have a chance to behead or divorce her. The computer’s choice is ironic: Jane was undone from having a child, and Madonna from buying one. Incidentally, these complex facial recognition algorithms do not take acting ability into account.
ANNE OF CLEVES
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The portrait of Anne of Cleves is a bit misleading. Henry described her face as that of “a Flanders mare” and wasn’t at all happy about being set up with her. He divorced her, and the guy who arranged the union was separated from his head. The computer says Colin Firth is the man to be Anne. With Cusack as Boleyn this production runs the risk of becoming a Monty Python act.
CATHERINE HOWARD
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If you’re going to be dumb enough to cheat on the king you’d best be discreet about it. But if you’re dumb enough to cheat on the king you’re probably not going to be discreet about it. Case in point: Catherine, beheaded for extra-marital humping which is treason when hubby is the boss of you. Jessica Alba looks the part, so says the computer. A good call as she’d help bring in the 18-34 demographic.
CATHERINE PARR
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Henry was already old and had a festering leg wound at this point, but she’s still lucky to come out unscathed considering his track record. The computer says the lady who outlived the king should be played by Lucy Liu. This presents some casting issues unless it’s a multi-cultural endeavor with disabled dwarfs and Lindsay Lohan as the king.

Us Weekly Visits The Fuhrerbunker

Usually it’s the Gestapo rapping their knuckles on your door, but this week Us was the one doing the knocking – and on the big, metal door belonging to none other than Adolf Hitler!
The Fuhrer invited us to join him on his special retreat as he takes a well-deserved break from his duties as leader of the Reich to spend some quality time with gorgeous and lively fiancée Eva Braun, best friend Blondi, and the usual entourage accorded the chief of a police state.

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“Honestly, I’m a little shy,” says the laid-back Austrian, “There’s nothing I like better than sitting in my little room with very thick walls, receiving reports on how great the war is going.”
Though suffering heavy losses in the two-front war he started, a confident Hitler tells Us the time is ripe for victory and that he’s right where he wants to be: in a bunker waiting for the imaginary Panzers under Gruppenfürer Steiner to rout the Soviets and win the war.
Hitler tells Us about the grand city that Berlin will become – a metropolitan masterpiece designed by heartthrob Albert Speer. “Wait ’til you see the Volkshalle!” he tells Us, “It will be incredible! INCREDIBLE! INCREDIBLE!”
His optimism is contagious. “There will be no Jews,” says Joseph Goebbels, his Propaganda Minister.

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Where does he get the boundless energy it takes to conquer the world? Friends say it’s his genuine love for the Fatherland, though a source close to Nazi doc Theodore Morell tells Us it might be a regimen of amphetamines and cocaine eyedrops. When an Us reporter mentions that rumor, Hitler laughs heartily before she is escorted upstairs to the leader’s beautifully landscaped schootingraunds.
When Us asks about his steamy underground romance, Hitler stays mum, but sources close to Us say something’s in the air and there could be exciting news any moment.
“The Soviets will be here in two days,” Martin Bormann tells Us, “Heil Hitler.”

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Aelfred of Dunwoody Recalls a Viking Incursion at Wal-Mart, 848 AD.

First to fall was the greeter, Matthew the Elder, pierc’d in the throat by an arrow. Those of us who survived this day owe him great thanks, as before he fell he was able to alert the nearby cashiers. With speed and determination they took it upon themselves to spread the message that the Vikings were setting upon us in short order, having parked their longboats in all the handicapped spaces.
Several customers, some mid-purchase and others with intention to purchase a variety of discounted goods, were encouraged to leave them behind and proceed with haste to the gardening aisle. It was believed the tools there provided the best defense from the Vikings, in particular the Remington 16-inch electric chainsaw, the price of which had been recently rolled back to $57.77.

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Churchill During NPR Pledge Week

I have myself full confidence that if all do their duty,
if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made,
as they are being made,
we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our island home,
to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny,
if necessary for years, if necessary alone.
But to do that, we need you.
Whatever amount, no matter how small you believe it to be, it’s significant to us. If you enjoy this country as much as I do, show it, please.
Do that by going to your phone right now and showing your support.
We have a great year of planning ahead of us.
We tackle the important issues, like Nazis, and to do that properly, successfully, we need your assistance.
I can’t stress enough how much we need it, because we plan on winning.
At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do.
That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government, every man of them.
That is the will of Parliament and the nation.
The British Empire and the French Republic,
linked together in their cause and in their need,
will defend to the death their native soil,
aiding each other like good comrades
to the utmost of their strength.
We have a gift certificate from Ellen’s Bakery.
All that takes is a pledge of $25 or more. Just $25.
You will enjoy the very best brownies from Ellen’s.
An I Support England beach tote is yours at the $100 level.
It’s lovely, really. And it shows that you’re one of those folks
who doesn’t take their country for granted, but actively supports it.
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States
have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo
and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule,
we shall not flag or fail.
But to give you the country that you like takes money. It’s not cheap.
And it’s more important than ever that you rise to the occasion and pledge.
You might think that you’ll get us next year, but there might not be a next year.
To guarantee that you have the same country you love, the same monuments,
the same great officials – who aren’t Nazis – we need you to phone in right now.
Make a pledge. We’re going to be here until we reach our financial goals.
We shall go on to the end.
We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air,
We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be,
We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds,
We shall fight in the fields, and in the streets,
We shall fight in the hills;
We shall never surrender.
So please. Right now there are only four of our folks on the phone.
That means millions of you are holding off, waiting. Don’t wait.
We need your support.
And thank you to Anne Lancaster. She just pledged $125.
The beach tote is hers. The gift certificate to Ellen’s Bakery.
And she earns our thanks, as the kind of countryman we count on.
But still, that’s a drop in the bucket considering what we need to raise.
And even if, which I do not for a moment believe,
this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving,
then our Empire beyond the seas,
armed and guarded by the British Fleet,
would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time,
the new world, with all its power and might,
steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
But let’s not let it get to that point.
Please, go to the phone.
It takes two minutes, and can make a world of difference.

Events Historians Have Ignored With Good Reason

The Battle of Geddy Lee
The Frowning Upon of Sir Henry Cromwell of Hinchinbrook, 1588
Massacre of the Not-So-Innocents
Martin’s Theory of Recently Printed Matter Drying Much Quicker When You Wave It Around
The Stiffing of Beer Hall Putsch Waitress Elga Bundsen, 1923
Plato’s Treatise on Prawns
Invention of the Footprint
Ben O’Malley’s Mastery of Darts, 1994
The Bitching of Rona, 1616
The Castigation of Thomas
First Poliolympic Games
The Night Ben Franklin Swore He Was Just Visiting A Friend On Elfreth’s Alley But The Smell Of His Jacket Said Otherwise.
Drafting of the Constitution of McDaid Toyota, 1987
Warner Brothers’ Theory of Antigravity Machines
The Eighth Charge of the Light Brigade
Birth of Gunfighter “Laid Back Bill” Geharty, 1852
First Draft of Krull, 1981
Party at Duke William’s Place, Normandy, 1064
The Microwaving of One Entire Pound of Ground Beef at 3:30am Whilst the Others Slept
The Non-Eventful, Peaceful Reign of Emperor Qub of Atlantis
Discovery of the Dark near Pluto
Clara’s Lamentations of The Washing Away of Adam’s Pyramid When The Tide Came In
Turkish Comedyquake of 1893
Budapest’s Terrible Rash of 1233
Execution of Libby D’Arc, 1438
Schlitzkrieg, Milwaukee, 1957

Dear Medieval Freake

I’m tired of all ye Medieval freakes trying to tell me how great the Medieval times are. Well, I’m there right now and I can tell you that it’s a whole bunch of crap, for certain. I just buried my fourth wife for starters. I lost my first Katherine to complications of childbirth, the second Katherine to the plague, Jane to childbirth and for the love of God, the doctor has no idea what killed my third Katherine, though he does think it’s no coincidence that she was in childbirth.
How dare you prance about your “realistic Medieval village” in some suburban cow pasture with your overweight Medieval fans in cumbersome body armor and tell me how great it is here. Do you know we throw raw sewage out on the streets? How great do you think that is? How lovely do you think that smelleth in the middle of summer? You try taking a God forsaken stroll in your fancy robes (I’m merchant class) and tell me that it’s a lot of fun. Huzzah my ass. Everything smells like crap. And I haven’t bathed in a fortnight, I’ll have you know, because some jackass Frenchman dropped a dead cow in our well during the siege.
And you won’t find any damn souvenir shops in my village, I can assure you. We don’t have any stores that sell Medieval swing chairs, whatever in damnation that may be. And your swords? They’re for scoundrels. They’re not even sharp. We also don’t have laser-etched crystals here. Or dragons for that matter, though try and tell that to St. George and he’ll get all pissy.
Whoever believes that you could just purchase a giant turkey leg has another thing coming too. I’ll be lucky to have a frickin’ potato tonight. Goddamn French ate or raped all the poultry. I’d give what’s left of my right ear to have some unpermited shack distributing cheap turkey legs down the road.
Yeah, this Medieval life is so frickin’ great. I guess that’s why my first son died from the consumption. How romantic. You sure you want a castle? Why don’t you open the windows in your apartment in the dead of winter and stroll about wearing eight parkas. Same thing. There’s your friggin’ castle, your highness.
And all this crap with the jousting? Jousting? I’ve been to one damn joust my whole life, and it was only because I thought I might have a chance to grab some royalty aside and get my “heretic” brother’s death sentence commuted. You think we all just sit around jousting all day? We’re too busy coughing up blood, believe you me. And if not that, we’re scrambling around trying to figure out why the Good Lord chose to set fire to the warehouse. I’ve had a blister for eight years. My aunt’s a leper. I sleep near a goat. Go to hell, Medieval fans.
I have the right mind to kicketh you in the codpiece.