“Join, or Die:” America’s First Meme

Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 version of the iconic reptile.

The “Join, or Die” snake is one of America’s most recognizable, beloved and replicated icons. Emblazoned on flags and t-shirts, pillow cases and iPhone cases, and even on tv show title cards and in comic books, the image is upheld today as a both specifically as an emblem of American independence, and generally as bid for unity against a common oppression. But the world’s most adored reptile didn’t start this way.

Created by Benjamin Franklin in 1754, the “Join, or Die” snake originally signified loyalty to the English empire. It wasn’t a call to action, but an order to fall into line. It was only later that “Join, or Die” evolved into a revolutionary rallying cry — and when it did, it became America’s first meme, too.

Continue reading

All the LGBT Books Around My House

Pride month ends today, and I still haven’t penned anything LGBTQ-related. Considering so much of my career has been in gay media, that seems wrong. But what to write? I’m pretty out of touch with queer politics and culture at the moment, so I guess I’ll just keep it simple: a cruise through lavender-tinged titles around my house.

Starting in my office, where I spend most of my time, the top row of a tall brown Ikea Billy bookshelf holds many homo-related hardbacks: Leo Lerman’s diaries, The Grand Surprise, abut Between Me and Life, Meryle Secrest’s biography of lesbian painter Romaine Brooks, which are next to the equally Sapphic Selected Letters of Willa Cather, which is pressed against The Days of Anna Madrigal. Theoretically the rest of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series should be up here, but those paperback copies are elsewhere.

On that same row you’ll find Tim Murphy’s Christadora, about the lives, loves and losses of people in the East Village apartment building of the same name, and Cathers’ collection of short stories, Obscure Destinies, which I’ve never read but hope to soon. Speaking of, I’m not sure where my copy of O Pioneers! moseyed off to; I do know My Antonia was abandoned on a Brooklyn stoop — I didn’t care for her. Meanwhile, a few titles over from Destinies, are three EM Forster tomes: his realist and oh-too-relevant political collection, Two Cheers for Democracy; the heart-breaking Maurice; and a collection of the English author’s short tales. (Howard’s End is elsewhere.)

Finally, off to the right, a recently acquired paperback of John Rechy’s raunchy Rushes lays on its side, appropriately removed and aptly aloof.

Continue reading

Found in the LOC: 5 Alcoholism PSAs, 1972-1976

I recently celebrated six years since my last alcoholic beverage. Awesome, right?! I think so, especially since I started drinking at age 12 or 13 and by the end of my journey, at age 31, I was waking at 6am just to take a slug of whiskey, of which I drank at least a liter daily before passing out in a puddle of sweat and filth on my frame-less mattress, as I had done the day before, and the one before that, and before that, too. You get the idea.

By the time I hit bottom I was unemployed, kicked out of my apartment and penniless.  Luckily, I had friends and family willing to help me down the road to recovery. And now here I am: I have a roof over my head, steady work, a boyfriend and a cat, and, most importantly, an incredible sense of accomplishment for having freed myself from a cycle of shame and regret.

With that in mind, and with discussion that alcohol perhaps played a role in Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain’s suicides, here are five vintage PSAs about alcoholism, all government-issued between 1972 and 1976. Why don’t such things exist today? I haven’t done too much research, but my educated guess is that it has something to do with liquor lobbyists and political persuasion and some agreement that a small “please drink responsibly” print fulfilled the companies’ legal obligations, even though The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found in 2105 that 15.1 million adults suffer from alcoholism in the United States, while 26.9% of adults reported binge drinking that same year.

Meanwhile, alcohol contributes to 88,000 deaths annually, and that’s not counting drunk driving deaths (almost 10,500 in 2017), nor does it consider the contributing role alcohol plays in non-fatal domestic and sexual violence (an estimated 100,000 cases each year). In other words, alcohol has vast destructive potential too often ignored.

If you are struggling with your alcohol usage, please check out Alcoholics Anonymous or another dedicated group. I’m proof that even the most desperate of cases can free themselves from alcohol dependency. It takes hard work and a lot of honesty and you may lose some drinking buddies, but it’s far less than what could be taken from you in the long run: your life.

Anyway, check out these dope alcoholism PSAs, AFTER THE JUMP….

Continue reading

Video: Helen Keller Tells It

In addition to being a die-hard advocate for women’s rights, a champion for people with disabilities and totally anti-war, Helen Keller, whose 138th birthday is today, was also fiercely socialist. Economic inequality was anathema to America’s promises of equality and opportunity, she said.

The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands—the ownership and control of their livelihoods—are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.

And this same sentiment informed her anti-war stance, too:

The few who profit from the labor of the masses want to organize the workers into an army which will protect the interests of the capitalists. … It is in your power to refuse to carry the artillery… You do not need to make a great noise about it. With the silence and dignity of creators you can end wars and the system of selfishness and exploitation that causes wars. All you need to do to bring about this stupendous revolution is to straighten up and fold your arms.

Today, as our nation hurtles further and further into a right-wing nightmare, let’s celebrate Keller not just for overcoming being deaf and blind to become an international inspiration, but for her staunch defense of human rights, democracy and American justice, something which, if recent news is any indication, is increasingly blind. (And will likely become even more so…)

AFTER THE JUMP, Keller discusses her greatest regret – not being able to speak like the rest of us, which is too bad, because she left a far larger impression than most people who can speak “normal.”

Continue reading

Fun with Words: Feckless is So Hot Right Now

The word “feckless” has been cropping up a lot as of late.

Longtime GOP strategist Steve Schmidt deployed it in a recent denouncement of the Republican Party’s devolution into a Trumpian cult: “[The GOP] is filled with feckless cowards who disgrace and dishonor the legacies of the party’s greatest leaders.” Kathy Griffin used the f-word when taking Melania Trump to task for not standing up more to her bully bigot husband: “You know damn well your husband can end this [child separation] immediately… you feckless, complicit piece of shit.”  And Samantha Bee employed “feckless” with aplomb when she famously and controversially called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt.” *

That said, today’s Fun with Words explores the etymological origins of “feckless,” which today is primarily used to mean “weak” or “worthless,” “ineffective” and “impotent.” And that’s pretty much what it’s always meant, ever since its arrival on the linguistic scene in the 1590s, when Scottish vernacular truncated “effect” to form “feck,” meaning, “vigor, effect or value.” Used in a sentence: “Ivanka Trump is a valueless [noun of choice here].”

“Feckless” should not be confused with Irish “feck,” a milder form of “fuck.”

It’s worth noting: The Online Etymology Dictionary says that though the term’s been around since the late-sixteenth century, it was popularized in the mid-nineteenth, due to Thomas Carlyle’s penchant for using it. He wrote in 1823, for example, “I am so feckless at present that I have never yet had the heart to commence it.” He was also apparently quite fond of “feckless’” opposite, “feckful,” which has since fallen out of use.

*Also, as an aside The Etymology Dictionary entry on “cunt” is one of the longest I’ve ever seen. The first usage apparently dates back to 1230, and referred to a prostitution track called gropecuntlane, a location name that speaks volumes about how women have been treated throughout history. (It’s also very Trumpian…)

Cunt subsequently used to varying degrees throughout Europe, often with different apparent origins — wedge, hollow place, just woman — but always with the same rough meaning. It wasn’t until the 1600s that people started taking offense to it. And clearly opinion remains divided today: obviously some really don’t like it, as seen in outrage of Bee’s usage, while others are firmly in Sally Field’s camp:

Here, here!

The Incredible Arthur Ellerman

The Ellerman crew circa 1917. Based on his football background, I think Arthur’s standing second from right.

 

A history book’s minor character becomes the author’s editorial sidepiece, resulting in an essay that includes log cabins, net neutrality, research methods, Twin Peaks, romance, politics and one very good dog.

Continue reading