What a wonderful world

In retrospect, I blame IGY.

Or rather Donald Fagen did. And who knew that my favorite jazz-rock fusion guy would also turn out to be my own generation’s Nostradamus? 

Fagen’s “I.G.Y.” was the lead cut in his 1982 solo album “The Night Fly.” And 37 years later his dry irony still resonates. 

Fagen’s “I.G.Y.” promised us an amazing future secured by:

A just machine to make big decisions

Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision

We’ll be clean when their work is done

We’ll be eternally free yes and eternally young

What a beautiful world this will be

What a glorious time to be free.”

I read of Fagen’s inspiration on Wikipedia: “The title refers to the “International Geophysical Year,” an event that ran from July 1957 to December 1958. The I.G.Y. was an international scientific project promoting collaboration among the world’s scientists. Fagen’s lyrics sarcastically discuss the widespread optimistic vision of the future at that time, including futuristic concepts such as solar-powered cities, a transatlantic tunnel, permanent space stations, and spandex jackets. The song…offers a humorous critique on the naïveté of postwar optimism in America…”

And, listen, Fagen prophesied even before “just” machines began to transform our world with a vengeance. Back when the Moog Synthesizer was deemed the height of technological wizardry. The Internet was a Pentagon wet dream. The personal phone was the stuff of Dick Tracy. 

Oh, we grocked the menace of HAL, thanks to “2001, A Space Odyssey.” But Facebook? 

Still, the totality of all of the above has surely delivered us to the promised land. 

Except, it turns out, that those programmer fellows had less compassion and more warped vision (I’m looking at you, Mark Zuckerberg) than we thought. Who knew social media would hijack our democracy, debase our culture and turn us all against each other? Or that we would devolve into a meaner, uglier, more self-absorbed species once “just” machines began to make our big decisions for us?

We don’t trust government. We hate the news media. We fear “the other”…anyone who doesn’t worship our idea of god or look, think and talk like we do. We huddle over our screens and wage virtual war on each other in splendid anonymity. We want to build walls and arm ourselves, and we are ready to follow any tinhorn despot (I’m looking at you, the other Donald) who assures us that our hatreds and prejudices are right and just. 

What a wonderful world. How glorious to be free. And so easy to be clean at the end of the work day with robots doing more and more of the work.

I know someone – I’m sure we all do – who begins her day bidding Google good morning and getting its disembodied voice to tell her the news and weather and then turn on her television to the preferred channel. We’ve even made the remote control superfluous. How liberating is that? 

True, we can’t vouch for the veracity of the information we’re being spoon fed. But in this Post-Truth Age all “facts” are presumed equal whether factual or not, so no matter. 

Just machines now fly our planes, and only rarely crash them as pilots sit helpless to intervene. Just machines propel us down over-engineered highways with such excess power and at such velocity that we are happy to slaughter thousands of our fellow Americans each year just preserve our freedom of the road. Just machines have become so efficient and accessible that school children are sacrificed en masse on the alter of our sacred right to bear arms. Just machines track our purchasing, political and other perverse preferences. All the better to sell us the items, ideologies and idiocies that we had no idea we wanted. 

Algorithms tell us who and what we are. Facial and voice recognition technologies watch over us. Can’t remember all your passwords? There’s an app for that.

And we have long passed the point of no return on our journey to this brave new world. There may have been a time when we could probably survive a prolonged loss of electricity and internet access. But no more. Not now that just machines run our power plants, control our traffic control, our food distribution system and virtually every other sustaining facet of civilization. How long would the power have to be out before it all collapses into anarchy? Before the most machine-dependent – and not coincidently – heavily armed people in the history of human civilization descend into savagery?

Fagen’s prophecy is our reality.

Standing tough under stars and stripes

We can tell

This dream’s in sight

You’ve got to admit it

At this point in time that it’s clear

The future looks bright

On that train all graphite and glitter

Undersea by rail

Ninety minutes from NewYork to Paris

Well by seventy-six we’ll be A.O.K…

Get your ticket to that wheel in space

While there’s time

The fix is in

You’ll be a witness to that game of chance in the sky

You know we’ve got to win

Here at home we’ll play in the city

Powered by the sun

Perfect weather for a streamlined world

There’ll be spandex jackets one for everyone

What a beautiful world this’ll be

What a glorious time to be free

But take heart. Perhaps the real source of our collective discontent is simply that we do not yet possess that fantastical undersea railway IGY promised. Nor even Elton Musk’s more modest mag-lev tunnel. And, listen, those damned transatlantic flights are sooo long and cramped and boring and soul killing. 

But just imagine…90 minutes to Paris. What a wonderful world it will be then. 

Cross and double cross

Impressive things I saw on my trip to Russia in the summer of 2017.

The Kremlin. The Hermitage

Young couples pushing baby carriages. 

No kidding, they were everywhere. 

That might not sound impressive until you consider the “Russian Cross.” 

That was the infamous point in 1990 – amid the economic chaos that ensued after the fall of Soviet communism – when the rising death rate crossed the falling birth rate. 

The Russian Cross didn’t reverse itself until 2012.  And that didn’t come about by accident. 

Rather, it happened because Russians made a conscious decision to invest in children. Women were awarded “pregnancy allowances” worth several thousand dollars, and lucrative “motherhood capital” benefits for a second child…with still more tacked on for triplets. Child care and pre-school was heavily subsidized so parents could work without worrying about their kids. 

Which, when you think about it, is pretty much the reverse of what we Boomers have been doing back here at home. For years now we have been front-loading our tax breaks and government entitlements toward the goal of making life easier for us seniors in our golden years. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with any society taking care of its elderly. But there’s no question that my generation has chosen to do so at the expense of our children. 

So It was no great surprise to hear, shortly after returning to the U.S. from my Russian visit,  U.S. Sen Orrin Hatch say:  “The reason CHIP’s having trouble is that we don’t have money anymore.”?

CHIPS being the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides care for about 8.9 million American kids. 

Or at least it did before we…um…ran out of money.

Call it the “American Double Cross.” That point at which the political imperative to award tax cuts to the wealthy surpassed the fiscally prudent strategy of investing in our children. In our future, really.

I’d like to think that we are a better country than that, but they keep proving me wrong up in the D.C. Swamp. Especially now that we have well and truly entered the Imperial Age of Trump.

Which is not to say that we are not capable of choosing to invest in our children right here at home. Indeed, in this election just past, Alachua County voters opted to bank on its children on at least two fronts. 

A healthy majority of voters agreed to raise their sales taxes in order to help fix up Alachua County’s aging schools – the State Legislature long ago having, um, economized on public school funding so as to pour more tax dollars into charters and private education.

And while they were at it, local voters also raised their property taxes to better fund basic children’s services: That initiative will raise $6 million to $7 million a year for pre-school education, after school care, early childhood health and nutrition services and more.

Right here at home.

Apparently at least we in Alachua County are better custodians of our children than the likes of Donald Trump and Orrin Hatch. 

One more recollection from my visit to Russia. While on a bicycle tour in St. Petersburg our young guide took us to a small park to show us a monument to the children who helped form the backbone of the local resistance when Germany laid siege to what was then called Leningrad during World War II. 

Just kids, really. But for nearly 900 days they played dangerous cat and mouse games with hardened Nazi shock troops amid the rubble of Tzar Peter’s grand city. And when it was finally over, predictably, the majority of Leningrad’s casualties were women and children.

It is a stirring image of defiant kids. In a green park. In a now prosperous city. In a country that  hasn’t forgotten its children.

I wish we could say the same thing here at home.

(A version of this blog appeared in The Gainesville Sun in Dec. 2017.)

Graveyard of ‘heroes’

(Wrote this in the summer of 2017 for the Gainesville Sun. Still relevant today.)

Stalin’s got a busted nose. 

Shattered in transit, it makes “Old Joe’s” legendary scowl even more pronounced. 

His cold granite visage once stood sentinel at the Bolshoi. Now he resides in more humble digs – a leafy park near the banks of the Moscow River.

In truth, Stalin – let’s call him the Soviet Robert E. Lee – has nothing to smile about.

He is surrounded by a phalanx of grotesque figures – some kneeling, some writhing in pain, some with empty eyes and twisted mouths. 

Collectively, they resemble nothing so much as demons of the fiery hell Old Joe has surely been consigned to. 

And lest anyone forget the “heritage” this man wrought, just over Stalin’s left shoulder is a boxy, cage-like affair containing scores of stone heads – anguish written on each face. 

“Victims to the Totalitarian Regime,” we are informed.

Not too far away, Lenin – we’ll call him Russia’s George Washington – enjoys somewhat more generous treatment. Behind him are large aluminum symbols of the USSR – a giant hammer and sickle, a colorful “CCCP.”

But even Lenin doesn’t get off scott-free in Art Muzeon Park – AKA the Park of Fallen Memorials. 

Arrayed around him are four gaunt, painfully thin and twisted figures by the sculptor O.N. Garkushenko. One is titled “Descent Into Hell.”

Their proximity leaves little to interpretation – however well intended Lenin’s revolution, Russia’s 70-year experiment in Soviet communism went horribly awry.

In Muzeon, the gang’s all here. There is a bust of Brezhnev and a marble of Marx. Kosygin looks queasy, Serdlov dispeptic and Dzerzhinsky depressed.

Each is accompanied by a disclaimer: “This work is historically and culturally significant, being the memorial construction of the Soviet era, on the themes of politics and ideology.”

The Russians are nothing if not pragmatic.

And in Muzeon they can teach Americans something about how to memorialize people and events that many of us would just as soon forget.

I was visiting Russia when Charlottesville burned with rage, Trump excused the nazis and Gainesville said no to Richard Spencer’s bid for a University of Florida podium. Watching these events from afar, I searched for Russian parallels that might lend context to my own country’s current flirtation with the politics of racism, polarization and discontent.

Not many clues in St. Petersburg. That historic city on the Neve seems these days to be infatuated with all things Tsarist (from Ivan the terrible one to Peter and Catherine the great ones.) 

The good and bad of it all being good for tourism, they say.

But Moscow is 400 miles and seemingly two centuries removed from Tsar Peter’s city. If there is anything like a mass infatuation in evidence, it is surely with Putin’s “strong” leadership. His stellar popularity polls must make The Donald green with envy. 

Moscow, a bustling city of 12 million, is reinventing itself at warp speed. New money is  everywhere – in modern glass skyscrapers, sleek sports cars and luxury condos. Grim, gray Kruschev-era apartments are being renovated to resemble Miami high-rises. Immigrants from breakaway republics flock there in search of jobs. And a baby-boom is afoot – helped along by generous government subsidies to encourage procreation,

After the fall of communism in 1992, Soviet statues and busts were torn down by the hundreds, mostly to be left in crumbling piles. But some have since been “rehabilitated” in Muzeon Park. 

Not to be glorified, however.

Nor are they alone. And that is both the genius and the beauty of this park.

Muzeon is a sculpture garden, and Joe and Vladimir and the rest rank as little more than sideshows in the larger context of this magnificent public space.

Not 200 yards from Stalin is a serendipitous tribute to Old Man Mazoy, who, we are told, saved Russia’s rabbits by plucking them out of a flood with his rowboat. Within Lenin’s disapproving line of sight is Shtok’s “The Lying,” a graceful bronze nude shrugging off her nightgown. Next to the aluminum Soviet symbols are hundreds of small statues in a cluster. Angels and bears and children, oh my. Some are cracked and flawed. Some whimsical. Some sobering.

And then there’s the giant hand. 

Maybe it’s just me, but the giant hand seems to be waving a merry bye-bye to Old Joe and his gang of thugs.

Moscow does not believe in tears.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor for The Sun.

The spinx and the water

ST. PETERSBURG: This is a city of grand palaces and colorful onion-domed Russian Orthodox churches, of giant mosques and fortresses and spacious parks and even a sad, still-functioning Cold War-era brick-and-barbed wire prison. 

And it is a city of monuments: Bronze and stone tributes to tsars and saints and heroes and sinners. 

Consider the twin sphinxes that stand sentinel over the wide, blue Neva River. Mirror image studies of grace and torment. Each twin’s face split down the middle – one side reflecting a haunting beauty, the other a grim, skeletal mortality.

“These are my favorite statues because they represent the soul of my city,” Victor, the young bicycle guide we hired to show us Russia’s grand city of 6 million people, said. “We have so much beauty, and we have seen so much suffering.” 

The bloody reign of the tsars. The brutal Nazi siege that could not bring St. Petersburg to its knees. Seven decades of grim Soviet rule.

And the surging water. Always the water. 

Slayer of tens of thousands over the city’s 300-year history, flooding has been St. Petersburg’s most constant tormentor since Peter The Great decided – against the advice of just about everybody who knew the terrain – to build his grand capital in the Neva’s low, swampy delta. 

There is a reason they call St. Petersburg the Venice of the North. The river dissects the city with surgical precision, and along its banks are a network of side canals that these days teem with excursion boats. 

Those canals built, not to enchant tourists, but to get rid of unwanted water. 

Floods happen with predictable regularity due to prevailing winds that send Baltic Sea ice melt surging into the city. One flood in 1824 alone killed as many as 10,000. More than 300 floods have swept over the city since its founding in 1703. 

In his epic poem “The Bronze Horseman,” Alexander Pushkin writes of water that “seethes up from below, manifesting itself in uncontrolled passion, illness, and violence. It rebels against order and tradition.” 

Rather like Harvey rebelled against Huston. 

Like St. Petersburg, Houston sprouted on shallow, swampy lands that should never have been selected to host a city in the first place. Houston grew and drained and dredged and filled and sprawled with no rational planning and little heed for the world’s single most destructive force – water. 

Harvey wasn’t Houston’s first flood, only its deadliest. Like St. Petersburg it has suffered the curse of excess water repeatedly.

Which is not to say these two great cities are sphinx-like mirror images. 

Beginning in 1979 Russia began construction of an elaborate series of 11 dams and related  flood-control structures to protect St. Petersburg. Work was halted after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but began again in 2005 under Vladimir Putin. 

Finally completed in 2011, St. Petersburg’s network of dams, tunnels, discharge sluices and flood gates have since been credited with helping the city survive at least two serious storm events without sustaining major damage. 

Total cost for the project: An estimated $385 billion in U.S. dollars. 

Meanwhile, after the “Tax Day Flood” of 2016 that killed 16 people, Houston asked Congress for a modest $311 million for flood mitigation. 

Congress couldn’t be bothered. Tax cuts these days being deemed a better investment strategy than life-saving infrastructure.

Now Congress must try to figure out how to pay down at least some of the estimated $190 billion in damages Harvey visited on Texas. 

Nobody in D.C. wants to come right out and admit it, but as climate change aggravates both the frequency and intensity of killer storms, we will be forced to choose between two mitigation strategies. 

One is a gradual retreat from the coast, surrendering cities like Houston and Miami and New Orleans to the elements and relocating their populations ever inland. 

The other is to follow the Dutch, Russians and others who that have decided that great cities like London, Venice, Amsterdam and St. Petersburg are worth the not inconsiderable infrastructure costs necessary to sustain them. 

Call it America’s own twin sphinx dilemma. 

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. This column was published in the Sun in August 2017.)

This is not Trump country

OTTAWA: Now I see why Donald Trump has a mad-on about Canada.

Just walk around this grand capital city of rough granite and brown stone perched on the edge of the Ottawa River and you’ll get it. 

Listen, this town wouldn’t even be here if the Canadians hadn’t been so freaked out about a possible  American invasion during the war of 1812 that they terra-formed a lock-and-canal system through the wilderness lest the enemy blockade the St. Lawrence River.

But that’s ancient history. Point is you can’t walk around here today without seeing In-your-Face-Donald signs overt and subtle. 

One restaurant serves a dish called “Love Trumps Hate.” Shops proudly display smiling photos of a young, energetic and articulate leader who is the anti-Trump in every way.

Not Justin Trudeau, although I’m sure they like him too. 

No, Ottawans are still infatuated with Barack Obama, whose last official visit was in 2016. Bakeries sell Obama cookies. 

Not that Canadians are all that vocal about our prez. Rage and anger tend to be an American bumper crop. North of the border they prefer to farm affability. 

“Give a message to your president…” our city bicycle guide began. And then he hesitated, shrugged and dropped it. Discretion being the better part of Canadian valor.

No, this is decidedly not Trump country.

Up on Parliament Hill a bronze suffragette brandishes a banner proclaiming “Women Are Persons.” 

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s still mulling that one over in the D.C. Swamp.

And on a bridge spanning the Rideau Canal, there is an outdoor display of photos and graphics asserting that the Canadian government believes climate change is real, serious and must be confronted, not denied. 

“Climate change impacts human health, the economy and natural resources,” we are informed. While Canada touts wind and solar, it is all coal all the time back in the presidential bunker formerly known as the White House. 

Meanwhile, people are lining up at Ottawa’s National Gallery to see its latest exhibit: Anthropocene.”

That being the theory that the Earth is entering a new geological epoch in which human activity, not nature, is permanently altering the planet. 

“Humans now change the Earth’s systems more than all other natural processes combined,” the exhibit argues. As evidence it offers startling aerial view photos: City-sized plastic landfills in Africa, oil refining on the coastal Gulf of Mexico, tundra tunneling in Russia, fracking in Wyoming.

There is a haunting video of the mass incineration of ivory tusks seized from elephant poachers that should make you cry if you have an ounce of compassion left in your soul.

Viewed from the 25,000-foot level, some of the images – copper smelting in Arizona, oil bunkering in the Niger Delta – at first look like lovely surrealistic art forms. Until it dawns on you that all the strange colors and weird shapes are, literally, earth-changing events.

That’s not Dali. Those “swirling, marble-like patterns are the result of leached heavy metals held in tailing ponds at an Arizona mining-smelter operation.”

But you don’t have to go to Canada to get schooled on this brave new world we are carving out for ourselves. Just visit UF’s own Harn Museum and see its new exhibit: “The World To Come: Art In The Age of Anthropocene.”

These artists “display a mastery of human power over nature”…all the while attempting to keep their “optimism in check and nihilism at bay.”

Oh the irony. Our down-to-earth terra-forming has literally become a unique art-form all its own.

Oh Canada. Oh America. Oh Donald!

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.)

(Published Oct. 7 in the Gainesville Sun.)

 

When art escapes anything happens

Lately I’ve been entertaining some of the Big Questions about Life, The Universe And Everything.

Is it art, or just a rotting whale?

Is war still hell if Felix The Cat, Wiley E. Coyote and Homer Simpson are committing the atrocities?

And if “The Starry Night” jumps off canvas and onto a house is that a mortal sin against conformity and the property tax valuation we all hold sacred?

That first question is a tough one. These days Gainesville is busting out all over in Urban Art, i.e. formerly known as graffiti. 

Spurred by the city’s 352Walls project, artists from around the world have been coming to town to paint their visions on formerly blank walls, mostly in the downtown area, but as far afield as Santa Fe College. 

Now we’ve got a mystical woman holding a ball of galaxy, surrealistic city scapes, a Bengal tiger, Tom Petty tributes and other images that nearly defy description popping up all over town. 

It’s cool. It’s hip. It’s edgy. It’s so Gville.

And then there’s the rotting whale on NW 4th Street, around the corner from Cypress & Grove Brewery.

Ribs poking out, flesh hanging in shreds, vultures perched and daisies sprouting through the gaps. 

Personally I love it as a sort of circle-of-life message that they didn’t quite capture in “The Lion King.” But when I show it to visitors I get mixed reviews. Some can’t stand to look at it.

Which I suppose is the very definition of art. Something I read in a gallery in Asheville’s River Arts District recently comes to mind: “It’s not what you see, it’s what you make others see.”

Speaking of arts districts I was wandering the Eau Gallie Arts District (EGAD) in Melbourne, and stopped to ponder Matt Gondek’s contribution to the district’s 2017 Anti-Gravity mural wall painting project. 

It’s kind of a traffic stopper. An “exploding” cartoon in which icons like Homer, Felix and Wiley cheerily wage bloody mayhem on each other in gaudy primary colors.

To say that the Gondek’s take on “Guernica,” Picasso’s epic interpretation of Nazi atrocities in the Spanish Civil War, has raised a few eyebrows would be an understatement.

“The city commission rewrote the mural ordinance over it,” Lisa Packard, director of EGAD, told me. “The town went nuts.”

True, seeing Sponge Bob with one eye gouged out is a bit jarring. But Pepe LePew’s got a rose clenched in his teeth, so it’s not all gore and guts. 

And here’s the other thing. This deconstructed vision of critters’ inhumanity to critters graces the wall of a small strip shopping plaza that would otherwise be all but invisible in its bland sameness. 

They’re all over Florida, but you never really see them at all.

You’ve gotta be blind to miss this one though.

Which brings us to Mt. Dora’s “Starry Night” house.

You’ve probably read about it. A Mt. Dora couple noticed their autistic son’s fascination with Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpiece. So they had it reproduced all over the outside of their house.

Prompting the City to threaten $100 a day fines until they returned their home to its former, municipally-approved blandness.

But the couple went to court instead, and a federal judge ruled Mt. Dora out of order.

So now can we expect to see house-sized replicas of great masterpieces popping up in neighborhoods all over Florida? Will art anarchy swamp homeowners associations in a sea of surrealism?

I dunno. When art escapes the studio to spread out across the landscape, anything can happen. A lot of cities like Gainesville are busting out in murals precisely because it makes the urban landscape so visually arresting that people want to come from all over to see it – and argue about it. 

But the lines of artistic expression can get blurred. In Asheville’s art district a colorful orange and blue house flouts a large mural of Bob Dylan smoking a cigarette. Very cool, but I can’t imagine they would welcome that abode in a tonier section of town. 

On the other hand perhaps we are entering into an age where conformity and uniformity is becoming overrated. 

I’m ok with the rotting whale and one-eyed Sponge Bob and smokin’ Dylan and the Starry Night house (which is now a Mt. Dora tourist draw). 

What a Brave New World has such images in it.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. This column was published in the Sun on Sept. 11, 2018.stars2.001.jpeg

What fresh new hell is this?

I will be looking at 2017, my 69th year, with new eyes. Literally, thanks to laser surgery. But what to see now that the scales have fallen? The crumbling of our American democracy? The end of our American century? Overdue certainly. I used to joke that when I started out as an editorial writer I thought I could save the world. Now I’m just hoping that the really bad stuff won’t happen until after I’m dead. Let the kids sort it out.
I’m not a cynic….ok, so I am a cynic. But there are only two logical explanations for the chain of events that have brought us to the very eve of a Donald Trump presidency. 1. Widespread ignorance. 2. A culture of venality. Which raises an interesting if uncomfortable question indeed. Is it better to say that one lives in the United States of Ignorance? Or the Venal States of America? A Hobson’s choice any way you cut it.
In my lifetime, Apartheid fell, men stepped on the moon and the Iron Curtain came down. All things seemed possible. Ours was the generation that would change everything. “We can change the world, rearrange the world.”
Turns out we did. And with horrible consequences. I fear for my country in 2017. For my children.
Not all is gloom and doom. I live on a shining city on a hill, or on a creek in any event. I’m optimistic that Gville will find its own path in the coming year. Against all odds perhaps.
And what of me? Bike Florida is behind me. I’m still writing for The Sun, although for how long is anybody’s guess. I must find new outlets for my cynicism, surely. Hence resurrecting this long-dormant blog site. img_0279Let the Gator growl in 2017!