Thursday, January 31, 2013

Healthcare: Another Voice Speaks Out

I recently found this article, and although it is a bit outdated, having originally been written nearly four years ago when Obamacare was still just a proposal that the President hoped would pass, it still seemed to make some very strong arguments and very valid points. It is on a subject that I care deeply about, that being healthcare. Anyone who is familiar with this blog, or with me personally, will be able to verify that. I think that healthcare is perhaps one of the most clear cut and decisive areas which reflects not only the gap between American attitudes and those of the rest of the world, but even the gap between right and wrong. As far as healthcare in the United States is concerned, I will say it outright: we collectively have got it wrong. Some people, even a majority according to some polls, are in favor of healthcare reform, and recognize the excesses and inherent unfairness of the current system. Yet, despite that, the system has persisted for decades. Obamacare was finally passed and will soon be implemented fully throughout the country, although there are challenges everywhere, and a significant amount of people, a vocal minority as it were, are very unhappy about it. They want things to remain as they were, and for the status quo of the old way to go on and on and on. 

But I think that they are wrong, and on many counts. Now, I have already written blogs about healthcare ("The Criminalization of Affordable Healthcare, posted on April 6, 2012, ). So, it seemed like a good idea to approach it from another angle, by someone using other words, other arguments, than my own. This was a really well-written and impressive article, and again, despite it not being exactly new, it just seemed like something that should be shared. Read it, and soak in the points. He really makes some very solid arguments, and his descriptions help to illustrate the dilemma facing the United States on this key issue.

There is a link below, and I took the liberty of posting the article itself, "This Isn't Reform, It's Robbery" by Chris Hedges, here. Enjoy!

Posted on August 24, 2009

This Isn’t Reform, It’s Robbery

Percentage change since 2002 in average premiums paid to large US health-insurance companies:+87%

Percentage change in the profits of the top ten insurance companies:+428%

Chances that an American bankrupted by medical bills has health insurance: 7 in 10

—Harper’s Index, September 2009

Capitalists, as my friend Father Michael Doyle says, should never be allowed near a health care system. They hold sick children hostage as they force parents to bankrupt themselves in the desperate scramble to pay for medical care. The sick do not have a choice. Medical care is not a consumable good. We can choose to buy a used car or a new car, shop at a boutique or a thrift store, but there is no choice between illness and health. And any debate about health care must acknowledge that the for-profit health care industry is the problem and must be destroyed. This is an industry that hires doctors and analysts to deny care to patients in order to increase profits. It is an industry that causes half of all bankruptcies. And the 20,000 Americans who died last year because they did not receive adequate care condemn these corporations as complicit in murder.

The current health care debate in Congress has nothing to do with death panels or public options or socialized medicine. The real debate, the only one that counts, is how much money our blood-sucking insurance, pharmaceutical and for-sale profit health services are going to be able to siphon off from new health care legislation. The proposed plans rattling around Congress all ensure that the profits for these corporations will increase and the misery for ordinary Americans will be compounded. The corporate state, enabled by both Democrats and Republicans, is yet again cannibalizing the Treasury. It is yet again pushing Americans, especially the poor and the working class, into levels of despair and rage that will continue to fuel the violent, proto-fascist movements leaping up around the edges of American society. And the traditional watchdogs - those in public office, the press and citizens groups - are as useless as the perfumed fops of another era who busied their days with court intrigue at Versailles. Canada never looked so good.

The Democrats are collaborating with lobbyists for the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry and for-profit health care providers to craft the current health care reform legislation. “Corporate and industry players are inside the tent this time,” says David Merritt, project director at Newt Gingrich’s Center for Health Transformation, “so there is a vacuum on the outside.” And these lobbyists have already killed a viable public option and made sure nothing in the bills will impede their growing profits and capacity for abuse.

“It will basically be a government law that says you have to buy their defective product,” says Dr. David Himmelstein, a professor at Harvard Medical School and a founder of Physicians for a National Health Plan. “Next the government will tell us a Pinto in every garage, a lead-coated toy to every child and melamine-laced puppy chow for every dog.”

“Health insurance is not a race to the top; it is a race to the bottom,” he told me from Cambridge, Mass. “The way you make money is by abusing people. And if a public-option plan is not ready and willing to abuse patients it is stuck with the expensive patients. The premiums will go up until it is noncompetitive. The conditions that have now been set for the plans include a hobbled public option. Under the best-case scenario there will be tens of millions [who] will remain uninsured at the outset, and the number will climb as more and more people are priced out of the insurance market.”

The inclusion of these corporations in the crafting of health care legislation has not stopped figures like Rick Scott, the former head of the Columbia/HCA health care company, from attempting to sabotage any plan. Scott’s company was forced to pay a $1.7 billion fraud settlement—the largest health care fraud settlement in U.S. history—for stealing hundreds of millions from taxpayers by overbilling for medical care. Scott, who made his money primarily from Medicare, is now saturating the airwaves in a reputed $20 million ad campaign that is stoking the anger and fear of many Americans. His ads are coordinated by CRC Public Relations, the group that masterminded the“Swift boat” attacks against 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

“They are using our money to campaign against us,” Dr. Himmelstein told me. “The money for these commercials came from health care interests that collect fees from American patients. We experienced this before in Massachusetts. We ran a ballot initiative for universal health care in 2000 and the insurance industry spent $5 million on it, including the insurance company I am insured by. They used my premiums to smear an idea that 70 percent in Massachusetts, according to polls, favored before this smear campaign. Universal health care was narrowly defeated.”

The bills now in Congress will, at best, impose on the country the failed model in Massachusetts. That model will demand that Americans buy health insurance from private insurers. There will be some subsidies for the very poor but not for anyone above a modest income. Insurers will be allowed to continue to jack up premiums, including for the elderly. The bankruptcies due to medical bills and swelling premiums will mount along with rising deductibles and co-payments. Health care will be beyond the reach of many families. In Massachusetts one in six people who have mandated insurance still say they cannot afford care, and 30,000 people were evicted from the state program this month because of budget cuts. Expect the same debacle nationwide.

“For someone my age who is making $40,000 a year you are required to lay out $5,000 for an insurance premium for coverage that covers nothing until you have spent $2,000 out of pocket,” Himmelstein said. “You are $7,000 out of pocket before you have any coverage at all. For most people that means you are already bankrupt before you have insurance. If anything, that has made them worse off.  Instead of having that $5,000 to cover some of their medical expenses they have laid it out in premiums.”

The U.S. spends twice as much as other industrialized nations on health care—$7,129 per capita—although 45.7 million Americans remain without health coverage and millions more are inadequately covered. There are 14,000 Americans a day now losing their health coverage. A report in the journal Health Affairs estimates that, if the system is left unchanged, one of every five dollars spent by Americans in 2017 will go to health coverage. Private insurance bureaucracy and paperwork consume one-third, 31 percent, of every health care dollar. Streamlining payment through a single nonprofit payer would save more than $400 billion per year, enough, Physicians for a National Health Plan points out, to provide comprehensive, high-quality coverage for all Americans. But the proposed America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009 (H.R. 3200 in the House) will, rather than cut costs, add an estimated $239 billion over 10 years to the federal deficit. This is very good for the corporations. It is very bad for us.

The lobbyists have, as they did with the obscene bailouts for banks and investment firms, hijacked legislation in order to fleece the citizen. The five largest private health insurers and their trade group, America’s Health Insurance Plans, spent more than $6 million on lobbying in the first quarter of 2009. Pfizer, the world’s biggest drug maker, spent more than $9 million during the last quarter of 2008 and the first three months of this year. The Washington Post reported that up to 30 members of Congress from both parties who hold key committee memberships have major investments in health care companies totaling between $11 million and $27 million. President Barack Obama’s director of health care policy, who will not discuss single-payer as an option, has served on the boards of several health care corporations.

Obama and the congressional leadership have shut out advocates of single-payer. The press, including papers such as The New York Times, treats single-payer as a fringe movement. The television networks rarely mention it. And yet between 45 and 60 percent of doctors favor single-payer. Between 40 and 62 percent of the American people, including 80 percent of registered Democrats, want universal, single-payer not-for-profit health care for all Americans. The ability of the corporations to discredit and silence voices that represent at least half of the population is another sad testament to the power of our corporate state.

"We are considering a variety of striking efforts for early in the fall," Dr. Himmelstein said, "including protests outside state capitals by doctors around the country, video links of conferences in 70 or 80 cities around the country, with protests and potential doctors chaining themselves to the fence of the White House."

Make sure you join them.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Notre Dame Cathedral: Celebrating 850 Years as the Center of Paris

850th Anniversary of the Notre-Dame Cathedral of Paris stamps from France

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I have been meaning to finish up this article for a while now, but never quite seemed to get around to it. But it remained in my "DRAFT" folder until I ran across it earlier today, and thought to myself, "Why not?"

So, here is a piece that I had been intending to publish on this site for quite some time, finally seeing the light of day. It is a bit outdated, now, but nevertheless,  I still wanted to publish it. Better late than never, right?

Hope you enjoy it.

It stands today, dominating the Ile de la Cite, the small island  in the center of the city that Notre Dame has symbolized in so many ways now for many a century. The cathedral seems now to be a quaint reminder of more noble and human times, yet it is far more than that. You probably have seen images of it, hundreds of images of it, standing above the Seine that flows by. The Notre Dame cathedral of Paris has also continued to stand as history flowed by like the waters of the Seine, and it still stands today as both witness and testament to that past. That is a noteworthy statement, given the history of the place, which included the coronation of kings and emperors, and which saw revolutions, particularly the big one in the late years of the 18th century that turned rather hostile towards religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, and finally, two world wars. The original bells were taken down and melted to make cannon balls during the French revolution, but the cathedral itself still stood, despite being pillaged and damaged. It had also been damaged during a riot by Huguenots back in 1548. It remained standing while foreign troops fought, and even marched triumphantly, on the streets of Paris, and it was even occupied by combatants during the days right before the liberation of Paris, in 1944. The bells of the cathedral sounded to mark the liberation of Paris. Notre Dame survived a plan by the Hitler and the Nazis to destroy it (and the rest of Paris, for that matter), and it survived that almost by sheer luck only when it dawned on the man assigned to carry out that task, last minute, that Hitler was a nut case, and that such orders should not be followed through.

Since then, it held the Reqiem Mass for both President Charles De Gaulle in 1970, and François Mitterand in 1996.

Through it all, Notre Dame remained intact. It has been changed by many of these events in history, yet it still stands today.

Notre Dame is significant for a long list of reasons - too numerous for any poor efforts on my part to accurately portray here. However, some things that make it stand out should be noted:

 - Notre Dame of Paris was, and still is, considered an architectural wonder in the Gothic style. It had wonderful, truly beautiful and inspiring stained glass windows not only in order to improve the lighting, but to add a definite beauty and, yes, even an air of divinity within it's walls. The outer walls have numerous, famous gargoyles that have become the stuff of legend. Also, the flying buttresses that support the cathedral were the first of it's kind, and thus, a novelty.

- It was here that the third crusade was launched, when Hereclius of Caeseria called for it in 1185. It was here that numerous kings of France were coronated, including Henry VI, a monarch of England, in 1431, and it was here also that Napoleon crowned himself emperor of France in 1804. Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc) was declared a saint here.

- The cathedral is home to numerous holy relics, including some of the most famous and legendary ones, the "Crown of Thorns", as well as one of the "Holy Nails" and a fragment of the wood from the "True Cross" that Jesus was crucified upon. The "Crown of Thorns" is displayed on the first Friday of each month, as well as all Fridays during Lent. Lent services within the cathedral are very famous.

- It is here that Victor Hugo's legendary 1831 novel, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", was supposed to take place. The fictional Quasimodo loved tolling the bells of the cathedral. Hugo's novel helped many readers to understand the architectural significance of the cathedral.

- Medieval manuscripts have proven that music that was played here proved influential throughout all the rest of Europe. The acoustics within the interior of the cathedral make it very accommodating for music.

- The cathedral stands on the island that is the oldest part of the city, dating back to the days when the city was known by it's Roman name of Lutetia, later to be renamed Lutèce. It might have sank to the Seine, if not for a renovation program by architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

- Notre Dame is considered not only the center of Paris, but of all France - literally and figuratively! My father, who is French, has repeatedly told me (and anyone else who will listen) that it is from here that all the distances from the capital city to other cities and regions in France are measured. Indeed, the square in front of the cathedral is known as "kilometre zero". It was here also that the first Norse settlers camped.

- The cornerstone of the cathedral was laid back in 1163, but the cathedral itself was not completed until 1345 - nearly two centuries later!

Such an incredible, and extensive, history!

It was a strong symbol of Christian faith, but has lost a strong measure of that significance over the centuries. In 1793, it hosted the atheistic "Festival of Reason", during the days of the French Revolution. More recently, as there was a general turning away from the total dominance that the Christian faith had held over France, and the rest of the Western world, for centuries, it still remained significant and symbolic, proving that it has transcended it's strictly religious roots.

Now, to mark the occasion of the 850th anniversary, the cathedral is getting new bells, in the most recent efforts to improve the quality of the cathedral, and restore some of the past glory that was lost when the bells were taken from it.

To conclude, here is a quoted part of Christian Fraser's great article on the subject,  "Paris Notre Dame cathedral turns 850 years". I think this is as good a way to end this piece as anything that I could come up with.

"The mighty cathedral is neither the tallest, oldest nor biggest in the world, but it can rightly claim to be the best-known.

For centuries it has witnessed the greatest events in French history: 80 kings, two emperors, five republics - and two world wars.

Its famous gargoyles, there to guard against the evil spirits, have faced both glory and tragedy over the centuries."

I got much of my information, as well as influence in writing this piece, from a wonderful article published by the BBC. Here is the link to that beautifully worded article, "Paris Notre Dame cathedral turns 850 years", by Christian Fraser of BBC News, Paris:

Here is a great video clip by the BBC  that delves a bit further into the history of Note Dame cathedral, including some brief footage of fighting during World War II:

Another video piece, "Paris' Notre-Dame cathedral celebrates 850 years",  that shows some gorgeous views of the cathedral and the city of Paris, as well as documenting some of it's incredible history:

This is an article by Sean McLachlan of Gadling, "Notre Dame De Paris Celebrates 850 Years With Special Events", that also delves into the history, and also is graced with a beautiful, full-sized photograph of the illuminated cathedral at dusk, with a Christmas tree in front of it, that you will hopefully appreciate:

Another great piece, "Paris' famed Notre Dame cathedral turns 850", by Agence France-Press, that delves into the history of the place, with particular emphasis on Victor Hugo's famed novel, as well as the efforts to preserve the cathedral by architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc:

Here is a link to an article, "850 Years: Notre Dame"  by Medieval Magazine, that details the installation of the new bells:

Finally, here is an article on the stamp illustrated above (I got the picture from this site as well):

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

French and Malian Troops Liberate Timbuktu

France's military presence seems to have paid off on some level, at least for now. Not sure if it is of noble intentions, or rather a "Wag the Dog" type of tactic in an attempt to deflect attention away from the poor economic and political conditions of Europe in general, and France in particular. Yet, on this level at least, there was some measurable success. The Islamic militants who had held the country have been driven out.

Again, for now. Let's see if it lasts. After all, we have seen short term military successes celebrated as permanent victories, only to find a far different diagnosis very soon thereafter. The rebels might have been driven away for now, and surely, that's a good thing. Still, who's to say that they won't be back?

But it was doubtful for a while there if any good would come from France's involvement in this conflict. The United States, and particularly the White House, had apparently wanted Western nations to stay away from it, so as not to lend a Western face to yet another conflict involving Islamic militants, and thus reinforcing the possible perception that this was another chapter of a new "crusade" of sorts.

Adama Diarra of Reuters reports (see link below):

"Without a shot being fired, 1,000 French soldiers and paratroopers and 200 Malian troops seized Timbuktu airport and surrounded the town on the banks of the Niger River, looking to block the escape of insurgents."

He went on to add:

"A French military spokesman said the assault forces at Timbuktu were avoiding any fighting inside the city to protect the cultural treasures, mosques and religious shrines in what is considered a seat of Islamic learning.

"But Timbuktu Mayor Ousmane Halle told Reuters departing Islamist gunmen had four days earlier set fire to the town's new Ahmed Baba Institute, which contained thousands of manuscripts."

Nor are the books and manuscripts the only things that these militants destroyed while there. Here is one paragraph that I really felt hit the nail on the head, from the article "Fleeing Islamists leave legacy of destruction in Timbuktu" by Pascal Fletcher and Giles Elgood.

"The burning of a library housing thousands of ancient manuscripts in Mali's desert city of Timbuktu is just the latest act of destruction by Islamist fighters who have spent months smashing graves and holy shrines in the World Heritage site."

Now, here's a list of some relevant updates from Shawn Humphrey's article: "Mayor Says Timbuktu Libraries, Manuscripts Burned" (link also available below):

Here's the latest information on the war in Mali and the reported destruction of the libraries. 

* According to the Tombouctou (Timbuktu) Manuscripts Project, there are four major manuscript libraries in the city. The project was in the process of translating and digitizing the manuscripts collections held in Timbuktu prior to the city's capture by extremists in 2012. 

* The Guardian indicated that two libraries containing the most ancient manuscripts, one older location and a more state-of-the-art research center known as the Ahmad Babu Institute, were both set on fire. It is unknown whether any of the manuscripts survived. 

* Some collectors and manuscript owners had managed to relocate and hide a number of manuscripts prior to the takeover by the rebels. The estimated 20,000 texts, scrolls, and manuscripts, mainly written in the 14th through 16th centuries, were notable for recording sub-Saharan Africa's medieval history. 

* Another report from the AP indicated that French paratroopers had landed north of the town while ground forces invaded from the south. Although the French had taken the Timbuktu airport Sunday and were entering the city on Monday, they had not gained full control of the city by Monday afternoon. 

* In addition to the library, rebels destroyed nearly all of the 333 Sufi shrines in the city during the occupancy of the city. * During the 10 months the al-Qaida-linked group controlled Timbuktu, they had imposed a strict form of Shariah, religious law which included amputations and public executions, according to the AP report. 

* Two other major cities in the north, Kidal and Gao, appear to be out of extremist hands. Gao fell to French and African forces on Saturday, while local Tuareg militia claim they have regained control of Kidal following the sudden exit of militants from the city. 

* Though militants had threatened to march on Bamako, the capital of Mali, the French and Malian forces have found little resistance in retaking northern cities in the past week.

Now, I am not the biggest fan of Western military operations in the Middle East or the rest of the Islamic world (Mali is actually in western Africa, not the Middle East). But that said, I am not about to shed a tear for them once they are thrown out, either. The triumph of extremism anywhere, in this case religious intolerance, is a defeat in general for humanity.

A militant intolerance of anything that does not strictly fall into line with what they deem acceptable, in thinking as well as in practice, has swept the Islamic world, and destroyed some priceless treasures in the process. All because it is perceived that anything that does not adhere to their particular brand of Islam is sacrilege, and apparently a threat to all would be believers. In their attempts to impose some religious "purity", they will desecrate anything that does not strictly buttress their own very narrow beliefs. 

To those ends, they have shown a willingness to destroy priceless treasures of the world, things that will never be restored. Such as the giant Bamiyan Buddha statues of Afghanistan. The historic old market of Aleppo, in Syria, was recently destroyed as a result of fighting in that country (I know that the responsibility for this was disputed, and that Islamic militants are likely not responsible, but the theme of destructive extremism in yet another Islamic country cannot be missed). Now, some of these priceless treasures in Timbuktu that they destroyed, including the recent books and manuscripts lost after the departing rebels set fire to the library.

What is happening in these places is a crime. Yet, there will never be a trial, surely. There will be no bringing these people to justice (unless killing them like dogs in the street is considered justice). No Nuremburg trials, no world trials in Hague. These crimes will likely be viewed with sadness, but that is the extent of it. he only court where they are being tried is the court of public opinion.

Let's just hope that we see this era, where such militant stupidity is currently in fashion, will soon be swept away, and where future generations will look upon these times, and the people responsible for them, in the same way that we here in the West look at fascist extremists, and the price that so many had to pay for their own push towards some kind of "purity", albeit an ideological one then in Europe, as opposed to a religious one now in the Islamic world.

Although it should be noted that Mali is, in fact, a rather secular country, and is not strictly bound to being labeled an "Islamic" nation. In fact, to my understanding, many of these rebels who have been fighting, and were until recently in control of Timbuktu and many other parts of Mali, were in fact from outside of the country - militants from numerous other nations, presumably fighting their "jihad".

I tend to be critical of many western nations, admittedly, including both France and the United States (I am a dual citizen). But when I hear reports like this, I take time to be grateful to live and have been raised in countries where there is a greater measure of freedom and stability than such places as the ones that we see falling to such extremists.

"French seal off Mali's Timbuktu, rebels torch library" by Adama Diarra:

"Mayor Says Timbuktu Libraries, Manuscrip[ts Burned" by Shawn Humphrey

"Fleeing Islamists leave legacy of destruction in Timbuktu" by Pascal Fletcher and Giles Elgood.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Album Review: Green Day's ¡Dos!

¡Dos!, I was told, was the one out of the trilogy of albums that Green Day released in 2012, and the one which the friend that lent it to me was quick to point out did not actually have any hits on it.

That said, it's still pretty good, and is further proof of the wide range that this group possesses. Some songs that are on here, you might never know were Green Day, if you didn't know any better. Now, I don't know about you, but I think that's pretty impressive, and worth noting. I like groups that move in different directions, musically. Where the music grows, as does the band, and not every album sounds the same. This one is proof that Green Day has strong range! For whatever the reason, I actually kind of liked this one better than the first one (which I reviewed yesterday, by the way - Shameless plug of my own work!). 

Here's a brief breakdown of each song on the album, and my take on them:

1. See You Tonight - If you didn't know any better, you would never know this song was from Green Day. It sounds like it could have been from another era altogether, one well before punk was ever around. This would not have sounded out of place playing on the jukebox at Arthur's, after "The Fonz" gave it a good smack, followed by his trademark, "Aaaaaaayyye!" Or, am I just dating myself with that particular reference?

2. Fuck Time - Despite the rather loud sounding title, this song isn't what you might think. In fact, this kind of sounds like it could have been popular in the fifties or sixties, as it has that old rock feel to it. Billie Joe adds a quality to the breathing that helps distinguish this song, and my poor words cannot bring to life what that adds to this song. One of the more distinctive pieces in the album, and very enjoyable. 

3. Stop When The Red Lights Flash - This is the first song in the album that sounded readily identifiable with what I have come to know as Green Day's traditional punk sound. 

4. Lazy Bones - Here, Green Day is definitely back to their unmistakable, distinct sound. That friend who lent this to me liked this song in particular, and felt that he could relate to the lyrics. After listening to it, I can understand why, given the absurd work environment that we both simultaneously joke and rant about. 

5.  Wild One - Again, some overtones of older, more simplistic classic rock tunes. Sounds good overall. 

6. Makeout Party - A more aggressive sounding song that would have fit in perfectly in Dookie, with equally naughty lyrics. Very enjoyable!

7. Stray Heart - This song really reminded me of something. One song that it keeps getting compared to is The Jam's "A Town Called Malice", but that's not the song that I was thinking of, specifically. It smacks of something, and I know that I've seen it, as well as heard it, on some kind of advertisement, but I can't quite put my finger on it. A good song, though, and Green Day, despite some obvious influences from others, nonetheless take this one another direction, ultimately, and wind up with a very good and unique song. 

8. Ashley - A different sounding fast song. It has that punk feel to it, and yet, there's something a bit different to it. Perhaps it's the repetitive "Ashley" refrain that is used to good effect. For whatever the reason, this ranked among my favorites of the album. 

9. Baby Eyes - Another older style song that might not have seemed out of place in some of their earlier works. A good burst of energy that the band releases. 

10. Lady Cobra -  This one reminded me a little bit of the White Stripes "Fell In Love With A Girl", for whatever the reason. Not sure if that comparison is justified or not, but there you go. 

11. Nightlife - This is one of my favorite songs on the whole album. Lady Cobra is featured on this song, and she lends a very sexy quality to this one. This is just enjoyable to listen, in a naughty, seductive kind of way. Now, why do I feel like a pervert in saying that? 

12. Wow! That's Loud -  Another song that is more typical of Green Day's faster sound, and yet, it sounds a bit different, too. It has an almost old rock style sound in some respects. 

13. Amy - This is a softer song, with only the acoustic guitar and the voice of Billie Joe Armstrong. It is a touching tribute to the late, troubled British singer, Amy Winehouse. 

All in all, a solid album. As my friend suggested, this one really does not have songs that have seen much radio play, for whatever the reason. But it has some catchy tunes, as well as some hard rocking pieces, and reflects well on the group and their diversity. In this album, you'll hear some stuff from Green Day that will likely surprise you, as it did me. James, the friend who lent me the album, warned me that this was so, and he was right! You just might be impressed, as I was, by their range! 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Album Review: Green Day's ¡ Uno!

¡ Uno! is the first of the trilogy of Green Day albums released late last year. Putting out three albums in one year is quite a feat, and seems almost on the level of the Beatles, with all of the albums, and quality ones at that, that they put out in the brief period of time when they were at their peak. I'm not saying that Green Day are like the Beatles, but I was impressed with the level of their musical creativity. Here is a track by track review of each song from this first of three records the band put out in 2012:

1. Nuclear Family - A good punk song to open up the first of their three albums, and it harkens back to some of their earlier stuff. For whatever the reason, the countdown at the end seems particularly catchy and memorable to me, although I can hardly explain why here. Just give it a listen. 

2. Stay the Night - I like this one. Catchy, yet something you can rock out to. A good, solid song, overall. 

3. Carpe Diem - This one has echoes of the Clash's "I Fought the Law" in it at points, as well as Billy Joel's "Sometimes a Fantasy". Not a bad song overall, though. 

4. Let Yourself Go - Surely, you've heard this one on the radio by now? A very enjoyable song with a good sound to it, and perhaps their biggest and most successful hit from the trilogy? Not sure, but it's pretty good! Hopefully, it does not get so overplayed that we get sick of it. 

5. Kill the DJ - Not nearly as aggressive as the title might suggest. At least, not musically, although the lyrics....well. But a good and memorable song, overall.

6. Feel For You - This one sounds like old-style rock, and even the lyrics seem reminiscent of that, and has that kind of old feel to it. 

7. Loss of Control - The beginning of this song reminds me a bit of Pearl Jam's "Breakerfall", although it definitely takes a very different turn before very long. 

8. Troublemaker - Another song that seems eerily reminiscent of a bygone era. Sounds a little bit like "American Woman" by the Guess Who. Not bad, though, overall. 

9. Angel Blue - I like this one. A simple style with an older feel, yet mixed in with the definite raw sound and muscle of punk. Pretty nice! Not likely to be one of their better known songs, but this one really sounds great!

10. Sweet 16 - Classic themes and with a hint of an older feel as well, yet this is a song with more modern sensibilities in sound. 

11. Rusty James - Maybe it's just me, and I hope I don't get lynched by hardcore fans of Green Day for saying this, because I doubt that they will like the comparison, but I hear a little bit of Bon Jovi's "Never Say Goodbye" in this one. 

12. Oh Love - I will make another comparison here, fair or not. But this song reminds me of the Steve Miller Band's "Rock 'N Me", with an obviously more punk feel to it. Not bad, though, and a decent closer.

You just have to marvel at the creativity of the group, and particularly of Billie Joe Armstrong. They are just so incredibly creative, and were able to create three pretty full albums of good music. I know that I probably went overboard with listing the artists and songs that some of the tracks here reminded me of. In fact, I liked this album quite a bit. This is the first of that trilogy, and as such, it serves to open them up strongly. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Green Day

I like Green Day, although they were never my favorite band. But this band proved to be much better than I had initially thought.

When they first started to really hit it big, around about 1994, they seemed somehow odd. I remember Billie Joe's guitar style, where he almost looked like he was punching at his guitar at a weird angle, rather than simply playing it. They were young and fast and exciting, and their new album, "Dookie", was loaded with hits that the radio stations could not get enough of.

I saw them that year, at Z100's Acoustic Christmas Concert, at Madison Square Garden. It was a star-studded show, with Bon Jovi, Melissa Etheridge, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Sheryl Crow, the Indigo Girls, Weezer, and Hole. Yet, it was Green Day who came on last, in the wee hours of the morning. By that time, of course, it was no longer an "acoustic" show at all, as Weezer and Hole had both come out regularly. The place went nuts when Green Day took the stage. Billie Joe later came out for one song completely naked.

Ah, what a night! I remember it well, and it's hard to believe that it's already been the better part of twenty years since then!

That also marked the one and only time that I have seen Green Day, although I wanted to see them since. Came close to getting tickets when they played at Giants Stadium some years back, but never ended up going.

I'll admit that I never expected them to have the staying power that they have proven to possess. This is a band that still produces solid music after twenty years. They are still huge, still being played quite a bit on the radio, and not just their early stuff. In fact, I have heard them on the radio a few times recently, and none of it was from Dookie.

I enjoyed the group, but in a distant way, for a few years. When they came on the radio, I did not turn it off. But nor did I rush out to get their stuff, either. I had grown up with some punk groups like the Dead Kennedys, DOA, the Clash, and the Pistols. Those groups pushed the envelope, and did not shy away from politicized lyrics, to say the least. By contrast, Green Day seemed to be playing it safe. They seemed to be relative lightweights, when it came to pushing the envelope, despite being under the umbrella of what has come to be known as "punk". At least, those were my reactions back then, mistaken or otherwise.

Still, they had some pretty decent material. I like some of their individual songs, which proved that they had far more diversity to them that most people gave them credit for. Songs such as "Wake Me Up When September Ends", and "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" really showed that they were not strictly all about speed. They had some pretty cool songs that came on the radio, and when they did, I certainly did not make a point of turning it off.

That said, I did not rush out and buy their albums. I had a couple, including Dookie, and their greatest hits, as well, perhaps, as another. But that was about it. They were more diverse than I had expected them to be, but I did not explore it further.

Then came George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, and the trend towards the prevalence of neocon political dominance and an arrogant and ugly nationalism that gripped the nation, fueled by a new paranoia that was an offshoot of September 11th.

With such a stifling atmosphere that the country was under the influence of, I and millions of other Americans longed for something that might express another America, that might remind us that this country of over 300 million was not just filled with sheep, waiting on the edge of their seat to be spoon fed whatever bullshit Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld had to give them. Opposition strengthened, yet the country seemed collectively stubborn and unwilling to admit that those first four years were a huge mistake, and so they elected Bush to another term, and did so by giving this man more votes than any other candidate before in history had ever gotten.

It was under such horrible times for the country, when stupidity seemed to dominate and, often times, to go unchallenged, that American Idiot came out. What an album it proved to be!

Green Day showed some real punk muscle, and they somehow managed to package it in such a way that it was intensely popular! I dare say that is the album that they are not only best known for, but the album that they will most be identified with. Given that the album came ten years after they first broke it big, that's pretty impressive! How many bands can you say that about, anyway?

My own interest shot up. Got the album, just like many millions of others did, and enjoyed it (since then, I seem to have misplaced it, and think that maybe it was lent out to somebody and never returned, although that memory is a bit fuzzy).

American Idiot was the perfect album at the perfect time. Like the years during the early Pearl Jam albums, when they remained very popular despite taking an intensely political stance that went against the grain of popular thinking, Green Day managed to retain their popularity, despite taking an intensely political stance that would not necessarily be accepted, let alone popular, by a majority of Americans. Yet, they somehow managed to get away with it, and that, around the same time that I saw Pearl Jam booed off the stage for performing an anti-Bush song.

The popularity of that album really amazed me, and suddenly, I counted myself among the numbers of Green Day fans, suddenly gaining much more respect for them. That album was exactly what was needed at the time, and Green Day delivered!

So here, I open up a series of blogs about Green Day, where I will review the three recent albums that they released late last year. That's right. Not one album, or even two, but three albums. They also released a DVD, but I have not yet acquired that, or even managed to borrow it yet (sad face). But stay tuned, because it's not eliminated as an option for a future post.

Now, the last time I remember any band releasing more than one album in a sluggish year economically was Guns 'N Roses in their heyday. They only released two albums, however: Use You Illusion I & II. Here, Green Day has released three albums and a DVD. Pretty gutsy, all things considered. Yes, I know that the economy is supposed to be in recovery, but honestly, I don't know many people who are actually thriving right now in comparison to where they were some years ago. These are tough times.

I gave them a listen, and while I offered my thoughts and own experiences concerning Green Day, the focus in some upcoming blogs will be on reviews of the specific, individual albums. So, here goes...

Let me also not forget to thank my coworker, James, a huge Green Day fan at well over fifty, who lent me all three of their recent albums. Green Day seems to almost be the only music he listens to or talks about (I'm sure that's not literally true, but that's the way it seems sometimes). He likes what he calls this "angry music", and uses it as an outlet to vent his frustrations. For whatever the reason, he really wanted to get my reaction. Here, I give my reaction now.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Book Review: Pearl Jam by Mick Wall

Yes, I know. I already had a review concerning Pearl Jam recently, when reviewing the Cameron Crowe movie about Pearl Jam. Still, watching "Pearl Jam Twenty" recently got me in the mood to listen to Pearl Jam, and relive those earlier days, when the energy and angst that the group was best known for was still present. It also got me in the mood to read this book, which I had meant to read ten years ago, around the same time that I had read a couple of other books on the group.

The thing is, Pearl Jam's popularity was unlike anything that I had ever witnessed before. Given that many artists are popular, often times flavor of the moment kind of musicians, perhaps this level of popularity that Pearl jam in particular reached needs some clarification.

When I started really getting into Pearl Jam, their popularity was already very strong, and growing very rapidly. Think I mentioned already that it was finding out about the song "Jeremy" that really got me into the band. Well, it seems that that song in particular is what allowed the group to explode into almost unprecedented popularity. What I mean by that is that they were different, hard to pin down or define, exactly. And that was part of their allure.

Case in point, let me share a story. I was hardly the only one who was into Pearl Jam, and I had a close friend who also was really into them. This guy tends to focus on numbers, and he really seemed to know what was most popular in terms of sales, as well as monetary value. I am not saying that he was right in focusing in on that, but it was just a skill that he had, I guess.

In any case, this guy obtained a copy of the suddenly very hard to find cd single, "Jeremy". I mean, I went to the store where he picked up his copy, and there was nothing left. All copies were gone. I checked in other places in hopes of getting my hands on it, but it was nowhere to be found. In passing, I mentioned to him the possibility that Pearl Jam might re-release the single.

He asked me if I was stupid. "Nobody re-releases singles!" I think he might have added a colorful insult or two, just for added emphasis. What was worse, was that he was right! I couldn't think of any examples of any band re-releasing singles.

Still, I responded, saying that "they" (whoever "they" are) would re-release them if it made money. Whatever makes money, right? But I said that with only half conviction, because mostly, it seemed like he was right. What were the chances?

The thing is, they did re-release the Jeremy cd single. Not just Jeremy, for that matter, but all of their cd singles from the "Ten" album. I have copies of some of them, for that matter. I should also note, that on a trip to the city, I was able to get a bootleg of the band that had all of the cd singles on the one disk, and so was able to enjoy the music. Later on, I found a place that had the "Jeremy" cd single specifically, the one with the little girl and the gun. I got it, and the sense of urgency to obtain a copy was done. But still, to see these singles re-released seemed a clear indicator of the phenomenal level of popularity of the band. At least it did to me. That was what seemed the clearest indicator that they had reached a new level of popularity that nobody could really contend with at the time, and few have ever been able to contend with at any point. The Beatles, surely. The Stones, or Elvis, maybe. Led Zeppelin, perhaps. But very few others could even be mentioned in the same breath, at least in terms of the level of popularity at their very peak.

There are other indicators of the phenomenal success that the band reached (I was about to say, enjoyed, but given the history of the band, whether or not they "enjoyed" the popularity that they reached is open to debate, with the band and many others claiming that they did not in fact enjoy it at all, and other, more skeptical people claiming that the band enjoyed it far more than they let on). In the first week of the release of their second album, "Versus" (which originally was untitled for the first million copies or so, before the title was given, and allowed the first batch of untitled releases to be labeled at least relatively rare, and thus, a collector's item for fans). That album had almost one million sales in it's first week, easily reaching the top spot on Billboards, and in fact, outperformed all the other albums on the Billboard combined that week. How many bands do you know that were that popular?

Whether or not the band actually enjoyed this popularity, it is impossible to separate them from it. Given how much it was indirectly mentioned in some of their lyrics (repeatedly, in numerous songs), and the band's own response and problems stemming from it (Eddie Vedder's house was targeted by one mad driver at some point), the popularity of the band was part of it's identity, whether or not it was embraced. Much like the screaming throngs of fans during the sixties for groups like the Beatles or Stones, the Beach Boys or the Doors, the signs of extraordinary popularity for the band were everywhere.

Yet, that has pretty much always been the main behind this band. They exploded into fame in 1992, essentially reaching the status as the world's most popular and trendy band. They were the next big thing, so to speak. And although the band itself seemed to purposely distance itself from the fame, it could not be forgotten that they had worked very hard to acquire it in the first place. As Mick Wall quite correctly points out, the question of credibility always seemed to weight the band down, and mostly, it was the result of the accusations from the front man of another huge Seattle band, Nirvana that had no issues whatsoever with their own credibility. Indeed, if you watch "Twenty", you will see that these accusations by Kurt Cobain were not taken lightly by the members of Pearl Jam themselves and, in fact, they felt that they had to watch everything that they did. In a manner of speaking, Cobain's criticism of Pearl Jam kept the band honest, since they felt like they were walking on egg shells.

To that end, Pearl Jam seemed almost to rebel against their own popularity. Eddie Vedder alluded to it in lyrics to numerous songs. The band stopped doing videos, and suddenly, limited their touring. They shied away from interviews and any kind of promotion. Still, they seemed to be as popular as ever with the release of their second, and then their third album, and even their two-track release of Merkinball. It is not even impossible that their popularity actually continued to grow as a result of their protesting against it in their own way, made them unique as well, and perhaps some cynics of the band who observed all of this were skeptical that it was not all a very clever ploy of some sort. Whatever way you interpret it, the fact is the band continues to have strong detractors, as well as a very strong and loyal base of fans. Kurt Cobain made some amends, at least towards Eddie Vedder personally, but many others did not. Courtney Love once suggested, in reference to her husband's taking his own life, that it should have been Eddie. Shortly after his suicide, there were t-shirts being sold that read "Eddie's Next". As for criticism of the band, I remember personally hearing about PJ Harvey essentially dismissing Pearl Jam.

It seemed, paradoxically, that while the band had struggled (only very briefly) to make a name for itself and gain acceptance, once it got that and then some, they struggled to get the acceptance from others as their popularity grew, and this has strongly defined their identity. The more popular they became, the more they at least publicly shirked their own popularity in order to gain the approval of those who remained skeptical precisely because of their popularity. Many other bands would have simply enjoyed the popularity and milked it outright for all that it was worth, for as long as humanly possible. But that was never an option for Pearl Jam, since much of their fan base (particularly early on) was predicated precisely on that audience that tended to reject "popular" music. It was quite a conundrum, on many levels.

In the meantime, Pearl Jam continued to grow, to evolve. Their music changed, and so did the levels of their popularity. It became undeniable following the release of No Code, their fourth album. That is actually a beautiful and well done work, and truly a great album that the band should be proud of. Initially, the first few days that it went public, it sold very nicely. But the numbers died off very quickly, and that marked the beginning of the end of the phenomenal level of popularity and success (at least in terms of numbers) for Pearl Jam. It could be argued that they briefly enjoyed considerable success with Yield, yet even that was muted, at least in comparison to the phenomenal, staggering levels of popularity that Pearl Jam had in the early nineties. Their musical style changed and, following the rise of George W. Bush and the "global war on terror" that he ushered in, Pearl Jam became more overtly political - something that, quite inexplicably, shocked people. I'm not entirely sure why even to this day, since the band had always been political. To me, it was a part of what attracted me to them in the first place. It drove some others away, however.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Mick Wall's "Pearl Jam" book was written at the time of the peak of their commercial success, when they were, as Time magazine suggested, "all the rage". It only delves into their early history, before they began to lose so much of their popularity.

This book reminded me at times so much of another book that I read (admittedly, around ten years or so ago), that I kept having to look at the cover, to make sure that I was reading the right book. I'm thinking specifically of Kim Neely's "Five Against One", which is not only an excellent read, but still the standard bearer for books about Pearl Jam, if you are so interested. There were points when I felt that I had read the material before, and I mean word for word. I know that it is on the same subject, but it was more than that. Perhaps they share some of the same quotes, or something.

Ultimately, if you are a fan of Pearl Jam, this is a good book, always keeping in mind that it is outdated (at least, the version that I have of it is, although there may be some updated version of it floating around somewhere). It is well-written and insightful, and delves into some of the more complex issues surrounding the band, particularly in relation to their reaction and struggles with their own popularity.

As I think I have mentioned before, I seem to grow in and out of the mood for bands, often times. Pearl Jam is among them. I had not really listened to them for quite a few months prior to the 12/12/12 concert. But then, after that concert, I finally saw the Crowe movie about them, and have been in the mood ever since. So, in that spirit, I will write a review on the accompanying book sometime in the fairly near future, when I finish reading it.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Super Bowl XLVII Preview: Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers opened as 4-point favorites to win the Super Bowl against the Baltimore Ravens. They were the most consistent team this season, although both teams shows some inconsistent play at points throughout the season.

San Francisco finished the season with an 11-4-1 record. It was good enough to win the NFC West, although they had seemed to be dominating the race for much of the season, and seemed to have it under wraps, for all intents and purposes, before Seattle finished the season with a flurry and gave the 49ers a run for their money. In fact, the Seahawks were able not only to defeat San Francisco in a late season showdown, but to humiliate them on national television, 42-13. That raised a lot of questions about the team, as did a 26-3 home loss to the Giants early on in the season. 

But San Francisco got here mostly by playing consistent football. They were not the obviously dominant team in the NFL or even the NFC throughout the season, or anything, but they were consistently among the leading teams. Coach Jim Harbaugh is generally a conservative coach, and what that translates into is minimizing mistakes. They have a very tough defense, and usually, a grind it out style of offense. At times, when they open things up, the offense can show some explosiveness, as they did against the Packers in the divisional round, and to a lesser extent, as they did in their comeback against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game.

The Baltimore Ravens, by contrast, showed a lot more inconsistency. Given elite status ever since their narrow loss to the New England Patriots in last year's AFC Championship, in a game that many people felt they really should have won, the Ravens entered this season among the very favorites. They remained among the very favorite, too, until a showdown with the then top-seeded Houston Texans on the road. Baltimore not only lost, they got blown out, 43-13.

The Ravens had a bye after that, but returned to play and won their next four games straight, and many of those concerns were alleviated. But then came the final stretch of the season, where the Ravens lost four of their last five games, and the season seemed to be spiraling out of control for this team. I will admit to assuming that they were dead, and to sticking a fork in them.

But I was wrong. The Ravens dominated the Colts, which was not all that surprising. But then, they had that amazing win at Denver, where they showed guts. They followed that up with the victory over New England in the AFC Championship, and suddenly, they look like the team of destiny. They remind me very much of last year's Giants, or the previous years Packers. A team that perhaps did not overwhelm people with their dominant regular season, but a team that got healthy at the tight time, and got hot once they were healthy. It  feels like the Ravens are having that kind of a postseason run.

Both the 49ers and the Ravens actually have a lot in common. They are coached by brothers, after all, and both of them have traditionally had the same kind of approach - a conservative style, emphasizing solid defense and efficient offense, complimented by a solid running game. There have been times through the season that San Francisco has shown more flash on the offensive side, flexing their muscles. For Baltimore, they have really shown that in these last few weeks, particularly in the game against the Broncos.

That is part of what makes this game so intriguing. It is the kind of game that is difficult to predict, frankly, because both teams are hot right now. They both have tough defenses, and it could be a low-scoring, defensive battle as a result. Or, since both teams have also shown that they can be explosive if they need to be, it could be a shoot out. Perhaps one team could prove to simply be too much for the other, and will control the momentum of the game and win convincingly. It really would not be all that surprising, no matter what scenario plays itself out.

Ultimately, it should be close. San Francisco's offense is loaded with weapons. They have a dangerous, unpredictable quarterback in Colin Kaepernick, and a strong running game with Frank Gore, who enjoys the strong protection that he receives from a first rate offensive line. But San Francisco also enjoys a dangerous passing game, with wide receivers such as Crabtree and Vernon. The Ravens have a very good defense to counter all of that, and I don't think that they should be overwhelmed by it. In fact, after having completely shut down (and shut out) the league's top-ranked offense in the second half, and holding the New England Patriots to a season low 13 points in the AFC Championship Game (they had only been held to under twenty points one time before, when they inexplicably lost to the Arizona Cardinals, 20-18), the Ravens defense seems capable of holding anyone in check.

On the other side, the Ravens offense has been pretty consistent in recent weeks. They have struggled at times this season, much like they struggled in seasons past. But perhaps it should be noted that this team exorcised much of their past demons by defeating the Broncos in Denver, a team that had completely dismantled the Ravens in Baltimore less than a month before. They then got rid of their other demon, by exacting a measure of revenge against the Patriots up in Foxboro, where they had lost a very close game last season that many felt they should have won. In the process, Joe Flacco found some consistency and put on a gutsy performance. With Ray Rice and the offensive line proving to be up to the task, and the passing game having played some of their best ball in these last few weeks, the Ravens offense is looking as good as it has all season, and perhaps as good as it has in years. Traditionally the liability that a tough defense would have to overcome, the Ravens offense now seems to be the strength of this team. But the 49ers also have an elite defense, and it will be interesting to see whether or not they can keep Baltimore's offense from catching fire.

For many reasons, this match up is intriguing. Of course, two brothers will be coaching against one another. I think that's not only the first time in Super Bowl history, but in North American sports history. When have two brothers coached against each other on such a level?

But these two teams are also mirror images of one another on many levels. Obviously, their approach has proven effective, since they are both here, in the Super Bowl. That makes it interesting to contemplate this game, and potential outcomes.

I am picking the Ravens in this one. They seem to be on an emotional high, and with this being the final game of Ray Lewis's career, I think Baltimore will be especially fired up. They seem to be peaking at the right time, and again, they have the feel of a team of destiny. I like the Ravens securing the victory in the second half, beginning to dominate the 49ers a little towards the end.

The Baltimore Ravens, I predict, will be the Super Bowl XLVII Champions.

Coach Accused of Throwing Super Bowl

It sounds absurd, and indeed, probably is.

But a former NFL head coach, who led his team to the Super Bowl, was accused by a couple of wide receivers of throwing the Super Bowl.

Tim Brown was the first to make the suggestion, and it was subsequently backed up by Jerry Rice.

The Oakland Raiders had one of the best offenses in the league, not just that season, but in the early 2000's. They also were the favorites to win Super Bowl XXXVII.

But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers completely demolished the Raiders on the day. The final score was 48-21, but the game was not even as close as that score would indicate. In fact, the Bucs were dominating Oakland so badly, that the game was basically over by halftime.

The head coach, Bill Callahan, had replaced Jon Gruden, a successful and popular head coach who had been the Raiders coach until the year before. When he left Oakland, he moved on to Tampa Bay, and coached the Bucs to their first ever Super Bowl.

Gruden was familiar with the Oakland Raiders. he had been their coach just a year prior, after all. And the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had one of the elite defenses at the time, a very capable unit that played their very best against the potent Oakland offense. It surely helped that Gruden was already familiar with the team and what they could do. Perhaps the lopsided outcome, which came as a surprise to many, was a result of that.

The idea that Callahan actually threw the game, the biggest game of his entire career, by far, seems ludicrous. He vehemently defended himself, adamantly, saying that while the outcome in that Super Bowl was very disappointing to many people, he was "shocked, saddened, and outraged by Tim Brown's allegations and Jerry Rice's support of those allegations made through various media outlets over the last twenty four hours. To leave no doubt, I categorically and unequivocally deny the substance of their allegations...Any suggestion that I would undermine the integrity of the sport that I love and dedicate my life to, or dishonor the commitment I made to our players, coaches and fans, is flat out wrong. I think it would be in the best interests of all including the game America loves that these allegations be retracted immediately."

Tim Brown did subsequently back off from the claims he made.

You can read more on this in the article that I used for this piece: "Callahan vehemently denies sabotaging Raiders" by Terry McCormick of National Football Post

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Celebrating 50 Years of Cooperation: France & Germany

Joint issue stamps by both France and Germany in 1973, celebrating the 10th anniversary of Franco-German Cooperation



More recent stamp honoring the 50th anniversary of the alliance between France & Germany in 2013

50th Anniversary of the Elysee Treaty joint stamp issue by Germany and France

A picture of the coin honoring the 50th anniversary of the alliance:

Ceremonies were held yesterday in Berlin in recognition of the 50th anniversary of a treaty of cooperation between France and Germany.

It has now been half a century since France and Germany, traditional enemies for such a long period of time, signed the Élysée Treaty, recognizing cultural and economic ties, cooperation in foreign affairs, and youth affairs,  and effectively becoming allies. This came at a time when both countries were still struggling to try and get out from the shadow of shame and skepticism following World War II, when both nations had been disgraced, albeit for different reasons.

For Germany, of course, it was the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, and what can likely still be seen as the most extremist government that the world has seen, before or since. Hitler rose to power, strictly through legal means, and then began to change the laws and eliminate opposition to ensure a long reign at the top. Anti-Jewish legislation did not take long to become the law of the land, with the infamous Nuremburg Laws of 1934. Anti-semitism was everywhere, and would get progressively worse as time went on. Germany grew in strength under Hitler, who emphasized re-armament, and soon, began to test the resolve of other powers, particularly France and Britain. Germany grew tremendously in power, and this began to be reflected in their more aggressive stance, as Germany began to grab more and more territory, with the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria) in 1938, and then again in the acquisition of Czechoslovakia, with what amounted to the blessing of their enemies, due to the policy of appeasement. But when Germany began to eye Poland, Britain and France decided to make a stand (albeit it a relatively weak one), declaring war on Germany officially after Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Yet, they actually did nothing. The war followed, and before long, Germany seemed to possess most of Europe before very long. Along the way came a push eastward, culminating in "Operation Barbarossa" (the German code name for the invasion of the Soviet Union). The war on the eastern front ended up being the most deadly and destructive warfare in human history, and that's really saying something! Before long, the Soviets began to drive the Germans back, eventually all the way to Berlin. Still, even when defeat was clearly inevitable and beyond any doubt, Hitler and the Nazis remained in power until the very bitter end, with Hitler eventually taking his own life in his secret bunker under the capital city. Surrender came quickly thereafter, but the Nazi empire, which Hitler had boasted would last a thousand years, fell after twelve years, and is the most infamous regime in history, known best for the Holocaust and the "Final Solution", the design to exterminate all of Europe's Jews.

For France, of course, it was the sudden and complete collapse of the military, who essentially capitulated to the Germans within a span of six weeks or so. Technically, the two countries had been at war since early September of 1939, following Hitler's invasion of Poland. But France and Britain both seemed to not want war, and so the war front between the two nations remained non-combative. The period between September of '39 and May of '40 was known as the "sitzkrieg" (a play on the word "blitzkrieg", which was, at the time, Germany's new secret strategy in warfare). But in the spring of 1940, Hitler decided to move, and using the element of surprise, the German army was able to overtake France. What followed was the shameful collaboration with Germany, particularly in enacting and enforcing anti-Jewish legislation (which actually went further than the Nuremburg laws, in many respects), and the deportation of Jews from France at the behest of the Nazis. France actually not only met the German quotas in this regard, but exceeded them, leading to many subsequent suspicions regarding French anti-semitism.

Both had been defeated and discredited nations following World War II, and both were just trying to recover from the enormous conflict that changed the world map. They had fought frequent wars between one another, including the Napoleonic wars following the French Revolution, then again in 1870-71, again during World War I, and finally, for the last time in World War II. During that time, Alsace-Lorraine, a region presently in France, continually exchanged hands between the two nations, and remained contested with each war, and feelings always ran high regarding this territory. The newly formed German Empire acquired the territory following it's defeat of France in the war of 1870-71. France won it back following World War I. Then, the Germans took it back with the triumph of Hitler and the Nazis in 1940. With Germany's final defeat at the end of World War II, it came back to France, which it has been a part of since. Some local people old enough to have lived through all of these wars had lived to see their land exchange hands no less than four times, even if they lived in the same home and had never moved. The enmity between France and Germany remained active until the end of World War II, when both countries were forced to focus on simply recovering and rebuilding.

What followed was a wonderful recovery indeed. France recovered enough to become relatively strong again, economically and militarily, although it remained a shadow of what it had been. Much like Great Britain, it lost it's global empire, and not always peacefully. It engaged in wars in Indochina (Vietnam) and Algeria, but was forced to abandon those former colonies. Once again, France's image suffered as a result. German recovery came surprisingly thoroughly, and became known as the "German miracle". The two nations began to cooperate much more closely together, and each became a founding member of the fledgling European Union early in 1958, not even a decade and a half following the end of perhaps the most bitter war that humanity had seen.

France and Germany were the two leading powers of the European Union, and as such, needed to find a new spirit of cooperation between the two nations. Simply put, the two nations needed to shift gears, and act on what they had in common more than what made them different. They needed to be allies now, rather than enemies. But it was far from certain that they could actually do this. History between the two had not been kind, up to that point.

That is where the significance of the Élysée Treaty, signed on January 22, 1963, comes in. The two leaders, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and French President Charles De Gaulle, had begun to work closely together, trying to cement the tricky alliance. Given the history, one could understand the slippery slope that the two leaders were treading. But they both understood that they needed to work together to navigate the rough waters of the post-war world, that they were stronger together, than apart. Both had been compromised, but could empower themselves by mutual cooperation. It would take compromise, perhaps, on both sides. But both leaders worked very hard to find common ground to stand upon.

In his article, "Sealed with a Kiss: Treaty Heralded New Era in Franco-German Ties" (see link below),  Christoph Gunkel of Spiegel Online International writes:

"In the four years leading up to the signing of the Elysée Treaty, they had met 15 times, spent about 100 hours discussing the matter, and written each other 40 letters."

Neither necessarily entered into these negotiations, and yes, this friendship between the two men, easily. I borrow again from Christoph Gunkel:

"The German chancellor had feared the worst when de Gaulle was elected president in 1958. Adenauer even believed he and the Frenchman were "so fundamentally different" that communication between them would be "extremely difficult." However, their very first face-to-face meeting brought an amazing turnaround: The general suggested close cooperation on foreign policy, and the chancellor was "pleased to discover a completely different person to the one I had worried I would find.""

So, we can see that there were certainly challenges in the relations between the two countries, and their leaders. Yet, they overcame their personal obstacles, as well as the historical obstacles standing between the two countries, to find this new, mutual cooperation.

The culmination of their efforts was the Élysée Treaty, which promised cooperation on basically all matters. Nothing like it had ever existed before, and it had not come easily. Still, both leaders had worked towards achieving it, and But it was a monumental accomplishment.

In the spirit of this historic treaty, the parliaments and governments of both France and Germany met yesterday in Berlin. “I know of no other such example anywhere in the world.” said Andreas Schockenhoff, the Chair for the German-French Parliamentary Friendship Group.

It was no small feat that this alliance came about, and the reactions following the signing of the historic treaty in 1963 for cooperation between the two traditional enemies was telling. There certainly was strong opposition in both countries at the time as well. The German foreign ministry warned that any agreement with France required parliamentary approval. DeGaulle's anti-American stance was particularly troubling to many Germans, who wanted to maintain good relations with the United States, understandably. Gunkel explains that the West German diplomat to Paris warned Adenauer "against letting de Gaulle "ensnare" him in "a Bonn-Paris axis." The diplomat thought there was a real "danger" de Gaulle would offer Germany a "friendship pact." But the chancellor ignored the dire warnings. In fact, he told advisor Horst Osterheld that he was willing "to put up with a few years of tense relations with the Americans." After all, he was more interested in betting on the "German-French and European horse". "

The stakes rose even higher when DeGaulle quite bluntly rejected British membership into the European Union. Opponents of Adenauer were incensed, and criticism rose to a fever pitch!

A month later, when the German Bundestag did ratify the treaty, it emphasized the importance of maintaining good relations with the US, and expressed their desire to see Great Britain become part of the European Union. DeGaulle felt at the time that it signified the effective end of the treaty, although he was ultimately proven wrong on this score.

Despite the political pitfalls, there is no minimizing just how important this treaty was, or the spirit of greater understanding and cooperation that it cemented. The two countries had always been antagonistic towards one another before, and if they were to find a prominent place in the modern, post-war world after both had been so compromised, they needed to lean on one another more, to rely upon each other. To be allies. The Élysée Treaty, despite the difficulties in reaching it, effectively achieved this, and it marked an enormous and unprecedented success!

"My heart overflows and my soul is grateful that I have signed this treaty with the chancellor," Charles DeGaulle said in German, "No one on this planet can fail to appreciate the immense importance of this act. It not only turns the page on a long and bloody era of fighting and war, but also opens the door to a new future for Germany, for France, for Europe and therefore for the world!"

Adenauer was more sober in his response, although he was still flattering.  "General," he said," you have spoken so eloquently that I cannot add anything to your words."

Europe has never been the same since. That is not the first time such a statement can be made in regards to the policies of the two nations towards one another. But it is perhaps the first time that it can seriously be argued that it has been to the benefit of both countries and, indeed, of Europe in general.

These are difficult and trying times indeed for Europe, and France and Germany have not always been on the same page in regards to the most divisive issue of this day: austerity. Still, it should be remembered that the history between these two countries was governed by hatred and misunderstandings, and that is where this accord truly shows the improvement. They may not always agree, but the level of communication and, yes, cooperation between the two nations, and Europe in general, has improved so dramatically, that a war between these two nations, far from being inevitable, seems now unthinkable. Despite the strong criticism (much of it with some measure of legitimacy) about the European Union having received the Nobel Peace Prize, it also should be remembered where these two countries in particular, and Europe in general, was before, with countless wars and conflicts soaking the history of the continent in blood. That has changed in the post-war years, and the Élysée Treaty is the best example of this newfound spirit of cooperation in Europe, which came just less than two decades following the rubble at the end of the bloodiest conflict in history.

Tough times as these may be, it serves humanity well to remember the success that this treaty has signified since. Half a century of peace and cooperation, on a continent that had previously been defined by a lack of such things. The world seems to be lacking this kind of a spirit in the present day, but we can turn to some of the success stories of the past, of which I certainly would qualify this as one of them. Two countries that certainly have not always been known for a spirit of cooperation and peace have actually managed to find a truly remarkable example of the benefits of compromise and understanding. So today, I honor the spirit of the Élysée Treaty!

Below are some very interesting articles relating to this topic that I would recommend, and from which I got some of the information, particularly the specific quotes used in this piece:

"Europe's Odd Couple, France and Germany, 50 Years Later" by Melissa Eddy and Steven Erlanger of the New York Times:

France, Germany celebrate 50 years of landmark Elysee Treaty by CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)

"Elysee Treaty: France and Germany celebrate 50 years of friendship" by Jessica Phelan of The Global Post

"Sealed with a Kiss: Treaty Heralded New Era in Franco-German Ties" by Christoph Gunkel of Spiegel Online International. This has a bit of the background history added, and was a very interesting and informative  article on the subject:

"Élysée Treaty signed 50 years ago" piece posted on ""  on January 18, 2013:

"Elysee – a treaty for friendship"   MSN Arabia (posted yesterday, January 22nd)

And here's an article with a picture of the recently issued stamp honoring the alliance: