Momentous Monday: Don’t nobody bring me no bad news

Times may seem dark because, well, honestly, they are. The world is being torn by plague, my country may soon face another civil war or worse, and there’s no clear end in sight.

So, as a palate-cleanser, I want to take the opportunity of this April 27th to highlight a few good things that have happened on this day in history.

  1. 1981: Birth of the mouse

No, not Mickey. He’s a lot older than this. This date 39 years ago was the beginning of the revolution in computer interfaces that you are still using today. Only it wasn’t IBM or Apple who created it.

Nope. That would be the company whose name was once synonymous with photocopying things — i.e. the Google of their era — Xerox. And their mouse was created as a user interface for their Star workstation.

It was an inverted variation of the trackball, which had been first created in 1952. And it was called a mouse for reasons that are probably obvious — its shape, it crawls all over your mousepad, and it has a tail. Well, it did back then. Your modern mouse may not.

  1. 1759: Birthday break 1! Mary Wollstonecraft

You might know her by her married name, Mary Shelley, or you might not know her at all. But you no doubt know her most famous creation — Baron von Frankenstein and his monster.

Mary and her gang were basically the Instagram Influencers of their day. Young, hot, into questionable games and drugs, and very, very emo. They invented the entire genre of gothic romance. One wild weekend involving Mary, her husband Percy, her step-sister Clair, a perverted doctor named John Polidori, and the notorious Lord Byron led to a bunch of famous fiction and the possible creation of the monster movie genre.

Frankenstein wasn’t the only thing created that weekend. Poilidori created the vampire at the same time. And it was all a bunch of kids hanging out in a really expensive house and daring each other to do wilder and wilder shit.

Hm. Sound familiar? Although I really doubt that Danny Duncan or the either of the brothers Paul are ever going to give us great literature.

Here’s the trailer for the Ken Russell film inspired by that momentous weekend. Yes, it’s a cheesy 80s trailer. The film itself is actually very good. Strangely, given the subject-matter, it’s actually one of Russell’s more understated efforts.

The real reason to remember Mary, though, is that she was a strong and early advocate for what eventually became the feminist movement.

  1. 1992: Madam Speaker

You would think, given that the place has been (and currently is) run by a few famous queens, and had their first female prime minister in 1979 — who proved that she could be as evil and cold-hearted as any man — you’d think that Britain would have had a woman in charge of the House of Commons a lot sooner than the early 90s, but that was not the case.

The first female speaker was Betty Boothroyd, an MP from the liberal Labour Party, who assumed office about two years after Thatcher ended her reign as Prime Minister. Currently, she is one of only two still-living Speakers of the House. Compare this to the U.S., where four of our past Speakers of the House are still alive.

Fun fact: the Speaker of the House does not actually have to be an elected Representative. The position goes to whomever is elected by a majority of votes when the new session starts. Of course, that’s just a hypothetical because, to date, no non-member has ever been elected.

As for Baroness Boothroyd, her great interest was in getting young people interested in politics. She voluntarily resigned her position as Speaker in October, 2000 to great acclaim.

  1. 1932: Birthday Break 2! Casey Kasem

While the idea of social media influencers might seem new, it’s not. The main difference is that the means of production have become so available to everyone, so that some kid in their bedroom actually can have an impact via Instagram, Twitter, Tik Tok, Twitch, Snapchat, YouTube, or even Facebook when their proud grandma shares.

But before the internet, there was TV, and in a different era the big influencers were the VJs on MTV, guiding the musical tastes and interests of their audiences back when the “M” in “MTV” actually meant “Music” and not “Merde.”

It’s no accident that the first thing that aired on MTV was the song Video Killed the Radio Star, considering that MTV and their VJs wouldn’t even exist with radio and their DJs.

Side note: Yes, the concept of “vlog” being a portmanteau of “video” and “blog” comes directly from the idea of a “Video Jockey.” Of course “vlog” itself is a triple portmanteau, since “blog” is short for “weblog.” And Video Jockey comes from Disc Jockey, the radio equivalent, the idea being that their job was to hold the reins on the records they played. Modern DJs take the riding a little more literally with scratching and skipping and other techniques that physically manipulate the disc, whether actual vinyl or just an analog controller of digital sound. Personally, if I were a DJ, I’d go with the analog device over the actual vinyl any day for so many reasons, not the least of which is that I wouldn’t have to haul around vinyl with it inferior sound quality and easy ability to be damaged.

Back when Casey Kasem was an influencer, though, he didn’t really have that choice. Well, okay, later in his career, he would have been able to jump from vinyl to CD. Cassette was never a choice in radio because of the inability to easily cue a track on the fly But his big influence was in creating something called American Top 40 fifty years ago, in 1970.

Oh, sure. You’ve heard of it with a different host, but it was Kasem who presided over it (on and off) for (oddly enough) almost 40 years, and it was the musical tastemaker of its day. But that’s not all he did.

Right before he started AT40, he had this little voice-acting gig in some cartoon show called Scooby-Doo Where Are You? as a character known as Shaggy. It was another endeavor he stuck with for 40 years, although with a slight break.

Finally, being of Lebanese descent, Kasem was active in working to support the rights of Arab-Americans, probably the least well-known part of his public life. Sadly, he died in 2014, but he left a lot of positive behind.

  1. 1994: Enfranchised at last

Other things you would have expected to have happened a lot earlier: black South Africans finally got to vote for the first time in the elections of 1994. For perspective, that was two years after Bill Clinton was first elected president in the U.S.

And it’s an object lesson in how a tiny minority can keep the vast majority oppressed as long as they control the money, the media, and the political system — which the white Afrikaners did for centuries, although it got really bad when apartheid came along in the late 1940s.

If you don’t remember the South African election of 1994, you’re probably aware of the outcome. Anti-apartheid activist and long-time political prisoner Nelson Mandela was elected president of the country. Yes, despite rumors to the contrary, he was quite alive.

To put this in perspective for Americans: this would have been like Martin Luther King being thrown into prison on trumped-up charges of sedition or treason in the late 50s, being released around 1990, and going on to be elected president in 1992.

Oh… and that whole part where black people weren’t allowed to vote until 1992 as well, instead of technically having been allowed to vote since the 15th Amendment in 1870 (men) or the 19th Amendment 50 years later (women) complicated things

I say technically because, well, racists gonna racist, and come up with all kinds of tricks to keep people from voting.

Oh, wait. I said “no bad news.” So the good news here is that on this day in 1994, changes in South Africa led directly to one of the opposition leaders finally being put in the position of authority. And what happened there and how is an object lesson to all of us today to be aware, forewarned and forearmed to prevent the whole “oppression and suppression” part from happening again here soon.

So there are just a few good things that happened on April 27th throughout history. I know you’re probably still stuck at home right now. Well, if you have smart leaders who haven’t yet cut down the number of new cases or deaths while increasing testing, anyway, then you’re still stuck at home.

Take a moment, then, to make one small good memory for this April 27th. Contact a friend through text, PM, Zoom, or even good ol’ phone call, and let them know you’re thinking of them. Write something, read something, learn something new. Go through that old box of random crap that’s been in the back of your closet forever.

There’s a universe of possibilities in the place you’re stuck in now. That’s the good news. Explore it to its fullest. You don’t need to go outside yet. There will be plenty of time for that later. As for now?

Bring yourself your own good news. It’s all literally within your physical reach right this second.

Image: Zane Gray Cabin, (CC BY 2.0)

Momentous Monday: Witches’ brew

You’re suddenly whisked back to medieval Europe, where you see a woman walking down the street. She’s wearing a tall, black, pointed hat — which is why you notice her in the first place, and she’s selling people some sort of potion.

Intrigued, you follow her until she comes to her permanent place of business, which is also her home. The “sign” above the door is a broom, and she invites you in, where you see a bubbling cauldron and the black cat who is the only other occupant.

She finally offers you her potion and you reluctantly take it, wary of whatever witchcraft she’s trying to pull. Then you realize that she’s selling beer, and this is a microbrewery.

The tall hat is mainly to be seen over the crowds. As for the “broom,” it was actually an alestake, a sign to let people know that a fresh batch was ready. The cauldron, of course, was for the actual brewing and fermentation, and the cat was meant to keep rats and other rodents away from the necessary grains.

From its beginnings in Mesopotamia and Egypt 9,000 years ago, brewing was done almost exclusively by women, which makes sense if you consider it to be more of a culinary art, which in many ways it is.

This continued to be the case on into the Middle Ages, and in many cases it was the only way a woman could earn money — either extra money for the household, or to support herself if her husband died.

Ale was very popular at the time because the water wasn’t so good, but people needed a pure source of hydration and nutrients. Ale and “small beer” of the time wasn’t that strong. But women made a lot of money doing it.

As the industry grew in the 14th century, men started getting involved, particularly in the production of “hopped” brews, which had a longer shelf-life and different flavor than the women’s un-hopped versions.

In that age-old story, because the men wanted in on the action and brewing had made many women independently wealthy, the Ale Wives begin to suffer increased scrutiny, and the Church helped out by associating their symbols with what they bring to mind today: witches.

They were also libeled by male authors, particularly John Skelton in his The Tunning of Elynour Rummyng, which depicted every aspect of the Ale Wife trade as ugly and unsavory, from the brewsters themselves to their customers and their brews.

Of course, the Church was only too happy to oblige in changing the depiction of these women from successful entrepreneurs and business owners to Satan’s handmaids and minions of evil.

This all came about because the Catholic Church had suffered a schism in 1517, When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg, Luther only intended them for the clergy, but thanks to the invention of printing, they were translated from Latin to German and promulgated far and wide.

They might as well have been 95 Feces, because the shit hit the fan.

Over the course of 70 years, from 1560 to 1630, The Great Hunt saw about 80,000 people accused and 40,000 executed. It was all about marketing. Once the idea of witches had been sold to people, whichever church found and dealt with more of them would convince more people that they were the “right” one.

Those 40,000 deaths were individual selling points for whichever side caused them.

One of the few prominent cases of a man being executed for witchery and dealing with the devil was decidedly political. The early 1600s, Cardinal Richelieu wanted to un-fortify towns around France, but one recalcitrant priest, Urbain Grandier, refused to tear down the wall around his town, Loudun. He was ultimately executed in 1634.

Aldous Huxley wrote a documentary novel about these events, The Devils of Loudun, in 1952. It was later adapted into a play that was eventually made into the film The Devils, directed by Ken Russell and starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave.

While these witch-hunts were marketing for the church, the secular impetus for them was the usual: the continued oppression of the already powerless, particularly women, who made up the bulk of the accused.

There modern, non-European examples as well, such as The Dakan of Gujarat. Currently ongoing in India, these are cases of men basically accusing women — often from their own families or households — of witchcraft and sorcery in order to take over land that the women own.

The drivers in this case are a combination of misogyny, the caste system, and a way to blame women for the problems caused by failed economic policies created by… the men.

One of the more extreme examples: Women in a household were accused and beaten by men in the same household because the women had the audacity to tell the men to not shit in the fields where the women were growing food crops. How dare they!

Ultimately, every case of railroading, persecuting, and punishing the less well-off are just cases of the 1% desperately trying to keep what they have — which is already way too much.

This is perfectly depicted in the cartoon where a rich, old white man with a plate piled high with cookies points accusingly at a person of color with no cookies at all, and telling a construction worker with one cookie on his plate, “Careful, mate… That foreigner wants your cookie!”

Someday, the “foreigner” and the worker are going to figure out that they can just take most of the hoarding billionaire’s cookies and share them among themselves.

Witch hunts are just the way that the richest use the least powerful as a scapegoat to keep everyone in the middle from realizing who the real witches, demons, and villains are.

While the Ale Wives had money, it wasn’t enough in a society that wouldn’t even respect the concept that women could. And so the rival brewers called them licentious women, the church called them the Devil’s Daughters, and everyone else started buying their beer from the men, and going to the church that made them feel safer via better witch-killing spectacles.

It’s a never-ending story that needs to end, but even to this day has not. After all, the Japanese Internment in America that began with WW II was never about national security. It, too, was about taking land and an industry away from a defenseless class.

Remember the Ale Wives and what happened to them the next time you’re enjoying a beer that was no-doubt brewed by a man, and make an effort to support businesses that are owned by women, people of color, or members of the queer community.