henry ford, square dancing, and epistemic closure

Last night, while idly cruising through Facebook, I came across a video posted by a person I like and respect. The video claimed:

Square dancing has a secret, super-racist past.

Okay. You have my attention. I love secret histories. And it’s not hard to imagine square dancing as having a racist past, since so much of American history does have a racist past. And, again, it was posted by somebody whose opinion I respect. So what the hell, I watched the video.

Watch it for yourself, of course. But here is what I took away from it.

  • Henry Ford was a racist and an anti-semitic crank. Absolutely true. It’s pretty well-known that Henry Ford was a bigot of the ugliest kind.
  • Henry Ford believed jazz music was morally destructive AND a Jewish creation. Also absolutely true. Well, it’s true that he believed that. Again, Ford was a racist and an anti-semitic crank.
  • Henry Ford promoted square dancing. Again, absolutely true. Ford grew up with some form of call-and-response dancing. Probably not what we think of as square dancing now, but a form of it. Ford even belonged to a dancing club in the 1880s, when he was a teenager. He met his wife at a dance. And in the mid-1920s, he started a program to encourage ‘old style’ dancing among the public.
  • Therefore, since Henry Ford was a racist and anti-semitic crank, square dancing has a secret racist history in which it’s actually “a powerful weapon in a war against…a Jewish jazz dance conspiracy.”

That last bit? I don’t know…it seemed a bit of a leap to me. Is it possible? Sure. Henry Ford was a racist and an anti-semitic crank, after all. But I figured it was also possible the whole ‘secret racist history’ was just clickbait bullshit.

I would have ignored the whole thing except that this morning I came across two other people on Facebook — again, people I like and whose opinions I respect — posting that same ‘secret racist history’ video. So I thought I’d actually look into it.

Noted racist and anti-semitic crank Henry Ford square dancing in evening wear.

Eventually I found a 2010 article in The Journal of the Society for American Music entitled Henry Ford’s Dance Revival and Fiddle Contests: Myth and Reality, by Paul M. Gifford (who apparently also wrote a well-received book on the hammered dulcimer). The link will take you to the article, which is painfully long and detailed, so read it at your own risk. Gifford basically says that even though Henry Ford (who, this always bears repeating, was a racist and an anti-semitic crank) was an enthusiastic folk dancer as a teen and young man, he put all that aside for about 40 years while he was designing cars and inventing assembly lines and getting stupid rich. After he gave up control of his car company in 1918, Ford spent a few years being a racist and an anti-semitic crank in politics, which didn’t work out for him. Then in the mid-1920s, he returned to his interest in dancing, only to discover he couldn’t remember much about the dance moves and steps. He didn’t even remember much about the music.

So, since he was obscenely rich, he hired folks to go out, learn what they could about the music and the dancing, and teach it to him and his friends. One of these folks was a local dancing instructor named Benjamin B. Lovett. They sought out fiddlers and other folk musicians, picked their brains, made notes about the music and the dance steps. And they sort of re-invented call-and-response square dancing (which, as the video correctly points out, has its roots in slave communities). Lovett eventually published a book: Good Morning: After a Sleep of Twenty-five Years, Old-fashioned Dancing is Being Revived by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford. (A quick aside: the video claims Ford and his wife wrote the book; they didn’t. The title just reflects Lovett’s krypton-grade sucking up. It does, though, include an intro by Ford, which includes a racist and anti-semitic crank comment about “a revival of that type of dancing which has survived longest amongst the northern peoples.”)

Ford promoted the hell out of square dancing. He got local Michigan schools to teach it, he held dances for his employees, he gave interviews to newspapers and magazines about square dancing. He included a record of square dancing music with copies of Lovett’s book on square dancing.

Ford employees square dancing

The question, though, remains. Was Henry Ford’s promotion of ‘Old-fashioned Dancing’ a “powerful weapon in a war against…a Jewish jazz dance conspiracy”? Gifford, after his laborious research, thinks not. Why? Because Henry Ford was a very vocal racist and anti-semitic crank. He wasn’t at all shy about declaring his racist and anti-semitic crank views with the public. He even started a newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, as a venue for feeding his hateful shit to the public. And yet, when he was interviewed about square dancing, Henry Ford (a racist and anti-semitic crank) never associated it with his ugly nativism. According to Gifford, Ford saw square dancing “as part of a regimen that balanced work with leisure.” Ford, of course, could have been lying. But it doesn’t seem likely, given he was so open about being a racist and anti-semitic crank.

But here’s something that gets ignored. Henry Ford (have I mentioned that he was an avowed racist and anti-semitic crank?) basically stopped promoting square dancing in the late 1920s. But in the mid-1930s, a Colorado school principal named Lloyd Shaw introduced square dancing into his school as part of the physical education program. He later created a troupe of square dancers and toured the US promoting square dancing as healthy exercise. In 1949, the American Academy of Physical Education said square dancing was “a noteworthy contribution to physical education.”

Modern, western-style square dancing of the sort promoted by Shaw.

Shaw, it seems, got permission from Henry ‘Racist, Anti-semitic Crank’ Ford to include some of the dance moves from the Lovett book in his own book on square dancing. That seems to have sparked the claim that Ford ‘funded’ Shaw’s square dance movement. There doesn’t seem to be any actual evidence of funding from Ford, but it’s worth mentioning. Where Ford promoted an old-fashioned folk tradition form of square dancing, Shaw promoted a newer Western-based style. You didn’t see cowboy boots and kerchiefs at Ford square dances.

Shaw died in 1958. And here’s the kicker: the movement to make square dancing the national dance — the movement that resulted in so many states making square dancing official state dances — didn’t begin until 1965, with the National Folk Dance Committee. So the notion that Ford, even though he was a racist and an anti-semitic crank, was attempting to insert his racism and anti-semitism into the American bloodstream through square dancing seems (to me, at any rate) even less likely.

It comes down to this: Henry Ford was a racist and anti-semitic crank who promoted square dancing. But that doesn’t mean Henry Ford promoted square dancing because he was a racist and anti-semitic crank.

Why am I nattering on about this? I mean, who really cares about square dancing? Not me. What I DO care about is epistemic closure.

What the hell is epistemic closure? Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. Epistemic closure basically refers to the condition in which we limit what we learn/know based on what we already believe. If, for example, you believe the accordion is the most melodic musical instrument ever invented, and you join internet groups that celebrate the accordion and follow the twitter feeds of accordion lovers, then all the information you receive about accordions will reinforce your belief.

You’ll find that almost everybody agrees with you, with the exception of those rare accordion haters out there (and they can safely be ignored). You’ll get involved in vitriolic arguments about which accordions are better than others, and wonder why some people are unable to understand why your accordion of choice is the best. You’ll shy away from interacting with those folks who hold false beliefs about the best accordion, further limiting what you can learn. And those ignorant fuckers who celebrate bagpipes are barely human and should be either locked up or exterminated. I mean, c’mon…bagpipes?

Epistemic closure is why FoxNEWS viewers remain ignorant. Whether you call it epistemic closure, or the bubble, or the echo chamber, it’s dangerous for folks to accept information simply because it seems to conform to what they already believe. Most of us accept that the US was built on the backs of slaves. Most of us accept that modern culture has racism baked into it. So when somebody says square dancing is part of a white supremacy conspiracy and has a secret racist history, we’re likely to just nod and say, “Yeah, that makes sense.” Because let’s face it, it’s totally possible.

But in this case…I don’t think so. Despite the fact that Henry Ford was a racist and an anti-semitic crank, I don’t think there’s enough evidence to support the notion that square dancing is a tool of white supremacy. You, of course, may arrive at an entirely different conclusion.

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the infuriating john mccain

They’re calling John McCain the ‘last Republican’ and I suppose there’s some truth in that. I think it would be more accurate to say he was the pivot point between old school principled conservative Republicans and the new brand of batshit crazy racist grifters that dominate the modern Republican Party.

I mean, yes, he defended Barack Obama as a decent man…but he also picked Sarah Palin as his running mate. And yes, he made a highly theatrical vote that saved what remained of the Affordable Care Act…but let’s not forget that he repeatedly voted to involve the US in a variety of armed conflicts. And yes, he spoke out against the US policy of torture during the Bush II administration…but he also went all wobbly during the 1999 presidential campaign on the issue of the Confederate flag because it was politically expedient.

That seems to have been the problem with John McCain. His first impulse was to stand up for what he believed. But in politics, people are often given the opportunity to have second and third and fourth impulses…and when McCain had time to think about the implications of the politics of a situation, he all too often caved in and did what he thought was the best political move.

I didn’t always like John McCain. I didn’t always agree with him. And I didn’t always respect him — because some of the shit he pulled wasn’t deserving of respect. For example, I respected the John McCain that stood up for Obama. The John McCain who made Sarah Palin political viable–fuck that McCain in the neck.

But what made John McCain the ‘last Republican’ was that he was always capable of earning the respect of liberals like me, even when we thought he was wrong. He always held out the possibility and the hope that at the last moment he’d step up and act honorably. And he did exactly that often enough to be infuriating.

For me, the defining moment of McCain’s career was the Affordable Care Act vote. It wasn’t his actual vote that, to me, defined that moment. I mean, I’m glad he voted to save the ACA, but it was the way he did it that was classic McCain. He was the last person to vote, and he did it as theatrically as possible. He held his arm out straight for a long moment (and folks, that wasn’t easy for him — as a result of his torture in Vietnam, McCain’s shoulders were so fucked up that he couldn’t raise his arm high enough to comb his own hair), then gave a quick thumbs down. But even that wasn’t the actual defining moment. Immediately after giving the thumbs down, he turned and looked directly at Mitch McConnell — then turned and walked away.

I could respect that John McCain. I’m sorry that John McCain is dead. We need that John McCain.

could we please just go 20 minutes without a new scandal please

Damn it, anyway. A guy sits down to write about David Pecker, the weasel-faced CEO and Chairman of American Media — which publishes every nasty-ass tabloid that can be found in America’s finest supermarket checkout aisles — and Pecker’s (alleged!) safe crammed to the gills (yes, that’s right, gills — Pecker’s safe has gills, just like the ‘Lake Erie Monster that Ripped a 38ft Sailboat in Two!’ whose photo appeared on the cover of Pecker’s Weekly World News) crammed to the damned gills, I say, with salacious dirt on Comrade Trump’s many (alleged!!) affairs with assorted porn stars, strippers, and goats of questionable heritage, and what happens?

Pecker and Trump

What happens is we hear the White House (allegedly!!!) blocked a bipartisan bill to protect elections from interference. Seriously. The president who was elected president because of Russian ratfucking decides to interfere with a bill to prevent interference in elections? Is this farce? No. Sadly, no. Which means I have to scrap my David Pecker blog idea to write about Comrade Trump (allegedly!!!!) openly rat-fucking the midterm elections…and then what happens?

Trump and Weisselberg

What happens is Allen Weisselberg, who’s been the CFO of the Trump Organization since 2000, and who has worked for Trump and Trump’s father since the 1970s, and who has (allegedly!!!!!) detailed information about Comrade Trump’s involvement in about a half million financial crimes (allegedly!!!!!!), has been given immunity from prosecution in exchange for “truthful testimony” in the Michael ‘Mickey the Snitch’ Cohen case. Which means I have to scrap my blog post on the Senate Election Security bill, so I can write about this Weisselberg character, whose name I have to double-check every damned time I write it.

And now I’m afraid to look at the damned news for fear something else will happen, some new TrumpScandal ™ will have developed in the last ten minutes. I’m afraid if I look at the news I’ll discover Comrade Trump has threatened to put Attorney Jeff Sessions over his knee and paddle him, or that some porn actress has an electron microscope image of Trump’s wee peanut, or that Trump has openly embraced some ridiculous white supremacist conspiracy theory that white farmers in South Africa are being murdered by….

GoddamMotherfuckSonofabitch.

Okay. Okay, I suppose this was bound to happen. Inevitable, I suppose. Okay then, I can scrap the Weisselberg blog idea and…and give up and just start drinking now.

sputtering bastards

It didn’t take long, did it. For the Republican sputtering to begin, I mean.

Yesterday we witnessed an Olympic caliber exhibition of synchronized justice. Comrade Trump’s former campaign manager AND his personal attorney simultaneously became felons. It was certainly the most news-intensive 20 minutes of my long and semi-wicked life. It put me right on the cusp of news overload.

And the response from Republicans in Congress? Sputtering. “But but but neither of these cases has anything to do with Russia.” “But but but this has nothing to do with collusion.” “But but but but…”

These fucking guys, I declare. But hey, technically they’re right. They’re cowardly dissembling ethics-free sacks of horseshit, but technically they’re right. Manafort’s convictions aren’t directly related to Russia or Trump. And Cohen’s guilty plea has nothing whatsoever to do with illegal Russian meddling into the election.

Cohen’s plea is an altogether different sort of illegal meddling into the election. But hey, guess what. It’s still illegally meddling in the damned election. And Cohen, bless his criminal little heart, directly implicates Comrade Donald J. Trump as knowingly and willfully participating in that illegal election meddling.

There’s some shit Republicans can’t just sputter away.

Here’s the thing: Cohen’s guilty plea incriminates Trump in a conspiracy to influence the election that’s completely separate from the Russian conspiracy to influence the election. That’s TWO distinct criminal conspiracies to influence the election. Two. A Russian criminal conspiracy AND a domestic campaign criminal conspiracy. And since we already have a Special Counsel to investigate the Russian conspiracy, it only makes sense that we should appoint a completely separate Special Counsel to investigate the campaign conspiracy.

I doubt that will happen. Certainly not while Republicans control Congress. Certainly not while Republicans run the Department of Justice. They’re much too busy with all that sputtering.

ADDENDUM — As I was writing this, a friend asked me if I thought this might lead to articles of impeachment. And no, I don’t think it will. It should, but c’mon…we’re talking about Republicans in Congress, who have turned hypocrisy into pure performance art. Let’s consider some of the high crimes and misdemeanors Republicans considered impeachable when Barack Obama was POTUS.

— Republican Darrell Issa said it was an impeachable offense for Obama to offer an administration job to Joe Sestak to persuade Sestak to drop out of the PA Senate primary election.
— Republican Michael Burgess at a rally said Obama needed to be impeached in order to prevent him from “pushing his agenda”.
— Republican Jon Kyl said there might be ‘shenanigans’ involved in the Obama immigration policy that would be impeachable.
— Several Republicans suggested there was an impeachable cover-up in the Benghazi incident that somehow escaped discovery in the ten separate Republican investigations.
— Republican Tom Coburn said Obama was “perilously close” to committing high crimes and misdemeanors by allegedly ordering USCIS employees to “ignore background checks for immigrants” though there’s no indication Obama ever suggested such an order.
— Republican Blake Farenthold told a rally that Obama should be impeached over the conspiracy theories relating to his birth certificate.
— Republican Kerry Bentivolio said he’d like to write articles of impeachment based on the notion that the Obama administration had directed the IRS to target conservative groups.
— Republicans on the House Judiciary committee held a hearing on “The President’s Constitutional Duty to Faithfully Execute the Laws”, which they viewed as an attempt to begin justifying impeachment proceedings.
— Republicans in the Oklahoma legislature (and seriously, I’m not making this up) filed a measure asking Oklahoma members of Congress to impeach Obama (and also the Attorney General and the Secretary of Education) over the decision to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity.

I suppose we should be grateful they never accused Obama of collusion with Kenya to influence the 2008 election. Although we’re talking about Republicans in Congress, so there’s still time for that.

very powerful and very stupid

About four decades ago (I could be more precise, but does a year or two really matter here? I think not) the fourth Doctor Who, while on an unnamed jungle planet, was attempting to negotiate a treaty between…okay. Okay, wait. That was probably a tactical error, mentioning Doctor Who and a jungle planet. I suspect some folks will jump ship as soon as they hear ‘Doctor Who’. Which is a damned shame, since Doctor Who is (aside from being a cheesy science fiction television show with cheesy alien monsters) a font of wisdom and uncommon common sense.

But I’m going to ask you to bear with me a moment, because Doctor Who…okay. Okay, wait. I’ve a better idea. Let’s pretend I never mentioned Doctor Who at all. Instead, let’s pretend I said Doctor Martin Luther King. Everybody respects Doctor M.L. King. Much better. Right, here we go, then.

Who would you trust? The Fourth Doctor Martin Luther King…

About four decades ago the fourth Doctor Martin Luther King, while on an unnamed jungle planet, was trying to negotiate a peace treaty between two warring tribes (the Tesh and the Sevateem). He said this:

The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit the views.

The truth of this is being played out on an almost hourly basis by Comrade Trump and his administration. Trump (although it staggers the very foundations of reality, he really is the actual President of These United States) is both very powerful AND very stupid. He’s being helped in this insidious crusade by a gutless cadre of complicit Republican toadies in Congress, and is often supported by a clueless news media that feels bound to report whatever Trump says, even when it’s a blatant fucking lie. And they usually report it without acknowledging the fact that it’s a blatant fucking lie.

There was a time, early in his administration, when I believed some facet of the Truth would catch up to Trump. At that point, in my innocence, I thought he’d resign in a huff rather than face the deeper embarrassment of getting tossed out. That way he could claim he left on his own terms, that he could have stayed in office if he really wanted to, and that he left because he had better things to do. “You didn’t dump me, I dumped you.” That sort of thing.

…or this guy?

I no longer think that’s likely. Oh, I still believe some aspect of the Truth will catch up to him. I still believe Comrade Trump will leave in disgrace. I just don’t think he’ll leave voluntarily. Or easily, or quietly, or with any dignity. I think he’ll wreak as much havoc as he can before he’s forced out the door. I think he’ll take hold of the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, refuse to let go, and will be screaming obscenities and threatening to burn the entire motherfucker down before he leaves.

Another thing the very powerful and the very stupid have in common: they refuse any responsibility for their actions. If something goes wrong — when something inevitably goes badly wrong — it’s always the fault of somebody else. The idea that they might be held answerable for their conduct fills them with bitterness and outrage.

Oh, and by the way, the title of that Dr. Who episode I mentioned earlier? The Face of Evil. Seriously. I’m not making that up. Also? In the very next episode, the Doctor speaks about “the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain.” Clever guy, that fourth Doctor Martin Luther King Who.

something something photography something

I used to be a camera app junkie. I regularly walked around with half a dozen camera apps on my phone — each of which did one or two things particularly well. I had two apps just for black-and-white work (one in square format, one in 3:2), another app just for awkward lighting situations, one for…well, you get the idea. I regularly downloaded new camera apps just to see what they could do, and discarded them ruthlessly

I’m in camera app recovery now. I only have two apps on my phone — one sophisticated app that gives me a lot of control over exposure, and one app that I’ve simplified in such a way that I can toggle between color and b&w (both in square format). I shoot almost exclusively with the simplified app. All the photographs in this post were shot with the same app.

A few folks have asked me why I bother to shoot in b&w when I could just shoot in color, then process the image as black-and-white. It’s a valid question. After all, a digital image in color contains a more information than a b&w image, and the use of color filters in post processing gives you more control over the final image. It would be smarter to shoot in color.

But I don’t. There has to be some sort of decision-making process that takes place in my head — some sort of algorithm firing in my brain, evaluating the scene and arriving at a decision. But it doesn’t feel like there’s much thought involved at all. I usually know if I’ll be shooting color or b&w when I pull the phone out of my pocket.

I also tend to photograph a lot of stuff that’s not obviously photo-worthy (if there is such a thing as photo-worthy), partly because I often find a photograph of a thing to be more interesting and appealing than the thing itself. Sometimes the entire point of a photo is in the act of photographing, not the thing being photographed. If that makes sense. Sometimes the point of a photo is in the decision of what to include in the frame and what to exclude.

As I wrote that, a thought occurred to me. Over the last several years, I’ve made my living dealing with narratives in one form or another. Now I walk around shooting photos that tend to be narrative-resistant. When you get down to the bone, a photograph isn’t anything but an arrangement of light on a surface. There’s no inherent narrative content. No matter what people say, a single photograph doesn’t tell a story. It can’t tell a story. Any narrative that might emerge comes from the viewer, not the photograph.

I don’t recall who said all photographs are self-portraits. One of those photographers from the 1930s and 40s, I’m sure — the ones who did the grunt work of turning the craft into an art form. It’s a great line, partly because it’s artsy bullshit and partly because it’s got a fuzzy kernel of truth. There’s a decision made behind every photograph. Every single one. And that decision reveals something about who you are.

Maybe you’re the sort of person who photographs kids at a birthday party, maybe you’re the sort of person who is passionate about photographing life on the street, maybe you’re the sort of person who is attracted by the arrangement of weeds growing along a drainage ditch. You might even be all the sort of person who does all three.

I had a point to make when I started writing this. I’ve totally forgotten what that point was. I suppose if the point was important, I’d have remembered it. This is what happens when you think about photography instead of doing photography. You might learn something new; you might also lose the point.

adding insult to the office

If you read or listen to the news in the morning, it’s always distressing to wake up to the reality that Comrade Trump is still POTUS. But lawdy, some days are just more difficult than others. This is one of them.

Trump is rage-tweet-vomiting again. He began with a three-tweet rant quoting Tom Fitton of the right-wing group Judicial Watch:

The Strzok firing is as much about the Mueller operation as anything else. There would be no Mueller Special Councel to investigate so called collusion but for the machinations of Strzok & his colleagues at the top levels of the FBI. We know this guy was corrupt and had anti-Trump animus. Strzok and others at the FBI should be criminally investigated for the way the conducted this investigation. Instead, Mueller is pretending nothing went wrong. He used Strzok, he used the Clinton DNC Dossier…the whole thing should be shut down. The Strzok firing shows that the fundamental underpinnings of the investigation were corrupt. It should be shut down by the courts or by honest prosecutors.

It’s hard to even know where to start with this wall of bullshit. You need an abacus to keep track of all the errors and outright lies. Was Strzok instrumental in creating the Special Counsel investigation? Nope. Is there any indication that Strzok is corrupt? Nope. In fact, the Inspector General report clearly stated there’s no evidence that Strzok’s dislike of Trump influenced any investigative decisions.

In fact, the ONLY accurate information in all of that is this: Peter Strzok was fired from the FBI. And let’s face it, that was essentially a political act to punish a career law enforcement professional for the sin of thinking Comrade Trump is unfit to be the President of the United States.

Tom Fitton

But this is pretty much what you expect from Trump and Tom Fitton. Who IS this Fitton guy? He’s on the Board of Directors of Judicial Watch, which describes itself as a ‘watchdog’ group. You’d think, as a frequent FOX News analyst on judicial behavior and as a member of Judicial Watch, Fitton must be a lawyer. Or at least has a background in law. Or maybe some significant professional experience in law enforcement. Or a graduate degree in some area of criminal justice. Or even an undergrad degree in a related field. But no. Tom Fitton has a B.A. in English. Oh, and he was a talk radio host on a conservative station.

Fitton is probably best known for his ‘work’ on the Benghazi attack. He posited the theory that the attack was actually part of an Obama administration conspiracy. Obama, he claimed, wanted Libyan militants to kidnap Ambassador Stevens. That would allow Obama to do a prisoner swap — Stevens for terrorist Omar Abdel-Rahman (the blind cleric convicted for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing). It’s not clear why Obama would go to such elaborate lengths to free Abdel-Rahman, but it probably had something to do with him being a wily secret Muslim. Unfortunately, Stevens was accidentally killed during the assault, so the plot failed. In an interview, Fitton admitted there was no actual evidence to substantiate his claim — but he asserted that lack of evidence was, in itself, evidence of the Obama cover-up.

The sneering, volatile, cruel, self-centered, would-be tyrant who occupies the White House.

This is the sort of person Comrade Trump looks to for expertise and support. Every day Trump occupies the White House is an insult to the nation, every day he remains in office further degrades the presidency, every day he attacks the institutions of democracy is an offense against the men and women who work to protect it.

And every morning I wake up and read what new outrage Comrade Trump has committed is a gut-churning reminder that we can’t for a moment stop resisting.