Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008: The Year That Was.......Strange.

How strange a year was it? Here's how strange:

  • O.J. actually got convicted of something.

  • Gasoline hit $4 a gallon - and those were the good times.

  • On several occasions, "Saturday Night Live" was actually funny.

  • There were a few days there in October when you could not completely rule out the possibility that the next Treasury secretary would be Joe the Plumber.

  • Finally, and most weirdly, for the first time in history, the voters elected a president who -- despite the skeptics who said such a thing would never happen in the United States-- was neither a Bush nor a Clinton.

    Of course, not all the events of 2008 were bizarre. Some were depressing. The only U.S. industries that had a good year were campaign consultants and foreclosure lawyers. Everybody else got financially whacked. So, we can be grateful that 2008 is almost over. But consider this....just because the year is ending doesn't mean our troubles won't continue.

  • Oh well...Happy New Year anyway!

    Wednesday, December 17, 2008

    EconomicWatch: New Credit Card Rules May Bring Some Relief to Consumers

    The Federal Reserve is expected to vote Thursday on credit card reforms that may relieve customers faced with late fees, universal defaults and shorter payment periods, Reuters reported.

    The new rules, which were proposed earlier this year, are expected to prohibit credit card companies from increasing rates at will, with some exceptions, and to ban universal default, which permits changing card terms if the borrower defaults on another bill.

    The rules are also expected to ban double-cycle billing, where card companies reach back to earlier billing cycles to help calculate interest charged in the current cycle.

    Consumers will also likely see easier-to-read tables on monthly statements.

    Credit card companies that initially resisted the changes, however, warn borrowing limits may be reduced and interest rates charged on credit cards will rise for borrowers.

    The new rules need the approval of the Federal Reserve, the Office of Thrift Supervision and the National Credit Union Administration, all are expected to act on Thursday.


    Tuesday, December 16, 2008

    Is Regifting Wrong?

    It usually goes something like this: you open a beautifully wrapped box only to find one of those tacky holiday sweaters with snowmen on it. Or maybe it's a desk lamp made completely of peanut brittle. Or something super useful, like that battery-operated singing fish that hangs on your wall. Even as you smile and say "thank you," you tell yourself, "This goes in the regifting pile." The problem is-and come on, you know this-regifting is a major faux pas. It makes you look like a complete ingrate should the gift-giver find out. And if the new receiver discovers your thoughtless attempt to pawn off a piece of junk, you'll quickly be in your social circle's proverbial doghouse.

    But things could be different this year. Environmentalists are finding inherent value in the idea of regifting. They're removing the tacky connotation and rebranding it as green and earth friendly. "It's a way to turn trash into something useful. That's as green as it gets," says Urvashi Rangan, the editor of Greener Choices, the enviro-focused online hub of Consumer Reports.

    For Rangan and a growing group of environmentalists, passing on an unwanted gift is a way to save money and resources, and reduce the amount of waste headed for landfills. "[Regifting] tends to be a really sexy topic when you're in a recession," Rangan says. "It really helps us play into the frugality that people are looking for."

    Still unconvinced of a broader trend? Then check out The site recently studied the growing regifting scene and found that more than half of American adults were comfortable with the practice and that on average, more than 40 million gifts are regifted each year. The site's chock full of readers' stories highlighting their most successful, and horrifying, regifting stories. In one, brothers who were tired of the tube socks they kept getting for Christmas turned them into a massive holiday wreath that they ... gave back to mom. In another less successful exchange, a regifted highchair actually infected the receiver's toddler with a severe rash. "Don't give the gift of scabies!" she warns other would-be regifters.

    For all the taboos, and occasional hazards, recycling a gift can still can be done responsibly and with tact. Heck, even the manner-minding Emily Post Institute endorses it, if done correctly. The Discovery Network's Planet Green staff amplified its regifting advocacy this year with a list of pointers, suggesting that regifting falls perfectly within the core tenets of environmentalism: the three R's-reduce, reuse and recycle. For one, there are scruples involved. You can't mindlessly pass on a piece of junk, says Meaghan O'Neill, editor of Planet Green, which also produces the environmental Web site "You have to know the person receiving it will like it." It also couldn't hurt to add something to make it personal, like getting initials embroidered on a tacky sweater, or tying a new color ribbon around that enormous basket of shower beads.

    There's also the option of what one Planet Green blogger calls the "stealth store credit" type of regifting, wherein you take "unwanted item X," find out where it was purchased, return it for store credit (many stores will accept an exchange with no receipt) and buy a different item for the same amount. That way you maintain the neutrality of manufactured products while putting some thought into it. If that's too much work, there's an even safer option. Embrace the practice all together and throw a full-scale regifting event. Host a holiday gift exchange and ask everyone to bring only a regiftable gift. Or agree with your family to do it with the entire holiday season. "If it's out in the open, there's no tackiness at all," O'Neill says.


    EconomicWatch: Mutual Fund Industry Gets Extra Lumps Of Coal For Bad Behavior

    After years of expecting a little something extra around the holidays, most people in the mutual-fund world are getting nothing extra for Christmas this year.

    That said, it's my job to fill some of those holiday stockings. It's the annual Lump of Coal Awards, my holiday tradition of finger-pointing at the bad boys and girls of the fund business, the ones who should get nothing more than an inky chunk of carbon from Santa this year.

    The Lump of Coal Awards recognize managers, executives, firms, watchdogs and other fund-world types for action, attitude, behavior or performance that is misguided, bumbling, offensive, disingenuous, reprehensible or just plain stupid.

    With the average equity fund down by more than 40%, it would be easy to carpet-bomb the entire industry with insults this year, but the losing actually has made it harder to pick "winners" -- the buffoons and miscreants who added insult to injury by blunder, ignorance or arrogance.

    The 2008 Lump of Coal Awards go to:

    1. Bruce Bent, co-founder of the first money-market fund and chairman of the Reserve Funds.

    Category: Forgetting that talk is cheap

    For years, Bent railed against money funds holding anything riskier than Treasury bills and bank certificates of deposit. He ridiculed competitors for buying commercial paper, short-term corporate debt that's routinely unsecured.

    But in 2006, when Reserve's money funds were lagging the field in yield, Bent's firm started buying the same things he once described as "garbage." Reserve's money-fund yields climbed the charts.

    Meanwhile, Bent continued ranting well into 2008 about the horrible investment behavior of others, ignoring the fact that his funds had become the most dangerous of the bunch.

    Holding $785 million in Lehman Brothers paper, Reserve's Primary fund was forced in mid-September to "break the buck," after that debt was officially declared as garbage in light of Lehman's financial troubles.

    2. The Investment Company Institute

    Category: Doing too little, too late

    The money fund crisis came into full bloom in mid-September. The ICI -- the fund industry's trade association -- established its money fund working group in November, long after the focus of the economic crisis had moved on to other parts of the financial world.

    3. DWS Investments

    Category: Forgetting why investors gave them money in the first place

    When DWS decided to close its miserable small-cap value fund, logic dictated that it move the assets into DWS Dreman Small Cap Value Fund, a sister fund in the same asset category and with a similar investment style.

    But DWS Dreman Small Cap Value (KDSAX) was -- and remains -- closed to new investors, so DWS instead folded the fund into DWS Dreman Mid Cap Value Fund (MIDVX) .

    As a result, investors wound up in an asset class they didn't pick, missing out on David Dreman's top-rated small-cap issue and getting his below-average mid-cap fund, thereby enduring a much larger loss on the year.

    4. Every 2010 target-date fund

    Category: Missing the bulls-eye

    At the very time that investors most needed life-cycle and target-date investing to work, it failed.

    Target-date funds are all-in-one portfolios built to age with an investor, so that the closer they get to the target date, the more conservative they become. As such, 2010 funds -- built for investors less than two years from hitting retirement age -- should be a comparatively safe haven.

    Instead, the average 2010 fund is down nearly 30% this year. See related story on target-date funds' losses.

    5. Oppenheimer's target-date funds

    Category: The year's most off-target performance

    Oppenheimer is dead last in its peer group for funds targeted for 2010, 2015, 2020 and 2030. By comparison, Oppenheimer 2025 is a star, standing next-to-last in its category. And Oppenheimer 2040 and 2050 didn't launch until March, but since their inception date, both rank dead last in their peer groups too. With performance like that, Oppenheimer may not be running "life-cycle funds," so much as "death spiral funds."

    (Second place in this category goes to AllianceBernstein. Were it not for Oppenheimer's misery, Alliance Bernstein would be dead last in every target-date category tracked by Lipper Inc..)

    6. Fritz Reynolds of Reynolds Blue Chip Growth Fund

    Category: Faking his way to the top

    Reynolds runs the top-performing "multi-cap core" fund in the Lipper database, and the top large-growth fund tracked by Morningstar Inc. The average competitor is down about 41.5% this year, but Reynolds Blue Chip Fund (RBCGX) has lost just 5%. You'd think that would earn him kudos and not coal, but Reynolds topped those stock-picking categories by being mostly in cash; for much of the year, he's been 0% in blue-chips and 100% in cash.

    Worse yet, with a 2% expense ratio, when Reynolds goes all to cash in current market conditions, he's virtually dooming shareholders to a loss. If Reynolds was so convinced it was time to hit the sidelines, he should have told shareholders to sell his fund, park the cash in an account paying a bit of interest, and then asked them to re-up when he thinks it's time to buy again.

    7. Dreyfus Emerging Markets

    Category: Opening the doors and punching new visitors in the face

    Dreyfus Emerging Markets Fund (DRFMX) re-opened to new investors the first week of December. Even in a troubled economy, solid funds re-opening to new money attract a lot of interest, mostly from people who had previously been kept out.

    But the Dreyfus fund reopened less than two weeks before it is scheduled to pay out a 38% capital gain. In short, anyone who bought in when the fund re-opened will get kicked in the teeth with a big fat tax bill on the money they invested.

    8. Regions Morgan Keegan

    Category: Not knowing when to quit

    Two former high-fliers, RMK's Select Intermediate Bond Fund (MKIBX) and Select High Income Fund (MKHIX) , may have been the industry's biggest travesties over the last two years.

    Manager James Kelsoe -- the Lump of Coal (Mis)Manager of the Year in 2007 -- had a huge slug of money in subprime paper, so that both bond funds lost more than 50% last year, then watched things go from bad to worse in 2008.

    High Income is down nearly 80% and Intermediate Bond has lost 85% this year. For every $1,000 invested in the funds at the start of 2007, there's less than $100 left now. You'd be hard-pressed to find two funds more deserving of liquidation,

    Regions Morgan Keegan finally got rid of Kelsoe, but inexplicably kept the funds open, with a new subadviser running the money.

    9. Ron Fielding of the Oppenheimer Rochester Municipal funds

    Category: Sticking to your guns when they're aimed at your own feet

    The Rochester funds have traditionally flown high on the muni-bond performance charts, largely because of Fielding's penchant for diving headlong into the riskiest portions of the bond market - notably sectors like tobacco, housing and airlines - to capture extra yield. As a result, Fielding's funds - and he's ultimately responsible for 18 Oppenheimer-owned issues - took on a lot more credit risk than the competition.

    Results have been a horror show. Most of the Rochester single-state funds are down more than 35% this year, and Oppenheimer Rochester National Muni Fund (ORNAX) is down 48% this year, which is far more abysmal than the average stock fund in 2008.

    Fielding has remained bullish, but a combination of redemptions and the continued credit crunch is likely to make things worse before they get better, which in turn could cripple the entire Oppenheimer family. Oppenheimer's target-date funds are suffering because of their bond exposure through Fielding's National Muni portfolio.


    Monday, December 15, 2008

    Stuff Is Not Salvation: Finding The Real Christmas

    What passes for the holiday season began before dawn the day after Thanksgiving, when a worker at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, N.Y., was trampled to death by a mob of bargain hunters. Afterward, there were reports that some people, mesmerized by cheap consumer electronics and discounted toys, kept shopping even after announcements to clear the store.

    These are dark days in the United States: the cataclysmic stock-market declines, the industries edging up on bankruptcy, the home foreclosures and the waves of layoffs. But the prospect of an end to plenty has uncovered what may ultimately be a more pernicious problem, an addiction to consumption so out of control that it qualifies as a sickness. The suffocation of a store employee by a stampede of shoppers was horrifying, but it wasn't entirely surprising.

    Americans have been on an acquisition binge for decades. I suspect television advertising, which made me want a Chatty Cathy doll so much as a kid that when I saw her under the tree my head almost exploded. By contrast, my very much older family members will be happy to tell you about the excitement of getting an orange in their stocking during the Depression. The depression before this one.

    A critical difference between then and now is credit. The orange had to be paid for. The rite of passage for a child when I was young was a solemn visit to the local bank, there to exchange birthday money for a savings passbook. Every once in a while, like magic, a bit of extra money would appear. Interest. Yippee!

    The passbook was replaced by plastic, so that today Americans are overwhelmed by debt and the national savings rate is calculated, like an algebra equation, in negatives. By 2010 Americans will be a trillion dollars in the hole on credit-card debt alone.

    But let's look, not at the numbers, but the atmospherics. Appliances, toys, clothes, gadgets. Junk. There's the sad truth. Wall Street executives may have made investments that lost their value, but, in a much smaller way, so did the rest of us. "I looked into my closet the other day and thought, why did I buy all this stuff?" one friend said recently. A person in the United States replaces a cell phone every 16 months, not because the cell phone is old, but because it is oldish. My mother used to complain that the Christmas toys were grubby and forgotten by Easter. (I didn't even really like dolls, especially dolls who introduced themselves to you over and over again when you pulled the ring in their necks.) Now much of the country is made up of people with the acquisition habits of a 7-year-old, desire untethered from need, or the ability to pay. The result is a booming business in those free-standing storage facilities, where junk goes to linger in a persistent vegetative state, somewhere between eBay and the dump.

    Oh, there is still plenty of need. But it is for real things, things that matter: college tuition, prescription drugs, rent. Food pantries and soup kitchens all over the country have seen demand for their services soar. Homelessness, which had fallen in recent years, may rebound as people lose their jobs and their houses. For the first time this month, the number of people on food stamps will exceed the 30 million mark.

    Hard times offer the opportunity to ask hard questions, and one of them is the one my friend asked, staring at sweaters and shoes: why did we buy all this stuff? Did anyone really need a flat-screen in the bedroom, or a designer handbag, or three cars? If the mall is our temple, then Marc Jacobs is God. There's a scary thought.

    The drumbeat that accompanied Black Friday this year was that the numbers had to redeem us, that if enough money was spent by shoppers it would indicate that things were not so bad after all. But what the economy required was at odds with a necessary epiphany. Because things are dire, many people have become hesitant to spend money on trifles. And in the process they began to realize that it's all trifles.

    Here I go, stating the obvious: stuff does not bring salvation. But if it's so obvious, how come for so long people have not realized it? The happiest families I know aren't the ones with the most square footage, living in one of those cavernous houses with enough garage space to start a homeless shelter. (There's a holiday suggestion right there.) And of course they are not people who are in real want. Just because consumption is bankrupt doesn't mean that poverty is ennobling.

    But somewhere in between there is are families like one I know in rural Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, Colorado and Montana, Georgia and Kentucky - raising bees for honey (and for the science, and the fun, of it), growing Christmas trees, making ambrosia, digging a pond out of the downhill flow of the stream, with three kids who somehow, incredibly, don't spend six months of the year whining for the toy du jour. (The youngest once demurred when someone offered him another box on his birthday; "I already have a present," he said.) The mother of the household says having less means her family appreciates possessions more. "I can give you a story about every item, really," she says of what they own. In other words, what they have has meaning. And meaning, real meaning, is what we are always trying to possess. Ask people what they'd grab if their house were on fire, the way our national house is on fire right now. No one ever says it's the tricked-up microwave they got at Wal-Mart.


    Obama's Former Pastor And Mentor Rev. Jeremiah Wright To Visit Georgia

    President-elect Barack Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is expected to preach at a Macon revival and will preach Monday through Wednesday at St. Paul AME Church. It will be his second visit to the Georgia city. Wright also spoke at St. Paul last year.

    The Chicago minister drew headlines in the presidential campaign for remarks on racial injustice, conduct of the American government and U.S. foreign policy. Obama resigned from Trinity United Church of Christ during the campaign after inflammatory comments by Wright from the pulpit became a campaign issue.

    St. Paul's pastor, the Rev. Ronald Slaughter, defends Wright, pointing to his longtime community activism, but has never fully addressed or admitted that the good reverend has racist, socialist leanings.


    EconomicWatch: Your Money As Bailout Play Money

    Tracking the $700 Billion Bailout

    Dozens of banks and a handful of insurers have applied for funds from the Treasury Department as part of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program. The Treasury Department has transferred capital to many of these companies. More are expected to announce their participation in the coming weeks.

    (Click to enlarge)

    Sunday, December 14, 2008

    Op/Ed: Week in Review

    Researchers recently announced the results of a study about dogs and fairness that sheds new light on the auto industry bailout debate.

    Trust me. There's going to be a connection. But first, the scientific news: Folks at the University of Vienna conducted a test in which dogs were asked to shake hands over and over and over again. If you have any experience with dogs, you will not be surprised to hear that they were absolutely delighted. And they didn't care about being paid! The opportunity to perform the same trick endlessly with a stranger in a white coat was reward enough.

    Then the researchers brought in new dogs that were given a piece of bread as a reward for every handshake. The uncompensated dogs watched, lost their innate love of mindless repetition and grew sullen.

    "They get so mad that they look at you and just don't give you the paw anymore," said Friederike Range, one of the scientists.

    So O.K. Dogs are secretly obsessed with fairness. (And bread. Who knew?)

    Now, let's turn our attention to the U.S. Senate where a plan to bail out the auto industry went down the drain Thursday night. It was a stopgap measure, not necessarily the best bill in the world - although it did pass my own personal quality-control test, which is to find out what Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama thinks and go the other way.

    But its defeat doesn't bode well for our prospects in coming up with a sensible response to the current economic unpleasantness. And the debate had an unnerving number of complaints about who was getting more than whom.

    "We're going to have riots. There are already people rioting because they're losing their jobs when everybody else is being bailed out," said Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina.

    Some Democrats denounced the bill because they said that it was unfair that the union workers were getting dumped on while a lot of the Wall Street fat cats got to keep their golden parachutes. Republicans complained that it was unfair that General Motors paid its workers more than Toyota or Honda does. Many senators took the DeMint line and wanted to know what made the autoworkers' jobs more important than the home builders or waitresses who were getting laid off, too.

    There were so many fairness arguments that you really did expect Harry Reid to start walking down the aisle dropping pieces of toast in peoples' mouths.

    Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri threatened to vote against the bill because somebody had stuck in a provision giving federal judges a cost-of-living raise while other Americans were going without Christmas presents. "And my phone is ringing off the hook, Mr. President," she said, "from people who want to be federal judges." (Funny. My phone is ringing off the hook from people who want to be the U.S. senator from Illinois.)

    If you took the long view of the pay raise for judges, you'd have to say that: 1) they deserve it; 2) now isn't the best time; and 3) making a statement on the timing is not quite as important as saving several hundred thousand auto-related jobs. But in the end, the judge provision was dropped, the bill died anyway and the Bush administration will have to do something to keep the automakers afloat until Barack Obama becomes president. Which, although I know it's hard to believe, is eventually going to happen.

    The really hard lifting still lies ahead, and we cannot possibly do it if we're going to dwell too much on the fairness thing. It's just too easy for lawmakers to dodge the tough vote by reminding their constituents that somebody else is getting more breaks than they are.

    Which somebody always is. If Senator DeMint's constituents are going to riot over a bailout for the auto industry, they'll wind up being met by tool-and-die makers waving torches and yelling about soybean subsidies. If the lawmakers from Alabama say their constituents do not want their tax money going to bail out Michigan, the people in Michigan are going to say that they never really enjoyed paying more taxes to the federal government than their state received in aid, while Alabama got a return of $1.61 on the dollar. And anytime a representative from the Great Plains opens his mouth, the people from New York are going to point out that while every state gets the same number of senators, there are more people waiting for a subway in Brooklyn in rush hour than inhabit all of Wyoming.

    We can really get tiresome on the subject. You don't want to go there.

    Any mammal can obsess about fairness. (Did I mention how ticked off monkeys get if they find out they're getting cucumbers while somebody in the next cage has a grape?) The real human trick is to get past the quid pro quo and try to focus on the common good.

    Set a better example, guys. It's two years until the next election.


    Carbon Dioxide Detected on Distant Planet

    ...and guess what? No SUVs!

    Astronomers testing techniques to search for extraterrestrial life have detected carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a planet 63 light-years away.

    This carbon dioxide, though, is certainly not coming from plants or automobiles. The planet, HD 189733b, is far too large (about the mass of the Jupiter) and too hot (1,700 degrees Fahrenheit) for any possibility of life.

    "It's really a proof of concept of using CO2 as a biomarker," said Mark R. Swain, a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who led the team that made the discovery.

    The findings will appear in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

    This year, astronomers including Dr. Swain's group reported finding water vapor and methane swirling around HD x189733b. And in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, a different group of astronomers, led by Carl J. Grillmair of the California Institute of Technology, now report that they, too, have detected water around the same planet, using a technique more precise than that used in earlier research.

    As seen from Earth, HD 189733b passes directly in front of and behind its parent star as it orbits. Taking advantage of those eclipses, Dr. Swain's group used the Hubble Space Telescope to compare the near-infrared light from the star alone (when the planet was hidden behind it) with the combined light from both.

    The difference between the two spectrums revealed the light emitted from the planet, and the mix of colors in the planet's light contained the telltale signs of carbon dioxide at concentrations of between one part per million and one part per 10 million, compared with Earth at about 385 parts per million.

    Even that much carbon dioxide was a bit of a surprise, because the simplest chemistry equations predicted that carbon would prefer to form carbon monoxide or methane molecules. One possibility is that the intense ultraviolet radiation from the star, just three million miles away, is spurring chemical reactions to produce the observed carbon dioxide.

    "The theorists will have no problem explaining it," said L. Drake Deming, a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and a member of Dr. Swain's team.

    Meanwhile, the detection of water by Dr. Grillmair's team, using a similar technique but with longer-wavelength infrared emissions detected by the Spitzer Space Telescope, confirms what had been expected: hydrogen and oxygen are two of the most common elements in the universe, and they readily combine into water.

    "This result basically confirms what the theoreticians have been saying for a number of years," Dr. Grillmair said. "There should be a huge amount of water in these atmospheres, and it looks like there is."


    Pictured: This artist's concept shows a cloudy Jupiter-like planet that orbits very close to its fiery hot star. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

    Mysterious Shipwreck Discovered in Lake Ontario

    Two explorers conducting underwater surveys of Lake Ontario have uncovered an aquatic mystery - a rare 19th-century schooner sitting upright 500 feet under the waves.

    Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville located the 55-foot long dagger-board ship unexpectedly this fall using deep scan sonar equipment off the lake's southern shore, west of Rochester.

    The ship is the only dagger-board known to have been found in the Great Lakes. Kennard said vessels of this type were used for a short time in the early 1800s. The dagger-board was a wood panel that could be extended through the keel to improve the ship's stability. The dagger-boards could be raised when the schooner entered a shallow harbor, allowing the boat to load and unload cargo in locations that would not otherwise be accessible to larger ships.

    The shipwreck was found upright and in remarkable condition considering it had plunged more than 500 feet to its resting place on the bottom, the men said.

    The schooner's origin is a mystery so far.

    The name of the schooner is unknown and there are no documented accounts of a dagger-board schooner sinking in Lake Ontario.

    The explorers suspect the schooner was being converted to a barge or other sailing craft by its owners and perhaps broke free from its moorings in the ice or during a violent storm and was carried far out on the lake before it eventually sank.

    The men found it on the very last survey run of the season. A faint image of something protruding from the bottom showed up at the very edge of the display screen, and another run was made to obtain a better image and the position of the object.

    The two explorers returned to the site two weeks later and used a remote operated vehicle to explore and photograph the shipwreck.

    It appeared from the video survey of the shipwreck that the schooner had been stripped of all useable items such as anchors, iron fittings, cabin with contents, and tiller, Kennard said.

    During the past several months, the explorers have been seeking help from Great Lakes maritime historians to learn more about the schooner.

    The dagger-board schooner is one of the older ships discovered in Lake Ontario and the Great Lakes.

    In May 2008, Kennard and Scoville discovered the British warship HMS Ontario, which was lost in 1780. The Ontario is the oldest shipwreck ever found in the Great Lakes and the only British warship of this period still in existence in the world.

    There are estimated to have been over 4,700 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, including about 550 in Lake Ontario.


    Walter & National Geographic sources contributed to this article.

    Godless Liberals: The Myth of the Secular Enlightenment While American Values Are Destroyed

    The Enlightenment was not, as is often assumed, exclusively secular. In fact, religious Protestants, Jews and Catholics played a key role in imagining a tolerant, but believing, society. However in the past centuries this has evolved into a fungus of irresponsibility and intolerance of the faithful, particularly because it is the only way angry, burnt, damaged people can revolt against traditional values. It has little to do with tolerance, diversity; it has everything to do with damaged goods and the dead weight of the Liberal Left.

    In the recent presidential campaign, religion and religious belief appeared to be playing as large a role as they did in the last two presidential elections. Obama’s efforts to cleanse the Democratic Party of its supposedly anti-religious bias and show that belief can have a place in it by softening the Party’s platform on such key issues as abortion, alluding to the Bible, speaking in biblical cadences and referring to his own faith, and perhaps even in his choice of Joe Biden, a Catholic, as his running mate, have been countered by McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin, who seems to be in the process of quickly recapturing and energizing the religious right with her own, and her daughter’s, “pro-life” choices. Though Ronald Reagan no longer sits in the White House or directs campaign strategy, his legacy survives.

    These appeals to religion are of course rooted in the rough and tumble of daily politics. Republicans want to continue to break the large umbrella alliance of Catholics, blacks, Jews and unions on which the Democratic Party has relied for a majority ever since the New Deal. Democrats want to win back some of the groups that have defected and also make inroads into the Republican strongholds of the suburban and ex-urban megachurches.

    Yet lurking just beneath the surface of this struggle, or perhaps informing it without usually being articulated, is the presumption that there is a fundamental opposition between the secular and religious in American politics and life, that the separation of Church and state is designed to expunge religion from state and politics rather than to find a mutually enriching manner for the two to coexist, and that this fundamental opposition can be traced back to the “Enlightenment.” The Enlightenment as the source of secular culture and secular politics is the great specter of twenty-first century American politics. There is a presumption, apparently shared by all points on the political spectrum, that the Enlightenment was exclusively secular. The image is, as Evan Derkacz recently put it, that “the Enlightenment was essentially a bunch of proto-Marxist rebels who longed to sit at cafes and discuss Dawkins’ latest book.” There is also a strong sense that there was something conspiratorial about the Enlightenment and that its contemporary adherents continue to be conspiratorial—that they aim to impose their radical secular views on everyone else by whatever means.

    There are, of course, good reasons that so many people hold this view of the Enlightenment as the source of secularism (there are few, if any, good reasons to see it as being conspiratorial). Scholars propagated such a notion for a long time, and it was the view that was taught in American colleges and universities. Certainly since WWII, the main scholarly books that students read on the European Enlightenment offered just such a view e.g., Ernst Cassirer’s magisterial The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932; translated 1951), Paul Hazard’s European Thought in the Eighteenth Century (translated 1954) and Peter Gay’s The Enlightenment (1966-1967). This view of the Enlightenment had an admirable pedigree. Cassirer (1874-1945), Hazard (1878-1944) and others championed the Enlightenment as a counterweight to the fascist ideologies that wreaked havoc on Europe and many other parts of the world during the 1930s and 1940s. For them the Enlightenment guaranteed that there was in fact an alternative to the horrors they had witnessed and thus the promise of a brighter future. Peter Gay (b. 1923), an émigré from Nazi Germany, not only championed the Enlightenment in opposition to the Nazism he had experienced firsthand, but also saw it as inspiring the American liberalism with which he had come to identify. His two-volume history, a bestseller that won the National Book Award, appeared at the apogee of 1960s liberalism. His idealization of the Enlightenment of Hume and Voltaire as the seedbed of modern liberalism was the equivalent, in realm of cultural history, to modernization theory—that all societies everywhere were moving toward urbanism, industrialization and democracy—that then ruled the social sciences.

    It takes a long time for such a powerful, regnant and, one should add, cogent view first to crack and then to crumble. Yet the view of the Enlightenment as a purely secular phenomenon has indeed cracked and crumbled. Since the 1980s such notable historians as J.G.A. Pocock (Johns Hopkins), Dale Van Kley (Ohio State University), Derek Beales (Cambridge University) and Jonathan Israel (Institute for Advanced Study) have conducted a long-term campaign against it. They have taken issue with individual aspects. Pocock, for example, has argued repeatedly and eloquently against the notion of a single, secular Enlightenment, proposing the notion of a “family of Enlightenments” and demonstrating the importance of what he called the “Protestant Enlightenment” in England, Holland and Switzerland. Dale Van Kley has restored religion, and particularly Jansenism, the major Catholic reform movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to our understanding of the French Enlightenment and the origins of the French Revolution. Beales has shown the centrality of the Catholic Enlightenment to such an epitome of “enlightened absolutism” as Joseph II in the Habsburg monarchy (not to mention his mother, Maria Theresa), and has also recovered the vibrant intellectual and artistic life of Europe’s Catholic monasteries, many of which were plundered and destroyed during and after the French Revolution. Finally, Jonathan Israel has offered a monumental and encyclopedic synthesis of the Enlightenment that recognizes the religious beliefs of its central figures.

    Building on these works, I have always argued that the time has come to discard the still popular, if threadbare and outmoded notion of an exclusively secular Enlightenment. The time has come to let go of this false specter and to recognize that the Enlightenment was a spectrum of opinion that included a distinctly religious Enlightenment.

    All of the religions participated in, and contributed to, the making of the religious Enlightenment. Its creators all shared the same motivation: they wanted to articulate a version of their religion that could support a religiously plural society. That was, after all, the challenge that faced Europe after the end of the religious wars and throughout the period from the Glorious Revolution in England (1688) to the French Revolution (1789). How could members of different religions live in harmony and peace in a shared society and build a common polity? Religious Enlighteners renounced polemical sermons and disputation literature and instead devoted themselves to arguing for toleration of other religions on religious grounds.

    Time and again our current notions of toleration have wrongly been attributed to secular thinkers and a secular Enlightenment. In fact, religious thinkers—Protestants, Jews and Catholics—played a key role in imagining a tolerant but also a believing society. The religious Enlighteners saw no tension or contradiction between fervent belief and a fervent commitment to toleration. For them the two went hand-in-hand. They made use of the most potent ideas of the time, the natural law theory that recognized the autonomy of individuals, but they used a religious version of it. They started not with the idea of individuals as thinkers, political beings, or property owners, but with individuals as members of churches (or, for that matter, synagogues). As members of churches individuals were endowed with the right of freedom or autonomy: they could, and should, be taught, consoled, and exhorted yet they were not to be coerced in any manner. Freedom and toleration in the church were to be the basis for freedom and toleration in society.

    Perhaps the foundational characteristic of the religious Enlightenment was that its members advocated a new idea of “reasonableness.” They did not espouse a notion of “rationality” that excluded belief. That was a myth scholars who championed the myth of a secular Enlightenment disseminated. Instead, the religious Enlighteners developed an ideal of “reasonableness” that included belief. Reason for the religious Enlighteners was entirely compatible with the authority of scripture, revelation and miracles. They would not accept truths contrary to reason, but they did acknowledge revealed truths and mysteries “above” reason. Similarly, they recognized the validity of testimony and of verifiable traditions in interpreting scripture.

    While endorsing reason and revelation, the religious Enlighteners also embraced the latest in philosophy in science. They accepted the heliocentric universe and Newtonian physics. They used the philosophies of Locke and Descartes, Leibniz and Christian Wolff. In fact, they welcomed the new philosophy and science as a means to rearticulate their faith. They did not, however, treat the Bible as a source of science, since they understood it to be the source of salvation. They acted on the saying that Galileo had made famous: “the Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”

    The religious Enlighteners have largely been forgotten by history. They have been written out of the canon of the secular Enlightenment and have therefore escaped the attention of historians and literary scholars. Yet figures as Bishop William Warburton (1698-1779) in England, Jacob Vernet (1698-1789) in Geneva, Siegmund Jacob Baumgarten (1706-1757) in Prussia, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) in Berlin, Joseph Eybel (1741-1805) in Austria and Adrien Lamourette (1742-1794) in France were well-known and important figures in their day. In fact, most of them were public figures who were known not only, or not just, as theologians but also as writers on politics, history, literature and aesthetics. The religious Enlighteners saw no contradiction between writing about belief and writing about supposedly secular subjects. For them all those subjects belonged to the purview of the Enlightenment.

    Moreover, the religious Enlighteners were not isolated individuals but members of identifiable movements in their respective religious traditions. Moderation in England, “enlightened Orthodoxy” in Calvinist Geneva, the “theological Enlightenment” among German Lutherans, the Haskalah in the German-speaking lands, and reform Catholicism in Austria and France, were all substantial movements of religious renewal and reform that had a significant impact on their respective traditions and on the larger society, since all of them gained a form of state sponsorship.

    While a revision of our understanding of the Enlightenment might seem an interesting academic exercise, it is in fact highly relevant to contemporary politics. If we can exorcise the abiding specter of an exclusively secular Enlightenment, we can begin to overcome the false polarity of secular liberalism versus faith-based conservatism. We will be able to see that liberalism can equally be faith-based, and that many contemporary debates can be conducted both without and within the realm of faith. We will also be able to see that the so-called “culture wars” were waged on same fallacious grounds of an anti-religious Enlightenment. In short, recognizing the existence of the religious Enlightenment can change the nature of current political and cultural dialogue by liberating us from a specter that haunts our culture.


    Difficult Times Draw Bigger Crowds for Worship

    The sudden crush of worshipers packing the small evangelical Shelter Rock Church in Manhasset, N.Y. — a Long Island hamlet of yacht clubs and hedge fund managers — forced the pastor to set up an overflow room with closed-circuit TV and 100 folding chairs, which have been filled for six Sundays straight.

    In Seattle, the Mars Hill Church, one of the fastest-growing evangelical churches in the country, grew to 7,000 members this fall, up 1,000 in a year. At the Life Christian Church in West Orange, N.J., prayer requests have doubled — almost all of them aimed at getting or keeping jobs.

    Like evangelical churches around the country, the three churches have enjoyed steady growth over the last decade. But since September, pastors nationwide say they have seen such a burst of new interest that they find themselves contending with powerful conflicting emotions — deep empathy and quiet excitement — as they re-encounter an old piece of religious lore:

    Bad times are good for evangelical churches.

    “It’s a wonderful time, a great evangelistic opportunity for us,” said the Rev. A. R. Bernard, founder and senior pastor of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, New York’s largest evangelical congregation, where regulars are arriving earlier to get a seat. “When people are shaken to the core, it can open doors.”

    Nationwide, congregations large and small are presenting programs of practical advice for people in fiscal straits — from a homegrown series on “Financial Peace” at a Midtown Manhattan church called the Journey, to the “Good Sense” program developed at the 20,000-member Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., and now offered at churches all over the country.

    Many ministers have for the moment jettisoned standard sermons on marriage and the Beatitudes to preach instead about the theological meaning of the downturn.

    The Jehovah’s Witnesses, who moved much of their door-to-door evangelizing to the night shift 10 years ago because so few people were home during the day, returned to daylight witnessing this year. “People are out of work, and they are answering the door,” said a spokesman, J. R. Brown.

    Mr. Bernard plans to start 100 prayer groups next year, using a model conceived by the megachurch pastor Rick Warren, to “foster spiritual dialogue in these times” in small gatherings around the city.

    A recent spot check of some large Roman Catholic parishes and mainline Protestant churches around the nation indicated attendance increases there, too. But they were nowhere near as striking as those reported by congregations describing themselves as evangelical, a term generally applied to churches that stress the literal authority of Scripture and the importance of personal conversion, or being “born again.”

    Part of the evangelicals’ new excitement is rooted in a communal belief that the big Christian revivals of the 19th century, known as the second and third Great Awakenings, were touched off by economic panics. Historians of religion do not buy it, but the notion “has always lived in the lore of evangelism,” said Tony Carnes, a sociologist who studies religion.

    A study last year may lend some credence to the legend. In “Praying for Recession: The Business Cycle and Protestant Religiosity in the United States,” David Beckworth, an assistant professor of economics at Texas State University, looked at long-established trend lines showing the growth of evangelical congregations and the decline of mainline churches and found a more telling detail: During each recession cycle between 1968 and 2004, the rate of growth in evangelical churches jumped by 50 percent. By comparison, mainline Protestant churches continued their decline during recessions, though a bit more slowly.

    The little-noticed study began receiving attention from some preachers in September, when the stock market began its free fall. With the swelling attendance they were seeing, and a sense that worldwide calamities come along only once in an evangelist’s lifetime, the study has encouraged some to think big.

    “I found it very exciting, and I called up that fellow to tell him so,” said the Rev. Don MacKintosh, a Seventh Day Adventist televangelist in California who contacted Dr. Beckworth a few weeks ago after hearing word of his paper from another preacher. “We need to leverage this moment, because every Christian revival in this country’s history has come off a period of rampant greed and fear. That’s what we’re in today — the time of fear and greed.”

    Frank O’Neill, 54, a manager who lost his job at Morgan Stanley this year, said the “humbling experience” of unemployment made him cast about for a more personal relationship with God than he was able to find in the Catholicism of his youth. In joining the Shelter Rock Church on Long Island, he said, he found a deeper sense of “God’s authority over everything — I feel him walking with me.”

    The sense of historic moment is underscored especially for evangelicals in New York who celebrated the 150th anniversary last year of the Fulton Street Prayer Revival, one of the major religious resurgences in America. Also known as the Businessmen’s Revival, it started during the Panic of 1857 with a noon prayer meeting among traders and financiers in Manhattan’s financial district.

    Over the next few years, it led to tens of thousands of conversions in the United States, and inspired the volunteerism movement behind the founding of the Salvation Army, said the Rev. McKenzie Pier, president of the New York City Leadership Center, an evangelical pastors’ group that marked the anniversary with a three-day conference at the Hilton New York. “The conditions of the Businessmen’s Revival bear great similarities to what’s going on today,” he said. “People are losing a lot of money.”

    But why the evangelical churches seem to thrive especially in hard times is a Rorschach test of perspective.

    For some evangelicals, the answer is obvious. ”We have the greatest product on earth,” said the Rev. Steve Tomlinson, senior pastor of the Shelter Rock Church.

    Dr. Beckworth, a macroeconomist, posited another theory: though expanding demographically since becoming the nation’s largest religious group in the 1990s, evangelicals as a whole still tend to be less affluent than members of mainline churches, and therefore depend on their church communities more during tough times, for material as well as spiritual support. In good times, he said, they are more likely to work on Sundays, which may explain a slower rate of growth among evangelical churches in nonrecession years.

    Msgr. Thomas McSweeney, who writes columns for Catholic publications and appears on MSNBC as a religion consultant, said the growth is fed by evangelicals’ flexibility: “Their tradition allows them to do things from the pulpit we don’t do — like ‘Hey! I need somebody to take Mrs. McSweeney to the doctor on Tuesday,’ or ‘We need volunteers at the soup kitchen tomorrow.’ ”

    In a cascading financial crisis, he said, a pastor can discard a sermon prescribed by the liturgical calendar and directly address the anxiety in the air. “I know a lot of you are feeling pain today,” he said, as if speaking from the pulpit. “And we’re going to do something about that.”

    But a recession also means fewer dollars in the collection basket.

    Few evangelical churches have endowments to compare with the older mainline Protestant congregations.

    “We are at the front end of a $10 million building program,” said the Rev. Terry Smith, pastor of the Life Christian Church in West Orange, N.J. “Am I worried about that? Yes. But right now, I’m more worried about my congregation.” A husband and wife, he said, were both fired the same day from Goldman Sachs; another man inherited the workload of four co-workers who were let go, and expects to be the next to leave. “Having the conversations I’m having,” Mr. Smith said, “it’s hard to think about anything else.”

    At the Shelter Rock Church, many newcomers have been invited by members who knew they had recently lost jobs. On a recent Sunday, new faces included a hedge fund manager and an investment banker, both laid off, who were friends of Steve Leondis, a cheerful business executive who has been a church member for four years. The two newcomers, both Catholics, declined to be interviewed, but Mr. Leondis said they agreed to attend Shelter Rock to hear Mr. Tomlinson’s sermon series, “Faith in Unstable Times.”

    “They wanted something that pertained to them,” he said, “some comfort that pertained to their situations.”

    Mr. Tomlinson and his staff in Manhasset and at a satellite church in nearby Syosset have recently discussed hiring an executive pastor to take over administrative work, so they can spend more time pastoring.

    “There are a lot of walking wounded in this town,” he said.


    Reuter's, Washington Post, Connie & Tony contributed to this post

    Saturday, December 13, 2008

    News of the Strange, Weird and Off-beat

    Making Your Vote Count

    Change Oregonians Believe In: The voters of Sodaville (pop. 290) elected Thomas Brady Harrington, 33, mayor in November, notwithstanding his criminal rap sheet showing robbery, eluding a police officer, felon in possession of a gun and other crimes (with his electoral success perhaps due to voters' confusing him with his father, a respected town elder). [Albany (Ore.) Democrat-Herald, 11-19-08]

    And the voters of Silverton (pop. 7,400) elected as mayor Stu Rasmussen, 60, an openly transgendered, longtime resident who previously served as mayor while a man but who now sports breasts and dresses exclusively as a woman (especially miniskirts and cleavage-enhancing tops). Actually, Rasmussen still describes himself as a man and lives with his longtime girlfriend, but explained his switch as just his particular "mid-life crisis." [Los Angeles Times, 11-20-08]

    Compelling Explanations

    "I'm really sorry. ... I thought he was just tired," said Lynne Stewart, who was arrested in West Melbourne, Fla., in October and charged with stealing items from a 56-year-old, unconscious man who in fact had just suffered a fatal heart attack during sex with Stewart. She blamed her larceny on a cocaine binge that impaired her judgment such that (according to a police commander) she had sex with 20 men that weekend. (However, she was not charged with prostitution. Said the commander, "No, she just likes sex.") [WESH-TV (Orlando), 10-15-08]

    Lame: A woman being interviewed for jury duty on a murder case in Bronx (N.Y.) Supreme Court in October asked to be excused for the reason that she was once murdered, herself, by her husband (but had somehow been revived by a doctor). (She was dismissed from the jury, but on other grounds.) [New York Post, 10-8-08]

    In a recent report of DUI excuses in the Swedish newspaper Nerikes Allehanda, a 56-year-old woman had asserted that, though she had been drinking, her driving was not affected because she had remembered to keep one eye closed so as not to be seeing double. [The Local (Stockholm), 10-30-08]


    Hummer H2 driver Yvonne Sinclair, 29, was convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter in November in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., from a 2006 crash that killed two people and in which her intoxication was a major factor. Sinclair had bought the Hummer from proceeds of a lawsuit settlement over the 2003 death of her boyfriend, who was killed by a drunk driver. [Inland Valley Daily Bulletin (Upland, Calif.), 11-13-08]

    Strange Justice: The Saudi Arabia delegation to the United Nations sponsored a conference on religious tolerance in November. (Not only does the kingdom employ a police force "on the prevention of vice and the promotion of virtue," but it is accused of widespread internal discrimination against disfavored Islamic sects.) [International Herald Tribune, 11-11-08]

    Janice Warder, a former Texas judge and now the incoming district attorney for Texas' Cooke County, was accused in March by a Dallas judge of having improperly withheld evidence in a 1986 case to secure a murder conviction. (The Dallas judge ordered a new trial.) [Dallas Morning News, 9-26-08]

    Patricia Howard filed a lawsuit against her USA Environmental employer in 2006 (just recently unsealed by a judge) for subjecting her to dangerous work during 2003-2005. The workplace was in Iraq and involved detonating surplus munitions to prevent their falling into insurgents' hands, but that was not the "danger" she feared. Rather, the munitions were located in abandoned football-field-sized warehouses that had long been home to pigeons. Foot-high piles of feces had dried and turned to powder, and Howard charged that the company's respiration protection was nearly useless, subjecting workers to Hantavirus and other diseases. [St. Petersburg Times, 9-15-08]


    Veteran Massachusetts thief Robert Aldrich applied for compensation because his latest arrest happened to have been illegal, and a state law permits recovery for lost income during wrongful incarceration. However, in November, a Suffolk County judge turned him down as she was unable to find any "income" that Aldrich might have earned during his six wrongful months in jail except from more burglaries or for home-improvement money that Aldrich admitted he earned "off the books" so as to evade taxes. [United Press International, 11-5-08]

    "I would like an apology," explained Michael Wax, who was ejected in July from the Borgata Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City because of customers' complaints about his body odor. "There's no question I stink. ... I do have an odor. I've been playing for 17 hours," said the 440-pound man. Nonetheless, Wax filed a complaint with the Casino Control Commission, claiming that he should not have been so rudely treated in front of other patrons. [MSNBC-AP, 7-30-08]

    Creme de la Strange

    Ms. Hang Mioku, 48, is winding down her 20-year obsession with cosmetic surgery, having been at one time bulked up with enough silicone in her face to earn the nickname "the standing fan" because her head was so large compared to her legs. Hang moved from South Korea to Japan for better access to surgery and said she had convinced herself that each procedure in her odyssey only made her more beautiful than the last. When finally no surgeon would treat her, she began injecting cooking oil. Finally, she was talked into face-reduction surgery (removal of 260 grams of foreign substance from her head and neck) but, according to a November report in London's Daily Telegraph, she remains grotesquely misshapen. [ABC News-Daily Telegraph (London), 11-14-08]


    One of the items in a November seized-contraband auction by the Denver Police Department was a 1977 Oldsmobile Cutlass that was ultimately bought for $350 by a 19-year-old woman, but which is still evidence in an active murder investigation. Police eventually took back the car, which has bullet holes and a bloody interior and contained blood-stained clothing. Furthermore, a second shooting victim who was in the car survived and was among the bidders at the auction. He dropped out, but did later sell the winning bidder his spare key to the car for $40. [Denver Post, 11-20-08]


    The quasi-religious "philosophical" group Summum has been on the 360 Degrees radar since 1988, when leader "Corky" Ra and his small band in Utah began offering to mummify household pets for $7,000, or create statues of them for $18,000 (though the price is considerably higher today), with an eye toward future mummification of humans, as illustrative of its core precept that "the soul moves forward" even though the body is memorialized. In November, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments that a city park in Pleasant Grove, Utah, must allow Summum to place a monument with "The Seven Aphorisms" next to the existing monument of the Ten Commandments. (Summum's Aphorisms shore up the soul-movement belief by recognizing, for example, such properties as psychokinesis and the constant vibration of bodies.) The court is expected to rule later this term. [CNN, 11-11-08]

    The Jesus and Virgin Mary World Tour

    Recent Public Appearances: Arkansas City, Kan., September (Jesus on the ceiling of the One Stop Body Shoppe weight-loss clinic). Pittsburg, Texas, August (Jesus on the body of a moth). Goshen, Ind., July (Jesus in the facial fur of the family cat). High Ridge, Mo., July (Jesus on a Cheeto). Arlington, Texas, September (Mary on a grape). Pompano Beach, Fla., November (Jesus on a slice of French toast). Gulf Shores, Ala., September (Jesus in the drywall of a home under construction). Arkansas City: [KTLA-TV (Los Angeles), 9-19-08] Pittsburg: [KLTV-TV (Longview, Tex.), 8-27-08] Goshen: [WNDU-TV (South Bend), 7-30-08] High Ridge: [KTVI-TV (St. Louis), 7-28-08] Arlington: [Dallas Morning News, 9-5-08] Pompano Beach: [KUSA-TV- NBC (Denver), 11-11-08] Gulf Shores: [WKRG-TV (Mobile), 9-19-08]

    From the News Vault (December 2000)

    A New York Times dispatch from India highlighted the growing problem of intra-family frauds in which one member claims a living relative's land or wealth by swearing to the government that the relative is dead. According to the Times, the "deceased" had finally begun to fight back. An advocacy group, the Association of Dead People, helps aggrieved citizens figure out how to prove that they are alive, which can be difficult, given India's slow-moving bureaucracies. The association's founder said that he personally had tried to authenticate his existence by public actions such as running for office, filing lawsuits and getting arrested, but that he nonetheless remained officially dead. [New York Times, 10-24-00]

    Comfortable in Her Own Skin: Remembering Bettie Page

    The art critic John Berger once wrote: "To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself." I'm pretty certain he never met Bettie Page, naked, nude or otherwise.

    In the 1950s Ms. Page, who died on Thursday, was Queen of the Pinups, appearing in thousands of photographs and numerous short films in states of jubilant undress. Whether entirely bare or decked out in garters, stockings and heels, a ball gag tucked in her mouth, she always appeared to be having a swell time. With her encouraging smile, she didn't just look as if she enjoyed being photographed; she looked as if she enjoyed your looking at her too. That smile and the ease of her poses - the way she seemed comfortable even when trussed up in rope so intricately knotted that it would have made an Eagle Scout gasp or take up new habits - were invitations to a party that I suspect most of her admirers were too fainthearted to attend.

    She was for a long period a great mystery and a cult obsession. I first encountered her in the 1980s in an East Village store that sold movie and music zines with a few curiosities tossed in. Many of the zines were blurrily mimeographed, held together with staples and bile, which may be why I gravitated to the colorful glossy covers of a new little magazine, about the size of Reader's Digest, called The Betty Pages. (The correct spelling of her name didn't emerge until later.) Published and edited by a comic-book illustrator named Greg Theakston, the magazine was my introduction to all things Bettie and something of a time machine, harking back to a long ago when men's magazines were called Titter and Flirt.

    The Betty Pages was filled with essays, interviews, reproductions of pinup photographs, and movie and still advertisements that detailed the nature of the work for which its star attraction became famous. One typical advertisement trumpeted:

    "Our latest High Heel movie featuring beautiful model Betty Page WAS MADE SPECIALLY TO PLEASE YOU. We know you will want to see more of this popular model. Betty wears black bra, panties and black stockings. Several close-ups of her walking in high heels."

    Yowza! The advertisement was for a short titled "Teaser Girl in High Heels," distributed by a New Yorker named Irving Klaw, who, with his sister, Paula, sold movie star photographs and very special specialty items through their downtown store and mail-order service. In the late 1940s the Klaws began shooting and selling their own bondage and fetish material, catering to the tastes of a loyal clientele: "Corset and Stocking," "Girls in Extreme High Heels," "Battling Girls." There was no nudity, just a lot of rope and kink. In 1952 Ms. Page started working for the Klaws and quickly became their most popular model. "She could do looks of real horror or happy shots with ease," Ms. Klaw said of the seminude cutie. "She was a natural."

    It was, more than anything, that sense of naturalness that made Ms. Page a star in this shadowy 1950s world and later a favorite of the likes of Dave Stevens, who featured a Page character in his comic "The Rocketeer" (the basis for a drab 1991 movie with a luscious Jennifer Connelly). Born in Tennessee in 1923, Ms. Page moved to New York in the late 1940s after going nowhere in Hollywood. She posed for a variety of publications, as well as for camera clubs, where groups of men took their own private snaps. Some of the loveliest images of her were actually taken by a woman, the photographer Bunny Yeager, who shot her in a leopard-skin swimsuit and nothing at all, and sometimes in the company of two cheetahs.

    Ms. Yeager's photographs are more in the style of classic cheesecake than the images Ms. Page produced with the Klaws, which were made hastily, often at the rate of hundreds of photos a day. Ms. Yeager took a shot of Ms. Page wearing a wink and a Santa hat (that landed in Playboy), along with some embarrassing images of the model with a black man in face paint with a (ahem) spear. But she also took a series of vibrant beachfront shots of Ms. Page, including a candid image of her on a boat in nothing but a small smile, her profile to the camera. She's entirely naked and so seemingly at ease in her own bare skin that the shot seems less like a professional opportunity and more like a private message.

    To look at these photographs is to enter another world. I don't think for a minute it was a more innocent world, but it was one in which sexualized images of women, even trussed up in rope, seemed somehow, well, charming. I'm sure there are plenty of women and some men who would disagree, saying that one generation's erotica is another's pornographic exploitation. But the sheer volume of images that wash over us now have blunted our sensibilities, I think, and made us less alive to the beauty, the poetry and the mysteries of the naked body. We are surrounded by visuals that are far more explicit than any Bettie Page pinup, images of oiled and sculptured flesh that promise the universe and deliver so little.