Book Review: A Passage to India

March 21st, 2018 5 Comments


One of the advantages of aging is that the brain finally matures enough to understand and appreciate things that eluded us when we were young. Of course, it’s a short period between maturity and senility, but if we make the most of it, we can discover—or rediscover—a world of infinite riches.

I tried to read A Passage to India, when I was in high school, sometime between fourteen and eighteen, but with my hormones running amok and unable to think of anything except Cindy Sheldon or Susan Crampton, I thought it a remarkably dull book about a bunch of remarkably dull deadheads. Half a century later, I read it (as I do all books where the English language is used the way Rembrandt used pigment) slowly, relishing the sheer craftsmanship of it, and with the themes resonating in my head.

Ah. Themes. True to today’s complete absence of empathy (OED: the power of projecting one’s personality into—and so fully comprehending—the object of contemplation) from the same people who condemn Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird for racist stereotypes, a lot of people seem to think A Passage to India should have been written with today’s sensibilities and priorities. It wasn’t. It was published in 1924. Get over it. This is considered—by whoever makes out such lists—one of the one-hundred greatest novels of the twentieth century; personally, I would put practically anything Forster ever wrote on that list, in particular, A Room with a View, but A Passage to India both takes and deserves careful reading. Those people who condemn the novel for its use of the “n” word, or because it depicts the ugliness of racism, should understand that back when it was published, it was condemned precisely for depicting the ugliness of racism, of colonial attitudes, and most importantly for its positive depiction of interracial friendship, which was considered a no-no in that place and that time. All of which goes to prove that any fool can criticize anything for any reason.

What is stunning, for those of us who know our history, is the extent to which E. M. Forster sensed the still unseen (by the British) and unacknowledged (by the British) rifts in the Raj. There had been independence movements and attempts to throw off the British yoke for as long as the East India Company had been in India. The appalling Amristar massacre (graphically portrayed in the movie Gandhi) took place only a few years earlier and was largely whitewashed, in some cases even approved, by the British. But for the most part, the 1920s were a time of British complacency (which is largely what allowed them to whitewash the murder of a thousand or more unarmed Sikh and Hindu Indians peacefully celebrating a religious festival). It’s true, Gandhi had started his non-violent protests, but unless I’ve missed the mark badly, he was still not being taken seriously by the British government, which seemed to be bogged down by a combination of complacency and recovery from the devasting losses and upheavals of World War One. Both of those would soon be augmented by an awareness of the evil that was taking root in Germany and Japan, but during the twenties, when Forster was in India, very few people anticipated even the possibility of the breakup of the British Empire, let alone the loss of the jewel in the crown. Evidently, Forster did, at least on some level.

The plot that drives the action revolves around the purported sexual assault of an English lady by a respected Moslem Indian doctor. The lady eventually recants her testimony (it’s always unclear what, if anything, happened, but it appears to have been merely an hallucination) and the doctor is cleared, but it is the reactions of the British, and the ramifications of the accusation, that Forster uses to create an allegory of the presence of Great Britain in a country with a history far more ancient, and a culture just as rich and vibrant.

The subsidiary themes of male dominance and class distinctions run through the book as a sort of echo to the primary theme of irreconcilable differences between white Englishmen and… And whom? That’s one of the dilemmas of India even to this day, if modern novels by Indian authors are any indication. There is no single entity that can be designated “Indian,” and prior to their independence, there were even more differences: Hindu and Moslem, with hints of the violence to come; a dizzying array of multiple caste divisions that were religious as well as social; racial differences; geographical differences; political differences; economic differences, educational differences… It was, and apparently still is, a greatly divided country, and the British Raj, imbued with the conviction of its own superiority—racial, cultural, intellectual, moral—looked down on all Indians impartially:

Mr. McBryde paused. He wanted to keep the proceedings as clean as possible, but Oriental Pathology, his favorite theme, lay around him, and he could not resist it. Taking off his spectacles, as was his habit before enunciating a general truth, he looked at them sadly, and remarked that the darker races are physically attracted by the fairer, but not vice versa—not a matter for bitterness this, not a matter for abuse, but just a fact that any scientific observer will confirm.

There are other statements later on, far uglier in both tone and conviction, that reveal the anger that comes with fear, and the contempt that came with no justification other than lack of empathy.

This is not the lighthearted E. M. Forster who wrote A Room with a View. Written fourteen years later, A Passage to India is both more serious in its subject matter and far sadder in its conclusions, ending with the conviction that certain differences, certain gulfs, are not—or at least were not at that time—able to be bridged, be it white and “Oriental” (“colored” is used sometimes, sometimes an uglier word), West and East, Christian and Moslem (or Christian and Hindu, or Moslem and Sikh, or Hindu and Moslem, or any other combination of faiths), upper class and middleclass, perhaps even male and female. The book ends with the one Englishman who truly saw the Indians as his equals, riding in the northern hill country with the accused doctor he saw as his friend:

“Why can’t we be friends now?” said [the Englishman] holding him affectionately. “It’s what I want. It’s what you want.”

But the horses didn’t want it—they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it; they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.”

And one is left wondering if ever, and where.

At the Movies: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

March 12th, 2018 24 Comments


Gentle Reader, I am now going to save you some money.

I watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri with great expectations, primarily because I had read some of Martin McDonagh’s plays and found them very funny. Unfortunately, what works in one culture may not translate to another, or possibly Mr. McDonagh’s judgment was simply way off this time, something that happens to all artists, but he needs to go back to his Irish roots, because he missed the mark here by a long chalk.

Welcome to Ebbing, Missouri. Where the highest IQ in town is below room temperature. Where every single person in town is a cardboard stereotype of a kind that was boringly unrealistic before the passage of the Civil Rights Bill. Where the height of humorous repartee is children calling their mothers “cunts.” Where no one—not a single character, regardless of age or profession—is capable of saying a ten-word sentence without five of the words being some variation of the word “fuck,” as either noun, verb, adverb, adjective, preposition, or conjunction. Where the chief of police talks to his five- and six-year-old daughters in a steady stream of crude profanity, not in anger, but to express affection. Where the most rudimentary concepts of the law and law enforcement are—apparently—unknown. Where a cop can commit a murderous assault against an innocent man in the middle of the day as most of the town—including the new police chief—watch, and then only get fired for his brutality. Where ridiculing a dwarf—the only character in the movie with any real humanity—is considered a source of amusement. Where the Special Forces who risk their lives for us are portrayed as rapists and sadists who enjoy terrorizing and psychologically torturing women they don’t know. And where the denouement, the epiphany, the god-like revelation of the central character, consists of her deciding she doesn’t really want to murder an innocent man she doesn’t know and has no reason to kill. Oh, breathless humanity!

Writer and director Martin McDonagh must have thought all the episodes he watched of The Dukes of Hazard were actually documentaries. He has certainly never been to Missouri or any other deplorable-packed part of fly-over country, and he revels in his contempt for the barely sentient toothless morons who inhabit that wasteland. Beyond that, he seems to think that the average movie-goer is far too stupid to be aware of such meaningless incidentals as Constitutional rights, legal rights, civil rights, or even right of way.

With the exception of a handful of movies made for brain-dead prepubescent boys that I had the misfortune to watch years ago, this is the stupidest movie I’ve ever seen. The only reason I didn’t walk out of the theater is because I watched it on Direct TV in my living room, and when the final credits ran, Darleen and I looked at each other and wondered what the hell we had wasted six dollars and two hours for.

The performances are all perfectly good, not Oscar-worthy, but good (and yes, I know who won what), but the greatest performances in the world can’t change chicken shit into chicken salad (to use a phrase that would have been eloquent in this dreadful movie) and when the script insults my willing suspension of disbelief consistently, from soup to nuts, no performance is worth the pain. I know it was intended to be a dark comedy, but even comedy has to be grounded in some kind of reality, and besides, I don’t think mindless violence and mindless profanity are all that chuckle-worthy. Beyond that, the grief of a mother whose teenaged daughter has been raped and murdered makes a poor springboard for hearty laughter.

On IMDB, the first quote of Martin McDonagh’s that caught my eye was: “Well, we’re all cruel, aren’t we?” And the greatest cruelty of all was his making this movie. The state of Missouri should sue for defamation.

What Makes You Think Your Child Is Getting an Education?

March 3rd, 2018 11 Comments


A reader—a college professor—sent me some reactions to my blog, What Might Work, and he has given me permission to reprint his comments, along with his name and position. I have chosen to do this because, while he makes many good points, his comments about his students’ fundamental ignorance of the Constitution are truly terrifying. Remember, these are college students he is talking about. If your child is so poorly educated in secondary and/or high school that he or she doesn’t even have a clue what’s in the Bill of Rights, it is devastating condemnation of the total failure of the public-school system in this country. That too is something America needs to discuss.

I have only deleted some personal comments of Mr. Logas’ that were in praise of my blog; other than that, it is just as he wrote it.


For years, I’ve shared in my college classes my support for having county sheriff’s deputize select employees from schools who volunteer to serve as the first responders to an active shooter on campus. The sheriff’s office pays for the training and the person who has access to the gun or lock box is a sworn deputy who knows what to do. How sad it is that many teachers and/or security guards can only protect students by standing between them and the active shooter.

Students cannot believe that I would support guns on campus until I ask them what would happen if a person with a gun walked in during our conversation. There are only two ways out of the room and both doors are almost next to each other. There’s no low access to the windows, so there’s no chance of escape through them. Next, I ask how many Veterans are in the class and how many students have a permit to carry. Finally, I ask how many of them have their gun with them. None. Of course not, we’re a gun free zone, except for an active shooter. I ask them how we could stop someone from pulling the trigger once they’re in the room…charm them with our good looks? That wakes them up.

Yesterday, as we were discussing the Florida shooting and the 2nd Amendment, a student told me that she couldn’t believe that I support the 2nd Amendment because, “it gives people the right to kill other people.” I asked her where she learned that and she didn’t respond. I told her that the 2nd Amendment doesn’t give people the right to kill another person, it gives people the right to protect themselves from tyranny and oppressive government. Education has done a tremendous disservice to our Constitution. During the second week of class each semester, I tell my students that I’m going to read the 2nd Amendment to them because it is too convoluted, extremely long, and written in a form of English language that we updated long ago. I also warn them that it will probably take a good 30 minutes for us to read. Then, I read it. They’re stunned. I ask them where they learned information about the 2nd Amendment. Some learned it from a teacher, most from the media, and a majority admit they never were exposed to it at all. Finally, I ask them why someone would lie to them about its content and encourage them to listen to authority instead of being encouraged to read it for themselves and make their own fact-based conclusion. They begin to understand the smear campaign and the people behind it.

Other information that I share with my students is the fact that many times law enforcement does not follow up on leads. The shooting of the Congresswoman at the outdoor town hall meeting is one example. The shooter had made multiple threats against her, law enforcement had visited his house many times, and he was stopped that very morning but released for a minor traffic violation. The sheriff blamed Conservatives, talk radio, and the NRA for the shooting. He was covering up for his own incompetence. The murder of Kathryn Steinle is another example where Obama called for gun control legislation, even though he was aware that no gun legislation would have stopped the murder because the illegal immigrant had stolen a federal agent’s gun. And here we go again, more calls for gun control legislation and this time it was the FBI that never followed up on legitimate leads, not even sending those leads to the Miami field office.

A year ago June, I was on the air broadcasting our live coverage of the Pulse shooting in Orlando (I was born and raised in Orlando). Shortly after the shooting, many people in the LGBT community accepted an offer from the NRA and other groups for free training in the use of a firearm. The media had a major blackout over the fact that the gay community embraced the 2nd Amendment after the shooting. Instead, they reported that many in the gay community wanted more gun control. Since that time, some of the students in my classes have shared that a relative or friend was someone who was killed in that nightclub. They share with their peers in the class that anyone else who would have had a gun inside the club that night would have prevented more innocent people from being killed. Some students still can’t grasp that concept, so I ask them a simple question, “Why did the shooter choose a gay nightclub and not a biker bar?”. No one can answer the question. Of course, you know that in a biker bar the shooter would have been dropped the minute he pulled the gun out or opened his mouth. The shooter chose a gay nightclub because it was the path of least resistance. Most gay people have been discriminated against, are peaceful, happy, and would rather talk a situation through rather than use violence. He needed that little bit of extra time to get himself established once inside the nightclub. The 911 calls prove that the shooter did not choose the nightclub because he hated gay people, his words demonstrate that he was a terrorist and there wasn’t one word spoken against gays or the gay community.

You hit the nail on the head in your article. The family unit is in decay, the sanctity of life is under assault, and I’ll add that God is nowhere to be found in our schools…until there is a mass shooting. I’ve proposed in my classes to try something new since everyone seems to support “doing something”. Put volunteer employees as plain clothes deputies in schools and return God to our classrooms. The schools and parents always turn to guns to stop the active shooter and then turn to religion after every school shooting. Instead of crosses hanging on a fence or placed in a row on school property in the aftermath, let’s be proactive and introduce a Biblical approach to problems while learning the importance of the sanctity of life.

Mark Logas

Professor of Political Science

Valencia College-East Campus

Orlando, FL

What Might Work?

February 20th, 2018 78 Comments


A childhood memory from Germany, late fifties, early sixties: I was sitting on a crowded bus, in Bad Godesberg. I was on the bus physically, but mentally I was miles and miles away, in one of those childhood vacant spots where imagination and longing intersect to make the real world vanish. I was vaguely aware that the bus briefly stopped and started again. All of a sudden, a man sitting across from me slapped my face, not hard, but hard enough to wake me up.

“Steh auf, Kleiner!” (Stand up, little one.)

A woman had gotten on the bus and there were no free seats. As a child, I was quite rightly expected to give her my seat, which I did, with an apology, as disapproving grownups glared at me.

I wonder what would happen in America today if someone did that. Would the police be called? Would the man be arrested? Would he be charged with assault or child abuse?

I am not advocating corporeal punishment on any level, by parent or stranger. What I am trying to point out is that there was, in that time and in that place, an attitude that society as a whole was responsible—to an extent—for the behavior of the individual child.

I know that attitude was once present in America, too. For a blatant and humorous example, think of A Christmas Story, when Ralphie’s mother calls Schwartz’s mother to complain that Ralphie learned “… THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the F-dash-dash-dash word…” from Schwartz. Ralphie didn’t, of course (he learned it from his father), but that was how the neighborhood parental network worked in those days.

Yet only a few generations later, when one of my children cheated on a test and was justifiably punished by the school with a failing grade, I went to talk to the teacher about what had happened and what the details were. To my surprise, the teacher was nervous and wary, and when she was done, and I told her I intended to reinforce the school’s discipline with my own, grounding my child for x-number of weeks, her reaction was one of surprise and relief. She had honestly expected me to raise hell because my child had been flunked. She told me that was the usual reaction of parents to any kind of discipline: a bad grade, suspension, getting kicked off a team, any form of punishment.

For another, parallel sea-change in attitudes, consider a slice of life from a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin. A friend of mine, younger than I, told me how in high school in the mid-seventies, he and his best friend used to ride their bikes to school every morning during duck and pheasant season with their shotguns in cases across the handlebars. At school they would hand the shotguns to their principal, who leaned them up behind the door to his office, along with others from other students. After football practice, the boys would collect their shotguns and hunt their way home.

And apparently, according some cursory research, up until sometime in the late seventies, early eighties, many American high schools had their own rifle teams, where teenagers could train and compete, just as they might in football or track.

And yet today, in a very different slice of life from 2018, in a suburb of Miami, Florida, a young man, a former student, walked into a school with an AR-15 and murdered seventeen people.

What has changed? It’s not guns; the AR-15 has been around for almost seventy years. It’s not kids; the human animal does not have the same genetic capacity for rapid evolution that a dog has. We are basically exactly what we were 50,000 years ago, and parents back then almost certainly had much the same problems parents have today.

I am suggesting that as a society we have lost a communal, a cultural sense of right and wrong and, more importantly, an understanding that, as a concept, consequences for bad behavior are at least as important as rewards for achievement. Note I did not say there should be rewards for good behavior. Good behavior was expected back then, taken for granted, and should be expected today. Nor did I say rewards for trying, as in trophies for participating; losing is as much a part of growing up as winning, and of the two, losing is probably the more important part.

Since the vast majority of young people would never dream of doing anything evil, let alone something as inconceivable as the Florida shooting, what are some of the influences that might have caused this young man to commit such an atrocity?

I’m not a psychiatrist, or a psychologist, or a social worker, or a teacher, but—according to the news reports to date—this young man gave numerous signs that he was in trouble. And it appears—again from early news reports, and keeping in mind that hindsight is always 20/20—both the FBI and local law enforcement dropped the ball badly.

But beyond all that, here was a young man whose mother had died this past November. Didn’t it occur to someone that even a mentally healthy kid might have some problems with the unexpected death of a parent, never mind a kid who was showing, as his public defender said, every red flag there is?

It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback, and I’m sure both FBI and local law enforcement get inundated with warnings about any number of things, but perhaps certain combinations of warning signs should be taken more seriously. That’s a reasonable subject for public debate.

President Trump has vowed to “tackle the difficult issue of mental health,” and I applaud him for the intention, but it will be interesting to see what happens ‘twixt cup and lip. Jimmy Carter tried to federalize mental health, an action that was reversed by Ronald Reagan, who believed it was a states’ issue. Given the federal government’s frequently dismal bureaucratic track record, I’m inclined to agree with Reagan, but clearly funding is lacking is certain areas. More to the point, very conservative types like me believe strongly in the individual right to privacy, and how do we, as a nation, reconcile privacy with tracking and investigating warning signs? That’s another subject for public debate.

Equally important is changing the stigma against metal illness. For example, nearly every soldier who has experienced the horrors of war will return home with some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder, but that does not automatically translate into a danger to himself or to others. These issues, and more, must be discussed and debated and agreed upon.

Various social media sites loudly tout their role in bringing the world together as one big happy family freely exchanging ideas around the world. The truth is that social media giants too often block ideas they disagree with while inexplicably allowing others—consider violent jihad videos—to air. I am not blaming social media for the actions of a disturbed man, but if animal abuse is one of the standard, universally accepted signs of dangerous mental illness, one that will be followed by violence against humans as surely as night follows day, then posting gruesome pictures of dead and possibly mutilated animals on social media should raise a red flag. It should be at least as easy to flag and filter pictures of dead animals as it is to block a Prager University video presenting the actual FBI statistics on police shootings of black men; or a video in support of Israel; or one questioning why Western feminists don’t speak out about the abuses endured by Muslim women. Those are just some of the videos that have been blocked by YouTube. Yet, it was on YouTube that the Florida shooter stated his intention to become, “a professional school shooter.” The shooter’s personal videos of dead animals were posted on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, another social media site that prides itself in the free exchange of those ideas it agrees with.

Again, it’s easy to waggle an angry finger at such social media sites, but they are not responsible for what happened. What they are responsible for is taking a good long look at themselves and their criteria for freedom of expression.

I have heard right-wing pundits assigning blame to some of the ultra-violent Hollywood movies and video games that saturate the market today. I don’t know what the effect of those might be (I find them so moronic I have trouble believing anyone with an IQ greater than his hat size could be influenced by such stupidity), but I have read that child pornography has a pretty well-substantiated link to child molestation, so the same might be true of make-believe violence. This too is a subject worthy of public debate.

Much has been written about the decline of the nuclear family and the effect that has on troubled youth. In the shooter’s case, his adopted parents both dead, it’s hard to make a case for any societal failure, but keep in mind that it is one of primary contributing factors to the murder rate caused by urban drug gangs, so it too should be a topic for discussion.

Drug abuse is another. I have no idea if this young man was on any kind of legal or illegal drugs, but there is no metropolitan area in America that does not have a murder rate directly attributable to drugs and gangs. Not to guns, but to drugs and the violence of gangs. I have written before about the well-known and well-documented reasons why impoverished young inner-city men gravitate to gangs. None of this is secret, and solutions have been suggested, but local metropolitan governments seem to lack both interest and will. Both the problem, and the reluctance of city governments to even discuss the problem, let alone deal with it, should be another matter of public discussion.

Ever since this atrocity occurred, progressive politicians and pundits and the media have been screaming for gun control, excoriating the “all-powerful” NRA, and pointing self-righteous and dishonest fingers at the greedy and bloodthirsty gun industry. Never mind simple little facts such as a single anti-gun billionaire (Bloomberg, who is just one of several) outspending the NRA four-to-one to promote his anti-gun agenda. Never mind that gun companies work on a razor-thin margin, many are struggling to stay alive, and one giant, Remington, has declared bankruptcy. Never mind that blaming the NRA for a lunatic’s evil is like blaming the AARP for an old person’s bad driving. Never mind that blaming the gun for violence is like blaming the spoon for obesity. Guns are an easy target, you should pardon the expression. Mental health, social and cultural constructs governing adolescent behavior, drug abuse, the breakup of the family unit, gangs as substitutes for absent fathers, the negative aspects of social media, all those things would require real thought and effort. Marching and carrying a sign, or manipulating the emotions of a distressed voting base, those are easy.

But actions which might make a real difference will take a long time to enact and to implement. It took multiple generations to get where we are; it will take just as long to reverse the trend.

In the short term, what can be done? The first and most obvious is to better protect schools. In oblivious irony, many of the same progressives who rail against guns in private hands are the same progressives who applaud kneeling for the national anthem as a way to protest purported police brutality. Okie, dokie, that’s logic for you. But let’s put that idiocy aside and try to live in the real world. How many police officers do you think it would take to protect a school the size of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School? Over three-thousand students, multiple buildings with multiple floors and multiple entrances and exits, spread out over multiple acres? How many? This is a logistical topic that is better discussed by professionals who know what they’re talking about, but let’s say, conservatively, ten officers, daily, for the entire school year. That should do it. The average salary of a police officer in America is $61,000 a year (and it should be more, given what they are required to do), so who is going to pay the extra $610,000 a year? For just one school budget? Most public schools in America today can’t even afford to pay for the materials the teachers need to do their jobs. How much higher are you willing to see your taxes go? Remember, unless you are in a tiny community, your town has multiple schools in it, all deserving of protection.

The NRA has regularly called for the arming and training of those teachers and/or administrators who would be willing to take on that additional responsibility, and every time the NRA does, anti-gun progressives and their unthinking followers howl that such an action would endanger children even more. Never mind that to get a concealed carry license in America requires background checks far more thorough than the current standards. Never mind that most professional and reputable defensive shooting schools require a concealed carry license before you can take a class, precisely because it is an additional safeguard against potential liability. Never mind that, statistically, licensed concealed carry holders commit fewer violent crimes than law enforcement officers. (Don’t trust me on any of this; do your own damned homework before you shriek that I’m a lunatic, and by homework, I mean something a little more meaningful than going on the Mayors Against Illegal Guns or Everytown for Gun Safety sites, both of which were recently awarded four Pinocchios by the Washington Post.)

Not every teacher or administrator would be willing or have the capacity to act as an armed guard, but for God’s sake don’t stop the ones who are willing and who have the capacity. Would you rather hang up another “Gun Free Zone” sign and pretend you’ve accomplished something?

What about more laws? Just this morning I heard a pundit telling the same lies that have been told for over a decade:

We must close the gun show loophole! Don’t trust me, Gentle Reader. Do your own damned research and go to a gun show and try to buy a gun from a licensed exhibitor without going through a background check. If you can do it, I’ll reimburse you for the cost of the gun.

We must stop people from buying guns illegally over the internet! Oh, For God’s sake. Doesn’t the mainstream media ever report real news? The Government Accounting Office (GAO) was ordered by anti-gun Senators Schatz (D-Hawaii), Warren (D-Massachusetts), and Rep. Cummings (D-Maryland) to assess how well the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives was enforcing firearms laws on the internet. To do so, the GAO conducted a series of seventy-two sting operations online, attempting to illegally purchase firearms without obeying the mandated background checks and laws. Out of seventy-two attempts, the GAO failed seventy-two times. The GAO then turned its attentions to the Dark Web, the shady and—I assume—illegal terrain of people who wish to remain anonymous because what they do is illegal. Out of seven attempts, even in that nether world, the GAO was successful only twice. I would argue that Warren, Schatz, Cummings, and the GOA could make better use of their time assessing how well the FBI responds to warnings about aberrant behavior.

We must ban assault weapons! The AR-15 is not an assault weapon. (Apparently—I haven’t researched this because I don’t frankly give a damn—Progressive liberal Joe Scarborough, the rabid anti-gun Morning Joe Scarborough, ran for Congress in 2013 from Florida’s 1st District, and at that time courted the NRA vote by defining an “assault weapon” as “anything the government would fear the people could use to protect their rights.” It’s a pretty accurate ideological definition, but not a legal one.) But apart from the fact that the AR-15 is not an assault weapon, does no one remember that Bill Clinton did ban so-called “assault weapons,” a ban that was allowed to expire in 2004 precisely because it had no discernible effect on violent crime. That verdict is according to multiple governmental and academic studies.

We must pass more laws! All the gun-control laws in the world will never stop either criminals or lunatics. If such laws worked, we could have stopped at Thou shalt not commit murder.

60 Minutes Concealed Carry Segment

February 14th, 2018 39 Comments


I watched the 60 Minutes special report on the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act last Sunday (February 11, 2018). Superficially, it looked good: reasonably balanced interviews with articulate people on both sides, all of it hosted and narrated by Steve Kroft, earnestly doing his best to appear impartial. And no matter what, it certainly was a step up from Katie Couric’s so-called “Under the Gun” documentary in which footage was deliberately and unethically edited to misrepresent the Virginia Citizens Defense League (a pro-gun group) to make them look both stupid and dishonest. So progress is being made—to an extent.

In case you are unfamiliar with the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act (also known as House Bill 38), it is bill that would amend Title 18 of the United States Code so that all states would be required to recognize the validity of concealed carry licenses from other states and allow license holders to carry handguns from one state to another, across state lines, without fear of prosecution. Right now, each state has its own, frequently conflicting, laws, and some states have conflicting regulations from city to city, resulting, as Steve Kroft himself put it, in a confusing hodgepodge of contradictory laws. The bill has passed through Congress, and now languishes, waiting to be brought to a vote in the Senate.

The people on the pro-gun side were Tim Schmidt, founder and CEO of the US Concealed Carry Association, and Representative Richard Hudson, Republican, of North Carolina. On the anti-gun, anti-HR Bill 38 side were Robyn Thomas, Executive Director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Cyrus Vance, New York District Attorney for Manhattan, and James O’Neill, New York City Police Commissioner. There were also some sound bites from other people on either side.

Let me give you a quick rundown of what was presented.

Robyn Thomas accurately stated that passing this bill would allow a concealed carry license holder to carry a sidearm into metropolitan areas in other states that might have far more stringent laws. She cited Los Angeles and San Francisco, two California cities where concealed carry licenses are automatically denied, regardless of circumstances, except in the cases of the very wealthy and/or well-connected who have the clout to transcend the law. But what Ms. Thomas did not mention, is that to obtain a concealed carry license, even in the most gun-friendly state in the nation, Arizona, a complete and thorough background check is conducted, one that goes well above and beyond the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Nor did Steve Kroft point that out, nor was anyone on the pro-gun side given a chance to point that out. Why that omitted detail is important—apart from the obvious reasons—will become clear.

Cyrus Vance and Police Commissioner O’Neill boiled their argument down to “more guns equals more violence.” They also, according to Steve Kroft, are worried specifically about more suicides, even though countless studies have shown that guns no more cause suicide than spoons cause obesity.

Vance and O’Neill have formed a coalition of prosecutors and police chiefs, from nearly every big city in America, to lobby senators to vote against the bill. Representative Hudson, when confronted with the list of cities across America whose police chiefs oppose this potential change in the law, graciously put it down to differences in opinion by “good people” on both sides. Again, I will return to “more guns equals more violence” and to the question of police chiefs in major metropolitan areas shortly.

When Representative Hudson said the licenses should be treated the way drivers’ licenses are treated, Steve Kroft responded with an argument that is often used as a specious comparison to gun ownership, namely that to obtain a driver’s license, one must pass a test demonstrating proficiency as a driver, knowledge of the law, and establish that you’re not going endanger other people. (That last one is highly questionable and open to debate, but I’ll let it go.) Rep. Hudson, to his everlasting credit, pointed out that driving is a privilege; the right to self defense is just that, a right, protected and ensured by the Constitution. Car ownership and driving are not.

Robyn Thomas denied the right to carry a gun outside the home on the grounds that the Supreme Court has not specifically ruled on that aspect of the Second Amendment. I would argue that the word “bear,” as in the phrase “the right of the people to keep and bear arms…” has meant “to carry” for over 1000 years (Beowulf is the first written example cited by the Oxford English Unabridged Dictionary), so anything the Supreme Court might or might not say about the matter is largely moot. Tim Schmidt pointed this out, albeit in different, more politic words.

Rep. Hudson also pointed out that both gun ownership and concealed carry license holders have increased exponentially over the last two decades, even as violent crime numbers have dropped to historic lows. Which brings me to the most dishonest portion of this program.

First, Steve Kroft presented the argument that states with highly restrictive or draconian gun laws have lower violent crime rates than states with lax gun laws, in other words, “more guns equals more crime.” And, superficially, if you choose only to look at selected data, that is somewhat correct. (It is not true of all states.) But what Mr. Kroft either did not know, or chose not to reveal, is that all of the studies that purport to prove this have neglected to remove drug distribution centers from the equation. Take Arizona as an example of a state with the most relaxed gun laws in the nation: if you look at the violent crime statistics for the state, it’s not as bad as some, but it’s not good. It has almost the exact same rate of violent crime as California, a state where both gun ownership and concealed carry are extremely difficult and getting more so every day. I could make an argument that the similarity in crime stats doesn’t speak well for draconian gun laws, but anti-gun advocates present it as proof that guns do not have an effect on reducing crime.

But now take Phoenix out of the equation. Phoenix and Tucson are both drug distribution centers, where Mexican cartels funnel their products through to other parts of the country. No Democrat will ever admit it, but drugs equals gangs equals violence regardless of gun laws, and if you remove Phoenix from the equation, Arizona becomes one of the safest and most peaceful places on earth.

And now we come to Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn. Dave Workman, senior editor at The Second Amendment Foundation’s publication, The Gun Mag (, reminded me of Chief Flynn’s reaction a few years ago to Wisconsin’s right-to-carry law: “My message to my troops is if you see anybody carrying a gun on the streets of Milwaukee, we’ll put them on the ground, take the gun away, and then decide whether you have a right to carry it.” Keep that reaction in mind, and remember that it is a violation of both the Law Enforcement Oath of Honor, the oath to “support and maintain the Constitution and laws of the United States,” and the established legal principle of innocent until proven guilty, so one might question why 60 Minutes would have put such a thug on the air in the first place. But since they did, here is Chief Flynn’s comment, carefully aired near the very end of the segment so it would remain in viewers’ minds:

“Every year since that law was passed in 2011, every year, nonfatal shootings have gone up, gun related homicides have gone up, and the number of guns seized from the streets by our department has gone up, that’s what our cockamamie law has done here.”

Passionate stuff. What’s wrong with it?

Police chiefs, unlike sheriffs, are political appointees. Does it strike you as odd that former Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke’s every utterance about firearms and crime is diametrically opposed to Police Chief Flynn’s? That’s because Sheriff Clarke was elected by the people of Milwaukee County, and was answerable only to them.

Police Chief Flynn, as a political appointee, like every other major metropolitan police chief, has a very different agenda. Every word of his, and every action he takes, is intended to reflect the wishes of the men and women (he is appointed by the Mayor and the City Council) who gave him his job. Milwaukee is a Democrat stronghold. In fact, Milwaukee has been run by Democrats for more than a century, except for a few years when it was controlled by Socialists. (I’m not making that up.) Name a Democrat in office today who is pro-gun. Now name a major metropolitan area in the United States that is not run by a Democrat government. All those Democrat-run cities appoint their chiefs of police. For a good example of how the mayoral-police chief relationship works, or not, read LA Noir, by John Buntin, a brilliant and eminently readable history of the police force of Los Angeles, CA.

But beyond the liberal leanings of the Milwaukee Mayor and the city council, and beyond Chief Flynn having to lick the hands that feed him, listen to his words again: “Every year since that law was passed in 2011, every year, nonfatal shootings have gone up, gun-related homicides have gone up, and the number of guns seized from the streets by our department has gone up, that’s what our cockamamie law has done here.”

The words may or may not be true (I haven’t done the research), but it would be just as accurate and just as meaningful if Chief Flynn had stated: “Every year since the residents of Milwaukee switched from cable to satellite TV, every year, nonfatal shootings have gone up, gun-related homicides have gone up, and the number of guns seized from the streets by our department has gone up, that’s what the switch from cable to satellite has done here.”

Two events that occur simultaneously are not necessarily related, Mr. Flynn.

What about causation? Have drug-related arrests gone up or down in that same period? Is there a greater or lesser gang/cartel presence in Milwaukee since the law was enacted? Were the nonfatal shootings committed by concealed carry license holders? Were the gun-related homicides committed by concealed carry license holders? Were the guns seized from misbehaving concealed carry license holders?

To answer the last three hypothetical questions, government studies and independent studies have both shown that, as a group, the approximately 16-million concealed carry license holders in America are more law abiding than the general public. That should hardly be surprising, seeing how thoroughly they are checked and vetted and investigated before being issued a license. Want another factoid? Studies have also shown that concealed carry license holders commit fewer violent crimes than police officers.

Chief Flynn might want to cogitate on that fact before railing against the law-abiding citizens of his city. And the senators being lobbied by Mr. Vance and Mr. O’Neill might want to cogitate on it too.

Evil, or just Stupid?

February 8th, 2018 14 Comments


Come. Take my hand. Let us wander down certain dusty and half-forgotten corridors of history and see if we may learn something that might protect us from ourselves today.

Do you remember Joseph McCarthy? Ah. I see a few hands. Good.

For the rest of you, Joseph McCarthy was a US Senator (1947-1957) from Wisconsin who has the dubious distinction of being possibly the single most despicable, evil, corrupt, self-serving, morally and ethically bankrupt senator in American history. That’s saying a lot. Too many of today’s crop of politicians have set a low bar indeed, but none—not even his most ardent imitator, the evil and corrupt Harry Reid—has yet surpassed him. McCarthy is remembered vaguely today as having something to do with persecuting purported Communists with the collusion and happy cooperation of the FBI—which should tell you a lot right there about how much you can trust the FBI—but he achieved so much more. He was responsible for destroying the lives of thousands of Americans without the slightest justification, due process, evidence, proof, or even moral conviction (apparently after he lost power, he once admitted to a reporter or biographer that he had no convictions about what he was doing; that it was only for the cynical and contemptible purpose of advancing his career and wielding power). The list of famous, talented, brilliant lives he destroyed is too long, literally far too long, for me to enumerate, but after ruining many of the brightest and best in the governmental and diplomatic worlds, McCarthy turned his tender mercies on the private sector, focusing primarily on the world of the arts. Writers, playwrights, screenwriters, actors, directors, composers, musicians; McCarthy was indiscriminate in his cunning and venomous attacks. To go from one ludicrous extreme of the spectrum to another, consider the alpha and the omega: Albert Einstein at one end, stripper Gypsy Rose Lee at the other. Gypsy Rose Lee. Blacklisted. Yeah, McCarthy and the FBI made America is sooooo much safer.

One of the techniques McCarthy used was to say (I’m paraphrasing): “If you don’t give us the names of people you suspect of being communists, that is proof that you are yourself a communist.” A no-win situation for many a poor and courageous American back in those black days.

And that technique brings us up to today’s bumper crop of politicians vying for the coveted McCarthy Award.

Progressive cupcakes, the delicate little collegiate flowers who demand trigger warnings and safe spaces, student and professor alike, use a truly moronic—cunning, but still moronic—tactic when they have hysterics over anyone disagreeing with them about anything, and that is to claim the act of disagreeing is ipso facto proof of some dreadful and hateful prejudice: racism, xenophobia, homophobia, whatever the topic may be, the whole panoply of ills progressives claim only they are free of.

It’s the kind of stupidity one has sadly come to expect all too often in the halls of academia, but when it pervades even the halls of congress, that changes the equation, and it harkens back to the evil of Joseph McCarthy.

I was reminded of Joseph McCarthy while watching Adam Schiff on television the other night after the Republican memo had been released. He was asked about his claims there would be a grave threat to national security if the Republican memo on the Steele dossier were to be released by President Trump; he was asked to explain what exactly in the memo constituted such a threat. Instead of answering the question, after attempting to evade it once or twice, he pulled a progressive, McCarthy-esque (or whiny sophomoric cupcake) tactic out of the bin and accused the reporter of, “…carrying water for the Kremlin.” In other words, if you disagree with me, or if you even challenge me, it is ipso facto proof you are the enemy.

I want to be very clear here: Adam Schiff is not the only politician to resort to using this completely vacuous adolescent tactic. He just happens to be one of the most obvious and loathsome—and downright creepy—but far too many, on both sides of the aisle, including all too frequently our president, rely on attack, vilification, name-calling, hateful labeling, and sometimes even simple-minded obscenities.

To have lost the tools of civilized debate—reasoned argument, logic, real evidence, hard and verifiable facts—and to be reduced to ugly smears and innuendo and sneering accusations, is bad enough among junior high school students, worse still in the halls of colleges and universities, but in the highest levels of government it reduces our elected officials to meaner and craftier—though not as courageous—versions of those benighted third world political venues where fistfights break out on the floors of parliaments.

Come on, Mr. Schiff! Be a man and just punch the reporter in the face. It will prove you have no valid argument or facts to support whatever your latest your claim is, but at least it’ll show you have the courage of your lack of convictions.


The Definition of Insanity

January 28th, 2018 27 Comments


It is axiomatic that whenever a government, Federal, state, or local, bans anything—Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ulysses, alcohol, and drugs are all good twentieth century examples—the immediate and inevitable result is a brisk black-market trade in the banned item. And whenever the banned item is a source of significant revenue (you can forget Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses), immense black-market profits result in a proliferation of cunning and ruthless people elbowing their way to the trough.

The most obvious example of this would be Prohibition, which transformed a bunch of small-time petty gangs into fearsome and murderous organized crime families and the legendary names associated with them: Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Dutch Schultz, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel… The list goes on, and while the names have changed, those organized crime families are still thriving.

Peripherally, many purportedly respectable people benefited yesterday and benefit today. Yesterday, it is estimated that Al Capone alone paid out the equivalent in today’s money of six million dollars ($6,000,000!) every month to the Chicago police department to turn a blind eye to his bootlegging operations. Today… Who knows?

The profits made today in the drug trade make Prohibition’s profits look like chump change, and some of the players in the drug game—not the street dealers, but the men who make the real money—seem very respectable; some of them may be very famous public figures.


I have probably written about this incident before, but about twelve or thirteen years ago I was hunting Coues deer with some friends in the mountains of Sonora, Mexico. Coming home, we crossed the border in Agua Prieta (dark water—what a great name!), Douglas, Arizona’s Mexican sister. You have to cross there, at that particular Sonora/Arizona border crossing, because that’s where both the United States Department of Agriculture and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service have officers on duty. The US government, for reasons of its own, is making it more and more difficult for American hunters to bring trophies into the country from abroad, and the rules and regulations, the forms required by both agencies, become more labyrinthine each year.

We were the only party returning from Mexico that day, but the dread might of the USFWS was in no particular hurry to do its job, so I passed the time by chatting with one of the over-worked and underpaid Border Patrol agents. He was a canine officer with a Belgian Malinois. It’s a dog I happen to know a little about, so we talked about the breed’s strengths and weaknesses, why it is replacing German shepherds on many police departments, and about various dogs we had been fortunate enough to share our lives with. Then he was called away and my friends and I stood by our Suburban, cooling our heels as we waited for our forms to be brought back to us.

About twenty minutes later the canine officer reappeared. He walked in from the inspection area with another guard holding a man in handcuffs, and three or four other guards carrying boxes, each about the size of a wine carton, wrapped in layer after layer of black plastic and duct tape. I hailed him.

“What happened?”


“In those boxes?”


“Wow. What happens to the smuggler now?”

“He’s an American, so we’ll send him north.”

“You mean you hand him over to some other police jurisdiction?”

“No, we just turn him loose.”

“What! He had all that hashish and you’re going to turn the son of a bitch loose! Why?”

“We have to. It costs too much to prosecute, and it’s almost impossible to get a conviction, so we’ve been ordered, unless it’s 250-pounds or more, don’t bother. Under 250, we just turn them loose and send them home.”

That was twelve years ago. If my cursory research is accurate, that 250-pound weight limit has been dramatically increased since then, but that was the first time I realized the government’s war on drugs was, shall we say, somewhat less than serious.

Let’s take another anecdotal look at drugs in America.

In the early seventies, when I first moved to New York to pursue an acting career, I lived on the Lower East Side, well-known at that time as a violent, drug-infested, crime-ridden hell-hole. Bobby Driscoll’s body was found in the rubble of an abandoned tenement just down the street from where I lived. (He was the child star of, among many other movies, Treasure Island, and I used his death in the novel, Return to Laughter.) It happened before I moved there, but the tenement was still there and still abandoned and still used by what were then called junkies.

But when I traveled up to the tony Upper East Side, to rehearse scenes for acting class with some of the beautiful models who were successful enough to be able to afford to live there, drugs and their concomitant violence faded away as I rode north on the subway. On the rare occasions I was able to afford to travel up to Vermont to visit my mother, I traveled to a serene and drug-free rural paradise where small family dairies still dominated the landscape, and men prided themselves on their ability to be taciturn in their responses to city folk. “Yup.” “Ay, yah.” “Can’t get there from here.” That paradigm has changed.

Seven or eight years ago, I was sent to write about a hunting lodge in central Missouri. As I always do on such assignments, I did some homework in advance and read about a little village nearby that had most of its houses on the National Register of Historic Places. The first morning, I was sitting in a blind with my guide, who happened to the manager of the place. He was a nice man, knowledgeable, courteous, and accommodating, so I was a little stunned by what happened next. It was still dark out, well before sunrise, and I could see the lights of a small town in the distance, about ten miles away. I asked my host what I was looking at, and he named the village I had read about.

“Oh,” I said, “I’d like to go see that place. I’ve read about it.”

“You can go,” he replied, as if he were shutting a door, “but I won’t take you there.”

It turned out that it was the local methamphetamine production center, and he considered it so dangerous he wouldn’t even drive through.

I could give you a dozen other examples of similar scenarios I have encountered, but the bottom line is that drug addiction in America has transformed itself, in less than half a century, from a dirty and shameful thing in the poorest and most disreputable inner-city neighborhoods, to something found in historic villages in bucolic rural landscapes, on the streets of upscale shopping areas in certain especially drug-tolerant cities, and in affluent, well-educated suburban neighborhoods.

That’s the result of America’s war on drugs.


Politico, an online magazine that is considered to have a pronounced liberal bias, recently published a lengthy article detailing, in considerable depth, the extent to which the Obama administration delayed, hampered, stymied, and ultimately derailed an extensive, long-term, and very dangerous Drug Enforcement Agency operation that linked together the elements of an extraordinarily complex and labyrinthian merging of drugs, terrorism, money laundering, and weapons smuggling. It involved the Iranian government, their proxy terrorist organization Hezbollah, Mexican drug cartels, organized crime, the Russian government, various South American and Latin American governments (primarily Venezuela), an international consortium of arms dealers, and multiple murderous Mexican and Latin American gangs, all of whom have joined hands in an elaborate scheme to smuggle drugs into the United States, carefully launder their vast profits, and for Hezbollah to use said profits to buy a variety of arms, from assault rifles to missiles to weapons of mass destruction, all intended to be used against the United States and Israel. It’s actually very clever, if you look at it the right way. Use America’s weakness to make the money to buy the weapons to attack an already softened-up and weak America. Good thinking.

That the Obama administration did this primarily to protect their Iranian nuclear arms treaty is undeniable; even some former Obama administration officials do not deny it. What is unclear is the extent to which that administration was influenced by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Justice, Department of State, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Again, it is undeniable that all of those agencies colluded with the Obama administration to derail the DEA’s covert operation (code-named “Cassandra”), but where it gets a little murky is in the reasons those agencies give to excuse their allowing Hezbollah to smuggle drugs (primarily cocaine, in Hezbollah’s case) into America across the Mexican border, the same border that President Trump and deplorables like me only want to see closed because we’re racists.


One of the results of having many friends in many different law enforcement agencies is that I get told a lot of intriguing stories. Almost always, these are told simply in the vein of personal anecdotes intended to show the many and varied aspects of the law enforcement game: danger, stupidity of criminals, intelligence of officers, occasional stupidity of officers, intended comedic effect, unintentional comedic result, unbelievable courage, icy fear, bumbling idiocy, dumb luck, true heroism, comradery, venality, honor, the whole range of experiences and variations of behavior the human animal is prone to. But just as all intelligence agencies gather endless amounts of information over long periods in order to draw conclusions, so too, after forty years of anecdotes, I have been able to isolate certain recurring themes.

One recurring theme is that certain banks—I mean American banks, with household names—have long been involved in what is vulgarly called laundering (the banks have more refined names for it) drug money for cartels with impunity because said cartels are assisting the CIA, and the CIA shields both cartels and banks.

Another recurring theme is that certain highly placed American politicians have closed down specific drug operations in specific cities at specific times for unknown reasons. I would like you, Gentle Reader, to think of me as an imaginative genius writing books that flow solely out of the creative soil of my fertile brain, but in The Horseman at Midnight¸ the story Sheriff Esquivel tells Matt, about why he had to leave San Diego, that story is, almost verbatim, the story I was told by a small town police chief, now deceased, in a California county I prefer not to identify.

And that brings us to the theme that recurs most often, indeed consistently, from completely unrelated sources (DEA officers, both active duty and retired, in different parts of the country; Border Patrol, active and retired in different states; officers in major metropolitan police departments, active and retired, in different cities in different parts of the country; sheriffs and deputy-sheriffs in different rural parts of the country; even once a military intelligence officer) and that theme is that the CIA has, for a long time, been thwarting DEA operations both overseas and along the Mexican border in exchange for information and even occasional assistance (the imagination boggles) from drug cartels.

Does any of this rise above the level of rumor and gossip, the kind of yarns told by some very tough guys after a few beers? Of course not; but when you hear variations on the same theme, many times over the course of forty years or more, from many varied and disparate sources, none of whom have anything to gain, most of whom are retired now, you begin to wonder. And a few years ago, trying to do some research for a magazine article, when I asked an active DEA agent if he knew anything about a certain event, I heard something close to fear in his voice as he told me he could not discuss any activity of the DEA, current or past. End of conversation.

Again, none of this amounts to anything more than hearsay, but there are two conclusions I can draw from it: one is that America’s almost half century-long war on drugs is an epic and costly failure; and the other is that none of us should hold our breath waiting for the United States government to do anything about today’s drug problem.


Recreational marijuana is being legalized by more and more states, in direct violation of the federal law classifying marijuana as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. I have no problem at all with the medical use of marijuana, but I have a problem with states flouting federal law, that problem being Article VI, Clause 2, which grants supremacy to Federal law. I am a firm and committed believer in the Tenth Amendment (states’ rights), but as the situation now stands, marijuana remains illegal under Federal law, and until the issue is resolved in congress by a change of the law, one way or the other, it will remain illegal at the Federal level, and for individual states to ignore that law creates a confusing and potentially dangerous situation for both users and law enforcement alike.

What to do? The war on drugs ain’t working, so what other options are there?

As I see it, there are three possibilities to do something about the egregious drug-death rate and the egregious violent crime rate associated with gangs in drug distribution hubs (think Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Oakland, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Cleveland, Cincinnati).

One is to quit trading one set of American lives for information to save another set of American lives, which is what the CIA appears to be doing, and really and truly crack down on all illegal drugs. If I were a CIA or FBI intelligence officer tasked with that little thing—so frequently laughed at and disregarded by our public servants today—known as my oath of office, namely to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, I might ask myself if a vague goal of thwarting potential terrorists who might attempt to cross our porous southern border or attack our sole reliable ally, Israel, is of greater or lesser value than a goal of having a nation sentient enough to be able to protect itself and, indeed, be worthy of protection.

Another option is to legalize marijuana, but crack down on everything else. That option is mitigated by the argument that marijuana is considered a gateway drug. I suspect it is a gateway drug, but it also has legitimate medical uses, and recreationally, I have yet to hear a serious case that can prove it is more dangerous than alcohol. Marijuana and certain other so-called “soft” drugs are legal in the Netherlands, and it might be beneficial for the US government to study what the results of that legalization have been. The advantage to having the government regulate and tax marijuana, the way alcohol is regulated and taxed, would be much-needed revenue in the federal coffers, and a drop in crime.

The third option would be just to legalize everything and have the government regulate and tax it all. This would reduce all violent crime, but especially murder, to insignificant levels (any law enforcement officer will tell you that about 90% to 95% percent of all murders are drug related) and provide fantastic revenues, but… But it does seem a cold-blooded and Machiavellian way to run a country. The certain percentage of the population that is prone to addiction would just have to be written off as the cost of a safe society, and most of those are good and decent people who are unfortunate enough to have an illness. I think most of us would have a hard time living with that.

I’m neither wise enough nor arrogant enough to decide what the best solution is, but I’m also not so stupid that I would waste another half century doing what has proven to be insanely ineffectual.

Book Review: Stoner

January 22nd, 2018 10 Comments


“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn…”

That’s Merlyn (we usually write it “Merlin,” just as we spell it “honor” instead of “honour”) in The Once and Future King, by T. H. White, a man who knew a thing or two about both sadness and learning.

In Stoner, by John Williams, the novel described by author Tim Kreider as, “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of,” that theme of learning as the ultimate restorative, the sole salvation of the human animal, the anodyne for evil or sorrow, is taken to an extreme.

Most of us have multiple passions. T. H. White, for example, channeled much of his unrequited passion for human love into writing, hunting, fishing, falconry, aviation, and probably other activities I know not of. But John Williams has created a character, William Stoner, who has only two passions in his life: human love, and learning. In one, he is thwarted; the other becomes his salvation.

Stoner follows the whole life of its eponymous character. (Thank God the title didn’t refer, as I thought a novel published in 1965 might, to the lugubrious dreams and feckless self-destruction of some long-haired, tie-dyed, bell-bottomed type on Manhattan’s lower east side.) Stoner is, as was the author, a farm boy who discovers literature at the hands of a professor in the college where Stoner is supposed to be studying agriculture. There is a scene where the professor reads Shakespeare’s seventy-third sonnet and then asks Stoner to say what it means.

“Mr. Shakespeare speaks to you across three hundred years, Mr. Stoner; do you hear him?” (When you read this novel—and you must—take note of the seventy-third sonnet; it was not chosen at random.) And Stoner does hear him, hears him deeply; but like the rest of his classmates, like many of us under similar circumstances, he is unable to articulate in his own words what Shakespeare’s words have meant to him. He has, to quote another passage from the book, “experienced the epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put into words.” And in that inarticulate moment, raising his farmer’s hands helplessly into the air, Stoner is transformed from a farm boy into a lover of words and ideas, and he understands that the best literature—books like Stoner—can change the world. He quits the farm, and throws himself into the lifelong pursuit of learning.

“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time in life he had to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”

Echoes of A. E. Houseman’s, “Never lad that trod on leather/lived to feast his heart with all.” It is true of every human endeavor, whether that endeavor involves books or machines, plants or animals, world travel or your own hometown, the human spirit or human depravity; the unknown is and always will be far greater than the sum total of puny man’s puny knowledge.

Stoner is not a traditional hero in the popular sense of that word. However, he is very much a hero in the sense of man who doggedly fulfills his obligations and the sole passion allowed him, with patience and dignity, without whining or raging, supporting his wife and daughter, teaching his students, and always learning.

I have a good friend, one of the deplorables in a small town in one of those Midwestern states too many people won’t deign to visit, who was cheated and bankrupted by a relative. Like Stoner, he too never whined or complained. What he did was move to another town and start over. He worked long and hard all year long for many years; he deprived himself of many of the little pleasures he relished as he supported his family and raised two fine young children (middle-aged and parents themselves, now); he earned the trust and respect of everyone who knows him; and he made himself into one of the wealthiest men in his little town. He did it all quietly; I am one of the very few who knows his story. That man is a true hero in the same way Stoner is a true hero. There is nothing big and newsworthy in his life, nothing glamorous or glorious, no accolades, no reporters camped outside his door; just a quiet, dogged, honorable persistence in the face of adversity, a quiet, dogged, honorable meeting of his obligations, loving his family, and being the good and decent man he has always been. Men like that, like Stoner, are the true heroes of this country.

But why is Stoner denied his only other passion, human love?

The only negative review of Stoner that I have stumbled across reviled both hero and author as misogynists, and Professor Stoner as a narrow-minded pedant. The author of the review (in the Washington Post) is a woman who is an ivy-league professor emerita, and feminist writer on social and cultural issues, and I could make a good argument that living a life within the walls of academia, and looking at the world through such a singular prism, can promote a very narrow-minded vision of the world.

Her complaint about misogyny is predicated on John Williams’ unelaborated portrayal of Stoner’s wife, Edith, as a wildly neurotic, possibly bi-polar, shrewish, extraordinarily selfish woman, who denies her husband love, who turns their daughter against him, who devotes her entire life to trying to reduce Stoner to a non-entity in their shared lives and even within his own professional life.

Unlike the angry woman reviewer, I immediately recognized the behavior of Stoner’s wife, based on my experience with a very similar personality type, but don’t trust me. Instead, pay attention to my brother-in-law, a Harvard educated and trained—and practicing for nearly three-score-years-and-ten—psychiatrist who has considerably more knowledge, objectivity, and sensitivity than the angry female reviewer. My brother-in-law also immediately recognized the behavior of Stoner’s wife, and he identified it as the classic acting-out of a victim of childhood sexual abuse. It isn’t something that is spelled out in the book, in part because that isn’t the focus of Williams’ story, in part because such things were not discussed back then. The book takes place roughly between 1910 and 1956, and in the time period of Edith’s childhood, the late 1800’s, sexual abuse took place just as frequently as it does today, but it remained, as Tennessee Williams once wrote about a related topic, “something unspoken.” So the causes are not delved into by John Williams, but the results, the symptoms, are described in sometimes painful detail. The description of Edith and William Stoner’s honeymoon, and some of Edith’s subsequent behavior, made me put the book aside for a while. But none of that is due to misogyny by author or protagonist.

The same reviewer criticized Williams for portraying both of Stoner’s antagonists—one a fellow faculty member, the other a student—as physically deformed, dismissing that device as a nasty and outdated symbol of evil. But one of the things a fiction writer tries to do is give the reader clues to the intentions and motivations of his characters, to try and provide a context for their actions. Just as the harrowing and depressing description of Stoner making love to his wife for the first time gives you a pretty good clue as to what her problems are and what the causes of them might be, so too the shared infirmity of a physically deformed professor and his favorite student gives them an understandable bond which turns the professor against Stoner for flunking the student. They are not deformed because they are evil, nor evil because they are deformed; they are deformed because it a writer’s device to give them a shared bond, just as in a more modern novel they might share ethnicity, or country of origin, or a particular religious belief, or anything else that might cause them to bond as a minority in a predominately homogenous world.

Nor is Stoner a narrow-minded pedant. He flunks the student, as Williams writes, because even after being granted an extension on a deadline, the student does not do the work and then tries to bluff his way through a presentation by being argumentatively inimical. If that scene were written exclusively from Stoner’s perspective, it might be open to debate, but this is how Williams sums it up:

“…it was clear even to the most inattentive students in the class that [the student] was engaged in a performance that was entirely impromptu.”

That is not Stoner’s point of view. That is an omniscient point of view, and as such has to be taken as factual. It is also supported by other actions and statements by that student, but the reason I am dwelling on it is because it sets in motion one of those nasty, inter-faculty feuds that occur with dreary regularity in universities where we might expect the men and women teaching our children to know better and behave better. And it is that feud that leads ultimately to Stoner’s final chance at human love being torn away from him.

Stoner falls in love with a young graduate student who is already in love with him, and for a brief time, until the angry professor manages to break it up, he knows what true human love, true human passion is.

This is a sad book. But it is also one of the wisest, and most beautifully written books I have ever read. Consider the following:

“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end, but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”

Much like the process of learning.

Paul Cajero

January 13th, 2018 12 Comments


There were certain faces that got you off to a good start:

Sweet Dick Dawson, who had such extraordinary sensitivity to mood that he could pick up on how you were feeling the moment you stepped into the make-up trailer, either working quietly and comfortingly, or if you were up to it, unleashing his wicked, razor-like tongue with comments that could leave you howling helplessly with laughter;

Bobby James, always full of beans and bounce and endless enthusiasm, almost childlike in his joie de vivre, cheerful in such an infectious way that only a corpse could not immediately feel better, laying out the countless wardrobe changes with such good humor it almost made tying the forty-seventh necktie of the day enjoyable;

And Paul Cajero. Paul always reminded me of the very best cops or doctors: he had that calm, unruffled competence that made you feel there was nothing, no emergency or disaster that could or even might occur, that he couldn’t quickly and effortlessly deal with. If North Korea had dropped the big one on Los Angeles, Paul would have been able to decide whether it would be better to finish the scene or go home immediately. And you would have trusted his judgement.

They were all wonderful people, the guys and gals (the guys and dolls, to get Runyonesque about it) who made up the crew of Simon & Simon. It is something Mackie and I have talked about many times over the years—the decades—since: how blessed he and I were to have had the privilege of working with such talented, patient, competent, good-humored, nice, and decent people. But always, in any group, there are some with whom you resonate more than with others, and Paul was one of those.

Disasters occur when filming. Things go wrong, mistakes are made, accidents happen, people screw up—not least the two so-called stars of the show, who were known to indulge themselves and get a lot crazier than they should have. It takes someone at the helm to keep things running, and that can be hard enough to do when things are going well. But when the light is fading, the clock is ticking, equipment is failing, tempers are fraying, when all about you are losing their heads and blaming it on you (to flagrantly steal a phrase), it takes a special kind of person to stay calm, stay organized, stay focused, and to keep everyone else at their posts, also calm, organized, and focused. Paul was one of those.

And he did it all with humor, good cheer, grace, dignity, and that special kind of humanity that keeps some people floating above the fray, never judging, never losing their nerve or their tempers, never indulging in the childish ugliness so many of us are guilty of all too often.

Wynton Marsalis once said that when life got you down, when everything seemed to be falling apart, and you didn’t know how you could keep on going, that Louis Armstrong’s music was always there to remind you everything was going to be all right. When I saw Paul Cajero on the set, I knew everything was going to be all right.

I only just found out about Paul’s passing this past October, but he is remembered with great love and great respect.

At the Movies: Only the Brave

January 7th, 2018 7 Comments


I wrote a review of the movie Dunkirk, where I delineated my disappointment with that movie. Briefly, Dunkirk failed as a movie because it failed on all the basic levels of story-telling: there was no one character in the movie for the viewer to invest in emotionally; there was no understanding or explanation of the critical historical importance of that extraordinary event; and the movie failed to convey the unbelievable scope of the rescue effort, let alone the miraculousness of its success.

All of those are the reasons why Only the Brave works, and that’s an understatement. Works? My God, it reduced me and Darleen and our friends to sodden pulps, and it did so because, first and foremost, it gives you any number of characters to invest in.

The way you make your audience identify with a character is to let the viewer know something about him. You can do it directly, showing him doing good things or bad things, making wise choices or bad mistakes. Or you can do it indirectly, having the character, or a third person, say things that reveal who that character is, his strengths and weaknesses, his human graces and his equally human frailty.

Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, and Jennifer Connelly are the three primary characters in Only the Brave, and the writers (Sean Flynn, Ken Nolan, and Eric Warren Singer) and the director (Joseph Kosinski) use both of those techniques to give us three fully-fleshed, very real, very complex, yet understandable characters. Not good, not bad; not heroes, not villains; not saints, not sinners. Just very real, very human, which in turn means very loveable in their humanity. Because we know them, we understand them, and because we understand them, we care passionately about them and wish them well.

But those are the leads, the most important characters, so of course any decent movie maker is going to spend time letting us discover who his protagonists are. Where Kosinski and the three writers excel is in giving us thumbnails about subsidiary characters, the guys and gals with just a few lines here, a small scene or two there. When those subsidiary characters spring to life on the screen, you know you have a great movie, and spring to life they do. Of those secondary characters, the only ones known to me were Jeff Bridges and Andie MacDowell, but all of them turn in breathtaking performances.

As for the events that inspired the movie, and the unbelievable courage of those young men, again, Kosinski makes it very clear what they were up against, what it meant both to them personally, and to the towns of Yarnell and Prescott and…

Ah. That is what makes the young firefighters—in this case, the Granite Mountain Hotshots out of Prescott, AZ, but also every other young man or woman who risks his or her life to fight wildfires anywhere—such incomparably courageous human beings: no one knows, no one can accurately predict what a wildfire will do or where it will go next.

Many years ago, Darleen and I were the last vehicle, literally the last in line, allowed through on the 395 in Mono County during a wildfire. For those of you unfamiliar with that part of California, think the high eastern slope of the Sierras more or less near Mammoth. (Tom’s Place was the nearest community.) The fire was on the western side of the 395, moving east down the mountain, toward the highway, and what stunned me was the speed with which the wall of flames traveled, virtually leapfrogging down that rugged slope faster than any living thing could run. How far away it was and how high the flames were, are things impossible for me to guess, but I remember thinking that if anyone broke down in front of us, we would all be crispy critters in short order. We were miles away, in a truck, and I’m sure the firefighters and law enforcement involved would never have let us through if we had been in danger, but it got my attention, big time. Now think of being out there on foot, fighting such a monster, up close and personal. Like law enforcements officers and soldiers, those young men and women are the best of the best of America. Some are ex-convicts; some are college graduates; some are clean and sober former drug addicts; some are high school athletes who are adrenaline junkies; some are the lost looking to redeem themselves; some have always known who they are and where they belong; all deserve our unreserved respect and gratitude.

All of that is made clear by Kosinski: the dangers; the unpredictability; the varied characters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots; the critical importance of being able to depend, completely and absolutely, on the man standing next to you.

The one thing the director of Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan) did exceptionally well was to convey, visually, a taste of the terrifying horrors of war. In Only the Brave, Director Joseph Kosinski somehow combines actual footage of real forest fires and computerized special effects, in ways I’m nowhere near smart enough or knowledgeable enough to understand, and the effect is overwhelming. The shocking and devastating wall of flame Darleen and I saw all those years ago was just a tiny soupçon of what Kosinski exposes his audience to, and—again—it gives you respect upon respect for those extraordinary young men and women who risk their lives to save our homes.

Finally—I’m not giving anything away here; everyone knows the tragic outcome and unspeakable loss caused by that fire—it is sometimes the unseen that conveys certain emotions more eloquently and viscerally than the seen can do. In a scene at the end, Jennifer Connelly is waiting to find out if her husband is alive or dead, and there is a late afternoon/early night-shot of the barn where she and Josh Brolin keep their beloved horses. Just a shot of a barn, with its interior lights on, backlit by a blood-red, fire-red, Arizona sunset. And from that barn comes the most agonizing howl of pain the human animal can make. Those of us who have lost loved ones to sudden violence have made that sound and know it too well.

Jennifer Connelly, Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Joseph Kosinski, and Only the Brave deserve every award there is. Take a box of Kleenex with you when you go to see this powerful film. Take two. And doff your hats, my darlings, as the firemen pass by.

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