September, 2016

The Land of, Uh, Opportunity?

September 27th, 2016 19 Comments

American flag

British-born custom shotgun-maker and shooting instructor Dale Tate of Ione, California told me once that he immigrated to America from Great Britain because he got so sick and tired of the rigidity of the British class system that made it almost impossible for anyone to rise above the station into which he had been born. He told me many of his own frequently humiliating experiences trying to better himself and being reminded at every turn that he didn’t have the right accent, the right manners, the right education, the right, well, breeding, Darling.

I thought of Dale recently as various seemingly unrelated things I had read all came together to make some sort of troubling sense of life in America today.

The first thing to mention is an article I read positing the theory that Donald Trump’s success, and his appeal to so many Americans, is understandable because supporting him is a way to give a single-digit salute to all the Washington elite as well as the offensively wealthy who both support and profit from those elite, while the rest of us, the vast majority of the country, struggle to maintain a diminished status quo, or slide further down the rungs of the socio-economic ladder. This us-versus-them situation is nothing new, nothing that can be laid upon Barack Hussein Obama’s shoulders or any one single president’s shoulders; it has been coming on slowly pretty much ever since World War Two, though its roots could be traced back further still.

The next thing was reading Guns and Violence: The English Experience, by Joyce Lee Malcolm, who put forth the theory that gun control in Great Britain had its genesis in the ruling class’s fear of the growing impoverished classes, the same ruling class that worked steadily over many decades to remove any ownership of firearms of any kind. The problem is that as I was reading her book, I was simultaneously reading my monthly copy of The Field, England’s foremost sporting (hunting, stalking, shooting, fishing, and conservation) magazine, where every month there are articles about well-heeled Brits stalking stag and shooting birds or sporting clays with the kinds of unaffordable firearms most of us only read about or see in museums. I spoke to a friend of mine who was raised in Scotland and he seemed mildly surprised that I was surprised. Oh, yes, he said, there has always been one law for Great Britain at large and another law for the privileged few of that nation. He went on to tell me a story about working as a teenager for a titled, land-owning lord who sent him out to buy some ammunition for one of his Lordship’s handguns, this at a time when handguns had been recently banned throughout Great Britain. At the store, a very stuffy and unfriendly salesman told my friend he would have to provide identification, fill out paperwork, wait several months, get cleared by the police, pass a special … My friend interrupted to explain it wasn’t for him but for Lord Deep-Pockets. Oh, in that case, said the store owner, take the ammo with you right now; how many boxes does his Lordship require?

The final thing I read was the transcript of a speech given at Hillsdale College by Professor Frank Buckley (Scalia Law School, George Mason University) in which the professor referred to a Pew Charitable Trust study of economic mobility in seven developed, First World countries. The most immobile country, where upward mobility is almost impossible and the ruling classes remain the ruling classes for generation after generation, is—not surprisingly—Great Britain, with a rating of .50. The most mobile country, where anyone can slide up or down depending on their abilities, is Denmark, with a rating of .15. The second most immobile—immobile—country, with a rating of .47 (!), is America, the fabled Land of Opportunity. What that means is that a handful of mega-wealthy, well-connected families with networks of insider connections (mostly meaning inside the beltway) not only control the wealth, but also the politicians who help maintain the status quo, and that the likelihood of one of their kind dropping down into middle- or lower-class status, or the equally improbable likelihood of someone from the projects or a small farm in Missouri ever making it up into their rarified upper tier, are both highly unlikely.

Professor Buckley attributes this frozen and destructive economic rigidity to a variety of causes, primarily a two-tier educational system that provides excellent educational opportunities for the wealthy elite and a mediocre (at best) K-12 public school system for the great unwashed.

He attributes America’s economic immobility to an open immigration system that “supports inequality and immobility” [his words] by taking in everyone under family-preference categories (as opposed to economic categories), with no consideration of how those persons might benefit America.

He attributes America’s economic immobility to a rule of civil law (especially regarding property rights and contracts) that has been manipulated and corrupted by the wealthy to benefit the elite until anyone from ranchers to elderly urban pensioners can lose their homes to someone with deeper pockets and better lawyers. When a legal system is biased toward the wealthy and better-educated, there is no such thing as democracy, not to mention equality, or trust, and you can forget about any chance of upward mobility.

He attributes America’s economic immobility to corruption (as ranked by Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index) where lobbyists and the elite can use their wealth to buy laws that benefit themselves. (Consider Hiz Honor Mayor Michael Bloomberg buying anti-gun laws in states—Washington already, with Nevada and Maine in his sights this election cycle—where he doesn’t even live.)

It was while pondering all this that I realized what a terrible mistake poor Dale Tate had made. He followed the myth instead of the reality: he should have immigrated to Canada, where the economic mobility ranking is second only to Denmark with a score of .19. He would have found the Land of Opportunity still alive and well in its new home north of the border.

Of course, the irony in all this is that the outsider Donald Trump is, in fact, one of the ultimate members of the American aristocracy: inherited wealth (vastly increased by him, to his credit); private schools; first-rate colleges; the network of connections that come with all of those. If you want further proof of his entrenched position as one of the favored few, the elite, the American aristocracy, you need look no further than the fact that—to go back to the British example illustrated by my friend—he has a concealed carry permit in New York City, where the Sullivan law virtually proscribes firearm ownership of any kind. If you doubt me, and you live in one of the five boroughs, just try getting a concealed carry license. Let me know how you get along.

The difference is that there is a sort of genial and combative working-class boorishness to Trump that appeals to those of us who are sick to death of the idiocy of political correctness run amok. In one single day last week I read an article by an outraged progressive liberal castigating a novelist for cultural appropriation (as a white person, she had had the temerity to write a novel about a black woman) and another article by another progressive castigating Hollywood as a hotbed of racism because so few roles are written for minorities and the LGBTQ members of our society. (Make up what we laughingly refer to as your minds, progressive liberals: do you want cultural appropriation—also known as creative imagination, sort of what all writers and actors have to do and have done for all time—or do you want exclusion dressed as racism? It’s an either-or and you can’t have it both ways.) Trump also appeals to those of us who hope and pray he will actually live up to his self-proclaimed status as an outsider. Who among us, after a few beers with our buddies, isn’t convinced he could fix this country if he only had the chance? That’s the persona Trump projects, and since the country certainly hasn’t been served well by liberal elites, maybe, just maybe, the Trumpster might be able to quaff an Oktoberfest special brew and git ‘er done. As he likes to say, what have you got to lose? The answer is: at this point, not much.

If you doubt that America is no longer the preeminent land of opportunity, and that we have become a nation of two sets of laws, two separate standards of living, two separate standards of ethics, two separate standards of right and wrong, consider some of the signs of unrest and unhappiness occurring across America today:

Black Lives Matter rioting and calling for the assassination of police on one side of the political spectrum, with angry, disenfranchised, and armed ranchers confronting federal officers on the other; professional athletes protesting “oppression” by the police on one side, with police being assassinated in the streets on the other; radical Islamic terrorists bombing, shooting, stabbing, and beheading innocents across the country, with thousands of first-time gun owners (predominately women) taking defensive shooting classes at schools from New Hampshire to LA; illegal immigrants protesting the idea they should be thought of as illegal immigrants on one side, with angry people holding up unpleasant signs suggesting they all go home on the other; blacks calling all whites racists on one side, with whites calling all blacks racists on the other; a self-proclaimed Socialist nearly clinching the Democratic nomination on one side by claiming the rich have hijacked America, with a billionaire reality TV star clinching the Republican nomination on the other side by claiming the political elite have hijacked America (both are right). I could go on, but you can read the news yourself. When everybody is unhappy with the way the country is being run, the government might do well to consider moving on to Plan B. After all, Canada is only a short drive away.

Book Review: The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing

September 16th, 2016 26 Comments

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Packing up some books I came across The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, by Melissa Bank. I gazed at it in wonder because, as far as I know, it made its way onto my shelves entirely of its own volition. I have no memory of purchasing it, borrowing it, stealing it, or having received it as a gift. Tired from climbing up and down the step ladder, covered with dust, irritable at having to put my books in storage, if only for a while, I looked upon it as a sign, a message from the universe that I should take a break, and I did so immediately.

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is designated as “Chick-Lit.” I hate designations generally (after you’ve said fiction or non-fiction, either it’s good writing or it’s bad writing), but “Chick-Lit” especially seems so condescending and vaguely contemptuous, as if “chicks” had to have special books written for them with small words, short sentences, and large font. “Ah, those brainless little sex objects, bless their hearts; here’s a simple little book to keep them busy and away from the shoe stores for a while.” I mean, come on, is there a “Beefcake” genre? (Please don’t answer that. I don’t want to know.)

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is a loosely connected sequence of short stories that cover the range of a girl’s life from fourteen to an unstated age (which we can guess at precisely because it’s unstated) as she tries to come to grips with what love is and should be for her. Like so many of us, she makes one disastrous mistake after another over the years before she stumbles into a healthy relationship, and it is that process that links the stories. It is not quite a novel, but the linked stories make it a sort of novel in the way that Jack Schaeffer’s Monte Walsh was. (That’s Manly-Cowboy fiction, for you genre addicts.)

But describing the book this way trivializes it. Romeo and Juliet can be summarized as “Chick-Lit, sub-genre, Boy-Meets-Girl,” but in Shakespeare’s hands, the story becomes a trifle more interesting than that. In Melissa Bank’s hands, Jane and her family and eventually her lovers become, if not as majestic and heroic as the Montagues and the Capulets, very real and specific people in specific places at a specific time, which is another way of saying universal. The very first story in the collection introduces us to Jane as a fourteen-year-old, and in Melissa Bank’s hands, Jane becomes as awkwardly and sardonically real for the advent of the twenty-first century as Holden Caulfield was for the middle of the twentieth. And it was that intelligent and perceptive adolescent girl who remained with me throughout the other stories; she may have aged and gotten smarter (and funnier), but she was still Jane trying to make sense of her brother’s choice of girlfriend, still Jane trying to get along with a boss without getting squashed by the same, still Jane trying to reconcile the men in her life with her idea of love. It’s what we all do, on both sides of the sexual border.

Melissa Bank’s writing is lean and compelling and very funny. I’m only giving the book four stars because I found one story to be jarringly out of place; not in style or tone, but because it was told from another person’s point of view, and that jarred me out of the flow of the book. But if all “Chick-Lit” is as good as The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, then count me in as a brainless little sex object.

At the Movies: Florence Foster Jenkins

September 10th, 2016 15 Comments

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Normally I see movies years after they’ve been released, but a concatenation of disasters and stresses in both households caused Dan Bronson (Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody) and his wife to suggest we all go out to dinner together and take in Meryl Streep’s latest movie. I am so glad we did. Run, do not walk, to see Florence Foster Jenkins. You’ll almost certainly have to run to catch it before it gets yanked out of theaters because it’s the kind of film that will be largely ignored by the movie-going public today, revered and acclaimed at the Academy Awards tomorrow, and appreciated by viewers for decades to come. It’s absolutely brilliant.

I had never heard of her, but Florence Foster Jenkins was apparently a well-known tragi-comic figure in Manhattan during the first half of the twentieth century. She was what is described as a socialite, which basically means she was smart enough to have been born to the right family with plenty of the right stuff. She was also apparently born with a certain degree of skill as a concert pianist, being good enough to have performed as a child at the White House for President Rutherford B. Hayes. After that, the details of her life quickly descend down the scales from comedy to tragedy.

This is not the place to write a complete biography, but putting it in a nutshell, a combination of syphilis contracted on her wedding night from her first husband and/or an injury to her arm put an end to her career as a pianist, but not an end to her love of music or her desire to perform. She had the money to be able to afford the very best vocal instruction, but sadly, whatever skills had emerged from her fingertips did not emerge from her mouth. Instead, what did limp out was a sequence of unholy sounds that made her an object of ridicule among virtually everybody unfortunate enough to hear her sing, which included—because of her wealth and social position—some very famous people, some of whom stifled their laughter publicly because they wanted to get their hands in her purse, some of whom stifled their laughter publicly for social reasons, and a few of whom stifled their laughter, publicly and privately, because of such quaint, old-fashioned virtues as loyalty, love, and a genuine appreciation of her great generosity.

Not much comedy there, I hear you cry. Enter writer Nicholas Martin, director Stephen Frears, Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, and a cast of literally hundreds of pitch-perfect performances.

In real life it is unclear to what extent Florence Foster Jenkins realized she was a comic figure or to what extent her brain had been addled by the syphilis, making her oblivious. In the movie, while Nicholas Martin and Stephen Frears tip their artistic hats to that ambiguity, they wisely move their plot forward through the device of Hugh Grant’s increasingly frantic efforts to protect this unfortunate but well-intentioned woman, so that the movie becomes a magical and delicate balance between tragedy and comedy. And that is, obviously, the very best of all possible balancing acts.

Hugh Grant’s layered performance as Florence Foster Jenkins’ second husband is hands down the finest work he’s ever done (and he has done a lot of excellent work), playing a man who almost certainly started many years earlier as just another garden-variety leech, but who now has to balance his natural inclinations against his very real love of this pathetic, ridiculous, vulnerable woman. The dance he does with a pretty young thing at a wild party at his apartment is, by itself, worth the price of admission.

Simon Helberg, as the concert pianist struggling to balance his musical sensibility and artistic ambition against his sense of loyalty and his soft heart, practically steals the movie. The scene where he first hears Florence Foster Jenkins sing—if you can call it that—and the sequence of emotions that cross his face, from stunned disbelief to incredulity to rising hysteria, as his hands continue to mechanically play the accompaniment, is, by itself, worth the price of admission.

And Meryl Streep. I’m sure there must be some things Ms. Streep does not do better than anyone else (possibly her income taxes, diesel engine maintenance, mounted cowboy shooting, cryptanalysis) but none of them have anything to do with acting. She is, simply, the best there ever was. The scene when she sings (again, I use that word loosely) for the first time, Dan and I both became completely hysterical and I thought Darleen might have to leave the theater, and yet those scenes are balanced against moments so poignant you ache for her. It is no secret that many an actress’s singing has been “sweetened,” some by my gifted bride, many by the great, recently deceased Marni Nixon and other talented anonymous singers, but according to Darleen, the most difficult thing for a good singer to do is sing badly. I have no idea if Ms. Streep did her own atrocious singing or if she was ____________ (fill in the opposite of “to sweeten”), but the scenes of her in full costume, butchering opera, are, by themselves, worth the price of admission.

Unlike its eponymous title character Florence Foster Jenkins never strikes a false note.

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