Barking Backward

A Blog by Jameson Parker

The Span of Life

The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.

- Robert Frost

Book Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

September 11th, 2018 2 Comments

 

Some events simply defy any and all attempts to understand, explain, or rationalize. The First World War is one of those.

The causes of World War Two are pretty straight forward: it was something that had to be done to stop the greatest evil the world has ever known. The Revolutionary War had a noble purpose, at least from an American point of view. The Civil War had a succinct and comprehensible rationalization behind it, incorrect on one side, but at least the doomed and gallant young men on both sides could have articulated what they were fighting for. Even America’s involvement in the Vietnam War had a rational—incorrect, as it turned out, but coherent and understandable—justification, one proven wrong by history, but understandable in the light of that time and those fears. But World War One’s causes, especially looked at in light of the ultimate cost, are simply incomprehensible.

First, consider that cost.

It is hard to pin down accurate estimates, in part because there were so many ancillary deaths, in part because some of those deaths (those caused by the 1918 Spanish Flu, for instance) would have occurred anyway (though probably in smaller numbers), and in part because people, ordinary people like you and me as opposed to the titled and elite, were considered so dispensable that accurate numbers weren’t kept even in the infrequent places and circumstances where they might have been.

But with all that in mind, somewhere between ten- and eleven-million soldiers were either killed outright or died on the front of war-related diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, cholera, or infection. Approximately seven- or eight-million (what’s a million more or less?) civilians were either killed outright or by disease or by famine. The Spanish Flu may have killed as many as one-hundred-million people world-wide, but how does one calculate how many of those would have died anyway if there had been no war? Roughly one-and-a-half-million Armenians and several hundred-thousand Greeks were killed in Turkey’s genocidal campaign against those people, but who can say if those atrocities might have occurred if there had been no war? Approximately six-million people just went missing and were presumed dead, but no one knows for certain. Somewhere between twenty- and twenty-three-million more were injured.

Let’s be conservative and take an average of the estimates, say somewhere between thirty-seven-million and forty-million dead. Surely such an enormous number, such an enormous amount of incalculable suffering, and the magnitude of such irrevocable loss and heartbreak should have some easily identifiable justification, at the very least a logical and rational explanation, if not some noble cause. Surely such unspeakable horror should not have been for anything as trivial as men’s cupidity and egos. Yet that seems to be the case.

As briefly as possible, the identifiable causes cited by historians are:

  • The Bosnians and the Herzegovinians wanted to be part of Serbia and not under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That led to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a Bosnian Serb, which led to war between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia.
  • A web of international military alliances meant:
  1. a) Russia jumped in to help their ally, Serbia;
  2. b) Germany jumped in to help their ally, Austria-Hungary;
  3. c) France, which had an unlikely alliance with Russia, jumped in to help their ally against Germany and Austria-Hungary;
  4. d) Germany responded by attacking France, but they did it by marching through neutral Belgium, which put up a surprisingly stout defense, which in turn annoyed the Germans, who committed some pretty outrageous (for the time; mild by today’s standards) atrocities;
  5. e) Great Britain had a long-standing alliance to defend Belgium’s neutrality and they immediately honored that by jumping into the fray;
  6. f) Great Britain had a more unlikely alliance with Japan, which was eager to flex its military muscles anyway, having earlier whupped Russia in a conflict over which of those two countries deserved to take over Korea and Manchuria (neither of which were consulted as to what their desires—such as being left alone—might be), so Japan rolled up its sleeves;
  7. g) Russia and Turkey (the Ottoman Empire; same difference) had already been at odds over both the Balkans and strategically important Constantinople, so that was a natural addition to the general bloodshed;
  8. h) Italy had just recently been at war with the Ottoman Empire, so they waded in;
  9. i) eventually America and other more unlikely participants (Brazil? Go figure.) all got involved and happily threw those so-expendable young men into early graves.
  • Imperialism was another primary cause for all this useless slaughter. All the major and some of the minor European powers saw the potential for easy wealth in Africa and parts of Asia, and happily devoted themselves to ruthlessly exploiting those countries with no particular concern for the local inhabitants. Germany, in particular, felt left out of the imperialistic looting because they had jumped into the imperialism game later than most, so they had their own greedy reasons for fighting everybody.
  • Nationalism: Apart from stealing, raping and pillaging various African and Asian countries, Germany and Russia, in particular, wanted to expand their borders and sphere of influence closer to home, so that was a handy excuse for war.
  • Germany, in part for the reasons cited in #3 and #4 (above), and in part because Kaiser Wilhelm II was a mentally negligible, megalomaniacal moron with severe inferiority issues and delusions of grandeur, had been rapidly and massively building up its military, which in turn made other European countries, especially Great Britain, feel a trifle nervous, so the arms race was another logical cause of the war. After all, if you’ve got all those shiny guns and cannons and destroyers and never use them, you might have some ‘splaining to do, Lucy, to your over-taxed citizens.

You can see why most of the books I’ve read about World War One (The Guns of August; The War that Ended Peace) run to five-hundred and almost seven-hundred-pages respectively, and that doesn’t include other, almost as lengthy but more narrowly focused historical accounts. I’ve tried to condense all of it and put it into baby talk. In reality, it was a good deal more complicated, but at least you have the broad strokes, and with those broad strokes in mind, tell me now, please, which of those casus belli was worth all those lives?

Which is, in a graphic, chilling, moving, and much more intimate way, the thrust of All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque’s extraordinary masterpiece.

Erich Maria Remarque was a perfectly typical conscript, a student at the University of Münster, drafted into the war when he turned eighteen, shipped to the Western Front at a time when it was becoming clear to perfectly typical conscripts that, from Germany’s point of view, the war was already lost. Remarque’s protagonist, Paul (Remarque’s real middle name; he changed it to Maria in honor of his mother) is a perfectly typical conscript, drafted into the war at eighteen and shipped to the Western Front at a time when it was becoming clear to perfectly typical conscripts that, from Germany’s point of view, the war was already lost.

The novel is so autobiographical in so many aspects, and so graphic in its depictions of (to paraphrase a famous line adapted from the writing of Hannah Arendt) the banality of horror and terror, that it came as a shock at the very end to be reminded I had been reading a novel. Remarque captured the insanity of war and the numbness that protects soldiers (at least, those who don’t go mad, which has been known to happen) even as they are witnessing or doing things that in civilian life would be inconceivable:

“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another. I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it all more refined and enduring. And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing; it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterward? And what shall become of us?”

And against the unrelenting terror and fear and horror, to which they become benumbed; and the routine of killing—with rifles, grenades, spades, knives, and bayonets—other young men just like themselves, to which they also become benumbed; the rats and poison gas to which they also become benumbed; the shells, the bombs, the blood and shattered bones and intestines to all of which they become benumbed; against all that is contrasted the rare and simple joy of a good meal from stolen food even as bombs rain down around them; the pleasure of wearing a pair of good boots, even though they came from the death of a comrade; the satisfaction of picking lice off their bodies; the jokes and black humor; the concern for comrades who begin to lose their protective numbness; the delight of seeing on a wall a poster of a beautiful actress; the pleasure of quiet conversations in the trenches where they argue about the causes of the war, who started it, what they are fighting for, conversations that make it clear they haven’t a clue.

And they talk about the weary knowledge that their substandard uniforms and boots and food are making someone rich at home:

“But we are emaciated and starved. Our food is bad and mixed up with so much substitute stuff that it makes us ill. The factory owners in Germany have grown wealthy; dysentery dissolves our bowels. The latrine poles are always densely crowded…[we] grin at one another and say: ‘It is not much sense pulling up one’s trousers again.’”

Nothing has changed, nothing will ever change, in any and every army that ever was or will be. It is easy to understand why another mentally negligible, megalomaniacal moron with severe inferiority issues and delusions of grandeur, Adolph Hitler, had All Quiet on the Western Front banned and burned.

The only other accounts I have read that come close to this for catching the banality of horror in combat are some of Tim O’Brien’s brilliant semi-autobiographical novels about the Vietnam War, The Things they Carried, Going After Cacciato, and—somewhat more obliquely—In the Lake of the Woods.

Read All Quiet on the Western Front and remember Rudyard Kipling’s bitter poem, written after his eighteen-year-old son was killed in action at the Battle of Loos:

Common Form

If any question why we died

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

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Music, Sweet Music

September 8th, 2018 11 Comments

 

“Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act III, scene ii.

We live in a radically divided nation, with a radically divided congress more devoted to enriching itself—on both sides of the aisle—than serving the public, but every now and then something happens that makes me realize how picayune our differences are.

I rarely do any of our banking or handle the checkbook. This is primarily a result of Darleen’s persnickety insistence on meaningless trifles, such as two-plus-two always equaling four. I take the big, broad, flexible outlook on math, and that tends to drive my wife and our accountant into frenzies. It used to drive my teachers into an unwarranted use of red ink.

But the other day, due to circumstances beyond my bride’s control, I had to spend an inordinate amount of time standing in an interminable line at the bank. Our little town is largely blue collar, and the line of people waiting reflected that: there were men and women of all ages, sexes, sizes, and demeanors, but the common denominator was dress that reflected a people who work with their hands, the kinds of people who, as someone once put it, take showers after they get home from work, not before they leave for the office.

Banking is not my favorite activity, and for most part my brain was approximating that rarest thing in nature: a complete vacuum. Mostly, I was gazing around at the overworked tellers and too numerous customers, and wondering if I might die of old age before I got to the head of the line.

And it was then, at that moment, that I became aware of two things simultaneously.

The first was the realization that the woman ahead of me, a lady at least in her seventies, appeared to be vibrating or twitching very slightly. There was that brief instant when I thought she might be having a fit, or suffering from some neurological disorder, but almost as instantly, I realized her whole body was moving rhythmically, and that made me aware of the second thing. I could hear, very faintly, an old James Brown song on the piped-in music system.

Then I saw a woman and her teenaged son at one of the teller’s windows. She was moving her head in time to the music, and the boy’s knees were also bopping along in time. I looked around.

Behind me was a couple tattooed to the max; he looked like a Hell’s Angel in mufti, and she looked like the kind of girl you might expect to see hanging out with a Hell’s Angel. They were both smiling happily and their bodies, like the woman in front of me, were doing barely visible dances. A massive woman behind them, built along the lines of a draft horse, was tapping a foot. A very old man, easily the oldest man there, somewhere well north of eighty, was tapping his fingers against his leg. An exceptionally skinny girl in floral yoga pants was moving her hips in a subtle but full-out dance. A squat fellow in baggy shorts, who looked like a body-builder gone to seed, was moving his shoulders. People sitting on the sofas on the far wall were tapping feet and snapping fingers.

Practically every single living thing in that crowded bank, with the exception of a service dog, was responding to the wild and joyous music of a man who has been dead for twelve years, and whose musical heyday ended over forty years ago. But music lives forever, and with the exception of radical Islamic barbarians, it speaks to all of us. I had a brief, wild desire to grab the lady ahead of me and start to dance, an image of the whole bank, customer, tellers, executives, perhaps even the dog, all joining in, a semi-choreographed group-dance number similar to any one of scores of Hollywood musicals, from Fred and Ginger to Gene Kelly dancing with an immensely stout, elderly woman in a café early on in An American in Paris, to Grease, to Chicago, and on—he says hopefully—to yet unmade movies of quality and joy and hope.

I refrained, partly out of some vestige of common sense, and partly because the only thing worse than my singing is my dancing, and that was when I was young and sound. Now, held together by baling wire and duct tape, with enough artificial parts and titanium reinforcements to qualify me as the K-Mart Blue Light Special version of the Six-Million Dollar Man, wild and joyous dancing would probably put me right back in surgery. Or at least back in surgery right after I got out of jail.

But it was wonderful to see all those people bopping along.

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Book Review: The Intimidation Game

September 5th, 2018 1 Comment

 

Joseph Stalin once said: “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns; why should we let them have ideas?”

I don’t have much interest in topical political books churned out to satisfy an immediate curiosity about this issue or that, but a dear friend whom I greatly admire recently gave me a copy of Kimberly Strassel’s The Intimidation Game: How the Left Is Silencing Free Speech, and since I am also a great admirer of Ms. Strassel, I dove in.

In case you are unfamiliar with her work, Kimberly Strassel is a journalist and editorial board member for the Wall Street Journal, where she writes a weekly column called “Potomac Watch.” She also appears regularly on Fox News.

Right-wing pundits, both on television and in print, have been railing against the attempts to stifle free speech, condemning various radical groups’ use of violence (think Antifa, Black Lives Matter, B[oycott]D[ivest]S[anction], a confusing plethora of other far left extremists) whether on college campuses, or on the streets of Washington, DC or Portland or wherever. And like many of President Trump’s tweets, those mindless and violent protests tend to suck up all the attention. As Ms. Strassel eloquently shows in The Intimidation Game, those slack-jawed protesters are just a meaningless nuisance; the real threat is much quieter, much more insidious, much more duplicitous, and far more powerful.

How powerful? How do you feel about Joseph Stalin?

Your right to freedom of speech, as expressed in the First Amendment, doesn’t just mean that you have the individual right to stand on a box and harangue passersby with your views, or write an opinion piece in your local paper. It doesn’t just protect the rights of neo-Nazi wingnuts to strut around espousing hateful and moronic racist beliefs, or the rights of equally hateful Antifa or BDS or BLM types to march with equally hateful racist anti-Semitic or anti-police posters provided by wealthy backers, as long as both sides refrain from violence (and a good rule of thumb to remember is that the moment anyone or any group has to wear masks and resort to violence, it means they have nothing intelligent to say). Your First Amendment right to freedom of speech, as laid out in multiple Supreme Court decisions (Citizens United, NAACP vs Alabama, Bates vs Little Rock, McIntyre vs Ohio Elections Commission, as well as lower court rulings such as Mobley vs Harmon) also protects and guarantees your right to donate money to a cause or candidate or party whose views you agree with, and to be able to do so without fear of retaliation from anyone. Furthermore, as multiple lower and Supreme Court decisions have spelled out, it also protects your right to band together with your neighbors and other like-minded individuals to create a group to try and influence government as you see fit.

And that last is where Kimberley Strassel’s book begins.

Lois Lerner (late of the IRS) was just the arrogant and ugly tip of the iceberg. As anyone knows who watched any of the news at that time (2013-2014) she and others in the putatively non-political and unbiased IRS effectively shut down numerous conservative non-profit groups by denying or delaying applications with tactics like stonewalling, holding in mothballs, demanding endless redundant iterations of forms and questionnaires and itemized lists of everything you can imagine, plus a bunch of stuff you would never dream of.

The IRS and the merry Ms. Lerner had this power because, by law, the moment you form a group and begin to raise money or spend money, you have to account for those sums to the IRS and pay taxes, whether all you are doing is having posters made up for a rally, or buying food for the homeless in your small town, or whatever, and none of the groups that began to spontaneously spring up across the country had that kind of money.

If your group “operates primarily to further the common good and general welfare of the people of the community” (the IRS’s words) you fall into the non-profit, tax-exempt 501(c)(4) category. Simple, right?

Let’s say your state’s public utility company starts a fire that burns down much of the northern part of your state. Let’s say your state legislature decides to bail out the utility company by allowing them to raise their rates, already the highest in the nation, making taxpayers foot the bill for the utility company’s negligence. You form a group dedicated to the belief that it is for the common good not to have your rates raised even higher. The IRS can’t prove fighting taxes or rate hikes isn’t for the common good, so your tax-exempt status should be a shoo-in, right? But with the ever charming and delightful Ms. Lerner at the helm, your application for tax-exemption can be buried indefinitely.

How indefinitely?

Just so you understand how your right to freedom of speech is being denied and your voice silenced, some of the conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status back in 2009 are still waiting for their paperwork to be processed.

And that’s just the beginning. What Kimberley Strassel does is lay out, clearly and simply, with her customary fine writing, the step-by-step process, connecting the dots along the way, showing just how far up the progressive political food chain that corruption goes (because many of those folks are still in power and still devoted to making sure you keep your mouth shut).

Is this a book by and for conservatives? Oh no. Let’s assume you are a far-left progressive socialist who dreams of an America where the government handles all the money and doles it out as the various governmental bureaucracies see fit. You better read Kimberley Strassel’s book, because the dirty tactics that were and are being used against the right might be turned against you someday. The same bureaucracies that were weaponized against conservatives under the Obama administration could equally be weaponized by the current administration. And that is probably the worst condemnation of the progressive left that can possibly be made: a complete absence of forethought. Consider the current Supreme Court hearings that are causing such anguish on the left. Harry Reid and the Democrats were more interested in getting what they wanted in the short term, rather than thinking about what was best for the country in the long term, and they changed the rules for Senate approval of a nominee from a required sixty votes to the current fifty-one. Now they are howling because Republicans are using the rules Harry Reid forced through.

Politicizing and weaponizing the government is an evil right out of Stalin’s playbook, no matter who does it. Just read The Intimidation Game.

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Piltdown Review

August 22nd, 2018 5 Comments

For those of you who love dogs, or enjoy reading, or enjoy my writing, the online literary magazine, Piltdown Review has published a short story of mine. Here is the link ( https://dogb.us/samandjoe ). If you like it, pass it on. Oh, heck; tell the world.

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Pen or Sword?

August 19th, 2018 3 Comments

“The pen is mightier than the sword.” From a play by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, stealing possibly from any one of a number of ancient sources, all the way back to the Old Testament. Regardless of the source, the meaning is that words and ideas are far more dangerous than weapons, especially to governments. Which is precisely why we have the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The emphasis, quite obviously, is mine, and I’ve done it for a reason, because Gentle Reader, you have no idea how close you came in 2014 to losing that portion of the First Amendment. That’s right, in 2014.

Let me quickly give you some background:

The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) was passed in 1971 to regulate the raising of campaign money, and to restrict the amounts of contributions that could be made either to candidates or to parties. It mandated disclosure of contributions and expenditures, and it introduced outright bans on certain corporate and union contributions and speech.

With me so far?

In 1974, FECA was amended, and then in 1976 the Supreme Court struck down certain provisions of FECA altogether in a lawsuit known as Buckley v Valeo, specifically ruling that (to quote the Encyclopedia Britannica) “spending money on behalf of a candidate or political party is a form of protected speech.” [Emphasis mine.]

In 2002, the McCain-Feingold Act was passed which prohibited a “broadcast, cable, or satellite communication that mentioned a candidate by name within sixty days of a general election or thirty days of a primary.”

In 2004, the inimitable Michael Moore aired one of his “mockumentaries,” Fahrenheit 9/11, which basically advocated the defeat of George W. Bush and his administration. Citizens United, a conservative non-profit (501(c)(4)), filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission saying that the film was political in nature and hence could not be aired or even advertised on television due to McCain-Feingold; they also claimed a violation of the Taft-Hartley Act, a law that restricts the power of unions. The FEC dismissed both aspects of the complaint.

Then we come to 2010. When Citizens United wanted to air a film about Hillary Clinton that, shall we say, did not show her to best advantage, they were told it was a violation of McCain-Feingold. Citizens United sued the Federal Election Committee claiming sauce for the liberal goose was sauce for the conservative gander and, eventually, in front of the Supreme Court, they won.

Putting all this in baby talk, what it means is if a bunch of conservatives like me can donate money to an organization—let’s say the NRA—that will represent our interests in Washington, DC, or, if we can get together and create our own 501(c)(4) to make our voices heard in support of a candidate or platform we believe in, the Citizens United ruling says that is allowed because it is considered protected speech.

Soooooo, in 2014 forty-nine US Senators, all members of the Democratic Caucus, tried to do something that has never been attempted in the entire history of your country. They tried to curtail your right to free speech by altering the First Amendment. Here, from Congress.gov (this is the link, if you doubt me: https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/senate-joint-resolution/19) is the exact wording that describes what they intended:

“Constitutional Amendment – Authorizes Congress and the states to regulate and set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections.

“Grants Congress and the states the power to implement and enforce this amendment by appropriate legislation, and to distinguish between natural persons and corporations or other artificial entities created by law, including by prohibiting such entities from spending money to influence elections.

“Declares that nothing in this amendment shall be construed to grant Congress or the states the power to abridge the freedom of the press.”

Ah, excuse me, but who exactly gets to decide what is “reasonable”?

Good question.

And why, exactly, would the good senators try to amend the Constitution instead of just passing another law?

An even better question. The reason the senators didn’t try to pass a law is because they knew damned well that such a law would be unconstitutional. Solution? Change that silly, outdated document to suit short-term partisan convenience. Will all those smelly deplorables bitch and moan because they’ve lost one of the most sacred rights any people may have? So what? They’re just smelly deplorables too dumb to know what’s best for us—for them, I meant them.

The 2018 senatorial elections will be held on November 6th. I scarcely need tell you that much is riding on this election, and each of us must follow his or her conscience when we vote. But I would like you to remember one thing when you go to the polls. You may loathe and despise the smelly deplorables, but the Constitution protects you as well as them, and if you monkey with that silly old document, you may well have reason to cry out in terror when the same law is applied to you. Remember Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Season:

“And when the last law was down, and the devil turned round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the devil benefit of the law for my own safety’s sake.”

So, vote your conscience, but here, for your convenience, is a list of the senators who voted to diminish your rights:

Sponsored by Tom Udall (D-NM)

Cosponsored or voted for by:

Michael Bennet (D-CO)

Tom Harkin (D-IA)

Chuck Schumer (D-NY)

Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)

Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)

Jon Tester (D-MT)

Barbara Boxer (D-CA)

Christopher Coons (D-DE)

Angus King (D-ME)

Christopher Murphy (D-CT)

Ron Wyden (D-OR)

Al Franken (D-MN)

Amy Klobucher (D-MN)

Mark Udal (D-CO)

Tim Johnson (D-SD)

Robert Menendez (D-NJ)

Jack Reed (D-RI)

Richard Blumenthal (D-CT)

Martin Heinrich (D-NM)

Jeff Merkley (D-OR)

Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)

Mark Begich (D-AK)

Benjamin Cardin (D-MD)

Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)

Kay Hagen (D-NC)

Barbara Mikulski (D-MD)

Tammy Baldwin (D-WI)

Edward Markey (D-MA)

Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)

Sherrod Brown (D-OH)

John Walsh, (D-MT)

Richard (Dick) Durbin (D-IL)

Harry Reid (D-NV)

Mazi Hirono (D-HI)

Thomas Carper (D-DE)

Patty Murray (D-WA)

Brian Schatz (D-HI)

Bernard (Bernie) Sanders (I-VT)

John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV)

Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)

Cory Booker (D-NJ)

Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)

Joe Manchin (D-WV)

Claire McCaskill (D-MO)

Maria Cantwell (D-WA)

Bill Nelson (D-FL)

Robert Casey (D-PA)

Carl Levin (D-MI)

Notice any Republicans on that list?

Some of the above (Boxer, Reid, Franken) are, thank God, no longer polluting the halls of congress, but if you live in a state with one of the others, remember this when you cast your vote. If you agree with me, please pass this on.

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Book Review: Fools of Fortune

August 17th, 2018 3 Comments

William Trevor (1928-2016) was one the greatest literary treasures the English-speaking world ever produced. He won or was nominated for just about everything an Irish/English writer can be, and he deserved more. I will probably not live long enough to see his like again.

Revered primarily as a prolific short story writer (I read once that the New Yorker magazine had a standing contract with him to buy anything he wrote, sight unseen) he also wrote fifteen or twenty novels, depending on how you count them, and depending too if you count novellas as short novels or long short stories.

One novel, which I first read many years ago, and now again, but not for the last time, is Fools of Fortune. The title may come from Romeo’s despairing cry after he revenges his friend Mercutio’s death by killing Tybalt, the King of Cats: “O I am Fortune’s fool!” And that should tell you much about what to expect from this unforgettable novel.

For reasons that mystify me—I was reading other things and involved in other projects—I recently found myself going back over and over to the bookshelf where it sat, until finally I picked it up and read once again the first, very short chapter and was, once again, hooked.

Many fine and gifted teachers of creative writing will tell you that it is always important to have a first line that will hook the reader:

“It was to have been a quiet evening at home;”

“Last night I dreamed I returned to Mandalay;”

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice;”

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times;”

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

You get the picture. But a certain class of reader, the kind seriously interested in great writing, will usually take the time to at least wade through the first several pages, or more, if the writing is good enough. William Trevor’s first introductory short chapter appears initially to be very low-key and subdued, almost mundane, but the magic of how he puts his sentences together will make you read through to the end, perhaps five- or six-hundred words, total, and then you will come away with a wonderful, haunting desire to know what and why and who. And that quality of haunting will stay with you through the whole novel. You won’t find out the what and why and who quickly, but as the story gradually unfolds in alternating points of view, with glimpses, hints, oblique suggestions, you’ll find yourself hooked, horrified, and above all haunted. You will find yourself unable to forget the characters you have come to know.

Like all great novels, it works on many levels: it is a love story; a dark glimpse into a dark period in Ireland’s long and bloody struggle for independence; a story of murder and revenge and the appalling, lasting results of both of those; a mystery; even perhaps a parable. (Euripides: “The Gods visit the sins of the fathers upon the children.” Horace: “For the sins of your fathers you, though guiltless, must suffer.” Shakespeare: “The sins of the fathers are to be laid upon the children.” And, of course, there is something in Exodus.) But above all it is incomparably evocative, with even the most briefly limned characters resonating unforgettably, drawing the reader into a doomed and tragic past with a final, brief adumbration of what might have been: “Fingers touch. One hand grasps another, awkwardly in elderliness.”

Oh yes, above all a love story.

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Aretha Franklin

August 16th, 2018 7 Comments

Aretha Franklin died today.

I am married to the greatest singer I will ever know or even meet, and Darleen summed up Aretha Franklin by saying simply, “She was the greatest voice ever.”

Not “a great voice,” or “one of the greatest;” just the greatest.

On the news they showed her singing “Think;” not the version from The Blues Brothers, but in concert somewhere, and if you can watch that without grinning and your body moving, you might want to inquire about your local undertaker’s schedule.

And then Darleen found the YouTube video of Ms. Franklin filling in at the last moment for an ailing Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards ceremony. Think about it for a moment: filling in for Pavarotti with only a few hours to prepare, singing an aria from Puccini’s Turandot, arguably one of the most difficult of all arias, singing it in both Italian and English, in front of an auditorium of professional singers and musicians every one of whom was probably, rightly, just as sensitive to and critical of their art form as my bride is, and Ms. Franklin blew them out of their seats. If you can watch that performance and not weep, you have no soul within you.

She did it all and she did it all better than anyone else.

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Democratic Socialism

August 15th, 2018 3 Comments

You may have noticed a lot of socialist talk recently among both politicians and the civilian progressive left.

Bernie Sanders, who is reportedly testing the waters for another run at the White House, and the progressive left’s newest political darling, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is running for Congress, are the two most visible candidates on the national stage who identify themselves—either directly or indirectly—with some form of Socialism, while former actress Cynthia Nixon is running for the governorship of New York State and a host of lesser lights are running for smaller offices in other states on the same platform.

Mr. Sanders and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez have been out stumping for their own political ambitions and for various other far-left Democrats, or—as those on that particular end of the spectrum like to call themselves—Democratic Socialists. Mr. Sanders, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, and Ms. Nixon (not to mention the other Democratic Socialists) have called for Medicare for All; in fact, Medicare for All (or free health care) is the very first platform listed on the official site of the Democratic Socialists of America website.

I am not familiar with the other candidates, but while Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez have both called for free health care, they also want free college tuition and abolishment of student debt; both want a guaranteed “living wage;” both want paid family and medical leave; both want a switch from fossil fuels to green energy, though Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wants it implemented within ten years, while Mr. Sanders appears to be a little more flexible on the time factor. And both share a number of very similar ideologies on various other issues, ranging from income equality to campaign finance reform to vaguely realized ideas about immigration reform all of which basically boil down to open borders.

I have pointed out elsewhere that historians Will and Arial Durante (authors of the eleven-volume Story of Civilization) have written that no civilization in the known history of the world, has ever adopted socialism as a form of government and survived more than one-hundred years. The reason why is, to quote the great Maggie Thatcher, “Sooner or later, you run out of other people’s money.”

Forget all the other “freebies” (a misnomer, if ever there was one, since someone has to pay for them) for a moment and let’s just look at the 800-pound gorilla: “Medicare for All:”

According to Stanford University research fellow Charles Blahous, who specializes in domestic economic policy and was President George W. Bush’s Special Assistant for Economic Policy, Sanders’ and Ocasio-Cortez’s (and all the Democratic Socialists’) proposed “Medicare for All” would cost a minimum of $32.6-trillion over the first decade if—if—Medicare immediately cuts provider payment rates by 40%. Without such cuts, “Medicare for All” would cost somewhere over $38-trillion just during its first ten years.

I feel I have a dog in this fight because I tried to refuse an emergency medical helicopter ride to the trauma center after my horse accident. I did so because I had been told by Medicare that I had been dropped because of a failure to pay a bill they sent me, and I knew the cost of the helicopter ride and subsequent surgery/hospitalization would bankrupt Darleen and me, as well as costing us our house, and I frankly didn’t think I was worth it. As it turned out, my failure to pay the bill in question was Medicare’s fault (transposed numbers on our address); they admitted it, and they paid for almost everything. Kudos to them. So, I’m not much in favor of cutting Medicare payments by 40%. I’ve paid into the system ever since I was sixteen and having lived up to my end of the bargain, I would now like the government to live up to its end of the bargain and continue to honor its promise to me.

And that is the point—or, more accurately, one of the points: I started paying into Social Security (Medicare is part of the Social Security system, funded by, among other things, taxing my income) when I was sixteen. I wasn’t given a choice, but I was given a promise that if I did my part, the government would do its. I could have done better investing the money myself, but that wasn’t an option, and if I had not had a catastrophic accident, Medicare would have come out about $600,000 ahead.

But I did my part. I earned that medical care. It was a quid pro quo. I would like someone to explain to me why an illegal alien can come to this country, having never paid a penny in taxes, and deserve free health care, because that is what the Democratic Socialists are demanding.

Both Mr. Sanders and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez propose to pay for their “Medicare for All” plan by radically raising taxes on the “wealthy” (which means different things to different people, but which Mr. Sanders spells out as anyone earning more than $250,000 a year) and on corporations.

American corporations, for the record, paid the highest tax rate in the world, at 35%, until just this year, when President Trump lowered the rate to 21%, but that’s just a sort of broad way of speaking, because states impose their own corporate tax rates, ranging from a high of 12% in Iowa, to 0% in Texas, Nevada, Wyoming, Ohio, South Dakota, and Washington. Also, both federal and state taxes have to be weighed against a wide range of possible deductions, so corporate taxes may be higher or lower, depending on location. But let’s just take 21% as a general expression of the tax rate and look at the facts of the situation as it pertains to paying for free Medicare for all.

According to the numbers I found, the total number of billionaires in America is 585. The total wealth of those billionaires is $2.466-trillion.

According to Forbes, there are 225 firms in America with sales of $2-billion or more per annum, and those 225 firms have combined revenues of $1.57-trillion.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed personal tax rate is 15%, which she claims would generate $2-trillion in ten years. Unlikely (I don’t understand how she arrived at that figure), but even if her math is correct, it is only applicable if—if—none of those individuals and none of those companies once again take their business and their money overseas

Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed corporate tax rate is 28%, more reasonable than 35%, God knows, but again, do the math and tell me if that will cover the costs of Medicare, even if no companies once again move out of the US rather than pay that high a tax, even if we disregard the additional burden of those who are currently uninsured, even if we disregard the additional burden of approximately one-million legal immigrants every year and God only knows how many illegal immigrants, and even if prescription drug costs and administrative costs could somehow be cut by more than half, all of which would be necessary just to achieve Mr. Blahous’s lower estimate. In fact, even if the federal government were to confiscate all that wealth, the way certain socialist paradises such as Cuba and Venezuela have been reported as doing, it still would not pay for free Medicare.

But let’s be generous and assume it does. Cool. But, oops, now how do we pay for all those ancillary little items we take for granted, items that also cost a dollar or so here and there, mandatory items such as: social security; veterans’ benefits; transportation; food and agriculture? Then there are the discretionary items the government also has to pay for, name not withstanding: the military, which we need more than any of us realize; veterans benefits (yes, it is covered under both mandatory and discretionary budgets); housing and community; energy and environment; transportation (another covered in both categories); international affairs; running the government (though there I wouldn’t mind saving a lot of money); and many more, how do we pay for those? Some of it may be stuff you don’t agree with; some of it may be stuff I don’t agree with; it just depends whose ox is being gored, but that’s the way a civilization works. And no civilization has ever worked or endured, or will now work and endure, or ever will work and endure, that redistributes wealth along the socialist paradigm.

Now add to all those the still unpaid additional costs of free college tuition, the unpaid cost of a guaranteed “living wage,” the unpaid costs of a switch from fossil fuels to “green energy” (which is currently economically unfeasible, and is one of the reasons why Europe pays so much more for gas and electricity than America), and the unfactored costs of additional welfare, healthcare, education, and ancillary costs that will come with the influx of an uneducated, untrained flood of people who will pour across the open border Democratic Socialists portray as utopia. Take all of those into account and we can turn America into a poor imitation of Venezuela in no time.

Mr. Sanders and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez are both very appealing, one blazing with passion, the other rumpled and avuncular, and I have no doubt they are both stuffed to the gills with good intentions, but voting for good intentions over pragmatic realities is a short cut to the kind of hell we are witnessing in socialist paradises around the world. If you doubt me, and if you have a serious death wish, go take a look at Venezuela.

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Lies, Damned Lies, and the Impossible

August 2nd, 2018 7 Comments

 

Everyone knows politicians are congenital pathological liars. The only reason they even condescend to give their real names out is because they have to in order to get onto the ballot; otherwise they’d lie about that.

Some are smooth and plausible: think of Barack Obama smiling that charming smile and saying, “Why, I only just heard about…” (fill in the blank: Fast and Furious, Benghazi, the IRS scandal, and on and on) “…the other day on the news.” Think about, “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.” Who could not believe him? Hell, I did too, at first.

Some are so clumsy and so obvious it beggars description: think of Donald Trump: “It’ll be big! It’ll be stupendous! It’ll be beautiful! And Mexico will pay for it.” Think of some of the nonsense he tweets. Or think of virtually anything Harry Reid ever said, up to and including his taking the oath of office.

But, as with everything, there are always a few exceptions, a tiny handful of men and women who actually try to serve their constituents and the Constitution without breaking the law to line their own pockets or advance their personal agendas. And I always thought our Vice President, Mike Pence was one of those: a reasonably honest straight-shooter who plays the game more or less by the rules.

So, picture my dismay and my anger when I read the following quote from Mike Pence, made during a speech he gave in Missouri:

“Last year alone, I’m proud to report to you that ICE agents removed more than 226,000 illegal immigrants from our country. In fact, they arrested more than 127,000 illegal immigrants with criminal convictions or facing charges of breaking our nation’s laws, including ICE removed nearly 5,000 gang members from our streets.”

I mean, come on, Mr. Pence! If you’re going to swell the ranks of the dark side of politicians, at least try to tell some whoppers that are semi-plausible. Use numbers that might, at the very least, fool some of the dimmer-watt bulbs that make up all of us smelly deplorables. Don’t take a page out Trump’s book and get egregious!

I was so outraged I decided to write about the paucity of probity in Washington, and in order to properly rebuke our Vice President, I decided to quickly do the research and find out what the actual numbers of criminal deportees were (leaving aside the fact that illegal immigration is itself a crime).

What?!

Oh.

Ah… Oops.

It turns out Mike Pence was telling the gospel truth. Actually, the numbers I found on official sites and fact-checking sites were slightly higher than Mr. Pence’s, but his are close enough for government work, you should pardon the expression.

In the interests of simplicity, I’ll give you Politifact’s (https://www.politifact.com) take on Mr. Pence’s statement:

“Readers asked us to verify Pence’s data. We found that he accurately cited ICE numbers. But data also showed that the most common charges and convictions were for traffic offenses, immigration, and ‘dangerous drugs.’ Pence’s wording could leave the wrong impression that those criminal convictions were for more serious offenses.”

I could make a good argument that being in the country illegally is all one needs to qualify as a criminal, and I could make a far stronger argument that drug charges are indeed serious, but I’ll let it go.

Consequently, I would like to suggest that instead of “abolishing ICE,” as so many of our more progressive lunatic fringe are demanding, we would be well-served to keep or even expand ICE and disband some of the more flagrantly and obviously criminal bureaucratic agencies that have so arrogantly, and for so long, considered themselves above the rest of us, and, worst of all, considered themselves above the law and the Constitution they swore to protect and defend. I’m referring to the FBI, the DOJ, and the IRS. Get rid of them, at least the senior officers smugly calling the shots in plush offices in Washington, DC, and let’s start over with a clean slate.

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Oh, Those Nasty Children!

July 25th, 2018 19 Comments

 

My sister has a home in a tiny village in Vermont, and back in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s she told me the following story:

As the school year came to a close, a little girl in her village told her father she would like to earn some money over the summer, and would he help her set up a lemonade stand?

The father, realizing potential customers were necessarily limited, if not nonexistent, in a village that small, suggested she set up her stand at a gas station owned by a friend of his where the county road crossed the interstate. He talked to his friend, who said he would keep an eye on the girl during the day. They picked a spot, the father built a little stand for her, the girl practiced making lemonade and brownies, and as soon as school got out, she went to work, and started making money hand over fist.

That lasted about two weeks. Someone reported the little girl’s activities to the authorities, who came in, shut down the stand, and told her father that the girl would need a state license, multiple state permits, and a health certificate.

Okie dokie. The father, wanting his daughter to have a happy and successful summer, and wanting also to set a good example for her, went to work getting all the necessary official papers and forms and licenses and permits and certificates. To cut a long and tedious story short, the little girl was back in school several months before all the paperwork came through.

I was reminded of this incident when I read an article the other day about various groups that have sprung up across America, groups started by exasperated parents who still believe there is nothing wrong with kids being kids, with teaching kids the value of working for a dollar, and with encouraging their offspring to be productive members of society.

One is Lemonade Stand Mama (https://www.lemonadestandmama.com) in Denver. In Texas, a nonprofit called Lemonade Day ( https://lemonadeday.org ) lobbies local government and health departments to change regulations. The Freedom Center of Missouri ( http://www.mofreedom.org ) has gone so far as to post an interactive map of towns across America where stands have been shut down (red), towns where stands must have official permits (yellow), and towns (five of them) that allow children-run concession stands without a permit (green). According to the Wall Street Journal, The Kraft-Heinz Company—yes, that company—has, to their everlasting credit, jumped into the fray by volunteering to, “pay the permitting fees and fines of kids busted for selling lemonade,”  (www.countrytimelegalade.com).

Read that last phrase again: “kids busted for selling lemonade.”

I kid you not.

Some of the many closures listed on the Freedom Center’s website are the results of nasty, petty, little grinches who just can’t stand to see children doing anything, let alone having fun. Some are the results of equally nasty and petty vendors who regard six-year-olds as potential threats to their businesses (and if they’re that petty and smallminded, they’re probably right to be afraid of six-year-olds). But most of these cases are the direct result of overzealous governments that, presumably, want all today’s small children to grow into Pajama Boys, living in their moms’ homes on, presumably, the “universal living wage” some socialist candidates espouse.

I don’t know about you, but if I see an unpermitted, unlicensed lemonade stand manned by a small kid with no health permit, I’ll take two, please, and give me one of those brownies as well.

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