Thursday, July 31, 2008

Thoreau meets me

Recently, I wrote here on the tao and Laozi, touching briefly upon Thoreau. I wrote little, expecting to cover him for more fully in his own post, and I keep that promise to myself here.

I’m not sure how my initial affinity for Thoreau happened exactly. It may just be because when I was young my mommy told me that I was named after him – only he was Henry David and I was David Henry. It wasn’t really true either. My middle name, Henry, was after my deceased Aunt Henrietta. Still, it may have had an effect on me.

I say this because by the time I got around to reading him, I had a strong sense of déjà vu, as if I had pre-cognition of what I would read and I can’t otherwise figure out how the hell that happened. I do not remember exactly when I first read Walden and Civil Disobedience, his two classics, either. However, since everything I can’t remember in my life seems to have occurred in the 70s and 80s, I'll go with that.

Thoreau is tied for second on my list of greatest American writers after Lincoln and with Twain. Although any list I have is subject to violent changes, this one is relatively stable.

The following is a series of quotes from Thoreau together with my commentary on my own connection to his thoughts. I admit to hesitating a little at my cheekiness in invading his space, because where I struggle and re-write just to make myself plain, he seemed to effortlessly write plainly in a script that glowed with gemlike aphorisms and wisdom. Not the purple prose of Oscar Wilde, but in earthier tones quite as beautiful. Yet, it is worth it to do this, because I get to quote him in droves, and that just plain makes me happy even if I corrupt it by comparing his thoughts to my own.

Besides, as writing about himself was exactly what Thoreau did, I have no doubt he would expect me to do the same. With journals containing over a million words, he would have been a natural blogger, as he understood well the primary topic of most blogs and wrote unconscientiously of what he knew best, himself:

I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.

Living here in my little rural town, trying to arrange a somewhat simpler way of life than I am used to (much harder than you think) and always uncomfortable with many modern technologies (clearly not some aspects of the internet, but cell phones, digital cameras, pagers, voice mail, flat tv’s and the like) Thoreau’s words are more attractive to me than ever. In fact, he so closely mirrors my thoughts about so many things, I wonder sometimes if I was read him while sleeping in my crib.

He starts his great classic, Walden, like so:

WHEN I WROTE the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months.

So plain and simple, it brings a homey and earthy image to the mind immediately that seems so desireable to me. Yet, even still, his friends seemed as puzzled about his decision to live alone in the woods more than a century and a half ago as many of my friends do now about my move to a rural community far from CVS and multiplexes. I can’t tell you how often I have heard something like the following:

I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life . . . Some have asked what I got to eat; if I did not feel lonesome; if I was not afraid; and the like.

I am as perplexed today at why some people were disapproving of my leaving a job that was pure misery for me, as Thoreau was at why his neighbors labored so hard for so little true satisfaction.

How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and woodlot!

. . .

Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.

. . .

It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.

. . .

Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.

And perhaps the most famous of them all, which I find myself quoting to those I come upon who are unhappy and paralyzed by indecision, while knowing fully what they want:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Thoreau wondered out loud why people, once set on a path, find it so hard to change their direction. I wondered this about myself for quite a while until I started thinking - if not now, when?

It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.

. . .

In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.

I’m not so sure I agree with that last one, however well written. No doubt luck and happenstance has something to do with success. I also diverge from him in his following advice that our elders have little to offer us, but join him in believing that no advice, however venerable, need be worshipped as if it came down from a mountain.

I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.

This did not stop him from quoting his distant seniors of whom he knew much.

Confucius said, "To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge."

Although Thoreau thought each life an experiment, and that no other persons could guide you through yours with their own experiences, he also believed that if we could experience those lives uncensored and directly, no more valuable experience could be had.

What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment! Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instance? We should live through all ages of the world in an hour; ay, in all the worlds of the ages. History, poetry, mythology! I know of no reading of anothers experience so startling and informing as this would be.

He was by nature a more enthusiastic iconoclast than Twain (whose “Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul.” I wouldn't mind on my grave stone) and inspired anarchists and social reformers like King, Ghandi and Tolstoy alike:

The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?

Thoreau did not believe that obtaining possessions, wealth or luxuries led to a happy life.

What is the nature of the luxury which enervates and destroys nations?

. . .

When I have met an immigrant tottering under a bundle which contained his all- looking like an enormous well which had grown out of the nape of his neck- I have pitied him, not because that was his all, but because he had all that to carry.

. . .

A lady once offered me a mat, but as I had no room to spare within the house, nor time to spare within or without to shake it, I declined it, preferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door. It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.

Yet, despite that, his reluctance to obtain possessions had its limits. He no more wanted to do without the improvements of life that his time permitted than I want to do without good ole American plumbing, electricity or heat.

Though we are not so degenerate but that we might possibly live in a cave or a wigwam or wear skins today, it certainly is better to accept the advantages, though so dearly bought, which the invention and industry of mankind offer.

Thoreau found the desire for fashion inexplicable. I have found that many of my heroes share this quality.

I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.

. . .

Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.

. . .

The childish and savage taste of men and women for new patterns keeps how many shaking and squinting through kaleidoscopes that they may discover the particular figure which this generation requires today.

He was, however, no misanthrope. He believed in mankind in an almost pollyannish manner.

I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.

On page after page Thoreau personally calls to me, and but for a lack of courage and my being completely incompetent to fend for myself in the wilderness, I would take greater risks in lowering my so called “standard of living” further still and possibly greatly expanding my enjoyment of life. I find the following description more attractive than all the millions in the world (unless it could buy me all of the following, of course).

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to "glorify God and enjoy him forever."

. . .

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.

Strolling through a used volume of Thoreau that I plucked from a box in the front of a used book store in order to get exact quotes, I am again struck with amazement at how so many of his pleasures are my pleasures, although I remembered it not, including a love of Homer. Here’s Thoreau on the classics.

[W]hat are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave. We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old. . . . No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. . . . The symbol of an ancient man's thought becomes a modern man's speech. Two thousand summers have imparted to the monuments of Grecian literature, as to her marbles, only a maturer golden and autumnal tint, for they have carried their own serene and celestial atmosphere into all lands to protect them against the corrosion of time. Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. . . .

Mostly, I love Thoreau for his description of nature and wish I could dwell in it as he does, with thorough knowledge and complete lack of fear. I indulge myself with hikes and kayak trips, which I pitifully try to describe to others and always feel I have failed. He shared my love for these same pastimes and described them in a manner that fills one with exhilarating wonder. Where I might bumbling write to a friend – “It snowed yesterday. You should have seen it. It was so pretty” – Thoreau wrote:

On this morning of the Great Snow, perchance, which is still raging and chilling men's blood, I bear the muffled tone of their engine bell from out the fog bank of their chilled breath, which announces that the cars are coming, without long delay, notwithstanding the veto of a New England northeast snow-storm, and I behold the plowmen covered with snow and rime, their heads peering, above the mould-board which is turning down other than daisies and the nests of field mice, like bowlders of the Sierra Nevada, that occupy an outside place in the universe.

Although famous now for his two major works, Thoreau actually wrote voluminously in his short life, including in a seemingly endless journal. He died during the civil war of respiratory complications from tuberculosis that had lingered for years.

There are multiple stories from Thoreau's last days and one wonders if he was trying to be quixotically or memorable. His aunt asked him if he had made his peace with God. He answered “I did not know that we had ever quarreled.” Nearer death, he was asked whether he believed in the afterlife, and responded, “Oh, one world at a time.” His last words are reportedly “Now comes smooth sailing”, and then the enigmatic and more often reported “Moose” and “Indian”.

For fun and with great confidence, I now open my volume of Thoreau, select a page and paragraph at random and type the lines I see:

When I was four years old, as I well remember, I was brought from Boston to this my native town, through these very woods and this field, to the pond. It is one of the oldest scenes stamped on my memory. And now tonight my flute has waked the echoes over that very water. The pines still stand here older than I; or, if some have fallen, I have cooked my supper with their stumps, and a new growth is rising all around, preparing another aspect for new infant eyes . . . .

Unfortunately for me, I know (and fear) I must soon find employment in the real and desperate world of work, most likely a 9-5 situation in an office, if anyone will have me, or suffer consequences more severe than I would like. I am not now and will never be quite ready to try the experiment Thoreau did. If I wanted to live one foot in this world and one in Thoreau's, I have no real choice. Were I to cut ties with the modern world, it would also cut ties with my daughter, my family and friends, the miracle of reading historical documents on the internet, flush toilets and reading at night. Those things I am just not willing to do without. Yet I must remember that Thoreau lived in his shack for only a little more than 2 years just a short walk to town and his mother’s house to which he would frequently go. I will be happy if I can stretch my own life in this rural community surrounded by natural parks and beauty for another year while enjoying all the modern comforts I seem to require, however meager they seem to others.

If I could somehow gently persuade those in the world who might gain from it to read Thoreau, I would. I have touched here upon only Walden and not his brilliant and inspirational short speech we call Civil Disobedience, his courageous literary defense of John Brown and abolition, his voluminous journals, or much about his life. Guided by my appreciation of anyone reading this far, I will not try your patience. But, if I have not persuaded you, I have persuaded myself to read Thoreau fully again, and, whenever possible, in a field or glen, by a lake, or sitting on my porch in a rainstorm.

I am giddy with anticipation. Giddy I tell you.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Various nonsense

Ah, a week off from the draining profession of blogging does the mind wonders. I’m in a potpourri mood tonight. Get ready for nonsense.

Best reality show
Why haven’t we seen a reality show called “Take my virginity – please!”? It can’t be because it is too low. Could it be lower than a show about women competing to marry a millionaire they don’t even know?

I see it like this – one young woman, safely over the age of 18 (even thought it is legal to have sex younger than that in many places) has the taking of her virginity competed over by 10 great looking young men.

The men will be differentiated by age, at least one a little younger than the woman (the “baby” or “kid”) and one twenty years or so older (the “old man” or “grand pa”) and of various ethnicity, at least one of African, Asian, Hispanic and Northern European descent, with the rest other ethnic groups. If basing this partly on ethnicity offends, remember, we are not creating a government, we are making a reality show, and ethnicity can actually be an interesting and positive thing as it sometimes was before the age of hyper-sensitivity.

One man will turn out to have a wife or a girlfriend who is ok with his experiment, another will be a laborer, another an executive. You get the idea.

The woman may be of any ethnicity, occupation, etc. She can be older as well, so long as she is beautiful, a virgin and willing to tell a camera how her loins ache for a man. This is not a politically correct show, which is why it will draw millions of viewers.

The men compete over her, but do not get to meet her for weeks into the show. They engage in sports (a different one each time, but I suggest naked Graeco-Roman wrestling for the first one), trivia contests, double blind massage with the virgin, singing and poetry writing (limericks one time, sonnets another). Maybe they can rescue her from a dragon. I’ll leave that to special effects.

The victorious champion and the virgin get to go to a resort, are followed around by cameras, but have adjoining suites of which only she can open the door. When the deed is done, I guess I should say if it is done, he will ascend to the top of a tower and ring a bell. Naturally, the virgin does not have to go through it, just as they can back out on the shows where participants seek a spouse. However, if she does, she has to go through a walk of shame in the morning.

Of course, there will be legal problems. Although I see no prostitution here, I’d suggest locales where it is legal (e.g., Nevada) and the producers even have to be careful about America’s antiquated Mann Act which almost snared NY’s disgraced governor, Eliot Spitzer. The participants are paid, of course, but only for their on screen performances at a flat rate. There is no additional money for winning the contest or to her for going through it. If there is a legal problem from the Henny Youngmann estate over the name, they can just call it “Take Me”.

Spin offs will follow, as sure as the night follows the day, such as where the virgin is a male. There will be a spin-off for lesbians and another for gay men, another one for lesbians (I know I said lesbians twice, but that’s the only one I’ll watch – I hate reality shows) and one for convicts, another for wives and husbands with permission. They can even do (no pun intended) different ethnic groups (Take me, guido, Take me, boychik, Take me, Mr. Moto). Does it matter just as long as the people on it are attractive? There can even be destination events like Take Me, Polynesia, Take Me, Vegas and Take Me, Rio.

Raise your hand if you think this would not make money. I’d say it is a lock. If only my entrepreneurial skills were in were in line with my ability to think of degrading reality shows.

Why aren’t comedies in the running for Oscars?
We all love to laugh. Some comedies are great. Movies like The In-laws (the Peter Falk version NOT the Michael Douglas version), Play It Again, Sam, My Cousin Vinnie, Midnight Run, Back to the Future, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Duck Soup, The Return of the Pink Panther, Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop, When Harry Met Sally, Borat, You’ve Got Mail (am I the only guy who loves that movie?), Hitch and so on deserve at least a nomination, if not to win.

Take the last suggestion, for example. I’m not saying Hitch was one of the all time great movies. But it was fun and I have watched it numerous times. It was better than Million Dollar Baby, Finding Neverland, The Aviator and, what may have passed for a comedy for the Academy that year because it was so un-funny, Sideways, all of which got nominations. Million Dollar, Baby won. It was an ok movie, but not great in my mind.

You might think this year’s nomination for Juno broke the ice. I don’t think so. The film was a typical teen comedy, but its topic, teen pregnancy and its occasional darkness made it just “serious” enough for the Academy. I just didn’t think it was all that good.

In my professional opinion (that is, I pay good money to see movies) it is a lot harder to make a good comedy than a good drama and it is time that was recognized. And, as Mike Meyers just proved with his Love Guru, it’s really hard to continue to make good comedies, even if you have done it repeatedly before. Meyers took his “art” too seriously and forgot how to be funny. If you don’t think so, listen to an interview of him talking about it. It was enough to kill any possibly interest I had in seeing it.

No doubt, the Academy doesn’t want to undermine its own credibility and you can see how they might think it would do so by nominating some of these silly films. But, that’s because, like any self-identifying wealthy group of people, they become self-important, uptight, power hungry and just plain ridiculous. In my humble opinion, anyway.

The fact is that including great comedies that people love to see would in no way reduce the stature of the Academy or the awards (you can hear the argument – what next -- should we include great porn movies? Well, why not, if they were actually good enough. Someday, some is going to make a great porno movie, but it would be dangerous to hold your breathe.

There is a compromise position. Have a separate category for comedies. The problem might be that there will be consecutive years with very slim pickings. That’s because being funny is a lot harder than being dramatic. Honestly, I think Jim Carrey is more talented than Robert DeNiro and I like DeNiro. However, I think lots of actors, known and unknown, could have played DeNiro’s roles, many worse, but some as well and probably some better. But replace Jim Carrey in Me, Myself and Irene or the Pet Detective movies. Go ahead and try. Wouldn’t work.

The Bus
Politicians are distinctly disloyal when running for president. For me, a little loyalty for people who were trying to help them along the way and aren’t didn’t do something heinous would go a long way. Here’s an idea. Let’s rate our candidates not on how they cringe before the media and their political correctness, but on how loyal they are to their friends who make a mistake, or, much worse, tell the truth when they weren’t supposed to.

How many people will be scolded or thrown under the bus this year by the candidates? Let’s see. Obama’s has already “thrown under the bus” –

Jeremiah Wright, whom he first likened to family. Thrown under because of his wacky anti-whitey theories and other “bombastic” hyperbole like the government created AIDs and that blacks and whites learn on different sides of their brains. After the very strange Reverend Fleger spoke at Obama’s church, Obama had enough and threw his whole church under the bus. By Obama’s own analogy, it meant he was also throwing his own “white” grandmother under the bus along with his church.

Jim Johnson, who was one the small committee vetting VP possibilities was thrown under because due to his connections he derived benefits from Countrywide, the mortgage company. Why would Obama, who allegedly received a deal on the price and mortgage for his own house, care about that? Because he had already castigated Clinton for having advisors with connections to Countrywide. Thus, the phony attack on Clinton backfired and he had no choice. “Jim, come here a second.” Had he refrained from scoring the cheap political point he would not have needed to fire Johnson.

Samantha Powers, a writer, teacher and voracious Obama supporter was thrown under too because she said that the 16 month pull out of Iraq would be re-examined by him after he was elected. Her mistake was not that what she said was false but that she gave Obama too much credit. He didn’t wait until he was elected to back pedal. He has already re-thought Iraq and acknowledged when we leave will depend on circumstances. It was inevitable. As I’ve said here before, the candidates can say what they want about Iraq, once they become president the situation will determine what they do, not their rhetoric. Doesn’t Obama owe her an apology now after making a speech that went further than she did in her speech.

Enough for Obama. Let’s look at Mr. McCain who I heard Peggy Noonan tag this week as pale and white as a pillar. Not fair, but I kind of like the description.

Phil Gramm, former senator, good friend and co-chair of McCain’s campaign was just recently cast under the bus. His crime -- saying that we are a nation of whiners. Well, we can’t have that, can we? We don’t want to lose voters by telling the truth, do we? Of course, Phil Gramm is right and McCain knows it. But, can he say it? Absolutely not. He has to pet us and stroke us and tell us we are wonderful. Why? Because we are a nation of whiners, that’s why. Meanwhile, Phil Gramm has tread marks on his face. I have to give McCain some credit and note that he didn’t actually fire Gramm.

John Hagee, the kooky anti-Catholic, anti-semitic evangelist was thrown under the bus by McCain too. Now, there’s an example of a divisive, anti-semitic, anti-Catholic man who should get thrown under a train of buses. But, that’s not my problem with it. McCain didn’t just accept Hagee’s endorsement blindly, he sought it out, along with those of other leaders of the Christian right. You might say McCain was hoisted by his own petard. McCain should have at least symbolically tied himself to Hagee when he threw him under and taken the blame for his own pandering.

Wesley Clark. A little twist on this one. The weird thing was, McCain tried to throw this former candidate and Obama supporter under Obama’s bus and, to his credit, Obama wouldn’t do it. I said a lot about Clark about two weeks ago, so I’ll be brief. Clark spoke a truth – getting shot down and imprisoned doesn’t qualify you for the presidency, and that was enough for McCain to ask Obama to lose him. Lighten up, McCain. Have you gone from not talking about your captivity to insisting that everyone celebrate it? Ironically, who was McCain willing to throw under the bus – A highly decorated member of the armed forces you would expect him to be supportive of if he were not running for office.

Politicians, at least successful ones, apparently think they must be prepared to sell their own grandmothers. The conventional wisdom is wrong here. We’d respect them more if they would stick to their guns, particularly when someone tells the truth.

Thoughts of the week

Flop flops: When I hear a newsperson, politician or poll use the phrase “flip flop” about their adversary, I just turn off. It’s usually unfair. If there was ever anything to flip flopping, it is now just political name calling, up there with “card carrying liberal” and “right wing nut”. It is Republicans hoping to recapture their spearing of John Kerry, an easy target if there ever was one, and Democrats desiring to turn the fearful flip flop tag against those who wielded it so successfully against them. Accusations of flip flops are tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.

The run to the middle: Are we all so jaded that although we know politicians will run to their base during the nomination phase and then head to the center when it is all sewn up, we will not call them on it? Apparently so. It happens every election and if anybody gets called on it in passing, it doesn’t seem to lose them any votes. How can it when they all do it?

McCain has a tougher job in this election than Obama in this respect. Obama can move center and despite some irritation among his base, where are they going – to Ralph Nader or Ron Paul? I think not. McCain’s base has always been shaky, and therefore he must satisfy those on his far right in order to get them to the polls, yet find a way to make the independents who will decide the election happy too.

Waterfalls in New York City: Oh, brother. Now, generally speaking, I like Mayor Bloomberg. He is smart and pragmatic and fairly non-partisan. But watching him yahoo about the artificial waterfalls, really just fountains set on top of high steel girders, made him a little ridiculous to me. But, his statement that "[t]hese waterfalls will be just as awe-inspiring as any found in nature" made me laugh while I sat under a real hundred foot tall waterfall last week. It was stone and water flora and fauna, the way waterfalls are supposed to be. No, Honorable Sir, although my waterfall was seasonably reduced to a trickle, yours was still not as awe-inspiring. Not even close. Metal waterfalls and the like are pathetic attempts to pass for art in the age of the camera phone and made for people who are starving for something real. New York paved its real waterfalls under long ago (and I mean long, long ago) to make room for the greatest city in the world. They should have kept some waterfalls. After all, don’t we all love Central Park?

I may be trying to shoot a mosquito with a cannon, but these contraptions are a little ridiculous. Reminds me of those ridiculous gates they set up in Central Park a few years ago under the auspices of art. Amazing how many more people will come to see phony art than real art.

Banks: Sometimes it appears that we have gone insane in our efforts to govern ourselves. Would you say that it is a good thing to lend money at a low rate to someone who is trying to make it and needs a break? Haven’t many of us counted on that a little in our lives? Do you have any idea how many big companies or people started their march to success with a loan they didn’t deserve on paper?

Would you also say that it is the responsibility of the borrower to make sure they can pay it back and that we shouldn’t blame the lender for trying to help make someone’s dreams come true?

Well, we have reversed all of that now. The banks that lent money at rates less than the prime rate are now called “predators” and we are supposed to want to bail the “victimized” borrowers out. Isn’t that what bankruptcy is for? Are we now not just forgive the debt (which I’m not against in certain circumstances) to make heroes out of them?

Now, I’m not arguing that the banks weren't foolish in lending money to so many people who couldn’t pay it back. The really strange part, though, is why they did it. We, that is, the government, apparently created this situation. So testified Stan Liebowitz, an economist at the University of Texas before Congress just last month. And if you need to decide that he is just being political, consider that he started writing about this in economic publications in 1998. No one listened.

Here's what happened. Remember redlining? This was the political catch phrase that accused banks of discriminating against blacks and other minorities by turning them down for loans. The study upon which this was founded, claiming that a quarter of minority applicants were turned down were for discriminatory purposes, may have been seriously flawed (Mr. Liebowitz claims ridiculously so, as has been proved by his examination and others).

Yet, based on this study, the federal government used its muscle to force lenders to work with minorities to an unprecedented degree, meaning giving loans to people with bad credit and little income, and by insisting that relaxing underwriting rules would not lead to an increase in defaults. Get it? Hence, my favorite Ronald Reagan line – The scariest words in the English language are – I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.

Who does it turn out was the ballyhooed leader in ignoring good banking practices to loan money to lower income minorities? Countrywide, that’s who -- today’s villain. Oh, brother.

It gets worse, though. Just now, the Federal Exchange, the guardian of our financial system, has announced it is going to crack down on lenders who give loans to those who might not be able to pay them back. The media is all on board, forgetting about the earlier policy and castigating banks who lent money to poor people as evil. Huh? Picture your favorite movie scene where someone’s head rotates and shakes vigorously before exploding. That’s what your head should be doing right now.

Now, thanks to government intervention, banks will only be able to loan money for houses to people who can afford to pay it back (good idea), in fact, they will probably be denying many who could afford it but don’t meet the new strict standards.

I know this sounds crazy, but shouldn’t we just let banks lend money to who they believe are qualified, just like we want to do ourselves? I’m not saying there is no discrimination, but, real discrimination is a far cry from the phony over-protective discrimination that our overly legal and sensitized world has created.

Maybe it’s just me.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Go, Flashy


I’ve been complaining for the last few years that most of my favorite writers are octogenarian Englishmen and soon enough, they are either going to drop dead or just stop writing. This includes George MacDonald Fraser (83), John Mortimer (85), John Le Carre (86), John Fowles (82) and Frederick Forsythe (the youngster, 70).

So, I was not really surprised, but definitely saddened, when I saw that I won’t be writing my long planned letter of appreciation to George MacDonald Fraser to tell him how much his Flashman books have meant to me. He died in January, 2008. Just to be sure, I checked on the rest and Fowles died in 2005. But, I wasn’t expecting anything new from him anyway. He may have been the more acclaimed writer among high brows, but, for pure entertainment, he was no Fraser either.

So, no more Flashman books. And I would become a praying man if I knew it would keep whoever owns the rights to his signature series, Flashman, from allowing anyone else to write more in the manner of those horrid James Bond books that still come out decades after Ian Fleming died. Fraser may or may not have taken care of this in his will. He was so upset at the butchery Hollywood made of their one attempt starring Roddy MacDowell that he would not allow any more books to be made movies unless he had complete control, something writers just don’t get much opportunity for in Hollywood unless their name is George Lucas.

For those of you who don’t know who Flashman is, he is the “hero” of a 12 volume fictional memoir of a purported British hero in the Victorian age, who was actually, unbeknownst to an adoring public, every bit the sniveling coward and rogue. Of course, we wouldn’t have liked him so much if he didn’t have his good points too, but they are often hard to see for his uncouth villainy.

The character of Flashman is actually borrowed from Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes, a 19th century tale about life at a famous British prep school. Flashman there was a bully who was thrown out for his bad behavior. Fraser’s Flashman even meets Tom Hughes a couple of times in his life, and, not surprisingly, despises the do-gooder.

Simply put, the Flashman books were the funniest novels I’ve ever read. They were the best action books I’ve ever read. And they were the best historical fiction I’ve ever read, and, yes, I’m including Gore Vidal. No other author I have ever read gave his historical characters such vigorous life, at once recognizable and unique.

Over the years I have lent the first novel, Flashman, to many a friend. I have yet to have a male reader not at least like it a whole lot. There may be someone who didn’t rave about it, but if so, I can’t remember him. Two friends, before they even finished it, went out and bought all of the series (and one of them also bought an entire set for me – see what I mean). How often does something like that happen? I didn’t know exactly know what to say to the couple of women who read the book and were offended by Flashman’s misogynist character. I did try and explain that the author was making fun of Flashman, but to no avail. Here's my remedy. I don't lend it to women anymore. It's a boy book, whether you believe in such things or not.

I will miss Harry Flashman, the most unfaithful man ever to marry (under threat of death mind you), the biggest coward ever to face another man on horse back or with swords or pistols and repeatedly come out on top by sheer accident or duplicity. In doing so, he also managed to always look every part the hero. He was the most timid spy ever to play the great game, the most knee knocking soldier ever to cross into enemy territory, yet also the most arrogant bully ever to kick a servant down the stairs or torment a classmate. He was a rapist (yes), a killer (yes), a savage (yes), a racist (yes), etc. Somehow, though, and I still am amazed how Fraser pulls it off, it is always funny, and you actually root for this bastard to win.

Flashman was married to young Elspeth Morrison after having his way with her, an uneducated young girl with a wandering eye and a really tough uncle who was not at all impressed with Flashman's (completely undeserved) martial qualities. Throughout the years with her Flashman never knew, nor do we, whether she was also rolling around on the sheets with other gentlemen while he was off fighting the Queen’s battles or working on a slave ship, fighting Indians or pirates of the South Pacific or re-working The Prisoner of Zenda with Bismarck or somehow surviving the massacre at Little Big Horn.

What could Flashy do well? He was an expert horseman and he could speak many different languages, which he picked up vacuum like. Although afraid to fight anyone with any size or ability, he was actually a pretty good swordsman and one hell of a cricket bowler. He was irresistible to women. He could lie his way out of any situation, aided by the fact that when he was frightened, his reddened cheeks made him look like a big formidable fellow and thus credible. Unfortunately for him, his language abilities, his respectable birth and his gallant reputation led to him being repeatedly called upon by the powers that be to fight or spy for Queen and country. As Flashy puts it himself, it is “as fine a record of knavery, cowardice and fleeing . . .”.

Flashman’s abilities have always led me to believe that he was based, at least in part, on the seemingly legendary but real British explorer/scholar/writer/swordman Sir Richard Francis Burton, who could also speak many languages, actually passed himself off as an Afghani native, which allowed him to sneak into Mecca during Ramadan, and was probably, although hard to say for sure, one of the world’s great swordsmen. Just as Flashy was expelled from Rugby, Burton was expelled from Oxford in real life. I was going to ask Fraser about this in my letter, but I moved too slowly. Guess I'll have to wait until the big reunion in the sky. Of course, Burton will be there too, so I'll find out what he thought about him.

Ah, Flashy, accidentally leading the doomed charge of the light brigade at Balaclava due to a crazed horse while he sobs and tries to contain his simmering bowels, surviving the doomed march out of Afghanistan, tied to the front of a cannon by his own compatriots who took him for a native after the Indian Mutiny, fighting alongside Chinese George Gordon and that masterly pirate killer, Sir James Brooke, aka, the white rajah, working for a crazed slave trader and then escaping North with one of the slaves himself. These are just a few of the adventures he found himself in. As Flashy puts it, and unfortunately I have to paraphrase, because I can't find it – The Lord works in mysterious ways, but why does he always have to drag me along with him?

And always, to paraphrase a Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he not only survived, but prevailed. Whenever facing imminent death he was rescued by a lover, or a truly noble soul, or by dumb luck. Tied up and facing an angry knife bearing Afghani woman he had raped (I’m almost embarrassed to say for Flashy that he didn’t think what he did qualified, but he was a brute) he narrowly escapes. Chased by gaining wolves across the snow in a sled, a scene that left me breathless, he barely slips into town and safety.

What women didn’t Harry sleep with? It would be a short list, but you can put Queen Victoria and Mary Lincoln on it. There was the famous mistress, Lola Montes, and scored with Madagascar’s mad Queen Ranavalona and he even nailed the Dowager Empress of China (although when she was a lot younger than you are thinking). That’s just the biggest names. James Bond was a piker compared to Ole Flashy who must have run out of room on his bed posts by the time he was thirty.

Fraser knew his history and laced it throughout the books with ample footnotes explaining how Harry’s memoirs were right about this, or mistaken about that, lending it an air of authenticity as if you were reading history from someone who was actually there. Among the many memorable characters we greet along the way are Lord Cardigan, Bismarck, Lola Montez, Franz Liszt, Wagner, Karl Marx, John Brown, mountain men Kit Carson, Jim Bridger and Tom Fitzpatrick,, Allen Pinkerton (the detective), the Duke of Wellington, William Seward, Gladstone, Disraeli and Palmerston, Oscar Wilde, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, Lee and Grant, J.E.B. Stuart and Jefferson Davis, Generals Sheridan and Sherman, Richard Burton, Custer, Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody, James Buchanan, Lincoln, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Sitting Bull, Mangas Colorado and Geronimo. And, of course, that’s just the ones who are still famous. With all the name dropping (and Flashy tells us he is fond of it) you never feel it is gratuitous. There were literally hundreds of historical characters sprinkled through the 12 volumes.

But unlike most historical fiction, the author plays fair. He creates aspects of the historical figures and conversations that never happened, and sometimes has to play around with the timeline a little, but he tells you so in the editor’s footnotes, which for once in a novel, are as interesting as the book.

Take the President Lincoln. He is like no other fictional or biographical Lincoln you have ever met. There is something in his honesty and flawed character that makes him so much more real than Gore Vidal’s celebrated version. Yes, I said it. A comic novel had a better Lincoln than Vidal's. Too bad.

Of course, as we all know, historical fiction can be deadly dull, but in Fraser’s hands it is pure excitement, always personal, dramatic and riveting. For those of you who think I might be gilding the lily a little bit, let me add this. Although Flashman was started in the 60s, you can still find the entire series in most decent sized bookstores in America, never mind Britain where he is much more famous. In 1999 the Queen knighted him. There is a large Royal Flashman Society with chapters outside of the United Kingdom in Dixie (a little broad, but down South), Australia, Texas, the Pacific Northwest, New Orleans, North Carolina, Hawaii, Southern California, Superior California, Ottawa, Upper Canada, and to my great delight, Roanoke, Virginia (which, unfortunately for me, is in hiatus for a “suitable period of mourning”). How many modern fictional characters get that? Now, I did find a James Bond Society online, but apparently, there are 11 members.

Many have tried to take a shot at their own Flashman characters including the authors of Fenwick Travers, Yellowstone Kelly, Ciaphas Cain, the Peshawar Lancers and a comic book character, Captain Boomerang. I had to look these up because they are not well known, none having succeeded. Like the Bond or Holmes icons, you can copy the British/Scottish orinals all you want, and call them whatever you like. A spin off is a spin off and so rarely can equal the real thing.

Even without Flashman, Fraser would have been a wonderful writer. His three volume series on a Scottish Highland regiment during WWII featuring, among other things, the world’s dirtiest soldier (Private McCauslan) is a fictional memoir of Fraser’s own WWII service in Burma. For the real thing or almost the real thing , try his celebrated memoir (although he fictionalized the conversations and admits his memory has failed him), Quartered Safe Out here. I have to admit though, despite the great reviews, it is the only thing Fraser ever wrote I didn’t absolutely love.

Pyrates, Candlemass Road (one of my favorite unknown books), Black Ajax (fictionalizing a great boxing match between a black American fighter and the British champ, and even featuring Flashman’s own father) and Mr. American (an American gunfighter meets British royalty and a very old Flashman) are all stand out novels. I don’t think he ever wrote a boring page in all of them put together.

Fraser also scored with Hollywood screenplays like Octopussy, two Three Musketeer movies, Superman (I’m not sure if he wrote the screenplay or doctored it), Force 10 from Navarone and Red Sonja, among others. I believe he was working on a Flashman movie project at the time of his death.

He also wrote The Steel Bonnets, an account of the Scottish-English border wars which I didn’t put down until I finished it (fortunately, I was on an airplane and didn't have anything else to do), The Light’s on at Sign Post and a History of the World according to Hollywood, both non-fiction essays about Hollywood I haven’t gotten to yet. Just recently published was his Reavers, which Publisher Weekly’s review calls “a 16th-century tale of swordplay and gleefully anachronistic wordplay along the Scottish borderlands” and “hysterical”. Can’t wait.

I want to do something no other tribute to him that I can find about him has done and quote a little directly from the Flashman books themselves. Naturally, these selections are out of context, so I don’t expect you to be blown away, but I include them just for flavor.

Here’s Fraser’s Lincoln, who I’ve already raved about. Flashy met him before and after he became president, and here he saves Flashy’s bacon in Flash for Freedom as Flashy escapes into the free state of Illinois with a runaway. Facing down a ruffian slave catcher named Buck who won’t listen to Lawyer Lincoln’s legalistic argument, the big native of Kentucky reverts to the tough country boy he was:

“You hold your gab and stand aside, mister,” shouts Buck. “Now, I’m warnin’ you fair!”

And I’m warning you, Buck!” Lincoln’s voice was suddenly sharp. “Oh, I know you, I reckon. You’re a real hard-barked Kentucky boy, own brother to the small-pox, weaned on snake juice and grizzly hide, aren’t you? You’ve killed more niggers than the dysentery, and your grandma can lick any white man in Tennessee. You talk big, step high, and do what you please, and if any ‘legal beanpole’ in a store suit gets in your way you’ll cut him right down to size, won’t you just? He’s not a practical man, is he? But you are, Buck—when you’ve got your gang at your back! Yes, sir, you’re a practical man, all right.”

Buck was mouthing at him, red-faced and furious, but Lincoln went on in the same hard voice.

“So am I, Buck. And more—for the benefit of any shirt-tail chawbacon with a big mouth, I’m a who’s-yar boy from Indiana myself, and I’ve put down better men than you just by spitting teeth at them. If you doubt it, come ahead! You want these people—you’re going to take them?” He gestured towards Cassy. “All right, Buck—you try it. Just—try it.”

This next excerpt is from my favorite Flashy tale, Flashman at the Charge, the third in the series, from which I might take dozens of examples. This is a perfect example of what Fraser does. After taking us through the hair raising, heart pumping charge of the Light Brigade as if we were there at Balaclava with them, for which Flashy was the least willing of participants, and his mocking of the British officers who brought the travesty about, he is now in captivity facing a Russian officer dumbstruck at what he believes must be courage in a bottle. Flashy, recovering from his usual state of terror with which he usually meets enemies, manages to exult in Britain’s military traditions with stereotypical British understatement and bravado, while acknowledging to us with a wink his own undeserving cowardly manipulation. No wonder the Brits love him. I feel like hoisting the Union Jack just reading this:

“Now, I didn’t know, at that time, precisely what we had done. I guessed we must have lost three-quarters of the Light Brigade, by a hideous mistake, but I couldn’t know that I’d just taken part in the most famous cavalry action ever fought, one that was to sound round the world, and that even eye-witnesses could scarcely believe. The Russians were amazed; it seemed to them we must have been drunk, or drugged, or mad—they weren’t to guess that it had been a ghastly accident. And I wasn’t going to enlighten them. So I said:

‘Ah, well, you know, it was just to teach you fellows to keep your distance.’

At this they exclaimed, and shook their heads and swore, and Liprandi looked bewildered, and kept muttering ‘Five hundred sabres! To what End?’, And they crowded round, plying me with questions—all very friendly, mind, so that I began to get my bounce back, and played it off as though it were just another day’s work. What they couldn’t fathom was how we’d held together all the way to guns, and hadn’t broken or turned back, even with four saddles empty out of five so I just told ‘em, ‘We’re British calvary,’ simple as that, and looked them in the eye. It was true, too, even if no one had less right to say it than I.”

Don’t worry. Ole Flashy finds himself right back in the fire pan. You need only turn the page.

As bad a man as he is, there is something about him that makes you understand why the women swooned and the men revered him. Even though a phony par none, he seemed to always know what was important (demonstrated by running away from it as fast as he could) and he recognizes (but reviles) true heroism in others. Yet, how could such a wimp (he often cries at the first sign of trouble) come out on top time and time again? There must be more to him than meets the eye. When he miraculously strikes out three of Britain’s best cricket players in a row or accidentally survives enough massacres to make a cat jealous, you start to think – he may just be a little more accomplished than he lets on.

But, it also may be this. However he may have lied and cheated his way through life (never mind some heinous and many lesser crimes) and garnered his fame through better men’s efforts, he is entirely honest and therefore humble with us, much more so than any real man could be, and reading his "memoirs" is the only way we get to know him.

With the real famous men and women in the world always changing their history to make themselves look better, our imaginary Flashy can afford to stuff it all and exposes his quaking heart as if doing so were his guiding light. As for those other haughty and undeserving celebrities who enter his world, Flashy repeatedly takes down their drawers and spanks them.

If you can't read them all try Flashman and Flashman at the Charge then Flash For Freedom, Flashman and the Indians, Flashman and the Great Game and Flashman's Lady.

In the last thirty years I’ve tired of many of my favorite movies, music and even some books. But not Flashman. Never good ole Flashy. It would be like being tired of the whole 19th century. You take with you a great creation, but have left behind his story, more real to me than a whole stack of biographies about eminent Victorians.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Another reason to celebrate Independence Day

Independence Day!

Embrace your freedom from partisan political positions and knee jerk responses that the other side must be evil, stupid and almost always wrong (and when they agree with you, always for the wrong reasons). I return to this familiar topic as I watch two candidates, vocally dedicated to non-partisan, non-ideological politics, tread down the familiar paths of running for the presidency, littered with exaggeration, lies and partisanship.

I remind myself to try and enjoy the hypocrisy and that it appears to them that it is not possible to be decent and honest and get anywhere. There is an unspoken rule which successful politicians unfortunately need to internalize. People do not always appreciate your honesty. They appreciate you telling them that what they believe is true is true. Or, as America’s second greatest writer, Mark Twain, wrote “There are people who think that honesty is always the best policy. This is a superstition. There are times when the appearance of it is worth six of it.”

This is somewhat a biographical post, tracing my own political leanings and beliefs as I slowly came to grips with the fact that the political feelings I held dear in my long lost youth were quite often just “feelings” and had nothing to do with reason, and began feeling that before America can change, a break with the partisanship of our forefathers is necessary, among other things.

I imagine that disappointment with both this president and this congress has added to the numbers of self-described independents (some of whom you might describe as a partisan). If you aren’t there yet, take the leap. You will not be alone. What in the world is free speech for if not so that we can form our own beliefs? Didn’t our very forefathers warn us about factions? Well, some did, like Washington. Others like Hamilton and Jefferson were busy creating those factions. Our Republicans and Democrats are the descendants of those very factions, often arguing about the very same issues.

When I discuss my political beliefs in general with someone, I often discuss my beginnings as a liberal. Born in a liberal family (without exception to my knowledge), schooled in New York where conservative views are often hidden, and educated by the New York Times, which I consider by far the best, if editorially liberal, paper in the world, I was as liberal as they come.

In 1980 I was frightened by Reagan’s election and was sure we were headed to war with someone. How could the nation be fooled by such an insincere and obviously unqualified person? Even when he did things I agreed with (big defense budget, challenge communism, fire the FAA strikers) I felt these were the exceptions and was sure that he had nefarious purposes for doing so.

My rise from this partisan stupor (and it could have been conservative) came in the 80s as I watched the world not fall apart because someone I didn’t like was president. At some point I realized that more people agreed with him than me, and I decided to figure out why. When Pat Buchanan’s biography, Right from the Beginning, came out, I read it, because I disagreed with everything he had to say. By the time I finished the book, I no longer hated him although I certainly didn’t agree with him on many issues. I thought he was somewhat bigoted (he actually said, at least in effect, that at least blacks knew where they stood before the civil rights laws – I wonder if he would take that back now) but in nowise as much as I had thought. I also did not find him anti-Semitic as most Jews I knew who were aware of him seemed to believe, because he is not pro-Israeli. I now could see him from his perspective and began to understand him and conservatives better.

As I became more politically conscious, I started to look for arguments behind politics, for the actual reasons people believed as they did. Much of this came from the study of history, which I had enveloped myself in since about ’78. But I had not yet focused on American history and had a lot to learn. I would say that it took about 15 years of reading American history and constitutional law before I felt confident in understanding the historical forces at work and how they have shaped our country’s politics to feel secure in my opinions.

I came to recognize that politics was not all that different from religion. The deep desire of people to believe as others around them believed, particularly people they were close to (or wanted to be close to), like family or a religious group, or just to fit in, was a predominant force. A related function of this was the reluctance of people to get a political education that is only available by reading or listening to what the other side says. My conversion to a moderate and independent did not come immediately. I was still a knee jerk liberal for a few more years, but one who was willing to listen.

Here’s my conclusion. You are all nuts, and so was I. Not wacka wacka nuts, but crazy in the sense of tens of millions of people suffering from Stockholm syndrome.

Of course, it is very hard to identify yourself politically as moderate or independent, and it may be meaningless, because there is no one set of beliefs that people who identify themselves by these names share. I know extreme liberals and conservatives who tell me if they thought anyone who was a liberal (if they were really conservative) or conservative (if they were really liberal) would think they were one too. If the answer was no, then they really couldn’t be independent or non-partisan, could they? I suppose that they were really trying to say was that they felt they were reasonable and fair. Maybe they are, but that is different than being independent.

Sometimes when I am speaking with a liberal or conservative leaning person I start thinking, well, maybe I really am the opposite of what they were because I seem to disagree with him/her on all these points. Then I speak with someone on the other side, disagree with them on a bunch of issues and get back to realizing it’s not me, it’s them (although my older brother would say I am just plain disagreeable).

The truth is, I came to think of myself as moderate or independent based on what other people thought and have no problem with that basis. When they are liberal they think I am conservative, sometimes extremely so (the word “Nazi” is sometimes used, I hope comically). And when they are conservative, they think I am liberal, sometimes extremely so (the word “commie” is often used, I hope comically). Moderate and independent are obviously relative terms.

Recently, being told I was a conservative by a friend and the same day told by was a liberal by a stranger with whom I was talking politics (you have no idea how often this happens), I sat down and, mostly to avoid working, quickly listed 40 to 50 political issues and whether I agreed more with conservatives or liberals on them (or both or neither).

I counted up each side and I really wasn’t surprised when it came out fairly even. It might have been exactly even, I really can’t remember. But, that doesn’t matter much. You can be independent and agree with one side more than the other. The question is, do you actually seek out and try and understand different perspectives? Or do you automatically believe, or give more weight, to the facts on one side and disbelieve or give short shrift to those stated by the other without even examining them.

One great example of this is the recent debate on global warming. I am repeatedly given different sets of absolute facts by conservatives and liberals, who laugh and mock that the other side has it all wrong. Not one of these people can read or understand climate studies (me neither). Not one of them has really tried. Is it amazing that people actually take positions on the weather and climate based on what political party they are in? I would say so. In fact, partisanship is so extreme on this issue that people often lump together three different issues – is the globe warming? – if so, is the warming contributed to by mankind? – either way, is there anything we can (or should) do about it?

If I have convinced anyone to be less partisan and more open to opposing views, I must say, be warned. Being an independent means that you will be the political enemy of extremists on both side, and not just a mere enemy. They will hold you to be a fence sitter (often true of me – heaven forbid we actually think about something for a long time before we make a decision) and decry that as far worse than being someone they completely disagree with.

They don’t really give a reason for this, but I think it is clear. They have to feel this way, because otherwise, their extreme positions and basic unfairness makes no sense. It will be argued that you are actually unprincipled because you are not basing your beliefs on any particular ideology. Nor does being independent mean that you stand on any moral high ground or are right on any given issue.

For whatever it is worth, here is my list of the political positions I hold, leaving out those of which I completely agree or disagree with both sides.

I agree with conservatives that it was ok to go to Iraq (although I never believed the WMD argument) and that we can’t leave precipitously. But, I agree with liberals that we have bungled it horribly, not to mention Afghanistan, and we have to get out as soon as possible. Every one likes to say we are in two wars. If that is true, then we were in a dozen or so wars instead of just fighting in World War II. The truth is, we are presently in an ideological war against Islamic militants wherever they may be. Al Qaeda and their allies understands this much better than our leaders. I differ from both groups in my belief that we should have gone in, got rid of Hussein and his power base, armed the Kurds and gotten out, but stayed in the region to keep others like Iran, from interfering. Cheaper, less costly in American lives and possibly a force which might have lightened the blood shed between Sunni and Shia.

I agree with liberals that habeus corpus (the right to challenge imprisonment) should be sacrosanct for American citizens, even those who may be in ideological opposition to our country, but agree with conservatives that foreign fighters, particularly those who are not fighting for a signatory country to the Geneva Conventions, do not have the same rights; however, I agree with the liberals that they can’t be held forever without any due process rights ever, at least to challenge their status as enemy combatants, especially as we are fighting an ideological war without end. The answer -- well, they are terrorists doesn't wash. How do we know? The first time it actually came to a federal court recently, it was found that the military trial wasn't fair.

I agree with conservatives that the so-called fairness doctrine proposed to be re-established on radio is just unfair and meant to shut down Rush Limbaugh and his imitators. I agree with liberals that obscenity prosecutions that have nothing to do with child porn are morally offensive themselves. I agree with conservatives that the McCain-Feingold law infringes free speech and is unconstitutional.

I agree with the liberals that the civil rights laws were necessary for our country. I agree with conservatives that these laws were in some respects unconstitutional, particularly where they require private businesses to accept people they don’t like, however morally repugnant those people may be (actually, you can’t find anyone in politics with the courage to say that anymore – they’d be crucified in the press and never get elected).

I agree with liberals that the death penalty should be banned, at least in cases where there is not overwhelming evidence (and by that I mean virtual certainty) mostly because juries, or judges, for that matter are not capable of making fair decisions in emotional cases. I agree with conservatives that the argument that the death penalty is unconstitutional by virtue of being cruel and unusual is absurd, especially given that is specifically mentioned in the constitution.

I tend to agree with liberals on most environmental issues (excepting global warming, about which I plead ignorance- and so should you). Clean water and skies makes our lives better in so many ways. It is worth sacrifice.

I agree with conservatives on many tax issues. The “death tax” is unfair – it is a double tax. The “fair” or flat tax is, in fact, more fair than the progressive tax we have, which raises taxes depending on how much money you make. Corporate tax should be abolished, but, obviously, not income or benefits to the employees.

Abortion is tricky and takes some time. Although I actually don’t remember discussing it with anyone when young, there was enough pro-choice influence that I absorbed that by default and I only started to think about it in the 90s. The older I get the more sympathy I have with anti-abortion sentiment. I have totally thrown overboard the argument that since it’s a women’s body, she can do what she likes with the baby. I will give credit to Montana Don for convincing me that there just is not enough difference between a baby attached to a mother by an umbilical cord inside the womb and a baby attached outside the womb a minute later to allow abortion for one and not allow murder for the other (if you are reading this, you are still an idiot). The baby remains as defenseless outside of the body as it was inside the body. From there it is a relative thing. I can’t see much difference either between a fetus with a beating heart and brain and a baby just born.

However, as much as I have eschewed the liberal dogma I learned as a kid, I have great difficulty that ridding the body of a few chemicals is a bad thing and have never got there. Nor do I believe that since the egg and sperm have all the ingredients for the baby, it is the same thing as one.

I have come to a much more fluid concept - the degree to which someone is pro-life or pro-choice is usually consistent with the degree to which they identify that bundle of chemicals or tissues with a baby. Some of that is based on physical knowledge but some religious as well. Those who see a baby when the egg and sperm come together (perhaps they believe a soul attaches at that time) feel any abortion is wrong. Those who see a baby only when they recognize the fetus as something that looks like a baby believe at that point abortion is wrong. And those who don’t identify it as a baby until you can hold it in your hands, often do not have a problem with late term or partial birth abortion.

If I could waive a wand, no abortion after the time the heart is beating and brain is substantially developing – probably around the 5th or 6th week - would be legal with exceptions for the likelihood of real physical damage to the mother. I could be persuaded differently and there is no denial that this is an arbitrary decision. Only slightly more realistically, were I president (stop laughing) I would as a priority submit a bill to congress that partial birth abortion be outlawed with the usual exceptions. It is worth a compromise that would allow some, even if too many, just to stop most of them.

The one argument I have never understood is that abortion is wrong or even murder except in cases of incest and rape. Not that we don’t have sympathy for the victim of rape or incest otherwise, but if you believe abortion is wrong or murder because the being is a life, why terminate that life because of the fault of one or both of the parents. Does that make that life less precious?

I agree with liberals (and I admit I’m wobbly here and might change my mind) that the 2d amendment is linked with service in a state militia. However, I agree with conservatives that ownership of a gun should, as a matter of policy, be a civil right. You only have to picture yourself in your bed when invaders come in and ask yourself would you like to have a gun to protect yourself and more importantly, your family. If you did, would you not use it? I am unpersuaded by the argument that more people get injured or killed by the guns in their homes than the bad guys who invade them. We shouldn’t over-protect to the point of death those who can save themselves because just because others can’t. Virtually all liberals and most but the most extreme on the right agree that some level of regulation is wise.

I have no trouble with the idea of affirmative action that does not punish or take opportunity from those not so privileged. It is just hard to think of an example of it. Until I do, I’m not against it in theory, but am in practice. Moreover, the idea of compensation to blacks for slavery just cannot work. It is absurd, if not in design, then in any possible practice. E.g., why should a low earning second generation Italian immigrant whose parents starved and sacrificed to make it in America should pay taxes for the entitlement of Michael Jordan’s kids. Why should a wealthy black family that comes here from France benefit. How do we prove who was a slave, or whose descendants? If blacks, why not Indians? If Indians, why not Asian? How about the Irish?

I agree with liberals that evolution should be taught in school, but it must be taught as theory (and I think it usually is). Creationism or “intelligent design” does not belong in science class, although it might merit a mention in social studies. The argument that kids need to hear that there is another theory out there is silly – nothing stops motivated parents from telling the kids evolution is wrong at home, if such is their belief. However, there is also nothing wrong with pointing out the actual problems with the theory in school. I consider that just good teaching.

I agree with conservatives that we need to control our border. I agree with liberals that gays have the same right to marry as heterosexual couples and that any argument to the contrary is either religious in nature or word play.

I agree with liberals that there is and needs to be a wall between church and state. But I agree with the little known legal theory of former Justice O’Connor who suggested that some traditional emblems or symbols of government are of such longstanding use (In God we Trust) and do not require anyone to participate in religion as an example that they are harmless and almost akin to secular symbols, if technically a transgression. However, I do not believe that children in school should be pledging “under God” just as I believe that the state has no right to force churches to advise Sunday School classes that there is no proof of God’s existence for educational purposes. Madison, not my favorite forefather, had it right. When you mix religion and government together you not only hurt government, you hurt religion. For those who believe the conservative talking points that Madison believed in mixing church and state because he once voted for a bill which included a pastor for congress, they take on act out of context, and ignore everything else he said.

I agree with conservatives that we need to drill for oil and expand nuclear energy. I agree with liberals that we also need to conserve energy, research alternate sources and find a way to safely discard nuclear waste.

I agree with liberals that there is nothing wrong with fetal stem cell research

I agree with conservatives that the government taking property and compensating the property owner is not constitutional when the property is to be given to another private citizen.

I agree with liberals that reading Miranda rights are a good idea unless the accused is otherwise protected from potential abuse, but do not believe it can be deemed constitutional to require it.

I agree with conservatives that laws against so called hate speech are unconstitutional and more so, a bad idea.

I agree with liberals that torture as a common person would understand it if it was done to them should be absolutely illegal except in the rare ticking bomb situation.

I agree with conservatives that damages in certain areas of the law need to be capped, although I usually think the suggested caps are too low.

I agree with liberals that medical marijuana should be legal and that outlawing it is probably unconstitutional and certainly cruel and silly.

I agree with conservatives that English should be the official language of the United States in terms of schooling, legal and official documents.

I agree with those liberals who believe that we need to decriminalize prostitution.

There are other issues on which I just plead ignorance, or, more accurately, I don’t feel I have enough reliable information to form an opinion. Free trade is an example. It is a great idea in the abstract, but, if it really doesn’t exist, and our trade deficits are some indication that they do not, then what do we hope to achieve by wishful thinking?

But, I just don’t know. Maybe next year.

Heroes

I have one more issue. Independence Day is also a good day to talk about heroes.

I’ve never thought that much of General Wesley Clark as a politician. Not only was he a bad candidate who soon lost the instant excitement he generated just by being a new face in the ’04 race, but his own reputation came from overseeing perhaps the most one sided war we’ve ever fought since the Mexican-American war in the 1840s – the aerial bombardment of Yugoslavia. Since General Clark was in charge (as Nato’s Supreme Commander for Europe) we give him credit – that’s how we do it. We just bombed them into surrender and I’m not all that sure we needed anybody in charge. Point being, his whole shtick is that he was a general. I suppose it is just impressive that he rose to the rank he did, although I assume the Army is filled with the same politics and unfairness that everything else is.

Now, were he to read this, I’d bet he’s say that it wasn’t fair, that he had a storied career starting with being a West Point valedictorian and a Rhodes Scholar. Maybe so. Maybe he should be called a hero too.

Mostly, I find some of his political opinions ridiculous. Sometime in the past year he came out with the brilliant idea that we should censor political speech that he didn’t like (Rush Limbaugh) by a rating system like they have for tv and movies. Rush is the epitome of a partisan warrior (and his 400 million dollar contract shows that it is so much more popular than the independent position), and, although I often enjoy hearing his positions, within a few minutes the gross onesidedness of his arguments always gets to me. But, censor him? You’ve got to be kidding.

Clark has so little charisma (possibly why he had some political problems in the military) and is so politically obtuse, that I would put up money that even George Bush would win a third term if Clark was his opponent. My point of all this is, should he be out there criticizing John McCain’s credentials?

Yet, after all my tarnishing of this extraordinarily accomplished man's reputation, his comment about John McCain the other day sounded perfectly fair to me. He’s right. It is true that being shot down and made a prisoner of war doesn’t make you a good president. It was McCain’s reaction that was overstated. He suggested that Obama should drop the general from his campaign. I doubt he was complaining that Clark also said that McCain was a hero to him. This whole - get rid of anyone who says anything controversial routine - is old. Obama said he thought that the people of Ohio wouldn’t be losing sleep over it. Point Obama.

Not that Obama’s campaign and supporters aren’t just as ridiculous in its attacks on him too. If I hear one more time that McCain wants us to stay in Iraq forever I don't know what I will do. But, Obama is better than McCain in defusing controversy, just as he was better at it than Clinton. McCain should figure this out and try doubly hard to steer the issue to policy grounds.

What is it with the captured soldier or shot down pilot = war hero routine, anyway? Nowadays, everyone who sees combat is deemed a hero. Don’t get me wrong. They are entitled to some respect for that service and I am glad we have GI bills and that they get medical care (such as it is) and the like. But, they are not all heroes, unless we just agree to water it down to the level of pre-school sports where everyone gets an award. It's like the evil Syndrome said in The Incredibles: "If everybody is special, then nobody is."

But that doesn’t mean McCain in particular wasn’t heroic in his captivity and didn't show us something of his character that might make him a great president. He was held for 5 ½ years and repeatedly tortured, at one point to the degree that he agreed to make an anti-American statement to stop the pain, something which obviously caused him great emotional pain. But he was tortured more when he resisted making similar statements in the future. It is apparently true that he refused early release ahead of those captured before him because he knew the Vietnamese would use it as a propaganda tool in that his father was an important Admiral. He was already severely injured when his plain crashed and was left untreated for a long time. He has gone through the rest of his life unable to lift his arms above his head and was severely crippled when in jail by a botched operation. He dropped to under a hundred pounds and had to be restrained from killing himself.

I dare anyone but the sickest partisan from reading an account of what he went through without becoming emotionally upset and filled with admiration that he survived. You have no idea until you do. It surprised me and I already liked him.

Now, maybe that doesn’t mean you will be a good commander-in-chief, but reading about those 5 ½ years tells enough about his character that I think him three times the man Clark is for all of his accomplishments. Although McCain has other qualities that make me feel (hope) he would be a good president even if he were a model plane enthusiast instead of a pilot, I’d take him over Clark even if the General had seven stars.

You know who really upset me with his criticism of McCain? Obama partisan and former presidential candidate, John Kerry, who managed to lose to George Bush on his second term, and that wasn’t easy (he is in a select circle of bad presidential candidates Dukakis, Dole, Quayle, Lieberman and Kemp). Kerry said that McCain sounded “confused” when he was talking about Iraq, obviously implying that age has affected his mind.

Now, forget for a second that the much younger Obama has made much worse factual gaffes than McCain (see last month’s update). That’s not what bothers me. McCain bravely took political hits from his own party in the ’04 by showing his respect for his friend, Kerry, even saying he would be a good president, when almost everyone else in his party was making fun of him. I would have had no problem with Kerry saying he disagrees with almost everything McCain stands for, but the cheap shot was really despicable.

So, situation normal in D.C. A capacity for hypocrisy and disloyalty are requirements for office. Of course, Kerry will keep getting elected in Massachusetts no matter what he says. I may regret voting for Bush in ’04, but I am not sorry I didn’t vote for John Kerry. If McCain gets elected, he is going to have to get a thicker skin (he could take a lesson from Bush in that department).

By the way, wasn’t it Clark who had to apologize in ’04 when he criticized Kerry while running against him by saying that he was only a lieutenant and not a general? Why, yes it was.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .